The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations

Brodie Waddell

Whether you’re a historian, a hairdresser or a helicopter pilot, you may well define yourself by your occupation. The same was true in the early modern period, as when legal scribes added ‘labourer’, ‘weaver’ or ‘yeoman’ after each and every name in their records.

Joseph Bufton, the Essex diarist and sermon-goer, was no different in some ways. His father, John, was listed as a ‘clothier’ in at least four documents between 1645 and 1692. His brother, also John, was likewise a ‘clothier’ in 1671 and 1695. Joseph himself was described as a ‘clothier’ when he served as a trustee for a local charity in 1695 and again when he made up his will in 1718. He was, then, a clothier in a family of clothiers.

So why have I titled this series ‘The Woolcomber’s World’? I’ve used that label because Joseph Bufton was – I think – a woolcomber for most of his life, closely linked with the trades of fulling and combing throughout his time at Coggeshall.

Isaac van Swanenburg's 'The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing' (1595)

Isaac van Swanenburg’s ‘The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing’ (1595)

The evidence for this comes from yet another almanac-turned-notebook, a Goldsmith’s Almanack of 1686, which Bufton later described as the one which ‘has the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’. In it he recorded the ordinances of his guild, warrants from magistrates to protect the craft, the articles of the journeymen’s ‘purse’, and of course several lengthy poems lauding the glories of the trade. Continue reading

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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

Memorial and history, Part 4: in which several fights break out and a man is murdered in the Solomon Islands

Laura Sangha

This is the fourth post in a series of posts relating to Exeter’s martyrs memorial, the others are on the following:

harry hems 1     ramm-04

Today’s question is – what do we know about the creation and placing of Exeter’s martyr monument? The endlessly informative Exeter memories website furnished me with more details about the city’s own specimen. Funded by public conscription, it was designed by Exeter’s Harry Hems (above), a London born master sculptor and wood carver, who made Exeter his home. Continue reading

Memorial and history, Part 2: in which John Foxe reveals his sources

Laura Sangha

This is the second of a series of posts on issues relating to Exeter’s martyr memorial. The first post discusses the details of the martyrs themselves.

A monumental achievement

Foxe’s [?] monumental [?] achievement.

The information about Exeter’s martyrs that I related in yesterday’s post was taken from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, popularly known as the ‘Book of Martyrs’. Actes was first published in 1563, five years into the reign of Elizabeth I. It is a work of Protestant history and martyrology, mainly consisting of a polemical account of the sufferings of evangelicals under the Catholic Church.

I’ve previously discussed images of martyrdom on the monster, in this post I am more concerned with as a history of the ‘true’ Church. Continue reading

Memorial and history, Part I: in which two people meet a terrible end

Laura Sangha

googlemapsA recent trip to the pub took me into a new part of Exeter, and on my way there I stumbled across a fascinating snapshot of its history. At the corner of Barnfield and Denmark roads I came to a memorial in the form of an obelisk of Dartmoor granite, with four bronze panels around its base. I assumed it was a twentieth-century war memorial, and went to have a closer look at the bronze reliefs – hey, I’m a historian, my profession compels me to! On examination, I was surprised to discover not a weary line thomas benet bronzeof soldiers in metal helmets, but instead what appeared to be a monk fixing a notice to a wooden door, and I didn’t need the inscription to tell me the door belonged to Exeter Cathedral – an angel from the first tier of sculptures on the West front is clearly depicted on the right hand side. What’s more, a second bronze showed a women chained to a post, clearly suffering a fiery death at the hands of the authorities. Reading the inscriptions, I realised that I had chanced upon a memorial to two sixteenth-century Protestant martyrs who had met their deaths in Exeter.

Firing up the computer on my return home, I soon disappeared down the rabbit hole of the city’s history and our memories, stories about and uses of our past. My initial idea for a brief post mutated into a series of linked musings on the tangled threads of the regional and national history, in all its venerable and unsavoury glory. I’ll be publishing one each day this week. Today I start with the story of the two martyrs commemorated on the memorial, Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest. Continue reading

Living Broadside Ballads: An Immersive Conference Experience

Mark Hailwood (I’m now on twitter: follow me @mark_hailwood)

As many readers of the ‘monster will know, April is one of the academic year’s prime conference seasons – and this year I threw myself into it with gusto, delivering three different papers on two continents in the space of a week. Now I’ve recovered, I wanted to offer some reflections on a unique conference experience that I enjoyed at the Huntington Library’s ‘Living English Broadside Ballads, 1550-1750’ event, convened by Paddy Fumerton of EBBA fame.

‘Immersive’ history has been an important theme of many posts on this blog; that is, an approach to history that concerns itself not only with surviving written sources, but also with the sights, sounds and material traces of past society. So it was fascinating to attend a conference that sought to ‘bring to life’ the various aspects of early modern printed ballads, not just as texts but as songs, dances and visual objects. This isn’t a conventional paper-by-paper conference report, but rather a selection of some of the highlights that spoke to this idea of ‘immersive’ history: Continue reading

The Tudor South West at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: Part 5 – Parting thoughts

Laura Sangha

This is the fifth post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum.

In this final post I offer some brief parting thoughts on the success of the exhibition as an exploration of a complicated and dynamic society.

A skilled society

It was clear that this was a highly creative drakes cup editsociety, with many accomplished practitioners of the arts and crafts. Perhaps this is overemphasised by the very nature of museum exhibitions that are likely to contain a preponderance of manufactured objects and paintings, but that does not detract from the quality of the items on display. There are more prestigious objects such as the Drake Cup (c. 1595). By tradition it was given to Drake by Elizabeth I after he circumnavigated the globe, its silver gilt engraved with a map of the world, complete with names of continents, islands and seas in Latin, plus sailing ships, whales and dolphins. Its hard to imagine anyone actually drinking out of this (it’s enormous and unwieldy for a start), but the same is certainly not true of more everyday objects such as the glazed stoneware drinking vessels and delicate silver spoons also in the collection – whilst important indicators of status and often treasured family possessions, these items were made to be used, not rest on a shelf.

An intellectual society

As ever, I am left to marvel at the intellectual sophistication of people in the distant past, in an era that most people now would think of as the technological dark ages. In terms of intellectual activity the pre-modern period was not backwards or uncivilised, this was a society that exhibited civic pride (for more see day 1: a map of Exeter), where renaissance style and learning was spreading, and where important topographers (such as mapmaker John Norden) and antiquarians (such as Richard Carew) were beginning to make their mark. Another nugget that I learned at the exhibition – Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of Oxford’s Bodleian library, was born in Exeter.

A Protestant society

As a religious historian I am particularly sensitive to the Protestantism that underpins late Tudor society, but I think few historians would disagree that the Reformation’s repercussions were also to be cathedralfelt in every sphere of daily life. From the goldsmiths who prospered when reshaping church plate for a new liturgy (for more see day 3: a Devon communion cup), to the soldiers engaged in an epic struggle against the antichrist and international Catholicism (for more see day 4: the Spanish Armadas), to those for whom scripture became deeply embedded in their ways of expressing themselves and in guiding their everyday activities (for more see day 2: domestic decoration), Protestantism was key. We can’t even begin to understand this society without considering it.

An ambitious society

On his talking tour, exhibition curator and Exeter Professor Sam Smiles described Francis Drake as the Neil Armstrong of his age, and the analogy struck a chord with me that kept reverberating. Partly because it immediately suggested the celebrity of the man – how many contemporaries knew Drake’s name? Current scholarship has a tendency to be picture-astronaut-walking-legsceptical about the importance of exploration for sixteenth century societies, with claims that few people were aware of new discoveries which made little impact on ordinary people’s lives. But the Armstrong analogy is intriguing because of what it suggests about the mentality of the Elizabethans. Clearly some were ambitious, self-confident, cocky even, heading into the unknown on the uncertain hope of economic rewards and a boost for their honour and all important reputation. This was a society where political success and innovation or entrepreneurship were occasionally linked. And it is undoubtedly true that whilst precedent, custom and tradition were revered this was not to the exclusion of novelty.

Two maps in the exhibition really capture this duality. The first is the map of Exeter that I discussed in my first post.

braun_hogenberg_VIThe second is a map of the North America village of Pomeiooc, on Roanoke Island (1585-93).

the-village-of-pomeiooc1Placed next to each other, the similarities between early modern Exeter and Pomeiooc are striking. Pomeiooc is presented as a well ordered settlement, encased in a wooden palisade for defence, it’s inhabitants are hunters, fishers and farmers. Sophisticated visual techniques are again on display – some of the houses are ‘cut away’ to reveal their inner organisation, and there is even a chap practising his archery by the fishing pools in the top right corner, just like in the map of Exeter. As before, this might tell us just as much about the European who painted the map as it does the native Americans that it depicts. It might reveal the tendency of archerEuropeans to impose their own understandings and framework on the new cultures and societies that they encountered in far away places. It might be propaganda, designed to support overseas settlement by enticing potential settlers to the New World – like Exeter, Pomeiooc looks like a productive and fertile community (though I do wonder, what is that wooden fence keeping out…?). It certainly suggests that not all Europeans dismissed these people as barbaric savages, and that they could identify similarities between their own society and non-European counterparts.

An impressive society, an excellent exhibition

All in all, I was deeply impressed by both the achievements and complexity of the Tudor south west, as well as the exhibition’s capacity to capture and explore it. The Golden Age is here in all it’s glory – crafts, art, architecture, entrepreneurs, discovery, military triumph, intellectual development.

My only remaining niggle is that the difficulties, the struggles and the violence of the age are largely absent. Here we see the middling and upper sections of Elizabethan society, but these objects are largely silent about the lower sorts, the people suffering in the hardships of the 1590s, the people resisting religious change and suffering due to economic trends. We do come face to face with Lord John Russell, 1st earl of Bedford,John_Russell_Earl_of_Bedford_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger in a sketch by Holbein the younger. Russell was in charge of the forces that brutally suppressed the West Country or Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, slaughtering hundreds in a number of bloody encounters around Exeter. But here his image must serve as the only reference to the scars left on the south west by that tragic rebellion. Of course, it would be strange to linger on these more troubling aspects of the period in an exhibition that is intended as a pointer to the south west’s ‘manifold contribution to the Tudor age’, and these comments are not intended as a (horribly unfair) criticism of the exhibition. They are included here as representative of my worry that perhaps there is too little space for the lower sorts in our museums and a reminder that we should fight hard to make sure they can find a place.

In summary, this is undoubtedly an excellent exhibition that certainly fulfils its remit of revealing the intellectual, artistic and economic importance of south west in the Tudor Age. The sophistication of this society is perhaps the most striking impression that one is left with: despite being a geographically-peripheral region, this was by no means a provincial backwater. Head to the RAMM to see for yourself.

‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here