From Gin Lane to Westminster: politics, culture and society in the age of Walpole

Module code: HS3717/3718

Module Outline

The eighteenth century is a particularly exciting period to study as it is a period of genuine transition from the early modern period, dominated by confessional politics and an agrarian economy, to the modern era of urbanisation and industrialisation, global networks of trade and politics, increasing secularism and greater democracy. Studying the eighteenth century, you are constantly startled by ideas that seem modern and familiar and intrigued by values and customs that have to be unpicked and interpreted to be understood. For example, political corruption, which we discuss in this course, has many parallels with the modern scandals of ‘cash for questions’ or lobbying by tobacco and alcohol companies, but it was also very different in its practices and rituals: few politicians today would try taking over a pub, getting the local population drunk, and then herding them all to the polling booth to secure their votes.

The eighteenth century is also a period when print culture really took off, transforming British culture in the process, so there is an abundance of easily accessible primary sources to look at. These lie at the heart of this module. Whereas the literature of the early modern period is dominated by religious and political texts, there was an explosion of different genres and types of publication aimed at all sorts of different readers: newspapers, novels, satires, plays, poems, history, travel guides, self-help and scandal. (There was also a brisk trade in pornography.) Much of this is witty, entertaining and frequently bawdy. Unlike the Victorians, the Georgians enjoyed jokes about farts and other bodily functions as much as we do today.

There is also an abundance of visual material surviving from this period as the spread of new techniques such as copper plate engraving made the reproduction of visual images much cheaper and easier and these provide a wonderful medium for accessing the past.

Topics covered

This is a special subject that is spread over two semesters, so this means that we have the opportunity to investigate the period in much greater depth than one can do in a conventional module.

In the first semester we concentrate on the political and intellectual history of the period, focusing upon the first half of the eighteenth century and more specifically the period from 1721-45 during which Robert Walpole held power as Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister. We look at how Parliament was becoming an increasingly important political institution and how and why the British constitution was admired for preserving liberty, property and ensuring religious toleration.

But we also look at the criticisms that politicians such as Walpole faced and in particular the allegations of political and moral corruption, and at how opposition to Walpole was expressed in different media including contemporary satirical prints. Some of the most significant opposition came from the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuart Monarchy, and we go behind the romantic myths of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora McDonald to consider how much of a threat the Jacobites really posed. Finally, in this module we look at some of the key intellectual developments (the enlightenment) which helped to shape the political and cultural landscape of the eighteenth century. Whilst religion was still a very important part of society, some of the traditional beliefs and morality were beginning to be challenged, as greater emphasis was placed upon reason and scientific observation.

This leads us to the second semester which concentrates on social and cultural history, and in the first semester we pick up the theme of changing beliefs and attitudes by considering how these affected practical policies such as the provision of poor relief, the problem of prostitution and the management of the epidemic of gin drinking known as the Gin Craze, famously depicted in Hogarth’s print of Gin Lane. 

The final part of the course focuses upon cultural history: we explore questions of national and gender identity, we look at new fashions in leisure and entertainment such as the theatre and the opera or the importance of the coffee house. We consider the growth of the London Season, and the rise of philanthropy and charitable activity as a means of gaining social prestige at the same time as trying to solve social problems.

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