the many-headed monster is 10: looking back

When Brodie and Mark quietly announced the birth of the many-headed monster to the world in July 2012, little did they know how big their baby would grow or just how many readers and contributors the behemoth would ensnare. But it’s been quite a ride.

four photos of the monster heads when they were young
monster heads when they were young

It’s possibly obvious to our readers, but we have never had a strict editorial line, preferring the blog to develop organically and to lead us in whatever direction seems promising. We share a consensus that we want to reach broader audiences than journal articles and academic monographs can, and that the types of history that we discuss, the format, and particularly the tone of our writing is intended to be accessible and engaging for non-specialists, but beyond that, there aren’t really any rules. Indeed, until we four co-authors met late in 2021 to discuss how to mark our ten year anniversary we’d never had an editorial meeting, rather we very satisfactorily conducted matters via email, or a scatter of shared google docs for when we were feeling fancy.

This informal approach is perhaps one of our great strengths. For one thing, it keeps editorial and administrative duties to the barest minimum. Just as importantly, it has allowed us to develop ways of publishing content online that retains the quick blog post format, but which expand and adapt it for different purposes. At its simplest, this might mean breaking a longer post into more easily digestible chunks and posting each chunk individually across a week or a fortnight, as Mark did with his posts on the application of theory to the history of food and drink.

More distinctively, our ‘Monster Mini-Series’ quickly became a feature of our output. These are both finite and current/long-running collections of posts focused around a particular theme or topic. Laura’s posts on the history of the Tudor Southwest is an example of the former, and our co-authored series ‘On Periodisation’ of the latter.  

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Paper Trails CfP: ‘Hidden Voices’

Laura Sangha

You may know that last year saw the triumphant release of the first cluster of publications for Paper Trails: The Social Life of Archives and Collections. Paper Trails is a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) published by UCL Press: a fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. The BOOC offers space for contributions both from practitioners who study the past, as well as those who make the study of the past possible. So if you are an educator, librarian, historian, curator, collections manager, archivist or just someone interested in critical histories as well as reflections on practice, sources and materials – read on!

Paper Trails image

I am privileged to sit on the editorial board of the BOOC and in our most recent meeting we had a noteworthy discussion about how to describe the innovative format to others. One of the things we worried at was the extent to which we wanted people to think of Paper Trails as being a bit like an online journal – so for instance, when we add our second, new cluster of publications, we could call this a new ‘volume’ or a new ‘issue’ of the BOOC, and allocate numbers to different articles accordingly. By making an association with such a well-established format we could familiarise the BOOC concept, and I suppose the comparison could in some way lend it more academic ‘legitimacy’. Continue reading

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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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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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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