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.

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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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Murderess, accomplice, or innocent? The ghost story of midwife Mrs Adkins

Next up in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is Francesca Farnell. Francesca is a first year PhD student at the University of Warwick, whose M4C-funded research focuses on female experience and the supernatural in early modern England. You can find her on twitter @frfarnell.

CONTENT WARNING: discussion of child death, including murder and stillbirths.

In 1680 a broadside entitled Great news from Middle-Row in Holbourn, or, A true relation of a dreadful ghost which appeared in the shape of one Mrs. Adkins was published. It recounted events that had taken place a year prior in which, as the title so succinctly suggests, the ghost of Mrs Adkins, a deceased former midwife, returned to once again walk the earth.

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Great news from Middle-Row in Holbourn, or, A true relation of a dreadful ghost (1680), Early English Books Online.

Her ghost, with an apparent flare for the dramatic, appeared to a maidservant in full glory as ‘with gastly Countenance [she] seemed to belch flames of Fire’. Declaring that she’d no intention to harm the maidservant (flame-throwing eructation notwithstanding), Adkins commanded the maid to dig up the hearth and bury whatever she should find underneath before disappearing with a flash of lightening.[i]

The hearth was excavated and the bones of two children discovered. Having been buried there for many years, the prevailing theory as to the cause of death was that the children had been illegitimate and their lives subsequently cut short to save their mother’s reputations.

Clearly, this tale offers a lot to unpack. For starters, Great news can tell us much about contemporary anxieties concerning infanticide and the corresponding mistrust of midwives. In 1624 the Stuart government passed its Infanticide Act which inverted a crucial pillar on which the legal system was founded: the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It decreed that an illegitimate child who had died must be presumed murdered, rather than stillborn, which placed the burden of proof solely on the mother. Should she lack sufficient evidence to confirm that her child had died naturally, she would be executed.

A baby has been left outside the town-house of an old bachelor, and a young woman watches from the corner of the street. Engraving, 1794. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
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Fortunio Liceti and His Big Book of Monsters

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Jordan Baker. Jordan concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World and blogs about history at eastindiabloggingco.com.

In early modern Europe, people believed in many things that modern readers would find fanciful. One of the most striking examples of this type of early modern thought is the study, and fascination with, monsters. From three-headed beasts to strange creatures of the deep, European audiences readily consumed tales of monstrosity. But what exactly were these monsters?

Occasionally creatures called monsters were exotic species or animals with imposing figures (like whales); sometimes monsters were simply creatures from myth, like satyres or centaurs. Usually, however, what early modern people deemed ‘monsters’ were simply animals or people who suffered from a genetic abnormality.

Seen throughout the Middle Ages, and even into the Renaissance, as acts of God, monsters and monstrous births fascinated early modern Europeans. While some earlier thinkers had attempted to pinpoint what caused the occurrence of monsters, in the seventeenth century at least one author sought an explanation that did not rely on ‘the glory of God.’

Fortunio Liceti and Monsters as Natural Phenomenon

Interest in monsters had been growing for centuries when one of the men most commonly associated with these texts, Fortunio Liceti, penned his seminal work on the topic. While Liceti does not seem to have studied monsters ‘in the field,’ so to speak, he was an avid collector of the illustrations and studies made by others. And though much of his work still included elements that we would consider fantastical, like a headless person with eyes in their shoulder blades, he made the first attempts to categorize monsters as something completely natural.

Illustrations from Liceti’s De monstrorum, sourced from https://publicdomainreview.org/
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Not so Silent Witnesses: hearing voices in early modern wills

It’s our pleasure to introduce the next post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth. Sarah-Jayne is an independent researcher working on early-modern death and women’s wills. Having completed her PhD in 2019, she has been working in professional services whilst trying to pursue her research interests. Find her on twitter @S_J_Ainsworth.

The portrait of Thomas Braithwaite of Ambleside Making His Will (1607) depicts the subject writing his will in preparation for a good death. The date of his demise appears in the epitaph above his head; his acceptance of death is written in Latin on the paper beneath his pen. Beside him sits his friend, George Preston, who is there to witness the autographed document. There is an intimacy and silence to the scene. Thomas writes; George witnesses. In this picture, there is no discussion, no exchange: indeed, the word ‘witness’, with its connotations of seeing, excludes voices.

Thomas Braithwaite of Ambleside Making His Will. Unknown Artist, Abbot Hall Art Gallery. Photo: Lakeland Arts Trust.

But will-writing scenes were not silent. Most of the population couldn’t write and so employed a scribe to produce the will, putting down their wishes in writing; witnesses would confirm that what was read back to them was what the testator had said. Often, we do not know who the scribe was; even when we do, the legal language and the finality of the document mean that the exchanges, conversations and negotiations which have taken place as part of its composition are hidden.

However, there are examples of wills in which these voices are foregrounded, illustrating the extent to which the scene depicted in Braithwaite’s portrait was far from typical. The presence of not only scribes but also other actors at the deathbed complicates the idea of a straightforward testator/scribe transaction.

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Forsaken baptisms and crocodile tears: how water revealed witchcraft in early modern England

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Daniel Gettings. Daniel is a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick whose work focuses on the relationship between water, religion and everyday life in early modern England.

There is perhaps no witchcraft practice more famous today and portrayed better in popular media than that of ‘ducking’ a witch. Appearing in TV shows as diverse as Doctor Who, Criminal Minds and The Simpsons, the strength of this idea in popular consciousness seems to stem from how perfectly it’s bizarre logic chimes with modern feelings towards belief in witches. Sinking implied innocence and floating denoted guilt. While this appears ridiculous, so does the entire concept of witchcraft to the modern mind and so the strong association between the two makes a strange sort of sense.

However, the logic that upheld this belief in the seventeenth century was clearly convincing to figures of that time, most notably James I of England and VI of Scotland, and reveals a far more complex association between water and witches with much darker implications than modern understandings would suggest.

Title Page, Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed…, Anonymous, 1613. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

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Tasting America: Rum Punch and Barbecue in Early Modern London

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Tyler Rainford. Tyler is a first year PhD student at the University of Bristol, funded by the SWW DTP. His research focuses on alcohol consumption and Atlantic exchange in early modern England, 1650-1750. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_Rainford

How did ordinary people experience colonial groceries in early modern England? Thanks to the pioneering work of Carole Shammas we now know that ‘being poor and being a consumer […] were not mutually exclusive conditions.’ Ordinary people were able to get their hands on an array of goods, which were previously believed to be the reserve of their betters (at least initially). But the way certain individuals and communities engaged with new commodities is often hard to articulate. It’s all too easy to imagine consumption as something that “trickles down” the social scale, as commodities became cheaper and more accessible. Take tea, for example. It is generally argued that tea drinking, at first a peculiar and exotic ritual, became popular amongst more elite and middling members of society, before making its way into the daily lives of ordinary women and men. But such a model hides a more complex reality. Colonial groceries and cooking techniques could be experienced first-hand by those we might consider “plebeian,” and the cultural influence of these goods could prove profoundly transformative. The Barbacue Feast: Or, The Three Pigs of Peckham, penned by Ned Ward in 1707 provides one such example.

Ned Ward, The Barbacue Feast: Or, The Three Pigs of Peckham, Broil’d under an Apple-Tree (London, 1707).

Ward’s scintillating verse and prose provides a fascinating glimpse into the nature of urban life in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Best known for his opus, The London Spy, which originally appeared in the form of eighteen instalments between 1698 and 1700, Ward’s work is decidedly visceral. The Barbacue Feast is no exception. Unsurprisingly, food and drink take centre stage in Ward’s description of this distinctly raucous affair, and their sensational influence is apparent from the outset. Alcohol is so prominent that it acts as the catalyst for the whole event. Indeed, Ward describes how a jolly group of mariners from Rotherhithe in Southwark became so ‘over-heated with that West-India-Diapente, call’d Kill-Devil [Rum] Punch’ that their thoughts turned to another Caribbean treat:

‘… By the powerful Ascendancy of the American Tipple, their Natures were so wonderfully chang’d, and their English Appetites so deprav’d and vitiated, that nothing would satisfy the squeamish Stomacks of the fanciful Society but a Litter of Pigs most nicely cook’d after the West-India Manner.’

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The World in a Jar: Apothecary Shops and Globalisation in Early Modern England

Our latest post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is from Christopher Booth. Chris is an Midlands3Cities funded PhD Candidate at The University of Nottingham, researching the material culture and visual experience of apothecary shops in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Find him on twitter @archaeobooth.

The image of the early modern apothecary shop, with its shelves of labelled jars and bottles behind a counter and the apothecary moving between customers and their stock, is a neat encapsulation of the way that new, global products were incorporated into English medicine between the late-sixteenth century and the late-eighteenth century.

It was the inclusion of these new medicinal botanicals, imported from the Americas and across the world, into existing systems of organisation based upon early modern herbals that made these products familiar and thus acceptable for consumption. Later they would also be incorporated into European (meaning Diderotian or Linnaean) systems of classification, further familiarizing them in the ‘old world’. The skilful navigation of these organisational systems, represented by the labels on medical containers, and the knowledgeability and trustworthiness of the apothecary within their shops were key to the acceptance and increasing consumption of these materia medica.

Apothecaries sought to materially represent this organisation and encyclopaedic knowledge through the tin-glazed earthenware drug jars which lined shelves behind the counter where prescriptions were made up. Doing so allowed them to visually and materially communicate their knowledge of, and mastery over, ‘newly discovered’ botanical products, and through that knowledge ensure the confidence of their patient when consuming the medicines which they compounded.

Initially the names of the materia medica which the apothecary stocked were not visible to the customer. Earlier drug jars, and those in more rural shops, would have been unlabelled albarelli with a small paper label affixed to the string keeping parchment or bladder lids in place. Later jars, however, had abbreviated Latin names of their contents painted within cartouches on their surfaces which would have been prominently displayed to the apothecaries’ patients. Whether or not individual customers read or understood Latin, the fact that all the simples (individual medicinal ingredients) in their medicine were labelled in this same way demonstrated that they were categorised and understood, at least by the apothecary, within the same system of medical and botanical knowledge as the more familiar simples from Britain and Europe whose names were on display in the same way. Examples of drug jars labelled with ‘new world’ simples are extant in museum collections. The below example from the collection of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was used to hold an electuary of sassafras which was derived from a North American tree.

An English drug jar, circa 1730; painted in blue on a white background; E.E.SASSAFRAS (Electuary of Sassifras) on a songbird and basket label. Dimensions: Height 195mm. Diameters: base 125mm, rim 90mm. STRST : SBT 1993-31/56. CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
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The beloved zoo pet ‘Jumbo the Elephant’: Animal History as History from Below

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Daniel Phillips. Daniel is a College of Humanities funded doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter whose work focuses on the London Zoological Society and the British Empire, 1847-1903. Find him on twitter at @Daniel_Ph1llips.

Nearly everyone has seen Dumbo: the 1941 Disney film that tells the story of an elephant that learns to fly. The film not only parodies the relationship between mice and elephants with Dumbo’s only friend, Timothy Mouse, but also includes racially stereotyped crows and a drunken hallucination of pink elephants.  However, what is less well known about the film, is Dumbo’s real name. In her only line of the film, Dumbo’s mother is asked to name her child and, in response, Mrs Jumbo names her child Jumbo Jr. Like every good story, Dumbo has a basis in truth. Namely, a real life elephant called Jumbo who led an extraordinary life.

Historians are beginning to reassess the human centred conditions of history writing, now looking to uncover complex roles animals played in historical narratives. Research is drawing attention to the fact that animals were very much part of the collective past, and were remembered and memorialised in ways that shaped human views and thinking. The story of Jumbo the elephant is a great example of this, revealing a history of human-animal relations and the various influences Jumbo had on human historical experiences. 

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Jumbo as a young elephant eating buns. Illustrated London News.

Born around 1860, Jumbo was the first African elephant to set foot in England. Like a lot of zoo animals, he was captured at a very young age by a party of hunters who had separated him from the herd. After initially spending some time in Paris zoo, he was bought on exchange by the London Zoological Gardens (now known as London Zoo) and shipped to England on 26th June 1865. He was an instant hit and, after an initial struggle, Jumbo learnt to obey the voice and commands of his keeper Mathew Scott. Under Scott’s constant care and love, Jumbo soon became ‘very frolicsome’, and would kick at the woodwork pieces of his den, and occasionally wind up neighbouring animals. For example on one occasion, he angered the male hippopotamus, Obaysch, by throwing up dust into his eyes. The infuriated hippo then charged at the bars causing further injury to his nose, thus enraging him all the more.

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Religious Persecution and Child Loss in Early Modern England

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Dr Robert W. Daniel of the University of Warwick. Robert is a Post-Doctorate Researcher and General Secretary of the International John Bunyan Society. Follow him at @BunyanSociety. In this post, he offers us insights into the petitions and diaries of women who lost their children as a direct result of religious persecution.

CONTENT WARNING: This post contains accounts of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Women who did not conform to the Established Church of seventeenth-century England – labelled ‘puritans’, ‘fanatics’, ‘nonconformists’, ‘plotters’, or ‘dissenters’, paid a heavy, if not the heaviest price, in their fight for religious equality. They resisted religious uniformity by courageously, often peacefully, contesting pecuniary laws prohibiting alternative forms of worship, unjust imprisonments and the distrainment of goods, and the law making weekly parish church services compulsory. In researching the history of this struggle, I was struck at how frequently these women, as mothers, suffered child loss as a direct result of State sponsored religious persecution. Through their diaries, petitions and pamphlets, women depicted the trauma of stillbirths, miscarriages and neo-natal deaths as one of the tragic consequences of their struggle for religious freedom during a period of intense religious intolerance.

In this blog post I want to examine some examples of maternal suffering that need to be re-incorporated into our reading of the history of English religious nonconformity. Doing so will reveal not only the horrific (and underexamined) effects of religious persecution during this period, but also the affective discourse and mediums in which a denominationally and politically diverse cross-section of women (Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Levellers) sought to make these known to a broader audience.

The homes of religious dissenters were constantly under siege. Men, women and children were routinely roused in the middle of the night, chivvied and dragged – at times quite literally – to be interrogated or thrown in prison. The result of such upheavals, if a woman was with child, could be miscarriage or a stillbirth. Elizabeth Eaton (fl. 1632–1641) was an active member of the Baptist Lathrop congregation in London who, along with several other women, was questioned by the High Commission court in the early 1630s.  In 1641 she wrote a petition to the House of Commons (see Figure 1). Elizabeth explained that she was now a widow having lost her husband, Samuel Eaton (d. 1639) (who was also a Baptist), by his ‘wrongful imprisonment’. On one of several occasions that Samuel was arrested, Elizabeth describes how one John Ragg, Archbishop William Laud’s pursuivant, ‘violently entered his [Samuel’s] house and … haled him to Newgate’. Elizabeth, ‘being then with child’, was ‘assaulted by Flamsteed, a pursuivant to Sir John Lamb’, which ‘caused her to miscarry’. She was not alone in reporting such violence. Other women of the Lathrop congregation said that their own miscarriages were a result of the rough treatment they had received when arrested.  Elizabeth’s petition clearly made an impression on the Commons. It was later included amongst papers relating to the trial of Archbishop Laud, as evidence of his excessive cruelty in prosecuting religious sectaries. 

Figure 1. ‘Petition of Elizabeth Eaton’, CSPD, 1641-1643, p. 518. Held in The National Archives, London.
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Execution Ballads and the Popular Imagination in Seventeenth Century England

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Eleanor Hedger. Ellie is an M4C doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, and she has recently submitted her thesis, entitled ‘Soundscapes of Punishment in Early Modern England’, for examination. Find her on twitter @ellie_hedger.

It’s December 11, 1633. After hearing St. Sepulchre’s Church toll its ominous passing bell, you’ve made your way to Tyburn to witness the latest spectacle of public execution. This time, a woman found guilty of infanticide faces the scaffold. Hundreds of spectators have gathered in the surrounding streets and fields, with onlookers peering out of nearby windows or clambering onto rooftops. You jostle amongst the crowd in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, but to no avail. As the victim makes her final speech you strain to hear her words, but her voice is drowned out by the noise of the crowd. Once the grisly spectacle has come to a close you make your way home, but the doleful sounds of a nearby ballad monger selling copies of a song about today’s execution catches your attention. Having seen or heard very little of her demise, you want to know more, so you hand over a penny to the ballad monger. You fold up your copy of the large, single-sheet song, slip it into your pocket and return home, ready to sing, read, and listen to it with friends and family later that day.

Martin Parker, No naturall Mother, but a Monster (London, 1633),EBBA 36049.

Execution ballads, such as the one illustrated above, were an extremely popular form of news media in early modern England. Taverns, marketplaces, homes, and even the execution space itself resounded with the singing of these macabre ditties, allowing the public to reflect upon and relive the brutal spectacle of execution through the medium of song. Whilst ballads were probably read out loud, they were, first and foremost, intended to be sung, and the majority of ballad sheets usually contain an inscription under the title indicating its tune. These popular and memorable melodies were used over and over again, garnering new thematic and emotional associations with each rendering. The reuse of familiar tunes for new texts—a technique known as ‘contrafactum’—raises important questions concerning the reception and experience of execution ballads: how did the cultural associations of a melody amplify or subvert the meaning of a ballad text? And to what extent did the melodies of these songs influence the perception of public executions in the popular imagination? In this post I explore some of these intriguing questions by tracing the evolution of a well-known ballad tune called ‘Welladay’.

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