Histories of London, 1640s to 1660s: Continuities and Turning Points

[Richard Bell is CMRS Career Development Fellow in Renaissance History at Keble College, Oxford. In this post he outlines his response to the questions raised in the opening post on Integrating Histories of London, focusing on continuities and turning points.]

During the middle decades of the seventeenth century, Londoners experienced civil war, revolution, plague and fire. Unsurprisingly, this period looms large in accounts of the early modern capital. It often features as the start or end point of social histories, or is studied alone (often in minute detail) by political historians. Yet why is this? Was this a turning point in the history of early modern London? Or does this periodisation have more to do with the nature of divisions between historians than a marked break in longer patterns of continuity and change between 1500 and 1800?


My own interest is in understanding how social and economic developments in early modern London contributed to (and were in turn shaped by) the political upheavals of the 1640s and 1650s. Since the work of Keith Lindley and Robert Brenner in the 1990s, there’s been relatively little written on the social history of revolutionary London and its connections to political conflict. Yet I think there’s a growing realisation that there’s a lot to be said on this topic.

We know London was central to, and acutely experienced, the social and economic changes of the early modern period. We also know that London was at the heart of the political conflicts of the mid-seventeenth century. Not only was Westminster obviously central, but the City of London and its suburbs were also important sites of political contest and mobilisation. Yet we know less about how these two things connected, and the relationship between long-term changes in London and the political events of the period.

world_upsidedownThere are many ways we might explore this question. We could think about potentially unintended social and cultural ramifications of the institutional and political upheavals of the civil war and revolution. Jenny mentioned, for instance, the connection between the early modern educational revolution, rising literacy and the growth of cheap print. How, then, did these long-term developments relate to the infamous explosion of printed literature following the collapse of print censorship after 1641? London suddenly became a hub of unprecedented production and circulation of printed material. Lena Liapi, for instance, has considered how London and its social conflicts were depicted in crime pamphlets, as well as how this connected to the political conflict of the 1640s. I also wonder if we could explore further the relationship between shifts in education in the capital and changing political consciousness as the result of the proliferation of print described by historians such as Jason Peacey.

Both Jenny and Brodie raised the importance of citizenship and corporate institutions in histories of early modern London. Indeed, although Phil Withington has explored these issues England’s towns, there has been surprisingly little recent work on the capital, especially for the later period. Yet civic institutions and rhetoric were central to the conflicts of the English Revolution, not least in London. As Phil Baker, David Como and John Rees have recently shown, many of the revolution’s leading radicals cut their teeth in the city’s civic institutions. These experiences help explain the development of radical politics, which often drew upon the rhetoric of citizenship, civic duty and commonwealth. This suggests that civic participation had inadvertent political effects, perhaps thanks to the potentially ambivalent experiences of these institutions among those both within and outside their formal structures.

This also raises questions of governance, officeholding and state formation. London is particularly interesting as it was a world of overlapping jurisdictions and authorities—including City government, central courts and prisons, local parishes, livery companies, parliamentary oversight and the monarchy—which vied for power. Many parts of what we consider the ‘early modern state’ were in contest, and in London we can often see clearly how they interacted and were experienced, and how this could create odd manifestations of power (such as Esther Brot’s work on overlapping jurisdictions within single prisons). Here we can begin to see how confused networks of power not only created gaps in which people could exercise agency, but also often left people trapped at the intersections of power. Furthermore, they provide an opportunity to observe these changes over time, whether gradual shifts in London’s social and political makeup or sudden wrenches during events like civil war. Comparing these kinds of changes might help us debate whether c.1650 was a distinctive turning point or not.

Throughout our discussions, the question of London’s changing boundaries kept emerging, alongside issues of marginality. As well as institutional boundaries, this included the changing relationship between the City and its suburbs in the work of Aaron Columbus; Charlotte Berry’s focus on social and spatial marginality; occupational boundaries defined by gender and livery companies in Sarah Birt’s work, or experienced in the streets by Charlie Taverner’s food hawkers; or the boundaries between communities in London’s shifting religious landscape discussed by Emily Vine. We might even consider the kinds of legal arbitration studied by Dom Birch as developing social boundaries or mediation. As London’s social, architectural and urban boundaries shifted, the locations of the margins changed and with that new types of marginality must have emerged along with new experiences of the city.

Yet if we’re to understand these long-term shifts in London’s social topography, we’re going to have to develop new ways of bridging the historiographical divide that exists around 1640-1660. This presents a set of practical issues. Historians on either side of this divide have distinct sets of knowledge and skills, and are often engaged in subtly different conversations and debates. As others have noted, sources for London’s history change over the period—partly due to institutional shifts, partly thanks to survival rates—and this alone creates specialisms that are hard to broach. Yet there are also differences of approach, emphasis and even temperament among historians of (perhaps especially those of us encamped in the middle of this period) that make working across London’s entire early modern period difficult.

There are definite challenges, then, to pursuing the larger narratives of change in early modern London that are best overcome by collaboration and conversation. Hopefully this workshop marks a valuable first step.


2 thoughts on “Histories of London, 1640s to 1660s: Continuities and Turning Points

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

  2. The break of the 17th century in two halves is a particular bugbear of mine. I understand why historians use it as a terminal/starting point: so much has been written on the Civil War/Revolution/War of the Three Kingdoms (we cannot even agree on a name…) that it is difficult to engage with this period while also writing a more general social/cultural history book. However, for me this is a significant issue, because it seems to bracket off what happens in the 1640s and 50s as ‘exceptional’. I am quite fond of some of the edited collections about early modern London (Imagining Early Modern London, Londinopolis, Material London), which present the multifaceted ways in which early modern Londoners experienced the city. Even though many essays in these volumes start or end in 1640, between them they bridge the divide between the two halves of the seventeenth century. I wonder if this kind of collaboration is a better way to overcome this chronological hurdle.

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