- Gender, Culture, and Politics in England, 1560–1640: Turning the World Upside Down by Susan D. Amussen and David E. Underdown
Susan D. Amussen and David E. Underdown have presented (the latter posthumously) a new study centered on the trope of inversion. As expressed by the phrase "turning the world upside down," the concept was perhaps most famously analyzed by Christopher Hill in the 1970s. Amussen and Underdown seek to offer a more long-term perspective of the trope, asserting that Hill's radicals of the English Revolution appropriated an already well-established set of principles that primarily revolved around the ideas of inversion that sat at the heart of people's early modern mental universe and shaped how they thought about order or disorder in England. Gender ideals were key to such thinking, specifically in the ways they manifested in the perceived threats of "failed patriarchs" and "unruly women." So tied were these ideals to early modern conceptions of hierarchy that Amussen and Underdown claim that the world turned upside down provides scholars with an entrée into Tudor-Stuart England that allows for a structural analysis that links the social, cultural and political history of the period. While this claim has merit and the execution of the discussion in support of their argument is well done, the result is largely a stroll through well-trodden territory that Amussen and Underdown first mapped as scholarly pioneers three decades ago. Put simply, historians acquainted with their respective historiographical oeuvres may not find many new revelations about early modern England. Yet Amussen and Underdown have nevertheless produced something of enormous value if we consider the book's pedagogical potential.
Written in concise and engaging prose—much of it produced by Amussen since Underdown's death in 2009—their study demonstrates how the late Elizabethan and early Stuart English were a deeply worried culture. The gap between theory and reality was pivotal. In practice, early modern patriarchy did not always meet the idealized demand that women fall under the guiding hand of men because of the former's perceived natural proclivity for transgression thanks to Eve's actions in the Garden of Eden. Since political commentaries and assertions in the period often deployed metaphorical rhetoric that equated the English monarch to a household patriarch, these gender ideals had far wider implications than just in familial contexts. Consequently, any [End Page 1394] challenge to patriarchal norms underscored a potential disruption to the entire English social order commonly viewed as divinely ordained by God. In other words, men were to govern benevolently and women were to obey such governorship; to do otherwise was to invert natural hierarchies, turning the world upside down. Cases of such inversion were ubiquitous in the early modern period, be they at the highest reaches of government manifesting in the monarch being Elizabeth I and the Overbury Scandal throwing into sharp relief the dangers of the unfettered sexual proclivities of the Jacobean court, or at the lowest reaches of town and village parishes in which women asserted independence in choosing sexual partners, marrying whom they wished, and finding status through cultivating reputations as cunning folk practicing magic. The result was intense anxiety in the period, with a mass volume of pamphlets, plays, libels, suits, criminal cases, and skimmingtons (charivari) addressing or expressing concerns over the increased number of bad neighbors, malevolent parents, adulterous relationships, cuckolds, and witches. Moreover, population growth put demographic stresses on society, and the Reformation created conditions for intense "culture wars" in the decades leading up to the mass armed conflicts that engulfed all of Britain and Ireland in the 1640s. Everywhere the early modern English viewed their world being turned upside down, and the ultimate blame rested in failed patriarchs and unruly women spawning this inversion.
Amussen and Underdown illustrate such anxiety with deep, nuanced, and contextualized examination of a wide source base, including plays like John Webster's Duchess of Malfi or Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women; court records dealing...