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English Historical Documents



For digital offices, IHR Digital always seems to have a lot of paper products around. At the nexus of Reviews in History sits the Great Cham of reviewing, Danny Millum, with teams of assistants bringing copies of the latest history titles to his desk.

The editors of the Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH) amass neater piles of books and articles as they carefully check page references and scan collected volumes for chapters relevant to British history (often a fine judgement). It was in this stack that I found the 2011 edition of the journal Memoria y Civilización, which has an article in it by Heather Shore, called ‘Inventing and Re-Inventing the Juvenile Delinquent in British History’.

That immediately interested me because of the riots that took place in London and other cities last summer; what struck me about the commentary on the riots was how completely unhistorical practically all of it was. At the time I was working on a digital project to classify the documents in the series English Historical Documents and I was using the terms “urban” and “riots” quite frequently.

Just to pick a couple of examples, there were riots by apprentices in London in 1584; there were riots caused by the imposition of the prayer book in Edinburgh in 1637; and troops were used against rioters in London in 1768 and 1780.

I was using “urban” and “riots” to mark up these documents because these are the terms used by BBIH. Searching “riots” and “urban” on BBIH today gives me 139 results: there has clearly been plenty written on this topic.

Heather Shore’s article is historiographical in focus, discussing how, since the 1970s, historians have dealt with the topic of juvenile delinquency and, indeed, the notions of childhood and adolescence themselves. This is clearly a rich area for the scholars who work in it, but for the rest of us it might at least give some context to claims about the moral collapse of Britain in 2011:

‘Whilst…moral panic and concern about youth was not a phenomenon of the later Victorian and Edwardian period, there is little doubt that by the early twentieth century the ‘youth problem’ had a specific texture.
[Heather Shore, 'Inventing and Re-Inventing the Juvenile Delinquent in British History', Memoria y Civilización 14/2011, 105-132]‘

With the odd exception, there was none of this context to commentary on the riots last year. Most of the commentariat seemed to be suffering from what has usefully been termed the recency illusion. This is a cognitive bias to which we’re all prone, and it would be an example of the recency illusion to think that people didn’t labour under it in the past as well: Lord Berrington, Secretary at War, addressed it in a speech about the use of troops against rioters in 1780, mentioned above:

It is said, that the introduction of the military in cases of riot is a novel practice. Sir, the standing army itself is novel: it is but eighty years old: the practice is very old compared with the existence of the army.
[English Historical Documents, volume X, document 72a]

Was Titus Oates Ugly?


I’m struck by the fact that in Volume 8 of English Historical Documents, both the documents which deal with Titus Oates concentrate on his physical appearance. Roger North’s Examen (document 397) describes him like this:

He was a low man, of an ill-cut, very short neck, and his visage and features were most particular. His mouth was the centre of his face, and a compass there would sweep his nose, forehead and chin within the perimeter. Cave quos ipse Deus notavit. In a word, he was a most consummate cheat, blasphemer, vicious, perjured, impudent and saucy, foul-mouthed wretch…

It is taken for granted here that physical ugliness is connected to moral ugliness, and the two ideas are linked by a Latin tag – ‘watch out for those God has marked out’ – which suggests that the former is divine judgement for the latter.

Oates (1649-1705) was the principal informant for the ‘Popish Plot’. The so-called plot was a fabrication which engendered anti-Catholic hysteria and led to the executions of a number of people (including Richard Langhorne, who I mentioned when blogging about banking failures): Oates’s false evidence helped condemn them.

The second document on Oates, number 398, is an excerpt from Absalom and Achitophel. John Dryden was a Catholic convert and in the poem, a witty commentary on the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion, Oates appears as Corah, and again his appearance is the focus:

Sunk were his eyes, his voice was harsh and loud
Sure signs he neither choleric was, nor proud
His long chin proved his wit, his saintlike grace
A church vermilion and a Moses face.

In their edition of Dryden’s poems, Paul Hammond and David Hopkins quote several more unflattering descriptions of Oates, including this one by the Jesuit John Warner:

his face was flat, compressed in the middle so as to look like a dish or a discus; on each side were prominent ruddy cheeks; his nose was snub, his mouth in the very centre of his face, for his chin was almost equal in size to the rest of his face…The rest of his figure was equally grotesque; more like a beast’s than human, it filled people with contempt.

This is beginning to look familiar, particularly the implausible claim that Oates’s mouth was the geometrical centre of his face. I don’t know if any of these writers ever saw Oates, but images of him circulated (see here for some examples) and it is a well-attested phenomenon that memories can be rewritten by subsequent information.

Allied to this, it was a commonplace of the time that the ugly are likely to be morally bad, as in Bacon’s essay ‘Of Deformity‘:

Deformed persons are commonly even with nature: For as Nature hath done ill by them; So doe they by Nature: Being for the most part, (as the Scripture saith) void of Naturall Affection

The only picture I have seen that looks like it was done from life doesn’t quite agree with the canonical idea of ugliness. True, Oates is no Clooney, and, true, it might be flattering the sitter, but it’s a different view of Oates:

Unfortunately for fans of Oates, he does seem to have been genuinely morally ugly: Alan Marshall’s DNB article on him concludes:

For a time Oates succeeded beyond his dreams and was genuinely honoured as the saviour of the nation, but the sordid reality of his life in which there were no great secrets to uncover, only back alley meetings, stealing, begging, and poverty, vice, fear, and hatred, and above all failure, soon caught up with him.

Christmas violence


Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents
The Christmas story is a violent one, at least according to the account in Matthew’s gospel:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Matthew II.16, New International Version

In time for the Christmas season the IHR Digital office has received a book for review by Robert Muchembled, called A History of Violence. My colleague, Danny Millum, has managed to get this book reviewed alongside Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for Reviews in History, and the conjunction should provide a fascinating article to read next year. The thesis of Muchembled’s book seems to be similar to Pinker’s: that there has been a marked decline in violence since the twelfth century. In fairness to Muchembled, I should mention that his book was originally published in 2008 as Une histoire de la violence.

Since violence has been something of a theme of my blog posts on English Historical Documents, I thought it would be appropriately festive to mention an incident that occurred in Acton Scott, in Shropshire, on Christmas Day 1287, between John de Quercubus and Hugh de Weston:

after sunset there were some men singing outside a tavern kept by Richard son of William de Skottesacton in that town. And Hugh came by the door immensely drunk and quarrelled with the singers. Now John was standing by, singing, and Hugh hated him a little because he sang well…so Hugh took a naked sword in his hand and ran at John, striking him once, twice, thrice, on the head, and nearly cutting off two fingers of his left hand. And John…ran into a corner near the street under a stone wall. And Hugh ran after him and tried to kill him, so he drew his knife and wounded Hugh in the chest, killing him instantly.
English Historical Documents, Volume 3, document 198.

Merry Christmas one and all!

What’s in a name?


William Blake: The Simoniac Pope
Christian attitudes to hell seem to have changed somewhat in the last century or two. Tertullian and Aquinas both thought that one of the delights of heaven would be a ringside seat to watch the torments of the damned. By contrast, in the salons of Proust’s Paris the Abbé Mugnier was asked if he believed in hell. “I do, because it is a doctrine of the Church”, he is said to have replied, “but I don’t believe there is anyone in it.”

A letter from Innocent III to an English monk in 1206 shows us something about the real fear of hell. The letter is included in English Historical Documents, volume 3, document 164. The issue was that the monk, who was originally called Henry, loyally changed his name to Augustine when he joined the Augustinian order. Then he had been worried enough to write to the Pope about the name change:

you fear that after death you may derive no benefit from the prayers which your loving brethren will make for you under the second of the two names.

Innocent assures Augustine that it will be all right: “you can with confidence keep the name given you at the time of your profession”, and then gently points out that he, too, had changed his name (he was previously known as Lotario di Segni) and he wasn’t too worried about prayers for him being incorrectly filed in heaven.

Dante’s Commedia, the hitchhiker’s guide to the afterlife, contains a fair number of popes, and a fair number of them are in hell. Innocent was perhaps right to be sanguine about his own chances because he doesn’t appear at all, except as a passing mention in the story of St Francis of Assisi (Paradiso XI). Innocent III was the pope who, grudgingly, allowed Francis to set up his own ascetic monastic order. In Paradiso the humble friar treats Innocent royally – regalmente – making abundantly clear Dante’s view of the real hierarchy.

An Imaginative Punishment


The reputation of English wine has improved dramatically in recent years, and even some world-class wines are being produced, but in general England is not thought of as a centre of viticulture.

So it’s not surprising to find that in London in 1364, at the tavern of Walter Doget, St Leonard’s Eastcheap, one John Penrose was found guilty of selling red wine that was “unsound and unwholesome, in deceit of the common people” [English Historical Documents, volume 4, document 616].

In November of that year Penrose was sentenced to a year and a day in prison but, for some reason, the judges (there were four of them) changed their minds about a week later, and instead ruled:

that John Penrose shall drink a draught of the same wine which he sold to the common people; and the remainder of such wine shall then be poured on the head of John Penrose; and he shall forswear the calling of a vintner in the City of London for ever

There are some excellent wine pubs in London today (I’m quite fond of the Princess Victoria in Shepherd’s Bush) but there are also publicans who, while they may not deserve a year and a day in prison, might do well to forswear the calling of a vintner for ever.

Plus ça change


The recent bank bail-out is still fresh in the public mind, as shown by the Occupy London campaign. A look at volume XII(2) of English Historical Documents reveals that bank bail-outs are nothing new. Document 62 is an article in The Economist from December 1890, in which the Stock Exchange thanks the Bank of England for preventing the collapse of Barings.

Barings had been overexposed to sovereign debt – does any of this sound familiar? The previous month The Economist had said something that might have come from Occupy London:

It is, indeed, a pity that such a great house should have been brought low, but it would have been still more to be regretted if the punishment for the errors which have been committed should have fallen, not upon those responsible for them, but upon innocent parties.
[Volume XII(2), document 61]

Barings was saved…until it was brought down in 1995 by the massive losses of a trader gambling on the futures market.

The UK National Debt (which began before the UK itself, in the middle of the seventeenth century) currently stands at £594.5 billion, according to Wolfram Alpha. It wasn’t quite so high in the reign of Charles II, but in 1672 the king decided to ‘stop the Exchequer’ – which meant that he refused to pay his private creditors (EHD, volume 8, document 128).

Richard Langhorne, a barrister later executed in the response to the ‘Popish Plot’, wrote to Lord Hatton that “his Majesty sent to the bankers in Lombard Street to advance a considerable sum of present moneys”. Owing money to the bankers of Lombard Street is the origin of the phrase “to be in lumber”. In stopping payment to the bankers, Langhorne concluded: “I believe it certain that the trade of bankers is totally destroyed” (Volume 8, document 129).

Langhorne’s prediction was wrong, and the country’s public finances are still in lumber.

Three Godfrey of Boullions in one day


A colleague is working on English Historical Documents and came across the name of Godfrey of Boullion in the context of Caxton’s publications. In Caxton defends the historicity of King Arthur (1485), Caxton, in his preface to Malory’s King Arthur, outlines his “nine worthies” including Godfrey, “…whose acts and life I made a book for the excellent prince and king of noble memory King Edward IV.” We discussed why Godfrey was in the company of such other “worthies” as King Arthur, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Charlemagne.

Later the same day, while checking articles for inclusion in the Bibliography of British and Irish History, I came across the article Guy of Warwick, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Elizabethan Repertory in the journal Early Theatre. The article is about the interaction between England the Ottoman Empire and the depiction of Islam as shown in drama. It includes a discussion of the Thomas Heywood play The Four Prentices of London, a play about Godfrey, his family, and the pilgrimage and crusade to Jerusalem.

Later the same day the IHR Director’s seminars listing was circulated and, you’ve guessed it, Godfrey appears again, this time in a seminar – Godfrey of Bouillon: the development of a First Crusade hero, c. 1100–1325.

Transported Women and Sailors


In an earlier post about the sexual mores on board transportation ships, I wondered what might have happened to the women when they arrived in New South Wales. Some of them undoubtedly were pregnant but presumably all the sailors they had partnered with during the voyage would be returning to the northern hemisphere.

In continuing my work on English Historical Documents I soon found some interesting direct evidence. Document 503 in Volume XI (1783-1832) is a letter from just such a women transportee, then in Port Jackson:

As for the distresses of the women, they are past description, as they are deprived of tea and other things they were indulged in, during the voyage, by the seamen

Then we learn that, although some sailors seem to have done the decent thing, others did the more predictable thing:

though a number of marriages have taken place, several women who became pregnant on the voyage, and are since left by their partners, who have returned to England, are not likely even here to form an fresh connections.

An interesting additional point is that letters home were clearly censored:

All our letters are examined by an officer; but a friend takes this for me privately. The ships sail tonight.

Perhaps this censorship has affected the quality of the evidence on the fate of women convicts in Australia, but we are lucky that this clandestine letter has survived.

The Murder of Bishops and the Decline of Violence


Steven Pinker’s new book about the decline of violence has been getting some media coverage in the past few weeks. I have been looking forward to reading the book for quite a while, and I was encouraged to see a positive review by the political scientist David Runciman in The Guardian.

Whether or not Pinker’s thesis – that the modern world is measurably less violent than at any other time in human history – is correct, there are plenty of striking examples of violence that I have come across in my work on English Historical Documents.

For example, in 1450 two bishops were murdered in England in two quite separate incidents. Adam Moleyns, the Bishop of Chichester, was sent by the king to Portsmouth to make payments to some soldiers and sailors:

and so it happened that with boisterous language, and also for curtailment of their wages, he fell at variance with them, and they fell on him, and cruelly killed him there.

[Volume IV, document141]

Six months later the Bishop of Salisbury, William Aiscough, was saying mass in Edington, Wiltshire; as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it:

He was dragged out onto a hill, hacked to death, and despoiled. In the following days his palace at Salisbury and several episcopal manors were ransacked.

We don’t live in such exciting times. The only British episcopal ‘incident’ I can remember is when the then Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, allegedly got into a stranger’s car when drunk and threw toys out of it.

At the very least Pinker’s book might help to dispel the idea that life in pre-industrial societies was always a bucolic idyll.

Sex on Convict Ships


I have been working on the series English Historical Documents for a forthcoming digital project. These 14 volumes collect key primary sources for the history of England, Scotland and Wales between 500 and 1957. There are lots of interesting documents to be found here, and over the next few months I’ll be blogging about a few that have caught my eye.

For example, in 1812 Lord Auckland wrote to Viscount Sidmouth (the former Prime Minister, better known as Henry Addington):

Having this year been Chairman of the Committee of Transportation, and having in consequence my attention much called to the subject, I yesterday visited a brig now lying in the river and prepared for the conveyance of female convicts to Botany Bay. In answer to a question put by me as to the means of preventing improper intercourse between the sailors and the women, I was told by the master that every sailor was allowed to have one women to cohabit with during the voyage, but that having once made his choice he was not allowed afterwards to change.

[Volume XI, document 320]

It hadn’t occurred to me that there might have been separate ships for male and female convicts, as was clearly the case here, and so I thought I’d investigate a bit.

I turned to the Bibliography of British and Irish History and searched for the index terms “sexual mores” AND “transportation”. This gives nine results, of which the most directly relevant seemed to be Joy Damousi’s article, ‘Chaos and order: Gender, space and sexuality on female convict ships’, in Australian Historical Studies in April 1995 (Vol. 26 Issue 104). Some readers may have institutional access to the article.

Damousi tells us that “it was only after 1811 that the segregation of male and female convicts became the norm”, so Auckland was writing at a time of change. Indeed a big change occurred in 1817, when women “were more rigidly supervised and endured a more structured daily routine than during the pre-1816 phase of transportation”, although “liaisons between crew and female convicts reamined an ongoing source of anxiety”. Does anyone know if Lord Auckland was involved in these reforms?

Joy Damousi’s article is full of detail of the lives of women on convict ships, but it doesn’t address a topic I’d like to know more about: what happened to the relationships between the women, some of them pregnant, and the sailors, when a convict ship reached its destination?