Hilton attended Manchester Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he met Christopher Hill and Denis Healey. A Marxist, Hilton's PhD involved a study of the rural economy of Leicestershire between the 13th and 15th centuries.
During the Second World War Hilton joined the British Army and served in North Africa, Syria, Palestine and Italy. On his return he began teaching at Birmingham University. He stayed at the university for the next 36 years.
In 1950 Hilton with Hyman Fagan published the ground-breaking book, The Revolt of 1381. As Christopher Dyer pointed out: "He took medieval peasants seriously, as people with ideas, who were able to organise themselves in purposeful actions... Hilton saw in that rebellion, led by John Ball and Wat Tyler, a coherent programme and lasting effects, both of which were denied by historians who were less sympathetic towards the rebels."
Hilton, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, joined E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, A. L. Morton, Raphael Samuel, George Rudé, John Saville, Dorothy Thompson, Edmund Dell, Victor Kiernan and Maurice Dobb in forming the Communist Party Historians' Group. In 1952 members of the group founded the journal, Past and Present. Over the next few years the journal pioneered the study of working-class history.
Hilton's books included The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (1975), The Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism (1976), Bond Man Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (1977), Class Conflict and the Crisis of Capitalism (1985), English and French Towns in Feudal Society: A Comparative Study (1995)
Rodney Hilton died on 7th June, 2002.
He (Rodney Hilton) accepted that the Marxist concept of the mode of production was crucial to understanding the moving forces of history. He held that it was essential to recognise feudalism as a mode of production. This was the mode in which the ruling class of landowners/landlords exploited a class of peasants. The latter possessed their own means of subsistence but paid part of the fruits of their labour to their landlord in labour services, or rent in kind in money.
He made an important contribution in arguing that the peasants were a class, devoting the first chapter of his book The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages to this: (i) They possess, even if they do not own, the means of agricultural production by which they subsist. (ii) They work their holdings essentially as a family unit, primarily with family labour. (iii) They are normally associated in larger units than the family, that is villages or hamlets, with greater or lesser elements of common property and collective rights according to the character of the economy. (iv) Ancillary workers, such as agricultural labourers, artisans or building workers, are derived from their own ranks and are therefore part of the peasantry. (v) They support superimposed classes and institutions such as landlords, church, state, towns, by producing more than is necessary for their own subsistence and economic reproduction.'
He took medieval peasants seriously, as people with ideas, who were able to organise themselves in purposeful actions. His writing about the peasant revolts at the beginning of his career included a book on The Revolt Of 1381 (with H Fagan, 1950). In 1973, Bondmen Made Free marked a return to these themes; it was a deservedly influential book which surveyed peasant unrest over many centuries and countries, and focused on the 1381 rising. Hilton saw in that rebellion, led by John Ball and Wat Tyler, a coherent programme and lasting effects, both of which were denied by historians who were less sympathetic towards the rebels. Hilton had been encouraged to revive his interest in revolts by the student rebellions of the 1960s, including the Birmingham "sit-in" of 1968.
In the 1970s he was enthused by developments in the social sciences, returning always to the founders of social science, Marx and Weber. This bore fruit in The English Peasantry In The Later Middle Ages (1975), the book of the Ford lectures which he delivered at Oxford in 1973. It contains the most satisfying discussion of the term "peasant" found in any recent historical writing.
Hilton's work kept up with new trends: he wrote about women in the 1970s, for example, and explored literature, such as the ballads of Robin Hood, as an insight into popular mentalities. 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 in the next few years, he published a series of innovative studies of medieval towns, placing them firmly in the framework of feudal society, not as the beginnings of modernity.