The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Thomas, Keith|
The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England. By
Keith Thomas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xvi plus 393 pp.).
Keith Thomas's new book, based on his Ford Lectures delivered at Oxford in 2000, is a wonderfully rich survey of the cultural landscape of early modern England. Written with humanity and insight, it is a delight to read and an ideal introduction. With over ninety pages of endnotes, it also provides scholars with a happy hunting-ground. Six wide-ranging chapters explore a number of 'ends'-military prowess, work and vocation, wealth and possessions, honour and reputation, friendship and sociability, and fame and the afterlife. Tracing shifts over the period, they chart the transformation of 'friendship' from vertical to primarily horizontal ties, and its gradual separation from family and kin, changes in the nature and expectations of marriage, the emergence of new forms of sociability (coffee-house, club, tea-party), and the development of 'taste' in the acquisition of material goods and furnishings, along with much else. Thomas is fully aware of the conceptual and evidential problems inherent in his project. How far can we speak of individuality in the early modern period? How far were people conscious of the possibility, let alone propriety, of seeking a personal fulfilment? Elite families generally subordinated individual wishes to the interest of the family as a whole, and its lineage. Jacobean satirists and dramatists such as Ben Jon-son thought primarily in terms of 'character' types. Even spiritual autobiography quickly assumed a generic form, with writers tracing broadly similar paths from sinfulness through conversion to grace. But if individuality still had far to go, Thomas stresses how far it had already come. The conventional discourse urging acceptance of one's given station in life has to be set against "widespread evidence of active agency, mobility, self-help, and independence of spirit" (p.41). To the evidence he adduces we might add the idiosyncratic autobiography of the Tudor musician Thomas Whythorne, and the deeply personal travails of the Stuart nonconformist Agnes Beaumont. Finding clues to an individual's inner drives poses a different kind of problem, especially for the poor and less literate. While we can trace misbehaviour through court records, there is little direct evidence on the inner thoughts of the silent and outwardly respectable majority; Quaker and similar writings, however rich, are highly unrepresentative. The surviving evidence is weighted heavily towards the social and intellectual elites, and the book inevitably reflects this, though Thomas does all he can to probe attitudes lower down the social scale. He acknowledges too the fact that for the poor, life was bound by constraints that generally left little room to pursue personal ends. For most, life was about survival and providing for their families. And for women, especially, it was widely regarded as inappropriate to pursue any personal goal other than to be a good wife, mother, and neighbour.
Thomas marshals here a vast body of material. He also sets out, very fairly, evidence of widely different, even opposing attitudes. Early modern English culture was far from homogeneous, and characterised in all these fields by remarkable diversity both within and among different social strata, and over time. This was an age in which asceticism and rampant materialism both found many champions and devotees, though consumerism clearly emerged victorious. The book's title, however, is slightly misleading. Agreement over a particular cultural attribute might range from those who regarded it as generally appropriate to those for whom it was the driving force in their lives. While the title suggests a focus on the latter, Thomas in fact ranges across the entire spectrum. This is most evident in the chapter on military prowess, which (perhaps surprisingly) comes first. For much of the period, England was at peace, and only a very small proportion of the elites chose to pursue a military career overseas, fighting as volunteers. Most aristocrats and gentlemen were proud of their skill in fencing and horsemanship, and no doubt hoped to perform with courage and honour should the need arise. But these were hardly 'ends in life' or 'roads to fulfilment'. Most ordinary men had neither the wish nor opportunity to pursue a military life, though again most would hope to have the courage to defend themselves and their families if the occasion demanded. The apprentice Roger Lowe beat a man for slandering his mother, and the young schoolmaster Adam Martindale fought a pupil's aggressive father; while both took satisfaction in what they had done, neither viewed such incidents as any kind of fulfilment.
Probably no living scholar can match Keith Thomas's range of reference, and his book offers a treasury of apt and illuminating nuggets, including the bizarre case of a minister charged with eating custard "after a scandalous manner" (pp. 134-5). One early reviewer quibbled at quotations being taken out of context, but I found nothing here to suggest that Thomas has misunderstood or misused his evidence. The alternative option, presenting a small body of evidence in depth, would have exposed him to the opposite charge of selecting evidence that might be unrepresentative. Cultural history can only rarely be quantified, and requires both broad surveys and in-depth studies of specific aspects; Thomas explicitly places this book in the first category, inviting others to refine and revise his picture. Some readers may wonder at his decision to relegate the quest, for salvation to the final chapter. This was a deeply religious age, and he acknowledges that much more could have been said on this score. But he also notes that while men spoke of this vale of tears and the joys of heaven, very few showed any desire to shorten their lives, unless they were suffering from a grievous illness. Thomas also acknowledges that other 'roads to fulfilment' might have been explored. For the sailor Edward Barlow, for example, life was driven by an irresistible 'itch' to see foreign parts. But what he gives us here, the fruit of a lifetime's reading and reflection, throws vivid light on early modern English culture in all its variety.
University of Warwick
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