13. A Polarizing Society, 1560-1640

13. A Polarizing Society, 1560-1640


Prof: Okay.
Well last time I was presenting
a kind of panorama of economic expansion;
on the whole, a very upbeat story.
It helps to explain how the
long population growth of the late sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries was able to be sustained.
And yet, as the final table on
last-time’s handout showed, there’s also reason to doubt
whether the expansion was sufficient,
or whether the new wealth that was being created was well
enough distributed in society, to avoid some real problems.
Especially, real wages
continued to fall and there were complaints of a growing problem
of poverty and vagrancy. So there are paradoxes in the
situation. And to get the economic
expansion into perspective, we have to look a little more
closely at how it actually impacted on people from
different social groups. Inevitably that involves a
certain amount of generalization but I’ll also try to give you
examples of people from different groups which will help
to give it something of a human face.
So, let’s start by looking,
as usual, at the top and at what was happening to the
landlords, the gentry, the nobility.
It’s really one of the striking
features of English society in this period that many of the
nobility and gentry identified themselves very closely with
economic innovations. Their imperative was to
maintain and, if possible,
expand their estate incomes and in doing so they became very
deeply involved in the commercial restructuring of the
country’s economy. That’s rather unusual for a
traditional ruling class. On the whole,
such people tend to rely more upon their social privileges
than upon trying to improve their competitiveness.
But, certainly,
the gentry and the aristocracy, or many of them,
did make real efforts of that kind.
And you get,
basically, an acceleration of the trends which had already
become visible in the mid-sixteenth century:
a lot more careful management of their estates in order to
produce more from their home farms for the market and in
order to get a greater rental income.
That often involved extending
the use of leasehold tenure, tenure of land just like a
modern lease; and wiping away the old,
rather inflexible, customary tenures so that they
had a more flexible management of their rental income.
There was also something I
touched on last time: a good deal of reorganizing
their estates into enclosed farms, for which they could get
better rents. And in general,
every effort being made to edge rents upwards when opportunity
arose. And in general,
the landlord class did pretty well.
Of course a lot depended upon
the fortunes of particular individuals and their personal
quirks and characteristics. To take, for example,
the Verney family, who had substantial estates in
Buckinghamshire, just to the north-west of
London: Sir Edmund Verney, who lived in the late sixteenth
and early seventeenth centuries, was a man who was principally
interested in forging a political career at court.
That was very expensive.
He had to sink a lot of his
income into fortifying his position at the centre and as a
result he incurred pretty considerable debts.
He succeeded quite well;
he became King Charles I’s Standard Bearer.
In fact, he died in one of the
earliest battles of the English Civil War bearing the King’s
Standard. But his son,
Sir Ralph, was of a rather different nature;
he actually took a different side in the English Civil War.
And when the War was over he
devoted himself assiduously to restoring and improving the
rather depleted inheritance he’d received from his father;
involved in all the kinds of measures of estate management
that I’ve briefly mentioned. Indeed, Sir Ralph was so keen
to rebuild the family’s fortunes that when his first wife died he
remained celibate; he didn’t remarry.
He didn’t want any more
children. He didn’t want the risk of the
estate having to be divided amongst more children,
since he already had a number who had survived infancy.
So, different personalities,
different outcomes; but all part of the same
process. In general, the income of the
gentry and the nobility was expanding.
And much of it was spent,
not only upon extending and improving their estates,
but upon various kinds of conspicuous consumption.
It’s a great age for the
rebuilding of the manor house’s of the gentry.
Many of the lovely country
houses which still survive were built in this period,
or rebuilt, as well as some of the great ‘prodigy houses’ of
the age. The great mansions:
Burghley House near Stamford which is up here in East Anglia;
or Kirkby Hall in Northamptonshire,
it’s another very good example, that’s over here,
the splendid mansion from this period which survives.
They went in for more elaborate
furnishing and lifestyles and, in addition,
this was a period when many of the gentry and nobility,
the wealthier ones, began to spend part of the year
in London. It sees the beginnings of the
development of what became known as the ‘London Season’:
the habit of spending the winter in town and being absent
from their estates, which were run by stewards for
long periods of the year. This resulted in something of
an urbanization of gentry culture,
something which has been, recently,
very well studied by Julia Merritt in a book on the
emerging West End of London; the elite aristocratic enclaves
around the royal palaces. To give you an idea of the kind
of proportion of these people who might be in town,
in 1632 King Charles I, in the circumstances of a
harvest emergency, ordered the gentry to return to
their estates to keep order and to see to the needs of local
people. He had to fine 250 members of
the nobility and gentry who were resident in London and didn’t go
home when they were ordered to do so.
Given that the great gentry and
nobility numbered, perhaps, 2,000 families,
that’s a very significant proportion of them who were
resident in London and were fined for failing to go home.
Well, if this was a good time
on the whole, for landlords,
if they used the opportunity sensibly,
if we turn to their tenantry, to the yeomen and husbandman,
one finds a more checkered picture.
Opportunities to improve
incomes were also common amongst the more substantial farmers.
Those who had a big farm with a
substantial surplus to market, were actually very well placed
to benefit from rising prices and for the growth of the market
for their products, be it food-stuff or
agricultural raw materials. Many of these yeomen were
extremely commercially astute. A very good example is a man
called Robert Loder, here’s his name,
whose farm accounts survive from the 1610s.
He lived just to the west of
London in the county of Berkshire.
Robert Loder calculated every
year exactly how much money he was making from different crops.
He took decisions about how to
vary his cropping pattern in accordance with price trends,
especially the prices which he could get in London,
and so forth. He even went so far,
at one point, as to actually calculate the
value of the dung that his pigeons deposited in his pigeon
loft. He figured it out,
what it was worth to him if he used it as fertilizer in his
gardens. This is commercial rationality
of a high order. He also calculated how much
money his horses made for him over and above what he had to
feed them. He then proceeded to do the
same calculation for his servants.
Well, Robert Loder had nothing
to learn about economic rationality and his basic
attitudes are not untypical of this kind of substantial yeomen
farmer. Many such people were willing
to expand their operations if they got the opportunity;
if land came available on the local land market they would
snap it up. They were able to pay higher
rents. They were in an excellent
competitive position and as a result, you get a general shift
in lowland England towards the building up of larger farms.
In the county of Essex,
for example, here to the east of London,
it was very commercially oriented.
By the early seventeenth
century, nine percent, approximately,
of the tenants held sixty-one percent of the land,
built up in these large yeomen holdings.
And there’s abundant evidence
of the prosperity of the yeomanry.
It was a great age for them.
This period has been described
by historians of housing as the age of the ‘Great Rebuilding’.
And by that they mean not only
the houses of the gentry, which I’ve already mentioned,
but the houses of the yeomanry. It was a period when many of
the farm houses inherited from the late medieval period were
being remodeled. It was very common,
for example, they tended in the late
medieval period to be what was known as a ‘hall house’,
which was basically one large room with some partitions and a
fireplace, the smoke from which would just
be emitted through a whole in the roof.
This is a period when you see
people building great, central chimney stacks,
so that they could have fireplaces and get rid of the
smoke, making the whole of the
interior more comfortable. They tended to divide off the
top of the house and to make separate,
private chambers above, and frequently they would add
staircases, of course, to get up there.
They might extend their homes
in all kinds of ways. Many of these houses,
the great yeomen houses of this period, survive to this day.
When you look at the
inventories of these people, which were taken when they
died, they also reveal a marked increase in the value of their
household goods and in the elaboration of the types of
goods that people possessed. William Harrison,
a clergyman who described all of this happening in the later
years of Elizabeth’s reign, said that despite the fact that
higher rents were being paid, many of the villagers in his
area–the yeomen farmers are the ones he was thinking of–
were able, he said “yet to find the means to obtain and
achieve such furniture as heretofore hath been
unpossible.” And he went on to specify what
that involved: joined furniture made by
joiners, proper joined chairs rather than stools;
nice tables; bedsteads;
soft furnishings. There’s a proliferation in
inventories of cushions and of carpet cloths.
Carpets were–these were
oriental carpets being imported by the Levant Company.
They were put on tables,
you didn’t put a carpet on the floor;
it was far too valuable for that.
You put it on the table,
to decorate the table. Some representations of
interior scenes in this period show that: the carpet across the
table. And you find them also having
more elaborate table-wear and more elaborate kitchen-wear,
all sorts of odd products turning up in their inventories:
apple toasters, for example.
An apple toaster,
something Crate and Barrel should perhaps try to imitate,
to hold in the fire with an apple in it, and so on;
all kinds of things. It’s been described by one
historian of material culture as “a new household
culture” with much greater comfort,
much greater convenience, being enjoyed by these people.
They could also put their money
into other things: bigger dowries for their
daughters so they could marry well.
A study of Kent shows that in
the reign of Elizabeth, the dowries being paid by
yeomen with their daughters rose six-fold in the course of her
reign. And they could also spend the
money to have their sons apprenticed into trade,
into professions, sent to school,
in some cases even to the universities,
something that I’ll return to on another occasion.
Well, the yeomanry were the big
fish of village society. Things were a little more
difficult for the little minnows–the smaller guys,
the family-farming husbandman. Some of them did fine.
If they lived near a city they
might have good marketing opportunities,
they could specialize in producing fruit or
market-gardening or dairying and could do pretty well.
You also get a lot of
husbandman diversifying their activities into part-time
industrial activity. Over in the West Midlands,
in the metal working districts, the inventories of scythe
makers, for example, can be quite interesting,
indicating that these people were engaged in farming,
but also in producing scythe blades on the side;
they had forges. Generally, they would work at
that in the slack periods of the agricultural year.
But for many of these small
guys, the period was fraught with risk.
The crucial issue was whether
they could sustain their small farming economy under changing
conditions. These were the people who would
have most difficulty meeting higher rents.
They might have a poor
competitive position. One agricultural writer
described them as “weak and un-stocked husbandmen.”
They lacked capital;
they produced smaller crops; they made smaller profits;
they had fewer livestock. They couldn’t really,
seriously contemplate indulging in expensive or risky
innovations. And they were also very
vulnerable to temporary crises like those produced by bad
harvests, which could wipe out their
surplus and force them into debt.
Some of these people became
vulnerable and were driven to the wall and their land was
taken up by more ambitious neighbors.
And, in general,
there’s a diminution in the numbers of these small farmers.
As the big farms are growing,
many of the small ones are disappearing.
A whittling away of small
tenancies, which, in turn, made it rather
difficult for the young to get onto the land to establish a
foothold. More of the young people from
rural families, after their period as servants
in the households of larger farmers,
were more likely to spend their lives as agricultural wage
laborers than getting land of their own.
So, the fortunes of different
groups in rural society varied. They’re broadly fairly clear.
One can generalize with some
confidence. In the towns the picture’s a
little less clear. Clearly there was a lot of
commercial development and business opportunity,
but this was a period when business was fraught with risk.
Finding the capital to set up
could be difficult. Keeping businesses going could
be difficult in a period when cash flow could be hard to
manage. People had to keep a good
balance between their debts and credits;
that could be very difficult. Accumulation of wealth was
often very slow. And even the successful could
be wiped out by temporary economic crises;
by fraud; by fire–there’s no fire
insurance; by shipwreck–there’s no marine
insurance; and so forth.
It was to try to counter some
of these insecurities that some of the principal merchants of
England’s cities preferred, if possible,
to be members of chartered trading companies.
Those companies which had a
monopoly of particular branches of trade,
the ones I mentioned last time, and which laid down rules for
the conduct of the trade; rules which were generally
aimed at securing stable profits for all the members of the
company. And to restrict the numbers of
people who were involved in particular trades.
It’s true that no trading
monopoly could protect a merchant from shipwreck,
or piracy, or the collapse of demand,
but, nonetheless, one can generalize to some
degree, about the way in which they
fared. For some, who were members of
established companies, things could go pretty well.
Take, for example,
the Levant Company. The Levant Company traded to
the Mediterranean, especially the eastern
Mediterranean. In 1570 it was founded.
By the early seventeenth
century to become a member of the Levant Company meant laying
down two to three hundred pounds as membership fee;
quite a substantial sum of money.
By the early seventeenth
century also, this company has been described
as, I’m quoting,
“a highly ramified network of interconnecting family
relationships,” the members of which were often
related to one another and controlling a great share of the
trade. One contemporary described them
as “born rich and adding wealth to wealth by trading in a
beaten road to wealth.” In 1627 there were only
twenty-four men who controlled fifty-four percent of the Levant
trade. So, members of the great
companies, having established the trade,
could restrict it in various ways in order to ensure some
stability in their trading lives.
It was members of that company
who were later to go on to found the East India Company.
Well, in addition,
though, there were certain additional opportunities.
Another way to prosper,
if you had the nerve and would take the risks,
was to get involved in pioneering altogether new
trades. And the most significant of
those were the American trades. With the early establishment of
colonies in America, the initial opportunities were
not obviously good and many members of established trading
companies were reluctant to invest.
That left the path open for
those who were prepared to take the risks of involvement and
very often, those who got involved in the
American trades were men of lesser standing in the merchant
community: smaller merchants, even shopkeepers,
ships captains, people like that who were
willing to get involved; new men, you could say.
They built up,
as you know, a very substantial trade in the
course of the early seventeenth century.
To just give you an example of
one of these people, a man called Maurice Thompson.
Maurice Thompson was the
younger son of a gentry family. He got a little bit of capital
from his family but not much more;
he didn’t inherit the family estate.
He came from Hertfordshire,
just to the north of London. How he came to go to Virginia
is uncertain, but he was there by the time he
was in his mid-teens and he got involved on the ground floor
with the development of the tobacco trade.
Pretty soon he owned land,
he owned a ship, he became involved in the trade
in tobacco and in the supply of goods needed by the colonists.
He expanded his operations;
he married well; he became a significant figure
amongst the leaders of the Virginia colony as quite a young
man. By the time he was in his early
thirties he was back in London, managing much of the–a good
part of the Virginia trade from his base there.
And, indeed,
he went on to expand his operations to become involved in
the Indian Ocean and in other ventures.
If you’re interested in that
kind of person and that kind of development,
Robert Brenner’s book, Merchants and
Revolution, the first section is a splendid
depiction of these shifts and developments in the last years
of Elizabeth and under the early Stuarts.
At lower levels in the urban
hierarchy, the capital that people needed to set up in
business was gradually growing. That made it a little more
difficult to establish yourself as an independent master and a
great many people had to be content with serving as skilled
craftsmen working for others, whereas previously they might
have hoped to become independent masters.
Even skilled employees were
often forced to work longer and more intensively,
if the work was available, in order to sustain their
living standards. To give you a specific example
of this, I’ve got some figures here relating to building
craftsmen from the town of Hull, on the east coast.
Donald Woodward,
in a very imaginative piece of research, worked out the price
of foodstuffs; found the wages being paid to
craftsmen of different kinds; and then figured out how many
days you would need to work to feed husband,
wife and three children. So, here are some of his
figures. The best paid men in the 1560s
could have fed their families with a hundred and fifty-three
days work. By the 1630s,
with rising prices, and wages not rising so fast,
two hundred and twenty-nine days.
The worst paid,
a hundred and ninety-two days in the 1560s,
three hundred and six by the 1630s.
So, this was the experience of
some of the craftsmen of the towns.
In short then,
urban manufactures and the urban manufacturing system was
becoming less small master-based and rather more capitalistically
structured, with a larger proportion of
urban craftsmen having to cope with the difficulties and
uncertainties of their dependence upon wage labor.
Well, much of the same was true
of the industries of the countryside.
In Somersetshire,
in the West Country, where the cloth industry was
the major industry in the 1620s, one contemporary described the
“multitudes of poor cottages”
which were to be found in the cloth-weaving areas.
And he continued they are
“stuffed with poor people which get most of their living
by spinning, by carding, and such
employments about wool and cloth.”
And they gained their living
most of the time, but he added that when trade
was dead “they know not how to live,”
In town and country alike, then, what contemporaries
described as the “laboring poor” was emerging as a
larger, more wage-dependent population
emerged; probably half the population by
the mid-seventeenth century, to judge by surviving tax
listings. Agricultural intensification
and a diversification of industry and urban growth all
meant that there was more work for such people.
But the work was often seasonal;
it was often insecure; there was a lot of
under-employment, difficulty finding five days
work a week; and so forth.
And there was the constant
pressure of greater numbers of people on the labor market.
And it was this,
really, that issued in what’s sometimes described as a problem
of ‘structural poverty’. A large number of people whose
very way of life on a day to day basis meant periodic hardship
was almost inevitable some of the time;
people who faced a situation in which the rate of pay for their
labor was such as to mean declining capacity to meet the
needs of their households. And that produced a distinct
life cycle amongst the laboring poor.
They could manage pretty well
until they had, say, two children or so.
They might even have a little
bit of disposable income to spend on manufactured goods,
but once they had too many mouths to feed,
or if the chief breadwinners fell sick or injured,
or if there was a trading depression,
they could be plunged immediately into real hardship.
And in old age,
if they reached old age, they almost inevitably would be
dependent upon charity. Many of these people survived
by what’s been described as “an economy of
makeshifts,” it’s a phrase of Olwen
Hufton’s, “an economy of
makeshifts.” You get by as best you can,
doing what you can. Cottaging where they could;
using the commons if they were available;
gleaning the fields after the harvest, the poor were allowed
to glean for grains of corn in the fields after harvest;
and finding various kinds of assistance from their family,
from their neighbors; moving around when there seemed
to be better opportunities to piece together a living.
And for that reason,
they tended to become concentrated in certain areas
where those opportunities existed.
It was a rather unsettled life
for many of them. I’ll give you a couple of
examples of these people: Margaret Knowsley she came from
Nantwich in Cheshire, there’s her name.
She’s visible in the records
between 1613 and 1629. She was married to a laborer.
We know that she had ten
children between 1613 and 1629. Five of her children died in
infancy. Something of her working life
survives in various records. She worked as an ale wife,
making and selling ale; she worked as an agricultural
laborer during the appropriate seasons;
she did some stocking knitting; she acted as a cleaner for the
minister of the parish; she’s thought to have practiced
some forms of medical skills, she had some skills in aspects
of midwifery, apparently.
She was alleged also,
from time to time, to have solicited men for
money. So, that’s “an economy of
makeshifts” indeed.
Or, another such person,
Henry Savery, he’s visible in the records
between 1629 and 1636. He came from Stow Bardolph in
the county of Suffolk. We know a little bit about
Henry. In 1629 he was a servant.
He left service and instead of
engaging himself to a new master, decided to go to London.
Once he got to London he found
it difficult to find regular work so he signed-on for a
voyage on a ship, but he wasn’t a very good
sailor. By the time the ship had got
out into the Thames estuary he was suffering from chronic
seasickness and his legs were swelling up.
So, finding him no use to him,
the shipmaster put him to shore and just landed him and
discharged him. He went back to London.
There, he was taken by the
constables as a vagrant and sent home to Stow Bardolph.
In 1635 he decided to try at
his fortunes again. He left Stow Bardolph after
haymaking where he’d earned a total of seven shillings;
he had seven shillings in his purse.
He went to the county of
Suffolk–further into the County of Suffolk–
and worked in various farms there for three months and then
he went off to London again. Once again, he found it
difficult to find regular work so he began working “up and
down the country,” as he described it.
He got as far north as York and
then made his way back again. Back in London,
he found himself once again arrested as a vagrant and sent
home to Norfolk. And there we lose track of
Henry Savery; he vanishes from the records.
That’s exactly the kind of
person, moving around,
trying to earn a living where he could,
who might have been the sort of person who would’ve signed-on
with a shipmaster in London to become an indentured servant in
the new colonies in Virginia and Maryland.
And indeed, many people who
found their way to London but couldn’t find a place there did
just that. In London, there was an
institution charged with the oversight of the vagrant poor,
the Bridewell. And the governors of the
Bridewell actually dispatched over 1,100 people to Virginia
and the West Indies between 1618 and 1658.
At first they were mostly men,
about ninety percent men, but by the 1630s about a third
of them, or close to a third, were women.
Two thirds of these people who
were sent had been taken by the officers on the streets of
London. Some of them were accused of
crime, they might have been accused of being pickpockets or
thieves; but most of them were simply
out on the streets. They were described as
“out after curfew” or “nightwalkers”–
that was just loitering suspiciously on the streets at
night. Some of them were former
servants who had no place and were on the streets,
and they were sent by the Bridewell to the new colonies.
One of those who was sent gave
his occupation as “Ballad Singer” which makes me
wonder if that’s the origins of country music
>I’m serious
>In the early twentieth century,
songs collected by folklorists in the Appalachians,
many of those songs can actually be traced back to
printed ballads which are known to be sung on the streets of
London in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
They passed into the oral
culture of the Appalachian area. Well, one can go on about these
people. There’s a wonderful recent book
by Paul Griffiths called Lost Londons which looks closely
at them through the records of the Bridewell.
The Bridewell kept excellent
records; they even kept physical
descriptions of some of the people they dealt with so they
could identify them if they turned up again.
And so, we have descriptions
of, you know, their stature:
“slender;” “well-set;”
“thick-set;” one was described as
“great-gutted.” Their complexion:
“sallow;” “high-colored;”
“bright;” “sad,”
a sad complexion was described. Their hair color:
“flaxen;” “dark brown;”
“betwixt auburn and flaxen.”
All of these descriptions are
entered in the books. Their clothing:
a woman found on the streets wearing a red petticoat and a
white upper-bodice; so, poor but colorfully dressed.
Some, of course,
were beggars who were near-naked.
You get descriptions also of
their medical condition: “pock-marked in his
face”; “a small scar upon his
forehead;” “burned in the hand,”
that means someone had been found guilty of a crime and
branded for future identification.
And sometimes they were
suffering from disease: “palsied;”
“scurvy;” “scalded-headed,”
that was very common. It meant a kind of scalp
condition. One man, well,
a boy actually, described as “his toes
almost rotted off.” Others were mentally ill:
“crack-brained;” “silly;”
“simple.” That’s how they’re described.
One description that arrested
me when reading this was: “a Northern man by his
speech,” “high-colored,”
“beard close-cut mingled with white hair,”
“in a manner crazed.” And then you get those people
on the streets of London who had no known identity,
they turn up in the parish records.
The parish of Saint
Bartholomew’s, for example,
gave assistance to a beggar who turned up at the church who had
no name. They put him down in their
account books as money given to “Bartholomew Need.”
“Bartholomew Need”
because he came to Saint Bartholomew’s church.
And you find the children who
were left on the streets. Often when they were taken in
by parish authorities, they would give them a name:
“Michael Found;” “Joan Foundbasket”
(a baby found in a basket);”
“Porch Wall,” she was found in porch of the
church of Saint Andrew by the Wall,
so they baptized her “Porch Wall”;
and so one could go on, “Joan Mad.”
Or those who were sometimes
buried in the parishes, found dead on the streets:
“John No Name”; “Jane Nobody.”
So, England’s increasing income
was very unevenly distributed. It was an expanding economy but
one with an expanding problem of structural poverty.
It was a commercializing
society in which there were great opportunities,
but many of those who had nothing to sell but their labor
were in a poor competitive position and in an exceedingly
risky environment. Of course, some aspects of
those insecurities were perennial, but at times they
could become particularly acute. And the times that stand out
are the 1590s, which was a time when the
harvest failed four years in a row,
food prices rocketed, the weaknesses in the economy
were revealed, and there was widespread misery.
Indeed, in the years 1596 to
1598 there was actual famine in the most vulnerable areas;
parts of the far north, north-west in particular,
and parts of the far west. There’s evidence of actual
death from starvation. The 1620s was another decade
when there were bad harvests, combined, in this case,
with an industrial depression. War in Europe had dislocated
the markets for some of the goods that England exported,
leading to industrial depression.
There was widespread
unemployment and poverty in many of the weaving areas.
And again, some sinister
evidence of actual famine in some of the most exposed areas.
These were the hardest years.
Really acute crises of that
kind, of course, were exceptional,
but they revealed the weaknesses within society as a
whole. So, how to conceptualize all of
this? Very often historians talk
about these decades, these generations at the turn
of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,
as witnessing a process of “social polarization”
and there’s some obvious truth in that.
There’s a real divergence going
on in living standards and in life chances in a more
competitive, commercialized economy.
But it’s also,
in some ways, more complex than simply the
notion of polarization. In many ways,
the social structure was rearticulating into a,
sort of, three-part form. There were greater
opportunities, on the one hand,
to acquire and to consolidate wealth.
There was a greater population
of laboring poor on the other hand, both of which we’ve looked
at. But there was also the
elaboration of what contemporaries were beginning to
describe as the “middle sort of people,”
between the gentry and the poor.
Successful manufacturers and
tradesman, substantial yeomen farmers,
increasing numbers of people involved in professions like the
law and medicine and the offering of services of other
kinds: surveyors, clerks, land agents and so
forth. So, it all depends on how one
looks at it. You can focus your attention
upon the real polarization; you can also take account of
these middling groups who are doing quite well.
But, whichever way one looks at
it, it’s clear that the old
medieval conception of a society,
simply describable in terms of three estates,
had gradually decomposed under the pressure of economic and
social change, and society was gradually
recomposing itself; adopting a new shape under the
pressure of various economic fields of force.
And that transition involved
not only shifts in the structure of society, but also shifts in
peoples’ attitudes and values. By the early seventeenth
century, decades of cumulative economic and social change meant
that economic relationships and forms of behavior which had
previously appeared new and rather threatening were becoming
more normalized, more taken for granted.
And some traditional values
were losing some of their older moral force and you can see that
in various ways, but a good example is to look
very briefly at the problem of enclosure,
the classic issue of great symbolic significance in
agrarian society. As you know,
in the mid-sixteenth century, enclosure had been demonized as
something which was damaging to the well-being of the ploughman,
to the strength of the nation, destructive of households and
of the Commonwealth. And throughout the later
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,
actual enclosure schemes were very often opposed by coalitions
of tenants and commoners who tried to defend their customary
ways against the initiatives of landlords and others,
and we look at that again when I look at popular protest.
But, meanwhile,
the debate over enclosure was gradually shifting.
You get that shift reflected in
Parliament. In 1601 there was a debate on
the enclosure laws and whether or not to repeal them.
Sir Robert Cecil,
son of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister,
speaking on behalf of the privy council said,
“I think that whosoever doth not maintain the plough,
destroyeth this kingdom.;” very much the traditional
attitude towards enclosure. He was opposed by Sir Walter
Raleigh, yes, the Sir Walter
Raleigh, who said he agreed that there
was a situation which must be faced regarding agricultural
change, but he argued that there were
lots of countries in Europe which could produce corn cheaper
than England could and, therefore, it should be
imported rather than insisting upon maintaining land under the
plough. He argued that every man should
use his land to its best advantage and should be at
liberty to do so. “Leave every man
free,” he said, to pursue his economic
interest. So we have the voice of
economic individualism opposing Cecil.
Debates like that in Parliament
reveal a gradual process of transition in attitudes,
tensions and shifts between older and newer attitudes,
and that tension was resolved in various ways:
sometimes by authoritative adjudication,
by government decisions in Parliament or the privy council;
often by sheer expediency, by people gradually adjusting
themselves, voluntarily or reluctantly, to the demands of a
changing world. In the case of enclosure,
gradually most of the gentry and many leading tenant farmers
came to accept its desirability, and the laws against it were in
fact repealed in 1624, leaving people free to use
their land as they saw best, as Raleigh had argued.
Well, the attempts to stabilize
and channel change by the use of the law gave way gradually to
attempts simply to alleviate the worst manifestations of change
where it had led to major social distress,
and the greatest monument to efforts of that kind were the
Poor Laws. The crisis years of the 1590s
led to the overhaul and consolidation and extension by
Parliament of earlier measures which had been taken in poor
relief, resulting in great consolidated
statutes of 1598 and 1601. Under those statues,
a full national system of poor relief was created,
based upon compulsory local taxation at the level of the
parish, administered by officers to be
appointed in every parish. Under the laws,
vagrants were to be punished and restrained;
those who were deemed the “impotent poor”–
the aged, the sick, the orphaned–were to be
relieved by being paid weekly pensions in their parishes;
and finally, the “laboring poor”–
those who could get by most of the time but needed occasional
relief– were to be periodically
relieved by the parish to enable their families to get through
hard times and, where possible,
work was to be created for them.
So what you have in the Poor
Laws is a mixture of charity and discipline.
In some ways,
the system was quite well devised to deal with the
periodic life-cycle crises of the laboring population,
though rarely generously. It was a system which in many
ways demonstrated England’s relative wealth.
There was a tax base there to
pay for it. But it was one,
of course, which also demonstrated how unequally
distributed that wealth was. In one parish,
for example, the parish of Cawston in
Norfolk, where the laws were put into
operation very early, there were sixty-eight people
in the parish out of one hundred and sixty households who were
able to pay the poor rates to support the system.
At the other end of the scale
there were twenty households who received weekly pensions.
So, sixty-eight are paying,
twenty are receiving pensions, all the ones in between are
neither paying nor in receipt of relief,
though in bad times some of those families might receive
occasional help. So, the Poor Laws,
in a way, are both a response to and enshrine some of the
changes which had taken place in society at the local level.
I’ve surveyed,
then, a process of redistribution of wealth in a
changing economic environment. Economic development had
enabled the population of England to grow faster,
for longer than was usually the case in other European countries
at this time. But the benefits of economic
growth were poorly distributed and that showed.
Population, at last,
began to stabilize in the third decade of the seventeenth
century and that began to slow down this long-term process of
change. The reasons for that
stabilization were, partly, shifts in
mortality–the evidence is that life expectation at birth was
deteriorating in the early seventeenth century–
but it was restrained even more by shifts that were taking place
in fertility; quite significant shifts.
In the early seventeenth
century, the rates of fertility that can be calculated from the
parish registers of parishes show that marital fertility was
falling quite sharply. That was produced,
in part, by a rising age at marriage, people were marrying
later and having fewer children. But it was also produced by a
larger proportion of the population never marrying at
all. It was startling when
historical demographers discovered that of the people
who were coming up to marriageable age,
from the 1620s through to the 1650s,
people who’d been born around 1600 to 1610,
or thereabouts, as many as twenty percent,
or sometimes even more, never married.
It’s a quite extraordinary
figure; a very large proportion of the
population remaining unmarried. What we seem to have here is
evidence of a situation in which,
for those who were doing least well in the circumstances of the
time, life was too insecure,
or living standards were too marginal,
for them to be able to marry and establish independent
households of their own. As a result, fertility declined;
population gradually stabilized. As population stabilized,
so did prices. The great underlying dynamic of
change from the second quarter of the sixteenth century through
to the mid-seventeenth century was over.
But that long dynamic of
population growth, inflation and its many
consequences in economy and society,
had unleashed economic changes which would not be reversed and
they had significantly reconfigured the structure of
society and the relationship between its members.
So, with that,
I’ve tried to briefly set the scene for you,
and now we can go on to look at a number of other aspects of
society and culture, starting next week with the
issues of witchcraft and popular literacy and crime.

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