Paul Griffiths, Mark S R Jenner, eds. Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. xii + 284 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-5152-4.
Reviewed by R. C. Richardson (History Department, King Alfred's College, Winchester)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2001)
Deconstructing Early Modern London
Deconstructing Early Modern London
The publication in the same year of two volumes of essays on early modern London is symptomatic of a growing interest in the capital and, more generally, urban development. The first of them takes its title from a book by James Howell published in 1657. Hastily written and very unsystematic in its arrangement of its contents, Howell's book by virtue of its kaleidoscopic nature paid unwitting tribute to the multiple dimensions of London's past and present, and its enthusiastic tone was itself an eloquent testimony to the impact which London's explosive growth and diversification had on those who participated in, benefited from, and witnessed it. London's population went through a phenomenal tenfold increase between 1500 and 1700 and had almost half a million inhabitants as the eighteenth century dawned. Increased population density within the old city limits and bold expansion outwards into new districts and suburbs were equally noticeable trends. The proportion of the national population based in the capital went on increasing. The economic, social, cultural, religious, and political significance of the metropolis was emphatically pre-eminent. F.J. Fisher and E.A. Wrigley long ago underlined London's importance as a centre of conspicuous consumption and as an engine of economic growth. Such recognition underpins both these books. Neither of them claims to be a complete history of London in these centuries nor a comprehensive social study of Londoners. But each stays clear of dealing with disembodied economic trends. Each, in largely complementary ways, seeks to explore some, at least, of the interlocking plural histories of London and Londoners. Social history predominates.
Londinopolis is written entirely by historians. Material London has a more varied and interdisciplinary cast list of contributors; historians are joined here by specialists in literature, art, architecture, archaeology, and anthropology. Editor Lena Cowen Orlin is based in an American university English department though she writes here on a historical topic. In both volumes the spatial distribution and structures of the city come under review as do the material circumstances of London's life and economy and London's changing place in the national and international economic networks. The anatomy and physiology of London's different communities and sub-communities, the different forms of government and hierarchies, factions, gender issues, conflicting perceptions of ownership and rights, political consciousness, cultural provision and representation, and control mechanisms all receive attention here. Some essays cover relatively long time spans; others focus on particular moments and critical junctures. The first volume consists of specially commissioned contributions while the second derives from a conference held at the Folger Library in 1995. Both volumes are extremely well edited and in each case the editors are also contributors themselves. Material London is profusely illustrated but, alas, for the most part the photographs are not reproduced very satisfactorily.
Londinopolis offers twelve essays arranged in four sections, roughly equal in length but in no particular sequence; the final part dealing with aspects of material culture and consumption might logically have come earlier, addressing as it does the fundamental necessities of food and water supply and their increasingly commercialized provision. Sara Pennell and Mark Jenner, the two contributors who handle these subjects, offer essays of great originality and distinction and help fill real gaps in our knowledge of early modern London. More has been written by previous historians about London's raw food supplies--by Fisher and others--than about victualling and eating habits. Jenner's essay covers far more ground than the technology of water supply and striking and costly speculative ventures such as the New River. Politics and competing jurisdictions are brought into focus, as are the "moral economy" of water supply and the social consequences of innovation. Three essays--by Margaret Pelling, Paul Griffiths, and Jeremy Boulton--explore "Senses of Space and Place." The first considers the ways in which a number of factors such as commuting, migration, wet nursing, and disease promoted a greater degree of internal mobility in London and its environs. Griffiths, in the second, looks at the changing economic and social tone of Cheapside in the first half of the seventeenth century and at (largely unsuccessful) attempts by the Goldsmiths' Company and the Crown to reverse the trend. Boulton, rounding off this section, looks closely at St. Martin in the Fields in the century and a quarter after 1600, and shows how rich and poor were mingled there in this rapidly growing fashionable parish. The more grandees came to settle there the more servants and other providers they needed. Poor relief was a visible issue of some importance but, by and large, it was not the social elite who ran the affairs of the parish and confronted its problems and casualties; the time-consuming tasks of local government were left to the substantial tradesmen residing in St. Martin's.
Three more essays are concerned with gender and sexuality. That by Laura Gowing examines the close, complex relations between gender and space, especially in the ambiguities of privacy for women. Margaret Hunt looks at marital rights from the woman's point of view and at the ways in which widows especially engaged in marriage litigation, availing themselves of the more "friendly" ecclesiastical courts and Equity rather than the male-dominated Common Law. Faramerz Dabhoiwala re-evaluates female promiscuity in the city as something other than criminal behaviour. Casual, untransgressive, part-time prostitution provided much needed supplementary income and could be a bargaining counter with patrons and employers to help husbands towards promotion and career advancement. Samuel Pepys's female coterie provides some good examples here. In the last of the four sections Ian Archer, Michael Berlin, and Tim Wales deal with aspects of polis and police. Archer wrestles with big questions about whether there was a coherent political culture in early modern London, something more than a complex chemistry involving xenophobia, anti-popery, manipulations of the memory of Queen Elizabeth I, and responses to the nearby royal court. Berlin writes insightfully on parish oligarchies and select vestries, church seating arrangements, and on the local politics of church rituals such as those practiced annually on rogation days.
Material London, much the longer of the two books under review, with seventeen essays and a hundred extra pages, shares many of the same index listings as Londinopolis. Its title, however, accurately proclaims its chief center of interest, and its interdisciplinary agenda brings additional topics, other approaches and different methodologies into play. Gender and migration feature here no less than in the first book but subjects such as fashion, drama, and the theatre loom large; the plays of Ben Jonson provide a much-used window on to early modern London for many of the contributors to this volume. Material London is certainly more disparate in its contents than the first book and the editor deserves high praise for her skillful introduction and section prefaces which go far beyond "unpacking" the three words of the book's title and clearly demonstrate her firm grasp of the whole field and the inter-relationships of its component parts. The individual chapters, however, in some cases make only empty gestures towards contextualizing their particular topics which remain largely unconnected and self-contained. They also display a great deal of repetition and there is too little cross referencing. All the essays explore the material dimension of their chosen subjects and in that sense exhibit their belonging to this volume. In some cases, however, London itself is much less central than in others, almost incidental in fact to the particular topic under discussion. Not all contributors are in agreement about the significance to be attached to "c. 1600" as some kind of dividing line in London's evolution and standing.
The essays are very varied in nature. Some take a synoptic overview while others use the microscope to focus minutely on the specifics of a particular moment. At one end of the spectrum we have Derek Keene spanning widely on "Material London in time and space" and at the other Peter Blayney in a fascinating contribution looks at the jurisdictional conflicts between City and church which lay behind the bitter and deceitful contest over John Day's projected bookshop in St. Paul's churchyard in the 1570s. Boundary disputes of other kinds--all relating to adjacent properties, sometimes with shared facilities--provide the subject matter for the editor's own first-rate contribution. John Schofield's essay, utilizing recent archaeological work in the city and the contemporary surveys of Ralph Treswell, complements Blayney and Orlin by offering a clear account of the topography and buildings of the early modern capital. Ian Archer uses a discussion of the Jacobean opening of the New Exchange as a springboard for a wider consideration of changing patterns of consumption and the moral issues to which they gave rise. Joan Thirsk brings to bear a lifetime's research into the diversity of the English provinces to show the essentially dialectical relationship between London and the regions. London, she makes very clear, was not simply the sole dynamo of change in the country but was itself very frequently on the receiving end of new initiatives and experimentation that originated elsewhere. (Alice Friedman's essay on the two-way relationships between London and Wollaton, Nottinghamshire provides a useful case study of some of these processes.) Patricia Fumerton takes a fresh look at London's vagrancy problem while, directing her gaze towards London's elite, Linda Livy Peck has much that is very original to say about new building, buying, and collecting in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. David Harris Sacks combines a consideration of three big issues--materialism and the market economy, the calculus or urban growth, and the metropolis and the archipelago--with an unlikely pairing of re-examinations of Will Kemp's morris dance from London to Norwich in 1600 and the Earl of Essex's revolt the following year. Andrew Gurr returns to his familiar hunting ground of the Globe theatre, a subject in which he almost owns a freehold. Jean Howard interrogates the play Westward Ho to unpack what it can say to today's social historians and literary critics about women, foreigners, and the regulation of urban space.
Though they overlap at times with each other these two books are sufficiently different to be genuinely complementary. Nor do they simply go over ground already satisfactorily covered in previous publications. Neither volume aims at comprehensive coverage; each of these books is self-evidently eclectic. And there are noticeable gaps. Given the purposes behind these two collections it is not in the least surprising that the coverage is principally secular in nature. Religion, even in its socio-economic extensions, does not occupy much space here, despite being part of London's importance and the changing fabric of London life.
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R. C. Richardson. Review of Griffiths, Paul; Jenner, Mark S R, eds., Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London and
Orlin, Lena Cowen, ed., Material London c. 1600.
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