Tag Archives: Teaching

Victorian Slum Sightseers

Years ago I remember enjoying historical-reality series like The 1900 House, Frontier House, and Colonial House, but I’m not having quite the same response to the current representative of this genre, Victorian Slum House. Two shows in, I have spent most of my watching time trying to figure out what bothers me about the premise and the presentation, rather than enjoying the process of “historical” immersion. I’m usually a fan of creative approaches to history, and I think “historical empathy” is a worthy, if unattainable goal, but there’s something about this particular series that is troubling me. I thought I’d use this post to isolate my concerns.

Victorian Slum House Cover

I’m sure you can guess the premise even if you haven’t seen (or heard of) the show: several 21st-century British families of different composition are installed in a meticulously-recreated slum house in London’s East End (actually Stratford) to play out the working- and living-conditions of the 1860s through the 1910s each week in survival-of-the-fittest fashion. Among the families there are ties to the East End of the past and what appears to be a very earnest desire to “know” and “understand” their ancestors by living their lives for a few weeks. There have been very few pop-up historians so far, but nevertheless lots of historical information is put out there for context: the high price of food, the importance of piece-work, the constant in-migration into London leading to ever-increasing rents and density, mechanization, globalization and (in weeks to come) political empowerment. The cast talks about the filth all around them, and we see some of it, but we don’t see the darkness and we can’t smell the smells: the communal outhouse is shown only (so far) as a place where kippers were smoked.

Victorian Slum House

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Ultimately two very random references surfaced in my brain: one quite silly and the other more serious. Everyone does everything on their beds, together, so I was immediately reminded of all those scenes of the Bucket family home in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. More seriously, the impactful words of E.P. Thompson, written in the preface to his classic tome The Making of the English Working Class (1963), kept surfacing in my mind: his intent to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. The enormous condescension of posterityThe English working class was rescued by a half-century of social historians, so now they are far more familiar and heroic to us, but perhaps another form of condescension has emerged in this age of history-as-entertainment: it’s more about us than it is about them.

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I do think the “cast” was earnest and well-intentioned, though rather craftily put-together by the producers: obviously the 21st-century bespoke tailor (above) was in the best position to succeed in the Victorian era: the administrative assistant, disabled professional golfer, and retired carpet-store salesman were not so well-equipped. And they threw an American in there too, who proclaims her interest in migration. Ultimately we’re only supposed to really experience “history” through these people, so we need to know what they are seeking. We know they have learned something when they shed tears: when they realize how hard their ancestors had to work or how close they are to the edge with no safety net beyond. These are the moments when we–the audience–are supposed to get it as well, as we put ourselves in their places. But the tears don’t last long, and are followed by smiles when the players admit they can go back to their comforts and devices. They are just historical tourists, and we are daytrippers.

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Scenes from Victorian Slum House watched from my comfortable parlor.


Salem’s Trials

The registration for the one-day symposium organized in recognition of the 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials is now open: Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692 is co-sponsored by the SSU History Department, the Essex National Heritage Area, and the Salem Award Foundation for Human Rights and Social Justice , and will be held on June 10 (the execution date of the Trials’ first victim, Bridget Bishop) at Marsh Hall on the campus of Salem State University. All are welcome: we are hoping that the symposium will be both academic and accessible, introductory and interactive.

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We’ve been fine-tuning the program for quite a while, and I think it now has the perfect balance of perspective, time, and place. I don’t want to speak for all of my committee members, but to me the title of the symposium, Salem’s Trials, refers not only to the Trials of 1692 but also to their continuing legacy: Salem seems to want to replay this event over and over and over again, for redemption and for profit. We will have a trio of Salem experts on hand, including my colleague Tad Baker, Margo Burns, and Marilynne K. Roach, as well as people with expertise in other areas and  disciplines to broaden the cultural context of 1692. There will be a panel on teaching the trials led by my colleague Brad Austin featuring area educators, and another colleague, Andrew Darien, will be enabling descendants to record their oral testimonies (I think descendants of “perpetrators” too, although we should use another word—accusers is better). Because the symposium is happening close to the dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge memorial, the recently-verified site of the executions, we really wanted to focus on space almost as much as time, and consequently we chose a geographer to give our keynote: Kenneth Foote, the author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. 

Shadowed Ground

There will also be a plenary panel on “The Making of Witch City” which we envisioned as historical but will likely veer into the present with audience participation. It seems like the present always bears on the past in any consideration of the Salem Witch Trials, a tendency that was definitely cemented by the observances of its last big anniversary, the Tercentenary of 1992. That year, Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel were present at the dedication of the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial, and the very first Salem Award was given to actor Gregory Allan Williams, who rescued a victim of mob violence in the midst of the “Rodney King” race riots in Los Angeles. All week long, I’ve been hearing anniversary reflections on these riots on the radio, and just last night the Salem Award Foundation awarded a new commendation, the Salem Advocate for Social Justice Award, to musician-activist John Legend at a packed event at Salem State University. Everything comes around again.

Salem Witch Trial Memorial

The 1992 Memorial off Charter Street by artist Maggie Smith and architect James Cutler, courtesy Cutler Anderson Architects.


Doorways to the Past

I remain absolutely enraptured with Frank Cousins (1851-1925), Salem’s great photographer-author-entrepreneur and pioneering preservationist, after countless posts on his life and work. Today I want to feature his debut publication, Colonial Architecture, Volume One: Fifty Salem Doorways (1912). The title indicates that there was going to be a Volume Two, but instead Cousins went on to publish The Woodcarver of Salem: Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work (with Phil Madison Riley, 1916) and The Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919) and through his art company, sell his prints to pretty much every architectural author of his era. Fifty Salem Doorways is a large quarto portfolio of Cousins’ photographs of doors representing all the historic neighborhoods of Salem: Chestnut, Essex and Federal, the Common, and Derby Street.There’s very little text, just doors. I’m not quite sure why I’m so fascinated with this volume, but I am: I pick it up and browse through it quite frequently, discovering some new little detail every time. Details of DOORS. Yesterday I was talking to a few of my students in the research seminar that I’m teaching this semester in an attempt to aid them in narrowing down and focusing their very broad topics (this is always a struggle), and I said you need to find a window–or a doorway–into this topic, a point of entry. I was talking about sources, but also perspectives. So maybe that’s why I like Cousins’ doors so much: they give me a point of entry into that Salem of a century ago. And of course it’s always nice to engage in some past-and-present comparisons, which is what I’ve done below.

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and one that got away: the entrance of the Francis Peabody Mansion formerly at 136 Essex Street (1820-1908).

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Luther, the Great Disruptor

Was it just me or was the word disruption used intensively in the closing months of 2016? It seems like every time I turned on the radio or picked up the newspaper I was confronted with that word. Now that the year has turned to 2017, my attention has definitely turned to the ultimate change agent, Martin Luther, who sparked a religious/political/social/cultural disruption that divided western Christendom with the “publication” of his Ninety-five Theses in October of 1517. I’m trying to work my way through a stack of recent Luther publications so that I can update the content of both the undergraduate and graduate courses on the Reformation that I’m teaching this semester, and taking breaks to check out (digitally, because I don’t think I’m going to make it in reality) the several American exhibitions that are ending this month: Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum, Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Law and Grace 2016Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, and the Promise of Salvation at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta.These three concurrent exhibitions are connected through German sponsorship and the Here I Stand: Luther Exhibitions USA 2016 project website and catalogs, which will be useful resources for both myself and my students, though the former is oriented more towards the secondary-school level I think (and oddly fails to acknowledge or even reference Luther’s anti-semitism). There have already been some notable Luther exhibitions in German institutions as we are in the midst of a Luther anniversary decade, but everything shifts back to the homeland for this anniversary year under the aegis of the In the Beginning was the Word: Luther 2017 project.

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Luther on the cover of Time for his last big anniversary, in 1967, and this year’s anniversary logos.

I haven’t made it through all of these materials yet, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on the dissemination of Luther’s critique of church teachings and practice, through the means of both words, particularly printed words, and images.The connection between the new medium of printing and the success of the Reformation has long been acknowledged by historians, but the focus on Reformation art is a more recent development. I’m using two books in my courses that represent both approaches well: Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and Steven Ozment’s Serpent and the Lamb, which explores the creative and mutually-beneficial relationship of Luther and Philip Cranach the Elder. The latter furthered the Reformation cause with both painted and printed images, while still, remarkably, maintaining his Catholic patrons! The Morgan exhibition features two beautiful contrasting Cranach paintings of the Virgin and Child/ Jesus and Mary: one very traditional the other strikingly humanistic in which we encounter Christ in a completely unmediated way, a reformed perspective that was also the product of the Renaissance.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child with St. John as a Boy, about 1514. Oil and tempera on panel. Federal Republic of Germany (on permanent loan to Veste Coburg Kunstsammlungen) & Christ and Mary, ca. 1516–1520. Oil on parchment on panel. Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha.

One review of the Morgan exhibit asked if Luther was history’s first “tweeter”, sending out cheap flugschriften (“flying pamphlets) to the masses. If we want to push the social media comparison farther, then Cranach ran the Lutheran Instagram account, by providing his friend with a steady supply of anti-papal illustrations for these pamphlets. When you gaze upon Cranach’s famous “papal-ass”, which went viral, you can appreciate the disruption that Luther made.

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Lutheran disruption via Cranach’s cartoons: the “papal-ass” and clerical wolves, devouring their prey (the sheep=Christian believers), Heimatmuseum Osterwieck, British Museum and Universitätsbibliothek Bern, Zentralbibliothek , Switzerland, Call No. ZB AD 357.


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.


Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


The Woodcut Witch

Witchcraft and witch trials are by no means an academic focus for me, but any European historian who studies and teaches the early modern era must take these subjects on. Consequently I developed an undergraduate course called “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” just a few years after I came to Salem, in part because I also felt that I had a certain obligation, given the local unawareness of the fact that over 100,000 people were put on trial for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across Europe and the consequential belief that the 1692 trials were the largest/most important/consequential in world history. My course goals consequently included: 1) putting the Salem Trials in a wider geographical and chronological perspective and; 2) placing the European witch trials in a longer and larger intellectual tradition, hence the “magic”. The course title is partially a misnomer, as we spend half our time in the medieval era, laying essential theological and historical groundwork, and the last few times I taught it, I became somewhat stalled in the fifteenth century. I think this was a bit frustrating for my students, as the most intensive period of witch hunting was the century between 1560 and 1660 (can’t we get to the trials?), but the more I studied both the primary and secondary texts the more I came to realize that the fifteenth century was absolutely key to the intensification that was to come. This is true not only because of the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, an incredibly accessible, even riveting, “how-to” manual of witch identification and prosecution which itself is a consequence of fifteenth-century trends regarding what was seen increasingly as a “pestilential heresy” on the Continent, but also because of the visualization of diabolical witchcraft, most prominently in Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (‘On Witches and Female Soothsayers, 1489). A Professor of Law at the University of Constance, Molitor’s point of view is traditional in terms of his opinions on witchcraft, unlike the more radical authors of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer and  Jacob Sprenger, whose perspectives were inquisitional rather than reasoned. In the course of a ten-chapter dialogue, Molitor ultimately concludes that witches are generally products of demonic illusion. So his words did not incite, but one could argue that his images did, as De lamiis was the first illustrated treatise on witchcraft, and a text with a remarkably long run: 43 editions were published between 1489–1669—more than the Malleus Maleficarum. Molitor’s insistence on the illusionary  powers of witches was definitely undercut by the inclusion of woodcut illustrations of middle-aged “witches” engaging in some of the things Kramer and Sprenger accused them of: stirring up storms, flying to the sabbat, frolicking with their demon lover. And so, in both words and woodcuts, stereotypes were created, and cemented over the next century.

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Woodcut illustrations from the 1489, 1500, and 1544 (last one) editions of Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus. [first published in Reutlingen: Johann Otmar, not before 10 Jan. 1489]. University of Glasgow Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.34. For more and the later visualization of witches and witchcraft, see Charles Zika’s excellent The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe.


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