BOOK REVIEW: The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Culture in Early Modern England (Hadfield, Dimmock, and Shinn, Eds.)–Review by Nadia Van Pelt

BOOK REVIEW: Andrew Hadfield, Matthew Dimmock and Abigail Shinn (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Culture in Early Modern England. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. 382 pp. £ 85,50. ISBN 978-1-4094-3684-3.

The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Culture in Early Modern England offers a much-needed review of traditional and current research for scholars of Early English culture, and a welcome introduction to the field for BA and MA students of history and literature and their lecturers. The realms of Early English popular culture can be confusing to those entering the discipline due to a plethora of works which have been written since Mikhael Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World (1984). Bakhtin’s study, informed by the context of 1930s Russia in which it was written, identified the carnivalesque and ‘grotesque realism’ as the forces underlying Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, in which the topsy-turvy world of festivity was closely associated with the challenging of authorities. In the 1970s to 1990s, Bakhtin’s work inspired scholars of Early English public rural and urban life, who followed a Marxist trend favouring a binary opposition between ‘authorities’ and ‘populace’, for example in Natalie Zemon Davis’s influential “The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-century France” (1971), Michael D. Bristol’s Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (1985), Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978), Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England: the Ritual Year 1400-1700 (1994), and David Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 (1985). More recently, scholars have moved away from this approach, and have acknowledged that social and cultural divides are not always determined by class conflict, but are much more complex. This also applies to the study of popular culture. Indeed, taking different stands towards the question ‘whose culture’ popular culture really was, the Ashgate Research Companion, as Dimmock, Hadfield, and Shinn note in their introduction, provides a historiography of studies in Early Modern popular culture, as such highlighting ‘problems of cultural transmission’ (7). Furthermore, it looks at ‘everyday routines and practices of quotidian experience’ (7), and addresses the ways in which cultural structures were understood by early modern people (7).

The section ‘Key Acts’ is concerned with historiography and opens up new branches of research for popular culture studies. Arnold Hunt studies oral culture and popular speech, making a claim for studying this kind of cultural transmission in its own right, not as a branch of ideas subordinate to written culture (pp. 13-29). Edel Lamb addresses the complicated concept of ‘youth culture’, observing that studies in youth culture have mostly focused on riots and misrule connected to the carnivalesque, but that these studies have overlooked young persons’ ‘participation in literary cultures’ (32), something which Lamb seeks to put to rights. Tracy Hill in ‘Festivals’ offers an overview of late Jacobean pageantry, celebration, bonfires and related merriness, and studies the importance of these events besides their entertainment value. She observes that “festivals reveal the impact of social, political and (especially) religious change on the mass of the population. They acted as a means by which traditions and rituals could be both memorised and adapted” (56). Femke Molekamp in “Popular Reading and Writing” focuses on different kinds of publications—addressing some misconceptions about illiteracy along the way— that were readily available to the public and explores the workings of popular literary trends through the case study of “reports of miraculously starving maidens” (60). In Tara Hamling’s “Visual Culture” “the permeability between various spheres of experience” (77) in early modern England are acknowledged. Hamling is interested in “the role of shared visual forms and motifs in creating connections between them” (77). Angus Vine’s chapter “Myth and Legend” addresses the importance of myth in popular culture (104). Vine describes to what extent popular culture relied on myths that were widely known due to their being part of the grammar school curriculum, available in handbook publication form, and much-used in drama and other forms of theatrical entertainment. In the final chapter in this book section, Mike Rodman offers a ‘historiography of religious belief’ in which he addresses controversies, misinterpretations, and shares new strategies for further research (119).

In the section “Everyday Life”, issues are addressed that together give an overview of early modern daily practicalities. As a consequence of this theme, this section of the book is more practical and less theoretical, basing itself directly on the primary sources with which the studies engage. Ian Frederick Moulton opens the section with “Courtship, Sex, and Marriage”, noting that although there are many similarities between today’s views on relationships and its early modern equivalents; there are some remarkable differences. For example, he notes that “early modern culture had no concept of pornography” (145). Also, he observes that “despite the wealth of evidence of same-sex eroticism, it did not seem to categorise people as homo or hetero-sexual”. Indeed, he notes that sex in different forms could however been deemed ‘sinful’ or ‘diseased’ by some early modern people (145). Insights into food and drink are provided by Phil Withington, in relation to economic situation, labour, and what he calls “topographies of everyday eating and drinking” (156): physical and symbolic places of consumption. Mark Netzloff addresses labour in general (urban, rural and literary) (163-176), while Helen Smith in “Gendered Labour” focuses on women’s work (177-192). As to other ways of making a living, Duncan Salkeld studies crime in its many varieties. Popular xenophobia is addressed by Matthew Birchwood and Matthew Dimmock. This section ends with a chapter on games by Joachim Frenk, and an analysis of the custom of mending, or needle-work, by Abigail Shinn, which explores the realities behind the craft explored in the Tudor interlude Gammer Gurton’s Needle.

Section three is titled “Experiences of the World” and moves beyond the historiographies of concepts addressed in section one, as well as factual approaches to well-documented everyday practices, into the realms of historical reconstruction, needed in order to establish how early modern people ‘experienced’ the culture in which they lived. This section of the book uses more literary sources than the previous two sections, as plays, ballads, broadsheets and other forms of media offer insights into people’s perceptions of current affairs and social and political status quos. Andrew Hadfield opens this section by offering an overview of the way in which politics changed from being connected to religious belief to something which was ‘still inextricably linked to religion’, but that was also developing into ‘a public sphere’ in which a more modern understanding of politics was accepted (253). Following up on his article, Elizabeth Sauer in ‘Riot and Rebellion’ studies protest literature that was written as a reaction to popular risings. She argues that the influence of pamphlets and popular literature on the Civil War was greater than scholars have allowed for, and that “investigations of the textual revolts that accompanied rioting call for a reassessment of Civil War historiography” (280). She continues: “indeed, a strong case can be made for the war as ‘a grand rebellion’” (280). Neil Rhodes offers a fascinating contribution on the subject of “Time”, arguing that “the movement of time was a physical experience” (284). He links notions of time to light and darkness, the passing of the seasons, and ultimately, festive form (287). Using as a case study Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Rhodes argues that the poetry in this play combines the different kinds of conceptions of time that early modern people could have had. Ceri Sullivan addresses the notion of ‘property’ through a study of Richard Dafforne’s Merchants Mirrour (1635), and suggests new steps in research on early modern research into property (305). A chapter on “Popular Medicine” by Margaret Healy seeks to “look beyond the hostile rhetoric and professional jealousies of medical men such as Herring, Securis and Hall” (310), the doctors of affiliated with the Barber Surgeons Hall and College of Physicians. Indeed, Healy discusses local healers such as ‘cunning-women’, and other unlicensed practitioners. The following chapter is very much related as it studies other popular views on such women, in Simon Davies’ “Superstition and Witchcraft”. In this chapter, Davies makes a convincing case for having ‘popular magic’ be understood as a practice of ‘popular religion’ instead of ‘popular superstition’ as many early modern Christians would have practiced it as part of their religious belief (334). Rory Rapple in “Military Culture” uses broadside ballads to investigate what early modern people thought about the Civil War, juxtaposing the enjoyment and the terrors of the series of conflicts that make up this war. Finally, Lawrence Manley in “London and Urban Popular Culture” joins aspects of all three parts of the book, in his analysis of festive and literary culture in London, and claims popular culture to be fundamental to the process of urbanisation joining the ‘cultural worlds’ from people from all ranks and stations in society (370).

Balanced, critical, and aware of the gaps in historical records that scholars have to work around, this collection does not overcategorise in its use of terminology, showing the editors’ awareness of trends in critical theory that influence scholars’ views on popular culture, and of the limitations and obstacles one faces when addressing this field of research. Although the edited collection form inevitably invites overlap and repetitions, the editors have managed to place the chapters in such order that they complement each other well and keep the reiteration of ideas to a minimum. This collection of essays really does what it sets out to do—and more—as in its study of historiography, as well as an extensive variety of primary sources concerned with all aspects of early modern everyday life, work, entertainment, consumption and health, it opens up new fields of research that are currently underexplored. Without undermining Bakthin’s work, or the studies inspired by his populace-authority binary, the current study seeks more nuanced views as it challenges period boundaries when addressing processes of time, rather than the ‘medieval’ versus ‘Renaissance’ focus that we see in Bakhtin-influenced studies. The notion of popular culture as culture enjoyed by all social groups in society rings through every chapter. I strongly recommend The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Culture in Early Modern England to students and researchers familiarising themselves with the time period, as well as to experts in the field.
Nadia T. van Pelt

Nadia T. van Pelt is a lecturer of English Literature at the University of Leiden. She was awarded her PhD at the University of Southampton in 2014. Her forthcoming monograph is under contract with Routledge. She is also editing a collection of essays with Dr Clare Egan, titled Meanings of Time and Self in Early Modern Europe.



Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (London: John Wiley and Sons, 1984).
Bristol, Michael D., Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (London: Methuen, 1985).
Burke, Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).
Hutton, Ronald, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: the Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford: University Press, 1994).
Underdown, David, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
Zemon Davis, Natalie, ‘The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-century France’, Past and Present 50 (1971), pp. 41-75.