The Culture of the English People: Iron Age to the Industrial Revolution.

The Culture of the English People: Iron Age to the Industrial Revolution. – book reviews

Alan Macfarlane

The aim and scope of this book are accurately reflected in its title. About one third of the work traces the history of housing in England. Not only the physical structure but all aspects of heating, lighting and furnishing are dealt with in considerable detail. This summarizes a wide range of recent archaeological and historical work. There are numerous helpful diagrams, plans and line drawings. This part is informative and authoritative.

Another quarter of the work considers other aspects bordering on material culture, in particular the production, preservation and preparation of food and drink, the practice of medicine and prevalence of disease, demography. Good use is made of probate inventories, and recent work on parish registers is summarized. This is again useful, though it would have been good to have had more on clothing.

The third layer consists of two major chapters and sections of other chapters on social structure; the community, parish, village, family, crime, tenurial patterns. Again there is much of interest, but the treatment is less convincing. Historians are deeply divided on many of the issues here, for instance the nature of the family and marriage, whether and when England was a ‘peasant society,’ the degree to which villages were based on bitter feuding or co-operation. Pounds tends to waver from one view to another in different sections.

The final layer is concerned with mentalite, which Pounds rightly sees as inextricably bound up with material artefacts. There is one chapter specifically on ‘The Foundations of Popular Culture’ and sections of others on such topics as urban mentality and the representation of mortality. This constitutes an attempt to cover a vast area – games, magic, symbolism, rites of passage, attitudes to time and space – over some two thousand years. The necessarily rapid treatment tends to lead to a rather two-dimensional portrait in which the contrast between a ‘traditional,’ oral, pre-scientific, folk world and ‘modernity’ is overdrawn.

A number of books have attempted to provide a survey of English social life over the long centuries before the Industrial Revolution. The Quennell’s multi-volume History of Everyday Things, Trevelyan’s English Social History, and more recently Hibbert’s The English are obvious examples. We may wonder in what ways this book does more than update these with some more recent ‘facts’ and an expansion in the areas of the village community and family. In general the answer seems to be that it does not. It is a valuable repository, graced with excellent drawings and clearly written. Yet it is vaguely unsatisfying.

The book is decidedly insular. There is little sense, after the chapter on Roman Britain, of England’s presence off Europe and the huge influences of European culture. Likewise, there is no comparative framework. The comparisons, usually implicit, tend to be between before (traditional) and after (modern), and never sideways, with other parts of Europe, let alone non-European societies. Hence numerous peculiarities and absences in the English case are not noticed. For instance it is never made clear how extraordinary English housing was. That England probably had the most comfortably and hygienically housed population in the world (the Dutch excepted) by the sixteenth century had immense consequences on economy and demography. The causes and consequences of this peculiarity are not considered.

There seems to be no real problematique behind the book. This comes out, for instance, when we compare it with a much larger endeavour to cover material culture, namely Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism. In that case, there was a problem at the start, namely the reasons for the emergence of capitalism, even if Braudel cannot find an answer.

There is little analysis of the dynamics of change. Occasionally we are presented with a kind of crude material determinism, as when the supposed growth of affection in marriage is explained by ‘material conditions,’ that is, in the “increasing conveniences and comforts of domestic life, which brought people together in their own living rooms.” (p. 340) This is clearly far too simplistic and the short concluding discussion of innovation, the growth of privacy, printing and the proliferation of things does not remedy the defect. The absence of almost all reference to politics is both a cause and consequence of this omission; this is very much history with the politics left out.

The book reads like an illustrated guide to an historical museum. Almost all the tangles, contradictions, uncertainties and puzzles have been tidied out of sight. It is assumed that material affluence and innovation will naturally occur. It is assumed that “For most people before the social revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries life was ‘nasty, mean, brutish and short,'” (p. 266) a world from which we gradually escaped. The book represents what one might call inverted historical ‘Orientalism.’ The ‘Other’ does not exist in space, but rather in time, in the ‘foreign country’ of the past. Nor is it that the Other is a desired and superior civilization, but rather a world which is filled with somewhat mentally, socially and materially challenged individuals who will finally achieve liberation. Thus this is a useful book but one which skims with too much innocence over deep chasms.

Alan Macfarlane King’s College, Cambridge

COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group