Where, Don Jordan asks (441) in The King’s City, would today’s rappers be without the boost that the Restoration poet John Dryden gave to heroic rhyming couplets? Are we supposed to imagine Eminem or Chance the Rapper finding a kind of validation in the eruptive (and almost interminable) bombast of Dryden’s Conquest of Granada? That might not be a wholly outlandish proposition, for Dryden in his day was at least the equal of Eminem and Chance as critic and commentator. But as Jordan knows well, there are better measures of the importance of later 17th-century London, the fast-growing metropolis he justly rates the world’s first truly global city.
The sweeping title of the book promises much; its author delivers both a bit more and a bit less. He is certainly interested in the city’s structure, human as well as physical, and its development, but he ties himself also to the narrative frame of the 1660-85 reign of Charles II. London’s part in that narrative is sometimes less to the fore than the fact that London was where the action was. There is of course reason for a wider focus since Jordan is dealing with a capital city in an era of personal monarchy; and, fortunately for the reader, the period was one of the more flamboyant in England’s (soon to be Britain’s) history. Further, the book’s more conventional preoccupations serve to underscore the importance of elite pursuits to an emergent modern city. But it does not quite deliver as a history of London over that turbulent quarter-century.
Jordan is certainly interested in the city’s structure, human as well as physical, and its development, but he ties himself also to the narrative frame of the 1660-85 reign of Charles II. London’s part in that narrative is sometimes less to the fore than the fact that London was where the action was.
Through a few profiles at the outset, Jordan gestures towards the transformation theme of his sub-title. Selected pioneers of a new order—an order of experiment and bustle as well as hierarchy—are here: demographer, political arithmetician, horticulturalist, annotator of trades, epic poet (less happily); as the author may have intended, the broad cultural significance of most is clearer than their strictly metropolitan niche. Jordan domesticates them by locating them among neighbors along the City’s streets, but had he been writing the history of London that he almost promises he would have spent more time in the neighborhoods. He further weakens the contention that London itself is his subject when at one point he steps aside to report, of a provincial devotee of the new science whose activities he recounts, that there is little evidence of time spent in the city. But for all that, Jordan builds his general picture with verve and some well-chosen detail.
What may surprise is that parts of a picture so distant from our increasingly baffled 21st century can sometimes look so un-foreign. When Jordan celebrates the polymath Christopher Wren, renowned for his glorious St Paul’s Cathedral and other new-built City churches, he humanizes him, singling him out as much for a failure as for the successes; his report of blighted hopes after the catastrophe of the Great Fire of 1666 may allow urban planners post-Katrina a wry smile at the dreams of a planned, grand, rational streetscape crushed by the grubby realities of property claims and demands for housing and livelihoods in a way that has become all too familiar. And while in that age of Isaac Newton—of orbits, optics, and observatories—London gained an unprecedented institutional center for science in the Royal Society, Jordan points out that governmental support for research hinged on the prospect of strategic gain, in ship-building, in navigation; failing this, support dwindled as the inutility of the period’s real, but largely theoretic, advances became clear. Such recognition of the rarefied might have invited the author to reflect on socio-cultural disjunctures in the cheek-by-jowl order of the early-modern city; if so, he turns away.
Yet the new science did do its developing within a cultural as well as an institutional matrix, one that curiously presaged the present. Empiricism’s greatest impact may have been on the imagination, thanks above all to dramatic engravings—the eyes of flies, the legs of lice—made and marketed by the microscopist Robert Hooke, he who gave us the concept of the cell structure. But those who live by the media may die by the media, and Hooke found himself pilloried on stage as a fantasist and dabbler. Hooke’s stage-stricken fury speaks to the place of playwrights and players, as well as of new imaginings of the material world, in elite tastes and conversations—a place probably larger in the 1660s and ’70s than at any time before or since. These were the years of the finest diarist in our language, the naval administrator and sexual adventurer Samuel Pepys, whose astounding chronicle of doings and wanderings in and around London’s theaters, but also its dockyards and palaces too, shows how the stage, as well as sex, might bind high and low in that time when the King could find a mistress in the orange-seller actress, Nell Gwyn.
What may surprise is that parts of a picture so distant from our increasingly baffled 21st century can sometimes look so un-foreign.
Jordan uses the rivalries of theaters and theater-managers as a running theme to counterpoint—if sometimes rather abruptly—rivalries of another kind. As England, France, and Holland vied for primacy, a world stage was taking shape in precisely these years: they were of course the years that saw Pieter Stuyvesant yield Manhattan to the English. It was through its engagement on the larger stage that London earns the global city ranking. Jordan is properly alert to the role of the slave trade in fueling London’s rise, and in one detail he conveys something of the economic impact. For the last five years of Charles II’s reign, close to a ship a week sailed out of the Thames (with the active encouragement of the crown, Jordan reminds us) to pick up human cargo from the African coast. This was a triangular trade, as the ships then crossed the Atlantic to supply the emerging plantation economies whose products did so much to keep Europeans comforted and prosperous. And if it was luxuries people wanted, as of course they did, then these came by the shipload from London’s other new-found Eldorado, the Orient, as that 17th-century phenomenon the East India Company challenged the Dutch hold on Europe’s supply-lines for spices, silks, calicoes, porcelain. Jordan spends several effective pages underscoring just how much London’s and England’s startling rise hinged on the novel role of global conduit or middleman between East and West. There is unintended irony in the timing of such a case in this Brexit moment when Britain turns within, but in his attention to the horrific role of the slaving voyages Jordan is telling a salutary, a necessary, story.
So should Common Readers read his book? Here the counsel must be mixed, for there is much that is wrong in it and with it. Jordan has difficulty in keeping aristocrats and titles straight, and while that may matter less in these egalitarian days, other errors are troubling. England’s Black Death of 1348-49 becomes here 1382; Sepulveda (d. 1573), Spain’s leading proponent of slavery in the Americas, becomes “the fifteenth century Spanish theologian” (62); the debt of the Italian architect Palladio (d. 1580) to the Roman Vitruvius is misplaced by a thousand years. We can all of us be careless, but Jordan seems a tad distant from his subject and its complexities. John Milton “produced Paradise Lost … as a direct result of Charles [II] coming to the throne” (434), he tells us, and there is manifest appeal in such a claim of the clear cultural effect of political upheaval. Scholars are skeptical, though, and think Milton in fact got his epic of “lost freedom” (434) under way some years earlier. Still more egregiously, Francis Bacon, sometime lord chancellor, proponent too of inductive reasoning in a new science, appears here as advocate of “reductive investigation” (445)—a pursuit that, whether as lawyer or theorist, Bacon would only have derided. And our author is all over the map on the role of the money supply in an economy that was expanding. His confusions have much to do with the datedness of what he seems to have been reading.
Jordan does spend some time with riots and demonstrations and with the electoral landslides Charles II’s foes achieved in the crisis of the reign. But it seems odd that he should call London “The King’s City” without engaging that troubled dynamic.
No less perplexing is the apparent promise of the book’s title, a promise that is as misleading in a narrative as in an urban-structural mode. The Earl of Clarendon—Charles II’s great servant and the finest historian of England’s mid-century civil wars—memorably blamed London for the revolution that had tried and executed his king’s father. Clarendon’s memories were surely refreshed by developments during the Restoration itself—it was not for nothing that John Dryden’s brilliant paean on the regime, Annus Mirabilis (1666), jangled so many of the skeletons in the City’s closets. Jordan does spend some time with riots and demonstrations and with the electoral landslides Charles II’s foes achieved in the crisis of the reign. But it seems odd that he should call London “The King’s City” without engaging that troubled dynamic.
The mixed verdict raises a question. How can might-be readers not well versed in early modern history decide whether to spend time with such a work? There are real advantages to the physical bookstore that allows the browser to form a few first impressions: of the smoothness of transitions and thus the coherence of the story being told, of the number and nature of recent titles in the bibliography, of the likelihood of interpretation rather than mere detail or biography. In the bookstores we have left to us, the non-specialist who wants something more than readable social history set in a narrative frame may see enough to find The King’s City wanting.