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. 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.
In 1787, a rag-tag band of rebels and revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to write a constitution. They decided to begin the document with a phrase that has since become rather famous: ‘We the People of the United States’.
About 250 years earlier, in the 1530s and 40s, there were a series of new translations of the Bible into English that included an intriguing phrase amongst the Psalms: ‘Let us knele before the LORDE oure maker. For he is oure God: as for us, we are the people of his pasture, and the shepe of his handes.’ The phrase was integrated into the new Book of Common Prayer in 1549, so from then on English congregations would routinely sing this together, collectively declaring themselves to be God’s people. Continue reading
According to a crude survey of published texts, ‘the people’ were invoked frequently in print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in times of political turmoil such as the 1640s and 1688-89. However, published texts are notoriously unreliable representatives of actual contemporary discussion. They were produced by the literate, for the literate, often using carefully crafted rhetoric.
Manuscripts can bring us slightly closer to a less skewed view of ‘the people’. Although obviously they too were only produced by the literate elite, they occasionally purport to record the voices of the illiterate and they tend to be less polemical as they were not intended to influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, there is no manuscript equivalent of the huge sample of published texts that have been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership, though the Folger Library is giving it a go with its own manuscript collection. The State Papers Online is also promising, but only the calendars, rather than the original documents, have been transcribed. The closest to an equivalent to EBBO-TCP is probably the corpus of 240,000 transcriptions on the wonderful London Lives site, though these only cover the period 1690 to 1800 and the early material has many irregular transcriptions.
I’ve mostly drawn on my own little collection of notes from various archival documents (and published editions thereof), amounting to just over 600 pages in total, in which I found about 70 mentions of ‘the people’. Of course my notes are heavily biased in all sorts of ways, with a notable focus on the late 17th century, thanks to my current obsession with the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s. Still, it’s better than nothing. (In what follows, I have not included references, but I’m happy to supply them upon request and I have included links to any quotations taken from London Lives.)
So, with that methodological stuff out of the way, who are ‘the people’ in these sources? Continue reading
In our on-going discussions of social description and social identity on this blog, we have tried to think through how we talk about the ‘non-elite’ individuals that we study. We’ve shown the problems with ‘plebeians’ and ‘the people’, yet I think this latter term is worth looking at from another angle. In Mark’s post on ‘the rise of the people’, he focused on how historians have used the term, but he also mentioned that:
It would be interesting to run a project on the history and meanings of the term ‘the people’ across the centuries, as has been done for instance for ‘commonwealth‘.
I can’t claim this little post is even a preliminary report on any such project. However, I did spend a couple hours searching through Early English Books Online to try to get a sense of how contemporaries used this term in early modern England. So, who were ‘the people’?
The first feature to note is that the term was extremely common. There were just over 400,000 hits for ‘the people’ in the 44,313 transcribed texts on EBBO. Continue reading
One of our ongoing conversations on this blog has revolved around the most appropriate terms that practitioners of history ‘from below’ can use to describe their subjects: are we studying ‘the working class’? The ‘lower classes’? The ‘middling and poorer sort of people’? The ‘plebs’? This post doesn’t provide any answers I’m afraid, but in it I want to resume the conversation by highlighting and briefly interrogating a term that seems to me to have been enjoying a certain vogue recently: ‘the people’. Continue reading
How, in the 21st century, can the word ‘pleb’ lead to a prominent MP resigning his government post and to a £2 million libel lawsuit? The recent conclusion of this ridiculous saga has reminded us that this seemingly obsolete term of social description still has bite, but why?
The BBC has offered its own little history lesson on ‘pleb’, focusing on its classical origins. However, they leap straight from the Latin source to its use in 19th century public schools. What the BBC misses, perhaps justifiably, is the re-emergence of this Latinate language in the early modern period and the fraught use of the term by historians studying that period. Yet for those of us interested the history of social relations and social conflict, the terminology is more than an anachronistic oddity.
Rugby School, beloved by the plebs
The abbreviated version – ‘pleb’ – used by Andrew Mitchell seems to have been an invention of the late 18th century. I haven’t found it in any of the thousands of transcribed texts on Early English Books Online except in Latin passages, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first example in 1795. It is, by this time, derogatory Westminster School slang for ‘the son of a tradesman’. Mitchell, who attended the equally exclusive Rugby School, probably picked it up through this route though he might have learned a bit more about it when studying history at Cambridge. This explains why, in a moment of angry condescension, he spat out a term that most of us would regard as obscure and a bit silly. Nonetheless many other versions of the term have been circulating for at least a couple thousand years. Continue reading
[This is the sixth piece in ’The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Mark Hailwood is a historian of early modern England and one of the founders of the many-headed monster.]
The posts that have appeared so far in this symposium have suggested a number of interesting directions for the future of ‘history from below’: a future that opens up new avenues for research through explorations of material culture, of the landscape, and of global connections and comparisons, with a critical but ultimately optimistic disposition regarding the possibilities of drawing together fragmentary evidence, potentially through the use of digital databases. All of this excites and encourages me. And yet, there is one particular problem that I think we all need to address if ‘history from below’ is to have a coherent future: how to define its subjects.
I’m not so much concerned here with who should ‘qualify’ as an appropriate subject for ‘history from below’ – I’m not sure prescriptive precision here is possible or helpful, but maybe someone would like to take this up in the comments section – so much as with the labels we use to refer to those that are generally accepted to fall within its remit. Let’s start with that classic statement of the ‘history from below’ agenda found in Thompson’s preface to The Making… ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Continue reading