Monthly Archives: November 2007

Tyburn’s Martyrs

The criminals went to the place of execution in the following order, Morgan, Webb, and Wolf, in the first cart; Moore in a mourning coach; Wareham and Burk in the second cart; Tilley, Green, and Howell in the third; Lloyd on a sledge; on their arrival at Tyburn they were all put into one cart. They all behaved with seriousness and decency. Mary Green professed her innocence to the last moment of the fact for which she died, cleared Ann Basket, and accused the woman who lodged in the room where the fact was committed. As Judith Tilley appeared under terrible agonies, Mary Green applied herself to her, and said, do not be concerned at this death because it is shameful, for I hope God will have mercy upon our souls; Catharine Howell likewise appeared much dejected, trembled and was under very fearful apprehensions; all the rest seemed to observe an equal conduct, except Moore, who, when near dying, shed a flood of tears. In this manner they took their leave of this transitory life, and are gone to be disposed of as shall seem best pleasing to that all-wise Being who first gave them existence.

In the course of my research over the years, I’ve read the records of coroners’ inquests – murders, gruesome accidents, negligence and cruelty – and they are distressing and disturbing, yet they don’t evoke quite the same sense of culture shock as do the pamphlets containing accounts of executions like the one above.

We aren’t simply talking about the execution of murderers here: in the 18th century burglars, robbers, pickpockets, horse thieves, sheep- and cattle-rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters could all face slow, horrible deaths, in most cases public strangulation, and this was regarded by most people as perfectly normal and civilised. (Indeed, there were those who thought that hanging was not punishment enough.)

Ordinary’s Accounts are one of the many sources we’re digitising in the Plebeian Lives project. These are rich and fascinating sources, full of stories of the lives of common people. But they are also stories of death, and they give me the willies.

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Andrea McKenzie, since she has written an entire, densely detailed book about the subject and the source: Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England 1675-1775. She must be a tougher soul than me.

In fact, at the very beginning of the book she mentions some of the bemused reactions she received from people learning what her research topic was, including the gentleman who suggested that she should study “something pleasant, like great battles”.

McKenzie suggests that “the gallows were… a stage on which the condemned fought what contemporaries would have viewed as the greatest battle of all, publicly confronting the so-called ‘King of Terrors’: death”. Moreover, “the language of martyrology, legitimation and resistance were intertwined… traitors, martyrs, murderers and robbers alike drew from a common eschatology in which the ‘good death’ was not only an ultimate goal, but a powerful political and metaphysical statement’.

As she acknowledges, “there is much about early modern English sensibilities – or what we would see as the lack thereof – to horrify the modern reader”. But this is not a good reason to shy away from the topic: early modern attitudes towards execution are revealing of wider belief systems, which saw life as “not sacred, but forfeit… as a result of original sin”. Execution “was at the very heart of everyday contemporary eschatological discourse”.

McKenzie documents the journeys made by the condemned from Newgate to Tyburn, the reactions of observers to the behaviour of those on the gallows, depending on whether they were perceived to have made a ‘good’ death. The actions of the watching crowd often depended on their attitude towards individual convicts: the notorious and despised Jonathan Wild, for example, was pelted with stones.

She also traces the history of the publications that constitute her main sources, the ‘last dying speeches’ and Ordinary’s Accounts, and their decline in the later 18th century with the cultural rejection of the spectacle of the scaffold and its printed artefacts as vulgar and barbaric. McKenzie makes it clear that the Ordinary’s Account – and often its author – was frequently considered vulgar well before its decline.

The complex balancing act of ‘dying well’ on the gallows – striving for a “happy mean between presumption and despair” – is chronicled in detail. While the condemned were exhorted to think of Jesus as an exemplar, they were not supposed to go so far as to suggest that his innocence also mirrored theirs.

The ‘game criminal’ was the target of much criticism by the Ordinary – the real-life likes of Swift’s Clever Tom Clinch:

He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack,
And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back.

Like a Beau in the Box, he bow’d low on each Side;
And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry,
He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn’d Lye.

Still, the obstinate ‘game’ criminals served as useful counterpoints to the properly and tearfully (but not too tearful, especially the men) penitents, for the Ordinary’s moralising purposes. Their ‘false courage’ (mainly due to alcohol, according to the Ordinary) could be contrasted to genuine ‘Christian courage’, their pride made their fall inevitable and all the more instructive.

But it was difficult to doubt the courage of one group killed by the early modern English state: those who underwent peine forte et dure – pressing to death – for their obdurate refusal to plead to charges against them. Some may have done this to prevent the seizure of their estates following a trial; but by the 18th century that was not very likely to happen in any case. McKenzie suggests that the decision to endure this torture represented a challenge to, a rejection of, the authority of the courts, allowing them to ‘seize the initiative’ and ‘demonstrate their resolution and courage’ to the world.

Peine forte et dure was abolished in 1770, by which time it was seen by educated elites as ‘irrational and benighted’ as well as barbaric and cruel. Similarly, by then, the public theatre of Tyburn no longer had the cultural and moral resonance that it had had in the early 18th century; the Ordinary’s Account ceased publication in the 1770s. The Tyburn procession was abolished in 1783 – though not because it was unpopular, but because it was too rowdy and undisciplined.

There is, McKenzie concludes, a cultural gulf between 1675 and 1775 “so wide that, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we can barely see our way across it”. She views the change in terms of not a ‘decline’ in religiosity but its ‘redefinition’: the rejection of ‘enthusiasm’ and providentialism in favour of “a ‘rational religion in which rationality was both a human and divine attribute”, and which emphasised internalised virtues rather than public displays. McKenzie’s study demonstrates the benefits of overcoming our horror and at least attempting to understand what made the people of the early 18th century tick.

Further reading, for the stout-hearted

Tyburn Tree: Execution in Early Modern England
Old Bailey Proceedings (server is down again at the moment, so I can’t track down the punishment pages)
Last Mile Tours: hanging in 18th-century England
Early Eighteenth-century Newspaper Reports
EMR Bibliography
Simon Devereaux, Imposing the Royal Pardon: Execution, Transportation, and Convict Resistance in London, 1789

(X-posted (and shortened somewhat) from EMN.)


The Constant Couple at the Pearl Theater, NYC

I just saw this advertised today in the New York Times.  This play was Peg Woffington’s big break in London, in the role of Sir Harry Wildair.  It’s not a cross-dressed part: she was simply cast as the male lead, with legendary success. 

A wealthy heir and avowed man of pleasure, Harry courts the disreputable Lady Lurewell and the virtuous Angellica, whom he comically mistakes for a prostitute.  The Life of James Quin, Comedien tells a much-repeated anecdote: 

Upon her coming off the stage, in the character of Sir Harry Wildair, [Woffington] said, with no little triumph, ‘Lord, I believe the whole house thinks I am a man.’ – ‘By G-d, Madam,’ says [James Quin], ‘half the house knows the contrary.’

 William Hogarth later painted her in this role.  Perhaps inspired by her success as Wildair, Woffington went on to play Lothario in The Fair Penitent 




 The Constant Couple
by George Farquhar
Directed by Jean Randich
November 13- December 23

Purchase Tickets Online

George Farquhar’s youthful comedy The Constant Couple (1699) invites us into a London teeming with colorful characters. Steadfast Colonel Standard wants nothing more than to win the charming Lady Lurewell. But his way is littered with scheming rivals, troublesome fops, and bumbling rustics, all of whom seem to have some claim on his lady love. Combining all the wicked joy of the jaded Restoration stage with the “novel” notion that faithfulness and integrity might have their uses too, The Constant Couple illuminates a world merrily careening between deceit and honesty, cynicism and hope—between the follies of the past, and the glorious possibilities of the future.

Short takes . . . .

1.  The Guardian has a nice review of Vic Gattrell’s City of Laughter.  Has anyone used this for their courses? (Courtesy of

2.  Greg at Slawkenbergius gives us a nice reading of Addison’s “peregrinating shilling,” with a nifty reference to Deleuzian flows of commerce at the end.

3.  Sharon at EMN directs us to Anthony Grafton’s latest essay at the New Yorker, including a very useful accompanying group of links.  I was particularly taken by the long-term interest in the retrieval of information, through note-taking systems like this one:

Fast, reliable methods of search and retrieval are sometimes identified as the hallmark of our information age; “Search is everything” has become a proverb. But scholars have had to deal with too much information for millennia, and in periods when information resources were multiplying especially fast they devised ingenious ways to control the floods. The Renaissance, during which the number of new texts threatened to become overwhelming, was the great age of systematic note-taking. Manuals such as Jeremias Drexel’s “Goldmine”—the frontispiece of which showed a scholar taking notes opposite miners digging for literal gold—taught students how to condense and arrange the contents of literature by headings. Scholars well grounded in this regime, like Isaac Casaubon, spun tough, efficient webs of notes around the texts of their books and in their notebooks—hundreds of Casaubon’s books survive—and used them to retrieve information about everything from the religion of Greek tragedy to Jewish burial practices. Jacques Cujas, a sixteenth-century legal scholar, astonished visitors to his study when he showed them the rotating barber’s chair and movable bookstand that enabled him to keep many open books in view at the same time. Thomas Harrison, a seventeenth-century English inventor, devised a cabinet that he called the Ark of Studies: readers could synopsize and excerpt books and then arrange their notes by subject on a series of labelled metal hooks, somewhat in the manner of a card index. The German philosopher Leibniz obtained one of Harrison’s cabinets and used it in his research.

It was also interesting to me how difficult it has been for entrepeneurs to find a proper business model for their digitization efforts, which have resulted in the scattered, incomplete, and/or abandoned projects that have built up ever since microfilm projects were started in the 1940s, even when there were plentiful library dollars to buy such collections.  The unevenness of these collections means that libraries and scholars will need to devote resources to cataloguing and retrieval among multiple, large-scale digital collections.

4.  The Tenured Radical has a very nice post up about giving good conference papers.  I try to do most of these things already.  But Carrie will tell you that I do wave my arms around too much. That’s why I prefer blogging.



Michael Warner on religion and politics

Last night, Michael Warner spoke at the Graduate Center as the plenary talk for the interdisciplinary “Religion and Sexuality” conference being held today. His talk was a riveting call to restructure the terms of the ongoing debate about the role of religion in secular politics.

His key point was the way in which the language of eighteenth-century evangelical religion, in which one is “a Christian” because of one’s declared faith (rather than, say, adherence to religious law or cultural associations), has been extrapolated in American politics to create a division between all religious peoples (“faith-based initiatives,” etc.) and secularism, which is defined as a lack of faith. He noted the ways in which even non-Christian religions are defined by political bodies as “faiths,” even though faith itself is a specifically Christian-evangelical requirement for religious affiliation. Warner noted that in Stanley Fish’s op-ed columns, Fish has repeatedly opined that he (as a secularist) feels jealousy of radical Muslims and Christians alike because they have “something” to believe in and fight for, while secular individuals have “nothing” to believe in.

Warner argued for a revision of this rhetorical separation between faith and absence-of-faith as a specifically evangelical mindset that neither does justice to non-faith-based religions or to the very long history of secular ethics. One way of doing this, he argued, is not to relentlessly separate the terms of church and state, but to recognize that if churches wish to be considered political entities, they must be analyzed in political terms, in part because the “beliefs” that religions bring into political realms are constantly changing, unrooted in either biblical or ecclesiastical history, and constantly plead self-referentiality. The war against homosexuality, for example, has never been a primary issue of Christianity until recently, when suddenly it has become the very shibboleth by which certain Christian groups assert their faith.

In the end, it seems, extrapolating “faith” to mean “whatever political interests the religion currently serves,” makes it a similarly empty and ahistorical category as secularism. It must not be called to answer for its lack of relevance to 2000 years of Christian ethics, and it also cannot be called to task under the provisions of the Constitution. If “freedom of religion” has come to mean that anyone in the U.S. can do anything and limit anyone else’s rights, as long as they call that impulse “faith,” then secular political discourse becomes totally powerless. After all, the problem with religious control of politics is not that it makes for bad “faith,” but that it makes for unacceptable political positions. Meanwhile, the very terms of “faith” require that all religious-political impulses frame themselves as faith-based, even when non-evangelical religions base community participation on other terms.

It was a brilliant argument and a deeply historical view of religion and politics in the U.S. over the past 230 years. Unfortunately, it seemed to spawn exactly the sort of conversation whose terms Warner was attempting to reset. I was extremely frustrated by the intransigence of the respondents toward a dialogue about the history of the discourse. There is a deep commitment in the secular academy to an us-vs.-them mentality with respect to religion, and a fear of engaging with anything called “faith” as a discourse, or as rhetoric. The conversation seemed to spin out into statements of the deeply-held “beliefs” of secularists, and then into religious audience members’ fear of an atheist-totalitarian state. A few questioners responded to Warner’s talk as it was presented, but his method of analysis seemed, sadly, completely unfamiliar to most of the respondents, who insisted on reasserting a post-1950’s view of what is true and must always have been true about U.S. politics.

Bureaucratic versus rhetorical views of the university, via James Boyd White

Yesterday was one of those exhausting days where I spent my whole time on-campus moving from one room to the next, working to persuade a succession of audiences, large and small, about the succession of topics that have momentarily defined my life: Michel Foucault, the historicity of sex and sexuality, the future of the university and our incoming president, classroom assignments, the college readiness standards coming out of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and of course, SACS accreditation and its Quality Enhancement Plans for my college.

As I try to understand the coherence, or at least the potential coherence, of what I do on days like this, I keep returning to a passage I found in James Boyd White’ s “Rhetoric and Law” about “bureaucratic entities, which can be defined in Weberian terms as rationalized institutions, functioning according to end-means rationality.  These institutions are defined by their goals, purposes, or aims, which they achieve more or less perfectly as they are structured and managed more or less well (299). 

Laura Rosenthal and I have previously discussed, on and off this blog, how much faculty time nowadays is spent servicing this Weberean view of the university, which is built into the entire process of public higher ed assessment and “accountability,” and which seems deeply hostile to, or at least indifferent to, the educational goals of the humanities.  And White drops into a footnote a revealing aside: “this bureaucratic language[of means/end rationality] is very deep in our ordinary culture as well; think of a conversation at a curriculum committee meeting where someone says, “Let us first state our educational goals and then determine how we can arrive at them.”  That is a dreadful way to talk about teaching, yet it is dominant in our world , and once the conversation has begun on those terms it is almost impossible to deflect it to address any true educational concerns.”  (n.1, 316-17) 

We should think for a moment about White’s use of the 1st person plural here, and how it functions rhetorically, and perhaps unintentionally, in comparison with the coercive “we” suggested by the Weberean hypothetical “someone” addressing him in the commitee room.  I suppose I would like very much to be part of White’s “we,” meaning those with a genuine feeling for “true educational concerns,” but feel that I belong instead to the other “we,” as part of the “ordinary culture” (whose culture? whose world?) in which “dreadful ways” of talking about education ordinarily, and as a matter of course, prevail, usually without debate. 

Is this simply the difference between private and public higher education nowadays?  That the well-known academic author securely situated in both the humanities and the professions can feel that he has scrambled far enough away from the Weberean apparatus of public policy that he can view it from the outside?  And what would be the point of debating the Weberean administrator who wishes to begin every discussion with goals and end with appropriate outcomes?

Nonetheless, for all my qualms about some of these aspects of White’s prose, I read the following passage with gratitude, because it captured so much of the rhetoric I am subjected to while doing my work at a public university, even as a teacher of the humanities.

In this way the government, of which the law [or the university–DM] is a part (and in fact the entire bureaucratic system, private as well as public), tends to be regarded, especially by lawyers, managers, and other policymakers, as a machine acting on the rest of the world; the rest of the world is in turn reduced to the object upon which the machine is acts.  Actors outside the bureaucratic world are made the objects of manipulation through a series of incentives or disincentives.  Actors within the legal-bureaucratic structure are either reduced to will-servers” (who regard their obligation as being to obey the will of a political superior), or they are “choice-makers” (who are in a position of political superiority, charged with the responsibility of making choices, usually thought of as “policy choices,” that affect the lives of others.  The choices themselves are likewise objectified: the items of choice [or what we might call “taste”–DM] are broken out of the flux of experience and the context of life so that they can be talked about in the bureaucratic-legal mode. 

None of this is surprising, but the organizational metaphor of the university as a machine constitutes a form of rhetoric that has been so internalized by all parties that no one involved–not administrators, not students, not legislators, not even the voting public–can perceive this as a metaphor anymore.  It is simply “how things work,” or how they should work ideally , and there seems little point in debating the terms upon which public support is given, however it is given.  Whatever agency university faculty might have seems to be predicated on their ability to master this kind of rhetoric, and use it for their own purposes.  How long would a department chair last, if she simply refused to compare the cost/benefits of lecturers vs. T.A.s for composition instruction?

So this is how we arrive at a culminating description like this one of bureaucratic thought, which is perfectly anti-rhetorical in its desire to keep discussion on its own terms, without any acknowledgment of its limits:

This [bureaucratic mode] commits the system to what is thought to be measurable in material ways; to short-term goals; and to a process of thought by calculation.  the premises of cost-benefit analysis are integral to the bureaucracy as we normally imagine it.  Whatever cannot be talked about in these bureaucratic ways is simply not talked about.  Of course, all systems of discourse have domains and boundaries, principles of exclusion and inclusion; but this kind of bureaucratic talk is unselfconscious about what it excludes.  The world it sees is its whole world. 

And, as White concludes: “The overriding metaphor is that of the machine; the overriding value is that of efficiency, conceived of as the attainment of certain ends with the smallest possible costs.”  And how else could we describe the attitudes, if not of our administrators (and some part of any administrator’s job includes answering questions like these), then certainly of the state legislatures who dole out an ever-shrinking proportion of money to higher education in their states, while attempting to dictate on all sorts of matters of curriculum.

And yet what I spend increasing amounts of time on is talk.  Persuading various constituencies within the university to agree upon something.  Coming up with arguments to present to visiting politicians.  And sitting in what has to be at this time one of the most anachronistic entities ever devised, a university “Faculty Senate” whose deliberations are guided by Robert’s Rule of Order.  Where else nowadays does anyone even read, let alone consult, Robert’s Rules of Order?  We have “assemblies” and meetings, but those kinds of heavily formal and rhetorical assemblies and meetings represent one of the last obstacles to the complete takeover of the university by the Weberean, administered model.  And I think at most research 1 universities, the rhetorical model of governance doesn’t stand much of a chance against the corporate money that flows through those places, or the voter initiatives that rumble through like a lost herd of bison.

When I think about the possible rhetorical responses to this kind of bureaucratically enforced myopia, I think one of the most effective strategies is to focus upon consequences, because this diminishes any “choice maker’s” aura of managerial competence, once you can show how easily foreseen problems followed a particular decision.  If there has been a widely-acknowledged organizational catastrophe, what decisions (whose decisions?) led to this outcome?  Was a short-term goal, narrowly conceived and incompetently executed, pursued to the exclusion of lots of other possibilities?  Etc. Etc.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s easy to question (or debate) these kinds of styles of administration or management, until some kind of scandal or catastrophe captures a wider public’s attention.  But that’s where I think our opportunities begin.


NYC-area announcement!

Hello, all! NEASECS last weekend was a wonderful time, especially finally meeting Dave Mazella after over a year of knowing one another as co-bloggers online. We had a great conversation about academic blogging and the purposes it can serve our particular community, as well as its limitations. I had an exciting nine-hour train ride that Thursday, and again on Saturday, providing an excellent break from work here in New York and some beautiful vistas of the Vermont countryside in full fall splendor.

In other news, the Eighteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Group here at the City University Graduate Center will be hosting an exciting event this Friday at 2pm. Paula McDowell (Associate Professor of English at NYU) will be presenting a talk entitled “‘Gently drawn, and struggling less and less’: Media Shift and Agency in Pope’s Dunciad and McLuhan’s Pope.”

The talk and ensuing conversation will take place in the Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library, in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room on the concourse level, room C196.05. The Graduate Center is at 365 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (Please email me at if you’d like to attend, so we can give your name to the library security staff.) We will enjoy refreshments and have a nice long chat afterward.

I hope to see you there!

A Simplified Map of London


Courtesy of Strange Maps, “A Simplified Map of London.”  Click on the image to get the full-sized map.

You will notice that I was located in the, uh, southernmost “Losers” section last summer. 

And I wonder how differently this map might have been drawn in 1707 or 1807?