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…)
To 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
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
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analyses of developments in English society between the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution may seem a little outdated nowadays, but even if Marxist/Weberian grand narratives are not your thing, Hill is still a great read.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
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
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
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…