A Reformation Roundup

Jonathan Willis

Last week, I had the very great pleasure of organising and attending the annual meeting of the European Reformation Research Group, and attending and presenting at the bi-annual Reformation Studies Colloquium, back-to-back, at Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall), Cambridge. I heard 36 papers over 72 hours (including my own), and on Wednesday alone I began conferencing at 9am, didn’t finish until nearly 9.45pm, and heard 14 different papers over the course of the day. What I want to do in this post is to reflect on some of what I heard, and on what it says about the exuberance of reformation studies today. I have three disclaimers. The first is the Colloquium at times had four sessions running in parallel, so my experience of the conference was incomplete, and tailored around my own interests as a historian of the English reformation. The second is that I think it would be a bit tedious to summarise every one even of the 36 papers I heard, and so I’m going to be selective, and pick out papers relating to a few of the themes that stuck out to me most prominently. That means I won’t be mentioning some brilliant work, but I don’t think that can be helped – it would be great if other delegates could add some of their highlights to the comments below! Finally, apologies if I’ve misrepresented anybody’s ideas in what follows. If that’s the case, just let me know, and I will correct it.

hourglassA Long Reformation?

One of the things that really struck me is, in fact, two things, relating to the chronology of reformation studies. The ‘long reformation’ has been an increasingly important concept in recent years, and ‘when does the reformation end?’ is a question with which I perennially enjoy tormenting my students. Historians of the English reformation are now in (rare) broad agreement as to when the reformation didn’t end: and that’s 1559, with the Elizabethan Settlement. An interesting collaborative presentation by Peter Marshall and John Morgan cleverly employed databases and spreadsheets to torpedo the oft-cited statistic that only a handful of the Marian lower clergy resigned or were deprived in the years immediately following Elizabeth’s accession. The true scale of deprivations and resignations is unknown, and perhaps unknowable, but if partial datasets can be trusted as indicative it looks as though the figure calculated by Henry Gee in the early part of the twentieth century was a massive underestimate. Perhaps the longest reformation we saw at this conference was Ben Kaplan’s, who gave in his plenary a sneak preview of his forthcoming book, Cunegonde’s Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment. Kaplan traced the origins of a mid-eighteenth-century kidnapping, which brought the local area to the brink of religious war, back through a prolonged history of tension between the Catholics and Calvinists in the small community of Vaals, caught in between the posturing of the Catholic Imperial City of Aachen and the military might of the Dutch Republic. This is an extreme example, but plenty of papers ranged far into the seventeenth century, such as Chris Langley’s fascinating discussion of the local care provided by the Scottish Kirk for wounded soldiers returning from the civil wars and other conflicts. What there was surprisingly little of, at least at ‘my’ conference, was extended discussion of the early reformation.

venny4Interdisciplinary Approaches

Something else that struck me is that interdisciplinarity is now pretty much the norm. Not everybody is doing it, but it’s common enough that it seems incredible that we ever thought that we could study the reformation, let alone understand it, without looking at images, sounds, music, material objects, or employing theoretical or methodological insights from cognate disciplines. Emilie Murphy gave a rich evocation of the life of English Catholic religious orders in exile in Habsburg Spain, in which we could practically hear the tolling of bells and the chanting of nuns, while Margit Thøfner made some tantalising suggestions about the relationships between Lutheran music and church furniture, in particular as it was used to frame the sacramental rites of baptism and the Eucharist. In her plenary, Mary Laven gave a fascinating insight into a major project which aims to uncover the domestic piety of the Italian renaissance home, primarily through the material testimony of objects such as paintings, rosary beads, and ex votos. We also saw some wonderful images of Transylvanian Lutheran church interiors, courtesy of Maria Crăciun, who used them to question the dichotomy between aural and visual worship. At ERRG, Jeff Jaynes gave a fascinating paper on the urban geography of sixteenth-century Lutheran reform, through an examination of printed images of north-German cityscapes.

st_peter_basilica_002A Catholic History Renaissance

It was fitting in a conference which ended with a roundtable acknowledging the enormous contribution to reformation studies of Eamon Duffy (and marking his retirement) that papers on Catholicism were both numerous and vibrant. Half a century ago, Catholicism was the ‘Cinderella’ of reformation studies, but thanks to the work of historians such as Duffy, Walsham, Michael Questier, Bill Sheils, and many more, we are starting to take for granted that post-reformation Catholicism was just as complex, nuanced, and fascinating as early modern Protestantism.  ERRG contained a whole panel on the Catholic West Midlands, with excellent papers by Beth Norton on the Blounts, Laura Verner on (in-)tolerance, and Ruth Barbour on the returns for papists for the Diocese of Worcester in the early eighteenth century. My colloquium also began with a whole panel on the material culture of Catholicism, with brilliant papers from Katy Gibbons, Liz Tingle and Alex Walsham. David de Boer also gave an excellent paper on the Catholic response to Protestant iconoclasm in the Netherlands. The fact that donated church goods technically remained the property of the donor meant that church officials were able to present iconoclasm as an attack not on the church or clergy, but on the community itself. While the value of sacred art was (for the most part) diminished by iconoclasm, relics were often invested with additional meaning by virtue of having survived destruction at the hands of Protestants.

chain-breakingBreaking Paradigms

The last theme I want to discuss is that of ‘breaking paradigms’. In a way, of course, pretty much everything an academic writes is in a sense controversial: designed to change, modify or refine accepted views on a given topic. Still, there are some papers that take on the challenge with more gusto than others. Alec Ryrie’s plenary deserves a special mention here. Coming out of a forthcoming history of global Protestantism, Ryrie suggested that the ‘confessional’ model of the reformation, while useful, has run its course; that we should not attempt to understand Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism as parallel ‘confessions’; that we should reject the traditional division between ‘radical’ and ‘magisterial’ reformers; and even questioned whether ‘Protestant’ itself is a useful term of analysis. Clearly this is going to be a book to wait for with some anticipation! Adam Morton gave a very interesting paper in which he suggested that we re-think iconoclasm in post-reformation England, contending that the sense of sight was not rejected by Protestants, but refocused in new and creative ways. My own paper on illustrated commandment boards issued a mild corrective against the increasing tendency to see Protestant visual culture as migrating exclusively to the domestic sphere. And a pair of papers from Greg Salazar and Emma Turnbull asked us reconsider different aspects of ‘anti-popery’, and the ensuing discussion ranged widely over the possible differences between anti-popery and anti-Catholicism.

We may not yet know where ERRG 2015 and Reformation Studies 2016 are taking place: but we can be pretty certain that they will both definitely be worth attending.  Amidst all the admin and chaos of the start of a new academic year, it was good to be reminded of how rich and exciting a field I’m lucky enough to work in!

Fantastic Thoresby – Part IV: An archive closure, a whale and a funny friend

Laura Sangha

This is my latest post in my long running series on the pious Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby. My thanks to the Yorkshire Archeological Society for their permission to reproduce material from the Thoresby papers.

ClaremontI recently returned from an end of summer ‘smash and grab’ raid on the archive with a memory card stuffed full of hundreds of images of diary entries, correspondence and other bits and bobs from Ralph Thoresby’s papers. I consulted all of this material at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (YAS) headquarters in Leeds, where the Thoresby Society is also currently located. Both are housed at Claremont, a splendid eighteenth-century merchants’ abode that is a delight for any student of history to work in, peaceful and accessible as it is. The staff and volunteers are very welcoming and knowledgeable, and the archivist Kirsty McHugh in particular went out of her way to accommodate me on my visit. Alas, Claremont will not provide such a salubrious environment to scholars for much longer, because lack of funds means that the Society’s Library and Historical Collections are to be moved, and Claremont is to be sold. Fortunately, the collection is to be loaned to the magnificent Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, hopefully preserving the unique character and coherence of the whole, but nonetheless this is sad news for those who have sustained the YAS over the years, and particularly for those currently based there.

With the start of term only a week away, it is likely to be some time before I can digest the material that accompanied me back to the South West, but I did stumble across a couple of bits of found art that I wanted to share.

The first I found in YAS MS15, a collection of letters from the clergyman George Plaxton (1647/8-1720) to Ralph Thoresby. Plaxton was another Yorkshire antiquarian who became rector of the valuable living of Barwick in Elemet in July 1703. He immediately struck up a friendship with Thoresby and they exchanged letters, books, documents and information for many years. Plaxton stands out among Thoresby’s correspondents (even to the scholar just taking endless photographs of documents for days on end…) because of his rambunctious writing style and for the wide range of nicknames that Plaxton used to address his letters to Thoresby. These range from the more regular Good Friend, Ralpho, and Mercury, to the more unusual Sydrophil (sometimes mystical conjurorshortened to Sydri). My favourites however are: the Great Antiquary, the Mystical Conjuror, and perhaps most memorably, the Wizzard. On occasions Plaxton would also address the ‘envelop’ using a nickname, which invited the carrier into the joke as well – I wonder how my subject felt about being addressed in this public manner as ‘The Portly Mr Thoresby at Leeds’?

The letter that particularly caught my eye was one that was addressed:

To the Ghost of Mr Ralph Thoresby late of Leeds, To be left at the sign of Methusalems head in the suburbs of Purgatory, [from] Frank John Mandeville.

to the ghostWhat was this reference to the fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman writer doing there? Of course I stopped and read on, with growing amusement. Evidently Thoresby had not written to or visited his friend for some time, because Plaxton wrote:

I am now satisfy’d that Ralph Thoresby is dead, for had he been alive he would have seen mee this Frost, but he is certainly gone to the other world to converse with Selden, Cambden, Goltzius, St Simon d’ Ewes and other Antiquaries. I hope he will meet with [Jacobethan traveller and writer] Tom Coryat, and other Learned Foot-pads in his Travells, and compare notes and compare shoes with them. I am sure that [medieval monk and astronomer] John de Sacro Boko will be glad to see him, and so will [medieval Bishop] old Paulinus of Leeds, and the Merry Abbot of Kirkshall. I hope he will discourse with Robin Hood, and get his Pedigree, and send us word who was Litle John’s Godfather. Had I known of his journey I would have sent some Materiall Enquiries by him, and writ a letter to our friends Fryer Bacon, and honest Bungay [characters in an Elizabethan play], but Ralpho slipt away unknown to his Friends. I will write to him by the next Neighbour who goes that Road and send 1d to drink with him, and poor honest Owen, who I am sure will be glad to see an old Acquaintance. By this time I judge he is neare Purgatory, if he pass well that dark and Troublesome Lane, he will soon be at this Journeys end. I have no more to add but that I am

Old Sydrophills Living Friend and Servant

Barbicus. St Thomas’s day 1709

A very silly letter

A very silly letter

The letter is almost entirely humorous in function – though there is a request for Thoresby to send a tobacco box and inkhorn to the vicar, this afterthought seems far less important than the jest itself. It’s funny even to modern sensibilities (‘send us word who was Litle John’s Godfather’), and whilst parts exhibit the sender and recipients’ learning, there are plenty of references to more ‘popular’ culture, to local figures, and to the medieval past in the mix. It is quite a sophisticated piece of wit, an example of the presumably everyday humour that rarely survives in the types of sources that I usually work with when studying religious cultures, and which leaves few traces elsewhere. A reminder then, that early modern people made jokes too.

I will certainly be exploring the Plaxton-Thoresby relationship in more depth in future. I’m particularly interested in any drafts of letters to Plaxton that might survive in Thoresby’s copy book, because the light-hearted offerings from ‘Barwick’ suggest a less sombre and more cheery side to Thoresby’s character that his spiritual diaries in particular might obscure.

My second bit of found art fulfils the criteria in a more literal way. It is from YAS MS19, a miscellaneous collection of notes covering all of Thoresby’s life. There are very few illustrations in the Thoresby papers, so I feel I don’t really need to explain why this one caught my eye, except to say that he also looks like he would appreciate a jest too.

the whale fish


The Woolcomber’s World, Part II: Finding God in seventeenth-century Essex

Brodie Waddell

Joseph Bufton spent a lot of time thinking about God. He assiduously went along to hear sermons by the local vicar and by travelling preachers. He read scores of books and pamphlets offering religious guidance. What’s more, he filled many volumes with notes and extracts from these sermons and published texts. He even tried his hand at spiritual poetry, with decidedly unimpressive results.

What, then, do we know about Bufton’s faith?

Bufton - Coggeshall parish church

The (mostly) 15th-century parish church in which Bufton spent many a Sunday

As I explained in my previous post on Bufton, almost all of our knowledge of this Essex woolcomber comes from the notes he scribbled in the margins and blank pages of eleven volumes of almanacs between the 1660s and the 1710s. As such we can learn a considerable amount about his exposure to diverse religious ideas and instruction.

However, there are limits. The volumes include only a few hints about his own personal thoughts on such matters, especially his place in the fraught religious politics of the later Stuart period. Still, the fact that eight of the eleven surviving volumes are mostly or entirely focused on spiritual concerns surely can tell us something about how a simple layman set about finding God in late seventeenth-century Coggeshall. Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part I: A life scribbled in the margins of almanacs

Brodie Waddell

On 8 August 1716, Joseph Bufton sat down to take stock of his little archive.

For about forty years, he had been filling the margins and blank pages of old almanacs with notes. He now had quite a collection and his terse list hints at their contents.

‘I reckon I have here 22 almanacks’, he wrote…

  • Seven volumes were ‘filled up chiefly with things taken out of other books’, including ‘out of a dictionary’.
  • Five were account books, some ‘of household stuff, &c.’, but others probably related to his work.
  • Three volumes were ‘out of Irish letters, &c.’, that is to say, copies of letters between Joseph and his brother John, who had removed to Ireland in 1678.
  • Two were ‘filled up with notes of sermons’ and ‘an account of funerall sermons’.
  • One was ‘filled chiefly with buriall and marriage’, chronicling the vital events of his family members and neighbours.
  • Another ‘I keep on my board and write in dayly’, though its precise contents remain a mystery.
  • One he ‘fill’d great part with Bellman’s verses’, short poems celebrating the chief annual religious and civic festivals such as Christmastide and the royal birthday.
  • A final volume recorded the rules of his trade in the form of ‘the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’

This extraordinary little library has only partly survived the ensuing centuries. Only eleven volumes – half the total noted by Bufton in 1716 – are known to remain. Eight of these are held in his native county at the Essex Record Office and another three can be found at the Brotherton Library in Leeds. Still, the fact that any escaped the rubbish heap is surely a sign of providential favour – most personal jottings of this sort were long ago destroyed by unfortunate fires, spring cleanings or damp basements.


One of Bufton's almanacs, including a scrawl of notes in every available margin.

One of Bufton’s almanacs, including his scrawl of notes in every available margin.

This brings me to the question that I suspect most readers’ are now asking themselves: Who was Joseph Bufton and why should anyone care?

I would love to be able to include a portrait here of Bufton, showing you what he looked like posing in his prime. However, unlike Laura’s current hobby-horse Thoresby, Bufton never achieved the sort of wealth or notoriety necessary for a pictorial acknowledgement of his existence. Even his biographical details are too sketchy for a detailed pen-portrait, and I am still trying to fill in some of the gaps.

Coggeshall, Essex, c1700

Coggeshall, between Braintree and Cochester (c.1700).

What we do know is that Joseph Bufton was born in 1650 to John and Elizabeth, a clothier and his wife. He grew up and lived most of his life in Coggeshall in Essex, a small town dominated by the woollen industry, and he found employment there as a woolcomber. I have not found any evidence that he married or had children, but he did have an older brother, John, and three older sisters, Mary, Elizabeth and Rebecca.

In 1699, he left Coggeshall, and he made few notes after that date. It is not clear where he lived out the rest of his life, though it may have been London or Colchester as he lists two account books as ‘1 for Lon., 1 for Colc.’. Similarly obscure is his death. All that is certain is that he survived until at least 1716, when he would have been sixty-six years old.

In subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to shine some light on this ill-defined silhouette. By looking at his eleven volumes of surviving notes from several different angles, we can begin to illuminate a well-rounded individual with eclectic tastes, surrounded by a diverse crowd of family, friends, co-workers and neighbours. My hope is that I’ll convince you that Bufton’s scribblings are not only interesting and sometimes amusing. They can, in fact, allow us to get some sense of how life was lived – God worshipped, money made, communities peopled – by people who far too rarely wrote anything down.


I owe a considerable debt to Henry French for both information and ideas about Bufton, some of which he has published in The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (2007), pp. 244-50. I’ve also drawn on G.F. Beaumont, A History of Coggeshall (1890), pp. 219-29. I previously discussed Bufton in God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life (2012), pp. 199-202. The title of these posts is borrowed from Paul Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (1985). Bufton’s surviving notebooks can be found at the Essex Record Office, D/DBm Z7-Z14, and the Brotherton Library, MS 8-10.

Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part III: Puritans, Plums, and a Cereal Complainer…

Jonathan Willis

I don’t know about you, but I’m always delighted and intrigued when I’m unexpectedly reminded of the humanity we share with the inhabitants of early modern England. I’ve been reading through a large quantity of godly lives recently (spiritual diaries, memoirs, biographies, books of remembrance, etc.), and if I’m honest the content is often rather unedifying – by which I mean, far, far too edifying! It’s therefore quite pleasing when, amidst the intensely personal but also strangely generic soul-searching, you come across something which gives you a flavour of the individual. This happened while I was reading the diary of Samuel Ward. Ward finished his career as a moderate, establishment puritan figure and Master of the recently founded puritan college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge. In the 1590s, however, whilst a student (later Fellow) at Emmanuel, Ward was ‘a vigorous and outspoken puritan’.[1]

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget?  'Wicked child!'

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget? ‘Wicked child!’

Outspoken or not, though, his diary reveals his ongoing struggles with sin, and particularly with food and drink. In June 1595, for example, he recorded ‘to much drinking after supper’ on the 21st, ‘going to drink wyne, and that in the Taverne, befor I called upon God’ on the 27th, and ‘immoderate’ eating of cheese at 3 o’clock in the morning on the 22nd (perhaps a snack to satisfy the hunger cravings brought on by drinking too much the night before?). Cheese was a recurrent weakness. He recorded ‘immoderate eating of walnuts and cheese after supper’ on October 3 1595, and ‘intemperate eating of cheese after supper’ on August 13 1596. Perhaps the catalyst for this binge was the fact that, the day before, Ward recorded in his diary ‘my anger att Mr. Newhouse att supper for sayng he had eaten all the bread’. As well as bread, cheese and wine, Ward also hankered after fruit: references to damsons, plums, pears and raisins pepper his diary.[2] On 8 August 1596 Ward noted that after observing ‘my longing after damsens … I made my vow not to eat in the orchard. Oh that I could so long after Godes graces…’

Lovely cheese...

Lovely cheese…

The puritan relationship with food was often a complex one: like sleep, food was a bodily necessity, but also a reminder of carnal appetites and a minefield in terms of potentially sinful behaviours.[3] It is perhaps not surprising that fasting was such an important aspect of puritan piety: an abstinent mortification of the flesh. For many people in Tudor England, however, fasting was a luxury which they literally couldn’t afford, as they weren’t able to buy food in the first place in order to be able to deliberately refrain from eating it. Enter ‘Robart Boushell’, my third eccentric letter-writer in what is becoming a series of eccentric letter-writers, a series which I’m starting to think might form the kernel of my next research project.

Plums, glorious plums!

Plums, glorious plums!

Bushel’s letter is dated 1596, the same year as Ward was longing after damsons and eating too much cheese. He identified himself as ‘one kept from all outward meanes’ and yet preserved as ‘the savgard of my life … my wife & vij christians’.[4] His complaint was simple: that ‘the price of corn & all other vetles’ was un-affordably high. The plight of the poor was such that ‘if it be not lokid in to in time god shall be so dissonored as he was not in the time of papistri the like’. In other words, for the government to permit food prices to reach such great heights was to the great dishonour of both God and the Queen: ‘for in the moultitud of the peepoll the quine is honered & in the dirth of the peepoll the quine is disshonered’.

The valleys standing thick with corn.

The valleys standing thick with corn.

At the risk of treading on Brodie’s toes (he’s written a brilliant book on economic culture which you should definitely buy), what is fascinating is the direct link established by Bushel between food prices, the health of the individual, the health of the nation, and also the health of the reformation itself. ‘If the price of corne do not fall many canot live that would live’, Bushel wrote, and through hunger were brought to ‘great weaknes of body & soul’, because in their dire straits they began to ‘find falt with thee ghospell & the professors of the same’. Bushel was keen to empahsise that he himself wished nothing but prosperity to ‘good ministers of the worde of god & good profissers also which hatithe covitousness & loveth rightiousnes’, but also begged liberty to ‘speak without blam & dessplisur’ some more scurrilous speech ‘which hath passed the mouthes of sum in essex wher I dwell’.

Bushel's 'humble suit and petition'...

Bushel’s ‘humble suit and petition’…

As a historian of religious (rather than economic) culture, what interests me most about Robert Bushel’s letter is what it might have to say about the reformation, and religious identity. One could quite easily argue that a professed faith which could be displaced by the ominous rumblings of an empty stomach was very clearly more apparent than real. There is also no way of telling for sure whether Robert Bushel adopted the position of ‘godly complainer’ because it was how he genuinely felt, and what he actually believed, or simply because he judged that it would be the most effective rhetorical strategy. The threatening subtext – by starving us, you feed popery – cannot have been lost on the government, and was presumably the reason this letter was squirreled away by Cecil, with a host of other potentially subversive religious oddballs. But in Bushel’s use of such language, I would be inclined to see evidence of a layman who was at least sufficiently educated and informed to know which buttons it would be most effective to press. It was also (I think), at least in part, the existence of a discursive framework in which he and Cecil were both in a sense brothers in Christ (‘which is your head & yow his membere’), which enabled him to articulate his demands with such confidence.

[1] Margo Todd, ‘Ward, Samuel (1572–1643)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28705, accessed 6 Aug 2014]

[2] There is always a temptation to link spiritual battles over soft fruit with the influence of Augustine, and Margot Todd has done so in the case of Samuel Ward, but as Alec Ryrie has recently noted, sometimes people just innocently ate pears. See his Being Protestant in reformation Britain, p. 430.

[3] Ryrie has recently written both about sleeping and fasting: see his essay on ‘Sleeping, waking and dreaming in Protestant piety’ in Martin and Ryrie (eds), Private and domestic devotion in early modern Britain (passim); and Being Protestant, pp. 195-199.

[4] British Library, Lansdowne vol. 99 no. 18, f. 49.

Marooned on an Island Monographs: A Historical Fiction Reading List

Laura Sangha

A recent mini-series has emerged on the monster, in which Mark (social history and the history of drinking), Jonathan (reformation history) and Brodie (economic history) have all shared the classic history books that they would take with them if marooned on a Pacific beach. But given that it is impossible to imagine anyone actually settling down with a cocktail and Joan Thirsk’s Economic Policy and Projects, and following an excellent suggestion by a monster reader, my list is comprised of some historical fiction that you might actually pop in your suitcase this summer.


But first, I have to get something off my chest. My name is Laura, I am an early modern historian, and I didn’t like Wolf Hall. In fact, I couldn’t even finish it. I tried, several times, and eventually made it about 200 pages in, but my resolve faltered when I realised I still had 450 pages to battle my way through. Even now I am not quite sure of the reason behind my complete failure to engage with it, but I suspect the slow pace didn’t help, nor the subject matter – when you have just marked 50 essays on Tudor England, spending your precious free time inside Thomas Cromwell’s head seems more like hard work than fun. So apologies, but Wolf Hall doesn’t make my list, though I appreciate that it is much loved – indeed, that is why I wanted to explain its absence. I hope you can still bring yourself to read what follows.

The other thing to note is that I have defined historical fiction in an entirely arbitrary way in order to narrow the field and make my task slightly easier – I have only included novels written by authors writing about a past they did not experience during their lifetime, hence no room for my beloved Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding or Tim O’Brien – they will have to wait for another list!

1) Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998).

instance-of-the-fingerpostPears’ murder mystery is a meticulously researched and brilliantly crafted novel covering spies, blood transfusions, secret societies, witchcraft, faith, political intrigue and much more. It vividly conjures up England in the 1660s, a few years after the Restoration of the monarchy and Church, in a world deeply marked by the political, religious and intellectual revolutions of the preceding decades. The action revolves around the murder of an Oxford fellow, with four witnesses describing in turn their recollections of the event some years later. These unreliable narrators give the novel its ultra-modern feel, the multiple perspectives encouraging the reader to be aware of subtle tricks of misdirection and omission in the witnesses’ evidence and in the process revealing the complexity of influences and motives of the inhabitants of early modern society. In other words, this masterpiece encourages the kind of critical reading of the evidence that historians are trained in – it’s no surprise that so many academics rate it highly! The subject matter is also not to be missed – the four witnesses include mathematician John Wallis and antiquarian Anthony Wood, and there are walk on parts for many other notable figures, including Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys and Valentine Greatorex.

2) Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (Serialised Feb-Nov 1841).

Barnaby_in_Newgate_by_PhizBarnaby Rudge was Dickens’ first attempt at a historical novel, and it is less highly esteemed and much less well known than his only other attempt, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Written during a time of unrest in Victorian England, Rudge also deals with rebellious times, treating the Gordon Riots of 1780, when Protestant anti-Catholic mobs in London erupted into lethal violence, attacking Parliament and the Bank of England, and largely destroying Newgate Prison and the Clink. (Linda Colley describes the events as ‘the largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history’). Having grown up in Dickens’ country in North West Kent it was inevitable that I would be enthralled by his work, but the strange Rudge is one of my favourites. It has the usual hallmarks of better known Dickensian classics: persistent humour, careful plotting, keenly observed characters suffering an unusually high level of nominative determinism. The book is named for a mentally disabled young man who wanders in and out of the action with his creepy talking raven, Grip; and whilst the heroes and villains are a pleasing mix of both Catholic and Protestant characters, indicating Dickens’ liberalism, his descriptions of the ordinary, mostly working-class mob, are vicious and uncompromising, reflecting his own horror of the many-headed monster. It is the descriptions of the relentless momentum of the rioters, incited by opportunists from the upper classes and swept along in a mindless orgy of violence that really give the novel its power, and despite its flaws it is a neglected gem.

3) Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke: his statement as made to his three grandchildren Gervas and Reuben during the hard winter of 1734 (1889)

clarke 2A rollicking historical coming of age adventure novel narrating the events of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Micah Clarke is a young teenager living near Portsmouth, the son of ‘Ironside Joe’, a devout Protestant who had fought on the side of Parliament in the Civil War. With his father’s encouragement, Micah joins the rebellion against the Catholic James II led by the 1st Duke of Monmouth, first marching to Taunton and eventually fighting at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Along the way Clarke gets into various (and sometimes very harrowing) scrapes and learns the ways of the world, encountering numerous colourful characters including Monmouth himself, but also the fictionalised London gent and wit Sir Gervas Jerome (forced to join the rebels due to his financial difficulties) and the ruthless professional soldier Decimus Saxon (cunningly feigning piety to get his own way). A light read notable for the impressively realised seventeenth-century world it reveals – full of incidental and everyday details that betray an impressive historical knowledge. Identifying those anachronistic elements/ attitudes that were clearly the product of Doyle’s Catholic upbringing is all part of the fun.

4) Robert Harris, Pompeii: a novel (2003)

pompeii001Robert Harris does a great job of writing a suspenseful novel despite the fact that all his readers will already know the ending. The appeal for me is the way that Harris uses a narrative of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to give a detailed picture of life in the Roman Empire in 79AD. The reader follows an aquarius (hydraulic engineer) as he tries to discover why the water supply to many towns in the surrounding area has dried up, in the process becoming embroiled in the murky politics of the region and meeting Pliny the Elder. But all of this is quite literally overshadowed by the catastrophic eruption of the volcano which is described to devastating effect. If the present-day dialogue seems a little incongruous at times and the romance rather unnecessary, it’s spectacular conclusion easily blows these objections away. Note: the novel has nothing to do with the recent hollywood blockbuster on the same topic.

5) Neil Gaiman, Marvel: 1602 (2003).

marvel page 2It’s 1602, Elizabeth I is finally coming to the end of her lengthy reign, there is trouble abroad and economic strife at home, strange portents have been seen in the skies over London… and most of the original Marvel superheroes and villains have suddenly turned up on the scene! Forgive what might be considered a frivolous choice and bear with me while I explain my final entry. Marvel 1602 is a series of comics that transplants Marvel characters into the Jacobethan era, weaving their marvellous origins into the events and institutions of the age. And why not? Mixing the providential and apocalyptic tropes of the Elizabethan world with the concerns of contemporary comics actually works rather well. The early modern age was far more attuned to the possibilities of the invisible world than the current one after all, and winged beings with preternatural powers and James I’s anxieties over the ‘witchbreed’ and entanglement with the Inquisition hardly seem to stretch the bounds of possibility too far. Best of all, transporting marvel heroes back to 1602 reveals some very surprising and satisfying roots for Captain America…


On reflection, perhaps my list also helps to explain my lack of enthusiasm for Wolf Hall. Whilst all my choices deal with significant historical events, they focus their narratives on bit players who only encounter great historical personalities on occasion. This frees up the authors to weave unpredictable plots and to play with their subject matter, providing the everyday look and feel of a period without burying the reader in details they could find in a conventional history book. This leads me to conclude that I probably derive my historical novel satisfaction from fleshing out my contextual understanding of great events and people, without getting too enmeshed in the particulars and straying too close to ‘the day job’. I enjoy the creative liberties that these authors take with their subjects, which opens up spaces to think differently or more loosely about the past. And of course many of these novels also prompt reflection and comparison with events of more recent history, acting as fingerposts to unexpected and unexplored avenues. I’d be delighted to know which novels do the same for you…

Postcript, 05/08/14: More on the role of historical fiction in this Guardian article, including some thoughts from Hilary Mantel herself on the genre. Which I entirely agree with.

Further postscript, 05/09/14: The discussion continues with the BBC dedicating ‘A Point of View‘ to the question.

Marooned On An Island Monographs: A History of Drinking Reading List

Mark Hailwood

With the school holidays imminent it seemed like a good time to offer another instalment of our summer series of beach books for the historically inclined. I would understand, albeit with a tinge of sadness, if you thought the social, economic or religious histories of early modern England were a bit sober for those long hot afternoons by the pool. But perhaps if I put on my other hat for this list – as a historian of drinking culture – I might be able to offer some suggestions more fitting to be consumed alongside a few cheeky cocktails. So here are my top 5 suggestions for a crash course on the history of drinking…

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