Social Relations and Urban Space: Norwich 1600–1700, by Fiona Williamson

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    In this wide-ranging and thoroughly researched study of early modern England’s second city, Fiona Williamson discusses how uses and perception of space were contested by the people of seventeenth-century Norwich. Her introduction provides a clear and informative overview of the economic and political developments which took place during the seventeenth century, when the population more than doubled. Between the 1620s and 1650s Norwich was hit by trade depression (with poor-relief recipients outnumbering ratepayers in the 1630s), but the city recovered after 1660 and had developed a diverse retail sector by 1700 to augment its traditional strengths in brewing and cloth production. By 1600, Norwich had long been a dissenting city, both politically and religiously, and continued to be so over the next hundred years. During the 1630s, a Puritan faction emerged, seizing power in 1642, and in 1674 dissenters were elected to public office, while the years after 1689 witnessed anti-Catholic riots and Jacobite-hunting.

    The first substantive chapter explores the relationship between cartographic representations and mental maps of the city. The Cunningham Prospect of 1559 formed the baseline for all maps of Norwich down to 1696, and, from the 1580s, maps promoting an image of Norwich as ‘a healthy, rich, devout and attractive city’ were displayed in the public chamber of the Guildhall. These contrasted, Williamson argues, with the mental maps that most people had of the city, which were based around the places in which they lived, worked, worshipped and socialised. The second chapter explores how the tensions inherent in these different imaginings of the city played out in a period when the governors of Norwich sought to restrict and control civic freedoms. The walls and gates of the city were tightly policed, and emergency measures were enacted to deal with visible vagrants when important visitors arrived in Norwich. Public punishment of those found guilty of offences ranging from vagrancy to slander was commonplace, while performances and processions became increasingly commercialised and privatised, but the disenfranchised retaliated against such developments. Mobs forced businesses to close, and discouraged access to particular areas of the city, while the extramural fields remained sites of plebeian sociability and recreation.

    The next two chapters examine how issues of national identity and gender shaped experiences of the city. Chapter Three focuses on Protestant Dutch, Walloon and French immigrants, most of whom were employed in the cloth industry. Church congregations provided newcomers to the city with some degree of support, as well as enabling them to retain links to their native lands, but, although they were subject to trading laws and had their freedom of movement curtailed, strangers were not ghettoised. Some worshipped in parish churches as well as contributing to local and national taxes and subsidies, and, by the 1630s, strangers made up between 5 and 10 per cent of the population of each ward. Stranger piety may have served as an inspiration to Puritans and Quakers within Norwich, and migrants were politically active too, with some purchasing the freedom of the city, while others fought for Parliament in 1644. Chapter Four explores the impact of gender on the use and perceptions of space in Norwich. Doorsteps were appropriated by both women and men as spaces where they could assert their authority as members of households and neighbourhood communities, and deponents in court argued that the spaces in which defamatory words were uttered affected how injurious such comments were. Women as well as men moved around the city to work and socialise, and Williamson argues that social standing and personal circumstances did as much as gender to shape experiences of Norwich.

    The final chapter examines how non-formal political activities were shaped by both the social status of the participants and the places in which they occurred. Building on her discussion of sociability in drinking-houses in the previous chapter, Williamson pays particular attention to the role of inns as sites of electioneering and locations of seditious speech. Such activities were encouraged by the role of such establishments as staging posts for printed news and post, as well as centres of civic life in which local freemen and travellers interacted. The most political inns were those near the market square—a site of protests motivated by opposition to the imposition of the excise in 1646 and by concerns about immigrant labourers after the Restoration—and many had rooms large enough to hold large semi-private meetings, when doors could be closed and drinkers outnumbered watchmen. Williamson is keen to allow her subjects to speak for themselves, and concludes by arguing that the voices recorded in court records provide the best means of accessing the different ways in which the inhabitants of the city conceptualised the contested urban world they inhabited.

    This is a fine case-study of an important urban centre which deserves a wide readership. The discussion of migrant communities is important, and hopefully will lead to further studies of what remains an under-explored topic. Williamson also makes important contributions to the historiography of gender, in particular the sexualised nature of defamation and women’s use of public houses as sites of sociability, although her grasp of the secondary literature related to the latter is less sure-footed than her knowledge of the former. Her discussion of urban politics is important too, and, unlike too many other social historians, Williamson is willing to engage in discussions of party politics as well as paying equal attention to the early, mid- and later decades of the century. Williamson regards her work as a counterpoint to studies of society, culture and politics in London, but it would be useful to know how Norwich was similar to, or different from, other major centres such as Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle and York as well. Hopefully, her research, which acts as an exemplary model of how to write urban history, will prompt others to answer these questions.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)450-452
    Number of pages3
    JournalThe English Historical Review
    Issue number549
    Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2016


    • Social Relations
    • Urban Space
    • Norwich
    • 16th Century
    • 17th Century


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