On October 17th, 1677, a month before Bartholomew Laskey arrived with his monstrous hairy child, the Norwich Mayor’s Court licenced Mr Robert Parker ‘to act pieces out of Playes &c for 14 daies at the Redd lion’ and John Argent ‘to make shew of such tricks as are mentioned in his patent at the Angell’.¹
These are exactly the sort of tantalisingly vague references to popular entertainments that one expects to find in early modern legal records. The ‘pieces of plays’ and unspecified ‘tricks’ surely amused their audiences, and the title ‘Mr’ suggests that at least Parker earned a decent livelihood, so they probably represent typical examples of provincial urban popular culture in the late seventeenth century. However, whereas in London we have published plays and diarists to tell us about the content of these ‘entertainments’, here we are left with frustratingly little. Norwich had no Pepys to record a trip ‘to Southwarke-Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet-show of Whittington, which was pretty to see; and how that idle thing do work upon people that see it, and even myself too!’
About a year later, in October 1678, the court clerk noted that
Oliver Batt hath leave to make shew of a Motion called Arte and Vertue until Newyear day next at the Blew Bell in the Hoggmarket.²
This seems much more promising. We’re given the name of the show and the place where it was performed. Sadly, my cursory search for plays called ‘Art and Virtue’ turned up nothing in the ESTC and the other obvious databases.
The venue, on the other hand, is a bit less cryptic. A pub called the Blue Bell, which claimed to date to the fifteenth century, was open in the city until 1965 and this might well be the one referred to here. We even have a photo.
It was at 21 Lower Goat Lane, a stone’s throw from the current marketplace, but someone with a better grasp of early modern Norwich will have to confirm if that was the same place as the hog market.
The nineteenth-century OS map and John Hoyle’s early eighteenth-century city map gives some idea of the pub’s place in the town, though obviously a high-res image would make it clearer. (If anyone has one, I’ll gladly update the image.)
Many other licencing entries in the mayor’s court books are similarly specific about location and it would be fascinating to map out the geography of popular ‘shews’ in the town. This could be combined with information from the Records of Early English Drama series (REED) to build a dataset that would stretch across the whole early modern period.³ Reconstructing this would, I think, be a great example of historiography’s ‘spatial turn’ in action.
There are several questions that we could ask:
- Were popular entertainments ‘marginal’ or ‘central’? Were they pushed to the edge of the city like the Southwark theatres in Elizabethan London? Or were they welcomed into the heart of the city, the hub of commercial and administrative activity at its centre? (The single data point of the Blue Bell suggests the latter.)
- Were they spatially segregated or integrated into a variety different types of neighbourhood? Confined to poorer districts? Or commercial areas? Or spread across the whole city?
- Were performances associated with specific venues or did they regularly change? Were there only a few inns that hosted all the ‘shews’? Or could they be found at most large establishments?
- How did their geography change (or not change) over time? Was their spatial configuration stable or did it shift over the course of the early modern period in response to changes in the city’s economy or government?
Perhaps an analysis of the geography of popular entertainments would be one way to give the ‘spatial turn’, which Katrina Navickas recently critiqued for being a bit too focused on the middle classes, a bit more social depth. Exploring the relationship between these ‘shews’ and Norwich’s cityscape might contribute to uncovering the nature of plebeian ‘space’ in early modern towns.
PS: I don’t plan to do any of this hard work myself, so if any readers are keen to give it a go, please do. Just be sure to report back with your findings.
UPDATE (25/07/12): I’ve just realized that this post was almost certainly subconsciously inspired by a wonderful talk/post by Tim Hitchcock that I read a couple of weeks ago. He reconstructs the ‘spatial’ role of a fascinating individual:
a man named Charles McGee or Mckay, who stood just here for over forty years, from at least 1809, until his death in 1854; making a living as a one-eyed crossing sweeper – a black Jamaican refugee from Britain’s wars of colonial expansion
Hitchcock shows how ‘some people stand in the same place longer than many buildings; and have a greater right to appear on a map, than many landmarks’. For more on Mckay, and a discussion of the possibilities opened up by Locating London’s Past (the latest in Hitchcock’s endless stream of gigantic digital projects), see the post.
¹ Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 9
² Ibid., f. 37. f. A ‘motion’ was ‘a show, an entertainment; spec. a puppet-show’ according to the OED.
³ David Galloway (ed.), Records of Early English Drama: Norwich 1540-1642 (Toronto, 1984). This article, which I have not read, also seems like it would be useful: Phillip V. Thomas, ‘Itinerant, roguish entertainers in Elizabethan and early Stuart Norwich’, Norfolk Archaeology, 43:3 (2000), pp. 485-92.
[Update (19/01/13): Be sure to read Fiona Williamson’s contribution in the comment section below on the social profile and geography of these venues. She’s currently a senior lecturer at the National University of Malaysia with much more knowledge of seventeenth-century Norwich than I have, and recently edited and contributed to Locating Agency: Space, Power and Popular Politics (2010), focusing primarily on these sorts of issues in early modern England.]