Imagining the Past

Mark Hailwood

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‘Tis ale good and new

So, I recently had the chance to pop into a seventeenth-century alehouse for a quick beer – not a bad way to mark the publication of the paperback of my book on the subject, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was during a recent trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex with our Women’s Work Project team, which gave us the chance to recreate some early modern work activities, and in a spare half hour at the end of our visit I took the chance to visit the rescued seventeenth-century cottage that the museum thinks might have served as an alehouse in that period.

As I sat in front of the fireplace at the alebench with my quart in hand I tried to conjure up in my mind the other elements that would have filled out this scene four centuries ago. What sounds would have filled the place – what conversations and songs? What smells would have filled the air – the wood smoke, baking pies? Who might have been there? What would they have looked like, been wearing… smelt like? What bawdy or godly ballads might have been pasted up on the wall? How would the beer have tasted? What would the toilet facilities have been like? I tried to imaginatively immerse myself in a seventeenth-century alehouse scene.

The challenge of recapturing these sensory and experiential components of the past is something I have often blogged about, and this trip was obviously a stimulating one in bringing these issues to the forefront of my mind. But as I sat there in the alehouse mining my imagination I reflected that this process of imagining the past isn’t only triggered by being in an immersive environment like this one. It is something we all do all the time – just not as explicitly and self-consciously as we do when visiting a living history museum. Continue reading

A Walk in the Park: History from Below and the English Landscape

Mark Hailwood

Back in the autumn, midway though a week-long research trip to the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, I decided to take an afternoon off to stretch my legs – there is, after all, a limit to how many days in row you can spend hunched over the documents, click-clicking away on your digital camera, before your sanity is in peril. So, after lunch I jumped in the car and headed due east into the South Downs, a part of the country I’d never explored before.

p1220089A quick glance at the road atlas and a suitable destination for my walk jumped out at me: Petworth Park, the curvaceous landscaped grounds of a seventeenth-century mansion house, complete with the largest herd of fallow deer in England. What better place for a stroll in the autumnal sunshine than a landscape curated by ‘Capability’ Brown, immortalised in numerous works by Turner, and populated by turning trees and grazing deer. It was all very pleasant indeed.

One of Turner's takes on Petworth Park

One of Turner’s takes on Petworth Park

But there was something amiss. For all that Petworth is an important site of English cultural and landscape history, it was not its connections with Brown and Turner that had drawn me there. Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part IV: Births, deaths, marriages and fighting cocks

Brodie Waddell

On 22 March 1697, ‘there were a great many fighting Cocks carried through Coxall on horsback in linen baggs’. So wrote Joseph Bufton in one of his eleven surviving notebooks.

Watching to cocks tear eachother apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

Watching two birds tear each other apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

But this odd little memorandum was not an isolated scribbling. It was, in fact, just one of about 180 entries in his Coggeshall chronicle, which he began in February 1678 and continued to May 1697. In it, we find festive celebrations, church business, unusual weather, family injuries, highway robberies and much else besides.

The entries from 1693, a fairly typical year, give a sense of the whole:

  • 11 Jan. 1693, John Bufton went to combing.
  • 4 Feb. 1693, my cousin Sparhawk was carried to prison.
  • 15 Feb. 1693, there was a bonfire made by the Crown for the joy that Squire Honeywood got the day of Sir Eliab Harvey and was not cast out of the Parliament and when he came home from Chelmsford through Coxall the night after he was chosen abundance of candles were lighted for joy.
  • 24 Mar. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon and went back again through Kelvedon 28 Mar.
  • early 1693, the new king’s arms and the 10 commandments new writ were set up in the church.
  • 1693, the Quakers made a new burying place in Crouches
  • 1 May 1693, the soldiers set up a Maypole at the Woolpack door
  • 18 May 1693, the poor did rise because the Bakers would not bake, because some of their bread was cut out the day before for being too light.
  • May 1693, my cousin Sparhawk came home.
  • beginning of May 1693 Francis Clark broke.
  • end of May 1693 the same month the Poor had Badges given them to weare which tis said were made of Pewter and Coggeshall Poor 1693 set upon them.
  • 1693, Mr Mayhew sold Coxall Lordship to Mr Nehemiah Lyde of London. 11 May he came first for his rent and 5 Jun kept court and Counsellor Cox was his steward.
  • June 1693, our 4th bell was carried to Sudbury to be new shot and brought home and the other were chipt to make them tuneable. They were first rung 6 July.
  • 30 Oct. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon.
  • 2 Nov. 1693, John Ancil had hung himself but was cut down in time.
  • 1693, a new pound was set up on Grange hill and the shambles was repaired.

Continue reading

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 (http://puddinglanedmuga.blogspot.co.uk/century) 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 (http://reformation.modhist.ox.ac.uk/index.html)

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 intellectual value of gaming: Sid Meier’s Civilization, Oregon Trail and a streetview of London in the 1660s

Brodie Waddell

Some time ago I claimed that Eric Hobsbawm’s work was one the initial spurs that pushed me towards becoming a historian. However, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the long journey to my current profession was prompted solely or even primarily by such an academically reputable source. In fact, a larger part was probably played by a computer game: Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

Continue reading

Matthew Jackson, ‘Relocating history from below: places, spaces and databases’

[This is the fifth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Matthew Jackson is a doctoral student at the University of Warwick undertaking a comparative study of drinking culture in early modern Bristol and Bordeaux. He recently published an article on the contested character of female publicans.]

Three interrelated issues arose at the recent workshop at Birkbeck that stood out for me as central to the current condition and future directions of the field of ‘history from below’: studying dispersed geographical places, investigating specific physical spaces, and using large-scale online databases.

Let’s begin with the debates about comparative, transnational and global approaches to ‘history from below’, spurred by remarks at the workshop from William Farrell and Tawny Paul. The idea that global history – typically vast geographical transactions of people and commodities – can combine with social history – prioritising analytical depth over geographical breadth – poses methodological challenges for historians, and the issue was the focus of some provocative debate at the workshop. How, though, might social historians ‘from below’ consider larger comparative examinations without diluting the detail and depth of their own approaches to the subject? Continue reading

Nicola Whyte, ‘Landscape history from below’

[This is the third piece in the ‘Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Nicola Whyte is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter whose research focuses on the interface of early modern social history and post medieval landscape studies. Her publications include Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2009), and she is currently part of an interdisciplinary team studying ‘The Past in its Place’.]

The field of landscape history and archaeology in Britain is a divided one. Fault lines separate proponents of the traditional, ‘empirical school’ from those who advocate more theoretically informed landscape research. I want to argue that this division is unhelpful for not only does it reduce interpretation to a set of binaries (objective/subjective, physical/cognitive, economic/symbolic), it also detracts from the importance of landscape research in addressing current concerns about environmental change and sustainability, and how research can engage people outside the university. In this brief piece I want to advocate an interdisciplinary approach to ‘history from below’ from a landscape perspective, which takes on board recent theoretical scholarship but retains empirical research at its core. Continue reading