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Subject: Christopher Hill, 91, Historian

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Date Posted: March 02, 2003 10:18:11 EDT

Christopher Hill, a leading Marxist historian of 17th-century England who helped illuminate the radical tradition of that revolutionary period, died on Monday. He was 91.

His death was announced yesterday by Oxford University, where he was master of Balliol College from 1965 to 1978.

Mr. Hill saw the civil war between King Charles I and Parliament as a class revolution ending feudalism and ushering in the capitalist age. A prodigious scholar and prolific writer, he published some 25 books and numerous essays exploring the upheavals in England in the 1640's and 1650's.

In that short, tumultuous period, civil war led to the execution of an anointed king; the abolition of monarchy, bishops and nobles; the creation of a republican Commonwealth; and, finally, the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate, before a different form of royal rule was restored in 1660.

For Mr. Hill these events marked a turning point in England's history as Puritanism which he thought represented the nascent forces of capitalism threw off the last vestiges of feudal rule and acquired the freedom it needed to create a new social and economic order. He called these developments "the English Revolution" in order to place them on a par with the other great revolutions of history, arguing that the changes laid the foundation for the country's extraordinary success over the next two centuries as initiator of the Industrial Revolution and founder of a mighty empire.

This interpretation challenged an older, more orthodox view of English history that stressed continuity and sought to play down the significance of the events between 1640 and 1660 by calling them "the Puritan Revolution" or simply "the Interregnum."

"The English Revolution of 1640 to 1660 was a great social movement like the French Revolution of 1789," Mr. Hill wrote. "The state power protecting an old order that was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the hands of a new class, and so the freer development of capitalism was made possible."

But the revolution that established the rights of property and gave political power to those with property was not really the revolution the Marxist Mr. Hill wanted.

In what many consider his finest work, "The World Turned Upside Down" (1972), Mr. Hill explored the extraordinary surge in radical political and religious thought that occurred during those revolutionary decades as groups called Levellers, True Levellers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians and other strange sects openly challenged all conventional beliefs.

Between them they questioned every tenet of the Christian faith, including heaven and hell and the existence of God. Some advocated free love. Many said true freedom was impossible until private property was abolished.

For an approving Mr. Hill, these years, when ordinary people were freer from established authority than they had ever been before, allowed a long-suppressed tradition of radical thought in England, dating back at least to the 15th century, to rise suddenly into public view.

The doctrines these sects preached disappeared again after 1660 with the restoration of Charles II. But Mr. Hill left no doubt where his sympathies lay, writing of "those marvelous decades when it seemed the whole world might be turned upside down."

Although Mr. Hill remained a lifelong radical and never repudiated Marxism, many scholars believe that his best work was done after he left the British Communist Party in protest over the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

"He moved away from a rigid Marxist framework which sees economics and class struggle as driving history toward a more flexible approach that gave greater force to ideas," said David Underdown, an emeritus professor of history at Yale who studied with Mr. Hill.

In recent years Mr. Hill's approach to the 17th century has been criticized by some historians as overly schematic, while his Marxism has come to seem dated. "Intellectually faded" is how Sir Keith Thomas, another Oxford historian, described his work, adding, "there is a reaction against history that stresses long-term causes."

John Edward Christopher Hill was born Feb. 6, 1912, in York, son of a lawyer. He was educated at St Peter's School and was awarded a scholarship to Balliol, one of Oxford's most distinguished seats of learning. In 1934 he received Oxford's top intellectual honor, the All Souls Fellowship.

Mr. Hill joined the British Communist Party during his All Souls years and after the war helped found an organization known as the Historians Group of the Communist Party. The group was highly influential in postwar Britain, and some of its members became mentors of many young historians in the 1960's and 70's.

Mr. Hill's first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Bridget, died last year. He is survived by their son, Andrew, and daughter, Dinah.

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