On periodisation: religion, early modernity, and ‘The Reformation’

Jonathan Willis

In some ways, ‘The Reformation’ (I’ll explain the excessive punctuation in a bit) may seem like an odd contribution to a blog mini-series on periodisation.  After all, surely ‘The Reformation’ was a thing, an event, something that happened, rather than a neutral description of a period of time (although, as we are coming to discover, there is rarely anything neutral about how anybody, let alone a historian, parcels up the past).  As Laura mentioned in her introductory post, use of ‘The Reformation’ to describe a period of time tends to have most currency in North America, where ‘Ren-Ref’ is a convenient shorthand for the periods of the renaissance and reformation, c.1400-c.1600, or c.1350-c.1650, or c.1300-c.1700; well you get the idea…  I am a product of the UK Higher Education system, however, having never studied or worked in the US or Canada, and so I’m going to leave ‘Ren-Ref’ to one side for now.  Instead, there are two related questions I want to address in this post.  Firstly, how useful is religion in helping us to define the early modern period?  And secondly, how should we define the chronology of ‘The Reformation’ itself?

Religion and Early Modernity


A less contentious way of measuring time?

To what extent can we define early modernity with reference to developments in the religious sphere?  For the sake of argument, and because one post can’t do everything, I’m going to work within the eurocentrism of the term early modern, and accept for now its customary definition as c.1500-c.1700.  In some ways, there is a fairly good case for arguing that the early modern period saw within it some fairly distinctive developments in matters of religion, and that therefore these developments do help give a sense of coherence (or at least, of coherent incoherence) to the period as a whole.  To start with the most obvious, we might characterise the early modern period as one which witnessed at its outset the collapse of 1500 years of broad religious unity: provocatively, one recent overview of early modern history has taken as its title Christendom Destroyed.[1]  The Protestant Reformation, and the growth in number of religious sects and denominations that broke away from the previously hegemonic monolith of the (Roman) Catholic Church, and subsequently from one another, could plausibly be seen as the defining characteristic of the early modern age. Continue reading

Food for Thought III: A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque

Mark Hailwood

This is the third and final post in a series introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first, here for the second). The previous post concluded on Pierre Bourdieu’s point that the cultures of different social groups were relational to one another. But what was the nature of this relationship? It can be interpreted in a number of ways. Elias, for instance, as I mentioned in the previous post, tended to think that the cultural practices and preferences of the elites gradually ‘percolated’ down through the rest of society. Sometimes a similar argument is made with reference to the term ’emulation’ – the idea that lower social groups tend to ape the culture of higher social groups, and that this in turn causes those higher social groups to reinvent themselves to maintain their sense of distinctiveness and superiority.



A rather different way of looking at the relationship between the cultures of different social groups can be seen in our next concept that has proved popular with historians of food and drink – Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’. Bakhtin was a Russian literary critic, most famous for his book about the French Renaissance humanist Francois Rabelais, published in 1965 (although written under the Stalinist regime during WWII) Rabelais and His World. In the book, Bakhtin argued that Rabelais’ work provided a valuable insight into what he called the ‘folk culture’ of early modern Europe. If Elias’ conduct books could reveal the eating and drinking culture of European elites, what Bakhtin termed ‘official culture’, then Rabelais had written a carefully observed account of the consumption practices and dispositions prevalent amongst ordinary men and women. Continue reading

Food for Thought II: Sociology – Civility and Habitus

Mark Hailwood

In this second of three posts introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first) I’m going to move on to think about some of those borrowed from sociologists. The last post ended by stating that a concern with change over time plays an important role in the types of theories historians tend to like and dislike: and it helps to explain why they have been taken with our next key concept – the notion of the ‘civilising process’.

Norbert Elias

Norbert Elias

This was a theory first posited by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, back in 1939, but its main impact on Anglophone historians only came when it was translated into English in 1969, as: The Civilizing Process, Vol. 1: The History of Manners (1969). Its central claim was that between the middle ages (c.800AD) and the nineteenth century the manners of Europeans had become gradually more ‘civilised’ – by which he didn’t necessarily mean ‘better’ or more ‘progressive’ (he wasn’t passing judgement) but marked by increasing levels of self-restraint and self-control, especially with regards to violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table-manners and forms of speech. By reading conduct manuals – guides to appropriate forms of social etiquette, a very popular genre – from across these centuries, Elias identified a shift away from an aristocratic honour culture in the middle ages which had seen aggression, violence, and the excessive consumption of food and drink as acceptable and laudable, towards an increasing sense of shame and repugnance towards all of these behaviours. Continue reading

Food for Thought: An Introduction to Theory via the History of Food and Drink

Mark Hailwood


Most historians are not especially enthusiastic about theory. We tend to have an aversion to dealing with abstract concepts, and struggle to see how they might apply to what we work on. Instead, we feel much more at home when we are dealing with context; with specific evidence grounded in, and bounded by, time and place. But like it or not, theoretical concepts have played a major role in shaping historical research – though they are concepts usually borrowed from other disciplines, not produced by historians themselves – so ignoring theory is really not an option.

Doc Brown's thinking cap: not essential for understanding theory

Doc Brown’s thinking cap: not essential for understanding theory

This is as true of food and drink history as other types of history – perhaps more so. The history of drinking, for instance, might just seem like a series of amusing anecdotes (see my alehouse characters series) but really it is all about how we interpret the instances of eating and drinking that we find in the archives, how we use them to tell stories about the societies and cultures that they take place in. For this, historians of eating and drinking tend to rely on various theoretical concepts developed outside of history to try and make sense of the rituals of food and drink consumption that we find in the archives.

So, in the various courses I have taught about the history of food and drink in early modern England I usually have to broach theory at some stage. Trying to teach theory to undergraduate historians is rarely the easiest of teaching assignments, so what I try to do is to show how ideas have been applied to the specific field of food and drink history to help students see their relevance. The aim is not to provide them with a complete mastery of the concepts we discuss – I wouldn’t claim to have this myself – but rather to give them an introductory sense of them so that (a) when they come across mentions of them in the literature they will have an idea of what they mean, and (b) to provide them with a platform to build from should they wish to delve deeper into these concepts in their essays and projects.

Anyway, when recently backing up some computer files I came across the lecture I usually give on this theme, and thought that it might also work well as a series of blog posts that could serve as a very basic introduction to some of the key theoretical concepts used by historians – structuralism, habitus, the civilising process – that might be of interest to undergrads, postgrads, or anyone else who is keen to (or perhaps for a course they are taking, has to) engage with some theory but is a bit daunted by the prospect of delving straight into [insert archetypal daunting theory book here]. Anyone who is a master of these concepts might like to read on and helpfully point out where I get them wrong!

The lecture is a bit long for one post, so I’ll break it down into 3 posts over the next couple of weeks. Part I, below, deals with ‘Anthropology and Structuralism’; Part II will look at ‘Sociology: Civility and Habitus’; and Part III at ‘A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque’. Tuck in… Continue reading

Woodford’s woes: debt and divine favour in early modern England

Jonathan Willis

Lately I’ve been reading and writing about a large number of godly lives. This is a fascinating genre. Individual stories have always played an important role in Christianity – the gospels themselves, of course, are first and foremost accounts of the life of Christ, written by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Confessions of Augustine; the hagiographical accounts of the lives (and deaths) of saints; the intensely spiritual and personal visions of mystics like Julian of Norwich: all these are examples of how life writing of different kinds has played an important role in shaping religious belief and practice in the millennium and a half following the birth of Christ. However, we see two new and distinctive developments occurring in the early modern period. One is the growth of something which starts to look recognisably like modern autobiography: a warts and all account of the trials and tribulations of an individual life, from start to end.[1] The second is the invention of the so-called ‘spiritual diary’ – that puritan specialism, which combined observations on daily life with deeply personal soul-searching: prayer, godly meditation, and the anatomisation and identification of sin. This is where my interest in these documents primarily lies, because the Ten Commandments (about which I’m currently writing a book) were one of the main tools used by puritan authors to forensically examine their spiritual health.

Augustine - father of the spiritual autobiography?

Augustine – father of the spiritual autobiography?

Continue reading

When history and holidaying collide

Brodie Waddell

The international conference is a well-loved feature of academic life.

Its scholarly value should not be underestimated: it brings together researchers who might otherwise never have a chance to talk in person and can help to break down the boundaries between different national research cultures. It is too easy, especially as a Britain-based scholar of British history, to miss out on all of the excellent and often complementary work going on in other languages and in other places. Spending a few days in a foreign city discussing research with European or North American colleagues often provides a fresh perspective that can be very difficult to get at home, even in a cosmopolitan city like London.

However, international conferences aren’t just vital for ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘developing strategic partnerships’, they’re also a nice perk of the job. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say they’re a customary perquisite that many academics would defend all the way to the Tyburn tree. They are usually at least partly subsidised and, if nothing else, provide a good excuse to fly off to somewhere you might otherwise never get around to visiting.

A Rotterdam canal in 1904. Note the narrowboat on the left, just chillaxin'

A Rotterdam canal in 1904. Note the narrowboat on the left, just chillin’

My first opportunity came whilst I was still a PhD student at Warwick in 2008 when the Social History Society decided to host their annual conference at Erasmus University Rotterdam. As this was one of the first times I’d presented a paper, I was inevitably nervous. Thankfully, some unusually sensible Dutch laws made relaxation easy … I remember with great fondness unwinding at the end of the day next to a picturesque old canal with a well-deserved local delicacy, watching the narrowboats slide calmly past.

Sometimes, however, I find that the ‘scholarly’ and the ‘recreational’ parts of international conference-going can get all mixed up together. Continue reading

A Reformation Roundup

Jonathan Willis

Last week, I had the very great pleasure of organising and attending the annual meeting of the European Reformation Research Group, and attending and presenting at the bi-annual Reformation Studies Colloquium, back-to-back, at Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall), Cambridge. I heard 36 papers over 72 hours (including my own), and on Wednesday alone I began conferencing at 9am, didn’t finish until nearly 9.45pm, and heard 14 different papers over the course of the day. What I want to do in this post is to reflect on some of what I heard, and on what it says about the exuberance of reformation studies today. I have three disclaimers. The first is the Colloquium at times had four sessions running in parallel, so my experience of the conference was incomplete, and tailored around my own interests as a historian of the English reformation. The second is that I think it would be a bit tedious to summarise every one even of the 36 papers I heard, and so I’m going to be selective, and pick out papers relating to a few of the themes that stuck out to me most prominently. That means I won’t be mentioning some brilliant work, but I don’t think that can be helped – it would be great if other delegates could add some of their highlights to the comments below! Finally, apologies if I’ve misrepresented anybody’s ideas in what follows. If that’s the case, just let me know, and I will correct it. Continue reading