About Brodie Waddell

Brodie is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London.

The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England: The Long Road to a New Project

Brodie Waddell

How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to create a petition or supplication. Even today, every year hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens sign e-petitions addressed to parliament which can lead directly to high-profile debates in the House of Commons.

In seventeenth-century England, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard. Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; others were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and also offer a unique means to map the structures of authority that framed early modern society …

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That was our pitch to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a grant of nearly £250,000. To my surprise and delight, they liked it.

So, from January 2019, I’ll be running a project looking at ‘the power of petitioning in seventeenth century England’. The co-investigator is Jason Peacey at UCL and we will hire a full-time postdoctoral research associate for twelve months as well. There will be much more information available once we have the project website up and running, but in the meantime I thought I’d announce it here and explain how it came to be. I hope it might be useful, or at least interesting, to other scholars thinking about their own projects. Continue reading

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A Page in the Life of John Dane: A Tailor Tempted by Dancing

[In our series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell offers a glimpse of the autobiography of a tradesman and emigrant who struggled to resist a variety of worldly temptations.]

Around the year 1630, a headstrong young tailor named John Dane decided to defy his godly parents and ‘went to a dansing scoll to larne to dans’. When his father found out, he was soundly beaten. So, Dane resolved to leave the family home behind and set out across Hertfordshire.

When he sat down to write his autobiography over fifty years later, he described what happened next: Continue reading

A Page in the Life of Anna Margaretta Larpent: Reading about Revolution and Writing about Writing

[In our series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Emily Vine examines the daily records of a remarkably busy woman in late eighteenth-century London.]

From 1773 to 1830, Anna Margaretta Larpent, the wife of John Larpent, Examiner of Plays, kept a diary of her daily life divided between Newman Street, London and Ashtead in Surrey. She recorded the time she woke up and went to bed each day, the meals she ate, the details of the books she read, the letters she wrote, her daily prayers, her time spent sewing and shopping, her family business, and her significant contribution to her husband’s work in theatre licensing. The delight is in the detail; even in predictable repetitions such as ‘Rose at 8. Breakfasted. Prayed’, Larpent is brought to life on every page.

In the first week of February 1792, she recorded the following: Continue reading

A Page in the Life of Jacob Bee: Four Kirkings and a Funeral

[In our series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell introduces us to another ‘chronicler’ who appears his new article on ‘Writing History from Below’ in early modern England.]

Jacob Bee was a glover and skinner who lived out his whole life in the city of Durham. Over the course of about twenty-five years, beginning in 1681, he filled a notebook with records of the births, deaths and marriages of his fellow townspeople. Bee also kept a patchy chronicle of notable local and national events, including a prize fight in the town’s marketplace and the execution of the Rye House Plot conspirators in 1683.

Intermixed with his historical register were a few pages of rather scrappy financial accounts. The most detailed and consistent fit on a single page and ran from January to March 1689: Continue reading

A Page in the Life of Joseph Bufton: Murder, Robbery and New Church Pews

[In our series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell introduces us to the main character in his new article on ‘Writing History from Below’ in early modern England.]

Between 1679 and 1699, an inconsequential tradesman named Joseph Bufton kept a chronicle of his town of Coggeshall in Essex. He wrote it in the blank pages of an old almanac, Rider’s 1677 British Merlin, in which he also recorded notes about local births, deaths, marriages and various other miscellaneous memorandums.

Between printed pages listing the saints’ days and predicting the weather in November, Bufton inscribed the events from late 1684 to early 1686 that he considered worthy of remembrance: Continue reading

A Page in the Life

Brodie Waddell

Long before writing became a skill that every child was expected to learn, all sorts of people still scribbled away.

Some men and women did so for mostly practical reasons – keeping track of their finances, corresponding with distant family and friends, or preserving successful recipes for future use. Many others wrote in order to monitor the state of their soul or to record godly wisdom preached at the pulpit. A few tried to create texts that told the story of their life in more self-consciously ‘literary’ ways, sometimes even aiming for eventual publication.

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Preparing to write (British Museum, F,6.161)

Scholars have long used such ‘personal’ sources to study the early modern period, often mining them for information about topics that are more rarely documented in ‘official’ archives. More recently, a growing number of researchers have turned to analysing such sources as texts in their own right, seeking to understand how and why these writers wrote. The study of ‘life-writing’ and manuscript culture is now a well-established academic field, with excellent studies of the process of writing diaries, letters, financial accounts, sermon notes, commonplace books, and so on. As you’ll see from even the very abbreviated bibliography below, there is no lack of interest in early modern writing practices.

Thanks to the efforts of several tireless groups of scholars and students, there are also some great online resources cataloguing and illuminating such sources, such as the Perdita Project, Early Modern Letters Online, and – for a more recent period – Writing Lives. These often build on the more traditional lists and catalogues created by William Matthews, Heather Creaton and others. Laura Gowing has now started a crowdsourced handlist of early modern first-person writing in print. As a result, we now know about hundreds of writers who would otherwise be forgotten.

However, I think there is more that can be done. In a new article on ‘Writing History from Below’ in early modern England, I tried to use material from some writers who have received little or no scholarly attention yet, focusing in particular on those who lacked substantial wealth or education. Why did they decide to write chronicles and gather archives? What did they select to preserve for posterity? How did they tell the story of their lives and their communities? Continue reading

Striking parallels, c.1700 and 2018 (part 2)

Brodie Waddell

I know very little about modern labour relations beyond what I’ve learned over the past few weeks as a lecturer on strike. However, I do know a fair bit about labour relations between about 1550 and 1750.

In my previous post, I talked about the vital role played by a wider ‘strike culture’ of objects and actions in enhancing the power of labour action, both then and now. Yet focusing exclusively on ‘culture’ risks underestimating the hard structural barriers that worker mobilisation regularly bumps up against.

Law matters

Although undoubtedly there is ‘power in a union’, there is also a great deal of coercive power held by our employers and the state.

British law is, as far as I can tell, unusually hostile to trade union action, another unhappy inheritance from the Thatcher years. This means that employers can threat – and implement – all sorts of nasty things that seem like they ought to be illegal but are actually within the bounds of the law.

The biggest shock for me was discovering that many universities were threatening to dock some or all of their staff’s wages for ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) a.k.a. working to contract. There has been a strong push from the strikers and their allies to get these universities to reverse these policies, with much success. But at the time of writing, eight institutions (Bristol, City, Heriot-Watt, Leeds, Liverpool, Royal Holloway, Salford, and Surrey) were still threatening this.

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Poster by Ken Spague, 1971: V&A

 

Even more thorny is the problem of the pensions themselves. Suffice to say the issue is complex, but it is clear enough that the Pensions Regulator and various official rules have made it more difficult to get a clear sense of how much room for negotiation is actually available. As has been expertly discussed by Josephine Cumbo and Michael Otsuka, while these formal structures are not entirely rigid or immovable, they still impose very real boundaries on the options available.

Three or four hundred years ago, workers taking action encountered some similar problems. The economy was of course very different, with very few large-scale employers and many more household-sized economic units. Nonetheless, as I noted in my previous post, there were still ‘strikes’ and other labour disputes. And in most of these conflicts, the broader legal context favoured ‘masters’ (employers) over their workers. Continue reading