Integrating Histories of London, c.1500-1800

[Dom Birch, Esther Brot and Jonah Miller are doctoral students at King’s College London. In this post, they set out why and how they think the diverse histories of early modern London can be integrated with each other and with larger national narratives, reflecting on a workshop on this topic that they ran in autumn 2018.]

Between 1500 and 1800 the city of London changed—a lot. It was over this period that we begin to see the development of a London that we might recognise. By the end of the eighteenth century the city had many of its modern-day hallmarks: political power was linked to the metropolis, it was a driver of fashion and popular culture, it was a centre of a globalised world, and the city had grown to include what would have previously been considered its suburbs. The existential changes in London’s nature, and the way in which the history of London can be linked to the history of England, make it a compelling place to study. Understanding early modern London means understanding how it transformed from its medieval origins to an archetype of modernity. This field of study has, however, faced several difficulties recently. So, with this in mind, in October we brought together a group of historians whose work on London we felt is particularly innovative to talk through what, exactly, early modern London was.

The idea for this workshop originally came from the recognition that we were all working on the history of London in some capacity. This may sound obvious but as historians we’re often trained to think of the work we do in certain ways. We all think of ourselves as social historians and within that label as social scientists (Dom), historians of government (Esther) or cultural historians (Jonah). Despite these different fields of study, we were all researching groups of people who lived in London and would often find ourselves together in the London Metropolitan Archives—using sources from London. It then became apparent that this wasn’t an issue faced by us alone. There are plenty of historians working either in or on London who wouldn’t see themselves as historians of London. They might instead have as a primary motivator a historical theme (religious history) or a group of people (foodsellers or guild members). We thought it would be worthwhile to bring these different perspectives together for a discussion on early modern London more generally, and to ask what different focuses and methods could bring to the study of the city.

Braun and Hogenberg (1560-72) London map

London in the late sixteenth century: too big for one historian?

As we started to plan the workshop it became obvious that there are many issues in the history of London that can’t be solved by one single historian, or a small group of historians. One recurring issue is that the study of London in this period is so broad. London was a very different place in 1500 than it was in 1800, for a variety of reasons including demographic, religious and political change over the period. Does it really make sense to assume that we can have a coherent picture of London that spans the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? If it doesn’t, where and how do we split the period? The existing scholarship on the city has tended to fall into two sets of writing: pre-1650 and post-1650. This seems to make intuitive sense: Londoners’ experience of either half of the mid-seventeenth century was likely to be very different, given the impact of the civil war and the fire of London. The cityscape as well as society and politics changed over this period. If this existing split in the scholarship made sense, we wanted to know how far we should push it. Should and would historians feel comfortable talking about an early-early modern and late-early modern London as separate entities of enquiry?

These temporal issues aside, London remains a difficult place to write coherently about. Being in London could mean very different things depending on where you lived and worked. The city of London itself was subject to different rules and regulations than the suburbs (i.e. anything outside the city walls). These two areas also had different demographic make-ups. How, then, do we, as historians, write about these different Londons? To take a modern example, Deptford, Islington and the Barbican are all part of London—but the experiences of those living there differ in important ways. We wanted to know how we can be attuned to the nuances of London’s history when writing about it.

A related issue is that of London’s many jurisdictions and institutions. Writing about London often means relying on a set of institutional records. Using London’s church court records, for example, tells us a lot about how early modern Londoners went about getting married, cheated on their partners, or slandered each other in the streets. These records also give us a history of the diocese of London—which, at that time, included a good part of Essex, Middlesex and Surrey. Using records from the Old Bailey Online gives a different picture of London: one defined by criminal behaviour and marginal forms of action. The livery company archives tell us a lot about the livery companies themselves, as well as the artisans and tradespeople that belonged to them. But, again, the information here is circumscribed—it pertains to certain groups of people and sets of practices. Trying to fit work on different institutions and archives into a broader picture of early modern London is a difficult task, and as we noted above not one likely to be achieved by a single historian.

These are all substantial issues in themselves, but they are compounded by the fact that the historiography of this field is uneven. The history of London has, therefore, been defined by a few foundational texts and ideas. Ian Archer and Valerie Pearl, in the nineties, focused on how London was governed and whether it was a ‘stable’ society. Jeremy Boulton wrote a key study of neighbourhood and mobility based around the London suburb of Southwark. Many of us wanting to do quantitative work on London use the work of Steven Rappaport as a starting point. And much of the later history of London has been defined by the study of crime and criminals by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker. Each of these themes and focuses have limitations—Southwark and criminals were not representatives of all of London.  So, for us, there remains the question of how we write about London in ways that engage with this previous scholarship but are not completely defined by it.

With these issues in mind we put our workshop together, inviting academics who we felt could give new and exciting perspectives on the history of London. The aim was to discuss these problems in more detail, trying to find attitudes and methods that could address them. We wanted to understand how new generations of historians could seek to write an ‘integrated history of London’ that could be, at once, specific and general. We wanted this workshop to be the start of collaboration and conversation between historians working on London. We hope that by bringing individuals into contact with each other we could start to tackle some of these big issues in the history of early modern London. And, in turn, we could get a better idea of what early modern London looked and felt like, and what it meant to be an early modern Londoner.

As part of this, posts from three of the speakers at the workshop will follow:

More importantly, we hope that the other participants in the workshop and readers of the posts will join the conversation by posting comments or questions here or on twitter (#IntegratingHistories2019).

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7 thoughts on “Integrating Histories of London, c.1500-1800

  1. Pingback: Re-Posted from the Many-Headed Monster, by Brodie Waddell – roads to modernity

  2. Pingback: Histories of London, c.1500-1650: Space, Narratives and Numbers | the many-headed monster

  3. No allusion to Paul Griffiths on Lost Londons – he will be disappointed. A whole session was devoted to Lost Londons at an annual NACBS conference. It’s doubtful if you can consider Archer without the context of Griffiths.
    Boulton’s neighbourhoods probably refer back to the formation of early-medieval ‘neighbourhood churches’, so it may be difficult to isolate early-modern (there’s a paper by either Christopher Brooke or Nicholas Brooks (probably in a festschrift), but I forget where.
    Much criticized is Steven Mullaney’s adoption of Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger for a binary division of London into the City and the LIberties, but your conversation with literary people will be better informed. There are two compendia of essays on the same theme of culture and capital edited by Newman and by Turner. Newman’s compares London and Paris as cultural capitals.

  4. Pingback: Histories of London, c.1650-1800: Institutions, Work, Poverty and Crime | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: Histories of London, 1640s to 1660s: Continuities and Turning Points | the many-headed monster

  6. For all the historical thematic concerns laid out in your post, the problem is an historiographical one, fundamentally, that really boils down to method. In some respects your looking for a microhistorical method to a macrohistorica problem – the life of a city as seen through by tracing the fragmented remnants of its inhabitants across numerous and disparate sources. The only way we’ve had to do this, typically, in an analog sense is to write the overlapping narratives in historical prose. We both know that’s not going to cut it with the kinds of things you’ve laid out. I notice that Tiim Hitchcock’s London Lives doesn’t feature in the discussion, strangely. The importance of that work, especially the new Life Archive functionality, shouldn’t be under estimated. It allows us to see the hidden life of someone obscured from the normal course of historical writing. That said, the problem is that the source base is limited (as extensive as it is), and it is grounded in TEI encoding – which is tricky for most historians to say the least. What is needed is a kind of digital ethnographic method and framework that would focus not on tracing fragments themselves per se, but on documenting assertions – little snippets of historical evidence as ‘histories’ – that can aggregate into a larger organizational whole. We used to see chronicles and annals as imperfect historical forms, but they provide us – along with the data model of the network – with the means to conceptualize a kind of statement-drive digital historical method that tracks the kinds of things we’re interested in as cultural historians. It’s a more sound digital method than the Armitage / Guldi topic modeling (which examines textual features not historical discourse). And it’s the entire point of http://www.nanohistory.org. The prototype is aimed *precisely* at this kind of historical scholarship. And it’s open for test driving. Glad to see this work, hope it spawns more conversations about how we organize and connect vast amounts of disparate historical evidence prior to the writing of historical prose.

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