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)
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.
The Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort is a project in search of the experiences of a crucial early modern demographic. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw the significant growth of a group of individuals—men, women, families, and households—who were not landed gentry or nobility, but neither were they peasants or wage-labourers. They worked for their living, but they had some control over their labour (and sometimes that of others); they were not necessarily rich, but they had some ability to spend and borrow. The “middling,” as this group is now often termed, encompassed a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and occupations, trades, crafts, or professions.
Perhaps because of this diversity, historians in search of concrete class identities have sometimes characterised this group as variously elusive, tricky to define, incoherent. It’s not until the late eighteenth century that historians can detect a set more easily aligned with conventional ideas of the “middle class.” Yet the “middling” were at the centre of a crucial shift in Elizabethan, Stuart and Interregnum England centring on social mobility: one that begins to see new forms of social, economic, and cultural capital coalesce around a group of working people who had the ability both to consume and produce a variety of cultural artefacts, from literary works to medicines to furniture.
This project seeks to think holistically about the lived experiences of this umbrella group of people. It will broaden studies that have hitherto focused on the social relations and economic positions of middling people, and it also turns to an earlier period than that discussed by most historians of the middling sort. We will combine quantitative approaches with qualitative studies of language, networks, and visual and material culture, while unpicking topics ranging from religious practice to gender. As such, we’re interested in cultural production (what did people write, make, fashion, and sell?) and cultural consumption (what and how did people read, what did they buy and how did they use purchases; what was it like to display and use particular objects?). Our research looks around the country at different communities, as we consider the relationship between local and national experiences and identities.
As such, our project is attuned to complications in social experience that are equally prevalent today. The remainder of this post explores the nature of both the modern and early modern “middle” and introduces the eclectic methodologies of the project via several short case study examples (in separate pages, linked here and below; click image to visit):
Micro Case Studies:
In 2007, the geographer Danny Dorling noted that recent sociological research into identity in modern Britain showed that “Most people think they are average when asked.” He glossed this trend in self-identification by adding, “in most things, most are not.”
Just under ten years later, the researchers behind the Great British Class Survey explored the question of the average and “middle” of society further; they, too, found that people from across the economic spectrum saw themselves as of “middling” wealth. The researchers identify a renewed “obsession” with class in contemporary Britain, but suggest that the typical vocabulary used to describe class structures is no longer adequate. Their study, Social Class in the 21st Century, reflected on responses to their own survey as well as on other demographic data. From this, they revised the standard division of British society into “lower,” “middle,” and “upper” classes, positing instead seven different categories. The three to four groups that lie in between the “extremes” of this new class system might be considered the “middle.”
The authors of Social Class in the 21st Century had many causes to reconsider what is meant by the “middle.” They observed numerous social, economic, and cultural developments that have changed the texture of the British class system. Their nuanced approach was not limited to economic assessment: rather, they explored material wealth but also considered social capital (one’s networks, friends, colleagues, and social circles) and cultural capital (one’s familiarity with and uses of tastes, interests, and activities). These are, they argue, all part of the complex modern class system. While the increasing detachment of the super-rich makes them ever more distinctive a group, a model that posits a singular, catch-all “middle” class would misleadingly smooth out their essential diversity: “…we have a picture of growing cohesion at the top and bottom, but within the middle ranks—which are the majority of the population—a much more complicated picture.”
The early modern middle
A number of the social developments raised by the authors of Social Class bear uncanny resemblance to developments in early modern England, too, and their characterisation of the twenty-first century “middling” provides a useful introduction to our own concerns. In early modern England, numerous complex factors—including a growing population, changing financial systems and cultures and the challenges of harvest failure and dearth, transformations in the objects and buildings of the physical lived environment, the religious changes and disjunctures of England’s Reformations, educational expansion and the interlinked rises of print and the vernacular—saw the formation of a distinct but variable “middling” demographic. This group had to work for a living, unlike the landed gentry, but they often ran households, had control of some production means, and possessed social and cultural capital that distinguished them from many workpeople, wage labourers, smallholders, and tenant farmers (with farming being by far the most common profession across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England). For instance, the rise in schooling saw a spike in what we now call first-generation university students, who left versed in both traditional scholastic as well as contemporary humanistic education; they brushed shoulders with the sons of aristocrats and mastered classical literature. A number of these graduates went on to reshape literary and commercial forms within the emerging print market; they include writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe.
Who cares about the middling sort?
Research into this middle group of society has been a subject for social historians since the late 1970s. Keith Wrightson’s language of “sorts” provided a new vocabulary, one drawn from commentary of the period, that helped historians reconceive the structure of society in a period before the Marxist language of “class” can be usefully applied (that is, contentiously, before the Industrial Revolution). Numerous studies have subsequently explored the significance of the “middling sort” for understanding major developments in early modern England: for Wrightson and Levine, they represent the gradual firming up of a tripartite class system, with the ascendant middle leaving below them a proletariat underclass and in turn ushering in the systemic exploitation and class conflict characteristic of the late eighteenth century and beyond. For others, the group are at the centre of shifts in consumption culture: changes in household production among the middling sort, combined with increased spending power, have been linked to a rising commodification of goods, particularly household items. Others have seen the middling sort as responsible for an increased emphasis on domesticity that helped to bring in a new concern for “gentility”—a set of manners, behaviours, and material expression that distinguished an increasingly middle-class or bourgeois existence from living standards below (and arguably also above). Beyond these approaches, one might think more broadly about the burgeoning businesses and trades across England driven by this broad group of people, men and women alike—apothecaries, scriveners, playhouse managers, printing press owners, skilled artisans, preachers—and of their increasing participation in public administration—as aldermen, vestrymen, justices of the peace, school and hospital founders and administrators, contributors to civic entertainments and events.
On and in their own terms
Many previous studies have concentrated largely on economic and social factors: they have used, often in ingenious ways, probate inventories (the list of possessions recorded at a person’s death), parish records, apprenticeship records, and patterns of trade. Barring several important exceptions, they have often focused on a later seventeenth-century window, often with the consequence that the “middling sort” can appear to be a transitional group, an industrial-class-in-waiting, with much discussion resting on post-Restoration evidence. In part, this might be connected to historians’ identification of the “middling” as an indistinct, incoherent grouping. In John Smail’s words, for instance, “practice [was] particularly important as a vehicle for class identity in the early phases of the formation of a class culture because a coherent conceptualisation of class identity was still being constructed” (230).
Smail’s investment in “practice,” and by extension lived experience, recognises the problems with prioritising “class consciousness” (recognising one is within a particular class) as the essential endpoint in a history of class or of social formation. Other studies of the middling sort have also expressed frustration, or at least resignation, about the fact that distinct expressions of self-identity are few and far between. Henry French (author of the only book-length study of the middling sort in our period) sees middling identity as something that works within a parish—in relation to others in one’s immediate community: “This does not mean that the ‘middling’ lacked other possible forms of extra-parochial identity or identification. It merely suggests that they generally did not express these through the idiom of the ‘middle sort of people” (20). Self-identity in the twenty-first century seems to be equally difficult to pin down, as the opening remarks of this post suggest. While it may not be helpful to look for a narrowly self-defined group of middling people in our period, we are interested in the range of imbricated and understood identities within the umbrella grouping of the “middling sort”—much as the authors of Social Class in the 21st Century suggest for us today.
As such, our project is going to bring together these issues through a wide-ranging focus that takes into account all aspects of individuals’ cultural experiences. We will do this by looking at the formative period of middling identities, in the century following 1560. It is from this date that many of the social changes described above occur or intensify.
By applying such an interdisciplinary lens—one centred on lived experience in all its cultural manifestations—we hope to add nuance and texture to the broad grouping of the “middling sort” in this formative period. We will explore the things, practices, and ideas produced and consumed in the household, the guildhall, and the church, such as: musical instruments, pictures, account books, books and printed materials, letters, administrative and legal records, architecture, and household and divine objects. The following case examples show brief and speculative samples of the different methodologies, items, and approaches that bring a wider cultural consideration to our understanding of a group of people who fundamentally changed the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Opening Micro Case Studies:
Callan, Catherine, Ceri, Graeme, and Tara. June 2019.