We live in a society basted in self- regard, our moralists tell us; fat and dozy on the lion’s share of the world’s resources, polluting the seas and burning fossil fuels, we gaze in loving torpor at our own reflection, and the gnat-bite of recession barely disturbs our narcissistic trance. More than any generation before us, we command the resources for self-realization—“a life well lived,” as Keith Thomas puts it. But do we want to be artists, philosophers, pioneers of the natural sciences? No: we want to be celebrities. We dream of instant, global fame. We expect it to enrich us, gratify us, but are less concerned that it outlast us. Once, priorities were different. In 1606 in London, a gang of law students stormed a London brothel and broke its windows. They wanted, they said, “to do something that they may be spoken of when they were dead.”
They could hardly avoid immediate recognition as well. Neither could Michael Joseph, better known as Michael An Gof, the blacksmith who in 1497 led 15,000 Cornish tax rebels up the country toward London, hoping for “a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal.” He would have been delighted to know that five hundred years after his death he would get a statue in his home village of St. Keverne, and become a hero to resurgent Cornish nationalists. The dead, as Keith Thomas shows us, are never quite as dead as we think; they are part of us, not just genetically but psychologically.
Idiosyncratic, mercurial, endlessly absorbing, his book on the “Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England” might almost be designed to provoke the historian of a theoretical bent, while pleasing the general reader. It draws its evidence from English society, roughly between 1530 and 1780: a huge stretch of time, with the Reformation at the beginning, civil war in the middle, and the American Revolution at the end. Its range of reference is vast, stretching back to the ancient world to explore classical notions of self and society, and forward to encompass Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, and Mao Zedong. Thomas must have longed to scoop in another decade or so and leap the Channel to report on the French Revolution. “Happiness,” Saint-Just claimed in 1794, “is a new idea in Europe.” But it wasn’t new; it was ancient and multiform, precious and various, and ideas about how we should seek it (on the earthly or eternal plane) are fundamental to concepts of self that, Thomas shows, have their roots in the classical world.
If you take as your subject “the central values of the English people between the sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries,” there are few barriers except the chronological, and these Thomas is happy to overflow. To make the material manageable, he deals with it under certain headings; he explores work and wealth, friendship, companionship and marriage, military prowess, honor, reputation, and how we imagine our relationship with posterity. Did our forefathers think of themselves as some lumpen mass, like the French peasants whom Marx described as living like “potatoes in a sack”? Or were they as keen on self-definition as we are, attentive to their own unique qualities, concerned both to know themselves and be known?
How did they weigh the Christian’s long-term objective—salvation—against more immediate, worldly concerns? There is no discrete section on religious belief, yet it underlies everything and creeps in everywhere. The Church taught that God had ordained a place, a station in life, a rung on the ladder, for every creature born; you fulfilled your nature by performing the duties of your station and hoping for heaven at the end. At best, this teaching—so inimical to later ages—gave dignity to the degraded and a hope of redress to the unfortunate. At worst, it resulted in a belief that stasis was holy, and a forlorn hope that the world would never change.
Thomas’s opening chapter shows the huge value put on social cohesiveness, on maintaining stability through following tradition. Individuals who tried to rise out of their station, or behave in a “singular” way, were dangerous. Guild regulations and the costs of apprenticeships kept laborers below the level of artisans. Sons were expected to follow their father’s trade. Royal councillors who rose from humble backgrounds attracted animosity from both aristocracy and commoners. Ambition was a vice, education a dubious benefit. In 1751 Lord Chancellor Hardwicke suggested turning back the course of human development: “Though at the Reformation greater invitations were made to bring the poor to schools, that is not so proper now, for the poor had better be trained up to agriculture.”
The practice, of course, was some way from the theory. An Gof the blacksmith was hanged for his futile protest by Henry VII; Henry VIII would promote Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son, to be Earl of Essex. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer thought that the children of the poor were “many times endowed with more singular gifts of nature…as with eloquence, memory, apt pronunciation, sobriety,…and also commonly more given to apply their study than is the gentleman’s son….” Even in a notionally static society, talent and hard work were apt to advance you, and churchmen certainly approved of hard work; it allowed less time for sin. They did not approve of accumulating wealth, unless it was redistributed in a socially responsible way. Yet everyone was aware that richer people were somehow thought morally superior, and the seating arrangements in English parish churches after the Reformation acted as an economic and social map of the district: some churches had two grades of communion wine, claret for the lower orders and something sweeter for the gentry.
What you could buy (or acquire as a gift) demonstrated your status: the aristocrat showed off his clothes, his jewels and gold plate; the gentlemen’s table offered white bread and sugar, white eggs not brown, wine and not ale; the poor were kept humble and flatulent on their diet of gruel and roots, pottage and beans. An earthen floor or tiles, straw or feather beds, chairs or benches, tallow candles or wax: these distinctions said everything, not just about your wealth but about your character; the wealthy weren’t just lucky, they were blessed. Bishop Hugh Latimer tried to retrieve the dignity of the laboring man: “God doth consecrate every man’s vocation…though he be a poor shepherd or cobbler, that is not the matter.” Work involved sociability, companionship; Robert Burton pointed out in The Anatomy of Melancholy that the leisured classes passed their time in being depressed.
Many commentators observed the universal enthusiasm for extracting a day’s pay for less than a day’s work, and in some districts workers were thought to be letting the side down. One Lake District community lived by begging, and when one man broke the custom of forty years and got a job, he was told, “‘twas never a good world since Bowness people went to work.”
All the same, early workaholics were observed: Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher, George Cavendish, stood by aghast while his master wrote letters for twelve hours at a stretch. Work could also be a refuge: Samuel Pepys put in long hours at the office to get away from his wife. The divines said that Adam’s work, before the Fall, was more like play. John Wesley, as a missionary in Georgia, witnessed the prelapsarian spirit kept alive. He observed
a large company of reasonable creatures, called Indians, sitting in a row on the side of a river, looking sometimes at one another, sometimes at the sky, and sometimes at the bubbles on the water. And so they sat (unless in the time of war) for a great part of the year, from morning to night.
Presumably, though, while they rested up for the next battle, their women were working to keep the community fed. In early modern England, women shared most trades with men, and their wage labor was usually necessary for a poorer family to survive, but their work was less skilled, more casual and seasonal, and much more poorly paid. No one saw anything wrong in unequal pay for equal work, and housework and child-rearing, of course, didn’t count as work at all. Labor freely chosen—like the work a gentleman put in to run his estates—was more honorable than the mere grubbing of a living. But would there be work in heaven? Probably not.
The whole etiquette of gift-giving—which to later generations often looks like bribery—is a subject too large for Thomas to explore in detail, but perhaps he might have put more emphasis on an aspect of work the modern world finds hard to understand—the pride taken in being a servant. Certainly in the earlier part of the era he examines, everyone, from the King down, hoped to call himself someone’s servant; it was a source of self-esteem to be attached to a substantial household, and the more eminent the master, the more self-satisfied his man.
Servants whose masters were in some way disgraced, whose households disintegrated, suffered the dread of being a “masterless man,” and were the uncounted casualties of political upheavals. Freedom was not to be prized if it entailed loss of community; it was safer to be part of a chain of responsibility than to be a freebooter, loose in the world. The common soldier coming home from the wars was a threatening figure. We are still familiar with the old soldier’s anomie, but we tend to locate it in his psychological suffering, his disillusionment; in early modern society, the unease was the result of his displacement from the units of family and parish and local employers.
It is hard for us to believe in a world before the evolution of individual taste, when possessions simply demonstrated your rank, and said nothing about what you liked. Thomas traces the process by which things—commodities—became an aspect of self, and personal preferences became witness to our individuality. “Those who depend for food on bodily labour,” said the eighteenth-century Scottish judge Lord Kames, “are totally devoid of taste.” But once subsistence is taken care of, luxury raises its silken, smiling head. As early as 1549, the displays in London shops were calculated to “make any temperate man to gaze on them and to buy somewhat, though it serve to no purpose necessary.”
Individual preferences had to accommodate themselves to the communal guidelines we call fashion; to defy fashion attracted scorn, though it was fine to be narrowly ahead of it. To this end, a new class of taste experts arose: architects, landscape gardeners, modish tailors, and even literary critics. Were luxuries feminizing, did good taste sap morale? The debate roared on for centuries. Caricaturists seemed to suggest that Admiral Byng, shot for failing to relieve the British garrison on Minorca in 1757, would have been more valiant if he had been less fond of collecting porcelain. Through the centuries, killjoys and “sour-reasoners” would claim that any deviation from plain fare and plain manners was deforming the national character.