Tag Archives: Early modern England

Review: ‘Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760’, Second Edition, 1997. J.A. Sharpe.

A wide-ranging and commendably balanced piece of historiography spanning the period 1550-1760. It aims to provide an overview of how life was lived by the people of England, from the highest to the lowest, during the period in question, although, alas, the sieve of history has captured far less relating to the lives of the meaner sort when compared to those of the middling and upper orders. This is an unavoidable consequence of differential rates of literacy, and what the literate deemed worthy of recording, or not.

From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, however, the rapid growth of printed material of varying types accompanied the development of a more literate culture as the population became more educated, with the consequence that we possess a far more rounded picture of everyday life during the latter part of this period.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on popular culture and the world of work, as these helped to flesh out the daily experience of the lower strata of society, which, alas, is a theme frequently neglected or glossed over in histories that concentrate more on politics, economics and religious change. This material would prove particularly useful to any author looking to set a novel, or shorter piece of fiction, in the world of this time.

One theme that came through strongly in the book, was the fact that whereas London had already grown to be a considerable metropolis by the middle of the sixteenth century, England was still a predominantly agrarian society two centuries later, with many of its towns still being no larger than what we would term villages today. The section on the village community is therefore of particular interest.

Overall, Sharpe’s book serves as a useful complement to Keith Thomas’s three major works on early modern England; it makes for a fascinating read.

Review: ‘The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England,’ Keith Thomas, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Thomas Braithwaite makes his will (1607)

Over his long career, Keith Thomas has written a trio of books that are essential reading for anyone interested in the social history of early modern England, with this being his most recent. The theme that it tackles is a perennial one: how to live a good, as in a fulfilled, life. Whereas the reader will encounter goals and attitudes that are not so distant from our own today, there are many beliefs and practices – unsurprisingly found more towards the beginning of the period in question (the book spans the three hundred years from 1500 to 1800) – that are quite unlike those to which all but a fringe few now subscribe. These changes in outlook run in tandem with shifts in the accompanying social and economic order, with the most pronounced transitions during the period in question being associated with a growing commercialism, individualism and secularisation.  

Thus, whereas the mediaeval conception of military glory as virtuous and noble carried over into this period, with martial skills and prowess being seen as an integral part of masculine identity, it gradually ceded its status to the pursuit of wealth, with the military becoming increasingly specialised and professional as feudalism became eclipsed by mercantile, and then industrial, capitalism. The old belligerent ethos was unsuited to the majority in the new commercial age, many of whom now looked down upon the murderous trade plied by those who clung to the ideals of chivalric nobility, or served in the common soldiery. 

One of Thomas’s key observations is that routes to individual fulfilment were vastly more circumscribed at the beginning of this period than towards its end, and alas, many still find that their personal choices are greatly limited by their social and economic status today. Self-realisation is not quite as new a concept as we may often think, and the different ‘roads to fulfilment’ that he sketches – vocational, material, reputational, personal and posthumous – are all at play, to a greater or lesser degree, in our own lives now. 

Thomas’s prose is always a joy to read, being both commendably objective and laced with wit, with contemporary voices from many different stations of life being given the opportunity to address the reader directly, in the form of the many quotations that pepper this text. For those interested in this period of English history, and particularly for those who aspire to write fiction and wish to gain an insight into the varied social milieux of this time, it is an indispensable resource.  

Thomas ends the volume with a quote from a far earlier age – that of Augustan Rome – translated by John Dryden from Horace’s twenty-ninth ode, which is as salutary and joyous now, as it was to its readers in late seventeenth-century England:  

Happy the man, and happy he alone,

He, who can call today his own;

He, who secure within, can say

Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have liv’d today.

Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,

The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine.

Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r;

But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

Book Review: ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic,’ Keith Thomas, 1971.

Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.  

One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my occult tale The Cleft Owl. 

Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century. 

Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.  

To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.