What social, economic, and cultural forces cause guilt to increase? Is a general theory of guilt in history possible? A psychological line separates modern societies from early ones, a simple one – once crossed there is no going back. The foremost consequence is that guilt has become dispositional, and, as a result, the remissions of a superficial guilt culture fail to work.

The principal causes of rampant, uncultured guilt in the English case are two-fold, in the key period 1530–1600. First, an emerging middle class experiences unprecedented geographical and social mobility, aggravating already acute levels of anxiety triggered after 1350 by catastrophic and near continuous plague. This anxiety is transformed into guilt, because of already existing elements of self-control.

Economic success led this new middle class to choose a culture – Puritanism – that valued its own inherited qualities, or talents. Fortune, in the shape of plague, a declining feudal Church and aristocracy, favoured its members, selecting them to better their lot at the expense of those with dispositions less suited to exploit the times.

Second, the same period saw a radical change in attitudes to children, and ways of rearing them, which, in turn, induced persecutory guilt.