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The inquiring sort: ideas and learning in late eighteenth-century Birmingham

By Zillah Abigail Amma Scott

Abstract

The conflicting visions of eighteenth-century society offered by J. C. D. Clark and the historians of the English Enlightenment are here used as a means by which to examine aspects of the public spheres of Birmingham. Whilst it was a town of conviviality and consumption of culture, these activities were suffused with a serious purpose born of religious conviction. The concept of the Inquiring Sort has been developed to describe this aspect of Birmingham Society. A case study has been made of Freemasonry in Birmingham, as an example of a group within the Inquiring Sort. The public sphere of ideas and learning, in which the Inquiring Sort spent leisure time, included lectures, libraries, bookshops and debating societies. The spaces in which they moved, marked both by places of fashionable consumption and places of cultural consumption, have been mapped and their world of books and texts analysed. The role of religious inquiry is a key thread in these areas. The roles played by ideas and learning in three elements of Birmingham industry are examined: gaining skills through the printed word, the marketing of goods and the place of fashion. Knowledge of the self is seen to be key in each case. Religion in eighteenth century Birmingham is explored, focusing particularly on the previously under-researched Established Church there. Finally, the reaction of the Established Church to controversial ideas, particularly to the radical Unitarianism of Joseph Priestly, is analysed. It is argued that disputes over such ideas were central in the development of hostilities in the town during the 1780s, which culminated in the Church and King riot of 1791

Topics: B1, DA
OAI identifier: oai:wrap.warwick.ac.uk:2512

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Citations

  1. Freeth's Invitation Cards, 1770-1801, L23.3 523407. Birmingham City Archive Transactions Relating to the New Meeting Sunday Schools, Vestry Minutes, MS 501/1-4. Julius Hardy, 'Journal', MS218/1, or transcript available MS 839/53. A New Song,
  2. New Meeting and Church of the Messiah Sunday School Centenary 1888, New Meeting Vestry Minutes,

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