Imagining the Past

Mark Hailwood

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‘Tis ale good and new

So, I recently had the chance to pop into a seventeenth-century alehouse for a quick beer – not a bad way to mark the publication of the paperback of my book on the subject, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was during a recent trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex with our Women’s Work Project team, which gave us the chance to recreate some early modern work activities, and in a spare half hour at the end of our visit I took the chance to visit the rescued seventeenth-century cottage that the museum thinks might have served as an alehouse in that period.

As I sat in front of the fireplace at the alebench with my quart in hand I tried to conjure up in my mind the other elements that would have filled out this scene four centuries ago. What sounds would have filled the place – what conversations and songs? What smells would have filled the air – the wood smoke, baking pies? Who might have been there? What would they have looked like, been wearing… smelt like? What bawdy or godly ballads might have been pasted up on the wall? How would the beer have tasted? What would the toilet facilities have been like? I tried to imaginatively immerse myself in a seventeenth-century alehouse scene.

The challenge of recapturing these sensory and experiential components of the past is something I have often blogged about, and this trip was obviously a stimulating one in bringing these issues to the forefront of my mind. But as I sat there in the alehouse mining my imagination I reflected that this process of imagining the past isn’t only triggered by being in an immersive environment like this one. It is something we all do all the time – just not as explicitly and self-consciously as we do when visiting a living history museum.

Every time I read a deposition I see the scene described, or at least various elements of it, playing out in my mind’s eye – and whilst some of the details are provided directly by the account, others are filled in by my imagination. It is not unlike the process that occurs when reading a work of literature or listening to a radio play. Characters and settings begin to take shape. Sometimes I’m picturing a witness’s face as they nervously provide their testimony to an intimidating magistrate sat behind his huge desk in the hall of his manor house. Other times I’m seeing the accused crouched, creeping into a close, and hurriedly grasping and making off with a startled sheep. Depositions, with their explicit relaying of events, might particularly encourage this process, but whether we are reading correspondence or a printed account of a naval battle, surely we all hold an image in our heads whilst we read them that is not always directly described in the source itself: we see a letter writer at their desk, or ships burning in the moonlight.

Imagining the past in this way is something all historians do all of the time. But is it a part of our craft that we are we sufficiently reflective or explicit about? In her brilliant Conviction blog Helen Rogers lays bare the imaginative work that is inherent to the way we connect with and interpret our sources, but I would suggest that most of us do this in a way that is either more subconscious, or simply more submerged in the history we end up writing. Either way, for me it’s a problem that we don’t talk about and interrogate this crucial process more. How might we?

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Wolf Hall: feeding our imaginations

I started by pushing myself to think about where I draw the ‘imagined’ elements of my virtual scenes of the past from. Given that I have never seen an actual seventeenth-century alehouse scene in action where does my raw material for recreating it in my mind come from? We might like to think we are only drawing directly on descriptive passages in the sources we are reading, but that isn’t how imaginations work in practice, and rarely do our sources describe every detail, every sight and sound, that our imagined scene involves. My recent visits to the Weald & Downland Museum have now provided me with a rich seam to mine, as has the excellent BBC TV series Tudor Monastery Farm that was filmed there. These have done a great deal to provide me with a way of picturing the physical environment of a seventeenth-century alehouse or cottage, and I’m sure visits to country houses and the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall feed the imaginations of many a Tudor political historian. And then there is literature – evocative alehouse scenes from Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge and Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford help to people the scene and provide a framework for imagining alehouse interactions, atmospheres and songs. And then of course the tavern scene paintings of Dutch Masters serve as a fecund repository for visualising these spaces.

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David Teniers the Younger’s ‘Tavern Scene’, 1658

So, these are just a few examples that come quickly to mind – but none of them can be considered entirely unproblematic. Living history museums and TV are interpretations, often based on incomplete sources. Nothing wrong with that – that’s history – but shouldn’t I be interrogating their accuracy like any other source before I allow them to occupy my imaginative space? Of course, I don’t engage with their representations uncritically, but in the moment of instinctively picturing an alehouse interior as I read a deposition some elements that I have not directly verified inevitably slip through the net. And then take the Dutch Masters. I have blogged before about what these paintings may or may not be able to reveal to social historians, but I wouldn’t claim to have any art history expertise in the genre so my analysis is likely to be limited (reading suggestions very welcome here). Again, then, the fuel that fires my imagination is arguably being subjected to lower standards of scrutiny than the sources I consider myself to be directly working on.

Does this matter? Can, or should, we expect anything else from the imagination? I think what we imagine obviously matters. If the alehouse scene that our mind conjures up is, say, a cosy one – with grinning friends, merrily tipsy, huddled around the warmth of the fire, this might incline us to read a thinly detailed account of a fight breaking out between drinkers as a transgressive act that disrupts and departs from the prevailing atmosphere of camaraderie. If, however, our imagined alehouse is a gloomy, drafty, spit-and-sawdust environment, populated with tired, heavily drunken strangers, we might interpret the same bare-bones description of the altercation as a reflection of a prevailing atmosphere of hostility and unease. What the fight tells us about the culture in which it took place – what it means – would be heavily influenced by how we imagined the scene in which it took place. That seems to be a good enough reason to think more carefully about the process of imagining the past.

So, I want to know what people think about this process. Obviously some historians – those working on material culture, or the senses, for instance – might see this is something they are very explicitly engaged in in some way. But surely we all do it. Is it something you do, and reflect on, very consciously? Or do you read your sources without recreating their scenes in your mind at all? Am I just being a bad historian, and everyone else has well-developed techniques for imagining the past, and clear philosophies on this part of the historians craft? I’m imagining you sat at your desk, your typing fingers twitching, and then heading straight for the comments section…

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6 thoughts on “Imagining the Past

  1. I think this is a really good point.
    I imagine we draw on our own experiences to imagine ones we read about and this must have an impact on our interpretations.
    Just to take the sensory information you mentioned, when I lived in India for a while, an Indian who’d travelled a lot in the UK told me he didn’t really like the fact it didn’t smell. And India does indeed hit you with a lot more smells – partly because it’s hot. But there were also vegetable peelings in heaps in the street, people with no access to toilets who had to use the stream or the square of grass near our flat. People sleeping on the pavement or in the shops. When it got chilly they lit wood braziers to keep warm. People hawked ripe fruit and roasting peanuts on barrows. It really smelt (good and often very bad, but that man was right, smell is a wonderful thing). And although I’d read a million times about some of these smells and sights in England of the past, it was just so many words. But when I saw it in a modern context, even with its differences (of course I’m not equating modern India with Britain of the past)- I suddenly thought ‘oh, that stuff was real’ – it became understandable, I got it.
    It made me realise how little I’d really understood before, it was all just words. And how little I must still understand. And I am very curious about it and wish we had invented some form of communication which dealt in other things than language, sound or vision. Something less intellectual.
    If dogs were scholars, they would have sorted this by now…

    • ‘If dogs were scholars…’ Not a sentence you read every day! That has certainly got my imagination going…

      Thanks for your comment, it is a really good point you raise about smells. I think your comment about needing to actually experience an environment replete with smells for the words to really hit home is crucial – historians need to do more than just read about the sights, smells and sounds of the past to be able to fully appreciate their impact on peoples’ experiences in the past. Whilst we can never recreate those things exactly I do think there is an important role to be played by historical recreation here.

  2. Plenty to think about here, but the first thing that occured to me was the way that the importance of imagination in history writing varies a lot by genre. Presumably more ‘macro’ genres such as textbooks and global histories could be written without much recourse to imagination, whereas famously ‘microhistorians’ like Natalie Zemon Davis argue that imagination is not only allowable but essential to the sorts of stories they tell. Does that make sense or am I makinng unfair assumptions?

    • I think the degree to which imagination is deployed by historians does vary by genre, yes, but part of my point is that it is a mistake to only associate the kind of imaginative work I discuss with the most explicit and self-conscious contexts of its use. I would argue that even when you are reading or writing an overview of, say, economic growth across the early modern period, you still conjure up a series of images in your mind – does your mind’s eye picture a bustling port, or an industrious weaver… or a money lending spinster? The image on the front of a textbook, for instance, often ‘sets the scene’ for what is described within and shapes the way we think about that content.

      Even if you are working through poor relief accounts and extracting monetary values from them it seems likely, to me, that you will make a series of ‘imaginative associations’, more or less consciously, about the context in which they were produced – a panel of bearded householders sat behind a table evaluating petitioners, or a widow nervously approaching the church porch – which inform the way we interpret material and what we chose to do with it. So, I’d argue that whatever we work on historians are always fleshing out our understanding of the past with imaginative work that we are not always sufficiently reflective about.

      • Yes, good points. I agree that anytime were are reading primary sources and figuring out how to interpret them we are using our imagination. Perhaps the tendency to do ‘unimaginative’ (or at least ‘less imaginative’ history) is related to the fact that certain genres have less contact with the primary sources than others. Maybe if relying on a quantitive dataset and trying to use it to come up with a quantifiable conclusion, it becomes possible to ‘forget’ that figures extracted from the lives of real people and thus possible to avoid imagining the situation/context? I think I’ve noticed myself doing this sometimes when working away on a spreadsheet.

  3. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #24 | Whewell's Ghost

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