If you’re in Britain and reading a history blog, you’ve probably spent most of the last week thinking about Brexit, reading about Brexit, and arguing about Brexit. I’m sure at least some of you would like to mentally escape the current omnishambles, so here’s your chance.
‘Skimmington Triumph’ (c.1720). An amusing historical image that has nothing to do with xenophobic populism or constitutional crisis!
Today the Many-Headed Monster is hosting the 157th edition of the History Carnival which means I get to share a selection of some of the best history blogging from around the web from the last month or so. Thankfully there has been a bunch of great posts about all sort of fascinating topics that have nothing to do with the current political omnishambles. There are, of course, also a few that are directly related to The Vote That Shall Not Speak Its Name, but I’ve attempted to quarantine those by putting them in a separate section at the end. If you are looking for a bit of historical escapism, read on. If you are a masochist, just skip to the end. Continue reading
In early March 1601, four men got into an argument in the small village of Wicklewood, about eleven miles west of Norwich. Although no blows were exchanged, one of the men uttered words that were dangerous enough to lead to a legal examination by a local magistrate. It is only thanks to this brief deposition – which I’ve transcribed at the end of this post – that we have any knowledge of what was said that day.
I came across this document last summer at the Norfolk Record Office when I was searching through the county quarter sessions files looking for something else. I’d completely forgotten about it until Mark put up a post last week that discussed the history of conflict hidden in England’s rural landscape. That post reminded me that the argument recorded in this deposition might provide some further illumination of this oft-debated aspect of early modern history.
The story, as recorded on this small slip of paper, goes like this. Roger Wells of Wicklewood had hired John Chibocke and Richard Hamond of the neighbouring village of Morley ‘to worke with him’. But Chibocke and Hamond arrived very late and Wells was angry. He declared that if he paid them the wages they really deserved, they wouldn’t be pleased. The two workmen replied that Wells and his ilk ‘Cared not thoughe poore men wrought the[i]re harts out’ and wished ‘that wee might have warres againe, [for] then we should have Corne Cheaper’. At this point, William Seaborne – presumably a partner or employee of Wells – stepped in. He rebuked Chibock and Hamond for their rash words, saying ‘these be matters you understand not’. Yet this just incensed Chibock further. ‘If a thowsand mysters were deade’, he said, ‘we poore men should farre the better’. Continue reading
Fear and hatred of the ‘undeserving’ poor pollutes our thinking about poverty. The shadows of scroungers, fraudsters and cheats who falsely claim to need our help loom over every conversation about benefits and over every new welfare policy.
Headlines about workshy swindlers march across the front pages of our papers almost every day. A quick online search reveals over 10,000 news stories on ‘benefit fraud’, reported both in the nation’s most popular newspapers and in local papers like the Bromley Times and Coventry Telegraph.
Such stories are part of our deep anxiety about those who get something for nothing. We worry that our taxes, our donations, our hard-earned money is being spent on people who don’t need it. The public believes that fraud accounts for over one in every four pounds in Britain’s welfare budget, when in fact it is well under one in a hundred. Such fear and fury are not confined to any particular class – they are common enough among the wealthy and educated as well as the working class. You have, I’m sure, occasionally heard examples of this from family and friends, just as I have. Sadly, if you pay careful attention, you’ll probably find it sometimes lurks in your own thoughts too. Continue reading
Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. Brodie reinforces the message that has emerged from our last few posts: that the voices of the people do survive in abundance in the archives of the early modern period. They may do so in ways that are mediated or formalised, yes, but he argues that this should not blind us to the enormous importance of these valuable historical documents. Brodie finishes with a rallying cry that echoes that of Helmut Groser and Ann Tlusty: these documents are too significant to be allowed to remain buried in archival repositories, or worse to be lost altogether to the vagaries of record survival. Instead they should be digistised and made freely available as a matter of priority to promote the ongoing renaissance of history from below.
As a historian, digging up the dead is part of my job. I arrive at the archives as a grave-robber intent on plunder. I riffle through their clean, grey cardboard boxes searching for a peculiar treasure – tatty papers recording dead people’s words in stark black ink.
I’m privileged enough to have the time, the funds and the training necessary to make such plundering expeditions a routine part of my professional life. As a result, I regularly emerge from the archives with prizes like the letter below, which lay among dozens of other papers in a box labelled ‘QS/4 box 134’, carefully preserved in the storeroom of the Devon Heritage Centre.
The letter, written in 1693, was sent from a widow named Elizabeth Snow to the county magistrates:
To John Elwell Esquire & the rest of the Honourable Bench,
Most Honoured Gentell men I hope your worships will take this my humble pittishon [=petition] in Consideration that I being here Commited form [=from] the bare [=bar] to this prison and am not able to paye the fine but must here pireish [=perish] without your mercyfull Consideration to take of[f] my fine for I have not one penny in the world to helpe my selfe with out of the Cherryty [=charity] of good people to relefe me for I have maintaind a Crippell Childe this 16 yeares and never had but one penny a day towards it[.] this being in great malish [=malice] sworen against me undeserving I hope you will for the Lords sake pitty my miserable Consdishon and relefe me out of this misry which shall be bounde in dewty Ever to pray for you all most Honnerable gentellmen which am a poore distressed widdow
I don’t know why she was imprisoned and I don’t know whether she was successful in her petition for release. In fact, I don’t know anything about Elizabeth apart from the claims in this letter, though further digging in the archives would probably reveal more. Continue reading
On 26 June 1645, as the war between the King and Parliament raged, John Coleman sat down at his lodgings in London to eat a meat pie. As he ate it, a strange thought occurred to him: ‘What flesh eatest thou’?
At that moment, even as he chewed, a flood of doubts and suspicions swept into Coleman’s mind. Why had his landlady made meat pies on a fast day? Why had the girl who delivered it to his room been acting so oddly? What had happened to the child who had been missing the previous evening?
The answers must have struck him like a blow, because suddenly ‘hee could eate noe moore’, verily believing ‘the Pye was made of a Childs flesh’. According to his later testimony, Coleman then went out into the neighbourhood to try to learn more. Here he heard from several women that a child in a yellow coat had been seen wandering the streets on previous evenings and that a butcher’s wife had unexpectedly given the child bread and butter. A gentlewoman, it was said, was ‘almost madd for her chyld which was lost’.
Although Coleman’s testimony ends there, an incident six weeks earlier seems to reveal more. On May 13th, a crowd attacked Mary Hodges, saying that under her apron she had ‘sugar plumbs and dyer bread to entice young Children away’. Another group attacked Hodges on June 2nd, accusing her of being ‘a night walking whore’.
Then the story, like the pie, goes cold. Continue reading
R.H. Tawney claimed that ‘the sixteenth century lives in terror of the tramp’. He wrote that over a hundred years ago, but more recent research has largely confirmed Tawney’s contention that Tudor and early Stuart England was a society deeply anxious about the movements of the ‘masterless’ poor.
As a result, it is not difficult to find fearful, satirical or insulting depictions of ‘vagrants’ and ‘vagabonds’ from this period. However, just as it can be hard to find images of early modern working women, it is also rare to come across sympathetic pictures of the poor. Yet, we know that many people continued to see at least some beggars as victims who deserved compassion and charity.
The one particularly sympathetic portrayal of poverty that does appear repeatedly in early modern culture is the biblical story of Lazarus and Dives. In this parable, Jesus tells of a diseased beggar, Lazarus, who arrives at the door of a rich man, Dives, to beg for the crumbs off his table. Dives refuses and is condemned to hellfire while Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven by the angels.
Thomas Smith was not a man of the people. Although born to a London merchant, he made his name teaching Hebrew at Oxford, publishing a thesis on Aramaic in the Old Testament and spending several years in Constantinople hunting down Greek manuscripts. Smith was, above all, an uncompromising believer in a very particular brand of high-church Anglicanism, so when William and Mary captured the throne in 1689 he refused to take the oath to the new monarchs.
In the 1690s, Smith watched the aftermath of the Revolution unfold. It was not a pretty sight. Maritime trade was battered by war with France, taxes doubled within a few years, food prices rose dramatically and the people lost faith in the currency. Although Smith seems to have lived a fairly comfortable life and remained focused on his scholarly work, his correspondence reveals that he had a good eye for the problems that beset ‘the common people’ in this decade. Continue reading