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Book review: The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, by Keith Thomas

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The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' So wrote L.P. Hartley in his novel The Go-Between, and that would be a good epigraph for Keith Thomas's scholarly but very readable study, in which he examines what the men and women of early modern England sought to make of themselves, what goals they pursued, and what were the objectives which, they believed, gave their lives meaning. Thomas uses the same metaphor as Hartley to describe his purpose in writing.

By asking how people made their choices and justified their actions, both to themselves and to others, I hope to advance the project on which I have been intermittently engaged for most of my scholarly life, namely that of constructing a retrospective ethnography of early modern England, approaching the past in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society.


We are often told that human nature doesn't change. But this is at best a half-truth; as Thomas shows, in earlier times people thought very differently from how we do today, so much so that we have to make a considerable imaginative effort to understand them.

The material is arranged under a number of headings: military prowess, work and vocation, wealth and possessions, honour and reputation, friendship and sociability, fame and the afterlife. In all these spheres of interest, beliefs and attitudes changed quite remarkably in the period under consideration, leading to an increasingly modern outlook after emergence from an essentially mediaeval way of thinking at the beginning of the period. Notable in this process was the development of individualism.

A striking example of this comes from changing attitudes to dress. At the beginning of the period dress codes were rigidly enforced according to social status; dressing above one's status was an offence, and so was dressing below it. But by the middle of the seventeenth century shifts in fashion, at least in high society, came and went at a bewildering speed.

A mid-seventeenth-century witness tells us that, in 1645 and 1646, the fashionable gallant was wearing 'a narrow brimmed hat, a long waist…breeches to his knees and boot-hosetops and jingling spurs'. In 1648 and 1649 a broad-brimmed hat, long breeches,'boots with the tops trailing on the ground, little spurs that must not jingle in the least. In 1652 and this present year 1653 we think it ridiculous to wear boots, but [only] shoes and stockings.'


The early modern period saw a great vogue for friendship, particularly among men. This was celebrated and idealised in literature, and relationships apparently reached an extraordinary intensity. Friends expressed passionate love for each other; they could kiss, wear the same clothes, and sleep in the same bed. To the modern reader all this irresistibly suggests homo-eroticism, but the intense affection of friendship was not seen in this light. Homosexuality, in contrast, was strongly condemned as 'filthy' and sodomy was a capital offence. 'Spiritual' friendship like this was always between men of similar age and class; friendship between older and younger men, or between superiors and subordinates, was disapproved of. This is because homosexuality was largely equated with pederasty.

For the most part Thomas is content to allow his witnesses to speak for themselves, but he does occasionally insert nice comments of his own. In his section on heaven and hell he tells us that one of the principal joys of the blessed was viewing the tortures of the damned below. Conversely, those suffering in hell were 'able to witness the simultaneous bliss of their friends and relations in heaven, rather like economy class passengers, huddled in the back of the aeroplane, catching an occasional glimpse behind the curtain of business-class travellers cosseted with hot towels and champagne'.

In this book Thomas's method of writing is similar to that of his earlier study, Religion and the Decline of Magic. In both he makes abundant use of mostly quite short contemporary quotations. In both books, too, he largely confines himself to England, with only a few glances to other parts of the British Isles or mainland Europe. He uses 'early modern England' to refer approximately to the period between 1530 and 1780; that is, from the Reformation to the American War of Independence, although he strays outside this time-frame on occasion.

While Thomas's writing is very readable, the huge number of quotations means that one has to take the book slowly, otherwise it can become indigestible. It is probably best approached by dipping into it and reading one section at a time rather than trying to take in too much at once; this is easy to do because each section is more or less self-contained and occupies a similar time-frame so the order in which they are read is not critical.

Although Thomas doesn't dwell on it, his book has implications for how we should think about ourselves. People in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were in a sense imprisoned in their psychological framework, as of course are we. It is tempting, if almost certainly futile, to try to imagine how a future Keith Thomas, writing two hundred years hence, would describe us in his book. But of one thing at least we can be certain: as Thomas puts it, rather sombrely, in his concluding section, the end is always inexorable oblivion. So carpe diem.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Christian religion, in its various forms, continued to enjoy ascendancy in England. Its message remained the traditional one, namely that it was to the next world, not this one, that human beings should look for their fulfilment. In practice, most of the population took a more secular view: they cherished life for its own sake, not merely as a preliminary to some future state. Highly aware of the satisfaction they could find in their work and their possessions, the affection of their friends and families, and the respect of their peers, they increasingly sought fulfilment in their daily existence. Here, all around them, were the ends of life.


%T The Ends of Life
%S Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxford
%D 2009
%G ISBN 978-0-19-924723-3
%P xi+393pp
%K history
%O plate illustrations

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