Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 108-109
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Townspeople and Nation:
English Urban Experiences, 1540-1640
Townspeople and Nation: English Urban Experiences, 1540-1640. By Robert Tittler (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001) 251 pp. $60.00 cloth $19.95 paper
In this very readable and engaging collection of essays, Tittler aims to "help us understand 'the ordinary' to an extraordinary extent," and he succeeds admirably by fully exploiting the chance remains of a few individuals' lives to re-tell their stories (65). Those remains are not just textual, and not all of the sort that usually draws historians. He dissects the portrait of Gloucester's mayor and mayoress, John and Joan Cooke; analyzes John Pitt's unusually full accounts for the building of Bland-ford Forum's town hall, and the architectural results of that endeavor; delves into the account books of a Hereford spinster/moneylender; and explores the larger implications of John Browne's legal challenges to Boston's incorporation. Using the insights of art historians and economists as much as historians, he offers, in the end, an interpretation unquestionably the work of a historian—and a meticulous one at that. Informed by text and context, Tittler is able to sort out the meaning of an image painted fifty years after the deaths of its subjects (in the case of the Cookes), or infer the built environment of a town. He can even show the import of a spinster's accounts for understanding how women operated in the economic networks of early modern English towns.
They operated, as it turns out, actively and independently, not at all on the margins and isolated from the larger economy and society of the seventeenth century, as earlier versions put it. Tittler's identification of a "shadow economy of independent women" is one of many examples in this volume of challenges to the received version (195). Looking at the lives of ordinary individuals, and focusing (as earlier urban histories of this period did not) on cultural as well as social, economic, and political history, he has teased out some surprising themes. For instance, he finds that towns and townspeople, and not just the gentry, took advantage of the property redistributions that followed the Dissolution. He shows us that the Puritan assault on traditional Midsummer pageantry in Chester from 1599 to 1600, hitherto traced only to doctrinal principle, was due just as much to the disorder caused by the soldiers for the Irish wars who occupied the town. Chester was in dire need of a new symbolic vocabulary of discipline and authority, which Mayor Henry Hardware achieved by replacing the traditional dragon, giant, and devil in feathers with an armored knight to represent the might of the civic authorities.
Other themes are familiar from the author's earlier work, which discussed civic memory and identity; Protestant efforts to maintain civic pride in the polemical use of architecture and furnishing; the politics of civic portraiture; and methodologically, the importance of material culture as a source for historians. 1 But in this work, he relates the themes via [End Page 108] glimpses of individual experiences, offering a sense of what the big themes meant for ordinary lives, and how the post-Reformation reconfiguration of the landscape of urban culture looked to contemporary citizens. In the process, he also sparks our historical imaginations with the characters of real people—thieves, cozeners, Puritan magistrates, men on the make, entrepreneurial spinsters, and pious wives—a colorful collection so sensitively depicted that they will stick in the memory as a reminder that the early modern town was not the historians' old monolithic construct but an array of highly diverse individuals.
There is little to criticize. A bit of redundancy mildly irritates: Tittler writes no fewer than five times about the rising numbers of borough incorporations between 1540 and 1640. He also leaves a few jarring gaps in details: How could Blandford's hall have had a kitchen but no chimneys? But this quibbling aside, the book is a model for historians willing to broaden their source base...