The English Middling Classes

Compared to Paris, Venice, or Florence, up until the sixteenth century London had been a European cultural backwater;all this was to change over the next hundred years, during the course of the English Reformation, as London slowly became a major European port—especially after the East India Company was founded in 1600. Money talked to money, and the City and the court literally grew towards each other along the north bank of the Thames;both joined in grief when the London Stock Exchange burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666 (it was quickly rebuilt on an even larger and grander scale). The English population was roughly 3 million in 1541, and 5 million by 1700. As trade and manufacturing grew, the rural population flocked to a new life in the market towns, provincial capitals, and above all London, an upwardly mobile emigration which sharpened their 'horizontal' sense of rank and respectability while increasing the social distance they set between themselves and the poor—an ongoing 'civilizing process' now extending into the middle ranks.19 In late seventeenth-century London the middling classes formed an estimated 25 per cent of the population—less than half of the 70 per cent of the labouring classes, but far more numerous than the 5 per cent of the nobility; and far more numerous than in any rural parish. The elite squires, doctors, lawyers, or merchants at the top of their trade—the 'plums' (those earning over £10,000 a year)—had everything that money could buy. In their new tall urban houses they had spacious saloons for public display and private parlours for conversation, while the old bedroom-cum-meeting-place was transferred upstairs to new private suites of bed and dressing chambers. But the majority of the English middling classes were not rich. As the decades went by they could increasingly afford little luxuries here and there—a new clock, a piece of new furniture, a few books, more clothes, white bread instead of brown, candles instead of oil, bought soap instead of homemade. 'An income of £50 was some three, four, or even five times the annual income of a labourer, and would allow a family to eat well, employ a servant and live comfortably.'20

The real social stresses occurred towards the bottom of the social scale, where any population increase battled with scarce local resources, seasonal employment, and subsistence wages— all traditional causes of peasant revolt and urban disorder. It was in these groups that radical English Protestantism took deep root and later supplied the muscle and the democratic fervour of the Commonwealth Revolution. But the real revolution among the English middling classes had already occurred when John Wyclif (1329-84) translated the Bible into vernacular English for the common reader, opening up all the endless possibilities of the Word.21 Wyclif's English followers, the Lollards, were early precursors of the flood of religious protestation in Europe that led to Calvin in Geneva, Zwingli in Zurich, and the Lutherans in Saxony;and eventually to a solidly Protestant 'rim' emerging around the North Sea—in Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland—which later extended across the North Atlantic to the east coast of North America.22 The map of Protestantism within the British Isles shows reform and radicalism strong among the lower-middle classes in towns and semi-industrial rural areas, among independent craftsmen, textile workers, smallholders, and provincial retailers. They found a secure footing at local level, forming small cells of local Saints, congregations, magistrates, and preaching ministers. They took their new 'seriousness' into all walks of professional life, including law, medicine, trade, and the universities; in London they inhabited the coffee-houses, scoured the newspapers, and formed the bedrock of a new breed of industrious civil servants (of whom Samuel Pepys was one).23 English Protestant puritans led a fierce spiritual and intellectual life. Above all (and this was a strong appeal for migrant families who had left old social ties behind them) their religion promised an entirely new start: 'New minds, new memories, new judgements, new affects... new love, new joy... new food, new raiment, new language, new company... new ends and aims... [This is] the Excellence, Amiableness, Comfort and Content which is to be found in the ways of Purity and Holiness.'24 Yet again there were profound historical consequences from the revival of asceticism, especially one that was noted long ago in the monasteries, and which had worked well for the Catholic Church: if you worked hard and lived soberly, you were almost bound to accumulate money. You could also give that money away, in good works. Money obviously had its attractions for fellow-travellers, backsliders, and the disillu-sioned;but for the moment, English puritan movements relished their attacks on filthy Lucre and the privileges of the rich, in their attempt to capture and purify society and the state.

They also embraced the healing mission. The democratic political content of the early Protestant health message was a particularly powerful one: God made everyone equal, and the means of cure were apparently open to all. This message liberated individuals, and put the care of their health firmly in their own hands. Many English sectarians were staunch popular empiricists who (like Gerrard Winstanley) asserted the moral right to judge the world and see things 'by the material eyes of this flesh';and also, increasingly, the right to experiment on their own bodies.

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