Conversations and Disputations: Discussions among Historians
17 June 2011
Kate Chedgzoy (Newcastle), Andrew Hiscock (Bangor), Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge), Andy Wood (East Anglia)
Cultures of Memory in Early Modern England: Round Table and Discussion
Chair: Kate Hodgkin (UEL)

One place of enacting memory – Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London

What do we mean when talking about ‘memory’ in an historical context?  How can we provide evidence that represents an accurate understanding of memory without losing the historical context?  Can using ‘memory’ become too broad to serve a useful purpose as a concept?  This ‘discussion among historians’, focuses on England in the early modern period, asking and attempting to answer some of the questions posed above.  Chaired by Kate Hodgkin from UEL each speaker is given approximately 25 minutes to present their thoughts before the session moved on to a lengthy discussion around the topic.

Andrew Hiscock uses Shakespeare’s Tempest as his starting point emphasising the symbolic practice of memory that it enacts.  The conversation is between Prospero and Miranda and recalls both selective remembrance and the drawing out of alternative scenarios:


The hour’s now come;

The very minute bids thee ope thine ear;

Obey and be attentive. Canst thou remember

A time before we came unto this cell?

I do not think thou canst, for then thou wast not

Out three years old.


Certainly, sir, I can.


By what? by any other house or person?

Of any thing the image tell me that

Hath kept with thy remembrance.


‘Tis far off

And rather like a dream than an assurance

That my remembrance warrants. Had I not

Four or five women once that tended me?


Thou hadst, and more, Miranda. But how is it

That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else

In the dark backward and abysm of time?

If thou remember’st aught ere thou camest here,

How thou camest here thou mayst.

Hiscock argues that the early modern reader was encouraged to consider the past in terms of memorial and as symbolism for the present.  What should be remembered?  This is the key question that early modern writers grappled with.  John Foxe, for instance, sought out a revised knowledge of the past; one where the Roman Catholic religion was repositioned as a foreign enemy and heretical groups – such as the Lollards – recast as true followers.  Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene emphasised the training of memory for the pursuit of memorial.

Alexandra Walsham next reflected on an emerging historiography looking into the relationship of memory with landscape and the upheaval in memory caused by the reformation.  Walsham argues that the process of remembering was intricately linked to the physical environment and it is for that reason that the reformation was also a period of iconoclasm and erasure of physical monuments that had previously been imbued with a sense of a past that Protestants now wanted forgotten.  Religious change acted as a critical juncture in the sixteenth century for memory.  The Protestant regimes were trying to obliterate one version of the past with another.

In the seventeenth century, Walsham tells us, memory became fragmented between the rival Protestant and Catholic camps and, in addition, an embarrassment concerning early-reformation iconoclasm began to emerge.  Writers began to express regret about their lost heritage and realised that much that had been good had also been lost.  The struggle to deal with poor relief during the seventeenth century was seen as a direct repercussion from the loss of older forms of relief provided by the church that had been swept away in religious fervour.

Andy Wood moved the discussion towards archaeology and anthropology as a method for examining early modern memory.  Wood is concerned that the focus is too heavily concerned with the memory of ‘elites’ and does not try to rediscover popular memory and its connection to the local region.  Citing authors such as Daniel Woolf, Keith Thomas, and Adam Fox (and now in addition Walsham), Wood retells the history of historical study into memory from its conception as collective memory in the inter-war period, the focus on politics of memory in the 1970s, and finally onto memory as identity as expressed in the 1990s.  Using an anthropological comparison to Latin America, Wood suggests that memory often views the past as an aspect of the present.  Rather than modern perceptive of time evolving and constantly changing, early modern men and women, as also identified in areas of Latin America, experience time as static and largely unchanging but with moments of rupture and change (such as the reformation).

Finally Kate Chedgzoy focused on the archive and how memory could be drawn out from documents where it is not obviously there.  For Chedgzoy’s own studies – women history and the history of children – the archives rarely give the limelight to such evidence.  However, if one looks closely and from alternative perspectives evidence can nonetheless be amassed.  Children’s history is a case in point and one where Chedgzoy has identified a problem with current studies.  Historians tend to look at children as the subject of their study rather than ask the question of what children thought or what they saw as their own memories.  Of course, the main reason for this is that the archives do not easily give up such information.  However, stray references to what parents of children write can help to give a partial picture as can adults memories of their childhood.  One particularly striking example is a 1670s manuscript by Nathanial Friend who wrote a memorial to his boy who had recently died.

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