Early works on popular culture in early modern England tended to subscribe to a two-tier model of the contemporary social system, essentially dividing the culture of the time into ‘popular’ and ‘elite’. This, as Barry Reay argues, provided an important framework for the initial study of popular culture, leading to seminal works such as Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, which applied Robert Redfield’s concept of the ‘little’ and ‘great’ traditions to early modern European society. However, this bipolar model has been criticised for its oversimplifications and generalisations, as since the mid-1980s historians have begun to argue that homogenizing the culture of all but an elite few does not accurately represent the disparity of experience caused by differences in location, gender, class, and religious affiliation. This essay shall examine the extent of these differences in experience, concluding that while it may be more appropriate to discuss popular cultures in the plural than popular culture, it may also lead to such unnecessary overcomplication that it could make it nearly impossible to study popular culture at all.
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Perhaps the most frequently discussed factor which influenced a person’s experience of culture in early modern England was social class and rank. The traditional binary approach to addressing the differences between the classes can be seen in Peter Burke’s discussion of the ‘great tradition’, which he defines as including the classical, intellectual, and theological tradition, and then ‘little tradition’, which encompasses such cultural aspects as folksongs and festivals. Burke argues that for the majority of people, the ‘little tradition’ was their one culture, but accounts for some overlap of classes by labelling the elites ‘bi-cultural’, experiencing both the ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions as two distinct cultures. Using this model to study early modern England would make the term ‘popular culture’ in the singular an appropriate term to use, as the ‘little tradition’ was participated in by all but a minority. However, the implication of Burke’s model that early modern England was split into two distinct classes is a flawed one. The early modern period witnessed the growth of the ‘middling sort’, a class that sat between elites and peasants, who by the end of the seventeenth century comprised 20-40% of English households, and whose existence complicated the binary class model. Historians such as Tim Harris and Barry Reay have cited this complication as one of the key arguments for discussing popular cultures in the plural, with Harris arguing that the singular term ‘popular culture’ inaccurately groups all but the ‘elites’ as one homogenous mass, and Reay arguing that ‘the ‘s’ in cultures represents the cultural splinterings… of locality, age, gender, religion, and class.’ Burke’s model has also been criticised for not accounting for the significant amounts of cultural overlap that took place during this period, as although he does attempt to account for the blurring of class boundaries by labelling the upper classes ‘amphibious’, there is no real acknowledgement that this sharing of culture between the classes could work both ways. These arguments against Burkes model are somewhat convincing, particularly taking into account the contemporary sources that Harris cites, which divide the class system of early modern England not into two but four or even twenty-six separate ranks. However, while the existence of such class-based subcultures and their two-way intersections certainly complicates the idea of ‘popular culture’ in the singular, it does not make it inaccurate. Bob Scribner describes how from the overlapping subcultures of early modern Europe, it is possible to take the view that a relatively coherent popular culture was nonetheless formed, albeit one which contained multiple inherent dichotomies. With this view in mind, it is certainly possible to discuss a singular ‘popular culture’ in early modern England, so long as one acknowledges the fact that this culture was not a solid and universal model, but one made up of smaller subcultures.
Another aspect of traditional scholarship on popular culture that has recently been criticised is its lack of consideration for the difference in cultural experience between men and women, particularly in terms of the popular culture of sexuality. The sexuality of women in early modern England was, as Susan Amussen identifies, a public affair, in a way in which the sexuality of men was not. This can be most clearly seen in the tradition of so-called charivaris, ‘skimmington rides’ with ‘rough music’ in which women were often publicly shamed for cuckolding their husbands – be this through committing adultery or through beating them. It is especially telling about the strong gender differences in popular attitudes to sexuality that in cases of female adultery the women were publicly shamed, whereas it was far more socially unacceptable to be a cuckold than it was to be a male adulterer. Despite this, while early modern English society may have been patriarchal, there were nonetheless several cultural elements where women were in control, a notable example being the culture of childbirth. With the birthing, the Christening, and the laying-in period and childbed feasts being female-exclusive events, it is clear that there were definite cultural divides between men and women. This has led to historians such as Harris criticising Peter Burke’s model for overlooking gender differences, as Burke himself acknowledges his work neglects to discuss the culture of women ‘for lack of evidence’, and has this oversight in traditional scholarship thus been used in the argument for discussing ‘popular cultures’ in the plural rather than the singular. However, while gender certainly affected a person’s experience of popular culture, in many ways these differences were not stark enough to warrant being called an entire popular culture of their own, but rather a distinct subculture. Patty Seleski, in her work on early modern domestic servants, identified the fact that while gender divisions were certainly important in the period, it was class divisions which were by far the more divisive and were in fact what fed into creating these gender divisions. We have already identified that the class issue need not force us to speak of ‘popular cultures’ in the plural if we are careful to take the variety of experience that ‘culture’ can contain into account, and the shared experiences of the two genders within the two social classes were often more similar than experiences between the classes. Therefore, while separate subcultures and cultural experiences of men and women must not be overlooked in the study of popular culture, their existence is not enough to make the use of the singular term ‘popular culture’ inappropriate.
Regionalism and regional variation in early modern England was another vital factor in influencing a person’s cultural experience. As part of Tim Harris’s argument for discussing popular cultures in the plural, he cites a contemporary’s view that ‘has not every county their particular rites and customs, not only different, but even contrary?’. Certainly, there were obvious geographical divides in local customs, ranging from such wide divisions as North-South and rural-urban to the distinctive cultures of much smaller regions such as the Fens, creating a cultural map of early modern England which was far from unified. Cultural localism could be seen in many forms, from attitudes to festivities and folklore to variations in sports games, but perhaps the most distinct was the effect that geographical location seemed to have on the religious culture of an area. Puritanism, for example, was more likely to be found in areas in the South-East of England than anywhere else, whereas in the North despite the Reformation there were far more who held onto Catholicism. These local variations in popular religious culture, Underdown suggests, were perhaps what led to the other cultural variations, as regions where Catholicism remained more resilient were also more likely to hold onto traditional cultural forms. In light of these regional variations in experience of popular culture, Underdown does not advocate the discussion of ‘popular cultures’ as Reay does, but instead urges historians to view popular culture as ‘a spectrum of overlapping subcultures’. This approach removes the problems caused by the traditional binary model, but also does not risk the overcomplication that pluralising the term may bring, and is thus the most useful approach to take when considering the local variations in the popular culture of early modern England.
As Burke writes, if everybody in early modern England had shared the same culture, there would be no need to use the term ‘popular culture’ at all. While it may seem more appropriate, taking into account the disparity of experience in early modern England that social class, gender, and location caused, to discuss popular cultures in the plural, treating every division and subculture as a separate culture risks needless overcomplication detrimental to the study of popular culture, losing sight of the idiomatic forest for the trees. Historians of popular culture should certainly take into account the variety of cultural experiences, as well as the dynamic nature of culture itself. We must, as Susan Dwyer Amussen phrases it, view popular culture as ‘an inclusive, not an exclusive, concept,’ viewing popular culture in the singular as the amalgamation of a multitude of overlapping, ever-changing and often even contradictory subcultures, which nonetheless often came together to create one reasonably coherent popular culture. So long as these concepts are considered, and the historian does not view the non-elite masses as one homogenous group, it is just as appropriate to discuss ‘popular culture’ as it is to discuss ‘popular cultures’, and is in many ways considerably less problematic.
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- Rowlands, Allison. “Conditions of Life for the Masses.” In Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History, edited by E. Cameron, 31-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Scribner, Bob. “Is a History of Popular Culture Possible?” History of European Ideas 10, no. 2 (1989): 175-191.
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- Underdown, David. “Regional Cultures? Local Variations in Popular Culture during the Early Modern Period.” In Popular Culture in England, c-1500-1850, edited by T. Harris, 28-47. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995.
 Barry Reay, Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750. (New York: Routledge, 1998), 198.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 3rd ed. (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), 52-56.
 Jonathan Barry, “Introduction,” in The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England 1550-1800, ed. J. Barry & C. Brooks (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994), 3.
 Tim Harris, “Problematising Popular Culture,” in Popular Culture in England, c-1500-1850, ed. T. Harris (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), 11.
 Reay, Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750, 1.
 Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 55-56.
 William Harrison, “Description of England.” Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1577harrison-england.asp#Chapter%20I(accessed November 20, 2018)
 Gregory King, ‘Population and Wealth, England and Wales, 1688.” University of York. https://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/king.htm(accessed November 20, 2018).
 Bob Scribner, “Is a History of Popular Culture Possible?,” History of European Ideas 10, no. 2 (1989): 184.
 Susan Dwyer Amussen, “The Gendering of Popular Culture in Early Modern England,” In Popular Culture in England, c. 1500-1850, ed. T Harris, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995),51.
 Harris, “Problematising Popular Culture,” 14.
 Alison Rowlands, “Conditions of Life for the Masses,” in Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History, ed. E. Cameron, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 40.
 Harris, “Problematising Popular Culture,”4.
 Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 81.
 Patty Seleski, “Women, Work, and Cultural Change,” in Popular Culture in England, c-1500-1850, ed. T Harris (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), 146.
 Meric Casaubon, ‘A Treatise Proving Spirits, Witches, and Supernatural Operations, by Pregnant Instances and Evidences: Together with Other Things Worthy of Note.’ Oxford Text Archive. http://downloads.it.ox.ac.uk/ota-public/tcp/Texts-HTML/free/A35/A35568.html (accessed November 21, 2018).
 David Underdown, “Regional Cultures? Local Variations in Popular Culture during the Early Modern Period,” in Popular Culture in England, c-1500-1850, ed. T. Harris (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), 33.
 Martin Ingram, “From Reformation to Toleration: Popular Religious Cultures in England, 1540-1690,” in Popular Culture in England, c-1500-1850, ed. T. Harris (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), 101-102.
 Underdown, “Regional Cultures? Local Variations in Popular Culture during the Early Modern Period,” 34.
 Ibid, 29.
 Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 49.
 Amussen, “The Gendering of Popular Culture in Early Modern England,” 49.
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