“As I Went Forth One Summer’s Day”: Putting the Story in Early Modern History

Mark Hailwood

Twas the night before Christmas, in the year 1681, and one Soloman Reddatt was drinking in the Nag’s Head in Reading, with his sister, Elizabeth, and a friend, George Parfitt, when, at around 9pm, their sociability was disturbed by the shattering of glass. Moments earlier, Debora Allen had burst into the alehouse in search of her husband Edward. After locating him in the kitchen drinking with the alehousekeeper, William Newbury, she flew into a rage, picking up a quart pot and throwing it through a window. As a startled Reddatt and his companions looked up from their drinks, Debora Allen emerged from the kitchen into the room where they were drinking, where the angry wife ‘levelled her passion’ against Sara Newbury, the alehousekeeper’s wife, who was busy serving customers. Debora Allen called Sara Newbury a whore and a bawd, and accused her of running the alehouse as a bawdy house, before turning her fire onto the alehousekeeper William Newbury, labelling him a cuckold. The furious Debora Allen repeated the accusations several times, both within the alehouse and at the street door, ensuring that her opinion of this alehouse and its proprietors received a public airing.

A version of this vignette appears at the start of a chapter that I have written for a forthcoming Bloomsbury textbook on the cultural history of alcohol in the early modern world. The focus of the chapter is the relationship between gender, sexuality and alcohol in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I use an analysis of this opening anecdote to highlight several of the themes that run through the essay: the gendered character of alcohol retailing; the extent and character of women’s public consumption of alcohol; the complex relationship between masculinity and drinking; and so on.

It is a classic technique of historians in my field – that is, the social history of early modern England – to start an article or a chapter with a story; a telling anecdote that draws the reader in and sets up the analysis that is to follow. Indeed, I have just used it here. More often than not, though, the storytelling ends there – the historian steps out of the role of fireside narrator, and proceeds to offer up their analysis in a cool, detached, ‘academic’ register, deemed more suitable for the pages of a peer-reviewed journal or academic monograph.

This is a writing convention that I myself have followed many times, and one that I relatively uncritically absorbed and mimicked from my own academic mentors and inspirations. But the endeavours of the ‘Storying the Past’ virtual reading group, and associated ‘Creative Histories’ events, have encouraged me to become more reflective about the storytelling techniques that I use in my writing as an academic historian, and those employed in my particular field of academic history.

What storytelling techniques, other than the trusty opening anecdote, do the historians that I spend most of my time reading deploy? What do they use them for, and – perhaps just as significantly – what don’t, or won’t, they use them for? And could we use a wider range of storytelling techniques and creative forms of historical writing to enhance and advance the field of early modern social history? If so what, and how?

As I start to respond to these questions several lines of inquiry are beginning to take shape. I’m starting to see, and scrutinise, more and more aspects of ‘story’ in our sources (something I have blogged about here for instance), and in the way we write – especially when we do microhistory, or when we construct ‘grand narratives’ about our period as a whole. When it comes to new ways of using creative storytelling techniques to advance our field, I find myself looking to the recent endeavours of modern social historians such as Matt Houlbrook and Helen Rogers as inspiration.

Here I would like to flag up another model of creative writing that is closer to our own period, and one that I think has considerable potential for all social historians. Philip Ziegler’s 1969 book The Black Death was a synthesis of existing scholarship on the plague aimed at a non-specialist audience.  Sixteen of the seventeen chapters are conventional historical writing, but in Chapter Thirteen – ‘The Plague in a Medieval Village’ – Ziegler offers instead a fictional ‘imaginative reconstruction’ designed to ‘evoke the atmosphere’ that the Black Death created in a small village community. His tale of how the plague decimated the imaginary village of ‘Blakwater’ is intended to be ‘plausible and valid’ and its features and experiences based on ‘scraps of authenticated material’, but the style itself is essentially that of ‘the historical novelist’. It is intended to ‘put flesh on the dry statistical bones provided by the records of the period’. It is certainly worth reading.

I actually find much of it unconvincing – the mental and emotional frameworks he imposes upon the characters feel too modern to my sensibilities, and the extent to which his imagined village is isolated from the wider world jars with the research I am engaged in – but it is certainly thought-provoking, not least in highlighting aspects of the everyday that we do not yet know much about: would X really have been like that? Would people have thought about X it that way? I think there could be much to be gained by social historians in trying to write at least a chapter of ‘imaginative reconstruction’ like this on whatever subject they are researching, whether they published it or not. All the things that we struggle to reconstruct, or that do not quite ring true when we read it back, would signpost avenues for further research.

There is plenty of scope for early modern social historians to adopt more creative writing techniques – as well as for greater reflection on those they currently use – but what is to be gained from doing so? More creative approaches might allow us to reach wider and more diverse audiences, which would be no bad thing. That said, we should not only see creative historical writing as a ‘pathway to impact’ and public engagement: something to be added to historical research at a post-production stage to expand its reach. Thinking about the role of storytelling techniques in our sources and in our writing, and experimenting with a wider range of these techniques, can also have considerable analytical value, can encourage historians to think in new ways, to ask different questions. There is potential here for an embrace of creative approaches to sharpen our analytical tools at the same time as expanding their reach.

6 thoughts on ““As I Went Forth One Summer’s Day”: Putting the Story in Early Modern History

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  2. I write primarily about 17th century naval history, and have had three ‘serious’ books published on this, as well as two on other historical themes. However, I also write historical fiction, with eight titles published to date in my series set against the backdrop of the Anglo-Dutch wars; one of the main reasons why I began to write fiction was because I knew it provided a vehicle to bring the subject I was passionate about to a far wider audience than my academic historical writing ever could. So the sorts of techniques described in this post have become second nature to me, and I find myself ‘crossing over’ all the time – i.e. employing story-telling methods from fiction in my more academic work, but also employing the standards of research that I employ in my ‘serious’ books for my fiction writing. Therefore I very much agree with the points mooted in the final paragraph of this post. This is clearly all part of the bigger debate about whether academic history really needs to be written in the dull, ‘heavy’ way still favoured by so many, perhaps especially in articles for peer-reviewed journals, and also touches on the dismissive attitude that some historians (no names, no pack drill, except in the cases of Messrs Ferguson and Starkey) still have towards historical fiction. There may also be a fear of trying to write more creatively, both because the historian doubts his or her ability to do so, and because of a perception that this sort of approach is trivial or even ‘unworthy’. In my opinion, historians should at least try to make the leap, because for me, as I indicated earlier, wider engagement is all. Finally, what might be a rather controversial point. The week after next, the Historical Novel Society’s conference will be taking place in Scotland. If sceptical historians could somehow attend as ‘flies on the wall’, they’d be surprised – and, I hope, impressed – by the seriousness of much of the discussion that will take place there about such subjects as research methodology, extent and depth of research, accuracy, ‘authenticity’, interpreting the mindsets of people in the past, and so forth. The disciplines are not really as far apart as some may think.

    • Thanks for these comments JD! I agree that the disciplines are closer than many people think, something which really struck me during Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures in fact. In that case I actually thought that Mantel was overestimating the difference, suggesting that the historian ‘leaves it at that’ when they reach a gap in the documented past, whereas the historical novelist thrives in bridging those gaps with informed imaginative leaps. As you know, though, academic historians also spend much of their energy operating in or across those gaps. The ‘Creative Histories’ movement is all about the kinds of conversations between historians and novelists that you propose in your final point – and although I can’t be in Scotland I hope there will be many more of these dialogues.

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