At the end of September I went down to London to hear a paper by Chris Marsh at the Royal Historical Society, so I took the opportunity to travel down a bit ahead of time and spend the afternoon in the British Library.  This is something I haven’t done for a couple of years, for one thing because it isn’t all that easy for me to get down there, but also because up to now I’ve been working mainly on the documents that I found while I was carrying out my doctoral research.  But with the submission of the manuscript to Routledge, the time has come to move on.  This post is less about what I found when I was there and more about the process of carrying out the research itself.  It’s about how I work.


I only knew that I would be going to London a couple of days in advance, so I had to drop everything and start finding something to look at when I was there.  The first job, in fact, was to check up on how to renew my reader’s pass, as it had expired since I last went.  Once I’d got that sorted out, I knew that I would only have a few hours in the library itself. This affects the way I work, I think: I need to make sure that I am well prepared with a list of exactly what I want to look at.

I ran a search on the British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue for ‘ballad’, up to the mid-seventeenth century, and read through the descriptions of each result (of which there were many).  If I thought it looked potentially interesting, I copied the entry into Word, making each manuscript number a heading and including the descriptions for each entry.  It makes for a long document (at the moment, it’s 45 pages long!), but at least every item was easily accessible and the descriptions mean that when I’m in the library I know what I’m looking for and where to find it in the manuscript itself.  Next, I sorted the descriptions into the order that I wanted to look at them – by which I mean I put the materials I wanted to see first at the top of my list, running right down to the ones I considered to be less urgent.  Finally, I logged into my British Library account and pre-ordered as many as I could for the day of my visit.

way I work image 1


IMG_20170922_211455954When I arrived at the library I renewed my reader pass, had a quick brew and then settled myself into the Western Manuscript Reading Room with my tablet (much easier to carry than my laptop), my camera, notepad and pencil.  My trips to the British Library are a bit like a smash and grab…  metaphorically-speaking, of course.   This visit was going to be a particularly short one.  My priority is to accumulate as much evidence as I can, so that I can then work on it at home.  I looked at the documents that I ordered ahead of my visit and made notes on their features which I added to my Archive Research Document.  Then I photographed the relevant parts of the manucript. Often, I took several photos of the same folios, showing the overall layout on one and the detail on others. For each document that I’d looked at, I added a tick before its title in my list.

IMG_20170922_125155155What I didn’t do much of when I was in the library itself was to make transcriptions.   As I mainly work on 16th century documents, they are often in secretary hand, which can take a bit of deciphering at times (and yes, I suffer palaeographic jealousy when I look at the people working on beautiful italic hands!). I usually do my transcribing at home.  So when I’d looked at all the ones I’d pre-ordered, I prioritised working on what I thought was the most useful manuscript.  I kept this out, sent the others back to storage and called up some more.  While I waited for them to arrive, I started to transcribe the document that I’d kept, making the transcription in the big document but in a different colour of text so that I knew that it was my own transcription.  I then repeated the process until I’d looked at as many items as I could that afternoon – it was the bell that stopped me!

Once I got home, I transferred my archive photographs to dropbox and a mobile hard drive, putting each document into a separate folder under the heading Archives/British Library. Then I spent a relentlessy boring day renaming each individual file by the name of its folio number – I have learned in the past how difficult it is to find the relevant image of a particular folio later if I don’t do this.

I’m now in the process of transcribing the document in which I was most interested – I open the image on one screen and use another, usually my tablet, to make the transcription, making sure that I mark any words about which I’m uncertain with a question mark and each new folio with it’s number.  I am doing this in a new document, which I save alongside the images in the relevant folder.




I was2017-09-20 19.31.33


I was fascinated by this series of posts on Twitter by Bradley Irish…  It’s true, I think.  I was reminded of some interviews done by the Marine Lives project last year which looked at the way historians carry out research using electronic databases.  I wrote a short blog post at the time, which made much the same point that Bradley did – we rarely talk about the ways in which we carry out the research that leads to our outputs, be they books, articles, websites, even blog posts…  Okay, we might (and probably do) mention our methodology in the output itself, but not in the level of detail that Bradley and I both meant.  There are students out there who might find this sort of openness helpful.  Heavens, I might find it helpful.  The way that I work as an academic morphed out of the way I worked as an undergraduate 20 odd years ago.  There was nothing planned, and certainly nothing taught, about it. I can only remember one single conversation about how to sit down and do the research I do, and it consisted of something like this:

‘Prof. X keeps all their research notes in a single, huge file – it makes it really easy to search for a key term or a person…’

And that was it.  Thinking about it, it wasn’t really a conversation at all.

As I embark on finding something new to work on over the next few months (plenty of ideas, by the way, just nothing concrete yet), I’m going to write a few posts about what I’m doing along the way, subtitled ‘the way I work’.  If anyone felt moved to join me, or to respond, that would be great.  I’m absolutely sure that I’ve got plenty to learn.

I recently attended the latest meeting of the North West Early Modern Seminar Series, which was held at Liverpool University on 1 November.  It came at the end of a particularly busy few days for me, so I was really quite tired, but happily there was lovely homemade spiced apple cake from Elaine Chalus and great big cups of tea to wash it down.

2017-11-01 15.22.58The first paper was by Sophie Jones, a  student at the University of Liverpool: “‘Drinking the King’s Health’: Taverns, Sociability and Loyalism in Revolutionary New York”.  The main questions she asked were: how did taverns come to play such a political role? and how did they become so closely associated with royalism?

Her paper focussed on Albany, an area of colonial New York. It was at the centre of territorial disputes with New England,  but Albany was relatively small: it had fewer than 3500 inhabitants in c1700.  The county was predominantly rural apart from Albany town itself, therefore it represented the closest resemblance to feudal Engalnd in America.  The area was dominated by big estates with a lot of land, which provided a source of social tension in the 17th century.  There was little urban development,  and there were no coffee houses or other public amenities.  The social space it did have was a network of public houses and taverns which occupied the same functional space as coffee houses.  They were not, however, confined to the city of Albany but were also found in rural areas and they created focal points for unhappy tenants who sometimes turned into mobs.  She also pointed out that although ostensibly  a ‘public’ space, taverns also had private spaces and could therefore be seen as secretive.

During the revolutionary period, Albany was particularly afraid that tavern keepers were not loyal to the cause of American freedom.  Licenseto run taverns were issued on the basis of an oath of allegiance and committees were set up to detect loyalism.  One of their methods for identifying the disaffected was to listen for people who drank the king’s health.  Sophie suggested that this was a fractured society.

Next up was Dr Jonathan Spangler of Manchester Metropolitan University on “The Miseries of War: The Duchy of Lorraine, Jacques Callot and the 400th Anniversary of the Start of the Thirty Years War”.  His paper presented his recent research on the Westreich a bilingual not bi-confessional region.  Lorraine was nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the dukes were constantly trying to balance between French and German political influence by marrying French  and Germans.  In 1618, fraternal strife increased between Henri, who had 2 daughters, and Francois, who had 2 sons.  They fell out over the dynasty – to whom the children should be married and, alongside that, whether to fight for the French or the empire.

2017-11-01 15.40.52Jonathan is interested in what effect this had on the dynasty.  Francois was allied to the empire, while his brother Henri was trying to appease France, whose army was getting bigger and only had access to the empire through Lorraine.  The marriage of one of Henri’s daughters to one of Francois’ sons in order to create a dual monarchy fell apart when Francois’ son overthrew his wife, and this created a split in the nobility, who were more pro-Catholic than loyal to their country.

By end of 30 years war Lorraine had lost 60% of its population. Beauvau described it as like an apocalypse.  The printmaker Jacques Callot was a product of this society.  His work has been described by art historians as technical but not emotional.  His most famous work is the series of woodcuts,  The Miseries of War.  They are moralising images which show that soldiers who are let loose to run amok will get their comeuppance.  They represtent peasant horror and peasant justice.  Jonathan argued that they are good evidence for him being more emotional than has hitherto been thought, because they might represent the trauma of his homeland.


2017-11-01 16.19.49

The first speaker after the break was Dr Anna French (University of Liverpool), who spoke about “Salvation of the Soul in Pregancy to Early Infancy”.  This talk was based on her new work on the social and cultural impact of belief, particularly surrounding the question: when did the human become a person?  She is investigating early modern perceptaions of infants?  They have small bodies and often fleeting lives, and attitudes to them demonstrate spiritual uncertainty, especially until baptism.

The first of her two key texts was a funeral sermon by Samson Price from 1624 – The two twins of birth and death.  This text described the closeness between these to parts of the human life cycle. It shows that birth wasn’t necessarily seen as the beginning of the new life because death often followed quickly.  A successful birth meant that child and mother had lucky escape from death. Original sin meant that although mother and child could and probably should have died during childbirth and been damned, they were saved from by God’s grace.

She pointed out that although birth meant that babies were awake, they were yet to be awoken to the presence of God. However, even infant baptism didn’t solve this so childhood was a difficult time for salvation. Children were seen to be in great spiritual danger. Indeed, infants were often not seen as a child or even as he/she until baptism – they were not given a name and were instead referred to as ‘creature’.

Her second text was Jacob Ruff’s The expert midwife, translated in 1637 and addressed to the ‘daughters of Eve’.  It described the inevitable but risky venture of pregnancy and labour, seeking to prevent ‘the great danger and manifold hazards’ to mother and child.  This text suggests that even after the quickening, when the woman first felt the child move in her womb, the foetus was not considered to be a person. It had a spirit, which moved it, but this was not the soul.  Instead, it just provided a channel for the soul, which came later.

Her overall argument was that life was defined broadly and ensoulment was crucial but piecemeal process.  It reveals some tension about what it meant to be a human.

We also heard short papers from two research students. Toni Prince (University of Sheffield) spoke on 2017-11-01 16.55.10“Authorship, Ovid and The Tempest”, arguing that some of Shakespeare’s scenes don’t sound the same and the lexical units (grammatical units which have meaning, not just words) are different.  Some of these lexical units appear again and again in Shakespeare’s plays as a whole, others appear to have been written by someone else.  Finally, Tom Morrissey (University of Liverpool) talked about “Exploring the reaction of the West Country Gentry to the English Reformation”.  He suggested that the gentry were complicit with successive Tudor regimes throughout the reformation as it changed the face of the localities. Their role was one of policing and enforcing the reformation – and their own faith.

2017-11-01 17.05.52


At the end of September I killed several birds with one stone by taking a short trip to London.  As well as attending a Historical Association committee meeting, I spent an afternoon in the British Library and an evening at the Royal Historical Society lecture given by Professor Christopher Marsh, ‘The woman to the plow and the man to the hen-roost’: Wives, husbands and best-selling ballads in seventeenth-century England.

2017-09-22 18.33.43

He  made a case for seeking the origins of pop music in the 1590s not 1950s.  This was the decade of Thomas Deloney, and of ‘Mother Watkins Ale’  – a song full of innuendo and sporting a jaunty melody.  Written in a man’s voice, it provoked moral outrage, and Marsh described it as a lascivious under-song.

He then described the broadside ballad format which was developing in this period of a title, one or two woodcuts, a border, and the lyrics in two columns of type.  They were commercially driven and mass produced.  He argued that we would know little about ballads if not for educated men like Selden and Pepys.

The main focus of the lecture was the ways in which relationships between men and women were portrayed by balladeers.  He described them as a good source for scholars who work on the field of marriage and bewailed the distorting tendency of historians who most often deploy them to show problems with marriage, especially problems with women.  Most often, scholars use them to show ‘relationships endangered from within’ – the cuckolded husband or the murderous wife.  He argued that many historians were guitly of cherry-picking and pull out the ones which provide the evidence for what they want to show.  Instead, we need more sophisticated approach than source mining. In fact, early modern ballads assumed that marriage was part of the context.  Many included married couples and this in itself gives us insights into popular tastes.

His case studies were based on his project to produce versions of the best-sellers of the 17th century based on a wide range of criteria including the number editions, evidence that publishers keen to assert copyright, spread of time, whether they generate new names for tunes, and whether they were long-lasting.  He acknowledged that the list would nto be definitive, but claimed that it means we can be confident that the songs were very popular. The project seeks to provide an integrated approach to texts, tunes, pictures and performances.

The lecture was based on the 25 of the top 120 ballads which relate to marriage.  He sought to investigate how husbands and wives were represented and how this affects our understanding of ballads or of gender relations.  What I found particularly interesting, having looked at this area myself, is that the 25 popular marriage-related ballads are not the ones that scholars have usually picked out. When I looked at gender relations in ballads while I was writing Chapter 4 of my book, I wasn’t particularly bowled over with them, if I’m honest.  I couldn’t find a great deal that was interesting to say; after all, there’s only so many times you can say ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love, someone objects, but they overcome the obstacles’ or ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl spurns boy’.  In the end, I left it out altogether.  What Chris Marsh managed to do, that I did not, was turn it into a fascinating angle in itself.   Because what it means is that historians haven’t picked out the most popular but rather the ones that are most useful to them.  The most popular marriage ballads don’t sit comfortably among the “marriage problems” trope.  The only unremittingly wicked wife is Eleanor – but her wickedness is related to the fact that she is Spanish, so she’s not indicative of English marriage.  In fact, she appears in her song as a contrast to the happily married mayor and his wife.


8 more ballads have wicked wives and harried husbands, but there are subtleties. For example, in one ballad by Thomas Deloney the wife murders the husband, but although she’s gone awry, she is presented sympathetically.  Other ballads featured female adulterers, but they wer not the blunt and brutal lascivious wives of scholarly stereotype.  The rest of the 25 presented happy marriages. Although they show an acute awareness of the dangers in marriage, these were threatened by external forces not dangers within the bounds of marriage itself.  Often, as I noted myself but couldn’t find an angle to hang it on) the problem is with the parents, and based on the different social status of the protagonists.

Marsh asked important questions about who formed the audience for this type of material and suggested that maybe the ballads contributed a different way to the gender debate.  We don’t know who bought the virtuous wife ballads and why, but perhaps it was about how to find fulfilment in patriarchy by making it their own.  We have little evidence for the audience of early modern ballads, but he thinks it was often female because the majority of the opening ‘come all ye’s were aimed at females.


The fascinating lecture was illustrated by musical examples sung live by Vivien Ellis, accompanied by Chris on fiddle.  It was followed by some really interesting questions about the performance practice of ballads, their continued popularity and the ways in which gender is portrayed in music.




The end of the summer brought quite a few productive weeks, if I do say so myself.  While I was waiting for various things to do with the book manuscript to come together, I was also working on my Pilgrimage of Grace article.  It looks at a cluster of references to ballads and rhymes in the state papers around that time, which suggests to me that they were of particular interest to Thomas Cromwell.  I submitted the finishe for peer review on the day I sent the book to the publisher!  The other day I heard that the article had been turned down by that first journal – not altogether a surprise – but I’ve got some really positive feedback.  It shouldn’t take me long to make some revisions and get it sent somewhere else.

I’m going to write a talk based on it too, not least because it might be of interest to local history societies around here – it’s quite a coincidence that I live so close to Whalley and Sawley, where so much of the article is based.