National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

William Hogarth: The Denunciation; or, A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen, 1729. In The Ends of Life, Keith Thomas writes of this painting, ‘Masculine honour was vulnerable to malicious paternity suits. [Here] a pregnant girl is being coached by her lover into swearing before a magistrate that a respectable elderly citizen (apparently a Dissenting clergyman) is the father of her child.’

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.

In the Puritan opinion, food was to keep body and soul together, nothing else; in 1644 a Suffolk rector was turned out after his congregation accused him of “eating custard after a scandalous manner.” A man who joined the Quakers had to curb his love of frills: “…Our curtains, with valances, drapery and fringes,…we put away or cut off….” But the commercial imperative was bound to win in the end, people being so wedded to short-term gratification. The word “consume” changed its meaning: a consumer had been a wastrel, a squanderer of resources, but by the early eighteenth century he was a hero who stimulated the economy.

Fighting, even when there was a fat profit involved, was more of a vocation than a job, and Thomas’s section on military prowess is one of the most successful in the book, offering enjoyable vignettes of masculinity in perpetual crisis. Nostalgia seems to have underlain the military ideal. Warfare was an aristocratic business, and young noblemen trained for nothing else; then along came firearms, which made any low-class fool into a killing machine. By the fifteenth century it was necessary to reinvent the chivalric displays of earlier times, to give young noblemen an arena in which to display why they were necessary to society. For the lower orders, there was little difference between sport and fighting. If impressed for a military campaign, they expected loot but no glory; their courage was not especially commendable as, like women in childbirth, they had no choice about it.

For centuries the English defined themselves as braver and tougher than any other nation. If there was no fight, an Englishman picked one, and he behaved especially badly in warmer climates. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, seems to have been the ancestor of those young Englishmen so dreaded by the police today in Spanish and Greek holiday resorts: arriving in Palermo in 1572, he offered “to fight a combat with any whatsoever, in the defence of his prince and country.” He was disgusted when no Italian took him up on it. Danger, and the way one faced it, could play an important part in self-definition. Major Richard Creed, killed at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, said he was “never more himself than when he look’d an enemy in the face.”

Yet there were many voices on the side of peace: theologians through the ages, humanists like Thomas More, some Protestant sects of the 1640s, and finally the Quakers, with their renunciation of all violence. For every example, as Keith Thomas demonstrates, you can find a counterexample. Some will object that his book is a collage of quotations, a toy box, a magpie hoard: that it does not sustain a thesis. But Thomas’s work has always been more about sharing knowledge than winning arguments. In any event, in the field of human behavior, which is where he has located his effort, truths are provisional and tentative. Our individuality is modulated by herd instinct, group norms nudge insidiously at personal choice, and when we make decisions, consciously or not, the input of our “social brain” means that more than narrow self-interest is involved; however fiercely we insist on our autonomy, our mind’s workings are socially primed, and new research on the plasticity of the human brain suggests that self is a borderless concept.

What delights Thomas is the plurality of the past, and ideas about it that are imaginatively deployed and vigorously expressed. He mentions R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), which, “more than any other book, kindled my own interest in history”; if he rejects the main thrust of Tawney’s argument about the development of a Puritan work ethic, he remembers with gratitude how enticingly that argument was laid out.

Thomas has no ambition to say the last word and recognizes in his preface that younger scholars have worked over his fields of interest with great thoroughness. Partial evidence, of course, is the problem; the powerful hold the pen, the lives of women and the illiterate are largely unrecorded, and when they do speak for us to hear—in legal depositions, for example—they are often mouthpieces for propriety, articulating received values rather than individual opinions. At least they help us understand what received values were, even if they are hiding their own individuality behind a social mask.

In writing of friendship, love, and marriage, Thomas looks to the private sphere for his material, to “gardens, studies, closets, and cabinets,” where people confided their thoughts to letters and journals. In this section we learn that the playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher were joined by more than an ampersand; they shared a house, a bed, and their clothes. Thomas explores those intense male friendships that to us seem homoerotic, but that were cherished by contemporaries precisely because of their innocence. Could men and women be friends? That was tricky, if friendship involved equality, for the sexes were not equal. Sir Kenelm Digby loved his wife because of her “masculine and heroic soul.”

Warm spiritual friendships, carried on by letter, grew up between divines who knew they would never meet. The vertical bond of patron and client was friendship of a kind—networking, we would call it. But equality between friends was the ideal. In 1538 the writer and propagandist Richard Morison told Thomas Cromwell that “friendship should be like a marriage: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death depart.” Marriage itself evolves from a business contract to a loving relationship; by the seventeenth century, men boasted on their tombstones that they had sustained affectionate relationships with wife and children. Dying, one aimed to leave behind warm memories, as well as material goods and an example of virtue.

During the period Thomas reviews, the very nature of remembering changed. Once the Reformation had done away with Purgatory, it was no longer reasonable or necessary to pray for the departed souls of one’s family, but pride of lineage dictated they should not be forgotten. Family portraits were commissioned, for which ancestral features had to be invented. Discursive epitaphs and newspaper obituaries replaced Catholic masses for the dead. Perhaps, Thomas thinks, religious belief was ebbing, at least in the more literal articles of the Christian creed. Skepticism in the populace was viewed with alarm by the ruling classes, who saw the social utility of religion. The Elizabethan bishop Thomas Bilson warned, “The fire of hell they will say is metaphorical; they that go thither shall find it no metaphor.” But many people had trouble envisaging the afterlife; an old Sussex lady on her deathbed, promised that she would soon be in paradise, said that she would rather stay in Lewes.

Keith Thomas’s influence has been so great, and his reputation stands so high, that it is difficult to realize that this collection of expanded Oxford lectures is only his third book, after Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and Man and the Natural World (1983). He says that his life’s task has been “a retrospective ethnography of early modern England, approaching the past in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society.” There is some danger in exoticizing. We do not want to feel that we are goggling at our forefathers like children at the zoo: Aren’t they ugly, aren’t they strange? The broad humanity of Thomas’s approach heads off this danger. It creates intimacy between reader and material, as he amuses, puzzles, and challenges us.

Like his earlier books, The Ends of Life is a product of omnivorous reading. Its dense endnotes, testament to a vast hinterland of scholarship, are clearly laid out and easy to locate. In multiplying examples, he has his favorite sources. Among them are John Aubrey, Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century scholar Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and also the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. But many of his sources are unexpected, or used in unexpected ways; Adam Smith’s contempt for “trinkets and baubles” is as fierce as that of any dissenting minister of religion.

Thomas’s style is sharp, wry, often amused, the product of a unique intellect that steers away from false generalizations and embraces ambiguity. The close of the book has an elegiac tone; born in 1933 and long past his official retirement, Thomas quotes John Dryden (translating Horace) as if he were commemorating his own life’s work:

Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r;
But what has been has been, and I have had my hour.

As a comment on a career, this is graceful; as a comment on the discipline to which Thomas has devoted himself, it is not quite true. Historians can do what heaven cannot: for all practical purposes they can change the past behind them. “Enduring fame,” Thomas says, “remains largely the creation of scholars, who, in histories, biographies and works of reference, preserve selected names from the past and consign others to oblivion.” We understand the past in the light of the evidence we select; this being so, Thomas’s eclecticism can be seen as a moral choice, as well as a source of delight. It is not only the voiceless workers of England who have been subject to what E.P. Thompson famously called “the enormous condescension of posterity”; it is our ancestors as a class, made fodder for theories.

It doesn’t matter if no conclusion can be extracted from The Ends of Life, or from Thomas’s work as a whole. He saves us from the cardinal sin of thinking that the past was simple, and that we have grasped it. “Gravestones tell truth scarce forty years,” Thomas Browne said, and John Aubrey observed, “Our bones in consecrated ground never lie quiet, and in London once in ten years (or thereabout) the earth is carried to the dung-wharf.” Most monuments, Thomas reminds us, were temporary ones, “garlands of ribbons and paper” hung in churches or cluttering up churchyards, to the distaste of the ecclesiastical authorities. Even “the vulgar” wanted to be remembered, and “butchers, coach-drivers, &c, of whom nothing more is said than that they lived so many years, and died.”

Through these pages we revisit not just old mentalities but wasted hopes and dreams. John Chesman in 1508 leaves to his intended bride “a gown cloth that should have been my wedding gown.” Lord Wharton and Lord Cheyne, in 1699, fight a duel over which of them should sit at the right-hand side of the chairman of the Buckinghamshire quarter sessions. In 1657 James Farr is prosecuted by his London neighbors “for making and selling of a drink called ‘coffee,’ whereby in making the same he annoyeth his neighbours by evil smells.” Mary Graves, of the town of Bishop’s Stortford, has lived and died “a crooked godly maid,” but the local minister reflected that in the next life, she would “be a glorious saint and have a perfect body.”

Thomas’s specimens are like us and very unlike us, as various, plural, and self-contradictory as we are. When we meet them in these pages we are brought into a living relationship with them, and we learn that whatever we apprehend from the future, it is a universal article of faith that the past was golden. Men were more manly, women were faithful, ministers were godly, society was harmonious, whereas in the present day (whenever that may be) the wrong people have all the luck and nobody has good manners. “Ah, neighbourhood, neighbourhood, dead and buried art thou with Robin Hood.” The complainant is Thomas Nashe, the year 1592.

This Issue

October 22, 2009