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Durham University

Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)

Events and Outreach

Durham Early Modern Group -Looking for 'the State' in Early Modern England

28th October 2020, 17:00 to 18:30, Dominic Birch (KCL)

For social historians, at least, the historiography of the early modern English state has been relatively settled for twenty years. The publication of Steve Hindle’s The State and Social Change and Mike Braddick’s State Formation reconfigured what historians understood the state to be, and gave us a working model that was more expansive than previous definitions of the state.

Braddick and Hindle argued for a ‘deepened’ early modern state that found its articulation within the locality and parishes of the country, and was a resource for the articulation of localised and national power. This paper argues that this model needs revising—to be more rooted in the locality than even Braddick and Hindle suggest.

I argue that most theories of the early modern state pay deference to non-historical models of the state that are a bad fit for early modern England. These models either draw on the history of political philosophy which is specific and normative: it asks what the state should be, rather than what it is. Or they are drawn from sociological models that are descriptive but vague. Most definitions of the state, for example, circle back to Weber’s understanding of a monopoly on legitimate violence. The sociological and philosophical models mislead in different ways. I argue that we need to approach the state on its own, early modern, terms. We need a ground-up description of the early modern state. This paper asks where we can start to look for this description, and what we could preliminarily say about the early modern state. I take a heuristic approach to defining the state, looking at the sorts of things the state might be expected to do or encompass: a centripetal ideology or vision of society; the control of, or implementation of law; the ability to tax and spend money; institutions and personnel; and the repetition, iteration and replication of structure and form.

In this investigation I define the state as primarily rooted in the localities and the parishes of early modern England. I argue that the state is, in fact, best understood in early modern England as incredibly decentralised, and represented by the parish. This model was promoted by a central government for which the model worked. Early modern governors could rely on a largely shared understanding of ideology within early modern English society to keep society working and in order. A tacit understanding of this situation meant that much of the working of the state was delegated to local office holders and ordinary early modern people alike. The resultant situation was one where the locality was in control of much of the state power, and where state power was best understood as localised.

This paper draws on my PhD research on arbitration and legal pluralism, using depositions from the London Consistory Court, 1550–1620. It is an attempt to draw some broad conclusions from a synthetic analysis of the source material (archival and printed) that make up the PhD project.

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