Sorting people into groups is something that we, as scholars, spend a lot of time doing. As Alexandra Shepard shows in her powerful recent book, Accounting for Oneself, it is something that early modern people constantly did too.
This is not the place for proper review of the book as there are already plenty of those available, including a substantial analysis by my co-blogger Mark. However, I would like to look slightly more closely at one particular aspect of the book which speaks directly to an issue that we have struggled with repeatedly on this blog: how do we divide up early modern society?
Historians have been debating this question for decades and many models have been proposed. For example, is it a binary society, split between the elite and everyone else? If so, what should we call these groups? The patricians and the plebs? The elite and the people? The gentry and the commonalty? The better and the worser sort of people? Or perhaps it is a tripartite society. If so, is it ‘richer’, ‘middling’ and ‘poorer’? Or simply ‘upper-class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’? Or maybe a society of three ‘estates’ (clergy, aristocracy, commons)? Or a hierarchy of ‘degrees’ and ‘ranks’ (peers, gentry, merchants, yeomen, husbandmen, labourers, vagrants)?
These models are regularly used by scholars and they were also occasionally used by early modern people themselves, especially by the educated and wealthy men who stood near the top of these hierarchies. However, as Shepard shows so clearly, contemporaries more often sorted themselves according to more fine-grained estimates of ‘worth’. I won’t go into the details of her methodology here, but suffice to say that she looked at over 17,000 responses from legal deponents to a series of questions about their credibility and found that the vast majority of them offered surprisingly specific answers based on their net worth, income, occupation and/or marital status.
For contemporaries, the division between – for example – gentry and commoner was certainly important, but just as important were the distinctions that separated ‘wife’ and ‘widow’. Or the ‘yeoman’ who was ‘worth’ £40 from one worth £140. Or the alm-taking pauper from the ‘poor’ wife of a Stepney drover who was ‘not worth any thing her debts p[aid] but never did beg, or ask the Charity of strangers by her’ (Shepard, p. 119).
Occupational labels are particularly interesting here. As Mark has suggested in a recent article, plenty of people took much of their social identity from their specific occupation rather than from their larger social group or ‘class’. Yet it is also apparent that the relationship between one’s occupational label and one’s actual working life was often ambiguous or even tenuous. This is something I noticed when researching the economic fortunes of Joseph Bufton. Was he a master clothier? Or a labouring wool-comber? Or something in between? Shepard shows that such ambiguity was common.
Occupational labels in this period, she argues, were as much about lineage and status as about the realities of daily labour. In 1628, William Clapham of York described himself as a ‘yeoman’ – usually defined as a well-off farmer – despite being a ‘household servant’ at the time, because he was expecting a substantial inheritance from his father (p. 240). Shepard finds many other cases where self-reported occupations had more to do with perceived social position than with actual ‘work’. This ambiguity was especially apparent among women, who rarely reported an ‘occupation’ but often talked about their work as midwives, nurses, seamstresses, laundresses and so forth. Likewise, for them, the title ‘housewife’ or even just ‘wife’ seemed to be an occupation – equivalent to ‘husbandman’ – rather than simply a marital status. Such labels were ‘a complex amalgam of identity’ which included ‘economic contribution, social status [and] legal entitlement to marital property’ (p. 260).
Shepard’s work deserves enormous plaudits for investigating these issues so systematically in her sources. Since reading her book, I know that I’ll never think about such labels in quite the same way again. Yet there is still much more work that needs to be done on this, moving beyond both the traditional top-down contemporary descriptions and Shepard’s wonderful new depositional evidence. Mark’s broadside ballad evidence is a great start, as is the rather different depositional evidence being examined by the Women’s Work in Rural England 1500-1700 project, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the relevant archival material. Ultimately, if we hope to understand past societies, we need to know much more about how people labelled themselves and their neighbours, and how these labels related to the concrete realities of daily life.
Some Further Reading
Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, and the Social Order in Early Modern England (OUP, 2015)
Susan D. Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (1988)
Amy Erickson, ‘Marital status and economic activity: interpreting spinsters, wives, and widows in pre-census population listings’, Cambridge Working Papers in Economic & Social History, no. 6, 2012.
Henry French, The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (2007)
Mark Hailwood, ‘Broadside Ballads and Occupational Identity in Early Modern England’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 79:2 (2016), pp. 187-200
Keith Wrightson, ‘“Sorts of People” in Tudor and Stuart England’, in The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1800 (1994), pp.28-51