History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Book cover:

Author's response


Londinopolis: Essays in the cultural and social history of early modern London

ed. Paul Griffiths and Mark Jenner
Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000
ISBN-13: 978-0-71-905152-4; 296 pages, price £19.99

Vanessa Harding

Birkbeck College, University of London

We would like to thank Vanessa Harding for her thoughtful review of Londinopolis and for her generous assessment of the quality of the essays which it contains. We are delighted that she liked the title, and her view that the collection has managed to pinpoint 'the way London studies are going'.

Clearly, it would be invidious and inappropriate for editors to comment on her assessment of the relative quality of individual pieces; our reply will accordingly concentrate on her more general caveats, beginning by discussing omissions which she highlights, before moving on to examine areas of disagreement.

Most reviewers tend to ask for more than is in the book they are commenting on and Vanessa Harding rightly points out thinness in the coverage of three particular areas - literary and theatrical cultures in early modern London, the early sixteenth century and, following on from this observed chronological gap, religion and the Reformation in particular. It would indeed have been nice to have given more space to all of these themes, and to other areas where we think that the collection could have had rather more to say: medical practice, marketing and shopping, age, institutions, parish politics, pollution, popular cultures, cartography, clothing and the court ... We could continue adding to this list of omissions.

No edited collection, however, can hope to be comprehensive, especially if it is publishing more substantial pieces of research. After some negotiation Manchester University Press agreed that the individual contributions could be longer than most academic articles and so authors were able to explore and analyse their topics in considerable detail and to provide the plentiful and vivid quotations which Vanessa Harding commends. (Even though one contributor tried to get away with a piece of 16,500 words, chapters average 10,000 words). This inevitably meant that only a limited number of themes could be explored if the book was not to become inordinately bulky and exorbitantly expensive. Nevertheless, we do hope that we have managed to squeeze a diverse range of articles into the volume and feel that there is probably something in it for most people who dip into the book. Economic and demographic historians may be most interested in Jeremy Boulton's new demographic data or Sara Pennell's innovative discussion of food and consumption in the capital. Religious and political historians may be more drawn to Michael Berlin's discussion of parish ritual or Ian Archer's account of political cultures in London before the Civil War.

To some extent the contents of Londinopolis reflect the current nature of London historiographies. If anything, this is a generational book, written mostly by people who produced their first work after the publication of Beier and Finlay's book of essays (1985). For this reason alone, we hope that it has a topical feel about it and that the contributions engage with recent trends in writing about early modern society and culture in terms of subject matter, methodology, or conceptual point of entry. The collection may not always be entirely coherent or comprehensive, but it is, we hope, informative and rewarding reading.

Harding suggests that the historiographical sections of our introduction betrayed a lack of generosity 'in acknowledging the achievements' of previous authors and the backbone of her review, unlike our introduction (or collection), is a direct comparison with the collection edited by Beier and Finlay seventeen years ago. We hope that our brief introductory comments do not seem ungenerous, for we like the volume in question very much, and do not feel that they were so. We do, after all, write of it as 'seminal collection', stress how it marked a turning point in historical writing about early modern London and describe the 'rich harvest' of research and publication on 'many fundamental aspects of metropolitan existence' (p.1) which followed on from the book. Yet surely the highest compliment to pay a book (or a body of historiography, for that matter) is not just to do more of the same, but thoughtfully and constructively to consider its contributions, to take the time to examine how it assembles its arguments, and critically to unpack its analytical vocabulary and intellectual assumptions.

This (in an admittedly highly compressed form) is one of the things which we tried to do in our introduction. We asked ourselves about the current state of play in the historiographies of early modern London (c.1995, when we first thought about this book), and it seemed to us that primacy had been given to economic factors and that the literature continue to draw upon the neo-functionalist language of crisis and stability that has considerable limitations for understanding processes of social change. We highlighted our worry that writing about the 'impact' of economic change or demographic expansion on society, unhelpfully reifies population increase and separates it from (say) the impact of war or the allocation of resources. We noted that the language of stability is limited to things that seem to work and tick over quite nicely, and ask whether posing questions in this way predetermines the answers which the researcher will come up with. Does it make sense to discuss a sprawling, rapidly changing city like early modern London within a dichotomized vocabulary of stability or crisis? Is there such a thing as a stable city, for that matter?

Neither of these approaches are necessarily historical heresies which deserve excommunication or worse, and no single collection (let alone a fairly short introduction) is going to dislodge them from the analytical vocabulary of early modern history. The points that we make seek rather to complement much of the last two decades' writing about early modern London, and we simply put the case for a more diverse approach to the city that includes (not excludes) cultural, social, political, and economic considerations, and which recognises that the city was made up of many worlds.

Our introduction did not try to push any particular theoretical position or methodological approach (the contributors and, for that matter, the editors, do not share one), but rather to identify, clarify and make explicit some of the common features of the essays in Londinopolis. It seemed worthwhile to examine the intellectual assumptions underlying Beier and Finlay's subtitle - The Making of the Metropolis - because sometimes historians constitute London as the object of historical analysis and as the subject of historical narrative in unreflective ways. We also aimed to show how we were presenting a rather different kind of book: one about Londoners rather than London.

Similarly, when we wrote that 'one methodological position runs through the collection. None invokes "the economic" as something which is analytically separable from society or culture' (pp.8-9), we were asking readers to think about the essays' shared characteristics, rather than choosing a particular methodology, or, indeed, suggesting that such a position was only formulated in the late 1990s.

Harding, however, is keen to reinstate 'economic factors' into writing metropolitan history, and feels that without such a language of factor analysis it is difficult to achieve a conclusive or satisfactory 'level of explanation' for historical change. This objection broaches some fundamental methodological questions about the nature of historical representation which it is impossible to discuss fully, let alone to resolve, in a relatively short response. It also assumes that there is a realm of human activity which can be clearly and uncomplicatedly designated as "the economic" and which then impacts upon other areas of life - the religious, the cultural, the political and so on. One could make similar observations about Harding's apparent desire in the manner of philosophical essentialism to isolate religion or indeed the 'specifically London'.

It is precisely this easy separation which the articles in the collection, like so many recent works of early modern history, resist and complicate. The contributions of Margaret Hunt, Faramerz Dabhoiwala and Laura Gowing, for example, all in very different ways show how the world of work and what Olwen Hufton famously termed the 'economy of' makeshifts' were deeply embedded in the workings of the courts, with affective ties and with the politics of gender. Tim Wales's discussion of thief-takers indicates (among other things) how the pound or the shilling in the early modern Londoner's pocket was shaped by the micropolitics of policing as well as by the output of the Mint.

Moreover, it seems to us that the essays do seek to explain as well as describe the developments which they are discussing (though they do not necessarily separate the two modes of exposition). Mark Jenner, for instance, offers a conceptual framework for discussing access to water; Margaret Pelling closely dissects the impact of disease (and other things) on residence preferences; Paul Griffiths places the move to push Goldsmiths to particular streets within a multi-layered explanatory framework that blends economic, cultural, political, and social circumstances. Material factors are everywhere in the collection but rarely stand alone.

Many historians (not just urban ones) are now acutely aware of the way in which our intellectual categories can unhelpfully reify the past and are seeking to develop a vocabulary with which to present and represent this more self-conscious and more integrated sense of former cultures. Their writing may be more embedded in the particular and may seem less conclusive than the grand social historical narratives of the 1970s and early 1980s, but we can only be grateful that Vanessa Harding found the articles in Londinopolis full of interest and hope that they stimulate further research, reflection and critique.

February 2002

Original review

Back to reviews index

Back to top