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.
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.
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.
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)
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?
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?
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?