‘What are yow worthe in goodes if all your debtes were payd?’ John Tanner was asked in 1620 when he appeared as a witness at the church court in Chichester. ‘Twenty shillings,’ he answered. He had been called by one Robert Constable to support a case for defamation against Stephen Pentecost. Pentecost’s witnesses said Tanner couldn’t be trusted: he was ‘a poore needy fellow’ with ‘a little cottage of his owne to dwell in … and noe other meanes to live’. One claimed he ‘could not find whereof he [Tanner] could levye xx s’; others that he was ‘much imployed by and under the said Mr Constable’ whom he called ‘master’, and who provided ‘most of his mayntynaunce’. Constable fought back by getting his other witnesses to denounce Pentecost’s witnesses. A local curate called them ‘poor needy fellows of small or noe credit & such as … may be easily drawne to depose an untruth’. Tanner, meanwhile, was recast as a man who ‘well performed his worke with care’ and ‘such a one as is to be beleved upon his oath’.
Alexandra Shepard has created a historical framework to help us grasp the social and economic significance of cases like this. She has analysed 13,686 answers given to the question of an individual’s worth in ecclesiastical court cases between 1550 and 1728. Church courts dealt with offences such as fornication, defamation and adultery, or with disputes between married couples. More important for Shepard’s purposes, they followed civil law procedure, which meant that instead of appearing in court to testify orally (as in criminal trials), witnesses dictated their evidence to clerks. These written accounts now offer social and cultural historians a rare opportunity to read the actual words used by early modern men and women when testifying. Shepard is unusual in focusing on what might appear to be the most banal elements of this material – most of the time, the question of worth was answered with no more than a sum of money – but she uses them in a lively way, promising a view of contemporary English society ‘from the bottom up’ and an explanation of the changing relations ‘between people and their things’.
The disagreement over Tanner’s ‘worth’ could only take place because, whether or not they told the truth in court, everyone knew the value of their own goods and everyone else’s. They had to, because such mutual assessment was ‘fundamental to the business of everyday life’ in an economy based almost entirely on credit. Two men in another Chichester case were ‘indebted the one to the other by reason they are tradesmen, the one a Carryer and the other a shoemaker and soe they have constant trading the one with the other and doe so usually go upon accompt one way [or] an other untill they fynde convenient tymes to Reckon and accompt’. With cash in short supply, small-scale borrowing was constant. A Londoner borrowed sixpence from his friend ‘towards paying a Reckoning … being in Company together in a Publick House’ and ‘not having silver then in his pocket’. So long as lenders believed borrowers could pay them back (even if they never did), commerce and social relations could be peaceably maintained.
One witness said he knew the worth of his co-witnesses because he had ‘seen theire severall goodes goinge and depastoringe [grazing] upon their severall farmeholdes’, while less visible property could be discovered by asking ‘divers the neighbours of the said Thomas Grene what the said Thomas Grene is worth’. The system of circulating credit generated its own information about property. The witness who said John Tanner couldn’t ‘levye xx s’ claimed to know that because he had recently had a writ of execution against Tanner’s goods. This suggested Tanner had defaulted on a debt to him, an especially damning accusation for a ‘needy fellow’ trying to assert his worthiness, and a humiliating one. If someone was known to be worth less than their debts required, they dropped out of the credit network: you couldn’t trust a poor man.
Trustworthiness went with status, and ‘judgments about social position were firmly founded on the appraisal of wealth.’ By this logic, a poor person ‘may be easily drawne to depose an untruth’ because more susceptible to bribery, so calling someone ‘a poore needy fellow’ reduced the truth value of their words. A witness could be described as ‘a pitifull poore indigent Man … such a one, who is commonly called an Affidavit Man’ or ‘Captain Puffe’ because he ‘will be cited to sweare anything for Mony’. Poverty also often meant dependence, and targeting Tanner’s reliance on his ‘master’ Constable for ‘mayntynaunce’ worked on the assumption that anyone who was paid by someone else couldn’t help but do their employer’s bidding. The poor were apparently not ‘so chary of their soales health’ as substantial people whose oaths were unquestionable.
Wages paid in kind – normal in a credit economy – caused more problems for those who had to labour for their living. Drinking together made for good neighbourly and business relations, but accepting drinks from an employer led to the suspicion of being ‘feasted’ (persuaded to lie on their behalf), and a poor person was especially vulnerable to being characterised as ‘one that will forswear himself for 2 potts of beare’. It was even worse to be seen as receiving without reciprocating, which turned a person into an object of charity, beyond and excluded from credit relations. One witness, when working for a defendant, ‘did take an old sack of his and did weare it or wrap it about his body to keepe him warme’ but emphasised that he ‘did not desire or beg’ for the sack, but ‘did worke the same out in doeinge businesses & worke for him’. He felt how difficult it was to separate paid work from charity, and how his social position depended on the fragile distinction.
Very few witnesses admitted to receiving charity. Men especially claimed to live ‘without dependency of anie’, but it became increasingly difficult between 1550 and 1650. Employment was harder to find and harder to hold on to as the country’s population rose from less than three million to more than five million. The price of basic foodstuffs rose sevenfold while wages only trebled, and by the late 17th century, between a third and half of the population struggled to get by. ‘Proletarianisation’ saw huge numbers lose all resources except their labour. In their 1979 case study of Terling, a village in Essex, Keith Wrightson and David Levine described a massive upward redistribution of wealth between 1525 and 1700, and descriptions of early modern society since theirs have been full of people like Edward Ballard, a ‘pore needy felloe’ with ‘noe certen place of aboad’ living apart from his wife ‘because the parishe is loath she should come thither for charginge the parishe’. He couldn’t find lodgings – people were put off by his ‘noisome or sore leg’ – so he lived in outhouses, barns and ox-stalls. Those who were given relief weren’t much better off: they might get a meagre pension of 12d or 18d a month from the parish. The poorest depended on a range of small kindnesses, like the two Islington wives who got ‘a pipkyn of pottage’ from Lady Taylbushe and some alms from local notables, but still had to send their children to ‘good houses, to aske a mese of pottage or such other victualls’. Nobody would give credit to someone ‘on the parish’, so they could never get off it; charity was a trap.
Some needy or dependent people were defiant, claiming that ‘a poor man may be an honest man as well as a rich man.’ This did not go down well either in or outside the courts. While ‘comming out of the church’ in Hunstanworth (Co. Durham), Roger Doon denied Anthony Ratcliff’s accusation that he was a thief. ‘Although ye be a gent., and I a poore man, my honestye shalbe as good as yours.’ Ratcliff was horrified: ‘What saith thou? Liknes thou thy honestye to myn?’ He ‘lyftyd up his hand at Doon’, but ‘smote him not’ (anyone convicted of fighting in a churchyard could be branded on the cheek or have an ear cut off). Less riskily, many tried to shift attention away from their dependence as labourers and portray themselves as ‘painstaking’ and ‘industrious’ – such as those supporters of John Tanner who declared he ‘performed his worke with care’. These tactics, according to Shepard, were part of a ‘gradual transition that began to privilege what people did over what they had’. She sees this new emphasis as leading to the ideal of industriousness that emerged in print during the Commonwealth, hinting at an early labour theory of value in ‘labouring people’s own assertion of the virtue attached to their work’. Here she takes issue with recent work on the ‘industrious revolution’, which has explained the increasing value attached to labour (and the lengthening hours of work) from the late 17th century as a function of rising consumption: work was valuable because of what it enabled people to buy. Shepard’s witnesses offer an earlier and markedly different account. Industriousness had value for them because it was a challenge to the system of goods-based credit she describes, and played a part in its gradual demise.
Women too, particularly married women, now come into the picture. England in the 17th century saw significant commercial expansion, and Shepard casts women as active contributors to a growing economy. Despite a tendency to describe themselves as ‘nothing worth’ because their goods belonged to their husbands ‘under covert baron’ (a law denying property rights in marriage), she finds wives describing work in ‘verb-oriented’ terms – ‘buying and selling’, ‘keepinge certayne netts’ for fishing, and of course spinning. Housewifery involved farming, dairying, malting, brewing, moneylending and more and all wives were expected to manage the household’s assets; crucial and complex work in an economy of mutual obligations. A few women ran big operations, like the wife of a Cambridge draper who arranged the fetching, soaking, washing and drying of all the table linen in Pembroke Hall, but the norm might have been closer to a Fleet Street widow, paid by cooks ‘to turne the spitt & washe dishes & such like druchery’.
Households’ dependence on the women who ran them can be seen in cases where things went wrong. A wife who was bad at managing assets could bring disaster on herself and her husband, and was often accused of sexual misdemeanours too. Witnesses in the case of Henry Mitchell, a hardworking iron porter, blamed his imprisonment for debt on his wife Lucy’s ‘great extravagances’. She had pawned her clothes and valuable household goods, calling it ‘good house keeping’, and borrowed fifty pounds without telling him. A hat-maker described her sexual advances – showing her breasts and claiming ‘her belly was plump and … she had lost none of her fatt’ – while others reported her announcement in Dyer’s Hall that another man had ‘fuckd her on her … husbands bed’ and that Henry ‘should have the honour to keepe or father’ (i.e. pay for) any resulting children. By the time all this came out in court, he had sent her to a madhouse.
Most marriages were less eventful. Wives and husbands depended on each other to build makeshift economies, like the one described by a Whitechapel man who lived by ‘setting of Copper Grates and such like jobbing work’ while ‘a Woman whom he lives with and goes for his Wife deals in Old Cloaths and he sometimes goes out with her to carry her Bundles’. Men’s professional labels could be as unrevealing of the actual work they did as the title of ‘wife’. Tailors played music for money, and drawers of gold wire turned into porters when there was ‘noe imployment’. One ‘yeoman’ got his living ‘by Chopping of maroe bones’ while his wife ‘doeth Crie oisters & fish about the streetes’.
The title of ‘yeoman’ had more to do with social position or birth than with occupation, and it began to disappear, along with ‘husbandman’, in the late 17th century. Population growth in the hundred years before 1650 coincided with a massive expansion in the wealth of yeomen and gentry (more competition for land allowed for shorter leases and higher rents, and larger landowners reaped most of the benefits of agricultural improvement), while the incomes of those below them struggled to keep pace with inflation. Contemporaries noted the accumulation of ‘bothe lordeshipes and landes … in few mens handes’. But the rules around titles grew more relaxed: ‘Yeomen’ became ‘gentlemen’, as did parish notables and city merchants, lawyers, procters and scriveners, and even guardsmen, brandy-sellers and a stage-door keeper on Drury Lane. People started calling themselves ‘farmer’ as agrarian hierarchies loosened and doing began to rival having as a source of identity.
The explosion of landed wealth dwarfed older, finely graded understandings of status. Forty shillings had been the most frequent answer to the question of worth in the late 16th century. It stood for a huge range of things in the ‘myriad criteria of eligibility and liability’ created by what one Elizabethan justice of the peace called ‘stacks of statutes’. Those worth less than forty shillings should, according to medieval sumptuary law, wear ‘coarse russet cloth’. They did not have to pay the 1523 subsidy (a tax that funded one of Henry VIII’s French wars), or fees in an ecclesiastical court. Forty shillings might be a servant’s annual wage or a convenient value to put on furniture in an inventory (‘a table and frame, eight joined stools, eight cushions, two chairs, one cupboard, and two iron dogs’). Masters who dismissed apprentices without cause could be fined 40s, as could a parish official neglecting his duty, or anyone below the rank of knight caught wearing crimson or blue velvet. To be worth 40s was to be a person of some status at parish level in the mid-16th century, but a hundred years later, as courts got used to hearing the better off routinely state their worth as £100 or more, it came to mean poverty rather than substance.
Courts asked the question of worth less and less often after the Restoration, and responses became more guarded – ‘he thinketh he is not bound to inform any person what he is worth.’ Destruction and seizure of assets during the civil wars meant ‘noe man hath anny thing to call his owne … they ar[e] so surounded with garisons both of the kings & the parliaments what the one leavs the other takes.’ This feeling of insecurity coincided with growing resistance to taxation, especially taxes that required public knowledge of private goods. The hearth tax, for example, was ‘a badge of slavery … exposing every man’s house to be entered into and searched at pleasure by persons unknown to him’, and was replaced in 1696 by the less intrusive window tax. The material trappings of private life evolved as even poor households invested in valuable bedding, pewter and linen rather than cows and sheep, and credit-bearing assets were gradually supplanted by the ‘invisible Estate of money’.
Towards the end of her story, Shepard makes a strange move. She takes us into the world of clocks, mirrors, curtains and tea sets inhabited by the 18th-century middle class. These people consumed goods conspicuously, using them to display status rather than account for personal worth. Other kinds of consumption, she argues, were actually forms of saving. Buying lots of linen, for example, didn’t just make a house more comfortable, it transformed wages into a possession which could easily be reconverted to cash on the flourishing textiles market (probably by women of the household), ideally at a higher price. This is an important point in the history of commerce, but the ‘relationship between people and their things’ seems to have departed from the view of society ‘from the bottom up’. I am left wondering what it meant to John Tanner’s descendants to live in an economy that prized buying and selling above keeping, and what people did more than what they had. Did poor people think of themselves, their society, their goods, in a different way? Were poverty and credit still mutually exclusive?
In a sense, this is testimony to the significance of Shepard’s reassessment of the period: there is no work on the 18th century that picks up where she leaves off. She has shown what the ‘profound breach’ that opened between rich and poor in the hundred years after 1550 did to older ways of understanding status – how the meanings of worth were stretched and finally broken. In doing so she has given us a vivid, original description of that old economic order.