Just before the start of the Michaelmas term, I went to the Archiving the Soundscape workshop at the Wellcome Institute, London, organised by the Soundscapes in the Early Modern World project.

Day 2 began with a panel which opened with an archaeologist from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Catrina Cooper, who worked on the Virtual St Stephens Project.   An add on was created called ‘Hearing the Commons’ because the visualisations were beautiful but missed the full sensory experiences.  You can used digital technology to recapture the soundscapes.  But one of the big questions is how to create an acoustic and visual model of a space that no longer exists?

For the Voice and Vote exhibition as part of Vote 100 project they used architectural plans, because you need to know the size and shape of the space and its surface materials.  Anechoic recordings are then in a dead space with no reverberation, so that they can then be modelled through software which applies the impulse responses of the space. This means you can hear what it sounded like.  It was really interesting to think about how the women would have had to concentrated as they tried to listen to debates in the Commons from an attic space, with the sound travelling through an air vent.  Also Catriona pointed out that it brought to mind how people in the space of the Commons itself used the acoustic features of the space to make it difficult for people who were in the chamber to hear.

Jennifer Richards asked whether there were more interactive ways of presenting these sort of results, as soundscapes tend to be very passive. Catrina acknowledged that there are problems, and you can never completely recreate the past, but she argued that we can get somewhere near.

Next up wash Katherine Butler Schofield on Chasing Eurydice: Music and its Material traces in 17-18C Mughal India.  She’s been trying to work out what Hindustani classical music actually sounded like in Mughal India.  She made the point, initially, that musical instruments sound very different in the hot and dry to the cold and wet, which is something that we rarely consider!  The Mughals were a central Asian dynasty who took Delhi in 1526.  Pictures often depict a small group of friends gathering to enjoy music in an elite aristocratic situation, but the music was mainly improvised and in any case not notated, therefore it has gone. To Hindus, and Jains in particular, sound was auspicious and you could use a bell to cleanse a temple when you entered, or music to greet an infant at the moment of its birth.

She then talked about how sound was very widely used in forts, for festival such as weddings, birthday celebrations and song and dance events.  She showed manuscript images of how Agra fort was used, with awnings, rich fabrics, fireworks and lots of people, including musicians.  The dozens of musicians apparently playing at once might not have been entirely realistic, she suggested, but rather the depiction was there to give a sense of the grandeur and the level of noise taking place overall.  She showed another example of a painting in which there were many musicians performing different functions at the birth of a prince.   Her last point was that there is no way of recapturing what music really sounded like, but it is the exploration which yields interesting results.

The final paper in the panel was given by Simon Smith on Song in the Archive: the case of playhouse music.  Scholars usually work on the melodies of playhouse songs and how they were performed.  But we have no record of how they were experienced and no descriptions of how they were performed on stage.  We have songbooks for non-dramatic recreational performance, but although what we are looking for did once exist, but what survive is something a little different.  What is the dramatic function of a playhouse song, for example, and how does this affect its afterlife as something else? He suggested that song was intended to make the audience take on the inherent viewpoint of the narrator through a process of imaginative identification.

The Workshop closed with a look at some sound-related items from the Wellcome’s early modern collections.

Although there are certain aspects of my job that I am less than happy about, I have to admit that it has brought me opportunities that even a few years ago I would have found difficult to imagine. Many of these revolve around the chance to travel to places I would otherwise not have seen, such as Utrecht or Turku

My recent invitation to the Scripta in Itinere conference gave me a chance to visit Alcala in Spain and to pop into Madrid. In Alcala, I spent some happy times just wandering the streets.

I was also able to visit Cervantes’ birthplace and the local archeaological museum.

In Madrid, I went to the incredibly opulent Palacio Real.

I was privileged to be invited to the XI Congreso Internacional de Historia de la Cultura Escrita, held this June in Alcalá de Henares, which will for me be forever remembered as the city of storks – these enormous birds nest atop many of the old buildings around the Calle de Colegios, clacking their beaks as you walk the streets below.

I will be honest: I was at a bit of a loss when it came to most of the papers, as my Spanish is only rudimentary despite several attempts to learn over the course of about 30 years; my French is worse and my Italian is non-existent. Nevertheless, it was certainly an experience.

The inaugural lecture was given by Beatrice Frankel, on Montaigne, and the conference coincided with the opening of an exhibition of Alcalá’s environmental print over the years.

Veronica Sierra Blas, Beatrice Frankel and Antonio Castillo Gómez

I enjoyed Veronica Calsoni Lima’s paper, ‘From official to clandestine presses: the publishing businesses of Giles Calvert and Thomas Brewster in the 1650s’.  She began by describing the rapid circulation of news during the run up to the Civil War, and the breakdown of censorship which led to a flood of printed material. After 1653, there were new attempts to clampdown, and Cromwell’s regime began attempts to find a new official printer. Four men were considered, and between May and August at least 25 official texts were shared between them. Received wisdom is that Brewster and Calvert were the less obvious choices within the four potential printer, as they had associations with radical groups. But Veronica pointed out that this period coincided with the Nominated Assembly, or ‘Barebones Parliament’, which makes their presence fairly reasonable given it was made up of religious radicals itself. The folio-sized official publications they produced were intended to be pinned up in public and had large titles to catch the reader’s attention from a distance, decorated capital letters, the commonwealth’s arms, and shared imprints.

But after August, Brewster and Calvert disappear from official publications. Veronica suggested that this might be due to their radical sympathies and links with separatist congregations. They printed anti-royalist propaganda and pro-commonwealth propaganda, but also radical religious tracts by Quakers, Baptists and Fifth Monarchists. They also started to print anti-Cromwell propaganda, which got them into trouble. She took as her examples Edward Burrough’s ‘A trumpet of the Lord’ (which was a millenarian pamphlet that landed the printer in prison) and Henry Vane’s ‘A Healing Question’. Neither pamphlet has the official information, and although they have large titles, they don’t have complete imprints. Later clandestine works have no names for author, printer, or publisher. She suggested that the controversial texts that they published at the same time they were publishing official material, led to them being dropped as official printers.

She closed her remarks by commenting that other printers printed throughout the commonwealth, restoration, and under James II, which showed them to be canny businessmen, but Brewster and Calvert put their political and religious beliefs before business, risking loss of profit and even imprisonment rather than give up their ideals.

I gave my paper at one of the main panels on Wednesday afternoon.  It is the first time I have ever been on a panel with someone talking about Twitter and someone talking about mobile libraries.  I’m not entirely sure what the link was, but it certainly made for a different experience!


After the panel, we walked across Alcala to the opening of a mural, Alcala: Ciudad Escrita, on the wall of the city’s outdoor swimming pool, and to finish the evening, we went to El Sexto Sensido for the conference dinner, where I was asked to sing again for some of the delegates who had missed my paper.


All in all, it was a very interesting few days, and I enjoyed the opportunity.

At the end of February, I travelled up to Glasgow to speak at the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Broadside Day at the Unviersity of Strathclyde. This is the first in a short series of posts about the day.

On Cathdral Street, Glasgow

Due to a series of unfortunate cricumstances, I didn’t reach Glasgow until 11am, so I missed papers by Catherine Ann Cullen (Speckled Cats and Gravey Distillers), David Stenton (The Forth Valley Songster) and E. Wyn James (‘The Black Spot’ and ‘The Old Man of the Wood’: Welsh Street Literature During the Long Eighteenth Century

I arrived during the morning tea break (nice pastries and a decent cuppa). The first paper I heard was given by Freyja Cox Jensen on ‘In Good Queen Bess’s Golden Days’: Memories of Elizabethan England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’. Freya talked about the context of English identity, which was very closely bound up with Protestantism and Protestant insularity.  The period was shaped by the notion of England as an island nation.  The idea comes from Elizabeth I, who comes to embody a very English types of Protestantism, with England as God’s chosen land.  Elizabeth continues to play a role in the idea of Englishness in the years after her death, as part of the cultural memory of Elizabethan England.  She’s a model for high politics after James II, especially with William and Mary.  The image of England is partly, therefore, created from the top-down, but it is also celebrated more widely.  Ballads from Queen Anne’s reign make explicit reference to Elizabeth I.  They see parallels between the armada and the Anne intervention in the war of Spanish succession. The most common idea, though, is the one that Elizabethan period was merry and a golden age. It was held up for centuries afterward as a jolly good time.

Freya Cox-Jensen

  Ballads are often set to Tudor tunes, and pick out martial characters from the period, such as the earl of Essex,  or Thomas Stukely who was a rather more complicated character than most – the ballad suggests he repents of going abroad as a recusant even though there is no evidence of this.  Many of these are long lived songs. They represent England as the underdog, the small and feisty man fighting for good.

But Freya noted that none of this is true – it’s a constructed myth that’s been going on for centuries.  And it’s not just about nation building, it’s also the belief in the ancient constitution which we see raised against Charles I before his execution. Custom is also a legitimising framework in court. Appealing to time out of mind trumps anything more recent especially relating to parish boundaries and common land. Traditionally scholars say the creation of the Elizabethan myth happens in the 18th and 19th centuries but Freya argued that the ideas were alive and well even before Elizabeth died.

Next up was me, talking about ‘Liege Ladies: Sixteenth-Century Broadside Ballads and Reigning Queens’, in a significant reworking of a paper I gave a few years ago at the Mary I Quincentenary conference. Then it was time for lunch.

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