I should never have aspired to become a historian, nor persevered with this book, without the example and encouragement of several outstand­ing scholars and friends. I recall with gratitude the support of Ian Archer, Peter Biller, Jan Blokker, Michael Braddick, Robin Briggs, Marilyn Butler, Robert Darnton, Rees Davies, Anthony Fletcher, Clive Holmes, Joanna Innes, Ian Kershaw, Paul Langford, Diarmaid MacCulloch, David Parrott, Hanna Pickard, Lyndal Roper, Paul Slack, Robert Shoemaker, Lawrence Stone, Keith Thomas, Simon Walker, David Wootton, and Keith Wrightson. I am especially thankful for the unceasing kindness of Martin Ingram, who supervised my early researches, and of John Maddicott and Christina de Bellaigue, who have each helped me in innu­merable ways.

I am profoundly obliged to the institutions that have sustained me at Oxford: the Faculty of History, All Souls College, and, most of all, Exeter College. I must acknowledge as well the support of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University and of the Arts and Humanities Research Board of the United Kingdom. And I rejoice in the vigilance and good humour of my publisher, Stuart Proffitt.

How very much I am indebted on particular points to the scholar­ship of others will, I hope, be evident from the notes. The book also owes an enormous amount to the intellectual stimulus of my students at Oxford, and to the benevolent interest of many colleagues across the world – historians, literary critics, lawyers, philosophers, and others – who have helped me discuss my ideas, supplied me with valuable references, and read drafts of the text. I am deeply grateful to them all.

The dedication records my happiest, most important obligation of all, to my three favourite readers.

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