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Department of History

Social relations and everyday life in England, 1500-1640

The project is generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust through the award of a Research Project Grant of £189,360, and draws upon the interdisciplinary environment fostered at the Institute for Advanced Study and at the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Background

The ‘social relations and everyday life’ project explores the multiple ways in which inequalities of wealth and power were experienced, understood, accepted and contested in the 140 years before the English Revolution. It will result in a monograph, Faith, hope and charity: social relations in England, 1500-1640 (working title), a sequence of journal articles and a doctoral dissertation. 

Aims

We proceed from a deceptively simple question: how, despite everything that 50 years of historical scholarship has shown concerning the rapidity and intensity of economic and social change (population growth, urbanization, deepened commercialization, social polarization, social conflict) profound alteration in religious culture (the uneven, contested process of protestantization) and sometimes vicious frictions in the experience of authority (riot, rebellion, episodic political crisis and – in the end – civil war) did Tudor and early Stuart society cohere? At the beginning of the sixteenth century, population expansion – in the classic historiography of the subject, seen as the key driver of social change – becomes noticeable. At the other end of our period, the human, material and political impact of the civil wars form a decade of profound discontinuity. An epilogue to Faith, hope and charity sketches English society on the eve of the Short Parliament.

Methods

The project uses underexploited archival material from the very early sixteenth century to consider the long view of these developments. New bodies of material – state papers, the records of important central courts such as Star Chamber and borough courts such as the Norwich Court of Mayoralty – commence in useful runs from the same time. Yet despite the existence of this rich material, with the exception of work on rebellions, research on early modern English society tends to take its start-point at 1560. We use a wide range of sources, some of which are featured below, and some in blogs by the project's members.

Durham Cathedral from Pelaw Wood.

One research question with which the project will engage is the extent to which the texture of everyday life and the experience of authority may have differed in urban communities from that in rural society. These are also questions which inform the ‘Cities in History’ project at the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Staff

From the Department of History

  • Dr Andy Burn
  • Ms Megan Johnston
  • Professor Andy Wood

Depiction of the pillory located in the marketplace of the Essex town of Barking, 1595. This detail is taken from a map of Barking which is now held in the National Archives. It was at the pillory that offenders were punished for offences such as theft, illicit sexual intercourse, speaking seditious words or complaining about the authority of magistrates or about the price of food. The 1590s were a time of intense social anxieties amongst ruling groups in Essex towns and villages and so the pillory would most likely have been in quite frequent use at this time.

Depositions concerning the customs of Duckmanton (Derbyshire) set before the court of Exchequer in 1608. The legal case which led to the depositions being taken concerned the partial enclosure of the village’s common land, on which the inhabitants had been used to pasture their cattle and search for fuel. The witness in this extract explains how he learnt about the customs of Duckmanton from what ‘he hath crediblie heard by diverse sundrie ancient old men’. The ‘Social relations and everyday life’ project will make extensive use of legal documents such as these, which survive in abundance both in the National Archives and in record offices across England. Most have yet to be studied by historians. 

Map of Mousehold Heath (1589), a large tract of common land on the eastern side of Norwich. The map shows (on the left side) the city of Norwich as a cluster of red-roofed houses engirdled by flint walls. At the bottom is Lollards Pit, where late medieval heretics and Marian martyrs were burnt. On the lower right side is the Oak of Reformation. It was under this tree that the leaders of Kett’s Rebellion had gathered in 1549 to plan their strategy and to dispense rough justice on captured local gentlemen. At the top of the map is a body of text identifying an area of northern Mousehold near the village of Sprowston as the site where the body of St William of Norwich had been discovered back in 1144. The map, which was produced in the course of disputes over common rights on Mousehold, represents the blurring cartographic practice with informal oral traditions. Maps such as this will comprise one important source for the project as they can be read as historical sources concerning not just landscape change but also of perceptions of time, place, history and community.