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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‘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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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 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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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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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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