Alexandra Shepard’s *Accounting for Oneself* and early modern social categorisation

Brodie Waddell

Sorting people into groups is something that we, as scholars, spend a lot of time doing. As Alexandra Shepard shows in her powerful recent book, Accounting for Oneself, it is something that early modern people constantly did too.

9780199600793This is not the place for proper review of the book as there are already plenty of those available, including a substantial analysis by my co-blogger Mark. However, I would like to look slightly more closely at one particular aspect of the book which speaks directly to an issue that we have struggled with repeatedly on this blog: how do we divide up early modern society?

Historians have been debating this question for decades and many models have been proposed. For example, is it a binary society, split between the elite and everyone else? If so, what should we call these groups? The patricians and the plebs? The elite and the people? The gentry and the commonalty? The better and the worser sort of people? Or perhaps it is a tripartite society. If so, is it ‘richer’, ‘middling’ and ‘poorer’? Or simply ‘upper-class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’? Or maybe a society of three ‘estates’ (clergy, aristocracy, commons)? Or a hierarchy of ‘degrees’ and ‘ranks’ (peers, gentry, merchants, yeomen, husbandmen, labourers, vagrants)? Continue reading

Understanding Sources: doing history by numbers


To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources


Brodie Waddell

It is remarkable that Peter Musgrave’s 200-page introduction to The Early Modern European Economy (1999) does not include a single table or graph. Although I’m a firm believer in qualitative methods and in exploring multiple facets of unique stories, images and objects, I also think that there ought to be a place for quantitative methods in our attempts to understand past societies. This is especially true of early modern economic life where if we elide the difference between a seventeenth-century ‘yeoman’ earning £15 per year and his neighbour earning £150 year we risk misunderstanding the structural inequalities in early modern society.

In my chapter for Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, I try to make a balanced case for the value of both ‘quant’ and ‘qual’ approaches to history, and I review some of the key sources available to us. Here, I’d like to take a slightly closer look at one ‘quant’ source that I didn’t mention in the chapter: early modern books.

I’m hardly an expert at bibliometrics, but thanks to the online EEBO-TCP n-gram tool, anyone can have a stab at it. In my article on the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s, I looked at the frequency of certain ‘economic’ terms in the published texts of the era. What I found, pleasingly, is that there was a lot more talk of ‘trade’, ‘money’ and ‘tax’ in the 1690s, as I’d expected. But can such methods tell us anything else about the economy at this time? Continue reading

Riches, Poverty and Pollution: Living with Coal Smoke in Early Modern London

One of the recurring questions on the many-headed monster is how the world is experienced by people at different levels of the social heirarchy. In this guest post, William M. Cavert looks at the unequal impact of pollution, drawing on his new book: The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge, 2016).

“Poverty,” wrote sociologist Ulrich Beck, “is hierarchic, smog is democratic.”[1] Pre-industrial cities, according to Beck, were full of dirty and unpleasant dangers, but the wealthy could escape or avoid them easily because such hazards smelled badly and looked ugly. In the modern world risk is invisible, and is everywhere.

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

London during the early modern period offers an interesting test for this idea because it was at once clearly pre-industrial and yet it also developed one of the hallmarks of the modern, industrial urban landscape: pervasive air pollution.[2] The “smog” that Beck suggests envelopes industrial cities became widespread in London by about 1600, caused not by great factories as in 19th-century Manchester, but by the domestic coal fires of 200,000 people, as well as coal’s importance in every industry that involved boiling, heating, or melting.[3] During the 17th and 18th centuries, pre-industrial London struck residents, rulers, and visitors as a smoky, dirty place. Modern scientific modeling suggests that their impressions were accurate, and that the concentrations of pollutants like sulfur dioxide in 18th-century London are matched today only in the world’s very dirtiest cities.

Did early modern Londoners experience this smoky air as yet another aspect of a deeply “hierarchic” society, as Beck suggests? Continue reading

Class conflict in Elizabethan Norfolk?

Brodie Waddell

In early March 1601, four men got into an argument in the small village of Wicklewood, about eleven miles west of Norwich. Although no blows were exchanged, one of the men uttered words that were dangerous enough to lead to a legal examination by a local magistrate. It is only thanks to this brief deposition – which I’ve transcribed at the end of this post – that we have any knowledge of what was said that day.

I came across this document last summer at the Norfolk Record Office when I was searching through the county quarter sessions files looking for something else. I’d completely forgotten about it until Mark put up a post last week that discussed the history of conflict hidden in England’s rural landscape. That post reminded me that the argument recorded in this deposition might provide some further illumination of this oft-debated aspect of early modern history.

The story, as recorded on this small slip of paper, goes like this. Roger Wells of Wicklewood had hired John Chibocke and Richard Hamond of the neighbouring village of Morley ‘to worke with him’. But Chibocke and Hamond arrived very late and Wells was angry. He declared that if he paid them the wages they really deserved, they wouldn’t be pleased. The two workmen replied that Wells and his ilk ‘Cared not thoughe poore men wrought the[i]re harts out’ and wished ‘that wee might have warres againe, [for] then we should have Corne Cheaper’. At this point, William Seaborne – presumably a partner or employee of Wells – stepped in. He rebuked Chibock and Hamond for their rash words, saying ‘these be matters you understand not’. Yet this just incensed Chibock further. ‘If a thowsand mysters were deade’, he said, ‘we poore men should farre the better’. Continue reading

A Walk in the Park: History from Below and the English Landscape

Mark Hailwood

Back in the autumn, midway though a week-long research trip to the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, I decided to take an afternoon off to stretch my legs – there is, after all, a limit to how many days in row you can spend hunched over the documents, click-clicking away on your digital camera, before your sanity is in peril. So, after lunch I jumped in the car and headed due east into the South Downs, a part of the country I’d never explored before.

p1220089A quick glance at the road atlas and a suitable destination for my walk jumped out at me: Petworth Park, the curvaceous landscaped grounds of a seventeenth-century mansion house, complete with the largest herd of fallow deer in England. What better place for a stroll in the autumnal sunshine than a landscape curated by ‘Capability’ Brown, immortalised in numerous works by Turner, and populated by turning trees and grazing deer. It was all very pleasant indeed.

One of Turner's takes on Petworth Park

One of Turner’s takes on Petworth Park

But there was something amiss. For all that Petworth is an important site of English cultural and landscape history, it was not its connections with Brown and Turner that had drawn me there. Continue reading

Amplifying the Voices of the People

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. Brodie reinforces the message that has emerged from our last few posts: that the voices of the people do survive in abundance in the archives of the early modern period. They may do so in ways that are mediated or formalised, yes, but he argues that this should not blind us to the enormous importance of these valuable historical documents. Brodie finishes with a rallying cry that echoes that of Helmut Groser and Ann Tlusty: these documents are too significant to be allowed to remain buried in archival repositories, or worse to be lost altogether to the vagaries of record survival. Instead they should be digistised and made freely available as a matter of priority to promote the ongoing renaissance of history from below.  

Brodie Waddell

As a historian, digging up the dead is part of my job. I arrive at the archives as a grave-robber intent on plunder. I riffle through their clean, grey cardboard boxes searching for a peculiar treasure – tatty papers recording dead people’s words in stark black ink.

I’m privileged enough to have the time, the funds and the training necessary to make such plundering expeditions a routine part of my professional life. As a result, I regularly emerge from the archives with prizes like the letter below, which lay among dozens of other papers in a box labelled ‘QS/4 box 134’, carefully preserved in the storeroom of the Devon Heritage Centre.

The letter, written in 1693, was sent from a widow named Elizabeth Snow to the county magistrates:

To John Elwell Esquire & the rest of the Honourable Bench,

Most Honoured Gentell men I hope your worships will take this my humble pittishon [=petition] in Consideration that I being here Commited form [=from] the bare [=bar] to this prison and am not able to paye the fine but must here pireish [=perish] without your mercyfull Consideration to take of[f] my fine for I have not one penny in the world to helpe my selfe with out of the Cherryty [=charity] of good people to relefe me for I have maintaind a Crippell Childe this 16 yeares and never had but one penny a day towards it[.] this being in great malish [=malice] sworen against me undeserving I hope you will for the Lords sake pitty my miserable Consdishon and relefe me out of this misry which shall be bounde in dewty Ever to pray for you all most Honnerable gentellmen which am a poore distressed widdow

Elizabeth Snow

I don’t know why she was imprisoned and I don’t know whether she was successful in her petition for release. In fact, I don’t know anything about Elizabeth apart from the claims in this letter, though further digging in the archives would probably reveal more. Continue reading

The antiquarian listens: unexpected voices of the people

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Laura Sangha, Lecturer in British History 1500-1700 at the University of Exeter. Laura shows that whilst the voices of ordinary people were not thought to be as trustworthy as those of gentlefolk in the early modern period, they still played an important and often overlooked part in intellectual debates surrounding ‘science’, as the experiences of humble individuals were sought out and valued by intellectuals as evidence against which to test emerging theories.

Laura Sangha

The idea at the heart of this post is voices of the people in unexpected places. Whilst there are more traditional topics (such as poverty, crime or work) that provide opportunities for exploring and uncovering ordinary voices, I want to focus on an area that is traditionally thought of as the exclusive preserve of the elite. That is, the realm of ‘science’, or, if you are an early modernist: the areas of natural and mechanical philosophy. When we think of this domain, we envisage the gentleman practitioner, the well-educated, well-resourced intellectual elite, usually engaged in a conversation with someone from a similar background to himself. Yet I want to suggest that even here, in an area that initially appears to be completely cut off from the people, their non-elite contributions were sought out and valued, and the voices of the people resonate.

Ralph Thoresby, 1658-1725

I will be supporting this suggestion with reference to my current research into the life of Ralph Thoresby.[1] For those of you who are not familiar with the man, a brief introduction. Thoresby lived from 1658-1725, he was from a middling, trade background, but he was also an antiquarian, a member of the Royal Society, and the owner and curator of a museum in his home town of Leeds. His archive is very extensive and includes the diary that he wrote for the entirety of his adult life, as well as a large set of correspondence with friends, family, and the great and the good in ecclesiastical and intellectual circles. Thoresby was therefore a respected provincial practitioner, inspired by the Royal Society to the study of antiquities, natural curiosities and strange weather – the stuff of early modern science.

There is a plausible case for saying that Thoresby himself was one of the people – though he was relatively well off, he did not attend either of the universities and was a long way from the intellectual heart of the country in the south east of England. But in this post my focus will be on the way that Thoresby’s scientific activities bought him directly into contact with (even more) ordinary people’s experiences and voices. Continue reading