The Ends of Life: Roads to Human Fulfilment in Early Modern England, by Keith Thomas
The English past is not what it was, for professional historians anyway. The rest of us still talk about the Tudors and the Stuarts, about Renaissance and Reformation and the Augustan Age. But within the academy all these dynasties and eras are now bundled up into what is called the Early Modern period. The inhabitants of this huge stretch of time can only be made sense of, it seems, if we think of them as a rough, awkward prelude to Us.
It is startling how rapidly Early Mod has flattened the competition, and flattened our island story into a tale with only two parts, Before and After Modernisation. For it is a quite recent coining. Sir Keith Thomas tells us that when he gave a lecture to the British Academy in 1976 on ‘Age and Authority in Early Modern England’, Sir Isaiah Berlin, who was introducing him, remarked that he had never heard the expression. Even today there is nothing in most dictionaries between ‘Early Closing’ and ‘Early Victorian’. Yet every PhD candidate must learn to speak Early Modern, and the university presses pour out titles like ‘Early Modern Hermaphrodites’ and ‘The Context of Bear-baiting in Early Modern England’.
The odd thing is that, as Thomas points out, nobody seems quite sure when ‘Early Modern’ begins or ends. Suggested starting dates range between 1300 and 1560, and the end date may be fixed anywhere between 1660 and 1800 — or even later. On the web, I spotted a conference advertised in Oklahoma on ‘Early Modern Culture 1492-1848’. At the other end, Professor Colin Morris places ‘the discovery of the individual’ somewhere near the beginning of the 12th century. So that makes about 700 years in which our ancestors were trying to get up to speed.
The inhabitants of this elastic epoch apparently share only one characteristic: that they are not quite like us. Before launching himself into their quirks and quiddities, Sir Keith devotes several pages to explaining that, unlike Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Mao-Tse-Tung, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martha Nussbaum, the Early Moderns did not believe that freedom of choice and self-fufilment were the things that really mattered in life.
They believed, on the contrary, that people should know their place and embrace their fate. Social mobility was to be discouraged. The Stratford glover’s son was derided as ‘an upstart crow’ — and still is by those who believe that only a university man could have written Shakespeare. Like many a crabbed schoolmaster since, Jacobean preachers warned against trying to be original: ‘Desire not to be singular, nor to differ from others, for it is the sign of a naughty spirit which hath caused much evil in the world from the beginning.’ Before the 17th century, ‘ambition’ was an exclusively pejorative noun. Even so restless a spirit as John Milton denounced those who ‘gad for preferment’.
But here we run into the trouble with this enchanting but also maddening book. As you would expect from the author of Religion and the Decline of Magic, there is never a dull page, nor a paragraph without a piquant fact or quotation. Yet each chapter dances a minuet of contradictions in which the dancers, flushed and nicely exercised, end up in their starting places. Every time Thomas takes us through the conventional differences between the Early Moderns and us, the facts tug him back to admit, with the scrupulosity of a great historian, that, no, the contrast isn’t really quite so sharp and that in some ways, some of them behaved and thought much as we do.
The truth is that in the 16th and 17th centuries, which Thomas focuses on, there were plenty of ladders propped up against the walls of the Establishment and likely lads were shinning up them, however much conventional moralists might deplore it. Dreaded signs of meritocracy were everywhere, and new men were strutting their stuff. Most Elizabethan bishops came from modest origins. And they were not ashamed of it either. Had not Archbishop Cranmer famously declined to restrict places at King’s School Canterbury to the sons of gentlemen, on the grounds that ‘poor men’s children were many times endowed with more singular gifts of nature and also more commonly given to apply their study than is the gentleman’s son delicately educated’?
Young people were deliberately made mobile by their parents sending them out into service at the age of 15. Unattached young men were the largest age group of emigrants to America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Children as young as 11 and 12 signed up for indentured servitude in the New World. There was gadding galore.
Nor were ideas of personal fulfilment so remote from the Early Modern mind. The Quakers, after all, held that ‘the light which every man hath within him to be his sufficient rule’. The Puritan obsession with self-examination spawned a stream of letters and memoirs which make the Bloomsbury Group look positively reticent about themselves. With one of those graceful surrenders which litter this book, Thomas concedes that ‘the modern idea of self-development may not have been an early modern development at all, for there is plenty of evidence of the existence of a sharp awareness of individuality since the days of classical antiquity’.
So it goes on. According to the conventional picture, the Early Mods were bellicose and brutal, ready to duel at the hint of an insult, glorying in slaughter. Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge crushed wine glasses and chewed the shards to show the Spanish sea-captains what he was made of. The aristocracy loved only foreign wars and other bloodsports. In 1513, virtually all the fit members of the nobility turned out for Henry VIII’s campaign in France, in the same way as their ancestors had done for Henry V at Agincort.
But then so did their descendants for George V in 1914 and George VI in 1939. The officers of Charles II’s new guards regiments were drawn exclusively from noble or gentry families, Thomas tells us, for ‘the notion that the gentry were a military reserve ready to be called upon for the country’s defence died hard.’ If it died at all. Even today, in the messes of those same regiments there are one or two well-born subalterns who would chew glass for a bet.
Throughout the Early Modern period, wherever you choose to slice it, there were peaceable or at least rueful voices to be heard too, fainter perhaps in the ears of their contemporaries than in ours but passionate none the less. Wyclif and the Lollards rejected military values, as the Quakers came to do later. Roger Ascham, the Elizabethan educationist, attacked books of chivalry for glorifying ‘open manslaughter and bold bawdry’, not unlike a modern campaigner denouncing violence and pornography in the media. Dryden denounced the classical poets too, for making heroes of ‘athletic brutes’ and ‘ungodly man-killers’. There were fathers like William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who warned his son against training for the wars, ‘for he that sets up to live by that profession can hardly be an honest man or a good Christian.’
Nor were the most famous soldiers blind to the horrors. Sir Philip Sidney himself observed that behind the golden swords and shining armour lay the blood and mangled bodies. Marlborough described Malplaquet as ‘a very murdering battle’, the casualties of which ‘grieved my heart’ — language which might have been used by Wellington or Churchill. In the long run, the manners of civil society certainly softened. Beau Nash forbade the carrying of weapons in polite society. In his heyday, it was said that ‘a sword seen in the streets of Bath would cause as great an alarm as a mad dog.’
Early Moderns are supposed to have ranked military glory far above civilian drudgery and to have despised money-grubbing. Certainl y some reformers shared the desire of a preacher in the reign of Edward VI who aspired ‘to take away the inordinate desire of riches, wherewith many be encumbered’. What our weekend supplements describe as must-haves, the Puritan Richard Baxter decried as ‘need-nots’. Even Adam Smith, always a more nuanced thinker than posterity has portrayed him, inveighed against the conspicuous consumption of ‘trinkets and baubles fitter to be the play-things of children than the serious pursuits of men’. It was the author of The Wealth of Nations too who declared that ‘the beggar who suns himself by the side of the highway possesses that security which kings are fighting for’ — hedgerows before hedge funds. The grosser type of foodie also came in for a good deal of derision. In 1644, the Puritan congregation of Uggleshall, Suffolk, had their rector ejected for, inter alia, ‘eating custard after a scandalous manner’ — he poured sherry into it.
Yet the earlier Early Moderns did not have to wait for Adam Smith to discover free enterprise. John Tillotson, the future archbishop of Canterbury, told his audience in 1660 always to offer the market price, for ‘the market is usually more reasonable than the particular appetites of men.’ As for the ‘consumer revolution’ beloved of economic and cultural historians, Thomas finds it hard to decide whether it began in the mid-16th, the late 17th or the 18th, or even the late 14th or 15th century — or, one might add, whenever people had two coins in their pockets and there was stuff to buy. As early as 1549, the display in London shop windows was said to be so alluring as to ‘make any temperate man to gaze on them and to buy somewhat, though it serve to no purpose necessary.’
Nor do we have to wait for our own credit crunch to discover ingenious economic nostrums. Sir William Petty, the John Maynard Keynes of the Restoration, suggested as a remedy for unemployment, ‘build a useless pyramid upon Salisbury Plain, bring the stones at Stonehenge to Tower Hill, or the like.’
There were Early Modern workaholics. Cardinal Wolsey could write letters for 12 hours at a sitting, never rising once ‘to piss nor yet to eat any meat.’ Samuel Pepys was not the only one to call his work ‘a delight’. Two and a half centuries earlier, the poet Thomas Hoccleve, formerly a clerk to the Privy Seal Office, remembered hearing the tradesmen outside his window
talken and singe and make game and play
And forth hyr labour passyth with gladnesse.
The middle classes, then as now, loved to catch the lower orders slacking; the gangs mending the road in 1696 ‘work when they list, come and go at their pleasure and spend most of their time standing still and prating.’ Like any Tory MP touring a sink estate, a visitor to the Lake District in the 1690s was shocked to discover that the cottagers of Bowness undertook no employment except for begging and that in the previous 40 years only one man had taken a job and he was ‘sore exclaimed against for breaking their custom’.
Sir Keith tells us that it was R. H.Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism which first kindled his interest in history but that he cannot now swallow Tawney’s claim that it was Puritanism which gave birth to capitalism by transforming wealth-seeking into a social duty. Thomas now finds in late medieval society clear signs of individualism and the sense of property which drive moneymaking. ‘The autonomous, decision-making, morally responsible individual is often taken to be a specifically modern invention,’ he tells us, but he finds among the Early Moderns ‘widespread evidence of active agency, mobility, self-help, and independence of spirit’.
Time and again, Thomas states the conventional wisdom and then qualifies it so radically as to overturn it. The prickly sense of honour is supposed to have declined towards the end of the Early Modern period. A recent conclave of the Royal Historical Society could find no use for honour as a historical category. But this may tell us more about historians than about honour, for Thomas rightly points out that honour, now re- badged as reputation or goodwill, plays as large a part in modern social and commercial life as ever it did. To be shamed by the tabloids is an almost medieval ordeal. Respect, man. Moderns may prefer to enjoy their celebrity today rather than wait to be dead to be immortalised in marble. But Thomas points out that a third of church monuments in the Early Modern period were erected in their subject’s lifetime at his expense and with the encomium composed by himself or his spin doctor. Love of renown, like the high value attached to friendship and to love within marriage, was neither invented by the Early Moderns, nor did it die with them.
So what becomes of the original thesis that They are so radically different from Us, and that the ends of life which they pursued must seem to us meaningless or repugnant? What becomes of the suggestion at the start of the book that the possibilities of Early Modern life were limited and impoverished? We may be richer, live longer and have access to a battery of need-nots which they never dreamed of, but we still experience the old tension between individual preference and social pressures. Those pressures have no doubt softened and slackened, and so have the legal and moral penalties which underpin them. But this, like the growth of parliamentary democracy, has surely been a gradual process extending into our own time, and not one marked by a sharp cleavage which cuts off the Early Modern period from ours.
Except in one department of life. And here we come, or come back to the oddest feature of this book, an oddity so weird that you wonder whether you have read it right. On page two, Thomas tells us that ‘I have deliberately chosen to omit any sustained discussion of religion.’ Yes, he admits that religion was central to the lives of many contemporaries, but he thinks it ‘too large a subject to be adequately treated here’.
I find this decision bizarre in the extreme. After all, Thomas reminds us only a few pages later that the Shorter Westminster Catechism issued by Parliament in 1647 declared that ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.’ The great Richard Hooker had been even more specific: while friends, children, riches, and honour were ‘naturally every man’s desire, because they are good’, these things were not ends in themselves. The true end of human life was the enjoyment of God, ‘which being once attained, there can rest nothing further to be desired’. It is this enjoyment of the divine which radiates from the sermons of Hooker and Donne and Lancelot Andrewes and suffuses the poetry of Herbert and Traherne and Vaughan. Each fresh religious movement in the period — the Lollards, the Puritans, the Quakers, the Baptists, the Methodists — brings with it not only strife and exclusion but also a giddy surge of joy, experienced most powerfully by the poor and people of the middling sort. How can one attempt a survey of the Ends of Man and not devote half the book to this extraordinary phenomenon, unparalleled in its recurring intensity since the Early Church?
Nor should we forget the outpouring of anguish from the frustrated lovers of the old religion when the images were smashed and the chantries closed down. The stripping of the altars has only a walk-on part here, yet it was a huge rupture in the life of the English and provoked in the Pilgrimage of Grace one of the great rebellions, surpassed only by that inferno of religion- powered conflict which we call the English Civil War.
It is the fading of religious intensity which really does mark off our age from the Early Moderns. And it is from this fading that the most prized features of modernity have become explicit: the freedom to r ealise your self, to do what you like with your body, to make Number One seriously number one. It is a measure of this fading too that one of our greatest historians should think it reasonable to shunt religion off into a siding reserved for obsolescent ideas and institutions, from which only occasional clankings and puffs of steam remind us of its existence. However else the Early Moderns might have imagined the future, surely few of them would have thought that a day would come when it was possible to write as if religion never really mattered.