New College of the Humanities

The Professions in Early Modern England

What is a profession? You may well ask. After all, the authors who write about 'them' don't seem to know either. Rarely has there been a subject for study so elusive of satisfactory definition. For 'profession' is not simply the equivalent of 'occupation'; the word implies an ideology, the history of which has yet to be adequately charted. The phenomenon raises a large number of tantalising and as yet unanswered questions about the nature of social relations and of work itself in the transitional period between pre-industrial and industrial England.

Historians have been blinded to the importance of the growth of professions before the nineteenth century by the insistence that fully- fledged professions were a creation of modern industrialised society. (W.J. Reader, Professional Men: The Rise of the Professional Classes in Victorian England, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1966)). A 'profession' was defined as an occupation which possessed given traits: a collegial and hierarchical organisation; group control of recruitment, training and entry qualifications; a self-imposed code of personal behaviour and group practice; a service ethos; a claim to monopoly in the chosen area of practical service on the basis of a defined and standardised body of intellectual knowledge and expertise; considerable individual autonomy; altruism, ésprit de corps.

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