Patricia Fumerton. Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2006. xxv+237pp. ISBN 0226 26956 6.

Adam Hansen
Queen's University Belfast

Hansen, Adam. "Review of Patricia Fumerton, Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.3 (January, 2007) 8.1-7<URL:>.

  1. With this sensitively researched and handsomely illustrated book, Patricia Fumerton makes a crucial contribution to a burgeoning area of literary and historical study, expanding on her own chapters and articles, and recent work on the realities and representations of rogues, vagrants and vagabonds from the early modern period onwards (see Woodbridge, Carroll, Dionne and Mentz, and Pugliatti). Such studies evince that a new sense of the early modern period, and its relation to our own, can and should be elicited from interdisciplinary scholarship attending to the ostensibly 'deviant' mobility of those made and considered geographically, spiritually and ideologically errant. Fumerton's purview is therefore as wide-ranging as her unsettled, mobile subjects.

  2. In this compact study, informed by the work of historians such as Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, the mobility of the displaced poor emerges as a vital element in early modern capitalism: the unsettled were produced by, suffered under, and yet exemplified restless and unstable economic systems. By mobilising labour, by jeopardising familial and communal units, and by restricting the urges of apprentices and servants to start families, religious, social and legal authorities actually created and designated the unsettled, then sought to divide those they designated into deserving and undeserving. Moreover, without a well-developed infrastructure, early modern commerce needed people like "peddlers and chapmen" (22), figures who slipped on and off proscribed lists of itinerants in the 1600s. Women's mobile labour was also crucial, moving as it did from the home to the streets (23-4). Ultimately, Fumerton suggests, as "peripatetic types" such as "seaman, soldier, and vagrant" were "intimately intertwined" (84), so life at sea emerged as a paradigm and engine of an unsettled globalised economy. Yet the vitality of such mobility, and its very necessity, evoked anxieties about what was unsettling about capitalism, anxieties that were displaced onto the mobile themselves. Fumerton's innovative reading of a key text in mobility studies provides a useful example of this. Discussing A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566), Fumerton argues that Thomas Harman "assuaged fears of displaced labor by transforming the fact of an unsettled economy grounded on a shifting mass of itinerant labor into the fiction of role-playing rogues" (36). In his pamphlet, rogues do work, and hard, but their labour is invariably disguised, and occluded by Harman. To admit otherwise would be to reveal the roguish propensities of emerging economic forces.

  3. Fumerton contends that this "economy of mobility" (147) was so pervasive that "the vagrant experience did not need to involve physical mobility or even homelessness" (16). To support this contention, Fumerton supplements her scrupulous archival work by suggesting that such mobility might induce a "subjective interiorization of unsettledness" (xviii). This "unsettled subjectivity" had a "potentially wide reach, capable of being experienced ...not only by the itinerant but also by the housed" (xiv). Fumerton reads this dynamic in terms of "a new kind of secular subjectivity" (xiii): "multividualism", indicating subjects "composed of dispersed, serial "selves"" (51). However, a problem develops not in Fumerton's careful legitimation of her evidence, but in some of the theoretical bases of her approach. Sketching out the wider applications of emergent multividualism and unsettled subjectivity, Fumerton asserts that the "new kind of subjectivity" she discloses "speaks more to a modern notion of singularity and disconnection - a detached "I"" (49). This attempt to foreground the experience of the lower orders is laudable. But by referencing only Judith Butler's insights into contemporary performative selfhood and identity, Fumerton's assumptions about modernity - and what "speaks" to it - are perhaps less so.

  4. Despite this, because she is mindful not to "ventriloquize official terminology" (xvi), Fumerton reads historical data such as court records with a literary critic's verve (4). The book is therefore acutely aware of the sometimes violent interactions of history and culture. Perhaps the most compelling section of the book comes when Fumerton fulfils her promise to "seek out the individuals behind the statistics" (xx), and one of the unsettled poor speaks in their own voice. Fumerton's extended case study of the journals of the seventeenth-century seaman Edward Barlow presents such a voice. Yet just as Fumerton recognises Barlow as a "complicated and even contradictory figure" (105), with an "intermittent and conflictual identity" (65), so her reading of Barlow's journal raises questions that are not entirely resolved. It is difficult to determine whether Barlow is representative of the unsettled masses, or distinct from them. Certainly Fumerton terms him "unique", yet in the same breath suggests he "joined the many other lower-order subjects...vulnerable to the experience of unsettledness" (126). Even when Fumerton compares Barlow's journal to that of another seaman, Edward Coxere, concluding that Barlow is "much more" unsettled than Coxere, she seems only to speculate cursorily on what makes him "unique" and his journal "distinct", hedging her propositions with broad comments about Protestantism's impact on subjectivity (82). The question remains: if Barlow could give so nuanced an account of himself, why didn't others? What discourses conditioned the expression of lower-order unsettled subjectivity?

  5. Fumerton does convincingly explore the expression of lower-order unsettledness in a different way with her coverage of ballads. Such "lowly street literature" aligned text, content, and consumers, marketing "multifarious, dispersed, and provisional identities", and offering a range of "perspectives, roles, and voices, which the audience...can vagrantly sample at will" (xxi). Fumerton notes that more work on this needs to be done. When it is, her claim that such modes allow us to "inhabit ... the aesthetic space of the itinerant working poor" more "fully" than via mediated "rogue pamphlets or drama" may be all the stronger (46). Fumerton's expansive cultural vision also incorporates more than ballads. She selects illustrations and charts, especially those of coastlines, harbours, estuaries and sea-creatures culled from Barlow's journal, to discuss the paradoxes of "an unsettled viewing eye/I" (107). As Barlow's images record specific sites, "furthering his desire for place", so is he conscious of the "provisionality" and "sheer liminality of the shorelines" he depicts (123). Such images evoke dislocation and location, simultaneously corroborating and destabilising the text they accompany.

  6. While Fumerton makes tantalising hints at the ways in which local and global unsettledness problematised national identity (92-95), there is no substantial reference here to Gypsies (wanderers often characterised and stigmatised as a nation apart, racially or ethnically distinct; see Trumpener). Nor indeed, despite some nice recognition of the overlap of mobility and colonialism, does Ireland figure prominently beyond an endnote: an oversight, perhaps, given the island's history of producing England-bound itinerants in the wake of expansionist policies. Equally, while Fumerton is sensitive to issues of the gender differentials affecting labour, and though she is conscious of recent scholarship on prostitution and mobility, perhaps a trick was missed here to explore street-walking as quintessentially unsettled "women's work" (54).

  7. Some may query Fumerton's assumptions about the separations of theatricality and the "everyday role-playing" of the mobile poor (52). Nonetheless, it is to the book's credit that it does not simply situate drama, poetry or prose in relation to a reading of the realities of early modern unsettled life: other works already do this well enough. Recognising the problems attendant on defining the mobile past and present, Fumerton has usefully developed inclusive senses of early modern identity, extending the critical franchise to do so. Moreover, as the work of Zygmunt Bauman indicates, and as Fumerton herself acknowledges in a neat postscript discussing the degradations and iniquities of globalised labour in the contemporary United States, this work is not only historically well-informed, but also, sadly, still too timely.

Works Cited

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