Hilton was one of the leading medieval historians of the 20th century, and a leading figure in Marxist historiography. A lasting achievement of his was to open up understanding of the real lives of the medieval peasantry and ordinary townspeople.
He was born on November 17th 1916 in Middleton, Lancashire to a family with ILP traditions, went to Manchester Grammar School and then to Balliol College, Oxford. There, he encountered medievalists, VH Galbraith and Richard Southern, and the Marxist historian of the 17th century, Christopher Hill.
At university, Hilton joined the Labour Club and the Communist Party, in the company of Denis Healey. His thesis applied a Marxist analysis to the rural economy of Leicestershire between the 13th and l5th centuries, focusing on the emergence of agrarian capitalism.
During the Second World War, he was on active service in North Africa, Syria, Palestine and Italy. At the end of military service, in 1946, he was appointed to a lectureship at Birmingham University.
A leading figure in the Communist Party’s historians’ group, a collective study from these discussions, “The Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism was eventually published by him in book form in 1976. Hilton left the Communist party in 1956 but remained a steadfast advocate of the British Marxist tradition throughout his life.
Hilton was appointed to a personal chair in medieval history at Birmingham University in 1963, and served for some years as the head of its school of history in the late 1960, a post he later left to concentrate on research. He remained at the university until his retirement in 1982.
He co-authored a book on the 1381 Peasants’ revolt, with the fellow Communist Hymie Fagan in 1950. Hilton was encouraged to resume a theoretical interest in revolts by the student rebellions of the 1960s, including the sit in at Birmingham University in 1968. In 1977, his “Bondman Made Free” marked a return to these themes. It was an influential book, which surveyed peasant unrest over many centuries and countries, though focusing on the 1381 rising. Hilton saw in those events a coherent programme and lasting effects, both of which were denied by more orthodox historians.
“The English Peasantry In The Later Middle Ages” (1975) was the book of the Ford lectures that he had delivered at Oxford in 1973. He wrote about medieval women in the 1970s and explored the ballads of Robin Hood as an insight into popular mentalities of his period. He played an important role in developing the history of towns, which had been neglected in the general enthusiasm for peasants and agrarian studies in the previous decades.
Just before he retired in 1982, and over the next few years, he published a series of innovative studies of medieval towns, placing them in the framework of feudal society, rather than the beginnings of modernity. Hilton’s work was rooted in impeccably researched detail from archival sources, especially of the West Midlands and another book was an exploration of that region in the 1300s.
Hilton became associated with the use of new archaeology as a source of historical information, best exemplified by his involvement in the excavation of a deserted medieval village. His work also revels in colourful episodes, such as the quarrelsome people of Halesowen, whose behaviour demonstrated the social disruption caused by the growth of a new town in his period of study. This heavy emphasis on detailed research and treating medieval folk as real people has influenced a trend in historians, sometimes called “the Birmingham school” in homage to his influence. He died at the age of 85, on June 7th 2002.
Source: Guardian June 10th 2002