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: Court Depositions

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



Mark Hailwood

My favourite early modern primary source? When you have spent the last year working almost exclusively with one type of source you come to either love it or loathe it. In the case of the court depositions I have been reading extensively for the Women’s Work Project I’m glad to say it’s the former. They undoubtedly top my list.


Scenes of everyday life

For a historian driven above all by a desire to recover the everyday lives of ordinary women and men in the past the witness statements they gave in their tens of thousands before the courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent a rich seam indeed. In recounting the details surrounding cases in criminal, civil and ecclesiastical courts, deponents provide accounts of myriad aspects of day-to-day experience. They tell us about their working lives of course – about mowing corn, spinning yarn or shearing sheep at the time of witnessing a crime, say – but also how they spent their leisure time – about trips to the alehouse describing who they drank with, how much they drank, and who subsequently fell out with who. 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

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

Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700

Mark Hailwood

bruegel hay makersMany ‘monster readers will have already deduced that I recently started a new job. So I thought it would be a nice idea to write a very short post introducing the project that I’m now working on. It is based at the University of Exeter, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and will run until the summer of 2018. The leader of the project is Professor Jane Whittle and I will be the main researcher. Our aim is to gather an unprecedented level of information about the everyday working lives of early modern English women by extracting incidental information about work activities from witness statements given in court cases (and a few other types of record too). We hope that this innovative methodology will help us to capture aspects of women’s work – for instance domestic and other types of unpaid work – that more conventional history of work sources – such as wage data – do not.

If you want to know more about the aims, methods and sources we will be using I have set up a website for the project here, that contains a lot more detail about what we will be doing. I’ll also be blogging over there about our progress from time to time, so if you are interested please do follow the project.

In fact, we already have a couple of blog posts up:

  • ‘What is Work?’ – project leader Jane Whittle challenges some of the more conventional definitions of work that historians use, and offers a more suitable alternative that we will be adopting for the project.
  • ‘Did Women Work in Agriculture?’ – in this post I examine some of our first archival gleanings, and use them to raise some questions about the gendered division of agricultural work in rural England.

Finally, I should mention that we are looking for a third person to complete our project team, and as such are offering a fully-funded PhD studentship at Exeter. So, if you like the sound of the project or know of someone who you think might like to apply, then all the relevant details can be found here. The deadline for applications is 1st June.

A large part of my job will be working through thousands of witness testimonies from quarter sessions and church courts, with their rich and fascinating vignettes of everyday life. In addition to the information I am after for the project this will turn up plenty of stories about the lives of ordinary men and women in early modern England for me to regale ‘monster readers with, so keep watching this space!

The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations

Brodie Waddell

Whether you’re a historian, a hairdresser or a helicopter pilot, you may well define yourself by your occupation. The same was true in the early modern period, as when legal scribes added ‘labourer’, ‘weaver’ or ‘yeoman’ after each and every name in their records.

Joseph Bufton, the Essex diarist and sermon-goer, was no different in some ways. His father, John, was listed as a ‘clothier’ in at least four documents between 1645 and 1692. His brother, also John, was likewise a ‘clothier’ in 1671 and 1695. Joseph himself was described as a ‘clothier’ when he served as a trustee for a local charity in 1695 and again when he made up his will in 1718. He was, then, a clothier in a family of clothiers.

So why have I titled this series ‘The Woolcomber’s World’? I’ve used that label because Joseph Bufton was – I think – a woolcomber for most of his life, closely linked with the trades of fulling and combing throughout his time at Coggeshall.

Isaac van Swanenburg's 'The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing' (1595)

Isaac van Swanenburg’s ‘The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing’ (1595)

The evidence for this comes from yet another almanac-turned-notebook, a Goldsmith’s Almanack of 1686, which Bufton later described as the one which ‘has the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’. In it he recorded the ordinances of his guild, warrants from magistrates to protect the craft, the articles of the journeymen’s ‘purse’, and of course several lengthy poems lauding the glories of the trade. Continue reading