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Custom and the social organisation of writing in early modern England

Wood, Andy

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Social historians of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England have tended to see literacy as a modernising force which eroded oral tradition and overrode local identities. Whereas the increasing literacy of the period has long appeared an important constituent element of Tudor and Stuart England's early modernity, custom has been represented as its mirror image. Attached to cumbersome local identities, borne from the continuing authority of speech, bred within a plebeian culture which was simultaneously pugnacious and conservative, customary law has been taken to define a traditional, backward-looking mind-set which stood at odds to the sharp forces of change cutting into the fabric of early modern English society. 1 Hence, social historians have sometimes perceived the growing elite hostility to custom as a part of a larger attack upon oral culture. In certain accounts, this elite antipathy is presented as a by-product of die standardising impulses of early capitalism. 2 Social historians have presented the increasing role of written documents in the defence of custom as the tainting of an authentic oral tradition, and as further evidence of the growing dom-nation of writing over speech. Crudely stated, orality, and hence custom, is seen as ‘of the people’; while writing was ‘of the elite’. In this respect as in others, social historians have therefore accepted all too readily John Aubrey's nostalgic recollections of late seventeenth century that Before printing, Old Wives tales were ingeniose and since Printing came in fashion, till a little before the Civil warres, the ordinary Sort of people were not taught to reade & now-a-dayes Books are common and most of the poor people understand letters: and the many good Bookes and the variety of Turnes of Affaires, have putt the old Fables out of dores: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away Robin-good-fellowe and the Fayries.


Wood, A. (1999). Custom and the social organisation of writing in early modern England. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9, 257-269.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Dec 1, 1999
Deposit Date Dec 4, 2012
Publicly Available Date Aug 14, 2018
Journal Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
Print ISSN 0080-4401
Electronic ISSN 1474-0648
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 9
Pages 257-269


Accepted Journal Article (180 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This article has been published in a revised form in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Royal Historical Society 1999.

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