Tag Archives: British Library

A Suspect Source in the Christmas Wars

One positive impact of the recent presidential election has been enhanced awareness of “fake” news and an emerging scrutiny of sources in general. Educators have been aware of the challenges in the information realm for a while, but it seems like a more general concern has emerged now, and this can only be good news. With time, I think we can tame the flood of fake words on the internet (or at least our reception of such stuff), but I am more concerned about images: they are potentially more impenetrable, and definitely more impactful. The problem is not just the images themselves, but the attribution that all-too-often accompanies them, or all-too-often does NOT. The phrase public domain covers a spectrum of sins, ranging from simple laziness to outright deception. A case in point is an image that has bothered me for a while now, as I simply cannot finds its source: I suspect it was crafted. It turns up quite a bit at this time of year, as it concerns the banning of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century either here in Massachusetts or across the Atlantic in not-so-merry “old” England. Here it is, in characteristically fuzzy form from the Wikipedia entry on “The Christmas controversy” and in a variant form with “antiqued” edges which first popped up on a genealogical site. Both images are unattributed and have been shared tens of thousands of times.

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These images are featured in pat little articles about the “cancellation” of  Christmas in both New and old England: sometimes its place of publication and date is given as Boston, 1659 or 1660, and other times it is identified as a parliamentary proclamation that was “nailed to every tree in England” during the Cromwellian regime. Amazing! It’s just passed around with no scrutiny–or even curiosity. Several things bother me about this “document”: its appearance, its font, its composition–but most of all I am bothered by its absence from the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC), Early English Books Online, or Early American Imprints. I would love to stand corrected, but right now, I’m thinking this thing is an ephemeral imposter.

I’m not quite sure why someone would create this image as there are real historical documents that attest to the Puritan abhorrence of Christmas very vividly. Disorderly “Old Christmas” was a major flashpoint in mid-seventeenth-century England, between Reformers and “Papists”, Parliamentarians and Royalists. Everything about its observance–its date, its rituals, its length, its sheer revelry–were all major points of contention in a conflict that was religious, political, and cultural. After a war of words in the 1640s, Parliament did mandate that business as usual be conducted on December 25 in 1651, but there was considerable pushback, with more words and deeds. Likewise the Massachusetts Bay proclaimed a penalty for keeping Christmas in 1659, in a document which features some vaguely familiar words and phrases.

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Early English Books Online: Wing E2258; Massachusetts Historic Legal Documents and Laws, 1620-1799, Massachusetts Court System.

I’ve written about the Puritan disdain for Christmas both in general and as it pertained to Salem before (most recently here), and it is a pretty well-trodden field, but as I was searching (yet again) for this dubious document I uncovered several contemporary texts with which I was unfamiliar and can add even more context. In general, those under attack–the keepers of “Old Christmas” and “Christmas-mongers”– employ a wistful, humorous, satirical (and anonymous) defense of their holiday while the Puritans (as always!) are more strident in their opinions. Poor Father Christmas, forced to leave the country and come to (Puritan-dominated) London, where he was “arraigned, convicted and imprisoned”, but [fortunately] able to escape and get away “only left his hoary hair, and gray beard, sticking between two iron bars of a window”. The debate between Mistresses “Custome” and “New-Come” over the keeping of Christmas in Women will have their Will: or, Give Christmas his Due is a perfect expression of the power of custom–I’m going to use this one in class. Robert Skinner’s Christs Birth Misse-timed illustrates the Puritan concern about the dating of Christmas, more attuned to pagan traditions than biblical ones, and finally, Samuel Chidley’s Christian Plea against Chrissmass, and an Outcry against Chrismas-mongers is probably the most forceful indictment of Christmas merriment I have ever read. Appealing to Lord Protector Cromwell to be more vigorous in the repression of revels, Chidley asserts that the “Christmas-mongers” serve not Christ, but their own bellies. For Christ was not as they set him forth to be. He was no Mass-monger or belly God. No drunkard. He wanted neither cards, dice, nor tables to play with, to pass away the time, nor Lord of mis-rule to take his place. He needed no new Games to make him merry, no Holly or Ivy to dress his windows, nor mistletoe to conjure his lovers, nor other toys to please his fancy, or blindfolded fools, or Hot Cockle payers to make him sport. Wow! Great stuff–again, no need to make anything up. And the fact that Chidley is appealing to Cromwell at this relatively late date is a strong indication of the Protectorate’s failure to put down “old” Christmas: in just four short years the more merry Stuarts would be restored.

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Christmas Lamentation, /For the losse of his Acquaintance, showing how he is forst to leaue the/ Country, and Come to London. ESTC S108691;  The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Chrismas on St. Thomas Day las. ESTC R200516; Women will have their Will: or, Give Christmas his Due. ESTC R208164; Christs Birth Misse-timed. ESTC R205570;  A Christian Plea against Chrissmass. ESTC R173825.


Magna Carta Monday

As today marks the 800th anniversary of the reluctant concession to the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymeade, there clearly is no other topic on which to focus than this Charter, which has become far more momentous with history than in its own time. There is a seemingly-definitive exhibition at the British Library: “The Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy”, which is full of iconic documents, including Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, and interesting facts: apparently the British were contemplating luring the U.S. into World War II by offering us the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta! Neither of these inclusions surprise me, as Americans have always viewed the Great Charter through the prism of their own constitutional struggles, rather than its more precise historical context. Invariably if I ask a student in my Medieval class what it is, they will say: “the British Constitution”.  This horrifies my British friends, who maintain that they don’t need a constitution: the beauty of British history and government is the gradual, organic evolution of civil liberties and the universal understanding of just what these liberties should be, rather than their explicit expression on a piece of paper. But there have been many pieces of paper (or parchment) which have defined individual rights in relation to government, and the Magna Carta is a particularly prominent one. Its reissuing in 1216, 1217 and 1225, printing in 1534, and role as a touchstone in the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and after) determined its greatness, over time and as precedent.

Magna Carta 1215 British Library

Magna Carta illustration-BM-19th C

Cropped image of one of four 1215 Magna Cartas and the big moment portrayed in a colored print based on a 1776 painting by John Hamilton Mortimer, British Museum, from the British Library exhibition The Magna Carta:  Law, Liberty, Legacy. It’s impossible to find an image of this historic signing before the early modern era, and they really proliferate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The legacy of the Magna Carta, below:

Magna Carta 1534

Magna Carta Cromwell BM

Magna Carta 18th BM

Magna Carta 1792 BM

Magna Carta handkerchief-depicting-signing-1879 V and A

magna_votes 1911

Magna Carta cartoon-magna-carta-mini-carta-tony-blair-2005

Magna Carta Stamp

First printing by Robert Redman, 1534; inclusion as one of the “Emblems of England” during the Cromwellian Regime, 1650s; Thomas Bewick’s engraving of the feudal knight passing Magna Carta to Britannia, with Lady Liberty overlooking (very important–the feudal knight passes the torch of “liberty” to the Enlightenment!), and the contrast between liberty in Britain and France in 1792, all from the British Museum; Ladies handkerchief portraying the signing of the Magna Carta, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum; “Votes for Women” reference, 1911 and editorial cartoon protesting the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Bill, ©The Times and the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent (“mini Carta”!!!); Royal Mail commemorative stamp, 2015.


Mapping the Twentieth Century

In the recent tradition of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects and Jerry Brotton’s History of the World in 12 Maps, the British Library published A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps last month, and my copy arrived in the mail yesterday. The book consists of 110 maps actually, compiled for the most part from the Library’s vast map collection by Tim Bryers and Tom Harper. The maps are arranged chronologically and presented with detailed introductions: the end result is a perfect book. It occurred to me while browsing through it last night that the physical book is the preferable vehicle for the presentation of maps: they require close reading, although I suppose the zooming abilities of a Kindle would be helpful too. As I’ve written here time and time again, whether discussing maps in the form of animals, or hearts, or featuring octopuses bent on world domination, maps are an essential teaching tools, and this new book contains some great material. Though I do disagree slightly with Bryers’ and Harper’s thesis that the twentieth century is the map century: in terms of sheer cartographic impact, I would place my bet on the sixteenth.

Maps cover

Map London Underground BL

Map Dogs 1914

Map Blitz 1940

Map April Fool 1977

Map Orwell 1984

Selections from A History of the World in 100 Maps: London Underground Map, 1908 (20+ years before the iconic map was created in the 1930s); Hark, Hark! The Dogs do Bark map by Johnson, Riddle & Co., 1914; secret Luftwaffe map of London at the beginning of the Blitz, 1940–with places marked for bombing and avoidance; Artwork for the Guardian’s article on the fictional islands of San Serriffe, published on April Fool’s Day in 1977; “The World of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, published in 1984.

 


Procuring Pepper

In my last post I decried the dehumanization of microhistory in favor of “commodity history” but truth to tell there is definitely some value in the latter, particularly in reference to the big three global commodities: salt, sugar and pepper. When it comes to Salem’s history, pepper is big: Salem merchants established trading contacts in Sumatra in the 1790s which gave them a near monopoly on the lucrative trade for nearly fifty years, during which 179 Salem ships sailed to the Aceh Province, bringing back millions of pounds of pepper, much of which was re-exported to Europe. The immense profits from pepper–black gold–built the street on which I live and made Salem Salem: whenever I get depressed about living in “Witch City”, all I have to do is look at the city seal, emblazoned with the motto “to the farthest points of the rich East”, the source of all that pepper. At the intersection of global history and local history is national history, and here, too, pepper plays a big role:  when the crew of the Friendship were massacred by natives of the chiefdom of Kuala Batu in February of 1831 while their captain, Charles Endicott, was ashore securing his cargo of pepper, the United States Navy responded with at retaliatory expedition a year later: Salem’s trade was apparently “too big to fail” at the time.

As daring and entrepreneurial as Salem’s pepper merchants were, they were just the latest purveyors of an eastern commodity that had long been desired in the West. Alexander the Great supposedly developed a liking and a name for it, and centuries later Pliny the Elder observed that “its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India.” Marco Polo presented pepper as one of his wonders of the world, and it was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it was accepted as currency, collateral, and a very appropriate gift for a King. Pepper was a prominent motivation for the discovery of a sea route to the East, which would effectively bypass Muslim middlemen, and consequently Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships became the major European suppliers in the early modern era. What is so interesting to me about the Salem re-export trade in pepper is that the Americans replayed the European role a few centuries later: in seeking to cut out intermediaries, they became the intermediaries themselves (for a while).

Pepper Marco Polo

L0006013 Indigenous people collecting pepper grains.

Pepper WH BM

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Joseph Peabody by Frothingham

Procuring Pepper:  harvesting and presenting pepper in Marco Polo’s Livre des Merveilles du Monde, MS Français 2810 , Bibliothèque Nationale de France; more harvesting in Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Pare … / Diuisees en vingt sept liures, auec les figures et portraicts, tant de l’anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, et de plusieurs monstres, 1579 (Welcome Library Images); pepper varieties in Johannes Nieuhof’s ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ (London: 1669, British Museum); An East India Company catalog from 1704, British Library; James Frothingham, Portrait of Captain Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), privateer, shipowner, and Salem’s richest pepper importer.

 

 


Up in the Air, In the Margins, On Stilts

I have been pondering several nineteenth-century prints, paintings and photographs of people walking around on stilts in the Landes region of Gascony (now Aquitaine) in France: in their road-less, marshy landscape, this was apparently the best way to get around. And so they walked around on stilts everywhere, doing everything. Very adaptable, they were. The best images are of shepherds, knitting on stilts while they watched their flocks. Most representations of these Landes stilt-walkers (and -sitters) make them look completely natural: it’s only when you take the stilts out of Landes that you know that something odd is afoot. The next-to-last image below is a French caricature mocking a corpulent Englishman on stilts: he clearly looks unnatural. He’s clearly more comfortable than his (presumably English) companions in the near-foreground, but something’s still not quite right. On the other hand, it seems quite logical, if not natural, for an English caricaturist to put Napoleon up on stilts, in another example of patriotic mockery.

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Stilts Shepherd NYPL

Stilts 1816 BM

Napoleon on Stilts

Prints from Victor Adam’s Charades alphabétiques. (Paris : Aubert, [1836]), the NYPL Digital Gallery, and caricatures (Paris: Aaron Martinet, [1816]), (London: Piercy Roberts, [1803]), British Museum.

The use of stilts to convey a certain precariousness goes way back, to the Renaissance at least. Albrecht Dürer puts Cupid on stilts and we know what he is conveying: love can be a little destabilizing. I’m pretty comfortable with Renaissance allegory but much less so with medieval meanings: when I look in the margins of illuminated manuscripts from the fourteenth century and before, I find lots of things that I don’t understand, including grotesque and hybrid creations of any and every kind, profane imagery and activities, and people and animals doing all sorts of things, including, of course, walking on stilts. What is the veiled pig doing on stilts? And why would a woman nurse her child on stilts (with a heavy-looking pot on her head)? It’s not quite natural. Somehow only the last man, playing his animal-headed pipe, affects the ease of the Landes stilt-walkers.

Stilts Pig BL FROISSART

Royal 10 E.IV, f.29v (det)

Stilts Royal MS BL

British Library MSS. Harley 4379, f. 19v; Royal 10 E IV, f. 29v; Royal 14 B V, Membrane 1.


My Favorite Georgians

The public presentation of history is often driven by anniversaries, and Britain is just beginning a long Georgian moment driven by the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian dynasty’s accession in 1714 and commencing (after the birth of little Prince George this summer) with the British Library’s new exhibition Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain. Viewing it from afar (online), I like the exhibition’s emphasis on Georgians rather than the more boring King Georges, and its inclusion of some of the more interesting aspects of the era: the development of “celebrity culture”, the “commercialization of leisure”, the emergence of the novel, and intensifying consumerism in many realms of life. But from my own distant Anglo-American perspective, I’m noticing a distinct lack of a colonial presence. Before the Revolution, we should certainly consider the people who inhabited British America as Georgians, so I’m featuring a few of my favorite American Georgian gentlemen here. Although I don’t have quite the same connection to them that I do for some of the people of the earlier era in which I specialize, there is something compelling about both their images (personas) and their stories, if only because several of them walked on the same streets that I do.

My Georgian Gentlemen: Benjamin Pickman, the dashing Loyalist Salemite and husband of the faithful Mary of my last post. What better Georgian than a Loyalist? Even though he left his family and country, his letters testify to the earnestness of his decision and the pain he endured from the separation. Here John Singleton Copley pictures him as a young man, well before this rift, and I think he looks both dashing and earnest. Jonathan Jackson, a contemporary of Pickman’s from Newburyport, painted in his resplendent blue robe by Copley. Jackson looks a little more “Georgian” here but he was no Loyalist: he converted his merchant ships to privateering vessels during the Revolution and later served as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. His first wife, Sarah Barnard Jackson, was the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, whose silhouette is below. As a true Georgian, Barnard helped avert what might have become the first clash of the American Revolution in early 1775–an incident called “Leslie’s Retreat”–when he negotiated British Colonel Alexander Leslie’s retreat from Salem.

Georgians Pickman

Georgians Jonathan Jackson

Georgians Thomas Barnard

John Singleton Copley, Benjamin Pickman, c. 1758-61, Yale University Art Gallery; John Singleton Copley, Jonathan Jackson, late 1760s, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Painted Silhouette of the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, late 18th/early 19th century, Skinner’s Auctions.

Obviously I have a preference for Copley, who, like his colleague and compatriot Nathaniel West, represents the Anglo-American/Atlantic world in which the acclaimed artist lived and worked. Both were “American” artists who became “English” artists: they were true Georgians above all. Both left their “country” for good before the American Revolution, along with Henry Pelham, Copley’s stepbrother and the subject of one of his most famous compositions, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765). My favorite illustration of this Anglo-American artistic world is a painting of West’s London studio by his protégé Matthew Pratt: entitled The American School, it hints at the future division.

Georgians Pelham Squirrel

Georgians American School MET

John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, 1765, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Matthew Pratt, The American School, 1765, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It looks like Georgians Revealed depicts British Georgians as a fun-loving, pleasure-seeking people: there are lots of illustrations of drinking, dancing and dressing:  by comparison, American Georgians look rather earnest and restrained. It’s hard to compete with the vibrant print culture that emerged in Britain from the 1780s on, however, just when Americans ceased being Georgians.

Georgians

Georgians New England Psalms Revere

Carousing Georgians in Britain and Psalm-singing Georgians in America: Midnight. Tom and Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic, illustration by Issac and George Cruikshank in Pierce Egan, Life in London, 1823, British Library; Paul Revere, “the Music Party”, engraving for the frontspiece of William Billings, The New England Psalm-Book, Boston, 1770. Library of Congress.


Alphabet Books

A blog post by the British Library on their 15th century “Macclesfield Alphabet Book” set me off on a quest for more of these essential (and decorative) educational texts:  I figured that I could assemble a sample chronological collection that would span the centuries, and I was right: this is one literary genre that never went out of style, until now, I think. My portfolio of pages was gleaned from books produced both for learning the alphabet (primers) and learning to write, not necessarily the same thing but I make the rules! The Macclesfield text, for example, was written for professional scribes (or their prospective patrons) rather than children; centuries later the two types of texts merged a bit but still had somewhat different aims. For a better basis for comparison and evolution, I chose the letter D, my first initial.

Alphabet Sample BL Macclesfield

Alphabet Book Sloane 1448 15thC

Alphabet Book BL Harley MS 16thc

Alphabet samplers from British Library Add MS 88887, the “Macclesfield Psalter” (c. 1475-1525) and Sloane MS 1448a (later 15th century), and the embellished capital D in BL Harley MS 3885, sixteenth century. I love that the D in the Sloane MS takes the shape of a Tudor Rose.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alphabet books, or ABCs, are pretty distinct from penmanship or “copy” books; the former were often a religious texts, as in ABC with Catechism, and the latter were strictly secular and far more aesthetically pleasing. Only towards the last part of the eighteenth century do we see more decorative alphabet books, and they get ever more whimsical over the next century, as children’s literature becomes a distinct and profitable publishing category.

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Alphabet 1775 collage USC

Thomas Watson, A Copy Book Enriched with Great Variety of the Most Useful and Modish Hands (1700);William Chinnery, et. al., Writing and drawing made easy, amusing and instructive: containing the whole alphabet in all the characters now us’d, both in printing and penmanship: each illustrated by emblematic devices and moral copies: calculated for the user of schools and curiously engraved by the best hands … (1750); William Tringham, publisher, The alphabet rendered instructive and entertaining (c. 1775), University of South Carolina Libraries’ Digital Collections.

In the nineteenth century, alphabet books were in the capable and creative hands of such prolific illustrators as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, publishers like the McLoughlin Brothers of New York issued very specialized versions, and ultimately Man Ray produced an adult variation. Suddenly the alphabet book is a work of art–or was it always?

Alphabet D Greenaway V and A

Alphabet Crane 1909

Alphabet Baseball Book McLoughlin Brothers 1885

Alphabet Book of Country Scenes

Alphabet Book Man Ray 1970

Pages from from Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet Book (1885), Walter Crane’ Song of Sixpence Picture Book (1909), McLoughlin Brothers & Company’s Baseball ABC Book (1885), and Alphabet Country Scenes Book (1900), as well as the French version of Man Ray’s limited edition Alphabet for Adults (1970).


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