British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800:
The Origins of an Associational World
by Peter Clark
Oxford Studies in Social History
Oxford University Press, 2000
True, I get off on reading expensive books. Not owning them, I'm not much for possessing things, but I am a demon for the possession of expensive knowledge. At 150 USD new, British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World, well qualifies in that department, and it was a main stay of my Amazon Wish List for nearly a decade until I located a copy at the Geisel Library at UCSD and requested it via the San Diego Public Library.
The subject may at first blush sound obscure, but it is an area of interest both to savvy political commentators (Alexis de Tocqueville and Jurgen Habermas to name two) and conspiracy nut jobs (Freemasons, Illuminati) alike. In his famous Democracy in America treatise, Alexis de Tocqueville posits that the peculiar nature of American democracy stems from an abundance of "private associations." By his reckoning, private associations were the lattice work upon which the garlands of democracy were hung. Two centuries later, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas placed the development of the "public sphere" at the center of his wide ranging theories regarding the centrality of communications at the core of the experience of modernity.
On the lighter side of the scale, you have the pop cultural obsession with Freemasons and Illuminati. According to a single reference in this book, the Illuminati were a sub-organizations of Freemasons in Europe, and did not figure in the British experience (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Colonies of England and their successors.) Finding sober information about the Freemasons is tough, and there are plenty of fanciful accounts of their origins and influence. The Illuminati are even more difficult to track, but a working knowledge of German and French would be a first step. The absence of Illuminati dealings in the English speaking world makes English language sources on the subject questionable.
Clark presents a well accounted description of the rise of his "Associational World." With some roots in the country-side tradition of county feasts, the associational world was a quintescentially urban experience with a distinct London center. The earliest roots came in the mid 18th century, with an explosion between 1750 and 1800. This explosion is illustrated with actual charts and graphs. For example, in England alone, the Number of Clubs went from 200 in 1750 to 1200 by 1800.
These clubs hand numerous different areas of interest. They ranged from early 18th century groups of men interested in science and ancient civilization, to the more popular Mason type fraternal lodges that mixed social networking with heavy drinking and rituals, to the associations of the working class which were often specifically set up to pay for burial benefits and poor relief. There were also many morally focused associations set up by wealthier people to "help the poor,"
Clark makes it clear that the groundwork was laid by the "loosening up" of rules by the King in the areas of freedom of the press and the ability for small groups to meet privately. This last point may seem obvious, but Monarchs were often quite defensive about groups meeting privat