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Response to Review of Women, Work and Sociability in Early Modern London

I would like to thank Hannah Hogan for writing an informative and balanced review of my book which summarises the key arguments eloquently. She raises several important points which I would like to use this opportunity to respond to.

The first of these is the issue of whether I paid sufficient attention to questions of mediation and narrativity within the records I drew upon, since by taking evidence at face value the historian runs the risk of equating what contemporaries said with what they meant. Since the pioneering work of Natalie Zemon Davis, historians have learned that there are fictions in the archives, and that many early modern women and men had sufficient understanding of the legal system to manipulate it to their advantage, drawing upon a vast array of cultural narratives to frame the stories they gave in depositions and the responses they gave to interrogatories to achieve specific aims.(1a)  Following this line of argument, the historian ought to approach such records not with the intention of discovering what actually happened, but in order to ascertain the norms and values of the society in question. To some extent in writing Women, Work and Sociability in Early Modern London I sought to do just that, since one of my key aims was to produce a study of the ‘vocabulary of affirmation’ (p.164) to match the studies of defamation and slander produced by Laura Gowing, Martin Ingram, James Sharpe and Alexandra Shepard to name but a few historians who have explored this topic.

Yet legal records can reveal much about social practices as well as mentalities. It is undoubtedly true that not every woman who was defamed as a ‘whore’ really was sexually promiscuous, but given the frequency of such accusations, some clearly were (although it should be noted that the decision of a woman to have sex with multiple partners was often driven by financial rather than emotional factors). Moreover whilst many individuals who testified in court were outright liars, their intention was to avoid being found out, and as such their deceptive narratives function as indicators of how most people were expected to and actually did live on a day-to-day basis. Similarly whilst authors such as Robert Greene and Thomas Middleton wrote fiction, they did so by drawing on their own experiences of living in early modern London, and sought to present images of the capital which would have been recognisable to the Londoners who read their pamphlets and watched their plays. Although I could have done more to quantify my evidence, there are numerous statistics in Women, Work and Sociability in Early Modern London, and whenever possible I provided multiple examples from across the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as juxtaposing different forms of evidence which seemed to me to be proving similar points, my intention being to write what Droh Wharman would term a ‘rigorous’ cultural and social history of gender identities and relations.

The second major issue raised by Hogan relates to chronology and the problems of interrogating sources across a century or more. She cites Steve Hindle on the ‘broken-backed historiography’ nature of early modern society, and similar comments have been made by Alexandra Shepard and Karen Harvey with regard to the historiography of masculinity.(2a) Harvey and Shepard have observed that the changes in men’s gendered identities which historians have noted often had as much to do with the source materials and methodologies of such scholars as with any actual shifts in ideals and practices of masculinity. Such criticisms of existing scholarship are insightful, but writing social histories which encompass the entirety of the early modern period is difficult: fewer diaries survive from the earlier than the later 17th century; the records of the church courts disappear during the 1640s and 1650s, and are less rich and plentiful for the decades after 1660; the Bridewell court-books are also richer for the period before 1660 than after, and even for the earlier period there are gaps in the records; sessions records have a patchy survival rate, at least for London, Westminster and Middlesex; and the Proceedings of the Old Bailey only begin in 1674. If this sounds defeatist, it needs to be emphasised that the number of social historians seeking to work across the period is increasing.(3a) The major gap in our knowledge remains the mid-17th century, and we urgently need a social history of the 1640s and 1650s which focuses not only on the impact of political and religious turmoil on the everyday lives of women and men, but which pays attentions to continuities before, during and after the English Revolution.

Hogan also raised the issue of change over time by questioning whether I underplayed the impact of an increase in consumer goods and female retailing across the 17th century. With regard to the former, whilst it is evident that there was a significant expansion of English domestic and overseas markets across the 17th century, albeit interspersed with peaks and troughs, England, and London in particular, already had a thriving consumer culture by 1600, not only amongst the elites, but also in terms of cheap consumer goods such as alcohol and tobacco which were available to a much broader swath of the population. Jan De Vries, and more recently Craig Muldrew, have emphasised the rise of a discourse of industriousness in the later 17th century which helped to bring about significant market growth and diversification, but the origins of such expansion lay in the first third of the 17th century, and their arguments should not lead historians to downplay the desire for consumer goods which existed prior to 1650.(4a) With regard to the latter point about women retailers, it is my hunch (which I lack the statistical evidence to prove, but which the ongoing work of Amy Erickson may provide) that their numbers increased across the 17th century due to a shift in the gender balance of the capital, a decline in the authority of the guilds, and the growth of indoor shopping outlets, all of which made retailing a more acceptable, but also necessary practice for women from the middle and lower ranks of society. However, this statement needs to be counterbalanced by the anecdotal evidence of godly women such as Grace Wallington assisting their husbands in running retail outlets in the earlier part of the period. Feminist historians such as Judith Bennett have long been attuned to spotting continuities as well as changes in women’s experiences across the centuries, and I hope my book offers an analysis which balances the two.

Hogan ends her review by raising the issue of the typicality of London, and of whether studies of women’s work and sociability have a ‘southern bias’. I make no pretence that my book is anything more than a case study of a unique metropolis which was a melting pot of different cultures divided by but also spilling over the boundaries of ward and parish communities, the adopted home of large numbers of migrants, many of whom came from the northern and midland counties as well as further afield. As such London was simultaneously typical and atypical of England as a whole, and I would be reluctant to make generalisations about the rest of the country based purely on metropolitan archives, as well as sceptical of any historian who sought to do so. I agree with Hogan that we need more studies of northern England, but also of the West Country, whose rich ecclesiastical and secular court archives remain woefully under-investigated. Hogan concludes an extremely generous review by stating that Women, Work and Sociability in Early Modern London is ‘an inspiring starting point’ for further scholarship on such topics. I hope this proves to be the case, and look forward to reading what she and others have to contribute to our understandings of women’s worlds in early modern England.


  1. Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (London, 1988).Back to (1a)
  2. Alexandra Shepard, ‘From anxious patriarchs to refined gentlemen? Manhood in Britain, circa 1500–1700’ and Karen Harvey, ‘The history of masculinity, circa 1650–1800’, both in Journal of British Studies, 44 (April 2005).Back to (2a)
  3. See in particular the following recent and forthcoming monographs: Hannah Newton, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2012); Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2014); Mark Hailwood, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2014); Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2015).Back to (3a)
  4. Jan De Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behaviour and the Household Economy from 1650 to the Present (Cambridge, 2008); Craig Muldrew, Food Energy and the Creation of Industriousness: Work and Material Culture in Agrarian England, 1550–1780 (Cambridge, 2011).Back to (4a)