In a conscious effort to take a bit more advantage of the opportunities opened up by so many conferences this year taking place online, I’m trying to attend a few more. Some are things that I wouldn’t otherwise attend, because I wouldn’t have time or money to go to, but others, like the Sound Affects workshop and The International John Bunyan Society’s GLORIOUS SOUNDS: EXPLORING THE SOUNDSCAPES OF BRITISH NONCONFORMITY: 1550-1800 are much closer to my current research on soundscapes and songs. It took place over two afternoons in April, and this post is about the first of those sessions.

The first plenary was given by one of my former supervisors, Rosamund Oates, of Manchester Metropolitan University on ‘“Speaking in Hands”: Preaching, Deafness and Sign Language in Early Modern Europe’.  She considered the questions of how attitudes to hearing loss and deafness developed from the belief that it was the curse of the devil.  If based on the teaching of Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing, what about the deaf?  She pointed out that the situation in practice was more complicated – both Protestant and Catholics had more nuanced attitudes than just relegating all deaf people to hell.  Deafness and hearing loss were endemic in early modern England, especially among the elderly, while illness and accident could cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.  Sometimes there were accidental or deliberate attempts to disrupt sermons.

The efficacy of the sermon was not in the sound but in what it stirred up in you. So Ros explained how preachers began to think about how they could infuse the spirit of all their parishioners. They used rhetorical texts which were designed to affect the spiritually deaf, but also the physically deaf.  Texts were written that described the use of gestures, pronunciation and tone.  Specific gestures meant specific things, and these were standardised in the 16th and 17th centuries. Preachers used them to learn how to use their bodies to get their message across. Gestures could articulate a layer of meaning that language couldn’t manage. In England, these texts seemed to be about reminding preachers for the importance of gravity in the pulpit, and were intended to control the preacher’s body. Gestures were believed to be more powerful than speech, and preachers were encouraged to feel emotions themselves before stirring them in other people.

This is also a reason why preachers were concerned about the limitations of printed sermons – readers missed sharing the voice gesture and purpose of the man who gave it.  Preachers and their audiences appreciated the contribution of gesture and tone.

Although the gestures might not have been developed to help those who were deaf or hard of hearing, preachers began to realise that they could use them as a valid alternative to the voice.  This challenged the prevailing tradition that pre-lingually deaf people were to be treated legally as infants, because they were believed to be unable to understand because of their deafness.  The acceptance of a form of sign language meant that deaf people could communicate acceptance, understanding and consent.  She then considered the implications of accepting signing in the marriage service on our understanding of personhood, consent and legality.

We then moved on to a panel made up of three papers. The first was given by Robert W. Daniel (University of Warwick) on ‘Piety, but Quietly: The Devotional Soundscape of Dissenting Households’. He described how the various parts of a prosperous yeoman’s home were used for devotional activities.

Closets were meant to be acoustic barriers to the outside world. They were supposed to be above the noise and closer to heaven, but also to keep the noise of prayer within the closet to.  But there were limits to the privacy of the closet, and it therefore represents something of a liminal space.  Servants and family members could eavesdrop on the prayers taking place within the closet, while other people’s prayers were so loud they could be heard in the street.

Bedchambers were not private spaces, and from day to day were used for meditating, psalm singing and other devotional exercises.  They were also a place for spiritual activities when people were on their deathbeds. Studies were the scholarly dens of gentlemen, especially ministers. But the thin walls between them and the parlour, which was often next door, meant that it could be difficult to concentrate. The parlour was far enough away from the street to be considered acceptable places for prayers, but they were often disrupted by sounds from within the house instead.

It was lovely to hear Eleanor Hedger (University of Birmingham) again, as I haven’t heard her since we were at Maynooth for MedRen several years ago. She spoke on ‘Acoustic Territorialisation and Sonic Conflict in the Early Modern English Prison’. Ellie described how prisoners complained about the avarice of prison officials, and many had a difficult relationship with their keepers. Many prisoners turned to writing and other cultural activities to make their prison experience more bearable.  She described how singing, especially psalm singing, was used as a means to preserve their mental and physical health.  She noted that this was especially true of the Protestant prisoners under Mary I, and that this was one of the reasons that psalm-singing became part of the English Protestant identity.  After the Elizabethan reformation, prisons became filled instead with Catholic altars and the sound of Catholic services. These were not just the celebration of Mass, but also baptisms, dirges, and weddings. These confessional noises sometimes provoked sonic conflicts, while noisy expressions of religious belief were also challenged by the cacophony of drunkenness, cursing, rattling chains or other disorderly noises

The final paper of the three was given by Mary Fairclough (University of York) on ‘Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Dissenting Art of Reading’. She described how Barbauld developed the practice of reading aloud not just as a pedagogical practise but as a devotional one.  It is a hybrid engagement with the art of reading.  She explained why Thomas Sheridan complained about the poor elocution of English public speakers.  He, like many other elocutionists, was a former actor, but there was another tradition of elocution which came from the dissenters.  They advocate an affective method of speaking. Mary described a gendered response to reading aloud.  Women engaged with the domestic culture of reading, and Barbauld was strongly associated with dissenting educational and teaching activities. Her educational writings focus on young children, writing prose hymns which can be used in lessons. The teacher doesn’t speak to the child, but instead, it brings child and teacher together in reading aloud.