Society in Early Modern England: The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas

Pauline Croft on an intriguing look at a changing society

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Reviewed by: Pauline Croft
Author: Phil Withington
Publisher: Polity
Price (RRP): £16.99

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The colourful cover, showing a wine-merchants’ guild in Amsterdam, suggests that this book depicts English society in its European context. Instead, its approach is historiographical.

The term ‘early modern’, broadly covering the years 1500 to 1700, has a surprising history, emerging with the Victorians, then revived in 1941 by the economic historian JU Nef. However, words like ‘modern’, ‘new’, ‘commonwealth’ ‘society’ and ‘company’ all became established in print during the late 16th and 17th centuries. In 1584, Leicester’s Commonwealth, a scurrilous Catholic attack on Elizabeth’s favourite, familiarised a word that would have a complex history.

The 1640s saw intense debate about the shape of British politics, an issue revived over the crisis years 1658–60 following Cromwell’s death.

Steadily, public discourse came to include new keywords such as ‘wit’ and ‘ingenuity’, which linked with the more familiar aspirations of godliness and civility to create an entity rather unhappily labelled here as ‘the sociable self’.

This was not social or sociable life in the current sense. Rather, it describes a society in which individuals increasingly learned social skills that helped them to join in collective action, not least in the urban council chambers that steadily acquired strength in their communities.

The result was that “commerce, colonialism, markets, manufacture, litigation, printing, clubs, education, governance – all increased exponentially in 16th and 17th-century England”.

Greater national integration was enhanced in the 1690s with the creation of such bodies as the Board of Trade, alongside the ubiquitous coffee houses with their newspapers and animated discussions. These social  forces, argues Withington, created our modern world by looking not to the ancients but to nature and the world around them for knowledge.

Not everyone will be persuaded, but this book aims high and deserves careful reading.

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Pauline Croft is professor of early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London