Handle with care

28th October 1994 at 00:00
The tudor years, Edited by John Lotherington, Hodder Stoughton Pounds 11.99 0 340 53794 9. John Lotherington is one of that small but august company of historians who actually get quoted by A level students in their answers, and who stand a better than even chance of having been read in the original rather than in a teacher's handout. Students prize his volume on 16th-century Europe, Years of Renewal, for its clear, straightforward prose which makes the tortured politics of the Habsburgs and the Valois comprehensible to the rap generation.

Now he and his fellow contributors have brought out a companion volume on England, which comes with a colourful cover and - three cheers! - some colour illustrations inside, though they're rather hidden away in the section on culture at the back.

The format will be familiar from the European volume: different contributors have written individual chapters, which are themselves divided up into manageable sections on all the mainstream topics and themes that come up in the exam. The written style is as easy to follow as ever, and this time there are more documentary extracts to consider.

Chapters end with discussion points and essay questions, and the later chapters, penned by the editor himself, deal with wider themes, such as popular culture or rebellion, which frequently come up in the exam but which students tend to shy away from. Students and teachers may breathe a sigh of relief: Lothers has not lost his touch.

And yet, and yet. The book is overwhelmingly narrative in tone, and given the complexity of Tudor politics it could do with a few more pauses for the reader to take stock: one or two helpful diagrams of factions or governmental structures would not come amiss. There is frequent reference to the often bitter arguments about the period among historians, but these tend to be presented in the author's own terms, with some historians' cases described as "convincing" without real demonstration of why.

Inevitably in a collaborative venture, there is a certain unevenness in the writing. There is particularly good coverage of Edward VI and Mary, but most students will need a much clearer guide to the complexities of the great Tudor inflation than they get here.

The section on culture goes into great detail on Robin Hood, which I've never yet seen on an A level paper, but misses out the Elizabethan theatre which comes up regularly at some boards. But these caveats merely serve to underline the warning with which the book itself begins: "Textbooks are dangerous. They can encourage a passive approach to learning if all that is thought necessary is the mechanical absorption of facts on the page".

Se n Lang teaches history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge.

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