F is for Flower Seller

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Flower Sellers When we think of flower sellers, we often think of Eliza Doolittle, the flower seller in Covent Garden who went from rags to riches thanks to the attentions of Professor Higgins. Hers was of course just a story, but her trade was common, although her rise out of poverty was hardly in any… Read more »

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M is for Mush-Faker

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Following on from a previous post on umbrella makers, this post, the first on a series of articles examining the street sellers common in all towns and cities, will look into another worker in the umbrella trade – the forgotten Mush-Faker.  Mush-fakers were common on the streets, and were considered, by many, to be a… Read more »

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Complicity, complacency and the bonfires that burn books

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If it is the mark of a stimulating book that a reviewer finds it impossible to confine their response within the word limit available, then I have recently read one. The volume is On the Burning of Books. How flames fail to destroy the written word; it is the latest product from the pen of Kenneth Baker, who, in another life, was a cabinet minister. That biographical detail is not merely incidental, as I suggest in the review which appears today (behind a paywall: sorry) in the Times Literary Supplement. I do not want to reiterate all that I say there but I will mention that a topical event saw the opening of the piece change at the last minute. Before that happened, my preferred version began:

A preposition can be the wrong thing to start a title with. The ‘On’ on the dust-jacket of Kenneth Baker’s latest book is off the mark: it hints at the promise of a disquisition on book-burning, but the author is having nothing of that. There are, he says, already books on the subject by scholars and librarians, for scholars and librarians. He offers instead a ‘personal anthology’, one that stands as testimony to his fascination with the subject and his wide reading, on topics ranging from the foundation of imperial China to the Hutton Report. This, in other words, is a treatment of its topic with the thinking taken out.

As that paragraph might suggest, my reaction to the book was ambivalent: it is engaging and well-written (even if it has a few too many lapsus calami) but also, on some level, deeply troubling.

The title sums up what argument there is in Baker’s book: he rails against ‘fanatics’ and ‘bigots’ whose reaction to books they find odious is to set them alight. He positions himself as their enemy, standing up to them wherever they may be. He finds them in Europe’s past – even in the quadrangles of England’s ancient universities – and in the wider world’s present. In his epilogue, he cautions us: ‘Don’t think it will get better in the future’. There will continue to be those who want to destroy knowledge, he says. There is no reason to be complacent. Why, then, do I find a worrying complacency underlying what he says?

When Baker was a front-line politician, frequently appearing with slicked-back hair and a fixed grin, some wit commented: ‘He’s seen the future and it smirks’. Given this latest book, we might have to change that and say ‘and it smokes – albeit ineffectually’. Baker wants us to realise our values are under attack, but that we will overcome. He reminds us repeatedly out how the burning of books fails to suppress texts. This is a common assumption, which I myself have made: however many copies are destroyed, more can appear. That is true in most cases, though not all, but it does beg a question: if a regime is so repressive and so controlling that it feels the need to destroy writings it finds subversive, why would it resort to a technique which has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective?

The public burning of books is, at best (from the regime’s viewpoint), symbolic – it is not a successful act of repression but an expression of intent. Baker recognises that but does not follow through its implications. Why make use of this particular symbol? Why do we fixate on the bonfire, rather than any of the other methods of destruction? Perhaps we feel that this is an unnecessary question – onto our cultural memory is seared the image of the book-burnings associated with Kristallnacht and, with that, we know that what was a fear in Heinrich Heine’s mind became a reality: ‘where they burn books they will also burn people’. Heine wrote his words, of course, over a century before the Nazis rose to power, and we do not do them justice if we take them simply as a bitterly realised prophecy. They surely encourage us to think about what is happening when the flames are kindled. Fire has an elemental power, frightening for its destructiveness but also warming, bright and cleansing. We stand back from it but we also want to stoke it. Is there something of the pyromaniac in us all? Certainly, in images of Hitler Youth at the fireside or of the comic burnings in the post-War States, you can see the faces of happy children, excited by their own potential to make the flames blow higher, if they feed it. This, surely, is at the heart of the allure of book-burning: it is a carnival which encourages complicity. Look, it is paper, only paper, so insignificant that it turns to dust in a second…


Comic Burning in Binghamton, New York, 1948

With the creation of complicity, a spiral can begin. But must there be a fireside for complicity to be born? If we were to be Foucauldian about this, we might see the bonfire as akin to a public execution, a technique which becomes unnecessary when the apparatus of the state constructs more complete control: the panopticon has no need for eye-catching spectacle. If this is the case, it might imply that an absence of book-burning is not necessarily a victory for liberal values, but may be a witness to the increased insidious power of the authorities. You do not need to burn books if you can find other ways – more effective ways – to make them unavailable. This is to say that presenting oneself as an opponent of burning books means little if you do not also oppose the apparatus of censorship.

This is where I find Baker’s work most disturbing. He himself attempts to draw his readers into a sort of complicity: note how I talked above about ‘our values’ which ‘we’ must protect. It implies a sense of our superiority to the fanatics we are confident exist; it thus impels us to a need to defend what we have — and so to quell our liberal instinct to question and to require more. We may not burn books but does that permit us complacency?

In one of Lord Baker’s most recent Parliamentary interventions, following last summer’s referendum, he, himself a Remain voter, declared: ‘we are all Brexiteers now’. He was expressing a noble acceptance of ‘the voice of the people’, though whatever that voice ‘said’ was nowhere near a plan of action and was much more a cacophonous babble. What happened during the campaign and afterwards suggests that Mr Cameron’s clever ruse to end the European debate has uncovered and unleashed a ferment of loathing, whether it be directed towards ‘foreigners’ or judges. Are we comfortable that in our society the parameters of free speech are safe from threat? If we are all Brexiteers now, God help us.

Tagged: book-burning, Heinrich Heine, Kenneth Baker

U is for Umbrella Maker

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Umbrellas and parasols were a mainstay of a Victorian lady’s wardrobe – in a time when it was unfashionable for a woman to have a sun tan, the parasol was an essential part of a lady’s outfit, and when raining, umbrellas were, as now, considered necessary, however, umbrellas in the modern sense were more a… Read more »

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What is an ‘occupation’?

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One of the most common questions asked both in state, business and personal interactions is ‘what do you do?’ or ‘what is your job?’ and for the former ‘what is your occupation?’   This may seem like a simple question to answer – but in historical terms it becomes more problematic. The concept of ‘an… Read more »

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Who do you think you are?!

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Last year I had the pleasure of working with the producers of Who Do You Think You Are to research into a fascinating member of Sir Ian McKellan’s family.  We had great fun at the shoot in Manchester, he really is the most lovely man you could hope to meet and the whole team were… Read more »

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New updates coming soon!

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After taking some time off from this project I’ll be back to posting on a regular basis from today! Watch this space for lots more occupations, as well as updates on what I’m up to.

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Darkness legible

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Can an object really ever be out of place? Is it not us who are out of sorts when we find something misplaced? And that jolt which occurs as the mind fails to put it where we think it should be is the sensation of liberation as we discover and think anew.

So it is with an art exhibition like Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery. As I write, it is about to close its doors for the last time, allowing the paintings it brought together to return to their more accustomed surroundings. Most are familiar, some because they are burdened with the title of masterpieces, and several because they did have far to travel to take up their accommodation in the Sainsbury Wing: those exhibits are ones which are more often to be found resting upstairs against the walls of the main gallery. But what their temporary residence allowed was to see them afresh and it is about one of those I write now.

It is easy to understand why Adam de Coster’s ‘A Man singing by candlelight’ was thought appropriate for an exhibition named after Caravaggio. It is a bravura display of chiaroscuro in the style we relate to the Roman artist and to Georges de la Tour.

Image result for adam de coster singing by candlelight

Adam de Coster, ‘Man singing by Candlelight’, c. 1625-35 (National Gallery, London)

I must have passed it several times on previous visits to the National but something about its positioning in the exhibition arrested me. Perhaps it was the fact that, even in comparison with the other candlelit scenes displayed in the room, there is something audacious or downright odd about this painting. How many early seventeenth-century artists would be willing to place at the very centre of their picture what, in effect, is black space? If it were a century later, we might compare it with the blank pages in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. As it is we are more likely to ignore it and to concentrate on the artistry of the light thrown on the man’s face. We might even consider the invisible music book as an interruption or a blemish. What, on the contrary, struck me on this occasion was how that blackness unlocks the painting, how its illegibility helps us read it.

What, it seemed to me, standing before it in the over-crowded room (more on that another time) was that it spoke of an inverted world, a place in which we are the shadows. We are invited in, encouraged to imagine that we are there before the musician — for who else could be his audience? — but also kept at a distance. We are on the other side, where the light does not fall and where what we assume are words and notes is blackness. What cave is this we inhabit? One where we are incapable of reading — oh, but surely that is precisely what we are doing, explicating the painting as if its surface was a text. Except, of course, that we, in effect, are attempting to read in dark; we are in the wrong position to dicipher fully. So, let’s draw nearer and enter the painting’s world. But if we try that, our own penumbral status would melt in the warmth of the candle; we would lose our place. We believe — we have to believe — that we are more real than the image we are facing. After all, we have our senses. We know there is, in truth, no book and no space, just daubs of paint on the canvas. We can proudly say we have eyes to see. We can see, at the heart of the picture, precisely nothing. Is that achievement? Or is that the beam in our eye which makes us see absence? We also have ears to hear but do we hear the music? If we do not, is that the painting’s failing or ours?

Tagged: Adam de Coster, Caravaggio, illegibility, National Gallery London

Andrea Ammonio, protégé of Pietro Carmeliano

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History without palaeography is a story half told. Here is a small example from the first decades of the sixteenth century. It comes from my monograph on The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain which I am presently completing. I present to you, in part, because I want to invite you to comment on the evidence I have for you.

It is often said that the Brescian humanist, Pietro Carmeliano, was the man who introduced the italic hand into England. The situation, as I explain in my book, is rather more complicated than that, but that is not the issue today. It is also said that he was the first person appointed as the king’s Latin secretary in the mid-1490s. It is true that he revelled in that title, though quite what it signified is open to discussion. He certainly produced a substantial quantity of correspondence for Henry VII; the first sign we have of his acting as a royal scribe (this evidence seems to have been overlooked) is from 1488. If you want not just to see his elegant script but to own a specimen, you may be lucky: not all are in public collections and some do appear for sale. One was up for auction last year and by the look of the note added at the top it somehow strayed (presumably in the nineteenth century) from the Archivio di Stato in Milan. Lot 951 - A rare letter to Da Vinci’s patron, with a full signature HENRY VII: (1457-1509) King of England

Another letter written by him was sold at Christie’s a few years ago; the auction house kindly tells me is now in private hands.

The story also told is that Carmeliano’s fortunes withered in the wake of Henry VII’s death. Other humanists celebrated the accession of his son as a new golden age. One of these poets was Thomas More, though, as I argued many, many years ago, his praise of the young Henry VIII was not as straightforward as it at first appears. Its classic statement, though, was provided in prose by an Italian, from Lucca, who called himself Andreas Ammonius (and who is now known as Ammonio). In a letter to Erasmus he ghost-wrote for William, Lord Mountjoy, Ammonio declared that this would be a new era of liberality, and he himself benefitted from it. In an act which is seen as a symbolic changing of the guard, he took on the role of the king’s Latin secretary, being first mentioned as that in 1511; Carmeliano, it is suggested, was yesterday’s man.

Let us leave aside that Carmeliano did not quit the scene and continued to be referred to as Latin secretary himself. That is significant for what I have to say here only in as much as it suggests that the position was not an exclusive one — and earlier evidence suggests that there was more than one secretary for Latin correspondence in earlier years. These men, in fact, included Andrea Ammonio himself.

There do not seem to be many images of Ammonio’s script available on the web (if you find one, please tell me) but here is one:

A royal letter, signed by Andrea Ammonio, dated 24th June 1515.

A royal letter, signed by Andrea Ammonio, dated 24th June 1515.

This, as you will see, is dated from June 1515, four years after the first reference to him as Latin secretary. This script, though, appears in earlier unsigned letters. At this point, I am going to have to ask you to open another tab and visit the wonderful Portal de Archivos Españoles site. On the page Inventario Dinámico choose the Archivo of Simancas, and under their Colecciones, choose Patronato Real. You are then looking for ‘Leg. 54’ and for two particular items in it. The first to find is document 99. It is a letter to Ferdinand of Aragon dated 30th July 1509 and signed by the new king Henry VIII (it also appears as item 52 in the catalogue of the 2009 British Library Henry VIII exhibition). Look at the script and compare it with what you see above: can you see the similarity? If not, take time to survey the details: look at the tick used sometimes on final e, and the left-turn on the foot of p and q, or look at the shape of the g, or the st ligature. There are so many shared characteristics in detail and in overall aspect that I am confident in proposing that this is by Ammonio as well. If you do not share my confidence, then your next challenge is to tell me: who else could this be at this date? Incidentally, note how fitting it is that he should be employed for a letter on behalf of Henry’s friend and the person from who Ammonio drafted the letter to Erasmus, William, Lord Mountjoy.

This, though, is not all. In 1509, Ammonio had already been resident in England for four years. Now find the document known as Leg. 54, Doc. 70. You will see that this is dated 18th October 1506. Your first impression might be that this is by a different hand from the others you have just seen and certainly the script is thinner, more upright and less assertive — it seems to be by a person learning their trade. Then look more closely, comparing the 1509 and 1506 letters together: look for the ornate ‘quam/quan’ abbrevation, or the placing of the suspension mark for ‘que’ or, indeed, the styling of the serifs. This, I suggest, is once again by Ammonio, not yet settled into his role and essaying his own humanist cursive. In developing his practice, he would have turned to exemplars he had to hand or to a colleague — that is, most likely, to Pietro Carmeliano. The implication of this evidence, in other words, is threefold. First, Andrea Ammonio was involved in the production of royal letters alongside Carmeliano. This, in turn, suggests that we might need to rethink our impression that there was a simple sequence of office-holders: it seems more likely that the title of secretary was an honour given to those who produced the letters, rather than being an exclusive post available only to one person at a time. Finally, what these letters also suggest is that Ammonio may well have owed his first entrée into working for the crown to Pietro Carmeliano. This, of course, does not mean that a rivalry may not have later developed, though we should also not assume that Carmeliano was cast out into darkness when the sunshine of Henry VIII’s munificence shone on Ammonio. In later years, Carmeliano was a rich man. What is more, though he was Ammonio’s elder, he outlived him: the younger humanist succumbed to sweating sickness in the summer of 1517. In 1520 (and, again, this has been undernoticed), Carmeliano was describing himself as secretary to Henry VIII.

The point of this tale is to remind ourselves as historians that reading documents, however subtly, is not enough if we want more fully to reconstruct events like those around 1509. By close attention to the palaeography, with due care and attention to its pitfalls, of course, we can move towards a richer understanding. This might be expressed as a paradox: to delve deeper, we have to appreciate these sources at their face value.

Tagged: 1509, Andrea Ammonio, Erasmus, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Pietro Carmeliano, William Lord Mountjoy

The Unavoidability of the Historian writing about the Present

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I am presently living in the year 1461, or so I thought. I am so deeply immersed in completing a chapter of a book I am writing for Cambridge University Press, that it occupies my mind nearly all my waking hours, and infiltrates some of my dreams too. The subject-matter is not new to me, in as much as the central figure is John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester (c. 1427-1470), whom I have mentioned on more than one occasion here. One of the pages on this site provides a listing of his manuscripts, an updated version of which will act as an appendix to the chapter. However familiar the material is, I am finding myself surprised by what I am writing, in more than one way.

There is something that seems disjointed in the career of Tiptoft. He was a pilgrim and intrepid traveller, who so liked Italy that he tarried there for nigh on three years. He spent his time in cultural pursuits, commissioning and buying up books for which there is ample evidence of his own reading. He even concocted a grand idea of presenting a large quantity of manuscripts to his university of Oxford, and wrote to them from Padua suggesting it. But a cynic might suggest that there was a more pressing reason for his long sojourn in the sun, enjoying cultivated conversation and a glass (or more) of wine: it ensured he could avoid involvement in the internecine conflict that embroiled the land of his birth at that point. But return he did to England, quite quickly, indeed, after the regime-change at home and soon became a key figure in Yorkist politics. His career as Constable of England and Governor in Ireland saw him gain a reputation for summary justice which led him to be so hated that, come the Readeption and his arrest, the crowd in the London streets bayed for his blood.

These two elements of his biography – the lettered friend of humanists, and the uncompromising enemy of Lancastrians – seem mismatched. I did not set out to resolve a contradiction which, I had thought, needed no resolution: we are all changeable and our lives rarely ring a monotonous tone of consistency. But then I met for lunch Tom Penn, who is writing a book on the Yorkists in power. Our conversation encouraged me to think further about the apparent disconnect between the two Tiptofts, and the more I thought about the material I have gathered, the more I came to sense that there are, indeed, links between the two men, and between those Tiptofts and the other one, the one who receives posthumous praise from William Caxton when he printed English translations of Latin texts that he said had been made by the earl.

Tiptoft’s enemies insinuated that his time in Italy had exposed him to nasty foreign influences which he had then imported back home; the suggestion was that his time abroad had made him less English. What I have come to sense is that Tiptoft’s perception was quite the opposite: that it was only be a wholehearted engagement with others within the shared tradition of Western Christendom that one could recognise, let alone realise, the full potential of what it could mean to be English. And, at that point, I wonder about what I am actually writing…

Tiptoft’s opponents, as I have described them, sound to me so much like fifteenth-century Brexiteers, wanting to reduce and confine their identity. He, in contrast, in his cosmopolitanism would have campaigned for Remain, though whether having the man known as the Butcher of England on one’s side is an advantage is doubtful. I did not set out to use my discussion of his manuscripts to become a commentary on our nation’s present predicament. In fact, I usually make an effort to divide between my historical writing and my political commitment. I remember asking Conrad Russell, eminent historian of seventeenth-century England and active Liberal Democrat peer, whether he thought his politics informed his writing of history; his succinct response was ‘I hope not’.

So, how have these parallels forced themselves upon the page? Has there been some sort of surreptitious infusion of a Zeitgeist into my veins? That would be disturbing as I have been reared an anti-Hegelian who, when it comes to the ‘spirit of the age’, practises complete abstinence. The difficulty with the concept is that the ‘age’ is not just imperceptible to all but the ‘great man’; it simply does not exist. What I see in history are not ‘periods’ as much as a myriad of minute shifts, unsynchronised and unequal, that perpetually shake the kaleidoscope through which we spy the world. There are, though, perhaps moments when we sense a movement of the plates beneath us, making accepted certainties judder. It is said that in the US post-1963 everyone could remember where they were of the news of the assassination of JFK: some wept, some cheered, but what they shared was a sense of a changed reality — something irreversible has taken place. For us in Britain, so often dormant in self-satisfied contentment, there has been a moment. It is not that a nation’s destiny has been altered. It is true that, on the basis of a single response from a woefully small proportion of the electorate, decisions are being made behind closed doors to break links with the European Union to an extent as yet unclear (so much for taking control). But, as I have said before, the European Union has never been about a calling, it is a matter of rational choice. What has happened has brought into sharper relief how difficult it is to talk as if there was a Britain as a single united nation. This is not simply about the increased divide between Scotland and England (leaving aside the issue of Northern Ireland); the deeper impact has been to expose the fissures within our society as raw wounds onto which the acid of further rancour is being poured.

We have experienced a moment and are living through its aftershocks. Have the unsettling consequences of it shaped how I have written? I like to think not: I prefer to say that I am reading the parallels into what I have written. I certainly want that to be the most plausible explanation, and not just for professional reasons of keeping one’s impartiality. I suspect I also want the history about which I write, bloody and unsettled through those times were, to be a safe haven that cannot be touched by the increasing bitterness of our here-and-now politics. There must be some advantage to being an historian and maybe it is this: that one can retreat not just from the outside world but into another time. As things stand now, I think I might prefer to be with Tiptoft in Padua in 1461 than in England in 2016.

But, if I were there, I think I know what he would say: we have enjoyed ourselves but we have to return — it is our duty. What, though, can I do, apart from campaigning for a more fully functioning democracy than we have been shown to have right now? Is it that there is also a duty for any historian in these circumstances? The goal of impartiality is more than a noble dream, but are there occasions when it becomes a dereliction of duty? Is one consequence of this moment that the historian writing about the present is not simply unavoidable, it is essential?



Tagged: Brexit, Conrad Russell, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Tom Penn