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)?

The 'great chain of being' - probably not a good model for thinking about early modern England

The ‘great chain of being’ – probably not a good model for thinking about early modern England

These models are regularly used by scholars and they were also occasionally used by early modern people themselves, especially by the educated and wealthy men who stood near the top of these hierarchies. However, as Shepard shows so clearly, contemporaries more often sorted themselves according to more fine-grained estimates of ‘worth’. I won’t go into the details of her methodology here, but suffice to say that she looked at over 17,000 responses from legal deponents to a series of questions about their credibility and found that the vast majority of them offered surprisingly specific answers based on their net worth, income, occupation and/or marital status.

For contemporaries, the division between – for example – gentry and commoner was certainly important, but just as important were the distinctions that separated ‘wife’ and ‘widow’. Or the ‘yeoman’ who was ‘worth’ £40 from one worth £140. Or the alm-taking pauper from the ‘poor’ wife of a Stepney drover who was ‘not worth any thing her debts p[aid] but never did beg, or ask the Charity of strangers by her’ (Shepard, p. 119).

Occupational labels are particularly interesting here. As Mark has suggested in a recent article, plenty of people took much of their social identity from their specific occupation rather than from their larger social group or ‘class’. Yet it is also apparent that the relationship between one’s occupational label and one’s actual working life was often ambiguous or even tenuous. This is something I noticed when researching the economic fortunes of Joseph Bufton. Was he a master clothier? Or a labouring wool-comber? Or something in between? Shepard shows that such ambiguity was common.

Occupational labels in this period, she argues, were as much about lineage and status as about the realities of daily labour. In 1628, William Clapham of York described himself as a ‘yeoman’ – usually defined as a well-off farmer – despite being a ‘household servant’ at the time, because he was expecting a substantial inheritance from his father (p. 240). Shepard finds many other cases where self-reported occupations had more to do with perceived social position than with actual ‘work’. This ambiguity was especially apparent among women, who rarely reported an ‘occupation’ but often talked about their work as midwives, nurses, seamstresses, laundresses and so forth. Likewise, for them, the title ‘housewife’ or even just ‘wife’ seemed to be an occupation – equivalent to ‘husbandman’ – rather than simply a marital status. Such labels were ‘a complex amalgam of identity’ which included ‘economic contribution, social status [and] legal entitlement to marital property’ (p. 260).

Shepard’s work deserves enormous plaudits for investigating these issues so systematically in her sources. Since reading her book, I know that I’ll never think about such labels in quite the same way again. Yet there is still much more work that needs to be done on this, moving beyond both the traditional top-down contemporary descriptions and Shepard’s wonderful new depositional evidence. Mark’s broadside ballad evidence is a great start, as is the rather different depositional evidence being examined by the Women’s Work in Rural England 1500-1700 project, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the relevant archival material. Ultimately, if we hope to understand past societies, we need to know much more about how people labelled themselves and their neighbours, and how these labels related to the concrete realities of daily life.

Some Further Reading

Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, and the Social Order in Early Modern England (OUP, 2015)

Susan D. Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (1988)

Amy Erickson, ‘Marital status and economic activity: interpreting spinsters, wives, and widows in pre-census population listings’, Cambridge Working Papers in Economic & Social History, no. 6, 2012.

Henry French, The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (2007)

Mark Hailwood, ‘Broadside Ballads and Occupational Identity in Early Modern England’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 79:2 (2016), pp. 187-200

Keith Wrightson, ‘“Sorts of People” in Tudor and Stuart England’, in The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1800 (1994), pp.28-51


8 thoughts on “Alexandra Shepard’s *Accounting for Oneself* and early modern social categorisation

  1. Agreed about how useful Shepard’s book is. One of the question I struggle with on this question is once we know about the fine distinctions people in the past made, how do we use that analytically? I mean, it’s great to know that people could somehow discriminate between people with similar incomes and occupations on some other standard (as church seating cases suggest) but then what? (And of course this gets at the difference between how people labelled themselves and understood themselves, and how they were understood/labelled/perceived by their neighbors.) I’m reminded of my response to Alan Macfarlane’s argument that we needed histories of all 8000 English parishes before we could write English social history. When can we generalize? About what? As a practical matter, at some point you have to lump as well as split. Now, maybe we lump into 5 categories instead of three, but we’re still flattening out some of the distinctions people made.

    • Thanks for raising this issue, Susan. For me, Shepard’s new data and analysis are powerful in part because they reinforce and refine some of the ‘macro’ stories about early modern social relations that we’ve been telling for a long time, such as the rise of the ‘yeoman’, or other narratives that are receiving renewed attention, such as the importance of women’s work. But you are right that a massive dataset like this can be paralyzing – when I first read the book I became very hesitant about ‘lumping’ anyone at all because suddenly everyone seemed so much more socially diverse. But – although we’ll go back to ‘lumping’ – it was liberating to be able to ditch ‘poor’, ‘middling’ and ‘rich’ and think again about other ways to divide up society.

  2. I’ve left a comment on twitter about the response about ‘worth’ and independence as a witness: i.e. not dependent on the party for whom one testifies. The articles demand an answer in those terms (analogously with the inquisitorial process). There are occasional cases where the witness is questioned as to whether in receipt of payment from the party. I can’t remember if this is cited in the book – sold my copy. It might – might – originate in the issues around compurgation where it was not uncommon to pay compurgators – although in instance or promoted cases. There was some questioning of the sincerity of oaths in particular contexts.
    The language of ‘sorts’ is dispersed through EM drama – not just with reference to ‘better’, ‘middling’, ‘poorer’: e.g. Condell in the intro to The Malcontent, ‘a sort of discontented creatures’; Bosola to the Duchess of Malfi, ‘a ‘sort of flattering rogues’. In other words, the notion of ‘sorts of people’ also might be placed in a wider linguistic context. There are multitudinous other examples.
    Have to go – might be back.

      • Dave: Yes, these answers about ‘worth’ are clearly the product of a specific legal encounter rather than a purely spontanious assessment, and they thus need to be compared to other assessments (e.g. probate inventories, which Shepard does at one point). Regarding ‘sorts’, I think the examples you cite remind me why I’ve never been very keen on that model – ‘sorts’ were used for a lot of things that weren’t very much like the systematic social categories we are used to. In other words, ‘the poorer sort’ is not even a rough approximation of ‘the working class’.

        Laura: Absolutely, as you say so concisely, we really need know more about *why* people at the time spent so much time ‘sorting’ each other into groups. As social historians, it is basically our job, but why did an ordinary yeoman or maidservant have such a well developed sense of where people fit? (Again, this is something Shepard touches upon, though there is much more work to be done.)

      • Left a short point on twitter. No description, IMHO, is purely constative, but prescriptive. That’s particularly so with the wider deployment of ‘sorts’. The wider context of ‘sorts’ also reveals the emotions of disparagement and superiority inherent in this language. This is a jejune comment, I’m afraid.

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