Middling Culture Project Launch: The Middling Sort – Some Reflections…

Jonathan Willis

I was lucky enough to travel down to Canterbury on Tuesday 25 June 2019 to attend the launch of a new ARHC project, ‘Middling Culture: the Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort, Writing and Material Culture, 1560-1660’.  The project is being run by Catherine Richardson (Kent), Tara Hamling (Birmingham) and Graeme Earl (KCL), along with Callan Davies and Ceri Law, and you can find out more about it (and read their own blog) here.



The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society.  The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.[1]  Middling households had to work for their income, but they were operating at a higher level than their own subsistence, and so had money and time to invest in non-essential objects or practices, and they might be even wealthy enough to employ servants of their own. Jonathan Barry, who co-edited an important collection of essays on the middling sort in 1994, suggested that while attempts at precise quantification are neither possible nor helpful, the middling sort may have constituted between thirty and fifty per cent of early modern society at one time or another.

Participants at the project launch were invited to think of evidence for objects or practices which might be considered ‘middling’, as well as examples which were ‘above middling’ and ‘below middling’.  As well as introducing the project, most of the launch event focused around discussion of this evidence, and grappling with definitional issues around the extent, and limits, of what we might describe as constituting middling culture.  While this might sound like a fairly simply exercise, it is one that I (and I think most of the other participants) found surprisingly difficult.  But why?


Firstly, I think, because it invites us to revisit that hoary old chestnut, Culture.  Specifically, how far did any sector of early modern society possess its own culture, as opposed to sharing in aspects of cultures which circulated more widely.  Broadside ballads, for example, often set out to titillate popular audiences by presenting to them the worst excesses of human criminality and debauchery, but ballads existed at the intersection of oral, musical, visual and print cultures – they were produced by literate authors and skilled craftsmen, and often collected and enjoyed by high status individuals, such as the famous seventeenth century diarist Samuel Pepys.  So how far did middling people possess their own distinct cultures, as opposed to participating in a range of other shared cultures, which might include cultures organised around other commonalities – occupational identity, gender, age, geography, religion – which might cut across social status.


Secondly, the middling sort, along the rest of early modern society, were not a homogeneous group with a set of distinctive shared characteristics: rather, they were a fluid and porous constituency which occupied a range of positions on the social status continuum.  It’s not long since I found myself sitting through many long hours of university exam boards, so perhaps it’s only natural that the analogy which springs immediately to mind is the way we mark student essays and exams, and the difficulty of making decisions around borderline cases.  So a 65 (solid 2.1) is clearly different from a 55 (solid 2.2), or from a 45 (solid Third), or from a 75 (solid First) or 85 (high First).  But the difference between a 59 and a 60 or a 69 and 70 is often less clear cut, and a 60 may well have more in common with a 59 than with a 69.  How easy, therefore, is it to identify a culture shared exclusively by all individuals across the entirety of the middling spectrum, and to create cliff edges, beyond which people must start to be identified as ‘above’ or ‘below’ middling?


So what did I choose as my three examples?  For ‘below middling’ I decided on the practice of charivari or ‘rough music’, whereby those who broke community norms (such as cuckolded husbands and shrewish wives) had their behaviour sanctioned noisily and publicly by the community, shouting and jeering and banging pots and pans.[2]  This was a clamorous and genuinely popular oral and mimetic tradition, initiated within communities in order to police conventional norms of gender and order.  But would I swear that the crowds on such occasions never contained members of the middling sort?  I would not.


For ‘middling’, I mulled over a few options, including the sort of person who might hold the office of churchwarden, and also the ‘autobiography’ of the Tudor musician Thomas Whythorne.  In the end I opted for a printed text – Lewis Bayly’s blockbuster manual for household piety and devotional practice, The practise of pietie.[3]  Bayly himself, of course, was an elite figure, but his manual seems to be aimed at a working household that was nevertheless affluent enough to afford servants of its own.  Middling households had the luxury of capital to spend on such items, the luxury of literacy to read them, and the luxury of time to at least attempt to put some of their lessons into practice.  But might texts such as Bayly’s not be read by people higher up or lower down the social scale?  Almost certainly.


Finally, what about ‘above middling’?  In desperation, I grasped for one of the most elite things I could think of, Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, translated into English as The Courtier.[4]  This was the manual of gentility par excellence, describing how the political and social elite ought to behave, eschewing labour and becoming effortlessly proficient in pursuits such as sports, music, and dancing.  But might some aspiring middle sort types not have owned a copy, out of entertainment, curiosity or aspiration?  Quite probably.

What struck myself and – I think – most of the other participants was the degree of agreement in the broad principles around the importance of the middling sort as well as the huge difficulties in coming up with definitions specific yet capacious enough to include men and women, clergy and yeomen farmers, educated professionals (such as lawyers), merchants and traders, and craftsmen who worked with their hands, such as goldsmiths.  For me, Peter Lake’s definition of puritanism is perhaps an interesting way to think about the middling sort and their culture, which I will (miss-)quote below.  This is a fascinating and important project, but it is certainly one that has a significant challenge on its hands!

The Middling Sort?

‘a distinctive style of cultural and social identity, made up not so much of distinctive middling component parts, the mere presence of which in a person’s thought or practice rendered them definitively middling, as a synthesis of strands most or many of which taken individually could be found in non-middling as well as middling contexts, but which taken together form a distinctively middling synthesis or style.’[5]

How would you define the middling sort, and what examples would you give of culture that was ‘middling’, ‘above middling’, and ‘below middling’?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

[1] Jonathan Barry, ‘Introduction’, in Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brooks (eds), The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England 1550-1800 (Palgrave: Basingstoke, 1994), p. 2.

[2] See, for example, Martin Ingram, ‘Ridings, Rough Music and the “Reform of Popular Culture” in Early Modern England’, Past & Present, 105 (1984), pp. 79-113.

[3] E.g. Lewis Bayly, The practise of pietie directing a Christian how to walke that he may please God (1613), STC2: 1602., although ESTC records more than 15 editions between 1612 and 1638.

[4] Baldassarre Castiglione, The courtyer of Count Baldessar Castilio diuided into foure bookes. Very necessary and profitable for yonge gentilmen and gentilwomen abiding in court, palaice or place, trans. Thomas Hoby (1561), STC2: 4778.

[5] Peter Lake, ‘Defining Puritanism – Again?’, in Franke Bremer (ed.), Puritanism: Transatlantic Perspectives on a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Faith (Boston, 1993), p. 6.  Lake’s original quote reads: ‘a distinctive style of piety and divinity, made up not so much of distinctive puritan component parts, the mere presence of which in a person’s thought or practice rendered them definitively a puritan, as a synthesis of strands most or many of which taken individually could be found in non-puritan as well as puritan contexts, but which taken together form a distinctively puritan synthesis or style’.

3 thoughts on “Middling Culture Project Launch: The Middling Sort – Some Reflections…

  1. Carl Estabrook, Urbane and Rustic England … (1999) posed the question of different cultural milieux in City and country – somewhat criticized by Barry in a review – based on different household personal estate in inventories.
    I’m somewhat ambiguous about the notion of culture.

    • Sorry for the low reply, as I’ve been away on holiday since the post came out, but thank you, that’s a really useful additional dimension to bear in mind. Chris King (Nottingham) was at the event, and made the point that somebody at the top of society in a provincial city like Norwich would only be medium fry in the capital, and the contrast between city and countryside is just as profound, if not more so!

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