Different class

by Nick

To what extent is it possible to describe seventeenth-century England as a class society? There’s an essay question I would have avoided like the plague as an undergraduate. But if I had had to answer it back then, my answer probably would have been “not really”.

“Not really” is what many other historians would reply, too. During the 1960s and 1970s Marxist historians like Christopher Hill and Brian Manning were heavily criticised for importing what was seen to be an anachronistic modern category into the early modern period – class would only develop with the industrial revolution. Vertical ties of community were seen as being of more importance than horizontal ones of economic or class interest. Revisionism in the political historiography of the period at the same time saw a move away from “social” explanations of the English civil wars. And the social history of the period also moved away from Marxist theoretical frameworks, drawing inspiration instead from anthropology and sociology (Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic is a good example).

But in recent years I have been reassessing what I think about class. Looking back I think three historians have been particularly influential: Gareth Stedman Jones, John Walter, and Andy Wood.

I’ll start with Stedman Jones since he’s not an obvious choice for students of the early modern period. His work looks primarily at nineteenth and twentieth century working class politics. But in the context of taking some papers on that period his work on Chartism was one of the most influential things I read during my undergraduate degree. Stedman Jones argued that class isn’t something that derives automatically from the means of production but is fundamentally an imagined form that exists only in language. These arguments have sometimes been taken to spell the end of class but as a theoretical development it’s of interest to early modern historians too in reviving class for their own period. If class is a discourse that relates but is not rooted in socio-economic factors then it’s one of a number of discourses that working people use to construct their political viewpoints. So with an older definition of class, then yes perhaps early modern England is not a class society. But examples of Stedman Jones’s type of class consciousness can certainly be found in some examples of popular political action, whether that means riots, petitions, appeals or even grumbles. You can read more by Stedman Jones in the helpful introduction to Languages of Class, plus the essay on Chartism itself in the same volume.

This sort of argument has been fruitfully deployed by Andy Wood, a historian of early modern popular politics. I spent my Christmas steadily working my way through his books and articles, having been hooked by The Politics of Social Conflict (his first book, based on his PhD thesis). This looks at the politics of Derbyshire miners and the various ways in which they developed and constructed their views and relationships with those in authority and those lower down the scale threatening to compete with them. It’s a wonderful book that has been influential in making me think about the social dimension to early modern politics. Other works by Wood that have particularly furthered my interest are:

For a good starting point, he has written a textbook synthesising some of the trends in studies of early modern politics in England: Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (2002).

And finally I could not post about class and popular politics in the early modern period without mentioning John Walter. I’ve blogged about his microhistory of the Stour Valley riots in 1642 elsewhere, but again this was a book that made me go out and read nearly everything else Walter has written. As well as some pioneering studies of individual incidents he has also done much to advance the theoretical backing of studies of popular politics, for instance by exploring the extent to which James C. Scott’s ideas on “hidden transcripts” of popular resistance can be deployed in understanding this period. Handily, Walter’s most influential essays have now been gathered in one volume, that has just been reviewed (equally enthusiastically) by Tim Harris on H-Albion. He summarises Walter’s work far more ably than I can, so I’d recommend reading the review.

So is it possible to describe seventeenth-century England as a class society? I certainly think that class is a concept that can usefully be deployed as a way of understanding both “popular” and “high” politics – but alongside a number of other discourses through which contemporaries described their actions.