Monday, 16 March 2015

Economic Culture and the Lower Middling Sort: Risk, Reputation and Reward in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Tawny Paul

In this coming academic year Tawny Paul, Lecturer in Early Modern History, will be undertaking a long-term (9 month) fellowship at the prestigious Huntington Library in California.  The work she will do there in the library's substantial collections will be crucial for her current research project.  While there she will also participate in the lively intellectual life of the research center.  Below Tawny briefly outlines the work she will be doing out west and presents the types of questions that will drive her research.

'Roast beef & port or Bully Bramble Esqr., Justice
of Peace in Wasp Town', 1772. Print courtesy of the
Library of Congress.
One of the major social developments in Britain during the long eighteenth century was the rise of a ‘middling’ sort of people. Like the middle class today, society’s ‘stout midriff’ included a broad swath of individuals, from merchants and lawyers to petty traders and artisans. In many ways, the application of the term ‘middling sort’ to this broad section of society seems problematic. While the middling sorts have been of interest to scholars for some time, most of this work has focused on the elite and most visible members of this broad group: merchants, professionals and civic elites. The ‘lower middling’ sorts remain largely neglected. This project aims to provide a much-needed account of this group.

The wealth, occupations and life experiences of the lower middling were intimately tied to processes of commercialization and economic expansion. In examining ‘economic culture’, I will explore the impact that the economic facts of life had upon individual identities, attitudes and social relationships. Accounting for the lower middling allows us to question some of the major narratives that have framed how we think about the texture of economic relationships in eighteenth-century Britain: For these individuals, was an interpersonal economy, based upon a personal ethic, replaced by a more modern and impersonal system of exchange? What role did gender, and in particular masculinities, play in economic life? How did men who were neither patriarchal providers nor polite gentlemen fabricate their gender identities? How did individuals make sense of the frequent bankruptcies and business failures that plagued middling business?

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