Seventeenth-century England: A Symposium to celebrate Professor Bernard Capp’s 50 Years at Warwick

Laura Sangha

On Saturday 20 October I had the great pleasure of returning to my alma mater to attend ‘Seventeenth-Century England’, a symposium to mark and celebrate Professor Bernard Capp’s fifty years at the University of Warwick. All of the many-headed monster co-authors were fortunate enough to benefit from Bernard’s advice and knowledge when we were postgraduates at Warwick in the 2000s, so this review of the Symposium is our way of joining the chorus of congratulations and commendations that characterised the day.

Fifty years’ service.

Professor Capp was appointed as Lecturer in History in 1968, when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, the Kray twins were arrested, the M1 was completed, and the Race Relations Act was passed. The University of Warwick had admitted its first undergraduates just four years earlier.

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Alexandra Walsham exhorting us to undertake our own ‘generation work’

Whilst at Warwick Professor Capp became established as one of the leading historians of early modern England, his teaching and publications demonstrating an extraordinary breadth of research interests and expertise. The Symposium organisers, Peter Marshall and Naomi Pullin, did an excellent job of creating a programme that gave space to all the themes that underpin this work. Many papers explored gendered aspects of the seventeenth-century as well as the ‘religious marketplace’ of the age. Amanda Flather discussed the impact of Laudian ceremonialism on women worshippers, explaining how matters of conscience could be corrosive of female obedience. Tim Reinke-Williams regaled us with the masculine ‘banter’ of the early modern jestbook and laid bare the emotions that structured them. Ann Hughes’ paper on dissenting culture in Restoration England revealed the ways that religion connected single women to broad social networks and kinship. Hughes’ focus on the Gell family of Hopton Hall and the siblings in the family connected neatly to Alexandra Walsham’s paper on the ‘revolutionary generation’ of the 1640s and in particular the Fifth Monarchy Men, religious radicals bonded in solidarity by their conception of Christian history and the conviction that they were the ones to carry out a turbulent age’s vital ‘generation work’.

Flather’s and Reinke-Williams’ papers introduced the theme of sexual reputation, a subject which also featured prominently in Richard Blakemore’s talk on seafarers, state and society. Everyone is familiar with the trope of the drunken, promiscuous sailor, but Blakemore was able to demonstrate the complexity of the composite identities of seafarers, and once again familial ties and religious conviction came to the fore. Richard Cust’s paper on the county of Cheshire also focused on the Civil Wars period, reconstructing how this county community imagined itself and how notions of hierarchy, valour, loyalty and service might have fed into the turmoil of the 1640s. From brothers in arms to brothers with pens, Angela McShane plunged us into the dynamic and ever shifting world of ballad cultures, using the cultural amphibian John Taylor (the water poet) as our guide to the ‘naughty, thrilling and disreputable’ world of seventeenth-century print culture. From there we returned to dry land and entered the equally excitable world of early modern science, as Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin walked us through the metallurgy workshops of London. With a nod to Bernard’s work on another science (astrology) Kilburn-Toppin explored how these sites brought together craft, commercial and experimental knowledge and firmly established their importance an important feature of the scientific landscape.

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Lively debate was the order of the day. (L to R) Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin, Angela McShane, Catherine Armstong, Robert Daniel.

Together, the papers epitomise Bernard’s remarkable career, which embraces social, cultural, religious, political and maritime history. But that is only half of the story. For the Symposium was also a chance for colleagues and students (some current, some former) to come together to show their appreciation for Bernard’s exceptional service and diligence, and to acknowledge the debt that they owe to him. All the speakers began by explaining their own reasons for being there and most of the people in the audience could have joined in. For those who were students when they entered into Bernard’s orbit, his generosity with sharing the fruits of his own research is renowned – from a reference slipped into a pigeon hole to an email about a possible document of interest. (I myself received numerous tips on angels when I was researching my PhD and quite a few found their way into chapter 6). So it wasn’t just the ‘Cappites’ – as Bernard’s doctoral students are collectively known – that benefited from his academic expertise at Warwick, but anyone whose research he had knowledge of.

What’s more, as was also mentioned many times throughout the day, Bernard is a model of collegiality, and one that I certainly tried to emulate as I built my own academic career. Chatting to members of the History department in the breaks, all mentioned that Bernard’s experience and wisdom has been much missed in staff meetings since his retirement (as Emeritus Professor Bernard’s role is now chiefly as a tutor). On many occasions I paid close attention as Bernard posed questions after a seminar paper, noting his skill in crafting a query that could be critical, but was always constructive and framed in a helpful and considerate manner and tone. I remember once reading in the student paper a letter that Bernard had written in response to student calls to scrap reading week in order to increase contact hours. It said something along the lines of ‘I remember when students were campaigning to introduce a reading week to give them more time to complete their essays …’. Of course, in sharing this experience Bernard honed in on the relationship between prevailing discourses in higher education and how these shape the way degrees are structured and delivered. And it would be remiss of me not to mention the time I bumped into Bernard near the union on a sunny afternoon after the exams were over for the year. ‘I’ve just been to watch the students breakdancing,’ he said. ‘And…?’ I asked. ‘Yes, very good’.

That isn’t just an anecdote to make you smile. For all of these attributes are what makes Bernard such an important professional inspiration for me and many others. I can’t live up to the example he sets but I always have it in mind. I also try to contribute sensible and measured comments in departmental discussions. I too send people references when I stumble across them. I attempt to think carefully about how to pose questions to speakers. I read the student paper avidly and strive not to become too divorced from students’ lives, because it helps me to connect with them in the classroom. And I’ve no doubt that countless others across the last fifty years have also used Bernard as an example of the type of colleague and scholar that they would like to become.

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(L to R) Amanda Flather, Richard Blakemore, Me, the Great Man Himself

There’s one final Symposium paper that I haven’t mentioned yet, and that’s because I wanted to end with it. Catherine Armstrong’s paper on maps of North America created for an English audience invited us to think about the attitudes that they revealed – fear, wonder, perhaps hesitation at first, but increasing confidence as time went on. The paper pointed to the course that Bernard is plotting in his latest research, which is towards the wider world, for he is working on English slaves in North Africa, captured and sold by the Barbary corsairs. Lots of us are eagerly awaiting the results.

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