Amplifying the Voices of the People

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. Brodie reinforces the message that has emerged from our last few posts: that the voices of the people do survive in abundance in the archives of the early modern period. They may do so in ways that are mediated or formalised, yes, but he argues that this should not blind us to the enormous importance of these valuable historical documents. Brodie finishes with a rallying cry that echoes that of Helmut Groser and Ann Tlusty: these documents are too significant to be allowed to remain buried in archival repositories, or worse to be lost altogether to the vagaries of record survival. Instead they should be digistised and made freely available as a matter of priority to promote the ongoing renaissance of history from below.  

Brodie Waddell

As a historian, digging up the dead is part of my job. I arrive at the archives as a grave-robber intent on plunder. I riffle through their clean, grey cardboard boxes searching for a peculiar treasure – tatty papers recording dead people’s words in stark black ink.

I’m privileged enough to have the time, the funds and the training necessary to make such plundering expeditions a routine part of my professional life. As a result, I regularly emerge from the archives with prizes like the letter below, which lay among dozens of other papers in a box labelled ‘QS/4 box 134’, carefully preserved in the storeroom of the Devon Heritage Centre.

The letter, written in 1693, was sent from a widow named Elizabeth Snow to the county magistrates:

To John Elwell Esquire & the rest of the Honourable Bench,

Most Honoured Gentell men I hope your worships will take this my humble pittishon [=petition] in Consideration that I being here Commited form [=from] the bare [=bar] to this prison and am not able to paye the fine but must here pireish [=perish] without your mercyfull Consideration to take of[f] my fine for I have not one penny in the world to helpe my selfe with out of the Cherryty [=charity] of good people to relefe me for I have maintaind a Crippell Childe this 16 yeares and never had but one penny a day towards it[.] this being in great malish [=malice] sworen against me undeserving I hope you will for the Lords sake pitty my miserable Consdishon and relefe me out of this misry which shall be bounde in dewty Ever to pray for you all most Honnerable gentellmen which am a poore distressed widdow

Elizabeth Snow

I don’t know why she was imprisoned and I don’t know whether she was successful in her petition for release. In fact, I don’t know anything about Elizabeth apart from the claims in this letter, though further digging in the archives would probably reveal more. Continue reading

The People’s Letters?

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Nikolas Funke, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the University of Birmingham’s History Department. Here Nick explores another remarkable archival survival – a bag of letters written by ordinary soldiers and civilians during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th Century – and asks a number of the same questions that we have seen directed at petitions: who really wrote them, and in what ways do they reflect the voices of ordinary people?

Nikolas Funke

In the summer of 1625, about seventy people created a bagful of letters which is now kept at the Hessen state archive in Marburg, Germany. Of the fifty-one letters contained in the file, about half were written by women to their soldier boyfriends, fiancés and husbands in the army of the Catholic League, the others by former hosts, relatives and friends, a few by the soldiers themselves. The soldiers had been quartered in the small towns of Allendorf, Eschwege, Witzenhausen and Schmalkalden for about two years previously and, as the letters attest, found friends and lovers among the civilian population. Now that the Danish king, Christian IV, had entered the conflict we now know as the Thirty Years War, the troops had marched north about two months before and were currently encamped near Bielefeld and Herford.

lettersI came across these letters when I was researching my doctoral dissertation on the religiosity of soldiers fighting in the Holy Roman Empire. Jan Willem Huntebrinker had used them in his terrific doctoral dissertation and they were an absolutely fascinating find because the letters challenge our perception of the relationship between soldiers and civilians quite fundamentally. In this contribution, I want to first of all show how important such rare finds that carry ordinary peoples’ voices across the centuries are to the historian and secondly address the question of whose voice we are actually hearing. Continue reading

Petitions of the People?

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Jonathan Healey, University Lecturer in English Local and Social History at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. Focusing on petitions for poor relief, Jonathan further expands our discussion of early modern petitions and their value to practitioners of history ‘from below’, whilst at the same time raising crucial questions about their authorship and the extent to which they can really be considered the ‘authentic’ voices of the people.

Jonathan Healey

In 1699, Richard Tyldesley, a labourer from Little Hulton, Lancashire, presented at petition at Wigan Sessions.

It was on behalf of his neighbour Thomas Gerrard, and it described the latter man’s poverty in vivid terms.

‘Thomas Gerrard’, he wrote, ‘is now and hath lain sick in bed this five weekes, his wife is now in child bed, was allmost recovered, but now relapsed. The husband and new borne child lye in one poor bed the 3 children scarce recovered of sicknes. There is neither meat nor fire in the house.’

All they had received in poor relief was six shillings, ‘which will not pay and maintaine a person to looke after them’, and had not their neighbours offered their charity, ‘they had been all starved & miserably perished in the house before this’.

But charity had its limits, especially – though this was unsaid – at a time of high prices such as 1699, so ‘now their charity begins to slacken so that tis impossible they should any one of ‘em subsist 3 dayes longer but will miserably perish for want of releefe’.

Tyldesely’s petition, which was successful, is one of thousands of similar ones that survive in the Lancashire Archives. They begin in 1626, and cover the period of up to around 1710. It’s part of an elaborate process: the one by which poor relief – in what was the first national system of tax-funded poor relief in the world – was allocated. In the discussions about who was deserving or help – as Steve Hindle has eloquently argued – petitions like these show that the poor themselves were part of the conversation. They were active. They appealed. They negotiated. The Lancashire petitions give us a window onto these processes, and these negotiations.

They are, in many ways, quite simple documents. They asked for relief, gave some reason for why it was needed, and – sometimes – gave snippets of other information. Something about how the petitioner had tried to ‘make shift’, for example, or something about their bad treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Ostensibly, they are an ‘authentic’ voice of the poor. And yet, peel back the layers, and some considerable complications emerge. Continue reading

John Blanke, Henry VIII’s Black Trumpeter, Petitions for a Back Dated Pay Increase

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Michael Ohajuru, an art historian with an interest in the history of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. Michael provides us with an example of the considerable potential of petitions as a source for uncovering difficult to find voices in the past, as he dissects a petition sent to Henry VIII by a black trumpter at his court.

Michael Ohajuru

It was my colleague Dr Miranda Kaufmann who introduced me to John Blanke’s Petition to Henry VIII. We collaborated on IRBARE – Image and Reality in Black Africans in Renaissance England, a joint project in which she discussed the lives of over 350 real Africans she had found in the records, while I considered the images of black Africans from the period. The star of our research was John Blanke, the black Trumpeter to the Tudor courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII, as uniquely there is both an image and supporting records of him in the archives.

John Blanke Black Trumpeter (detail from1511 Westminster Tournament Roll)

John Blanke Black Trumpeter
(detail from1511 Westminster Tournament Roll)

I was on my way to the National Archive to study a thirteenth century image of a black African in the Archives when I had a call from Miranda. She said she had come across a reference to a John Blake, a trumpeter who had petitioned Henry VIII. His name and function were too close to John Blanke not to consider further. Once at the National Archives I ordered both items. Miranda’s petition came first so I photographed it and emailed the images to her then went off to look at my image. Before I’d completed photographing my image I had an email back from Miranda – she had transcribed the complete petition! Continue reading

Language History from Below

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is co-authored by Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty, a socio-linguist at the University of Augsburg and a historian at Bucknell University respectively. Their contribution shifts our focus onto the search for documents that record ordinary people speaking for themselves – or, at least, that seem to – a theme that will be developed over the next few posts. Here, Helmut and Ann introduce their ongoing project to collect the necessary sources to produce a ‘language history from below’ for early modern Germany – and it was a conversation about this project between the authors and Mark Hailwood, in a Pennsylvania bar, that planted the initial seed for this online symposium.

Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty

Our approach combines social-historical research with socio-linguistics in an attempt to apply to the early modern period methods associated with “language history from below.” This term was coined, obviously after “history from below”, to counter the standard top-down approach that has been the traditional focus of language historians exploring the development of New High German. In a tradition much like that of earlier generations of historians, whose focus has primarily been on elite actors, scholars examining sources produced almost exclusively by professional writers and printers has resulted in a teleological view of the emergence of a New High German written standard.

This view has recently come under attack, not least due to its judgmental approach to non-elite writing, which is normally much closer to actual speech than the texts of educated or professional writers. Working with nineteenth-century letters written by German emigrants to the United States, German language scholar Stephan Elspaß was able to show that linguistic phenomena considered “wrong” from a standard point of view were in fact based on alternative regional and social written standards.[1] In short, “right” and “wrong” language features can in many cases be more accurately described as “elite” and “common.”

Inspired by these findings, our experiment began with the question of whether enough sources could be identified to produce a language history from below for the early modern period. The question begged interdisciplinary cooperation from the beginning for reasons of simple practicality. Very little of what was written by non-professionals before 1800 has survived, and what has been archived in public repositories tends to be scattered about and hard to find, requiring deep trolling through larger collections in accordance with the methods of a social historian. Once identified, however, the sources can only be fully exploited for the history of language by someone trained as a historical linguist. Here we would just like to introduce some of the kinds of sources we are looking at and what we are finding out about them. Continue reading

The antiquarian listens: unexpected voices of the people

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Laura Sangha, Lecturer in British History 1500-1700 at the University of Exeter. Laura shows that whilst the voices of ordinary people were not thought to be as trustworthy as those of gentlefolk in the early modern period, they still played an important and often overlooked part in intellectual debates surrounding ‘science’, as the experiences of humble individuals were sought out and valued by intellectuals as evidence against which to test emerging theories.

Laura Sangha

The idea at the heart of this post is voices of the people in unexpected places. Whilst there are more traditional topics (such as poverty, crime or work) that provide opportunities for exploring and uncovering ordinary voices, I want to focus on an area that is traditionally thought of as the exclusive preserve of the elite. That is, the realm of ‘science’, or, if you are an early modernist: the areas of natural and mechanical philosophy. When we think of this domain, we envisage the gentleman practitioner, the well-educated, well-resourced intellectual elite, usually engaged in a conversation with someone from a similar background to himself. Yet I want to suggest that even here, in an area that initially appears to be completely cut off from the people, their non-elite contributions were sought out and valued, and the voices of the people resonate.

Ralph Thoresby, 1658-1725

I will be supporting this suggestion with reference to my current research into the life of Ralph Thoresby.[1] For those of you who are not familiar with the man, a brief introduction. Thoresby lived from 1658-1725, he was from a middling, trade background, but he was also an antiquarian, a member of the Royal Society, and the owner and curator of a museum in his home town of Leeds. His archive is very extensive and includes the diary that he wrote for the entirety of his adult life, as well as a large set of correspondence with friends, family, and the great and the good in ecclesiastical and intellectual circles. Thoresby was therefore a respected provincial practitioner, inspired by the Royal Society to the study of antiquities, natural curiosities and strange weather – the stuff of early modern science.

There is a plausible case for saying that Thoresby himself was one of the people – though he was relatively well off, he did not attend either of the universities and was a long way from the intellectual heart of the country in the south east of England. But in this post my focus will be on the way that Thoresby’s scientific activities bought him directly into contact with (even more) ordinary people’s experiences and voices. Continue reading

Voices and Voicing in the Scottish Revolution, 1637-51

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Laura A.M. Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Birkbeck, University of London. As they have done in our previous three posts, issues of power and the authority to speak continue to loom large, but our next two posts show a different aspect of that relationship – highlighting contexts in which the voices of ordinary people in the early modern period could, in albeit heavily circumscribed contexts, be accorded a degree of value and legitimacy.

Laura A.M. Stewart 

In the spring of 1639, Scotland was facing an invading foreign army for the first time in eight decades. During the previous year, thousands of Scottish people had covenanted with one another and with God in defence of religion, kingdom, and king. This event had persuaded the government in London that Scotland was in revolt and needed to be restored to order through the use of force. Scotland and England had been joined together under one ruler since 1603, when King James VI of Scotland had acceded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I, but the Covenanters were not seeking liberation from British monarchic rule. Indeed, by seeking to repatriate some of the powers claimed by a London-based monarch, and thereby enable Scottish representative bodies to have a greater say in decision-making, the Covenanters offer parallels with current debates on the Anglo-Scottish union.[1] Unfortunately, the king in question, Charles I (1600-1649), did not believe he needed to be protected against ‘evil counsel’ by his Scottish subjects and he construed their religious covenant – with some justification – as an act of rebellion against his authority. Thankfully, Prime Minister David Cameron does not appear to have consulted the published works of Charles I’s polemicists on the perennial nature of the ‘British problem’.[2] For the second king of Britain, the best way of maintaining ‘one nation’ was to invade Scotland.[3]

In giving ‘mutual defence and assistance’ to one another as war loomed, the men and women of all social ranks who swore the National Covenant vowed never to ‘suffer ourselves to be divided’ and always to put ‘the common happiness’ before personal gain.[4] Historians have tended to think about the Covenant as a text to be read and signed, but many more people encountered it aurally and responded to it with voices rather than pens. My forthcoming book examines the communal swearing ceremonies that greeted the Covenant in parishes throughout the country. In some places, these ceremonies were emotionally charged events, in which entire parish communities gathered together to give voice to their faith. Leading clerics and politicians asserted in print and from the pulpit that the safety of the Scottish nation depended on the unity of its people.[5] Continue reading