Histories of London, c.1500-1650: Space, Narratives and Numbers

[Dr Jennifer Bishop is a College Lecturer at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. In this post, she outlines her response to the questions raised in the opening post on Integrating Histories of London, focusing on the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.]

‘She is certainly a great world, there are so many worlds in her’ (Donald Lupton, 1632).

Donald Lupton’s description of London in 1632 neatly encapsulates our view of the early modern city. London was, and indeed is, composed of multiple overlapping and interlocking “worlds” – and the task of the historian is to explore these worlds, and to try and understand the relationships between them. It is perhaps no surprise that many studies of the city have been strongly influenced by the ‘spatial turn’. This is evident in the digital mapping projects of recent years – the Map of Early Modern London being the best example – and also a number of microhistorical studies of the individual streets, parishes, suburbs, and landmarks that made up the physical city.


Visscher’s view of London, 1616

But equally as important as understanding London’s topography, the spatial turn has also directed our attention towards how ordinary people understood and navigated the early modern city. Historians now ask how and where different groups, individuals, and communities lived, worked, and socialised; which areas of the city were frequented by men and which were associated with women; which were popular with migrants and which were open only to citizens. We have a greater appreciation of the character and reputation of different spaces, and by asking how these changed over time (not only over the years, but also how they could also change simply in the transition from day to night), we can see a ‘microcosm’ of the changing urban world. Overall, by seeking to understand how disparate networks of people joined up and communicated across the metropolis, we have been able to recover some of the various overlapping and interlocking configurations that made up the early modern city. This approach to the history of London has resulted in some incredibly rich scholarship, with a special attention to minority and marginal groups, and a strong sense of London’s diversity and plurality as one of its key defining features.

The question we set out to discuss in this workshop was, how can we connect these diverse histories and stories together? Can we join up the histories of different groups and minorities in a meaningful way over the long early modern period, bringing them into dialogue over time as well as across space? In short, can we bring London’s multiple ‘worlds within worlds’ into a coherent, meaningful, whole?

To begin with, it seems sensible to define some chronological boundaries or turning points. When did medieval London end and early modern London begin? The change is traditionally marked by huge demographic growth from the turn of the sixteenth century, which itself went hand in hand with the topographical expansion of the capital and the extension of London into its surrounding areas. The speed of London’s growth sets it apart from the rest of the country at this point, a divide that arguably exists for most of the long early modern period. In the workshop, we quickly agreed on other key markers of change: the Reformation represented an obvious fault line between the medieval and early modern periods; and the coming of print was another pivotal moment. However, at the other end of my period, many historians of the sixteenth century tend to stop shy of the civil wars, perhaps feeling this is best left to ‘specialist’ political historians; and the Great Fire of 1666 was another obvious break between the two ‘halves’ of the early modern period.

There are, of course, several existing narratives that explain key changes across the long early modern period in London, and these exacerbate the sense that the period was divided into two separate ‘halves’. One of the most influential of these narratives argues that the mid-seventeenth century saw the growth of a new ‘public sphere’ of civility and politeness in London, closely associated with coffee-house culture and print, and enabled by the growth of mercantilism – the introduction of new material goods, luxury consumption, and even cosmopolitanism – replacing the stratified medieval system of guilds, citizenship, and civic hierarchies that dominated London lives in the sixteenth century. This story could be challenged or enhanced in various ways, while not discarded altogether.

At the workshop, we talked about shifting our focus from changing institutional and economic structures towards how people interacted with these institutions and hierarchies, and questioning how they were able to access social resources and capital. (See Brodie’s post for a further discussion of agency and structure.) We also talked about tracing patterns of mobility across the period: migration has always been important for histories of London, but it is worth thinking about networks of communication in and around London, and the formation of distinct communities within the capital that proved remarkably resilient over time.


London and ‘grand narratives’

These perspectives could change how we understand London in itself, but what about the relationship between London and the rest of the country? This poses as much of a challenge as the question of chronology. London’s diversity and the diversity of historiographical approaches to the city acts as a useful counterpoint to the ‘grand narratives’ favoured by some national historians, and we certainly didn’t want to lose sight of that.

51g6n9AhQfL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Perhaps, then, it would be useful to identify those points at which London histories can be used to expand on existing narratives, or to highlight the impact of particular moments of change. Susan Brigden’s London and the Reformation is a model for religious change; and several of speakers at the workshop are working on religious minorities and communities in London. But the diversity of London can also be used to challenge other ‘grand’ narratives, such as the scientific revolution: Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House is a fantastic example of how London’s overlapping communities of craftsmen, immigrants, artisans, and entrepreneurs can be used to explode narrow histories that focus on great ‘scientific’ minds and monolithic institutions (in this case the Royal Society). This expanded urban definition of science and technological change has now been taken up by the Metropolitan Science project at Kent, in collaboration with the Science Museum.

Using London to expand our understanding of the progress of the Reformation, and the character of the Scientific Revolution, are two examples of how the capital’s diversity can be harnessed to larger historical narratives in useful ways. My own research interests have touched on another ‘grand’ historiographical narrative: the educational revolution. Developing the idea of London as England’s ‘third university’ encourages us to look outside of traditional institutions, in this case schools and classrooms, to uncover the various types of informal, domestic, and community-based instruction going on in London that enabled people to learn a huge range of skills, including modern languages, fencing, dancing, cooking, bell-ringing, singing, needlework, ship-rigging, book-keeping and accounting … to name just a few. We can ask how this teaching activity ties in with the traditional system of apprenticeships through the guilds, as well as formal instruction in schools. So if we’re looking at change over time, we can think about the diversification of the educational economy, and about links with other changes: the new climate engendered by the growth of mercantilism, the introduction of new industries, and the need for different sets of practical skills; we can also think about the context of growing literacy levels and the growth of cheap print (instructional manuals and how-to-books); and of course the participation of different groups of people (including immigrants and women) in these activities.


Fluidity and hard numbers

In conclusion, my sense is that in this workshop, as in much of our research, we weren’t talking about the city itself, but rather our starting points were the people, communities, practices, activities, and networks that flourished and changed and moved in and around it. Institutions and hierarchies were not fixed in this period at any point, but were constantly remade and re-imagined as the city and its population shifted; and this must be recognised and reflected in our approaches. London’s demographic and topographical growth encompassed ever-changing constellations of relationships and identities, and we are now recognising this fluidity, and using it as a starting-point for discussion.

All of this is to the good. But if I can offer one suggestion, it would be to firm up the quantitative side of things. Many of us – for the sixteenth century at least – still rely on Rappaport’s figures for the number and proportion of company members, citizens, and apprentices in London. Can these numbers be updated? There are many studies now of women in the guilds; can we incorporate these into our calculations? And what about immigrants? Lien Bich Luu’s Immigrants and the Industries of London has some figures as a starting point, but the guild records offer the possibility of a much more comprehensive, comparative, quantitative study. Calculating the size and proportion of different groups and communities over time would provide a solid foundation for our social and cultural studies.

We began the workshop by wondering if fragmentation was a problem, if historians working on London were stuck in siloes, acknowledging parallels with other areas of research but unsure about how to join them together into a meaningful whole. We didn’t come up with any grand solutions, but I did leave the workshop feeling that we had opened up a fruitful and inspiring conversation.


5 thoughts on “Histories of London, c.1500-1650: Space, Narratives and Numbers

  1. Pingback: Integrating Histories of London, c.1500-1800 | the many-headed monster

  2. Great post Jennifer. Space definitely offers one of the themes where we can try to overcome the traditional institutional siloes- which tends to come about when we only look at one set of records at a time. Localised histories of the city afford an opportunity to look at the same space through multiple lenses. I think we also need to take the opportunity to think about life outside of those institutional structures, even if that involves a degree of extrapolation (and historical imagination) when sources are institutionally produced.

  3. Great to read a reminder of an exciting session and some reflections after the day.

    I’m really struck by the point about numbers. I agree that while we know much more about experience and individual communities in London, we have lost some sense of typicality and proportion. There’s an economic aspect too. Prices, wages, income and rents shaped day to day life as much as anything. Why are we counting less?

    The ripples of the cultural turn probably have something to do with it. We are building on the rich, empirical work of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, but not always engaging with it critically. See the essays in ‘Londinopolis’. The editors write they intended to treat London history as ‘the history of the social relations and social practices of its inhabitants’, not objectify London. Is this the dominant mode of early modern capital histories in 2019?

    I also wonder if there’s a skills gap among postgrad and early-career social and cultural historians. I’ve studied economic history but never had the chance for quantitative training. My sense is this goes for a lot of my peers. Maybe lack of confidence is the problem. We don’t need long stats courses or to go toe-to-toe with serious economic historians, just ways to make our basic counting relevant and rigorous.

    • Are we counting less? Aside from economic and demographic history, I think we’re counting more, and in different ways, courtesy of the digital turn. For example, and specifically in regard to London, Old Bailey Online has turned a vast quantity of words into manipulable, countable data. (Of course, it has it’s own base – cispontine law and order – which is not all of London; and being unparalleled, can lead to this base dominating the field.)

      John Levin

  4. Historians shd stick, IMHO, to non-parametric statistics. Basically, that consists of: (1) descriptive statistics (mean + standard deviation), median (with interquartile ranges) and mode; (2) chi-square if appropriate, to indicate the probability of a relationship; (3) if desirable, Spearman’s rank correlation (never Pearson’s). The reason not to use Pearson or regression analysis is that historians’ data are rarely normally-distributed (i.e. symmetrical ‘bell curve’ with equal distribution). There are plenty of stats packages out there which will do the work. gretl is a good open-source one (which also performs gini coefficients if that’s your bag and you have comprehensive data).

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