The Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort: Writing and Material Culture, 1560-1660

The ‘Middling Culture’ 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.

In particular it aims to study together the textual, visual and material work they authored and created, and that which they bought as entertainment, possessions or decoration.

Overview

Unlike their elite counterparts, 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, religious 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.

Research team

Dr Tara Hamling is working with Prof Catherine Richardson at the University of Kent and Prof Graeme Earl at Kings College University on this major AHRC-funded project, running for three years from April 2019.

Outputs and engagement

For more information please visit the project's website: https://middlingculture.com/