Martin the Minstrel and the Playhouses of Suffolk

How did ordinary people “play” in towns and cities outside of London in early modern England?  Leisure is a crucial aspect of middling experience and a key theme for this project, which aims to understand the different elements of non-elite cultural experience, ranging from gambling to reading to musical tuition.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ipswich and its surroundings—one of our community case studies—offers an insight into the vibrancy and variation of public forms of “play” in this period, one that tells us a great deal about how Tudor and Stuart people understood recreation (and, in turn, how the development of the playing industry in London had crucial “provincial” contexts).  Our work on Bristol has already shown how a long-standing playhouse in Wine Street (operative for some 20 years) sat at the centre of a lively political and commercial network of middling individuals in the early seventeenth century. This property was a tenement with one front door and several rooms—all let out for various purposes—in which one or two rooms were used to host “comedians.”  Despite, or perhaps because of, the multipurpose nature of this property, its proprietor Margaret Woolfe explained that it was “commonlie called the playhouse” by Bristolians (The National Archives MS C2/328/28).  Her description testifies to the flexible nature of the term “playhouse” and its applicability to a range of architecturally-, commercially-, and recreationally-diverse enterprises.

“for kepinge A pleyhowse”

The archives of Ipswich and wider Suffolk contain further evidence of the way expansive “play” activities shaped the lives of the non-elite.  

In 1627, Jacob Abadham was reportedly running a playhouse in Ipswich.  It’s not certain quite what was on offer in the establishment, but like the Woolfes’ venue in Bristol, the Quarter Sessions cited Abadham “for kepinge a Pleyhouse,” in this case among a list of individuals bound £10 “not to plaie att vnlawfull games” (which could encompass anything from dicing and carding to bowling) on the 17 January (Suffolk Archives  C/2/9/1/1/8, 178).  Two years later, John Payne was bound “not to suffer any pleyinge in his house” (28 July 1629; 198).  Such instances indicate how the term playhouse described, at least in this corner of the country, spaces where “game” was practised and extend the connections between the performance of playing and gaming along the lines recently identified by theatre historians such as Gina Bloom, Erika Lin, and Tom Bishop.  It also testifies to Peter Clarke’s remarks about how, in the wake of attacks on church-orientated festival, the alehouse increasingly became a centre of communal games and rituals (with a corresponding increase in regulation) (The English Alehouse [1983]).

These activities sat among a broader spectrum of what residents would have termed playing.  Visiting bearwards, for instance—particularly in the mid-to-late sixteenth-century—were popular purveyors of entertainment in the area.  One payment from 1565 records a fee delivered to the “dewekes bereward for his reward for baitinge of his beares vppon the corne hill” (Suffolk Archives C/3/2/1, 21v [19]).  This entry indicates where exactly bearbaiting would occur in early modern Ipswich—in the Cornhill immediately before the main civic building, the Moot Hall (or Town Hall). 

from John Webb, The Town Finances of Elizabethan Ipswich (1996)

This is not only where all the work of government and legal proceedings would take place, but it was also where visiting troupes of players would have performed before the town authorities and perhaps wider audiences.  These include “national” troupes patronised by major figures (including the Queen, Fortescue, Worcester, or Pembroke) but also troupes identified by their very regionality: “c{er}ten players of Lincolnshere” (SA C/3/2/1, 29r [27]) and “Mr Tewk{es} plaiers the highe sheriff of Essex” (21v [19]).  

When the cook Henry Semer was arrested in Ipswich on 14 March 1620 “for ffightinge w{i}th the pleyers” (SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 59), it may therefore have been an altercation with one of these well-rewarded visitors, but it could also have been for a quarrel with somebody he knew well.  The town had a long history of its own performers, particularly surrounding the prominent Martin the Minstrel, rewarded frequently in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign for his varied theatrical labours in and around the town.  It also seemingly commissioned its own drama from local schoolchildren; in 1565, the Chamberlain “paide for a play to mr Scott{es} lads the sonday before newe yeres day [10s]” (SA C/3/2/1, 12r).

Middling Minstrelsy?

But what does the elastic nature of “play” have to do with the cultural lives of the middling sort?  Play represents one vehicle for achieving prominent status in the community and for securing the type of local political and administrative agency that so often marks out those in the “middle” stratum of society from their more precarious, even disenfranchised, neighbours.

Community performance is one area that might afford such agency.  The study of civic pageantry is at present an especially lively field, and Tracey Hill’s work and her current REED Civic London project explore the breadth and extent of those involved in theatrical activity across livery companies, the mayoralty, and beyond in the early modern capital.  Ipswich’s political structures—upheld by the type of people this project aims to learn more about—were no less involved with the commissioning of play, and as a consequence (beyond “patronage” and livery), the notion of formal administrative “officeholding” extends in this period to performance.

In 1558, the first year of the Queen’s reign, the chief performer of early Elizabethan Ipswich Martin the Minstrel was carried by the Chamberlain and his horse to see the local MP, John Suliard (SA C/3/2/1, 6r).  Martin’s role in local diplomacy and civic ceremony indicates the crucial connection between public office and professional performance in this particular community, and he and his company also play “before” the bailiffs’ physical and symbolic “entry” into their roles in 1567.  

To Martyn the mynstrell for him & his company in plaienge before m{aste}r baylyff{es} at ther entrye of ther Baylywicke xs

(SA C/3/2/1, 29r)

To Martyn the minstrell for playenge before M{aste}r Bayly Whetcrofte at his goinge to m{i}chaelmas t{er}me [no cost entered]

(SA C/3/2/1, 29r)

It is highly likely that Martin the Minstrel is also William Marten, musician and player, who was funded by the town to perform in his various “entertainment” roles, including fees for him “and his companye for A playe at the mote hall” in 1572 (ibid. 38r).  By 1582, Ipswich had purchased

at the request of Will{ia}m marten musician the said Will{ia}m marten & his Company being 6 in all […] waight{es} [woodwind instruments] bought at the townes chardge & that he & they shall therewith s{er}ue the towne for one yere in suche order as by the bayliff{es} shalbe thoguht mete & requisit And the said Will{ia}m & his Company to send to the considerac{i}on of the towne, for ther wages in that behalf, And it is furder Agreed by the consent of the said will{ia}m that if the towne shall not lyke of ther s{er}uice At the yere ende that then he the said will{ia}m shall repaye the som{m}e f money the towne shall so disburse backe ageyne And for the better assurance of payment therof the said Will{ia}m p{ro}miseth to stonde bound with sufficient suerties Accordyngly as by mr Bayliff{es} for the tyme being shall thinke mete And allowe of/.

(SA C/2/2/2/1, 142)

The company were kept as the town waits (“musicians” or performers named after the popular woodwind instrument similar to the oboe—the “wait”) from this date forward, ratified again in 1590 (ibid. 293), before in 1597 they were discharged of their retainer in the time of sickness (March 1597).  Martin’s skills ranged in thirty-odd years of service from “playeng the fooles in the hall” (SA C/3/2/1, 30r) to professional musicianship.  His company’s career was already established by the time it was appointed to civic service, though continuance in that role seemingly depended upon the tastes and approval of the Ipswich governing authorities.  

The shawm or wait (Wikimedia Commons)

The hiring of Marten’s troupe formalised the existing relationship between Ipswich and the “independent” Martin the Minstrel and his company, instituting a new career phase in a public service role akin to the “watch” or to beadles, surveyors, or highways inspectors.  Other such offices rewarded by the Chamberlains include attorneys, pursuivants, and sergeants—roles more formally recognised today, perhaps, as part of a town hierarchy.  Yet Martin’s activities also position him as a man of both financial success (with regular reward from the Chamberlain) and “office,” as the local player and musician leader.  

More surprisingly, Marten also occupies a second formal role in civic administration as the clerk of the market.  From at least 1574 onwards, for several years, he received payments of 6 shillings and 8 pence per quarter for this responsibility, at the same time as he fulfilled his theatrical roles.  These successive payments from 1575 testify to a complementary relationship between creative performance and bureaucratic office in the early modern commonwealth:

It{e}m p{ai}d to Will{ia}m Marten clarke of the markett the xxiiijtie daye of Iune for his q{uar}ter wag{es} — vjs viiijd

It{e}m p{ai}d to will{ia}m marten Clarke of the markett more the xxtie daye of Iune by a warrant for musicke at ye gilde dinn{er} — xs

(SA C/3/2/1, 87r)

Marten’s social status is therefore determined by both public administration and play.  An inventory from 1580 made by the town treasurer indicates how these roles had similar material concerns regarding the township’s possessions, with the inventory of items “vnder the Custodie of will{ia}m Marten clark of the m{ar}kett” including several bushells, a chain, brass scales, “A pound wayte & A q{uar}ter of A pound” (165r).  A fortunate pun therefore draws together Martin the minstrel—player of the wait (the woodwind instrument)—with Marten the clerk, who commanded the town’s measures and weights. 

Not only does Marten rise above hand-to-mouth existence thanks to his regular employments here, but his negotiations between local authority, townspeople, and a paying public position him as a key civic actor, in all senses of the term.  Such roles are particularly important if we are to understand this broad and complex status of those between the “elite” and the wage labourer, particularly in the case of early modern Ipswich and Bristol: urban environments where major political power was increasingly monopolised by a closed oligarchy but where intermediate positions (such as Marten’s) delivered degrees of civic agency. Marten the Minstrel’s biography as gleaned from these records may be scattered, but it allows us to put him as an early, provincial parallel (albeit on a smaller scale) to successful actor-entrepreneurs with civic or royal responsibilities in London later in the century, such as Edward Alleyn.

Work, Home, and Play 

Marten’s offices represent one aspect of middling status inextricably bound up with theatrical performance, but the social significance of play for a range of non-elite men and women also extended to physical spaces.  We have seen, for instance, how Abadham was cited for running a playhouse and Payne fined for playing at his house.  In this sense, “play” can bring together the ostensibly closed domestic home with public and even commercial leisure activity.

Inns and taverns doubled up themselves as play/houses, and these spaces may indicate an overlap with Abadham’s or Payne’s properties: there was a worryingly thin line for authorities in this period between the common inn or alehouse and a household that played host to multiple visitors—not least in a period where regulation of victualling houses, rented rooms, and inns was intensifying (see, for instance, punishment by imprisonment of any “such p{er}sons as have taken any Inmates into their houses” [1625; SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 151]).  Those ranging from the JAMs (the just-about-middling—those above wage labour) to the upper ends of middle status (those pushing gentry level) frequented such spots to play, gamble, and/or drink, and Mark Hailwood’s study of the alehouse (ostensibly the “lowest” drinking spot) has illustrated the demographic diversity of these social spaces.  

What might be on the surface more clearly be defined as a domestic house—and middling homes in particular—also had sense of multiplicity and permeability.  Catherine and Tara explore in A Day at Home in Early Modern England how these properties acted as “multifunctional houses and spaces” with a “penetration of work and leisure, domestic and commercial production” (266).  This happens not only at the level of household production or artisanal practice (in the sense that a goldsmith’s workshop, say, may be in the street-facing room of their home), but at the level of game and play, too.  

When Peter Watlyn was indicted for “pleyinge & sufferinge pleye” in Ipswich in September 1621 (SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 92) or when Thomas Cowper was indicted simply for “pleyenge” (1623, ibid. 108) they were being accused of hosting and practising an activity that sat, uncomfortably for authorities, between public commerce and “private” sinfulness.  According to more cynical commentators, they also help to fill the civic coffers; T.F.’s Newes from the North (1579) complained that town officials only pay lip service to the punishment of unlawful gamers, arguing that “if there were as great gayn and profit to the Magistrates and Officers in the godly lives and honest conversation of the common people as there is in the contrary: these harbours of ungodliness and misnurture, would have less favour anad maintenance than they have” (F4r).  Watlyn, Cowper, and the Suffolk “playhouse” owner Abadham therefore, by circles, helped pay the wages of sanctioned civic players like Martin the Minstrel and formed part of a calculatedly, regulated-just-enough industry that simultaneously infringed upon and enriched the community. 

Such individuals were also “playing” in a range of establishments beyond the inn, as illustrated by examples like Bristol’s Thomas Rockwell, whose probate inventory records not only an array of pictures and painted hangings but “a payer of playing tables” in the closet next to the hall (Bristol Archives, EP J/4/18, Bundle 1620).  If “playhouse” were a fluid concept for early modern men and women, then certain semi-permeable middling homes could easily have represented spaces where household sociability borders on commercial recreation and where the line between the domestic house and the playhouse is teasingly thin.  

Games board from Granada, 16th century. V&A (154-1900).

Material items are one clue to how such interaction between work and leisure extended out from the household and across the spectrum of society, as is clear from the likes of Alexander Cooke and Nicholas Goldbolde, who found themselves in trouble with the Petty Court in 1576 for spending working hours playing at dice: 

about fortnett before Whitsontide Laste he this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te and one Nicholas Godbolde were in companie together & they played together at the dyce at the game called Passage for monie at w{hi}ch tyme the seid nycholas Godbolde ded Wynne of this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te Syxtene pence & then Lefte plaie And furdre this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te saithe that he this deponent & the seid nycholas Godbolde plaied together oth{er} tymes at the Dyce for monie At m{istre}s ffastoll{es} hayestacke when they had served ther Cattell And this vppon his othe he confesseth to be trewe./ ./ ./

(SA C/2/3/8/1, 155)

Dice are small material props that can instantly transform a space for work into a commercial or profit-based recreational activity—here, gambling in an outdoor work location.  Inside the inn, tavern, or even the domestic home, such items can have a similar effect: a pair of dice could conceivably be enough to transform John Payne’s “house” into a “playhouse” or (to use another common early modern term) “dicing house.”  Those of higher means and status are unsurprisingly much more rarely subject to legal repercussions than those with limited political or financial agency, but that does not mean that similar forms of recreation were not, directly or indirectly, important parts of their worlds.  

Dice and accessories from games board (above) from Granada, 16th century. V&A (154-19

Indeed, other physical items might advertise “greater” cultural capital but similarly align the house and the playhouse: the Woolfes’ theatre in Bristol, for instance, is associated with a pair of virginals that Nicholas Woolfe bequeathed to his son Miles.  Christopher Marsh has explained how ostensibly “high-status” instruments such as virginals might nonetheless be found in more “popular” non-elite spaces such as alehouses and taverns (Music and Society in Early Modern England [2010]); it’s not a stretch to imagine them in use in a theatre in a well-heeled part of town.  As such, the Woolfes’ household tuition, practice, and pastime merge in these objects into spaces designed for paid public performance.  

Virginal with date 1575 engraved, Horniman Museum and V&A M29.3.61/1

These examples, from Marten the Minstrel to the Woolfes in Bristol, indicate that “play”—in all its forms—could be a valuable, profitable, and respectable means to social preferment.  Such individuals combined creativity with business or administration to enhance their cultural, financial, and political capital—and just as importantly, one might imagine, to delight in and share their artistry.

Callan Davies

How to be a Goldsmith in Elizabethan Bristol

We will be producing a series of posts and guest posts over the course of the project, including “Long Reads” (longer form (but still brief) explorations of a subject) and “Short Reads” (digestible in a brief survey). This opening Long Read explores what it was like to be a goldsmith in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bristol, looking at provincial craftspeople’s relationship with the London company, the trendy craft hotspot of Bristol’s Wine Street, and the surprisingly varied uses of goldsmiths’ wares.


In late sixteenth-century England, a young man could do worse than become an apprentice with a goldsmith.  The trade offered reasonable financial rewards and put its best craftspeople into contact with well-off and well-connected customers. That didn’t always, unsurprisingly, guarantee financial success.  One of the most famous goldsmiths of the period was the esteemed miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard; despite reaching acclaim in courts across Europe for his artwork and running a thriving goldsmiths’ trade from his London shop for decades, he spent much of his life in financial precarity.  Yet he accrued other forms of capital, not least through his intimate access to English and French courts.  Moreover, Pamela H. Smith has shown how artisans, in particular goldsmiths, were at the centre of a shift in the way cultural and scientific knowledge was represented in and produced through art: “early modern artisans were experts on natural processes” (7); Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin has similarly shown how individuals connected to the trade, such as assayers, “belied any purported boundaries between artisanal, mercantile and experimental worlds” (2).  It is therefore perhaps no surprise that some of the leading innovators in representing the physical world during the Northern Renaissance—such as Albrecht Dürer—were goldsmiths by trade.  

As such, the craft brings together a range of cultural, social, and financial opportunities, and the objects goldsmiths produced found their way into circulation in a variety of surprising ways.  Those familiar with early modern drama know how something as simple as a ring can take on epic significance from the forensic to the metaphorical—as in the final scene of All’s Well that Ends Well, for instance, which hinges on the evidentiary value of such an item of jewellery. Tradespeople in a host of livery companies might also recognise the business uses of rings, which could be “deposited” to bind people to oaths and price regulations, and rings hold a widespread memorial function, too, often left by bequest in wills and given at funerals.  Goldsmiths therefore represent a major “middling” trade, with practitioners coming from a variety of backgrounds, with their wares reaching key middling sections of society, and with objects such as rings and spoons representing the combination of aesthetic, emotional, and business value at the heart of “middling” men and women’s existence.

But what was it like to be a goldsmith away from the trade’s national centre among the shops and selds (a structure of several stalls set back from the street, like a small market or mall) of London’s Cheapside?  This post assays life for provincial goldsmiths in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the network operating in the growing port city of Bristol: here, goldsmiths find themselves everywhere from the prison to the fair; they also demonstrate the successes of family trade dynasties and early forms of “banking” and financial management, while rubbing shoulders with playhouse entrepreneurs and prosperous merchants.


The Goldsmiths’ Company

One of the prime concerns for any goldsmith is the weighing of precious metal and the attendant quality of their work or wares, and anybody looking to work in Bristol, as elsewhere, would have to be comfortable having their work assessed, deemed unworthy, and publicly destroyed by senior figures from London.  This is because the royal charter possessed by London’s Goldsmiths’ Company granted them authority over the trade nationwide, making Bristolian goldsmiths subject to scrutiny and summons to their hall on Fetter Lane by London’s Guildhall.  More intrusively, the Company could search their shops and stalls, or attend commercially-orientated fairs—notably often at Marlborough, the Bristol fairs, and Sturbridge—where they tested goods by hand and sometimes further by more detailed assay or melting (sometimes taking goods into their possession to return to the Goldsmiths’ Hall for further consideration or, when clear they’re substandard, destroying or breaking them there and then). 

While you’re in the presence of one of these searches, you may learn a little more about the range and quality of your fellow craftspeople’s work, and the court books duly list the types of goods being sold by Bristolian goldsmiths and their advertised vs their actual worth. For instance, in 1633, Thomas Northall’s wares include:

23 Thimbles half made
24 gold rings
25 bodkins half made 
12 gold ^beadrings
9 knot rings
15 enamel rings
6 deaths heads
51 gilt rings

We can imagine the presence of these goods laid out in Northall’s Bristol shop and consider, as below, the ways in which these items would have circulated amongst his local community.  These searches provide a rare occasion in which the breadth of provincial goldsmiths’ goods can be recovered and studied, and they help to build a picture of metalwork in the early modern South West.

Petrus Christus, Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449. Met Museum.

Stubborn Goldsmiths

These obligations and the searches of the regions ask questions about the relationship between regional goldsmiths and the Company.  If you worked as a goldsmith in Bristol, how much identification with the livery company might you feel—and how does being governed remotely by a London company and structure affect one’s sense of civic and craft pride?

If this seems an important question, you might turn to your colleague from Salisbury, “stubborn” George Batter, for an answer (if you can pin him down…).  Batter demonstrates what resistance to such London-centric measures might look like, given the disregard for the authority of the Company he displayed on one of its searches in 1631. He lied about being of the trade, refused to allow his items to be searched or tested, declined to show up in person when summoned, and is eventually imprisoned after the two wardens of the Company convince the Mayor of Salisbury to assist them in apprehending him and forcing him to cooperate. They had over the course of these events tested “one spoon … made by the said Batter with his mark thereupon, which being tried by the touch appeared not to be so good silver as that of 9oz fine” (Book R 1: 128).

Beyond your conversation with George Batter, you might turn to individuals in your parish to see how other trades resent intrusions from London authorities—particularly if you’re friends with any members of Bristol’s prominent Soapmakers’ Company.  They demonstrate a comparable resentment towards London intrusions into their local craft dealings a few years after Batter in 1633—just a short time after Charles I’s grant to the London Soapmakers’ of a nationwide monopoly similar to that long held by the Goldsmiths’.  The Bristolian soapmakers, perhaps taking umbrage at being “governed,” compare Bristol soap (also known as “Black Soap”) with its competitors’ through a napkin-based “whites challenge” in the presence of the London assayer:

[…] Certain Linen Napkins washed by Several Women with the same several sorts of soap […] And although the said napkins washed with Bristol Soap were altogether as white washed and as sweet, or rather sweeter, than the other, yet in the washing of the said Napkins There was not Altogether so much Soap expended of the said Bristol Soap as there was of the other Soap.

(BRS 10; 195)

The civic pride implicit in the Soapmakers’ Guild is undercut in George Batter’s unfortunate experience, as he has no recourse even to local protection, with Salisbury’s mayor assisting the wardens’ enquiries. They ultimately proved lenient towards him in levying a revised fine that took into account his “poverty” and eventual acquiescence and repentance (17 August 1631, R 1:127-9). Perhaps tellingly, two years later in 1633, Batter appears again in a Salisbury search, where he proved more compliant (Book R: 2:370).

Wine Street

Perhaps you are weighing up where to set up shop as a newcomer to Bristol—something that Giles and Edward Evenet would have done in October 1571, after they are recorded as “living, resident, and abiding [in] the country” in Bristol having left London without return “by a year and a day”–a move to the provinces that the Goldsmiths’ Company seem to regard as important and in need of regulation.

In your new home of Bristol, the prime place to continue your trade would have been the thriving neighbourhood of Wine Street in the parish of Christchurch (also known as Holy Trinity).  The street was home to a series of substantial tenements and properties, many of which were owned by the City Corporation and rented by prominent figures in the city (including aldermen and past and future mayors).  It was also home to at least two major South West goldsmiths, Humphrey Clovell and Edward Harsell.  In the mid-1570s, a new “meal market” (or corn market) was built at the end of Wine Street, which was rented out to 10-12 goldsmiths from London and other places during the most important commercial feature in any Bristolian’s calendar, the St James’ Fair, which attracted buyers and sellers from across the country (and beyond the seas).  The street therefore represents a significant destination for anybody looking to buy jewellery and other metalwork.  

If you’re interested in doing some market research or understanding the tastes and styles particular to Bristol goldsmiths and their customers, it would be wise to head to No. 8 Wine Street to speak with Humphrey Clovell.  From this property, Clovell would have sold items such as the 2 bowls, 6 gilt rings, and 3 spoons with heads for which he was assessed in 1599 (Book N 181). He was a major figure in Bristol’s metalwork industry; he did his apprenticeship under Paul Freling, and the apprentices Clovell trained include Thomas Wall and John Corsley, the latter of whom went on to marry Clovell’s daughter Elizabeth in 1592 and was the first of a long line of prolific Corsley goldsmiths working out of the south west (Kent 80).  

When you arrive to speak with Clovell, you may find him slightly preoccupied with his son-in-law, who drifts in and out of Bristol.  In 1606, nearly 15 years after his marriage with Clovell’s daughter, Corsley finds himself “lying in Prison in Newgate in London upon sundry accounts of debt.”  According to the defendant (William Walton) in a Chancery case concerning unpaid debts, Corsley was freed thanks to significant loans by Walton and others that he neglected to repay.  Walton claims to have spent years chasing Corsley, only for him to “go and lay in the North parts of this land where [the] defendant should not touch him”.  When he did return to Bristol, “it was under his father in law mr Clovell, goldsmith in Bristol.”  If you visit in the 1600s, 1610s, or 1620s in the years preceding Walton’s lawsuit, you may well find both goldsmiths in Wine Street.  

If you find Clovell unhelpful, you could always look for some financing from Corsley.  According to Walton, by the 1620s, the erstwhile debtor has returned more permanently to Bristol and “dealeth in great sums in the trade of a goldsmith” (TNA C3/341/56).  The defendant’s phrasing suggests that Corsley uses his trade to function as a financier or money trader, perhaps indicating an early example of the form of “goldsmith-banking” that formed the foundations of England’s banking sector in the late seventeenth century.  But you may wish to take into account Walton’s less-than-glowing consumer report…

You could speak instead with Edward Harsell, who lived two doors down from Clovell and who clearly knew him—well enough, at least, to witness the probate inventory after Clovell’s death in 1627 that records some of Clovell’s interior design choices, including “the wainscot, stained cloths, & pictures about the hall” (BRS Vol. 54;62-4). Harsell is also a significant figure among Bristol’s early modern metalworkers.  Work from Harsell’s shop survives, marked with his name and a small symbol (for more details on surviving marks see Timothy Kent): 

Harsell (possibly Richard or his son Edward), Spoon, “with a gilt maidenhead,” © Woolley & Wallis, Salisbury, Wiltshire, (on marks4antiques.com

The marking of this spoon with Harsell’s name suggests the advertising value tied to the craft, as this form of signature or branding seems to be unique to metalwork. Might these goldsmith-specific marks enhance or alter one’s reputation in the wider community and make one’s name more widely visible than those in other trades?

Have Connections in London

Appealing as Bristol might sound by now, it’s certainly worth fostering good connections with London and particularly the hierarchy of the Goldsmiths’ Company—perhaps, if you’re well-backed enough, by looking to serve your apprenticeship in the capital.  Timothy Kent observes how unusual it is for the Company to say anything nice about the work of provincial goldsmiths (95).  But in their search of Bristol in 1633, they made comment “upon the wares of Thomas Griffyn and Edward Griffin,” which “were found agreeable to the standards of gold and silver and redelivered them again” (Book R 2: 381). It is no coincidence that Edward Griffin (also Griffith) started his apprenticeship under John Wollaston of London—one of the wardens of the Company carrying out the search… (Kent 95).

Lost and found

Lastly, it’s important to keep your wares and your belongings safe, so that these valuable items can be kept in either personal possession or sanctioned circulation.  An entry on the 24 January 1573 in the Goldsmiths’ Company court books describes how an apprentice found in a chamber a “ring of gold with a cross and a heart in a pansy, with a “d” the one side of the cross and “M” on the other side of the same, with a G & H above it, & this date “1569” under it.” The ring was found in “The Temple wherein” Mr Fleetwood and Mr Sands have their lodging.  The wardens of the Company order that the ring be delivered to those two men “to the intent that they shall deliver it to the right owner if it be possible” (L 1:179).

Elizabethan Betrothal Signet Ring; 1stdibs.com

This minor incident represents a curious textual recording of this piece of jewellery and its accidents and circulation, but it also points to the formal structures surrounding lost jewellery in such a heavily-regulated gold market.  At the same time, it preserves the personal value of the item, delivering an ekphrastic lost and found record that announces the ring’s personalised inscription and perhaps indicates that its safe return is ordered with a nod to its likely emotional significance.  If it were central to a betrothal, it also has an added legal charge, testifying to a contract or binding. Its discovery in a chamber leaves to the imagination why the apprentice considered it lost (might it have been put aside for safe keeping?) and why it was not being worn (was it purposely discarded?).  

The entry thereby combines the financial and personal significance of jewellery, something that accords with other uses of rings in company records.  If you’re curious about how your wares might be used once you’ve established your freedom to trade in Bristol, you could start up your conversation with the Soapmakers of Bristol again.  In the seventeenth century, they begin to put rings down as deposits or forfeits for their observance of pricing agreements.  In 1612, members agreed on a price to which they “set … hands and Possites [deposits],” including (to pick a selection) Humphrey Reade’s signet ring and Thomas Burrows’ ring of gold; in 1614, Mrs Slye deposited 1 ring with a diamond and Leonard Hancock’s deposit was six silver spoons (BRS 10 95, 103-4). The symbolic qualities of these objects indicate how the deposits act as an extension of individual identity.

Tracking the varied circulation of rings in this way for middling members of livery companies suggests a broader cultural network for material objects such as jewels and in turn indicates the imbrication of commercial, personal, and domestic material culture.  The Bristol soapmakers’ rings may have had or once have had romantic or other significance for their owners, but they are (also) being put into a business network as promissory pawns.  Such rings (or silver spoons) may well have come from one of the prominent goldsmiths producing such items in Bristol across this period, perhaps from the Wine Street shops of Edward Harsell or Humphrey Clovell.  If you join the local collective of goldsmiths in Bristol, you would likewise release your work into a community where jewellery’s practical and decorative uses combine to furnish men and women of the town with status symbols—ones that represent a combination of social, cultural, and economic currency.  And, like Clovell, you may develop a deep familiarity with other cultural artefacts, from stained cloths and pictures to the plays that entertained audiences at Bristol’s Wine Street playhouse for nearly 30 years. 

Callan Davies


Bibliography:

Bristol Archives (Bristol).  Diocesan Court, Cause Books. EP/J/1/11.
Bristol Record Society. 10 (Proceedings, Minutes and Enrolments of the Company of Soapmakers, 1562-1642, H.E. Matthews) (1940)
—. 48 (The Topography of Medieval and Early Modern Bristol: Part One, Roger Leech). (1997)
—. 54 (Probate Inventories, Part I, Edwin and Stella George, assisted by Peter Fleming). (2002)
The Goldsmiths’ Company Hall, Library and Archives (London).  Court Minutes.  Books L, N, and R1 and R2.
Elizabeth Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (2019)
Timothy Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and their Makers, 1550-1750 (1992)
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin. “A Place of Great Trust to be Supplied by Men of Skill and Integrity”: Assayers and Knowledge Cultures in Late Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century London.” BJHS (2019): 1-27.
Roger Leech. The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol (2014).
The National Archives (Kew).  C3/341/56. 
The National Archives (Kew).  C2/JasI/W4/59. 
Pamela H. Smith. The Body of the Artisan (2004)

Interrogating ‘middling culture’: a workshop report

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

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

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tudor Intergenerational Inequality

My father was a Yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of 3 or 4 pound by year at the uttermost, and hereupon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had walk for a hundred sheep, and my mother milked 30 cows. He was able, and did find the king a harness, with himself and his horse, while he came to the place that he should receiue the king’s wages. I can remember, that I buckled his harness when he went unto Blackheath field. He kept me to school, or else I had not bene able to have preached before the king’s majesty now. He married my sisters with v pound, or 20 nobles apiece; so that he brought them up in godliness, and fear of God. He kept hospitality for his poor neighbours, and some alms he gave to the poor, and all this did he of the said farm. Where he that now has it, pays 16 pound by year, or more, and is not able to do anything for his prince, for himself, nor for his children, or give a cup of drink to the pore.

27 sermons preached by the ryght Reuerende […] Maister Hugh Latimer(STC 15276; 1562), E3r [George Elwes Corrie, ed., Sermons By Hugh Latimer (Cambridge, 1844), 101]

This passage is taken from the printed version of a sermon given by Hugh Latimer (c. 1485 – university divine and bishop under Henry VIII, court preacher under Edward VI, executed as a heretic under Mary I – in 1549.  This autobiographical anecdote, dating from just a few years before the period the ‘Middling Cultures’ project investigates, highlights many of the themes and concepts that will be central in our research. It emphasises the role of identity and self-perception even as it also shows the ways in which these interacted with and were shaped by external and variable economic and social forces. It reminds us that middling status could be precarious and fleeting as individuals, across just one or two generations or even across a lifetime, might rise and fall beyond it. Latimer’s invocation of contemporary anger at a divide between rich and the ordinary – and the exploitation of the latter by the former – provides an important and central context for the lives of those trying to carve out a space in the middle of a hierarchy that to some felt increasingly hostile. It also resonates with many modern concerns about a world with a rising super-rich and a middle who wonder if they will ever have the economic security that an older generation enjoyed.

Hugh Latimer preaching before Edward VI, as imagined in an illustration in John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1563). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

As Latimer delineates his father’s status, the intermingling of social, economic, political, moral and cultural capital is clear. His father’s position, in Latimer’s retelling, rested not just on his modest wealth, but on his charity and hospitality, his ability to serve the king (including at Blackheath: here Latimer is describing his father fighting for the king against a Cornish rebellion in 1497), and his ability to raise his children ‘in godliness’. He also provided Latimer with the means of social advancement: he was able to ‘put him to school’, the first step on a dizzying rise that saw him preach before the king. His trajectory may have been extraordinary, but many of Latimer’s contemporaries also used education to rise beyond middling origins. The contemporary social commentator Sir Thomas Smith wrote in 1583 that the universities were one of the ways that gentlemen ‘be made good cheape’ in Tudor England. But while his father’s comfortable, though not extravagant, life had given Latimer the opportunity for a life among the elite, his self-conscious, deliberate and very public evocation of it shows that his middling origins remained both important and useful to Latimer. Used here as a rhetorical tool to help spur the king to action, invoking and appropriating an ‘ordinary’ identity allowed him both to speak on behalf of the people, and to align himself with a group that he presents as the moral and social core of their communities, and the nation.

Latimer is describing, and bemoaning, a world in flux. His father’s way of living has already gone and his (perhaps hypothetical) successor at the farm lived a much more marginal and straitened life: he had slipped beyond the relative comfort and safety of the middling. The decades that followed Latimer’s sermon would see the pace of this change not slow, as he had hoped, but accelerate. It was in this crucible of economic and social change that the cultural identities of the middling were forged, contested and asserted.

Ceri Law

Lucas de Heere’s Wives and Daughters

In the mid-1560s, artist and writer Lucas de Heere moved to London from Ghent in the Low Countries.  In his time in England, he produced works for leading figures at court while working with and teaching aspiring painters.  After having lived here some ten years, de Heere compiled a description of England and a run-down of its chief “wonders,” replete with brilliant sketches of contemporary figures in a manuscript (British Library Add MS 28330) that quite literally gives us a picture of life in mid-Elizabethan England.  

His images are arresting glimpses into the visual and material culture of the sixteenth century, and accordingly they represent a rich avenue of enquiry for a project such as ours—not least because they depict side-by-side the clothing, details, and practices of Elizabethans from across the social spectrum, from the Mayor and Aldermen of London to barons, MPs, and guardsmen:

British Library Add MS 28330. Lucas de Heere. Fo. 33r. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_28330

In this sketch, de Heere brings together in four figures depictions of urban and provincial life: a wife of a citizen of London, a wife of a wealthy citizen of London, a young daughter, and a country-woman. The sketch therefore represents subtle differences in dress and comportment between degrees or sorts of people—between the wife and the rich wife, the urban citizen and the country dweller.  The country-woman is seemingly returning from the market or shops and is well dressed in frill neck and hat, though her white apron signifies a different way of navigating the social world to the city-dwellers; she holds gloves (a high-status accoutrement) in her left hand and poultry (a domestic workaday chore) in her other, perhaps distancing her from wealthier country households whose servants could take care of the shopping.  Each of these details raises questions about how we define middling status and its variability, about what qualifying words such as “rich” (‘riich’) and “citizen” (‘burgher’) do for this group, and about gender and age: where does a young daughter sit in relation to her parents (and the labour market); in what ways might a woman’s social standing rest upon her husband’s civic and economic status; and how do women’s labour and activities speak to the cultural experiences of middling people?  

Lastly, de Heere’s own activities and the social life of sketches such as these speak to other forms of middling culture.  Elizabeth Goldring has shown in her recent biography of the artist Nicholas Hilliard that de Heere had particularly close interactions with England’s goldsmiths (Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, 79-83); indeed de Heere lived in London among an immigrant community of craftspeople that included glassblowers and stationers as well as goldsmiths (Returns of Aliens, ed. Kirk and Kirk: I, 441; II, 40).  Goldsmiths represent a particularly curious example of a group who spanned a range of middling experiences (from the JAMS, or the just-about-managing, in modern parlance, to the highly influential and well-off) and who produce a range of crafted outputs within their profession (and, in this period, including a growing a number of artists).  They are not only socially mobile but geographically mobile, trading in precious metals and, for the most successful, visiting London and the court to secure and deliver commissions. As such, they represent a group of “tastemakers” whose skills simultaneously respond to and influence elite interests but whose commercial realities remain in households and workshops in English cities.  

Our project begins its study of the “middling” in Bristol, where (as elsewhere in England) the goldsmiths, exceptionally, had no local mystery but were under the centralised management of the London guild; they are therefore a group for whom the relationship between local and national identity is especially charged.  How might the Bristolian goldsmith Humphrey Clovill’s household (which likely neighboured Nicholas Woolfe’s playhouse on Wine Street), with his moderate means and “wainescott, stayne clothes & pictures about the hall” (Bristol Probate Inventories I p.63 [1627]), fit into these experiences and representations?  More broadly, what is the relationship between craft-based skills and “middling” identities?  Behind De Heere’s sketch are the wider social networks of cultural production—one that sees goldsmiths, painters, and aristocrats conversing and collaborating, working at court while selling at home, and fundamentally pointing to the complex relationship between aesthetic creation and social status and mobility.  These are issues we’ll be pursuing over the next few years. [NB: Read about Bristol’s Audits and Goldsmiths in posts arising from this work now it has been completed.]

Callan Davies

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.