I’ve been reading Keith Roberts’ 1960s SF novel Pavane, set in a modern England in which Elizabeth I had been assassinated in 1588, the Spanish Armada had succeeded, and the Catholic Church had triumphed – in England and in the rest of northern Europe. At the start of the novel, the grip of the Church is tight; and England is poor and essentially feudal.

Without giving the plot away, it made me wonder if this was a plausible counter-factual story; could it have led to to an England which was around 150 years poorer than it turned out to be?

It probably could have done, but to get there, you have to suspend for a moment the powerful hegemonic hold that the way things actually turned out has on our imagination. It’s worth doing, for after all, alternative pasts are also stories about alternative futures. So let’s walk through the steps.

Britain’s rise from a peripheral European state in the sixteenth century to the richest in the world by 1900 – and still among the richest a hundred years later – seems with hindsight to have been deeply path-dependent. The dissolution of the monasteries unlocked assets, both land and money, and created new opportunities, which were translated by the mid-to-late 17th century – initially through the short-lived Republic and then the later Bill of Rights – into a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the the British state. Protestant theology also underpinned a pattern of invention and enterprise that persisted for 200 years. (Cromwell also built up the Navy during his period of rule, creating a fleet that was substantial enough to operate in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Channel at the same time.). The subsequent development of empire, of course, represented a huge transfer of wealth to the UK from its colonies (depending on which interpretation you choose).

If this story accounts for the position of Britain, it doesn’t necessarily account for the absence of technology more generally. But in the novel, quite a lot of technology is suppressed by the Church. The use of electricity in the home, and the petrol engine, are both the subject of Papal veto, for example. One of the chapters in the book (or ‘Measures’) is about smugglers whose contraband includes an (unspecified) radio transmitting device, whose discovery prompts a massive military operation. Communications is managed by the Guild of Signallers and their complex semaphor towers. (Even the Church, it turns out, can’t suppress technology for ever). And although Britain’s coal assets might have helped develop the economy, even this required technology and technological development; I blogged a few weeks ago about the complex of necessary conditions for the Watt and Boulton steam engine to achieve market leadership, and transform Britain’s production potential.

Hindsight always provides some solidity to the way things turned out, of course. But, but, but… Charles Nicholls’ excellent book, The Reckoning, on the death of Marlowe, conveys well the febrile Elizabethan times, and its dependence on the ruthlessness of the spymaster Walsingham to keep the Catholics at bay. The English Civil War was a close run thing. Other Parliamentarian leaders than Cromwell might well have been less interested in building up such a strategic naval capacity. The accumulation of wealth, knowledge and technical capacity was (and is) a slow process.

In her self-published book Feeling For Stones, Barbara Heinzen uses Britain as an example when she writes of ‘250-year waves’ in which economic and technological changes are preceded by a longer, slower and less visible period in which “social capacity” is built through the development and spread of literacy and learning, and of institutions to support them. We know the story of what happened when this was successful in the UK. Pavane tells the other story, of what happened when it didn’t work.

Updated: There’s also a good – and short – recent article (opens in pdf) from SFX by Christopher Priest which includes material on the history of Pavane.