Dead people’s stuff

Brodie Waddell

What do historians study? Do we study historical events and past societies through analysis of extant artefacts? Or do we study dead people by looking at their stuff? Tim Hitchcock argues that we do the latter:

In recent years I find myself using the terms Stuff and Dead People in talks and titles more and more.  And as a historian I find myself conceptualising my work as being about Stuff inherited from Dead People.  Both expressions just sound right. … They form an attempt to de-centre the language of historical and social science authority that underpins the professional claims of academic historians as a whole.  By refusing to use the categories and languages of authority we inherited, I am self-consciously rejecting the systems that underpin the professional academic practise of history.

It’s worth reading the whole post, if only for his astute remarks about Kissinger’s questionable place amongst the living, but I want to emphasize an overlapping issue: jargon-busting.

In my reading, Tim is, amongst other things, arguing that historians should think critically about the strange dialects adopted by our scholarly tribes. Rather than relying on traditional technical labels or snazzy new terms borrowed from other fields, we should try to find alternatives.

Tillicoultry churchyard

Dead people

More importantly, to my mind, his specific suggestions are not latinate neologisms invented to bemuse colleagues and confuse students (e.g. Derrida’s différance). They are deliberately common English words: the sort of words that can be found both in the KJB and in a 21st-century pub chatter. This has at least two key advantages over the Derridean approach.

First, as Tim implies, using words that seem blunt or imprecise can force us to think differently about what it is we are actually trying to label. ‘Stuff’ is much less specific than ‘text’, ‘image’, ‘object’ or ‘landscape’, but that is exactly the point: we don’t study each of those things in isolation any more. I can see how this technique might be useful in my own research. Whilst investigating the economic situation in the 1690s, I’ve come to the conclusion these were simply ‘hard times’. This phrase neatly includes all of the economic problems of this decade – increasing fiscal demands, war-time trade disruption, liquidity crisis, food price inflation, etc. – and, at the same time, reminds us that many people experienced these problems as a general calamity, not as separate challenges to be dealt with independently.

Dead people - Collier_-_Vanitas_-_Still_Life

Stuff

Second, using words like these has the advantage of making us much more understandable. ‘Dead people’ is a phrase that makes sense to everyone, whereas terms such as ‘historical actors’ or ‘active historical agents’ are not quite as obvious. Historians seem to be less intoxicated by technical jargon than many of our fellow academics.1 Nonetheless, there is still plenty of needlessly abstract, obscure vocabulary that could be profitably chucked. Replacing some of our quasi-scientific jargon words with more ‘vulgar’ alternatives would make it much easier to have the sort of fruitful conversations with non-academics that we all claim to want.

These two potential benefits – challenging outdated thinking habits and opening up scholarly discussions – seem to me to be reason enough consider how you might be able to do this in your own work. Perhaps the study of ‘dead people’s stuff’ won’t catch on, but it’s a great excuse to think hard about the words we use.

Footnote

1 One need only dip into a typical book of literary criticism or sociology to realise that it would have been much more difficult for Sokal to persuade a historical journal to publish his balderdash than it was for him to convince Social Text.

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Examining the question and questioning the exam

Brodie Waddell

Tyler Cowen, a well-known blogger and economist at George Mason University, once tried a rather unusual approach to examining.

[He] walked into class the day of the final exam and said, “Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.” Then he walked out.

The result, according to Cowen?

I would say that the variance of the test scores probably increased! I don’t recall if I ever did that again for a whole exam but most of my exams do that for at least one question.  It’s the question where you learn the most about the student.

With exam season now upon us, I’ve been mulling this over. I suspect the Birkbeck exam scrutiny panel wouldn’t like Cowen’s approach, but I think it could have real value. It would at least be a nice change from the usual drudgery of wading through 10 or 20 or even 50 answers to exactly the same question.

More to the point, it led me to think about some of the more unusual exam questions I’ve encountered over the years. The only one that strikes me as unconventional is one from Cambridge a few years ago for the early modern British social and economic history survey module:

Were any women and men practising witchcraft in early modern England?

Although it might not seem especially strange to a historian of the period, I suspect that laypeople would be alarmed to hear that Cambridge students were being examined on the existence of witches.

Do you have a favourite (or hated) history exam question?

[Update (15/05/13): Kate Beaton, creator of ‘Hark, a vagrant’, offers an Elizabeth I quiz and a 1066 quiz that include such key questions as ‘Whither the Armada?’ and ‘How much Conquering is too much Conquering?’]

A post written in the stars

Laura Sangha

According to my horoscope, consulted on the website of a popular entertainment magazine, this will be a good week for me. With six planets in my sign, I’m ‘the one to watch!’. I might be feeling the pressure, but before the week is out, ‘luck will come’. Excellent news, I am sure you will agree. Look in most entertainment magazines and tabloid papers and you would hardly be surprised to find the similar revelations in the stars, tucked away somewhere between the week’s television and the latest suduko. You might be more interested to discover that, unlike wikipedia currently suggests, astrology did not gain broader consumer popularity through the influence of ‘regular mass media products’ in the twentieth century, but in fact had a ‘popular’ following many centuries before then.

The search for order and meaning in the sky is, of course, ancient. No one would deny that there is an obvious link between the sun and events on earth. As winter finally loosens its grip here in the UK you might be particularly aware of this right now. The northern hemisphere is slowly exposed to more direct sunlight because of the tilt of the earth’s axis, the days lengthen, the altitude of the sun changes, the sun feels hotter. As a result, animals change their behaviour, plants and trees burst into life, and Brits start donning shorts and having shivery picnics at the seaside.

A diagram of the heavens from a 1613 almanac.The evident link between the celestial bodies and terrestrial events was no less obvious to our forebears, and it led very naturally to an interest in the heavens. It was common to wonder how else the celestial bodies might influence life on earth. Lunar cycles were being recorded on cave walls as early as 25,000 years ago; the first organised system of astrology arose in the second millennium BC in Babylon; it was developed by the Greeks and Romans, and refined by Arabic practitioners. By the early modern period it was a very well established scholarly tradition, backed up by scriptural references: Jesus’ birth was of course marked by the appearance of a new star in the sky that the wise men followed to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-2), and at the beginning of the world ‘God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years’ (Genesis 1:14).

Thomas Blount gave a neat early modern definition in his 1656 Glossographia or a Dictionary (and note Blount’s qualification which preserves God’s omnipotence as well as man’s free will):

Astrology: Astrology is a Science which tels the Reasons of the Stars and Planets motions. Astrology doth promise by the motion and influence of Stars and Planets to foretel things to come, or it professeth to discover the influence and domination of the superior Globe over the inferior, and therefore may be tearmed a kind of natural divination, so long as it keeps it self in due limits, and arrogates not too much to its certainty; into which excess if it once break forth, it can then be no longer called natural Divination, but superstitious and wicked; for the Stars may incline, but not impose a necessity in particular things.

The characters of the xii signes... so that every man will understand them.

The characters of the xii signes… so that every man will understand them.

Natural astrology was concerned with the general character of planetary influences in such fields as agriculture and medicine; judicial astrology was the attempt to interpret these influences to make prediction and give advice (so tabloid stars are an example of this). Mastery of the science of astrology took skill and was intellectually demanding, and as a result, sixteenth-century astrology tended to be the domain of the learned and elite members of society. In seventeenth-century England however, this began to change, as a result of the emergence of handbooks which set out the basic rules of astrology and the rise of the ‘almanac’. Sorry wikipedia, but popular knowledge of the science was therefore probably greater in the Tudor and Stuart period than ever before or since.

The anatomy of a mans body, as the parts thereof are governed by the 12 celestial signs

The anatomy of a mans body, as the parts thereof are governed by the 12 celestial signs.

An almanac was an annual, short, cheap publication with a range of material in it. It fulfilled a variety of roles, offering religious, moral, practical as well as astrological advice. Usually the first section had a calendar and details of planetary motions and conjunctions. Along with the prognostications, there was often also an ‘Anatomy’ or ‘zodiacal man’, as well as information on local fairs, highways, the phases of the moon, feast days, medical and farming advice. Often almanacs had a secondary role as a notebook or diary (look at the front of your diary, mine still has ‘useful information’ including astronomical information), and therefore they were worth hanging on to, and many survive, luckily for us. Bernard Capp[1] has shown that the genre allowed astrology to take on a new social dimension. They served as handbooks that set out the basic rules to astrology in a clear and simple manner, for use by all sorts of people, from peers to serving-maids. Astrological terms passed into common usage: think ‘jovial’, ‘lunatic’, ‘mercurial’. And almanacs were really the starting point for this post – I was idling browsing a few from spring 1613, exactly 400 years ago, wondering what sort of things were going on back then, and I thought it would be an excellent idea to share some of that advice with monster readers, to set them up for the summer.[2] Enjoy!

WARNING: This stuff is a bit dated, for the most cutting edge advice you should probably turn to biodynamic gardening, where ‘gardeners plough, prepare, sow, plant, harvest and compost according to the phases of the moon and the constellations (signs) it passes through’.

1613 HISTORY: How many years is it since….

Frontispiece to John Woodhouse's alamanac for 1613.

Frontispiece to John Woodhouse’s alamanac for 1613.

  • The world began: 5562
  • Noah’s flood: 3906
  • Conquest of the Romans: 1664
  • Coming of the Saxons: 1163
  • Coming of the Danes: 774
  • Conquest of the Normans: 546
  • The Battle at Agincourt: 197
  • Printing first used: 153 [1460]
  • The first use of coaches in England: 58
  • Pauls Steeple burned with lightening: 52
  • The rebellion in the North: 44 [a reference to the 1569 Rebellion of the Northern Earls in reign of Elizabeth I]
  • The great snow: 34
  • The general earthquake: 33 [also known as the Dover Straits earthquake, 1580]
  • Tilburie Campe: 25 [a reference to the Spanish Armada, 1588]

PRACTICAL ADVICE:

What phase of the moon should I….

  • Cut hedges? Between the change and the full, from the end of Jan till the beginning of June
  • Geld cattle? In Aries, Libra and Sagittarius, the moon being past the full
  • ‘Dung land’ that weeds may not abound? In the old of the moon

How can I tell if there will be rain or foule weather?

If the sun is fiery at his rising. If he rise and a little after be covered with great black clouds. If the horns of the new moon are blunt. When bells are heard further than usual. When wainscot doors and wooden coverings open straighter than of custom. When swine and peacocks make a great noise. When birds be busy in washing themselves. Moles behaving busily. Cattle eating greedily, and licking their hooves.

What should I be doing in the outdoors at the moment?

Working outside? You'll want to know when it will be light then.

Working outside? You’ll want to know when it will be light then.

In April you should sow barley, hemp, and flax, and some of your garden seeds, as cowcumbers, citrons, melons and artichokes. Good housewives should now begin to be busy about their Dairies, and tanners to pill barke.

In May you should sow barley, set and sow tender herbs and seeds, set stills to work, stir land for wheat and rye, stop lopping trees, weed winter corn, teach hops to climb, but cut off the superfluous branches, and watch your bees.

More generally, cold will diminish and living creatures will begin to recover their strength lost over the winter. Soon the earth will put on her new yearly ornaments, beasts, fowls and birds will make harmony.

When and where can I go to a fayre?

There are too many to mention, but on 1 May try Leicester, Brickhill, Reading, Warwick, Maidstone, Lichfield and Stanstead. On the 3 May try Waltham Abbey, Cowbridge, Benbigh, Knighton. In Rogation week: Beverly, Engfield, Horsham. On Ascension Day: Kidderminster, Bishops-Stratford, Wigan, Burton, Bridgend.

MORAL ADVICE: What good deeds shall I do this season?

The deeds of hospitality would be useful: feed the hungry, cloth the naked, be good to the widow and the fatherless. Remember:

Hast thou 2 Loafs, 2 Coats, give one of each
To him that pines and starves (I thee beseech)
Alas! (Rich man) thou know’st not what thy
May come unto, when thou art dead and gone.
Farmers! give th’ poor some corn. Shepherds give
Some cloth the back, some fill the Belly full
Doctors, give Physick for mere Charity:
Millers, be sure ye grind their Corn toll-free.

HEALTH

April is a good month to have a spring clean – not only of your house, but also of your body. It is the fittest time of year to ease diseased bodies, and to restore by means of evacuation and blood letting. Remember with this simple rhyme:

Learn the most ausipcious times to let blood with this simple guide.

Learn the most auspicious times to let blood with this simple guide.

This month all things their strength renew,
by letting of blood, you shall not rue
The pores open and blood abounds,
or purging, also no harme redounds.

And finally, beware. The sicknesses of spring are melancholy, madness, the falling sickness, nosebleeds, coughs, itch, scabs, ulcers , gout, pain in the joints, and also, ‘some strange diseases’….


[1] Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press (London, 1979).

[2] The extracts are taking from the following almanacs: John Dade, A new almanacke and prognostication, 1613; John Johnson, An almanacke and prognostication for this yeere of our lord and sauiour Iesus Christ 1613; William Mathew, 1613 a new almanacke and prognostication, for the yeare of our Lord God; John Woodhouse, A plaine almanacke and prognostication, 1613; John Bucknall, The Shepherds Almanack, being a diary or register for the year 1676.