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10 - Deference, Paternalism and Popular Memory in Early Modern England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2013

Andy Wood
Affiliation:
Durham University
Steve Hindle
Affiliation:
Foundation Director of Research at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Alexandra Shepard
Affiliation:
Reader in History, University of Glasgow
John Walter
Affiliation:
Professor of History, University of Essex
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Summary

The poetry of John Clare, the most articulate voice of the rural working class of early nineteenth-century England, can be read as a meditation upon the relationship between memory and social relations. Clare drew upon the local traditions with which he had been brought up, setting them as golden memories against the harshness of the social conditions of the time at which he was writing. Within Clare's vision of agrarian history, parliamentary enclosure had fractured a distinct set of social relations, one characterised by paternalism, decency and kindness. In The Shepherd's Calendar, Clare conjures up a lost world of social harmony, when masters drank and socialised with their workers. Clare shows us an old farm labourer working with his younger workmates:

… in some threshing floor

There they wi scraps of songs & laugh and [t]ale

Lighten their an[n]ual toils while merry ale

Goes round & gladdens old mens hearts to praise

The thread bare customs of old farmers days

Who while the sturting sheep wi trembling fears

Lies neath the snipping of his harmless sheers

Recalls full many a thing by bards unsung

& pride forgot – that reign[e]d when he was young

The last two generations of early modern social historians have demonstrated that, whatever else they were, English villages before large-scale parliamentary enclosure were not rural idylls; yet Clare's poetry routinely presents them as such. If the task of the historian lies in the search for unmediated, objective truth, then Clare's work might easily be dismissed as nostalgic retrospection.

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Chapter
Information
Remaking English Society
Social Relations and Social Change in Early Modern England
, pp. 233 - 254
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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