Interrogating ‘middling culture’: a workshop report

Middling Culture held its first project workshop on Tuesday 25 June 2019. Our team was joined by around 20 experts from different disciplines, including scholars of literature, social and cultural history, archaeology and material culture from both academia and the heritage sector. These participants generously gave their time to focus on the really big questions raised by Middling Culture and to contemplate the directions that our detailed research, which is just beginning in earnest, should take. It was a lively and thought-provoking discussion, and in this post we share a few of the themes that emerged.

The day began with a visit to the Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archives, where the librarians and archivists shared with us a range of ‘things’ – maps, account books, marginalia in printed books, deeds, a beautifully decorated family Bible – that could illuminate certain aspects of middling lives and identity.

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We kept that focus on evidence when we returned to the University of Kent, where, after a brief presentation on the project and lunch, the first task was to work towards a definition of that very term, ‘the middling’. Each participant had been asked to bring along ‘evidence for an individual, object or practice’ that they considered to be 1) below ‘middling’, 2) securely ‘middling,’ and 3) above ‘middling’ for our period. These examples introduced to the room a huge variety of sources, from paint pigment to wills, from drama to dress pins. However, it was not the evidence but the selection process that provoked the most discussion: how do we know what is middling? What working definitions are we, perhaps unconsciously, deploying in our work?

This conversation continued in the final session of the day, which concentrated on practice as a mark of middling identity—particularly the concept of ‘skill’. The idea of literacy as one potential mark of middling status, as a learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural connection, is at the heart of the Middling Culture project; in this session, the aim was to question this by examining literacy as one of just a range of skills that could be taught, instilled and practised in culturally meaningful ways. Again, the range of evidence and examples that this audience could bring to the discussion was huge, and participants considered not just craft and formal education but horse-riding and breastfeeding as practices through which early modern people might find constitutive identities and points of connection. There was also a powerful warning for the project here, as speakers suggested the ways in which the idea of ‘skill’ itself was shaped by gendered and hierarchical assumptions in the early modern period. There was a danger, they suggested, of reflecting those prejudices and finding ‘skill’ only in certain, prescribed places.

Across the afternoon many ideas, questions and themes for future research emerged. We focus here on the following three:

  • Hidden middles and difficult groups: much of the discussion centred not just on the boundaries of the ‘middling’ as a group but on how to access and define people who don’t fall within the economic or occupational criteria often used in historical enquiry. Gender was a recurring theme in these discussions—in particular how we might consider women in a way that doesn’t assume that they derived their status wholly from men. Was there a distinctly female middling experience? How can we see the work, cultural investment and creative production of women, when our sources often render this less visible? We considered, too, other groups with attributes that make them difficult to classify within existing schema (including schema from the early modern period itself). The clergy came up repeatedly in this context, as did servants in training, and here the discussion revolved around the concepts of social, economic, and cultural capital, and how to both detect and allow for the ways in which these might not always coincide. Could you be a middling Catholic, for instance? How were disconnections between different types of power expressed and experienced?
  • Temporalities: the fluidity and vulnerability of status was a major theme of these discussions, and many participants pointed, in different ways, to changes over time. There are many different ways of conceptualising this change: perhaps most obviously across historical periods but also across the life cycle of an individual or within successive generations of a family: how long could the ‘middling’ status of a family endure before either rising up (into the gentry, for instance), dropping down, or disappearing from archival trace? “For three generations” was one (debated) answer to this question: is that the longest time span for across which successive family members might hope to dominate urban political and administrative bodies? The relationship between such individualised narratives of change and broader historical shifts is a difficult one. During our discussions, the unique nature of the 1640s and 1650s and the disruption of the ‘norms’ of status that this political upheaval created became key issues: how can the Middling Culture project capture both incremental and immediate change across the period? Things, too, have their own temporalities; how can these be understood and accounted for? How can we define and differentiate the ephemeral and the enduring and how might these categories also shape middling identity?
  • Expressions of similarity and expressions of difference: one central question here is whether there was a singular, cross-national middling identity. Was middling identity, as some have argued, inherently localised and fragmentary, or can we see any sense of a collective identity? Some participants suggested the movement of goods and people as one way of seeing middling-ness in contexts that extend from the local to the national, while others saw skill itself as one potential site for supra-parochial identity: within specialised knowledge that created both ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. One central theme here was the necessity of considering what the middling might define themselves against. How can we understand who is above and who is below middling status in a way that recognises the fluidity and interchange between different groups while retaining an ability to differentiate? Several participants pointed out the necessity of moving beyond simplistic ideas of ‘emulation’ as a cultural practice among our demographic focus and instead emphasised appropriation and differentiation—up, down, and across the early modern social spectrum.  

We are incredibly grateful to all the participants in this workshop (and those who could not attend, but sent their representatives in the form of historical evidence and thoughts to aid our discussion) for giving us their time and knowledge to help shape this project at its formative stage. These are conversations that we will be continuing over the life of Middling Culture, and beyond; in the immediate term, we’ll be keeping this discussion alive on our website, including, in the coming weeks, blogs from some of Tuesday’s participants. We also want to hear from as wide a range of voices as possible so please do get in contact or comment below with any thoughts or questions.

Callan, Catherine, Ceri, Graeme, and Tara. July 2019.

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