On periodisation: two ‘early modern’ Englands?

Links to the other posts in the ‘On Periodisation’ series:

Brodie Waddell

Last week I had the privilege of attending Laura Gowing’s inaugural lecture on ‘A Trade of One’s Own’. She told the fascinating story of women’s changing relationship with London and its livery companies over the course of the seventeenth century.

It was a brilliant lecture in all sorts of ways, but what caught my ear was the way she implicitly divided her story into two periods. From my recollection, there were relatively few formal changes in the way the companies dealt with women over the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – yet Gowing showed that unofficial norms shifted substantially. Specifically, she showed that the number of women as mistresses and apprentices rose from the 1640s onwards and resulted in a new landscape in which – for example – about 40 percent of the shops in the Royal Exchange were owned by women by the end of the century.

The Royal Exchange, 1671

The Royal Exchange, 1671

Although Gowing did not discuss the reasons for this shift in detail, she alluded to the disruptions of the Civil Wars, the rise of new women-made fashions such as the mantua gown, and the increasing preponderance of women among migrants to the metropolis. In fact, pinning down a specific cause may be impossible because the change seems to have been almost ‘over-determined’. In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, everything seemed to be changing.

Dividing ‘early modernity’

This lecture set me thinking about my own sense of periodisation. Laura has talked about start and end points for the ‘early modern’, Mark has discussed the question of ‘modernity’ itself, and Jonathan has addressed the thorny notion of a ‘Reformation era’. But what about the divisions within the ‘early modern period’, however defined?

It seems to me that there has increasingly emerged a sense of an ‘early early modern period’ and a ‘late early modern period’. I’ll call them the EEMP and LEMP, because acronyms add an air of authority. Continue reading

Hidden gems of Tudor Church reform: the equal opportunities that never were, and dressing up smart for God…

Jonathan Willis

Chasing up some last-minute references for the book I’ve been writing up over the past year or so on the Ten Commandments, over Easter I found myself making use of a local academic library to consult Gerald Bray’s editions, prepared for the Church of England Record Society, of the Anglican Canons and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum.  As I sat in this unfamiliar space, surrounded by undergraduates feverishly working on essays and revising for their exams, I couldn’t help but be struck by what seemed like some of the more unlikely concerns of sixteenth-century reformers.  The topic of Tudor Church reform doesn’t exactly promise thrills, spills and adrenaline from the outset, but it does occasionally provide a fascinating insight into a range of social and cultural prejudices, alongside the rather more predictable fare of the duties of churchwardens, the alienation and renting out of ecclesiastical goods, and the nuts and bolts of the process of episcopal visitation.

Continue reading

On periodisation: religion, early modernity, and ‘The Reformation’

Links to other posts in the ‘On Periodisation’ series:

Jonathan Willis

In some ways, ‘The Reformation’ (I’ll explain the excessive punctuation in a bit) may seem like an odd contribution to a blog mini-series on periodisation.  After all, surely ‘The Reformation’ was a thing, an event, something that happened, rather than a neutral description of a period of time (although, as we are coming to discover, there is rarely anything neutral about how anybody, let alone a historian, parcels up the past).  As Laura mentioned in her introductory post, use of ‘The Reformation’ to describe a period of time tends to have most currency in North America, where ‘Ren-Ref’ is a convenient shorthand for the periods of the renaissance and reformation, c.1400-c.1600, or c.1350-c.1650, or c.1300-c.1700; well you get the idea…  I am a product of the UK Higher Education system, however, having never studied or worked in the US or Canada, and so I’m going to leave ‘Ren-Ref’ to one side for now.  Instead, there are two related questions I want to address in this post.  Firstly, how useful is religion in helping us to define the early modern period?  And secondly, how should we define the chronology of ‘The Reformation’ itself?

Religion and Early Modernity


A less contentious way of measuring time?

To what extent can we define early modernity with reference to developments in the religious sphere?  For the sake of argument, and because one post can’t do everything, I’m going to work within the eurocentrism of the term early modern, and accept for now its customary definition as c.1500-c.1700.  In some ways, there is a fairly good case for arguing that the early modern period saw within it some fairly distinctive developments in matters of religion, and that therefore these developments do help give a sense of coherence (or at least, of coherent incoherence) to the period as a whole.  To start with the most obvious, we might characterise the early modern period as one which witnessed at its outset the collapse of 1500 years of broad religious unity: provocatively, one recent overview of early modern history has taken as its title Christendom Destroyed.[1]  The Protestant Reformation, and the growth in number of religious sects and denominations that broke away from the previously hegemonic monolith of the (Roman) Catholic Church, and subsequently from one another, could plausibly be seen as the defining characteristic of the early modern age. Continue reading