Jamming together: Recreating improvised seventeenth-century musical divisions

We are delighted to host this guest post from Nina Kümin, a PhD candidate in music performance and baroque improvisation at the University of York.

The pleasure of your company is requested for a seventeenth-century jam session!

One of the main forms of music making for English middling society in the seventeenth century was consort music. Small groups of families, friends or neighbours would gather to play music together in several parts. While at the beginning of the seventeenth century, viols were the most popular instrument for this, as the century progressed the violin also grew in popularity. Of this music making, one of the most elusive traditions was that of playing “divisions”. This was the practice of adding florid ornamentation to printed music and improvising variations (making them up on the spot) taking inspiration from a popular printed theme. At the middle of the century, Playford, a publisher based in London and member of the Stationers’ Company, turned to printing collections of such example “divisions” on famous tunes which is testament to the tradition’s existence and growing popularity. His attempt to materialise an essentially immaterial art represents an increased demand from the growing amateur market; the divisions he provides are teaching materials, once accustomed to the art and with some general technical ability, Playford encourages the players to improvise their own. Through improvisation, the players moved from recreating works to being the creators, in control of the emotional development of the piece, the technical difficulty and the length. These published divisions, therefore, acted as an intermediary, temporary material form. Thanks to Playford’s publications, including Christopher Simpson’s The Division Viol of 1659 and Playford’s own The Division Violin of 1685, and through practice-led research, we can begin to reconstruct what it might have sounded and felt like to play or hear improvised divisions in the early to mid-seventeenth century, making the journey from immaterial sound and oral tradition through Playford’s material representations to the immaterial nature of improvisation again.

Each theme in Playford’s division manuals is set to a bassline which repeats all the way through called a “ground bass”. Let’s take “Faronell’s Divisions on a Ground” from Playford’s Division Violin as an example:

To the improvising musician, the bassline reveals which chords occur at which time. This ultimately reduces the number of possible notes an improviser can choose from as each chord change must be accompanied by a consonant (right sounding) note at first. The task of the improviser is then to find an interesting way to get between each of these important consonant notes.  The theory of consonance and dissonance was widely discussed in composition treatises at the time (English examples include Morely 1597; Mace 1676 and Matteis 1682) and is evident in many compositions over ground basses such as passacaglias as well as all of the examples in the Division Viol, Division Violin and Division Flute (a later collection by John Walsh from 1706). For this particular set of divisions, the harmony is as follows: Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm, A, Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm A, D. To the improviser, this means that you can chose one of the follow notes to start each chord:

Dm:      D, F, A

A:         A, C#, E

C:         C, E, G

F:         F, A, C

These, however, can be anywhere on the instrument and thus there are many possibilities even if there are only three named notes available for each chord. The materiality of the instrument, therefore, comes into play here too. As the violin, for instance, has four strings, only a maximum of four notes can ever be played together at any one time. In addition, the player has to be able to technically execute their ideas. It is therefore not realistic to pick notes which are at the extremes of the violin to jump between repeatedly; music tends to move by step or in smaller jumps. This reflects the vocal tradition in which singers also find large leaps difficult. Other considerations include the timbre (sound qualities) achievable. The lack of a shoulder and chin rest on the baroque violin also makes shifting, which facilitates the comfortable execution of large leaps, difficult. For each instrument, different strings will have different timbres due to the make of the violin and the material and winding of the strings but also the player’s technique and experience, not to mention the acoustic. This all also applies to viol playing and all of these factors might have a bearing on which of the options the improviser chooses. 

Finding interesting ways to get between these notes has its roots in ornamentation. This was common practice in all music of this time. This meant that musicians would not just play what was written on the material page but add their own little flourishes and touches between printed notes. These could include trills, scales, arpeggios, repeated notes, turns, chords, vibrato and mordents, just to name a few. For example, here is the theme from the same set of Playford variations played without any ornamentation and then with:

 

The results are really quite different. This illustrates the frustration of music publishers and composers in notating their works as all printed notation only materialises a small amount of the sounds heard (Kuijken, 2013). Interestingly, contemporary writers sought to rectify this by providing lengthy treatises on composition and performance which attempted to explain these practices (some English samples include Morely, 1597; Simpson, 1659; The Burwell Lute Tutor,1660; Mace, 1676 and Matteis, 1682). The musician, therefore, has an interesting relationship with the material form of the music in that this does not represent an absolute but rather a set of guidelines or suggestions; the musician was free to follow the score or deviate from it as they saw fit. Of course, this opportunity still exists today but current common musical practice does not allow any creative licence in the form of added notes unlike the conventions of the Baroque. By reading these treatises and experimenting on period instruments, performers can attempt to ornament in a stylistic manner.

Adding to these structural harmony notes and ornamentation, each variation in the division publications is in a different character. These have their roots in the “affects” (emotions) and dances. Certain keys and intervals were viewed as evoking certain affects. While the key for divisions is already established through the ground bass, players can experiment with different intervals to create different emotional effects. In addition, English music took inspiration from the French tradition of Baroque dance using their forms and rhythmic characteristics. This use is evident in notated compositions but also in the dance melodies in Playford’s The Dancing Master (1651). For instance, this set of Playford variations is actually based on a sarabande; the opening theme contains the characteristic crotchet + dotted crotchet + quaver rhythm and is in triple time. It can actually be danced to as I demonstrate here…

Middling musicians would also have been familiar with the different dance styles and characteristics not just from playing music based on dances but also through learning to dance themselves. The rhythms and playing styles associated with each dance style aid the dancer by stimulating lift, poise, energy or impetus, all of which these musicians would have been accustomed to and internalised through the physicality of dancing. Many of Playford’s variations use these to add variety and interest as the harmony remains the same throughout. It is therefore highly likely that improvised divisions would also have included dance inspired variations. There were opportunities to escape the repeating harmony in other musical forms such as the fantasia but a characteristic of the division practice was this repeating “ground bass” so variety and interest came from creating these different characters. 

Combining research into the intermediary material printed examples by Playford along with the advice in other treatises and the study of notated compositions in Playford’s The Dancing Master and those by his contemporaries, a set of guidelines can be produced for the modern performer seeking to improvise their own stylistic divisions:

  1. Begin each chord change with a consonant note, then find interesting ways to get between these structural notes
  2. Keep in mind the technical possibilities and characteristics of your instrument and performance space
  3. Create variety and interest through adding/ considering:
    1. Ornamentation
    1. Intervals to create different affects
    1. Dance rhythms and characters

Through practicing and experimenting in this manner, it is possible to improvise some stylistic variations. Therefore, I would now like to invite you to a virtual seventeenth-century jam session by encouraging you to pick and mix from the following variations, choosing however many you like and in whatever order you like, each video plays one example improvised variation. By playing them after each other you can build your own set of improvised divisions and therefore experience the improviser’s task of making decisions between key structural points. In this way, you can orchestrate your own structure and each time will give you a different result. This in some way mimics the excitement and variety of improvisation; they would never have played the same variation twice and were in control of the development and length of the piece. These variations were taken from a longer recording of my continuous improvised divisions over the ground bass of this same Playford piece. If you would like to hear them in their original order, this is also provided below.

Playford’s attempt to materialise the immaterial tradition of improvised divisions through his published examples, whether for viol or violin, not only recognised the existence of this tradition but allowed for a greater engagement with this by amateurs, a large number of which were middling recreational musicians, transforming their domestic cultural engagements. Musical improvisation is also deeply rooted in the material, however, as the performer’s relationship with their instrument determines a large proportion of the compositional decisions as well as the limitations of the technicalities of the instrument. The variety, creativity and individuality performed by these middling musicians would have been exciting to experience but Playford’s materialisations allow modern performers to also experiment with this practice.

Nina Kümin

Nina Kümin – Improvising Violinist – YouTube

The Elizabethan Civil Service, or If at First You Don’t Succeed, Get Up and Petition Again

British bureaucracy is under constant scrutiny, from the public, the press, and even the government itself. Yet administrative paperwork and systems of protocol have a long history that underpins the growth of the modern capitalist economy and the communities who sustained it. The individuals who drove the bureaucratic revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which witnessed the significant growth of English towns, were not monarchs or famous statesmen but literate middling men who possessed the necessary skills and networks to facilitate it.

Of particular importance were civic clerks. These individuals were responsible for writing out and filing legal documents and recording the minutes of civic assemblies. Whilst the professional role of town clerk is well recorded and the individuals traceable, the lives of under-clerks are often obscure. Although their work is preserved in myriad town documents, there is often little trace of the man behind the hand. Chester’s Hugh Dod was one such clerk for whom information can be found, and as such provides an interesting case study of the life of a professional scribe and lower civic official.

Dod is traceable through a series of petitions he entered throughout his lifetime to the civic authority of Chester in pursuit of a position in one of the city’s legal courts. As the Power of Petitioning Project has shown, although early modern petitions could take a variety of forms, in essence they were handwritten documents from an individual or group to a particular authority, requesting that a specific action be granted or carried out. In short, they were a means for inferiors to appeal to superiors, seeking a positive change to their present circumstances. Petitions were usually written up by a scrivener or scribe, so as a clerk Dod would have been familiar with the form and structure of a petition. Additionally, as he worked in civic government himself, he would also have known how to get a petition heard at the assembly. Only two of Dod’s original petitions survive but accounts of the others are found in the city’s assembly books, which record the minutes of meetings of the civic officials of Chester.

The surviving petitions are written out formally and addressed to the mayor, recorder, justices of the peace, aldermen, sheriffs, sheriff peers, and common council of Chester. The language used by Dod is deferential, ‘earnestlie desiringe’ preferment and the ‘favourable consente and allowances’ of the assembly. To further his case for preferment, he emphasizes certain ‘losses’ he has sustained in ‘labouringe meanes’ to obtain letters from his friends and patrons who wrote in support of his petition, demonstrating an impressive network of influential associates. However, networks and technical skill do not guarantee that a petition will be successful. Despite being literate, skilled, and well connected, Dod’s life was characterized by precarity. His position as a clerk clearly did not afford him the lifestyle he sought and as a result he was constantly petitioning for higher, and more permanent, employment.

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies: ZML/6/57, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1611, records in the Cheshire Record Office are reproduced with the permission of Cheshire Archives & Local Studies and the owner/depositor to whom copyright is reserved.

Dod first appears in the civic records in 1592, when his petition to be an attorney in the courts of Portmote and Pentice in Chester was considered by the assembly and deferred. The petition was either not considered again or rejected, as Dod put in another petition in 1594 to be an attorney in the same courts, which was also rejected. Dod then waited 12 years before entering another petition in 1606, in which he is described as a scrivener and petitioned the city to be made an attorney in the court of records. The petition reveals that Dod had previously served as an under-clerk in the Pentice, which was the town hall and court room in Chester for the local courts, and was looking to sidestep into another career, one in which he had no formal training. Instead, he claimed to have been ‘broughte upp under mr Knight late Clarke of the Pentice’ and ‘experimented in the premisses’. Dod had served under William Knight, who was Clerk of the Pentice from 1569 to 1600, for 17 years presumably at the end of Knight’s life, which would date his service to 1583-1600. Dod appears not to have had any prior legal training or education at a university of Inn of Court; he probably had a grammar school education. However, his training or experience as a scrivener meant that he would have been familiar with a range of legal documents. Nonetheless this informal legal apprenticeship did not satisfy the assembly and Dod’s petition was denied.

Five years later Dod petitioned the city once again. The petition from 1611 survives in the Chester archives. In it Dod claims that he had ‘the experience of a Scrivernor within the said Citie’ for the past 18 years and had throughout this period been ‘wanting sufficient preferment whereby to mentaine him selfe and his femely’. According to a manuscript written by Dod himself, clerks in Chester received a set fee of 8 pence per page for drawing up and entering of every sheet containing 14 lines in the court of Pentice and Portmote where Dod worked as an under-clerk. Professional scribes like Dod regularly earnt money outside of the courts writing up documents for private individuals, who lacked either the literacy or skill to draw up documents themselves. Indeed, Dod appears as a notary on various wills, indentures, and assignments in Chester in the period 1600-1640. However, Dod clearly believed that his earnings were not enough and requested a greater and more steady wage as an attorney in the common law courts of Chester.

For his 1611 petition, Dod did not just rely on his own protestations of experience but provided letters of recommendation from Sir Rogert Aston, Sir John Salusbury, and Thomas Ireland, who all presented their ‘harty commendacions’ to the mayor on behalf of Dod. All three men were well connected lawyers and courtiers. Aston was a courtier and Master of the Great Wardrobe to King James I, Salusbury was Esquire of the Body (a personal attendant) to Elizabeth I and a lawyer, and Thomas Ireland was a lawyer who later became the vice chamberlain of the Exchequer court of Chester. The exact relationship Dod had with these three individuals is difficult to ascertain. The letters from Salusbury and Ireland are quite standard letters of recommendation and include no specific information about Dod himself. The letter by Aston, however, further recounted Dod’s qualifications stating that he had been clerk under Knight and had ‘dwelled in the saide Citty’ ever since, suggesting that Dod did not hail from Chester originally. Dod had, Aston claimed, behaved himself ‘verie honestly’ in his role as a scrivener and ‘in respecte of his saide longe tyme of service’ was able ‘to discharge the duty of an attorney at the Comon Lawe’. Aston therefore desired the city to place him as such ‘the better to maineteyne himself when hee shall growe into further yeares’. Despite the letters Dod’s petition was again thought ‘not fit to be graunted’ and ‘utterly denied unto him.’

The votes of the assembly have been jotted down by another hand at the side of his petition on the same page and show that only 1 person voted in favour of the petition against 35 rejections. The decision by the assembly appears to have rested solely on Dod’s education. However, as Christopher Brooks has shown, to be an attorney did not require formal legal training at the Inns of Court but was more commonly learnt through apprenticeship. Either the assembly’s rejection of Dod was due to the fact he had not served his ‘apprenticeship’ under an attorney, or their decision rested on a personal issue not recorded in the assembly book.

Detail of CALS: ZML/6/57

A man of habit, Hugh Dod waited another five years before petitioning the city again in 1616. This time Dod played his trump card. He produced a letter from King James himself recommending his ‘welbeloved Subject Hughe Dod’ to an office in the courts of Chester due to the ‘acceptable service’ Dod had carried out ‘in writeinge of sundrie Instructions for the Ayde due for our deereste daughter the Lady Elizabeth’. In a further letter to the mayor Dod stated that his letter from the king proved that he ‘deserveth to be admitted’ to a position in the courts or, if he ‘happen to survive’ the incumbent William Hockenhull, to have the office of Serjeant in reversion. Despite Dod having friends in high places, his petition was once again refused, and he remained in his position as an under-clerk in the Pentice.

Dod’s situation may have improved slightly in 1627 when the current Clerk of the Pentice, Robert Brerewood, was suspended from office for negligence. It was thereby ordered, on 20 February 1627, that mayor Nicholas Ince ‘put in some fitting clerke or clerkes to execute the said place and office’ whilst Brerewood was suspended and to ‘take into his Custodye the Bookes and records of the said Office and of the Severall courts within the said Citty’. The name of the chosen individual is not recorded in the assembly book, but a manuscript written by Hugh Dod reveals that it was he who was appointed. In an account of the freemen admitted in Chester in the year 1626/7 Dod recorded that he ‘was admitted by the said Nicholas Ince in the tyme of his maioralty to write in the office of Pentice during the sequestracion thereof’. Despite his lack of formal training and prior rejections of legal office, the city was clearly happy to let Dod take on this significant role, albeit not as a permanent appointment. Clerks of the Pentice were not required to have formal legal training, although the two of the previous incumbents, Robert Whitby and Robert Brerewood, were both Inns of Court men, and the post had been filled previously by William Knight, Dod’s own patron, and Thomas Whitby who had both served apprenticeships. Therefore, Dod’s experience and training meant he had the experience needed to take up the role of temporary Clerk of the Pentice but did not possess the skills necessary for a more permanent office as an attorney.

After 11 months of sequestration a new Clerk of the Pentice, Richard Littler, was appointed and Dod was once again seeking employment. He petitioned the city one final time in 1631, requesting that in light of his service to the city, which included him writing up an official list of legal fees for the city, he deserved to be admitted to a legal office. Dod was never granted an office as an attorney and next appears in the civic records in 1636 when he petitions for an almsroom – charitable accommodation for the poor – in Chester, which had recently become available and was being allocated via ‘lott or ballettinge’. Ironically, this was Dod’s only successful petition. Dod retained the room until his death in 1639.

Dod’s petitions offer an insight into the life and career of an early modern civic clerk, a position that required literacy and a specific skill set that could be acquired through a form of apprenticeship. However, similar to being self-employed or working freelance today, Dod’s work as a clerk and professional scribe also required a certain amount of self-promotion and trading on his reputation to attract business. As such, his earnings were not set or secure and he clearly did not earn enough to support himself or his family. His skills were constantly deemed ‘not fit’ by the civic council to sidestep into the career of an attorney despite his experience and letters of recommendation. This suggests that whilst education, literacy, and patronage were important for social mobility, the exact set of skills acquired and how they had been obtained also mattered. As a result, Dod’s life was characterized by petitioning and precarity, and his social mobility and career progression were hampered by his lack of specialised education.

Mabel Winter

Sources

BL: Harl MS 1944, f. 115

BL: Harl MS 2020 and 2082: A catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts, in the British Museum. With indexes of persons, places, and matters : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

CALS: ZAB/1, Assembly Book,

CALS: ZAB/2, Assembly Book,

CALS: ZM/AB/1, Apprenticeship Registers, f.27

CALS: ZML/6/57, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1611

CALS: ZML/6/58, Letter of Roger Aston, 1610

CALS: ZML/6/59, Letter of Thomas Ireland and John Salisbury

CALS: ZML/6/108, Letter from the King, 1616

CALS: ZML/6/112, Letter from Hugh Dod to Mayor Thomas Thropp, 1616

CALS: ZA/F/11/43, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1620

J. H. E. Bennett, The Rolls of the Freemen of the City of Chester, Part 1, 1392-1700, The Record Society for the Publication of Original Documents Relating to Lancashire and Cheshire Vol. 51 (1906)

Christopher Brooks, ‘Professions, Ideology and the Middling Sort in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, in Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brooks (eds) The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1800 (Basingstoke, 1994)

Famarez Dabhoiwala, ‘Writing Petitions in Early Modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes (eds), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A collection to honour Paul Slack (2017)

Robert Tittler, Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community c.1500-1640 (Oxford, 1991)

Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague (New Haven, 2011)

Power of Petitioning, The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (history.ac.uk)

Blog Post: Petitions in Early Modern England: A Very Short Introduction – The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (history.ac.uk)

History of Parliament, SALUSBURY, Sir John (c.1565-1612), of Lleweni, Denb. | History of Parliament Online

History of Parliament, IRELAND, Thomas (1560-1625), of Bewsey Hall, Warrington, Lancs and Gray’s Inn, London | History of Parliament Online

History of Parliament, ASTON, Sir Roger (-d.1612), of Edinburgh and Cranfold, Mdx. | History of Parliament Online

Jane Ratcliffe and the life of an ‘upper middling’ woman in seventeenth-century Chester

In our Social Status Calculator Jane Ratcliffe is given as an example of a typical ‘upper middling’ woman. This blog uses the limited surviving source material to further flesh out Jane’s social and cultural life in seventeenth-century Chester.

Jane was baptised in 1587, the daughter of John Brerewood, a glover of Chester who also served as a sheriff of the city. She was the granddaughter of Robert Brerewood, an illiterate yet highly successful glover who elevated the family’s status through success in trade and local politics, becoming an alderman and three times mayor of Chester (1583-4, 1587-8, 1600-1). The Brerewoods were therefore a family on the rise. In 1607 Jane married the Chester brewer John Ratcliffe, a match that was advantageous to Jane and the Brerewood family as John Ratcliffe was a successful tradesman, as well as being an alderman, sheriff, twice mayor (1611-12, 1628-9), and elected as an MP (1620, 1628). John, along with other members of Jane’s family, was a puritan and Jane underwent her own ‘conversion’ after losing their first child. Like Lettice Green (Hannah’s blog) and middling women more generally, Jane’s status was shaped by and reflected that of her husband and male relatives, affording her a strong position in local society. [1]

However, alongside the notability of her family, Jane received recognition in her own right in the form of a printed funeral sermon written about her by the Chester preacher John Ley in 1640.[2] Ley’s text has previously been examined by Peter Lake through the lens of the puritan tradition of ‘godly lives’, who argues that it demonstrates the ways in which women could use the puritan tradition for emancipatory purposes, to forge their own identities.[3] Whilst examining certain aspects of Jane’s ‘internal life’, Lake’s focus was on Jane’s application of puritan principles to her daily life. In contrast, I want to take a more secular reading of Ley’s text and show how the text can be used to uncover more about the everyday life of a middling woman in seventeenth century Chester. Whilst not her own account and, as argued by Lake, intended as puritan propaganda, Ley’s sermon also reveals a good deal about Jane’s social and cultural world.

Title page: John Ley, A Pattern of Piety (1640) [EEBO]

Unlike her grandfather Jane was fully literate, able to both read and write. Ley attributes Jane’s learning, and her ‘sharp and vigorous wit’, to her literate father and to her ‘learned Uncle of Gresham College’, Edward Brerewood, who attended Oxford and later became a professor of astrology.[4] Literacy and education were therefore prominent aspects of this families rise to prominence in Chester and beyond. While Jane did not have the grammar school education of her uncle or her brother, who was also grammar school and university educated, she must have benefitted second hand from their books and possibly from home schooling. Whilst it has been argued that provincial women were less likely to be literate than their London counterparts and that literacy was minimal in women below the gentry, Jane Ratcliffe is an example of one middling provincial woman that was fully literate.[5] Jane’s literacy is, however, only known to us through the secondary testimonial of Ley, which demonstrates the difficulties of determining whether Jane was typical or not of her gender and status as so few personal sources survive for middling women.

For Jane, reading appears to have been a popular pastime in her daily life. Ley describes her as ‘reading good bookes’, especially the Bible, to the extent that she ‘was addicted with an incredible desire and delight’. In addition to this, Ley makes frequent reference to her ‘letters’, writing for her ‘own private use’, and her ‘private papers’, although he does admit that he had ‘trouble’ reading them as Jane’s handwriting was ‘not easily legible’. The slightly illegible hand of Jane could reflect the disparities in female literacy and training, suggesting unfamiliarity with writing or lack of sustained education. Alternatively, it could be the result of illness. Ley recalls that Jane had suffered a ‘long and sore’ illness in previous years, which had caused her jaw to fall so that ‘she could not bring it up toward the upper part of her mouth’ and generally made her ‘weake’. Despite this Jane seems to have been a frequent writer. Her writings, as described by Ley, formed a spiritual diary or commonplace book of about ‘forty leaves in octavo’, which comprised of ‘enterchange of writing and blanks wherein she ment to make additions’. Jane would ‘first setteth downe the Articles of her Faith … with pertinent proofes of scripture to every point’ before making ‘application’ of each point ‘to herselfe’. Jane’s writings are therefore reflexive of the broader trend in puritan self-writing, particularly feminine spiritual reflection. [6]

Alongside evidence of her literacy, Ley also provides us with information surrounding the materiality of Jane’s writing practices, in a reference to the ‘little desk’ where she kept her private papers. This implies that the desk belonged to Jane and was for her own private use. Margaret Ezell has shown that literate women of status often had ‘female domestic space’ reserved for literacy and Jane’s desk could represent a slightly lower status version of this, which was confined to one piece of furniture rather than the luxury of a bigger private space.[7] Although Ley only recounts her spiritual writing, it is likely that Jane’s literacy had a wider practical function for the household, educating both her ‘children and servants’, and her husband’s Brewery business, which Jane assisted him with and eventually took over after his death in 1633.

Middling women were often involved in their husband’s business and it was not uncommon for women to take over management in their widowhood. Jane is described by Ley as having assisted her husband in her ‘conjugall estate’ and had, since being widowed, governed the same business with great providence, to the extent that ‘there was good hope if death had not pulled her downe too soone that she would have built it up to a further height.’ Jane’s business acumen is evident in her frugality, positive reputation within the community, and punctuality in meeting financial obligations – qualities that have been identified as central to ‘creditworthiness’ in early modern society.[8]

Jane’s frugality is emphasised further in her ‘estrangement from sensuall delights’, including the desire not to remarry despite receiving suitable offers. Whilst Ley claims that her reluctance to remarry demonstrates her devotion to God, ‘loyalty and love to her mate’ and a desire for more time for religious devotion, it is likely that a more practical, economic reason was involved. Amy Erickson has shown that wealthy widows were less likely to remarry, as they were released from the strictures of coverture and had control over their own life and estate. [9] That Jane ordered her life differently once widowed is suggested by Ley’s description of her committing the ‘chiefe part of her estate into the hands of her servants’ in order to obtain more ‘leisure’ for herself. Those servants are most likely Charles Farrington and Thomas Chrishley, to whom Jane left bequests of £20 a piece in her will and who she hoped would ‘continue their service to my sonne Samuell in the Brewhouse or use their best endeavours to furnish him with meete servants’.[10] Jane clearly wanted to manage the brewery and could do so efficiently, only handing over the business to her son at her death, and her detailed will further demonstrates her command over her estate.

In the five years between John’s death and her own, then, Jane was a business owner and employer in her own right and had significant status in the city. Her status was reflected in her daily business practices as well as in her outward appearance, which Ley also gives us some insight into. When discussing Jane’s modesty and humility, Ley recounted an incident he witnessed in the Ratcliffe house in which John Ratcliffe bought a new dress for his wife. According to Ley, the dress left Jane conflicted between her pious modesty and wish to obey her husband, as it was costly and made ‘her more fine than she desired to be’. In the end Jane chose to obey her husband and wear the dress, which Ley commended her for. Lake has emphasised the contrasting aims of this passage, which on the one hand serves as an example of the ‘obligation to obey’ a husband that was ‘propagated by puritan writers’, but on the other was framed to ‘illustrate [Jane’s] freedom from the usual feminine vice of vanity’ and show that her worth rested on ‘criteria other than those of mere feminine grace, outward appearance and comeliness.’ Lake also pointed out that this conflict took place in front of an ‘audience’, with Ley as the spectator who ‘served both to frame and strengthen’ her response to her husband.

However, there is another aspect to this discussion that Lake does not discuss, which can tell us more about dress, status, and social life in early-seventeenth-century Chester. Ley goes on to state that as well as submitting to her husband’s will, ‘the habit was no better than others of her ranke did weare’ or even those who ‘were inferiours unto her’. Indeed, even when Jane was widowed and ‘loosed from the law of her husband’ she did not wear ‘meaner raiment’, as the dress she had was ‘suitable to the place shee held in the City’ and she feared it being ‘imputed either to singularitie or nigardice, to have come too much below the condition wherein she was placed’. That Jane saw her appearance and dress as significant, and that her belongings were of some value, is suggested in her will, in which she specifically bequeaths jewellery and clothing to her two daughters. She bequeaths her ‘chaine of gould and one ring with a little stone in it’ to her daughter Jane, and her ‘two best suites of wearing apparrell with six suites of my best lynen wearing apparrell’ to her younger daughter Mary. Therefore, it was not just her obedience to her husband, her desire to be pious, or even to reflect her social status as a wife that made Jane dress in such a way. It was also her status as an independent woman and widow in Chester and how this was communicated outwardly that was important.

Ley also gives us some insight into Jane’s social life and cultural pursuits in Chester. As a young woman, before her ‘conversion’, Ley describes Jane as enjoying ‘dauncing, stage plaies, and other Publique vanities’ that he associated with youth culture (‘according to the fashion of young folkes’). He also states that such entertainments used to be ‘well thought of’ and ‘acted in the Church’, demonstrating the changing role of the Protestant church in Chester’s social calendar. Although Jane no longer took part in these cultural pursuits, she did have an active social life in Chester that consisted primarily of a circle of ‘female friends’. Later in the text, Ley relates reasons why Jane welcomed death that were supposedly written by her, one being that she did ‘daily suffer the losse of my friends who were the companions of my life, and meanes of much contentment unto mee’. Female friendship and sociability therefore appear to have been central to Jane’s daily life and of great importance to her.

As well as sociability with female friends, Ley was a regular visitor at the Ratcliffe’s house. He described his ‘often recourse’ there and remarked that he was ‘daily entertained for my diet when I was in towne’. Jane also made a visit to London ‘every other yeare’ as ‘performance of her promise made to her daughter’ upon her marriage to a London citizen. This reveals the close nature of familial relations and how kin maintained contact over long distances, as well as suggesting a tradition of visiting other cities for leisure and sociability. It was during one of these visits that Jane Ratcliffe passed away in 1638, hence why her will was proved in London and not in Chester. While Jane survived the earlier illness that affected the movement of her face, she was later struck by a sickness causing ‘certaine fits or traunces’ that ‘left her at last unable to speake or move’.

In the final sections of Ley’s text, he highlights the link between Jane Ratcliffe and her home city of Chester. Middling families like the Brerewoods and Ratcliffes were heavily involved in their civic environment as owners of property, members of their respective trade guilds, and officeholders in local government. However, the civic identity and prominence of these families is more often focused on their male members. Ley’s account is interesting for the emphasis he places on Jane as a ‘citizen’ in her own right, who was not only a comfort and friend to private individuals but in ‘every way so good, so assiduous and important a petitioner for both the publique welfare of the Church and state’. Through her charity she had ‘beene a good Benefactresse’ and possessed ‘a good Name and reputation in the world’, to the extent that Ley believed the city should be honoured that she was ‘borne’ and ‘brought up in it’ and remained ‘a Citizen of it well towards 50 yeares together’. Therefore, alongside her religious zeal, Ley paints Jane as an ideal citizen of a city commonwealth who upheld the moral, social, and economic values of early modern Chester.

Although not in her own words and written by Ley with an agenda to edify her fellow citizens, the sermon does provide us with a good account of Jane Ratcliffe’s life. Without it, Jane’s life, in contrast to that of her male family members, would be largely untraceable and confined solely to her role as wife and mother. Whilst this blog has only been concerned with Jane Ratcliffe, her life could reflect or resonate with the lives of many other middling women of this period.

By Mabel Winter


[1] For more on the Brerewood family see: D. M. Woodward, ‘The Chester Leather Industry, 1558-1625’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 119 (1967), pp. 65-111.

[2] John Ley, A Pattern of Piety. Or the Religious life and death of that Grave and gracious Matron, Mrs Jane Ratcliffe Widow and Citizen of Chester (London, 1640).

[3] Peter Lake, ‘Feminine Piety and Personal Potency: The ‘Emancipation of Mrs Jane Ratcliffe’, The Seventeenth Century 2 (1987), pp. 143-165.

[4] Thompson Cooper, revised by Anita McConnell, ‘Brerewood, Edward (c. 1565-1613)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/3335 [accessed 13 April 2021].

[5] David Cressy, Literacy and the Social order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1980), particularly chapters 6 and 7; Eleanor Hubbard argues for greater literacy than Cressy, but still claims less in the provinces than her London sample: ‘Reading, Writing, and Initialing: Female Literacy in Early Modern London’, The Journal of British Studies 54 (2015), pp. 553-577.

[6] Andrew Cambers, ‘Reading, the Godly, and Self-Writing in England, circa 1580–1720’, Journal of British Studies 46 (2007), pp. 796-825; Michael P. Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America (Yale, 2018).

[7] Margaret Ezell, ‘Women and Writing’ in Anita Pacheco (ed.) A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing (2002), pp. 79-80.

[8] Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1998), especially pp. 123-128.

[9] Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), p. 196.

[10] TNA: PROB 11/179/116.

Lettice Greene of Stratford-upon-Avon and her World

Stratford-upon-Avon Guildhall

Lettice Greene, like the majority of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, led a life in which her social status was determined by her male relatives. The life of her husband, Thomas Greene, was very well documented, particularly during the period 1602-1617, when he was town clerk and then steward of Stratford-upon-Avon. Lettice emerges as an important figure in documents made by or pertaining to her husband and other Stratford residents. This blog post presents a portrait of a middling woman who emerges from fragments of text.

Middling women’s activities often have to be glimpsed through snatched words, and their biographies are frequently partial. Their lives, where documented, are often written by men, though they followed very different trajectories: their educational experienced was geared towards skills that facilitated their running of a household, they very rarely gained positions of office, and their luck in marriage often determined whether they lived comfortable or difficult adult lives.[1] Their experiences, however, were varied, and many young women gained apprenticeships and positions of service before marriage and continued to have evolving careers over the course of their lives, as the Women’s Work in Rural England project has shown.[2]

Lettice began her life as the youngest daughter of a landed gentleman of West Meon in Hampshire. Here she would have had a privileged life, and she inherited 100 marks out of the profits of her father’s land. She bought this into her marriage to Thomas Greene, which took place in or around 1603, by which time she would have been in her late 20s. Thomas, although he was entitled to the title “gentleman” due to his education at the legal training centre of Middle Temple, was reliant on wages gained from his work for survival, and their early life in Stratford was spent as lodgers at New Place. Therefore, at this point in her life Lettice could be considered what we are terming “profession-al middling” status (working in or adjacent to a profession or literate role for a living), dependant on the hope that her husband would rise in status and wealth throughout his life. Although this status would have been gained through marriage, and shows a downward mobility from her landed gentry beginnings, from the evidence presented below, it seems that she may also have held this status in her own right, through the work she performed in relation to her husband’s profession as town clerk.

Lettice as a Writer and Networker

Letter from William Chandler to Thomas Greene at the Middle Temple. 26th January 1614. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

Lettice first caught my attention when I was exploring her husband Thomas’ cultural life through his writing. The letter in fig.1 is from William Chandler to Thomas, who was at the time of the letter, 26th January 1614, away from Stratford at the Middle Temple, where he spent a lot of his time. William asks Thomas for a subpoena out of the Star Chamber for six labourers involved in the enclosure of the common fields at Welcome, to which the Stratford Borough Corporation was opposed. He writes that:

I would intreate you if you have not the note of Remembrance that you tooke concerninge Mr Combe and other busyness at London all ready, then I would intreete you to Right downe to my mother greene that shee may send you the note up to you by the next retorne of the carrier.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

This sentence tells us a lot about Lettice’s important role in her husband’s professional life. She was clearly literate enough to read her husband’s fiendishly tricky cursive handwriting (which was especially bad in any of his ‘notes’) and could navigate her husband’s working space to the point of locating a particular document. Without his wife’s household management, Thomas might have been left to make do without some important information. Lettice, then, played an important role in mediating between Thomas’ life at the Middle Temple and his Stratford business.

The second document that gives an insight into Lettice’s involvement with her husband’s professional world emerges from Thomas’ diary, which records his conversations and actions during a protracted enclosure dispute in 1614 and 1615. Lettice’s social network of Stratford women gave her information, via Margaret Reynolds, of attempts by the local Combe brothers to buy up land from nearby landladies; this insight was relayed to her in Thomas’ absence, and he then recorded it in his diary when he got back.[4] Lettice was, then, trusted as a source for town news to be written down and Thomas’ recording of the conversation he had with her after his return home demonstrates the social role she played as a gatherer of information.

The third document where Lettice’s presence is marked is on a deed of conveyance for Elizabeth and Adrian Quiney drawn up in 1611, which she signs as a witness in fluent italic hand. Here we get more of a sense of her social connections – she signs alongside her husband as well as Edmund Rawlins (another lawyer) and Judith Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s daughter. She was, then, connected to some of the most powerful women in Stratford-upon-Avon: Elizabeth Quiney, the merchant and landowner, the Shakespeares (with whom she and Thomas also lodged at New Place in the first decade of the 17th century), and Margaret Reynolds, another female landowner. Her handwriting, present in her signature, also hints at her high level of literacy: her ink distribution is even and her hand confident (despite having to add an ‘I’ into her first name – Let^i^ce). The image of Lettice which emerges from these three documents is one of active involvement within her community and embeddedness within a network of socially and economically prominent women.

Lettice’s fluent handwriting, ability to locate and send documents to her husband, and role as a gatherer of information begs the question, just how frequently did Lettice write? Where did it all go? How typical was she of a middling woman married to a professional man who often spent time away for work? I’d been willing to imagine from her handwriting that Lettice was a regular scribe; that maybe she sent letters to her husband in his absences; that maybe she noted down information given to her. Her importance as an administrator only comes to light in a few documents, with her inevitable considerable unpaid labour towards her husband’s professional life hidden – if we had her matriarchive then #thanksfortyping might well be applicable to Lettice’s writing!

Lettice – a Businesswoman?

Although very little information survives about Lettice’s and Thomas’ home ‘St Mary’s’, it was described at its sale in 1617 as having a ‘brewing furnace’ and a brewhouse, as well as some land. This hints at the kind of activity Lettice may have participated in to enhance the household’s income. If Lena Orlin’s research into Anne Hathaway, and her speculation that Anne brewed beer at New Place is considered, it is not unlikely that Lettice, whilst lodging there, picked up this skill and continued it in her own home.[5] Her social circle of women who were economically active and successful in their own right, like Elizabeth Quiney and Margaret Reynolds, would suggest that Lettice also participated in similar enterprises within the town. Middling wives and widows conducted a range of paid and voluntary work within their homes and locales, and so it would not be unusual for Lettice to have generated produce in her brewhouse and on St Mary’s land to sell on.

After the house’s sale, Thomas and Lettice moved to St John’s Parish, Bristol, where, they largely disappear from the record.[6] Sadly, it seems Lettice’s marriage was not as economically or socially advantageous as she perhaps anticipated when she married a Middle Temple lawyer, who had secured a good position of office. In Thomas’ will (the final document in which Lettice can be found) he makes Lettice sole executrix, and bequeaths all of his remaining goods to her his ‘most deare & loving wife, being sorry that I haue noe more (than I haue to doe good a woman)’.[7] This statement is an extraordinary admission of Thomas’ failure to sustain the lifestyle Lettice was born into, but also suggests her important role as part of a team in marriage. Although, then, it is difficult to gain a full picture of Lettice’s life, these small mentions of her activities in documents pertaining to others hint at her varied work activities and the essential role she played in her household’s economic production. Perhaps, then, we might think of Lettice as having more than a supporting role, but as sharing a career with her husband, through her labours in his absence and domestic production of consumables. 

Hannah Lilley


[1] For an introduction to women’s education see: Caroline Bowen, ‘Women in Educational Spaces’ in The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. by Laura Lunger Knoppers (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).

[2] See https://earlymodernwomenswork.wordpress.com/ and Laura Gowing, ‘Girls on Forms: Apprenticing Young Women in Seventeenth-Century London’, The Journal of British Studies 55:3 (2016), 447-473.

[3] BRU15/5/151. William Chandler to Thomas Greene, Stratford the 26th January 1614. The survival of this letter within the borough archives suggests that either it was never sent, or that Thomas bought it back from London with him.

[4] BRU 15/13/29r.

[5] SBT, BRU15/7/128. Lena Cowen Orlin, ‘Anne By Indirection’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 60.4 (2014) 421-454,  p.447.

[6] BRU, 15/7/125 and BRU15/7/128.

[7] Will of Thomas Greene, National Archives PROB 11/186/420.

NB. Links in text are to Shakespeare Documented and to a Buzzfeed summary of #thanksfortyping.

WFH 2: Tradesmen and Tools for Working from Home, Chapter 1

Chisel, 17th Century. Item ID: LON-4261F3

For this second instalment of ‘Working from Home’ in early modern England, I’m going to take a look at some of the tools and materials urban individuals used as part of their trade in two posts. The first looks at the wider uses of tools and the second studies joiners.

The chisel in the image above might seem fairly ordinary, but for the 17th century tradesman it would have held a specific function and purpose for the performance of their craft. In early modern towns, individuals were set up and equipped to work from home, or in the home of their employers, and would often share tools, moulds and materials with their peers. Home set-ups are also a recurring concern from our own period of social distancing where many people have difficulty accessing the necessary equipment for performing their job – e.g. an adequate internet connection, working laptop or a comfortable seat.

From 1560 onwards there was a shift in how these tradespeople’s’ working spaces developed, with open hall houses giving way to an increase in rooms with specific purposes. Jane Whittle has noted that in Kent from 1600 to 1629 there was an increase in the number of specialist service room[s] within houses (like brew houses, mills and warehouses).[1] Two of this project’s team leaders, Catherine Richardson and Tara Hamling, have shown how people in urban settings invested in locks and doors to separate ‘working space from other spaces’.[2] Artisans would craft these areas to mark their trade identities to passers-by through the tools, materials and wares on display—and they often displayed shop boards at their openings, so they were not dissimilar from our own understanding of high street retail. But these shops were spaces of production, too, and could double as the site in which a trade was performed.

Tools and Identification of Trades


A Drawing of Tools seen in Chester Shops by Randle Holme in one of his manuscripts for The Academy of Armoury (1649), Harley MS 2026. Left = butchers, Middle = bakers, coopers = Right.

Randle Holmes III’s, The Academy of Armoury, or a Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry, published in 1688, helps explain the importance of shop tools to urban identities. In it, he describes the trades he encounters through his home town of Chester, the tools artisans use and the ‘terms of the art’ as well as providing illustrations. The above image Holmes’ workings in a manuscript compiled in 1649, and on this folio he depicts tools used in three professions (butchers, bakers and coopers) in careful detail.

Tools are considered part of symbolic identities. Individual tradesmen are tied to their craft through the material culture that surrounds it in the form of the assemblages of tools used for their work. Tools were kept with and deployed by a person. As such, they could be viewed like clothing, which conveyed signals about a person’s status, residence, societal roles, gender, wealth and occupation. [3]  A tradesman formed a close association with the equipment they shaped, repeatedly employed, and held.


Randle Holmes, Academy of Armoury, pp.364-65.

This facsimile, taken from the printed edition of Academy of Armoury, illustrates tools used in woodworking crafts like carpentry, joinery, and carving. The accompanying text is distinctly heraldic in its language with, for example, the mallet in the fourth image on the top row is elaborated with:

IV. He beareth Sanguine, a joyners mallet, Argent. By the name of Mallet. There is much difference between the masons, and the Joyners or Carpenters Mallets, the first being round and heavy, the others square both in the face and sides.

Randle Holme, The Academy of Armoury, or Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry (1688), p.365

Holmes both describes what a woodworking mallet looks like and specifies how it should be used in a coat of arms. ‘Argent’ is the heraldic term for silver, and ‘Sanguine’ is blood red, so he also prescribes the correct colours for the mallet’s proper rendering. Holmes also uses the phrase ‘he beareth’ and ‘to bear’ has the meaning to be ‘the wearer of a garment, ornament, badge, etc.’ (3a, oed). A tool often borne in a joiner’s hand is here used as a suggestion for his coat of arms, linking his identity to the equipment he uses for his trade. Within the Academy of Armoury, Holmes paints the visual world of trade identity through tools.

Tools at Home

Inventories—lists of goods made at (relatively wealthy people’s) death—sometimes record the tools belonging to an individual, and occasionally in great detail. They are therefore a means through which we might ground the tools deployed in Holmes’ volume in specific locales.

For example, Thomas Bonner, an Ipswich blacksmith inventoried in 1583 had a variety of tools in his shop.

The shoop stuff

Item one stythe [blacksmith’s anvil] and blocke ______4 0 0

Item a paier of bellowes and appurtenances _______  0 12 0

Item a beake horne [the pike of a blacksmith’s anvil] and carnayle toole and the blockes 0 2 6

Item one vyce ___________ 0 5 0

Item nyne hammers  __________ 0 6 0

Item thre payer of tonges ________0 1 6

Item the smalle tooles _________0 1 8

Item tenn Punchins [small pointed tool which could pierce materials] ___0 1 6

Item a nayle stocke __________0 0 8

Item fyve fyles two buttres a paier of pynsons and other tooles_____0 1 4

Item a carte strake wrought _____ 1 7 6

Item fyftie six pound Iron  ________0 4 8

Item LVIIIli leaden waights________0 4 10

Item two beames and skooles_______ 0 5 0

Item one smythes troughe___________0 0 6

Item a gryndston and cranke and the troughe _____ 0 5 0

From: The Ipswich Probate Inventories 1583-1631, ed. by Michael Reed (Boydell Press, 1981). Hereafter, IPI.)

Some of these tools are specialised to the blacksmith’s craft with a ‘stythe’ being a blacksmith’s anvil:


Modern blacksmith at work using 17th century style tools at Little Woodham Museum. By David Brightmore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Other tools, like hammers, files, weights and grindstones, are used across trades.

Archaeological examples of hammers show similar features to what we might expect today, with its flat head and prongs.

Iron Hammer, circa 1650. ID: LON-B0bD16

Bonner also has tenn ‘punchins’ which are small, sharp tools used to pierce metal. In his possession of ten of these punchins, Bonner would be able to produce piercings of various aesthetic effects, creating decorative touches to his work in ways which might make his work easily attributable to him.

Alongside his tools, Bonner has fire attending equipment, essential for the heat needed in the manipulation of metal, but also for light and warmth within the shop. Passers-by would be able to observe Bonner at work from the street, could judge his work, and make requests for wares to be made for them. The shop, in this sense, was a permeable boundary between the home and the outside world, where production and purchase happened in the same space.

The value of tools can be seen in the way they became heritable items. For example, Gilbert Mayerte, Millwright of Ipwich’s will details that:

‘I give and bequeathe unto the sayd Richard my sonne all my Tymber plancke bourd toles and all other tinges necessary belonging and Apperteyning to my science’

Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch, IC/AA1/7/67.

As such, craft identity as it is expressed through tools, permeates workspaces in multi-layered ways: tools used to create items for consumption in the present may have been inherited from a family member or employer which gave them significance as memory prompts of past craftsmen in their continued use through generations. Patterns of craft could then be established in locales where these tools and techniques were passed between people through inheritance. We can see this with the distinct style of armchair that emerged from Salisbury joiners’ workshops in the seventeenth century, as seen in a past blog post.

Apart from the shop, there were many other rooms used for manufacture or for the storage of tools and materials. On a small scale, these rooms might be listed as chambers. For example, houses in Ipswich and Bristol occasionally have ‘shop chambers’, which were linked spatially and in purpose with the shop.

These chambers frequently contained tools, materials and shop wares. Stephen Grenewich, dyer of Ipswich, had a room next to his shop that held weights and scales and a skraier (a frame for layering cloth upon) for clothworking (IPI, p.55). On a larger scale, someone might have workhouses or warehouses. For example, Henry Piper of Ipswich, poldavisweaver (poldavis is a particular type of cloth common in Brittany, which was bought over to England in 1547, and Ipswich became the centre of its production in England), inventoried in 1615, has two workhouses with nine looms and various cloths ‘in makinge’ and this demonstrates a larger scale of production taking place domestically, with multiple employees—an “SME” or small “factory.”[4]

In non-inventoried houses low down the social scale, in precariously middling or poor households, tools would also have appeared. There are plenty of examples in churchwardens accounts of wool cards, timber and other tools and materials handed out in charity to enable those less fortunate to generate income.

These practices extend to women’s work.  Widows often inherited shops and responsibility for its trade and production, alongside household labour. For example, Ann Barnarde, widow of Ipswich whose inventory was taken in 1606 possesses tools for embroidery – a ‘reell and a little yarne’ – things she may have used to generate some income (IPI, p.65).  A request for a women’s service in needlework appears in an Ipswich deposition too, where Margaret Morgon remembers that one Dorothy, a servant to Mr Barker,

bought unto the house of this deponent [Margaret] one shirte wrought w[i]th blacke worke of sylke & requested her this deponent to breake the same & to make the said dorothie a neckercher thereof w[hi]ch she […] so did.

Petty Court Depositions, Suffolk Archives, Ipswich, C/2/3/8/1, 140

Margaret recognises this shirt as stolen, but does the work anyway, with this case later going to court. The fact that the material garment recycled for the neckercher was stolen, is the only reason this example of Margaret’s work (and indeed Dorothy’s time as a servant before her marriage) is recorded. Work like this, completed with small tools like needles relies on archaeological examples like this needle to understand craft practices:

Post Medieval Needle, Portable Antiquities Scheme

There are many gaps in our understanding of practice generated by tools and materials which were ephemeral, used then thrown away, or too insignificant to be frequently recorded.  But records, archaeological finds and images demonstrate how essential tools were to a trades-person’s identity within an urban setting. Next time I’ll be looking more closely at a particular kind of making setting and the tools used within it: the joiner’s workshop.

By Hannah Lilley


[1] Jane Whittle, ‘The House as a Place of Work in Early Modern Rural England’, Home Cultures, 8:2 (2011), 133-150, pp.134-136.                                                                

[2] Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), p.144.

[3] For more on  clothing, tools in civic ceremonies, and identity this see, Catherine Richardson, ‘Dugdale and the Material Culture of Warwickshire,’ in C. Dyer and C. Richardson eds., William Dugdale, Historian, 1605-86: His Life, His Writings and His County (Boydell and Brewer, 2009).

[4]Eric Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p.123.

In search of the middle…

…it is now requisite (and, God, in justice, will so have it) that the stout, faithful, and prudent Citizens, and the men of middling Fortunes, who were heretofore scorned and oppressed, should be called into Office and employment…’

George Wither, 1646

“…most people actually still live in places like Harlesden or West Brom.”

Doreen Massey, 1994

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:

Talking class

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.  

Robert Greene at his writing desk and casually “shrouded in [his] winding-sheet.” Greene in Conceipt (1598).

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.  

Cultural Lives

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.