Welcome to the 94th edition of Carnivaleque! Today we will be introducing you to a wonderfully motley menagerie of historical blogs and bloggers.
Finding any overall unifying theme is impossible with a collection of this sort, but there are a few key subjects that emerged from the nominations, each of which receives a section below:
- The historian as detective
- Bodily functions
- A venerable criminal enterprise
- Places, spaces and sites
- Thinking about the historian’s craft
I think it is particularly interesting what’s not in the links below, namely kings and queens and ‘great battles’, the traditional material for popular histories. Not that political history and military history are entirely absent, just that they are approached from a different direction than usual. Although there are a few of gentlemen and noblewomen as well as a famous scientist, the vast majority of the nominated posts are focused on people who would have been largely excluded from textbooks written fifty years ago. What should we make of this? Is old-fashioned ‘top down’ history dying off? Or is it just that the type of people who read this blog and pay attention to Carnivaleque are predisposed against reading yet another story about Henry VIII and his wives or Charles I and his parliaments? I’d be interested to hear what you think.
However, before wandering into the carnival below, take a look at this truly heart-warming short animation that tells the tale of ‘the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, 1590’, a German werewolf. For more details, see the two posts at LOLManuscripts, but in the meantime, watch the video and be amazed.
Now, on with the show…
The historian as detective
Stumbling upon some extraordinary incident or fact in history, many people would simply say ‘How interesting!’ or ‘How odd!’ and leave it at that. But for obsessives like us, the first response is to ask ‘why?’. The almost irrepressible instinct to try to learn more, to explain rather than simply observe, drives us to spend innumerable hours searching for clues.
Why did Christopher Hill scribble ’21. Facts’ in the margins of his copy of History and the Early English Novel? Adam Smyth attempts to decipher some intriguing annotations.
Why were the colonial West Indies known as ‘a Paradise for Women and a Hell for Men’? And why did the tragic story of an Indian woman named Yarico and an English servant named Inkle later become ‘a rally cry for abolitionists’? Carolyn Arena investigates.
Why are so few of Edward Montagu’s harvesters working in the portrait he commissioned of his estate? Steve Hindle shifts from economic history to art history in his investigation of this painting. His post is even more illuminating when read alongside Mark’s post on visual representations of work right here on the Monster.
Why was a disabled old woman regarded as a threat to the state by the Parliamentary authorities during the English Civil War? And how did she attempt to escape punishment? Gavin Robinson dives into the archives to find out.
Why was pirate Captain Robert Zachary accused of ‘turning Turk’ and converting to Islam during the English Civil War? Richard Blakemore weighs the evidence to try to determine whether Zachary really was a Muslim parliamentarian mariner.
Why did a flash mob suddenly launch into an Elizabethan melody at Hardwick Hall earlier this month? The project team at ‘Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe’ provide some background and describe the experience. It sounds much more harmonious than the profane piper that Jonathan discovered in Tudor Chester.
Why was the well-named John Crok wandering around fourteenth-century Southwark with a Saracen’s head in a bag? Well, according to Crok, he acquired the head ‘in order to shut a spirit up in it so that he said spirit would answer questions’. Seems reasonable, as midgardarts explains. Perhaps Crok was a morbid precursor to John Dee and his conversations with angels?
Why have so many people cut up famous and valuable books like the Gutenburg Bible and Shakespeare’s first folio? And, more importantly, what did they do with the fragments? Adam Hooks investigates several cases of this disturbing practice.
Why were ‘some young ladies’ having the name of an Italian balloonist stitched on their garters in the 1780s? Paul Keen assesses the ‘earthly attractions’ of this early high flier at ‘The 18th-Century Common’.
Why was Pope Formosus dug up after his death and his corpse put on trial by his papal successor? Charles West seeks to get beyond the popular explanation that ‘the Middle Ages were pretty wacky’.
Why did William Smellie’s anatomical ‘birthing woman’ never catch on in the medical community? And where did it go? Brandy Schillace tries to describe this ‘celebrated appartus’ and then track it down.
Why was so much gold was minted in Roman Britain? Did Watling Street drain it away? Erik Lund offers a hypothesis.
Bodily functions: eating, drinking, curing, cleaning … and sex
This is a hot topic in the history blogosphere these days. Apparently we love to talk about all of the naughty and nice things that people in the past have done to their bodies. In fact, the Monster has joined in the fun thanks to Mark Hailwood’s various posts over the past few months. It would be interesting to know how much of this blogging is due to the popularity of these issues as research topics (which is certainly a major factor) and how much is due to the fact that we just enjoying writing and reading about these often intimate aspects of history.
The place to start is with intoxication. Not only has Mark written about the joys (and dangers) of the early modern alehouse here at the Monster, but he’s also contributed a guest post on ‘Alcohol and Ailments’ to Jennifer Evans’ Early Modern Medicine blog which received a nomination for C’esque. Similarly mixing booze and bodily health is Emily Brand at the Georgian Bawdyhouse, who discovers that ‘Wine is to all men the very Best of Physic’ according to an 1825 engraving. Tillman Taape goes even further and suggests that at least one late medieval alchemist believed that ‘quintesence of wine’, a highly distilled alcohol, could even help in the battle against the anti-Christ. Meanwhile, in colonial America, they seem to have been just as much fun as in England. Kristen Burton explores how drinking ‘healths’ (viz. toasts) could get out of hand, leading to a rowdy encounter at a Boston tavern in 1714. Ed Crews offers a more general portrait of drinking in early America, explaining how often people ‘started the day with a pick-me-up and ended it with a put-me-down’, along with many extra drinks in between. In both England and the new world, getting drunk was central part of daily life in the early modern period.
Of course a stiff drink goes best with a good meal, and the history of food and recipes has also featured heavily in recent blogging. This too has appeared here in, for example, Mark’s lively discussion of the history of vegetarianism. It has also inspired some classicist blogging, because a loaf of bread is just a loaf of bread, until a volcanic eruption carbonises it and turns it into a chilling reminder of the nearness of death in the ancient world. Helen King discusses the loaf and the other everyday objects preserved for posterity by the destruction of Pompei. However, I think the real champions of this topic are the bloggers at the Recipes Project who have been posting some excellent explorations of historical delicacies, magical concoctions and dangerous drugs. Some recent highlights include Montserrat Cabré’s personal reflection on the emotional impact of recipes and the methodical implications this has for historians. Another is Ashley Buchanan’s examination of women’s pursuit of alchemical ‘secrets’ at the Medici court that resulted in some highly valued pharmaceuticals.
Sometimes, as Laurence Totelin at Concocting History shows, one simply needs to mix up some very unusual ingredients and see what happens. Attempting to make a sixth-century cosmetic soap produces an interesting result with a saintly association. And Rebecca Unsworth decides to recreate the starch used in sixteenth-century ruffs, whilst also showing why contemporaries thought such products might be the work of the devil.
We’ve already hinted at the medical aspect of all this creating and consuming, but several bloggers tackle the history of the so-called healing arts head on. Let’s begin with Mountebank’s Mistress who follows the unpleasant journey of an ivory bodkin swallowed by ‘Dorcas Blake, a full bodied sanguine Maid’ of Dublin in 1694. This seems to be a rare case of early modern physicians helping rather than hurting their patients.
But full-bodied maids suffered rather less welcome attention from their doctors in other cases. The ‘infamous Dr Foulkes’, a vicar and physician in eighteenth-century Wales, was the target of some contemptuous doggerel thanks to his lecherous reputation, as Alun Withey explains. Some similar worries are uncovered by Jennifer Evans – however, she also finds that ‘in some cases it would seem that it was women themselves who encouraged illicit sexuality’, as evidenced in a story from 1703.
Finally, we mustn’t forget the other aspect of bodily functions, the inevitable result of all that eating and drinking discussed earlier. Although it dates from last year, it would be impossible not to include a link to Jack Plane’s detailed and well-illustrated survey of the history of garderobes, chamber pots, bourdaloues, night tables and other important ‘conveniences’.
A venerable criminal enterprise
The Old Bailey Online celebrated its tenth anniversary this month. This wonderful resource will be familiar to nearly all of you, but for those who haven’t encountered it before, it is:
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, a fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.
It is a project well worth celebrating and, fittingly, many bloggers honoured its anniversary with a post on the impact of the OBO on their own work. The place to start is with Sharon Howard’s ‘Riot of Blogging’ which describes the event and links to the 25 posts that emerged over the birthday weekend. Especially interesting are the reflections of Tim Hitchcock, one of the founders of the OBO, who takes ‘stock of what went right and what went wrong’, including the all-important decision to make it freely available. Also worth reading are Sharon Howard’s thoughts on the unexpected results of the project, such as its impact in the field of historical linguistics, and Lisa Smith’s discussion of how it inspired her own big digital project.
What really makes the Old Bailey Online great are the vivid stories that one can stumble across and this too features in the anniversary blogging. Many of these can be found in the original post on the OBO, but I’ll just share two more that aren’t linked there. One is from Early Modern John on ‘the vocabulary murders’ in which a man is killed in 1676 for uttering ‘a Spanish word … not properly exprest’. The other is right here at the Monster, describing a robbery that happened on Easter Sunday, 1691.
Places, spaces and sites
The spatial-turn has been receiving attention from the online historical community for a while now, but some recent posts remind us just how much physical environments can matter.
For example, if you were looking to put on a party, finding the right venue was very important. This has previously been touched on at the Monster in a post on popular entertainments in early modern Norwich, but the world wide web has much more to offer. In eighteenth-century London, for example, Pall Mall seems to have been a good place to live it up. Steven Gregg digs into Defoe and pulls up some maps to see if he can figure out why is it was such a popular place to party.
One especially intimate space would have been the ‘anchorhold’, a room in which holy men and women shut themselves up from the rest of the world for years. The blogger at the British Library’s Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog describes the three 13th-century laywomen who bricked themselves into a cell in a church in order to pursue their prayers. Interestingly, this didn’t always mean a life of solitude: some anchoresses became ‘central figures in their communities’.
Burial sites are often even more historically revealing. The plague pit uncovered in London last month provoked some panicked reactions in the press, but as Lisa Smith explains at the Sloan Letters Blog, we have nothing to worry about … probably. The writers at Medeivalists.net discuss another one recent find from the Middle Age: the grave of a 13th century knight and a lost monastery in a former car park in Edinburgh. I think there may also have been another recent archaeological find in a British car park, but rather than risk mentioning a particularly famous horseless hunchback by name I’ll leave that one for our readers to investigate on their own.
Thinking about the historian’s craft
Finally, as you’ve already noticed, we seem to spend a lot of time thinking about the actual craft (or science?) of doing history: Why do we do it? How does it get done? What do with do with the results?
The research process is rapidly changing right now thanks to the new resources that are coming online at a remarkable rate. For example, the Digital Public Library of America – brainchild of historian Robert Darnton – has just been launched and, as Eleanor Shevlin at EMOB explains, it may have a huge impact on how we do history. Relatedly, the process of preserving millions of megabits of internet history is having mixed success, as described by Felipe Fernades Cruz. Also, one of the early modernist’s best friends, Early Modern Resources, run by Sharon Howard, is being overhauled and reorganised, and she is looking for suggestions on what to include, so be sure to pass along your thoughts.
Part of doing history is doing it right. All of the posts cited here are excellent examples how to think carefully and critically about the sources and their context, but as Thony Christie shows, not everyone is so conscientious. His specific example is an article on ‘The secret gay history of the Royal Society’, but his general point about the danger of ‘if it hadn’t been for X there wouldn’t have been a Y’ is something that every historian should consider. Literary scholars need to be on their guard too. Crimes against Shakespeare committed in the press and by public figures are too numerous name, but Holger Syme dismembers one especially egregious recent example.
Once the research is done, one needs to find a way to express it and share it with the rest of the world. If you are tired of the restrictions of a traditional academic journal, perhaps check out The Appendix, ‘a new journal of narrative and experimental history’, which has been doing great work, including several pieces in the links above. Another possibility could be a podcast. Richard Blakemore and John Gallagher of Cambridge are hosting a series of ‘PhDcasts’ that includes plenty of medieval and early modern material. Four PhD students at Birmingham – Peter Hewitt, Victoria Jackson, Elizabeth Sharrett and Stephanie Appleton – have taken a different path. They have been doing a series of posts on Shakespeake’s World in 100 Objects, a marvellously visual way to convey a sense of a particular place and time. They’ve uncovered an outstanding range of objects so far and I suggest readers go through and pick out ones which may be of particular interest to them, but my favourites are the beautiful carved angel, the ragged little Book of Common Prayer, and the colourful bed-hangings. And, for those of you who are professional academics, you’ll want to read what Penelope Corfield has to say about the best and worst lectures she’s ever heard, techniques for asking good questions at seminar papers, and advice for answering them too.
However, if you are really lucky, you’ll find something that catches the online public’s attention and goes viral. That’s what happened to Emir O. Filipovic when he shared ‘a simple photo of cat paw prints on a medieval manuscript’. There is actually much more to his research than that, and in fact there is much more to the history of feline-human relations than that one manuscript, but I think the most important lesson we learned from the incident is that cute cat pictures tend to spread like wildfire on the internet.
And thanks for all the fish
I’m sure I’ve missed some great recent posts, so do let me know in the comments below. Also, I’m pleased to announce that the Monster will be hosting an online symposium on the future of ‘history from below’ later this summer and I hope some of you will join in the discussions then. More details to follow…
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