Understanding Sources: diaries

TPicture1o celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Laura Sangha

It won’t come as a surprise that I have chosen diaries as my favourite early modern source type, since I am currently researching the life and times of the Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist, Ralph Thoresby (1677-1725). But really, who could resist reading someone else’s diary? Who isn’t interested in other people’s lives? What other source gives us access to the personal jottings and reflections of the long dead? In what other source are the voices of the people delivered to us in such an unmediated fashion? Where else can we learn about how people thought about themselves in the past? Whilst other source types might be better defined, more representative of the population as a whole, more complete, or easier to contextualise or generalise about, there is nothing like the thrill of reading someone else’s thoughts on their own life experiences. Continue reading

Understanding Sources: the source of it all

Laura Sangha

Primary sources are where histories come from. The stuff left over from the past that by accident or design has survived down to this day is the lifeblood of historical study. Sources are our direct (if not always reliable) witnesses to the events, people and processes of moments now long gone. The creative and self-aware use of the complexities of evidence often produces the best histories as historians read against the grain, contextualise, and dissect the stuff of the past to extract new meanings from it.

In 2000, Ludmilla Jordanova wrote that ‘there has been a decline in (primary) source-based undergraduate teaching’, but in 2016 it certainly feels like the opposite is true.[1] Partly thanks to the internet (although printed transcriptions remain a vital resource), primary sources have never been more available or accessible for university lecturers and their students. Given that history is to some extent defined by its methodology, it doesn’t make sense not to use primary materials with undergraduates – how else to teach the dynamic relationship between the sources, the historian and their history? How else to understand the vantage points that we can and can’t find on what happened in the past? Continue reading

History Carnival 157: Anything but Brexit

Brodie Waddell

If you’re in Britain and reading a history blog, you’ve probably spent most of the last week thinking about Brexit, reading about Brexit, and arguing about Brexit. I’m sure at least some of you would like to mentally escape the current omnishambles, so here’s your chance.

Hey, look! An amusing historical image that has nothing to do with xenophobic populism or constitutional crisis!

‘Skimmington Triumph’ (c.1720). An amusing historical image that has nothing to do with xenophobic populism or constitutional crisis!

Today the Many-Headed Monster is hosting the 157th edition of the History Carnival which means I get to share a selection of some of the best history blogging from around the web from the last month or so. Thankfully there has been a bunch of great posts about all sort of fascinating topics that have nothing to do with the current political omnishambles. There are, of course, also a few that are directly related to The Vote That Shall Not Speak Its Name, but I’ve attempted to quarantine those by putting them in a separate section at the end. If you are looking for a bit of historical escapism, read on. If you are a masochist, just skip to the end. Continue reading

Riches, Poverty and Pollution: Living with Coal Smoke in Early Modern London

One of the recurring questions on the many-headed monster is how the world is experienced by people at different levels of the social heirarchy. In this guest post, William M. Cavert looks at the unequal impact of pollution, drawing on his new book: The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge, 2016).

“Poverty,” wrote sociologist Ulrich Beck, “is hierarchic, smog is democratic.”[1] Pre-industrial cities, according to Beck, were full of dirty and unpleasant dangers, but the wealthy could escape or avoid them easily because such hazards smelled badly and looked ugly. In the modern world risk is invisible, and is everywhere.

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

London during the early modern period offers an interesting test for this idea because it was at once clearly pre-industrial and yet it also developed one of the hallmarks of the modern, industrial urban landscape: pervasive air pollution.[2] The “smog” that Beck suggests envelopes industrial cities became widespread in London by about 1600, caused not by great factories as in 19th-century Manchester, but by the domestic coal fires of 200,000 people, as well as coal’s importance in every industry that involved boiling, heating, or melting.[3] During the 17th and 18th centuries, pre-industrial London struck residents, rulers, and visitors as a smoky, dirty place. Modern scientific modeling suggests that their impressions were accurate, and that the concentrations of pollutants like sulfur dioxide in 18th-century London are matched today only in the world’s very dirtiest cities.

Did early modern Londoners experience this smoky air as yet another aspect of a deeply “hierarchic” society, as Beck suggests? Continue reading

On periodisation: unanswerable questions, questionable answers

Laura Sangha

The many-headed monster’s mini-series ‘On Periodisation’ really struck a chord with our readers, prompting an outpouring of comments both below the line and on twitter. I have captured many of these in this Storify – thanks so much to everyone who took the time to offer their thoughts, and my apologies to anyone whose comments I missed, but it was hard to keep up!

Picture2The digested version is that comments tended to fall into three categories: those who were prompted to reflect on periodisation in relation to their own research; those who offered a transnational perspective; and those who added an interdisciplinary slant to the discussion. Whilst debates on this topic are a constant of historical research, social media has the benefit of creating a more diverse conversation which encourages broader perspectives and raises new complications. If the debate continues I intend to add to the story in due course, so please do join the conversation.

My original intention was to try to summarise these contributions in another post, but when it came to it I struggled because the responses were both (a) too various, and (b) too contingent. Thus this post instead focuses on the shared responses to periodisation, in the form of a series of questions people ask about it. Continue reading

On periodisation: two ‘early modern’ Englands?

Brodie Waddell

This is the fourth post in our new Monster Mini-Series on periodisation. Click here for the Series introduction.

Last week I had the privilege of attending Laura Gowing’s inaugural lecture on ‘A Trade of One’s Own’. She told the fascinating story of women’s changing relationship with London and its livery companies over the course of the seventeenth century.

It was a brilliant lecture in all sorts of ways, but what caught my ear was the way she implicitly divided her story into two periods. From my recollection, there were relatively few formal changes in the way the companies dealt with women over the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – yet Gowing showed that unofficial norms shifted substantially. Specifically, she showed that the number of women as mistresses and apprentices rose from the 1640s onwards and resulted in a new landscape in which – for example – about 40 percent of the shops in the Royal Exchange were owned by women by the end of the century.

The Royal Exchange, 1671

The Royal Exchange, 1671

Although Gowing did not discuss the reasons for this shift in detail, she alluded to the disruptions of the Civil Wars, the rise of new women-made fashions such as the mantua gown, and the increasing preponderance of women among migrants to the metropolis. In fact, pinning down a specific cause may be impossible because the change seems to have been almost ‘over-determined’. In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, everything seemed to be changing.

Dividing ‘early modernity’

This lecture set me thinking about my own sense of periodisation. Laura has talked about start and end points for the ‘early modern’, Mark has discussed the question of ‘modernity’ itself, and Jonathan has addressed the thorny notion of a ‘Reformation era’. But what about the divisions within the ‘early modern period’, however defined?

It seems to me that there has increasingly emerged a sense of an ‘early early modern period’ and a ‘late early modern period’. I’ll call them the EEMP and LEMP, because acronyms add an air of authority. Continue reading

Hidden gems of Tudor Church reform: the equal opportunities that never were, and dressing up smart for God…

Jonathan Willis

Chasing up some last-minute references for the book I’ve been writing up over the past year or so on the Ten Commandments, over Easter I found myself making use of a local academic library to consult Gerald Bray’s editions, prepared for the Church of England Record Society, of the Anglican Canons and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum.  As I sat in this unfamiliar space, surrounded by undergraduates feverishly working on essays and revising for their exams, I couldn’t help but be struck by what seemed like some of the more unlikely concerns of sixteenth-century reformers.  The topic of Tudor Church reform doesn’t exactly promise thrills, spills and adrenaline from the outset, but it does occasionally provide a fascinating insight into a range of social and cultural prejudices, alongside the rather more predictable fare of the duties of churchwardens, the alienation and renting out of ecclesiastical goods, and the nuts and bolts of the process of episcopal visitation.

Continue reading