Marooned On An Island Monographs: An Early Modern Social History Summer Reading List

Mark Hailwood

It is the last day of term here in Oxford, and my thoughts have started to drift to what I might find time to read over the upcoming summer months. This is a purely fictional premise of course, for my summer is already booked up with conferences to attend, writing deadlines to meet, book indexes to compile: casual reading is unlikely to get much of a look in. Still, I thought I would indulge myself by thinking about some of the history books I would take with me if I was going to be marooned on an island between now and the resumption of term in the autumn (a nice idea huh? Someone should make a radio show along these lines…)

Marooned ReadingTo stop myself getting carried away I’ve imposed some fairly strict conditions: I have chosen only 5, and I’ve decided to stick to books in my specialist subject area. It’s a bit of a niche collection, I admit, but even narrowing down this list was hard enough! So, for anyone looking for a summer crash course in early modern English social history….

1) Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680

The only place to start

The only place to start

This is where it all started for me. The first book on early modern England that I read as an undergrad, and I was hooked. Ostensibly a textbook, though in reality a brilliant interpretative essay that creatively synthesised pretty much all that was known about the social history of Tudor and Stuart England in 1982, providing an enduring thesis that this was a period of profound economic, social and cultural polarisation between different classes. A masterpiece of telescoping between the minutiae of everyday life and the macro-historical processes shaping it. Remains the stand out introduction to early modern social history.


2) Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England

Hill: magisterial meta-narratives (if you like that sort of thing)

Hill: magisterial meta-narratives (if you like that sort of thing)

For me it started with Wrightson, but for him it started with the work of the next two authors on my list. Hill’s sweeping analyses of developments in English society between the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution may seem a little outdated nowadays, but even if Marxist/Weberian grand narratives are not your thing, Hill is still a great read. His literary flourishes are a treat, and his ability to knit together political, social, cultural and religious changes is testament to a hugely impressive intellect, whether you buy it or not. This attempt to provide a sociology of puritanism, first published in 1964, still casts a long shadow over our understanding of early modern society.



3) Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost

An overlooked classic: what the hipster early modernists will be reading this summer...

An overlooked classic: what the early modern history hipsters will be reading this summer…

Perhaps the forgotten man among the founding fathers of social history. Whenever I dip into this 1965 classic I always get the urge to read it cover-to-cover again. Its intention is to set out the social structure of English society before the Industrial Revolution, in the most straightforward terms and with the widest possible audience in mind. The result is arguably the most accessible work of social history you could read, and it provides a great introduction to the agenda that has subsequently driven much of the work on early modern English society. What really makes it a classic though is that Laslett sets out to explain not only what was known at that time of writing, but why it mattered to know it. The final chapter, on ‘Understanding Ourselves in Time’, is one of the greatest expositions of why social history is so important.


4) Remaking English Society, edited by Steve Hindle, Alex Shepard and John Walter

Hot(ish) off the presses: the latest must-have accessory for the budding social historian

Hot(ish) off the presses: the latest must-have accessory for the budding social historian

From two of the foundational texts of early modern social history I want to jump forward to include this recent collection of essays, dedicated to Keith Wrightson by a stellar line up of his graduate students: who, I think it is fair to say, have dominated this field over the past two decades. The introduction offers a comprehensive review of historiographical developments from the birth of social history to the present, and the twelve subsequent chapters by the leading practitioners of early modern English social history range across classic topics such as social relations, poor relief and witchcraft to more novel concerns such as the history of intoxicants and the popularity of Italian opera singers in eighteenth-century London. It is a fascinating smorgasbord, and brings readers right up to speed with the current state of research.


5) Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer

A perfect summer read - if you can handle a bit of plague on your holidays

A perfect summer read: if you can handle a bit of plague on your hols

Yes, it’s him again – but what better way to top off this crash-course in early modern social history than a bit of micro-history from the master craftsman? It makes perfect summer reading, set as it is across the summer of 1636 in Newcastle. Albeit, it’s a plague year. But the plucky young scrivener Ralph Tailor [spoiler alert] makes it through unscathed, and left behind a paper trail that allows Wrightson to take us down to ground level to witness a seventeenth-century community experiencing the most trying of times. Its richly textured and historically illuminating, which is reason enough to pick it up, but how often can you say a work of social history made you shed a tear? This one did.

So, that would be my top 5 early modern social history summer reads: I’d love to hear other people’s suggestions below the line…


11 thoughts on “Marooned On An Island Monographs: An Early Modern Social History Summer Reading List

  1. I wish I could take a break and do some reading and re-reading too, and I have the benefit of being totally freelance – but ‘Life’ gets in the way all the time. I have chosen one extra for my five, which is a slight cheat. Being also a fan of Keith Wrightson, I would really like to sit down and read from cover to cover his ‘Earthly Necessities’, since this really gets down to the nitty-gritty of life and so far I have only had time to keep dipping in for research purposes. There are a couple more I would like to re-read, having been introduced to them by my tutors when I did my late life MA at York: David Underdown’s ‘Fire From Heaven’ I found a totally gripping insight into the mind set of puritanism at the local level, while the late Margaret Spufford’s ‘Contrasting Communities’ was one of several enjoyable excursions into immersive detailed local history in the early modern period. Like Mark, I cannot miss out Christopher Hill, but my chosen volume would be ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ for an exciting narrative that has inspired me since I was an undergraduate in the 60s. My personal inspiration among my tutors at York also has to be included: James Sharpe’s ‘The Bewitching of Anne Gunter’ would be my choice, to be strictly early modern and to focus on his special area of interest – it’s also a cracking demonstration of how the personal could become very political at the highest level. Finally, for my extra choice I have to escape the confines of the island nation into early modern Italy. I have never got round to actually reading this one, to my utter shame, so it may very well be the first one I pick up. My wife was studying early modern European history at Sheffield some years ago and came home almost every night enthusiastically recounting tales from Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘ The Cheese and the Worms’. Having had that effect on an artist and photographer, it ought to inspire me to new heights too.

    • Some great choices Martin. I was toying with ‘Fire from Heaven’ for my final choice – it’s one of my favourite local case studies, and one that is particularly good for demonstrating how societal change occurred at the local level. I often set this for students to read over the vacation. I’ve only ever dipped into ‘World Turned Upside Down’, so that should go on my to do list! And do read ‘The Cheese and the Worms’, I read it through in one go, and it is undoubtedly one of the most influential and widely read works of early modern history.

  2. Some interesting background on both Hill and Laslett from Christopher Thompson via email, posted here with his permission:

    ‘I was very interested to read this account of your (prospective) summer reading, partly because two of these books appeared when I was an undergraduate. Laslett’s book was genuinely original and quite out of what was then the mainstream of social and economic history for the early modern period. Christopher Hill was deeply critical of the challeneges it posed to his kind of analysis. Hill’s book – which I had heard as a series of lectures in Hilary Term of 1963 – encapsulated his approach to the early modern period and set out a pretty predictable explanation of changes in English society which aimed at underpinning a Marxist analysis of the English Revolution. It was, in my view, a much less original work than that of Laslett. There were already signs in Oxford in the mid-1960s that the rising generation of social and economic historians were critical of this approach and inclined to look for other explanatory frameworks, although this work came, in due course, from Cambridge.’

    • Many thanks for this Christopher – very interesting. I agree with you that Laslett’s approach was more original, and I have struggled to work out why he is rarely recognised alongside the ‘founding fathers’ of early modern social history. I did wonder if it was that he didn’t have the explicit politics of a Hill, Thompson or Hobsbawm (or a Tawney for that matter), but that doesn’t really apply to someone like Keith Thomas, so I’m not sure that alone explains it. Have you read the introduction of ‘Remaking English Society’? Its very interesting on the development of the field. It tends to be rather Cambridge-centric, but there is some acknowledgement of the importance of Oxford figures like Thomas, Ingram and Macfarlane.

      • This response from Christopher:

        ‘I suspect that, in the Oxford of the 1960s, Laslett’s approach seemed too novel, too distant from the preoccupations of Christopher Hill and his circle, too distinct, indeed, from their preoccupations for it to be recognised for its ground-breaking approach. By then, Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane were moving in an anthropological direction as far as their studies were concerned. My own view is that it was in Cambridge that what was then the new social history was conceived in the mid-1970s with all its productive results. I shall look forward to reading more of your observations.’

  3. Great choices, Mark. I think Christopher brings up an interesting point about the division between the ‘new social history’ of Laslett, the Cambridge Population Group, etc. and the ‘new social history’ of Hill, Thompson, etc. Today, these two streams mingle fairly freely, but in the 60s and 70s they were still mostly distinct.

    I also think it would be worth mentioning the ‘old social history’ as it is so easily forgotten. G.M. Trevelyan didn’t inspire a historiographically powerful ‘school’, but he did inspire many non-Oxbridge historians (including hundreds of local historians) to go out and start doing social history. Likewise figures like the Webbs and Unwin – although a bit more ‘economic’ than ‘social’ – were also very important and remain so for certain topics.

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  7. Why I’m selling my early-modern books. These reasons are not necessarily in order of priority. 1 To relieve Suella of any responsibility for disposing of them should I predecease her; 2 To pass the book on to the succeeding generation where appropriate; 3 My interests have moved more into the 19th-20th centuries. My principles for pricing (although, like G. Marx, if you don’t like them, I have others): for postgrads 50% of the price that I paid (not today’s exorbitant prices); ECRs and those in temporary posts 60%ish of the price that I paid; those in secure positions 90-100% of the price that I paid. I am not in the business of making a profit. Some of the proceeds will be directed to my funding for undergrad historians at the University of Hertfordshire. A large proportion of my books (medieval, ritual, religion) have already been donated to the University of Leicester Centre for Medieval Research and my undergrad college, so do not expect some categories. Principally, I wish to dispose of my early-modern library. Please peruse my (outdated) catalogue at: which is a dump from my Tellico database which has more information. Books bought within the last year do not feature in the dump. Interest may be communicated to me at

  8. Oxford in the late 60s. I was involved with the History Faculty Reform Group (1968-70) and became one of the committee members discussing the curriculum (needless to say, like all events in 1968, the product was zilch). There was a discussion between ‘tools of the trade’ and anthropologically-inspired directions (i.e. Thomas). The postgrad representative was keen on the Thomas approach. In retrospect, I feel that that emphasis was a misdirection, but the argument is academic in any case. Nothing changed in the curriculum. Given the antiquated nature of the pre-matriculation reading list which I received, a wider and more contemporary introduction to ‘tools’ would, IMHO, have been much more productive. For myself, I was more deeply influenced by the contemporary Annales constructions of provincial and ‘regional’ society, which had more to offer on early-modern inter-disciplinarity than the English offerings. One neglects too often the importance of demography in French historiography (the origins of aggregative analysis and reconstruction: Henry, Fleury, Gaultier, etc), concentration on economy and society with quantitative methods (sometimes in a desperate attempt at positivism) and, in particular, meteorology and dearth. The Oxford syllabus was not really conducive to deep learning in this arena, but I was encouraged by my tutor, the late George Ramsay, one of the most empathetic scholars whom I have encountered.

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