Mutualities and Obligations: Social Relationships in Early Modern England (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2003 semester seminar.

Relationships of mutual obligation have been described as the most fundamental of all bonds in medieval society. In their various forms, they provided both the template of social relations and the coordinates of individual identity. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, many such bonds are deemed to have undergone a process of transformation. That process has sometimes been presented elegiacally, as one of declension. It has sometimes been celebrated as involving the growth of individual autonomy and novel conceptions of selfhood. Such change is often vaguely defined, and is in some respects contested. Yet in the absence of any sustained attempt to reinterpret the essential nature of social development in the early modern period, it remains a powerful theme in conceptions of the making of the modern world. The seminar sought to re-examine this theme by discussing recent approaches to a variety of relationships of mutuality and obligation in early modern England-the earliest period for which they can be explored in any detail for the mass of the population. These included relationships within the household; between kinsfolk, "friends," and neighbors; in female networks and trade brotherhoods; in the institutional settings of manor and estate, the parish, voluntary associations, and the marketplace. The aim was to encourage fresh thinking about continuity and change in a range of vital social relationships-their conduct, their idioms, their defining contexts, and their meanings.


Director: Keith Wrightson is Professor of History at Yale University. Most recently, he is the author of Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (2000), and coauthor with David Levine of The Making of Industrial Society: Whickham, 1560–1765 (1991).

Mutualities and Obligations: Social Relationships in Early Modern England