HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

Lecture 5

 - "Countries" and Nation: Social and Economic Networks and the Urban System


Professor Wrightson discusses local particularism and regionalism in early modern England and highlights the importance of local customs and economic patterns. He then focuses on the manner in which these local areas, while enjoying a measure of cultural, institutional, and economic autonomy, were simultaneously integrated into a larger national whole. The role of trade (both between English regions and with the Continent via the Netherlands), the importance of market towns within the localities as nexuses of social and economic interaction, the place of ‘provincial capitals,’ and the pivotal position of the metropolis of London are all considered. Throughout the lecture Professor Wrightson also provides details of early modern regional topography and information concerning the role of urban areas in early modern social and economic life.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

HIST 251 - Lecture 5 - "Countries" and Nation: Social and Economic Networks and the Urban System

Chapter 1. Countries [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: Right. Well, today is the fourth and final of the contextual lectures introducing sixteenth-century England. We’ve looked at the social order, we’ve looked at households, institutions and relationships in local communities, and now I want to look at the networks of connection that tie the whole thing together, joining up the dots as it were, so it’s a bit of historical geography or if you like a kind of guided tour of sixteenth-century England, a bit of historical tourism.

Well, last time I stressed that local communities had a certain distinctive local peculiarity or local particularity, which was partly constructed out of their local customs and institutions. But it was also something that was influenced by the different ways that they were linked together into the larger world. The myriad of tiny local communities in this period was on the one hand a kind of complex of places which were distinctive entities in their own right, but on the other hand they were also integral parts socially and politically of larger spaces, and it’s those larger spaces and the ties that bound them together that I’m most concerned with today.

Okay. Well, amongst the most significant of those larger spaces are what contemporaries referred to as “countries”. They used that word not in the modern sense of a territorial state but to mean a distinctive area, a landscape, a society, in some respects a local culture. These countries as they thought of them could be quite localized, for example on the Scottish border Teviotdale, or down in Gloucestershire the Vale of Berkeley. These were regarded as distinctive countries. Or they could use the term more broadly. People talked about the North Country, they talked about the West Country; areas with less distinct boundaries. When someone said in a letter, or in a political speech, or whatever, that he was referring to the opinion of his country he was referring to such a local area.

Such countries are usually discussed by historians in terms of contrasting landscapes, physical geography, and to a certain extent economic activity. If you look at map one, the small relief map, you’ll find that agrarian England was customarily divided up into, on the one hand, the highland zone of the north and the west — you have all the high land represented there, the highland zone — and on the other hand, the lowland zone of the south and east. That’s one way of perceiving these — the broad distinctions that were noticed at the time and subsequently. On the other hand, people sometimes make distinctions between what they called the ‘fielden’ areas, areas that practiced mixed agriculture, mostly lowland, and various pastoral zones practicing mainly animal husbandry, and they could be of various types. There were the open hill pastures of the highland. There were the woodland pastures. Much of the west of England was still pretty densely wooded, some parts of East Anglia as well, and they practiced a distinctive pastoral husbandry focusing on dairying. And then finally there were the pastoral practices of the fenlands, the areas of eastern England which were waterlogged in winter and where for the most part the inhabitants practiced pastoral husbandry. It’s a very distinctive area in this period, flooded during the winter, the inhabitants regarded as having an extremely distinctive culture of their own. In fact, shreds of that continue. It’s often said that people from the fens have webbed feet. [Laughter] This is not true. I had a roommate from the fens when I was a student and he definitely didn’t have webbed feet — though he was a good swimmer.

Well, this kind of distinction in the physical geography can be extended to Scotland and Wales but there’s less variety. Scotland — two thirds of Scotland is highland. Only the lowland zone between the Forth and the Clyde is really very good for agriculture, for arable agriculture, and areas around the coast. Wales again dominated by the central Cambrian massif, very difficult in this period to travel north to south in Wales unless you go around the coast. Most of the major routes traveled east to west because of the mountains. So it’s less varied.

Okay. If we turn to another kind of distinctiveness, there’s that associated with the practice of various industrial activities in the countryside. That was a matter not so much of the physical geography - though that could influence their location — but dependent upon other factors. We think of this as the pre-industrial age, and yet there were already some areas which were rendered distinctive by, for example, the practice of mining and quarrying that clearly depended upon geographical factors. You get lead being mined in the hills of Derbyshire or in the hills of Somersetshire — down here — iron in the Forest of Dean and down in Sussex, down here, and coal was produced especially around the River Tyne in the northeast and in a scattering of other places across the countryside and in South Wales. These industries were already established, and then there was metal working. There was a great deal of metal working around the town of Birmingham in the west Midlands which later grew into a great city, one of England’s greatest centers in the industrial revolution for light engineering. That was based on its earlier metal working trade. When Henry VIII invaded Scotland in 1523, he placed bulk orders for arrowheads from the smiths of Birmingham. They supplied him. Sheffield was also very well known for its metal working; the knives of Sheffield were very famous as indeed to some extent they still are. Most people carried what they called a Sheffield whittle — a whittle — a little knife that you carried around with you to cut your food and it’s from that name of course that we get the practice of whittling — whittling wood — from a Sheffield whittle.

Okay. Above all, there was on a much larger scale the manufacture of woolen cloth, usually manufactured in the putting-out system which I described to you; raw materials put out by capitalist clothiers to workers who spun the wool into yarn, wove the yarn into cloth in their own cottages scattered across the villages around a major urban center. And that kind of organization in the putting-out system of the cloth industry was very widespread indeed. Many of the villages of East Anglia were heavily involved. Parts of Kent, lots of places in the West Country, and a number of places scattered across the north were heavily involved in manufacturing England’s most famous product at this time, high-quality woolen cloth.

All right. All that’s fine as a brief descriptive typology of different kinds of areas and their distinctiveness. Physical geography goes only so far in explaining all this variation. It’s also to do with the — not only the physical attributes of the area but also invisible factors; the patterns of connection, the patterns of interaction, the flows of goods and people which gave areas distinctive qualities. So, for example, to indicate what I’m trying to express here, the fact that the coal industry was centered on Tyneside (up here in the northeast of the country) was not simply because coal was found there and was found near to the surface where it could be reached with relatively simple technology. It was also to do with the fact that it lay very close to the River Tyne, a major navigable river, so the coal, which was bulky and difficult to transport, could easily be put onto small boats called ‘keels’, brought down the river on to — and loaded onto collier ships — which then transported it easily down the coast to the cities along the coast and above all to the city of London. London could never have grown as it did in this period if it hadn’t had regular fuel supplies brought at a reasonable price by coastal routes from the northeast. That’s why the northeast became the center of the coal industry whereas other areas which had coal deposits were not yet exploited; they were too inaccessible. Well, that’s one example. One could think of others, but it’s examining flows of that kind that’s crucial to understanding how particular localities developed their special qualities and also the way in which they got articulated into larger national systems.

So to understand all of that one needs to look at these connections and the flows which linked local societies together into the national whole. One could look — one can look — at those connections in many ways. There are the connections which have to do with the state and we’ll look at them next week when I look at the early Tudor monarchy and the reassertion of royal authority. There were connections to do with the church and we look at them a lot in dealing with the Reformation, but today I want to focus principally on connections through markets and through flows of people, demographic flows across the countryside, and in particular looking at them through the pattern of the urban system, the towns which helped to organize and to some extent channel these flows.

Well, for analytical purposes you can distinguish various levels of connection. There were local market areas based on a small market town linking together the activities of the villagers within particular countries. Secondly, there were regional and interregional patterns of trade, and finally there were trading systems of national or even international significance. Some — I’ll touch on each of them in turn.

Chapter 2. Local Markets [00:11:14]

Local market areas were based upon small market towns. Within a particular country the rural and the urban were not separate spheres. It’s helpful to think of them as being bound together by connections to a particular market town. All towns needed the country’s products of food and raw materials. The country depended upon the towns to provide a place to trade and also for specialist manufactures, specialist services of various kinds. So the essential unit to think of is the market town and its hinterland, and one can distinguish various kinds of market town. Some of them were really very tiny. The smallest ones were not very impressive as urban entities. They were just large villages. They’ve been described as villages with an overlay of urban activities, market villages. One person rather poetically has described these market towns as being “foci in time”. They just came alive on market day. The rest of the time they’re pretty much just like any other village. Well, those are the settlements that provided weekly markets and a range of specialist services. Most rural villages would have a smith, a carpenter, a wheelwright, but there were other crafts which needed a bigger market and so they tended to be located in the market towns, people like coopers who made barrels or joiners who made furniture and so forth.

To give you a specific example, there’s an area of the county of Suffolk called Babergh Hundred. There’s the name. That’s how it’s spelt. It’s a delightful area of the country. A recent survey by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments found that in that area no less than 24% of the houses date back before 1700. It’s got a remarkable level of survival of late medieval and early modern buildings, which makes it delightful. You’ve probably seen it many times in BBC shows. If you want an ideal English village, that’s the kind of place you’d go to film it. Well, Babergh Hundred: in 1522, there was a survey done of able-bodied men which led them to listing the inhabitants and their trades and occupations. There were thirty-two settlements in the area. Twenty-seven of them had only between two and fourteen different occupations. Four of them had between eighteen and twenty-seven occupations. They were the market towns. And finally there was one place which had as many as forty-nine occupations. That was a big market town, the town of Sudbury, the name which will be familiar to you no doubt. There are many Sudburys in the United States.1

Well, all market towns, then, were essentially closely connected and part of the countryside they served, they gained their living from it, but they also served to bind those settlements into what you can think of as a kind of social area around which people move on a regular basis. Just to take an example of this, there was a small village called Kibworth Harcourt. It’s in Leicestershire, around about there. A study of Kibworth Harcourt’s been done which shows that Kibworth Harcourt lay within a day’s walk of a variety of small market towns. So here we are in Kibworth Harcourt; people who had different things to sell on any given day of the week virtually could go out to a market town nearby and in turn people were coming in from other villages to those market towns on different market days. What you get is the interconnection of the whole area of course. All the villagers from these different communities are gradually intermingling in the marketplaces of these market towns. That’s how a local society meshed together. Contemporaries were very aware of this. In the course of the Reformation when the attempt to Protestantize the country was at its height, a good deal of attention was paid for example to preaching in market towns. Preachers were appointed to preach in market towns. That was how you reached the people. That’s how you penetrated an area.

Well, in addition, some market towns had a stronger role, the bigger ones like Sudbury which could articulate patterns of interaction over a significantly larger area. One historical geographer has described these as what he calls “cardinal markets,” really important ones linking countries into sub regions. A very good example is the town of Richmond in North Yorkshire which has been quite well studied. Richmond was placed between the hills of the Yorkshire Dales, beautiful high country, sheep country, wonderful place to go walking or hiking, and the Vale of York, the lowland Vale of York. It channeled the relationship between those two areas, the sheep and the dairy produce of the dales including the famous Wensleydale cheese which you may have encountered. It’s available in some places in America; recommend it. A big wedge of Wensleydale on top of a slice of apple pie eaten together is definitely one of life’s more fulfilling experiences. [Laughter] I would recommend it. It’s a sort of — it’s a sort of — crumbly white cheese, tangy. The best Wensleydale is still made from sheep’s milk, originally made by monks from the monasteries in that region but still produced. Anyway, [laughter] cheese, sheep, wool coming down to Richmond where they meet the grain and cloth and other products coming up from the Vale of York and that’s the main center for exchange. In 1536, when the north rose against the Reformation in the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, Richmond was one of its major centers. Proclamations of the rebellion took place at the market cross in Richmond. Again it makes perfect sense. This is how you reached people.

Actually, speaking of Richmond, only if you’ll forgive a small divergence, when people visit Britain they very often go to London, Oxford, Cambridge, maybe Canterbury Cathedral, and then skip up to Edinburgh or whatever. It’s well worth taking the time to go to some of the provincial regions where you can see some lovely places. The north is a very good example and Richmond is a splendid place to visit. It’s an almost perfect market town for the twelfth-century castle perched on a bluff above the River Swale, delightful streets, mostly seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, built in sort of yellowish sandstone, monastery ruins. It’s got everything and people — tourists — don’t visit places like this very often. It’s well worth doing. If you happen to go to Richmond I would recommend near the marketplace there’s an inn called the Black Lion which does excellent lunches [laughter] and, as you’d expect in that part of the country, the roast lamb is terrific but then they have modernized. They do now have vegetarian options and they have wonderful beer. [Laughter]

The Black Sheep Brewery is a small brewery in that area which is very well known and they produce Black Sheep Bitter and also a most unusual bottled beer which is called Riggwelter, which needs explaining. It’s a dialect word. A riggwelter in the dialect of this particular area of the north of England is a sheep which has fallen on its back and can’t get up again. [lLaughter] This happens with sheep. They trip, they roll on their backs and then they lie there waggling their feet, [laughter] and the shepherd has to come and turn them up again. Well, that is — in the dialect of the area a sheep like that is riggweltered; it’s a riggwelter, and they call this bottled beer Riggwelter [laughter] because if you consume it in unwise quantities [laughter] it has exactly the same effect. [Laughter] Anyway, I tell you this not to encourage you but to, you know — if you did happen to go to that part of England to warn you against the possible consequences. [Laughter]

Okay. Well, to get back to the point, so we have significant market towns and they connect villages into localities, localities into countries, countries into sub regions. And that role is revealed in their recorded patterns of population mobility. As you know, village populations were not rooted and immobile. People moved about finding work as servants, marrying, taking up a tenancy of land that was available and so forth, and to some extent you can trace the distances people moved from their place of birth in the course of their lives. One study has been done of Worcestershire, over here on the Welsh border, and that suggests that people were generally living within ten miles of the place they were born, so kind of moving around their country, and there are other similar studies. A very good one was done of Kent of the geography of marriage, and it found that half of the people in the study married people from their home parish, 70% married people from under five miles, 84% married people from under ten miles, and 95% married people from under fifteen miles from where they were born, and again it gives a sense of the area in which people were moving around and where they of course met marriage partners.

Okay. Well, distances like that reflect the area of regular social interaction and movement shaped by local markets and the towns where they were located, which created social areas with their own distinctive identities and their own particular orientations. I’ve noticed since living in Connecticut that there’s an invisible wall across Connecticut which seems to divide Red Sox fans from Yankees fans, which presumably has something to do with the kind of orientation of people to different parts of the state, towards New York or towards Boston so — and it’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, the way in which people’s connections, where they go shopping, where they go for business and so forth orient them in particular directions, and that’s what created these countries in sixteenth-century England too.

Chapter 3. Regional and Interregional Patterns of Trade [00:22:36]

Okay. Let’s move on. In addition, there were some longer distance flows. The key commodities that one finds in these interregional systems of connection and of interdependence were of several kinds. There were foodstuffs. Not every area produced enough food to feed its local population. You tend to get a flow of grain from the south and east towards the north and west. A lot of it went up the coast for example from East Anglia, and in reverse you get flows of animal products from the pastoral areas of the north down to the south heading usually towards the cities. Many cattle and sheep were driven in great herds having been assembled in the market towns of the north and the west and Wales, driven down to London in particular where they’d be fattened up in the villages around London by graziers before being sold to the butchers of the city. So you get flows of that kind. You get flows of raw materials. The wool which was produced in East Anglia or Lincolnshire or the north would find its way down to the woolen industry in the west and the southeast.

And one gets other things too. The luxury products which were traded over long distances, things like wine and spices, fine-quality fabrics. They would tend to come in through London or one of the major ports like Bristol and then be disseminated across the countryside. Longer distance flows of foodstuffs, raw materials, luxury goods, and indeed some less significant manufactured goods. The knives of Sheffield were found everywhere in the country. If you visit London and are standing by the river at low tide, you might notice people on the mud banks by the side of the river putting mud into sieves and sieving it. They’re known as mudlarks. They’re amateur archeologists. What they’re doing is finding stuff in the mud which fell out of people’s pockets in London long ago. As you probably are aware, the taxi system of sixteenth-century London was — were little boats on the river. Watermen rowed people hither and thither and Shakespeare in Love is a good example of that kind of thing if you’ve seen that movie. Things fell out of people’s pockets when they were on the river and they can be found in the mud. Anyway, one of the most common things the mudlarks find are Sheffield knives. People carried a knife all the time and they would fall in the river and they can be found and they end up in museums.

Chapter 4. Trading Systems of National or International Significance [00:25:36]

Well, longer distance flows then. Any town could have a role in distributing goods over the longer distance, but some had a particularly important role and they were of greater than sub-regional significance. And the greatest of them are sometimes described as being provincial capitals, places which in the early sixteenth century would have a population over 5,000 or 6,000, which seems paltry to modern eyes but was quite significant at the time, and which exerted influence over a whole area of the country. To give a good example, York, effectively the capital of the north of England. York was a city of ancient origin and considerable importance. It was the great ecclesiastical center of the north. The Archbishop of York was based there in York Minster, the wonderful cathedral. It was the center of royal government for the north. The king’s Council of the North sat at York in the King’s Manor, and York was also a natural point of exchange for the largest county in the kingdom.

If you look at your map of towns and counties, you’ll see that Yorkshire — up here — by far the biggest county. Well, York dominated the trading networks of the entire area. It provided also all kinds of specialist services for the whole of the north of England. If your church needed new bells, York was the only place you could get a bell cast. If you wanted to buy a clock, you would probably need to go to York. Not many clocks were manufactured, it was a very specialist occupation, a tiny number of the greatest cities. If you wanted a book beautifully bound, you would go to York. York had people like bookbinders serving the cathedral and so forth. Its position on the River Ouse meant that it was also a town which controlled a major artery of long-distance trade. The River Ouse runs up from the city of Hull on the coast up into North Yorkshire and along the river would pass many goods being landed at Hull and coming up into the area, or coming down the river and then being shipped to national and international markets.

Any of the really great cities of the time had that same kind of role. Norwich was in effect the capital of East Anglia and was the second largest city at the time. Bristol, in effect the capital of the West Country. Chester, very significant also to the north of Wales and controlling trade with Ireland, and so one could go on. Newcastle up in the northeast also very significant, strategically important, close to the Scottish border. Just as patterns of population mobility within particular localities indicate the local social areas within which people moved, so the patterns of migration to the really great cities tell us about their regional and interregional significance. For Norwich, for example, there are surviving lists of apprentices and where they came from, the young men who came in to learn a trade. They came from all over East Anglia, the whole region, and indeed from further afield. Norwich was important enough to pull people in from the Midlands, and the same sort of thing is true of other areas that can be studied in that way. In Bristol a similar study shows that the apprentices came from all over the west Midlands and they came from — let me just check the figure — thirty-seven different towns and villages of which twenty-five were actually located on the River Severn which runs up like that. It’s pretty obvious what was going on here. These places were particularly connected to Bristol through the river trade and people were coming down river to start their careers in Bristol as apprentices. Bristol also drew apprentices from Wales and from the southwest of England.

Okay. Okay. Cities such as Bristol or York or Norwich were already places of national significance. They focused entire regions and bound them together into the national unit and they channeled inter-regional trade, but the final element of the kind of articulation that I’m talking about, of course, is at the ultimate national level and that’s provided above all by the capital city, London. As you know from your reading, the English urban system in this period was rather polarized. There was only one city with more than 15,000 population in the early sixteenth century and that was London. Nowhere else could come near rivaling London. In the 1520s, London already had a population of 55,000, which made it something like four times the size of Norwich, and it was growing. Indeed, it was to grow to a population of something like 200,000 by the last decades of the sixteenth century. London was the biggest marketing center for food and raw materials. London — supplying London meant farmers all over eastern and southern England were sending their goods towards the capital city. There was a lot of road traffic. There was also river traffic down the River Thames, coastal traffic bringing goods to where they could be landed to supply London.

London was also the biggest supplier of goods that were desired elsewhere in the kingdom. It was the biggest center of manufacturing of all kinds of things which would be sent out to cities and towns elsewhere in the kingdom. It was the biggest supplier also of all kinds of specialist services which weren’t readily available elsewhere. London had a lot of lawyers for example. If you wanted legal business done, London was the place to go. London was where the royal courts met, hearing the most important court cases. London was the place which had a lot of proper university-trained physicians if you had medical problems. It was very rare to find a physician like that out in a small town. So it was the place to go for all kinds of things. An almost ridiculous example: if you were a great nobleman or a gentleman and you wanted to have a grand renaissance tomb erected in your parish church in preparation for your death. And lots of them did this. They even wrote the inscriptions themselves while they were still alive saying what wonderful guys they’d been, [laughter] and if you wanted something like that and you could afford it, London was the place that you got it. That’s where the stone masons were who would do something like that. They were manufactured in London, to order, and then shipped out in pieces to wherever they were to be erected and then they would be erected by local masons in a parish church somewhere else in the kingdom, just — it’s true but it’s a silly example in a way, but it makes the point.

Right. Above all, London was the great center of international trade. The dominance of London was based upon the fact that it was so close to the crossing across to the Netherlands. You can have a short voyage across the North Sea to the cities of the Netherlands and above all the city of Antwerp, which should be marked on the bottom corner of your map but seems to have gotten lost in the Xerox machine in some cases. London was the major market for English cloth which was exported abroad and it was the principal place where imports were landed. In fact, woolen cloth alone made up two thirds of English exports in the early sixteenth century. Two thirds of English exports were woolen cloth, and at least half of that cloth went to the Continent through London. It was gathered in London from all over the north and the west of England and from Wales and exported in fleets of ships organized by a company called the Merchant Adventurers.

In return, all kinds of goods were brought back especially from the Netherlands: luxury textiles, fine-quality linen, silk, miscellaneous manufactures which were not made in England, pins for example. They didn’t manufacture pins in England. They came from Holland. Starch — they didn’t manufacture starch; that came from the Netherlands too. Paper — there were no paper manufacturers in England. The book trade, based in London of course, depended upon imports of paper from the Netherlands and then there were all sorts of groceries, olive oil, fruit, spices, sugar, wine. A great deal of this came via the Netherlands. The Netherlands was the great trading area of northern Europe with its cities, notably Antwerp, and they connected the trade of Scandinavia, the Baltic in the north, to trade down the Atlantic coast and to the Mediterranean. And also the river routes of Europe which culminated in the Netherlands, like the Rhine, all brought in goods. The Netherlands was the center and England was connected to world trade via the Netherlands.

I keep mentioning Antwerp. Antwerp was the center of all of this and its importance was very well recognized. It was with Antwerp that the English traded above all. It’s no accident that when Sir Thomas More in 1517 wrote his book, Utopia, he sets it in Antwerp where he presents himself on an embassy to Antwerp, which actually took place, talking to the sailor Raphael Hythloday who tells him the story of the wonderful land of Utopia which he’s located in his voyages to the west. Other things came from the Netherlands too; ideas. It was one of the major centers for the smuggling of early Protestant books into England from the 1520s onwards, for example.

So London’s dominant position was reflected in the fact that it had a truly national migration field. A study’s been done of 1,000 new freemen of the city in 1551 to 1553, young men completing their apprenticeship and becoming freemen of the city. Only a fifth of them had been born in London or the metropolitan area itself. A quarter of them came from the southeast and East Anglia, a quarter of them came from the Midlands, a quarter of them came from the north, and then there were a scattering of others from different parts of the kingdom, relatively few from the southwest. Probably the importance of Bristol meant that young men from the southwest went there rather than to London, but London’s catchment area was truly national.

Well, this description and analysis of marketing structures and the way they’re articulated perhaps gives a sense of the integrated nature of a system of exchange already in the early sixteenth century, and so it was. It’s not difficult to imagine a merchant sitting in his counting house in Bristol perhaps eating some salt fish which would have been caught off the coast of North Wales. It would have been packed into barrels which were made with barrel stays which probably were imported from Ireland via Chester. It would be salted with salt which was produced in the county of Cheshire nearby. If he’s accompanying it with a little wine, that would have come from southwestern France and was probably landed in Bristol. If he was drinking that out of a pewter goblet, the pewter would have been made with lead from the Mendip Hills and tin from Cornwall probably actually produced by craftsmen working in Bristol itself. And maybe he’s wearing a nice gown to keep the drafts off which would be fine-quality worsted cloth from Norwich. And if he’s got a fine linen shirt because he’s very well off, it would be Netherlandish linen. That was the best; the cheap stuff came from England and Lincolnshire. And if he’d starched his collar, the starch would have come from Antwerp probably. Let’s have him cut his fish up. He uses a Sheffield knife. [Laughter] Okay.

Chapter 5. Limitations [00:39:30]

Well, it’s easy to imagine that. That — it mattered that those connections existed and they did exist, but we also finally just have to appreciate the limits of that kind of sophisticated commercial interconnection. Remember what I’ve said before: this was still primarily a rural world in which people lived within relatively contained areas and focused mostly on a little bit of local exchange and producing their own subsistence. So most people most of the time had only limited connections to these larger flows, to these larger commercial networks. The people who were really involved with them were distinctive groups in society: townspeople of course, especially the inhabitants of the greater cities; to a lesser extent also the inhabitants of those areas like the industrial areas which were producing goods for longer distance trade; the big commercial farmers who were involved in longer distance marketing of grain or cattle, and a variety of middlemen who conducted that trade. And finally deeply involved in all of this were the social elites. They were the people who consumed the luxuries. They were the people who went down to London to attend the royal court from time to time. They were the people who had truly national social networks with their equals as members of the elite. But the point is that the intensity of the integration varied a lot.

It varied socially; it varied geographically. Some areas were probably pretty densely connected and commercialized, the southeast in particular. It has more towns, it’s more heavily populated, it has a better road system, and so forth. Other areas were less closely interconnected. Some of the longer distance connections I’ve described were flowing across areas where people’s lives were in fact much more contained on a day-to-day basis. When historians try to conceptualize the whole thing they have to try to express both the reality of the interconnections and their importance but also their limits, the continuing importance of localism within your country. People talk about an elaborate mosaic of interlocking local societies. They talk about what was still a highly territorialized society, although a national society also. They talk about an amalgam of different local societies at different stages of development all influencing each other, and yet often a world in which old ways coexisted with the new. Well, both dimensions of the picture have validity. Commercial relations have a vital place, and yet many local societies and economies were still to a great degree autonomous or semiautonomous.

All in all, it could be described as not yet a fully integrated commercial society but a traditional agrarian world with a limited commercial sector. Within that commercial sector the predominant flows tended to be from the north and the west towards the south and the east, but to imagine it as being simply a dynamic advanced southeastern core and a rather backward northern and western periphery doesn’t do justice to the more distant provinces. It’s better, I think, to think in terms of certain core activities which are to be found all over the kingdom though they tend to be somewhat more concentrated in the south and east. But those outposts and those connections really mattered. They exercised a degree of leverage in local economies, on local cultures, and on local politics.

So we have a set of local societies, local economies, even local cultures with important elements of linkage. It’s those links, those connections, that get activated and get elaborated by some of the really significant developments of this period, the commercial developments, of course, most obviously perhaps, but it’s also through those same links and connections that people in distant areas of the kingdom became involved in some of the other major changes of the period, the so-called educational revolution, the growth of literacy, religious change, political change. What I’ve been talking about really is essentially a framework of communication which is central to economic life, to cultural life, to the political dynamism of the period. And finally the national society as a whole was one which was created not only by those ties, vital as they were, but also by other forces, by political forces and by religious forces, and it’s those that I’m going to turn to next week when we come at last to look at the activities of the early Tudor kings and to what was going on in the church on the eve of the Reformation. So context done, hopefully it will help you to understand the dynamics of change which we turn to next.

[end of transcript]


1. J. Patten, “Village and Town: An Occupational Survey,” Agricultural History Review, 20 (1972).

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]