In the second chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, the novel’s elusive journalist imagines what would be discovered when Istanbul’s Bosphorus dries up: “Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic liners that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As [a] new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud. […]” (17).
Today, London’s Thames affords the mudlarkers on its banks a similar, less apocalyptic, vision. Down on the foreshore countless shards and specks of ceramic and clay pipes roll back and forth in the wash, bearing witness to last meals and first smokes.
A licence is required in order to “mudlark” (in short, to search for items), and we were covered by the TDP’s licence; they do guided Thames walks like these, if anybody is interested in joining in. We combed the foreshore between here and the eerie, prehistoric place of Queenhithe: home to Tudor ships lading and unlading, Anglo Saxon burial mounds, and the crumbling ruins of the Roman city. It’s a registered ancient monument (and so searching is not permitted in this stretch of shore), and it’s intriguing to think of this stretch of inclining shore as one of the most enduring structural features of London, visible and valuable across millennia.
Most astonishing about this experience was the immediacy and quantity of finds, in particular clay pipes. We’d found four of these within minutes of descending the stairs underneath the Millennium Bridge: the expanse is littered chiefly with the stems of the pipes, ranging from bone thin to more solid, rudimentary constructions. Among the rocks and detritus are also a number of the bowls that form the end of the pipes.
Also widely scattered about are fragments of pottery from various centuries—small shards in the shadow of the Shard. Most of what we discovered dated from between the medieval and twentieth century (with the layers of packed riverbed no doubt containing older treasures). It included delftware from the seventeenth century, glazed border ware—that distinctive English pottery from medieval and early modern London—and varieties of transfer ceramics and mass-produced items from the nineteenth century.
As exciting as the tangible objects themselves was seeing the river swell in and out and bring with each wave of a passing Thames Clipper an eddy of floating clay pipes and flecks of ceramic. It was a surprising vision of a river teeming with layers of history, and it prompted a reminder of the serendipity of historical investigation and the accidental gifts of an archive like the Thames. Like an archive, the river and its holdings are curated and preserved and contain centuries of labour. We were directed to the narrative of the river wall, for instance, which marks the different layers of flood defence built one on top of the other, concrete on brick on stone on sand; some 150 metres further back—up towards St Paul’s Cathedral—begins the Roman foreshore. All the ground beneath the tube station and the river’s edge is an expanse of ancient and ongoing embankment work, encroaching on and trying to contain the city’s principal feature.
To the untrained eye, the experience also tests value judgements and aesthetic principles. What assumptions underlay my guesswork about whether this shard was “old enough” or that decoration handmade or mass-produced? Some of the more striking ceramic artefacts were the common borderware from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, whose vivid green sheen caught the eye more than equally functional Victorian pottery or twentieth century China (or plastic margerine lids). We were rightly warned to be careful of modern sewage items—things flushed down the toilet; but the early modern privy and, for instance, the sewer infrastructure of sixteenth-century Southwark are areas of historical fascination (hopefully not just for me!). How might we think about the layers of “ordinary” objects swilling around right now in the Thames, the dress hooks or trade tokens or drinking vessels used and exchanged by the individuals who are the focus of this project?
When the Thames dries up, amid the doomsday chaos, alongside bottle caps and seaweed what diverse debris from the early modern everyday will we recover—and what should we be looking for in the meantime?
This exploration of early modern skill in handwriting comes from Hannah Lilley, who joins the project as a Postdoctoral Research Associate this month and is based at the University of Birmingham.
first post for this blog approaches one of the project’s keywords: skill. This
term, and how to interpret it, is something I’ve been thinking about over the
course of my PhD on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scribes writing for a
living and their material, spatial and social practices. Although skill can be
read into any number of activities, I’m going to focus on writing, specifically
handwriting. Literacy ‘as learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural
connection’ has already been established in a previous post as a ‘mark of middling
status’, alongside other activities. Knowing how to write could lead to gaining
office and entry into administrative roles, and many of those middling sorts
emerging for this project are those with the literacy to participate in record
creation (though this could be artisanal, in the form of craft and the material
record, as well as textually…).
What is it?
OED defines skill in multiple ways,
including: ‘to have discrimination or knowledge […] in a specified matter’ (5a)
and to possess ‘capability of accomplishing something with precision and
certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness,
expertness. Also an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with
These definitions establish skill as a term that can be applied to any number
of activities: from baking to walking to storytelling to shopping. What is
clear is that skill is usually applied positively to denote someone who has
spent time learning, honing and practising an activity to develop the
‘discrimination’ or ‘knowledge’ to be perceived as holding expertise. Outside
perception and judgement is essential to an understanding of a person as
skilled, and this could take place in a commercial transaction – when
commissioning work or buying a product, for example – or through sharing space
with a person performing a task.
are, however, multiple methodological issues when it comes to discussing skill.
is expressed through action and so it might be difficult for the actor to
verbalise how they do a task/ it does not need to be passed on in writing or
definition rests on those perceiving the result of an action as practised and,
as such, is subjective and dependent on multiple factors such as: age, gender,
geographical location, education, and purpose. Skill is also entwined with
moral, political and economic value judgements.
factors could play a role in its development/ expression: access to materials,
spaces, and social networks.
thinking about these issues and handwriting, then, here are a few questions (of
many) that come up, and I’m going to think about a couple of them later in this
How is skill individual and how is it
How might it be local or national?
What role does gender or social status
have on perception of handwriting skill?/ Can we describe a skill as being
How does it develop within different
spaces (workshops, homes, classrooms etc.)?
How might perceptions of practical skill
be entwined with abstract concepts?
How can practice be interpreted?
Interpreting Practice Using Image
One of the methods I’ve been using to explore questions around individual and social skill in handwriting is a digital approach called Image Processing, alongside a digital forensic handwriting analysis expert Dr Richard Guest. Although this is preliminary research with regards to using Image Processing to analyse sixteenth- and seventeenth-century handwriting practices, it does show promise as a means of exploring similarities and differences between demographic groups of scribes as well as between individuals. I used letterforms as a means of comparison (imperfect, but a good way of seeing whether the method works before moving onto full words) and some interesting interpretations of handwriting practice came out of the data.
give a brief example, one of the experiments was on clerks working in the
Kentish town of Lydd 1560-1640. I looked at how their handwriting practices
changed over the period and thought about how this relates to changing
perceptions of what constitutes handwriting skill in the town at this time. The
examples below are from some of the simpler measurements applied to the
letterforms – area and perimeter – and the charts show both the median and mean
One to Four are brief examples showing a clear change in handwriting practices
in Lydd across the period, with the majuscules for the earliest three clerks
having mean and median values that far exceed the measurements for the later
three clerks, meaning that the three earlier clerks are using much larger
letterforms. This demonstrates a change in attitude towards letterform size
over the late sixteenth into the early seventeenth century and is one example
of how we might think about practical skill as being social. Collectively, the clerks in Lydd show a trend towards
smaller letterforms. Furthermore, these clerks are all of middling status,
literate and play an important role in their corporation. Skill at writing has
enabled them to become part of their community’s record creation. There is more
to be done here, and more in my recently completed thesis – but this is just a
glimpse into how a digital method can be used to approach non-verbalised
Moralising Handwriting Skill
aesthetic expectations for handwriting during this period included: script
style appropriate to document type, purpose, or context, and this is one of the
ways in which we might understand what scribes thought constituted skill at
writing during this period. For example, mastery of chancery hand was essential
for clerks working at the chancery court. Beyond this, there were plenty of
printed prescriptive texts circulating during the late sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, extolling the importance of fair handwriting and good
practice. Although these present problems with regards to gaining insight into
actual scribal practices because they are prescriptive texts, they do give
information about how handwriting skill was connected to positive individual
there are many examples of this in printed handwriting texts, the example in
Image 1 is from John De Beauchasne’s and John Baildon’s A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands. Here, the handwriting
exemplar for the starting-out scribe carries a moral message about revering and
respecting elders and being governed by their experience. Due to the audience
for this text likely being students at home or in the grammar school, the
message for the ‘yonge man’ is pertinent. Furthermore, there is an example of a
young middling scribe using this text to learn to write in Ann Bowyer, Elias
Ashmole’s mother, whose commonplace book (Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 51)
includes exercises drawn from this text. Consequently, good handwriting
practice would also likely involve close attention to moral sentiments,
connecting skill at writing to good character (something which instructional texts
– such as Peter Bales’, The Writing
Scholemaster – do very explicitly).
such, for literate middling sorts of scribes, who would have likely gained
their initial education in literacy at grammar school, at home, and at church,
mastering scripts would have been important not only to their future employment
but also to the way in which they may have been perceived by their social
network. An example of this is can be seen in the chamberlain’s accounts for
Lydd, where the town clerk until 1574, John Heblethwaite, scribes the accounts
because the chamberlains are ‘unlearned’. He goes on to state in his will that
he has written it ‘with my owne hand welleknowne’ demonstrating how important
his handwriting becomes to his social standing – it leaves a recognisable mark.
not only rested on forming words in a legible and aesthetically appropriate
manner and learning standard formats for documents, but also involved the
mastery of the tools and materials of writing including cutting a quill fit for
the hand, making ink or sourcing some of good quality to buy, and choosing
paper. All of these processes generated a certain perception of both the
document and its scribe. The material knowledge
displayed by scribes is also artisanal expertise; it rests upon a relationship
between the equipment used in writing and the scribes’ repeated practice with
it in order to gain writing skill.
way of concluding this post, then, skill might be thought of as involving the
dialogue between a person, materials and their social world. As these brief
examples show, practice was entwined with the social world in which it was
embedded, where it was entwined with the collective activities of proximate
scribes and their moral, as well as practical, education.
 “skill, n.1.” OED
Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019,
<www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865>. Accessed 17 September 2019.
 For useful reflections on this
point/ further reading see: John Sutton and Nicholas Keene, ‘Cognitive History
and Material Culture’, The Routledge
Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Catherine
Richardson, Tara Hamling and David Gaimster (Oxford: Routledge, 2017), Michael
Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2009), Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2004), and Tim Ingold, Making:
Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013).
 Kent History and Library Centre,
LY/2/1/1/3 and PRC 31/95 S1.
 For letter writing, see James
Daybell, The Material Letter in Early
Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
We thank Susan Orlik for this guest post on the Bridgwater Corporation Pew:
If you had been sitting in the congregation on a Sunday in the early seventeenth century in St Mary’s church, in the centre of Bridgwater, Somerset, your line of sight facing east would have been radically changed by a new construction. Around 1620 the Corporation had built for itself a space between your seat as a parishioner and the communion table at the east end. In front of you, they had erected a highly-decorated wooden chancel screen, which stood before the chancel arch on a north-south axis. Behind that you would have seen the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses sitting in their seats. Behind them you would just about have been able to perceive the old fifteenth-century rood screen, which itself stood in front of the communion table. The Corporation had created a discrete enclosure for themselves, positioning the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses in primary position at the front of the church, visually dominant, and separated from the rest of the congregation. Together, today, the Corporation’s seats and the screen are known as the Corporation Pew.
The parish church was not only the place for religious worship in this period, but also a social space where status was expressed and negotiated. The surviving material evidence for investment in these buildings by parishioners is crucial for understanding ‘middling culture’.
Christopher Marsh and Amanda Flather have established some important principles on church seating: congregational seating was ordered by the Churchwardens hierarchically by gender, age, moral reputation, and by ‘degrees and estates’. Robert Tittler has suggested that in the context of public civic seating, in the face of discontinuity with the Reformation, patterns of symbolic usage became more important than ever. This view has resonance with the material evidence at Bridgwater, which provides an insight into how middling elites constructed and displayed their special status within their local community.
Since 1857 the line of sight from the nave has been changed as the Corporation Pew has been moved to the south aisle, where it stands on a west-east axis. Slightly reduced in size, now 9.3 metres long, its magnificence and decoration still stand as evidence of the Corporation’s pride, wealth and cultural investment. With rich material evidence, but thin extant archival sources, what does this rare construction tell of the middling elite in this prosperous West Country Borough?
While the original screen had a double central opening, as the early nineteenth-century lithograph by the amateur local artist, John Chubb, shows, the repositioned screen has two openings. There were, and now are, four parts to the screen. The front of the screen has an inscription, and two rows of superimposed arches with a frieze of grotesque masks and beasts with fish tails above the arches. The bays are separated by carved columns.
Second, above the bays is an arcade with pierced spandrels. The third part is a cornice which sits above the arcade with carvings of hybrid creatures on the front and stylised patterns on the back.
Fourthly, the screen is crested with strapwork and thin ornamental obelisks. These obelisks were common symbols on funeral monuments representing wisdom and eternity. On the front of the screen is the text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’.
Behind the screen, on either side of the openings, are three rows of seats for the Mayor, Aldermen and Corporation. Some of these are the original seventeenth-century while others date from the nineteenth-century; the Mayor’s seat is differentiated from the others by a higher back rest and arm rests.
Although expressions of civic identity in parish churches can be found in other boroughs, the specific discrete enclosure of the seating of Bridgwater’s elite public officials in the chancel appears rare, if not unique. At Axbridge in the same county the Corporation sat in the nave in their own pew. At St Saviour’s in Dartmouth, Devon, the town council in 1614 placed themselves along the east wall with a specially carved and cushioned seat for the Mayor. The screen and pews at Bridgwater took the placing of the Corporation to a new level of visual dominance in its display of power and wealth, by its size, its position, and by its decoration.
The fine carvings of the pierced spandrels and the crest with strapwork and thin obelisks would indicate that part, if not all of the screen was carved by skilled artisans from an urban centre with more sophisticated workshops than a town like Bridgwater could provide. Tantalisingly there are no Corporation minutes or church records to help us. We can only speculate that, as the premier port of Somerset, sitting on the River Parrett with easy access to the Bristol Channel, Bridgwater’s corporate investors identified that Bristol may have been where such skilled carvers and joiners were to be found. We know that the less wealthy town of Axbridge had dealings with Bristol when they were planning their decorated plaster ceiling in 1636: the churchwardens’ accounts noted, ‘Item spent at Bristoll when we went to take a pattern of the fret work 1s’. The entry is ambiguous: either they, the Churchwardens, or the craftsmen were purchasing a print from Bristol or they were taking a pattern to Bristol. At Bridgwater, we have no such archival guidance. What we do know is that the whole scheme, which included fish-tailed creatures and troll-like creatures on the screen, belonged to the grotesque tradition, a fashionable Renaissance import, of which wealthy merchants would have been aware of during their business travels to Bristol, London and other significant urban centres. The Corporation had decided to erect new, contemporary-styled woodwork, which would have appeared startling in its modernity to the viewing parishioners. The taste of an upper middling elite that was well networked to Bristol and London appears to have been influenced by continental fashions. Their import into England has been well documented; in particular, the effect of continental prints on all media has been explored by Anthony Well-Cole. He highlighted the principal contribution of Netherlandish prints to the ‘highly distinctive combination of grotesques and strapwork’, both manifest in the Bridgwater screen.
Bridgwater, described as ‘rich and sturdily independent’, the premier port of the county, was generally prosperous, despite the vicissitudes of trade. As an administratively strategic Borough, it shared the Quarter Sessions with Wells, Ilchester and Taunton, and enjoyed its own Justices of the Peace. Bridgwater’s elite, the leading townsmen, were mercers who led the wool manufacturing businesses of the town. Important for cloth production and its export, the town was well known for the ‘Bridgwater cloth’, a good quality serge. Among the middling elite would have been merchants who traded the agricultural produce and minerals from the hinterland particularly to and from Ireland and South Wales, as well as the coastal trade and the trade with France, Spain and Portugal. Among the goods that Bridgwater, ‘the busiest port in Somerset’, exported were peas, beans, coal, salt, iron and finished cloth, while it imported hides, wool, timber, and wine. The mercers and the merchants, the middling elite, drove the town’s prosperous economy, which had recovered from depression in the 1590s to improve significantly in the early seventeenth century. They also led the civic authorities. It is likely that the expensive investment in the Corporation Pew c.1620 is linked to this renewed prosperity in the Borough.
The Corporation drew its membership from the mercers and merchants; and it is the relationship between the Corporation and the Parish which is at the heart of the story of the Corporation Pew. The rectorial rights of the parish were granted to the Corporation by Elizabeth in 1571. Part of the terms of the 1571 grant charged the Corporation with stipends of £20 for a man ‘to preach and teach in town and neighbourhood’, £13 6s 8d for a curate and another sum for a schoolmaster. Exercising its rights as rector, the Corporation was taking one-tenth of the agricultural produce of the parish, which realised significant sums; for example the Rectory Accounts of 1579 show receipts of £124 13s 5d, payments £81 13s 3d and the balance of £43 0s 2d. The number of Burgesses allowed rose from 18 to 24 in 1628, an indication of the Corporation’s growing power and influence. The Corporation held the rectorial rights, paid the stipends of the clergy and was receiving substantial income, all of which enhanced its position of power in the town and in the parish.
On the front of the screen was a reminder of tripartite authority: the biblical text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’. The congregation were urged to fear God, and honour the King who took his royal and religious headship from God. By obvious implication authority was triangulated, as through the screen the local civic authority was on view to the congregation throughout the service, who should also be obeyed in this hierarchy of authority. Found in other churches, the inscription was also common in domestic contexts. Not only had the Burgesses of Bridgwater built an expensive screen, highly decorated in a modern, fashionable manner, to sit behind, and to be seen differentiated from the rest of the worshippers, they had also boldly displayed their authority, linked to the King and to God. The metaphorical and the literal display conjoined.
The evidence suggests that this parish in the first decades of the seventeenth century was committed to a stricter form of Protestantism (often referred to as ‘godly’), which rejected what it perceived as unnecessary religious ceremony. While such rich adornment of this seating may seem inconsistent with such ‘godly’ attitudes, the Corporation Pew reflects a much wider wave of material investment in parish churches in the earlier decades of the seventeenth century which gave the wealthier and more influential middling sort opportunity to express their status and taste.
The dominant position of the seating for the wealthy Corporation at Bridgwater appears rare. The Corporation’s power and status were displayed through their investment in decorated woodwork, located in an unusual, exclusive, primary position at the east end of the nave, which emphasised their leadership of this godly community. At present, no other configuration has been found of a Mayor and Corporation sitting in what was essentially an enclosed pew either with their backs to the chancel, facing west to the congregation in the nave, or facing inwards towards each other. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest which way they faced.
In any case, as you sat in the congregation you could not have failed to have been impressed by the burgesses’ investment. The sheer size and magnificence made the screen visually dominant. The exclusive nature of the space for the burgesses was clearly demarcated. The modernity of the fashionable imagery, combined with the skill of the workmanship, demonstrated the wealth, power and networked connections of the town’s leading figures. They had enhanced through decorated wood their civic status and also their church, over which they held the rectorial rights. You could not have ignored the elegant linking of the authority of God and the King to their own, materialised through the magnificence of the woodwork, the fashionable imagery and the inscription. This was investment driven by civic pride and aldermanic status on a bold scale.
Susan Orlik is an associate member of the department of History, University of Birmingham. This case study draws on research for her PhD thesis, ‘The ‘beauty of holiness’ revisited: an analysis of investment in parish church interiors in Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire, 1560-1640’ (University of Birmingham, 2018).
We can be confident in dating the construction through three pieces of evidence: a mayoral will; a brass plate to a deceased Mayor; and a pew dispute which locates and dates the ‘new ile’. SHC: D\D\cd/71; SHC: DD\X\SR/5/c403.
See especially Christopher Marsh, ‘Order and Place in England, 1580-1640: The View from the Pew’, The Journal of British Studies vol. 44, no. 1 (January 2005): 3-26; and Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007).
Robert Tittler, ‘Seats of Power: The Symbolism of Public Seating in the English Urban Community, c. 1560-1620’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 205-223, 214.
KJB I Peter 2: 17, ‘Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King’.
We are grateful to Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, for this guest post on “dress hooks.”
Identifying the ‘middling sort’ through their material culture is fraught with difficulties, not least as there is potential to interpret these items within our own, modern (21st century), perceptions of status, and any supporting evidence is largely lacking from contemporary written or art-historical sources. Indeed, often the best evidence for most material culture is the archaeological record.
A case in point are ‘dress hooks’, commonly found through metal-detecting and reported in substantial numbers to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) – a project to record archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales. In contrast to some other ‘detector finds’, dress-fastenings are mentioned in the written record, notably wills and inventories, and they also appear in art. That said their role and function, though studied (notably by David Gaimster et al in 2002, Antiquities Journal 82), remains somewhat enigmatic – indeed Gaimster described ‘dress-fastenings’ as ‘a crucial yet unsung element of Tudor dress’ (174). In general, it is believed that they were used to draw up garments, to keep them out of the muck of the street or display the rich fabric of the garment beneath, and may also have been used to fasten garments, or simply as decoration. Indeed, a multifunctional role, a bit like modern dress fastenings (buttons, ties etc) seems likely, and this might be reflected in the fact that they vary considerably in form and decoration.
To date (August 2019) the PAS has recorded some 4,600 dress hooks; also – incorrectly – logged as ‘hooked tags’, which is a term for similar items of the early medieval period. If the material composition of dress hooks is any indication of the status of their owners, then it is of interest that almost 4,000 of them (so the vast majority) are constructed of copper-alloy. Thereafter, some 470 are silver, followed by 100 or so lead-alloy examples.
It must surely be the case that the lead-alloy dress hooks are under representative of what once existed, and indeed it is of interest that their forms often mimic those found in the other metals – take for example a cast leaden example from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire (BH-C23A16) which has a similar lozenge form to a copper-alloy example from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846).
An assumption might be that dress hooks were being produced in lead (and maybe other ‘lesser’ materials, like bone, antler and wood) to cater for a less affluent market, though the numbers suggest otherwise. That said, there is a general recovery bias in the PAS data against lead, not least because intricately made leaden objects appear to survive less well in agricultural plough-soil (where most detected finds are recovered) than those of copper-alloy; on the Thames foreshore in London, thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the river mud, the survival of lead-alloy items is much better, though still copper-alloy dress hooks are most common.
It must be that dress hooks made of precious metals, notably silver, were for those above middling culture, although Gaimster et al said that ‘detailed study of the iconographic and documentary record suggests that dress-hooks, as functional dress-fastenings, were not a significant part of male or female elite dress, particularly that of the royal court, in the early Tudor period’ (190). There are some fabulous examples of dress hooks within the PAS dataset. From Boxford, Berkshire (BERK-93DC8A), for example, is a silver-gilt dress hook made of several parts to form a flower-like head.
The central boss serves as a rivet, with its shank passing through a hole in the front plate and a silver back plate, before forking in two. Attached to the reverse is the hook. Also of composite form, is a silver-gilt dress hook of lozenge form, from Langham, Norfolk (NMS-116943). Again, the central boss serves as a rivet joining the elements of the object together, though the use of solder is noticeable. Besides these elaborate precious metal dress hooks are some humbler items, which because of their simple construction might have been more within the reach of the middling sort. Take for example a dress hook from Bletsoe, Bedfordshire (BH-B4EDCA) which is made of singly cast plate, with its hook added on after.
This type of dress hook – a cast plate with hook – is common amongst the copper-alloy PAS finds. It would seem from the quantity that these are the stock of dress hooks being used in Tudor and Stuart times, but by whom? It is interesting to posit whether this data is representative of all society, or just part of it. An inkling, given that their ornate designs suggest more than just a practical function, is that these would have been bought by those with some disposable income – maybe indicative of middling sort? Gaimster et al. seem to agree, suggesting that ‘pairs of decorative dress-hooks were mainly the preserve of women of the middle ranks’ (190). Some examples serve to illustrate the point. One from Asselby, East Yorkshire (YORYM-5281A5), though incomplete, is formed of an attractive openwork design, perhaps featuring a pine cone.
Of note is its integrally cast rectangular attachment loop and the hook, though broken. An important example from Arreton, Isle of Wight (IOW-A203D3), very much mimics a form of composite dress hook usually found in precious metal. It is formed of three bosses decorated with rope-work, likely to replicate applied filigree decoration found on some precious metal examples (including HAMP-B7066E).
Simplest in form amongst the copper-alloy dress hooks are those made of a single piece of wire, such as one from Watlington, Oxfordshire (SUR-3488DA).
It appears that this form had a long life, and (although relatively few are recorded on the PAS database), they must have been relatively common. Surely these are below the middling sort, though we must not dismiss the use of simple, yet practical hooks, by all in society, especially if they were out of view.
Returning to dress hooks of lead and lead-alloys. There is no doubt that these would be easier and quicker to make, so therefore (presumably) cheaper to buy. In general terms the examples recorded with the PAS are similar in form and designs to those of copper-alloy, though are normally cast in one piece; in the case of the copper-alloy examples the hook is usually soldered to the plate. For example, from Twyford, Hampshire (HAMP-48DED2) is a rectangular leaden dress hook decorated with a lattice of lozenges, within each lozenge a quatrefoil. Also, and much like examples seen in silver and copper-alloy (see above), is a dress hook from Stockton-on-the-Forest, North Yorkshire (YORYM-0D11C9). It does seem, therefore, that these dress hooks are imitating (or akin) to those of copper-alloy, with those in lead looking silver when new, and those of copper-alloy appearing golden (for gilding). Whether these lead-alloy dress hooks were popular amongst the middling sort is unclear, but it is a possibility…
We will be producing a series of posts and guest posts over the course of the project, including “Long Reads” (longer form (but still brief) explorations of a subject) and “Short Reads” (digestible in a brief survey). This opening Long Read explores what it was like to be a goldsmith in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bristol, looking at provincial craftspeople’s relationship with the London company, the trendy craft hotspot of Bristol’s Wine Street, and the surprisingly varied uses of goldsmiths’ wares.
In late sixteenth-century England, a young man could do worse than become an apprentice with a goldsmith. The trade offered reasonable financial rewards and put its best craftspeople into contact with well-off and well-connected customers. That didn’t always, unsurprisingly, guarantee financial success. One of the most famous goldsmiths of the period was the esteemed miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard; despite reaching acclaim in courts across Europe for his artwork and running a thriving goldsmiths’ trade from his London shop for decades, he spent much of his life in financial precarity. Yet he accrued other forms of capital, not least through his intimate access to English and French courts. Moreover, Pamela H. Smith has shown how artisans, in particular goldsmiths, were at the centre of a shift in the way cultural and scientific knowledge was represented in and produced through art: “early modern artisans were experts on natural processes” (7); Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin has similarly shown how individuals connected to the trade, such as assayers, “belied any purported boundaries between artisanal, mercantile and experimental worlds” (2). It is therefore perhaps no surprise that some of the leading innovators in representing the physical world during the Northern Renaissance—such as Albrecht Dürer—were goldsmiths by trade.
As such, the craft brings together a range of cultural, social, and financial opportunities, and the objects goldsmiths produced found their way into circulation in a variety of surprising ways. Those familiar with early modern drama know how something as simple as a ring can take on epic significance from the forensic to the metaphorical—as in the final scene of All’s Well that Ends Well, for instance, which hinges on the evidentiary value of such an item of jewellery. Tradespeople in a host of livery companies might also recognise the business uses of rings, which could be “deposited” to bind people to oaths and price regulations, and rings hold a widespread memorial function, too, often left by bequest in wills and given at funerals. Goldsmiths therefore represent a major “middling” trade, with practitioners coming from a variety of backgrounds, with their wares reaching key middling sections of society, and with objects such as rings and spoons representing the combination of aesthetic, emotional, and business value at the heart of “middling” men and women’s existence.
But what was it like to be a goldsmith away from the trade’s national centre among the shops and selds (a structure of several stalls set back from the street, like a small market or mall) of London’s Cheapside? This post assays life for provincial goldsmiths in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the network operating in the growing port city of Bristol: here, goldsmiths find themselves everywhere from the prison to the fair; they also demonstrate the successes of family trade dynasties and early forms of “banking” and financial management, while rubbing shoulders with playhouse entrepreneurs and prosperous merchants.
The Goldsmiths’ Company
One of the prime concerns for any goldsmith is the weighing of precious metal and the attendant quality of their work or wares, and anybody looking to work in Bristol, as elsewhere, would have to be comfortable having their work assessed, deemed unworthy, and publicly destroyed by senior figures from London. This is because the royal charter possessed by London’s Goldsmiths’ Company granted them authority over the trade nationwide, making Bristolian goldsmiths subject to scrutiny and summons to their hall on Fetter Lane by London’s Guildhall. More intrusively, the Company could search their shops and stalls, or attend commercially-orientated fairs—notably often at Marlborough, the Bristol fairs, and Sturbridge—where they tested goods by hand and sometimes further by more detailed assay or melting (sometimes taking goods into their possession to return to the Goldsmiths’ Hall for further consideration or, when clear they’re substandard, destroying or breaking them there and then).
While you’re in the presence of one of these searches, you may learn a little more about the range and quality of your fellow craftspeople’s work, and the court books duly list the types of goods being sold by Bristolian goldsmiths and their advertised vs their actual worth. For instance, in 1633, Thomas Northall’s wares include:
23 Thimbles half made 24 gold rings 25 bodkins half made 12 gold ^beadrings 9 knot rings 15 enamel rings 6 deaths heads 51 gilt rings
We can imagine the presence of these goods laid out in Northall’s Bristol shop and consider, as below, the ways in which these items would have circulated amongst his local community. These searches provide a rare occasion in which the breadth of provincial goldsmiths’ goods can be recovered and studied, and they help to build a picture of metalwork in the early modern South West.
These obligations and the searches of the regions ask questions about the relationship between regional goldsmiths and the Company. If you worked as a goldsmith in Bristol, how much identification with the livery company might you feel—and how does being governed remotely by a London company and structure affect one’s sense of civic and craft pride?
If this seems an important question, you might turn to your colleague from Salisbury, “stubborn” George Batter, for an answer (if you can pin him down…). Batter demonstrates what resistance to such London-centric measures might look like, given the disregard for the authority of the Company he displayed on one of its searches in 1631. He lied about being of the trade, refused to allow his items to be searched or tested, declined to show up in person when summoned, and is eventually imprisoned after the two wardens of the Company convince the Mayor of Salisbury to assist them in apprehending him and forcing him to cooperate. They had over the course of these events tested “one spoon … made by the said Batter with his mark thereupon, which being tried by the touch appeared not to be so good silver as that of 9oz fine” (Book R 1: 128).
Beyond your conversation with George Batter, you might turn to individuals in your parish to see how other trades resent intrusions from London authorities—particularly if you’re friends with any members of Bristol’s prominent Soapmakers’ Company. They demonstrate a comparable resentment towards London intrusions into their local craft dealings a few years after Batter in 1633—just a short time after Charles I’s grant to the London Soapmakers’ of a nationwide monopoly similar to that long held by the Goldsmiths’. The Bristolian soapmakers, perhaps taking umbrage at being “governed,” compare Bristol soap (also known as “Black Soap”) with its competitors’ through a napkin-based “whites challenge” in the presence of the London assayer:
[…] Certain Linen Napkins washed by Several Women with the same several sorts of soap […] And although the said napkins washed with Bristol Soap were altogether as white washed and as sweet, or rather sweeter, than the other, yet in the washing of the said Napkins There was not Altogether so much Soap expended of the said Bristol Soap as there was of the other Soap.
(BRS 10; 195)
The civic pride implicit in the Soapmakers’ Guild is undercut in George Batter’s unfortunate experience, as he has no recourse even to local protection, with Salisbury’s mayor assisting the wardens’ enquiries. They ultimately proved lenient towards him in levying a revised fine that took into account his “poverty” and eventual acquiescence and repentance (17 August 1631, R 1:127-9). Perhaps tellingly, two years later in 1633, Batter appears again in a Salisbury search, where he proved more compliant (Book R: 2:370).
Perhaps you are weighing up where to set up shop as a newcomer to Bristol—something that Giles and Edward Evenet would have done in October 1571, after they are recorded as “living, resident, and abiding [in] the country” in Bristol having left London without return “by a year and a day”–a move to the provinces that the Goldsmiths’ Company seem to regard as important and in need of regulation.
In your new home of Bristol, the prime place to continue your trade would have been the thriving neighbourhood of Wine Street in the parish of Christchurch (also known as Holy Trinity). The street was home to a series of substantial tenements and properties, many of which were owned by the City Corporation and rented by prominent figures in the city (including aldermen and past and future mayors). It was also home to at least two major South West goldsmiths, Humphrey Clovell and Edward Harsell. In the mid-1570s, a new “meal market” (or corn market) was built at the end of Wine Street, which was rented out to 10-12 goldsmiths from London and other places during the most important commercial feature in any Bristolian’s calendar, the St James’ Fair, which attracted buyers and sellers from across the country (and beyond the seas). The street therefore represents a significant destination for anybody looking to buy jewellery and other metalwork.
If you’re interested in doing some market research or understanding the tastes and styles particular to Bristol goldsmiths and their customers, it would be wise to head to No. 8 Wine Street to speak with Humphrey Clovell. From this property, Clovell would have sold items such as the 2 bowls, 6 gilt rings, and 3 spoons with heads for which he was assessed in 1599 (Book N 181). He was a major figure in Bristol’s metalwork industry; he did his apprenticeship under Paul Freling, and the apprentices Clovell trained include Thomas Wall and John Corsley, the latter of whom went on to marry Clovell’s daughter Elizabeth in 1592 and was the first of a long line of prolific Corsley goldsmiths working out of the south west (Kent 80).
When you arrive to speak with Clovell, you may find him slightly preoccupied with his son-in-law, who drifts in and out of Bristol. In 1606, nearly 15 years after his marriage with Clovell’s daughter, Corsley finds himself “lying in Prison in Newgate in London upon sundry accounts of debt.” According to the defendant (William Walton) in a Chancery case concerning unpaid debts, Corsley was freed thanks to significant loans by Walton and others that he neglected to repay. Walton claims to have spent years chasing Corsley, only for him to “go and lay in the North parts of this land where [the] defendant should not touch him”. When he did return to Bristol, “it was under his father in law mr Clovell, goldsmith in Bristol.” If you visit in the 1600s, 1610s, or 1620s in the years preceding Walton’s lawsuit, you may well find both goldsmiths in Wine Street.
If you find Clovell unhelpful, you could always look for some financing from Corsley. According to Walton, by the 1620s, the erstwhile debtor has returned more permanently to Bristol and “dealeth in great sums in the trade of a goldsmith” (TNA C3/341/56). The defendant’s phrasing suggests that Corsley uses his trade to function as a financier or money trader, perhaps indicating an early example of the form of “goldsmith-banking” that formed the foundations of England’s banking sector in the late seventeenth century. But you may wish to take into account Walton’s less-than-glowing consumer report…
You could speak instead with Edward Harsell, who lived two doors down from Clovell and who clearly knew him—well enough, at least, to witness the probate inventory after Clovell’s death in 1627 that records some of Clovell’s interior design choices, including “the wainscot, stained cloths, & pictures about the hall” (BRS Vol. 54;62-4). Harsell is also a significant figure among Bristol’s early modern metalworkers. Work from Harsell’s shop survives, marked with his name and a small symbol (for more details on surviving marks see Timothy Kent):
The marking of this spoon with Harsell’s name suggests the advertising value tied to the craft, as this form of signature or branding seems to be unique to metalwork. Might these goldsmith-specific marks enhance or alter one’s reputation in the wider community and make one’s name more widely visible than those in other trades?
Have Connections in London
Appealing as Bristol might sound by now, it’s certainly worth fostering good connections with London and particularly the hierarchy of the Goldsmiths’ Company—perhaps, if you’re well-backed enough, by looking to serve your apprenticeship in the capital. Timothy Kent observes how unusual it is for the Company to say anything nice about the work of provincial goldsmiths (95). But in their search of Bristol in 1633, they made comment “upon the wares of Thomas Griffyn and Edward Griffin,” which “were found agreeable to the standards of gold and silver and redelivered them again” (Book R 2: 381). It is no coincidence that Edward Griffin (also Griffith) started his apprenticeship under John Wollaston of London—one of the wardens of the Company carrying out the search… (Kent 95).
Lost and found
Lastly, it’s important to keep your wares and your belongings safe, so that these valuable items can be kept in either personal possession or sanctioned circulation. An entry on the 24 January 1573 in the Goldsmiths’ Company court books describes how an apprentice found in a chamber a “ring of gold with a cross and a heart in a pansy, with a “d” the one side of the cross and “M” on the other side of the same, with a G & H above it, & this date “1569” under it.” The ring was found in “The Temple wherein” Mr Fleetwood and Mr Sands have their lodging. The wardens of the Company order that the ring be delivered to those two men “to the intent that they shall deliver it to the right owner if it be possible” (L 1:179).
This minor incident represents a curious textual recording of this piece of jewellery and its accidents and circulation, but it also points to the formal structures surrounding lost jewellery in such a heavily-regulated gold market. At the same time, it preserves the personal value of the item, delivering an ekphrastic lost and found record that announces the ring’s personalised inscription and perhaps indicates that its safe return is ordered with a nod to its likely emotional significance. If it were central to a betrothal, it also has an added legal charge, testifying to a contract or binding. Its discovery in a chamber leaves to the imagination why the apprentice considered it lost (might it have been put aside for safe keeping?) and why it was not being worn (was it purposely discarded?).
The entry thereby combines the financial and personal significance of jewellery, something that accords with other uses of rings in company records. If you’re curious about how your wares might be used once you’ve established your freedom to trade in Bristol, you could start up your conversation with the Soapmakers of Bristol again. In the seventeenth century, they begin to put rings down as deposits or forfeits for their observance of pricing agreements. In 1612, members agreed on a price to which they “set … hands and Possites [deposits],” including (to pick a selection) Humphrey Reade’s signet ring and Thomas Burrows’ ring of gold; in 1614, Mrs Slye deposited 1 ring with a diamond and Leonard Hancock’s deposit was six silver spoons (BRS 10 95, 103-4). The symbolic qualities of these objects indicate how the deposits act as an extension of individual identity.
Tracking the varied circulation of rings in this way for middling members of livery companies suggests a broader cultural network for material objects such as jewels and in turn indicates the imbrication of commercial, personal, and domestic material culture. The Bristol soapmakers’ rings may have had or once have had romantic or other significance for their owners, but they are (also) being put into a business network as promissory pawns. Such rings (or silver spoons) may well have come from one of the prominent goldsmiths producing such items in Bristol across this period, perhaps from the Wine Street shops of Edward Harsell or Humphrey Clovell. If you join the local collective of goldsmiths in Bristol, you would likewise release your work into a community where jewellery’s practical and decorative uses combine to furnish men and women of the town with status symbols—ones that represent a combination of social, cultural, and economic currency. And, like Clovell, you may develop a deep familiarity with other cultural artefacts, from stained cloths and pictures to the plays that entertained audiences at Bristol’s Wine Street playhouse for nearly 30 years.
Bristol Archives (Bristol). Diocesan Court, Cause Books. EP/J/1/11. Bristol Record Society. 10 (Proceedings, Minutes and Enrolments of the Company of Soapmakers, 1562-1642, H.E. Matthews) (1940) —. 48 (The Topography of Medieval and Early Modern Bristol: Part One, Roger Leech). (1997) —. 54 (Probate Inventories, Part I, Edwin and Stella George, assisted by Peter Fleming). (2002) The Goldsmiths’ Company Hall, Library and Archives (London). Court Minutes. Books L, N, and R1 and R2. Elizabeth Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (2019) Timothy Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and their Makers, 1550-1750 (1992) Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin. “A Place of Great Trust to be Supplied by Men of Skill and Integrity”: Assayers and Knowledge Cultures in Late Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century London.” BJHS (2019): 1-27. Roger Leech. The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol (2014). The National Archives (Kew). C3/341/56. The National Archives (Kew). C2/JasI/W4/59. Pamela H. Smith. The Body of the Artisan (2004)
The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society. The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.
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.
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,
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.
This passage is taken from the printed version of a sermon given by Hugh Latimer (c. 1485 – university divine and bishop under Henry VIII, court preacher under Edward VI, executed as a heretic under Mary I – in 1549. This autobiographical anecdote, dating from just a few years before the period the ‘Middling Cultures’ project investigates, highlights many of the themes and concepts that will be central in our research. It emphasises the role of identity and self-perception even as it also shows the ways in which these interacted with and were shaped by external and variable economic and social forces. It reminds us that middling status could be precarious and fleeting as individuals, across just one or two generations or even across a lifetime, might rise and fall beyond it. Latimer’s invocation of contemporary anger at a divide between rich and the ordinary – and the exploitation of the latter by the former – provides an important and central context for the lives of those trying to carve out a space in the middle of a hierarchy that to some felt increasingly hostile. It also resonates with many modern concerns about a world with a rising super-rich and a middle who wonder if they will ever have the economic security that an older generation enjoyed.
As Latimer delineates his father’s status, the intermingling of social, economic, political, moral and cultural capital is clear. His father’s position, in Latimer’s retelling, rested not just on his modest wealth, but on his charity and hospitality, his ability to serve the king (including at Blackheath: here Latimer is describing his father fighting for the king against a Cornish rebellion in 1497), and his ability to raise his children ‘in godliness’. He also provided Latimer with the means of social advancement: he was able to ‘put him to school’, the first step on a dizzying rise that saw him preach before the king. His trajectory may have been extraordinary, but many of Latimer’s contemporaries also used education to rise beyond middling origins. The contemporary social commentator Sir Thomas Smith wrote in 1583 that the universities were one of the ways that gentlemen ‘be made good cheape’ in Tudor England. But while his father’s comfortable, though not extravagant, life had given Latimer the opportunity for a life among the elite, his self-conscious, deliberate and very public evocation of it shows that his middling origins remained both important and useful to Latimer. Used here as a rhetorical tool to help spur the king to action, invoking and appropriating an ‘ordinary’ identity allowed him both to speak on behalf of the people, and to align himself with a group that he presents as the moral and social core of their communities, and the nation.
Latimer is describing, and bemoaning, a world in flux. His father’s way of living has already gone and his (perhaps hypothetical) successor at the farm lived a much more marginal and straitened life: he had slipped beyond the relative comfort and safety of the middling. The decades that followed Latimer’s sermon would see the pace of this change not slow, as he had hoped, but accelerate. It was in this crucible of economic and social change that the cultural identities of the middling were forged, contested and asserted.
Cast-iron firebacks were produced in England from the first half of the sixteenth century and served to protect the back of chimneys and reflect heat back into the room. As domestic buildings increasingly incorporated chimneys these functional accessories were in demand and gradually the plain iron plates were embellished with imagery, including heraldry and biblical subject matter.Among the collection of iron firebacks at Anne of Cleve’s House in Lewes, Sussex, is a personalised fireback dated 1636 depicting Richard Lenard, who succeeded his father as tenant of the iron foundry at Brede in 1605.
This object is a form of annotated portrait – Lenard stands in the centre of the composition with a hammer in his hand and along the top rim are the words RICHARD LENARD FOVNDER AT BRED FOURNIS. Museum listings usually describe this object as representing ‘the tools of his trade’ but Lenard’s fireback is not simply an advertisement of his trade; the imagery appears to place his identity between the spheres of domestic and business interests.
On the right-hand side of the panel is depicted an ornate fireplace complete with its own fireback (with his initials R. L.) and a display of drinking vessels above. A faithful dog leaps to greet his owner.
On the left-hand side are the tools of Lenard’s business operation; a brick furnace with a wheelbarrow above containing charcoal and, in the top left-hand corner, a shield bearing a blacksmith’s hammer, bell and andiron.
Lenard straddles these spheres dressed in what appears to be a nightgown, with its tie and lace collar – a garment worn in the evenings by those who had access to leisure time. There is a striking incongruity in the combined accoutrements of robe and hammer but this meeting of symbols represents Lenard’s self-fashioned identity as that of a well-to-do member of society, proud to exhibit the skills of his trade but equally keen to signal the range of quality possessions furnished by his successful business. This seemingly humble object employs a common language of visual signifiers, such as trade tools, high-status domestic objects and distinctive clothing, which were also used in heraldry as bearings to identify the social rank and qualities of armigerous individuals or institutions.
This pseudo-heraldic personal emblem constructs a social identity for Lenard that cannot be defined as distinctively commercial or domestic in nature, but encompasses both. This fluidity and inter-dependence between spheres may be considered a defining characteristic of middling identity and culture – Lenard exhibits pride here in the mastery of his craft that contributes to the quality of his clothing and domestic furnishings. But at the same time his social status could augment the desirability of his products. The goods he creates and sells are themselves domestic objects placed at the heart of the home, the hearth, with opportunity for bespoke designs – initials, dates and imagery – to reflect and construct individual and social identities within a shared culture of objects and symbols. Presumably this particular demonstration of the products that could be crafted at Brede would have appealed to other middling tradesmen who fashioned themselves in terms of lifestyle as much as occupation.
In the mid-1560s, artist and writer Lucas de Heere moved to London from Ghent in the Low Countries. In his time in England, he produced works for leading figures at court while working with and teaching aspiring painters. After having lived here some ten years, de Heere compiled a description of England and a run-down of its chief “wonders,” replete with brilliant sketches of contemporary figures in a manuscript (British Library Add MS 28330) that quite literally gives us a picture of life in mid-Elizabethan England.
His images are arresting glimpses into the visual and material culture of the sixteenth century, and accordingly they represent a rich avenue of enquiry for a project such as ours—not least because they depict side-by-side the clothing, details, and practices of Elizabethans from across the social spectrum, from the Mayor and Aldermen of London to barons, MPs, and guardsmen:
In this sketch, de Heere brings together in four figures depictions of urban and provincial life: a wife of a citizen of London, a wife of a wealthy citizen of London, a young daughter, and a country-woman. The sketch therefore represents subtle differences in dress and comportment between degrees or sorts of people—between the wife and the rich wife, the urban citizen and the country dweller. The country-woman is seemingly returning from the market or shops and is well dressed in frill neck and hat, though her white apron signifies a different way of navigating the social world to the city-dwellers; she holds gloves (a high-status accoutrement) in her left hand and poultry (a domestic workaday chore) in her other, perhaps distancing her from wealthier country households whose servants could take care of the shopping. Each of these details raises questions about how we define middling status and its variability, about what qualifying words such as “rich” (‘riich’) and “citizen” (‘burgher’) do for this group, and about gender and age: where does a young daughter sit in relation to her parents (and the labour market); in what ways might a woman’s social standing rest upon her husband’s civic and economic status; and how do women’s labour and activities speak to the cultural experiences of middling people?
Lastly, de Heere’s own activities and the social life of sketches such as these speak to other forms of middling culture. Elizabeth Goldring has shown in her recent biography of the artist Nicholas Hilliard that de Heere had particularly close interactions with England’s goldsmiths (Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, 79-83); indeed de Heere lived in London among an immigrant community of craftspeople that included glassblowers and stationers as well as goldsmiths (Returns of Aliens, ed. Kirk and Kirk: I, 441; II, 40). Goldsmiths represent a particularly curious example of a group who spanned a range of middling experiences (from the JAMS, or the just-about-managing, in modern parlance, to the highly influential and well-off) and who produce a range of crafted outputs within their profession (and, in this period, including a growing a number of artists). They are not only socially mobile but geographically mobile, trading in precious metals and, for the most successful, visiting London and the court to secure and deliver commissions. As such, they represent a group of “tastemakers” whose skills simultaneously respond to and influence elite interests but whose commercial realities remain in households and workshops in English cities.
Our project begins its study of the “middling” in Bristol, where (as elsewhere in England) the goldsmiths, exceptionally, had no local mystery but were under the centralised management of the London guild; they are therefore a group for whom the relationship between local and national identity is especially charged. How might the Bristolian goldsmith Humphrey Clovill’s household (which likely neighboured Nicholas Woolfe’s playhouse on Wine Street), with his moderate means and “wainescott, stayne clothes & pictures about the hall” (Bristol Probate Inventories I p.63 ), fit into these experiences and representations? More broadly, what is the relationship between craft-based skills and “middling” identities? Behind De Heere’s sketch are the wider social networks of cultural production—one that sees goldsmiths, painters, and aristocrats conversing and collaborating, working at court while selling at home, and fundamentally pointing to the complex relationship between aesthetic creation and social status and mobility. These are issues we’ll be pursuing over the next few years.