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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

13 - The ‘Middling Sort’: An Emergent Cultural Identity



Oh, what a pleasure is business! How far preferable is an active busy life (when employed in some honest calling) to a supine and idle way of life, and happy are they whose fortune it is to be placed where commerce meets with encouragement and a person has the opportunity to push on trade with vigour …

Much of the work on ‘sorts’ of people and their place in the social order has focused on contemporaries’ language of definition and identity – what individuals and groups meant by referring to themselves and others as ‘middling’, or as the ‘better sort’, ‘chief inhabitants’ or ‘vestrymen’. This reflected the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1980s, which focused on the importance of contemporary language to understanding the contours of society in the past, in reaction to anachronistic categorisations of people based on functionalist socio-economic groupings, or on modern concepts of class. The most comprehensive work on the nature of the middling sort, by Henry French, has concluded that there was most definitely a group of households upon whom we can look back and see that their relative wealth, material possessions, reputation and power in their communities marked them out. In contrast to their poorer neighbours, the middling sort resided in houses with more rooms, fireplaces and furniture, wore more expensive clothes, and occupied positions of authority. But despite these similar ways of living, and the associational business of involvement in local government and hospitality, French could find little evidence of a national as opposed to locally contingent self-identification.

Contemporaries were in fact mostly uninterested in defining themselves as members of national social groups below the level of ethnicity. They were far more concerned with keeping a sharp eye out for a wide range of forms of behaviour among people they knew, which indicated, among others, noble, genteel, fine, pleasing, brave, honest, painstaking, laborious, industrious, poor, mean, roguish or base qualities. (All of these characteristics being further refined, on occasion, with such descriptions as vain, quarrelsome, self-interested, idle or beggarly.) In terms of collective designation, phrases like ‘the better sort’ or ‘chief inhabitants’ were more common usages than ‘middling sort’. This was because the economic world they lived in made their status relatively precarious and difficult to maintain over time, and adjectives like ‘chief’ or ‘better’ defined current inclusivity more effectively.