Not what it used to be? Nostalgia in Early Modern England

In this guest post Dr Francis Young examines the relationship between history and nostalgia, particularly how and why nostalgic rhetoric is deployed. Dr Young is a UK-based historian and folklorist specialising in the history of religion and supernatural belief. You can find out more about his work on his website.

The phenomenon of nostalgia – which may be defined, briefly, as a longing for an imagined past supposedly better than an unsatisfactory present – seems to be attested in every age. Clearly, nostalgia is not the same thing as history, since nostalgia celebrates or exploits an imagined past that may never have existed, without studying the evidence. Conservative societies undergoing little change have fewer reasons to be nostalgic, but societies in flux often become sentimental about an imagined former ‘Golden Age’. This was certainly true of early modern England, which was a society obsessed with the past. However, early modern nostalgia was not just an effect produced by a changing society: ironically, early modern nostalgia drove the process of change itself. By longing for the past, people brought in the future.

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The Winchester Round Table. Image: Martin Kraft (photo.martinkraft.com) License: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Middle Ages, it was commonplace for new monarchs to associate themselves with the ‘good old days’, whether they did this by invoking the laws of St Edward the Confessor, the liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta, or an imagined age of chivalry and the deeds of King Arthur. Perhaps no early modern reign was more infected with this kind of nostalgia than that of Henry VIII, who even had a painted wooden replica of King Arthur’s round table made for him in 1522, which now hangs in Winchester Castle. In a Latin poem to mark Henry’s coronation, Thomas More wrote, ‘When previously order utterly decayed, at once all order was restored in him … what are his virtues had been those of any of his ancestors’. More then went even further and declared Henry’s accession to be the restoration of the Golden Age prophesied by Plato: ‘The golden ages first return to you, prince; o! Plato may thus far be a prophet!’

The idea of a pristine golden age – and the idea that such an age can be restored – is often accompanied by a view of the present as decadent; it has fallen away from the higher standards of the past. Nostalgic rhetoric therefore provides the ideal cover for proposing radical change, and this was precisely the role it performed in Henry VIII’s reign (albeit not in a way that Thomas More would ever have envisaged). The earliest stage of the Henrician Reformation was propelled not by the theological ideas of reformers but by a weaponised nostalgia, as the preamble to the 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals makes abundantly clear: ‘Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an Empire…’ The implication of the statute was that the assertion of papal authority over England was a sign of England’s decay from its original condition as an empire free from Roman jurisdiction.

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This 1638 Reginold Elstrack etching of Henry V evokes ‘lost’ ideals of martial kingship.

The Statute in Restraint of Appeals was based on the Collectanea satis copiosa (‘Sufficiently copious collections’), a collection of historical ‘evidences’ of the ancient independence of the English church compiled by Thomas Cranmer and others. But Henry VIII , like others before and after him, preferred the comfort of an imagined past to actually delving into history. Nostalgia for a golden age allowed a ruler not only to reverse the policies of their predecessors but also to jump over the remembered past into an imagined past beyond living memory, onto which any present needs could be projected. In history, English monarchs were never Supreme Head of the Church; in the imagined ‘good old days’, however, they could be. Nostalgic rhetoric was a way of thinking about the past that avoided history.

The cultural importance of nostalgia in early modern England produced problems. The Reformation, first under Henry and then under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, involved erasing a large part of the past – quite literally, in the form of iconoclasm of Catholic monuments. Early modern England was a society that venerated the memory of their ancestors, whether medieval kings or the progenitors of the local gentry, and yet was forced to reinvent its collective memory shorn of the ‘superstitions’ of Catholicism. Antiquarianism flourished, nurtured by humanist learning, but antiquaries had to tread carefully over the corpse of the ‘popish’ past. A king obsessed with the piety of his illustrious predecessors dissolved monasteries founded almost a millennium earlier by Anglo-Saxon kings, while the invented tradition of the medievalistic Accession Day Tilts at the court of Elizabeth only reinforced the distance between medieval and early modern England.

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Detail from a late seventeenth-century ballad, English Broadside Ballad Archive, 21702

Worse was to come. The upheavals of the Reformation produced a reflexive escape into nostalgia for both elites and ordinary people which is summed up in the phrase ‘Merry England’ – a collective longing for an imagined past of unified, communal seasonal celebration at a time when such practices were slipping away. However, Protestants intent on taking the Reformation to what they saw as its logical conclusion directed their attacks against what they saw as relics of a ‘pagan’ Middle Ages infected with popery. When James I and Charles I issued the Book of Sports with its list of sanctioned festivities for Sundays, it produced a Puritan backlash that contributed significantly to the eventual outbreak of civil war.

The construction of imagined pasts through the rhetoric of nostalgia was a key agent of change in early modern England, since it allowed rulers to bypass the accrued precedents of the recent past and legislate with a supposedly clean slate. For the English Reformation, harking back to an imagined past gave innovation the appearance of restoration. Yet the break with the medieval past also gave rise to anxieties about the decline of those traditions that were allowed to survive, which led to more self-conscious nostalgia. Ultimately, the rulers of early modern England learnt a lesson that has since been followed by many others: the best way to introduce radical change is dressed in the clothes of the past, as the restoration of an imagined yesterday.

Further reading:

Martin Biddle (ed.), King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2000)

Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Thomas More, In suscepti diadematis diem Henrici Octavi in Epigrammata (Basel, 1520), pp. 17–25

David G. Newcombe, Henry VIII and the English Reformation (London: Routledge, 1995)

David Starkey and Susan Doran, Henry VIII: Man and Monarch (London: The British Library, 2009)

Books as Open Online Content: Paper Trails

Laura Sangha

This year I joined the editorial board of a BOOC for UCL press titled Paper Trails, and if you are an academic, librarian, curator, collections manager, archivist, or educator, we want to work with you.

Paper Trails imageThat might need some explanation: a BOOC is a new, fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. Living books for the digital age, if you will.

The innovative BOOC format comes with many benefits. It means that Paper Trails can offer space not only for peer-reviewed, ‘REF-able’ academic articles, but that these can be published alongside work by other practitioners who both study the past, and who make the study of the past possible. We thus hope that one of the things our BOOC will do will be to make visible and showcase the work of collection managers, curators, librarians, archivists and educators. The intellectual focus, multi-form content, and the four streams in our Call for Papers are designed with this in mind.

The Paper Trails BOOC therefore presents an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary reflection on the ways that we construct the past, and on the collaborative nature of that project. In particular it will allow us to consider our relationship with research material more closely and coherently, by juxtaposing critical histories with reflections on practice, sources and materials.

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‘Engaging’ Lead Editor: Andrew WM Smith

Paper Trails is also intended as a means to capture and promote some of the excellent education and engagement work that many scholars are involved in, but which we often don’t get to hear about. We hope that the ‘Engagement’ stream will become a repository of shorter cases studies or think pieces that demonstrate particular skills or techniques, and which can therefore inform broader professional practice. Since creative and dynamic ways of engaging non-professionals with the past are now widespread, the BOOC can be the means to preserve and disseminate the best of this work. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: Conclusion

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the ‘Conclusion’ of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, as well as on the posts in this series as a whole. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

Alice Clark ended Working Life of Women by summarizing her findings in terms of her central themes. What does it mean for women when the individual rather than the household is the primary actor in the modern economy? Why don’t women get as much specialized training as men?  As the essays in this series have shown, the story of women’s work is considerably more complicated than Clark’s argument allows.  But Clark raises two new issues in her conclusion.  First, the subordination of women.  She argues that capitalism is not the source of the subjection of women; instead, ‘the subjection of women to their husbands was the foundation stone of the structure of the community in which Capitalism first made its appearance.’ (p. 300)  Second, she raises questions about political theory.  She asks about the impact of the ‘mechanical state’, represented by the works of both Hobbes and Locke.  What does it matter when women are invisible in formulations of what the state means?  Clark argues that these issues draw attention to a much wider range of issues and a longer chronology than those which have been the focus of the book.

Reading her conclusion alongside the essays that have made this series so interesting demonstrates one reason we – and our students – keep reading Alice Clark: she raises big questions.  She understands women’s work, and women’s position in society, first in relation to the history of capitalism.  At the end, though, she tells us that the big question is part of two even bigger ones, about fundamental social structures and the history of political thought.   Both of these have been the focus of extensive research over the past 40 years.  The tension between women’s agency and their subordination has been a central theme in women’s history.  We have simultaneously demonstrated women’s agency not just as economic actors but as political ones while we have explored domestic and sexual violence.[1]  Allyson Poska’s suggestion that we consider what she calls “agentic gender norms” that co-exist with patriarchy and provide a counter-vailing set of norms may be a useful way of thinking about these tensions.[2]  Similarly, scholars in the history of political thought have unpacked the ways in which contract theory not only erased women, but made women’s political action far more complex.[3] Continue reading

Visualising the early modern state

Brodie Waddell

What did the state look like in early modern England? There are, of course, many different ways you might answer this question. The most famous is Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which the king literally embodies his subjects. Or, if one wanted to be a bit more realistic, an image of a court sitting might give you an idea of what the state looked like to someone formally facing its majestic authority. Or, as Jonah Miller has recently argued, perhaps the most realistic image of all would be a picture of a local constable, for these were the representatives of the state who ordinary people most often encountered in their daily lives.

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Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651); Benjamin Ferrers, The Court of Chancery (c.1725); Thomas Dekker, The Belman of London (1608)

However, I’d like to offer a rather more practical, and much less aesthetically pleasing, answer. In one of the first sessions of my ‘Crime, Poverty and Protest’ module at Birkbeck, I try to give students an idea of what the court system – and in fact ‘the state’ more generally – looked like in the early modern period. So, I created a sort of tabular diagram in which I attempted to include on a single page all the most important components of this system that a student might need to know about. Here is the result as pdf and full-size jpgWaddell (2019) Scheme of courts, 1550-1750

I then released the image to the #twitterstorians of the world to tell me what I’d missed and what I’d gotten wrong. Pleasingly, I had plenty of responses. You can go to the tweet itself to read them all, but I’ll try to summarise them below… Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Professions’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Mary Fissell offers some reflections on chapter six of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Professions’. Mary is Professor in the History of Medicine at The John Hopkins University. You can access the book here.

Mary Fissell

Alice Clark’s chapter on Professions is startlingly prescient in its view of early modern women’s medical work. Many of the themes, sources, and topics she includes have become central to our discussions of early-modern medicine over the past few decades, but were not any part of the history of medicine when I started graduate school 35 years ago. Equally, when I re-read her chapter this time, I was struck by how deeply Clark’s own experiences shaped her account of women’s healing work.

Clark repeatedly uncovered women’s healing work that was largely ignored in the literature until very recently. In 1919, most English people would have thought that nursing started with Nightingale. Clark drew upon records from London’s great ancient hospitals to show us women working as nurses and matrons in them, although she wasn’t very flattering, noting that they were not “the most efficient type of women”. In the countryside, Clark found traces of nursing in local payments from parishes or charities for nursing the poor. She unearthed records of a female surgeon or two, and recognized that women performed many tasks as domestic healers, including making medicines and preserving recipes, a substantial topic in today’s literature. Such women, she noted, were trained informally in female lineages, rather than the formal education their brothers might have enjoyed. She describes the work of “searchers”, older women who inspected bodies for signs of the plague, a category of medical work almost completely ignored until the late 1990s.

Midwifery is Clark’s paramount example of the narrative of loss familiar from other chapters, as men gained access to increasingly formal scientific and medical training that became ever more valuable as knowledge progressed. But she couldn’t help noting that midwives’ skills probably didn’t worsen over the course of the seventeenth century. Here Clark was bucking the trend; as obstetricians created their specialty in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, they engaged in a fair amount of midwife-bashing about the old “Sairey Gamp” type of practitioner, but Clark saw a lot of good in the early modern midwife, noting that some were “of a high level of intelligence” and possessed “considerable skill”.

What struck me the most, however, was the ways in which Clark’s understanding of women and medicine was deeply tied up with her own personal history. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Crafts and Trades’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Laura Gowing offers some reflections on chapter five of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Crafts and Trades’. Laura is Professor of Early Modern History at King’s College London. You can access the book here.

Laura Gowing

When is a carpenter not a carpenter? When she is a seamstress. Guild or company records loomed large in Alice Clark’s survey of women in crafts and trades, yet their evidence was often confusing or ambivalent. This was particularly so in London, where the Custom of London from the early seventeenth century had enabled women and men with the Freedom of the City to engage in any city craft, not just the one of their own company. Hence, the girls apprenticed to Carpenters located by Clark’s research, who turn out to be apprenticed to seamstresses and silk-winders.

It is now evident that these female apprentices in the Carpenters’ were mirrored across the companies of late 17th century London, with artisans’ and merchants’ wives taking on apprentices in increasing numbers, almost always in sewing and keeping shops to sell the goods they made. Long before the mantua-makers of the late seventeenth century brought women up against tailors, women were sewing smocks, cuffs and bands for the London market, and girls were being apprenticed to learn from them.

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Philips Konnick, The Seamstress, 1671

Sewing dominated in the crafts and trades in which women worked, particularly in London. London’s particular customs thus brought skilled sewing work into guild management, not in terms of quality of work but as a means of incorporating training. By the late seventeenth century free single women and freemens’ wives and widows were taking apprentices in a range of seamstress and textile trades that reflected the specialised construction of garments, shoe and headwear: making children’s coats, periwigs, silk stockings, buttons, lace, gold and silver thread.

In other crafts, and outside London, Clark amassed a host of detail of the conflicts between guilds and the girls and women who found themselves on their margins. Carpenters’ wives being forbidden to unload timber, women bakers excluded from the trade for not having been apprenticed, pewterers ordered to buy no lead from women all reveal not only the arguments around inclusion, but the numbers of women working in trades which to modern eyes were ‘most unlikely’. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Textiles’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy Erickson offers some reflections on the third main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Textiles’. Amy is a University Lecturer in British Economic and Social History 1500-1750 at the University of Cambridge. You can access the book here.

Amy Erickson

Alice Clark’s chapter on textiles concentrates on spinning, the textile production process which involved the most people, the overwhelming majority of whom were female. The production of cloth required several times more spinners than weavers (who were primarily male), whether the fibre in question was derived from a plant (flax or hemp) or an animal (wool or silk). As Clark puts it, ‘From the general economic standpoint, the textile industries rank second in importance to agriculture … but in the history of women’s economic development they hold a position which is quite unique.’ This was not only true of England: textiles were the principal export of most European countries over 300 years.

An early post on Many Headed Monster by Mark Hailwood explored the ubiquity of spinning and included two woodcut images of women sittingindex at spinning wheels that were used to illustrate early modern ballads. The term ‘hand-spinning’ describes spinning both by wheel and by distaff or drop spindle, a method which can be used while walking, as in Paul Sandby’s mid-18th century drawing of a woman carrying a distaff (courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum).

A decade after Working Life, Ivy Pinchbeck provided further evidence on spinning in the period 1750-1850, when hand spinning in the home was largely replaced by water-powered factory spinning. This transition from hand to machine, from home to factory, has recently received detailed attention. Craig Muldrew (2012) estimated that by the later 18th century hand spinning employed nearly 75% of all women over age 14, or 1,500,000 women. The transition to mechanisation, which not only increased productivity but also employed increasing numbers of men rather than women, would have caused mass female unemployment and thereby significant impoverishment. Continue reading