Conference Report:
Plebeian Cultures in Early Modern England:
35 Years after E.P. Thompson
On 21st February 2009, the University of Warwick hosted a conference for
scholars using insights from social, cultural and political theory to reconstruct the
experience of the common people in early modern England. Thirty-five years after
E.P. Thompson published his pioneering article on ‘Patrician Society, Plebeian
Culture’ in the Journal of Social History – an essay which, despite its focus on the
eighteenth century, has had more influence on the historiography of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries – the conference focused in particular on the influence of
Thompson’s work on recent developments in the study of plebeian cultures. A total of
sixty delegates, including many key figures in the field alongside a healthy number of
postgraduates and early career scholars, heard and discussed six papers organised into
three panel sessions, followed by a plenary address by Professor Keith Wrightson and
a round-table discussion involving all the speakers and questions from the floor.
The first panel was entitled ‘The Thompsonian Paradigm’, and examined
aspects of the broader conceptual paradigm offered by E.P. Thompson’s analysis of
early modern social relations. Dave Rollison (Sydney), opened proceedings with a
paper entitled ‘New Perspectives on England’s Long Bourgeois Revolution: the
“Great Arch” Revisited’. Rollison argued that Thompson’s revision of Marx’s model
of English social history is in need of revision itself, with the vast growth in our
knowledge of early modern England that has occurred in the last 35 years needing to
be knitted into a new narrative of English history – especially if social historians are
to connect with popular history and future generations of schoolchildren. Rollison
proposed that thinking about physical changes in the landscape would be one way of
grounding any such interpretation of the ‘long duree’ and making the ‘great arch’ less
abstract. This was followed by a paper from Phil Withington (Cambridge), on
‘Plebeians, Patricians, and the Language of Commonwealth’. Withington developed a
critique of Thompson’s binary model of ‘plebeians’ and ‘patricians’ on the basis that
he had lifted it from Defoe – who had intended it as a metaphor – and then
inappropriately applied it instead as a mode of social analysis. Further, Withington
argued that the term ‘plebeian’ was at no point applied by the common people
themselves; instead it was always imposed from above by contemporary elites (or by
historians) and was intended as a pejorative term. The outcome of using Thompson’s
terminology, Withington argued, is that it obscures a shared, contemporary language
of ‘commonwealth’ that may have more to tell us about social relations and identities
in the early modern period.
The second panel, ‘Earthly Necessities’, explored aspects of the economic
lives of early modern plebeians. Craig Muldrew (Cambridge) presented a paper on
‘Employers and the Employed: Wages and Social Relations in the Agrarian
Economy’. Again, the language of description was a key theme, with Muldrew
demonstrating how, after 1650, the term ‘industrious’ began to emerge in relation to
certain elements of the labouring population. Muldrew argued that the term developed
(admittedly, deriving from above and not from labourers themselves) to mark a
distinction between harder working labourers and those retaining a more traditional
leisure preference. Further, Muldrew suggested that an analysis of inventories seems
to confirm that this hierarchy between labourers was emerging on the ground as well
as in public discourse: a finding that problematises a homogeneous category of
‘plebeians’. This was followed by a paper by Andy Wood (East Anglia), entitled
‘'Place, Custom and Memory: Thinking about Fuel Rights in Early Modern
England'. Wood argued that customs relating to fuel rights have the potential to tell us
about much more than the economic lives of the common people: they had a
psychological relevance to plebeians as they were tied to notions of memory, place
and identity. Wood also mounted a defence of Thompson’s binary view of social
relations as a conflict between ‘plebeians’ and ‘patricians’, demonstrating that
conflicts over fuel rights were often articulated and understood by participants as ‘us’
and ‘them’ clashes between rich and poor or gentry and commoners. This was not
always the case however, and Wood also provided examples of how conflict over
customary rights could be a means of marginalising certain elements of the poor, and
might also reflect on the politics of gender. Wood concluded that conflict between
‘plebeians’ and ‘patricians’ was one, but not the only, aspect of social relations
revealed by a focus on fuel rights.
The third panel, headed ‘Weapons of the Weak’, investigated plebeian
responses to power and authority in the period, and the appropriateness of using
Thompson’s conclusions on popular protest to describe them. First, Bernard Capp
delivered a paper on ‘Deference, Defiance and Tobacco’ in which he suggested that a
major downside of Thompson’s legacy (though one he never intended) was to focus
the historiography of riot almost exclusively onto food, enclosure and antiimprovement rioting. Capp provided an account of riots in Gloucestershire in the
1650s that were pro-improvement: they were in favour of growing tobacco in the area.
Further, contrary to Thompson’s hypothesis that plebeians rarely show open defiance
to authorities out of fear or the internalisation of deference, these tobacco riots, like
many other riots in the period, were in fact characterised by acts of open defiance.
Capp suggested that an analysis of different forms of popular protest to those focused
on by Thompson might also provide a rather different picture of plebeian cultures.
John Walter then spoke on ‘E.P. Thompson and the Politics of Early Modern Protest’.
Walter offered a survey of work on popular political forms in which he was keen to
stress that, despite limitations in his work, this should not overshadow the paramount
importance of Thompson in establishing the legitimacy of the subject. Walter
demonstrated the ambiguous legacy and value of Thompson’s ideas by discussing an
example of an anonymous libel which was full of the language of class oppression
and an ‘us’ and ‘them’ perception of social relations, whilst at the same time being
littered with classical references that complicate any conclusions that this libel was a
product of a discreet plebeian culture. Walter also questioned Thompson’s
characterisation of seventeenth-century protest as more open and religious than that of
the eighteenth century – finding little evidence of this – and suggested that future
work might usefully pay more attention than Thompson to how popular political was
related to high political culture (something he suggested Mike Braddick was
beginning to do).
Then Keith Wrightson, who had travelled over from Yale especially for the
occasion, delivered a plenary lecture in which he reflected on the broad development
of the field of English social history in the past three or four decades. On the influence
of Thompson’s ideas he suggested that the term ‘plebeian’ had serious limitations, as
Thompson preferred to employ the term in the undiscriminating sense that the early
modern gentry had – an application that overlooked important distinctions between
the ‘plebs’, especially a growing ‘social polarisation’ between the poor and the
‘middling sort’ that has become a central part of our understanding of social relations
in the period. Wrightson also argued that Thompson had similarly neglected to pick
apart the category of ‘patrician’, seeing the ruling class as static and thus overlooking
the ways in which its formation and reformation might help us understand similar
processes at work amongst other classes. Wrightson suggested that these limitations
were a product of Thompson’s laudable focus on the struggle between classes, rather
than their internal dynamics and features, but further argued that – whilst struggle
matters – class, agency and identity are not only about struggle and the study of
plebeian cultures would benefit from keeping this is mind. Wrightson then proceeded
to offer some suggestions as to how the study of plebeian cultures might move
forward. First, he called for a ‘return to counting’; urging that detailed economic
history can help us establish the structures that informed important contemporary
distinctions between social groups. Secondly, he stressed the importance of trying to
uncover how earlier modern plebeians self identified, to rectify a continuing overreliance on elite perceptions. In particular, he suggested that the most fruitful avenue
for pursuing this aim might be to focus on the ways in which common people selfidentified in their connections with each other, rather than how they presented
themselves to elites, and that the institutions and associational forms which facilitated
such ‘nexuses of connection’ should be studied. In part, Wrightson’s call for a focus
on connections between the common people was a call to redress the balance of much
recent work – influenced by Wrightson himself – that has emphasised the polarisation
of early modern society.
Professor Wrightson’s stimulating plenary drew together many of the key
themes of the day, and struck an ideal balance between critical reflection and looking
to the future – which set the tone for a concluding round-table discussion. Key issues
that arose centred on the importance of the language of description; the place of
religion in Thompson’s work; the potential of studying associational forms; the issue
of gender (though more the lack of a female speaker at the conference than its place in
Thompson’s work); and Thompson’s greater impact on sixteenth-and-seventeenthcentury historiography than on that of the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most
provocative question came from Adam Fox. Fox asked whether, in light of the many
criticisms and limitations that historians had begun to identify in Thompson’s
thinking, his legacy had been to lead us up the wrong path rather than to blaze a trail
in the study of plebeian culture. It was a question that struck at the heart of the two
main questions of the day: how should we judge Thompson’s legacy, and,
subsequently, how should we proceed with research into plebeian cultures? Needless
to say, both issues continued to be debated for many hours after this successful and
stimulating conference had officially drawn to a close with thanks offered to all the
participants and organisers.
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