Kings and Queens, battles and plagues. For centuries English history has been concerned with the deeds of the great and famous, the epic tide of history that swept England in its currents and moved her from an isolated outpost of the Roman Empire to ruler of the largest empire in world history, only to see the tide diminish and the island fall back in upon herself. Such occurrences hold an endless fascination and so have been almost endlessly explored by historians. But history does not occur in a vacuum, and for every earth-changing event there were endless smaller tides that rippled forth and changed the English people, who in their turn changed the world. Which begs bigger questions, ones that have not been asked in exactly this way before: who were these English people? What tempered them with the will to conquer an empire? What was it like living in their world?
Beginning in the 1960’s an entirely new branch of English history began to evolve, social history, the study of the English people as people. Prior to this new focus English history had primarily been concerned with detailing the nation’s political and military history, viewing the society surrounding the sometimes breathtaking deeds as little more than context. With the first publication of this book in 1980, Keith Wrightson became one of the pioneers in this new field. The new field of academic study required him first to decide which questions to ask in order to understand English society in the one hundred years between 1580 and 1680, then to seek out sources that might give him the answers. In many ways he was making up this new field of study as he went. In places the book he produced feels as if the author is making a sociological inquiry, detailing society for its own sake, and to some degree he is because it is required if the reader is to understand the topic. But by the end of the book it is quite clear that his history is every bit as historical as books filled with battles and the doings of king.
So, why social history? Specifically, why social history between the years 1580-1680? Is there something magical about that century? As the author makes clear in the Introduction, social history offers a new way to see and understand history, to de-construct what happened and why based upon materials long ignored and unused in library or government archives. The reader can almost hear him champing at the bit when he speaks of those new avenues of research, the fresh materials, that open up when the historian’s focus changes. His enthusiasm is infectious. But why, in the long history of England, those one hundreds years? “…the years between 1580 and 1680 have a special significance of their own for they witnessed significant developments in English society.” (Wrightson, page 20) Wrightson is clear that the dates are arbitrary but include important and lasting changes in the society that are worth chronicling. It might also be considered that the early part of those years were the society that inspired such notables as William Shakespeare, an eminent social critic if ever there was one. And it was a time of external pressures, too, such as the threat in 1588 of the Spanish Armada.
The author starts at what seems a logical place, namely, defining what society meant in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Society is people, of course, but what sort of people? Who were they, how they see themselves? He concentrates largely on rural areas. As might be suspected, the contemporary writers were interested in men, chiefly men with rank and status, commanding power and influence. The lower in society the person’s status rank, the less said about them by their contemporaries. The author sees this and goes into great detail to dissect the various ranks, what they meant, who they were and how they achieved their place in the world. From the peerage through the ranks of gentlemen to the origins of yeomanry, all is open for inspection.
Viewed from the outside, with opinions formed from movies and popular culture, English society of the period in question might be seen as rigid and monolithic, a caste system that valued keeping people categorized above all else. The author keenly makes the point that this is false. “Social mobility was a constant phenomenon in English society-“ (Wrightson, page 35) Whether or not this is a revelation to the reader, the author’s research comes through clearly as he explores why this mobility occurred; the higher mortality rates in the cities, for example, and the effects this had on first-born sons, the usual inheritors of wealth.
The structure of the book is the strongest attempt to provide a framework for the historical evidence of what English Society looked like in the selected hundred years. The first chapter tends to drag somewhat in pace and prose, but some of this might be due to the subject matter: the author is laying his foundation for a surprising societal survey, but first the reader must understand some of the rules. With Chapter 2 things begin to pick up as the evidence turns to livelier personal topics. New evidence suggests that 16th and 17th Century England were not so rooted to a particular piece of land as had been previously thought; physical mobility was frequent, and for a number of different reasons. Some people moved for work, be it seasonal or permanent. Others, especially the better-off in a village or town, might leave for the chance to buy land, or open a business elsewhere. Whatever their reason, “it suffices to emphasize that a steady turnover of population was a vitally important structural characteristic of local society in England.” (Wrightson, page 52)
The book is full of surprises, although it’s hard to understand exactly why we are surprised. For example, the evidence pretty clearly shows that households rarely contained more than a nuclear family, but that the higher percentage of those who did contain extended families were in the gentry class, the lowest percentage in the poor. Pooling of resources among the poor might seem more likely but the conclusion is exactly the opposite. Not only that, but links of kinship with neighbors also seems to have been less than would generally be assumed. Given this seeming paradox the author looks for an answer, and finds the possibility in his evidence that kinship had a different and more flexible meaning than it does now, especially among the poorer classes where matters of lineage and inheritance were not so crucial. This discovery leads to an in-depth analysis of kinship in the immediate and distant social circles of the various classes, from the poor through the lower gentry and finally to the upper gentry, then further breaking down the social relationships by profession.
By their very nature some aspects of society virtually defy classification. ‘Neighborliness’ is one of them, yet as the author points out this was esteemed as a high virtue in England during the hundred years under examination, and gives multiple examples of how this ill-defined concept must have been of major importance. Other such nebulous topics are also included, such as the loaning of money between neighbors before large banks were common, the interest charged and the point at which this became something more than friendly assistance and became business. But the author is at his best when describing more personal aspects, such as pasttimes.
English society was inherently lopsided toward the upper classes in a system of permanent inequality, of power and dependence, which the author describes as paternalism and deference.
Thinking of exactly what comprises a society is probably inadequate when faced with the many ways Wrightson looks at his topic. How exactly do you explain one hundred years in a society that existed centuries in the past, without omitting something? He chooses to start on the outside and work his way in, then back out again, somewhat like peeling layers from an onion, then replacing them. That is, to begin with the varying social strata then in existence, moving on to how that formed a society and within that society the smaller, more fundamental structures, such as family and marriage. From there he works his way back to the larger society, on how order was kept and the resources of the country, of the Church’s place and its reflections within the people it served, and of how the people were educated. Above all, he places structure on what is largely an unstructured body of reference that comprises his research.
An academic book relying heavily on diaries, shire records and letters can be a bit dry at times and Wrightson’s book is no exception. The rigid requirements of academia can sometimes make for difficult reading, such as this short paragraph discussing the average male age at the time of marriage. “The average age of first marriage for men in the period 1600-49 was 29.1 at Aldenham in Hertfordshire, 29.2 at Bottesford in Leicestershire, 27.4 at Colyton in Devon, 27.8 at Hawkshead in Lancashire and 26.7 at Willingham in Cambridgeshire, while the average ages for women in the same parishes over the same period were respectively 25.3, 25.9, 27.3, 24.8 and 24.8.” (Wrightson, page 76) This is terrific data, no doubt mined from arcane records with great difficulty, but it should not be confused with compelling narrative.
Such pinpoint data is not always available, however. The nature of his evidence is not always so concrete, interpretations and extrapolations are needed for those points where contemporary records don’t give answers, but his emphasis at all times seems to be imposing order on what is, almost by its nature, a disorderly topic. People are hard enough to study and understand, to quantify and categorize, but people of an historical period where good records of their lives was not the order of the day seems to be jousting at windmills. That the author succeeds so well speaks of his rigid standards of academic proof versus rampant curiosity. Where possible, though, he remembers that beneath his academic findings there is a story of humans living their lives and infuses his story with vivid imagery. Regarding the marriage celebration, “pomp and circumstance according to means, full bellies, muddled heads and neighborly jollity thus marked the formal end of parental obligation for a child…” (Wrightson, page 97) The timelessness of the chapter on relationships between husbands and wives and their children makes clear that there are far more similarities to the present than differences.
Each reader will naturally find certain aspects of the book more to their liking than others. The chapter on Population and Resources appeals to this reviewer more than any other, as it takes on the big issues affecting England and it does not take much imagination to see Shakespeare worrying over rising rents and higher interest on loans, or Queen Elizabeth’s counselors discussing the ramifications of the latest outbreak of plague with her. Problems were everywhere and so were improvements, and the author tries to reflect how society dealt with changing conditions.
So it is throughout a book that quickly becomes more than a case study in a changing society during a set period of time. If history is recounting the events of the past, then it is understandable why battles and stories of kings dominated English history for so long; these are culminating events illustrating great effort in one cause or another, tales of great men doing great deeds. And yet those great deeds occupy only brief moments in time, pinnacles in the everyday life of a people. Keith Wrightson wanted to explore what happened between those events, how did the people change because of them and how did their changes bring such events about. For those wanting to fully understand William Shakespeare or Sir Francis Drake or Queen Elizabeth I or the society that settled America, English Society 1580-1680 is required reading. Delightfully so for those who truly want to understand the English people.