Imagining early modern working women, or, economic history’s image problem

Brodie Waddell

In 1658, the Czech scholar John Amos Comenius published what’s been called ‘the first children’s picture book’. It proved extremely popular and was republished many times, in many different languages. What brought it to my attention was the fact that it included 150 pictures of ‘the visible world’, a rare treat in an early modern publication.

It was designed to teach Latin and, in the 1705 edition, English to young people, so most of its illustrations depicted the sorts of things a child might be expected to know from life. They would find, for example, pictures of youth at study and at play, stilt-walking or bowling.

At school and at playHowever, the ones that caught my eye were the many illustrations of working life. If you, like me, teach or write about early modern economic history, you’ll know that this particular subfield has an ‘image problem’. Perhaps thanks to a strong seam of ‘iconophobic’ Calvinism, post-Reformation England was not exactly awash in imagery of any kind and I have often found it particularly difficult to find images of economic life. One can find many pictures of kings and noblemen. But there are frustratingly few depictions of ordinary people doing their jobs, whether as artisans, traders or labourers. This gap is partly filled by the broadside ballad woodcuts on EBBA that Mark Hailwood has discussed here before. However, it remains difficult to find the sort of rich visual material that one can find, for instance, in Dutch ‘Golden Age’ paintings or in nineteenth-century periodicals. Continue reading

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Thinking about doing a PhD: who, where and how?

Brodie Waddell

Over the past few months, I’ve been getting some enquires from people thinking about doing a PhD in history. I’ve found myself repeating the same thing in many cases, so I thought I’d set it out here in case it’s helpful for current MA students thinking about the possibility. In most cases, there are important personal factors to consider, but I think there are a few pieces of advice that apply more generally.

Note, however, that as an ‘early career’ academic, there is still plenty that I’m learning about the whole process, despite having finished my own PhD over five years ago. Your own thoughts would be very welcome.

Don’t do it!

When a PhD goes horribly wrong, it often turns into a nightmarish snake-cat that stalks you in the library...

When a PhD goes horribly wrong, it often turns into a nightmarish snake-cat that stalks you in the library…

Obviously I don’t believe that or I wouldn’t be writing this post, but I think there are lots of good reasons to not do a PhD right now, the most important being the terrible job market for new humanities PhDs. As innumerable blog posts and articles have said before: even if you are extremely smart, original, hard-working and self-sacrificing, there is a decent chance that you won’t be able to find a permanent academic job. If you are aware of that, and want to do a PhD anyway – perhaps because you’re not doing it to get an academic job, or perhaps because you are young, carefree and willing to roll the dice – then please read on… Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part V: A defence of microhistory

Brodie Waddell

The life of Joseph Bufton is unlikely to ever appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography amongst their nearly 60,000 ‘men and women who have shaped British history’. The only history that he shaped was his own.

Reduced to its essentials, his life is hardly worth writing about. As I’ve discussed in my previous posts, he was born in the small town of Coggeshall in 1650 and died in the village of Castle Hedingham, twelve miles down the road, in 1718. He spent nearly all of his sixty-eight years on this earth in north-eastern Essex. As far as we can tell, he never held any position of political or religious authority, never produced any works of artistic or literary merit, and never even married or had children.

The King and Nortern-man ballad - Crawford_1_1188_2448x2448So why should anyone care about Bufton? One might say that we should simply care about everyone equally: does not the humble ploughman in the field deserve as much attention from historians as the king on his throne? The king may have ruled vast tracts of land, but his territories would have been worthless to him if the ploughman hadn’t supplied him with bread. However, our knowledge of the life of a ploughman is usually limited to a few lines in a parish register listing a baptism, a marriage and a burial. We encounter no such difficulty with kings.

Joseph Bufton, like a ploughman, earned his bread by the sweat of his brow. Yet unlike most ordinary people of the time, he left to posterity eleven volumes crammed with his scribblings. These little notebooks offer us glimpses of a life lived in humble obscurity, a life that would otherwise be almost entirely lost to us. Continue reading