Sympathising with the Past?

By Dominic Birch

One of the most pleasurable parts of archival work is discovering new stories, narratives and characters. In the type of work I do (early modern social history) some subjects seem to jump out of the page, demanding attention. Take, for instance, the case of Sara and Elizabeth Mayhew, two women who were taken to court for slander in 1617.[1] The Mayhews were accused of sowing ‘discord, debate and strife’ amongst their neighbours. They had a particular antipathy for Dr. Wells, the vicar of Brockely. The Mayhews interrupted Wells as he attempted to deliver service, sang bawdy songs outside his door, and called his children ‘priest bastards’.

The Mayhews appeal to me, as a historian, because their story encapsulates several things I’m interested in—the idea of neighbourly (dis)quiet, the operations of patriarchal power, slander and the power of words to hurt. I react to this story on a personal level as well as an intellectual one. When reading the depositions given about the Mayhews by their neighbours, I was struck by how much I like the idea of the Mayhews, even though their neighbours did not. Here were two women clearly at odds with their local community, willing to disrespect a vicar and, in general, act out in ways that clashed with patriarchal ideas of femininity.

My attraction to the Mayhews’ story raises the question about whether this kind of sympathy—or loyalty—is good for a historian. Such sympathy can prompt new thinking, or the use of different categories than those that historians have traditionally turned to. The sources I use in my research concern women talking about men’s sexuality. Often these are married women worrying about their husbands’ faithfulness, but at other times it might be a woman trying to prove who was the father of her child. When I read these sources I find myself most attentive to the emotions: anger, betrayal, confusion and so on. Historians who have previously used similar sources have different words: gossip and slander. My instinctual, very visceral, reaction to these categories is to wonder why worrying about your husband committing adultery, and talking about it with some friends, qualifies as gossip. Do we not have something more interesting to say about female networks, and what they might mean historically?

That such sympathy can be useful does not mean that it always is so. When using court documents the historian is left with many gaps in our knowledge, and we have to fill in the blanks on the basis of probability. A deep vein of identification with one subject could lead to a misinterpretation of a document, or to making an historical inference that is not necessarily justified. When I read about Sara and Elizabeth Mayhew the interpretation I first reached for was born out of my personal and political sympathies—I was very willing to cast them as unruly women fighting the norms of patriarchal silence. Of course, this is one reading. The Mayhews were almost certainly dreadful people to be around. At one point Elizabeth put a cushion under her clothes and told Robert Crisall’s wife that he had got her pregnant.

All this leaves the sympathy question unanswered. The obvious solutions—be aware of your biases, check and recheck your interpretations—may be methodologically strong but are intellectually unsatisfying. They approach the issue of personal sympathy simply as another methodological problem, without recognising that it can be an opportunity. Historians are very good at understanding how an intellectual or ideological position affects our reading patterns. We are less successful at understanding the personality of historians, and the personality of the archive. The best way to understand the question of sympathy is to start here: doing history is as much a personal endeavour as it is an intellectual one. Neglecting this personal-ness means overlooking the ways in which our attitudes to the past are shaped as much by ourselves as our ideologies. Once we recognise this, we will be able to have a much better conversation about sympathy in the archives.

Image: photograph of Deposition by Dominic Birch.


[1] Norwich Record Office, Consistory Court, Depositions: 1, DEP/37/40, 1617, 74R-76R


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