Early

"[B]egot between tirewomen and tailors": Commodified Self-Fashioning in Michaelmas Term
Mathew Martin
University of Alberta
mmartin@gpu.srv.ualberta.ca

Martin, Mathew. ""[B]egot between tirewomen and tailors": Commodified Self-Fashioning in Michaelmas Term." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999):2.1-36 <URL:
http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-1/marttail.html>.

 

  1. When Thomas Middleton turned his attention to city comedy in the early years of the seventeenth century, the genre was in the formative stages of its development. It was not yet the streamlined vehicle for the display of manners and wit that it was to become, and the dramatists experimenting with the genre appropriated conventions from a wide range of sources: Roman New Comedy, humours psychology, satire and the prodigal son play, to name a few. Early instances of the type--Chapman's An Humourous Dayís Mirth (1597), Jonson's Every Man out of His Humour (1599), and the anonymous The London Prodigal (1604), for example--are characterized by an overt moral intention: moral norms are reinforced through the ridicule of contemporary misbehaviour presented in the form of the humours character or the prodigal. As Middleton wrote didactic and satiric verse before turning to drama, it is tempting to explain his attraction to the genre as a result of its moral purposiveness. But this is not the case in any simplistic sense. If Middleton was attracted by the morally and socially normative intentions of city comedy, his own city comedies problematize those norms in a number of ways, primarily by representing them as the outcomes and instruments of conflict, the conventions of social dramas performed by the self-interested actors who populate the theatrical London that constitutes the plays' fictional worlds. The plays skeptically bracket the truth value of moral and social norms to investigate their function in social conflict.

  2. The city comedy on which this paper focuses, Michaelmas Term (1605), is concerned with the social dramas that blur or reinforce distinctions of social status, distinctions underpinning the society in which Middleton lived. Yachnin remarks that this early city comedy marks a turning point in the mode of Middleton's dramatic representation of social order, a "crucial transition from a sacramental to a scientific view of class differentiation. The sacramental view seeks to wed the social order to a divinely established universal order so that power and privilege can be presented as the natural and ordained concomitants of rank. The scientific view undertakes to divorce society from the ordained order of the universe" ("Social Competition" 87). Theatrical rather than scientific, though, best characterizes Middleton's altered perspective. The sacramental view joined social order to divine order through the notion of birth. A person's social position at birth was divinely ordained and endowed that person with an innate social essence that defined his or her social trajectory. By birth one was a commoner, a member of the gentry or a peer, and consequently birth determined one's position in the scheme of distribution of goods, power and privilege. Departure from one's native place and prescribed vocation sinfully disrupts the commonwealth's divinely sanctioned order. The sacramental view, then, was fundamentally anti-theatrical, ideally eliminating slippage between birth and the social roles an individual might play and consequently legitimating the existing social order as natural and just. Social mobility has the potential to disrupt this sacramental view of society, and Michaelmas Term breaks the link between social order and its legitimating ontological ground by taking the performativity implicit in social mobility as the norm for all social status. For Middleton, even gentle birth, the crucial dividing line between those fit to govern and those not, is a matter of appearances.
  3.  

  4. Early modern England witnessed unprecedented social mobility. [1] England's emerging capitalist economy pried people from their 'natural' places in a number of ways, allowing people to create for themselves new social roles and identities. London's rise as a hub of international and domestic trade and a centre of manufacture was accompanied by the expansion of the number of men of business whose 'trade' the traditional guild structure could define only inadequately if at all, men whose wealth had little to do with the craft of the guild to which they nominally belonged but was rather capital garnered from and pumped back into the importing and exporting of commodities, developing new industries outside guild regulations, and money-lending. [2] A few of these men amassed spectacular fortunes, and merchant wealth in general was on the rise. [3] Through the crown's dependence on these wealthy Londoners for revenue in the form of loans, taxes and customs duties, this wealth was translated into power and influence beyond the civic sphere not easily accounted for in conceptions of the commonwealth in which the lines of power were hierarchical and unidirectional. Some merchants took advantage of a real-estate market quickened by the dissolution of the monasteries to buy their way into the aristocracy. [4] The Tudor monarchsí reliance on 'new men,' educated but less well-born public officials, to administer the increasingly complex machinery of centralizing government provided other opportunities for social mobility. James took this process several steps further by selling knighthoods and peerages. [5] Birth, then, could be seen not as a natural essence completely defining one's social trajectory but as an acquired social position, a commodity to be gained or lost. In this period the aristocracy in general was caught up in these ideologically disruptive socio-economic changes, not only as victims through their heavy borrowing but also as active participants through investments and their development of capitalist agriculture. [6] And if as borrowers they increased the market for and hence numbers of money-lenders, as capitalist farmers, through contractual rent agreements and enclosure, they also increased the number of vagrants, another group whose transgressive social mobility was highly visible and disconcerting. [7]
  5.  

  6. Parvenu, middleman, money-lender, 'new man,' vagrant: these socially mobile and socially dislocated individuals traversed hierarchical boundaries of social order or existed in their interstices. Such figures created ideologically threatening disjunctions between birth and social role, disjunctions all the more threatening for their visibility. Rogue literature expressed an anxiety about the vagrant that focussed on the vagrant's rootlessness and the performative existence it enabled (and necessitated.) A Caveat for Common Cursitors Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566), for example, written by Justice of the Peace Thomas Harman, responds to the vagrant's disturbing social mobility by locating points of origin for the vagrants with whom Harman comes into contact and exposing their disguises as the sick, the poverty-stricken, or even as respectable members of the commonwealth. [8] As Paul Slack documents, Tudor and early Stuart policies were directed against the vagrant's protean existence, attempting to fix the vagrant's identity by judicial spectacle and by returning the vagrant to a determined point of origin: "Vagabonds were now to be whipped... and then returned to the place where they were born or where they last lived for at least three years. The qualification for settlement was reduced to one year in 1598, but otherwise this remained the usual medicine for vagrancy throughout the period" (Poverty and Policy 118). Equally perplexing was the visible power and wealth of the upper echelons of London's merchants, commercial capitalists and money-lenders rather than artisans and mere retailers. Rivalling the aristocracy in wealth, having little in common with the rank and file of the companies to which they belonged, but often of humble origins, these figures had no clear position in the commonwealth. Their ambiguous position called forth a body of Elizabethan imaginative literature--prose fiction and drama--that attempted to find a place for them but could not pass beyond the invention of such paradoxical figures as the merchant knight errant, figures that Jacobean dramatists found absurd and burlesqued in plays like The Knight of the Burning Pestle. [9] Similarly, the writers of tracts on gentility and the ideal gentleman perceived the 'new men' to be a potentially destabilizing force but in reply could only assert the basis of gentility to be birth while paradoxically arguing that birth must be cultivated and supplemented by such cultural attainments as education and manners. Ironically these tracts, which could be treated as how-to manuals, only heightened the sense that gentility was performative, a role that could be played by anyone and must be played even by those whose natural birth might seem to exempt them from the consideration of social appearances. [10]
  7.  

  8. The developing capitalist forces reshaping England's economy, then, broadened the possibilities for theatrical modes of existence, played out most visibly on the nation's largest stage, London. As the nationís political and economic capital London was the ideal home or terminus for the socially mobile, and as a developing centre of conspicuous consumption London did not merely accommodate but positively encouraged theatrical existence [11]. Conspicuous consumption privileges social appearance over innate social essence: being seen to consume is what is important, and London provided the largest audience available. Furthermore, the social mobility concentrated in London transformed consumption, formerly the exclusive mark of those born into the upper reaches of society, into a signifier subject to appropriation and manipulation by anyone with enough money or enough wits to obtain the credit to finance his or her social performances. London was the site in which a crisis in the category of birth was most visible, the theatre of a crisis in social perception.
  9.  

  10. Most perceptions of the problematic nature of birth did not result in the kind of skepticism found in Michaelmas Term. As we have seen, more often than not such perceptions resulted in calls for measures to restabilize the category, to produce and enforce its central, socially determining position. Nonetheless, the anxiety and urgency of these calls are matched by the difficulties they encounter in restoring the category's essentiality and naturalness. Philip Stubbes' discussion of clothing in Anatomie of Abuses (1583) nicely illustrates this. In Stubbes' moral framework the abuses of dress occupy a prominent position as the most egregious of those abuses that threaten to plunge England into divinely sanctioned chaos: "The greatest abuse which both offendeth god most, [and] is there not a little aduaunced, is the execrable sinne of Pride, and excesse in apparell, which is there so ripe, as the filthie fruits thereof have long since, presented themselves before the throne of the maiestie of God, calling and crying for vengeance day and nighte incessantly" (sig. B. v.). This is not merely a function of Stubbes' moral severity. For Stubbes, dress as a mode of conspicuous consumption is the most visible register of the disruptions and displacements afflicting birth and the modes of social perception founded on it. Stubbes writes that
  11. now there is such a confuse mingle mangle of apparell in Ailgna, and such preposterous excesse therof... so that it is verie hard to knowe who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is a gentleman, who is not; for you shall have those, which are neither of the nobylitie gentilitie, nor yeomanry, no nor yet anie Magistrat or Officer in the commonwealth, go daylie in silkes, velvets, satens, damasks, taffeties and suchlike, notwithstanding that they be both base by birth, meane by estate & servyle by calling. This is a great confusion & general disorder, God be mercifull unto us. (sig. C. iii.)

    Behind Stubbes' complaint lies the vision of a society in which each individual's social appearance is an unequivocal expression or sign of her or his social position determined by birth. The "great confusion & general disorder" that Stubbes describes is caused by the failure of this ideal social language. The link between signifier and signified has been rendered uncertain and open to manipulation. Stubbes indicates the seriousness of this semiotic rupture by connecting birth and power: the inability to know who is noble and who is base is also the inability to know who is master and who is servant, who rules and who is ruled. Who, then, knows whom to obey and whom to command? Power itself is at stake in the play of social signs. Stubbes, though, does not doubt the adequacy of birth as a key social category but rather insists that the current semiotic confusion be remedied. In this at least Stubbes and the government concurred: according to Stone, "Elizabeth issued no less than ten Proclamations during her reign enjoining the enforcement of the 1533 Sumptuary Act" (Crisis of the Aristocracy 29). Yet Stubbes' own discourse reveals birth's inadequacy. On the one hand, if birth is to remain an essential category in spite of the "confuse mingle mangle of apparell," then social signifiers must be inessential, accidental to birth, ornamental. On the other hand, appearances and signs are all social actors have to go on. Were birth itself immediately visible, apparel would be trivial, generating neither anxiety nor regulative legislation. Birth, then, vanishes behind or is overwhelmed by the appearances that become its irreplaceable substitutes.

     

  12. If Anatomie is a conservative moral critique of a disorderly society, then Michaelmas Term turns that disorder back into a skeptical critique of the social epistemology underlying Stubbes's conservatism. The point at which Stubbes' discourse unravels, the supplementarity of appearances, is Middleton's play's point of departure. More precisely, it is the play's enabling comic presupposition and the focus of the play's skeptical analysis of birth's ideological inadequacy and illegitimacy. In Michaelmas Term, Middleton deploys city comedy's doubleness (things are rarely what they seem to be), its dramatic speed, and its emphasis on conflict and the contemporary--especially merchant-gentry conflict--to produce a play that insistently queries birth's status as an innate social essence. The playís skepticism does not take sides: as Theodore Leinwand argues, "Middleton's city comedies... are not directed against status groups so much as they examine the effects of a status society itself under pressure" (The City Staged 19). Broadly, Middleton transforms the static oppositional conflict between merchants and gentry into a frenetic circular motion that exposes the positionality of all birth. The play draws two stereotypes of this conflict--citizen as cozener versus gentry as gull, citizen as impotent hoarder versus gentry as fertile profligate--into cycles of transience and illegitimacy, two cycles of accumulation and consumption that transform birth, the boundary between citizen and gentry, those who rule and those who do not, into an empty sign incapable of signifying as a natural category within the ideology of aristocratic social formation.
  13.  

  14. One of the play's fundamental comic principles is that birth and inheritance are no match for the instability of social position across generations. Even in Elizabeth's reign, the pace of social mobility, especially gentrification, was enough to render it disturbingly visible. Thomas Smith in De Republica Anglorum (1586) notes that "as for gentlemen, they be made good cheape in England" (27). In James' reign they had become much cheaper. Stone argues that during this period "families were moving up and down in social and economic scale at a faster rate than at any time before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (Crisis of the Aristocracy 36), pinpointing the decade between 1610 and 1620 as the decade in which the rate of social mobility peaked. Social mobility in itself need not pose a threat to hierarchical societies. As Bacon in "Of Nobility" comments, time in this context can be a great conservative force: "For new nobility is but the act of power, but ancient nobility is the act of time. Those that are first raised to nobility are commonly more virtuous but less innocent than their descendants, for there is rarely any rising but by a commixture of good and evil arts. But it is reason the memory of their virtues remain to their posterity, and their faults die with themselves" (78). For Bacon as much as for Andrew Lethe, forgetfulness, Time's less famous daughter, is essential to complete gentrification. But time is precisely what Middleton does not allow his socially ambitious characters, removing gentrification's cloak of naturalness with the speed at which his characters acquire gentrification's material trappings. The Induction presents to us
  15. A fellow
    Shrugging for life's kind benefits, shift and heat,
    Crept up in three Terms, wrapt in silk and silver,
    So well appointed too with page and pander. (32-35).

    This "fellow" becomes one of the play's main characters, Andrew Lethe, who has transformed himself from the son of a toothdrawer into "Master Andrew Lethe,/ A gentleman of most received parts" (1.1.157-8). The Country Wench is allowed even less time, a mere three acts to Lethe's three terms. Her rapid transformation from a "Northamptonshire lass" (1.2.12) into a "Lady" (4.1.40) is more unsettling than Lethe's metamorphosis because it occurs entirely within the play's fast-paced dramatic time. The Country Wench makes the leap from commoner to gentlewoman in the first half of what is at most two hoursí traffic upon the stage, and the play thus foregrounds the performativity of her gentrification.

     

  16. The play's critical use of accelerated time is not limited to the acquisition of gentry status. The play dramatizes the equally rapid consumption of the accoutrements of gentrification, locking accumulation and consumption into a vicious (not virtuous, as Bacon would have it) circle of social rise and fall motivated by citizen-gentry conflict. Throughout his oeuvre Middleton delights in the circular futility of his comic worlds. [12] In Michaelmas Term, however, the circularity is particularly devastating: what one generation accumulates in wealth, land and status, the next consumes, forcing the third to begin the cycle once again. In the play there is no time to naturalize gentry status, which is thus exposed as raw and transient positionality. Thus, the Country Wench must enter a trade, "wholesale" (4.2.15), to regain the "name and state" (2.2.23) that her father has rioted away. Middleton develops the cycle in more complex directions in the play's main conflict, the struggle between Quomodo the citizen cozener and Easy the gentry gull for Easy's Essex lands. Here the play not only works to demystify gentry status but also provides a strongly ironic reading of Bacon's already ambiguous contention that "virtue" as opposed to "innocence" is the means of status acquisition. The only virtue by which Quomodo gains, albeit momentarily, Easy's land is a debased Machiavellian virtu, the con artist's ability to cheat successfully. But despite his virtue Quomodo cannot break the cycle, even though he is the character in the play most aware of it. He cheats Easy of his lands not only for sport and his own gain but also eventually to elevate his son Sim to gentry status. What we learn of Sim's education indicates that Quomodo has been fashioning his son for his new social position: Quomodo declares Easy's Essex lands are "an excellent place for a student, fit for my son that lately commenced at Cambridge, whom now I have placed at Inns of Court" (2.3.84-86). Yet, as Quomodo prophetically muses and perversely takes steps to confirm, the "cozenage in the father" by which the citizen obtains land from the gentry "wheels about to folly in the son, our posterity commonly foiled at the same weapon at which we played rarely" (4.1.82-84). In order to "break destiny of her custom" (4.1.87), Quomodo feigns death, intending to nip in the bud his son's riotous, profligate tendencies. With typical Middletonian irony, the death trick precipitates the event it was designed to forestall, and almost immediately after the bells announcing Quomodo's death have rung Sim is cheated out of the Essex lands by Quomodo's servant Shortyard. By regaining his lands Easy may seem to break the cycle--but only for now. Rowe points out that "We watch the prodigals being engulfed in a hellish London, but we never see any of them make a symbolic journey 'home' to the countryside" ("Prodigal Sons" 101). Easy may not have been hooked this time, and he may have taken Quomodo's lectures about bonds to heart, but the play offers no assurance that he will leave the gallant's life of consumption and waste. In Michaelmas Term, then, gentle birth is transitory, and gentle inheritance is more likely to be consumed than passed down through the generations. "Oh, worse than consumption of the liver!/ Consumption of the patrimony!" (2.1.116-117), Rearage exclaims between tosses of the dice.
  17.  

  18. The other fundamental comic principle of Michaelmas Term's fictional world is what Chakravorty calls the "sex-money calculus. What a merchant gains in money, he loses in virility; what the prodigal heir loses in estates, he gains in sex" (Society and Politics 46). In the play's induction, Michaelmas Term presents one version of this calculus: "Where bags are fruitful'st there the womb's most barren;/ The poor has all our children, we their wealth" (24-25). Quomodo revises Michaelmas Term's equation by aligning money and sex, "Revenue" and "Pleasure" (The Phoenix 1.5.12, 13), not with the wealthy and the poor but with the (wealthy) citizen and the (poor) gentry and by expressing the equation as part of the class conflict between these two groups:
  19. There are means and ways enow to hook in gentry,
    Besides our deadly emnity, which thus stands:
    They're busy 'bout our wives, we 'bout their lands. (1.1.107-109).

    It would be misleading, however, to maintain that Middleton's alignment of revenue with citizens and pleasure with the gentry is an absolute disjunction of sexual and economic forces. The matches between Thomasine and Easy and Susan and Rearage can perhaps be seen as unions of revenue and pleasure: Easy and Rearage are certainly after wealth, and Thomasine and Susan are quite obviously not (although it is not clear whether they are motivated by pleasure or by the desire to acquire status.) For the most part, however, sexuality and economics are merely different modes of the cycle of accumulation and consumption. Quomodo does not lack sexual desire but channels it into his economic operations. Land, the goal of his economic activity, becomes the fetishized object of his sexual fantasies: "Oh, that sweet, neat, comely, proper, delicate parcel of land, like a fine gentlewoman in the i'th'waist" (2.3.81-82). Quomodo's fraudulent acquisition of Easy's lands is, then, a lucrative form of cuckolding, a reversal of the ostensibly unidirectional sexual dynamics of citizen-gentry conflict. On the other side of the cycle, Rearage and the other gallants are engaged in the "consumption of the patrimony" (2.1.117) in both economic and sexual senses. They waste their economic patrimony on "feasts" and their sexual patrimony on "drabs" and begetting the citizens' illegitimate children.

     

  20. Of course, in Middleton sexuality is almost always an economic affair, with large economic and social implications. In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, for example, Middleton manipulates the sexual economics that both maintain and undermine the socio-economic status quo. Parodying New Comedy romance's sublimation of socially threatening sexual desires into socially acceptable forms, the play charts the progress of Touchwood Senior, a gentleman whose amazingly potent "fatal finger" (2.1.59) has beggared him, separated him from his wife because of his poverty, and has disrupted the rural economy by impregnating and so disabling a significant portion of the work force during harvest. His fortunes are restored when he is offered four hundred pounds (3.3.137-139) by Lord and Lady Kix to dispense a 'fertility drug' to Lady Kix to remedy the couple's childlessness and so to prevent Sir Walter Whorehound from inheriting their estates. This arrangement renews the community, providing the Kixes with heirs and Touchstone Senior with a permanent and productive outlet for his sexuality and an opportunity to reestablish his marriage:
  21. Sir Oliver: "Master Touchwood, hear'st thou this news?
    I am so endear'd to thee for my wife's fruitfulness
    That I charge you both, your wife and thee,
    To live no more asunder for the world's frowns:
    I have purse, and bed, and board for you;
    Be not afraid to go to your business roundly;
    Get children, and I'll keep them. (5.4.76-82)

    The wink and nudge of innuendo and the shared gentry status of the Kixes and the Touchwoods work to tame the subversiveness of the play's sexual economics, but the play nonetheless shows how much, both economically and socially, depends on birth, while simultaneously exposing as a convenient fiction the purity which it is necessary to attribute to birth in order to render it so important. If the formula of Shakespeare's festive, romantic comedy is, as Barber puts it, "through release to clarification" (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy 4), then A Chaste Maid In Cheapside moves through ejaculation to skeptical clarification, demystification.

     

  22. The sexual economics of Michaelmas Term have equally disturbing and, because expressed in generalized terms, more widespread implications. Disguised as a wealthy citizen, Shortyard declares to Quomodo that "I am of those citizen's minds that say, let our wives make shift for children, an they will, they get none of us; and I cannot think but he that has both much wealth and many children has had more helps coming in than himself" (4.1.34-38). If this is the case then the consequence is that the bastard children of the gentry will inherit the land and gentry status that the citizens have fraudulently gained from the childrenís profligate fathers. This cycle of illegitimacy as much as the "destiny" (4.1.87) Quomodo fears undermines Quomodo's utopian fantasy of the reconciliation of revenue and pleasure, capital and land. After gaining Easy's lands, Quomodo dreams of
  23. A fine journey in the Whitsun holidays, i'faith, to ride down with a number of citizens and their wives, some upon pillions, some upon sidesaddles, I and little Thomasine i'th'middle, our son and heir, Sim Quomodo, in a peach-color taffeta jacket, some horse-length or long yard before us; there will be a fine show on's, I can tell you; where we citizens will laugh, and lie down, get all our wives with child against a bank and get up again" (4.1.70-76).

    Quomodo dreams of gentrification underwritten by merchant capital and of legitimate heirs to inherit this reconfigured social order. "Destiny"--the comic law of biter bit projected across generations and modulated by class conflict--ensures that this utopian vision remains a dream, but questions of legitimacy create the suspicion that this dream, even were Quomodo to keep Easy's lands, is a delusion. Like Jonson's Volpone, Quomodo thinks that everyone is self-deluded and ripe for gulling--except himself. Having himself articulated the sexual dynamic of citizen-gentry competition, he does not suspect that this dynamic may apply to him personally. "What a wife hast thou, Ephestian Quomodo! So loving, so mindful of her duty" (5.1.58-59), Quomodo exclaims after having caught glimpses of Thomasine's behaviour after his faked death. The dramatic irony of Quomodo's exclamation is almost painful. Unlike Quomodo, the audience has witnessed Thomasine rush to marry Easy even as the coffin supposedly carrying Quomodo's corpse is being carried to the grave. Earlier on the play hints that the citizen-gentry sexual dynamic may in fact apply to Quomodo. Thomasine is disgusted by Lethe's sexual advances not because they are immoral but because "'tis for his betters to have opportunity of me" (2.3.7-8). We have only Quomodo's word for it that Sim, on whom Quomodo pins his utopian hopes, is his legitimate "son and heir" (4.1.72-73).

     

  24. For citizen and gentry alike, then, birth proves to be a problematic category, lacking the real, 'natural' referent it needs in order to function as the anchoring link between a hierarchical social configuration and the sacramental ideology invoked to justify the distribution of power and privilege in that configuration. Approaching the play from a slightly different perspective, Paster reaches a similar conclusion. She writes that "the traditional social hierarchy so much a part of the characters' thinking has little real value or substantiality except as a specious justification for appetitive behavior and mutually self-destructive rivalry" ("Triangular Desire" 170). Yet in some ways Paster's conclusion misses the point. The circular futility of citizen-gentry conflict delegitimates birth and the social hierarchy of which it it is the central category, but birth is not therefore rendered valueless. In the play, the social distinctions based on birth are not just "mental furniture" (168) or the coordinates of an antiquated, purely subjective world view. As we shall see, 'birth' continues to have value--not a natural, inherent value but the value of an exchangeable commodity, a value based on appearances but with material efficacy. This commodity is not so much the justification of appetitive behaviour as its cause. At the least, the commodification of status incites the desire to acquire it, a desire structured by the cycles of accumulation and consumption governing London's exchange economy. As Slights puts it, Middleton "casts the concept of the fashioned self into a commercial context" ("Unfashioning the Man" 87), specifically London. But the issue concerning self-fashioning in the play is not, as Slights argues, Middleton's moral evaluation of the process but rather his examination of the ideological consequences of the increasing underwriting of status by capital which enables his characters to fashion themselves. As the theatre of conspicuous consumption, Middleton's London is both the site of birth's delegitimation and the mechanism of its revaluation, both a "man-devouring city" (2.2.21) and the womb or mint of strange, new births.
  25.  

  26. On its stage London practises a black magic of commercial transformation or, more precisely, performs the illusionist's art of reducing substance to appearance. The practice of law reduces the fruits of the earth to a "silver harvest" (Induction 10), a crop of coins whose value is a function of appearance--as rare and attractive metal, as authorized token--signifying in the context of commercial exchange. London's other acts and venues work a similar alchemy on the social self. London not only supplies the gentry with the means to express their birth through performance, with modes of and spectators for extravagant expenditure, but also creates an environment in which such performance becomes a necessity. In De Republica Anglorum, Thomas Smith's discussion of the gentleman charts this slide into the necessary supplementarity of appearances: Smith begins by defining gentlemen as "those whom their blood and race doth make known" (26) but concludes by stating that "a gentleman (if he will be so accompted) must go like a gentleman" (28). Smith's conclusion summarizes the lesson Easy learns from his London adventures. Arriving in London a "pure, fresh gull" (2.1.171), Easy must learn to go like a gentleman, must learn the manners of a London gallant, the defining characteristic of which is conspicuous consumption. Shortyard (alias Blastfield) is his willing tutor. During his first stint of gambling, Easy threatens to "forswear dicing" (2.1.105) after he loses. Shortyard corrects him: "What? Peace, I am ashamed to hear you. Will you cease in the first loss? Show me one gentleman that e'er did it! Fie upon't, I must use you to company, I perceive; you'd be spoil'd else. Forswear dice?" (2.1.106-109).
  27.  

  28. As expensive as Easy's education proves to be, however, its expense does not represent the limit of consumption. The supplementarity of appearances is never satisfied. Even two cynical gallants such as Rearage and Salewood need to be instructed about their inadequate standards of consumption. "Are you not knights yet, gentlemen?" (1.1.188), Lethe asks them. To Salewood's "Not yet" Lethe replies "No? That must be looked into, 'tis your own fault" (1.1.190). Lethe's question has a pointed topicality. Writing in Elizabeth's reign, Thomas Smith could still remark that knighthoods, which were non-hereditary titles, were bestowed as royal recognition of deserving public virtue: "Knightes therefore be not borne but made, either before the battle to encourage them the more to adventure their lives, or after the conflict, as advauncement for their hardinesse and manhood alreadie shewed: or out of the warre for some great service done, or some good hope through the vertues which do appeare in them" (21-22). For Smith, knighthoods function much as Stubbes thought clothing should function, as true signs of the qualities of their bearers, signs that significantly are not mere markers of wealth: "No more are all made knightes in Englande that may dispende a knightes land or fee, but they onely whom the king will so honour" (22). In James' reign, however, Smith's description must have seemed antiquated at best. James created more knights in 1604 alone than Elizabeth had created during her entire reign. More unsettling was the manner of their creation: James bestowed knighthoods whimsically and destabilized the unambiguous significance Smith attributed to them by treating them as commodities. Hard up for cash, James used knighthoods as an indirect means of raising crown revenue by granting to courtiers as rewards the privilege of recommending candidates for knighthoods; the courtiers could then charge what they wanted for their nominations, and they often sold their privileges to others, who would then attempt to make a profit by selling the knighthoods at an even higher rate. In 1606, for example, Lionel Cranfield purchased the making of six knights for three-hundred and seventy-three pounds, one shilling and eightpence. [13] Honour was there for the buying, and Lethe's question to Salewood and Rearage, whose only means of gaining knighthoods is surely by purchasing them, has all the anxiety-raising casualness of the luxury goods salesperson for whom the latest high-priced fashionable commodity is a necessity. Even the gentle-born are subject to the inflationary pressures of the traffic in titles.
  29.  

  30. As in Stubbes' discourse, necessary supplementarity soon becomes irreplaceable substitute. 'Birth' is emptied out into appearances and becomes wholly a product of commodified self-fashioning or, in Bruster's terms, "the commercial inscription of identity" (Drama and the Market 69). The Country Wench and Andrew Lethe are the play's most obvious examples of this, and the transformations they undergo concretely dramatize the relations between the body and commercial transactions that were, according to Jean-Christophe Agnew, beginning to be theorized in the writings of Bacon, Thomas Wright, William Scott and others: "As a locus of representation and misrepresentation, the body had become, in effect, a commodity--a double-stitched garment the social value of which fluctuated according the mysterious movements of a placeless market. In its own, albeit figurative way, the human body had become the newest of Englandís new draperies" (Worlds Apart 85-86). Hellgill the pander brings the Country Wench to the city from "a poor thrummed house i'th'country" (1.2.5-6) with the promise to make her "pass for a gentlewoman iíthícity" (1.2.6-7) in exchange for her virginity. London's market supplies the material of her rebirth: "Why, Northamptonshire lass, dost dream of virginity now? Remember a loose-bodied gown, wench, and let it go; wires and tires, bents and bums, felts and falls, thou shalt deceive the world that gentlewomen indeed shall not be known from others" (1.2.12-15). At this point in the play, Hellgill still distinguishes between those who are gentlewomen and those who merely pass as such. However, once he sees the end result of the Country Wench's retailoring, he declares this distinction untenable: "You talk of an alteration; here's the thing itself. What base birth does not raiment make glorious? And what glorious births do not rags make infamous? Why should not a woman confess what she is now, since the finest are but deluding shadows begot between tirewomen and tailors?" (3.1.1-5). The Country Wench's natural birth is superseded and rendered irrelevant by her sartorial self-fashioning. "Now," the self that the Country Wench has purchased, is all that counts. The Country Wench's self-fashioning is verbal as well as sartorial, and her use of "the true phrase and style of a strumpet" (3.1.27) also works to erase signs of her origins: "Out, you saucy, pestiferious pander! I scorn that i'faith" (3.1.25-26), she exclaims in reply to Hellgill's assertion that "this fine sophisticated squall came out of the bosom of a barn and the loins of a hay-tosser" (3.1.23-24). The Country Wench's and her father's failure to recognize each other indicates the thoroughness of this rebirth. London replaces kinship ties with commercial relations, natural parents with "tirewomen and tailors." Furthermore, the Country Wench fashions herself not only through commodities but also as a commodity, Lethe's "underput" (3.1.72). She is not merely Lethe's mistress but also his prostitute, from whom he expects to reap profit by selling her services to other gallants. Her gentle appearance is essential to her trade. Lethe uses the Country Wench's bought status as gentlewoman to increase both her marketability and his own social capital: she is, Lethe tells Salewood and Rearage, "a gentlewoman of a great house, noble parentage, unmatchable education, my plain pung" (3.1.73-74). The Country Wench herself embraces this peculiar combination of ennoblement and degradation: "Though it may be a hard fortune to have my keeper there a coward," she tells Shortyard, "the thing thatís kept is a gentlewoman born" (3.1.169-170).
  31.  

  32. Like the Country Wench, Lethe has also been begotten "between tirewomen and tailors." Son of Walter Gruel, "an honest upright tooth-drawer" (1.1.255-256), London has rechristened him "Master Andrew Lethe" (1.1.157). Lethe, whose transformation the induction prefigured, has
  33. crept to a little warmth,
    And now so proud that he forgets all storms;
    One that ne'er wore apparel but, like ditches,
    'Twas cast before he had it, now shines bright
    In rich embroideries. (1.1.61-65).

    Lethe's rags-to-riches story is just that, a story not of hard work or divine blessing, valour or loyalty, but rather of a change of clothes. As Thomasine informs us, Lethe's rise began in Quomodo's drapery shop where he "brought two of his countrymen to give their words to my husband for a suit of green kersy" (2.3.9-10). London's market supplies Lethe not only with his rich embroideries, the clothes necessary to establish him as a gallant, but also with the opportunity to acquire and display the manners necessary to establish him as a "gentleman of most received parts" (1.1.158). Lethe acquires his status as gallant through his conspicuous consumption, through his dicing, whoring and feasting. And Rearage, whose dislike of Lethe is generated as much by the fact that Lethe is his rival for the rich draper's daughter's seven hundred pounds as by social snobbery, fully participates in Lethe's acquisition. When they "taste," "waste," and "cast" (1.1.1.197) venison at the Horn with Lethe, are gambling away their money to him, or are courting Lethe's "plain pung," Rearage and Salewood, even though they may may despise Lethe behind his back, publicly accept Lethe in their fraternity so long as his mode of consumption matches or even outgoes theirs. Lethe's retailoring, like the Country Wench's, works to efface the signs of his origns. "Know you not me, good woman?" (1.1.267-8), Lethe asks Mother Gruel in the play's first scene; "Alas, an't please your worship, I never saw such a glorious suit since the hour I was kersened" (1.1.269-70) she replies. For the rest of the play, employed as Lethe's drudge, she fails to see through his "glorious suit," and even at the play's end she acknowledges him as her son only because she is forced to do so. Albeit less explicitly than the Country Wench's, Lethe's remaking of himself is also verbal. Some critics have assumed that Lethe is Scottish, a plausible inference from Lethe's connection with debased knighthood. Actually, the play only vaguely indicates Letheís point of origin: according to Rearage, his father "brought him up below" (1.1.154), outside of London, but the play is not more specific than this. But if Lethe is Scottish, his speech does not betray him. Middleton does not use differences in dialect or level of speech to distinguish between (base) Lethe and the (naturally gentle) gallants, although speech differences quite clearly do separate the humble Mother Gruel from her son. Lethe has acquired the language as well as the clothes of a London gallant. Furthermore, like the Country Wench, Lethe has remade himself as a marketable commodity. He has parleyed his bought status as gallant into a lucrative position as courtier, gaining "Acquaintance, dear society, suits and things" (1.1.176), influence, wealth and an opportunity to marry Susan Quomodo for her money.

     

  34. The Country Wench and Lethe are relatively simple examples of commodified refashioning. In a dramatic context in which innate qualities of birth find ways to assert themselves, these two characters' refashionings might be considered merely disguise or play-acting. Leinwand argues that "The comic spirit informing city comedy does not despair over a world of endlessly shifting roles that are nothing but roles; it locates a secure self in the gentleman, the sponsor of prevailing ideologies" (The City Staged 91). But this is not the case, at least not for Michaelmas Term. The play's world is pure theatre, in which to be is to be seen, even for the finest. Easy provides the play's most complex and powerful example of this irreplaceability of appearance. Having learned that naturally gentle birth is not enough in London, he soon discovers it threatening to become nothing at all. Under Shortyard's tutelage, Easy establishes himself as a gallant through consumption; shortly, however, "the continuing of this gentleman's credit in town" (2.3.155-156) brings Easy into debt and leads him to alienate that which established his natural gentle birth, his land. This, of course, has been Quomodo's and Shortyard's plot all along. Significantly, Easy's father is dead (1.1.43) and his mother completely absent from the play. Shortyard states that he and Easy are "man and wife" (2.3.152), but Shortyard is more Easy's parent or creator than his spouse. "Methinks I have no being without his ["Blastfield"'s] company" (3.2.6), Easy comments, and Shortyard has ensured that Easy's new "being," his "credit" as a gentleman, is a product for which he will pay dearly and from which Quomodo will profit. Shortyard creates Easy as a London gentleman, and Easy's rebirth, entirely a function of London's economy of accumulation and consumption, threatens to supplant and even eradicate his natural parentage. After Quomodo has pulled together the last strands of the plot to cheat Easy of his land, Shortyard taunts Easy with his rootlessness: "I should seek my fortunes far enough, if I were you, and neither return to Essex to be a shame to my predecessors, nor remain about London to be a mock to my successors" (4.1.14-17).
  35.  

  36. Like Witgood in A Trick to Catch the Old One Easy regains his land, but not because he has any natural right to it and not through the exercise of qualities inherent in his natural birth. Easy finally succeeds because he behaves as the typical amoral gallant into which he has been fashioned, seizing and exploiting the opportunities that present themselves. In short, he beats Quomodo at his own game and merely reinforces the power of that game as arbiter of destiny and identity. When Witgood declaims "Thou soul of my estate, I kiss thee, /I miss life's comfort when I miss thee" (4.2.88-89), he kisses the mortgage not his lands; likewise, Easy's redemption is mediated by contracts:
  37. Here's good deeds and bad deeds, the writings that keep my
    Lands to me, and the bonds that gave it away from me.
    These, my good deeds, shall to more safety turn,
    And these, my bad, have their deserts and burn. (5.1.52-55).

    Witgood and Easy regain their birthright in commodified form, as extensions of London's exchange economy and through the manipulation of that economy's dynamics.

     

  38. Michaelmas Term's London, then, is a microcosm of Stubbes' Ailgna. Its ontological preposterousness, like Ailgna's, reconfigures modes of knowing and their intersections with power. Knowing becomes a form of accounting, an apprehension not of the being of a person or thing (in the play persons and things are interchangeable) but of how they are "accompted," to borrow Thomas Smith's term. This is most obviously the case in an exterior sense, in the sense of knowing or not knowing others by their exteriors. But interior knowledge, self-knowledge, is also reconfigured. The commonplace Renaissance injunction, "nosce teipsum," implies a distinction between the social self and a private, personal remainder, Hamlet's "that within which passeth show" (Hamlet 1.2.85), but in Michaelmas Term nothing passes show. Knowing as accounting dissolves the division between interior and exterior, and self-knowledge becomes merely a reflexive form of the social account others take of the self. Thus, the Country Wench's refashioning has the same effect on her knowledge of herself as it does on others', specifically her father's, knowledge of her: "How can he [her father] know me when I scarce know myself?" (3.1.31-2).
  39.  

  40. Even such apparently interior dimensions of the self as memory are flattened into the surface of commodified appearances. As Lethe's name implies, a fashioned memory is as essential an accessory of his social self as a fashionable physical appearance. He comments that
  41. I have received of many, gifts o'er night
    Whom I have forgot ere morning; meeting the men,
    I wished 'em to remember me again;
    They do so, then if I forget again
    I know what helped before, that will help then.
    This is my course, for memory I have been told
    Twenty preserves, the best I find is gold.
    Ay, truly! Are you not knights yet, gentlemen?. (1.1.181-188)

    Memory, like cloth, can be bought and sold. Its integration into Jacobean London's exchange economy creates a new commodity compounded of knowledge and power: recognition, the knowledge or taking into account of oneself by a powerful social other. Moreover, as the last line of the above quotation suggests, the commodification of memory extends beyond the individual social self. Thomas Smith acidly remarks that those who purchased knighthoods and other honours also purchased fabricated but authorized genealogies from the College of Heralds: to one who "will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman" (27), "a king of Heraulds shal also give him for mony, armes newly made and invented, the title thereof shall pretende to have been found by the said Herauld in perusing and viewing of olde registers" (28). [14] The play provides one example of this in Quomodo, who desires not only to reconfigure the future but also to rewrite the past: at his funeral is a "herald richly hired to lend him arms/ Feigned from his ancestors" (5.3.6-7). Time, like the social self, collapses into the now of commodified appearances; 'history,' like 'birth,' becomes a simulacrum, a fashionable and refashionable, sellable and resellable product of the present. [15] "Had I not the better memory,/ 'Twould be a wonder I should know myself" (1.1.178-179), Lethe states, but in fact only the possibility of the dispersal of Lethe's memory, his ability to sell pieces of it, allows him to buy the "better memory" by which he knows himself as Master Andrew Lethe. In London's market, one knows oneself by the birth and memories one buys and sells.

     

  42. Much of the play's humour is generated by Lethe's only partially successful attempts to forget completely his natural birth--or, more precisely, to have others forget his natural birth--and to know himself by his better memory. The public humiliation that Lethe suffers at the play's end, as his base birth is announced in court, hovers pigeon-like over all of Lethe's strenuous efforts of self-fashioning, threatening to "drop my staining birth upon my raiment" (1.1.277) at any moment. It may seem that this strain of humour, taken with the play's end, ultimately affirms birth as a natural category, at least in Lethe's case. Several aspects of the play's conclusion, though, mitigate against this unproblematic interpretation. Just as Easy does not regain his lands because he is naturally gentle, so too Lethe's parentage is exposed not through any workings of his birth itself. Lethe's actions throughout the play are no more (and no less) base and churlish than Rearage's and Salewood's. Lethe is exposed because Rearage finds it profitable to do so. Rearage writes a letter in which "Andrew Lethe is well whipped" (3.5.3) and entertains the Country Wench's father's "device" (4.3.43) to have Lethe and the Country Wench arrested on the morning of Lethe's planned wedding to Susan not out of any sense of honour or moral duty (Rearage is hardly in a position to serve as a mouthpiece for moral sentiments) but out of purely economic motivation: with Lethe out of the way, he is free to marry Susan for her money. Watching as Lethe is "taken with his Harlot" (stage directions to 5.2), Susan exclaims to Rearage that "now the difference appears too plain/ Betwixt a base slave and a true gentleman" (5.3.9-10). The emphasis here should be on "appears," for Rearage, the playís witty playwright figure, has scripted the whole event, casting Susan as the audience, himself as satiric presenter and moral scourge, and Lethe as the vicious humours character in need of purging. The script provides Susan with only a partial perspective, one that allows Rearage to construct a difference between himself and Lethe far more decisive than the play itself has constructed for its audience, which knows that there is little to differentiate the two companions in dicing, feasting and whoring (Rearage himself aggressively courts the Country Wench earlier in the play.) Taking no chances, Rearage uses force--the officers--to stage, for Susan's benefit but primarily his own, the first scene of the concluding judical spectacle that puts a halt to Lethe's performance of the gentleman and compels him to play another, equally contrived role: "the "villain" (5.3.153). The play's end reveals not that natural birth is inescapable but that self-fashioning is not entirely within the individual's control.
  43.  

  44. The concluding court scene's public proclamation of Lethe's parentage continues the judicial drama begun by Rearage. The scene dramatizes not the Stubbesian fantasy of authority effectively intervening in the world of appearances and restoring it to an order guaranteed by birthís self-evident social essentiality but rather authority's failure to transcend appearances even as it gives them a kind of fixity through the exercise of power. Throughout the play Mother Gruel has failed to recognize her son, and even when Lethe to avoid corporal punishment appeals to her as his mother, she replies "Call'st me mother? Out,/ I defy thee, slave" (5.3.144-145). Only through the intervention of the judge are Lethe and Mother Gruel restored to their natural mother-son relationship: "Wilt thou believe me, woman?" (5.3.152), the Judge asks; after Mother Gruel's assent, the judge commands her to "know him for a villain; 'tis thy son" (5.3.153). The judge offers no reasons why Mother Gruel should believe him, and the audience similarly does not know how, within the fictional world of the play, this judge came about his knowledge of both Andrew Lethe's humble origins and the relationship between Lethe and the old woman standing somewhere on the peripheries of the stage. Such knowledge in itself is irrelevant in Michaelmas Term's world of theatre; only the possibilities and limits of performance matter. The judge's intervention is effected entirely through the authority of his voice, the speaking of power, through which he has fashioned for Lethe a birth and identity that Lethe is now powerless to deny. The play's ending shows birth to be not a stable category with a real, 'natural' referent but a moulding of appearances and a site of social and economic contestation.

 

Notes
Lawrence Stone's work on social mobility in early modern England is still valuable. See his The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 and "Social Mobility in England, 1500-1700." Although recent historians have contested aspects of Stone's arguments, Stone's thesis that the early modern period in England was a time of great social mobility remains generally accepted. Barry Coward states that "Though there are serious disagreements among historians about the changes that were taking place in English society and in the varying fortunes of different social groups before 1650, no one challenges the view that inflationary and demographic pressures made the period one of great social mobility" (The Stuart Age 62).
2 In this short historical summary I have attempted to do no more than sketch widely agreed-upon outlines of certain economic changes occurring in the period. C. G. A. Clay's two volume Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700 treats these economic changes and their social implications in detail. The articles in The Making of the Metropolis: London 1500-1700, edited by A. L. Beier and R. Findlay, document the role of the nation's capital in these changes. Dietz's article, "Overseas trade and metropolitan growth," and Beier's article, "Engine of manufacture: the trades of London," were particularly helpful. Joan Thirsk discusses the development of a national domestic economy in Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England. In the second chapter of his The City of London in international politics at the accession of Elizabeth Tudor, G. D. Ramsay outlines the strain that wealthy members of the Merchant Adventurers placed on the guild structure. This is pursued further in I. W. Archer's The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London and Robert Ashton's The City and the Court 1603-1642. Joyce Appleby's Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England documents the difficulties that commonwealth ideology, which subordinated the economic to the moral and sought to preserve the divinely-sanctioned status quo, had in dealing with these economic changes.
3 See Richard Grassby's "The Personal Wealth of the Business Community in Seventeenth-Century England."
4 Stone argues that "merchants were a mobile group of transients, very many of whom moved into and out of the group in a single lifetime, and nearly all in two generations: as a contemporary put it at the time, merchants 'do attain to great wealth and riches, which for the most part they employ in purchasing land and little by little they do creep and seek to be gentlemen.'" ("Social Mobility" 19). R.G. Lang argues that this is both an exaggeration and something of a misunderstanding of why merchants purchased land: "Few of the merchants best furnished with land and wealth to enter the gentry manifested a desire to do so, of by entering the gentry we mean, in part, a retirement to the country and a withdrawal from civic life. The great merchants did not retire to the country; neither did they dissociate themselves from city affairs" ("Social Origins and Social Aspirations" 46-47). But granted that urban merchants did not want to adopt the lifestyle of the traditional country gentleman, the possession of land was still a marker of status. Furthermore, gentry lifestyles were changing: country gentleman were urbanizing their lifestyles, buying large houses in the city and remaining there for extended periods of time.
5 See Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, particularly chapter III, "The Inflation of Honours." Stone states that "With the failure of the Great Contract in 1610 and the abrupt dissolution of the Addled Parliament in 1614, the Crown had lost hope of parliamentary supplies and was trying to manage without them. The pressure to use the sale of titles as rewards for the hungry Villiers family, as compensation for the outgoing politcians, and as a means to raise ready cash was therefore almost irresistable" (103-104).
6 See Robert Brenner's article "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe" for an in-depth analysis of the development of agrarian capitalism in early modern England.
7 See Paul Slack's Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England for a thorough treatment of poverty and the social dislocations it created, and state attempts to contain the problem.
8 In Vagrant Writing: Social and Semiotic Disorder in the English Renaissance, Barry Taylor discusses the social mobility fo the vagrant in terms of a crisis in social perception: "The undoing of the fundamental category distinction between the true and the feigned produces a crisis of thinking, a disjunction between the world's appearance and the established categorical system through which the subject orders it into perceptual coherence, and into meaning. The disguising of the vagrant tips the world towards illegibility" (3).
9 This body of Elizabethan literature, which includes Deloney's novels and Dekker's plays, is the focus of L. C. Stevenson's Praise and Paradox: Merchants and craftsmen in Elizabethan popular literature. Stevenson's thesis is that, while the new visibility of London's merchant elite drew writers to attempt to find positive places for them in the commonwealth, these writers were not able to articulate a distinctly middle-class consciousness and value system. Rather, "Elizabethan praise of bourgeois men was expressed in the rhetoric--and by extension, in terms of the social paradigms--of the aristocracy" (6).
10 Ruth Kelso in The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century charts these developments. She notes that "when war ceased to be the gentleman's chief profession, and he was challenged to help solve the complicated problems of an increasingly complicated world, something more [than military prowess] was needed, and thoughtful men were not slow to point the need, and to warn of the results of the current scorn for learning among the nobility. Higher public affairs would suffer, or their management would pass out of the hands of the old nobility into the hands of men of low origin" (116). Even so, "blurred as class lines became during the sixteenth century, and new as many of England's prominent families were, the idea that gentility meant fundamentally gentle birth was never lost" (20).
11 See F. J. Fisher's "The Development of London as a Centre of Conspicuous Consumption in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries."
12 "Does my boy pick and I steal to enrich myself, to keep her, to maintain him? Why, this is right the sequence of the world. So in like manner the pocket keeps my boy, I keep her, she keeps him; it runs like quicksilver from one to another" (Your Five Gallants 3.2.100-107), the thief Pursenet exclaims after robbing another courtier of the purse he himself had given to his mistress. The band of thieves in The Widow sings roughly the same tune, "How round the world goes, and everything that's in it!/ The tides of gold and ebb and flow in a minute" (3.1.110-111).
13 These details are taken from Chapter III, "The Inflation of Honours," of Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy.
14 Tudor and Stuart governments viewed false pretensions to gentility to be a serious social problem. Day remarks that "In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a series of Visitations was conducted by the heralds in various counties of England to establish 'gentlemen of coat armour' and their genealogies, and to deface false armory. By the time of Elizabeth and James, the heralds were appointed by the court to safeguard that all-important distinction between those who were not and those were gentlemen, the latter group comprising not only the titled aristocracy but also the gentry" ("Trafficking in Honor" 61-62).
15 Shapiro in Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England observes that seventeenth-century English historiography was influenced by a broader movement away from the pursuit of absolute certainty toward more probabilistic epistemological theories (138). It is interesting to note, then, that just at the moment at which historians began to ground historical knowledge in records, documents an testimonies, the reliability of these documents, their status as fact and not fiction, is rendered dubious by their commodification.
 
Works Cited
 


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.


© 1999-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editors, EMLS).