The Elizabethan big society

Phil Withington explains how the current call for a big society echoes that created in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, back in the 16th century

A scene from Edmund Spenser's 'Shepherd's Calendar' (1597). The concept of 'society' entered the English language in the 16th century, and its influence was soon being felt in all corners of the nation. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

Imagine the scenario. A group of educated men latch onto the idea of ‘society’. These men are, for the most part, public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates, and they deploy their considerable learning and oratorical skills to argue that the right to form ‘societies’ should be a characteristic – the duty even – of subjects living in modern civilised nations. They write pamphlets and books proclaiming that people with a shared sense of civic duty and purpose should be allowed to organise themselves in order to serve the public good. They tell friends and patrons in positions of political influence the same thing.

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