The Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort: writing and material culture 1560 - 1660

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of English


This project aims to transform our sense of the way reading and writing fitted into the everyday cultural lives of a very important but under-researched group in early modern England - the middling sort - the literate urban households whose members often wrote for a living. We currently know very little about the cultural lives of these households, partly because they have been of little scholarly interest, and partly because the evidence we need to explore them is cared for by unconnected institutions - libraries, archives, online repositories, and museums - which makes it impossible to see together the textual, visual and material work they authored and created, and that which they bought as entertainment, possessions or decoration.

Unlike their elite counterparts, therefore, we have no coherent view of middling aesthetic practices which would allow us to understand their creativity fully. This is even more remarkable as some of the most popular writers in English, among them William Shakespeare, were members of this group. Understanding how their literary, artistic and material production and consumption related to one another lets us examine fully the creative environment in which the writers grew up and participated. But it also allows us to reach beyond these well-known figures, to explore the impact of those environments on their wives, mothers, sisters, apprentices and servants - individuals for whom a classical grammar school education was not a possibility, but who nevertheless experienced its impact in the domestic and urban environments in which they lived and worked - for example as books in the household, sayings or images painted on the walls.

And through understanding the environments and practices of creativity for these families, this project aims, with its partner the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in particular, to encourage debate about how the arts might help in overcoming barriers to social mobility today. It will provide historical evidence that speaks to and allows us to interrogate our contemporary tendency to dissociate economic entrepreneurship from the rich aesthetic and cultural contexts that encourage it and benefit from it. Seeing clearly how this group influenced their cultural environments to create social and political change will offer new ways of looking at the relationships between social status, creativity and the arts in the present.

The project will analyse five case-study communities - Banbury, Bristol, Chesterfield, Ipswich and Stratford-upon-Avon - and a range of specific households within them (ones engaged in different types of writing that also left evidence of their material choices and investments), drawn from the families of provincial administrators, clerics, professional writers and individuals from the medical, theatrical and print trades, active in the century 1560-1660. We will work with two mutually-dependent strands of evidence: literary production and consumption such as the household, personal and urban administrative archives to which these groups contributed; and material production and consumption - the domestic and urban buildings (their architecture, decoration and furniture), clothing and personal objects (including those for reading and writing) with which they were associated.

Analysed together, this information will allow us to reconstruct the full range of middling aesthetic and scribal culture, and the levels of skill and expertise involved in its production, and to share these materials and their implications with a wide audience. In addition to creating educational resources for schools and museums, our work will allow us to recreate a specific example of a middling lifestyle, by digitally modelling a period room, complete with the sounds, lighting and objects of the time. This digital model will give another way to think 'inside' the material and textual lives of the middling sort, and to engage others in this work.

Planned Impact

Our research will benefit:
1) Students/ those interested in the literary history of the early modern period at all levels.
2) The Heritage sector: visitors to, those with responsibility for, and volunteers at historic sites.
3) Institutions of all types (libraries, archives, museums) with relevant holdings of materials relating to the middling sort.
4) Special interest groups involved with one aspect of 2) above (e.g. furniture; buildings; paintings; textiles)
5) Creative Industries: theatre, multimedia and film companies that engage in historical reconstruction.

Our beneficiaries will be served via four key impact mechanisms: an online exhibition, digital reconstructions, educational resource aligned to UK national curriculum key stage three (11-14 yrs), and two public study days.

Online Exhibition: Featuring examples of all middling cultural objects (e.g. letters, commonplace books, administrative writing, poetry, wall paintings, domestic and personal objects - see supporting visual material), it will provide users with accessible means to interact with project sources. It will offer useful content for heritage professionals, and will be licensed to encourage such reuse. We will provide links to the comprehensive project archive so that more specialist audiences can benefit, including those from archives/ museums and special interest groups. The latter will also benefit from content produced in collaboration with them e.g. specific sections focused on furniture of interest to relevant societies and auctioneers. Finally, the exhibition will provide insights of value to creative industries working in historical time periods, with specific pointers towards information of value in reconstructing environments (physically or digitally), including blueprints, details of textures and fixings, accessible commentaries on textual sources. Whilst public contributions will be invited (subject to auditing; spam filtering) any areas linked from the KS3 materials (see below) will only relate to team-created content.

Digital Reconstructions: Creating a 'virtual room' will provide users with an opportunity to experience the cultural lives of the middling sort, and the relationships amongst reading, writing and material culture. We will produce a small number of high quality acoustic and visual simulations, rather than a broad range of digital representations. Our project team has produced materials of broadcast quality (some seen by more than 40 million TV viewers) and we will ensure that the museum and online experience is engaging and thought provoking. The content will be of value to heritage professionals as an example of heritage interaction design and representation, and as a source of materials for their own work. We will encourage other museums' use of our content, including the reconstruction assets produced to make the final reconstructions. Similarly, we will enable other reconstructions' use of the materials and expertise developed by the project. Commercial applications of our content will be encouraged and managed by the host institution.

KS3 Educational Resource: This will support students to build a critical understanding of the impact that the lives of the middling sort had on their creative outputs, challenging them to explore the connections between early modern environments and creativity and those that pertain now. The resource will link through to the online exhibition as a means to access examples of the project archive appropriate to this topic and to the age group. The resource will be shared freely via the online exhibition in order to reach a broader audience.

Public Study Days: The project team and partners will provide accessible summaries of the research and its implications, targeted at our beneficiaries via edited highlights of talks and additional materials in the online exhibition. We will invite our beneficiaries to contribute to these, bringing their expertise into the project.


10 25 50