Steve Hindle. The State and Social Change in Early Modern England c.1550-1640. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 2000. xii + 338 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-312-22918-4.
Reviewed by Joseph P. Ward (Department of History, University of Mississippi)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2000)
One reason to consider the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as England's "early modern" period is because this era saw the emergence of a centralized state that exercised authority throughout the realm. Some historians have held that the rise of the state came at the expense of those who occupied positions of authority in local society, but Steve Hindle proposes in this book that state development enhanced the prominence of leaders, including many from the middling sort, in the localities. By focusing on the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a period marked by significant social stress, Hindle seeks to demonstrate that the "early modern state did not become more active at the expense of society; rather, it did so as a consequence of social need" (p. 16).
For Hindle, state development resulted from negotiations between central and local authorities. The Star Chamber, one of the prominent symbols of central power, relied upon institutions and individuals in the localities for the initiation, mediation, and resolution of litigation. Similarly, the enforcement of criminal law was left largely in the hands of local agents who had considerable discretion in resolving cases, a process that in turn "involved the continual renegotiation of the priorities of the state and the community" (p. 131). In the area of social policy, rather than view state intervention as an intrusion into their worlds, the middling sort welcomed the central government's calls for magistrates to strive more actively to maintain order and discipline in their communities.
The paternalistic legislative initiatives of the period required the cooperation of local ratepayers and parish officials, many of whom were among the middling sort, which also served to enhance their own standing. Hindle emphasizes that the institution of the parish became a crucial venue for the expression of the values of those who exercised local authority. Although he stresses that the development of the political culture of the middling sort was closely related to the growth of the state, he acknowledges that parish vestrymen were often drawn from "the ^Ñbetter sort' of the parish as contemporaries understood the term" (p. 213). He bases his discussion of parish governance mainly on evidence about rural parishes, but he subsequently reports that these lacked "the multiplicity of minor offices which broadened the base of participation and lessened the gradient of social and political hierarchy" (p. 215) of urban parishes. It would have been useful for Hindle to have addressed more directly the implications of urban parish government for his thesis about the role of the middling sort in state formation.
Hindle's focus on rural government and society tends to downplay the influence of towns in both state formation and social policy. While it is understandable that no book could incorporate all relevant research into early modern English government and society, it is unfortunate that Hindle did not utilize the findings of urban historians such as Robert Tittler and Catherine Patterson in his argument. They have indicated that local elites employed strategies to establish, maintain, and enhance their local authority that were similar to those Hindle suggests rural leaders adopted.
Similarly, he has relatively little to say about London even though the growth of the metropolis was one of the more striking developments of the period he considers. The investigations of Valerie Pearl, Steve Rappaport, Ian Archer, and others into the society and government of the metropolis offer important insights into the involvement of citizens from many social ranks in a wide variety of civic, parochial, and livery company offices. Further discussion of urban society would have greatly aided Hindle's effort to offer his reader "a more fully integrated understanding of the nature and mechanics of governance" (p. 231) than those of other historians.
Leaving aside what Hindle has left out, his argument is persuasive on the whole, though this is partly because it is somewhat synthetic. His emphasis on the middling sort's involvement in the exercise of authority builds upon the research over the past two decades of many prominent historians. Hindle wants to set his argument apart from theirs by highlighting the contested nature of social relations, but at times it is evocative of an older historiographical tradition. When he says that "[t]he social identity of the middling sort was arguably forged precisely through their abhorrence, and in some cases their exclusion, of those features of customary behaviour which they identified as noisy, repulsive and contaminating" (p. 203), Hindle seems to be echoing Christopher Hill's classic discussion of "the industrious sort of people."
Hindle's own archival research, which he conducted in numerous county and central record offices, provides many splendid illustrations of his general points. A particularly effective instance of this approach is his discussion of resistance to godly reform. After "itinerant bearward" William Baxter was put in the stocks at Wilmslow, Cheshire in 1629, he received support from many local residents including one who urged the parish constable to help them release Baxter, thereby raising the question of "whose constable was he: an officer of the state or a representative of the local community?" (p. 200). The gradual growth of the state faced considerable interference when it threatened entrenched local customs and practices. From a distance, the English state appears to have taken great strides during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but Hindle makes clear that when examined closely the process seems far more halting.
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Joseph P. Ward. Review of Hindle, Steve, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England c.1550-1640.
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