‘Great fears of the Sicknesse here in the City’: Researching news in the 1665 plague during a pandemic

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Nikki Clarke. She is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Nikki’s research focuses on how people gathered and assessed news in seventeenth-century England. You can find her on Twitter at @nikkiclarke1.

Reliable information takes on even greater significance in a time of pandemic, when rumour and fake news can have a serious impact on the decisions that people make for their own safety and that of their community. I have spent most of the last year researching the news sources available during the plague of 1665, and how both the authorities and citizens gathered news and judged its accuracy.[1] I have issued myself strong warnings about avoiding anachronistic comparisons with the current pandemic but there are some issues that still have a resonance today.

Londoners dealing with the outbreak of the 1665 plague would have viewed their situation through different intellectual and theological lenses from the ones we use, but they would have been asking many of the same questions and tackling many of the same decisions.  How close is the plague to my street? Should I stay in the city or l should I leave? Are the restrictions on my daily life effective in tackling the disease, or are they a huge economic burden, or both?

John Dunstall, plague broadsheet (1666). Copyright, Museum of London, object 42.39/142.

The primary official sources for news on the plague were the Bills of Mortality.  It is probably anachronistic to describe their weekly publication as the seventeenth-century equivalent of the daily Number 10 briefing. Yet watching those briefings in the spring of 2020 did help me to understand the need of Essex vicar Ralph Josselin to note in his diary almost every weekly bill from May 1665 to December 1666.

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The Life of a Lawyer, Litigant and Mediator in Elizabethan England

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Dom Birch. Dom (they/them) is a doctoral researcher at King’s College London who has just submitted their thesis ‘Parish, Participation and Power: Legal Pluralism in Early Modern England’ for examination.

I was drawn to history-writing because I wanted tell peoples’ stories. My ethical and political commitments, as a social historian, have pushed me to look for and recount the meaningful and inconsequential histories of ordinary early modern people. The somewhat obvious consequence of this commitment has been that the people who populate my work can be frustratingly anonymous.

The records I use—Church Court depositions—are full of gaps and individuals’ rarely turn up repeatedly. The longer depositions, and the fuller characters, stand out in my mind: Agnes Swales, from Osmotherly, who boasted about sleeping with three men in one night and told her neighbour that she hoped her future husband would be a `good doer’ in the bedroom; Joyce Griffiths who suffered from some kind of serious mental illness and was shunned by her neighbours on account of her `madd’ behaviour; and Emmanuel Trotter a vicar from Northumberland whose parishioners attempted to stop him collecting tithes using force, and pitchforks.

The Lawyer’s Office, Pieter de Bloot, 1628. Rijksmuseum, SK-A-660 (Public Domain).

My deponents’ lives can be slippery but it is even harder to know the motivations of the court officials—the notaries and lawyers who shaped the documents I read as a historian. How much of the legalese is theirs? And what did they do when they weren’t listening to other early moderns describing their sex lives and tithe disputes?

The lawyers of the church court were men of some stature, but they too have left little information about themselves. They would have been trained in Canon or Roman law and would, in London, have populated the Doctors Commons and the area around St Paul’s. I have been unable to find specifics about their lives; except for Walter Horsell, a proctor and notary who worked in London in the late sixteenth century.

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Teaching as an early modernist to non-historians: a brief reflection

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Christophe Schellekens (@Christophe_Fir). Christophe is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at Utrecht University, NL.

What can students of politics, philosophy, economics or modern history learn from studying the early modern period? I have had to confront that question directly thanks to my current position as a non-permanent lecturer mostly teaching students on the BSc in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Utrecht University.

As a specialist in the sixteenth century, I contribute to the introductory module on early modern history. However most of my teaching is not situated in the BA or MA programs in history, but in the BSc PPE, which in Utrecht also has history as a fourth pillar discipline. I very much enjoy teaching in that program, as it challenges me on various fronts to become more self-conscious as a historian. In this short post, I would like to reflect on my experience of teaching as an early modernist in PPE, and in particular on which insights early modern history may bring to students working at the intersection of those four disciplines.

The students of the PPE program have rarely enrolled in that degree with a specific interest in the history of the period between 1500 and 1800. Quite a few have expressed their fascination for the period to me, but they are not studying to become specialists of the period. Instead, their encounters with historians like me come through team-taught modules such as ‘Major Debates in Global Economic History’ as well as ‘The Role of Corporations in Society’. What insights from early modern history can and should I then bring to the classroom?

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A ‘slanderous & scandalous’ petition: the Dyers’ Company and a burdensome petitioning campaign in early Jacobean England

Our latest post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is from Ellen Paterson. Ellen is a DPhil candidate and Clarendon scholar at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, researching anti-monopoly petitioning activity in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Find her on twitter at @elpatersonPhD.

In July 1605, the London Company of Dyers not only upset the Privy Council through their writing and attempted presentation of a ‘slanderous & scandalous’ petition, but also the King himself who was ‘much offended’ by their appearance before him at court.[1] Whilst petitioning was an accepted and common practice in the early modern period, the petitioning of the Dyers’ Company in this instance generated a degree of concern amongst the Council, who promptly ordered Thomas Sackville, the Earl of Dorset, to investigate their petitioning activity.

The Dyers had petitioned the King and Council to express their discontent with a new patent of monopoly granted for the product of logwood. This was a type of dyeing wood which had been introduced into England in the sixteenth century, which produced black, grey, and red dyes. The use of it was prohibited as it was thought to produce defective colours, but licences were sometimes issued allowing limited imports of the commodity, as part of the Crown’s larger reliance on patents and grants as a much-needed source of revenue. In August 1604, a group of courtiers led by Sir Arthur Aston had been given such a grant, allowing them to import logwood and to make a new dyeing mixture from it. This was a cause of vexation to the Dyers’ Company; not only did they complain in their petition that this dyeing mixture was sold at an ‘intollerable’ price, but they also alleged that it was unfit for use and consequently ‘unprofitable to the comon Welthe.’[2]

Painting of a Logwood/Sappan tree. Credit: Ming herbal (painting): Sappan tree, Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Painting of a Logwood/Sappan tree. Credit: Ming herbal (painting): Sappan tree, Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

In many ways this case was not unique. Groups of artisans and traders often came together to protest against grants and monopolies which were seen as infringing on their trades and livelihoods. However, the response of the Council and the investigation that the Dyers’ petition provoked is certainly interesting. Why was this particular petitioning episode worthy of investigation?

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Mental Illness: An Early Modern Perspective

Jonathan Willis

This week (18-24 May 2020) is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ in the UK – May is also US ‘Mental Health Month’, and ‘World Mental Health Day’, in case you were wondering, is a separately-coordinated enterprise, and will be on Saturday 10 October.  The fact that we have events such as these in the twenty-first century tells you two things.  Explicitly it is evidence that, in general, our society pushes itself to recognise the importance of mental health, the prevalence of mental illness, and that signposting the various specialist treatments and https3a2f2fblogs-images.forbes.com2fbernardmarr2ffiles2f20192f052fthe-incredible-ways-artificial-intelligence-is-now-used-in-mental-health-1200x720-1resources that are available for people struggling with any number of specific conditions is an urgent priority.  The implicit message, though, is that mental health and mental illness have long been neglected in our broader political, social and medical public discourse.  While there are valuable and life-saving public health campaigns around specific physical conditions such as various forms of cancer, strokes, heart disease, etc., there is palpably no need for a special day or week or month to remind people that physical illness is, in fact, a ‘thing’.

My motivation for writing this post comes from two sources – firstly, from the project I am working on on the relationship between mental health and the English reformation, and secondly from my own experience of suffering from and receiving treatment for anxiety over the past few years.  By accident rather than design(!), it just so happened during the autumn of 2019 that I read a lot of brilliant work about early modern mental health, mental illness, and the history of the early modern emotions, at the same time as I was working on my own mental health during a course of therapy.  In this context I could not help but reflect upon the used-books-store-2concordances and divergences between how we and our early modern forebears understood the workings of the human mind.  In this post I want to offer some broad reflections on the similarities and differences between early modern and twenty-first century conceptions of mental illness, based largely on secondary literature.  In subsequent posts (for I see this post by way of introduction) I plan to delve more deeply into the specific relationship between religious beliefs and mental illness, using evidence drawn from early modern letters.

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Middling Culture Project Launch: The Middling Sort – Some Reflections…

Jonathan Willis

I was lucky enough to travel down to Canterbury on Tuesday 25 June 2019 to attend the launch of a new ARHC project, ‘Middling Culture: the Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort, Writing and Material Culture, 1560-1660’.  The project is being run by Catherine Richardson (Kent), Tara Hamling (Birmingham) and Graeme Earl (KCL), along with Callan Davies and Ceri Law, and you can find out more about it (and read their own blog) here.

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The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society.  The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.[1]  Middling households had to work for their income, but they were operating at a higher level than their own subsistence, and so had money and time to invest in non-essential objects or practices, and they might be even wealthy enough to employ servants of their own. Jonathan Barry, who co-edited an important collection of essays on the middling sort in 1994, suggested that while attempts at precise quantification are neither possible nor helpful, the middling sort may have constituted between thirty and fifty per cent of early modern society at one time or another.

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The Tenth Commandment: the Depth of Sin

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

JacketAfter a brief mid-term hiatus, in this last post marking the publication last month of my latest monograph, The Reformation of the Decalogue, I want to explore the Tenth Commandment.

Earlier in the series, I talked about the Reformed Protestant renumbering of the Commandments.  In brief, Reformers took the traditional Catholic list, made a separate precept out of the injunction not to make or worship graven images, and reduced the number back down to ten by folding the two forms of coveting in the Catholic Ninth and Tenth Commandments (of wives and goods) into a single precept.

Traditionally, historians have seen the changes at the start of the Decalogue as much more significant than the changes at the end of it.  The new Reformed Second Commandment spoke to important concerns surrounding idolatry and iconoclasm – the merging of two forms of covetousness into one commandment was just a case of tidying things up and making sure that there were still Ten Commandments.  The historian John Bossy, for example, judged that ‘the exposition of the second table was a less controversial matter than that of the first’.[1] Continue reading

The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the tongue

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

reputationAt first glance, the Ninth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, was rather niche compared to the first four precepts of the second table: honouring parents, and not killing, committing adultery with, or stealing from other people.  However, as historians such as Alexandra Shepherd and Craig Muldrew have shown, credit and reputation were vital and powerful forces in early modern English society.[1]  Honest speech and truthful dealing were therefore essential for the proper functioning of personal and community relationships up and down the land.

This key social role of plain and open speaking was universally recognised by commentators on the Ninth Commandment, as well as humanity’s weakness for using a certain fleshy little member to the detriment of their neighbour.  Continue reading

The Eighth Commandment: Theft; or, making it up as you go along…

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

The Ten Commandments were widely believed to be a comprehensive distillation of God’s will.  As such, every sin discussed in scripture could be located in at least one of the commandments – if God disapproved of it, the Decalogue must forbid it, somewhere.  However, there were some manifest sins in early modern England which were not discussed in the Bible.  As a perfect system of justice and morality, the Commandments also had to forbid these, meaning that the Decalogue effectively provided carte blanche for ministers and authors to condemn whatever they felt was sinful, and to do so with the weight of God’s law behind them.

39749-004-144cf988Nowhere was this aspect of ‘making it up as they went along’ more visible than in discussions of the Eighth Commandment – for while certain sins were pretty much universals of human nature (sins of violence and lust, for example) the realities of economic life in sixteenth century England were very different from those of the ancient Middle East. Continue reading

The Seventh Commandment: Punishing Adultery

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

sheepThe Seventh Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’, was one of the most commented upon in the whole Decalogue.  ‘Adultery’ was quickly expanded by Protestant authors to include all forms of ‘uncleanness’, in thought, word and deed, alone and with other humans and creatures, both in and outside of wedlock.  Fornication, buggery, masturbation and bestiality were some of the headline crimes, but authors also sought to proscribe all ‘occasions’ and ‘enticements’ to sins of the flesh, including mixed dancing, excess consumption of food and alcohol, as well as lewd pictures, cosmetics, alluring gestures and coquettish glances.  In contrast to such filthy living, the commandment enjoined chastity, both in and out of marriage: ‘immoderate use of the marital bed’ was as much a sin as pre- and extra-marital sex.

In this post, however, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Seventh Commandment which attracted a great deal of attention during the long sixteenth century – how crimes of the flesh ought to be punished.  Continue reading