Understanding Sources: diaries

TPicture1o celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Laura Sangha

It won’t come as a surprise that I have chosen diaries as my favourite early modern source type, since I am currently researching the life and times of the Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist, Ralph Thoresby (1677-1725). But really, who could resist reading someone else’s diary? Who isn’t interested in other people’s lives? What other source gives us access to the personal jottings and reflections of the long dead? In what other source are the voices of the people delivered to us in such an unmediated fashion? Where else can we learn about how people thought about themselves in the past? Whilst other source types might be better defined, more representative of the population as a whole, more complete, or easier to contextualise or generalise about, there is nothing like the thrill of reading someone else’s thoughts on their own life experiences. Continue reading

Fantastic Thoresby V: a late seventeenth-century Christmas

Laura Sangha

Last week Jonathan laid bare the attack on Christmas in England in the 1640s and 1650s, describing the puritan campaign to convince the public that Christmas was popish and profane, and to persuade people to abandon the traditional merry-making that took place on 25 December. This got me wondering about the resilience and enduring popularity of the festival. Specifically, what did Ralph Thoresby do when the day came around each year?

Thoresby’s Christmas 

Ralph Thoresby

Ralph Thoresby, antiquarian, pious diarist, author of the first history of Leeds.

For those of you that haven’t met him yet – Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) is the pious Leeds antiquarian and life-long diarist that I am currently researching (view the related posts here).[1] Disappointingly, but probably predictably, Thoresby’s diaries suggest that Christmas didn’t register that much on the antiquarian’s radar – Thoresby didn’t gorge on plum-pottage and mince pies, he didn’t entertain lavishly, he didn’t feast with his neighbours, and there is no evidence that he even indulged in a little tipple. On the morning of 26 December 1680 he did write that he ‘lay too long’ in bed, which we might chalk up to overindulgence the day before, but since Thoresby’s regular habit was getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to pray, we probably shouldn’t read too much into this supposed sloth.

Why do I say that this lack of interest is quite predictable? It is because Thoresby began his life as a moderate nonconformist, attending both dissenting meetings as well as Church of England worship (though in the 1690s he conformed fully to the Church of England). In Thoresby’s case, his nonconformity was of a distinctly puritan flavour, so his lack of enthusiasm for the festivities of the Christmas season are in keeping with his austere style of piety, his avoidance of unsuitable company and his horror of idleness. Yet clearly times had changed – this was the 1650s no longer. On Christmas day Thoresby did attend Church without fail (by contrast, during the interregnum churches were locked on December 25), often hearing a sermon ‘suitable to the day concerning the birth of Christ’. Continue reading

The antiquarian listens: unexpected voices of the people

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Laura Sangha, Lecturer in British History 1500-1700 at the University of Exeter. Laura shows that whilst the voices of ordinary people were not thought to be as trustworthy as those of gentlefolk in the early modern period, they still played an important and often overlooked part in intellectual debates surrounding ‘science’, as the experiences of humble individuals were sought out and valued by intellectuals as evidence against which to test emerging theories.

Laura Sangha

The idea at the heart of this post is voices of the people in unexpected places. Whilst there are more traditional topics (such as poverty, crime or work) that provide opportunities for exploring and uncovering ordinary voices, I want to focus on an area that is traditionally thought of as the exclusive preserve of the elite. That is, the realm of ‘science’, or, if you are an early modernist: the areas of natural and mechanical philosophy. When we think of this domain, we envisage the gentleman practitioner, the well-educated, well-resourced intellectual elite, usually engaged in a conversation with someone from a similar background to himself. Yet I want to suggest that even here, in an area that initially appears to be completely cut off from the people, their non-elite contributions were sought out and valued, and the voices of the people resonate.

Ralph Thoresby, 1658-1725

I will be supporting this suggestion with reference to my current research into the life of Ralph Thoresby.[1] For those of you who are not familiar with the man, a brief introduction. Thoresby lived from 1658-1725, he was from a middling, trade background, but he was also an antiquarian, a member of the Royal Society, and the owner and curator of a museum in his home town of Leeds. His archive is very extensive and includes the diary that he wrote for the entirety of his adult life, as well as a large set of correspondence with friends, family, and the great and the good in ecclesiastical and intellectual circles. Thoresby was therefore a respected provincial practitioner, inspired by the Royal Society to the study of antiquities, natural curiosities and strange weather – the stuff of early modern science.

There is a plausible case for saying that Thoresby himself was one of the people – though he was relatively well off, he did not attend either of the universities and was a long way from the intellectual heart of the country in the south east of England. But in this post my focus will be on the way that Thoresby’s scientific activities bought him directly into contact with (even more) ordinary people’s experiences and voices. Continue reading

Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part II

Laura Sangha

Once you start looking, it is surprising how many politicians, poets and pioneers have found the answer to the question ‘what kind of society do you want?’ in Scripture, taking as their model the New Jerusalem described by John of Patmos in Revelation. John’s ecstatic vision predicts that following Judgement Day, New Jerusalem will be the earthly location where all true believers will spend eternity with God. This heavenly society became the model that people would evoke for centuries to come. Why was it so enduring?

Another aspirational model - Thomas More's Utopia.

Another aspirational model – Thomas More’s Utopia.

Ideal Aspirations for All

As we saw in the previous post, the concept of a New Jerusalem is not static, it is a flexible idea that is taken up and defined according to the historical context it is used in, and in line with the intentions and aims of the person evoking it. It can be used to support the establishment of racial equality, the welfare state, or (perhaps?) resistance to industrialisation. But in each of the examples I discussed, you can see that the New Jerusalem is something to aspire to, it is an ideal society, a target, a goal. It is a place where injustice, discrimination and fear have no place, and where people can develop to the full, in co-operation with others. Continue reading

Fantastic Thoresby – Part IV: An archive closure, a whale and a funny friend

Laura Sangha

This is my latest post in my long running series on the pious Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby. My thanks to the Yorkshire Archeological Society for their permission to reproduce material from the Thoresby papers.

ClaremontI recently returned from an end of summer ‘smash and grab’ raid on the archive with a memory card stuffed full of hundreds of images of diary entries, correspondence and other bits and bobs from Ralph Thoresby’s papers. I consulted all of this material at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (YAS) headquarters in Leeds, where the Thoresby Society is also currently located. Both are housed at Claremont, a splendid eighteenth-century merchants’ abode that is a delight for any student of history to work in, peaceful and accessible as it is. The staff and volunteers are very welcoming and knowledgeable, and the archivist Kirsty McHugh in particular went out of her way to accommodate me on my visit. Alas, Claremont will not provide such a salubrious environment to scholars for much longer, because lack of funds means that the Society’s Library and Historical Collections are to be moved, and Claremont is to be sold. Fortunately, the collection is to be loaned to the magnificent Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, hopefully preserving the unique character and coherence of the whole, but nonetheless this is sad news for those who have sustained the YAS over the years, and particularly for those currently based there.

With the start of term only a week away, it is likely to be some time before I can digest the material that accompanied me back to the South West, but I did stumble across a couple of bits of found art that I wanted to share. Continue reading

Fantastic Thoresby – Part III: historic storms, floods and corpses washed out of graves

Laura Sangha

This post is part of an occasional series on antiquarian, topographer and dissenter Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725).

dawlish railwayIt’s been a little wet in the south of England this winter, as some of you may have noticed. Storm has followed storm, houses have been flooded, villages cut off, and here in the south west the railway at Dawlish washed away. This has precipitated a deluge of news stories dragging out all sorts of beloved clichés as the media bandwagon has careered on its merry way. Predictably a political row about the causes of flooding has erupted where Conservatives have blamed Labour for previous policy mistakes and Labour have accused the government of ignoring climate change. But the storms have proven to be a delightfully flexible concept, allowing for commentary on all sorts of social issues, including: the storm blitz spirit, the storms and austerity, the storms and the royal family, the storms and the proposed high speed rail link, the storms and the under-equipped army, and my personal favourite, the storms and the mysterious case of the python that was battered to death in the night-time.

1607 FloodPerhaps more interestingly, the storms have also prompted some writing on historic bad weather and its consequences – I am sure I am not the only early modern historian who was delighted to see a seventeenth century woodcut on the front page of the Guardian’s website on February 12. We were also offered some timely musings on Daniel Defoe’s The Storm, his memorial to the hurricane that pummelled northern Europe in 1703, and this blog on eighteenth-century ‘climate change advocates’ provided some interesting historical context. Continue reading

Fantastic Thoresby – Part II: methinks I hear his very voice

Laura SanghaRalph Thoresby

A few posts ago I briefly introduced Ralph Thoresby, the Leeds antiquarian and diarist whose intellectual and religious pursuits have caught my attention. My intention is to make this a regular series where I offer up some little gems from the Thoresby diary, but in these initial posts I want to provide a bit of background for the entries and the reasons why they exist in the first place.

Previously I pondered in general terms why people keep diaries, and what sorts of information you might include in them, here I want to explore Thoresby’s inspiration in more depth. Continue reading