About manyheadedhailwood

Mark Hailwood is a Lecturer in History, 1400-1700, at the University of Bristol

Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think

Mark Hailwood

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about the story telling techniques that historians use in their writing.

This was not a long time ago, and nor was it far away – you can read it here in fact. Inspired by the ‘Storying the Past’ reading group, and a series of ‘Creative Histories’ events, the post reflected on some of the ways academic historians draw on the writing methods associated with more creative genres, and considered how they might fruitfully do more of this.

One example of the latter that I discussed was Philip Ziegler’s attempt at an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the experience of the Black Death in a medieval English village. In essence it is a piece of creative writing, informed by historical evidence, intended to ‘evoke the atmosphere’ of that moment in time. As Ziegler himself put it, he was essentially borrowing the approach of the ‘historical novelist’ to try and recover an aspect of the past that his cold, hard analysis of the facts – the supposed purview of the historian – could not: how people at the time felt about their villages being ravaged by the plague.

But can the approach of the historical novelist really bridge this gap? Continue reading

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“As I Went Forth One Summer’s Day”: Putting the Story in Early Modern History

Mark Hailwood

Twas the night before Christmas, in the year 1681, and one Soloman Reddatt was drinking in the Nag’s Head in Reading, with his sister, Elizabeth, and a friend, George Parfitt, when, at around 9pm, their sociability was disturbed by the shattering of glass. Moments earlier, Debora Allen had burst into the alehouse in search of her husband Edward. After locating him in the kitchen drinking with the alehousekeeper, William Newbury, she flew into a rage, picking up a quart pot and throwing it through a window. As a startled Reddatt and his companions looked up from their drinks, Debora Allen emerged from the kitchen into the room where they were drinking, where the angry wife ‘levelled her passion’ against Sara Newbury, the alehousekeeper’s wife, who was busy serving customers. Debora Allen called Sara Newbury a whore and a bawd, and accused her of running the alehouse as a bawdy house, before turning her fire onto the alehousekeeper William Newbury, labelling him a cuckold. The furious Debora Allen repeated the accusations several times, both within the alehouse and at the street door, ensuring that her opinion of this alehouse and its proprietors received a public airing.


A version of this vignette appears at the start of a chapter that I have written for a forthcoming Bloomsbury textbook on the cultural history of alcohol in the early modern world. The focus of the chapter is the relationship between gender, sexuality and alcohol in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I use an analysis of this opening anecdote to highlight several of the themes that run through the essay: the gendered character of alcohol retailing; the extent and character of women’s public consumption of alcohol; the complex relationship between masculinity and drinking; and so on.

It is a classic technique of historians in my field – that is, the social history of early modern England – to start an article or a chapter with a story; a telling anecdote that draws the reader in and sets up the analysis that is to follow. Indeed, I have just used it here. More often than not, though, the storytelling ends there – the historian steps out of the role of fireside narrator, and proceeds to offer up their analysis in a cool, detached, ‘academic’ register, deemed more suitable for the pages of a peer-reviewed journal or academic monograph.

This is a writing convention that I myself have followed many times, and one that I relatively uncritically absorbed and mimicked from my own academic mentors and inspirations. But the endeavours of the ‘Storying the Past’ virtual reading group, and associated ‘Creative Histories’ events, have encouraged me to become more reflective about the storytelling techniques that I use in my writing as an academic historian, and those employed in my particular field of academic history.


What storytelling techniques, other than the trusty opening anecdote, do the historians that I spend most of my time reading deploy? Continue reading

A ‘Creative Histories’ Mini-Series

Mark Hailwood & Laura Sangha

Over the past couple of years the pair of us have had the pleasure of being involved in a series of events around the theme of ‘creative histories’, curated by the fertile brains behind the Storying the Past reading group.

Put simply, the aim of these conversations has been to encourage participants – which have included academic historians, authors, singer-songwriters, teachers, filmmakers and many others – to talk and think about the creative elements of historical research, writing, teaching, and consumption.

If this sounds like your kind of thing then you can read a whole host of blog posts that have emerged from these events, over at the Storying the Past blog. No need to do anything creative at this stage, simply click here.

But we thought it might be nice to collate the contributions that we have made to these conversations into a monster mini-series, to draw them to the attention of any of our readers who might have missed them, and hopefully to whet your appetite for reading more over at Storying the Past.

So, this week we will be re-blogging our posts here, as follows: Continue reading

E.P. Thompson’s forgotten sci-fi novel: The Sykaos Papers

Mark Hailwood

Back in October I was writing a lecture on E.P. Thompson when I learnt, to my surprise, that he had written a sci-fi novel towards the end of his career. Published in 1988, The Sykaos Papers seems to have made very little impact, despite being generally well reviewed at the time as far as I can tell. The New York Times said it possessed ‘undeniable power’; the Observer opined it ‘will surely become a classic’. Well, it didn’t. When I asked around on Twitter there were only a few responses from people who had heard of it, let alone read it. ‘Should I bother with it, dear twitter?’ ‘It depends how into Thompson deep-cuts you are’… enough, I decided, to order a copy.

9780747503279-us-300Now I’ve read it. I had low expectations – presumably it had fallen off the radar because it was junk, right? – but I must say I think it is a belter. It is a bit mad, I’ll grant you, but endlessly inventive and stimulating, and at times downright hilarious and at others deeply affecting – neither of which I was expecting. And, I’d say it is much more fluent than his academic writing, which I have heard described recently by a historian who shall remain anonymous as ‘wittering’. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I take the point, and I was expecting a slog – it wasn’t one. Anyway, I’m no great book reviewer – of fiction at any rate – and you can make your own mind up on this stuff, but I would recommend it to readers of this blog. With Christmas coming up and all that…

Not sure? I’ll try to give you a bit more to go on. The book’s central character is Oi Paz. He has been sent to Earth (which his people call ‘Sykaos’), sometime in the 1990s, from the planet Oitar, which has endured ecological catastrophe, to assess whether this planet might make a suitable location for a new Oitarian colony. What ensues is an anthropological face-off between Oi Paz and the humans (and in particular Dr Helena Sage, an anthropologist, who is the other major character in the book) as each side tries to unpack and decipher the other’s society and culture, often with hilarious consequences (not that Oi Paz laughs: his culture has no laughter, so he calls it ‘the Incongruous Noise’).

In a sense, you could call it a work of anthropological fiction, as much as science fiction, and there are interesting attempts to construct the alien subjectivity of Oi Paz (it’s also interesting, given that gender is often seen as his blind-spot, to witness Thompson’s attempt to construct the subjectivity of a female academic, Dr Sage). But historians should not feel left out, for the book’s main nod to Thompson’s own craft is the fact that the novel is structured as though the story of Oi Paz’s expedition has been reconstructed later, by the Oitarians, from a series of surviving PRIMARY SOURCES! There are the notebooks and diaries of Oi Paz and Helena Sage, interspersed with news reports, official communications, memos, etc, which the account – partial and multi-vocal, of course, like all histories – has been pieced together from.

I did wonder if part of the reason for the book’s low impact is that many of its key themes seemed less urgent as the Cold War ended and the 1990s progressed, dating it quickly. But the threat of nuclear war, a reckless U.S. President, a dangerous Russia, a tension between nationalism and the need for humankind to unite to confront its most pressing threats, ecological catastrophe – sadly, none of these feel like outdated themes today.

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E.P. Thompson: an #AcademicWithCats?

But Thompson’s prescience doesn’t end there, for the book also prefigures the social media age’s valorisation of the cat as a vital antidote to doom and gloom. The Oitarians worship them: they have good vibes. I strongly suspect, in fact, that E.P. Thompson himself would have been an avid consumer of, and contributor to, #AcadecmicsWithCats. A sci-fi novel, by E.P. Thompson, with cats! Surely that’s mad enough to warrant a look…

And if you do read it, or have done, please come back and share your thoughts in the comments section below – I’d love to know what other people think of it, positive or negative.

The Reformation of the People? The View from the Alebench

Mark Hailwood

It’s not every day the Protestant Reformation gets to celebrate its 500th birthday – well, only on one day, really. And it’s no surprise that yesterday’s anniversary of that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenberg – the first ever blog post, perhaps? – was accompanied by a slew of comment pieces and blog offerings. It would be remiss of us here at the monster, as a gaggle of early modern bloggers, not to post up a few thoughts of our own of course. But what angle to take that hasn’t already been covered in the #Reformation500 media frenzy?

Well, as readers will be well aware, we like to look at history from the bottom-up. For us, the most interesting question about the Reformation is the extent to which it changed the religious beliefs and practices of ordinary women and men – especially in England’s 9000 or so parishes. Sure, Luther shook up the religious and political establishment of early modern Europe, but how much impact did this have on the common people?

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Did the Protestant message get through to the people?

Continue reading

‘Clothes to go handsome in’: what did the seventeenth-century rural poor think about the clothes that they wore?

This guest post comes from Danae Tankard, a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural History at the University of Chichester. It follows on from Mark’s recent post on ‘Material Culture from Below’ and further demonstrates the potential of court depositions for examining the material culture of the lower orders in early modern England – here, their clothing. It provides an introduction to Danae’s broader body of work on the clothing of the rural poor in seventeenth-century England. You can follow Danae @morley1640.

Danae Tankard

Yet with that and such like words I made shift to buy me some clothes, and then I went to church on Sunday, which I never could do before for want of clothes to go handsome in.  My father being poor and in debt could not provide us with clothes fitting to go to church in (so we could not go to church) unless we would go in rags, which was not seemly.[1]

This passage is taken from the autobiographical writings of Edward Barlow, the son of an impoverished husbandman, born in Prestwich in Lancashire in 1642.  Written retrospectively when Barlow was a thirty-one year old seaman and had learned to read

Barlow leaving home

Barlow leaving home: in ‘rags’?

and write, it describes the period leading up to his first departure from home aged twelve or thirteen.  Since his father could not afford to indenture him as an apprentice, Barlow worked for his neighbours, harvesting and haymaking and carting coal from the local coal pits, for which he received ‘but small wages’ of about two or three pence a day.[2]  By making ‘shift’ he was able to buy himself some clothes to ‘go handsome in’ to replace the ‘rags’ that he had worn before.  The significance of these new clothes in Barlow’s account is that they allow him to attend church, something he could not do before ‘unless [he] would go in rags, which was not seemly’.  His description of his clothing as ‘rags’ may be an exaggeration but it enables Barlow to express his sense of shame at having nothing decent to wear to church.  However, Barlow does not want just any clothes: he wants clothes ‘to go handsome in’.  In other words, he wants to look good. Continue reading