Monday, 31 October 2016

More on witch marks

A timely Halloween article in The Guardian about witch marks (see my earlier post for information about them). Have you searched your house to see if you have any?

Thursday, 20 October 2016

More on broadside ballads

Digital technology is transforming the study of popular culture. If you follow the links round this site you will learn about the fabulous collection of 30,000 broadside ballads in the possession of Oxford University's Bodleian Library.

Learning to write the alphabet

See here for how children learned to write in Shakespeare's day.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Literacy and education

A horn book from the Derby Museum,
by Mainlymazza -
Own work.
Licensed under Creative Commons
via Wikimedia Commons
This post owes a great deal to David Cressy, ‘Literacy in context: meaning and measurement in early modern England’ in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds), Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, 1993), 306) and to Margaret Spufford's famous and ground-breaking, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (Methuen 1981). Susan Whyman's The Pen and the People: English Letter writers 1660-1800 is another ground-breaking study for a slightly later period.

A problem for historians

Literacy is difficult to define for the period.  Does it just mean reading very simple sentences or does it require more sophisticated reading skills?  It is a problem for historians because it is  an ambivalent indicator of cultural attainment  It was by no means a necessity. A mark had the same legal standing as a signature. And many activities, particularly rural ones, did not need literacy. Every community contained at least one literate person, who could meet the needs of his illiterate neighbours.  

Monday, 10 October 2016

Witchcraft in England

Matthew Hopkins, the Essex witch finder.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A European phenomenon

Between 1400 and 1800 between forty and fifty thousand people, mainly women, died in Europe and colonial north America on charges of witchcraft. Europeans had long believed in witches yet only in the period after 1500 did they turn this cultural assumption into a one of the major killers of western Europe.

What is witchcraft?

Belief in magic has always been common and exists in the world today, for example in Africa. But what is unique to western Christian civilization is the belief in a personal devil. There were two quite different but related activities denoted by the word witchcraft as it was used in early modern Europe: the practice of maleficium, and worshipping the devil. Maleficium meaning calling down a curse on another, was the effect of witchcraft. The cause was the pact with the devil. It was usually believed that those witches who made pacts with the devil also worshipped him collectively in nocturnal ceremonies, the ‘witches’ sabbath’ that could include naked dancing or the cannibalism of infants.

Witch marks at Knole

The renovations currently taking place at Knole have discovered a witch mark, carved apparently for the visit of James I. See here for the details. There is a fascinating forty-minute Gresham College lecture on this that can be viewed here.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Women in early-modern England

I have consulted these (and other) books for this post.

Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion and the Family in England 1480-1750 (Clarendon Press, 1998)
Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe (HarperCollins, 1995).
Anne Laurence, Women in England 1500-1760: A Social History (Phoenix, 1994)
Rafaella Sarti, Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture 1500-1800 (Yale University Press, 2002)
Pat Thane, Old Age in English History (Oxford University Press, 2000)


Women carding and spinning
Women’s work was essential to the economy though frequently under-reported. It was ‘was arranged informally and rarely involved contact with official bodies. The work above all associated with women was spinning. Women were continually spinning and the spindle and the distaff were the signs of the hard-working woman (The distaff was probably given such significance because it was possible to spin in intervals between other tasks or even in carrying out other tasks – or in the evening while being courted.)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Poor relief and Jane Austen

The 1601 Poor Law was still operational in Jane Austen's lifetime. This brilliant blog post shows its workings and Austen's novels and her life. Do read.