About manyheadedmonster

The many-headed monster is a collaborative blog focusing on English society and culture in the early modern period, very broadly conceived.

On A Fool’s Errand: Writing A Biography of Will Somer

In this guest post Dr Peter K. Andersson reflects on the challenges of trying to write a biography of Henry VIII’s court fool, Will Somer. Dr Andersson is based at Örebro University in Sweden and works on the history of fools and clowns from the early modern to the modern age. His previous research has looked at Victorian streetlife and popular culture from below.

It’s strange to think that among the people who were closest to King Henry VIII was a man who, by all accounts, was a humble commoner and possibly intellectually disabled. In the early modern period, there was virtually only one way in which a person of low birth from a poor background could become close to a monarch and spend as much time with him or her as their family members. Naturally, it was possible for a commoner to enter the royal household as a servant, but I think it’s safe to say that there was only one occupation that transgressed the social hierarchy in such an extreme way. I am, of course, referring to the position of court fool.

There were many hundreds of court fools and jesters from the Middle Ages until well into the eighteenth century, and most of them enjoyed a status not far from that of a stable boy or scullery maid, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a hired entertainer living at best close to the court, but only seeing the king when called for to entertain. One of the most famous fools in all of history, however, appears to have lived as close to the monarch as possible, and he did so for an unusually long time.

Henry VIII and Will Somer, from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, BF.1985.6

To posterity, his name is often known as Will Summers, or Sommers, but this spelling only really emerges after his death. To his contemporaries, he was Will, or William Somer – sometimes with an -s added. During the sixteenth century, he grew to become one of the most legendary comics of the age, and after his death turned into a recurring folk hero, cropping up in ballads, jestbooks and pamphlets – not to mention plays, most famously by Thomas Nashe and Samuel Rowley. When Shakespeare omitted him from his play about Henry VIII, he had to include a prologue that explained to the audience that they would not be seeing the beloved fool, so as not to force anyone to sit through it waiting for him to come on.

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Spotlight on Undergraduate Research: The Student Research Portfolio and the Georgian Ghosts Project

This guest post ties in with our traditional mid-September focus on teaching resources and pedagogy. Here, two Warwick Faculty of Arts undergraduates introduce us to an innovative interdisciplinary group research project that may provide inspiration for tutors elsewhere.

Jessica Barton and Dan Smith

This year at the University of Warwick, the Faculty of Arts introduced the Student Research Portfolio (SRP), which encouraged second- and third-year students to explore a topic, to develop their research and teamwork skills, and to produce an output. By allowing students across disciplines to work together, the SRP challenged its participants to step beyond the limits of their undergraduate degree and its typical forms of assessment. As the scheme was completed entirely online, students were also able to strengthen their digital skillset. We were part of one of the SRP groups, and worked on an outcome entitled The Georgian Ghosts Project. It was inspired by a ghost story from eighteenth-century Cork, Ireland, which has survived in a manuscript housed at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester [1].

Most likely written by the prominent Methodist Hester Ann Rogers (1756-94), the manuscript records the dramatic conversion experience of a candle-maker called Cadwallader Acteson. He is haunted by the ghost of his deceased mistress, assaulted by a ‘hellish monster’ with long claws, and finally reassured by a heavenly voice promising redemption. Along the way he navigates knotty relationships with various women, most notably the ghostly mistress, a scheming maidservant who convinces him to attempt the murder of his wife, and the long-suffering wife herself. The story provides a thought-provoking perspective on eighteenth-century religion, gender roles, and the potentially perilous results of household tensions.

Portrait of Hester Ann Rogers. Wikimedia Commons
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more many-headed monster resources for teaching

Mark Hailwood

Is that the sound of term hurtling towards us once more? I’m afraid so, UK readers. As tutors scramble to get their courses ready – against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, let’s not forget – we thought it might be helpful to highlight the many teaching resources we have available in the many-headed monster archive.

Back in 2017 Laura Sangha put together a comprehensive list of all the resources we had on the blog at that stage, and you can see that here.

Below is an addendum to that list, highlighting a few materials we have added since.

Good luck this term, I’m sure we will all need it…

New Resources

Language Learning for Historians of Early Modern England
This guest post from John Gallagher is packed with suggestions for students – and staff – looking to develop their language skills alongside their studies.

Teaching Microhistory: small things, big questions and a global pandemic
Brodie Waddell reflects on teaching an MA module on microhistory. Includes advice on online teaching, and a free-to-download module handbook.

Decolonising and Black British History: a teaching resource
If you are looking to decolonise your early modern teaching this year, Laura Sangha’s seminar plan for a session on ‘Black Lives in Early Modern England’ is shared here.

#SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online
Whilst this series of posts was focused on non-teaching types of online working, it does contain lots of good advice and ideas about things like online meetings that will still be applicable to many of us this academic year.

If you have any resources you would like to share, please do add links to the comments section below.

Satires of American Drugs in Early Modern Spain

We are pleased to introduce the final post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Ivana Bicak. Ivana’s latest research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and conducted at the University of Exeter, explored early modern satires of experimental medicine in Spain.

In the sixteenth century, new medicinal plants from America entered Spain. Apart from transforming the medical practice of the time, these novel products had an immediate impact on the literary landscape, particularly satiric poetry. The witty verses of Spanish satirists offer us a unique view into how these experimental medicines were perceived by the contemporaries. The satires of exotic drugs such as guaiac and sarsaparilla underline the acceptance and familiarity of the newly discovered materia medica, as described by Christopher Booth in his recent post ‘The World in a Jar.’

After Christopher Columbus returned from his famous voyage in 1493, a terrible disease struck Europe, transforming human bodies into decomposing masses of pustules, broken bones, bald heads, and missing noses. The epidemic of highly contagious syphilis spared no one, sowing destruction from seedy brothels to shiny courts, from Spain to England.

In a desperate search for a remedy, many different treatments were tried. One of the more ingenious prescriptions included applying a freshly cut chicken or pigeon to the ulcerated penis, as per advice of the papal physician Gaspar Torella. Most physicians and patients, however, turned to mercury, a long-standing cure for skin diseases. This heavy metal was not exactly the happiest solution as the severity of its side effects frequently surpassed that of the disease’s symptoms. Thanks to its potent corrosive properties, mercury acted much more as a poison than as a cure. If the patient did not lose their nose due to syphilis, mercury made sure their teeth fell out.

Illustration of guaiac. Francisco Hernández, Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (Rome: V. Mascardi, 1651). Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The arrival of the new American medicines in Spain was therefore eagerly welcomed in the hopes of relieving the suffering of syphilitic patients across European borders. American anti-syphilitic plants flooded European medical markets. Among them, guaiac wood and sarsaparilla achieved immense popularity. As a result, they were exported from Spain to other European countries.

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‘Being all dead of the Plague’. Plague and petitions in Westminster c.1620-1645

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Aaron Columbus. Aaron recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London and co-edits the blog We Hang Out a Lot in Cemeteries. Aaron’s thesis is focused on the response to plague and the poor in the suburban parishes of early modern London c. 1600-1650. Find him on Twitter @columbus_aaron .

Around ten o’clock on the evening of 30 May 1626 in Westminster, Thomas Powell, accompanied by a constable and watchman, arrived at the door of John Bonner with the pretext of asking for his landlord. Many ‘injurious wordes’ were made against Bonner and he was assaulted in his lodging. Powell, in a most ‘furious and barbarous manner’, then compelled the constable, watchman and others to take him to the local gatehouse.

Bonner gives his account of the incident in a petition to the Westminster Quarter Sessions in 1626, and states that Powell was acting on a grudge that had been conceived against him in his shop the Saturday before the incident. Bonner asked the Justices to take action against Powell and his associates, as he possessed no warrant and had wronged his ‘bodie and good name’. Bonner based this on the understanding of ‘most of the parishe’ that he had, as a ‘professor of phisicke’, willingly worked to cure ‘upon 500’ people of the plague in the 1625 epidemic.[1] Bonner’s petition suggests that the experience of plague might be used as a currency of sorts to further the cause of the petitioner, in much the same way that poverty was made explicit and given focus when seeking poor relief.

John Bonnar’s petition (1626). Courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives, WJ/SR/NS/016/15. Copyright of LMA and not for reproduction.

The Power of Petitioning project recently published transcriptions for 424 petitions to the Westminster City Quarter Sessions on British History Online. Over 150 of the petitions are dated to the period between 1620 and 1646. These mainly concern petty crime, imprisonment, apprenticeship and poor relief. I was interested to see if plague was mentioned in any of the petitions up to the 1640s.

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Understanding Sources: Glimpses of daily life in medical case histories

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Amie Bolissian. Amie is currently in the third year of her Wellcome-funded PhD at University of Reading, researching ‘The Aged Patient in Early Modern England, c.1570-1730’. Find her on Twitter at @AuntieAmie.

One ill-fated day, sometime around the middle of the seventeenth century, ‘an old servant to a person of honour’ was bitten on the back of his hand by a monkey. The surgeon called to treat the man, ‘forbad him wine’ to reduce inflammation. But the next morning the old man complained of a sleepless night, feeling ‘faint and sick’, and that ‘his Wound was the least of his ailment’. After his patient swooned, and claimed he ‘could not live without Wine’, the surgeon finally relented, and allowed him to return to drinking ‘as he pleased’. As it turned out, this entailed a ‘Quart’ of wine every morning but, soon after, the wound healed, and the patient was cured.1

[Detail of] A medicine vendor tying up his pet monkey. Etching by T. Major after D. Teniers II.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

This story was just one of many medical case histories that Richard Wiseman, ex-civil war surgeon and personal practitioner to Charles II, included in his lengthy tome on surgery, published in 1676. He went on to explain that some heavy drinkers should never be forbidden wine and that with ‘Dunkerker’ sailors he could ‘scarce ever cure any of them without allowing them Wine’. Wiseman cited the saying ‘a Hair of the same Dog’, and admitted that his readers ‘may laugh’ at him for ‘pleading’ for these drinkers but, as he put it, ‘I hope you will consider I am a Water-drinker’.2 There is so much of historical interest to unpack in this short passage that it is hard to know where to begin. To start with: Whose monkey was it? And were monkey-inflicted wounds so common that this warranted no comment?

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The Devil’s in the detail: The anonymous and peculiar Parisian handbill of Pope Alexander VI

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Katie Fellows. Katie had her doctorate awarded from St Peter’s College, Oxford, at the end of last year. Her thesis examined the early ecclesiastical career of Rodrigo Borgia before his election as Pope Alexander VI in August 1492. (Twitter: @KatieFellows1)

Since the Synod of Reims in 991, pontiffs have at times found themselves portrayed closer to the devil and the diabolic than the godly.[1] Why is this and why has such an idea found representation in a number of different forms?

This idea reveals a lot about the popular sentiments of the time and the growing tide of discontent towards the papacy. Dissatisfaction stemmed from a number of different factors including unpopular policies, nepotism, avarice, simony and sexual misconduct. Whilst researching my doctoral thesis on the Catalan Rodrigo Borgia’s early ecclesiastical career, I was struck with how popular these ideas were, particularly in explaining his election to the papacy in August 1492.

Contemporaries openly voiced their dissatisfaction at another Catalan pontiff who promoted his kinsmen to both religious and secular offices ahead of Italians. Similarly, his religious beliefs were questionable with contemporaries claiming he was either a Marrano or a Jew. This, along with Alexander’s relative tolerance of the Roman Jewish population and the Jewish migrants who arrived after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the turn of the sixteenth century. In 1515, an anonymous pamphlet argued that his election was due to a pact with the devil and that as a Moor or a Jew and that he did not possess the morality to withstand the devil’s temptation. As Nathan Johnstone argues, from the eleventh century onwards the ‘Devil had become a focus of Christian discourses of scapegoating and othering’.[2] It is therefore not hard to see how images such as the one in this article were created.

Another possible explanation for such images were the tensions following the earlier French invasion (1494–1498) of the Italian Peninsula and the ongoing tensions between King Louis XII of France and Alexander. From contemporary letters to cheap broadsides and even a Jacobean play, these examples have helped form the Black Legend of the Borgias.

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‘Kill or be killed’: Gentry retinues in early modern Wales

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Sadie Jarrett. Sadie is currently the Economic History Society Postan Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research where she works on gentry culture and society. Find her on Twitter at @pastdeeds.

Eighteen-year-old Erasmus Griffith definitely wasn’t involved in the murder of the Justice of the Peace. In fact, he was only in the farmhouse to return a shirt he’d borrowed from his acquaintance, John ap Robert ap Hywel. Thomas ap David wasn’t even supposed to be in the house; he’d been accompanying his friend John Lloyd Maylor on the road to Burton, but heavy snow forced him to take shelter at the farm. Hugh Salesbury might have been at the farm, but he left before any altercations took place. Yes, they were familiar with the gentlemen involved in the dispute, but they were not retained by any of them. It was mere coincidence that they were all at the farmhouse together and none of them swore an oath to defend it to their deaths. There may or may not have been a mastiff dog present.

These servants and labourers gave their account of the circumstances which led to the death of a JP called Robert Lloyd in a 1574 Star Chamber case.[1] It’s a rare insight into the murky business of gentry retinues in early modern Wales, collections of servants, tenants, and labourers who supported their leader in disputes with rival families.

John Salesbury’s estate at Bachymbyd, Denbighshire. Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales, Vol. 6, (1781) p. 58/2 [National Library of Wales].

The suit was brought to Star Chamber by Robert Lloyd’s brother and it centred on a farmhouse in Burton, Denbighshire, which belonged to a local gentleman called Ellis Powell. The previous owner of the farm, Roger Roydon, had died a few years earlier, leaving it to his four daughters. After marrying one of the daughters in 1569, Powell had claimed the property for himself. This caused friction with the husbands of his new wife’s sisters, and perhaps the sisters themselves. In the intensely claustrophobic world of the early modern Denbighshire gentry, the tension simmered between the rival factions embroiled in the dispute.  

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Pestilential Soundscapes: Hearing the Plague in Seventeenth-Century London

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Claire Turner. Claire is a second-year PhD student at the University of Leeds whose research investigates sensory experiences and perceptions of the plague in seventeenth-century England. (Twitter: @_claire_turner_)

During a plague outbreak in London in 1625, tailor George Bicker-staffe was making his way to the Lord Windsor’s house in Mugwell Street when he suddenly heard ‘a great noyse’ which ‘came ratling downe the Stayres’. The noise had been produced by a fawn which, having once been tied up in the garden, had now got loose and was causing chaos in the Lord Windsor’s house. Bicker-staffe had been left ‘half breathelesse, and almost speechlesse, looking very ghastly’ after his ordeal. Several days later, having previously been in good health, he became unwell. Then, a mere eleven days after the event involving the fawn, Bicker-staffe died of the plague [1].

George Bicker-staffe’s strange and frightful experience was one of many to take place during London’s seventeenth-century plague outbreaks. His ordeal was used in medical texts to highlight the idea that feelings of fear increased the body’s susceptibility to contract the plague. Upon hearing the unidentifiable noise, Bicker-staffe inadvertently set in motion a process whereby his body underwent catastrophic emotional and physiological changes. This account is one of several to shed light on the dangerous and perilous nature of sounds heard during outbreaks of plague. It introduces us to the idea that sound was believed to indirectly impact the physiology of the human body.

Have you ever experienced illness through your ears? What noises and sounds do you hear when you or someone you know is ill? Pestilential soundscapes were the landscapes of sound produced during plague epidemics. The people who lived through London’s plague outbreaks experienced a huge variety of sounds, each of which affected how they understood the world around them. From the constant sounding of death knells to the screams of plague victims and their relations, the soundscapes of plague epidemics reveal fascinating insights into how people navigated the city during times of crisis. In this post, we’ll explore precisely how the sense of sound could be intimately linked with contagion in the early modern period.

If you were to travel back to a plague outbreak in London, one sound you were likely to hear would be the suffering of plague victims. Numerous accounts detailed the various instances when plague victims might be heard vocalising their pain and anguish. Several of these accounts took place in one particular spot: the window. Early modern windows were only occasionally fitted with glass. In many instances, they were instead fitted with thin and fragile materials such as paper or fabric. Therefore, unwanted noise travelled through windows with ease. It is unsurprising, then, that windows played a central role in the formation of pestilential soundscapes.

accompanying-image-ct-1

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the great plague. Watercolour painting by or after G. Cruikshank (1792-1878), Wellcome Images.

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Understanding Sources: Six Reasons to Explore the Cause Papers

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Hannah Reeve. It offers a new entry to our ‘Understanding Sources’ series that we began in 2016. Hannah is in her third year of her AHRC-funded PhD at Newcastle University, where she is currently researching the Hanoverian parish. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Reeve_.

Back in my MA days I stumbled across the Cause Papers. Fast forward five years and I still use them – almost daily – as part of my PhD thesis on the early modern parish. Misbehaving clergy? Check. Decayed and dilapidated churches? Check. Squabbles over pews? Check. Boozing during divine service? Check. Really, they have it all. In this short post, I want to share with you what makes the Cause Papers such a unique source and why almost anyone interested in early modern England should explore them.

First, however, the nitty-gritty. The Church courts functioned from the middle ages to the nineteenth century to hear cases on a whole host of matters relating to the Church, and these have survived to form the Cause Papers. Anything from cases of defamation to tithe disputes were heard, where plaintiffs (the person making the complaint) would bring their grievance to the attention of the judge and ask for the defendant (the offender) to be cited to court. Once in court, each party were to produce proof to support their version of events, and these usually took the form of witness statements. Each statement usually began (in Latin) with a personal description of the witness (such as name, where they were from, age and profession). The one below, for instance, is for twenty-seven-year-old James Smith, a York based bell-founder.[1]

Borthwick Institute for Archives, CP.H.2557, “Violation of church rights (repairs of church),” 1664-1665. Image reproduced courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

The rest of the statement followed – usually in English – to describe the witness’s version of events. Once all the evidence had been gathered, the case would eventually move toward final sentencing, though some reconciled or admitted guilt prior to the final verdict. In some cases, a verdict of excommunication was decided, where the defendant would be expelled from the Church of England. Francis Milburne, for instance, was caught digging up the “dead bodys, and the bones and sculls of several dead men and women” in the churchyard of St Michael-Le-Belfry (York). In 1664, Milburne was presented to the courts to explain why these corpses had been “heaped against” the side of the church, causing a “filthy noysome smell” for the inhabitants of the parish and those attending divine service. In Milburne’s failure to desist in his shady undertakings, the Church courts excommunicated him in a last ditch attempt to save his soul and deter others from following in his footsteps.[2]

Despite the extensive paper-trail left behind, the Cause Papers remain an underused source. The following will therefore share six reasons why anyone with an interest in the early modern period should utilise them and hopefully draw attention to their potential for future projects.

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