Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part I: Some evidence from 44,313 printed texts

Brodie Waddell

In our on-going discussions of social description and social identity on this blog, we have tried to think through how we talk about the ‘non-elite’ individuals that we study. We’ve shown the problems with ‘plebeians’ and ‘the people’, yet I think this latter term is worth looking at from another angle. In Mark’s post on ‘the rise of the people’, he focused on how historians have used the term, but he also mentioned that:

It would be interesting to run a project on the history and meanings of the term ‘the people’ across the centuries, as has been done for instance for ‘commonwealth‘.

I can’t claim this little post is even a preliminary report on any such project. However, I did spend a couple hours searching through Early English Books Online to try to get a sense of how contemporaries used this term in early modern England. So, who were ‘the people’?

The first feature to note is that the term was extremely common. There were just over 400,000 hits for ‘the people’ in the 44,313 transcribed texts on EBBO. Continue reading

Marooned on an Island Monographs: an Early Modern Medical History Reading List

Last summer we ran a blog series called ‘Marooned on an Island Monographs’, a collection of posts inspired by the question: what 5 history monographs would you take with you to a deserted island? Each post offered suggested reading on a particular topic or type of history – trying to pick just 5 monographs to cover the whole of human history was a bit too tough! – and the themes covered included early modern social, economic and religious history, and even historical fiction.

The series proved quite popular, and people have told us the lists are really useful too: they can provide a handy guide to a new topic for both students and teachers, or even just a helpful overview of key works in a subject area you don’t know much about – a resource for a bit of quick swotting up for when you next have a Reformation scholar over to dinner! So, we thought it would be a good idea to revive the series and make a bit of a resource out of it, but as there are only so many topics us monster-heads can cover between us we’ve decided to occasionally invite some of our favourite historians to help us out with a guest post!

Our first guest is Jennifer Evans, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hertfordshire. Her research is focused on the body, medicine and gender and covers the period 1550-1750. Jennifer is the author of Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, runs her own blog Early Modern Medicine, and tweets @HistorianJen

Jennifer Evans

Below is my list of history of medicine books that I often turn to or particularly enjoyed. Now these are probably not what would appear on most people’s ultimate guide to early modern medical history (there is, as you will see, a notably absence of Margaret Pelling’s The Task of Healing: Medicine, Religion and Gender in England and the Netherlands 1450-1800 and Roy Porter’s numerous works), but they are well worth a read. Some of them are general texts and some deal with more specific areas of research. Taken together I think they suggest the breadth and diversity of the field and show all of the interesting areas of research being undertaken in the field. Continue reading

The Rise of ‘The People’

Mark Hailwood

One of our ongoing conversations on this blog has revolved around the most appropriate terms that practitioners of history ‘from below’ can use to describe their subjects: are we studying ‘the working class’? The ‘lower classes’? The ‘middling and poorer sort of people’? The ‘plebs’? This post doesn’t provide any answers I’m afraid, but in it I want to resume the conversation by highlighting and briefly interrogating a term that seems to me to have been enjoying a certain vogue recently: ‘the people’. Continue reading

Memorial and History: appendix ii, further discoveries

Laura Sangha

Last year I wrote a series of posts on memorialisation and history, inspired by my discovery of Exeter’s memorial to two sixteenth-century martyrs. I uncovered the story of the two local victims remembered on the monument, the life of its colourful creator, and I explored why commemoration of religious martyrs suddenly became widespread in nineteenth and twentieth-century England. Over the summer, free from the golden reins of teaching, I found myself in two locations that provided more pieces of the puzzle.[1]

University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford


The view north from St Mary’s, looking into Radcliffe Square.

I was lucky enough to spend a week working in the Bodleian, and during a lunch break I took a tour around the University Church just opposite. In 1556 the church still functioned as a court and the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was tried for heresy there by Mary Tudor’s Catholic government. Cranmer was one of the key architects of the early English Reformation, chiefly responsible for the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer – the latter was eventually the basis for the Elizabethan 1559 version. Cranmer refused to abjure his faith (technically he recanted, but then went back on his original recantation) and was burnt to death on Broad Street in Oxford, just round the corner from the church – and of course very close to the site of the Oxford Martyr Memorial today. Continue reading

Imagining early modern working women, or, economic history’s image problem

Brodie Waddell

In 1658, the Czech scholar John Amos Comenius published what’s been called ‘the first children’s picture book’. It proved extremely popular and was republished many times, in many different languages. What brought it to my attention was the fact that it included 150 pictures of ‘the visible world’, a rare treat in an early modern publication.

It was designed to teach Latin and, in the 1705 edition, English to young people, so most of its illustrations depicted the sorts of things a child might be expected to know from life. They would find, for example, pictures of youth at study and at play, stilt-walking or bowling.

At school and at playHowever, the ones that caught my eye were the many illustrations of working life. If you, like me, teach or write about early modern economic history, you’ll know that this particular subfield has an ‘image problem’. Perhaps thanks to a strong seam of ‘iconophobic’ Calvinism, post-Reformation England was not exactly awash in imagery of any kind and I have often found it particularly difficult to find images of economic life. One can find many pictures of kings and noblemen. But there are frustratingly few depictions of ordinary people doing their jobs, whether as artisans, traders or labourers. This gap is partly filled by the broadside ballad woodcuts on EBBA that Mark Hailwood has discussed here before. However, it remains difficult to find the sort of rich visual material that one can find, for instance, in Dutch ‘Golden Age’ paintings or in nineteenth-century periodicals. Continue reading

Thinking about doing a PhD: who, where and how?

Brodie Waddell

Over the past few months, I’ve been getting some enquires from people thinking about doing a PhD in history. I’ve found myself repeating the same thing in many cases, so I thought I’d set it out here in case it’s helpful for current MA students thinking about the possibility. In most cases, there are important personal factors to consider, but I think there are a few pieces of advice that apply more generally.

Note, however, that as an ‘early career’ academic, there is still plenty that I’m learning about the whole process, despite having finished my own PhD over five years ago. Your own thoughts would be very welcome.

Don’t do it!

When a PhD goes horribly wrong, it often turns into a nightmarish snake-cat that stalks you in the library...

When a PhD goes horribly wrong, it often turns into a nightmarish snake-cat that stalks you in the library…

Obviously I don’t believe that or I wouldn’t be writing this post, but I think there are lots of good reasons to not do a PhD right now, the most important being the terrible job market for new humanities PhDs. As innumerable blog posts and articles have said before: even if you are extremely smart, original, hard-working and self-sacrificing, there is a decent chance that you won’t be able to find a permanent academic job. If you are aware of that, and want to do a PhD anyway – perhaps because you’re not doing it to get an academic job, or perhaps because you are young, carefree and willing to roll the dice – then please read on… Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part V: A defence of microhistory

Brodie Waddell

The life of Joseph Bufton is unlikely to ever appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography amongst their nearly 60,000 ‘men and women who have shaped British history’. The only history that he shaped was his own.

Reduced to its essentials, his life is hardly worth writing about. As I’ve discussed in my previous posts, he was born in the small town of Coggeshall in 1650 and died in the village of Castle Hedingham, twelve miles down the road, in 1718. He spent nearly all of his sixty-eight years on this earth in north-eastern Essex. As far as we can tell, he never held any position of political or religious authority, never produced any works of artistic or literary merit, and never even married or had children.

The King and Nortern-man ballad - Crawford_1_1188_2448x2448So why should anyone care about Bufton? One might say that we should simply care about everyone equally: does not the humble ploughman in the field deserve as much attention from historians as the king on his throne? The king may have ruled vast tracts of land, but his territories would have been worthless to him if the ploughman hadn’t supplied him with bread. However, our knowledge of the life of a ploughman is usually limited to a few lines in a parish register listing a baptism, a marriage and a burial. We encounter no such difficulty with kings.

Joseph Bufton, like a ploughman, earned his bread by the sweat of his brow. Yet unlike most ordinary people of the time, he left to posterity eleven volumes crammed with his scribblings. These little notebooks offer us glimpses of a life lived in humble obscurity, a life that would otherwise be almost entirely lost to us. Continue reading