On Saturday 19 October 2019, five members of the Doing History in Public editorial team spoke at the Festival of Ideas. We sought to uncover echoes of today’s headlines in unexpected places and explore the historical roots of current issues. Stephanie examined the links between medieval and modern knife crime; Laura discussed the ‘the will of the people’ today and in Tudor England; Aoife explained how lessons from the Irish famine can help us respond to the migrant crisis; Mobeen showed how today’s beauty industry is shaped by legacies of racism and colourism; finally, Helen asked does today’s youthquake have a longer history? This blog will summarise the key points of each speaker. Read more
Posts from the ‘Laura Flannigan’ Category
The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories. Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies. Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting. As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.
Within the first month of 2019, historians were treated to not one but two blockbuster movies: The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) and Mary Queen of Scots (dir. Josie Rourke). Both grossed millions of dollars in the short time since their worldwide release, reminding us that film is by far the most accessible form of historical representation for expert and non-expert audiences alike. In their immediate afterlives, their success and significance are open for debate. As Natalie Zemon Davis has reflected of her own role in bringing sixteenth-century France to the big screen, ‘it’s up to historians, those who have participated in the film and those who have seen it, to bring to the debate both an understanding of the possibilities of film and a knowledge of the past’. In this spirit, last month The Cambridge Public and Popular History seminar invited the historical consultants of these new films, Professor John Guy (Fellow in History at Clare College, whose 2004 book My Heart is My Own was adapted for Mary Queen of Scots) and Dr Hannah Greig (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York, and consultant for The Duchess, Poldark, and The Favourite, amongst others) to discuss their experiences.
One of the main methods by which accused parties were summoned to appear before central English law courts in the early modern period was the privy seal writ. Issued from the royal Chancery at Westminster to the litigant (for a fee), this writ was a small document in Latin or English, folded into a bound packet. A wax seal measuring around 1 ½ – 2 ½ inches depicting the seated monarch and the royal arms (denoting it as the monarch’s ‘private’ or personal seal) was affixed to the outside. Testimonies given by messengers and plaintiffs to the courts throughout the sixteenth century describe, in detail, the delivery of these small but imposing items in public spaces and in the presence of witnesses. Owing to the vague nature of the text of the writs – which usually identified only the recipient’s opponents, and not the matter for which they were being summoned – reactions to being handed one could be extreme. Though the writs came with a financial penalty if ignored, those on the receiving end might ‘throw [the writ] on the ground’ or otherwise ‘violate’ the document and the seal whilst uttering ‘opprobrious words’, and some went so far as to unsheath their weapons. More unusually, one defendant in 1525 threatened to make the bearer ‘ete the said letters’. In the 1510s, a litigant’s servant actually was caused ‘to have eten all [the] seid prive seale with the wex and… swallow it doon’. In the increasingly litigious society of early modern England, this was a gift no-one wanted to receive.
Image: Court of Chancery, made available under a public domain licence.
Recently, while on the hunt for signs of the reception and expression of legal ideas and practice in late medieval and early modern writing, I had cause to dip into some of the commonplace books surviving from the period. A ‘commonplace book’ has been generally classed by historians as an idiosyncratic, miscellaneous compilation of transcribed and original materials, usually in manuscript form. Surviving examples of these books were produced by urban merchants, country gentlemen, monks and village priests, amongst other now-anonymous scribes. Though their contents vary from professionally-copied poetry and literary works to scribbled accounts, family histories, and household recipes, I was struck by a particularly niche common theme: arboriculture.
Independence and interdependence: one Scot’s perspective on Anglo-Scottish relations in early-seventeenth-century London
Notions of Scottish devolution or independence from England and the rest of the United Kingdom have been reiterated across the last few generations, with the 2014 ‘IndyRef’ and its potential sequel only the most recent examples. Much of the discussion south of the border hangs on how Scotland could think to sustain itself outside the UK, ‘its chief exports being oil, whisky [and] tartan’, as one panel-show quipped in 2013. This often-disparaging discourse has parallels in the conversations being had about Scotland’s contribution to the original Union of the Crowns of 1603, when the Scottish King James VI naturally acceded to the throne of England.
‘To London once my stepps I bent,
Where trouth in no wyse should be faint,
To westmynster-ward I forthwith went,
To a man of law to make complaint.
I sayd, “for marys love, that holy saynt /
Pyty the poore that wold proceede.”
But, for lack of mony, I cold not spede. 
This vivid tale of a Kentish husbandman seeking legal redress in the Westminster courts comes to us through ‘London Lickpenny’, an anonymous, fifteenth-century popular poem. It stands out for the insight it provides on the litigant’s experience of the late medieval and early modern legal system – something which, it might be assumed, we cannot gather so easily from the formulaic and arcane court records for this period. Read more