More Thoughts on Social Identity in Early Modern Britain

Overall, this is a very useful volume but as I continued reading, my enthusiasm did wane somewhat. I am not sure that the debate about identity was moved along very much, but what did emerge was the idea of individual economic self interest. This was especially true of Julia Crick’s chapter on ‘Posthumous Obligation and Family Identity,’ and Nerys Thomas Patterson’s chapter on ‘Self-worth and Property: Equipage and Early Modern Personhood.’

In some ways, this essay is the most original in the entire volume. PattersonĀ sets out to seek ‘the elusive interior world of the early medieval self’ (p.54) through Irish and Welsh law texts. She does not get far, but it is definitely a beginning. Like a number of the essays, she bounces her ideas off concepts developed by Norbert Elias. I particularly enjoyed the way that she contrasted modern ‘coyness’ about the economic implications of marriage, death and inheritance with the explicit economic provisions in medieval Welsh law texts. We have been taught, at least since the nineteenth century, to regard overt economic calculation in these matters as the mark of a ‘baddy’ (a trope that Jane Austin plays with to such delightful effect in all her novels and that is at the core, for instance, of the TV series Dr Thorne, recently repeated on ABC TV in Australia.) But, according to Patterson, there was no such construction of economic calculation in early medieval Wales. Women, apparently, openly bargained with and sold their virginity, for instance. The very idea deeply offends our current sensibility! So, delightful, thought-provoking stuff.

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