Middling Culture Project Launch: The Middling Sort – Some Reflections…

Jonathan Willis

I was lucky enough to travel down to Canterbury on Tuesday 25 June 2019 to attend the launch of a new ARHC project, ‘Middling Culture: the Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort, Writing and Material Culture, 1560-1660’.  The project is being run by Catherine Richardson (Kent), Tara Hamling (Birmingham) and Graeme Earl (KCL), along with Callan Davies and Ceri Law, and you can find out more about it (and read their own blog) here.

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The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society.  The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.[1]  Middling households had to work for their income, but they were operating at a higher level than their own subsistence, and so had money and time to invest in non-essential objects or practices, and they might be even wealthy enough to employ servants of their own. Jonathan Barry, who co-edited an important collection of essays on the middling sort in 1994, suggested that while attempts at precise quantification are neither possible nor helpful, the middling sort may have constituted between thirty and fifty per cent of early modern society at one time or another.

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Another Page in the Life of Joseph Bufton: Some Verses of My Owne Making

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell explores the wider implications of a rather clumsy poem about the cloth industry written by a seventeenth-century tradesman.]

The Essex town of Coggeshall was not known for literary genius. It inspired no Hamlet nor Paradise Lost nor even a Pilgrim’s Progress. Its only published authors were two clergymen who spent a few years there in the 1640s.

However, in the late seventeenth century, it was home to a tradesman named Joseph Bufton, who filled up notebook after notebook with a diverse array of writings. He devoted a great many pages to chronicling his local community and the state of the nation as a whole, a practice which I discussed in an earlier post.

But he also filled many volumes with other sorts of writing, including devotional texts, financial accounts and even a bit of poetry. I’ve just published a new article in the Journal of Social History that looks at what Bufton and others like him can tell us about literacy, work and social identity in early modern England, so I thought I would mark the occasion by offering another page from his notebooks that illuminates some of these themes. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Agriculture’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Jane Whittle offers some reflections on the second main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Agriculture’. Jane is a Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Exeter. You can access the book here.

Jane Whittle

index1I’m reading the chapter in my 1982 edition of Alice Clark (the only history book I stole from my mother’s bookshelves), complete with a woodcut of a woman haymaking on the cover (although this image has been edited to remove the couple canoodling in the background which is present in the original below). Is this deeply significant? Probably not …

Alice Clark’s chapter on agriculture offers a microcosm of the book’s overall argument. As she concludes on the last page of the chapter, the ‘review of the whole position of women in Agriculture at this time, shows the existence of Family Industry at its best, and of Capitalism at its worst’ (p.92). As explained in her ‘Introductory’ to the book, she gives Family Industry and Capitalism quite precise meanings. Family Industry is ‘the form in which the family becomes the unit of production of goods to be sold and exchanged’ (p.6); whereas Capitalistic Industry (or Capitalism) is ‘the system by which production is controlled by the owners of capital, and the labourers or producers, men, women and children receive individual wages’ (p.7). For Clark, Family Industry, which in the agriculture chapter is represented by the lives of farmers, husbandmen and their families, represented everything that was good about the seventeenth-century economy. On the other hand, Capitalism, illustrated by the experience of wage earners, represents everything that was bad in what was to come. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Capitalists’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy M. Froide offers some reflections on the first main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Capitalists’. Amy is a Professor of History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can access the book here.

Amy M. Froide

When we were organizing this blog project I very quickly claimed Clark’s chapter on capitalists (and I may have even said I was willing to fight Amy Erickson or Laura Gowing for the privilege of writing about this chapter. When we made up our schedule I found that this post would be due right at the end of term, and it was then I realized why the wily Erickson and Gowing so graciously ceded the field to me).  This anecdote does contain a salient point: many of us early modern historians have chosen to study issues pertinent to women and work and this group is a marker of Alice Clark’s influence and legacy.

It is notable that the first body chapter of Clark’s book is on the topic of capitalists. As Tim Stretton noted in his biographical post on Alice Clark, she herself was a capitalist, a director of the family firm that is now Clarks Shoes Ltd. (It is good to know that the money I have shelled out to that company over the years is in a way a homage to Clark). Despite her personal knowledge, Clark eschews a detailed definition of capitalism in this chapter and instead simply equates it with the control of wealth.  She also notes that in seventeenth–century England, capitalists included those who had obtained their wealth through commerce and trade but also the aristocracy who had long controlled wealth in the form of land. The latter are in fact the primary focus of her chapter. Continue reading

Images of Alice Clark

As an ‘extra’ to our ongoing #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group – which will resume shortly with a post on Chapter II: ‘Capitalists’, so get reading – Tim Stretton has sourced some images of Alice from the Clark family archives:

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Images of Alice Clark are supplied courtesy of the Alfred Gillett Trust in Street, Somerset and cannot be reproduced without the Trust’s express permission. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Introductory’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the opening ‘Introductory’ chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

s-l1600Those who have never read Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women might wonder why we would pay any attention to a work that is a hundred years old, and superseded by recent research on women.   Yet anyone who works on the history of women, and particularly the history of women’s work, in early modern England owes a debt to Alice Clark’s work. It was reissued in 1982 with an introduction by Miranda Chaytor and Jane Lewis, and again in 1992 with an introduction by Amy Erickson. As Natalie Davis noted in a paper delivered at the Second Berkshire Conference in 1974, Clark consulted archives, differentiated among women, and had an overarching theory.[1] For me, Clark’s work is one of the two or three books that have fundamentally shaped my understanding of early modern British history, even as I know more and more about the limitations of her work.

Clark’s ‘Introductory’ raises the key thesis of her work, that industrialization fundamentally changed women’s roles and experience; that women were better integrated into the economy under household and family systems of production than in industrial systems.  She admitted how little she knew – her discussion of medieval women’s work “rests chiefly on conjecture” (p. 4); Tim Stretton has noted that her modern comparison was not the 18th century, but her own experience.  As we will see over the coming months in this roundtable, Clark didn’t get it all right.  But she got it enough right that it helps. Continue reading

A Biography of Alice Clark (1874-1934)

To kick off our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group – marking 100 years since the publication of her groundbreaking Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century – Tim Stretton provides some valuable context in this short biography of Alice Clark. Tim is a Professor of History at Saint Mary’s University, Canada, and has contributed a chapter on Alice Clark to a recent book on Generations of Women Historians. The next post – discussing the Introduction – will follow next week. So get reading!

Tim Stretton

Clarks_vintage_photograph_-_man_packing_Clarks_Tor_ShoesAt first glance Alice Clark seems the most unlikely of historians. Due to ill health she managed only sporadic periods at school and she never went to university. She was a capitalist, not a scholar, spending most of her adult life as a director of the family business, known today as Clarks Shoes Ltd.  Yet from a young age she was a voracious reader and would have joined her sister at Cambridge had her parents not felt strongly that the shoe company would benefit from the involvement of a female family member.

In common with almost every one of her relations, she was also a lifelong activist for good causes and I think Working Life of Women is best understood as serving the project to achieve votes and greater equality for women. Her initial subject, when she moved to London in 1912 to work on the suffragist campaign, was not women’s work, but the history of Quaker ideas about gender equality. What puzzled her was the contrast between the striking levels of autonomy 17th century Quaker women experienced––in tandem with the defiance they showed in the face of persecution––and the deep conservatism of Quaker authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The organization’s gender segregated meetings and prolonged reluctance to endorse the cause of female suffrage left Clark disillusioned and she set herself the goal of understanding the causes behind this decline in female independence. Continue reading