Monday, 29 December 2008

Towards a popular conception of the world in 1780.

The text of a contribution to a panel on popular conceptions of the world, for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference in Oxford, January 2009.

Imagine for a moment living on Long Lane in London, just north of Smithfields Market, in the Spring of 1780, in a furnished, rented room. This is the kind of accommodation shared by the vast majority of working Londoners and recently described by Peter Guillery. [The Small House in Eighteenth-century London (Yale University Press, 2004).] The house you live in is a hundred years old, and made of oak and brick. The windows are small casements and the fire place is rudimentary, creating a barrier to more complex forms of domestic cooking, and forcing you to participate in a local round of public eating. Your room is in a vernacular building, and the dominant colours are the browns of distemper, the off-whites of lime wash, and the darkening hews of unpainted wood. There is the occasional flash of brass, but most of your everyday objects are dull pewter and tin, wood and earthenware. The only strong colours you are likely to live with are found in your clothes – in the flash of a printed bit of cotton, in the red of a neckerchief, in the grey-white of your worn linen. The house you live in is probably like that rented by Francis Place ten years later:

...very dark and dirty... built with timber, lath and plaster; ... filled with rats, mice and bugs.[Mary Thale, ed., The Autobiography of Francis Place (1771-1854), (CUP, 1972), p.107.]

Your working life is similarly old fashioned, built around a small scale process of production and exchange; probably tied to a local hinterland of supply. In other words, for the vast majority of Londoners in 1780 life was embedded within a familiar frame, within a cultural and material economics that must have seemed simply ‘natural’.

But, if in that Spring of 1780 you walked just a few yards from that room, out the door and past the lowing pens of Smithfield, towards Newgate Street, where the new prison was just finishing, you would have been confronted by something else. And the point is simply that while most eighteenth-century Londoners lived in a vernacular city of dull browns and natural hues, and worked in a hand-made world of complex, but decentralised craft, authority was being new built around them in forms of white neo-classicism. What had been a medieval gate – Newgate – of warn shapes and familiar statues, a symbol of community, that marked the boundary between a safe city collective, and a more frightening external world, had been rebuilt over the preceding decade into a massive, white stone edifice, its portals and doors picked out with a ubiquitous black cast iron. The building was three hundred yards long, and walking past this, the longest single street-frontage in London, a newly distant and powerful state authority must have welled up in your heart. In buildings like this – but most especially in Newgate Prison itself – was created a new urban landscape of authority that every pedestrian Londoner needed to interpret and navigate in a new way.

But if authority and power were demonstrated through the use of a neo-classical architectural palate, and an ever growing weight of cast iron, its meanings must have seemed to stretch in every direction.

In the cold baroque of Wren and Hawksmoor’s churches, once again, authority was built in a different colour – in Portland stone and cast iron. The decision in 1714 to spend £11,600 to encircle St Paul’s within a black cast iron paling, topped with spear heads – privatising and monopolising the traditional medieval church yard, the civic centre of London - was simply the first brutal act in the process of creating a new landscape of power. [E. Graeme Robertson and Joan Robertson, Cast Iron Decoration: A World Survey, (Thames and Hudson, 1977; 1994 edn), p.16.]

And what is most significant about this rebuilding of authority is that it seamlessly spread from actual government and religious buildings, to the houses of the simply rich. To walk through a stuccoed London square, with its bright white, mock stone exteriors, its sunken areas encased, not just in cast iron, but by mid-century onwards, by cast iron in the form of spears and daggers; was to be confronted by a ruling class newly comfortable with its own authority, willing to use the signs of state power, to claim a more personal variety.

In other words, a changing world view that necessarily accommodated to new forms of authority was created as late eighteenth Londoners wandered through their city. Class and state authority were re-made of bricks and stone and iron. So when we think of that subtle process of class formation, and its changing conceptions of the world, we need to think about it not just as an intellectual process, but as a physical one as well.

And of course, this new-built environment of class division extended to the smallest of items. In the late 1770s, as black refugees from American slavery flooded into London, with the scars of a brutal system cut in to their very flesh; each product of slavery, each mahogany chest and the contents of each inlaid snuff-box, must have gradually taken on an ever more powerful meaning that claimed for its owners authority over an Atlantic-wide empire.

Peter Linebaugh has written about the symbolism of keys and locks for working Londoners, but it seems to me that the world of meaning and symbol extends to almost every object.[The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century, (2nd edn, Verso, 2006), pp.366-8.] A mahogany picture frame was redolent of a system of colonialism that extended across four continents – and was just then, in 1780, in wild and military dispute on all of them. Cotton spoke of an exotic empire and brutal heathens; tobacco and coffee, of the brutalities of slavery, and cast iron and stone, of a new found system of industrial production.

All I am really trying to suggest is that the evolution of a popular conception of the world was, particularly in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, embedded within a physical framing whose signs could be held in your hand, and whose visage fronted every street.

And that therefore, when we try to understand the contents of popular politics, of events such as the Gordon Riots in June 1780, we need to see them not simply as expressions of a stated ideology but as physical engagements with a world full of meaning.

That Newgate Prison formed an early object of assault and destruction is just the most obvious fragment of a process that spread to every level of activity. To ‘pull down’ a house – as the Gordon Rioters did with Lord Manfield’s – was to tear out its sash windows (a symbol of modernity and power that even Jane Austen recognised a few years later in Northanger Abbey); was to burn the mahogany furniture (and smell its distinctive smoke – so different from that of oak and ash and elm); was to make a bonfire of identifiable symbols of authority. To pull down Lord Mansfield's house, was not just to comment upon his role Chief Justice, but to manipulate a coherent series of symbols of state and Imperial authority, made flesh in the objects themselves. A political bonfire of the sort lit by the Gordon Rioters, smelt and sounded, not like a bonfire of celebration (made of oak and broad leafed woods), but instead crackled with the sick sound of burning lacquer, and smelt of mahogany built authority.

In other words conceptions of the world are found as much in the palm of your hand and the memory of smoke in your nostrils, as in the expressed content of your library.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Thinking with a Marrakechi Laystall

I recently went to Marrakech for four days as an unabashed western tourist, in a wonderfully unabashed non-western city. It was fantastic, and forced me at every turn to think hard about early modern urban history. Marrakech is not an early modern city - it is a twenty-first century city that just happens to work as a locus of craft and production; the centre of which is serviced by donkeys and human power; and whose every street is cleaned and maintained by the people who live in it. There is electricity and running water in every house, a satellite dish on every roof top, and internet cafes jostling for space with food stalls and workshops. It is a modern city, but it doesn't work like London or San Francisco.

It seemed clear, for instance, that the systems in place for organising this particular urban world were bound within a culture rather than a bureaucracy. I did not see a single uniform, or a single dustman in the city centre, and yet every street was clean and orderly, crime felt distant and unlikely, and well defined rubbish piles could be found in many corners, out of the way, waiting to be collected. In witnessing a minor traffic accident in a Souk (a teenager on a moped, clipped the arm of an elderly woman), all the mechanisms of self-policing seemed to come into immediate play. The witnesses, perpetrator and victim engaged in a long debate, about the behaviour of the teenager and the elderly women. The boy tried in vain to defend himself and cast fault on to the victim, while the woman used all the authority of age to cast him in the light of responsibility. No police were called, no punishment extracted, but it appeared to be a community entirely happy to get stuck into the process of immediate moral judgement. No fight was going to occur, no sentence carried out; instead the actions of all involved had the feel of a well-crafted process for conflict resolution of a sort that has always existed in my mind's imaginary eighteenth-century eye.

Marrakech is also a city where things are made. The Souks are full of workmen, but more importantly, every small turning was also full of craft. Every other long wall was given over to winding waxed thread for use in making leather goods; every doorway framed a worker, a craftsman, a workshop. It is easy to assume that cities are about trade and living (that is what most modern cities do), but Marrakech reminded me that cities are also about creation. The image that sticks in my mind is of a man listening to a radio, a bright electric light above his workplace, using a pole lathe powered by a strong left arm, a gouge held in his right hand, in turn controlled by his left foot. The process was as old as you like, but the decision not to attach a cheap electric drill to the lathe, spoke of a different approach to production. The other striking element was the apparent conservatism of the goods being produced. Every stall sold a profusion of things that looked precisely similar to every other stall. And while the rugs and fabrics were incredibly colourful and varied, even these followed a series of well worn patterns. We associate industrial production with the creation of uniform goods of a single standard. But we forget (or at least I forgot) the pressures felt by every craftsman, to wring the highest quality end product they could from expensive raw materials. The limits of one's own craftsmanship implies constant repitition. You can get an untrained apprentice to produce a wonderfully finished piece of work, but only by asking them to do it over and over again, day in and day out for months. Uniformity seemed to evolve not from industrial manufacture, but from the very craft process itself. And more than this, the limited variety of goods (of whatever quality or form) being manufactured, seemed to betoken the cultural framing of production that precluded innovation.

There were beggars with established pitches, and street sellers hassling the tourists, and men with carts waiting for some work. And there were mosques which defined each neighbourhood, and whose calls to prayer punctuated each working day. One can get all tied up with a self-conscious historicism, but that is not the point; and ironically, I saw not a single artefact older than a couple of hundred years. The people of Marrakech themselves seemed entirely unconcerned about the relationship between how they lived, and how it might fit into a longer term story, evidenced in carefully preserved and labelled artefacts.

In other words, Marrakech is a city on a different model, that somehow has escaped the historical narrative of urban history itself - with its teleological notion of a single evolving modernity. Perhaps I am deluding myself, but I found in Marrakech the option, the space, the opportunity, to think about early modern worlds in a different way. And while I know much of this is in the literature somewhere or other, the visceral, the personal, the quotidian, seemed to read differently.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Peer Review Smells.

Most academics who have thought about it will agree that peer review is just rubbish. It is ridiculously hard work - work volunteered by academics as a mulct on their lives. And it is subject to the politics of the playground. Most subjects and academic communities are simply too small to allow true anonymity, and as a result the outcome of peer review is frequently informed by nothing more than hubris and hurt feelings.

My personal bugbears regarding peer review are that, first, it is inherently conservative - encouraging a narrow definition of scholarship; and second, that it forms a comprehensive subsidy on publishers that in turn shifts money that should be spent on either research or dissemination into the coffers of private companies. Universities pay for the privilege of buying journals that are written and edited by their own staff, and reviewed at their own expense. In an online environment, where the costs of printing is decentralised, this makes no sense whatsoever.

At the same time, there are aspects of peer review I like. I want to know that someone with some expertise thought an article was worth publishing. It saves me the time (the seconds it takes to skim a few hundred words) otherwise spent on determining whether the material being discussed is worth the effort of reading.

The traditional answer to these complaints and observations is the care-worn observation that peer review is the worst system ever, except for all the others.

But, with the advent of new models of online sharing and community interaction, it seems to me the moment to reinvent this particularly irritating wheel. Why not create an open 'academic journal space' for all articles that anyone cares to post, with a tagging regime for subject definition. In other words, anyone could post under the tags 'eighteenth-century British history', or indeed 'past & present'. If editors, or foundations, chose to shepherd particular collections of tags and to create an 'identity' from this association, this could certainly be accommodated. Moves in this direction were commonplace in many science subjects in the 1990s, but it hasn't resulted in a reform of the world of journal publication.

The point, however, would be to ask all contributors (all people - even academics - who choose to post a contribution) to also undertake a series of peer review assessments. These would be post-publication, but since online material could be continuously edited, it would nevertheless act in the way current pre-publication peer review acts in relation to polishing an article.

The point, however, would be to rate the assessors. I am more interested in what Natalie Zemon Davis thinks about an article on 16th century France, than I am in the opinion of a third year undergraduate (at least in the first instance). By allowing assessors to themselves build up an online profile you could incorporate a continuum of quality that is made up of the opinions of all assessors, weighted according to authority (i.e. the opinion of three senior figures in a field, could balance out that of 12 graduate students, or 18 unrated individuals, or whatever). The rating of individual assessors, could be determined by what they have contributed in the past, or based in a metrics of cross posting of the sort being used by the Australian and UK higher education systems to distribute research income. There are real problems with metrics, but they do form a consistent measure of community regard (at least in most subjects).

The result would be an academic commons that nevertheless preserves the 'authority' that is the single valuable aspect of peer review. It would also open up academic publishing to a broader community. There is no reason for 'outsiders' not to post material. Much of it might be denigrated by 'high authority' reviewers, making it possible to still select out articles of a certain 'standard', but it would also create a way in of a sort that doesn't frequently exist in the current system. Groups of reviewers who choose to generate a 'journal' identity, could still do so - with the 'journal' being made up of those articles that a defined group of 'assessors' chose to assessn positively.

As an evolving community of assessment and contribution, the system would be self-validating, and a lot cheaper to run than the plethora of journals currently clogging our libraries and lives.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

To rot in a God-made world.

A synopsis for a contribution to a panel discussion to be delivered at the British Society for Eighteenth-century Studies Conference at Oxford in January '09.

The rancid smell of decay; the constant putrefaction of a world of wood, of oil, of fabric, burned sharp in the minds of eighteenth-century people. To create a pre-industrial society that worked, every bit and piece of the man-made world required attention on an almost daily basis. It was this fundamental material reality that underlay most working class notions of the world. In popular biblical and medical conceptions of the body, in the hard and bigoted landscape of ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarity’, in the fear of the wild, and in the innate attractions of the urban, and the farmed, is found a headlong retreat from chaos – a retreat enacted with every laborious brush stroke of a housewife at her step, or a carpenter with his chisel. Sharp and vertiginous divisions of class and gender and place, divided eighteenth-century people one from the other; but underpinning this was a shared material experience that tied the brick maker, the philosophe, the beggar, the farmer and the hopeful mother into a single unending struggle to wrest order from an all-consuming nature.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The smell of rotting chains.

Jo Guldi has been blogging recently about folksonomy and 'navigation in chains', and has called for a open ended approach in which users tag content, and in which free standing sites are opened to the manipulation of a public audience. But, opening the 'archive' to its users is only an interim solution. The problem is deeper than this, and lies in the very notion of 'keyword searching', and in search based on structured tagging as well. Both are very blunt instruments, and simply re-enforce an older style of iterative research. As a result, the search engines created by free standing sites, of which Guldi complains, are themselves sad interim solutions to new problems, and will wither as new ways of searching are created (the chains will rot in short order). Tagging, is again, just one more interim technology (a strategy derived from the 1980s, and well past its sell-by date). All of these creations are based on the notion of the 'library', on ordered information and the existence of an 'index', and Guldi is simply arguing about who should have the right to order it. I believe this is all just so much renaissance detritus (a worthy subject of study, but not a working methodology). What is missing are the new tools that allow you to do things differently in the infinite archive. With 100 billion words of digitised text (whatever the actual number becomes), I want to find the patterns that I cannot imagine, and which even an infinite army of folksonomic taggers could not reveal.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


A Review of: Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. (Cambridge University Press, 2008). An extended version of a panel discussion delivered at the North American Conference for British Studies in Cincinnati on 4 October 2008.

Perhaps surprisingly, this book starts with a single word. Perhaps equally surprisingly most books don’t. Most books begin with a story, perhaps a compressed but effecting tale of a single individual’s tragic experience; or an image, a word portrait of a single room to set the scene; or with a question, a beautifully crafted conundrum drawn from a lifetime setting too many undergraduate essays; or a mere statement of outrage, a recognition of the crackbrained foolishness of the academy, and the many errors of its denizens – a preface to a quixotic foray into tilting at the windmills of historiography.

But instead this book starts with a word, and that word is ‘Sare’.
Of course, ‘Sare’ is not just an everyday, over a cup of coffee sort of word, it is a word full of ambiguities. Personally, I have never heard it spoken, and never used it. The quote with which Lost Londons begins is: ‘The World is Sare Changed’ and within this slight but telling linguistic wrapper ‘Sare’ seems to mean ‘very’, but could also mean, severely, or dangerously, or, to have recourse to the equally gossamer protection of the OED, ‘with much suffering’, or ‘against ones will’, or ‘grievously’.

In other words, the starting point for the journey taken by this book is a studied ambiguity that challenges the reader to pay attention to words. And some hundred and fifty thousand individual words later, and with equal distain for convention, this book also ends with a word. By now, the subtle suggestion of ambiguity has become a stentorian claim to uncertainty. The word at the end is ‘Ghamidh’; an Arabic word Anthony Shadid uses to mean ‘mysterious’, ‘ambiguous’, ‘unclear’, ‘uncertain’; and which denotes a state of mind in which uncertainty is a sustainable intellectual perspective.

Between this beginning and end is the story of Bridewell’s archive, of the dead paper and parchment husk of that most verbose and loquacious of London’s hospitals, itself the product of a prolix Protestantism seeped in civic humanism, and dedicated to the furtherance of the word; a word which was then written into the stones of a prison and a workhouse.

The story is familiar enough; and tells of a new found summary justice, at the disposal of competing civic elites; of old Catholic pride and new found Protestant displeasure. Of a court and a prison for the sexually incontinent and the simply troublesome, for the ne’er do well, and the e’er do bad; of art masters and their wayward apprentices; of constables and beadles, marshals and watchmen.

In the process of telling this story Griffiths substantially revises important elements of it and of the history of London more broadly. In his hands, the much lauded stability of sixteenth century London becomes a lurching stumble through a landscape filled with fear and danger. An overwhelming rush of vagrants and vagabonds, of migrants and the simply unfamiliar, are depicted as challenging the sensitive souls of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Londoners - people still attached to old Stowe’s London, with its warm beer and cricket, its landscapes of charity and community.

But, in its most revisionist mode, this book depicts London as an essentially successful City, coping effectively with a series of profound challenges.
Constables and watchmen are raised up from the squalor of their ill-deserved historical reputation as placemen and fools, to the more honourable status of detectives in waiting – Dogberry and Elbow are transformed into Dixons of Dock Green, if not quite into Morse and Grissom.

Parishes and wards, the City and its companies, are likewise, rescued from the infinite condescension of early modernists, and re-instated as efficient organisations manufacturing an archive of surveillance, to help police the dark streets of a newly modern city.

And a criminal justice history, that has traditionally emphasised the importance of individual victims in prosecuting crime, leading to a kind of scatter gun justice; that in turn produced the travesty of almost random judicial murder at Tyburn, is redrawn to include the sensible officers of a newly efficient set of old institutions. For Griffiths, these responsible servants and neighbourly men and women, were concerned primarily to keep the streets clean, and the traffic flowing; to gently restrain the enthusiasms of youth, and the unwelcome strategies and makeshifts of the poor. The night is efficiently lit by candles and lamps made bright by civic pride. The kennels and lay stalls made sweet by hard working men, while good citizens slept, fearful, but essentially secure in their beds.

Some of this welcome revisionism is slightly overdrawn. In a bout of middle aged cynicism, I could not help but doubt the evidence of the constable who claimed to be on the case, undercover, and only ‘feigning’ drunkenness, when he agreed to accompany Dorothy Morton to a private chamber at the Blue Boar Inn in Gutter Lane, late one night in December 1627 for the purposes of commercial sex(p.392). Dorothy Morton later found herself under arrest and tried at Bridewell; the accusing constable claiming that they never got past the stairs. Griffiths deploys these events as evidence of constables’ sharp-eyed commitment to searching out criminal activity, but it seemed to me more likely that the principals were engaged in a simple argument between a punter and a prostitute; and possibly says more about the casual power of a male constable in a patriarchal society, than anything else.

This sort of quibble apart, there can be no doubt that Griffiths has shifted the historiographical ground significantly, and in a way that we should welcome. Early modern institutions did work, and most constables were constables. Record keeping, kept records; and nightsoilmen, collected the night soil. And while historians can sweat blood and tears over felony crime; as Griffiths details, the vast majority of everyday effort went on implementing what we might now think of as community policing and zero tolerance.

Griffiths is also certainly right to re-insert and re-emphasise the impact of the problem of vagrancy, in driving the evolution of the urban quotidian. A fear of vagrancy powered the evolution of London and its institutions in a way that neither war nor ideology could.

But I don’t actually think these revisions form the most important or interesting facets of this book. They engage with a literature that has spent a century exploring the interstices of state formation. Weak state, strong state, European state, medieval state, Catholic state, Protestant state, police state, welfare state, surveillance state. Each has gone and come back again; and it seems to me that the explanatory power of this particular meta-narrative has largely run into the sands of a kind of post-nationalism. And with it, the importance of our arguments about how well past systems worked, how ‘modern’ they were, how efficient they were, have to some extent lost their intellectual purchase.

Instead, the core and centre of this book lies not in its claims to a revised history of London, but in its literary practises. Like most historians, Griffiths moons, love sick and romantic, after his archive. The physicality of the court books, the scratching intelligence of every line, is palpably present in these pages. With a whole cadre of fellow historians, Griffiths practises a certain romaniticisation of the archive, and the historians’ journey into it.

But, where most historians, once there, are held captive, forced to play the role of the ventriloquist dummy for the archival clerk, seduced by the world view of their long dead interlocutors, Griffiths, escapes this fate. Where other historians use their archives to retell stories and lives that would be familiar to long dead scribblers; Griffiths doesn’t. Where others cut their archives into individual pieces of historical cloth, prior to sewing them back together in a patchwork of explanation; Griffiths unpicks every strand, in an attempt to fully weave a new fabric.

What Griffiths has done is to refuse to simply repeat the stories found in the Court Books, and instead has re-ordered the text as a series of individual words and phrases. For Griffiths each paragraph, each legal encounter ceases to be a story that happened to a single individual, and becomes instead a series of single words and phrases; literary artefacts ground to their smallest dimension. His substantial appendix provides statistical underpinnings for the changing use of individual words, but the over-arching impression given is of a simple love affair with the grit of sixteenth and seventeenth century language.

A measure of this granularity, this balking at narrative, is that through the course of almost 500 pages of text, there is not a single contemporary quote long enough to warrant a separate indented section. Instead, there are words:

A quote whore unquote quote drew unquote men quote into lewd houses unquote and took money when their guard was down. Mary Lewis, an quote old unquote Bridewell quote customer unquote, was arrested in Cheapside in 1631, quote enticing a man to drinke with her unquote ...(p.153)

It reads wonderfully on the page, by the way.

Words pile onto words in a cascade of text that is compelling; and makes the point more fully than any simple argument could, that as Griffiths claims: ‘Bridewell... became ... London’s label factory’.

To put it another way, Griffiths uses a literary style that is essentially pointillist. Where others use broad strokes, Griffiths builds a picture word by word. In the process he escapes the narrative of his own archive, and arguably escapes the love traps set for historians among the dusty folios.

And this is a wonderful thing to have done. It is dramatically innovative, and fresh. It makes this book something very different, and something we need to pay attention to. It is a facet of the experimental literary process that historians need to participate in. Academic history has, in my estimation, gone well past its sell by date, and unless we are willing to re-invent it, we might as well call ourselves antiquarians and be done.

But each experiment has its own costs and raises its own questions. In this instance, the clear cost is to narrative itself. The creation of a story, disciplined by time, or person, or theme or institution, is a hugely powerful thing that allows the historian to create something new in the reader’s mind. It is impossible to lose yourself in passive prose analysis in quite the way you do when reading a story.

And there are innumerable stories to be told in these records. In a discussion of how seventeenth-century clerks used the archive to know about people, Griffiths observes that: ‘It did not take too long to piece together a biography from Bridewell’s books, especially with handy name indexes lining one side of each page’(426). But nevertheless, he chooses to build not a single biography, of either a vagrant or a constable. Even the institutional biography is left largely untold, leaving in its stead a wild swim in a sea of words; at the end of which the reader knows the water, its temperature and its saltiness, but is still ignorant of its tides and currents, its sharks and fish, its bottom.

This pointillist literary style also tends to de-emphasise perspective and conflict. The object of study becomes the ‘label’ or the process of imposing a label rather than the experience of being labelled. The word ‘Vagrant’ for instance is used throughout the Bridewell books, and is the key word in this text. But no individual ever described themselves as a ‘vagrant’. People are travelling, or selling, or just trying to get from A to B; and the process of being labelled a ‘vagrant’ is a violent act perpetrated by smug authority on a weak individual. In this instance, the labelling process is a form of assault. By emphasising the word, at the expense of the narratives of those being rebranded as vagrants, however, it becomes impossible to re-imagine their experience.

I suspect that I have more faith in the power of narrative than does Paul Griffiths. I think that to abandon narrativity entirely would be to fundamentally disempower history as a genre. But the pointillism of this book, its overwhelming emphasis on words, forms a vital strategic intervention in history writing to which we need to pay mind.

Having ground Bridewell’s many stories into their individual words, however, I think we need to re-invest them with a relationship one to another. And we need to see Bridewell not as a ‘factory of labels’ as Griffiths does, with its nineteenth and twentieth century denotation of a system and a product; but as a seventeenth century ‘factory of labels’ – as a trading compound where one thing is exchanged for another, where value and meaning is created by the simple process of shifting goods from outside to in, from one place to another.

To end, this book challenges us to rethink our relationship to narrative and text, to live with the ambiguities of text, and pay attention to its textures. I thought this book was ‘Sare...Ghamidh’. And all the more important for being so.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Old Bailey on Steroids

The text of a talk delivered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield on 21 May 2008, as a part of the formal launch event of the Old Bailey Online, 1674-1913 (

When in 1999, Bob Shoemaker and I sat in what was then the new British Library and first discussed the possibility of creating an online edition of the Proceedings, it seemed to us a good idea. From conception, to getting the money, to the hard slog of digitisation, to the equally hard slog of tagging and preparation, to the second tranche, in partnership with Clive Emsley and the Open University, to the ever inventive crises of implementation, to the whirlwind of publicity, and the equally chaotic whirlwind of online delivery, I still think it was a good idea.

But, along the way it has become something rather better than the idea we started with. In some ways, even the present on-line edition of the Proceedings the people in this room have made a reality, is an extension of an essentially Enlightenment notion of knowledge and publication. It is a massive serial body of text, indexed and structured, huge in its compass, but essentially recognisable to any historian who cut their research teeth on the old Times indexes, or who built upper body strength hefting the catalogue in the old Round Reading Room. As a result, in its current form, the Proceedings are a beautiful culmination of an old fashioned idea. Perhaps ironically, they are just so last century.

But they form the starting point for something else. The promise of online, searchable, mash-upable, analysable, deracinated text is that it offers the opportunity to do something, not just better, but different. We have yet to see the first volume of twenty-first century history; of internet enabled history. We have yet to see the first major piece of historical writing that could only be conceived as a result of the existence of online resources; but it is the promise that such a new historical form might be created that is now driving the evolution of the Old Bailey.

Through the ESRC funded Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London project, which we have spent the last three years helping to make happen, and will spend the next two bringing to some kind of fruition, we are taking the scripts of criminality - the events of a trial, or the retrospective biography of an Ordinary’s Account, the things we have – and adding to them 40 million manuscript words of the scripts of both poverty, and just plain normality.

This new Old Bailey on steroids will encompass eight coherent manuscript archives – the records of St Thomas’s Hospital, the Coroners’ Inquests for Westminster, the parish records of St Clement Dane, St Dionis Backchurch, and St Botolph Aldgate, and the records of the Middlesex Bench - Pauper examinations and depositions, account books, and a massive archive of rotting, quotidian paper. And to this, it will add the electronic leavings deposited by a generation historians in the AHDS; the Cantebury Wills, the voting records of Westminster, the Hearth Tax Returns. And to this too, the death and marriage and birth registers created by shoals of family historians and published as CDs.

No one has ever attempted to digitise manuscript materials of this complexity before on this scale; and more importantly no one has ever managed to order this vast complex legacy of ill-digested record keeping, into a single searchable thing. In undertaking this project, we are building on the skills created in the long process of making the Old Bailey happen. Without the world beating experience built up by the Higher Education Digitisation Service in double entry rekeying, in creating usable transcripts of every kind of eighteenth-century hand imaginable; we couldn’t do Plebeian Lives. Without the expertise of Jamie McLaughlin, without his experience of designing search facilities and making them work, we couldn’t do this project. Without Sharon Howard’s management and technical skills, and simple commitment; we couldn’t do this project. Without Ed McKenzie and Kathy Rogers, without Philippa Hardman and the HRI, we couldn’t do this project. In other words, we have taken a body of expertise built up across a decade between three Universities, re-imagined what could be done and turned it to a new and complex purpose.

The really new thing about Plebeian lives is that it relies for its very sense on the ability of search engines to find a single word in a sea of text. If we could not sift these sands of time for historical meaning at the click of a mouse, there would be no point in digitising these archives – better to leave them in their original form. But, if we can search them, analyse them, link them across archival spaces that have hitherto been unbridgeable; we as historians can move beyond scripts that retell limited stories of admittedly gripping and dramatic events created essentially for an eighteenth-century audience; to telling life scripts, to building life lines that snake through the archives, to evidence each interaction between a beggar or a criminal, or just a person, and the systems on which they relied, or feared, or avoided - to map a collection of lives.

The Old Bailey Proceedings were a good idea because they brought into the digital age the single most important and classic source for history from below, for that humane tradition of writing from the bottom up, and from the single individual’s perspective.

The point is now to move beyond that tradition, to what is only now conceivable. In my own mind, this amounts to adding a collective rigour to the humane narratives of History from Below; to – if you will excuse the historiographical contrast – forcing Raphael Samuel to sit down with Lewis Namier; and then figuring out what they together might have to say to Karl Marx. In the process, what the project seeks to achieve is a new way of understanding how individual decisions, made by non-elite men and women, contributed to the evolution of the institutions of modernity – of hospitals and workhouses, prisons, courtrooms and local government. And it will do so by tracing people’s lives through this massive archive; and in the process will argue that the agency deployed by working people, the decisions they made in difficult circumstances, help to explain why and how things changed, both in the past and by extension in the present.

But more than a new intellectual aspiration, a new explanation of historical change; this project is also about recognising that the audience we need to reach is different than it once was. The point about building upwards from individual lives, is that it allows us to connect in ways that most historians cannot, to the greatest body of readers and historical researchers ever – to the family historians. By making this project about lives, we generate something they want to read; at the same time as we analyse something we want to explain.

And as the tools of social software gain a new maturity; as Sharon Howard adds a wiki to the Old Bailey site; as we create facilities for our users to provide new content; to comment on, correct and add links to the resources we create; and more tentatively, as data mining and the searching of distant distributed resources becomes more achievable; a growing and organic intellectual project is gradually being brought into existence. It will have its monographs, articles, and authors; but it will also have its blogs and mash-ups, and its communities of users. In the process it will tie the unbounded historical interest in the everyday, to the intellectual exercise of academic history; and create the infrastructure that allows us to communicate beyond the academy.

Essentially, and in other words, what began as an attempt to make a humane, individual history from below easier to research and write; has become an attempt to add a new layer to that tradition; to update it in light of the full promise of digital resources, and to make it fit for the politics of today. The project is now about rediscovering the magical combination of narrative, and individuals, and politics that characterised the best progressive histories of the 1960s and 1970s; and adding to those the magic of digitisation and the internet, and turning the whole lot to a new purpose.

One of the great arts of academic life is to trust that an interesting, important conclusion will emerge at the end of a project, will present itself at the end of five or ten or twenty years of hard slog – and that it will be important even if it turns out to bear little relationship to the question with which you began. I still like the idea with which we started, but I have to admit that it has become a shed load more interesting along the way.