About manyheadedmonster

The many-headed monster is a collaborative blog focusing on English society and culture in the early modern period, very broadly conceived.

The Monster @ 5

Well, well. It was five years ago today that the many-headed monster first reared it’s head in the blogosphere. It all started with a pithy welcome post advising our readers that this blog was unlikely to feature Henry VIII’s wives, swiftly followed by Brodie’s first ever post – about a monstrous hairy child who was put on show for the entertainment of the citizens of 17thC Norwich – and by Mark’s first foray into blogging – a short think-piece on the 17thC hangover.

Pepys_1_0434-0435_iBaseIn the following half-decade ‘the monster’ grew two new heads – Laura and Jonathan – and between us (and a few guests…) we published 260 posts on various aspects of early modern society and culture: an average of one per week. Collectively they have been viewed over 236,000 times, by over 123,000 visitors, and been subject to thousands of comments. We would like to say a big thank you to everyone who lurks somewhere in those statistics for their interest in, and support of, this blog. We drink your health, dear readers!

One of the great things about having been around for a while is that we can now lay claim to having our very own ‘archive’. Every post we have published is still openly available for all and sundry to peruse, and we would like to take this opportunity to encourage our readers to do what many of you love to do best – delve into the archive!

If you’re looking for bite-size chunks of early modern history to fill your lunch hour – or perhaps to set as introductory reading for your students – then there are a number of ways to search through our past posts. First, you can use our ‘Browse by Theme‘ option to browse our archive by – you guessed it – specific themes. Second, you can visit our ‘Monster Mini-Series’ page to find some collections of some our most popular posts, which include things like useful introductory reading lists (‘Marooned Monographs‘) and posts relating to ongoing debates about issues like periodisation. Third, you can simply stick a keyword in the ‘Search’ box on our homepage to see if we have any posts touching on whatever it is you are interested in (‘drink’ brings up quite a few hits…).

And of course we will continue to add many more posts to the archive over the next 5 years…


Fake news: a very (early) modern problem

Fake news and misinformation have hit the headlines recently as concerns grow about its extent and impact. In this guest post, Dr Francis Young examines the parallels between contemporary digital fake news and English civil war newsbooks. Dr Young is a historian of early modern England and the Catholic Record Society’s Volumes Editor. You can follow him on twitter @SuffolkRecusant.

In the immediate aftermath of the US election, Facebook came under fire for allowing ‘fake news’ to dominate its platform, and there was much lamenting that traditional print media – which, in theory, at least tries to verifies sources and stories – has been replaced by social media as the source of ‘news’ for many people. The ‘fake news’ problem raises many profound and interesting questions about what ‘news’ really is, and what makes it ‘real’ as opposed to ‘fake’, but commentators have perhaps been too hasty in assuming facebook-fakesthat fake news is something new and something alien to the ‘traditional print media’. In fact, the pattern of user-generated news that we see on contemporary social media platforms is closer to the original pattern of dissemination of news in the first age of print.

Defining what counts as ‘fake news’ is not straightforward, given the traditional print media’s overt political bias, spinning of rumours, wilful misinterpretation of statistical data, and editorial decisions to foreground minor stories and ignore many newsworthy ones. However, a strict definition of ‘fake news’ would exclude speculative stories that might be true and are supported by anonymous sources. The reporting of such stories with the implication that they are fact may be dubious journalism, but it is the longstanding practice of the tabloid press. ‘Fake news’, in the strict sense, would have to be the kind of story that no conventional newspaper or news website would run because it directly contradicts easily verifiable fact: for instance, the report that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the US election as well as the votes of the electoral college. No conventional media would run with a story that is demonstrably false; to do so would run the risk of being discredited as a news outlet or sullying the ‘brand’ of a conventional newspaper. Continue reading

Riches, Poverty and Pollution: Living with Coal Smoke in Early Modern London

One of the recurring questions on the many-headed monster is how the world is experienced by people at different levels of the social heirarchy. In this guest post, William M. Cavert looks at the unequal impact of pollution, drawing on his new book: The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge, 2016).

“Poverty,” wrote sociologist Ulrich Beck, “is hierarchic, smog is democratic.”[1] Pre-industrial cities, according to Beck, were full of dirty and unpleasant dangers, but the wealthy could escape or avoid them easily because such hazards smelled badly and looked ugly. In the modern world risk is invisible, and is everywhere.

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

London during the early modern period offers an interesting test for this idea because it was at once clearly pre-industrial and yet it also developed one of the hallmarks of the modern, industrial urban landscape: pervasive air pollution.[2] The “smog” that Beck suggests envelopes industrial cities became widespread in London by about 1600, caused not by great factories as in 19th-century Manchester, but by the domestic coal fires of 200,000 people, as well as coal’s importance in every industry that involved boiling, heating, or melting.[3] During the 17th and 18th centuries, pre-industrial London struck residents, rulers, and visitors as a smoky, dirty place. Modern scientific modeling suggests that their impressions were accurate, and that the concentrations of pollutants like sulfur dioxide in 18th-century London are matched today only in the world’s very dirtiest cities.

Did early modern Londoners experience this smoky air as yet another aspect of a deeply “hierarchic” society, as Beck suggests? Continue reading

The 200th Post!

200Welcome to the many-headed monster’s 200th blog post! We started the blog back in July of 2012, so it’s taken us about three-and-a-half years to get here. In that time we have managed to produce a post (on average) about once a week, so there has been plenty of content for our readers to get their teeth into over the past few years.

We thought we would take this milestone as an opportunity to revisit some of that content, and pluck out a few highlights from our archive (we are historians, after all). So, if you missed any of these the first time round, or indeed fancy reading them again, here are some of our other milestone posts:

The 1st Post: Norwich entertainments–Part I: A monstrous hairy child and a boneless girl

Prides Fall (1684-6)The blog kicked off with Brodie’s first installment of his ‘Norwich entertainments’ series – also launching the mini-series format that has proved a popular one on the ‘monster – in which he reflects on what 17th century Norvicians’ penchant for viewing ‘monstrous’ deformities might reveal about the culture of our early modern forebears. You can revisit the rest of this series here.


The 50th Post: Eating Animals: A Bit of History

In this milestone post Mark examined the relationship early moderns had with eating meat – finding evidence that whilst meat eating was more widespread in the 17th century than we might expect, so too were notions of vegetarianism. Plenty of fodder here for those dinner table discussions! For more on the history of food and drink see Mark’s ‘Food for Thought’ series.


The 100th Post: Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part I: Not such a Virgin Queen

west-country-to-worlds-end-tyrwhitt-drake-collection-43Our century of posts came up with the first part of Jonathan’s Elizabethan ‘madmen’ series, which looks at a selection of unusual letters written directly to the Queen by some of her more marginal – and eccentric – subjects. In this instance the writer makes an extraordinary paternity claim. Jonathan reflects further on the signficance of these letters in his contribution to our Voices of the People symposium.

The 150th Post: Memorial and History: appendix ii, further discoveries

DSCN5322In this post Laura adds a postscript to her Memorial and History series. This examined a whole range of monuments and memorials – often found in rather unexpected places – which reveal how battles over how we remember the Reformation have raged down the centuries. It also includes some lovely holiday snaps. Stay tuned to the ‘monster, for next week’s post revisits the issue of how history and memory are embedded in our landscape.

Just a few highlights then from our archive, and here’s to many more to come! Thanks to all of our followers, readers, commenters, guest bloggers and re-tweeters – your interest and support for the blog are what make it tick, so keep on coming back…

The Voice of the People? Re-reading the Field-notes of Classic Post-war Social Science Studies

Our final post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Jon Lawrence, Reader in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge. Jon discusses his ongoing project to write a social and cultural history of post-war Britain in which ordinary people take centre stage as the experts on their own lives and experiences. In the process he revisits a number of the issues that have run through this symposium: how to relate the individual voice to the collective voice and its wider culture; how to account for the influence of the archive on the voices that are recorded; the extent to which we can or should be looking for ‘authentic’ voices; and perhaps above all  Jon reiterates the enormously rich and rewarding avenues of enquiry that are open to those engaged in the reflective pursuit of history from below.       

Jon Lawrence

I often wonder what life’s for. Greavsey lives for work, but I don’t. I’m happy to go on as we are or get a packet and be the idle rich. I’m not bothered about sweating for a £40 a week job. I’m happy now. I could do with £50,000 but I’m happy as I am. Are you? How can you be? You’re far from home. You can drink but that’s not real happiness. You’re going to lecture and do teaching, the same things one time after another. That’s just talk. We put up with bad conditions. But we’re more free than you. We do something different each day. We can move about. We know how to have fun, we don’t try to worry or try to keep up with the Joneses.

‘Ron Morris’, October 1968[1]

I am currently writing a social and cultural history of post-war England based largely on contemporary voices as they were recorded by social scientists between the 1940s and the late 2000s. This extract is from a study of Swan Hunter’s Wallsend shipyard on Tyneside. I will say more about this man and the context in which he came to say these things later. For now I simply wish to offer this as an example of how rich such testimony can be; and also to plant the question: how should we treat a plebeian voice which is so obviously not just exceptionally eloquent, but also knowingly engaged in a dialogue with academic knowledge? Continue reading

Making Sense of Misery: The Dialect Notebooks of a Teenage Breton Farm Servant

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by David Hopkin, Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. David explores another life story, that of a nineteenth-century female Breton farm servant, through a combination of historical records and three remarkable novellas written by his subject. The result is not only a fascinating examination of an individual life, he argues, but an insight into a collective commentary on the first-hand experience of hardship in the past. David has also written a book entitled Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France, from which this symposium borrows its name.

David Hopkin

Virginie Desgranges, born 1868, lived a short, peripatetic life along the Normandy-Brittany border. Her frequent moves were the result of her family’s rapid social decline. Her grandfathers were customs officers but her own father, who died when she was ten, was a rag-and-bone man, while her mother was first a servant and then a day-labourer. For a while the couple ran a bar. Virginie had one older brother, who briefly followed his father’s profession before joining the Atlantic fishing fleet. In 1881 he and his mother spent a month in prison for robbing a neighbour of her bed-sheets. By that time Virginie had already left home and was working as a farm-servant. When she died, aged eighteen, she was employed as a servant by her uncle and aunt in the village of Pleine-Fougères, about ten miles from Mont Saint-Michel.

Poor, rural, young, female, mobile – by every measure Virginie’s is a voice from below. Given her social marginality it’s debateable whether she could make that voice heard in her lifetime, let alone in the historical record. Back in Pleine-Fougères her voice would have been in dialogue with others – her family, her neighbours, her employers, the marketplace singers and the various other people she encountered. Some of the parameters of that discussion were set by what we might call, for want of a better term, the oral tradition. It was because she was a participant in and recorder of that tradition that her voice has been preserved. Continue reading