REED all about it III: Some musings on music and the micropolitics of Sabbath-breaking in Jacobethan Lancashire

Jonathan Willis

One sunny afternoon last July, the University of Birmingham’s Edgsbaston 295393_10151929538030109_359375196_ncampus played host to some rehearsals by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.  Cellos, violas, tubas and trombones were scattered liberally throughout the Arts Building, and the history department itself played host to the trumpet section.  Hearing (fainter) strains of music in the department is not an uncommon occurrence, as there are student rehearsal rooms in other parts of the building.  This is usually quite enjoyable, even if it occasionally adds a melodramatic quality to meetings or supervisions.  Whether at work or home, we have all probably at some stage encountered some form of music which has permeated our environment uninvited.  Sometimes, as with the NYO or Birmingham’s budding undergraduate virtuosi, this can be an unexpected source of pleasure.  But in other situations, it can be distracting, disruptive, or downright offensive.  Uncleanness, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously observed in her 1966 work on Purity and Danger, is ‘matter out of place’.[1]  In the same way, musical sound in the wrong spatial or chronological context can easily cross the rubicon of taste and order and become a provocative and clamorous noise.  If this is still true in the sound-proofed, double-glazed, cavity-wall insulated, noise-cancelling-headphone-wearing twenty-first century, then it was even truer in the sixteenth, where both welcome and rogue sounds must have travelled with much greater volume, clarity and conspicuousness. Continue reading

A civil war comic strip?

Brodie Waddell

Several months ago, inspired by a post by Gavin Robinson, I shared an image of a broadsheet called The Young-Mans Victory Over the Povver of the Devil that seemed to fit the definition of a comic strip. That one, dating from the 1690s, was the earliest I had found at the time and it remains my favourite of the genre, but I’ve since come across an earlier contender.

I discovered it on a wonderful blog called The 1640s Picturebook where Ian Dicker has posted dozens of images from the period along with detailed analysis of the costumes depicted. In June of last year, they posted an image of The Malignants Trecherous and Bloody Plot (1643), which depicted a plan apparently launched by the MP, Edmund Waller, bring an end to the first of the English Civil Wars. According to the confession of one of the plotters quoted in the ODNB, it began peaceably enough:

‘It came from Mr. Waller under this notion, that if we could make a moderate party here in London, to stand betwixt the gappe, and in the gappe, to unite the King and the Parliament, it would be a very acceptable work, for now the three Kingdomes lay a bleeding, and unlesse that were done there was no hopes to unite them.’

But the peace plan quickly turned to war: in its final form, the plot apparently called for an armed rising and seizure of the key points of the City in order to let the king’s army in.

The plot ended before it had begun when the plotters were betrayed and arrested. Somehow, seemingly through a mixture of powerful rhetoric and shameless bribery, Waller managed to escape the grisly punishment inflicted on some of his co-conspirators and was permitted to go into exile after only a year and a half in prison.

The Malignants Trecherous and Bloody Plot (1643) via The 1640s Picturebook.

The Malignants Trecherous and Bloody Plot (1643) via The 1640s Picturebook.

The upshot of all this was a detailed broadsheet published in August of 1643. It has twelve panels, each of which includes a running narration of the events as they unfolded, from the hatching of the conspiracy to the execution of some of the offenders.

The Malignants (1643) panel with Covenant

‘Come let us joyne our selves to the Lord in an everlasting Covenant which shall not be forgotten’, citing Jeremiah 50:5.

It even included some text in a speech bubble, said to be a key part of a ‘true’ comic strip – though as befits a seventeenth-century comic it is a quotation from scripture rather than a supervillain’s monologue.

So have we pushed the date of the first comic strip back still further? Or is this too much of a stretch?

Microhistory: subjects, sources, anti-fascists and Adam

Brodie Waddell

Microhistory is, it seems, a many-headed sort of beast.

In my previous post I suggested that, despite its name, ‘microhistories’ were not simply ‘small histories’ and asked what might make microhistorians 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?

The responses I received in comments (and by email) were very helpful as it soon became obvious that there were many other possibilities that had never occurred to me. Indeed, I received not just five responses, but at least double that number of potential ‘defining features’. Here, however, I will just focus on four issues.

The characteristic that came up most often was the notion of focusing on the ‘exceptional’, ‘unique’, and ‘extraordinary’. This is something that both Laura and Nancy emphasised in their comments as well as a point made one of the pioneers of the genre, Giovanni Levi, who claimed it involved taking seriously things regarded by others as quirky or deviant.1 In Nancy’s words, ‘these studies use the documentation of peculiarity as a point of entry into the ordinary, daily lives of marginal or low-status persons’.2 However, this feature of microhistory also opens it up to critique. As Steve Hindle pointed out in a recent talk (which he kindly passed along in response to my original post), discerning the relationship between ‘the particular’ and ‘the general’ is even more fraught in cases like these where one’s primary subject is undeniably ‘unrepresentative’.3

Another feature that several people mentioned was an explicit engagement with methodological issues. As Nick noted in his comment, microhistories often adapt interdisciplinary approaches, ‘read against the grain’ and acknowledge the important role of imaginative or speculative reconstructions in the absence of conclusive evidence. Laura too suggests that this might ‘be at the core of what “microhistory” is’. In Levi’s reflections on the genre, this forthright discussion of the ambiguities and partialities inherent in narrative sources – such as depositions in inquisitorial courts – is a key element in these histories.4

Perhaps these two recurring features, rather than their scale, are what give microhistories their distinctiveness.

But I think it is worth pushing further, because subjects and methods and even styles can only provide a rather ‘unhistorical’ definition of a historiographical genre. (Note: If you’re an undergrad looking for a straightforward definition of ‘microhistory’, you can stop reading now.)

Let’s start with politics. Nick mentioned that he associated this type of history with ‘the Lotta Continua 1971left’, a link that I hadn’t considered. I think he may be right: the ‘founder’ of the genre, Carlo Ginzburg, wrote a whole book deconstructing and critiquing the murder trial of an activist linked to the Italian leftist group, ‘Lotta Continua’.5 Similarly, the other ‘founder’, Giovanni Levi, has suggested that innovative historical methods can help to explain continuities between the present and the past that ‘neoliberalism’ tries to suppress. In fact Ginzburg and Levi both appear to take some of their inspiration from their Jewish identity and militant anti-fascist heritage. I’d welcome comments from any readers who know of additional (or contrary) examples, but what I think this ought to remind us is that even historiographical traditions that are not explicitly politicised still emerge from specific historical – and thus political – contexts. Microhistory is no exception.

The second issue is nomenclature. For, as Laura pointed out, if we want to find a definition we also need to ask a question: Who decides what is and isn’t ‘proper microhistory’? The power to name things is a very great power indeed, one traditionally reserved for deities and patriarchs.6 Part of the genius of Ginzburg and Levi was simply

Genesis 2:19-20 at the Brick Testament

Genesis 2:19-20 via The Brick Testament

their ability to come up with a concise, memorable term (microstoria) for what they were doing and to convince others to go along with it. This becomes clear when one realises that the word itself had already been used by an American historian, George R. Stewart in the title of one of his books more than a decade before the Italians took it up.7 Stewart may have coined the term, but it was only when Ginzburg and Levi turned it into a ‘brand’ that it became a widely acknowledged and widely imitated genre of history. It was then that it moved beyond the literal notion of a ‘small history’ to acquire all of these associations with specific types of subjects, methods and politics.

Here, at last, we have an explanation for why certain works of history which seem to fit the literal definition of ‘microhistory’ – such as E. P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters (1975) or Wrightson and Levine’s Poverty and Piety (1979) – are rarely granted that label. Ultimately, it comes down to politics, power and a damn good marketing campaign.


1 Giovanni Levi, ‘On Microhistory’, in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (1991). Thanks to Steve Hindle for drawing my attention to this.

2 For an excellent recent example of this approach (including some ‘microhistories’ and some not), see The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England: Essays in Celebration of the Work of Bernard Capp, edited by Garthine Walker and Angela McShane (2009). If you are interested in the connection between ‘microhistory’ and its ‘extraordinary’ antecedents in eighteenth and nineteenth-century ‘compilations of crimes, trials and other strange-but-true stories’, you might want to apply for a fully-funded PhD studentship on that topic at Ghent University in Belgium.

3 Steve Hindle, ‘Reducing the Scale of Historical Observation: Micro-history, Alltagsgeschichte, Local History’, at Huntington Library, Early Modern Studies Institute, ‘Past Tense’, 19 October 2012. There should be a podcast of this talk available soon at which point I will update with a link.

4 Levi, ‘On Microhistory’.

5 Carlo Ginzburg, The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes and a Late-Twentieth-century Miscarriage of Justice (1999).

6 Genesis 2:19 – ‘And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.’ See also this interesting recent post by Daniel Little on the nomenclature of ‘the human sciences’.

7 George R. Stewart, Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Charge at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (1959).

Workers’ Representation Part Three: Mining and Modernity

Mark Hailwood

So, I thought it was about time to introduce another image of woodcut workers from my trawls through the English Broadside Ballad Archive, and what could be more appropriate than an image from a special new year’s ballad: A New-Years-Gift for Covetous Colliers, published sometime in the 1680s or 1690s. The ballad itself praises Parliament for acting against price-hiking colliers – those involved mainly in the distribution and sale of coal – but includes an image of the primary workers in the coal trade, miners:


The image isn’t particularly remarkable. There is no evidence in this depiction of the hostile stereotype that miners were a ‘race apart’ from other workers; no coal-blackened faces to help symbolise this cultural otherness; no visual indicators that miners were, as Daniel Defoe put it, ‘subterranean wretches…a rude, boorish kind of people’.[1] Continue reading