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4 - Degree, Priority and Place: Early modern communities, c.1530–c.1750

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 April 2021

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Summary

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre

Observe degree, priority, and place…

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And, hark! what discord follows; each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy…

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act I, iii

THESE WORDS, SPOKEN by Ulysses in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, a play dated to c.1602, have been much quoted to convey the sense of unsettlement, of change, and the fear of the consequences of change, which was characteristic of late sixteenth-century England. Local history certainly manifests shifting degree, priority and place as different individuals, groups and institutions take central positions in manor and parish, city, town and village and in economic, social, political and religious life.

Among the many major historical developments during this period were the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Protestant Reformation, the creation of an established state church, the growth of royal government and the making of the parish system of local government, the rise of a new gentry, the emergence of yeomen, husbandmen and a growing number of landless labourers, the return of rapid population rises after a period of sustained demographic stagnation, price inflation, agricultural changes (which some historians see as amounting to an agricultural revolution), the growth of educational provision and opportunity, and increased levels of poverty, vagrancy and migration. Some of these developments were generated centrally but had a universal impact locally, as in the case of the establishment of the Church of England and of parish government. Others, such as population growth, with all its economic and social consequences, have been related by modern research (centred on parish registers) to the sum of individual and local circumstances and behaviour. Yet other events, such as the dissolution of the monasteries, and the changes in lordship and landowning that followed, applied in many but not all localities. However, taken together, the changes experienced in sixteenth-century England amount to the greatest upheaval undergone before the transformations of urbanization and industrialization between 1760 and 1850. They also laid the seeds of civil wars, fought throughout Britain in the mid-seventeenth century, but with implications long before and long after 1642–51. All were worked out, to a greater or lesser degree, in actual communities and produced new and extensive documentary and material evidence.

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English Local History
An Introduction
, pp. 131 - 190
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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