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.


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