Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: early modern

J. Charles Cox

The Rev. John Charles Cox (1844-1919) was perhaps one of the most influential English local historians of the nineteenth century. Anyone studying early modern Derbyshire quickly comes across his work. He published dozens of books, including calendars of local records, a four-volume history of Derbyshire churches, and a detailed study of All Saints, Derby. Even if you don’t know anything about Derbyshire, you may still have encountered his influence if you are interested in early modern parish history. In 1879, Cox published the first edition of a guide on How to Write the History of a Parish that would become the textbook for generations of historians and genealogists. It discussed step-by-step the local and national sources needed to reconstruct the history of an early modern parish. It was a runaway success, and was reprinted a number of times.

Cox was born in 1844 in Parwich in Derbyshire. He attended Repton and Somerset College in Bath, before starting a degree at Queen’s College, Oxford in 1862. Financial pressures – he was the second son and needed to find a secure income – led him to leave after three years without taking a degree, to take up a position as partner at the Wingerworth Colliery Company. Two years later, he married Marian Smith, the daughter of a local squire with whom he would go on to have ten children. They settled in Belper in Derbyshire.

Cox quickly got involved in local politics, becoming a magistrate and sitting on a number of local boards. He was a Liberal who became friends with Sir Charles Dilke, a high-flying politician who would become notorious in 1885 after an alleged fling with Virginia Eustace Smith during the first year of her marriage to the MP Donald Crawford. He was a trade unionist who became a regular on the left-wing speaking circuit in the 1870s, stating:

That there should be classes that exclusively labour, and others that exclusively enjoy, and have the privilege of unlimitedly expending the fruits of other men’s labour, is opposed to reason, justice and Christianity.

To the left of the Liberal Party, he diverged from Gladstone over disestablishment of the Church of England and the Church’s role in education. Just before the 1874 election he stood as an Education League candidate in the Bath by-election, against a sitting Liberal MP. The latter’s supporters caused uproar at an open meeting Cox was addressing, throwing him out of a first-floor window. Fortunately he survived his defenestration, as members of the local constabulary were standing beneath and managed to catch him.

In 1879 Cox started studying for the priesthood at Lichfield Theological College, becoming an Anglican priest in 1881. After a series of livings he was awarded a lucrative Crown placement in Holdenby in Northamptonshire. With a parish of fifteen people, this left ample time to devote to the historical research into parish archives that he had already been carrying out in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. During this time Cox was also taking pioneering approaches to what he called the ‘parish state’: insisting that the local could not be understood without reference to the national, an approach which is now second nature to post-revisionist historians of early modern England. In line with his politics, he was particularly concerned that the poorer members of past societies had the right to have their voices heard, and made innovative use of vestry minutes to uncover the plight of the poor in early modern parishes.

Many of Cox’s works are now out of copyright and are starting to appear on the Internet Archive. I also cannot recommend highly enough Elizabeth T. Hurren’s excellent article on Cox in Rural History (2008), from which much of the biographical information in this post is drawn.

Butler did it

I have been reading Adam Smyth’s excellent Autobiography in Early Modern England recently, which argues that the genesis of life-writing can be found in early modern forms and genres that we are unaccustomed, through twenty-first century eyes, to seeing as autobiographical. Successive chapters look at annotated almanacs, financial accounts, commonplace books, and parish registers as sources in which we can see the origins of autobiography.

Reading the chapter on registers, I was reminded of the parish records kept by Sir Thomas Butler, vicar of Much Wenlock during the mid-sixteenth century. I have blogged previously about a specific incident recorded in Butler’s register, in which an 11-year old girl was hanged. But in fact Butler’s records do not just contain information about the personal and religious milestones of his parishioners. They also show that, even from the start, registers could contain occasional glimpses of a self-reflexive subjectivity that gives an insight into the personal and religious lives of parish priests.

Butler’s original register does not survive: it was destroyed in a fire, but extracts in the Cambrian Journal from 1861 give at least something of its contents. It covers 1538 to 1562, and Butler’s views about the establishment of the Church of England start to insinuate themselves onto the page as the register goes on. Here is the first overt reference to the Reformation:

The Monastery of Wenlock surrendered on the morrow of the feast of the Conversion of S’ Paul. 1539.

This feast is celebrated on 25 January. In an entry for February 1539, Butler has written:

20 of the above rotten moneth was christened here Jone the daughter of of Rauf Patson Brewer to the Monastre of St Milburga of this towne of Moch Wenlok.

Implicit references to the dissolution and its casualties recur throughout the register:

  • Here was buried out of Hopton Monachorum Sir John Gough, there at that time curate, otherwise called Sir John Castle, some time Monck in the monastery of St. Milburghe here in Moch Wenlock, and Prior of the Cell in Preen, the last Prior that there was, whose bodie is here buried.
  • Here was buried out of Broseley the body of Sir Thos. Parkes priest, sometime a White Monk of the Cistercian order in the monastery of Buildwas.

The juxtaposition of incident and location in this entry is particularly poignant:

Richard Philips who hanged himself at the ynde of the Lane going toward Calowton at the plotte of grownde wher somtyme was a Crosse of tymbre called Hamfis Weales crosse.

The dissolution was only the start of seismic changes to the religious culture of Much Wenlock. Here Butler records in Latin what must have been, for him, a particularly difficult incident:

7 Nov 1547. quo die combusta fuerunt ossa dive Virginis Milburge in fori itroitu cimiterii cu quatuof images vz. St Jo. Bapt. de Hopebowdlar, Imagines St Blasii de Stanto long, imagines St Marie Vgis Matris Xti de Acton Ronde, et imagines eiusdem St Virginis Marise.

[My Latin is very rusty but a rough translation is something like: on which day the bones of the holy Virgin Milburga [founder of the local priory] were burned in the market place by the entrance to the graveyard and four images viz. St John the Baptist from [the village of] Hope Bowdler, images of St Blaise from Hope Stanton, images of St Mary the Virgin Mother of Christ from Acton Round, and images from the same of St Mary the Virgin.]

Not surprisingly, the death of Edward VI, and the crowning of Mary I, is greeted with joy:

1553. Mem. That as some say King Edward the VI. by the Grace of God died the 6th day of this instant month of July, in the year of our Lord God as it is above written, and as some do say he died the 4th day of May last preceeding, in the same year of our Lord, and upon Mary Magdalenes, which is the 22nd day of this instant month, at Bridgnorth in the fair, there was proclaimed Lady Mary Queen of England, &c., after which proclamation finished the people made great joy, casting up their caps and hats, lauding, thanking and praising God Almighty with ringing of bells and making of Bonfires in every street. And so was she proclaimed Queen the same day at Shrewsbury, and at the Battlefield in the same evening with the like joy of the people, and triumphal solemnity made in Shrewsbury, and also in this Borough of Much Wenlock.

Mary’s coronation quickly makes its impact on the day-to-day life of Butler and his parishioners:

7 Oct. A child first Christned in the Latyne tongue by the booke called the Manuale.

31st Oct. A child first buryed after the Coronacon of the Queens Majestic in the latyne tongue after the use of the Church of Sarum.

Butler’s hopes at Mary’s accession must have been dashed when Elizabeth succeeded her – something he found out just before conducting a mass:

In remembrance to be had it is, that the 17th day of this instant month of November, in the year of our Saviour Jesus Christ, 1558, in the morning of the same day departed by death the noble Queen Marie, in the 6th year of her reigne the daughter of King the 8th, and of Queen Catherine his first wife; and the same day of her departing at 11 of the Clock, with the whole assent of the nobility, was Elizabeth the daughter of the said King Henry proclaimed Queen of England &c. in London. And upon St. Catherines day, as Sir Thomas Botelar Vicar of this Church of the Holy Trinity of Moch Wenlock was going toward the Altar to celebration of the Mass, Mr. Richard Newport of High Ercal Esqr then being Sheriff of Salop, coming late from London, came unto me and bad me that I after the Offertorie should come down into the Body of the Church, and unto the people here being, should say these words in open audience and loud voice.

Butler passes on the news to his parishioners, but his reluctance to do so is very apparent:

Then I said, Friends, Mr. Bailiff of this Town & of the liberties of the same, & Mr. Richd Lawley his father, with other that have been Bailiffs, have willed me to shew you that are poor folks that ye may at afternoon about one of the Clock resort to the Bonfire where ye shall have Bread & Cheese & drink to pray unto God Almighty for the prosperity of the Queen’s Noble Majesty, and this said we went forthwith.

In 1559 Butler makes this mournful entry into the register:

It is to be had in Remebrance that the celebration of the divine Svice in the Englysh Tonge was begun this day in crastino Nativitat St John bapt.

Thomas Cromwell’s original instructions to parishes in 1538 were for:

every person, vicar or curate to provide for every parish one book or register, wherein he shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening and burial, and also therein insert every person’s name who shall be so wedded, christened or buried.

Reading Butler’s register, however, it becomes clear that pretty quickly a lot more starts to creep into them than just the bare details of hatches, matches and dispatches.

New early modern blog

Res Obscura is a new blog by a graduate student focusing on the early modern period. So far it has had a particular focus on visual culture: particularly wonderful are one post on Edward Topsell’s Historie of Four-Footed Beasts, and another on the Napoleon Dynamite-esque drawings of George Psalmanazar. The blog is beautifully illustrated and has lots of posts already, despite only being up since the end of May. Enjoy!

The pelican’s beak holds more than its belly can

There is a children’s song that is on permanent loop in my house at the moment, which goes:

The pelican’s beak holds more than its belly can,
Nothing has a beak that’s the size of the pelican’s.
(repeat lots of times)

I am guessing it’s a shortened and sanitised version of the limerick by the humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt:

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican.

I am reliably informed by the collective knowledge of the internet that this is actually true: the pelican’s stomach can hold up to a gallon, whereas its bill can hold up to three gallons.

Earlier generations had their own story about the pelican: that it was so attentive to its young that, if short of food, it would open wounds in its chest to feed its blood to its young. Some early Christian and medieval writers took this further, reporting (to be fair, some dubiously) that the pelican would kill its young and then revive them with its blood:

The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revivified and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Is 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life. (Epiphanius Physiologus).

The pelican is an Egyptian bird that lives in the solitude of the river Nile. It is said that she kills her offspring and grieves for them for three days, then wounds herself and sheds her blood to revive her sons. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies).

Here is a wonderful thing about the pelican, for never did mother-sheep love her lamb as the pelican loves its young. When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their fathers face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young. (Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiaire).

(Translations from The Medieval Bestiary)

The pelican was an obvious symbol for Christ: it appears, for example, in the coat of arms for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Corpus Christi College, Oxford:

Medieval bestiaries featured some amazing illuminated pelicans, like this one from the Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200):

As new technologies like woodcuts and etchings came along, the pelican went with them, such as in this engraving by Pieter van der Borcht (1577):

Or this woodcut, from the front of Henry Walker’s A gad of steele, wrought and tempered for the heart to defend it from being battred by Sathans temptation, and to give it a sharpe and lasting edge in heavenly consolation (1641) [EEBO]:

This particular copy belonged to Walker’s contemporary, the book seller and collector George Thomason. You can see Thomason’s marginalia at the top:

this Walker was admitted into orders by Laud Arch. Bish. of Canterbury

Elsewhere on the title page Thomason wrote “Ironmonger” – Walker’s previous profession before turning his hand to printing, selling and writing pamphlets. Walker was clearly not one of Thomason’s favorite writers – as a Presbyterian Thomason probably would have loathed Walker’s predilection in the early 1640s for preaching to independent congregations. His contempt shows through from the fact that nine or ten years later, Thomason was still crossing out any pretensions Walker had to be a “cleric” or “Minister of God’s word” and replacing them with “Ironmonger”:

A sermon, preached in the Kings Chappell at White-Hall (1649) [EEBO]

A sermon preached in the chappell at Sommerset-House in the Strand (1650) [EEBO]

Describing the news

How do you describe what “news” means? If you try define it – whether simply as new information, or as information about current affairs presented through various media – it renders it almost banal.  Equally, to analyse in detail the range of overlapping shapes and identities that news as a concept can take is also very difficult.

And yet like art, or pornography, we all know what news is when we see it. Living in a news-saturated culture, almost without thinking we use a range of linguistic and conceptual shortcuts to make sense of what we understand by news. Many of these draw inspiration from the communication circuit in which news exists. Titles are one such short-cut. We know instinctively what we will find in the Daily Mail – “asylum seekers cause cancer” – just as much as we know what to expect from the Sun – “Tracy, 18, says she’s supporting David Cameron because of his policies on tax breaks for glamour models”. We are so familiar with some titles that we give them nicknames: the Thunderer, the Grauniad, the Indie.

Authors are another shortcut. The names of columnists like Polly Toynbee or Richard Littlejohn will forever be associated with particular styles of writing and world-views. Mention “Dave Spart” to any Private Eye reader and they will instantly call to mind the kind of left-wing pundit the term satirises. Verbal and sartorial tics single out newsreaders and the editorial line they represent much more quickly than any kind of analytical language. John Snow’s ties are Channel 4 News in the same way that Martin Bell’s white suit symbolised something about his particular style of foreign news reporting. We know what is going to happen when Trevor McDonald utters the words “and finally”.

Paper size is yet another. We have tabloids, and we have broadsheets, and the two have very diffierent associations, which is perhaps why the Guardian caused such a fuss when it moved to the new Berliner-style format a while back. The chances are these two terms will remain in use long after newspapers – in the sense of news printed on paper – have died out. This is certainly true of another term linked to the production of papers. Fleet Street is still the collective term for the British press thirty years after Rupert Murdoch killed off any physical association between that area of London and journalism. Readers can also define particular types of news. “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” lives on fifty years after the term was first popularised, despite the likelihood that very few people remember its origins.The regulars of the BBC News “Have Your Say” section are, for me at any rate, swiftly becoming Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells 2.0.

Our understanding of what news means is thus deeply shaped by and rooted in the cultural forms and agents that bring it to our attention. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people in mid-seventeenth century England – who lived in an equally news-saturated culture – used the same kind of techniques to make sense of news as it evolved in front of them. What follows is a scattered account of various primary sources I have come across that, in some way or another, use various stages in the news market’s communication circuit to try to analyse or define the concept of news in civil war England. Rather than try to analyse them at this stage, I have simply described them. (This may or may not turn into a more considered post at some point).

As quickly as newsbooks were born, their titles took on an identity of their own. The 1642 tract A Presse Full of Pamphlets traced the corruptive influence of print to the invention of the first ever newsbook:

But in hope of more gain to himself by undoing of others, put the first Copy of the Diurnall Occurrences that was printed to a Printer, and then came all other things true and false to the Presse.

From this point on, individual titles started to stand for particular styles of writing and different shades of politics. Here for example is the frontispiece to a satirical pamphlet poking fun at the early royalist newsbook Mercurius Aulicus:

AN352667001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

A reader has written “Sir John Birkinhead” [sic] underneath the woodcut, but it is worth noting that the original pamphlet didn’t need to name the newsbook’s editor: the title was enough. During the 1640s newsbooks were as much the subjects of pamphlet literature as politicians or generals. The image below, which shows the front pages of two warring pamphlets laid out alongside each other, is a good example:

For a time there was even a trend for editors to bring out titles diametrically opposed to their enemies, and signified as such by having the prefix “Anti” in their title. Probably the most meta and paradoxical of these is Mercurius Anti-Mercurius, which tries to do itself out of a job even in its very title:

In layout and style this is (deliberately) almost identical to real newsbooks, from the title and series numbering through to the poem on the front page; and yet it proclaims itself not to be a newsbook. Pamphlets like this are an indication of how quickly the innovations of the 1640s – bear in mind the newsbook was only invented in 1641 – became normalised and integrated into the political and cultural vocabulary of contemporaries.

Nevertheless, editors themselves also became a recognisable shorthand for certain types of journalism. Of all the newsbook editors, Henry Walker probably attracted the most mud-slinging. Royalist newsbooks developed a range of nicknames for him, including ‘Beelzebubbs  brindled  Ban-dogge’,  ‘Sirrah  saffron-chapps’,  ‘Athiestical  liar’,  ‘Parliaments News-Monger’,  and ‘Rusty  Nuncio’ (the second and last a reference to his red hair). Ever since, Walker has been associated with a kind of pedestrian journalism that relies on press releases and official titbits rather than ‘real’ investigative scoops. This is to impose Victorian and twentieth-century categories of journalism onto a period in which “journalism” (if we can even use that word) meant rather different things, and is also a bit unfair on Walker. But informed contemporaries would probably have known what royalist editors were getting at when they presented Walker as the symbol of  what they saw as an arrogant, godless Puritan regime.

The 1647 pamphlet A fresh whip for all scandalous lyers went so far as to assemble a mock-encyclopedia of newsbook editors. Its primary aim was probably satirical, so it is problematic to seek to match the personalities it describes too closely to real editors. As a source of biographical details it may well be inaccurate. Nevertheless, for contemporaries to have found it funny it must have at least had the ring of truth. Here are some extracts from its pastiches of Samuel Pecke and Henry Walker:

I must beginne with the Diurnall Writer first… I may not unfitly tearme him to be the chief Dirt-raker, or Scafinger of the City; for what ever any other books let fall, he will be sure, by his troting horse, and ambling Bookselers have it convey’d to his wharfe of rubbish.

The Perfect Occurrence Writer… his whole face is made of Brasse, his body of Iron, and his teeth are as long as ten-penny nayles… Witnesse how many times hath he taken and killed Prince Rupert, and Prince Maurice, and Sr. Ralph Hopton: he hath an excellent faculty to put a new title to an old book, and he will be sure to put more in the Title page than is in all the booke besides.

The means through which newsbooks were produced and distributed also seem to have become associated with particular definitions of news. The title of one early critique from 1642 name-checks everyone involved in this process:

This is not to suggest that titles, editors, printers and sellers were the only language through which contemporaries were able to analyse and discuss the news market of the 1640s. There are various sophisticated critiques of newsbooks and the news industry from many contemporaries. My favorite of these is probably still this jaundiced editorial from an early edition of the Briefe Relation, one of the first ‘official’ newsbooks issued by the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I:

To have no Newes is good Newes, it is a symptome of a placid and quiet state of affaires. The subject of newes which is most enquired for, is for the most part of Wars, Commotions, and Troubles, or the Composing of them.

Even for the lay reader, though, there were other ways to approach the concept of news than its constituent actors. The woodcut below – from Matthew Hopkins’s 1647 pamphlet A Discovery of Witches – is famously used to illustrate many textbooks’ accounts of early modern witchcraft:

But almost unnoticed at the bottom left, it also personifies news as a bit-part character in the form of a weasel: