Lake and Pincus – “Rethinking the Public Sphere in Early Modern England”

This 2006 piece by two Ivy League early modern historians, Pincus (Yale) and Lake (then at Princeton, now at Vanderbilt), is “far more a framework for further research than a set of firm conclusions,” the opening footnote admits. Its claim might seem self-evident at first glance, borderline obvious: we should be looking to the public sphere, its historicity, its waxing and waning, its social uses, its manifestations in print, its multiple genres as we try to understand the goings-on of political and social history in Early Modern England, and Europe more generally. The novelty and the stakes of that position emerge once we take into account the tendencies of the historiography extant before Lake and Pincus came along. As the authors point out, revisionist histories of the early modern period (post-1970 scholarship) had already begun to pay attention to the public sphere — but with a strong predilection for manuscript, as opposed to print sources, and with a knack for returning ultimately to questions of “high politics” and courtly influence. Unlike their Whiggish predecessors, the revisionists were interested in manuscript over print, because they believed manuscript would tell the stories left untold, the “what really happened” that didn’t get captured by the “official” accounts, published by those privileged enough to use the press to advance their causes. Like their Whiggish predecessors, however, they ultimately produced accounts endorsing G. M. Trevelyan’s 1938 version of the “Glorious Revolution” as “consensual, sensible, and bloodless” (271), as the source of a certain English exceptionalism vis-à-vis the rest of the Continent, where countries would continue to struggle with monarchies and republics for quite some time. Pincus and Lake aren’t interested in dismantling anything; they’re interested in building on the revisionist accounts and seeing how the print and manuscript sources interrelate, how the “what really happened” meets the “what people said was really happening.” In that way, they hope to integrate the story of political, social, and economic change in England with religious change in the post-Reformation (religion being too often the victim of a Marxist habit of reducing things down to economic or social power struggles).

Their paper breaks down into a historical analysis of the modes of existence of the public sphere in England, followed by a methodological discussion about Whig vs. Revisionits.

Starting with the end of the Reformation in England (post 1580), Pincus & Lake point out that the public sphere (in the form of print, pulpits, performances, circulating manuscripts, pamphlets) would be created or summoned in times of religiopolitical controversy by elites in a kind of early-modern version of Wikileaks (see the Earl of Essex p. 277). The public sphere was a force stirred up by fears of conspiracy theories, papism, corruption. Once summoned and deployed to quell a controversy, right a wrong, expose a lie, or adjudicate a popularity contest between leaders, it tended to subside again. These ebbs and flows were periodic although not necessarily regular. Only after the English Civil Wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians did the public sphere become a more regular staple of the political and cultural landscape — in large part, Pincus and Lake insist, because of the “intensity, speed, and sheer volume” of popular and public political and theological discussion. The Civil War also affected economic and social structures. During the War, both sides realized that to fund their campaigns, they had to rely more and more on the “mobile wealth” of merchants, tradesmen, etc. rather than on the wealth of landed aristocracy. (France, by contrast, did not make this leap to a proto-bourgeoisie until much later, as its landed aristocracy remained impressively powerful). On the social side, in the wake of the war, mass movements of the population towards the cities made for a bigger literary market capable of consuming circulating broadsides, pamphlets, public sermons, and the emerging genre of news-sheets. These media twittered with debate over the two competing visions of England’s economic future. Tory supporters of James II pushed for a land-based, and therefore finite vision of wealth that implied a need for further imperial colonization, while the largely Whig proponents of England’s native manufacturing prowess urged that wealth was based on human labor, and therefore potentially infinite (p. 283). The former, in order to keep a tight hold on who had wealth and who didn’t, needed to continue keeping a firm reign on the access to economic information about land, locations of commodities and resources, etc. The latter, the Whigs, needed economic information to be widely available to ensure that manufacturers could maximize their profits and efficiency. The advent of the Glorious Revolution pushed history the Whig way and the public sphere became a more or less permanent installation.

Pincus and Lake conclude with a few thoughts about how their methodology differs from Whig and Revisionist accounts. They agree with the Whigs that the early modern period was transitional in many ways, but do not agree with the inevitability thesis or teleology of much Whiggish historiography, i.e. that “modernity” could only come into existence the way it did. Other modernities were available and other public spheres could have emerged. I find the summary of their goals on p 287 particularly helpful in explaining where they diverge from the Revisionists: “Our emphasis is on the modes of political communication and maneuver deployed by a variety of actors both inside and outside the establishment to deal with the potentially explosive consequences produced by the combination of confessional division, geopolitical crisis, and political economic controversy. By focusing on the methods and strategies of political communication rather than solely on the ideas communicated or the political ends pursued, we can identify and perhaps even start to explain changes in both popular politics and governance that are occluded b y revisionist accounts of the same period.”

But perhaps the most important point for the topics of our course is on p. 290, when the authors note that a quantitative shift in the production of and accessibility of economic, political, and theological information in that period implied a qualitative shift in the economics, politics, and theologies themselves. The remarkable shift of opinions regarding the public sphere in the post-Reformation era (roughly, “the public doesn’t need to know about certain things” turned into “the public ought to know about everything that concerns the state!”) is a shift in the seat of political agency, obviously. But it is also a shift in the sense of responsibility for what one publishes, for the rationality thereof, and for the distinction between private economics and public politics, which came increasingly to meld into one.

As for questions, I would simply point out that I’m not sure Pincus and Lake have done as good a job of telling the story of theology and religion in their account as they had set out to do. They don’t fall into the Marxist trap which they cleverly pointed out at the beginning of the paper, but they gesture towards more than they actually relate the role of theology in the formation of the public sphere. Should anyone agree with me on this point, I’m curious why we think that is? Is the place/role/effect of theology in the public sphere harder to relate somehow, or perhaps harder to trace?