‘Tis ale good and new
So, I recently had the chance to pop into a seventeenth-century alehouse for a quick beer – not a bad way to mark the publication of the paperback of my book on the subject, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was during a recent trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex with our Women’s Work Project team, which gave us the chance to recreate some early modern work activities, and in a spare half hour at the end of our visit I took the chance to visit the rescued seventeenth-century cottage that the museum thinks might have served as an alehouse in that period.
As I sat in front of the fireplace at the alebench with my quart in hand I tried to conjure up in my mind the other elements that would have filled out this scene four centuries ago. What sounds would have filled the place – what conversations and songs? What smells would have filled the air – the wood smoke, baking pies? Who might have been there? What would they have looked like, been wearing… smelt like? What bawdy or godly ballads might have been pasted up on the wall? How would the beer have tasted? What would the toilet facilities have been like? I tried to imaginatively immerse myself in a seventeenth-century alehouse scene.
The challenge of recapturing these sensory and experiential components of the past is something I have often blogged about, and this trip was obviously a stimulating one in bringing these issues to the forefront of my mind. But as I sat there in the alehouse mining my imagination I reflected that this process of imagining the past isn’t only triggered by being in an immersive environment like this one. It is something we all do all the time – just not as explicitly and self-consciously as we do when visiting a living history museum. Continue reading
Well folks, let us not pretend that 2016 has been a year of peace and unity, but that’s all the more reason to wish each and every one of our readers a restorative and merry midwinter holiday. We also want to say a huge thank you to everyone who supports the blog, whether that’s simply by taking the time to read it or by sharing our posts on social media or indeed in your classrooms. We were delighted to recently pass a couple of statistical landmarks – 100,000 visitors and 200,000 views of the blog since its inception – and we hope to have many, many more in the years to come.
If you’re not feeling in the festive spirit yet then perhaps a quick trawl through the many-headed monster’s archive of ‘Christmas Specials’ will help: you can read about the history of early modern Christmas dinners; find out how our old pal Ralph Thoresby spent his Christmases; delve into the political conflicts that engulfed seventeenth-century Christmas; discover the impact of the Reformation on Christmas carols; relive an epic Boxing Day pub crawl from 1647; and be warned of the perils of refusing to give seasonal charity in the age of witchcraft.
See you in 2017.
Christmas dinner is undoubtedly one of the most popular Yuletide rituals in Britain today – but what is its history? If you like, as any good historian would, to have a bit of historical context up your sleeve to bore your relatives with over the Christmas period, then I offer up to you the following morsels about the ritual meal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century character…
A cycle of midwinter celebration was established in Britain in the early part of the Middle Ages, so by the sixteenth century the Twelve Days of Christmas – running from 25th December to 5th January – had already been the focus of festivities for centuries. The holidays kicked off with Christmas Day itself, and after attending an early morning church service the attention quickly turned to feasting. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas Day, people were encouraged by the Church to restrict their diet, with Christmas Eve kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden. Come Christmas Day then, appetites had been sharpened for the first unrestricted meal in weeks.
So, a big dinner was already central to Christmas Day ritual by the start of the sixteenth century, and by the first half of the seventeenth century we start to find evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations. The ‘minced pie’ – then a mixture of meat, fruit and spice baked in pastry case – appears in seventeenth century records. So too does ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins and currants in it. For the main meat dish beef or brawn (meat from a pig or calf head), both stuck with rosemary, were the favoured options. Continue reading
To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources
My favourite early modern primary source? When you have spent the last year working almost exclusively with one type of source you come to either love it or loathe it. In the case of the court depositions I have been reading extensively for the Women’s Work Project I’m glad to say it’s the former. They undoubtedly top my list.
Scenes of everyday life
For a historian driven above all by a desire to recover the everyday lives of ordinary women and men in the past the witness statements they gave in their tens of thousands before the courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent a rich seam indeed. In recounting the details surrounding cases in criminal, civil and ecclesiastical courts, deponents provide accounts of myriad aspects of day-to-day experience. They tell us about their working lives of course – about mowing corn, spinning yarn or shearing sheep at the time of witnessing a crime, say – but also how they spent their leisure time – about trips to the alehouse describing who they drank with, how much they drank, and who subsequently fell out with who. Continue reading
Links to the other posts in the ‘On periodisation’ series:
As Laura outlined in the previous post of this ‘monster series on periodisation, the term ‘early modern’ has – since the 1970s, at least in the history departments of UK universities – come to be seen as one of the ‘holy trinity’ of historical periods: the medieval, the early modern, the modern. But why?
There a number of reasons why its widespread acceptance and use could be considered somewhat surprising. Its current prevalence in publication and job titles – and on this blog, which self-identifies as an ‘early modern history’ blog – is remarkable given that it is a relative newcomer to the periodisation party. And as Laura has already highlighted, there is little agreement on when exactly it was (1500-1700 is, of course, the right answer…)
But to me the main reason why its rise to near canonical status seems a little odd is because of what it implies: that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are best understood as being on their way to somewhere else, or as a sub-period of modernity, rather than being a distinct historical period in their own right. But these kinds of ‘modernisation narratives’ – viewing the past as if the only story is the triumphant and inevitable march of all things towards the shiny here and now (more pessimistic forms of historical determinism are, of course, available) – were heavily criticised and fell into decline among historians at more-or-less the same time that the term ‘early modern’, with all its ‘modernisation narrative’ implications, was enjoying its assent. Very odd.
Indeed, since the 1970s one of the most significant developments in historical approaches to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been a desire to excavate the beliefs, culture and actions of contemporaries and to understand them ‘on their own terms’ – in the process often emphasising just how different and distinct, rather than similar and vaguely modern, the period was. Is ‘early modern’ really the best term for capturing this singularity? Perhaps not, but the term was and is widely deployed by cultural historians nonetheless. In fact, Keith Thomas, Natalie Zemon Davis and Peter Burke can all be counted among the pioneers of both cultural history and the term ‘early modern’. Continue reading
Back in the autumn, midway though a week-long research trip to the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, I decided to take an afternoon off to stretch my legs – there is, after all, a limit to how many days in row you can spend hunched over the documents, click-clicking away on your digital camera, before your sanity is in peril. So, after lunch I jumped in the car and headed due east into the South Downs, a part of the country I’d never explored before.
A quick glance at the road atlas and a suitable destination for my walk jumped out at me: Petworth Park, the curvaceous landscaped grounds of a seventeenth-century mansion house, complete with the largest herd of fallow deer in England. What better place for a stroll in the autumnal sunshine than a landscape curated by ‘Capability’ Brown, immortalised in numerous works by Turner, and populated by turning trees and grazing deer. It was all very pleasant indeed.
One of Turner’s takes on Petworth Park
But there was something amiss. For all that Petworth is an important site of English cultural and landscape history, it was not its connections with Brown and Turner that had drawn me there. Continue reading
A patchwork of conversations, thoughts and observations on the rebellious history of the South West of England, stitched together by a Somerset-born honorary-Devonian….
It’s a small world. On a recent archival trip to the Hampshire Record Office I got chatting to their immensely helpful Principal Archivist Sarah Lewin, and after a bit of biographical back-and-forth it transpired that I had done my undergraduate degree in her hometown of Norwich, where she grew up as good friends with my now MP – as a resident of Exeter – recent Labour Deputy Leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw.
Anyway, our conversation then moved on to the remarkable fact that the said Ben Bradshaw is now the only non-Conservative MP in the South West outside of Bristol (and you can take quite a broad definition of the South West here, encompassing Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire). Whilst the Conservatives have long been the dominant party in the region, this is nonetheless a significant historical departure: few governments have ever been able to consider the West Country quite the stronghold that this one can.
It’s been a lively old summer here on the ‘monster, and as the dust finally starts to settle on our ‘Voices of the People’ online symposium it’s probably time for a few conclusions. The vast range of thoughts provoked by our brilliant contributors are impossible to capture in a humble blog post, so there is no pretense here of providing a definitive summary of all the key points: for that, you’ll have to read the posts (and the #voxpop2015 hashtag on twitter). Instead, I’ll keep to highlighting a few of the themes that featured most prominently in your comments, both on the posts and on twitter; and that seem to me, therefore, to set the agenda for keeping the broader conversation about ‘history from below’ moving along.
History from below is… popular
Let’s start with the vital statistics: since the start of the symposium in July, the many-headed monster has received over 20,000 views. Add to that the 80 comments made on the blog posts, and the countless tweets about the symposium that have used the hashtag #voxpop2015, and I think it is fair to say that VoxPop2015 has been – appropriately enough – popular. One endorsement went so far as to say that ‘ is the best thing on Twitter. If there was a Twitter fire, it’s the one thing I’d save; the rest could crackle away’ (). Not an opinion of twitter we share, I hasten to add, but it’s a compliment we’ll take! A huge thanks to everyone who has participated in the event in some shape or form. Continue reading
This post is an introduction to our online symposium, ‘The Voices of the People’. For more information on this event see our symposium homepage.
The doors of the ivory tower are being dismantled, and it’s no bad thing that historians are being forced out of hiding. Indeed, debates about the role that professional academic historians should be playing in wider society seem as pressing as they have done for many years – not least because research funding has come to be increasingly linked with the requirement to demonstrate that the resulting research has ‘impact’ on the economy, society, culture, or public policy, ‘beyond academia’. Historians are finding their voices, and are starting to intervene in public debates with greater regularity.
‘Is it safe to come out?’
The resulting interventions have not been without controversy, as the recent exchanges in History Today over the historic role of Britain in Europe have shown. In fact, much of the public debate involving historians is really a debate between them about the type of history we should be doing. The History Manifesto, a recent high profile open access publication, called for historians to focus their efforts on the analysis of ‘big data’ and very long-term trends so as to make their conclusions more applicable to contemporary policy questions. Yet the authors of the manifesto, and the Eurosceptic ‘Historians for Britain’ collective, have been criticised for leaning towards over-simplified ‘big stories’ and clear ‘lessons from history’ at the expense of the complexity and nuance that many see as central to what the study of history should really be about (something our own Laura Sangha has written about on this blog recently).
But debates about the type of history that is best suited to bridging the gap between academics and a wider public need to be about more than just the scale we adopt: there is also the issue of what – or who – that broader public history should be focusing on. Great institutions, great men, and national stories of war and conquest, have long dominated our collective sense of the past: the historical experiences of ordinary women and men, it is fair to say, have not. It is telling that The People’s History Museum in Manchester, the UK’s principal museum for working class history, has lost government funding because it is not considered to be a ‘national’ museum: the history of ordinary people is not part of the national story. Telling too that the Prime Minister, in a speech to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, saw human rights as ‘the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons’. No place here for the Trade Unions, Chartists, Suffragettes – and countless other grassroots movements across the world – that have fought for the rights of ordinary citizens: for Mr Cameron it was the barons wot won it. Continue reading
Many ‘monster readers will have already deduced that I recently started a new job. So I thought it would be a nice idea to write a very short post introducing the project that I’m now working on. It is based at the University of Exeter, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and will run until the summer of 2018. The leader of the project is Professor Jane Whittle and I will be the main researcher. Our aim is to gather an unprecedented level of information about the everyday working lives of early modern English women by extracting incidental information about work activities from witness statements given in court cases (and a few other types of record too). We hope that this innovative methodology will help us to capture aspects of women’s work – for instance domestic and other types of unpaid work – that more conventional history of work sources – such as wage data – do not.
If you want to know more about the aims, methods and sources we will be using I have set up a website for the project here, that contains a lot more detail about what we will be doing. I’ll also be blogging over there about our progress from time to time, so if you are interested please do follow the project.
In fact, we already have a couple of blog posts up:
- ‘What is Work?’ – project leader Jane Whittle challenges some of the more conventional definitions of work that historians use, and offers a more suitable alternative that we will be adopting for the project.
- ‘Did Women Work in Agriculture?’ – in this post I examine some of our first archival gleanings, and use them to raise some questions about the gendered division of agricultural work in rural England.
Finally, I should mention that we are looking for a third person to complete our project team, and as such are offering a fully-funded PhD studentship at Exeter. So, if you like the sound of the project or know of someone who you think might like to apply, then all the relevant details can be found here. The deadline for applications is 1st June.
A large part of my job will be working through thousands of witness testimonies from quarter sessions and church courts, with their rich and fascinating vignettes of everyday life. In addition to the information I am after for the project this will turn up plenty of stories about the lives of ordinary men and women in early modern England for me to regale ‘monster readers with, so keep watching this space!