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Townspeople and Nation: English Urban Experiences 1540-1640. (Reviews).

Robert Tittler, Townspeople and Nation: English Urban Experiences 1540-1640.

Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. xi + 251 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8047-3869-6.

This brief book will enhance Robert Tittler's reputation as a sensitive interpreter of the early modern English urban experience. Already the author of a comprehensive study, The Reformation and the Towns in England Politics and Political Culture, 1540-1640 (Oxford, 1998), Tittler, in Townspeople and Nation, develops many of the themes and ideas stated there. To assert that some of the themes of Townspeople and Nation have been presented in earlier work is by no means to suggest that the book is simply a rehash. Instead, Tittler's ideas about early modern English towns are explored from some fresh and intriguing angles.

Central to his argument is the idea that the early modern English town must be understood in the context of the social, demographic, religious, and cultural changes which occurred in England in the sixteenth century. In this respect, Townspeople and Nation represents an updating, similar in approach and conclusions, of the earlier path breaking work on the early modern English town by Peter Clark and Paul Slack. In 1972 Clark and Slack edited an important collection of essays, Crisis and Order in England Towns, 1540-1640, which they followed in 1976 with a textbook, English Towns in Transition, 1500-1700. In both works Clark and Slack attempted to inject some new life into urban history by describing the tensions which arose in English towns as local elites tried to maintain order in the face of convulsive changes in society and culture.

In part because scholarship has changed since the time Clark and Slack did their initial work, Tittler is able to move beyond some of their conclusions while adhering to their basic theme. Like Clark and Slack, Tittler views the English urban experience in the sixteenth century as a constant struggle to maintain order during a time of dramatic change. Unlike them, and following lead of many recent scholars, Tittler emphasizes religion as a force for both order and instability.

In Townspeople and Nation Tittler uses individual biographies of some little known but significant figures to paint a larger portrait of urban life. These biographies include sketches of the efforts of John Browne, mayor of the Lincolnshire port town of Boston, to acquire property in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries. Tittler also describes the attempts to design and build a town hall in the community of Blandford in central Dorset, the importance of a portrait of the mayor and mayoress of Gloucester, the philanthropy of a London merchant named Thomas White, the writing of a local history of Great Yarmouth by Henry Manship, and the career of Henry Hardware, a Puritan reformer in Chester. He concludes with examinations of the lives of some criminals and a spinster.

All of the stories are interesting and well told, but three call for particular attention. In the essay on the mayor and mayoress of Gloucester, Tittler demonstrates how a Puritan community could commission a painting of a long dead, Catholic mayor and his wife in order to help create a sense of civic memory. In the essay on Thomas White, Tittler explores the charity of a Catholic who gave like a Puritan: to stimulate economic development without requiring prayers in return or for salvation for himself. Finally, Tittler, through his examination of the career of the three-time mayor of Chester, Henry Hardware, explains the attraction of Puritanism as a force for social order in the 1590s.

In conclusion Robert Tittler has written a short, but fascinating book on English urban life from about 1540 to 1640. Everyone interested in early modern England will profit from reading it.
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Author:Palmer, William (English theologian)
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:617
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