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

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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

Striking parallels, c.1700 and 2018 (part 1)

Brodie Waddell

I’m not a labour relations expert, nor a union organiser, nor a seasoned activist. I am, however, a lecturer who has been on strike over the past few weeks alongside tens of thousands of other university staff.

As historian of, roughly, the seventeenth century, I’ve felt frustrated that I could add so little to the wonderful teach-outs on contemporary politics or to the brilliant online commentary on the technicalities of the dispute. I’d be useless at trying to predict what is going to happen next and I can’t even offer any practical advice to our tireless UCU representatives who are trying to save our pensions. The only thing I can hope to contribute is a few thoughts on some of the echoes – and dissonances – between those long-past struggles and our own.

Striking isn’t just about striking

The current strike started when UCU members voted overwhelmingly to withdraw their labour in an attempt to get our employers to negotiate, rather than simply impose a new poorer, riskier pension scheme. This refusal to work is what defines a strike. It is painful: students don’t get taught, research grinds to a halt, administrative services slow or cease, and we don’t get paid. This is also precisely why it is such an important tactic if we want our employers to compromise.

But it is hardly the only tactic being used during this strike. It is merely a small part of a broader ‘strike culture’. Continue reading

Free online palaeography resources

Brodie Waddell

Palaeography – the art of reading old handwriting – is a very specialized skill that will not be any use to 99.9 percent of the population. However, if you want to explore original sources produced before c.1750 for a dissertation, genealogy or local history, it may be essential.

The problem is that the script below was a perfectly normal way to write in the seventeenth century.

For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent biggnesse (TNA)

‘For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent biggnesse’ (The National Archives, SP 14/189, folio 7)

 

Luckily, for those of you who would like to learn the basics of reading early modern documents, there are a huge number of helpful resources available, including many that are free and online. They are widely scattered, so this post is an attempt to collect them in a single place. 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 Tenth Commandment: the Depth of Sin

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

JacketAfter a brief mid-term hiatus, in this last post marking the publication last month of my latest monograph, The Reformation of the Decalogue, I want to explore the Tenth Commandment.

Earlier in the series, I talked about the Reformed Protestant renumbering of the Commandments.  In brief, Reformers took the traditional Catholic list, made a separate precept out of the injunction not to make or worship graven images, and reduced the number back down to ten by folding the two forms of coveting in the Catholic Ninth and Tenth Commandments (of wives and goods) into a single precept.

Traditionally, historians have seen the changes at the start of the Decalogue as much more significant than the changes at the end of it.  The new Reformed Second Commandment spoke to important concerns surrounding idolatry and iconoclasm – the merging of two forms of covetousness into one commandment was just a case of tidying things up and making sure that there were still Ten Commandments.  The historian John Bossy, for example, judged that ‘the exposition of the second table was a less controversial matter than that of the first’.[1] Continue reading