Category Archives: Sharon Howard

Women’s History Carnival 2011

March is Women’s History Month, and this year International Women’s Day (8 March) is 100 years old. To mark the occasion, the History Carnival is running a Women’s History blogging event throughout the month.

To mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month the History Carnival is inaugurating a special Women’s History Carnival for March 2011, for all blogs and blogging about the history of women, gender and feminism. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet, but hopefully it’ll be a bit different from the usual History Carnivals:

There will be at least one Carnival post, but we’d like to do much more than that! We’ll publicise any great blogging or themed events we come across (or you tell us about) and generally do our best to encourage discussion and bang the drum for women’s history.

And yes, that includes 18th-century literarature folk!

Ways you could take part in WHC11:

  • Write a blog post, and comment on other blogs – see the web page for recent activity
  • Nominate blog posts – your own and other bloggers’ – for the Carnival (see below)
  • Get discussion going on Twitter – the main tag is #whm; the tag for WHC is #whc11, and the tag for women historians on Twitter is #twitterstoriennes
  • Got any more suggestions? Get in touch!

I’ll be hosting the Carnival at Early Modern Notes on about 9 March, just after International Women’s Day. (There should be a second Carnival post towards the end of March as well, so don’t worry if you miss this one.) In addition to recent posts, there will be a selection of the best women’s history blogging since March last year, so you’re welcome to send your favourites too!

There are several ways you can nominate posts for the WHC:

1. The special nominations form for the WHC. (Don’t use the normal HC form for this one.)
2. Email me using my contact form.
3. On Twitter: send a tweet @historycarnival or @sharon_howard, or simply add the hashtag #whc11 to any tweet.
4. On tag a bookmark with whc11 and it will appear in the WHC Delicious feed.

Old Bailey Online: now from 1674 to 1913

Tomorrow it all goes public (and we kind of expect it to crash at some point), and today there is a pretty nice feature in the Observer:

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1834 is now the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and Central Criminal Court 1674-1913.

This doesn’t only mean that you can now search for 200,000 trials held at the Old Bailey over a period of 2 and a half centuries. The other new set of goodies of special interest to 18th-century scholars is the full text of (almost) every Ordinary of Newgate’s Account between 1690 and 1772 (in the next few months this should expand to a full archive of every known surviving Account from c.1674 onwards).

I’ve posted before about these grimly fascinating pamphlets. They’ve been used by a number of historians, including Andrea Mackenzie and Peter Linebaugh, but the surviving pamphlets have been scattered across a number of different libraries and archives. From now on they’ll be together in one fully searchable digital archive. Plus, I’m in the process of completing a database that links every convict mentioned in the Accounts to their trial, providing it has a surviving report (perhaps 3/4 of the links have already been made).

This should make for some interesting research possibilities. For example, historians often argue that women who successfully ‘pleaded their bellies’, ie had their death sentence postponed on grounds of being pregnant, usually escaped hanging. In fact, we say that in our own background section. But I’m not so sure. Through the process of cross-referencing trials and Ordinary’s Accounts, I’ve already discovered several women whose sentences were respited for pregnancy but subsequently carried out (eg in September 1695. So what I’ll be asking (once I’ve finished making the damned links) is: how many were executed and how many were permanently reprieved? Have we historians been getting it wrong? Answering those questions wasn’t impossible before now, but it would have been extremely difficult. And there will, no doubt, be many more possibilities like this.


The other news, because I haven’t been plugging it enough and you’ve probably all forgotten, is that we’re holding a conference in July to celebrate the relaunch: The Metropolis on Trial, in the throbbing metropolis of… Milton Keynes. If you’d like to attend, registration is open and you can download a booking form at the website.

X-posted at EMN.

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.)

Discovering history and memory on the Web

A good piece by Allan Kulikoff in the latest Common-place, on Early American History on the web. It’s relevant beyond American history: for a start, his description of the process of tracking down source materials should be useful for teachers and students looking for useful online primary sources in any historical field. One thing that stands out is how surprised Kulikoff was at just how much he found:

The Internet contains everything from newspapers and magazines to travel accounts, from maps to sheet music, from woodcuts to oil paintings, from novels to critical essays, from the proceedings of governmental bodies to the intimate details of family life. Searchers can find materials on every imaginable topic: Civil War hospitals; the Salem witchcraft trials; Revolutionary and Civil War battles; proceedings of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the U.S. Congress; slave resistance; Indian battles; the abolition and proslavery movements; the beliefs and religious practices of Evangelicals and Unitarians; the Lewis and Clark expedition; westward migration; economic development and immigration; and the writings of Cotton Mather and Walt Whitman, to name but a few. In sum, there are far more primary sources on the Web than in public libraries (except the greatest) and community college libraries, though many fewer than in the libraries of research universities.

But, as the discussion shows, these can still be difficult to find. Information multiplies endlessly on the Web; we have rapidly gone from scarcity to abundance. But locating that abundance is often a hit-and-miss affair.

Moreover, there is a thoughtful rumination on what these primary sources, the choices made in digitising history, tell us about history and memory.

Putting materials on the Web is a time-consuming process: they must be discovered, digitized, indexed, and uploaded. Historians, archivists, librarians, curators, genealogists, and institutions like the Library of Congress all put historical sources on the Web. These individuals and institutions have competing interests and hold widely contrasting views of American history. As one looks in detail at Web primary sources, one senses great conflict and contests over the meaning of our past, over the historical memories they wish to sustain or suppress. Who holds the keys to our history—historians, archivists, preachers, politicians, ordinary citizens?

Kulikoff notes how – unsurprisingly – trends in historiography influence the sources put online. The unfashionable, such as ‘quantifiable’ materials like probate inventories, doesn’t get as much attention as images and narrative texts. (Mind you, it doesn’t help that digitising sources like these in a way that will be of real use for quantitative analysis is one of the hardest tasks going: it’s easy to put images of manuscript sources online, but converting them into searchable texts or databases is difficult, labour-intensive and expensive; and you can’t just dip a toe in the water: you’ve got to do them en masse.)

The long 18th century is well represented online, which reflects its popularity among various different kinds of historically-engaged audiences – scholars in history, literature, art, philosophy, as well as on the ‘popular’ side, from re-enactors to Jane Austen fans to the political commentariat scrapping over what the Founding Fathers really thought. It’s distant enough to be intriguing yet not so distant as to be utterly alien, and its cultural and political legacy makes it always relevant to present concerns. (And I’m sure there are many more reasons.)

This is not a bad time for historians to be giving more thought to these issues. The Web has achieved some maturity as a serious academic resource, although on the technical side there’s a long way to go. It seems strange to me that you can still encounter people whose understanding of what’s available seems not to have changed since about 1995 (I don’t know whether this is a failure of outreach or whether these are just the unreachable); still, the dinosaurs are in the minority.

Nonetheless, there are many historians who need to become more savvy about how to make history digital; what is possible and may become possible, how to get it done, how to get the money to do it. Learn these skills and you have the opportunity to influence public perceptions of your field as well as contributing to scholarly research.

Digital History: a few Essential Resources

Digital History: a guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web (also in dead tree format)
Digital History Hacks – Bill Turkel’s indispensable blog
Center for New Media and History
Dan Cohen

X-posted, slightly revised, from Early Modern Notes.

Names and people in 18th-century sources (I)

In my working capacity as the Oracle of the OBP Online, I was recently asked a question that went something like this (details changed):

I’m confused by all these results. If Robert Scott was hanged in 1765, who are all these other Robert Scotts? And some of them are after 1765?!

This is at first glance a slightly daft question – well, obviously, they’re all different people but with the same name, aren’t they? (The qestion also contains a common misconception about the source, which I’ll come back to in a moment.) And yet, at the same time, it’s not really silly at all.

They might not all be different people. In our database of the names in the OBP there are 142 instances of the name ‘Robert Scott’ (including slight spelling variations). (Mind you, this is nothing compared to a name like John Smith, which occurs more than 4000 times.) How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?

And this is without even starting on the problem that a significant proportion of those appearing at the Old Bailey were known by more than one name, and some had a string of aliases and nicknames. Oh, and the reporters sometimes got people’s names – even those of defendants – just plain wrong.

In other words, identifying the relationship between names and people in early modern sources is often extremely tricky, and the question ‘who the hell are all these Robert Scotts?’ isn’t so daft after all. Which is just as well, really, because this is precisely the kind of problem that’ll be keeping me in work for the next couple of years.

This isn’t just of concern to family historians trying to work out whether someone is really their ancestor or not. Most historians have to make these linkages, ask these questions, at some time or another in the course of their research. Most of us do it on a small scale by hand; a more select group do it on the large scale with computers and algorithms. I’ll hopefully post about both of these later. But in both cases, the process relies on weighing up and ranking probabilities.

Sometimes the answer, either way, is so obvious that the question doesn’t even need to be consciously formed. But at the other end of the scale, there are times when it’s impossible ever to know because you simply don’t have enough information, especially if a name is very common and you have very little contextual information besides the name itself. And I’m sure other historians will have encountered those frustrating borderline cases: if those documents are all referring to the same person, you have a great story. But are you certain enough to rest a serious argument on that identification?

It’s true, for example, that death is a clincher: if you know this Robert Scott died in 1765, then he can’t be the same person as that Robert Scott mentioned in records as alive and well in 1775. (At the other end of the life-cycle, birth is equally conclusive, of course.)

But are you sure he died?

The OBP doesn’t in fact tell you that Robert was hanged (this is the misconception I mentioned above); like archival court records of the period, it normally records only the sentence that was passed. But many people sentenced to death in the 18th century were reprieved or pardoned. Unless you have corroborating evidence that the execution was carried out (and this does occasionally appear in OBP), you need to be cautious.

So a Robert Scott in the database after 1765 could be the same guy after all. Told you it was tricky.

(To be continued.)

A few links:

The linkage of historical records by man and computer (JSTOR subscription required)
A discourse on method, historical knowledge and information technology
Reconstructing historical communities
AHDS guide

(X-posted at EMN.)

Women Writers for March

I’ve learned from Intute: Arts and Humanities that Women Writers Online is available FREE!! for the whole of March, to celebrate Women’s History Month. It’s a treasure trove for the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, so this is great news.

Intute also has a special feature on web resources for International Women’s Day. And while I’m at it, let me point you to my own webpage for all online things early modern and gender-related.

My first conference (gulp)…

No, not the first conference paper! I have to organise a conference for the first time, as part of my job. In fact, I have to organise two, one for the Central Criminal Court proceedings project and the other, later on, for Plebeian Lives. This is at once an exciting and utterly terrifying prospect.

At the moment I’m not sure exactly what model the conferences will follow. (If anything like the Old Bailey Proceedings conference (Muse), there won’t be parallel sessions, which will make life slightly easier.) There’s a good chance we’ll have delegates from several different continents and each conference will last for at least two days. I should have more information on this by the end of the week.

So, does anyone have advice (what to do and what not to do!) on any aspects of organising an academic conference? Or pointers to webpages containing good advice? It seems quite hard to find useful resources online.

Any tips will be much appreciated!