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Early Modern Kent, 1540-1640. (Reviews).

Michael Zell, ed., Early Modern Kent, 1540-1640

(Kent History Project Series 5.) Kent: The Boydell Press, 2000. x + 25 illus. + 540 pp. $90. ISBN: 0-85115-585-5.

For the past twenty years, scholars of early modern England have come forward with a proliferation of regional studies, seeking to understand religious, political, economic, and demographic change as it was experienced individually and often uniquely, county by county. By examining historical developments in particular localities, such scholars have been able to refute various sweeping and problematic generalizations while also extracting powerful insights concerning the nature of change as it was experienced among individuals tied to a limited time and place. Ambitious attempts to understand early modern England through its whole rather than its parts can and should still be attempted; but studies of England through its regions are here to stay, and must be taken into account in any pursuit, for example, of the English reformation(s) or Civil War.

Kent was a particularly important county in the scheme of early modern England, and in Early Modern Kent, 1540-1640, Michael Zell oversees an exhaustive collection of essays by different authors, all of whom focus in on Kentish towns, agriculture, landholding patterns, and power structures, as well as on religious and political change during a century which found itself straining towards "modernity." Situated near London and various seaports, home to the diocese of Canterbury, Kent proceeded along its own historical trajectory while making essential contributions to England as a whole; moreover, while nor itself uniform from town to town, Kent nevertheless produced--according to one of the book's primary themes--a certain "identity or mythology," which was firmly in place by the mid-seventeenth century. This forging of what Zell labels a "county consciousness" (7) came in the midst of much change and dynamism across the century. Simply on the level of county governance, as Zell and Patricia Hyde write, the pa rish would find its scope extended to include civil administrative functions, the office of justice of the peace would be transformed and enlargened, and new ad hoc commissions as well as the office of lord lieutenant would be created -- all of which occurred across England, of course, but which were met in Kent by the response of an elite group of conservative gentry power brokers able to skillfully navigate between local demands and the injunctions from London.

In a separate chapter, Zell proceeds to examine Kentish patterns of landholding, which was characterized by gentry consolidation but was also flexible enough to encompass lesser owners such as family farmers who increasingly focused on commercial and profitable economic activity in agriculture as well as industry. A limited review cannot do justice to the subsequent chapters exploring such activity, which, like Jacqueline Bower's chapter on Kent towns, are enriched by detailed demographic analyses. The final four chapters, covering religious change, witchcraft trials, and ideological politics, garner particular attention, however, as they are situated in the middle of heated ongoing debates. According to Zell, the reformation was met in Kent with popular support -- a fact which was due in part to a tradition of Lollardy and anti-clericalism as well as the county's proximity to seaports and traders bearing heretical ideas. But "Protestantism did not rake place without a struggle," Zell writes (184); from the prophesies of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, to the agitation produced by the dissolution of the monasteries and the orders to destroy traditionally Catholic objects of worship, the reformation inspired some resistance among laymen, clergy, and gentry with connections to conservative factions in Henry's court. For the most part, however, the majority of Kentish people saw the reformation wind and "blew with it" (207), and in any case, after Edward's reign the sense that Catholicism in Kent had come to an end was irrevocable. Not even Mary -- and her man in Kent, the Canterbury archdeacon Nicholas Harpsfield -- could eliminate Protestantism in Kent, despite the burning of fifty-nine martyrs.

In a highly interesting chapter on witch hunts, Malcolm Gaskill proves the value of regional or county studies when he examines the case from Kent alone, and emerges with a more shaded picture of the social reality which lay behind the trials. At least 250 suspected witches appear in the legal records from Kent between the years of 1559 and 1702; while many of them accord with the dominant historio-graphical interpretation of the accused as poor, elderly, and female, Gaskill demonstrates that, in Kent at least, such individuals were not necessarily socially marginal, nor were the social circumstances and motivations behind the accusations monolithic or as simple as has sometimes been presumed.

Finally, Jacqueline Eales also disputes current theories, in this case brought forward by the Civil War revisionists, when she places religious and political ideologies, especially concerning royal power and the church settlement, as essential to the concerns of the Kent gentry. In doing so, the gentry of Kent worked off the center -- or London -- while maintaining their own county course, just as the historians in this volume maintain their own fine line between dominant historiographical generalities and particular regional actualities. With its attendant charts and graphs, and its bringing together of disparate fields of inquiry under one Kentish roof, Early Modern Kent is a valuable addition to the understanding of early modern England in a time of change.
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Author:Covington, Sarah
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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