Paul Lay comments on ‘Centres and Margins’ Conference

‘Centres and Margins’ (7-7-7) was our first student conference, and it was a memorable event that really did live up to its title, with papers that explored gender, controversies, visual culture and textual contestations. Paul Lay, who spoke about the influence that Venice exerted on England’s troubles during the 1640s, has written the following post-conference piece.

‘I often look at posters for academic conferences and wonder if the titles are drawn from a hat, so arbitrary are they. But whoever came up with the title Centres and Margins put their finger on one of the central concerns of the contemporary study of early modern history. In his recent lecture on rumour in Renaissance Venice, Filippo De Vivo pointed to the shift away from the study of Venetian elites, the Patricians and Cittadini, to a greater concentration on marginal figures: women (though I am always reluctant to brand women, even 17th century ones, as ‘marginal’), the poor, the sick, the young and the old, the mad, foreigners and immigrants (Jews especially in Venice, but Moslems too, subject of recent studies by Jerry Brotton). In early modern English history, the trend is arguably the other way: Christopher Hill’s studies of the marginal have given way to recent studies of the centres of power, such as John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt, and a concern with “great men” such as the Verneys, Inigo Jones, Buckingham. But perhaps the most telling recent book on the period has been Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: A People’s History. In it, Purkiss shifts effortlessly between High and Low history, much as we now find it easy to embrace both high and low culture.

It used to be asked of the English, most famously by Michael Foot, “on whose side would you have fought at Naseby?” But in the Q and A that concludes the paperback edition of Purkiss’s history, when asked whether she is a Roundhead or Cavalier, she reveals an affection for both Charles I and Cromwell. Early modern historians are lucky to live in the relatively post-ideological age we live. Our lack of parti-pris means we are far more able to compose a fuller picture of the times we study. And that, after all, is the true task of the historian. Warts and all.’

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  1. See Paul Lay on Joy Division and the working-class intellectual in Prospect, November 2007, p. 17: ‘Reading Camus in Salford’.