Mudlarking on the Thames, Part 2: What can we do with Fragments and Waste?

Image One: The group standing on shards under the Shard.

In Rubbish Theory, Michael Thompson argues that there are three kinds of value categories: ‘transient’ or ‘here today, gone tomorrow’; ‘durable’ or ‘a joy forever’; and rubbish. Things can move between categories, with a bottle thrown away at its time of use becoming a collectable or a ring that slipped from the finger five hundred years ago ending up on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and revalued.[1] Mudlarking, when the term was first in use, was used to describe those who scavenged for valuable goods in rivers and sewers, sifting through rubbish for a lump of coal or dropped coin.[2] Since our trip with the Thames Discovery Programme, I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments and waste – what do we do with them? What do they tell us about middling culture?

Image Two: Items lost and found.

Mudlarking finds that make the news are those, we realised, that are both hard to find for the untrained eye and rare compared to the vast quantities of glass, pottery shards, single-use plastic and bones that litter the foreshore.[3] What we found was an abundance of fragments. Little pieces of clay pipe, bottle necks, terracotta pipe pieces and cow teeth. The waste of London: building debris and stuff that had washed down to the river from layers of construction work. These pieces were very had to judge: how old were they? What object did they form part of? Where are they from? All of these questions we largely saved until the end, going by our individual eye for colour and shape, with most of us ending up with a homogeneous selection of fragments we judged to be old or pretty.

These fragments are, in many ways, a useful way of thinking about evidence in archives as well as in archaeology, museums and collections, and the way in which it is coming together in this project to narrate hidden histories. Often, we might only have a small quantity of information about a person or object: a record of a parish clerk and his activities in the churchwardens’ accounts, but no will, inventory, baptism or marriage record; houses destroyed in war, renovation or fire; objects without a clear idea of where they come from. It’s the threading of a multitude of material and textual fragments together, which build a sense of cultural lives. So this trip taught us to look more closely at the broken things, those pieces of objects that might have formed part of a middling person’s tableware, like the olive-green glazed borderware pieces we found in abundance.

These small pottery fragments, when found in such plenty, also point to a hidden archive of things that were not necessarily treasured for long, and which had a lifetime dictated by their fragility or style. These ceramic and glass fragments reveal an archive of broken things that are not often recorded and are part of the everyday, non-expensive but also indispensable, objects that appear in-use in recipes or literature. The items we uncovered are those we most frequently overlook. Some things, as Michael Thompson argues, are ‘transient’; they are bought for a particular purpose, then disposed of, break or decay. Yet, when we pick up these pieces of pottery, we start to revalue them as important to understanding past activities.

 Another aspect of material culture the Thames foreshore confronted us with was dispossessed objects. What do you do with something that cannot be traced to a specific place, person or even an object? There were so many layers of broken things that had been washed up, and a great swathe were still being washed down river. Where did they come from? Did they come from a dump, from a commercial context like a potter or butcher, or from someone’s home? Does this change how we might read them as deposits? One of the beautiful things about mudlarking is that the river dictates the travel of fragments downstream, depositing by the weight of the materials, so doing its own sorting. As such, it was difficult to read the journeys of the things we picked up, with fragments of pipes seeming as alien as bits of delftware. In many ways, a lot of research is an exercise in re-homing the displaced: thinking about the original composition of a rebound manuscript in an archive, placing a letter alongside a portrait, or imagining a silver spoon in someone’s hand. The foreshore presents a challenge in judgment when thinking about provenance because there is just so much, and every piece could be read as a valuable fragment of evidence for craft practices, industry, tools and use, aesthetic taste, or leisure activities.

The river’s waste is fascinatingly revalued through mudlarking, and some items are lifted out of obscurity and carefully recorded. But another thing about these fragments is their geographical particularity. All of the rivers’ deposits have arrived into, been consumed or dumped within the Thames. Although this is a very large area, it struck me how mudlarking often seems to be a London-focused activity. It would be fascinating to know of people doing similar activities elsewhere in the UK, and to know how deposits in the Thames compare to other rivers. This experience has been an invaluable exercise in thinking about fragments and their implications, methodologically and practically, and also how they relate to middling lives, where individuals and objects might appear dispersed across documents, spaces and things.

Hannah Lilley


[1] Search the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database here for all sorts of things lost and found: <https://finds.org.uk/>, Bottle dumps: < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-22336710>.

[2] ‘Mudlark’, OED. See also: Evans, F. (2017, 09). The river’s debris is my pleasure and my obsession. Apollo, 186, 29. Retrieved from: <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1935786815?accountid=8630&gt; and Sanderling, T. (2016, Oct 12). Just mudlarking about. Country Life,94-95. Retrieved from <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1828172610?accountid=8630&gt;.

[3] <https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jun/09/tales-of-the-thames-joining-the-new-mudlarkers> and <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/21/-sp-thames-mudlarking-foreshore-3d-pictures-audio-nick-stevens>

Skill and Handwriting

This exploration of early modern skill in handwriting comes from Hannah Lilley, who joins the project as a Postdoctoral Research Associate this month and is based at the University of Birmingham.

My first post for this blog approaches one of the project’s keywords: skill. This term, and how to interpret it, is something I’ve been thinking about over the course of my PhD on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scribes writing for a living and their material, spatial and social practices. Although skill can be read into any number of activities, I’m going to focus on writing, specifically handwriting. Literacy ‘as learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural connection’ has already been established in a previous post as a ‘mark of middling status’, alongside other activities. Knowing how to write could lead to gaining office and entry into administrative roles, and many of those middling sorts emerging for this project are those with the literacy to participate in record creation (though this could be artisanal, in the form of craft and the material record, as well as textually…). 

What is it?

The OED defines skill in multiple ways, including: ‘to have discrimination or knowledge […] in a specified matter’ (5a) and to possess ‘capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness. Also an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice’ (6a).[1] These definitions establish skill as a term that can be applied to any number of activities: from baking to walking to storytelling to shopping. What is clear is that skill is usually applied positively to denote someone who has spent time learning, honing and practising an activity to develop the ‘discrimination’ or ‘knowledge’ to be perceived as holding expertise. Outside perception and judgement is essential to an understanding of a person as skilled, and this could take place in a commercial transaction – when commissioning work or buying a product, for example – or through sharing space with a person performing a task.

Speaking Skill

There are, however, multiple methodological issues when it comes to discussing skill. For example:

  1. Skill is expressed through action and so it might be difficult for the actor to verbalise how they do a task/ it does not need to be passed on in writing or through speech.[2]
  2. Skill’s definition rests on those perceiving the result of an action as practised and, as such, is subjective and dependent on multiple factors such as: age, gender, geographical location, education, and purpose. Skill is also entwined with moral, political and economic value judgements.
  3. Environmental factors could play a role in its development/ expression: access to materials, spaces, and social networks.

Handwriting

When thinking about these issues and handwriting, then, here are a few questions (of many) that come up, and I’m going to think about a couple of them later in this post:

  • How is skill individual and how is it social?
  • How might it be local or national?
  • What role does gender or social status have on perception of handwriting skill?/ Can we describe a skill as being ‘middling’?
  • How does it develop within different spaces (workshops, homes, classrooms etc.)?
  • How might perceptions of practical skill be entwined with abstract concepts?
  • How can practice be interpreted?

Interpreting Practice Using Image Processing

One of the methods I’ve been using to explore questions around individual and social skill in handwriting is a digital approach called Image Processing, alongside a digital forensic handwriting analysis expert Dr Richard Guest. Although this is preliminary research with regards to using Image Processing to analyse sixteenth- and seventeenth-century handwriting practices, it does show promise as a means of exploring similarities and differences between demographic groups of scribes as well as between individuals. I used letterforms as a means of comparison (imperfect, but a good way of seeing whether the method works before moving onto full words) and some interesting interpretations of handwriting practice came out of the data.

To give a brief example, one of the experiments was on clerks working in the Kentish town of Lydd 1560-1640. I looked at how their handwriting practices changed over the period and thought about how this relates to changing perceptions of what constitutes handwriting skill in the town at this time. The examples below are from some of the simpler measurements applied to the letterforms – area and perimeter – and the charts show both the median and mean results.

Chart 1 showing mean area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 2 showing median area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 3 showing mean perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 4 showing median perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.

Charts One to Four are brief examples showing a clear change in handwriting practices in Lydd across the period, with the majuscules for the earliest three clerks having mean and median values that far exceed the measurements for the later three clerks, meaning that the three earlier clerks are using much larger letterforms. This demonstrates a change in attitude towards letterform size over the late sixteenth into the early seventeenth century and is one example of how we might think about practical skill as being social. Collectively, the clerks in Lydd show a trend towards smaller letterforms. Furthermore, these clerks are all of middling status, literate and play an important role in their corporation. Skill at writing has enabled them to become part of their community’s record creation. There is more to be done here, and more in my recently completed thesis – but this is just a glimpse into how a digital method can be used to approach non-verbalised practical skill.

Moralising Handwriting Skill

The aesthetic expectations for handwriting during this period included: script style appropriate to document type, purpose, or context, and this is one of the ways in which we might understand what scribes thought constituted skill at writing during this period. For example, mastery of chancery hand was essential for clerks working at the chancery court. Beyond this, there were plenty of printed prescriptive texts circulating during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, extolling the importance of fair handwriting and good practice. Although these present problems with regards to gaining insight into actual scribal practices because they are prescriptive texts, they do give information about how handwriting skill was connected to positive individual qualities.

Image 1. John De Beauchasne and John Baildon, A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands (1571). Italic hand example. Text: It is the part of a yonge man to reuerence his elders, and of suche/ to choose out the beste and moste commended whose counsayle/ and auctoritie hee maye leane vnto: For the vnskilfulnesse of/ tender yeares myst by old mens experience be ordered & gouern.

Although there are many examples of this in printed handwriting texts, the example in Image 1 is from John De Beauchasne’s and John Baildon’s A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands. Here, the handwriting exemplar for the starting-out scribe carries a moral message about revering and respecting elders and being governed by their experience. Due to the audience for this text likely being students at home or in the grammar school, the message for the ‘yonge man’ is pertinent. Furthermore, there is an example of a young middling scribe using this text to learn to write in Ann Bowyer, Elias Ashmole’s mother, whose commonplace book (Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 51) includes exercises drawn from this text. Consequently, good handwriting practice would also likely involve close attention to moral sentiments, connecting skill at writing to good character (something which instructional texts – such as Peter Bales’, The Writing Scholemaster – do very explicitly).

As such, for literate middling sorts of scribes, who would have likely gained their initial education in literacy at grammar school, at home, and at church, mastering scripts would have been important not only to their future employment but also to the way in which they may have been perceived by their social network. An example of this is can be seen in the chamberlain’s accounts for Lydd, where the town clerk until 1574, John Heblethwaite, scribes the accounts because the chamberlains are ‘unlearned’. He goes on to state in his will that he has written it ‘with my owne hand welleknowne’ demonstrating how important his handwriting becomes to his social standing – it leaves a recognisable mark.[3]

Writing not only rested on forming words in a legible and aesthetically appropriate manner and learning standard formats for documents, but also involved the mastery of the tools and materials of writing including cutting a quill fit for the hand, making ink or sourcing some of good quality to buy, and choosing paper. All of these processes generated a certain perception of both the document and its scribe.[4] The material knowledge displayed by scribes is also artisanal expertise; it rests upon a relationship between the equipment used in writing and the scribes’ repeated practice with it in order to gain writing skill. 

By way of concluding this post, then, skill might be thought of as involving the dialogue between a person, materials and their social world. As these brief examples show, practice was entwined with the social world in which it was embedded, where it was entwined with the collective activities of proximate scribes and their moral, as well as practical, education.   


[1] “skill, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, <www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865>. Accessed 17 September 2019.

[2] For useful reflections on this point/ further reading see: John Sutton and Nicholas Keene, ‘Cognitive History and Material Culture’, The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Catherine Richardson, Tara Hamling and David Gaimster (Oxford: Routledge, 2017), Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Kent History and Library Centre, LY/2/1/1/3 and PRC 31/95 S1.

[4] For letter writing, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Dress Hooks of the Middling Sort

We are grateful to Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, for this guest post on “dress hooks.”

Identifying the ‘middling sort’ through their material culture is fraught with difficulties, not least as there is potential to interpret these items within our own, modern (21st century), perceptions of status, and any supporting evidence is largely lacking from contemporary written or art-historical sources. Indeed, often the best evidence for most material culture is the archaeological record. 

A case in point are ‘dress hooks’, commonly found through metal-detecting and reported in substantial numbers to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) – a project to record archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales. In contrast to some other ‘detector finds’, dress-fastenings are mentioned in the written record, notably wills and inventories, and they also appear in art. That said their role and function, though studied (notably by David Gaimster et al in 2002, Antiquities Journal 82), remains somewhat enigmatic – indeed Gaimster described ‘dress-fastenings’ as ‘a crucial yet unsung element of Tudor dress’ (174). In general, it is believed that they were used to draw up garments, to keep them out of the muck of the street or display the rich fabric of the garment beneath, and may also have been used to fasten garments, or simply as decoration. Indeed, a multifunctional role, a bit like modern dress fastenings (buttons, ties etc) seems likely, and this might be reflected in the fact that they vary considerably in form and decoration.     

To date (August 2019) the PAS has recorded some 4,600 dress hooks; also – incorrectly – logged as ‘hooked tags’, which is a term for similar items of the early medieval period. If the material composition of dress hooks is any indication of the status of their owners, then it is of interest that almost 4,000 of them (so the vast majority) are constructed of copper-alloy. Thereafter, some 470 are silver, followed by 100 or so lead-alloy examples. 

It must surely be the case that the lead-alloy dress hooks are under representative of what once existed, and indeed it is of interest that their forms often mimic those found in the other metals – take for example a cast leaden example from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire (BH-C23A16) which has a similar lozenge form to a copper-alloy example from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846).

BH-C23A16

An assumption might be that dress hooks were being produced in lead (and maybe other ‘lesser’ materials, like bone, antler and wood) to cater for a less affluent market, though the numbers suggest otherwise. That said, there is a general recovery bias in the PAS data against lead, not least because intricately made leaden objects appear to survive less well in agricultural plough-soil (where most detected finds are recovered) than those of copper-alloy; on the Thames foreshore in London, thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the river mud, the survival of lead-alloy items is much better, though still copper-alloy dress hooks are most common.   

It must be that dress hooks made of precious metals, notably silver, were for those above middling culture, although Gaimster et al said that ‘detailed study of the iconographic and documentary record suggests that dress-hooks, as functional dress-fastenings, were not a significant part of male or female elite dress, particularly that of the royal court, in the early Tudor period’ (190). There are some fabulous examples of dress hooks within the PAS dataset. From Boxford, Berkshire (BERK-93DC8A), for example, is a silver-gilt dress hook made of several parts to form a flower-like head.

BERK-93DC8A

The central boss serves as a rivet, with its shank passing through a hole in the front plate and a silver back plate, before forking in two. Attached to the reverse is the hook. Also of composite form, is a silver-gilt dress hook of lozenge form, from Langham, Norfolk (NMS-116943). Again, the central boss serves as a rivet joining the elements of the object together, though the use of solder is noticeable. Besides these elaborate precious metal dress hooks are some humbler items, which because of their simple construction might have been more within the reach of the middling sort. Take for example a dress hook from Bletsoe, Bedfordshire (BH-B4EDCA) which is made of singly cast plate, with its hook added on after.

BH-B4EDCA

This type of dress hook – a cast plate with hook – is common amongst the copper-alloy PAS finds. It would seem from the quantity that these are the stock of dress hooks being used in Tudor and Stuart times, but by whom? It is interesting to posit whether this data is representative of all society, or just part of it. An inkling, given that their ornate designs suggest more than just a practical function, is that these would have been bought by those with some disposable income – maybe indicative of middling sort? Gaimster et al. seem to agree, suggesting that ‘pairs of decorative dress-hooks were mainly the preserve of women of the middle ranks’ (190). Some examples serve to illustrate the point. One from Asselby, East Yorkshire (YORYM-5281A5), though incomplete, is formed of an attractive openwork design, perhaps featuring a pine cone.

YORYM-5281A5

Of note is its integrally cast rectangular attachment loop and the hook, though broken. An important example from Arreton, Isle of Wight (IOW-A203D3), very much mimics a form of composite dress hook usually found in precious metal. It is formed of three bosses decorated with rope-work, likely to replicate applied filigree decoration found on some precious metal examples (including HAMP-B7066E).

Simplest in form amongst the copper-alloy dress hooks are those made of a single piece of wire, such as one from Watlington, Oxfordshire (SUR-3488DA).

SUR-3488DA

It appears that this form had a long life, and (although relatively few are recorded on the PAS database), they must have been relatively common. Surely these are below the middling sort, though we must not dismiss the use of simple, yet practical hooks, by all in society, especially if they were out of view. 

Returning to dress hooks of lead and lead-alloys. There is no doubt that these would be easier and quicker to make, so therefore (presumably) cheaper to buy. In general terms the examples recorded with the PAS are similar in form and designs to those of copper-alloy, though are normally cast in one piece; in the case of the copper-alloy examples the hook is usually soldered to the plate. For example, from Twyford, Hampshire (HAMP-48DED2) is a rectangular leaden dress hook decorated with a lattice of lozenges, within each lozenge a quatrefoil. Also, and much like examples seen in silver and copper-alloy (see above), is a dress hook from Stockton-on-the-Forest, North Yorkshire (YORYM-0D11C9). It does seem, therefore, that these dress hooks are imitating (or akin) to those of copper-alloy, with those in lead looking silver when new, and those of copper-alloy appearing golden (for gilding). Whether these lead-alloy dress hooks were popular amongst the middling sort is unclear, but it is a possibility…

Michael Lewis

Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum


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.

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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.

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.