A seventeenth-century Christmas: mince pies, jollity and witchcraft

Brodie Waddell

Between the large stack of papers to mark and an increasingly nocturnal ten-month-old, the planned post on microhistory has had to be postponed until the new year. However, the season calls for at least one celebratory tribute to the peculiarities of early modern Christmastide. The case of Oliver Cromwell and the mince pies has already been discussed at length elsewhere, so I suppose I’d better share another serendipitous discovery from the archives.

This time of year had long been a season of charity and hospitality. As Ronald Hutton has shown, the Twelve Days of Christmas were an occasion for feasting but also giving. He quotes Thomas Tusser, the sixteenth-century poet-farmer:

At Christmas we banquet, the rich and the poor,
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door.1

The ‘better sort’, ranging from well-off villagers to the richest nobles, showed their generosity by inviting neighbours to dine with them and by giving alms to the poor. Or at least that is how it was supposed to work.

But a court case from Devon suggests that the season was not always so jolly. Here it seems a failure of seasonal good spirits had dire consequences. Sarah Byrd of Luppitt, testifying in 1693, tells the story: Continue reading

Call for Papers: Sin and Salvation in Reformation England

Jonathan Willis

As the tightly-sprung chaos of another academic term starts to unwind, and thoughts turn to the endless possibilities of a month of peaceful and unbroken research time (oh yes, and Christmas), my gift to you, Monster reader, is a call for papers.  But this isn’t just any call for papers!  Firstly, the vital statistics: Sin and Salvation in Reformation England is a major three-day conference taking place 26-28 June 2013 at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon.  I am organising the conference under the auspices of CREMS, the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies, with generous support from the Leverhulme Trust.  Contributions are invited from established scholars and postgraduate students alike, and it is my hope that the conference will give rise to an edited volume of essays. Themes for papers may include (but are not limited to): visual, literary, political, theological, historical, material, musical, polemical or any other treatments of the topics of sin and salvation in the context of reformation-era England. Please send abstracts of 250 words for 20-minute papers to me by 31 March 2013, and visit the CREMS website for more information.

Secondly, keynotes.  Every conference needs at least one keynote, and I’m delighted to say that we have managed to arrange an exceptional lineup of three of the most interesting and engaging scholars in the field.  Dr Arnold Hunt, has written on communion and extensively on preaching, and is currently involved with editing the parochial sermons of John Donne.  Professor Alec Ryrie has written extensively on the English reformation: his long-awaited monograph on Being Protestant in Reformation Britain is due out early next year, and he has already embarked on a new global history of Protestantism.  Professor Alexandra Walsham has written a series of ground-breaking books on the English reformation, on topics ranging from church papistry to providence and intolerance.  Her most recent work is a breathtaking account of the Reformation of the Landscape, and she is currently working on the impact of ageing and generational change on the English Reformation.

Thirdly, the conference blurb: Sin and Salvation were the two central religious preoccupations of men and women in sixteenth century England, and yet the reformation fundamentally reconfigured the theological, intellectual, social and cultural landscape in which these two conceptual landmarks were sited. The abolition of purgatory, the ending of intercessory prayer, the rejection of works of supererogation and the collapse of the medieval economy of salvation meant that it was impossible for attitudes, hopes, fears and expectations about sin and salvation to survive the reformation unchanged. This conference will explore some of the transformations and permutations which the concepts of sin and salvation underwent over the course of the reformation in England, as well as the practical consequences of these changes as lived.

Fourthly, every call for papers needs a picture, so here is mine: part of the frontispiece from Lewis Bayly, The Practise of Pietie (1613).

Bayly[A pious man, kneeling upon a foundation of faith, hope and charity, turns from his study of the scriptures to pray: ‘A broken heart o Lord despise not’!]

Fifthly, finally, and as this is a blog entry rather than a traditional call for papers, I wanted to take a little more time to explain why I want to put this conference on, and what I hope to achieve.  I’m currently enjoying the third year of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, working on ‘The Ten Commandments and the English Reformation’, and it was always my plan to host a conference during the final year of research.  Initially this was going to be a conference on the Ten Commandments, then it became one on the concept of God’s law, then on the use of the Old Testament during the reformation more broadly, then more generally on the bible.  Each successive iteration felt like I was getting closer, but I am not a biblical scholar, and so I kept putting it off and off as it didn’t quite feel right.  Finally it clicked: in a nutshell, the commandments were all about listing the things that you mustn’t do (i.e. sin), and enumerating the sort of deeds performance of which could be taken as a sign that an individual had been predestined to election (i.e. salvation).  One of many roles of the commandments in reformation England, therefore, was to help shape these fundamental concepts of sin and salvation as they slowly came to be understood by the great majority of people, through continual exposure through preaching, catechesis, the liturgy, and visual, musical, and other media.  Hopefully then, ‘Sin and Salvation in Reformation England’ will open up for exploration not only those vital concepts themselves, but also how they came to shape religious belief, practice and identity amongst the laity, and how they themselves were moulded by the experience.  A worthwhile enterprise, I’m sure you’ll agree: so, please take some time out from the sherry and mince pies, send those abstracts through to me now, and keep your eyes peeled for information about registration in the spring!

5 April 1666: ‘Sir William Penn is a total jerk’

Brodie Waddell

I’m planning to put together another post on microhistory in the next week or so, drawing on the responses to the original and my own muddled thoughts. Further comments are very welcome.

In the meantime, I thought a very brief addendum to Laura’s post on ‘dangerous diaries’ might not go amiss. As is so often the case, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes provides valuable insights into historiographical controversies. (Even their names are historical!)

Calvin and Hobbes on journalsAs Laura pointed out, and as Calvin reminds us, it’s dangerous to take diaries at face value. Perhaps the quest for posthumous vengence explains why we find so many entries like this one, from April 1666, in Pepys’s diary:

To the office, where the falsenesse and impertinencies of Sir W. Pen would make a man mad to think of.

Beware the diarist with an axe to grind.

Microhistory: size matters

Brodie Waddell

Last week I had the privilege of attending a workshop on ‘Writing Microhistories’ at Jesus College, Cambridge. It was quite simply an excellent event, due partly to the healthy diversity of speakers – from eminent sages like Keith Wrightson to a gaggle of precocious grad students – and partly to the (uncharacteristically) loose, informal nature of the discussion. It was the questions and conversations, rather than just the papers themselves, that made the day so stimulating.

The workshop had a whole series of highlights, including Wrightson’s ruminations on famous Geordies and some juicy gossip with the grad students over post-workshop drinks. However, I’d like to hone in on one particular question that came up in a variety of forms that day: Are ‘microhistories’ about scale? 1

The term ‘microhistory’ will probably be very familiar to most of you, but I’ll borrow from the summary provided by Duane Corpis for an interesting looking course at Cornell as it’s a solid introduction and easily accessible:

Microhistory is a particular methodological approach to the study and writing of history. The aim of microhistory is to present especially peculiar moments in the past by focusing on the lives and activities of a discrete person or group of people. By illuminating the trials and tribulations of ordinary people in their everyday lives, microhistory aims to show both the extent of and the limits upon human agency, i.e. the ability of individuals to make meaningful choices and undertake meaningful actions in their lives. By analyzing what might often seem to modern readers as strange and bizarre events and socially marginal peoples, microhistory offers a more inclusive understanding of who and what matters within the discipline of history. By emphasizing everyday life, microhistory forces us to re-think traditional approaches to history that focus on seemingly more important political events and actors. Finally, by looking at the “micro” level of social activities and cultural meaning, microhistory challenges approaches to the study of history that emphasize the need to quantify, generalize, or naturalize human experience or to find and impose normative and abstract historical laws, structures, or processes on the historical changes of the past.2

The prefix that separates ‘microhistory’ from other ‘history’ suggests that its defining feature is its size, namely it is history on a small scale. Certainly the most famous studies with this label focus on only a single person or place. The book that supposedly started it all – Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976) – illuminates the peculiar world of a sixteenth-century Italian miller. Natalie Zemon Davis concentrated on a French peasant couple in The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) and Robert Darton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ (1984) zoomed in on the actions of a small group of apprentices on a particular street in 1730s Paris. All of these studies share a scope that is severely and unapologetically limited when compared to more traditional histories.

The tools of the trade?

Yet etymology can be deceptive, because ‘microhistories’ seem to be more – or maybe less – than simply ‘small histories’. Although many of these histories centre on the lives of a single individual (Menocchio the miller, Bertrande the wife, Ralph the scrivener, Benedetta the nun), they are not biographies. Likewise, biographies of the great and the good are not microhistories despite the fact that they limit themselves to the story of a single life. Ian Gentle’s recent history of Oliver Cromwell may be academically rigorous and intellectually stimulating but it is somehow fundamentally different from Ginzburg’s Menocchio or Davis’s Bertrande.

In a related way, I think microhistory is distinct from local history. Here too similarities of scale mask innate differences. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s narrative of medieval Montaillou (1975) is the story of a whole village, not merely a single extraordinary individual or family – it explores the lives of all the villagers, heretical and orthodox alike. Yet Montaillou is almost always categorised as ‘microhistory’ whereas an equally famous and important local study, W.G. Hoskins’ book on Wigston Magna (1959), is not. The well-known histories of early modern Terling (1979) and Whickham (1992) by Keith Wrightson and David Levine went even further. Like ‘microhistories’, they were deeply analytical and challenged prevailing interpretations, almost the exact opposite of the antiquarianism of old-fashioned English local history. Nonetheless, they still appear to me to be essentially different from the explorations of Montereale, Artigat, Montaillou and la Rue Saint-Séverin offered by Ginzburg, Davis, Le Roy Ladurie and Darnton.

So, if ‘microhistories’ are not simply ‘small histories’, what makes them distinct? Is it their interest in ‘strange and bizarre events and socially marginal peoples’? Or the personal nature of their sources? Or their reflective and open discussions of methodology and the limits of historical knowledge? Or perhaps it is really a ‘continental thing’, well beyond the abilities of us depressingly practical Anglos on this side of the Channel?

I’d really like to hear your thoughts, which I hope will be the starting point for a subsequent post.

[Update: The follow-up is here]


1 I should also thank the MA students in my seminar at Birkbeck a couple of weeks ago, who had plenty of interesting things to say about the issue of ‘scale’, and two colleagues – Samantha Shave and Mark Hailwood – who discussed this with me over coffee.

2 Duane Corpis, course description for ‘Deviants, Outcasts & other “Others”: Microhistory and Marginality in Early Modern Europe’ (2010). See also the Wikipedia entry, which is a bit less helpful, or this article by Ginzburg (gated; ungated) and the many others available on JSTOR.