Reviewed by Jennine Hurl-Eamon (Department of History, Trent University)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2007)
Free to Be?
Determining how people in the past understood themselves and others has both fascinated and challenged social historians in recent decades. One of the most difficult questions is how much control individuals and groups had in defining themselves and their place in society, and this is the focus of Identity and Agency in England, 1500-1800. The overarching message of the book is that identity was formed by a complex negotiation between individual interests and the dictates of society. People had a significant role in constructing their own identities, and they often did so in fascinating ways, but always within parameters dictated by things like class and gender.
The authors in this essay collection tackle the question of identity from a variety of angles and the essays align and intersect in diverse ways. Steve Hindle, Peter King, Alexandra Shepard, Craig Muldrew, and Helen Barry all investigate the impact of class upon identity, though each approaches the issue with his or her own particular questions. Many examine those of the "middling sort," who--Muldrew underscores--could have experiences of both poverty and wealth within their own lifetime. Traditional middling ethics of pride in industry and morality were found in a wider variety of identities in early modern England. Even those deserving of poor relief, Steve Hindle's essay indicates, were expected to exhibit these qualities in order to be so adjudged. Industriousness was not exclusively a masculine trait, as both Shepard and Judith Spicksley illustrate. Shepard's investigation of concepts of honesty reveals that both men and women saw honor and pride in working hard. Seventeenth-century spinsters also attempted to identify themselves as hard-working heads of households or minders of children.
Collective identities did not revolve solely around class, of course. Gender figures in many of the essays, but most centrally in Spicksley's investigation of spinsterhood. Spicksley looks at the evolving definition of the word "spinster" through the seventeenth century, and argues that single women struggled valiantly against a social tide that upheld marriage as the ultimate goal of all respectable women. Phil Withington looks at a very different context of identity: the city corporation. Contrary to traditional historical depictions of acts of incorporation, which speak in terms of oligarchic oppression, Withington advises an interpretive shift. Tudors looked to Aristotelian ideals of aristocracy rather than democracy, and the incorporation was associated as much with protection and preservation as with exclusivity and privilege. Withington's investigation of the sixteenth-century disputes over the re-incorporation of Ludlow stands apart from the other essays on identity in the book. Rather than exploring how individual identities were carved out within surrounding society, this essay looks at the internal and external negotiations of a corporate identity. Conflicting and selective interpretations of custom bore a significant role in forging this corporate identity, as Withington argues. Other themes emerge much more subtly in the collection, but are no less significant. Indeed, the book would have been strengthened by editorial acknowledgement of these connections. Several essays allude to physical forms of identification, and offer insight into how material culture figures in social understanding. The most visible is Spicksley's account of spinsters appropriating the hood and scarf that had signified an early modern woman's status as a wife. Steve Hindle also pursues the theme of clothing as identity in his discussion of paupers' badges. He insightfully argues that--rather than a mark of humiliation--these badges may have been perceived as a form of "livery," denoting the qualities of piety, industriousness, sobriety, and deference popularly understood as the necessary traits of the "deserving" poor. Peter King reveals the other side: the bitterness and humiliation with which recipients of poor relief viewed the parish brands affixed to their furniture by overseers trying to recover some of their expenditures. Withington refers only fleetingly to disputes over the apparel of burgesses, but also describes town charters as physical objects, the access to which helped identify and set apart city leaders. The intersection between intellectual and material modes of identification also appears in Helen Berry's essay, when gentleman John Marsh expressed discomfort with having to keep a carriage and offer lavish entertainments to reciprocate those of his wealthier neighbors. Several essays also make mention of spatial connoters of identity, such as church seating. Though sparse, these allusions to the visual culture of identification make an appearance in almost all of the essays, and suggest an avenue of further inquiry.
At times, the book seems to lack cohesiveness, but this is more a problem of the genre than of Identity and Agency in England in particular. The collection emerges from papers given at a University of Exeter Colloquium in 2002, and it is always a difficult task for both authors and editors to maintain a consistent tone. Many of the insights are not groundbreaking, but rather reinforce accepted historical norms. That industry and sobriety were strong middling values in the early modern period is not new information, nor is the notion that married status conveyed honor upon men as well as women. We also have already been made aware of the volatility of middling fortunes, and that most early modern women--married and single--were expected to be active contributors to the household economy. Nonetheless, by exploring these issues in the context of identity, the essay contributors are able to reinforce their validity and shed new light on how these traits operated at a personal level.
The authors make use of an incredible variety of sources with great care and insight. Autobiographies are brought into several essays to provide richly nuanced accounts of how certain individuals constructed their own identities, and how they perceived those around them. Peter King, who makes the most concentrated use of this source, acknowledges the methodological issues surrounding the genre, and devotes several pages to convincingly justify its usefulness for this particular line of inquiry. A variety of legal records buttress other investigations into identity, from probate and Excise court records to witnesses' depositions in the ecclesiastical courts. All are carefully interrogated; their evidence is weighed according to the factors that may have affected the generation of the source in question. Parish poor relief records, taxation data, popular fiction, diaries, and letters round out the impressive assemblage of material brought to bear upon the issue of identity. The authors are to be highly commended for the creativity with which they have pursued their investigation.
One of the greatest strengths of Identity and Agency in England is its many colorful examples that illustrate men and women offering their own views, or reacting to others' sense of their identity. It is a fascinating look at the ways in which early modern men and women were free to be themselves, and the ways in which their identities were circumscribed by their marital status, age, gender, and class.
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Jennine Hurl-Eamon. Review of French, Henry; Barry, Jonathan, eds., Identity and Agency in England, 1500-1800.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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