The publication of another Oxford Illustrated History is a cultural event equivalent to the arrival of a tour by the Bolshoi Ballet; and in this case the subject matter matches the performance of a major traditional work, being a period long served by textbooks, standard school courses and pulp fiction. To tackle it, an experienced editor who is a major historian in his own right, has assembled a team which mixes a few young and bright hopefuls with many of the most distinguished and controversial scholars in the area.
Instead of partitioning the subject up according to period, John Morrill has divided it like a medieval open field, into thematic strips, and left each colleague to cultivate one according to will. What could possibly go wrong with the plan? The answer is, absolutely nothing, unless you happen to be Scottish.
The team of historians which was picked for the job is English, American and Australian. The result is a history of early modern England and Wales, in which Ireland gets mentioned more often than Scotland, purely because the English were more directly involved in it. The Scots really only feature as inhabitants of one of England's borderlands, brought into the picture when they impinge on English affairs.
The editor notices this in the foreword, with the comment that "a truly holistic history is still perhaps impossible". This may be true, but I was left wondering what might have been achieved if he had replaced just four of his 19 contributors with Scots and invited them to write about the history of their nation. The volume is the most perfect justification for the complaint made recently by some Scottish scholars, and endorsed by John Morrill himself, that the new vogue for "British" history simply produces "an enriched English history".
Such a history is, however, very rich indeed. It is rich in novel complexity and detail. One contributor after another reveals how enormously both the data available for the period and the understanding of it have increased over the past 10 years. It is rich in a new sensitivity as to the way in which economies, societies and politics intertwine to form a series of organic wholes growing out of the landscape.
The result is a total history, as projected by the French in the 1960s, but with the difference that each component of the mixture is equally dynamic, and politics and religion can shape economy and landscape as much as they are conditioned by the latter.
This is cultural history par excellence. Narratives of events are restricted to a few final chapters which function as codices. The Matter of Britain has become a matter of discourses, icons and texts, both illustrations of, and dynamic forces in, an overlapping series of mental worlds in which changing ideas act like unstable tectonic plates.
This is the novel beauty of the format; the paintings, tapestries, sculptures, and buildings so lavishly illustrated in this book are not simply representations of the story. They are a crucial part of that story.
It is also the Oxford Revisionist History of Tudor and Stuart Britain, for John Morrill has reassembled most of the writers to whom that label was applied in the early 1980s. The result is an impressive illustration of how ideas once expressed as polemics have settled and intermeshed, after discussion, elaboration and modification, to make a plausible and coherent new framework for a period.
John Morrill and his team have converted the coffee-table, Christmas gift,tradition of an Illustrated History into a form in which some of the most exciting aspects of current Tudor and Stuart studies can be displayed.
Ronald Hutton is professor of history, University of Bristol