A long time ago in a sixth form far far away, I read quite a bit of English social history; Cole and Postgate’s The Common People and E.P.Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class were typical examples. This book is very much in that tradition, written in the 1960s when historians’ interest in how people lived, the details of their births, marriages and deaths, what they ate and how communities worked started to become mainstream. It is a fairly forensic examination of the condition of English society in the seventeenth century, before the Industrial Revolution. I had never heard of it and came across it quite by chance in a charity bookstall in Longridge. A little bit of background research tells me that Laslett’s work is still considered to be essential preparatory reading for any student of early modern or modern social history.
I found this an absolutely fascinating read; some of the content was fairly familiar to me (for example the debunking of the notion that teenage marriage was the norm in early modern English society) and a lot was brand-new (again as an example, I hadn’t really appreciated the extent to which the nuclear family has been the bedrock of English society for hundreds of years and that even then the old tended to live and die alone).
But the most interesting feature reading this book was the sense of reading a book about the seventeenth-century, written in 1965, but with 40 to 50 years of hindsight on top. The final chapter of the book “Understanding Ourselves in Time” is essentially an essay on the process of developing historical knowledge and insight and how we understand ourselves in contrast with our ancestors. Laslett was writing 20 years after the creation of the Welfare State and with the perspective of the enormous benefits it had brought to British society. Reading this in 2015 things seem so much more complex; nonetheless I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in history and in fact to anyone with an interest in how our society was made.