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Laura A. M. Stewart: Rethinking of the Scottish Revolution. Covenanted Scotland, 1637-1651, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016, XV + 391 S., ISBN 978-0-19-871844-4, GBP 65,00
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Rezension von:
Paul Goatman
University of Glasgow
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Sebastian Becker
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Paul Goatman: Rezension von: Laura A. M. Stewart: Rethinking of the Scottish Revolution. Covenanted Scotland, 1637-1651, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016, in: sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 9 [15.09.2017], URL:

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Laura A. M. Stewart: Rethinking of the Scottish Revolution

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Laura Stewart's new book, Rethinking the Scottish Revolution: Covenanted Scotland, 1637-1651 provides, as its title suggests, a fundamental reassessment of Scotland's mid-seventeenth-century revolution. The author places the events of the period in the context of the most recent research into print culture, 'publics', the public sphere and state formation, and re-categorises the era as one of huge importance for the evolution of the state and popular political engagement in Scotland, perhaps the definitive early modern moment in this regard prior to the Union of Parliaments in 1707. Stewart makes a positive case for the Covenanters' political achievements, both in terms of gathering support for their cause and of statecraft once subsequently in power. This constitutes a complete re-imagining of a period that has traditionally been seen as being dominated by religious zealots, who were deserving either of praise as romantic defenders of religious liberty or condemnation as bigoted fanatics, and who were ultimately unsuccessful in establishing effective government. [1] Stewart sets out her aims in the introduction, noting that while definitive narrative studies of the period were provided by David Stevenson in the 1970s [2], the analytical framework within which the Covenanting Revolution has been understood ever since has been narrow, focusing separately upon the activities of Scotland's three parliamentary estates - the nobility, gentry, and burgesses - plus the clergy, and assuming that they spoke for Scottish society as a whole (3). By adopting this new approach, the author succeeds in presenting a fresh and persuasive history of the period.

The first half of the book explains the emergence of politically-engaged publics in Scotland during the first four decades of the seventeenth century. One of Stewart's many achievements here is to provide a compelling picture of a far more dynamic polity than has typically been presented, which reached further down the social scale and was less easily controlled by elites than has often been assumed. A coherent and widely-understood culture of political discourse is outlined, which was sustained by the practices of bonding and oath-taking, oral and manuscript culture, public performances, politically active crowds, petitions, protests and print. The author also returns to a concept that she has described elsewhere as a 'Culture of Dissent', which saw all sorts of people in Scotland become used to criticising the governments of James VI and I and Charles I after the controversial introduction of the Five Articles of Perth in 1618. [3] These grievances provided the points of argument and discussion within the emerging new media landscape. Between the Perth Articles and the revolution of 1638, many of the Kirk's complaints gained traction, and the Presbyterian resistance movement was able to sustain and then dominate this 'Culture of Dissent', which ultimately resulted in the 'failure of a royalist public' (76). The 'Culture of Dissent' eventually bubbled over during the Book of Canons 'scare' of 1636 and Prayer Book crisis of 1637, when this discursive space suddenly expanded massively, giving rise to what Stewart describes as a 'complex, multifaceted and richly symbolic campaign against the Prayer Book' in 1637, which manifested itself as a wide-reaching supplication campaign to the Privy Council (43). A second major contribution made in this half of the book is to reconceptualise the National Covenant of 1638 as a sophisticated and targeted appeal to well-understood grievances in an increasingly febrile political atmosphere. The Covenant is credited with dramatically increasing political engagement and discourse amongst the populace once again. This part of the book provides a thorough rethinking of political engagement in Scotland, and of an epochal document in the nation's history.

The second half of the book assesses the nature of Covenanting government. This incorporates Stewart's own ground-breaking work on taxation, alongside the recent scholarship of English state formation, which has placed an emphasis upon the negotiation and legitimation of power, and moved away from the idea that increases in state authority were ever a 'zero-sum game'. [4] The Covenanters are shown to have successfully established a fiscal-military state and the administrative infrastructure necessary to sustain this. By becoming engaged with these policies, important parts of Scottish society legitimised their government (213). Other means by which the Covenanters extended their authority between 1638 and 1651 are then examined, primarily a hard-line 'carrot and stick' approach, which rewarded those who were loyal to the regime while punishing dissenters and the disaffected (226-255). Emphasis in this section is rightly placed on the Acts of Classes of 1646 and 1649, which banned dissenters from holding public office. 'Soft power' is also examined, in the form of the language that the Covenanted government used to justify its authority (217-226). A nuanced picture of the Covenanted state and its inherent strengths and weaknesses is presented, all of which is used effectively to explain why the Engagement crisis of 1648 was such a great shock to the government (256-301) and the military defeat at Dunbar in September 1650 proved its ultimate downfall, but also why much of the Covenanters' reforms and methods of governing survived the Cromwellian occupation of 1651-60 (310). The book concludes by examining the legacy of Covenanted Scotland into the twenty-first century and calling for the Covenants to play a more central role in Scotland's historical political imagination.

If a critique can be presented of what is an important and powerfully-argued book, it is that there may be room to provide a slightly fuller picture. Although Stewart is careful never to use the term 'public sphere', historians of popular political engagement nevertheless continue to find themselves labouring in a post-Habermasian landscape, in which the concept of a rational 'public sphere' (largely based on print) is deemed to be too narrow and too closely associated with ideas of rationality and liberal democracy to be historically accurate. The author meticulously re-creates Scotland's early-seventeenth-century politically-engaged 'publics' here, but the frameworks that she uses for doing so might be queried. Recent work by Jane Dawson has down-played the importance of bonding by the 1630s, for example. [5] Stewart's own ongoing work into the reception of the National Covenant within particular localities is also likely to throw significant light on this subject. Similarly, it might be possible to present a more rounded picture of the ways in which the Covenanting governments exercised their authority. Although the 'confessional state' is a central theme of the book, more could be said about what this meant in practice and to what extent religion deserves its place at the centre of understandings of the Covenanting period. Covenanters' appeals to a narrowly-defined Scottish Protestant identity were surely a key part of their appeal. Ideas, both high and low-brow might also have a more central place in an analysis of the Covenanters' exercise of authority. They relied upon tried-and-trusted methods of winning support, such as the persecution of Catholics and witches, for instance. Overall however, Rethinking the Scottish Revolution successfully reconceptualises the Covenanting era as a vital episode in the evolution of early modern state power and public political engagement, which had long-term consequences for Scotland, and lays the foundation for all future studies of the period.


[1] For these older views see W. I. Mathieson: Politics and Religion: A Study in Scottish History from the Reformation to the Revolution, 2 vols (Glasgow, 1902) and J. K. Hewison: The Covenanters, 2 vols (Glasgow, 1913).

[2] D. Stevenson: The Scottish Revolution, 1637-44 (first edn, Newton Abbott, 1973; revised edn., Edinburgh, 2003) and D. Stevenson: Revolution and Counter Revolution, 1644-51 (first edn, London, 1977; second edn, Edinburgh, 2003).

[3] L. Stewart: 'The political repercussions of the Five Articles of Perth: A reassessment', Sixteenth Century Journal, 38:4 (2008), 1013-36; L. Stewart: '"Brothersin Treuth": propaganda, public opinion and the Perth Articles debate in Scotland' in: R. Houlbrooke (ed.): James VI and I: Government, Authority and Ideas (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 151-68.

[4] L. Stewart: 'Fiscal revolution and state formation in mid seventeenth-century Scotland', Historical Research, 84:225 (2011), 443-69. M. Braddick: State Formation in Early Modern England, c. 1550-1700 (Cambridge, 2000).

[5] J. Dawson: 'Bonding, religious allegiance and covenanting, 1557-1638', in: J. Goodare and S. Boardman (eds.): Kings, Lords and Men in Scotland and Britain, 1300-1625: Essays in honour of Jenny Wormald (Edinburgh, 2014).

Paul Goatman