Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Review to be published in the Economic History Review

Phil Withington, Society in early modern England: the vernacular origins of some powerful ideas. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 298. 23 figs. 14 illus.  ISBN 9780745641300 Pbk. £16.99)
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This volume does something new, remarkable and important.  It uses a quantitative approach to the evolution of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century language and word use as the basis for a re-analysis of the significance of corporatism and sociability in the creation of a ‘modern’, and more specifically ‘early modern’ society.  In the process, it attempts to re-integrate the economic and the cultural, the linguistic and the material.

Following an extended and sophisticated account of the development of the profession of economic and social history in Britain since the nineteenth century, organised around the evolution of the phrase ‘early modern’, Withington dives into an entirely innovative form of analysis.  The core of this study is a new mapping of the appearance of a series of key words in the titles of all the books that appear in the English Short Title Catalogue for the period up to 1700.  ‘Modern’, ‘Society’, ‘Company’, ‘Wit’, ‘Civil’, ‘Commonwealth’, among a host of related terms, have been trawled from the full title fields of the ESTC, and transformed into frequency graphs.  These graphs have then been used to illustrate, first, that terms signifying and labelling a specific kind of ‘modernity’ (based in a notion of what Withington terms the ‘sociable self’), became prominent in the latter half of the sixteenth century, and in particular during the 1570s and 80s.   And second, that terms like ‘commonwealth’, which referenced an older form of social ordering, went into relative decline (particularly after the Civil Wars).

Withington’s conclusions essentially re-enforce a growing consensus among historians about the importance of sociability and forms of corporatism in creating a transitional Res Publica, (in this context a kind of beer and skittles ‘public sphere’), that contributed to and resulted from both a newly decentralised but bureaucratic state, and the development of corporate capitalism (with a remarkably sociable scientific revolution thrown in for good measure).  In many respects, and in company with Keith Wrightson, Mike Braddick, Steve Hindle and Andy Wood, Withington is pushing back the origins of Jürgen Habermas’s ‘authentic public sphere’ from the 1690s to the 1570s, and attempting to articulate the relationship between ‘modernity’ (in both its statist and possessive individualist forms) and civic humanism.

As a description of early modern English and British culture, and the evolution of the state and the economy, this is entirely compelling.  Habermas’ chronology, based on coffee and newsprint, has always been suspect even if his overarching analysis of the role of public debate in the history of the nation state remains compelling.  More problematic is the methodology Withington uses to illustrate this new chronology.

As historians we are faced with an entirely new kind of evidence – mass digitised text - billions of words, retrievable through keyword searches.   To make sense of these new resources we need new tools; and this book is a laudable first attempt at creating precisely these.  Unfortunately the methodology used here is essentially unconvincing.  What appears on a title page of a book, on the colophon, and end papers, changed dramatically between the late fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries – the very nature of a book changed.  For all the heroic efforts of cataloguers and bibliographers to force early modern print objects into a single format, to tame their ‘slipperiness’, it is not credible to read the title of a book published in 1520 in the same way as one produced in 1690.  Nor is it necessary to take this aggressively reductionist approach.  Withington could, for instance, have translated the text of his titles in to a formal corpus, and used the tools of quantitative linguistics to chart the rise and fall of his ‘keywords’ against more robust measures of textual density, variety and proximity.   By restricting himself to only the most basic statistical techniques we are left with a series of graphs measuring change in a way that at first sight seems intuitively reasonable, indeed common sensical, but which belie all the subtle complexity that historians have found in language through the many decades of the linguistic turn.  In essence, what Withington has produced is a clear and compelling narrative of the evolution of the ‘sociable self’, and an equally clear series of measures charting the development of the language of title pages, but has not effectively related one to the other.

This will seem a harsh criticism, but it is not meant to be.  As a profession we are confronted with both the real challenge of dealing with massive electronic texts (produced in half a dozen different ways, and of hugely varying quality), and the need to create usable and intellectually credible tools that can both deal with words in their billions, and at the same reflect our new understanding of the complexity hidden in a single phrase.  Dr Withington has taken an all-important first step in the direction of a new form of historical scholarship and we should all look forward to the next.

University of Hertfordshire                                                                 TIM HITCHCOCK


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