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

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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

‘Clothes to go handsome in’: what did the seventeenth-century rural poor think about the clothes that they wore?

This guest post comes from Danae Tankard, a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural History at the University of Chichester. It follows on from Mark’s recent post on ‘Material Culture from Below’ and further demonstrates the potential of court depositions for examining the material culture of the lower orders in early modern England – here, their clothing. It provides an introduction to Danae’s broader body of work on the clothing of the rural poor in seventeenth-century England. You can follow Danae @morley1640.

Danae Tankard

Yet with that and such like words I made shift to buy me some clothes, and then I went to church on Sunday, which I never could do before for want of clothes to go handsome in.  My father being poor and in debt could not provide us with clothes fitting to go to church in (so we could not go to church) unless we would go in rags, which was not seemly.[1]

This passage is taken from the autobiographical writings of Edward Barlow, the son of an impoverished husbandman, born in Prestwich in Lancashire in 1642.  Written retrospectively when Barlow was a thirty-one year old seaman and had learned to read

Barlow leaving home

Barlow leaving home: in ‘rags’?

and write, it describes the period leading up to his first departure from home aged twelve or thirteen.  Since his father could not afford to indenture him as an apprentice, Barlow worked for his neighbours, harvesting and haymaking and carting coal from the local coal pits, for which he received ‘but small wages’ of about two or three pence a day.[2]  By making ‘shift’ he was able to buy himself some clothes to ‘go handsome in’ to replace the ‘rags’ that he had worn before.  The significance of these new clothes in Barlow’s account is that they allow him to attend church, something he could not do before ‘unless [he] would go in rags, which was not seemly’.  His description of his clothing as ‘rags’ may be an exaggeration but it enables Barlow to express his sense of shame at having nothing decent to wear to church.  However, Barlow does not want just any clothes: he wants clothes ‘to go handsome in’.  In other words, he wants to look good. Continue reading

Material Culture ‘from Below’

Mark Hailwood

I went to a conference, and all I got was this lousy blog post.

That’s right, this is one of those blog posts thought up whilst staring pensively out of a train window on a journey home from three days at a wonderfully stimulating and sociable conference – in this instance, on ‘Gender, Power and Materiality in Early Modern Europe’, at the University of Plymouth. Back in April. Of 2016. Still, better late than never.

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Gloves: they fit the conference theme

I signed up for said conference, despite my lack of familiarity with the field of early modern material culture studies, to try out a paper on the spatial division of labour in rural England, 1500-1700, based on material coming out of the Women’s Work Project. The paper went well enough, and over the course of the conference as a whole I learnt a huge amount about the material culture of the period, and about the sophisticated methodologies used by the reflective practitioners of material cultural history. It whet my appetite for the study of material culture. But it also left me hungry for more of a particular type of material culture history – one focused on the common people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In what will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, I wanted more material culture ‘from below’.

The conference offered a rich diet of papers focused on the gentry and aristocracy of early modern Europe, but was light on the material things that populated the worlds of their social inferiors. Not for the first time as a social historian I found myself experiencing ‘modernist envy’, as my mind turned to examples of research into the material culture of the working class in the industrial age – Ruth Mather on working class homes in the period 1780-1830; Julie-Marie Strange’s focus on ‘father’s chair’ as a way into the domestic relationships of the Victorian working class; Carolyn Steedman’s wonderful essay on the meanings of a rag rug.[1] And how about the insights into working class material culture to be gleaned from Lark Rise to Candleford? Continue reading

What is microhistory now?

Brodie Waddell

Ulinka Rublack, in her introduction to a recent symposium at the Institute for Historical research, argued that it was time for us to revisit ‘microhistory’. Partly, she said, this was because microhistory had been explicitly challenged by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in their History Manifesto for being too focused on narrow and specialist histories at the expense of the ‘big picture’. However, Rublack also suggested that microhistory has been misconstrued by the tendency among even sympathetic scholars only engage with the ‘classics’ of the genre – especially Carlo Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre – rather consider the wealth of new microhistories that have been written in recent decades.

Combined image

As someone long fascinated by microhistory, it was wonderful to be able to come along to this event. I’ve written about defining it, branding it and defending it before on this blog, and I’ll be running an MA module on microhistory at Birkbeck in the coming year, so I was keen to hear more about the current scholarship, and I was not disappointed. It was a excellent event and it touched on facets of this concept that I had hardly considered before. It would be far too ambitious to attempt to summarise each of the six speakers much less the discussion that followed, but I thought it might be productive to draw attention to two angles that particularly caught my attention.

Microhistory as a meeting place

Continue reading

What should prospective history students read over the summer?

Laura Sangha and #twitterstorians

tweetLast week I asked historians on twitter what three books they would recommend for prospective students to read over the summer – those students starting a history degree in September. I got a lot of responses (thanks very much, brilliant #twitterstorians), and you can read the full list at the end of this post. Before you do, here are a few thoughts that struck me about summer reading for history students.

Question: exactly what is the best way to prepare for studying history at university? People evidently had widely differing opinions on this. Or rather, the books that they recommended seemed to suggest differing opinions. It all did seem to add up to some key themes though, which I have summarised as:

Bloch1) Students need to get to know the discipline, since what they did at school is not representative of it. So they should read ‘what is history’ books which explain why and how academics study the past. These might mainly cover historiography, or might be focused on issues that are fundamental to the discipline, i.e. what footnotes are, or why there is fiction in the archives. (See list section ‘The Historian’s Craft’).

2) Students need to think about the skills and techniques needed by historians. Therefore they should read ‘what is history’ books, but preferably ones with practical, hands on advice about how to read, analyse, write essays and research etc. Continue reading