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.

For the EEMP, there are the huge crowds of historians who work on the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Tudors and early Stuarts, the Civil Wars and – of course – the great social and economic changes associated with ‘Tawney’s Century’ (1540-1640). Within my own particular academic lineage, Keith Wrightson and his students loom large and – with notable exceptions – they have tended to focus on this EEMP until relatively recently.

For the LEMP, there was a bit of a gap. Obviously there have always been at least a few scholars – especially political historians – working on the later Stuart period, but they always seemed much less numerous and vocal than the EEMists. Instead, there was a whole gang of the ‘long eighteenth-century’ scholars who worked on the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, radicalism and the rest of the fun of ‘Thompson’s Century’ (1720-1820). Note that despite the name, I found relatively few ‘long’ eighteenth centurists actually focused much attention on the period before 1700 or even 1720, though again there are honourable exceptions.

9780199600793Yet in the last few years, it feels like there has been a surge of interest in the late  seventeenth century and, more importantly, there has been a valiant effort to link it more clearly to what came before and after. It would be hazardous to try to list a set of titles for fear of leaving someone out, so I’ll simply note two texts that have been important to my own thinking about this period, in very different ways: Steve Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution and Alexandra Shepard’s Accounting for Oneself. Although they ask different questions and adopt contrasting tones, they both assert the fundamental importance of this period in long-term narratives. Rather than treating it as merely the end point for the EEMP or the start date for a study of the ‘long’ eighteenth century, they treat it as unique period in its own right.

The result, to my mind, is the emergence of a sense that for many topics in English history there were actually two ‘early modern’ periods. In some cases – such as Pincus’s book – this is simply a return to the ‘pre-modern’ v. ’modern’ binary noted by Laura. But for most, there seems to be a recognition that, say, 1600 and 1700 were both recognisably ‘early modern’, but in very distinctive ways.

It would be easy to put together a long list of ways in which the middle decades of the seventeenth century was a moment of discontinuity: the Civil Wars and Interregnum, the shift from population growth to demographic stability, the establishment of significant English territories overseas, the rise of the fiscal-military state and the financial revolution, the emergence of London as a global city, to name just a few. Together, these events created an England that was new and different without necessarily being especially ‘modern’. For example, to return to Laura Gowing’s story, ‘free’ mistresses trading and taking female apprentices become significantly more common, despite the fact that the patriarchal norms common to the Elizabethan and early Stuart eras remained firmly intact.

So, is it fruitful to divide the early modern period in two? Is c.1650 just as important as c.1500 and c.1800? If so, can someone please come up with better names than ‘early early modern’ and ‘late early modern’?

16 thoughts on “On periodisation: two ‘early modern’ Englands?

  1. Brilliant article, in response to your question, although I might hate it, is there some store in a ‘post-medieval’ period from 1498 to 1650 and the early modern period running from 1650? I know this would snooker my library and sense of academic self, but it might work.

    • Thanks, Ben. I think my hesitation about ‘post-medieval’ (as with ‘post-Reformation’) is practical: it is not at all clear when it would end. From what I can tell, archaeologists use the term ‘post-medieval’ to refer to anything from the last five centuries or so!

      • Agreed, am not that keen on it myself! On a side note, this is a brilliant series of articles.

  2. One possible way of dividing the period would be through themes (Jonathan already touching on religion). A historian of ideas may regard the early modern period as being from the Renaissance to the enlightenment. Military historians using as a starting point the first fiscal-military state being established. Social history the area I’m most familiar with would start from 1549 being if one follows professor Wood’s thesis that commotion time was the last medieval rebellions and a new socioeconomic order was born.

    • Absolutely, Michael. I think demographics are pretty important to periodisation for social and economic historians too. In that sense, late medieval England has a lot in common with the c.1650-1750 period (demographic stagnation, low inflation, strong position for workers), whereas c.1550-1650 has more in common with, e.g., c.1200-1350 or c.1750-1800. However, these periods wouldn’t make any sense to, say, a historian of religion.

      • This is much what I was thinking: indeed in economic terms the waves are longer still until the C16, with the inflationary episode of c.1470-1620 sandwiched between two deflationary periods of similar length, though afterward the durations become shorter (and economic growth less reliant on demographic or price swings): 1620-1740, 1740-1815, 1815-50, 1850-73, 1873-96, etc.

        A “cyclical” approach to periodisation then offers and intriguing choice: to count peak-to-peak or trough-to-trough? 1320-1620 or 1470-1740? The second is more recognisably “early modern”, but the first offers an opportunity to view the “late medieval crisis” and a “proto-modern” in a common timeframe rich with opportunities for examining our treasured themes of “continuity & change”.

        Would such periods make any sense to a political historian? The second probably more so as the progression from a monarchy in crisis to one securely embedded in a transformed constitutional order after the upheavals of the C17 (with much the same perhaps being said of the Church despite the loss of its monopoly of state-sanctioned religious practice). That doesn’t mean Henry VII or his realm had much in common with George II, but there are threads worth pursuing.

        Perhaps such overlapping periods are the way to go: to approach the same issues in terms of both “progress then crisis” and “crisis then progress” phases (after all, it’s a bit chicken-and-egg as to whether success brings complacency, decay and new challenges, or whether crisis is the stimulus to new advance).

        What’s crucial is to remember that out periods remain artificial even when they’re of use, a device for shedding light on a theme rather than a straitjacket for our thinking. I was struck only yesterday by Skinner’s observation that C20 historians’ notion of a “mature system” of Chinese record-keeping c.1775-1850 had prompted uncritical acceptance of some of the C19 data for which the label was no longer appropriate, effectively forming rather than informing our perceptions when it’s at least arguable that C18 improvement gave way to C19 ossification and decay (though I’m deeply sceptical of the widespread notion that the latter characterises the empire generally, rather flipping common wisdom).

        So let periodisation be a part of our toolkit, but just that. And never ignore that nagging inner voice saying “What’s wrong with this picture?” even as we may appreciate the elegance of our construct.

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