Alexandra Shepard’s *Accounting for Oneself* and early modern social categorisation

Brodie Waddell

Sorting people into groups is something that we, as scholars, spend a lot of time doing. As Alexandra Shepard shows in her powerful recent book, Accounting for Oneself, it is something that early modern people constantly did too.

9780199600793This is not the place for proper review of the book as there are already plenty of those available, including a substantial analysis by my co-blogger Mark. However, I would like to look slightly more closely at one particular aspect of the book which speaks directly to an issue that we have struggled with repeatedly on this blog: how do we divide up early modern society?

Historians have been debating this question for decades and many models have been proposed. For example, is it a binary society, split between the elite and everyone else? If so, what should we call these groups? The patricians and the plebs? The elite and the people? The gentry and the commonalty? The better and the worser sort of people? Or perhaps it is a tripartite society. If so, is it ‘richer’, ‘middling’ and ‘poorer’? Or simply ‘upper-class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’? Or maybe a society of three ‘estates’ (clergy, aristocracy, commons)? Or a hierarchy of ‘degrees’ and ‘ranks’ (peers, gentry, merchants, yeomen, husbandmen, labourers, vagrants)? Continue reading

A fictional review of Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton

This book review is intended as a homage to Thorpe’s inspirational historical novel, and is offered in a spirit of experimentation and playfulness.

Laura Sangha

16 June, windy. Email quiet. This day began Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton (1992). Have heard v good things from M. Hailwood, and Hilary Mantel ‘Sometimes you forget that it is a novel, and believe for a moment that you are really hearing the voice of the dead’. Is historical fiction: social history of West Country English village across 300 yrs, each chapter different style and set in different yrs chronologically.

19 June, rain, windy, cat sick all over blue rug. Discovered original meaning of word ‘broadcasting’ from Ulver (pre-radio, telly and Wi-Fi) – OED has: to scatter (seed, etc.) abroad with the hand; examples are (romantically) ‘They sow the barley, spraining the first half, and broad-casting the second.’ [1807 A. Young Gen. View Agric. Essex I. vii. 333] or (sniggeringly) ‘It is preferable to broadcast the guano’. [1846 Jrnl. Royal Agric. Soc. 7 ii. 591]. Wonder when that would ever be preferable.

25 June, dry, but slugs have taken over garden: all pansies eaten. 1689 chapter of Ulver is styled as sermon, interesting but bit ‘busman’s holiday’. Excellently researched so far, am completely convinced, but not that enthralled.

30 June, dry. Arthur from next door gave me some rhubarb: roasted with sugar. Ulver continues good, diary-style chapter exploring continuity/change, fertility of land/women: mix of dull impenetrable (to me) agriculture and imaginative rendering of rural life, relationships, folklore etc. Gender v strong theme (exclt research again!), reminds me: excited to see new ‘all women’ Ghostbusters movie.

4 July, sun came out and noticed how deep cat scratches are in floorboards. Finished neat chap. in Ulver, ‘lady’ writing to ‘pleb’ lover, lots of nice detail. Remarkable way Thorpe can conjure characters through use of genre/style: is like all early modern diaries, sermons and advice manuals I read raised from the dead – boring bits beginning to make more sense. Continue reading

Understanding Sources: Churchwardens’ Accounts

To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Jonathan Willis

I have a confession to make: I love churchwardens’ accounts, and in this post I want to tryPicture1 to convince you that they have something to offer pretty much everybody interested in researching, reading or writing about early modern England.  As well as co-editing Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources with Laura, I contributed a chapter on ‘Ecclesiastical Sources’, and one of the nice things about editing or co-editing a volume like this is being able to choose exactly what you want to write about!  I happen to be, of course, a reformation historian, and so sources relating to or generated by the Church are naturally something I’m going to be interested in.  But in that chapter, and in this post, it is my intention to show that ecclesiastical sources in general (and churchwardens’ accounts in particular) are of enormous interest and value, almost no matter what area of history you are interested in.  Politics?  Economics?  Society?  Culture?  They’ve got it all! Continue reading

Understanding Sources: Court Depositions

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To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

 

 


Mark Hailwood

My favourite early modern primary source? When you have spent the last year working almost exclusively with one type of source you come to either love it or loathe it. In the case of the court depositions I have been reading extensively for the Women’s Work Project I’m glad to say it’s the former. They undoubtedly top my list.

harvesters

Scenes of everyday life

For a historian driven above all by a desire to recover the everyday lives of ordinary women and men in the past the witness statements they gave in their tens of thousands before the courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent a rich seam indeed. In recounting the details surrounding cases in criminal, civil and ecclesiastical courts, deponents provide accounts of myriad aspects of day-to-day experience. They tell us about their working lives of course – about mowing corn, spinning yarn or shearing sheep at the time of witnessing a crime, say – but also how they spent their leisure time – about trips to the alehouse describing who they drank with, how much they drank, and who subsequently fell out with who. Continue reading

Understanding Sources: doing history by numbers

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To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

 


Brodie Waddell

It is remarkable that Peter Musgrave’s 200-page introduction to The Early Modern European Economy (1999) does not include a single table or graph. Although I’m a firm believer in qualitative methods and in exploring multiple facets of unique stories, images and objects, I also think that there ought to be a place for quantitative methods in our attempts to understand past societies. This is especially true of early modern economic life where if we elide the difference between a seventeenth-century ‘yeoman’ earning £15 per year and his neighbour earning £150 year we risk misunderstanding the structural inequalities in early modern society.

In my chapter for Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, I try to make a balanced case for the value of both ‘quant’ and ‘qual’ approaches to history, and I review some of the key sources available to us. Here, I’d like to take a slightly closer look at one ‘quant’ source that I didn’t mention in the chapter: early modern books.

I’m hardly an expert at bibliometrics, but thanks to the online EEBO-TCP n-gram tool, anyone can have a stab at it. In my article on the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s, I looked at the frequency of certain ‘economic’ terms in the published texts of the era. What I found, pleasingly, is that there was a lot more talk of ‘trade’, ‘money’ and ‘tax’ in the 1690s, as I’d expected. But can such methods tell us anything else about the economy at this time? Continue reading

Understanding Sources: diaries

TPicture1o celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Laura Sangha

It won’t come as a surprise that I have chosen diaries as my favourite early modern source type, since I am currently researching the life and times of the Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist, Ralph Thoresby (1677-1725). But really, who could resist reading someone else’s diary? Who isn’t interested in other people’s lives? What other source gives us access to the personal jottings and reflections of the long dead? In what other source are the voices of the people delivered to us in such an unmediated fashion? Where else can we learn about how people thought about themselves in the past? Whilst other source types might be better defined, more representative of the population as a whole, more complete, or easier to contextualise or generalise about, there is nothing like the thrill of reading someone else’s thoughts on their own life experiences. Continue reading

Understanding Sources: the source of it all

Update: links to other posts in the #histsources series:

Diaries: sources that gently bruise the consciousness
Doing history by numbers: bibliometrics and counting things
Court depositions: the stories we tell about ourselves
Churchwarden accounts: teeming with all sorts of life

Laura Sangha

Primary sources are where histories come from. The stuff left over from the past that by accident or design has survived down to this day is the lifeblood of historical study. Sources are our direct (if not always reliable) witnesses to the events, people and processes of moments now long gone. The creative and self-aware use of the complexities of evidence often produces the best histories as historians read against the grain, contextualise, and dissect the stuff of the past to extract new meanings from it.

In 2000, Ludmilla Jordanova wrote that ‘there has been a decline in (primary) source-based undergraduate teaching’, but in 2016 it certainly feels like the opposite is true.[1] Partly thanks to the internet (although printed transcriptions remain a vital resource), primary sources have never been more available or accessible for university lecturers and their students. Given that history is to some extent defined by its methodology, it doesn’t make sense not to use primary materials with undergraduates – how else to teach the dynamic relationship between the sources, the historian and their history? How else to understand the vantage points that we can and can’t find on what happened in the past? Continue reading