- Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England
Bringing together much of the recent research on vagrancy and poverty in early modern England, Fumerton argues in this study that the itinerant manual laborer was the norm of the period in a "domestic economy of mobility." The makeshift character of this economy, Fumerton insists, affected not only those people long-since displaced from demesne labor, wars, and enclosures, but many in more "established," yet marginalized, positions of domestic production—householders, apprentices, "porters, ostlers, tapsters, husbandmen, carmen, draymen, chamberlains and servingmen" (25).
The first sections of this book offer crisp summaries of recent accounts of gender in domestic production, urban apprentices, parish-court records of lost spouses, and early modern childhood. Fumerton insists on the existence of a distinct totality of shared experience across a wide range of social categories. Literary scholars will appreciate Fumerton's careful building of the larger plot that provides a counterhegemonic perspective of the English court's idea of "order." In fact, this book, along with a string of recent publications in "early modern vagabond studies," substantially overturns the aesthetics of order predicated on a privileging of art and poetry patronized by the aristocracy (readers familiar with Fumerton's Cultural Aesthetics [Chicago, 1991] will note her curious description of it, in this one's introduction, as an embarrassing phase of formalist distraction).1
What replaces this idea of renaissance order is a sensibility of being "multiply displaced," something of an early modern version of alienation, which Fumerton describes as the cognitive dissonance associated with being forced to move to find work. Fumerton wants to account for this experience in its own terms, free from the middle-class lens that often [End Page 273] translated itinerant labor in the Tudor Poor Laws into a crafty form of escaping duty. Her challenge is to undercut the literary scholars who focus too much on London's coney-catching pamphlets and later stage plays, thus participating in the exaggeration, if not celebration, of the unhoused condition of itinerant laborers as a symbol of romantic freedom. Fumerton views this tendency as the early modern middle class creating its own image of the lower class; it takes a keener ear to detect the muted voices in the historical record.
In the latter half of her book, Fumerton turns to the case study of Edward Barlow (b. 1642), whose life at sea provides a kind of historical exemplar of the anxieties associated with the unsettled mentality. Barlow authored a journal of more than 225,000 words and 147 pages of drawings. Fumerton's treatment of Barlow's journal, particularly its analysis of his port drawings and the ambivalence about waywardness in ballads, raises interesting questions about how to interpret self-taught literacy and the aesthetics of popular cultural forms. Though aware of the pitfalls, Fumerton takes the risk of trusting the narrative voice of Barlow's journal as an authentic account (even though Barlow's own record describes complaints from acquaintances that he is not to be trusted).
A literary critic might read Barlow's journal through the genre of the picaresque, framing voice, reliability, and narrative turns as scripted conventions. But Fumerton's interpretive model of trust follows a new empirical turn in historicist literary scholarship, which favors accepting newly found, marginalized texts on their own terms before subjecting them to a hermeneutics of suspicion. Readers might nonetheless ask, given the all-inclusive list of trades, piece-meal labor, and vagabondage in this fluid economy whether laborers in early modern England were able to feel settled, or content at all. Yet, materialists will be intrigued to see, in response to the Brenner debate and the argument about the agrarian origin of surplus labor, Fumerton pointing to the sea: Barlow's life suggests the true character of proletariat experience, providing an altogether colonial cast to the question of itinerant labor as the engine to capital.2
Poststructuralists may complain that Fumerton's category of the...