I is for Ironer

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This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/uncategorized/i-is-for-ironer/

In 1901 over 180,000 women were recorded in the census as working in laundries as washerwomen, ironers and manglers.  Every town and village had women working at laundries, small hand laundries existed by the thousands in large towns and the suburbs of London. Alongside these were homebased workers, and also the vast, steam driven laundries employing hundreds of women.


Unlike today with our automated laundry systems and electric irons with steam facilities, doing the laundry in the 19th century was hard physical work, and to do it correctly required skill. A report in The Pall Mall Gazette or 1890 describes how the process was being taught to fortunate young girls in a number of School Board Schools in London.

“Every girl of the right sort delights in a doll’s washing, and so it is little wonder that the large class-rooms at five different centres which serve pro tem as wash-houses and laundries become the school paradise and promotion to a laundry class is eagerly earned by good attendance and steady work… Twelve little irons have heating on gas stoves, and soon, three at a table, the little laundresses are smoothing, glazing and goffering. Little glossing-irons are produced, and such a gloss do collars and cuffs receive as shall astonish the proud fathers and brothers who are to wear them on the following Sunday.”[1]


Many books and newspapers carried advice on how to launder and iron – in many the advice is simply to take the ironing to a professional – “Laundry-work, like everything else, requires care, attention and neatness. Scorched linen and smutty collars, although too often seen where the washing is done at home, ought not to be, any more than at the large laundries where ironing is paid for by the article and everything badly ironed is returned by the manager to be redone.”[2]  The author advises that: “The irons must be hot (yet not hot enough to scorch) and smooth. Some ironers stir the starch round with a wax candle when it is made, or put a scrap of butter in it to prevent the irons sticking; others rub the irons on the knife-board (dusting them afterwards) for the same purpose. But one great secret is to have bright, clean irons, and to starch the articles evenly – not ot have llumps of starch sticking here and there. Firm pressure upon the iron is necessary, and a good ironer knows how to fold each article neatly and daintily.”[3]

Ironing was a complicated, drawn out process – the irons needed to be heated on the stove taking care not to get smut and dirt on the hot plate, and then the clothes were pressed. An iron was not just an iron – there were multiple irons of different sizes for different jobs including the glossing-iron and for frills a goffering-iron.


Each needed heating, and then placing back on the stove to heat up again as they cooled – however, if the iron was too hot it would scorch and maintaining the heat meant standing alongside a stove – hot, physically demanding work.  It was a job that required a great deal of experience and skill to do correctly, the little girls in the Board Schools were being prepared to care for their own homes and washing, but also to be able to work in the hand and steam laundries :

“Washing is carried on in low, ill-ventilated rooms, the walls and ceilings of which stream with moisture, the floors of which are broken and undrained, so that the workers stand in a slop of dirty water, while wet flannels dangle round their heads, and their cotton dresses are soaked with steam and perspiration. In another room, more often than not, built overhead, the ironers ply their work around a gas-stove radiating noxious fumes, while the heat draws a damp steam up through the boards. The ironers literally drip with heat, and towards night-time their failing strength is stimulated by draughts of beer, which, bought wholesale and retailed, yields a profit to the employer. Even in well-managed laundries, the workers often take their meals sitting on turned-up pails with their feet in the water.”[4]

Not only were the conditions the women were working in appalling, the hours worked were described as ‘murderous’.  Writing in 1896 Miss March Phillips, creating a report on Women’s Industrial Life, wrote that Monday was frequently a short day for ironers – the washing needed to be washed first after all, but on Tuesday through to Friday most would work until 11 or 12 at night, frequently later still in the season. It was suggested that it was nothing unusual to finish work at around 3am on a Saturday morning, sleep for a few hours, and then begin again at 8am working though until Saturday afternoon.[5]  The work was dangerous, the machinery used could result in fatal injuries and was frequently insufficiently fenced, and sanitary conditions were found to be very poor in many instances.   In 1894, The report on the employment of women, by the Lady Assistant Commissioners, described ironers were the best paid workers in commercial laundries, and how women with children preferred to work in hand laundries as these were generally not requiring ironers to work on a Monday, thus giving them a free day to tend to their households.  Jessie Boucherett, the author of the report suggested that this was not a job for young girls, the heat in the ironing room which frequently reached 80-100 degrees was simply too much for them, not to mention the skill required to ‘get up’ (press) the more complicated garments – petticoats, ruffled shirts etc – was beyond their experience.

Ironing then was a job for experienced, older women, who were paid the best wages in the laundry.   Charles Booth states that while “women at the tub received from 2s to 3s a day… shirt and collar ironers earn from 8s to 15s a week according to capacity, and work from four to six days… Shirt and collar ironers who do clean work for shirt and collar warehouses are better paid. The work must be done well, and 4s to 5s a day can be earned.”[6]  This certainly compared favourably with the wages for laundresses in general – girls of 15 were expected to work for 70 to 80 hours a weeks for 5s in many instances.

Clementina Black, however, suggested that the wages were getting lower by the early years of the twentieth century and following interviews with over 60 women she found that many were on a lower wage than Booth suggested.  She illustrates the home life of these women, and paints a picture of abject poverty, in many instances the women working to support a sick husband, the children sick themselves and the mothers struggling to find childcare to support her while she went to work.

“Case No. 60 was that of a woman with a consumptive husband and five children ranging from 16 years to 9 months old. The occupied at a rent of 6/6 a top flat of two rooms in the neighbourhood of one of the great markets. The buildings were, in the investigator’s words, “tucked away down a long passage, each block with a separate staircase leading off – dirty and, I should think, dangerous in case of fire. The postman I asked for directions, who said he had been in the district for 18 years, declared there were no such buildings”. The wife, who went out to her work, earned, at the highest, 14/- a week, but some weeks only 7/- or 8/-… Two of the younger children were very delicate, and these remained at home in the care of the consumptive father, who could only go out ot work in warm weather. It was his custom to go hopping – always to the same farm – every year, and he was paid £1 a week. The whole family accompanied him, and the wife reported of the previous autumn’s migration that it “quite set her up” for the winter. It seems difficult to believe, however, that four or five weeks in the fresh and healthy air of a hop garden could do away with the effects upon the babies’ health of weeks and weeks shut up in the society of a father possessing but half a lung. The poor fellow was a devoted parent, who among other services cooked midday meals for all his children. But what must have been his reflections during the long hours of tendance upon a pair of tiny, weakly children whose chances of life his very presence was diminishing.”[7]

This family were not alone in their struggles – ironing, while better paid that general laundry, simply could not pay enough to provide even a basic standard of living for a family where the father was either sick, had died or had deserted.  The hours worked and the wages paid caused frequent calls for laundries to come under the Factory Act, thus reducing hours and improving safety. This campaign, however, although called for in many circles, was argued in 1893 to be overlooking: “the danger and injustice  of legislation which puts grown-up women on the level of “young persons and children”, and so lowers the market value of their labour. Too many of the well intended, but unjust restrictions of women’s hours of work have put them out of trades where wages were good and the work not unsuitable.”[8]     The article goes on to quote an extract from the Laundry Journal:

“ Perhaps the most ticklish question of all is that of overtime. Now overtime, under the Act is a difficult matter to deal with, as it will mainly affect the ironers, practically all of the young persons and women. How hardly the matter of overtime may bear on a trade is vividly illustrated by the labour dispute at the Lower Croft  Bleach Works, Bury. It seems that the work at the Lower Croft is mainly of the fancy goods description, necessitating a rush of work at certain seasons. Overtime is absolutely necessary. But the Bleach Works are under the provisions of the Factory Act, and the overtime clauses must not be evaded. Consequently at the Lower Croft boys and women were dispensed with, and the light labour given to old men and cripples, men who were not able to do hard work and earn full wages, but who were glad to do the light labour of the boys and women for the same wages these would have received.”

Ironing then was a job carried out by tens of thousands of women across Britain, hot, exhausting work in dangerous conditions which paid very little for the skill required. They were arguably at the top of the laundry pile so to speak – but their lives were hard, and their work harder.




[1] Little Laundresses at Work, The Pall Mall Gazette, (London, England, February 17th 1890)

[2] Country Housekeeping, Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, (London, England, Saturday, July 01, 1882)

[3] Country Housekeeping, 1882

[4] Miss March Phillips, ‘Women’s Industrial Life’, The Monthly Packet, (London, England, Friday May 1st, 1896) P 530

[5] Miss Phillips

[6] Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co, 1893) P 295.

[7] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), pp. 23-24.

[8] Article 2 – Laundries and Legislation, The Englishwoman’s Review, (London, England, Monday October 16th 1893)

How to read a research article

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At the University of Essex, where I teach, we have introduced a new assignment to help our second years with their preparations for choosing and researching a topic for their undergraduate dissertation. It involves each of them taking a research article and writing a short report on how the author would have gone about defining their topic and building up the evidence on which it is based. We appreciate that this could be a challenging task and so, in suggesting a couple of articles they could study from my reading lists, I have included one of my own articles with the offer of explaining how I came about writing the piece. I now realise that was rash: if the task of writing a report is challenging for them, it is all the more difficult for an author to think back to where they were intellectually a few years ago: the moment has passed and none of us, I imagine, would write now precisely how we did then.
What I can do which should be of some help is to give some hints of what an historian looks for when analysing a research article. So, here are some tips, meant to be of more general use, but which grow out of some reflections on an article entitled ‘Humanism across Europe: the structures of contacts’ which was published in 2012.

Not all research articles are equal. There is no one formula for a ‘research article’ – the term covers a range of styles of writing, and appear in a variety of publications. Some discuss the results of an investigation in a single archive, usually drawing out conclusions at the end. Others are more argument-led, with the research likely to be more eclectic. This is not simply a binary opposition: it is more like a spectrum, and my article falls closer to the ‘argument’ end than the ‘research’ end. As we shall see, however, no article can omit either of those two elements. You might well ask how you judge the article’s place on the spectrum – the basic answer is to pay attention to its content and how it is constructed but there is also another element which sometimes can help.

Be aware of the context. An article never appears on its own; it always appears in a larger publication. The classic format is for a research article to appear free-standing in a learned journal – in that case, it is unlikely for there to be dialogue between it and others in the same issue – but some journals increasingly produce ‘special issues’ where a set of essays discuss a related theme. This is similar to the collection of essays, like that in which my article appeared. In such a case, the author of the article you are reading may well be aware of what the other contributors have written and be engaging with them, even if it is by consciously bringing a different perspective. Look at where my article appeared and notice who was the editor of the volume: as it was the same person as the author, you can be sure that the chapter was written in full knowledge of the other contributions. You might even conclude that its purpose was to provide an overarching interpretation, placing the chapters that preceded it within a wider argument.

Check the date. Part of the issue of context is to understand when a work was written. We know that time’s arrow travels in only one direction: an article cannot be influenced by scholarship that appeared after it – and even the most assiduous academic may not be fully up-to-date with what has been published. So, the date of publication gives something like the cut-off point (the terminus post quem non) of possible influence – but it is only approximate. How long did it take the work to reach print? Was it written as a conference paper and the revised for publication, pushing the date of original composition back further? Are you using the original version or a re-print? Make sure you understand this element of the context: in a collection of essays, the preface will help; in an article, there is often a first footnote, listing acknowledgements but also, sometimes, explaining the origins of the work. Paying attention to these details will help you appreciate where the work sits in the historiography – that is, at what point it inserted itself in existing debates. That takes us to the next and perhaps most important point.

Find the debate. Historians are argumentative (and if one of them denies that this is the case, they have proven my point). Historians thrive by placing themselves in a debate, by detecting or creating disagreement so that they can then construct a new perspective. Any article, then, is more than its research: it forwards a position. How an article does this differs. Some might not even seem to be intent on making an argument, and some might be written as if what it has to say is not open to debate. In those instances, it is your essential task to detect how it fits into the historiographical scene and how it can be used to enlighten the big issues of scholarship: this creates the possibility that you, as an historian yourself, can use an article in ways the author might not have expected. But, as historians prize argument, it is unusual not to have the position being taken placed in the foreground. Admittedly, it is rare nowadays to find an academic in our discipline launching a full-frontal attack on another (‘Prof. X shows a shocking inability to do justice to the evidence…’) – and some would say we are better for that, even if it makes scholarship less entertaining for the readers. Some might even not mention an opponent by name in the text – my own style is often to talk about ‘the standard narrative’ or to remark ‘it has been argued…’. When that happens, how do find out who they have in their sights? The solution is to heed the next piece of advice.

Follow the footnotes. The text of an article and its footnotes relate to each other like the two hands on the piano. To read an article without paying attention to the notes is like hearing a melody without its base line – or, rather, an argument without its basis in evidence. The footnotes reveal what the text might hide: they reveal the author’s debts and disagreements – but they do more than that. They do not only help you more fully understand where the historian sits in a debate; they also make explicit the evidence – the research itself – on which the article and its argument is based. This is why footnotes matter so much to historians and why we disparage other disciplines which think that citations can be confined to a brief bracket at the end of a sentence: historians live by the demonstration of sound research their footnotes display. Or, sometimes, they fall because of their poor quality; more than one scholarly reputation has been damaged by the revelation that the author’s footnotes are inaccurate or, worse, borrowed – a kind way of saying plagiarised – from others. In my own area of study, footnotes most often cite unprinted primary sources (and so list a manuscript or document by its present location), though in the article I have set my references are more often to published editions.

Evaluate the evidence. By reading both the text and the footnotes, you can build up a fuller sense of the research that lies behind the article – and you can also begin to judge the strength of its argument. You will want to ask yourself what types of evidence are used and what range. Some articles will be tightly focussed on one set of materials, others will range more widely – but always with a sense of coherent whole to them. In my article, you will find several different types of primary material used, as well as what the social sciences call ‘secondary research’; that is, some statistics based on data-sets compiled by earlier scholars. As you think about how the author developed their article, you will also want to ask yourself: what is the most significant evidence used here? Remember that the way an article is written is very rarely an unfolding of the story of how the research was conducted. It is constructed after the research was completed and will order the evidence in a manner that makes it as convincing as possible, with the result that the most significant material is unlikely to be at the very beginning (or very end) of the article. So, what you are doing is understanding how the results of the historian’s time in the archives has been organised and deployed in order to make their argument persuasive.

Sense the sections. The consequence of this is also that an article is – like an essay you write should be – a set of steps. The author needs to lead the reader through the stages of the argument as the evidence is unveiled. Sometimes (but only in a minority of cases), these steps will helpfully be flagged up by sub-divisions in an article: these might involve sub-titles or numbers or (as in my article) simply an extra line-break. By being aware of these, though, you can get a better sense of how the author has arranged the information they have gathered. Of course, it is up to you as reader to consider whether the evidence could be organised differently or supplemented by other material, with changes to the argument as a result. When you do that, you move from being a reader to being a potential author, ready to do your own research and enter the sand-pit of historiographical debate.

Good luck.

Tagged: footnotes, Humanism, plagiarism, research

Looking to the Edge, or Networking Early Modern Women

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It’s a funny thing, really, that after several decades of women’s history in the academic world, historians should still need to be told how to go about finding women. ‘Look to the edges’, exhorted Amanda Herbert in her keynote address for ‘Networking Early Modern Women’. This was no less than a call to arms, especially amidst the #femfog (in which a prominent medieval historian claimed that feminists intimidate and victimize men, obscuring manly good sense in a feminist fog).[1]

V0007640ETR Angels, demons and representations of flesh and the devil cr Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Angels, demons and representations of flesh and the devil crowd around a stool upon which the different elements that make up a human burn and smoke; representing a test of faith. Etching by C. Murer after himself, c. 1600-1614. 1622 By: Christoph MurerPublished: 1622 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The origins of #femfog? C. Murer, c. 1600-1614. Image Credit: Wellcome Images, London.

The goal of the add-a-thon, hosted by the great Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project, was to add more women into the database’s networks. And the Sloane Letters team[2] was (virtually) there! As Hillary Nunn noted in a review of Six Degrees, there were initially few women in the database, in large part because the project drew heavily on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography when identifying networks.

Elizabeth Monck (née Cavendish), Duchess of Albemarle, after Unknown artist etching and line engraving, late 18th to early 19th century NPG D30497 Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

Elizabeth Monck (née Cavendish), Duchess of Albemarle, after Unknown artist. Image Credit: NPG D30497, National Portrait Gallery, London. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

From a Sloane perspective, the Six Degrees database also lacked any of the women in Sloane’s networks–even though much of Sloane’s early patronage came from women. For example, Sloane was the Duchess of Albemarle’s household physician for several years after returning from Jamaica. The Duchess later married the Duke of Montagu, and Sloane was consulted by the extended Montagu family.

Sloane also corresponded with women about a range of subjects beyond medical treatment. Widows like Margaret Ray, Margaret Flamsteed, and Anna Hermann consulted him about bookselling and publishing. Some women, such as the Duchess of Bedford and the Lady Sondes, asked for advice about family matters. Other female correspondents shared an interest in natural philosophy; Cecilia Garrard, for instance, sent him specimens and the Duchess of Beaufort discussed botany (and, at her death in 1715, bequeathed him her herbarium). All of this I know through long familiarity with Sloane’s correspondence.

But what does the picture of women’s networks look like if we take a step back from individual letters to examine the cumulative data in the Sloane Letters database?

To prepare for the Six Degrees add-a-thon, research assistant Edward Devane extracted all of the Sloane Letters references to women who were born before 1699–the cut-off date for inclusion in the Six Degrees database. I also asked him to create a shortlist of women who had clearly strong connections with Sloane: women who appeared frequently, referred to social contact, or wrote several letters. There were 339 female individuals on the long list who were mentioned in the letters at least once. But for the shortlist? A mere twenty-seven women.

Look to the edge, indeed!

The group of strongly connected women picked up several crucial relationships, such as Sloane’s friendship with Lady Sondes; his old family connection to Anne Hamilton (dowager Countess of Clanbrassil); and his assistance of Margaret Ray, widow of Sloane’s good friend John Ray.

But the most important connections in Sloane’s life were only to be found in the margins. This was quite literally the case for his family relationships (wife and daughters) who appear in postscripts, along the lines of: ‘My humble service to your Lady and daughters’. There are also occasional references to his other female family members—mother, nurse, sisters, aunts… As for the Duchess of Albemarle, she was mentioned only a few times in a handful of letters from Peter Barwick.

Of course, it is not surprising that people whom Sloane saw frequently do not appear in the letters, but their absence obscures the social, family and patronage networks that would have been important to Sloane’s daily life. Although the women remain hidden as strong connections when extracting basic data, the Sloane Letters database can still be searched by name or relationship, which makes it easier to sift through the masses of correspondence to find scattered references to his family networks.

Image Credit: University of Cambridge Digital Library.

Image Credit: University of Cambridge Digital Library.

Then there are the female correspondents who didn’t even appear in the list at all because they signed their names using initials. Take, for example, J. Squire who wrote to Sloane in 1731. There is nothing in the letter that explicitly suggests that J. Squire was a woman. However, the linkage of the three names—Squire, Abrahm de Moivre and Sloane is telling. Jane Squire had a proposal to determine longitude, which attracted the interest of De Moivre and Sloane. How many other women are to be found lurking behind initials in the correspondence?

What we mean when we talk about networks might also need to be broadened when we look to the edge. Do we just trace important people with wide networks? Do we just trace those whose biographies can be verified? Just how inclusive should we be?

A family group of a woman and four children flanked on either side by figures of children. Engraving by Aug. Desnoyers after himself after Raphael. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A family group of a woman and four children flanked on either side by figures of children. Engraving by Aug. Desnoyers after himself after Raphael. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane’s loose connections present a number of women who saw Sloane as a part of their network, even if the women did not play a meaningful role in his life. Mrs. E. Martin wrote to Sloane in 1725 and 1726 asking for his help in a person situation. Her lover, Mr. Knight, had abandoned her and their children to marry another woman. By 1726, the situation was worse: Mr. Knight had her confined, removed her child, and frozen his payments to her. Mrs. Martin noted that Sloane had once treated her. This was typical; there were several one-off letters from former patients asking for assistance, presumably because Sloane was one of the most important people they knew.

However, the names that Mrs. Martin dropped in the letters also suggest that she thought Sloane might have personal influence: Mr. Knight, Mr. Isted, and Mr. Meure. Isted was Sloane’s son-in-law, while Knight and Meure were friends of Isted and Sloane. Perhaps these other connections were a little too close, because Sloane dismissed her altogether:

I rec’d yors & am in no manner of condition either to advise or relieve you being perfectly a stranger to what you write & not in a possible way of helping you, being full of affairs in my own profession that I have neither time nor abilities to be assisting to you.

Mrs. Martin was, indeed, a woman found at the edge—of survival and social networks.

At first glance, looking at the list of letter-writers, women hardly factor in Sloane’s correspondence. There were women who wrote directly to Sloane, but most women appear only as subjects, mentioned by medical practitioners, family members or friends (their, er, networks?). One of the reasons that I developed the Sloane Letters database was to make those hidden women more findable; if we describe the letters beyond authorship, women’s stories and networks suddenly become visible.

And it is only by looking to the edges in the first place that the outlines of early modern women’s networks emerge, revealing how women were at the centre all along.

[1] David Perry has a good summary on #femfog and links to other criticisms here: http://www.thismess.net/2016/01/grab-your-balls-and-problem-with-blind.html

[2] The team included my University of Essex research assistants (Edward Devane and Evie Smith) and me.

Vanity publishing, the early modern way

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Here is a jolly scene of music-making:

Thomas de Keyser, 'The Music Lesson' (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

Thomas de Keyser, The Music Lesson (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

This early seventeenth-century Dutch painting sits at the end of one wing of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen. Amidst that gallery’s riches – including a superlative Gerard David – the rather generic scene could easily be overlooked. What caught my eye (it may not surprise some who read this blog) was its depiction of books. In their rush to create a workable environment, the musicians had created an impromptu pile of books, intended to prop open the long, low shape of the score at the right page. Limp leather bindings sit one upon another, but look also what is underneath them. At the bottom is a sturdy wooden book-rest but that did not suffice for our lute-player who, to gain the right distance from his music, had placed open a heavy volume – we see the thick binding which looks as if leather over wooden boards, replete with two substantial clasps – at the edge of the rest, and layered the other volumes on top of it. That cannot be good for its spine. Here we have an example of that well-attested phenomenon, the abuse of books in art.

This is not the only example in Rouen’s collection – in another Dutch piece by Lambert Jacobsz, St Mark rests his heavy elbows on some pages. What made me stop to think about de Keyser’s picture, however, was the juxtaposition with it of another small canvas in the same room. Turn ninety degrees and this memento mori stands before you:

'Vanitas', c. 1630s (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

‘Vanitas’, c. 1630s (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

The skull presides over a scene reminding the viewer of the futility of human endeavour. The globe at the left wills us to ask ‘what shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?’. This man, though, has perhaps only dreamt of distant lands, and whiled away his time in the frivolity of violin-playing. The transient nature of the sound of music is reinforced by the flimsy score on which the skull lies, its pages and limp binding dangling over the side of the table, creating a trompe l’œil. Its material echoes that of the ragged broadsheet on the wall: paper is used as the epitome of impermanence.

The juxtaposition brought home to me what I should have realised in the first place: de Keyser’s scene is not simply a naturalistic rendering of a domestic setting but is freighted with similar moral messages to the ‘Vanitas’. The event it depicts is not simply a moment of happiness but, in its show of careless abandon, is one of danger to the soul, in which the frivolous is privileged and presses down upon the weightier, as the limp leather bindings sit and obscure the heavier tome.

The reason I share this with you is not simply as an exploration of a single painting seen on my holidays. It raises larger questions about how early modern users of book responded to different types of construction, how conscious they were of the quality of paper, what signification a style of binding may have had in their mind. Did a sense of their own ephemeral nature touch them as they fingered the pages of a thin, limply bound booklet? Did they expect true learning to come in thick-set folios? If so, what failure to appreciate the vanity of life must have lain there! This is to say, does an ordering such as that presented, by inversion, in de Keyser’s painting, collude in a belief that some human knowledge has more chance of being lasting? Thus we hide from the enormity of death.

This takes me to my final point: history, it is sometimes said, is about an attempt to cheat death, to live on beyond our mortal span. Historians, certainly, are memorialisers entrapped by previous generations’ attempts to be remembered. We are part of a cult of permanence or, rather, of the forlorn hope that we may be able to escape being ephemeral. As, though, we cannot, has not the time come that we should write the cultural history of impermanence? That could be a truly monumental volume.

Tagged: life of books, Rouen Musee des Beaux Arts, Thomas de Keyser, vanitas

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Remembering Jenny Wormald

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E-mail is such an impersonal way to learn of someone’s death. The very distance it creates makes the realisation of the loss of a human – someone you heard speak and laugh – all the more bitter. It was by opening of my inbox this morning that I learnt of the death of Jenny Wormald.

Jenny Wormald, historian of Scotland and of early modern Britain, tutor at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – I owe her so much. I remember the seminars I had with her in my final year as an undergraduate: one set in Cliff Davies’s rooms in Wadham, the other looking out over the gardens in her own college. What was a constant in those sessions was her willingness to provoke, to encourage reticent students into conversation and debate. I was to learn that this was a characteristic of her scholarship, a gift of making us continually re-think our assumptions, much as she insisted she herself must do. One of the last times I heard her speak I remember the author of the justly celebrated ‘James VI and I, one king or two?’ shock her audience by announcing that she had changed her mind: ‘he was a terrible king’.

It is also to Jenny that I owe my first job, standing in for her at St Hilda’s for a term. I remember well her room there, which I occupied for that Michaelmas, and its impressive range of books. My knowledge of her – I can hear her now being strident with me when I hesitate to assume it was friendship – was deepened by the fact that I was also at Christ Church with her then husband, Patrick. As that marriage collapsed, I heard both sides. And, at Patrick’s untimely funeral in Oxford’s Catholic Chaplaincy, I – like so many – could not hold back the tears as Jenny gave the eulogy with such eloquence and dignity.

It is perhaps that event which I remember most, though it was not the last time I saw her. I think that was in the run-up to the 2010 General Election when she was in Oxford for a while, and was palpably excited about the prospect of a LibDem break-through in the forthcoming vote. She was, I fear, disappointed both with the outcome and with the inglorious aftermath. Perhaps, though, there is something fitting about that memory and fear: she would be the first to remind us (as she took a drag on her cigarette and eyed you sideways) that you have to take all that comes and, through it all, survive. She no longer does but, in us, the memory of her and the traits we learnt from her will live. That is, I hope, no small legacy.


Tagged: Jenny Wormald, Patrick Wormald

More Lost Manuscripts

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In between the various commitments of a teaching term, I have been working on the release of a second batch of entries for the Lost Manuscripts project – and today is the day they are launched upon the world.

As you may remember, the pilot project involves cataloguing and digitizing the manuscript fragments found in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now resident in the library of the University of Essex.The rationale has been to treat each fragment both as an object worth describing in its own right and as witness to a manuscript which once existed but is now lost to us. In doing this, then, it engages with the developing and exciting practices of ‘virtual reunification’ – the process of bringing together on the internet elements of a work of art which are physically dispersed. Its manuscript variant is sometimes called ‘fragmentology’, an undeniably unlovely term (but I have complained about that before now). What the project hopes to bring to the metaphorical table, beyond a set of new examples, is thinking about the standards of cataloguing we might require for fragments and how they may differ from those for complete codices.

The intention of the Lost Manuscripts site is to make the images and the descriptions freely available. The bulk of the work for the pilot project was done in the summer of this now-closing year, but the pages are being released in small batches to allow for checking and the addition of further information. So, today is one step on a journey, and a small one at that. In the first batch, there were twenty ‘lost manuscripts’; in this, only eight. That is partly because this group includes several fragments which do not meet the rules we have set for creating a lost manuscript: if only one remnant remains from which it is impossible to extrapolate what might have been, then it is not allowed into that virtual realm of reborn codices we like to call Babel. So, a stray strip of music, or a single scrap of a copy of the Digest stands beyond that city’s gates. Of course, in those instances, our hope is that more work and more discoveries will allow us to link up that lone fragment with others – and then the doors will be opened to them.

All the same, there are some interesting finds in the fragments now there to view. Some of these are discussed on the Highlights page of the site. They include an example I have mentioned before of how some binders chose to save not the text from a manuscript but precisely those parts which provided virgin parchment. There is also a useful reminder that, while the process of dismantling manuscripts is, in English history, particularly associated with the disruption of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the reformers by no means invented the practice. The fragments involved in that case are a personal favourite at the moment because several come from one medical manuscript for which we have been able to identify precisely from what text they come: it is painstaking and, indeed, thankless work which, in this instance, involved learning more about the varieties of urine than any layperson could ever really want to know.

As the project develops, what is also coming into sharper focus is the range of questions we should be (funding permitting) asking at the next stage. We can detect a variety of practices that took place in different binderies – what were the reasons for those differences and how did they develop from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century? We also know that a broad sweep of medieval texts were ripe for cutting up, but did the variety of manuscripts and the balance between them shift over the sixteenth century? What, fundamentally, was the logic of the destruction of manuscript culture in the early modern period? These are big issues which will need ‘big data’ to begin to answer them – but they are ones that are surely worth asking.

Tagged: fragments, Lost Manuscripts, Samuel Harsnett

Grading Sir Hans Sloane’s Research Paper

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It’s that time of year when grading is on an academic’s mind. With first-year assignments still fresh in my head, I recently found myself frustrated by Sir Hans Sloane’s “Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane” (Philosophical Transactions, volume 38, 1733-4).

Letters by Sir Hans rarely feature on this blog—and that’s for a good reason: there aren’t very many by him in his correspondence collection. But he did, occasionally, send in reports to the Royal Society… some of which were better than others. I love reading the early eighteenth-century Philosophical Transactions; many of the authors knew how to tell a cracking story, with a clear narrative arc of event, evidence and interpretation.

Not so much this offering from Sloane.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Sloane’s account began in 1729 when “a Person came to consult me on an Accident, that befell four of his Children, aged from four Years and a half, to thirteen Years and a half”. The children decided to have a foraged snack from the fields by St. Pancras Church, thinking that the seeds they’d found were tasty filberts. But foraging can be a risky business and the children took ill. Their symptoms included great thirst, dizziness, blurred vision, delirium and sleepiness. For Sloane, the symptoms suggested henbane poisoning; Sloane’s initial diagnosis was reinforced after examining the seeds that the father had brought in to show him. Sloane prescribed bleeding, blistering at multiple points, and purging at both ends: “And by this Method they perfectly recovered.”

This could have made for a solid medical case study: who better to bring together clinical observation with botanical detective work? But for Sloane, the real story was the seeds rather than his diagnostic prowess. I withheld judgement. At this point, I was curious to see where Sloane, the narrator, would take his readers.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane went on to describe how the symptoms of delirium can offered important clues. Henbane delirium was very different from regular fevered delirium, but had much in common to the delirium caused by datura (“a species of stramonium”) and bang of East-India (“a sort of hemp”–indeed). Unfortunately for the reader, he did not describe any of these forms of delirium.

He then noted that the delirium from all three herbs was different from that “caused by the rubbing with a certain Ointment made use of by Witches (according to Lacuna, in his Version and Comments upon Dioscorides)”. The witches’ ointment instead would “throw the Persons into deep Sleep, and make them dream so strongly of being carried in the Air to distant Places, and there meeting with others of their diabolical Fraternity; that when they awake they actually believe, and have confess’d, that they have performed such extravagent Actions.”

I see. From faux-filberts to witches’ ointment in four easy steps…

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Henbane wasn’t all bad, though. Sloane recounted, for example, that several years before, a “Person of Quality tormented with this racking Pain [of tooth-ache]” was treated by an empiric who used henbane. The sufferer was desperate—“his Anguish obliging him to submit to any Method of procuring Ease”—and he allowed the empiric to funnel smoke into the tooth’s hollow before (allegedly) removing tooth-worms. If this case sounds familiar to regular readers, it should be. Sloane procured one of the maggots from the sufferer, then sent it to Leeuwenhoek who examined it in detail and found it to be an ordinary cheese worm rather than a so-called tooth-worm.

Although Sloane knew that the wormy tale was fake, he pointed out that “upon the whole”, the henbane would have offered pain relief. And in any case, presumably, a good tale about tooth-worms bears repeating. Sloane also took the chance in his conclusion to make a dig at empirics who, through “slight of Hand” acquired a reputation for their remedies’ success, “which from the Prescription of an honest Physician would be taken little Notice of.”

So ends the account


Essay Comments

Sir Hans,

There is much of interest in this paper: your medical cases on henbane and tooth-worms are intriguing and your ability to identify both seeds and poisoning is impressive. I also appreciate the historical perspective that you bring to this study with your discussion of witch ointments.

However, there are a few ways in which this essay could be strengthened. The essay lacks analysis as you move quickly between subjects–a recent case, types of delirium caused by different seeds, and an old case. These are all fascinating issues in their own right, but you lapse into storytelling with each instance without ever going into detail about their significance. For example, in the middle section, you aim to connect different seeds to different types of delirium, but you never provide any discussion about the specifics (apart from the witches’ delirium): how did the childrens’ delirium present? What does delirium caused by bhang or datura look like? In what ways are each of these similar or different? This would help the reader to understand your thought process in diagnosing the patients and in identifying poisons.

It is also worth more carefully considering the title you’ve chosen: “An Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane”. A good title should reflect the content of the essay. However, only the first section of your paper considers symptoms actually caused by eating henbane seeds. The second section is potentially related, but needed to be more closely linked to make the connection clear; this would have been done to good effect by comparing the specifics of each drug and their symptoms to the case of henbane poisoning you introduced. The third section is only tangentially related—although you discuss a medical case and henbane is involved, you consider henbane’s therapeutic qualities rather than symptoms arising from its use. You could usefully have omitted the case in its current state, particularly since the section focuses on making value judgements about empirics and examining tooth-worms. That said, if you really do think it necessary to keep the section, you needed to consider henbane’s effects in more detail. Even more crucially, you might consider changing the title: “An Account of the Effects of Henbane” would have neatly pulled the three strands together in a more coherent fashion.

This essay has the potential to be a wonderful example of your diagnostic and botanical mastery, especially if you took more time to consider the narrative arc. Rather than scattering your energies by telling several stories (henbane, witches or tooth-worms), focus instead on one strand. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn by showing off what you know and how you know it, instead of just sharing a collection of interesting tidbits.

So what grade should we give it…?

Sloane becomes a BBC Radio 4 Natural History Hero

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By Victoria Pickering

On Monday 28th September at 1:45pm, BBC Radio 4 aired the first segment of their ten-part series about Natural History Heroes and what would be my very first foray into sharing my research on national radio. It was a lot more nerve-racking than I expected, but also an interesting learning experience.

Iplayer Radio, BBC Radio 4. Image Credit: BBC.

Iplayer Radio, BBC Radio 4. Image Credit: BBC.

In April of this year (2015), the Natural History Museum (NHM) announced a BBC Radio 4 Natural Histories series. This would be a partnership that would ultimately allow the NHM to share extraordinary stories surrounding their vast collections, as well as the expertise of its scientists. The second element of this collaboration–Natural History Heroes–would then allow a range of experts from the Museum to select and discuss predecessors who inspired their work and lives. Finally, four prominent authors will write original short stories inspired by the incredible narratives uncovered during this partnership.

Wonderfully (and quite rightly!), Sir Hans Sloane was chosen to be the first Natural History Hero. Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Museum, Dr Mark Spencer, spoke charmingly about the incredible Sloane Herbarium. This is currently housed in the Historical Collections Room in the Museum’s Darwin Centre. This purpose-built space,  kept at a strict seventeen degrees Celsius, holds Sloane’s collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’–my obsession for the last three years.

Because of my PhD research on the collection, Mark invited me to be part of this programme. In July, the programme’s producer, Ellie Sans, contacted me. Ellie and I talked at length over the phone about the historical research I’ve been doing with the vegetables, particularly my interest in the people who sent botanical material from all over the world to Sloane in London. Ellie was particularly interested in the larger project that surrounds Sloane: Reconstructing Sloane (as well as Reconnecting Sloane) and the significance of this collaborative research.

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Historical Collections Room, Darwin Centre, NHM London. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Historical Collections Room, Darwin Centre, NHM London. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Mark recorded his part of the programme in the Historical Collections Room itself and I think this worked really well. It gave a great sense of what it’s like to be working in that room, at that temperature, with the objects themselves. I recorded my section a few weeks later and in hindsight, I should have suggested that we did this too. Instead, we spent about 20 minutes searching for a room in the Museum that was quiet enough to record without any background noise. It turns out, this is pretty difficult to do.

Three rooms and three recordings later, in a random but quiet Press Office Room, Ellie had recorded about forty-five minutes of me talking about who I am, where I’m based, what my research is about, what I’ve been doing, and why this is significant for today. Beforehand, Ellie had sent me a list of questions she would ask me, and I spent lots of time preparing my answers and thinking about the best way to reflect on my research. It really made me question why researching Sloane in different ways might be relevant to someone listening to the show.

I generally really enjoy presenting my research–and the wonderful thing about working with a Museum collection is the opportunity to share my work with all sorts of audiences through different public engagement activities. But I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel with a microphone under my nose while trying to talk ‘naturally’ about what I do and why this is important. It’s amazing how people involved in broadcasting make it look and sound so effortless. At the end, Ellie mentioned that experts react in different and surprising ways when asked to do similar recordings. This definitely made me feel better!

Drawers containing Sloane's collection of 'Vegetable Substances'. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Drawers containing Sloane’s collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

By the end of the interview I had relaxed and was feeling more comfortable… and especially happy that this hadn’t been a live broadcast. I had no idea what the final show would sound like or how much of what I said would be included, but I thought that Ellie did a beautiful job of editing it.

It was primarily Mark’s show, so I was really pleased to have been included as much as I was, with my interview woven through the programme in such an interesting way. Ultimately, I’m just delighted that I could talk about  broadcast Sloane, his incredible collections and the research that a number of us are undertaking, to a national audience. Working with the NHM provided me with this exciting opportunity.

Now, I hope, the programme’s listeners are intrigued and keen to know more about Sloane and his astonishing eighteenth-century natural history collections.

The Itinerary of the Itineraries of William Worcestre

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Welcome to the latest issue of Aperçus & obiter dicta, that entirely virtual (that is to say, non-existent) journal, devoted to recherché discoveries. This instalment comes to you from the Brewhouse of Oxford’s Christ Church, a building which has been – o tempora, o mores – transformed from its original use and is now home to that institution’s archives. In revising the introduction to the catalogue of Christ Church’s western manuscripts, I have had reason to visit there more often than the patient Archivist would probably like (though she is too generous ever to admit it). I have, I must admit, come under the records’ spell. The Disbursement Books, which present in glorious detail the termly expenditure of the institution, are so rich in information that they repay the sort of repeated and close reading that one could only afford if allotted more than one lifetime, with each day offering more working hours than are allowed to a human being. We learn from them the dining habits of the House (as Christ Church is known to its members): the rewards regularly given to the servant who brings a doe; the changing fashions in meat (with turkey being often supplied – and thus presumably reared locally – from the very start of the seventeenth century). We discover the names of the men and the women who were employed for everyday tasks, and see them sign their names, or leave their mark when they are illiterate. We are also appraised of the running of the various elements that make up Christ Church: the ‘church’ which is Oxford’s cathedral (and which is the reason it is a solecism to call the House a college: it is a dual foundation); the array of buildings which occupy its curtilage, and – most relevant for my research – its library.

The library has its own section in these Disbursement Books but that is often sparse in contents; to learn more of activities related to it and to manuscripts we have to look elsewhere, as the following example demonstrates.  It comes from the first months of 1617 and appears in the section listing the costs of ‘Law and Iornies’. It reads:

To the Carrier for carrying our letter to Cambridge and carrying and recarrying William of Worcester — 2s 6d

The entry is, sadly, unsigned, so we do not know who made this trip or, rather, trips, to Cambridge, back to Oxford and then repeated the exercise. What is interesting is the reference to ‘William of Worcester’. The description of him being carried demonstrates that it was not a person who travelled; instead, this must record an object given the name, presumably, of its producer. That object was surely a book, for William Worcestre will be known to you, learned reader, as the fifteenth-century proto-antiquary who was long-suffering secretary to Sir John Fastolf and who, perhaps in posthumous revenge, plagues scholars with his spidery, inelegant handwriting. He is probably now best remembered for The Boke of Noblesse, which survives in a manuscript in the Royal Collection of the British Library. He was, in addition, an inveterate note-taker. One of those compilations was edited in 1969 with the title of Itineraries from the unique manuscript which belonged to Archbishop Matthew Parker and is, thus, in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as MS. 210. It is a holster-book, so called for its long, thin shape which made it particularly portable and with which Worcestre himself travelled. Patently, its peregrinations did not end with his death or with its ownership by Parker and subsequently Corpus for, being the only book in Cambridge that can answer to the name of ‘William of Worcester’, this must surely be the object that was being carried and recarried between Cambridge and Oxford.

This previously unnoticed entry is notable for two reasons. First, famously, Archbishop Parker had been very careful in drawing up instructions for his library intended to minimise losses. They involve annual audits which, if the care of the books is found wanting, would mean Corpus would lose the rights to the whole collection – these continue today, under the anxious eye of Christopher de Hamel, and are also the occasion for an impressive dinner in the hall of Corpus. Despite the archepiscopal injunctions, by the 1640s, a few Cambridge scholars were able to remove temporarily a volume from the collection for study elsewhere in the university. This example, though, comes over two decades earlier, and involves a loan over a much greater distance. One wonders what the late Archbishop would have thought of it.

We also might wonder what the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church wanted with this volume. The fact that the transaction is recorded in the Disbursement Books shows that this was an official matter, not a private arrangement for the sake of a solitary scholar. It would seem likely that the authorities at the institution wanted to consult Worcestre’s notebook because they thought there was something of relevance to them in it. With the endowment provided by its founder, Henry VIII, Christ Church had rights to lands in various parts of the country and there is other evidence to show that, in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century, attempts were being made to ascertain precisely what was due to the institution. These researches involved an interest in medieval manuscripts, as shown by the importuning of Sir Robert Cotton first to borrow and then to gain ownership of the cartulary of Osney Abbey, a house most relevant to the House for it had been the site of Oxford’s first cathedral before that honour (and all of Osney’s holdings) were transferred to the new foundation of Christ Church. Colin Tite has reconstructed the move of that codex to Oxford with remarkable accuracy, considering he did not have access to the records – also in the Disbursement Books – which corroborate his dating of the transaction: it was taking place in 1620. A decade later and another entry in the relevant Book (under ‘Expenses Extraordinary’) shows one of Christ Church’s number being paid for a journey which had a parallel purpose:

for searching records att lincolne to Mr. Burton — 25s

The entry is signed by Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy and, at this point, Librarian in Christ Church. The size of the payment shows that he was not crossing the High Street to the college of that name but must have travelled to the cathedral city after which the college was named.

It is, in conclusion, my supposition that Worcestre’s Itineraries were requested from Corpus, Cambridge for similar practical reasons – evidence, in other words, that this antiquary’s writings were not of merely antiquarian value in the early seventeenth century.

Tagged: Christ Church Oxford, Christopher de Hamel, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, Judith Curthoy, Matthew Parker, Robert Burton, William Worcestre