[In this post, Brodie Waddell sets out another response to the issues raised in the opening post on Integrating Histories of London.]
The history of early modern London cannot be written without the people who are often neglected in sweeping national histories. Whereas monarchs and politicians still receive the most attention in conventional textbooks of early modern history, it is the merchants, shopkeepers, craftspeople, criminals and beggars who populate the pages of metropolitan histories, especially those that focus on the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
So, why were these ‘ordinary’ – or even ‘marginalised’ – people so important to development of London at this time?
As a historian whose research has wandered recklessly around early modern England, I have no unique expertise on the capital. Yet, the richness and accessibility of the sources held at the London Metropolitan Archives and freely available online at London Lives has encouraged me to spend more time working on the city’s history since arriving at Birkbeck in 2012. More importantly, working here has meant that I’ve benefitted hugely from the chance to learn from nearby colleagues who know much more about this field than I do. I’ve been able to read or hear a wonderful range of London-focused scholarship through conferences, seminars and supervisions as well as publications. Specifically, the impressions I set out below emerge mostly from what I have gleaned from Vanessa Harding, Jerry White, Mike Berlin, Matthew Davis, Sarah Birt, Charlie Taverner, Anna Cusack, Laura Gowing, Jenny Bishop, Richard Bell and the others at the workshop.
To my mind, if we are trying to understand how people outside the ruling civic elite fit into the ‘grand narratives’ of the metropolis, what we are really talking about is agency and structure. The question of the balance between agency and structure is one that features every historical subfield, but I think it has been especially important to recent work on London.
Before going any further, I know that this terminology is rather old-fashioned and simplistic, but simplicity can be useful when thinking about grand narratives. Moreover, obviously neither agency nor structure were all encompassing. The balance between them is always situational and historically contingent. This is precisely what makes it an interesting question for historians.
How much agency did different people have in ‘late’ early modern London (c.1650-1800)? Continue reading