“London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750” by Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph P. Ward

July 13, 2012

No doubt the publication of this account of two centuries in London’s long and eventful history was timed to coincide with the opening less than two weeks hence of the 2012 London Olympics. Indeed, it could help the weary traveler pass a few hours while waiting in the clogged immigration and customs lines at Heathrow Airport. Make no mistake about it, though, this encyclopedic survey by two American professors of history is no guidebook for the tourist, but a serious and remarkably successful attempt to describe how the city reached the cusp of “modernity,” how it emerged from relative obscurity in the middle of the 16th century to become, about 200 years later, “the greatest city in Europe,” with a population whose distinctive traits are recognizable to this day.

Robert O. Bucholz (Loyola University, Chicago) and Joseph P. Ward (University of Mississippi) cover a great deal of ground, but their study boils down to “two principal themes: (1) how the sleepy port and court town of a second-rate power on the fringes of Europe became an imperial capital, a world city, and a harbinger of modernity; and (2) how at least 6,000 to 8,000 immigrants a year came to London, acclimated themselves to it, built it into a great metropolis, and became Londoners.” This process of acclimatization is by now a familiar one, as the world becomes ever more urban and people wrap themselves in the identity of the cities to which they migrate, but in the middle and late years it was virtually unheard of, especially in England at a time when “most English men and women lived in rural villages of as many as 500 or as few as 50 inhabitants.”

The English inhabited “a strict, God-ordained hierarchy” in which a “chain of being” put each person in his or her place. It was a society that “valued order, not opportunity; conformity, not originality, community, not individuality,” in which those at the top of the ladder — the king, the nobility, the highest ministers of the church — were expected to treat the lower orders with paternalistic care and the lower orders, in turn, were expected to grant their superiors deference. London, though, “was arguably the place in England where the Great Chain of Being was most consistently under attack and least likely to work,” because “its population of about 120,000 was ten times larger than its provincial rivals” and because it was already noted “for its social mobility, its inhabitants growing rich or poor, rising or falling in status, very quickly.”

These characteristics had a tenuous grip on London as this book begins, but its central story is how they grew ever deeper roots, to the point that the people who lived there were not merely English men and women but Londoners. Indeed, a strong argument could be made that it was London, not England, that defined them, just as it is New York, rather than the United States, that defines the people of that city. But urban identity is a relatively new phenomenon, so this book helps us understand how it came to be.


’London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750’ by Robert O. Bucholz & Joseph P. Ward (Cambridge University Press)

The authors begin with a walking tour of London in 1550 and close with a walking tour of London in 1750. There are certain, and obvious, constants: the River Thames, London Bridge, the Tower, the City, Westminster, St. Paul’s. Not to mention the streets, “contested territory where the innocent pedestrian had to negotiate horses, carts, mud, pickpockets, drunks, brawls, beggars, barrels being rolled into taverns, porters bearing heavy loads, craftsmen working at their benches, criers and urchins hawking everything from broadsides to brooms, and housewives standing arms akimbo in their doorsteps judging — and sometimes insulting — all who dared to enter their neighborhood.”

That passage describes London in 1550, but it was no less applicable in 1750. By then, many elegant neighborhoods had been constructed — the authors place special emphasis on Grosvenor Square, “the greatest square in Mayfair, and indeed in the whole West End” — but the city still reeked of sewage: “The Thames [was] still London’s open sewer,” a problem that “would not be solved until the construction of a modern underground sewer system by the Metropolitan Board of Works, completed in 1875.” In other words, by the end of the two centuries surveyed in this book, London still had a long way to go before becoming what we now regard as modern, but it had attained habits of mind and behavior that would easily fit in today.

Bucholz and Ward trace the development of these characteristics through several broad areas: the rise of international trade and with it the great growth of the port of London; the emergence of a financial industry, in large part to provide underpinnings and coherence for the traders; the astonishing cultural explosion that included giving “birth to public patronage of the arts in England,” putting London “at the forefront of the creation of the modern world”; the rise of newspapers and magazines (most famously and influentially the Tatler and the Spectator), providing “a degree of social cohesion, of common experience otherwise lacking in the great conurbation”; the emergence of pubs, alehouses and coffeehouses, which brought “people together and allowed them to engage in unregulated, unmonitored speech”; and the catastrophic events of 1665 and ’66, the plague and fire that decimated the city’s population and destroyed much of its center, opening the way for a city “rebuilt and replenished.”

“Some historians,” the authors write, “have posited that the experience of [moving] to London tended to privilege or produce a new kind of person: rational in his or her decision making, open minded about new ideas, flexible in coping with the ups and downs of a new, more capitalist economy — in short, a Londoner” but not, by any stretch of the imagination, a person held in place by the Great Chain of Being. London’s “psychological impact on its new immigrants, the way it acted as a solvent of traditions and parochial customs, encouraged rational economic decision making, casual work arrangements, and the possibility — for the survivors — of social mobility,” a concept theretofore virtually unknown in post-medieval England.

The cultural revolution had parallel effects. The city’s culture “had broken free from court and church to cater to aristocratic, middle-brow, and popular tastes. The result was a truly uncontrollable public sphere in which original thought and artistic creativity could have free reign, so long as they sold.” The early newspapers mostly “were born in war and that, combined with the avid interest of merchants and financiers in the shipping news, meant that they were filled with foreign intelligence. . . . It could be argued that this steady diet of information about affairs beyond England helped create the cosmopolitan mind-set of what was fast becoming a world city.” As to the plague and fire, these occurred during the Restoration.

“We would argue,” the authors say, “that the essential attributes of the Restoration period are not perhaps reason and frivolity, but practicality and irrepressibility. Add to these the essential attributes of Londoners, toughness and good humor. These characteristics determined that, despite the devastating blows of the 1660s, London would not be stopped.”

During these two centuries, Londoners “developed institutions and habits of mind that we tend to find familiar and congenial: personal liberty, equality, democracy, and their hallmarks economic and religious freedom, freedom of assembly and a free press; cosmopolitanism; secularism; pragmatism and even a measure of feminism; social fluidity based on merit and wealth; a value for practicality, rational proof and scientific knowledge over the dictates of tradition and religious dogma; and a critical attitude toward authority.” Add to all that arrogance and smugness, and you have London in a teacup.

yardleyj@washpost.com

LONDON

A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750

By Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph P. Ward

Cambridge Univ. 413 pp. $27.99

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