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Letters in Focus: Things That Go Bump in the Night

So, the evenings draw in, All Hallows’ Eve is upon us, and I find myself creeping through autumnal mists to the Bodleian’s Special Collections in search of ghosts.

There are many fleeting glimpses of hauntings in EMLO. In 1675, William Fulman asked Anthony Wood to confirm ‘the story of a ghostly funeral procession at night to St Peter le Bailey which terrified some of the Masters who were walking with the Proctor, but two which followed the procession to the Church door found the doors to open of their own accord, and then all to vanish and are since dead’. In 1706, Anne Griggs reported ‘the ghostly interview at Souldern Vicarage between the Vicar Mr Shaw and the apparition of his friend Mr Naylor on July 28… The apparition foretells the death of Mr Shaw…’ (sadly, Mr Naylor was a well-informed ghost; the Clergy of the Church of England Database [Person ID: 20286] reveals that one Geoffrey Shaw, rector of Soulderne, Oxfordshire, died on 17 November 1706, less than four months after this ghoulish encounter).

Bodleian Library, MS Ballard 1, fols 72–73: A seventeenth-century poltergeist. Images reproduced courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries.

One record above all others tempts me out into the damp October fog: on a handwritten index card from the Bodleian card catalogue that gives no year, and describes a John Mompesson writing to a Reverend Doctor (now known to be William Creed, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity) on 6 December (now known to be 1662), are the words ‘supernatural beating of drums’. Calling up the letter, I encounter a spine-chilling tale of a seventeenth-century household terrorized by a poltergeist. Mompesson describes how, following his apprehension of a fraudulent drummer in Ludgershall (Wiltshire) and the confiscation of the latter’s instrument, his family home in nearby Tedworth (now Tidworth) was assailed by nocturnal thumps and noises so extreme that ‘the windows would shake and the beds’. His children were special targets; apart from a brief interlude of three weeks after his wife gave birth, their beds were beaten, and the family had to endure the tune ‘Roundheads and Cuckolds goe digge, goe digge’ (more on this popular early modern ditty here). Whatever ‘it’ was ran ‘under the bed-teeke’ and scratched as if it had ‘iron talons’, tossing the young ones in bed; it left sulphurous smells, it hurled shoes over the heads of adults, pulled the infants by their nightgowns and hair, and even threw a bedstaff at the rector of Tedworth, John Cragge (CCED Person ID: 21834, yet another cleric who died relatively soon after his brush with the supernatural). See the letter images above for the whole terrifying story.

A demonic representation of the Tedworth drummer from Glanvill’s 1681 treatise

Endorsements on the letter, including a cross-reference to a 1663 news book

The Drummer of Tedworth, it turns out, is a celebrated case within the historiography of witchcraft and the early modern occult; it was given a central place in Joseph Glanvill’s 1681 attack on scepticism, the Saducismus Triumphatus, its notoriety continued to grow in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it has even been subject to minor Disneyfication. The incident, its manuscript witnesses, and its complex appropriation and memorialisation by and within different intellectual traditions is analysed in detail in a 2005 article (pdf) by Michael Hunter, which includes a full transcription of this same 6 December letter collated from three known extant versions: a copy in Corpus Christi, Oxford; a now untraceable copy formerly in a private collection in Dorset; and a copy in the hand of Anthony Wood. The document thrown up by our cryptic Bodleian card record is almost certainly not Mompesson’s original letter – there is no seal, and the lines extending to the page edges on both sides of the folio are indicative of copying – but rather adds a fourth scribal copy into the mix, one that, judging by the endorsements in two separate hands, enjoyed a complex afterlife before becoming part of the Ballard collection, most likely via the papers of Arthur Charlett (on the scribal publication and circulation of newsworthy missives in early modern England see chapter seven of James Daybell’s recent monograph on the material letter and his podcast in our 2011 seminar series). Even if this account is second-hand, close the curtains, pull up a chair, and get reading; there’s nothing like a percussive poltergeist to add drama and intrigue to Halloween…

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

Letters in Focus: University Challenged

Following in the footsteps of a host of EMLO correspondents, students and lecturers the world over are currently acclimatizing themselves to a new academic year. With a plethora of challenges and possibilities beckoning, the beginning of university term is always exciting.

For many, it’s a period of upheaval, of relocation from one place to another, and of settling in, usually without home comforts, as Johann Freinshem reveals in a letter of 1642 to G. J. Vossius when he asks, for fear his baggage be detained, whether he might extract ‘books and furniture for his private use, which he understands other students have done’. Even the journey to the seat of learning itself is not without risk and a Danish student, Johann Wandalin, recounts to William Sancroft his misfortune as all his possessions were lost at sea en route to England.

This is a time when academics worry about funding, fees, and maintenance costs, and, like Polyander, might even fret over money promised for Hungarian students which has not arrived. Whilst some seek extra work to make ends meet, just as the Reverend William Stonestreet tells of a young student desperate for employment to help ‘eke out his subsistence’, others might go up in the world and take possession of bigger and more comfortable digs; we read of Francis Heardson, who in 1668 became a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, transferring from a student chamber to something significantly more commodious, describing ‘its advantages and the furniture which is in it’. Year after year at this particular moment, lecturers face a mountain of preparatory work and it’s no surprise to find Henry Dodwell advising on a forthcoming course in ecclesiastical history.

There are rocks to be navigated and opportunities which should not be squandered. Jacques Philippe D’Orville laments how certain students succumb to poor work habits and stresses ‘the importance of attentive listening to Professors’ lectures; and attacks students’ prevalent vice of inattention in its various manifestations; as galling to the teachers and coming home to roost with students in wasted opportunities and backwardness.’ Everyone is aware of the brickbats the terms ahead might hurl, yet not everyone is faced with an incident as dramatic as the ‘student Mr. Bonython being seized with madness’ who set fire to his chambers, nor the fate that befell Francis Bayly, a poor unfortunate Christ Church student who, according to John Keill, on the day that George Smalridge was installed as Dean of Christ Church ‘fell into the house of office & was suffocated’ (there was apparently a strong tradition of untimely ends in the latrines of early modern Oxford; see Philip’s recent blog post Death in the Privy for another sad example).

Such is the beginning of term. With so much to remember, so much to explore, so much to learn, good luck to all concerned. We hope you find EMLO useful in your studies; and look out for those treacherous toilets…

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

Letters in Focus: Epistolary Olympians

With the Paralympic Games about to get underway – and memories of Danny Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony and a record haul of precious metal for Team GB still fresh – we continue to be gripped by London 2012 fever, so what better way to celebrate than to dive into Early Modern Letters Online and start wrestling with the enduring themes of Olympism and sport.

EMLO’s records reveal how, two centuries ago, the ancient Olympiads were used by antiquarians as a vital means of historical dating. In 1699, Henry Dodwell ‘compared with the Olympiads the various dates assigned to the… consuls’ of Varro, Cato, and Polybius in order to ‘establish the sequence of epochs’, and in 1716 Samuel Mead sent five guineas, via Thomas Rawlinson, to Thomas Hearne in the hope he might procure a copy of the ‘history of the Olympiads, printed at Oxford several years ago’. We read how early modern sport was regulated less by rule for each game and more with regard to its practice or prohibition on the Sabbath and holy days (a subject with which James I’s Book of Sports, published 1617 and reissued by Charles I in 1633, was particularly concerned).

As the world’s finest athletes strive to give of their best, we cannot help but wonder at what those of a sporting disposition from our stable of early modern men and women of letters might excel today. Would our archers mount the podium, for we read of Lord Aylesford preparing ‘a ground on Meridan Heath for archers where butts are to be laid out in the Finsbury fashion’? We have an account from 1695 of Cambridge undergraduates playing ‘football on a green to themselves’, while ‘the masters play bowls’. We know how young men were trained: a young Peter Redmayne writes to Thomas Smith from Paris in 1705 how he is ‘much busied in his exercises, riding, dancing and fencing’. Could early modern horsemen have become naturals at dressage, huntsmen at cross-country, or swordsmen with foils?  We hope none of their modern counterparts suffer the misfortune of young Master Thomas Wharton who caught cold through ‘fencing in his drawers‘.

But the trials and tribulations of bloodsports, which for the Reverend William Bush included hunting ‘with his cousin who with his horse fell into a muddy pond, and is now in bed till his clothes are dried “his coat which was a modest drab is changed into a good bold Pompadour, which is all he has gained in point of advantage, excepting indeed, the reputation of the bold sportman”’, are a world apart from the obstacles encountered by Olympians today, and no national team would accommodate our corpulent clergyman, the Reverend Mr Thomas Mason, who ‘used to value himself on account of wrestling before K. Char. II. Indeed he had been a very stout, lusty man, & was eminent for Backsword playing, wrestling, and cocking & other sports’. These modern Olympics are for the young, the talented, and the physically honed, the sporting equivalents no less of our learned Jacques Philippe D’Orville, a ‘teacher not of the youth only but born to be torch bearer leading the elite’.

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

Letters in Focus: Bubble Trouble

As world economies stagger from one crisis to the next and headlines flip-flop between the Eurozone emergency and the scandal of inter-bank lending rate fixing, EMLO provides valuable historical insights into financial turbulence and the effects of similar bubbles and crashes. We may face fresh causes of fiscal breakdown today, but the boom and bust cycle is far from new.

One of the best-known early modern monetary madnesses surrounds the South Sea Bubble and EMLO teems with letters charting its frenzied course, from punters investing and reaping rewards (Heneage Finch asks Hilkiah Bedford to ‘receive on his behalf the interest on £600 East India Bonds’), to the grim aftermath as international recession set in.

Our letters chart the bubble as it swells, bursts, and stocks plummet dramatically, often in a matter of hours. In early August 1720 shares were worth £1,000; eight weeks later they stood at a mere £150. Swathes of society were ruined. Reports of fraud and wrongdoing proliferated. Parliament struggled to deal with the situation. Taxes were levied. Banks tried to enforce regulations and conditions, refusing ‘to discuss any Government proposals about the S.Sea affairs unless Mr. Walpole is made First Comr. of the Treasury’. A committee was established to investigate, but in the words of Thomas Isted ‘[a]ll thoughts are at present on the Directors of the South Sea Company who by their villanies have brought this ruin on the nation’. Heads rolled (albeit not from the block), reputations lay in tatters. A bizarre mock funeral, organised by Duke of Wharton, may have been conducted through the streets of London (see John Carswell’s 1960 publication The South Sea Bubble), but this was far from the end of the affair; in an increasingly interlinked and interdependent early modern world, financial crises were international problems and, in the same year as the South Sea debacle, France saw the collapse of Laws’ Mississippi bubble.

It was a time of high anxiety, with ‘goldsmith and merchants falling’ and money scarce. Repercussions ricocheted far and wide. William King, archbishop of Dublin wrote ‘The South Sea and the interruption of the trade with France & Spain has drained Ireland of money’, and in scholarly quarters Sir Anthony Wescome lamented he was unable to afford more of Hearne’s publications. Inflation soared as ‘The South Sea makes everything dear’. Some were fortunate to preserve a portion of their family’s wealth (including Lord Sutherland who, as First Lord of the Treasury, was one of the political casualties); others were not, and begging letters abound. As countless enterprises suffered setbacks and stringent cuts, those seeking charity faced an uphill struggle even during the boom itself, as politician and architect George Clarke revealed when, in April 1720, he sent ‘two old shirts & two guineas to some decayed gentleman for whom A.C. has appealed, fears that in spite of the affluence caused by the rise of the South Sea Stock there is little charity stirring’. Across Europe, lives were altered as a result of the crash, and ‘in almost everyone’s face’ Dr John Harris picked out ‘some fear or fatal mark of ye South Sea Project’.

From these depressingly familiar circumstances, one slim silver lining emerges tucked in a letter from a young physician called Samuel Jebb. Nuptial bliss with his beloved seemed increasingly likely following ‘her aunt’s losses in the South Sea’ as the social distance between the two lovers was correspondingly diminished. A form of justice, perhaps.

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

Letters in Focus: Sodden Summers

Here in the British Isles, summer is living up to its reputation: that is to say, we’re armed with umbrellas, and battling wind, rain, and flood on a daily basis. Indeed, a seasonal dip into EMLO reveals that heavy rainfall from May to September was not such an unusual occurrence.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century summers saw floods the length of the Cherwell valley. There were thunderstorms, whirlwinds and panic-stricken haymakers, damaged crops, stormy summer nights, as well as danger and disruption to transport. There were stiff August winds in the Solent and delays with naval manoeuvres on account of storms in the Channel. The summer of 1682 seems to have been especially wet. Magistrate Edmund Warcup laments the effects of rain on his corn and grass, of floods on his fields and livestock – the poor chap lives in fear of cattle rot – and is forced to take action against the deluge. On 9 May of this same year, clergyman William Jenkyn wrote to Philip Wharton to warn him that ‘the floods are out so bad between Uxbridge & London that it is very dangerous to travel so advises his Lordship to postpone his journey’.

Thus, although all was not gloom and doom during these seasonal soaks (James Long informs John Aubrey that lamprey eels are ‘plentiful in flood time’), it’s small wonder that the time-honoured cliché of sodden summers came into being. As we forego sandals and shorts for galoshes and gumboots, it’s worth reflecting that our ancestors may have been thankful for cold, wet summers as, with the heat in cities, came plague (more on that in a future post), and fine weather was not a cure for all ills. On 6 June 1677 Robert Digby wrote to Thomas Smith that he hoped to see him at the next sitting of Parliament ‘if I can get rid of my cough which wears away, God be thanked, very much this kind weather’, yet favourable temperatures did not work magic in this case; the poor young man was dead by the end of the year.

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

Letters in Focus: Jubilee Jamboree

jubilee_1With its whirl of bunting, teapots, cotton frocks, and the river pageant, Diamond Jubilee fever is sweeping the country for just the second time in British history. Early modern subjects might not have had the opportunity to celebrate a sixty-year reign, but it’s clear from Early Modern Letters Online – itself replete with royalty from across Europe – that they knew how to mark in style royal and aristocratic betrothals, marriages, and birthdays, whilst countrywide celebrations of military victories and triumphant peace treaties helped bolster national unity.

Then, as now, cities, towns, and institutions arranged peals of bells, official gun salutes, and lavishly styled river pageants for their inhabitants to enjoy. Eminent speakers delivered orations and sermons from pulpits at moments of national importance – we read how ‘Dr. Sherlock is to preach in St. Pauls before Q.Anne to celebrate the glorys and triumphs of the late victorys in Germany. “You may easily imagine that the D. of M. will have no inconsiderable part in the panegyrie”’. Professional intelligencer John Pory wrote to Sir Robert Cotton in 1607 describing the masque Hymenaei which was designed by Inigo Jones and written by Ben Jonson to celebrate the marriage of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Lady Francis Howard (not that of Prince Henry, as erroneously noted in the abstract). Just as we do today, they enjoyed firework spectaculars; and at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession we find ‘an invitation to the freeholders of Canterbury to partake of a roast ox, bread and beer to celebrate Peace on July 8’ (a service in St Paul’s Cathedral was held also to mark the Peace of Utrecht, at which Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate was given its premiere). As one might expect, bonfires and beacons lit the night sky on numerous occasions and finery was donned for balls and dances, but, in a week during which the highlight here at Cultures of Knowledge has been a paper on the correspondence of James I’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart (podcast to come!), the ‘Winter Queen’ reminds us what’s missing today: scheduled into the festivities that marked her marriage to Frederick, Elector Palatine is the description of a ritual we have lost in these modern celebrations – the tilting match, or joust. Something to suggest to cyclists at the local street party?

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

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