Twas the night before Christmas, in the year 1681, and one Soloman Reddatt was drinking in the Nag’s Head in Reading, with his sister, Elizabeth, and a friend, George Parfitt, when, at around 9pm, their sociability was disturbed by the shattering of glass. Moments earlier, Debora Allen had burst into the alehouse in search of her husband Edward. After locating him in the kitchen drinking with the alehousekeeper, William Newbury, she flew into a rage, picking up a quart pot and throwing it through a window. As a startled Reddatt and his companions looked up from their drinks, Debora Allen emerged from the kitchen into the room where they were drinking, where the angry wife ‘levelled her passion’ against Sara Newbury, the alehousekeeper’s wife, who was busy serving customers. Debora Allen called Sara Newbury a whore and a bawd, and accused her of running the alehouse as a bawdy house, before turning her fire onto the alehousekeeper William Newbury, labelling him a cuckold. The furious Debora Allen repeated the accusations several times, both within the alehouse and at the street door, ensuring that her opinion of this alehouse and its proprietors received a public airing.
A version of this vignette appears at the start of a chapter that I have written for a forthcoming Bloomsbury textbook on the cultural history of alcohol in the early modern world. The focus of the chapter is the relationship between gender, sexuality and alcohol in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I use an analysis of this opening anecdote to highlight several of the themes that run through the essay: the gendered character of alcohol retailing; the extent and character of women’s public consumption of alcohol; the complex relationship between masculinity and drinking; and so on.
It is a classic technique of historians in my field – that is, the social history of early modern England – to start an article or a chapter with a story; a telling anecdote that draws the reader in and sets up the analysis that is to follow. Indeed, I have just used it here. More often than not, though, the storytelling ends there – the historian steps out of the role of fireside narrator, and proceeds to offer up their analysis in a cool, detached, ‘academic’ register, deemed more suitable for the pages of a peer-reviewed journal or academic monograph.
This is a writing convention that I myself have followed many times, and one that I relatively uncritically absorbed and mimicked from my own academic mentors and inspirations. But the endeavours of the ‘Storying the Past’ virtual reading group, and associated ‘Creative Histories’ events, have encouraged me to become more reflective about the storytelling techniques that I use in my writing as an academic historian, and those employed in my particular field of academic history.
What storytelling techniques, other than the trusty opening anecdote, do the historians that I spend most of my time reading deploy? Continue reading →