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

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

We the People, 1535-1787: Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part III

Brodie Waddell

In 1787, a rag-tag band of rebels and revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to write a constitution. They decided to begin the document with a phrase that has since become rather famous: ‘We the People of the United States’.

We the People - Constitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1About 250 years earlier, in the 1530s and 40s, there were a series of new translations of the Bible into English that included an intriguing phrase amongst the Psalms: ‘Let us knele before the LORDE oure maker. For he is oure God: as for us, we are the people of his pasture, and the shepe of his handes.’ The phrase was integrated into the new Book of Common Prayer in 1549, so from then on English congregations would routinely sing this together, collectively declaring themselves to be God’s people. Continue reading

Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part II: Some evidence from manuscripts

Brodie Waddell

According to a crude survey of published texts, ‘the people’ were invoked frequently in print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in times of political turmoil such as the 1640s and 1688-89. However, published texts are notoriously unreliable representatives of actual contemporary discussion. They were produced by the literate, for the literate, often using carefully crafted rhetoric.

Manuscripts can bring us slightly closer to a less skewed view of ‘the people’. Although obviously they too were only produced by the literate elite, they occasionally purport to record the voices of the illiterate and they tend to be less polemical as they were not intended to influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, there is no manuscript equivalent of the huge sample of published texts that have been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership, though the Folger Library is giving it a go with its own manuscript collection. The State Papers Online is also promising, but only the calendars, rather than the original documents, have been transcribed. The closest to an equivalent to EBBO-TCP is probably the corpus of 240,000 transcriptions on the wonderful London Lives site, though these only cover the period 1690 to 1800 and the early material has many irregular transcriptions.

I’ve mostly drawn on my own little collection of notes from various archival documents (and published editions thereof), amounting to just over 600 pages in total, in which I found about 70 mentions of ‘the people’. Of course my notes are heavily biased in all sorts of ways, with a notable focus on the late 17th century, thanks to my current obsession with the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s. Still, it’s better than nothing. (In what follows, I have not included references, but I’m happy to supply them upon request and I have included links to any quotations taken from London Lives.)

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

So, with that methodological stuff out of the way, who are ‘the people’ in these sources? Continue reading

Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part I: Some evidence from 44,313 printed texts

Brodie Waddell

In our on-going discussions of social description and social identity on this blog, we have tried to think through how we talk about the ‘non-elite’ individuals that we study. We’ve shown the problems with ‘plebeians’ and ‘the people’, yet I think this latter term is worth looking at from another angle. In Mark’s post on ‘the rise of the people’, he focused on how historians have used the term, but he also mentioned that:

It would be interesting to run a project on the history and meanings of the term ‘the people’ across the centuries, as has been done for instance for ‘commonwealth‘.

I can’t claim this little post is even a preliminary report on any such project. However, I did spend a couple hours searching through Early English Books Online to try to get a sense of how contemporaries used this term in early modern England. So, who were ‘the people’?

The first feature to note is that the term was extremely common. There were just over 400,000 hits for ‘the people’ in the 44,313 transcribed texts on EBBO. Continue reading

The Rise of ‘The People’

Mark Hailwood

One of our ongoing conversations on this blog has revolved around the most appropriate terms that practitioners of history ‘from below’ can use to describe their subjects: are we studying ‘the working class’? The ‘lower classes’? The ‘middling and poorer sort of people’? The ‘plebs’? This post doesn’t provide any answers I’m afraid, but in it I want to resume the conversation by highlighting and briefly interrogating a term that seems to me to have been enjoying a certain vogue recently: ‘the people’. Continue reading

The plebs: a brief history

Brodie Waddell

How, in the 21st century, can the word ‘pleb’ lead to a prominent MP resigning his government post and to a £2 million libel lawsuit? The recent conclusion of this ridiculous saga has reminded us that this seemingly obsolete term of social description still has bite, but why?

The BBC has offered its own little history lesson on ‘pleb’, focusing on its classical origins. However, they leap straight from the Latin source to its use in 19th century public schools. What the BBC misses, perhaps justifiably, is the re-emergence of this Latinate language in the early modern period and the fraught use of the term by historians studying that period. Yet for those of us interested the history of social relations and social conflict, the terminology is more than an anachronistic oddity.

Rugby School, beloved by the plebs

Rugby School, beloved by the plebs

The abbreviated version – ‘pleb’ – used by Andrew Mitchell seems to have been an invention of the late 18th century. I haven’t found it in any of the thousands of transcribed texts on Early English Books Online except in Latin passages, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first example in 1795. It is, by this time, derogatory Westminster School slang for ‘the son of a tradesman’. Mitchell, who attended the equally exclusive Rugby School, probably picked it up through this route though he might have learned a bit more about it when studying history at Cambridge. This explains why, in a moment of angry condescension, he spat out a term that most of us would regard as obscure and a bit silly. Nonetheless many other versions of the term have been circulating for at least a couple thousand years. Continue reading