London and Londoners, 1500-1720

December 6, 2022 | Blog
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By Joe Saunders (University of York) and Jess Ayres (University of York)


This blog is based upon a grant awarded by the Economic History Society through its Initiatives & Conference Fund. The ‘London and Londoners, 1500-1720’ conference was held at the University of York from 8-9 September 2022.

Early Modern London continues to attract academic research today as it has always done. Changing mores and fashions mean that, while the metropolis has been the focus of attention like no other subject, it remains a seemingly inexhaustible mine of research. In September 2022, we invited researchers from across the world and from all disciplines to come together to share their work, take stock of the field, meet one another, and celebrate the rich history that London and her people have left to us.

The result was over thirty speakers presenting papers over two days on 8-9 September at the University of York. The papers broached the span of our stated period and beyond, raising questions of periodization and how this can both facilitate and impede academic research. Research that focused on particular places within London, and located the City within a wider national and international world, reminded us of both how intimate and yet insignificant London could be in this period. Our speakers unpicked single events and individuals, while tying in substantial themes and significant questions. Often one was used to inform the other, and vice versa. The disciplinary boundaries of the academy can become broad when our focus is a place. Indeed, the lines between scholarship on London often blurred, both within papers and across a programme which placed social historians alongside literary researchers and students of architecture.

The amassed wealth of research on display at the conference is difficult to unpick and analyse. Indeed, such is the kaleidoscopic nature of research on early modern London. It is perhaps a finding in itself that no clear theme emerged, even the much-vaunted digital, geographical, and emotional ‘turns’ were only represented rather than representative. The questions of what ‘London’ was and ‘Londoners’ were did not feature prominently in presentations, and an incisive comment from attendee Jim Sharpe towards the end of the conference did highlight this fact. Perhaps definitions are not so important today as they were in the scholarship a generation ago. The three keynote papers given by Professor Vanessa Harding, Professor Tracey Hill, and Professor Laura Gowing, touched on themes including plague, demography, civic culture, and trade.

One striking element was the intergenerational nature of the conference, which had a reasonable balance between senior scholars, mid-career academics, and early-career researchers. This mixture of experiences gave a sense of a field coming together, with many first-time meetings, even amongst established academics familiar with one another’s work. Older attendees may forgive us for writing that it felt a bit like a passing of the baton from many who are retiring (or long since) to a younger generation who may also forgive us for saying that they were eager to listen, meet, and learn what they could from those whose work has shaped the field.

There was also a strong presence of scholars whose work does not focus on London but of which the metropolis is just a part, demonstrating how early modern London and its researchers fit within a much wider scholarship. Another question which emerged from many of these papers was what makes a ‘London’ historian, and no clear answer to this question was reached by the end of the conference, the question perhaps being left for further debate.


Figure 1.   Seventeenth-century London

Source: Braun, G. and Hogenberg, F., Civitatis Orbis Terrarum (1635), MAP L85c no. 27, Folger Shakespeare Library.


The conference had a strong economic theme, with papers addressing trade, craft guilds, and finances. Money came into the politics of the parish, charitable giving, betting on the news, the minting and clipping of coins, and two papers considering the Livery Companies, one including them in a study of trust and another on searchers of illicit print. With early modern London, as with all things, questions around the economy dominated.

We hope that the conference has enabled researchers to come together, learn, and make connections that spur on further work and aid in their careers. The impact is impossible to judge in this instance and so we wait to see the results in the long run.

Our thanks go to the Economic History Society and the Society for Renaissance Studies for their financial support of the conference.


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