Playing truant with some mid-Tudor writers at the IHR

Played truant from politics last week to drop in on the Seminar in Medieval and Tudor London History at the Institute for Historical Research, to hear Mike Jones from Girton College, Cambridge speak on : ‘O London, London’: Mid-Tudor Literature and the City.”

I wasn’t sure what ‘mid-Tudor’ would be, it turned out in this case to be late 1540s and early 1550s – a dangerous time with its setbacks for reformers after Cromwell’s fall and Anne Askew’s death – the city “a fractured and contested site of spiritual movements”. And also a time of massive inflation accompanying the debasement of the coinage. This is a bit earlier than my chief personal interest here, which revolves around Isabella Whitney and the end of Elizabeth’s reign, but enjoyed the account of what came before her nonetheless.

We heard that the literature of the period had a strong focus on the urban poor, words that have a strong echo today (that’s my interpretation, not Jones’s): e.g. Latimer’s sermon “in London their brother shall die in the streets for cold”; or the reformer Thomas Lever “old fathers, poor widows, and young lie begging in the mirey streets”. And echoing today even more, there was a lot of anxiety expressed about the “able-bodied” poor hiding amid the deserving poor and thereby getting aid. Latimer: “In times past men were full of pity and compassion; but now there is no pity.”

And there was a lot of concern about the expansion of the urban marketplace and increased varieties of goods available: Henry Brinklow coined the lovely word trish-trash, which often referred to items of “Popery”, but could also mean simply a critique of greedy consumption. Lever: “be not merchants of mischief”, “silks and sables and foolish feathers”.

Also we heard that it was hard for the works to escape the metaphorical shadows of Troy or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s hugely influential description of the foundation of the city, and of course Biblical cities, particularly Babylon.

Many modern echoes…

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