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The Ends of Life, By Keith Thomas

Quite what happened to the career of Sir Keith Thomas, Fellow of All Souls and quondam President of the British Academy, is one of the great mysteries of modern academic life. A quarter of a century ago – he was plain Mr Thomas then, with a mind so sharp as to land an Oxford fellowship without the labour of a PhD – he had the world at his feet. Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and, to a slightly lesser extent, Man and the Natural World (1983) had revolutionised the way in which early modern historians approached the 16th and early 17th centuries. There was talk of a seminal book about Tudor and Stuart fashion which would document the early history of English "taste".

Then, unaccountably, Thomas cast it all aside for the life of an academic haut fonctionnaire, the presidency of an Oxford college and a finger in every bureaucratic pie worth the tasting. Whether the explanation of this professional retreat lay in sheer loss of nerve or the suspicion that a particular conceptual bolt had been shot we shall never know. I remember bumping into him in an Oxford common room in the 1990s, enjoying a lively chat about modern EngLit, and then watching him austerely recede with a murmur that he had things to do – "boring administrative things" he, to my ear, rather wistfully conceded.

Here I should declare an interest. In the early 1980s I was taught by Keith Thomas. He was a brilliant and merciless expositor, quite the cleverest man I met at Oxford or anywhere else – so brilliant and merciless that he should never have been let anywhere near nervous undergraduates. The Ends of Life: roads to fulfilment in early modern England, his first major piece of work for a small matter of 26 years, turns out not to be that great tour de force on Tudor hemlines but some nine-year-old Ford Lectures, rigorously re-worked since their initial airing in 2000.

To anyone raised on the sight of Thomas soaring from one Olympian crag to another, the prefatory sections strike an oddly defensive note. Here Thomas ascribes the long wait between delivery and publication to an eagerness to incorporate the findings of a new generation of younger scholars, and diffidently alludes to the one serious criticism levelled at his past work: that it occasionally degenerates into a tissue of quotations.

No serious newspaper these days is free of the "how should we live?" column penned by some popularising philosopher. The questions Thomas wants to ask of the early modern Englishman and woman's quest for self-fulfilment are: "What did they seek to make of themselves? What goals did they pursue? What were the objectives which, in their eyes, gave life its meaning?" Thomas-fanciers will note that this thread runs back to the intervention that made his name in 1963, the celebrated essay on "History and Anthropology", with its brisk advocacy of the need for history to peddle social context and humanist self-awareness: Thomas notes here that his mission as a scholar has been to conduct "a retrospective ethnography of early modern England, approaching the past in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society".

The bygone England in which he goes native here is a beguiling mixture of the faintly recognisable and the thoroughly bizarre. The goals being pursued are parcelled up into military prowess, work, wealth, reputation, personal relationships and the afterlife. The absence of any sustained discussion of religion is passed off as a consequence of its being "too large a subject to be adequately treated here". This might seem akin to producing a survey of 20th-century English which omits any mention of the novel: in fact, it fits neatly within the contours of the Thomas project, which is to map the early development of what might be called the modern English mind.

As he shows, no compartment of early modern life was altogether free from this intent, colonising spirit. Despite, and in some respects because of, a bitterly fought Civil War, military expertise was being steadily professionalised. "Work", hitherto stigmatised as "the primal curse", was in the process of being valued for its own sake. Material possessions were becoming an integral part of the guise which both ordinary and exceptional people assumed to face the world.

The section on "taste" and its more enigmatic cousin sensibility are, is one might expect, the best in the book. Absorbed by "the social meaning of things", Thomas embarks on a masterly examination of the way in which "acquisition" (previously decried by Christian moralists and classical humanists alike) was gaining an ideological gloss, and the "consumer society" – as he points out, "consumer" was a term of abuse until the Tudor era – was being kicked into gear.

There are perhaps two criticisms to be made of this mighty endeavour. One is the remorseless procedural garnish of half-a-dozen notes a paragraph, a hundred pages of scholarly addenda and a solemn assurance that "Greek and Hebrew titles have generally been omitted". The other has to do with the vagueness of the historical frontiers.

Thomas admits in his introduction that "Early Modern England" is a difficult entity to define, and his sources, taken as a whole, range over nearly five centuries. Thus a specimen page on "the rewards of labour" offers an observation from Adam Smith, a late 18th-century economist, some lines from Thomas Hoccleve, an early 15th-century poet, and various quotations from early Stuart divines.

Three centuries might not be enough to bring down the animal Thomas is pursuing, which might be defined as "personal authenticity", but some of its ancestry, as Alan Macfarlane first suggested in The Origins of English Individualism (1979), may go back even further than this. In the "History and Anthropology" essay, Thomas complained that too much academic history was narrowly concerned with "the gymnastics of minor politicians". This was true then – it is less true now - but such things have parameters, whereas "Early Modern England" can sometimes look like an expanding suitcase.

Where Thomas excels, as ever, is in his eye for luminous supporting detail: the 17th-century cleric whose parishioners disliked the "scandalous manner" in which he ate custard; or the standards of precedence observed at the interrogation of the Protestant martyrs in 1555, where the table-covering was removed when Bishop Latimer succeeded Bishop Ridley on the grounds that Latimer was not a Doctor of Divinity. Sir Keith may not take it as a compliment, but there are times when, as the mania for footnotes subsides and human quiddity rises to the surface, the creative writer briefly usurps the professional historian; when George Eliot takes over from Casaubon, and we, his humble readers, are all the better for it.

DJ Taylor's new novel, 'Ask Alice', is published by Chatto & Windus in April