Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England

Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England

Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England

Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England

Excerpt

Life in Elizabethan England has been for the past hundred and fifty years the theme of a multitude of scholars. Zealous antiquarians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, bored vicars in dull parishes, Victorian ladies adoring Shakespeare, painstaking scholars--all have added to the heap of background books dealing with Shakespeare's England. Of books about Elizabethan life, the manners and customs of the time--culture in the broad sense--we have an abundance. But in all that welter of books, one subject has been comparatively neglected: the important matter of the average citizen's reading and thinking, his intellectual habits and cultural tastes. In the series of studies which make up this book, it has been my aim not to add to the growing list of works on manners and customs but to describe the intellectual background and interests of the literate common people, the rank and file who composed the great middle class. The composition of this middle class I have tried to make clear in the opening chapter.

The pigeonholing of society into compartments with descriptive labels like "middle class" is always unsatisfactory, and never more so than when discussing things of the mind, which heed no social barriers. Indistinct as the border lines of stratified society were becoming even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and diffused as were many of the ideas and intellectual interests of the day, there can be discerned nevertheless a large middle group in Elizabethan society whose preoccupation was trade and whose intellectual concerns were largely colored by the peculiarities of their place in the social order. Though we cannot separate social groups into elements as accurately as the chemist breaks a compound into its parts, nor can our generalizations about human phenomena take on the finality of scientific statements, we can analyze, at least roughly, the social compound and describe the . . .

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