Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History, Yale University

Keith Wrightson studied at Cambridge University before teaching at St Andrews and Cambridge, where he was Professor of Social History, before moving to Yale in 1999. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society, former President of the North American Conference on British Studies, and in 2016 kindly agreed to become an Honorary Vice-President of the Social History Society.

Looking back beyond the modern era in our study of history, to the early modern era or “the deep past”, is important, he tells his students, “because it creates meaning. It helps us to understand ourselves in time, in a deeper way. By exposing twenty-first century attitudes and values and experiences to a much deeper comparative context. Looking at the distant past can alert us to the sheer otherness of the past, to the reality of deep and fundamental change in the course of four or five centuries, and to the provisional and contingent and temporary nature of so much that we take for granted today, as well as the family resemblances which can still be found. That’s an exercise which can be enormously provocative and stimulating, a challenge that helps us understand better our own place in time.”

He may well be best known to students for his innovative survey English Society, 1580-1680, which has been in continuous print since 1982. But it was his pioneering work with David Levine, first on the Essex village of Terling and later on the coal-mining parish of Whickham, that introduced to English social history the ‘microhistorical’ approach which had previously been adopted mostly by historians of Continental Europe. His hugely influential work has used microhistories to shed new light on the social, economic and religious lives of those who lived in the early modern era.

Many of his former students are now leading authorities in their own right. In 2013 a group of them produced a collection of essays – Remaking English Society: Social Relations and Social Change in Early Modern England – in his honour.

Key Publications