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December 21, 2010 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Recommendations for books about England in the seventeenth century?

I enjoy writing in my spare time, but the writing is really an excuse to immerse myself in historical research. I've recently had an idea for a story set in England against the backdrop of the English Civil War, and the political and religious turmoil that led to it.

I've searched around at various websites, but I would like the hive mind's opinion on the best books to read. I'll take fiction or non-fiction, recent historical studies or first-person accounts - anything that gives me a clear view of the period. Daily life, money, culture, politics, religion, science, pseudoscience, etc. I'm up for reading about anything.

Thanks in advance!
posted by backwards compatible to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. It touches on basically everything you mentioned: Daily life, money, culture, politics, religion, science, pseudoscience, etc.
posted by usonian at 1:56 PM on December 21, 2010

Though it has some shortcomings, I really enjoyed Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:57 PM on December 21, 2010

Pepys' Diary. And John Evelyn's.

For a concise but fascinating snapshot of a 17th-century worldview, look at Comenius' Orbis Pictus, one of the first-ever illustrated childrens' text-books.
posted by misteraitch at 2:05 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fiction-wise, you should definitely read Ian Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost. Non-fiction-wise, you'd probably enjoy Lawrence Stone's classic (if rather long) The Crisis of the English Aristocracy. I suspect jb will come along soon enough with better suggestions.
posted by nasreddin at 2:07 PM on December 21, 2010

I haven't finished reading it yet, but David Cressy's England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-1642 is very readable, and sounds like exactly what you're looking for.

Liza Picard's Restoration London covers the time period after the Civil War, but would be really good for details about daily life. She got a lot of her information from Pepys' diaries, which are wonderful but may be a difficult way to get a big-picture view of everyday life. You should definitely read at least some Pepys though!
posted by apricot at 2:13 PM on December 21, 2010

The post-civil war period is also the setting for An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears, which I really enjoyed a few years back.
posted by dogsbody at 2:31 PM on December 21, 2010

Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders is about the village of Eyam, which chose to quarantine itself in 1685 rather than let plague spread from it. Fiction with lots of daily life details.
posted by peachfuzz at 3:02 PM on December 21, 2010

oops. Year of Wonders is too late for your period...
posted by peachfuzz at 3:02 PM on December 21, 2010

English Society by Keith Wrightson will cover your basic social stuff -- Earthly necessities is also good for more on changing social structure and economics.

But you'll want to also immerse yourself in the weirdness of Civil War politics and religion -- this is, after all, the period in which people justified not only a revolt against their king, but ultimately put him on trial and executed him, and there were calls for democracy for all, and a few communists running around, and then the really crazy people (Baptists and Quakers). Christopher Hill is a good suggestion -- I would also suggest books by John Morrill -- if you're already familiar with the period, head right for Revolt in the Provinces, otherwise begin with his Very Short Introduction to Stuart Britain. (That's an excellent series -- the Spanish Civil War one made so much sense of that conflict for me).

A great deal of the historical literature is on the origins or causes of the Civil Wars -- just skip all of that. (I had to read it, and it tells you very little about the actual experience of life or how things got so radical in the period - also, it's all so in-fighty now it's not funny; they can't even decide what to call the period). Instead, look for historical research about places during the civil war, which would show how it affected people. Is your story set in London? in a rural place? Every place would have had difference experiences -- some places saw little disturbence, some a lot. London saw lots of political activity - outlined in Manning's The English Revolution and the English People. (Caveat: it's a Marxist history, as was popular at the time, and evidence suggests that the Civil Wars were not a Marxist revolution in the least. But still very good stuff on interesting radical politics in London and elsewhere -- people weren't rebelling for class reasons, but they definitely did feel that their political/legal rights had been violated).

This webpage has some notes on radical religion in the period - there are many references at the bottom, including the excellent short book Radical Religion in the English Revolution. Of course, the most radical ideas, as usual, only involved a tiny minority of the population. Most people were wrapped up in the conflict between low and high Anglicans (or Puritans and Laudists), and upset about abuses of government power.

Ralph Josselin - who left behind a remarkable diary covering the period of the war and the interregnum - was one of those low-church types, if I recall correctly. Alan MacFarlane has edited and published his diary, and also written a book about family relations based on the diary.

For every day life stuff (how people ate, how many rooms they had, what were they decorated with, etc), that's harder, because it's very unfashionable to write about currently. (Since this sort of research tends to lead to a lot of whats and not so many whys). Obviously, what you want to look at will depend on what class and region your story is set in. Earthly Necessities might help direct your reading - it doesn't have footnotes (stupid publishers), but the author often names the sources he draws on (since it's a synthetic summary of a great deal of research by many people). Reading inventories of people's houses gives a very striking image of life -- both simpler and more complex in their material goods than we often imagine. Lorna Weatherhill has written the classic study on consumption, but that concentrates on the later 17th century (and much changed over those years). Spufford has some nice bits in her Contrasting Communities, about three different rural villages; also, in her article on the limitations of the probate inventory, she actually (perhaps unintentionally) highlights the usefulness of the probate inventory).
posted by jb at 3:42 PM on December 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

I recently read The English Civil War: A People's History. It spend a lot of time on the day to day war time experiences of people from all walks of life, though I found it a little confusing because it sometimes assumed you new the 'traditional' history of the Civil War (battles, dates, places etc.).
posted by robertc at 3:48 PM on December 21, 2010

Oh - more recent work on production and consumption, reaching a little farther back in time -
Overton, Whittle, Dean and Hann - Production and Consumption in English households, 1600-1750, review by Shammas (which I kind of agree with). Shammas also has her own book on the pre-industrial consumer, but not so relevant for daily life/material culture (more economic).

But something else struck me -- as someone who likes to read historical novels set in Britain, as well as study the history of Britain, what has most made me rage has not been historical errors, but glaring geographical errors. Like medieval English people needing a river to irrigate their crops -- common practice in 20th century California, but laughable for any part of England, then or now (I put that book down immediately -- I just could not take it seriously). Droughts are also extremely rare; if an author wants to have crops threatened (for heightening the drama), it would be far more realistic to have too much rain. I noticed that you currently live in the US -- perhaps you have lived in England and know the landscape. But some American based writers seem to have strange ideas about the geography and climate of England. Also, if you are having your characters move around the country at all (instead of just staying in York or London or something), you definitely want to familiarise yourself with the pre-1974 county boundaries. (One historical novel I read had good landscape bits, as the woman had lived near the places she was writing about. But I still kept laughing everytime she described a place that was in Huntingdonshire before 1974 as being in Cambridgeshire. Also, she described 1816 as being a hot summer -- when it is widely known as being the year without a summer. Just shows that you should google these things.)
posted by jb at 4:02 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

This page from the Cromwell association provides many more titles than I can (haven't read Civil War specific stuff in about 7 years -- I've been reading Civil War-era but not-war related documents most recently).
posted by jb at 4:12 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just finished Bill Bryson's most recent book At Home and a good part of it concerns English life in the 1700's. It was fascinating and I highly recommend it. It also has a very thorough bibliography.
posted by Shebear at 5:48 PM on December 21, 2010

A Conspiracy of Violence by Susanna Gregory is a mystery novel set in Restoration London. Although it's set a little later than you want, a lot of things like architecture and furniture wouldn't have changed all that much. I'm no expert but it seemed pretty accurate, historically - some of the minor characters were real people and the main character, although fictional, is from a real family (y'know, fictionally speaking). This might be a good resource for you, although I can't vouch for its accuracy, since the novel vividly conjures up that world - the clothing, the furniture, the wacky religio-political fringe groups, the misery of being flat broke and unemployed in a London winter. (I loved this novel and had a total book-crush on the hero, but the next 2 in the series were very disappointing; I haven't tried the others. Too broken-hearted.)
posted by Quietgal at 6:22 PM on December 21, 2010

For information about women during that period, Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel is an excellent and in-depth portrayal of the lives of many women, from the highest nobility to common prostitutes, seen through a variety of different lenses: marriage, war and work. The middle and last third of the book deals entirely with how these women's lives were turned completely upside down by the Civil War and how they coped with the radically different society that came in the war's aftermath.
posted by miss sarah thane at 7:58 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fire From Heaven by David Underdown - the Puritan social project in Dorchester and the counter-current against it. I enjoyed Ronan Bennett's novel Havoc in Its Third Year which treats similar themes in fiction (although Bennett did his thesis on the period so knows his stuff).
I always recommend Religion and the Decline of Magic in threads like these because Thomas does such a sterling job of capturing the complex of popular beliefs.
posted by Abiezer at 8:06 PM on December 21, 2010

I'll just second miss sarah thane's suggestion of Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel. It's a great read, full of interesting anecdotes.
posted by feste at 11:04 PM on December 21, 2010

If you can get hold of it, there was a BBC series called something like 'In the green valley' that tried to recreate 17th century farming life in Wales. You might also be able to glean information from the Sealed Knot society who recreate Civil War battles. Participants are also generally interested in living history.
posted by plonkee at 12:45 AM on December 22, 2010

I was coming by to recommend Ralph Josselin's diary, but see that jb's got that angle covered. A few other recommendations, then. I'm not sure whether you're planning on writing about rural or urban communities, but since no-one's addressed the latter specifically, there are two books that do a good job at capturing the social dynamics of the urban world in early modern England: Tim Harris's London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II (slightly out of your time period, I know, but it does cover the public memory of urban disorder during the Civil War); and John McMullan's The Canting Crew: London's Criminal Underground, 1550–1700.

Oh, and since you mentioned money, Craig Muldrew's ground-breaking Economy of Obligation is worth a look too. It's long and daunting, but does show the extent to which the early modern world relied on face-to-face credit networks due to the chronic shortages of hard currency during that time period. Money, credit, and payment were very different things in the seventeenth century, and this book really helps to show why, and what the consequences of that were for social relationships and the wider economy.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:18 AM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but Clare Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self is just wonderful.
posted by kristi at 8:22 AM on December 23, 2010

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