Rosemary O'Day. The Professions in Early Modern England, 1450-1800. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 2000. xi + 334 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-582-29265-9.
Reviewed by Christopher Brooks (History Department, University of Durham)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2001)
There is much to commend the idea of a textbook that attempts to chart the history of the learned professions in England from the end of the middle ages to the beginning of the nineteenth century. In principle the subject should appeal to students. As Rosemary O'Day points out clergymen, lawyers, and doctors are important historical actors because they dealt with issues that affected individual persons while at the same time connecting them with the state and society in general: the fate of souls, the safe-guarding of rights and property, physical well-being and life itself. At the same time, many present-day concerns about the relationship between qualifications and training for particular occupations, and about ensuring the quality of services offered by people claiming expert status, have resonances in the detailed occupational history associated with the professions. To this writer, for example, the recent proposal to improve the quality of university education in England by creating an Institute of Learning and Teaching, which invites teachers to present credentials and pay a heavy subscription in order to obtain a license to practice, immediately brings to mind an unsuccessful scheme proposed in the 1790s by a little known projector, Joseph Day, who wanted to create a college of attorneys and solicitors along much the same lines.
Nor is there an existing survey that covers the same ground. Apart from a collection of essays edited by Wilfrid Prest, the only competitor works are books by Geoffrey Holmes and Penelope Corfield that concentrate on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And O'Day shows that there is much to learn by taking a longer perspective on a field of social history where time has to be measured in large units in order to pick up the slow processes of change. The past twenty-five to thirty years have seen a considerable accumulation of work on the histories of doctors, lawyers, and clergymen between 1500 and 1700. Since most of this has been conceived largely within occupational boundaries, O'Day has made a valuable contribution by drawing nearly all of it together within the same covers. Although the endnoting system adopted as the means of referencing in the book is awkward to use, and not completely accurate, she is widely read in the secondary literature, which of course includes her own important contributions on the clergy.
In addition, she effectively employs examples, including lengthy quotations, drawn from extensive soundings in the primary sources. Starting with an account of the various approaches, sociological as well as historical, that have informed the history of the professions since the early 1970s, the book moves on to place them within the broader history of occupations in general, including a consideration of the guild system. The remainder of the text is divided into three sections, each giving near perfect equal weighting to the clergy of the church of England, the practitioners of the common and civil law, and the medical men. Furthermore, O'Day is scrupulous to include the various sub-groupings that existed within each of the major categories, the attorneys and solicitors as well as the barristers, the surgeons and apothecaries as well as physicians, those with unorthodox training or qualifications as well as the formally recognised.
Even if he or she might want to change the emphasis here or there in connection with some parts of the story, the accounts of individual professions will certainly be recognised by specialists, and in that respect the book is a worthwhile starting point for those finding their way around in the subject or who want to learn more. On the other hand, it seems less than certain about its underlying conceptual framework, and it is fair-minded to a fault, even confused or self-contradictory in some of its overall judgements. It is hard to be say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that O'Day makes it any easier than it has ever been to describe a single, convincing, trajectory for the "history of the professions." She is surely correct in taking issue with Corfield by pointing out that in terms of sheer increases in numbers, the seventeenth is every bit as important as the eighteenth century as a watershed in the history of the professions, and she also wisely steers clear of one of the familiar mantras of works of this kind, the concept of "professionalization." Nevertheless, she seems hard put to fully escape the approaches inspired by the sociological writing of the 1970s, which measured professionalism by institutional characteristics and a propensity to claim monopoly control of specialised fields of knowledge. There are different nuances in the coverage of each of the professions (the clergy at work and play, the rise of the barristers, the relationship between doctors and patients), but what the individual sections have in common is a detailed discussion of education and training, as well as the gate-keeping processes, the social origins of recruits, and to a lesser extent their economic prospects.
Involving apprenticeship as well as university education, book learning as well as on-the-job training, gentry recruits as well as people with backgrounds amongst the middling sort, London versus provincial careers, intense and sometimes litigious rivalries amongst different groups in the same field, state ideologies as well as the medical recipes collected by women as an integral part of housewifery, each of these individual professional histories is intricate and complicated. The problem with the professions is that even when the same questions are being addressed, the answers have a nightmarish particularity. One way to find general themes underlying the diversity is to discuss professions against the more general context of other occupations, but although O'Day considers this road, she does not go very far down it, ultimately finding more differences than similarities between other occupations and the professions, even though many of the most numerous of them, such as attorneys, surgeons, and apothecaries were trained by apprenticeship, just like many other trades. She apparently overlooks the fact that the concept of "honesty," which she identifies as a crucial component of professional identity, was a common and garden ingredient in late medieval and early-modern guild rhetoric; nor does she mention that the clubability so characteristic of eighteenth-century professions had much in common with the wider contemporary phenomenon of "bourgeois association."
There are also some parallels she misses or fails to highlight. For example, it is significant that medical and legal services were much more widely available to a wider cross-section of the population than has previously been thought, and, by the end of the seventeenth century, both apothecaries and attorneys had gradually evolved into the "general practitioners" of their respective professions. In addition, the book is sparing in its coverage of the eighteenth century, and the decision to stop in 1800 is hard to justify on the grounds of anything other than arbitrary periodisation or (understandable) authorial exhaustion. O'Day is at her most convincing when discussing the changes in the clerical profession caused by the re-articulation of the relationship between the church and the state as a result of the Reformation, but her discussion of the eighteenth century focuses almost entirely on the issue of improved clerical incomes, accompanied by an unconvincing assertion that the work of clergymen changed relatively little between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. She associates the rise of the common lawyers with a vaguely defined "legal revolution" during the course of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but eighteenth-century lawyers are not given much space, a particularly unfortunate oversight since recently published work has begun to talk about declining numbers of practitioners, increased uncertainty about incomes, and what some historians call a phase of de-professionalization that in fact provided the background to nineteenth century reforms. While she is keen to assert, as against Holmes, that the apothecary general practitioner had emerged by the end of the seventeenth century, and while she provides some observations on the place of teaching hospitals in the education of medics in the mid-eighteenth century, O'Day does not deal with the development of more rigorous medical training in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The reason the end date chronology is important is that only by engaging with the debates during the early nineteenth century about the nature of professional education and qualifications can some perspective be gained on the peculiarly modern concepts of professionalization that color our present understanding of the professional past. For example, those who then argued that training through formal educational methods such as lectures and examinations would lead only to cramming, and that they in any case provided no certainty about the capacity of individuals to perform honestly or effectively in later life, were the losers in a process of change that has had a profound impact on the world in which we now live.
Along with a section that draws on an unusually detailed diary in order to reconstruct the practice of a seventeenth-century medical practitioner, the most engaging parts of the book are those that deal with early-modern medical charity and provision for the poor. Like so much of the work of Margaret Pelling, on which they are based, these passages appeal because they deal with questions about the general availability of medical services and with the way in which these were provided to individuals as well as different social groups. Equally, although there is certainly room to disagree about the important question of who influenced whom, O'Day is surely right that there is a connection between the development of the professions in the early modern period and that (classically inspired) sense of service and, self-importance, which they shared with the social elite -- the aristocracy and gentry. In both instances, though, the point that emerges is that professionals are interesting because they were in effect creators and/or purveyors of particular types of discourse. The most critical part of their histories is therefore the way in which these discourses were constituted and exchanged with individuals and with the broader civil and social community. It is what professionals do, and what they say or write, rather than the way they are qualified or organised, that is most interesting part of their history. As O'Day confesses, it would take another book to tell that part of the story. Hopefully, her work will inspire others to take up the challenge.
. W.R. Prest, ed., The Professions in Early Modern England (Beckenham, 1987); G. Holmes, Augustan England: professions, state, and society, 1680-1730 (London, 1982); P. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain 1700-1850 (London, 1995).
. C.W. Brooks, The Admissions Registers of Barnard's Inn 1620-1869 (Selden Society, Supplementary Series, vol. 12, 1995); Lawyers, Litigation and English Society since 1450 (London, 1998); David Lemmings, Professors of the Law Barristers and English Legal Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2000).
Copyright (c) 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Christopher Brooks. Review of O'Day, Rosemary, The Professions in Early Modern England, 1450-1800.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.