Quite a few years ago now, at the start of a book on Domestic Life and Domestic Tragedy in Early Modern England, I tried to imagine what it was like to be present in an early modern room, situating oneself in space through the sights and sounds coming from the rest of the house. It was an exercise in a kind of creative writing, piecing together the evidence of court depositions – what people said they heard and saw. This is how part of it went:
Imagine, for a moment, what it might be like to be sitting in the hall of an early modern house. Say it is timber-framed, three storeys high, the upper floors jettied out over the street in front. What are you sitting on? Is it an old ‘turned’ chair with arms and a back ‘by the fyer sid’, or one of several stools around the table, or a bench along the wall? Are you sitting on the hard oak or, if you reach down to touch the seat, do you feel a cushion? Perhaps it is one ‘of crymson velvett, and ymbrodered with borders of greane sylke round about, saving it lackethe a lytle at one ende’. Can you be so precise because you know it very well indeed, both by sight and touch?
What is this room like? How large is it? Perhaps it has a long refectory table with stools around it. There is a court cupboard ‘under the wyndowe’, ‘an olde carpett and a lynnen cuberd cloth upon yt’, ‘a bason, ii flower potte, a cupp of tynn and ii stone pottes’ on top, and there are ‘paynted clothes over the benche’. How many doors are visible? There may well be a little buttery ‘opening to the hall’, the small cupboard off this room in which the brass and pewter is stored. There might be a ‘little place betwene the hall and the shop’ with a ‘little cupbord’ in it, one of those curious spaces which spring up in timber-framed houses when new sections are built on. There might be an entry behind the room, opening on to the back side of the house where the kitchen is. Towards the back of the house the room is darker, and here perhaps is the door to the parlour. It is open and you can see the ‘fether bedd wythe stedle standinge in the parlor furnysshed as a bedd ought to be’, with its curtains and its tester and valance, with its bolsters and sheets and blankets and coverlets, all ‘appropriate’ to the status of this house in a way which you can judge intuitively. Then, fading from your vision in the hall, the ‘dark room behind the parlour’ which has no windows. At the other end of the hall is the window on to the street, and this casts light on the colours of the painted cloths, on the ‘olde rownde lokinge glase’, and on the ‘payre of greate andyrons’ in the chimney.
How aware are you of the rest of the house as you sit in the hall? Can you smell cooking from the back side? Can you smell onions and garlic, either in the room with you or upstairs in the chambers; perhaps the four ‘bacon hogges that are hanging in the roof’? Is it autumn? Can you smell apples in the loft above, or the oily scent of wool? Can you smell the raw materials and the processes of production going on in the shop; can you hear shears, or hammers? These routine noises must fade away in your consciousness to almost nothing, to a reassuring background which means ‘household’ to you.
How aware are you of the presence of the rest of the household? The walls are thin and there are holes, cracks, spaces in them, some there by design and others the result of wear. They complicate the division between the hall and the rooms around it. As you listen, you hear ‘one coufe [cough] in the howse’. Do you recognise the cough? If it is a stranger, you begin to listen much more carefully, to concentrate and make out sounds above your head. If there are ‘no persones in the … hall hearing’ but you ‘alone’, the disparity between the exchanges upstairs and your seclusion downstairs will make the hall seem larger and stiller. Those you hear ‘in a chamber over the hall’ are choosing their words very carefully. They are discussing issues which connect the house to the body and the soul as they ‘speake and move’ the testator ‘to be good unto his wif’…
Whether you go upstairs, or outside, and how you go, will depend upon who you are. How have you been imagining yourself?
I enjoyed writing it, based on tiny snippets from the documents that I analysed quantitatively in other places in the book, and found it a useful way into an argument about the relationship between theory, practice and theatrical representation. It was an interesting intellectual exercise, to reconstruct the records of perception and use them to explore not only the sensory qualities of lived experience, but also the social norms they revealed.
That was a long time ago, and it’s interesting to see that I was quite comfortable with experience being purely textual in form – no images, no physical objects in sight! But both scholarly practice and digital capability have moved on since then. So this blog is a first announcement that our virtual early modern room is coming!
A virtual room was always going to be a part of the impact work for this project, thanks largely to having the fabulous Graeme Earl on the team – more from him in a future blog. We wanted to present our findings in innovative ways, to engage people with those questions of how those in the middle of society, neither very rich nor in poverty, made material and cultural use of their space. We built on the Ways of Seeing network on which the team had also worked together, in which we explored questions of perception in relation to new technology and heritage outcomes.
The other thing that’s happened is that, as a project, we haven’t been able to get into the archives as often or for as long as we’d intended in this phase of the work. And that’s changed the way we’ve developed our digital resources. Rather than seeing them as the vehicle via which we disseminated findings after the end of the project, we’ve started to work with them more creatively as research tools. That has meant thinking with and through them about the big questions the project explores – for instance about the experience and place of reading and writing for the middling sort – and using them to problematise our evidence, rather than to present a seamless and straightforward narrative. We’ve also thought about them together, as a group – how this room relates to Middling Culture’s Status Calculator, for instance.
As a result, the project’s digital outputs have become considerably more significant. We are working with our project partners – the “real-world” room (pictured above) on which our virtual room is based is at the Weald and Downland Museum – and items from various collections such as The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, The Portable Antiquities Scheme, The National Trust and a number of local authority archives. We’ve also been working with creative writers, actors, digital artists and database developers, all of whom you will hear more from in this series of blogs leading up to the launch of the room.
It has been a strikingly different experience, for me at least, in the course of which I’ve had to think in new ways about how we work with evidence, probability, typicality and patterns of cultural behaviour. More on all of that too, but for now here is a short list of the issues we wanted to explore through spending time in the room:
Reading and writing in a specific location
The different ways in which reading and writing were used
Howa person’s identity is built up over time
How cultural experience is formed and remembered
Finally, I’d like to come back at the end and think through just how different this way of presenting evidence is to the example with which I started. Our next challenge will be to come back to the linear narrative form and see how we can explore what we’ve learned in that way – in other words we have to write the findings up! I’d like to think more about the relationship between writing and experience, and how we bring material environments into written forms. The practices – both early modern and modern – that have cohered around the room offer different models for us to consider, and I hope to reflect more on them once we’ve spent a little longer inside….
We are delighted to host this guest post from Nina Kümin, a PhD candidate in music performance and baroque improvisation at the University of York.
The pleasure of your company is requested for a seventeenth-century jam session!
One of the main forms of music making for English middling society in the seventeenth century was consort music. Small groups of families, friends or neighbours would gather to play music together in several parts. While at the beginning of the seventeenth century, viols were the most popular instrument for this, as the century progressed the violin also grew in popularity. Of this music making, one of the most elusive traditions was that of playing “divisions”. This was the practice of adding florid ornamentation to printed music and improvising variations (making them up on the spot) taking inspiration from a popular printed theme. At the middle of the century, Playford, a publisher based in London and member of the Stationers’ Company, turned to printing collections of such example “divisions” on famous tunes which is testament to the tradition’s existence and growing popularity. His attempt to materialise an essentially immaterial art represents an increased demand from the growing amateur market; the divisions he provides are teaching materials, once accustomed to the art and with some general technical ability, Playford encourages the players to improvise their own. Through improvisation, the players moved from recreating works to being the creators, in control of the emotional development of the piece, the technical difficulty and the length. These published divisions, therefore, acted as an intermediary, temporary material form. Thanks to Playford’s publications, including Christopher Simpson’s The Division Viol of 1659 and Playford’s own The Division Violin of 1685, and through practice-led research, we can begin to reconstruct what it might have sounded and felt like to play or hear improvised divisions in the early to mid-seventeenth century, making the journey from immaterial sound and oral tradition through Playford’s material representations to the immaterial nature of improvisation again.
Each theme in Playford’s division manuals is set to a bassline which repeats all the way through called a “ground bass”. Let’s take “Faronell’s Divisions on a Ground” from Playford’s Division Violin as an example:
To the improvising musician, the bassline reveals which chords occur at which time. This ultimately reduces the number of possible notes an improviser can choose from as each chord change must be accompanied by a consonant (right sounding) note at first. The task of the improviser is then to find an interesting way to get between each of these important consonant notes. The theory of consonance and dissonance was widely discussed in composition treatises at the time (English examples include Morely 1597; Mace 1676 and Matteis 1682) and is evident in many compositions over ground basses such as passacaglias as well as all of the examples in the Division Viol, Division Violin and Division Flute (a later collection by John Walsh from 1706). For this particular set of divisions, the harmony is as follows: Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm, A, Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm A, D. To the improviser, this means that you can chose one of the follow notes to start each chord:
Dm: D, F, A
A: A, C#, E
C: C, E, G
F: F, A, C
These, however, can be anywhere on the instrument and thus there are many possibilities even if there are only three named notes available for each chord. The materiality of the instrument, therefore, comes into play here too. As the violin, for instance, has four strings, only a maximum of four notes can ever be played together at any one time. In addition, the player has to be able to technically execute their ideas. It is therefore not realistic to pick notes which are at the extremes of the violin to jump between repeatedly; music tends to move by step or in smaller jumps. This reflects the vocal tradition in which singers also find large leaps difficult. Other considerations include the timbre (sound qualities) achievable. The lack of a shoulder and chin rest on the baroque violin also makes shifting, which facilitates the comfortable execution of large leaps, difficult. For each instrument, different strings will have different timbres due to the make of the violin and the material and winding of the strings but also the player’s technique and experience, not to mention the acoustic. This all also applies to viol playing and all of these factors might have a bearing on which of the options the improviser chooses.
Finding interesting ways to get between these notes has its roots in ornamentation. This was common practice in all music of this time. This meant that musicians would not just play what was written on the material page but add their own little flourishes and touches between printed notes. These could include trills, scales, arpeggios, repeated notes, turns, chords, vibrato and mordents, just to name a few. For example, here is the theme from the same set of Playford variations played without any ornamentation and then with:
The results are really quite different. This illustrates the frustration of music publishers and composers in notating their works as all printed notation only materialises a small amount of the sounds heard (Kuijken, 2013). Interestingly, contemporary writers sought to rectify this by providing lengthy treatises on composition and performance which attempted to explain these practices (some English samples include Morely, 1597; Simpson, 1659; The Burwell Lute Tutor,1660; Mace, 1676 and Matteis, 1682). The musician, therefore, has an interesting relationship with the material form of the music in that this does not represent an absolute but rather a set of guidelines or suggestions; the musician was free to follow the score or deviate from it as they saw fit. Of course, this opportunity still exists today but current common musical practice does not allow any creative licence in the form of added notes unlike the conventions of the Baroque. By reading these treatises and experimenting on period instruments, performers can attempt to ornament in a stylistic manner.
Adding to these structural harmony notes and ornamentation, each variation in the division publications is in a different character. These have their roots in the “affects” (emotions) and dances. Certain keys and intervals were viewed as evoking certain affects. While the key for divisions is already established through the ground bass, players can experiment with different intervals to create different emotional effects. In addition, English music took inspiration from the French tradition of Baroque dance using their forms and rhythmic characteristics. This use is evident in notated compositions but also in the dance melodies in Playford’s The Dancing Master (1651). For instance, this set of Playford variations is actually based on a sarabande; the opening theme contains the characteristic crotchet + dotted crotchet + quaver rhythm and is in triple time. It can actually be danced to as I demonstrate here…
Middling musicians would also have been familiar with the different dance styles and characteristics not just from playing music based on dances but also through learning to dance themselves. The rhythms and playing styles associated with each dance style aid the dancer by stimulating lift, poise, energy or impetus, all of which these musicians would have been accustomed to and internalised through the physicality of dancing. Many of Playford’s variations use these to add variety and interest as the harmony remains the same throughout. It is therefore highly likely that improvised divisions would also have included dance inspired variations. There were opportunities to escape the repeating harmony in other musical forms such as the fantasia but a characteristic of the division practice was this repeating “ground bass” so variety and interest came from creating these different characters.
Combining research into the intermediary material printed examples by Playford along with the advice in other treatises and the study of notated compositions in Playford’s The Dancing Master and those by his contemporaries, a set of guidelines can be produced for the modern performer seeking to improvise their own stylistic divisions:
Begin each chord change with a consonant note, then find interesting ways to get between these structural notes
Keep in mind the technical possibilities and characteristics of your instrument and performance space
Create variety and interest through adding/ considering:
Intervals to create different affects
Dance rhythms and characters
Through practicing and experimenting in this manner, it is possible to improvise some stylistic variations. Therefore, I would now like to invite you to a virtual seventeenth-century jam session by encouraging you to pick and mix from the following variations, choosing however many you like and in whatever order you like, each video plays one example improvised variation. By playing them after each other you can build your own set of improvised divisions and therefore experience the improviser’s task of making decisions between key structural points. In this way, you can orchestrate your own structure and each time will give you a different result. This in some way mimics the excitement and variety of improvisation; they would never have played the same variation twice and were in control of the development and length of the piece. These variations were taken from a longer recording of my continuous improvised divisions over the ground bass of this same Playford piece. If you would like to hear them in their original order, this is also provided below.
Playford’s attempt to materialise the immaterial tradition of improvised divisions through his published examples, whether for viol or violin, not only recognised the existence of this tradition but allowed for a greater engagement with this by amateurs, a large number of which were middling recreational musicians, transforming their domestic cultural engagements. Musical improvisation is also deeply rooted in the material, however, as the performer’s relationship with their instrument determines a large proportion of the compositional decisions as well as the limitations of the technicalities of the instrument. The variety, creativity and individuality performed by these middling musicians would have been exciting to experience but Playford’s materialisations allow modern performers to also experiment with this practice.
Early modern London was a port city, which sat at the centre of England’s international networks of colonial and commercial venture. However, London’s maritime operations were underpinned by working communities that were situated just beyond the city’s walls, in the vast parish of Stepney to the east. Home to the riverside hamlets of Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, and Poplar, and host to branches of powerful institutions such as the Navy, the East India Company, and Trinity House, Stepney provided London with the materials and workers necessary for the capital’s overseas activities. The economic growth of both London and the maritime sector in the late sixteenth century prompted a huge number of workers to migrate to maritime Stepney, some of whom settled permanently but many of whom were seasonal workers or mariners sent immediately to sea.
This post will offer a look at some of the individuals, chiefly of the middling sort, that lived, worked, and fought for their positions within the mobile communities of Stepney’s riverside hamlets. In a maritime parish permeated by competition at all levels, it was necessary for individuals to take advantage of every opportunity to establish their social and professional positions. For the early modern middling sort, holding administrative office was a valuable way in which one could achieve social advancement. The following exploration of Stepney’s vestry minutes book will uncover some of the ways in which middling individuals worked to write themselves into their local community and, through administrative culture, equipped themselves with the edge needed to get ahead in maritime London.
The vestry minutes book (1579-1662) of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, contains a textual record of the meetings and administrative activities of the parish’s chief civic and ecclesiastical governing body, the vestry. Chronologically ordered, and loosely structured around the annual election of parish officers, the vestry minutes provide a frequently updated index of the parish’s local elites, or ‘chiefest inhabitants’, as well as a record of the region’s shifting social, economic, and topographical landscapes. However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book was not just a static record of past events; it functioned as a tool that, like the navigational instruments crafted in the maritime parish’s workshops, could be used to locate and project one’s current and future positions. As an object of communal memory and consensus that parish elites repeatedly returned to, and subsequently disseminated the contents of, the vestry minutes book provided a textual surface onto which the parish’s middling sort could write their identity and assert their position within their local community. By providing access to this important piece of administrative culture, the vestry served as a privileged platform on which Stepney’s land-based middling sort could attempt to negotiate and settle identities of place, self, and other within the parish’s turbulent and mobile maritime hamlets.
Although the appearance of vestries as the central unit of local government did not occur in many rural areas until after 1660, Stepney’s minutes indicate that the vestry was central to local governance and administration by as early as 1579. Initially made up of thirty-two men – eight representing each of the parish’s four hamlets of Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar, and Mile End – Stepney’s vestry was populated by necessarily local individuals, who were largely drawn from the middling to upper-middling sort. Rather than being ruled directly by manorial authority or by the elite commercial or naval officers that worked within the parish, Stepney’s vestry was largely composed of individuals whose social and economic positions were won through the professional status that they held within the parish’s maritime industries. That they described themselves as the ‘chiefest inhabitants and p[ar]ishoners’ is significant – these were men that lived and worked within the realms of Stepney parish, and the parish bounds were often the limits of their influence.
Stepney’s maritime social signature was clearly reflected in its vestry. From 1589 onwards, Stepney elected to operate a ‘select vestry’, meaning that only those chosen by the previous vestrymen were able to serve, ensuring the group remained a self-selecting maritime ‘in-crowd’. Amongst the names in the vestry minutes are individuals whose colonial and military involvement gained them wide renown, such as William Borough and John Vassall, and also those whose professional achievements earned them fame beyond the parish, such as John and William Burrell, a father and son that were, between them, Master of Trinity House and Master Shipbuilder for the East India Company. However, most vestrymen were successful middling professionals whose occupations included ballasters, ropemakers, shipwrights, anchorsmiths, chandlers, and victuallers.
The Vestry Minutes Book
This example of a minutes book was a new form of textual culture that developed alongside the establishment of England’s vestries and the growing civic consciousness and cultural identities of the middling sort. Drawing on established models of administrative and textual culture, such as chronicles and court records, vestry minutes often rhetorically positioned the vestry to speak on behalf of the entire parish and depict the group’s decisions through a united authoritative voice.
Wee the Cheefe Parishoners beinge now assembled together […] have by mutuall assent and consent, ordayned and agreed, that there shalbe chosen of the fowre Hamletts viz. Ratcliff Lymehowse, Popler and Milend, Eight specyall p[er]sons w[hi]ch […] assemble together in the Vestrie and there to consult, and agree, howe to reforme, and order any matter, or thing […] and the same enter or cause to be entered in this Churchbooke for a Testimony of their agreement.
We the Parishoners p[re]sently assembled both for ourselves, and in the name of all the rest of the Parishoners doe bynde our selves, and them by mutual assents, To howled, observe and mayntayne.
London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 19r-19v. 17 August 1589.
The language of unity and consensus used throughout these minutes was especially important for the Stepney vestry’s depiction of itself as a cohesive governing unit, as the group of thirty-two was larger than most early modern vestries, which nearly always consisted of twelve or twenty-four members. In 1599, the vestry elected to increase its number even further to forty. Reflecting the vestry’s large membership, Stepney’s minutes book contains a vast diversity of “hands” (handwriting styles representing an individual) both anonymous and identifiable, giving the book the appearance of an incredible work of joint authorship – an example of this multitude of hands can be seen in the list of signatures included later in this post. Furthermore, a wealth of scribal evidence throughout the book demonstrates that generations of future vestrymen repeatedly returned to the vestry minutes and election records.
The above table records the names of the vestrymen elected for Ratcliff and Limehouse in 1594; ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ are marked against the names of those no longer on the vestry and the names of future vestrymen are inserted into empty spaces. Whilst the inscriptions of ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ evidence that the minutes have been returned to by a parish clerk or a member of the vestry, it is not entirely clear when any of these notes were made. Joseph Pett’s name is inserted towards the bottom of the list for Limehouse alongside the label ‘dead’ – whilst Pett did become a vestryman in 1599, the next vestry election after the creation of this table, he did not die until 1605.
Paper Performances and Placemaking
Whilst the surface performance of unity and continuity was important for the vestry’s image as an authoritative collective, the minutes book’s pages also served as a site of social competition amongst the vestry, particularly amongst those of the middling sort that were looking to consolidate and improve upon their hard-won positions.
Stepney’s vestry minutes book was a stage on which displays of skill and literacy were performed. The vestry minutes were produced and consulted in meetings that involved influential maritime figures, meaning that individuals who had earned a place on the vestry, but who were still seeking social and professional advancement, could exhibit their skilled identity in front of – and in competition with – the other local elites.
Robert Salmon, who served variably as vestryman, auditor, and churchwarden for Stepney parish between 1623 and 1641, was a prominent merchant, a leading director of the East India Company, a sometime Master of Trinity House, and the suggested eponym for Stepney’s Salmon Lane. A conservative estimate, based on the number of signatures made in the vestry minutes book, puts the document in Salmon’s hands and gaze at least fifty times during his tenures. Catching Salmon’s attention through the vestry meetings and minutes could have proved a profitable endeavour.
Whilst it was Salmon’s reputation that placed his name onto the map and into public use, the vestry meetings – and the minutes book itself – also played a part in shaping place and space in early modern Stepney.
As the East India Company’s presence in Stepney rapidly increased, particularly after the building of Blackwall Yard began in 1614, the hamlet of Poplar’s importance began to be challenged by nearby Blackwall. Within the vestry minutes, the ‘hamlet of Popler’ increasingly becomes the ‘hamlet of Popler & Blackwall’, reflecting Blackwall’s rising significance.
However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book not only records the ways in which conceptions of local place changed, but evidences active attempts made by vestrymen to shape the places of the parish. Just as the area of Blackwall had been thought of as a subdivision of Poplar, before being elevated to the same status as the hamlet itself, the district of Shadwell began as a part of the larger hamlet of Ratcliff. In 1641, the vestry formally decreed that owing to the difficulty of managing Ratcliff’s growing population, they would divide the hamlet into two distinctly bounded administrative regions.
Whereas the Hamlet of Ratcliffe is of late so largely encreased by the multitude of buildings & number of Inhabitants […] It is therefore at this vestry ordered & decreed, so farre as in vs lieth, that in the Hamlet of Ratcliffe shalbe chosen two Churchwardens […]
the Churchwarden of Ratcliffe to have for his division, Stepney, Whitehorse street, Brookestreet, Ratcliffe wall, Ratcliffe street unto the old balist wharfe, And the Churchwarden for Wapping side to have for his division, upper Shadwell, lower Shadwell, Ratcliffe highway, Foxes lane, wapping wall, Prusons Iland, Kingstreet Wapping, Knockfergus, Newgravel-lane & Old gravel-lane.
London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.
Yet, whilst Ratcliff’s division from Shadwell is explained as an administrative necessity, the vestry’s decree also functioned as a placemaking activity that was closely bound to the control of civic identities. The vestry’s division of Ratcliff into the ‘Stepney’ and ‘Wapping’ sides clearly distinguished the wealthy eastern side of Ratcliff from the much poorer Shadwell to the west. Although both sides had churchwardens to regulate their districts, it was only the eastern ‘Stepney’ side that retained the name of Ratcliff and only this side that was represented on the vestry. Furthermore, whilst the decree’s first item clearly asserted that the two churchwardens ‘shalbe reputed & taken but as one’, within four years Ratcliff’s churchwarden is openly referred to as the ‘upper churchwarden’ over Shadwell’s ‘under’, consolidating Ratcliff’s superiority. That the large majority of vestrymen lived and worked in Ratcliff, rather than Shadwell, is no coincidence.
By formalising the social and economic division between Ratcliff and Shadwell through the creation of parochial offices, and through further repeated appraisals within the vestry minutes of an ‘upper’ Ratcliff and ‘under’ Shadwell, Stepney’s vestry consciously shaped concepts of place within the parish. By 1670, Shadwell had become its own distinct parish, functioning as no part of Stepney at all.
Being elected to the vestry was a testimony to one’s reputation and position within a local community. It allowed middling individuals, who were still working daily to keep their social and economic positions, to assert their place amongst a ‘better sort’ and attempt to fix this achieved position through acts of parochial legislation and record-keeping. Stepney’s vestry minutes book functioned as a tool that allowed its users to demonstrate their skills and project their own envisaged identities, whilst also shaping places and managing the ‘divers others’ that were not a part of the vestry’s ‘unified’ local elite.
By Michael Powell-Davies (PhD Candidate, University of Kent, School of English and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)
 London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.
 Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, 1550-1640 (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 206-7.
 London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.
 For biographies of these individuals, and many others mentioned in the vestry minutes book, see Memorials of Stepney Parish, ed. by G. W. Hill and W. H. Frere (Guildford: Billing & Sons, 1891).
 J. F. Merritt, ‘Religion and the English Parish’, in The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I, ed. by Anthony Milton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 122-147 (pp. 135-6).
 Sydney Maddocks, ‘Ratcliff’, Copartnership Herald, 3.26 (1933), no pages. Hector Bolitho disputes this claim, suggesting that the lane is named after an earlier Captain Robert Salmon (fl. 1588) in Without the City Wall (London: John Murray, 1952).
 London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.
 London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 103v. 6 May 1645. Subsequent references to the ‘West’ and ‘East part of the Hamlett of Ratcliffe’ evidences that ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ are appraisals of position rather than topographical references.
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.
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?
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
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.
are, however, multiple methodological issues when it comes to discussing 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
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.
factors could play a role in its development/ expression: access to materials,
spaces, and social networks.
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
How is skill individual and how is it
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
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
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.
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
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
Moralising Handwriting Skill
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
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).
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.
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. 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.
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.
 “skill, n.1.” OED
Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019,
<www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865>. Accessed 17 September 2019.
 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).
 Kent History and Library Centre,
LY/2/1/1/3 and PRC 31/95 S1.
 For letter writing, see James
Daybell, The Material Letter in Early
Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
We will be producing a series of posts and guest posts over the course of the project, including “Long Reads” (longer form (but still brief) explorations of a subject) and “Short Reads” (digestible in a brief survey). This opening Long Read explores what it was like to be a goldsmith in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bristol, looking at provincial craftspeople’s relationship with the London company, the trendy craft hotspot of Bristol’s Wine Street, and the surprisingly varied uses of goldsmiths’ wares.
In late sixteenth-century England, a young man could do worse than become an apprentice with a goldsmith. The trade offered reasonable financial rewards and put its best craftspeople into contact with well-off and well-connected customers. That didn’t always, unsurprisingly, guarantee financial success. One of the most famous goldsmiths of the period was the esteemed miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard; despite reaching acclaim in courts across Europe for his artwork and running a thriving goldsmiths’ trade from his London shop for decades, he spent much of his life in financial precarity. Yet he accrued other forms of capital, not least through his intimate access to English and French courts. Moreover, Pamela H. Smith has shown how artisans, in particular goldsmiths, were at the centre of a shift in the way cultural and scientific knowledge was represented in and produced through art: “early modern artisans were experts on natural processes” (7); Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin has similarly shown how individuals connected to the trade, such as assayers, “belied any purported boundaries between artisanal, mercantile and experimental worlds” (2). It is therefore perhaps no surprise that some of the leading innovators in representing the physical world during the Northern Renaissance—such as Albrecht Dürer—were goldsmiths by trade.
As such, the craft brings together a range of cultural, social, and financial opportunities, and the objects goldsmiths produced found their way into circulation in a variety of surprising ways. Those familiar with early modern drama know how something as simple as a ring can take on epic significance from the forensic to the metaphorical—as in the final scene of All’s Well that Ends Well, for instance, which hinges on the evidentiary value of such an item of jewellery. Tradespeople in a host of livery companies might also recognise the business uses of rings, which could be “deposited” to bind people to oaths and price regulations, and rings hold a widespread memorial function, too, often left by bequest in wills and given at funerals. Goldsmiths therefore represent a major “middling” trade, with practitioners coming from a variety of backgrounds, with their wares reaching key middling sections of society, and with objects such as rings and spoons representing the combination of aesthetic, emotional, and business value at the heart of “middling” men and women’s existence.
But what was it like to be a goldsmith away from the trade’s national centre among the shops and selds (a structure of several stalls set back from the street, like a small market or mall) of London’s Cheapside? This post assays life for provincial goldsmiths in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the network operating in the growing port city of Bristol: here, goldsmiths find themselves everywhere from the prison to the fair; they also demonstrate the successes of family trade dynasties and early forms of “banking” and financial management, while rubbing shoulders with playhouse entrepreneurs and prosperous merchants.
The Goldsmiths’ Company
One of the prime concerns for any goldsmith is the weighing of precious metal and the attendant quality of their work or wares, and anybody looking to work in Bristol, as elsewhere, would have to be comfortable having their work assessed, deemed unworthy, and publicly destroyed by senior figures from London. This is because the royal charter possessed by London’s Goldsmiths’ Company granted them authority over the trade nationwide, making Bristolian goldsmiths subject to scrutiny and summons to their hall on Fetter Lane by London’s Guildhall. More intrusively, the Company could search their shops and stalls, or attend commercially-orientated fairs—notably often at Marlborough, the Bristol fairs, and Sturbridge—where they tested goods by hand and sometimes further by more detailed assay or melting (sometimes taking goods into their possession to return to the Goldsmiths’ Hall for further consideration or, when clear they’re substandard, destroying or breaking them there and then).
While you’re in the presence of one of these searches, you may learn a little more about the range and quality of your fellow craftspeople’s work, and the court books duly list the types of goods being sold by Bristolian goldsmiths and their advertised vs their actual worth. For instance, in 1633, Thomas Northall’s wares include:
23 Thimbles half made 24 gold rings 25 bodkins half made 12 gold ^beadrings 9 knot rings 15 enamel rings 6 deaths heads 51 gilt rings
We can imagine the presence of these goods laid out in Northall’s Bristol shop and consider, as below, the ways in which these items would have circulated amongst his local community. These searches provide a rare occasion in which the breadth of provincial goldsmiths’ goods can be recovered and studied, and they help to build a picture of metalwork in the early modern South West.
These obligations and the searches of the regions ask questions about the relationship between regional goldsmiths and the Company. If you worked as a goldsmith in Bristol, how much identification with the livery company might you feel—and how does being governed remotely by a London company and structure affect one’s sense of civic and craft pride?
If this seems an important question, you might turn to your colleague from Salisbury, “stubborn” George Batter, for an answer (if you can pin him down…). Batter demonstrates what resistance to such London-centric measures might look like, given the disregard for the authority of the Company he displayed on one of its searches in 1631. He lied about being of the trade, refused to allow his items to be searched or tested, declined to show up in person when summoned, and is eventually imprisoned after the two wardens of the Company convince the Mayor of Salisbury to assist them in apprehending him and forcing him to cooperate. They had over the course of these events tested “one spoon … made by the said Batter with his mark thereupon, which being tried by the touch appeared not to be so good silver as that of 9oz fine” (Book R 1: 128).
Beyond your conversation with George Batter, you might turn to individuals in your parish to see how other trades resent intrusions from London authorities—particularly if you’re friends with any members of Bristol’s prominent Soapmakers’ Company. They demonstrate a comparable resentment towards London intrusions into their local craft dealings a few years after Batter in 1633—just a short time after Charles I’s grant to the London Soapmakers’ of a nationwide monopoly similar to that long held by the Goldsmiths’. The Bristolian soapmakers, perhaps taking umbrage at being “governed,” compare Bristol soap (also known as “Black Soap”) with its competitors’ through a napkin-based “whites challenge” in the presence of the London assayer:
[…] Certain Linen Napkins washed by Several Women with the same several sorts of soap […] And although the said napkins washed with Bristol Soap were altogether as white washed and as sweet, or rather sweeter, than the other, yet in the washing of the said Napkins There was not Altogether so much Soap expended of the said Bristol Soap as there was of the other Soap.
(BRS 10; 195)
The civic pride implicit in the Soapmakers’ Guild is undercut in George Batter’s unfortunate experience, as he has no recourse even to local protection, with Salisbury’s mayor assisting the wardens’ enquiries. They ultimately proved lenient towards him in levying a revised fine that took into account his “poverty” and eventual acquiescence and repentance (17 August 1631, R 1:127-9). Perhaps tellingly, two years later in 1633, Batter appears again in a Salisbury search, where he proved more compliant (Book R: 2:370).
Perhaps you are weighing up where to set up shop as a newcomer to Bristol—something that Giles and Edward Evenet would have done in October 1571, after they are recorded as “living, resident, and abiding [in] the country” in Bristol having left London without return “by a year and a day”–a move to the provinces that the Goldsmiths’ Company seem to regard as important and in need of regulation.
In your new home of Bristol, the prime place to continue your trade would have been the thriving neighbourhood of Wine Street in the parish of Christchurch (also known as Holy Trinity). The street was home to a series of substantial tenements and properties, many of which were owned by the City Corporation and rented by prominent figures in the city (including aldermen and past and future mayors). It was also home to at least two major South West goldsmiths, Humphrey Clovell and Edward Harsell. In the mid-1570s, a new “meal market” (or corn market) was built at the end of Wine Street, which was rented out to 10-12 goldsmiths from London and other places during the most important commercial feature in any Bristolian’s calendar, the St James’ Fair, which attracted buyers and sellers from across the country (and beyond the seas). The street therefore represents a significant destination for anybody looking to buy jewellery and other metalwork.
If you’re interested in doing some market research or understanding the tastes and styles particular to Bristol goldsmiths and their customers, it would be wise to head to No. 8 Wine Street to speak with Humphrey Clovell. From this property, Clovell would have sold items such as the 2 bowls, 6 gilt rings, and 3 spoons with heads for which he was assessed in 1599 (Book N 181). He was a major figure in Bristol’s metalwork industry; he did his apprenticeship under Paul Freling, and the apprentices Clovell trained include Thomas Wall and John Corsley, the latter of whom went on to marry Clovell’s daughter Elizabeth in 1592 and was the first of a long line of prolific Corsley goldsmiths working out of the south west (Kent 80).
When you arrive to speak with Clovell, you may find him slightly preoccupied with his son-in-law, who drifts in and out of Bristol. In 1606, nearly 15 years after his marriage with Clovell’s daughter, Corsley finds himself “lying in Prison in Newgate in London upon sundry accounts of debt.” According to the defendant (William Walton) in a Chancery case concerning unpaid debts, Corsley was freed thanks to significant loans by Walton and others that he neglected to repay. Walton claims to have spent years chasing Corsley, only for him to “go and lay in the North parts of this land where [the] defendant should not touch him”. When he did return to Bristol, “it was under his father in law mr Clovell, goldsmith in Bristol.” If you visit in the 1600s, 1610s, or 1620s in the years preceding Walton’s lawsuit, you may well find both goldsmiths in Wine Street.
If you find Clovell unhelpful, you could always look for some financing from Corsley. According to Walton, by the 1620s, the erstwhile debtor has returned more permanently to Bristol and “dealeth in great sums in the trade of a goldsmith” (TNA C3/341/56). The defendant’s phrasing suggests that Corsley uses his trade to function as a financier or money trader, perhaps indicating an early example of the form of “goldsmith-banking” that formed the foundations of England’s banking sector in the late seventeenth century. But you may wish to take into account Walton’s less-than-glowing consumer report…
You could speak instead with Edward Harsell, who lived two doors down from Clovell and who clearly knew him—well enough, at least, to witness the probate inventory after Clovell’s death in 1627 that records some of Clovell’s interior design choices, including “the wainscot, stained cloths, & pictures about the hall” (BRS Vol. 54;62-4). Harsell is also a significant figure among Bristol’s early modern metalworkers. Work from Harsell’s shop survives, marked with his name and a small symbol (for more details on surviving marks see Timothy Kent):
The marking of this spoon with Harsell’s name suggests the advertising value tied to the craft, as this form of signature or branding seems to be unique to metalwork. Might these goldsmith-specific marks enhance or alter one’s reputation in the wider community and make one’s name more widely visible than those in other trades?
Have Connections in London
Appealing as Bristol might sound by now, it’s certainly worth fostering good connections with London and particularly the hierarchy of the Goldsmiths’ Company—perhaps, if you’re well-backed enough, by looking to serve your apprenticeship in the capital. Timothy Kent observes how unusual it is for the Company to say anything nice about the work of provincial goldsmiths (95). But in their search of Bristol in 1633, they made comment “upon the wares of Thomas Griffyn and Edward Griffin,” which “were found agreeable to the standards of gold and silver and redelivered them again” (Book R 2: 381). It is no coincidence that Edward Griffin (also Griffith) started his apprenticeship under John Wollaston of London—one of the wardens of the Company carrying out the search… (Kent 95).
Lost and found
Lastly, it’s important to keep your wares and your belongings safe, so that these valuable items can be kept in either personal possession or sanctioned circulation. An entry on the 24 January 1573 in the Goldsmiths’ Company court books describes how an apprentice found in a chamber a “ring of gold with a cross and a heart in a pansy, with a “d” the one side of the cross and “M” on the other side of the same, with a G & H above it, & this date “1569” under it.” The ring was found in “The Temple wherein” Mr Fleetwood and Mr Sands have their lodging. The wardens of the Company order that the ring be delivered to those two men “to the intent that they shall deliver it to the right owner if it be possible” (L 1:179).
This minor incident represents a curious textual recording of this piece of jewellery and its accidents and circulation, but it also points to the formal structures surrounding lost jewellery in such a heavily-regulated gold market. At the same time, it preserves the personal value of the item, delivering an ekphrastic lost and found record that announces the ring’s personalised inscription and perhaps indicates that its safe return is ordered with a nod to its likely emotional significance. If it were central to a betrothal, it also has an added legal charge, testifying to a contract or binding. Its discovery in a chamber leaves to the imagination why the apprentice considered it lost (might it have been put aside for safe keeping?) and why it was not being worn (was it purposely discarded?).
The entry thereby combines the financial and personal significance of jewellery, something that accords with other uses of rings in company records. If you’re curious about how your wares might be used once you’ve established your freedom to trade in Bristol, you could start up your conversation with the Soapmakers of Bristol again. In the seventeenth century, they begin to put rings down as deposits or forfeits for their observance of pricing agreements. In 1612, members agreed on a price to which they “set … hands and Possites [deposits],” including (to pick a selection) Humphrey Reade’s signet ring and Thomas Burrows’ ring of gold; in 1614, Mrs Slye deposited 1 ring with a diamond and Leonard Hancock’s deposit was six silver spoons (BRS 10 95, 103-4). The symbolic qualities of these objects indicate how the deposits act as an extension of individual identity.
Tracking the varied circulation of rings in this way for middling members of livery companies suggests a broader cultural network for material objects such as jewels and in turn indicates the imbrication of commercial, personal, and domestic material culture. The Bristol soapmakers’ rings may have had or once have had romantic or other significance for their owners, but they are (also) being put into a business network as promissory pawns. Such rings (or silver spoons) may well have come from one of the prominent goldsmiths producing such items in Bristol across this period, perhaps from the Wine Street shops of Edward Harsell or Humphrey Clovell. If you join the local collective of goldsmiths in Bristol, you would likewise release your work into a community where jewellery’s practical and decorative uses combine to furnish men and women of the town with status symbols—ones that represent a combination of social, cultural, and economic currency. And, like Clovell, you may develop a deep familiarity with other cultural artefacts, from stained cloths and pictures to the plays that entertained audiences at Bristol’s Wine Street playhouse for nearly 30 years.
Bristol Archives (Bristol). Diocesan Court, Cause Books. EP/J/1/11. Bristol Record Society. 10 (Proceedings, Minutes and Enrolments of the Company of Soapmakers, 1562-1642, H.E. Matthews) (1940) —. 48 (The Topography of Medieval and Early Modern Bristol: Part One, Roger Leech). (1997) —. 54 (Probate Inventories, Part I, Edwin and Stella George, assisted by Peter Fleming). (2002) The Goldsmiths’ Company Hall, Library and Archives (London). Court Minutes. Books L, N, and R1 and R2. Elizabeth Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (2019) Timothy Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and their Makers, 1550-1750 (1992) Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin. “A Place of Great Trust to be Supplied by Men of Skill and Integrity”: Assayers and Knowledge Cultures in Late Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century London.” BJHS (2019): 1-27. Roger Leech. The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol (2014). The National Archives (Kew). C3/341/56. The National Archives (Kew). C2/JasI/W4/59. Pamela H. Smith. The Body of the Artisan (2004)
Middling Culture held its first project workshop on
Tuesday 25 June 2019. Our team was joined by around 20 experts from different
disciplines, including scholars of literature, social and cultural history,
archaeology and material culture from both academia and the heritage sector. These
participants generously gave their time to focus on the really big questions
raised by Middling Culture and to contemplate the directions that our
detailed research, which is just beginning in earnest, should take. It was a
lively and thought-provoking discussion, and in this post we share a few of the
themes that emerged.
The day began with a visit to the Canterbury Cathedral
Library and Archives, where the librarians and archivists shared with us a
range of ‘things’ – maps, account books, marginalia in printed books, deeds, a
beautifully decorated family Bible – that could illuminate certain aspects of
middling lives and identity.
We kept that focus on evidence when we returned to the University of Kent, where, after a brief presentation on the project and lunch, the first task was to work towards a definition of that very term, ‘the middling’. Each participant had been asked to bring along ‘evidence for an individual, object or practice’ that they considered to be 1) below ‘middling’, 2) securely ‘middling,’ and 3) above ‘middling’ for our period. These examples introduced to the room a huge variety of sources, from paint pigment to wills, from drama to dress pins. However, it was not the evidence but the selection process that provoked the most discussion: how do we know what is middling? What working definitions are we, perhaps unconsciously, deploying in our work?
This conversation continued in the final session of the day,
which concentrated on practice as a mark of middling identity—particularly the
concept of ‘skill’. The idea of literacy as one potential mark of middling
status, as a learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural connection,
is at the heart of the Middling Culture project; in this session, the
aim was to question this by examining literacy as one of just a range of skills
that could be taught, instilled and practised in culturally meaningful ways.
Again, the range of evidence and examples that this audience could bring to the
discussion was huge, and participants considered not just craft and formal
education but horse-riding and breastfeeding as practices through which early
modern people might find constitutive identities and points of connection.
There was also a powerful warning for the project here, as speakers suggested
the ways in which the idea of ‘skill’ itself was shaped by gendered and
hierarchical assumptions in the early modern period. There was a danger, they
suggested, of reflecting those prejudices and finding ‘skill’ only in certain,
Across the afternoon many ideas, questions and themes for
future research emerged. We focus here on the following three:
Hidden middles and difficult groups: much of the discussion centred not just on the boundaries of the ‘middling’ as a group but on how to access and define people who don’t fall within the economic or occupational criteria often used in historical enquiry. Gender was a recurring theme in these discussions—in particular how we might consider women in a way that doesn’t assume that they derived their status wholly from men. Was there a distinctly female middling experience? How can we see the work, cultural investment and creative production of women, when our sources often render this less visible? We considered, too, other groups with attributes that make them difficult to classify within existing schema (including schema from the early modern period itself). The clergy came up repeatedly in this context, as did servants in training, and here the discussion revolved around the concepts of social, economic, and cultural capital, and how to both detect and allow for the ways in which these might not always coincide. Could you be a middling Catholic, for instance? How were disconnections between different types of power expressed and experienced?
Temporalities: the fluidity and vulnerability of status was a major theme of these discussions, and many participants pointed, in different ways, to changes over time. There are many different ways of conceptualising this change: perhaps most obviously across historical periods but also across the life cycle of an individual or within successive generations of a family: how long could the ‘middling’ status of a family endure before either rising up (into the gentry, for instance), dropping down, or disappearing from archival trace? “For three generations” was one (debated) answer to this question: is that the longest time span for across which successive family members might hope to dominate urban political and administrative bodies? The relationship between such individualised narratives of change and broader historical shifts is a difficult one. During our discussions, the unique nature of the 1640s and 1650s and the disruption of the ‘norms’ of status that this political upheaval created became key issues: how can the Middling Culture project capture both incremental and immediate change across the period? Things, too, have their own temporalities; how can these be understood and accounted for? How can we define and differentiate the ephemeral and the enduring and how might these categories also shape middling identity?
Expressions of similarity and expressions of difference: one central question here is whether there was a singular, cross-national middling identity. Was middling identity, as some have argued, inherently localised and fragmentary, or can we see any sense of a collective identity? Some participants suggested the movement of goods and people as one way of seeing middling-ness in contexts that extend from the local to the national, while others saw skill itself as one potential site for supra-parochial identity: within specialised knowledge that created both ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. One central theme here was the necessity of considering what the middling might define themselves against. How can we understand who is above and who is below middling status in a way that recognises the fluidity and interchange between different groups while retaining an ability to differentiate? Several participants pointed out the necessity of moving beyond simplistic ideas of ‘emulation’ as a cultural practice among our demographic focus and instead emphasised appropriation and differentiation—up, down, and across the early modern social spectrum.
We are incredibly grateful to all the participants in this workshop (and those who could not attend, but sent their representatives in the form of historical evidence and thoughts to aid our discussion) for giving us their time and knowledge to help shape this project at its formative stage. These are conversations that we will be continuing over the life of Middling Culture, and beyond; in the immediate term, we’ll be keeping this discussion alive on our website, including, in the coming weeks, blogs from some of Tuesday’s participants. We also want to hear from as wide a range of voices as possible so please do get in contact or comment below with any thoughts or questions.
Callan, Catherine, Ceri, Graeme, and Tara. July 2019.
The Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort is a project in search of the experiences of a crucial early modern demographic. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw the significant growth of a group of individuals—men, women, families, and households—who were not landed gentry or nobility, but neither were they peasants or wage-labourers. They worked for their living, but they had some control over their labour (and sometimes that of others); they were not necessarily rich, but they had some ability to spend and borrow. The “middling,” as this group is now often termed, encompassed a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and occupations, trades, crafts, or professions.
Perhaps because of this diversity, historians in search of concrete class identities have sometimes characterised this group as variously elusive, tricky to define, incoherent. It’s not until the late eighteenth century that historians can detect a set more easily aligned with conventional ideas of the “middle class.” Yet the “middling” were at the centre of a crucial shift in Elizabethan, Stuart and Interregnum England centring on social mobility: one that begins to see new forms of social, economic, and cultural capital coalesce around a group of working people who had the ability both to consume and produce a variety of cultural artefacts, from literary works to medicines to furniture.
This project seeks to think holistically about the lived experiences of this umbrella group of people. It will broaden studies that have hitherto focused on the social relations and economic positions of middling people, and it also turns to an earlier period than that discussed by most historians of the middling sort. We will combine quantitative approaches with qualitative studies of language, networks, and visual and material culture, while unpicking topics ranging from religious practice to gender. As such, we’re interested in cultural production (what did people write, make, fashion, and sell?) and cultural consumption (what and how did people read, what did they buy and how did they use purchases; what was it like to display and use particular objects?). Our research looks around the country at different communities, as we consider the relationship between local and national experiences and identities.
As such, our project is attuned to complications in social experience that are equally prevalent today. The remainder of this post explores the nature of both the modern and early modern “middle” and introduces the eclectic methodologies of the project via several short case study examples (in separate pages, linked here and below; click image to visit):
Micro Case Studies:
In 2007, the geographer Danny Dorling noted that recent sociological research into identity in modern Britain showed that “Most people think they are average when asked.” He glossed this trend in self-identification by adding, “in most things, most are not.”
Just under ten years later, the researchers behind the Great British Class Survey explored the question of the average and “middle” of society further; they, too, found that people from across the economic spectrum saw themselves as of “middling” wealth. The researchers identify a renewed “obsession” with class in contemporary Britain, but suggest that the typical vocabulary used to describe class structures is no longer adequate. Their study, Social Class in the 21st Century, reflected on responses to their own survey as well as on other demographic data. From this, they revised the standard division of British society into “lower,” “middle,” and “upper” classes, positing instead seven different categories. The three to four groups that lie in between the “extremes” of this new class system might be considered the “middle.”
The authors of Social Class in the 21st Century had many causes to reconsider what is meant by the “middle.” They observed numerous social, economic, and cultural developments that have changed the texture of the British class system. Their nuanced approach was not limited to economic assessment: rather, they explored material wealth but also considered social capital (one’s networks, friends, colleagues, and social circles) and cultural capital (one’s familiarity with and uses of tastes, interests, and activities). These are, they argue, all part of the complex modern class system. While the increasing detachment of the super-rich makes them ever more distinctive a group, a model that posits a singular, catch-all “middle” class would misleadingly smooth out their essential diversity: “…we have a picture of growing cohesion at the top and bottom, but within the middle ranks—which are the majority of the population—a much more complicated picture.”
The early modern middle
A number of the social developments raised by the authors of Social Class bear uncanny resemblance to developments in early modern England, too, and their characterisation of the twenty-first century “middling” provides a useful introduction to our own concerns. In early modern England, numerous complex factors—including a growing population, changing financial systems and cultures and the challenges of harvest failure and dearth, transformations in the objects and buildings of the physical lived environment, the religious changes and disjunctures of England’s Reformations, educational expansion and the interlinked rises of print and the vernacular—saw the formation of a distinct but variable “middling” demographic. This group had to work for a living, unlike the landed gentry, but they often ran households, had control of some production means, and possessed social and cultural capital that distinguished them from many workpeople, wage labourers, smallholders, and tenant farmers (with farming being by far the most common profession across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England). For instance, the rise in schooling saw a spike in what we now call first-generation university students, who left versed in both traditional scholastic as well as contemporary humanistic education; they brushed shoulders with the sons of aristocrats and mastered classical literature. A number of these graduates went on to reshape literary and commercial forms within the emerging print market; they include writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe.
Who cares about the middling sort?
Research into this middle group of society has been a subject for social historians since the late 1970s. Keith Wrightson’s language of “sorts” provided a new vocabulary, one drawn from commentary of the period, that helped historians reconceive the structure of society in a period before the Marxist language of “class” can be usefully applied (that is, contentiously, before the Industrial Revolution). Numerous studies have subsequently explored the significance of the “middling sort” for understanding major developments in early modern England: for Wrightson and Levine, they represent the gradual firming up of a tripartite class system, with the ascendant middle leaving below them a proletariat underclass and in turn ushering in the systemic exploitation and class conflict characteristic of the late eighteenth century and beyond. For others, the group are at the centre of shifts in consumption culture: changes in household production among the middling sort, combined with increased spending power, have been linked to a rising commodification of goods, particularly household items. Others have seen the middling sort as responsible for an increased emphasis on domesticity that helped to bring in a new concern for “gentility”—a set of manners, behaviours, and material expression that distinguished an increasingly middle-class or bourgeois existence from living standards below (and arguably also above). Beyond these approaches, one might think more broadly about the burgeoning businesses and trades across England driven by this broad group of people, men and women alike—apothecaries, scriveners, playhouse managers, printing press owners, skilled artisans, preachers—and of their increasing participation in public administration—as aldermen, vestrymen, justices of the peace, school and hospital founders and administrators, contributors to civic entertainments and events.
On and in their own terms
Many previous studies have concentrated largely on economic and social factors: they have used, often in ingenious ways, probate inventories (the list of possessions recorded at a person’s death), parish records, apprenticeship records, and patterns of trade. Barring several important exceptions, they have often focused on a later seventeenth-century window, often with the consequence that the “middling sort” can appear to be a transitional group, an industrial-class-in-waiting, with much discussion resting on post-Restoration evidence. In part, this might be connected to historians’ identification of the “middling” as an indistinct, incoherent grouping. In John Smail’s words, for instance, “practice [was] particularly important as a vehicle for class identity in the early phases of the formation of a class culture because a coherent conceptualisation of class identity was still being constructed” (230).
Smail’s investment in “practice,” and by extension lived experience, recognises the problems with prioritising “class consciousness” (recognising one is within a particular class) as the essential endpoint in a history of class or of social formation. Other studies of the middling sort have also expressed frustration, or at least resignation, about the fact that distinct expressions of self-identity are few and far between. Henry French (author of the only book-length study of the middling sort in our period) sees middling identity as something that works within a parish—in relation to others in one’s immediate community: “This does not mean that the ‘middling’ lacked other possible forms of extra-parochial identity or identification. It merely suggests that they generally did not express these through the idiom of the ‘middle sort of people” (20). Self-identity in the twenty-first century seems to be equally difficult to pin down, as the opening remarks of this post suggest. While it may not be helpful to look for a narrowly self-defined group of middling people in our period, we are interested in the range of imbricated and understood identities within the umbrella grouping of the “middling sort”—much as the authors of Social Class in the 21st Century suggest for us today.
As such, our project is going to bring together these issues through a wide-ranging focus that takes into account all aspects of individuals’ cultural experiences. We will do this by looking at the formative period of middling identities, in the century following 1560. It is from this date that many of the social changes described above occur or intensify.
By applying such an interdisciplinary lens—one centred on lived experience in all its cultural manifestations—we hope to add nuance and texture to the broad grouping of the “middling sort” in this formative period. We will explore the things, practices, and ideas produced and consumed in the household, the guildhall, and the church, such as: musical instruments, pictures, account books, books and printed materials, letters, administrative and legal records, architecture, and household and divine objects. The following case examples show brief and speculative samples of the different methodologies, items, and approaches that bring a wider cultural consideration to our understanding of a group of people who fundamentally changed the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Opening Micro Case Studies:
Callan, Catherine, Ceri, Graeme, and Tara. June 2019.