- The Professions in Early Modern England, 1450–1800: Servants of the Commonweal
Sociologists and even historians of the professions have treated their history backwards. They argue from their current state, based on traits such as theoretical knowledge, ethical code, and institutional monopoly of a service, back to their primitive origins which they suppose were much the same if less developed than today. Rosemary O’Day, well-known for her earlier works on the clergy and education, starts from the opposite end of the spectrum. She studies their actual practice and ethos from the original sources in the context of their times and the society they served. Her major theme is that they professed, in the originally religious sense, a calling or vocation to serve God and their fellows. They differed from other Christians only in providing a service that required literate education and training. This the clergy, the lawyers and the medical men did, respectively, in the means of salvation, in defence of civil rights and property, and in maintaining people’s health and curing their maladies—all vital concerns of the laity especially in the religious, litigious and disease-ridden society of early modern England.
The three occupations shared a common background in the reformed Christianity and social humanism of the Reformation and the Renaissance which they learned in the grammar schools and, for the highest ranks, at the universities, and took their places in the hierarchical society according to their family connections, access to patronage, education and innate ability, as individuals rather than members of a unified occupational elite.
She does not believe, for example, that the three learned professions of clergy, law and medicine were, at first at any rate, self-conscious groupings ranged against the laity and concerned to exploit their monopoly of expertise for profit and status. The clergy were the most sharply demarcated: before the Reformation they were an estate, separate from the once military and now landed aristocracy and gentry and from the third estate of lay citizens, dedicated to serving God first [End Page 229] and only secondly representing the community by prayer and supplication more than by preaching and the cure of souls. The Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Chantries reduced the clergy both in numbers and in role to their mainly preaching, teaching and secular caring function. That function became a source of disputation. The Crown, notably Elizabeth and the early Stuarts, backed by high Anglican bishops, wished them to be set apart by their daily dress, ritual vestments and style of life, and to serve the state as channels of royal propaganda and control, while the more democratic tendency represented by the Puritans emphasised their preaching rather than their sacerdotal function for a laity who were their own mediators with God. Only gradually did the clergy reach a compromise as a gentlemanly occupation serving as much a social role as an ecclesiastical one. They became what Coleridge (not O’Day) was to call a “clerisy”, an educated gentleman in every parish, spreading sweetness and light, and incidentally, in some cases, practising theology, literature and science as well.
The other two professions also emerged from the same Christian humanism of the Renaissance and from the notion of labouring in their religious vocation. Both the law and medicine had their formal origin in the higher faculties of the universities, and the higher ranks, the barristers and the physicians, kept a tenuous connection with them. O’Day has a down to earth sense of the fluidity of occupations in a society without professional civil servants or police or effective means of social control. Almost anyone with a basic education and sufficient chutzpa could practice law or medicine at the lower levels, and many did, especially clergymen who sometimes practised both. Common law advocates were protected by their membership of the Inns of Court and recognition by the judges, though it took some time for them to exclude attornies and solicitors. Civil lawyers, once the top of the legal profession...