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1757, 1857 and 1947: three momentous years in India’s recent past: Part 3, 1947

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Last month the library began a series of blog posts about some of the most notable years of India’s history during the British occupation; the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the Rebellion of 1857. Here the last instalment will highlight some works from the library’s collection which give some understanding of the events surrounding the independence of India in 1947 and the subsequent partition.

A particular strength of the collection is its range of official sources which give the viewpoint of the out-going British. The transfer of power, 1942-7, a multi-volume collection of sources published by the H.M.S.O. conveys this view. As one would expect, this work puts the process of independence in the broader context of the 1940s as well as having four volumes (of a twelve volume work) devoted to developments from November 1946 to the 15th August 1947. Also found in our collection are Louis Mountbatten’s report of events during the spring and summer of 1947, as well as the diary of Pamela Mountbatten (1929– ), Lord Mountbatten’s youngest daughter. Although varying in formality, from the official documents issued from the British government to the views of a teenager, all were entrenched in the centre of the British political establishment in India at the time.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mountbatten_addressing_the_Independence_Day_session_of_the_Constituent_Assembly_on_Aug_15,_1947.jpg

Lord Mountbatten addressing the Independence Day session of the Constituent Assembly on August 15, 1947. Seated at his right is Dr Rajendra Prasad, President of the Assembly.

Moving away from the direct centre of the British administration, however, a number of works in the library offer differing glimpses into developments during 1947 and 1948. A civil servant since 1935 and appointed partition secretary in 1947, the memoirs of Hiralal Muljibhai Patel (1903–1993) convey the impressions of someone not only from within the workings of Britain’s imperial administration but also someone who would have a major role to play in the new Indian administration.

Away from the government buildings and bureaucracies the course of independence and partition can be gleaned from two further works from our collection. One is the account of the American journalist (and later ambassador) William Phillips Talbot (1915–2010) who at the time was working for the Institute of Current World Affairs. He was not only a keen observer of political events but also of the social and humanitarian ramifications of the partition. The second work is the memoirs of Sir Fulque Agnew (1900–1975). Although he was a member of the British nobility, his career was at times far from typical; running away from school at 17 to join the British army and later air-force during the First World War, he would later become a conscientious objector working for the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War Two and would be briefly be in India in 1947–48, undertaking humanitarian work where he witnessed, although briefly, some of the horrors that took place during the partition.

Source Wikimedia Common (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_refugee_train,_Punjab,_1947.jpg)

A refugee train, Punjab, 1947

Understandably these sources only give the briefest of impressions of events that would affect millions. The library, however, remains committed to add to all its collections and acquire works that will offer a broader spectrum of narratives, from the national to the local. Moreover the area around the Institute of Historical Research is lucky to be rich in other collections, notably the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies which offer many more voices from the years 1947 and 1948.

Part 1: 1757

Part 2: 1857

Bibliography of British and Irish History updated (June 2017) and journal coverage

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An update to the Bibliography of British and Irish History was published on 20 June. 4, 455 new records have been added. Some 612 new records relate to Irish history while 237 deal with the history of London, 354 with the history of Scotland and 125 with the history of Wales. The overall total of records available online is now 588,873.

We regularly search for content relevant to the Bibliography in a large range of journals (over 780 are checked).  We also consider new journals (both in print and open access) and assess whether or not to add a new journal to the list. If any users think we have missed a new journal please contact us via the feedback form.

 

Recent additions have included Manuscript Studies, History of Retailing and Consumption, Cultural History, British Journal for Military History and Early Modern Women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have access to the online Bibliography, you can also see journal coverage by selecting “Coverage” from the main menu on the search page, and then selecting the “Currently searched systematically for relevant material” radio button.  Note that items from journals or series that we have decided to cover only recently may not be included in the published Bibliography yet.

 

We expect the next update to be released in October 2017.

 

New Frontiers in American Slave Revolts

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This post has kindly been written for us by Kathryn Olivarius, Past & Present Fellow.

No champion of American slavery had a larger pulpit or did more articulate and forward proslavery ideology than Senator John C. Calhoun, the former Vice-President and darling of South Carolina’s planter class.[1] With his “positive good” thesis, he was the first Southerner of national eminence to say openly in Congress what historian Richard Hofstadter claimed, “almost all the white South had come to feel.”[2] In 1838, Calhoun claimed “a mysterious Providence” had brought African slaves to America. The parallel lives of blacks and whites had “secured the peace and happiness of both… Each had improved; the inferior greatly… [Achieving] a degree of civilization never before attained by the black race in any age or country.” Calhoun continued, “Every plantation is a little community with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative.” These small communities “aggregated make the State in all, whose action, labor, and capital is equally represented and perfectly harmonized.”[3]

Calhoun enslaved hundreds of people during his lifetime. It is highly doubtful that the people he owned—working under threat of physical, sexual, and psychological violence—would have echoed his idea that the plantation was “perfectly harmonized.” Moreover, it was not a “mysterious providence” that brought Africans to the Americans. Rather, it was thousands of human beings, working at all levels of the vast imperial trans-Atlantic slave trade who unwillingly carried 12 million Africans to the Americas, over 300,000 of whom landed on North American shores.[4] And despite Calhoun’s pious pronouncements, the plantation and larger system of American unfreedom was anything but “peaceful.” Generations of black Americans lived and worked their entire lives in bondage, with no chance at freedom, all to increase the capital—social, political, and economic—of whites.

The “peace” was disrupted in other ways, too. During the period of American slavery (1619 to 1865), hundreds of slave revolts took place – moments of black-on-white violence where enslaved blacks armed themselves, marched on cities, killed whites, destroyed property and crops, and demanded that the ideas of the American Revolution, colour-blind in rhetoric, could be so in fact.

Slave resistance has long been a focus of historical attention. Enslaved persons worked slowly, feigned sickness, ran away, poisoned their masters, and broke machinery. Some slaves (especially women) committed suicide and infanticide and induced abortions – desperate to save their kin from a lifetime of brutality.[5]

Slave revolts, however, have garnered the most historiographical attention, perhaps because they were often violent, white people wrote a great deal about them, and they caused widespread social panic. Moreover, they also almost always ended in extreme legal and extra-legal retribution which saw dozens if not hundreds of allegedly-involved slaves executed.

Historians such as Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts (1943) to Eugene Genovese’s From Rebellion to Revolution (1992) to Junius P. Rodriguez’s Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion (2007) have chronicled between 200 and 300 individual slave revolts that took place in mainland North America, firmly situating these events within a larger Caribbean and South American nexus. Other historians have analysed the motivations of slaves who chose to rise up. Echoing the assertion of C. L. R. James that “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy” in Haiti (1791 to 1803), Virgin Islands (1790s), and Afro-Cuban rebellions (1820 to 1847), historian William Suttles described how African religious traditions infused insurrections in the United States.[6]

Certain large slave revolts have been analysed in great detail. Recent books about the 1739 rebellion in Stono, South Carolina (at least 86 people killed in punishment)[7], the 1811 German Coast uprising in Louisiana (over 200 people involved)[8], and Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Southampton, Virginia (55-65 people killed by the insurgents; perhaps 200 blacks killed by mobs in retaliation)[9] have shown that slaves were highly organized and animated by the actions of slaves elsewhere. Certain revolting slaves like Gabriel Prosser of Richmond, Virginia (1800) and Cinqué of the Amistad rebellion (1839) are now American folk heroes. These rebellious men have been described in mythic, even romantic terms for their actions against a brutal white supremacist regime and the inspiration that they offered to others.

Considering that American slavery lasted for almost two-hundred and fifty years, involved millions of people, was legal (at times) in every American colony and state, penetrated every industry in both cities and rural districts, dictated that in some regions (particularly in cotton and sugar growing districts of the Mississippi River Valley and Carolina Low Country) black people outnumbered whites by over 100 to one, geographically spanned tens of thousands of square miles, and was a brutally violent system, some historians have expressed surprise that only between 200 and 300 revolts occurred. As historian Peter Kolchin wrote in 1987, most “revolts and conspiracies…were minor incidents of unrest that were quickly put down with a minimum of local force or were nipped in the bud before they occurred. Other historians have been more impressed with the paucity than with the ubiquity of American slave revolts.” Kolchin concluded that in comparison with their “Russian counterparts,” American slave rebellions were “small-scale affairs.”[10]

Though future generations of historians have revised the number of slave revolts and their impact on American history, certain questions have persisted: Why were there not many more successful revolts in the United States? Why were there not more Nat Turners? Why were most revolts so easily suppressed? Why were they, apparently, so often betrayed by fellow slaves, free blacks, and poor whites?

These questions run the risk of assigning blame to enslaved persons for not resisting oppression “adequately.” They also privilege insurrection over other, perhaps more personally successful, forms of resistance like running away. Moreover, such questions suggest that slave revolts were only “successful” if they permanently abolished slavery, as in the Haitian Revolution.

But this is an extremely high bar. Perhaps we should be asking a different set of questions: What was a slave revolt? How many people needed to be involved? What legal and social structures existed to curtail more slaves from revolting? Must there have been an ideological, abolitionist component for it to have been a slave revolt? Does our conception of slave revolts change if free blacks or whites were involved? Were there places where slaves were more likely to revolt? What conditions (geographic, climatic, demographic) were more likely to spark a revolt? Why were slave revolts often male-dominated events?

Most of all, historians can shed light on this form of resistance by looking beyond the most famous insurrections to the smaller and often more idiosyncratic patchwork of revolts staged in America. Over the last few years, I have assembled a spreadsheet of every slave revolt that I have found reference to in the archives: in letters, insurance claims, state documents, municipal records, court minutes, doctor’s ledgers, slave narratives, and newspapers. The recent expansion of digitized newspaper and primary source databases has made it possible to trace the wider impact of such events within the South and the larger nation.

I have identified well over 350 discrete actions that we could call “slave revolts” – events that involved three or more people, organised with the express purpose of killing whites, achieving personal or group freedom, pillaging, causing physical damage to property, personal enrichment, or ending slavery altogether. Not all revolts meet all of those criteria. My revolt database is ever evolving, especially as it is difficult to determine whether a revolt was real or just imagined. (Historians are faced with the nearly impossible task of triangulating “truth” from a wide range of rumours, biased sources, and dispatches – almost all of them written by whites seeking to justify their fears and violent retaliation.) But in expanding our definition of slave revolts, we can see that enslaved persons—like all persons—were animated by a wide range of personal and ideological motives and were well-aware of events like the Haitian Revolution, even on isolated plantations.

For example, in December of 1837, a “vague report” in various newspapers across the country that over 50 slaves, free people of colour, and whites were involved in a plot in Alexandria, Louisiana.[11] The (nameless) leader was allegedly seeking revenge after being moved from house to field work. Apparently, the plan was to coordinate an attack from various plantations, kill all the white men but spare the women and children, loot and destroy the surrounding plantations, and march on New Orleans – the region’s economic, cultural, social, and political hub. The plot, however, was betrayed by a slave named Lewis, belonging to Mr Compton of Rapides Parish, who was granted his freedom and $1,500. The rebellious slaves were condemned by an extra-judicial “vigilance” committee comprised of 12 of the area’s “most influential citizens.” At least nine slaves were hung and probably 50 were imprisoned.

This instance shows that slaves revolted for a plethora of evolving reasons. Indeed, slaves revolting together could have very different reasons for joining on. This instance 1837 also illustrates the strong limitations historians face in investigating slave revolts. Was this an actual revolt? Or was this just white imagination run amok, in a frenzy of fear? As the vigilance committee almost certainly used torture to exact confessions, can historians use their “evidence” or even consider the confessions reliable? Could the informing slave have made the whole thing up in order to gain his freedom?

Slave revolts were one end of a spectrum of resistance – moments that often remain vague in the historical record and nearly impossible to substantiate. The fact that they happened at all (not that they happened infrequently)—with uprising slaves knowing almost certainly that they would die—shows just how totalizing and brutal American slavery was. But revolts, even imaginary ones, offer a window into the psyche of this region, betraying exactly what whites were most fearful of. Most of all, revolts open a door into the often-elusive slave experience, showing how slaves communicated across plantations, absorbed news of revolts far away, and identified and exploited the vulnerabilities of America’s slave system.

[1] Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made, Two Essays in Interpretation (New York, 1969), 136.

[2] Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition: and the Men Who Made It (New York, 1948), 78; John C. Calhoun, ‘Speech on Slavery,’ U.S. Senate, Congressional Globe, 24th Congress, 24th Congress, 2nd Sess. (February 6, 1837), 157-159.

[3] Calhoun, ‘Speech of January 10, 1838,’ from Eric McKitrick, Slavery Defended: Views of the Old South (Englewood Cliffs, 1963), 19.

[4] Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, slavevoyages.org.

[5] Herbert Aptheker, “American Negro Slave Revolts,” Science & Society, vol. 1, no. 4 (Summer, 1937), 512-38; Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville, Tenn., 1990), 48.

[6] C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York, 1963), 86; William Suttles, “African Religious Survivals as Factors in American Slave Revolts,” Journal of Negro History, vol. 56, No. 2 (April, 1971), 97-104.

[7] Jack Shuler, Calling Out Liberty: The Stono Slave Rebellion and the Universal Struggle for Human Rights (Jackson, Miss., 2009); Peter Charles Hoffer, Cry Liberty: The Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739 (Oxford, 2010).

[8] Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (New York, 2011); Albert Thrasher, On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt (New Orleans, 1995);

[9] Patrick Breen, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (New York, 2015); David Allmendinger, Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County (Baltimore, 2014).

[10] Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 250.

[11] See for example, “From the National Intelligencer,” Vermont Phoenix, 3 November 1837.

New Historical Research articles

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Nader Shah’s portrait from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Between tension and rapprochement: Sunni-Shi‘ite relations in the pre-modern Ottoman period, with a focus on the eighteenth century by M. Sait Özervarlı

The Ottoman empire is known for its ethnically and religiously pluralistic social fabric, but also for defending the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam in opposition to its Iranian Safavid rival. This article revisits the Ottoman construction of Sunnism and suggests that, despite strict state policies from above to exclude Shi‘ites and communal pressures from below in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, channels of dialogue could not be closed down in the long term. By focusing on a specific intra-religious dialogue of 1743, that aimed at reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, this article highlights a probable case of ‘de-confessionalization’. Close examination of the textual account of this inter-communal meeting demonstrates how the Ottomans were torn between defending their Sunni identity and the need for rapprochement to avoid further sectarianism in broader Muslim society.

 

Invasion, raids and army reform: the political context of ‘flotilla defence’, 1903–5 by Richard Dunley

A1 class submarine, 1902

In response to the pressure of the invasion debates of 1903–1905 the Admiralty developed a new strategy, ‘flotilla defence’, to counter arguments brought forward by the War Office. This concept was a purely political one; it was a cynical bid to mislead the Committee of Imperial Defence in order to secure naval funding. By placing ‘flotilla defence’ in this context this article will demonstrate that it was not, as has been claimed, a revolutionary naval strategy, but part of the polarization of defence policy which led to a breakdown in relations between the army and the navy.

 

‘And those who live, how shall I tell their fame?’ Historical pageants, collective remembrance and the First World War, 1919–39 by Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Paul Readman and Charlotte Tupman  [open access]

Oxford Historical Pageant, 1907 (Wikimedia Commons)

This article examines the ways in which the First World War was represented in historical pageants during the interwar period. Pageants in this period are often overlooked as sites of commemoration and dramatic representation. Three types of pageant are identified: those that portrayed the war hyper-realistically, those which relied on symbolism and allegory to convey messages about war and peace, and those which sought to incorporate the war into the longer histories of the communities whose pasts they depicted. The article argues that ‘traditional’ forms of representation of the past proved to be resilient features of popular commemoration and remembrance.

 

 

New reviews: Naval impressment, war satire, Mughal culture, Irish charity

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We start this week with Poseidon’s Curse: British Naval Impressment and Atlantic Origins of the American Revolution by Christopher Magra. Paul Gilje and the author discuss a well written, carefully organized, and deeply researched book which perhaps takes the evidence too far (no. 2124, with response here).

Next up is Lesley Milne’s Laughter and War: Humorous-Satirical Magazines in Britain, France, Germany and Russia 1914-1918. Pip Gregory enjoys a book which offers a well written overview of the humour of four nations during the Great War (no. 2123).

Then we turn to Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke. dmond Smith praises an evocative, expertly researched book that brings the collaborative, sometimes combative, world of translation to life (no. 2122).

Finally we have Karen Sonnelitter’s Charity Movements in Eighteenth-Century Ireland. Philanthropy and Improvement. James Kelly reviews an engaging study of the improving and charitable impulses of the 18th century (no. 2121).

New reviews: Russian Empire, New York, Siberia and frontiers

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We start this week with The Russian Empire 1450-1801 by Nancy Shields Kollmann, as Orel Beilinson and the author discuss a masterpiece of equal value to specialists and the general public (no. 2120, with response here).

Next up is Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. Jonathan Wilson recommends a book which is likely to remain a standard work of reference for many years (no. 2119).

Then we turn to A Prison Without Walls: Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism by Sarah Badcock. Jonathan Smele praises a notable achievement that will be of interest to scholars of tsarist and Soviet Russia (no. 2118).

Finally we have a response by author Gregory Evans Dowd to last week’s review of  Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier (response to no. 2115) .

New printing, scanning and copying system in the IHR library

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The University of London is implementing a new printing, scanning and copying system on Monday 12th – Tuesday 13th June.

There will be some disruption to services on those days and some periods when facilities will be unavailable. Staff may be able to assist if you need to copy or print at that time.

The new system will be shared across Senate House Library, the Warburg Institute and the Institute of Historical Research so if you are a member of multiple libraries you will be able to use your account for printing and copying at all of them.

A new user account will be required for the new system and further instructions and help with this will be available. Balance(s) from your existing account(s) can be transferred.

 

New Historical Research articles

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Getting out of jail: suicide, escape and release in late medieval and Renaissance Bologna. Trevor Dean

Image from Flickr

This article discusses and contextualizes a unique document: the record of an investigation into a death, apparently by suicide, in the communal prison in Bologna in 1473, with an accompanying drawing of the dead body. The credibility of this death as suicide is questioned and discussed as a possible concealed homicide. It is then further contextualized in relation to the recent, revisionist historiography of conditions in medieval prisons, and it is argued that the investigative phase of criminal justice, involving torture, increasingly generated suicides and prison escapes.

 

Charles Mason, the ‘king of China’: British imperial adventuring in the late nineteenth century. Catherine Ladds

Yangtze Customs House. Image from Wikipedia

This article considers the life of a British would-be adventurer and clerk in the Imperial Maritime Service, Charles Mason, who became embroiled in an uprising against the Chinese government in 1891. By exploring Mason’s life, his writings and the diplomatic dialogue sparked by his actions, the article highlights the growing disjuncture between imperial fantasy and the reality of imperial administration. It considers how the actions of errant individuals could be used as a pretext to renegotiate the limits of British and Chinese power. As Mason’s actions and his literary career demonstrate, China and other imperial sites beyond the formal control of colonial authorities acted as ideal places for adventuring in the British imagination.

 

Whose city? Civic government and episcopal power in early modern Salisbury, c.1590–1640. Catherine Patterson

Salisbury Cathedral. Image from Wikimedia

This article examines jurisdictional disputes between the city of Salisbury and its bishops in the Elizabethan and early Stuart period, showing how debates over local control articulated broader ideas of order in the state. The civic leadership identified itself closely with the monarch in its bid for incorporation, arguing that prosperity and peace could only be achieved in this way. The bishops, in contrast, claimed that their own traditional authority over the city was the surest means of order, an argument that gained greater purchase under Charles I. Local actors could shape relations between themselves and the crown, but their success rested finally on the monarch’s willingness to trust them to maintain the royal state.

New reviews: Henry VII, medieval marriage, frontier rumours and mass tourism

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We start this week with Henry VII’s New Men and the Making of Tudor England by Steven Gunn, as Christine Carpenter praises a long-awaited book of breathtaking scholarship and thoroughness (no. 2117).

Next up is Philip Reynolds’ How Marriage Became One of the Sacraments: The Sacramental Theology of Marriage from its Medieval Origins to the Council of Trent. Wolfgang Müller and the author discuss a magisterial and comprehensive guide to Western theological reflection (no. 2116, with response here).

Then we turn to Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier by Gregory Evans Dowd. Asheesh Siddique believes this book innovatively reorients the narrative of colonization and conquest in early North America (no. 2115).

Finally we cover a new digital resource, Leisure, Travel and Mass Culture – The History of Tourism. Susan Barton enjoys a fascinating collection of sources for researchers, students and teachers of travel and tourism (no. 2114).

Women in church courts: Undergraduate research project at the IHR library

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This post was written by a group of undergraduate students from the University of Southampton who recently visited the IHR library to complete a research project. We are happy to welcome students doing group projects to the IHR, so please get in touch if you would like to arrange something similar.

We are second year History undergraduate students studying at the University of Southampton, currently undertaking a group project titled ‘Thou art a fals preestes whore’- The Medieval English Church Courts, with a focus on the treatment and role of women within these courts.  In order to complete our research on such a wide-ranging area of study, we travelled to the Institute of Historical Research hoping to find a greater collection of sources and literature than is available to us locally in Southampton.

The institute was very happy to grant us admission and give us access to collections relevant to our research, and were extremely helpful in assisting us in the process.  As we are all currently based in Southampton, we decided to take advantage of the Institute’s online catalogue which was both informative and easy to navigate, so we could optimise our time spent in the library reading the material rather than searching the collection.

Predominantly, our research covers the medieval period, but increasing material we found pointed to the 17th century onwards, so we decided to comment on the change of treatment of women by the courts from the Medieval period into early Modern. Whilst we all concluded that women were not on an equal playing field to men for a variety of reasons, our research does conclude that despite this, women enjoyed more rights than we originally assumed when beginning the project.

Women and Church Courts in Medieval England

English Church Courts in the Middle Ages stood as a pillar of most communities, under a far less power centralised state than we have today. This meant that the ruling of a Church Court could be damning to your position in society, particularly in more rural locations as communities tended to be smaller and more isolated. The existence of Church courts also spanned over a large period, stretching all the way to the eighteen-fifties, when the final ecclesiastical courts were given over to state courts. By the end of the eighteenth century the Church Courts had lost almost all power in the legal process but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that there were reforms. It was actually matrimonial matters which were the last to be transferred, moved to the newly created Divorce Court. It can be seen that in fact there was a decline in Church Court’s jurisdiction since the Reformation of the sixteenth century, as Henry VIII ruled out the use of Papal law in favour of Roman Civil law. Although the ecclesiastical courts survived this change, it did mark a change in tradition and to most the end of the medieval period. Therefore, it is interesting to consider cases from within and beyond the Middle Ages to discuss if there is change not only in the outcome of the trials but also the impact of their ruling on people in society. Our research focuses on women, typically seen as more vulnerable members of society, evaluating whether changes in Church jurisdiction affected them.

The most important part of establishing our project and our argument was looking at primary sources, as without Latin at our disposal, we obtained these mainly in translation within secondary source books. Here are some of the books that we studied during our time at the IHR and how they helped us to develop our project further. This is just a small sample of our research:

One book that was useful for our project from the IHR was Anne Tarver’s Church Court Records: An Introduction for Family and Local Historians, (Chichester: Phillimore, 1995). Tarver’s chapter on marriage was particularly helpful due to the clear breakdown of areas the church courts dealt with: contracts, divorce, conjugal rights and jactitation. Whilst the book exceeds our time period, Tarver comments on changes into the nineteenth century and includes relevant primary evidence. A particularly interesting case that Tarver mentions is one of servant, Cordelia Ball, who gives a statement witnessing the cruelty of her master Andrew Dunton to his wife. She suggests to witnessing physical and verbal abuse. (p. 90) The fact that a servant should be called as witness is something we have found to have been a regular occurrence in the Middle Ages to provide evidence in court, so despite going beyond the medieval period it demonstrates that the workings and dealings with church courts actually remained rather similar. As with many sources the issue we have found is a lack of conclusion, as many sources have been damaged, lost or not complete in their recording, which we have had to take into consideration when evaluating these sources.

R.H. Helmholz’ book Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1974) gives an overview of particular aspects of marriage litigation including marriage records, divorce cases and witnesses used within the English Church Courts. Helmholz summarises records and provides statistics that clearly summarise the amount of cases in specific areas across England. For example, ‘at Lichfield between 1465 and 1468, suits brought to establish the existence of valid marriages outnumbered suits for divorce by a margin of thirty to fifteen.’ (p. 11) Comparisons such as this helped to summarise the vast amount of marriage records and explain how these related to other cases the courts dealt with such as divorce or impotence. Helmholz mentions the case of Edmund Dronefeld of York from 1364 who appealed to divorce his wife Margaret due to the belief she was married to another man eighteen years prior, making their current marriage void (p. 77).  This was helpful as he cites the original York Cause Paper record, meaning it was easy to corroborate the primary evidence to Helmholz’ writing, especially as this database has recently been uploaded online for easy access.

These previously discussed sources, along with others and our extended research, we concluded that across areas of marriage, impotency, prostitution and heresy, women were at a clear disadvantage in church court cases as they were seen as less reputable than male defendants. Although the change in jurisdiction that church courts held after the reformation may have affected their ability and the impact of a case’s outcome, the church courts were not fully disbanded until the eighteen-fifties and still held an element of power but with a definitive decline. However, in many cases we have come across, church courts in fact provided an environment in which women could express their opinions and challenge men, with higher status women affording male lawyers prosecuting on their behalf. Even if a case did not go in favour of the woman, having a platform in which to defend themselves publicly was an achievement in itself, especially in a period where women often were limited to a domestic sphere.

This is only a small extract from a much wider project and if interested please visit our website to explore women and their role and treatment in English medieval church courts further at: churchcourts.co.uk

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