- Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700–1850, and: The Writing of Urban Histories in Eighteenth-Century England, and: Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c. 1780–1840
In the last twenty-five years, the eighteenth-century British middle class has attracted unprecedented scholarly attention. While it remained outside the scope of Namier’s aristocratic focus and played a faint second fiddle to the plebeian preoccupations of E. P. Thompson and his followers, the middling strata of British society have recently taken center-stage in the historiography of British society and culture in the long eighteenth century. As Dror Wahrman reminds us, however, this newly fashionable subject in fact belongs within a long intellectual tradition in which the middle class is seen as morally, socially, or politically pivotal. What distinguishes the three books under review here is their careful treatment of the “middle class” or the “middling sort” as less than coherent categories, and their acknowledgement that the social middle as a group existed primarily as a rhetorical construction with overt political purposes.
This is not to say that the social history of the middling sort has in these cases simply been ablated away by the withering gusts of the linguistic turn. Quite the contrary. Penelope Corfield’s study of the rise of the professions (mainly following the senior branches of clerics, lawyers, and doctors, but also including cadet lines like teachers, engineers, and architects) provides a wealth of concrete data detailing the growth, geographical diffusion, and economic fortunes of groups which claimed genteel status and social power by virtue of their specialist knowledge. According to Corfield, lawyers and doctors were especially successful at raising their social prestige and in reinforcing their prerogatives, mainly by acquiring a substantial degree of self-regulation and consolidating themselves into professional bodies, albeit with internal hierarchies. In contrast, the sundry confessional divisions and theological rivalries of the clergy in a religiously pluralistic state prevented a similar move towards professional collaboration and self-organization. [End Page 308]
The critical ability exhibited by certain professions to set formal admission and performance standards for their members was a key factor in their social elevation and that of the professions, and in their capacity to wield monopolistic power over a body of expert knowledge. For Corfield, then, the rise of the professions presents a valuable case study for testing the famous Foucauldian power/knowledge equation. Not surprisingly, Corfield’s nuanced appraisal of professional power leads her to accept Foucault’s weak claim that power expresses itself as knowlege but to reject his stronger claim that such power-generated knowlege held its subjects in thrall. True, doctors successfully pushed aside medical parsons, female practitioners, and quacks of various stripes, but they contended less successfully against an enduring tradition of self-medication and an expanding volume of satire of the profession. Yet even here, Corfield is quick to point out the power-bequeathing as well as power-diminishing effects of satire, which “was not only a tribute to their power but simultaneously a communal goad to ensure that they lived up to their pretensions” (42).
Although from a sociological viewpoint the class position of the professions has always appeared ambiguous, contemporaries had little difficulty assigning them to that socially—and conceptually—amorphous grouping known as the middling sort, whose ranks were expanding in tandem with the eighteenth-century urban renaissance and the diversifying service economy upon which it was based. The number of towns in England with a population upwards of 20,000 went from three to twelve in the first three-quarters of the century and, according to Rosemary Sweet, it was the middling sort in these burgeoning urban centers that formed the social locus for both the...