The Immersive Turn: Or, what did a seventeenth-century drinking song sound like?

Mark Hailwood

I know what you are thinking: isn’t it about time for yet another historical ‘turn’? Well, you’re in luck! I think there is a really interesting one already underway in early modern studies, quietly coming together from a number of different approaches and without, as yet, a clear sense of itself. I want to give it an identity, and I’m going to start by giving it a name: the ‘immersive turn’. But I’m open to suggestions.

What I mean by this is a growing desire on the part of early modern historians to try to recover a more multi-dimensional, multi-sensory feel for the period than we conventionally derive from an analytical reading of written sources: a search for the texture of the past, not just its texts. What prompted me to pull together this line of thought into a blog post was the recent attempt by students at De Montford to create a virtual version of seventeenth-century London before the Great Fire of 1666. It is worth a look, if you haven’t seen it already.

Pudding Lane Productions ( have created a virtual 17th century London.

It seems to me that the interest generated by this project is a symptom of the fact that early modern historians are increasingly attracted to the idea of ‘immersing’ ourselves more fully in the physical and sensory aspects of the world that we study: the emergence of the study of material culture, increased attention to visual sources, to ‘space’, and to the history of the senses, might all be seen as part of this same process.

Pre-Reformation worship recreated (

Pre-Reformation recreated

There have been recent attempts to recreate pre-and post-Reformation church interiors, and experiences of worship, for instance, and popular history books and TV shows taking the form of ‘Time Travellers’ Guides’ invite their readers and viewers to imagine the sights and smells one would encounter on entering a medieval or early modern city. All of these approaches invite us to imaginatively transport ourselves into the shoes of our early modern ancestors, and to concentrate on the immediate experience of sights, sounds and material surroundings.

These ‘immersive’ approaches have influenced my own work, especially in relation to the seventeenth-century drinking songs that I use to examine alehouse culture in the period. I don’t just mean that I get drunk and try singing them in the pub—although, we’ll come back to that—but rather that to understand the meanings of such songs it is important to think about the ways in which they were performed. It might be easy for a historian, sat alone at their desk quietly reading such a song, to misjudge the tone of its meaning, a tone that was informed by its tune, and also the manner and context in which it was actually sung, aloud, communally.

Singers in an alehouse window - hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

Singers in an alehouse window – hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

I developed a few thoughts on this in a short article for The Appendix, a new journal that embraces these new types of immersive and experimental history. You can read it for free here, and it would make sense to do so before reading on…. but, if you don’t have the time or inclination, here is the nub of it: I argue that it is important to think about how performance might influence the meaning of a seventeenth-century drinking ballad, and I applaud some recent attempts to recreate ballad performances. But I think they can misrepresent the tone in which such songs would have been sung.

For instance, take a moment to listen to EBBA’s recording of the drinking ballad, A Messe of Good Fellows, by clicking here.

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

It’s helpful to hear it put to a tune, but surely the tone would be a little more raucous if performed by a company of intoxicated good fellows bellowing it out from the alebench?

A bit more raucous - a bit more like it...

A bit more raucous. A bit more like it?

Indeed, I suggest in the article that a modern-day football song – with a well-known tune, repetitive chorus, and an inebriated collective of (mostly) men – might actually come closer to capturing how such drinking songs would have been experienced in the alehouse. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing terrace tunefulness first hand, click here. I’ve tried to pick a relatively inoffensive one, but apologies to residents of Cardiff.

In response to the article I also received a suggestion from Phil Edwards, a Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Met and an enthusiastic folk musician, that present day folk singing – often pub-based and communal – might be a closer descendent of the seventeenth-century alehouse song. I expect many historians would probably agree, but it is still a bit too sanitised and orderly for what I imagine performance would have actually sounded like. See what you think by listening to this ballad singaround recorded by Phil.

Are folk singarounds the key?

Are folk singarounds the key?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on which style of performance you think is most effective at ‘transporting’ us into the experiential world of our early modern forebears, but more importantly, I suppose, I’d like to know whether you think this little experiment in ‘immersion’ is a worthwhile exercise at all. Is attempting to recreate the sounds, or the smells, or the sights/sites, of the early modern past allowing just a little too much imagination into the historical process? It is undoubtedly an imprecise science, and we will never be able to capture with any certainty the tone of ballad performances – which no doubt varied immensely anyway. Is it therefore likely to be as often misleading as illuminating? A bit of fun perhaps – a harmless thought experiment to fill a coffee break – but not to be taken as a serious part of the historian’s craft? Or is the ‘immersive turn’ the next big thing, a way of bringing history to life that can enhance the understanding of both academic historians and non-academics alike?

The Past is a Foreign Country: History and Analogy, Part I

Laura Sangha

I’ve just finished G.W. Bernard’s The Late Medieval English Church, which is an excellent and well informed survey, in case you are wondering. One of the things that made it a particularly enjoyable read were the analogies that peppered the text, which were thought-provoking and on occasions mischievous. For example:

The attitude of medieval townsmen to their local cathedral was, it has been suggested, rather like that of their successors to modern universities: an ambiguous mixture of slight suspicion and considerable incomprehension was alleviated by a natural pleasure that this corporate giant might contribute to their own prestige and economic welfare.

Should pilgrim badges… be seen as sacred objects, almost ‘secondary relics’, for those who acquired them, or more like the souvenirs that day trippers buy today? … Medieval pilgrimage has been compared to modern museums, full of half-comprehending tourists, of young people having a day out, yet with serious and scholarly purposes at their core. Are the experiences of those who go church-crawling, or visit the blockbuster exhibitions in art galleries, or go to concerts at all comparable? Does the ritual of pilgrimage meet a perennial human need?… How many pilgrims took part in pilgrimages in much the same part-materialistic, part-sentimental way that many nowadays treat Christmas? [1]

The early modern pilgrim badge and its modern walking stick equivalent?

The early modern pilgrim badge and its modern walking stick equivalent?

Along with Brodie Waddell’s recent post on jargon and Mark Hailwood’s comparison of early modern alehouse ballad singing with modern football chants, it got me thinking about language, and more specifically about the way that we use analogy in writing and teaching. For historians, the carefully picked parallel is a potent weapon, it provides an inference or argument from one (familiar) particular to another, in the process attaching meaning to the unfamiliar particular. Analogy enables us to grasp the new and to process the different. For the early modernist, this is especially useful, because a parallel can help us to negotiate the strangeness of our subject and to close the gap between the mysterious and murky past and the bright shiny present. This is exceptionally useful when it comes to teaching: when I challenge my students to try to understand the early modern mentality I often begin by inviting them to self-reflect on their own experience, before exploring the early modern equivalent. So you might ask students to list what they think are the main elements of ‘identity’ in the present day, before discussing how early modern people thought about the same, the comparison drawing attention to those areas of similarity and difference which then invite explanation.

Similarity as well as difference is of course key here. Historical analogies are neat, effective and pleasing, but also fraught with peril because it is unlikely that the two particulars in the analogy are exactly the same. Bernard acknowledges as much:

Another scholar has offered the metaphor of ‘faultlines in the landscape’ but, while that is suggestive, it nonetheless rests upon the underlying inevitability of the coming earthquake.[2]


Just imagine the Late Medieval Church criss-crossed with lots of these.

In similar vein, Versailles might have ‘sowed the seeds of the second world war’, but this suggests a dangerous teleology that might distort our understanding of the interwar years. Thus a facile or lazy comparison can obscure rather than illuminate. Politicians and journalists in particular play a dangerous game  when they use analogy in association with events that are still unfolding, or to justify actions or simplify complexity. Recently, the labeling of the wave of demonstrations and regime changes in North Africa and the Middle East as the ‘Arab Spring’ (an allusion to the Revolutions of 1848 and the Prague Spring) has fitted rather awkwardly with subsequent developments that bear no relation to the promise of rebirth, liberation and growth usually associated with the pre-summer season and the historical precedents. One commentator notes that:

It appears that the right analogy is a different central European event — the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century — an awful mix of religious and political conflict, which eventually produced a new state order.

Analogies surely work best only when the dissimilarities of the two things are considered alongside the parallels – the analogy can in fact help you to identify both. Ruling out unsuitable analogies is also a useful strategy, as Peter Marshall does when describing the processes of the English Reformation:

The modern analogy is less with the overthrow of ancien regimes in 1789 and 1917 than with the ‘cultural revolution’ of 1960s China, in which central government worked in alliance with cadres of true believers to undermine reliable elements in positions of authority, and radically reconstruct the outlook of people as a whole.[3]

More in common than you might think?

More in common than you might think?

It is always a delight when students come up with their own analogies, because it reveals their learning: their coming to terms with information and expressing their own understanding of it. When discussing oral culture, and the astonishing feats of memorisation that early moderns were capable of, one student declared that it wasn’t that surprising that people knew the Bible off-by-heart, as she felt sure that if someone named a chapter from any Harry Potter novel she would be able to recall the important events from memory. Other memorable comparisons were Henry VIII’s visitation officers as ‘Ofsted Inspectors’, Elizabeth I’s beauty ‘trending’ at court, and Charles I’s relationship with the Duke of Buckingham as a classic ‘bromance’. These are not simply throwaway comments, they reveal students grasping and reframing the past in a way that resonates with their own existing knowledge.

**I followed this up with another post with examples of different types of analogies, incorporating those suggested to me by readers.**

[1] G. W. Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome (London, 2012), pp. 159-60; 143.

[2] Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 236.

[3] P. Marshall, Reformation England 1480-1642 (London, 2003), p. 58.

Tudor history on TV, and a partial review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’…

Jonathan Willis

Early modern history has done pretty well out of the BBC lately. Earlier this year, in late May and early June, there was a season of programmes (apparently 5 documentaries constitute a ‘season’) based around the Tudor Court. We had an interesting and quite adventurous treatment of The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, which made the brave decision not to give top billing to a single authoritative historical narrator, or wrap up its argument with neat historical conclusions, but instead featured a real diversity of opinions from half a dozen historians and historical novelists. Diarmaid McCulloch presented a view of Thomas Cromwell which, while at first glance appearing to owe much to GR Elton, also contained a few tantalising hints of the major new biography he is working on (and which I for one am very much looking forward to reading). Thomas Penn told the story of Henry VII, Winter King, and Ian Mortimer presented a Time-Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. And finally, Melvyn Bragg made the case for William Tyndale as The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England in appropriately evangelical mode, in a strange piece of film which was shot like an episode of the late-lamented popular BBC spy drama, Spooks.
spooks002These documentaries were accompanied by re-runs of the Showtime series, The Tudors (which I don’t intend to dissect here!), and all in all I think that this sort of documentary interest in the period is, in the immortal words of Sellar and Yeatman, A Good Thing. Another recent onscreen foray into Tudor England has been conducted by David Starkey, in his four-part series Music and Monarchy, which began airing on 20 July and finished on Saturday 10 August: UK residents can still catch it on iplayer. Entitled ‘Crown and Choir’, the first episode looked at ‘royal music’ in England from Henry V to the death of Elizabeth I. I have to say, that as a historian who has written a fair amount about sixteenth century music, I had somewhat mixed feelings about watching this documentary. I like the fact that the history of music is something that people (and documentary-makers) seem to be increasingly interested in: in recent years the BBC has also given us Sacred Music and Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, both of which were interesting pieces of television. But music and monarchy? Starkey is of course primarily an historian of elites, and of court culture. But (and I hope that, given the recent online symposium on history from below, I am preaching largely to the converted) the story of music in the sixteenth century is so much more interesting than that, in terms of the broader role it played in popular culture and religion. david-starkey_2622826b

On balance, watching this first episode of Music and Monarchy I was pleasantly surprised. Starkey, for all his controversy and confrontational style as a commenter on current affairs, is a compelling and captivating storyteller, and it’s pretty clear that he is passionately interested in his subject. The tone strikes about the right balance: it isn’t overly simplified or patronising, and neither is it loaded with too much technical jargon. Occasionally Starkey allows his effusiveness about the music to cloud what could be a more rigorous analysis, but this is popular TV, not an academic lecture. He talks to a small number of musicians and academics, including the multi-talented David Skinner, and includes lots of long, sumptuous performances of pieces of early music in the venues in which they were (or at least in which they could possibly have been) performed. All in all then, this documentary too, to my surprise, is probably A Good Thing. Except… For 50 minutes of ‘Crown and Choir’ I broadly enjoyed what I was watching. But for the last 10, I pulled out my hair, and if my train carriage had had opening windows I might have thrown the iPad I was watching out of one of them. This is for two main reasons.

Bad Thing #1. In large part, the interplay between music and monarchy (and religion) was dealt with well, but in the final ten minutes what had functioned quite successfully as a lens turned suddenly into a pair of blinkers. Elizabeth I saved church music, we were told (partly right), but not only that, she did it singlehandedly, solely by maintaining a chapel royal of equivalent musical magnificence to her father, Henry VIII. Inside it, Elizabeth composed for herself a warm and dazzling sacred oratorio; beyond her chapel was merely a cold and frosty Protestant wasteland. Now that is just plain wrong. Even if we leave aside the complex musical picture in the Elizabethan parish church, which may well have still contained an organ, a choir, or at least a couple of paid singers, what about the musical livings she preserved elsewhere, and the university college and cathedral choirs up and down the country? True the chapel royal was probably the best resourced choir in Elizabethan England, but its musical reputation was maintained in part by poaching singers and composers from other musical establishments, such as the composer and organist William Byrd from Lincoln Minster.

Bad Thing #2. Where the parish church was briefly mentioned, it was as a cold, austere, whitewashed box, devoid of all visual and oral ornament. Cue a group of aged parishioners slowly and tunelessly droning out the ‘Old Hundredth’, a musical oxymoron; ‘all people than on earth do dwell, sing to the lord with cheerful voice’! That, Starkey observed, was as good as it got: the best that the man in the street (or at least the parish church) could aspire to. Again, leaving aside the complexity of the parish situation, which I would characterise as a vibrant and amorphous fusion of traditional and innovatory musical forms, the problem with this sort of approach is that it harks back to an outdated musicological approach that equated musical ‘quality’ with historical significance. Congregational metrical psalmody might not be the sort of music that features on the glossy CDs produced by modern choirs like the Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars, but that does not mean that it lacked value or importance (interestingly, the bibliography of the book that accompanies the series references rather dated literature on this topic, such as Temperley’s 1979 Music of the English Parish Church). For the first time, ordinary men and women were invited to play an active and participatory role in parish church worship, by joining in and singing praises together in one resounding voice. Starkey even misses a trick here in terms of his focus on music and monarchy. Such was the popularity and success of congregational song, that in the 1570s the government produced a series of metrical anthems, to be sung to familiar tunes to the glory of both God and the Queen. These works were most obviously to be sung on the ‘Crownation Day’ celebrations of 17 November, and far more people sang them than ever even heard Byrd’s beautiful motet, O Lord, let thy servant, Elizabeth. The reason that the vernacular sacred oratorios of Handel proved so popular in the eighteenth century, one might surmise, is at least in part because by that point the English had been singing themselves Protestant for the best part of two centuries. The reformation had effectively turned every parish church into a choir, albeit often a not very good one.

I don’t feel professionally qualified to comment on the rest of the series, and anyway this is supposed to be a blog, not a monograph. I’m now three-quarters of the way through, and broadly I think that his perspective is an interesting one, and that the documentary is a Good Thing – it might even inspire some people to find out more. But just as the story of popular religious music cannot be told without paying some attention to the interventions of kings and queens, so the musical legacy of kings and queens cannot be properly told without paying some attention to popular reception. And ‘reception’ in this context should not be envisaged as a passive process, but as a means by which people helped to shape the Protestant nation of which they themselves were part.

Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king

Brodie Waddell

Welcome to the 94th edition of Carnivaleque! Today we will be introducing you to a wonderfully motley menagerie of historical blogs and bloggers.

Finding any overall unifying theme is impossible with a collection of this sort, but there are a few key subjects that emerged from the nominations, each of which receives a section below:

  • The historian as detective
  • Bodily functions
  • A venerable criminal enterprise
  • Places, spaces and sites
  • Thinking about the historian’s craft

I think it is particularly interesting what’s not in the links below, namely kings and queens and ‘great battles’, the traditional material for popular histories. Not that political history and military history are entirely absent, just that they are approached from a different direction than usual. Although there are a few of gentlemen and noblewomen as well as a famous scientist, the vast majority of the nominated posts are focused on people who would have been largely excluded from textbooks written fifty years ago. What should we make of this? Is old-fashioned ‘top down’ history dying off? Or is it just that the type of people who read this blog and pay attention to Carnivaleque are predisposed against reading yet another story about Henry VIII and his wives or Charles I and his parliaments? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

However, before wandering into the carnival below, take a look at this truly heart-warming short animation that tells the tale of ‘the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, 1590’, a German werewolf. For more details, see the two posts at LOLManuscripts, but in the meantime, watch the video and be amazed.

Now, on with the show…

Continue reading

REED all about it III: Some musings on music and the micropolitics of Sabbath-breaking in Jacobethan Lancashire

Jonathan Willis

One sunny afternoon last July, the University of Birmingham’s Edgsbaston 295393_10151929538030109_359375196_ncampus played host to some rehearsals by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.  Cellos, violas, tubas and trombones were scattered liberally throughout the Arts Building, and the history department itself played host to the trumpet section.  Hearing (fainter) strains of music in the department is not an uncommon occurrence, as there are student rehearsal rooms in other parts of the building.  This is usually quite enjoyable, even if it occasionally adds a melodramatic quality to meetings or supervisions.  Whether at work or home, we have all probably at some stage encountered some form of music which has permeated our environment uninvited.  Sometimes, as with the NYO or Birmingham’s budding undergraduate virtuosi, this can be an unexpected source of pleasure.  But in other situations, it can be distracting, disruptive, or downright offensive.  Uncleanness, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously observed in her 1966 work on Purity and Danger, is ‘matter out of place’.[1]  In the same way, musical sound in the wrong spatial or chronological context can easily cross the rubicon of taste and order and become a provocative and clamorous noise.  If this is still true in the sound-proofed, double-glazed, cavity-wall insulated, noise-cancelling-headphone-wearing twenty-first century, then it was even truer in the sixteenth, where both welcome and rogue sounds must have travelled with much greater volume, clarity and conspicuousness. Continue reading

Norwich Entertainments – Part V: Ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee

Brodie Waddell

The people of late seventeenth-century Norwich did not get their entertainment solely from hairy children and pieces of plays. They also amused themselves with the ever-growing numbers of printed works that were pouring from the presses at that time.

In June 1680, for example, the Norwich Mayor’s court ordered that ‘Twoe Ballad singers haveing Lycence to Sell ballads, pamphlets small bookes & other bookes Lycensed from the Office of the Revells have leave to doe soe until Monday senight [?seven-night]’.1

Ballad entitled ‘An Excellent New Sonnet On the Goddess Diana and Acteon’ (c.1725-69). EBBA.

Title-page of a chapbook titled ‘The Life and Death of Fayr Rosamond’ (1755). SF.

These balladeers were just two of the hundreds that traipsed through the city streets and country lanes of early modern England, singing to advertise their wares. The exact contents of a peddler’s sack could be very diverse. In addition to all sorts of petty trinkets, they sold tales of drunken sailors, royal mistresses, industrious spinsters, and much else besides. Often these were in the form of broadside song sheets, but they might also be ‘pamphlets’ and ‘small books’, sometimes called chapbooks, written in prose to provide merriment or salvation for the price of penny or two. Margaret Spufford and Tessa Watt, among many others,  have discussed this ‘cheap print’ in much more detail, noting that ballad-sellers were often condemned by the authorities as vagrants. But in late seventeenth-century Norwich at least they seem to have been welcomed by both the townspeople and city officials.

Rather more unusual, however, was the license issued to a man a year earlier. In November 1679, the court declared that ‘Lawrence White is allowed to reade & sell Pamphlets on Horsebacke untill Wednesday next’.2 Continue reading

REED all about it – Part II: Angelic sheep-stealers, iconophobia, and the unaccountable longevity of ‘Merry England’?

Jonathan Willis

Last month I wrote a REED-related post about a minor scuffle at a church ale in Bere Regis in 1590, but this time I would like to highlight a more significant and well-known case, to my mind one of the real gems of the REED material: the controversy surrounding the performance of the Whitsun plays in Chester during the early 1570s.[1]  There was a rich history of sacred drama in Chester going back at least as far as the late fourteenth century, including plays to celebrate Easter, midsummer, and Corpus Christi.  By the sixteenth century, it was held that the ‘old and Antient Whitson playes’ held annually in the city were ‘first made Englished and published by one Randall Higden a monk of Chester Abbey, and sett forth and played at, and by the Citizens of chester charge In the time of Sir Iohn Arneway Knight, and Major of Chester Anno 1268’.[2]  In 1571-2 the plays were still going strong, and detailed guild accounts give a fascinating insight into both the performances themselves, and the degree of time, effort and resource which went into their preparation.  The Smiths, Cutlers and Plumbers’ Records for that year recorded 3d for equipment (a ‘touyle’), 1s 4d for casting costs (‘seekinge our players’), and 7s 8d worth of beef to sustain them ‘for our genrall rehearse’, along with two whole cheeses and spices for the meat.[3]   An amateur dramatics group, like an army, evidently marched on its stomach, as payments for bread over three separate rehearsal days totalled 4s 10d, and to quench the assembled thirst there was 10s worth of ale and 9d of small ‘beare’.  Alongside the players, payments were also made to musicians and minstrels, as well as 4s 2d ‘to the clergy for the songes’, implying a close relationship between the professional religious institutions of the city (quite possibly the choir of Chester Cathedral) and the amateur efforts of the trade guilds. Continue reading