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mediated or formalised, yes, but he argues that this should not blind us to the enormous importance of these valuable historical documents.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.
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
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.
It is, in many ways, an unremarkable document. Tens of thousands of such pleading letters survive in county record offices across England. But one thing makes it unusual. Thanks to my transcription above, Elizabeth Snow’s letter can now be read by anyone with an internet connection. The thousands of others remain buried, unheard, in their clean, grey cardboard boxes.
If we hope to expand ‘history from below’ to include histories for the people and histories by the people, we need to make it less difficult to unearth these voices.
We need to make grave-robbing easier.
Recording the voices of the people
It is not difficult to hear the voices of the powerful and the eminent. Words uttered or written by kings, politicians and celebrities resound loudly in the historical record. They echo down to us in cheap paperbacks, magazine articles, television documentaries and innumerable websites devoted to ‘famous quotes’. Like it or not, we’ll never escape the words of men like Churchill and Shakespeare.
The voices of ‘the people’ are more faint and distant.
This is not from lack of documentation. It may be nearly impossible to find the words of peasants in the early middle ages or slaves in the colonial West Indies, but this was no longer true of ‘the common people’ of England by the seventeenth century.
Their words have survived in vast numbers. They were recorded in large collections of petitionary letters like Elizabeth Snow’s. For example, Jonathan Healey has found about 4,000 pauper petitions addressed to the magistrates of seventeenth-century Lancashire. The words of poor men and women can be also found in hundreds of thousands of depositions before English legal tribunals, including local, central and church courts. Alexandra Shepard used over 13,000 witness statements in her recent book on the early modern social order and Andy Wood consulted around 20,000 depositions for his study of The Memory of the People. On a much smaller scale, undistinguished individuals also left behind a handful of diaries, notebooks and autobiographies. The most well-known example is probably the London artisan Nehemiah Wallington who filled 50 volumes with his scribblings, but he was not alone. For instance, I’ve written before about the eleven volumes of notes left by the Essex woolcomber Joseph Bufton.
None of these sources are straightforward transcripts of the thoughts of ordinary people. As Jonathan Healey points out in his contribution to this symposium, petitions and depositions were nearly always written by a scribe and follow restrictive conventions. Even diaries tended to obey certain rules of the genre. As such, they are mediated, rhetorical narratives rather than precise records of a spoken comment or conversation. Despite this, I believe that such letters, depositions and other sources still capture the echo of past voices too rarely heard today. Although always selective and sometimes carefully reshaped, each document represents a tale told by someone who would otherwise likely be condemned to silence.
The problem, then, is not a lack of records or their formalised nature. The problem is the tiny number of us who can access them.
For Elizabeth Snow, the intended listeners were ‘John Elwell Esquire & the rest of the Honourable Bench’ – that is to say, the justices of the peace presiding over the Devon quarter sessions court of April 1692.
In one sense, this is what makes these documents so valuable to scholars interested in the voices of the people. Petitions and depositions were the means by which the opinions of people who were officially ‘voiceless’ – lacking any formal political power or vote – could be expressed and heard. Although the authorities were never required to grant the request or credit their testimony, they were expected to at least hear the individual out. This was, then, one of the primary means by which ‘the ruled’ could use their voices to influence ‘the rulers’.
Three hundred and twenty years later, I picked up this petition from the stack of papers and – just like the Devon magistrates before me – read the words of Elizabeth Snow. Though not her intended audience, I was glad to find it. My photograph of her desperate plea will be filed away on my computer, probably to be pulled out later to be – at best – cited in an article as an interesting example or – at worst – merely added to a figure in a spreadsheet. Elizabeth’s voice is heard once more, by a single scholar, and then essentially silenced yet again.
Amplifying the voices of the people
If we aim to recover the words of ordinary people and to integrate them into the historical record, we can and should do more. We shouldn’t merely listen for these voices ourselves and perhaps pass on a snippet to our academic readers through a quotation in a scholarly article, accessible only to well-funded subscribers.
If we want the voices of ‘the people’ to be heard by the wider world, we need to start freely sharing our sources. We need to make it possible for practically anyone to hear Elizabeth’s complaint.
The most well-known attempt to do this is the Old Bailey Online, which offers extensive transcripts of courtroom testimony from the 1670s onwards. This is now supported by London Lives which includes hundreds of roughly transcribed petitions and depositions alongside a mountain of other documents recording the words of ordinary Londoners. Because the texts have been typed and made freely available online, readers don’t need to travel to the archives or decipher early modern handwriting in order to use them. Together, these form an exemplary resource that has been extraordinarily successful in enabling students and the broader public to read the words of criminals, paupers and other rarely-quoted individuals.
However, to my mind, just as important are much smaller-scale projects which give us access to other fascinating caches of documents. Though labour intensive, websites like these don’t require a large government grant to get started. For example, Sharon Howard’s engrossing collection of defamation cases records the insults that women and men shouted at each other in late seventeenth-century Yorkshire. Likewise, Marine Lives has enlisted volunteers to transcribe over 6,000 pages of witness statements from sailors and other Londoners in the High Court of Admiralty in the 1650s. By relying on crowd-sourcing, this project also created its own community of users familiar with the characters whose voices populated the records. Here is ‘history from below’ at its best.
What makes these various projects so valuable is their accessibility. They are free. They are online. They are searchable. They are readable.
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The ‘humble petition’ of Elizabeth Snow allows us hear, for the first time in over three centuries, the words of a poor but articulate widow asking for her freedom. Such documents are numerous and invaluable. Collectively, they can reveal the complaints and concerns of otherwise ‘voiceless’ people such as prisoners, servants, sailors and paupers.
They are, in fact, too important to be left buried in a box in the archives, taken out on rare occasions to be read by an academic like me. These documents deserve to be truly public, open to anyone. Only then will we all be able to hear Elizabeth Snow and thousands of other forgotten individuals speak once again.