- Institutional Culture in Early Modern Society
Institutional Culture in Early Modern Society is a collection of twelve original essays — with a thoughtful introduction by the editors and short "afterwords" by Anthony Grafton, Joanna Innes, and Keith Wrightson — which had its genesis in a conference at King's College London on a comparative approach to early modern cultures. The essays are particularly wide ranging: geographically from rural England to continental Europe to the activities of Jesuits in China, and topically from voluntary institutions for widows pensions and poor relief, to courts of law [End Page 635] in Rouen and Venice. The authors of these stimulating essays have similarly diverse backgrounds. While most are historians, the collection is enriched with the inclusion of professors of English and Renaissance literature, history of science, German studies, and apparel merchandising and interior design. Despite this diversity the essays have a common theme that sustains the narrative throughout: the ways institutions "actually did function" as opposed to the way they were "supposed to function."
Space does not permit even a brief analysis of these informative essays. Despite apparent diversity the essays have common themes. Each of the institutions studied needed to establish or maintain its self-image or the image it presented to the world, and each had to come to grips with internal discipline and rivalry with competing institutions. The early modern period was particularly rich in its development of new cultural institutions and the adaptation of older ones to the new realities of economic and political life. The Goldsmiths of London, for example, had to adjust from being a medieval guild of skilled craftsmen to one in which some of its members were the precursors of modern bankers, exchangers of money and financiers. The relationship between the two groups with their divergent interests had to be worked out in a period when the power of the guilds was waning and not all of London's practicing goldsmiths were free of the company. A similar split can be observed in France when the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded in 1868 to differentiate its members from the lower-skilled members of the guild of painters and sculptors. Both groups were concerned with disciplining members to protect their higher status.
These essays also point to the fact that change had to be negotiated because entrenched habits and power relationships had to be accommodated. This conflict was particularly acute in Venice where the elite wanted to root out the corruption that inevitably went with the sale of office. The trouble was that police and clerks were not paid and relied on "customary" fees for their livelihood, or since they had purchased their offices or rented them from someone who had, they had to protect their investments. Similarly, reformers in Georgian London discovered an "institutional culture" in prisons that could not be ignored. While Parliament attempted to protect the capital from a disorderly mob, those responsible for London's prisons jealously guarded their local privileges and authority. City fathers, in turn, found that their freedom to act was restricted by a prison subculture within the City's prisons, whose inmates were accustomed to electing their own officials who would enforce an informal set of prison regulations.
Just as London's prisoners could insist on the rituals of citizenship in defense of their "rights," so rituals were used throughout early modern Europe. In Norwich the "Guild Day" celebrations were used to smooth the transfer of power from one regime to the next. Perhaps the most intriguing ritual described in these essays is the annual terrae filii ceremony required by the statutes of the University of Oxford. This was a public oration delivered in Latin by a member of the University that mocked the lives and mores of particular dons and town officials as well as University customs in general. Rather than a part of normal inversion, we are told, [End Page...