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?
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.
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.