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The Vocabulary Murders: some thoughts on brilliant, infuriating sources

22 Mar

So over the last week or so I’ve been involved in something properly exciting. In collaboration with CRASSH – the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities – I’ve been helping (along with the new-to-Twitter Richard Blakemore) to put together the first series of Cambridge PhDcasts. These are videos & podcasts of PhD students in the arts & humanities talking about what they work on, why it gets them excited, and why it’s important. We’ve recorded two already, and have four more to go – the first series should be with you after Easter. And after that, we’ll be looking for new volunteers, so if you’re a Cambridge PhD, get in touch! 

On Saturday, I spoke to Katy Barrett – who you might know as @SpoonsOnTrays (follow her!) – about her research into the cultural history of debates over longitude in the eighteenth century. She had some amazing stories and insights (just wait for the podcast) but one of the sources she brought got me thinking. It was – not to ruin the surprise – the story of a dispute over the word ‘longitude’ that came to blows and ended in a fatal stabbing. 

This vignette set me to thinking about a similar account in my own research into foreign language-learning in early modern England. It’s even from the same source – the ever-fascinating Old Bailey Online, a database of transcribed and searchable Old Bailey trial documents from 1674 to 1913. If you have a minute, head over and play around with it for a while. It’s always exciting and worryingly addictive, and it’ll turn you into an early modern primary source fiend really frighteningly quickly. 

When I was playing around (sorry, researching) on the site, I came across the following case. Have a read, and then we’ll have a chat about how it’s both amazing and infuriating at the same time. It’s a murder trial from the 17th of January 1676. 

There were two men drinking, and there arose a dispute between them concerning a Spanish word, one affirmed that it was not properly exprest, the other gave him provoking language for saying so, he reply’d, Sir I know not how to bear that affront; then said the other if you like it not follow me out; then he seemed willing, but was prevented by the rest of the company, who laboured afterwards to compose their differences, and they seeming well reconcil’d; the company left them, about an hour after they fell to quarrelling again, and being out of doors he that gave the unseemly language bid the other draw or else he would run him through; he thereupon unsheath’d his Rapier, and in the quarrel run the challenger into the arm, the neighbours soon put a period to their fighting, and parted them. But the wound proved mortal, and the other was therefore accused for the murther, but the Jury perceiving by the evidence that he was compelled to draw to secure his life, brought in their verdict, se Defendendo*.

On the face of it, this looks like solid gold for a researcher like me. A dispute about a foreign language that turns fatal – like Katy’s story, it shows vocabulary being used as a grounds for physical violence. Language is often crucial to records like these – harsh words being spoken, slanders being uttered in public places, rumours running out of control. Some great research has been done by people like Laura Gowing and Laura Wright on language, crime, and courts in the seventeenth century. In a society governed by ideas of credit and reputation, the spoken word had a power which can be difficult for us to imagine. 

But what about this bit of Spanish vocabulary, this word which goes unrecorded in the sources – where does it leave us? Without knowing what it was, or the relation between the two men, or the topic of conversation, it’s hard to say more about this case, except that it shows language and interpretation as serious business and, at times, as a matter of life and death. Sources like these are fascinating but can infuriate, too. I don’t quite know where or how this fits into my work so far. For me, this account poses far more questions than it answers. 


* The verdict of ‘se defendendo’ is one of self-defence. There’s a great joke** about this in the gravediggers scene in Hamlet, but that’s a story for another day. 

** Well, for a given early modern value of ‘great’. 

World Book Day! Some alternative suggestions.

7 Mar

Happy World Book Day! It’s a great day for people who love reading, as well as for those who really hate trees.

If you’ve got kids, I gather it’s the done thing to have them go to school in costume as their favourite characters from literature. This is, of course, charming and adorable. Within reason. Hermione, Lyra, the BFG: good. Patrick Bateman, Christian Grey, The Beast Of The Sea: bad. Anyone from Lord of the Flies: could go either way. Should spice up breaktime, at any rate.

But. There’s a worry that this might not be the best way to get kids into books. Over at the BBC, Dominic Casciani is worried that kids aren’t engaging with literature because they’re busy hunting him down with throwing stars. Or something similar.

Maybe there are better ways to instil kids with a true love of reading – to help them understand that books are the gift that keeps on giving, a joy and a solace that’ll be with you all your life.

So, with that in mind, here are some suggestions of alternative activities you might like to pursue with your child this World Book Day.

Introduce them to the pub. 

Surely there is no greater pleasure than settling down at the corner table of a quiet, wood-lined pub of a spring afternoon, pulling a paperback from the jacket pocket, and sinking into an afternoon’s reading. Teach your kid this early, and they’ll be a reader for life. They’ll need a pint, though. And some pork scratchings while you’re at it.

Start a row. 

You can both enjoy this one. Ideally, the child will learn that you can use books and the information they hold to illustrate a point. Or, at a pinch, to hit someone round the head with until they agree with you. You might also show them how useful dictionaries can be for finding definitions of contentious terms, and dropping on your enemies.

Leave them in a waiting room. 

For this one, you may need to infect your child with a non-fatal disease – a bad flu or tonsilitis should do it. Rabies would normally be too far, but do feel free to work with what you have. What you want to do here is teach the child that a book – any book – is crucial if they want to succeed in adult life’s main activity, Avoiding Speaking To Other Humans.

Take them to a library and teach them to hate. 

There are few things in life quite as invigorating as a good solid hatred – and the library is the perfect arena to develop your very own. Quiet, it means you’ll never hear the one you loathe say anything that might contradict the character you’ve built up for them in your head. It’s fair to say that I would probably never have got through the library hours needed to get a degree if I hadn’t developed a loathing almost beyond purity towards a chap who used to sit near me. We never spoke; I never knew his name; he might not have been the worst. But for me, he was the tight-jeaned dickhead military historian with shit hair that I needed right then. So, this World Book Day, bring your child to the library. Let them choose whatever book they like, and find them a special chair just for them. And then, a few minutes later, point to someone across the room and whisper “See her? What a douchebag.”


And there you have it! Try any of these cheap and easy activities and your child will be a reader for life. One thing, though: if at any point they become the kind of person who claims to love books because of how they smell, remember you can always do as the Spartans did, and leave them on a mountain to face starvation and wild beasts alone. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a jury in the land who’d convict.


St. David’s Day. Or, ‘every one a Leek upon his Head’.

1 Mar

Happy Saint David’s Day!

If you’re Welsh (or if you habitually bedeck yourself with alliums), you’ll be wearing a leek today. Here’s an early modern explanation of the practice, taken from Guy Miège’s Nouvelle Methode Pour Apprendre L’Anglois (London, 1685) – this comes from a dialogue (in English and in French) between two French emigrants. The author (M) is a Frenchman who’s been living in England for years, and is explaining the many quirks of English behaviour to his newly-arrived compatriot (C). This follows a discussion of the Valentine’s Day practice of stuffing the hatband with a rolled-up piece of paper containing the name of one’s Valentine.

I like this not just because of the curious survival of saints’ days in the service of national tradition, but also because of the lovely image it leaves us with, of Charles II with a leek in his hat.

Dydd gwyl Dewi Sant hapus!


‘M. But you will see a stranger Thing on S. David’s Day, the first of March. Instead of rolled Papers upon the Hat, you will see green Garden Leeks.

C. They are, I suppose, Gardeners that wear ’em, to shew their Joy to the World for the nearness of the Spring.

M. No, you han’t hit it right. Tis a kind of Trophy amongst the Welsh. Their Liberty was once hard at stake; and they must either be victorious, or lose it. In that Extremity they called upon S. David, their Patron, for Help. Armed with Confidence in that Saint, they crossed Fields sowed with Leeks, before they came to engage. Every Souldier took up a Leek, for a mark of Distinction. The Welsh got the Victory. And now, to render both the Action and the Saint immortal, they made a Law amongst themselves, that the Memory of the Thing should be transmitted to all Ages, by wearing that Day every one a Leek upon his Head. Which they do here every one inviolably. The King himself, according to the Custom of his Predecessours, do’s in Compliance of that People, wear that Day a Leek on his Hat. But his is not (you may think) a Garden-Leek. His Majesty has the same Compliance for the Scotch, and the Irish. On S. Andrew’s Day, the Patron of Scotland, the Scotch wear a blew Cross on the fore part of their Hats.The King wears one likewise. Upon S. Patrick’s Day, the Patron of Ireland, the Irish wear, in the Honour of that Saint, a red Cross on one side of their Hats. And, if you be here, you will see the King wear one.’

a Silver Collar about his Neck

19 Feb

From the London Gazette5th January 1687.

‘On the 30th of December last, Run away from Mr. Thomas Dymock at the Lyon Office in the Tower, a black Boy, with about 10 [pounds] in Silver, and one Guinea; he is aged about 16, wore three colored Coats, two grey, his uppermost Cinamon colour, lined with black, black Shagg Facings on the Sleeves, great Stockings, a Silver Collar about his Neck, Engraven, Thomas Dymock at the Lyon Office. Whoever shall apprehend him, and bring him to the Lyon Office in the Tower, shall have two Guinea’s Reward, and Charges born. He speaks but bad English, and hath holes in both his ears.’

A little context here.

An audience with the pope

12 Feb

I’ve got conclave fever, Ted. 

It’s been wall-to-wall papal speculation in the news since Benedict XVI announced yesterday that he’ll be stepping down at the end of the month. If you’re about, I’ll be hosting an evening of drinks, Vatican gossip, and a ceremonial viewing of Angels & Demons. But I digress. 

This is a piece I wrote frighteningly long ago (for a now-defunct blog) about the time I attended a papal audience at Castel Gandolfo. Given the news, it seemed fitting to repost it – though I’ve resisted the urge to edit. Best read with this – naturally – as a soundtrack. I hope you have fun with it. 


Castel Gandolfo’s White Wizard

Something very special happened today. Before I can tell you about it, there’s something I should explain. I might not be a very religious person – a Jehovah’s Bystander at best – but I have a guilty secret.

I love popes.

I have a poster with every pope ever on it. I have a John Paul II snowglobe. I spend a lot of time thinking about who my favourite pope is. Should you care, it’s Leo IX. But it changes often. Popes are just that great.

It’s not a religious thing – it can probably be traced back to the medieval history course I did in first year, taught by the astoundingly brilliant Professor Ian Stuart Robinson. It contained a sizeable chunk of papal history, mainly stuff about the conflict between the Empire and the papacy, and introduced me to some rather ball-breaking popes like Gregory VII who, having declared the would-be emperor Henry IV deposed and excommunicate, watched him do penance barefoot in the snow outside the castle at Canossa for days before he even came close to accepting his apologies. And even then, just two years later he was gleefully prophesying Henry’s death. Then there’s Julius II, who commissioned some of the greatest works of art the world has ever known and led his own troops into battle. These were popes that fought dirty, not hesitating to forge documents or to foment rebellion when saying a Mass wouldn’t quite do the trick. They tried to build up a papacy that held all the power in the world, floating a mighty two fingers at any temporal ruler they chose. It’s impossible to read the history of the papacy and not feel a profound respect for the faith, the conviction, and the sheer bloody-mindedness of these men.

But I digress. Quite a lot. I honestly didn’t start this as a ‘gwan the papacy!’ rant. Rather, I wanted to tell you about today. Today, I saw the pope. That’s right: I saw Saint Peter’s successor. I saw His Holiness. I saw Benny.

We went to Castel Gandolfo, a town in the Alban Hills outside Rome, where the pope has his summer residence, looking out over a beautiful volcanic lake. So we arrived in a rather dinky square early enough in the morning, and it was already filling up with (I’m making up the collective nouns here) a confusion of pilgrims, a formality of priests, and a consternation of nuns. We had a coffee but didn’t rush into the queue. Then, after an hour and a half spent sweating on strangers, being told to shut up by a man annoyed at our singing, screaming school-style at people skipping the queue (I enjoyed shouting ‘Protestants!’ and then ducking under others), and singing folk songs with some very proud Germans from the pope’s home province, we were told the palazzo was full and that we’d have to watch the audience on a big screen. We muttered, swore, and took our places.

The pope employs several MC priests to warm up the crowd – they do the ‘Anyone here from insert country here?’ thing, and the crowd goes wild. Especially the Poles. They brought a brass band.

It was this brass band that gave me one of the happiest moments of my life. Earlier, in the queue, they’d been playing a variety of golden oldies and sacred music. Then, we heard something new. A familiar song. I nodded along to the intro. Was it…? It couldn’t be. Not here. No way. But it was.


Here, outside the pope’s summer residence, the papal flags fluttering and nuns everywhere the eye could see, the world’s favourite gay classic was being blasted out by a hearty Polish brass band. And people were dancing. Little thickets of hands flew up, dancing along with the chorus. Yes, I laughed. But this wasn’t normal laughter. This was knee-bending, fist-clenching, primal laughter, combined with the purest happiness and gratitude for these plucky Poles. Wherever you are tonight, gentlemen, thank you.

So, having failed at the violent free-for-all that is the queue for the audience, we watched from the piazza. And it was great. The man himself gave a homily, spoke in six languages, did some more shout outs, and the crowd went wild. Proper All-Ireland final wild, with people chanting ‘Be-ne-detto’ and waving flags and flustering priests. Pope Benedict XVI also does this wonderful thing – when he welcomes a particular group and goes to bless them, he extends his arms towards them and wiggles his fingers like a magician at a children’s party. It’s amazing. That’s proper blessing. There’s no point in magic words without comic hand-waving, and this pope has both in abundance. He hasn’t forgotten that even Jesus started out as a party entertainer, until he was spotted at the Cana gig and became a star.

A soul-cake, a soul-cake!

2 Nov

Things I learnt this week included that All Souls’ Day isn’t the first of November as I’d thought – that’s All Saints’, or All Hallows’. All Souls’ falls on the second – which, of course, is today.

Something else I learnt – with my customary interest in scholarship that leads, directly or indirectly, to food for me – is that there’s a tradition dating back to well before the Reformation of baking ‘soul cakes’ for All Souls’. These are spiced – with nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and what have you – and were traditionally given out around the second of November to children and beggars who would go from house to house singing for them, or ‘souling’. You can listen to a bit of a souling song here, as sung by The Watersons (who are brilliant). Apparently there’s another version recorded by Sting, but there’s only so much I’m willing to do in the name of research, and listening voluntarily to Newcastle’s favourite tantric lutenist isn’t on the list.

Soul cakes – with their connection to prayers for the dead and to pre-Reformation ritual – could cause trouble in sixteenth-century England. In a pamphlet from 1593 called A motive to good workes; Or rather, to true Christianitie indeede, Elizabethan contrarian and polemicist Philip Stubbs took aim at the old traditions, attacking ‘Friers, Nunns, and Ankresses (which were a sort of secluses, or rather plain prostitute whoores, mued up in cloisters, celles, vautes, and holes, under ground, onely to serue the Monkes, and the Abbots turnes at theyr need, whereof I could give you a thousand instances, if it were not from my purpose)’. These people were criticised not just for their Latin prayers and rosary beads, or for their impressive church vestments, but also for the way in which they would ‘give soule-cakes (for so they shame not to cal them) or rather foole-cakes agaynst all soules daie, for the redemption of all christen soules, as they blasphemously speak’.

Now, I’ve long been an advocate of the kind of cuisine I think of as ‘Ph.D procrastinatory cooking’. Chapter draft getting you down? Make a stew! Reading a bit of a drag? Roast something’s flesh! Book review grinding to a halt? There’s a croquembouche for that… and so forth. So, naturally, I thought it might be fun to make these. There are plenty of recipes around, of course, but who better to go to for an early modern approach than the Folger Shakespeare Library, who provided a delightful recipe here (though they don’t give a source – boo hiss!). Other inspirations in baking from history were the excellent @Millicentsomer, who whips up seventeenth-century delights at The Awl, and my good friend @ChrisKissane, who works on the history of food and once made me the most amazing 16th-century Spanish converso dinner.

Baking, of course, has a lot in common with writing academic history. It requires discipline, attention to detail, and the ability to see complex projects through to the end. Unfortunately – for my baked goods as well as my scholarly endeavours – these are qualities I tend to lack. But heigh-ho, I thought – let’s make some cakes.

Of course, being committed to public engagement with history, I couldn’t forbear to live-tweet the experience. Here’s how it panned out, as seen through the lens of my increasingly buttery, flour-dusted phone.

They’re my ingredients. Now, I wanted to get some saffron, but uttered a strangled cry when I saw the price in my local shop. I asked thrifty food maven The Skint Foodie (read his blog!) how I might go about getting some that wouldn’t break the bank, but he confirmed my fears and told me there isn’t really such a thing as cheap saffron. But I carried on regardless, muttering ‘Have with you to Saffron Walden’ as I stirred.

I spiced my flour and added salt. I creamed my butter and sugar (quiet at the back of the class). I managed to drop some butter on the floor, but threw it back in anyway – authentic, innit. Egg yolks were introduced, got on famously, and – with the help of some warm milk – turned my pile of ingredients into a soft, shiny dough.

Forgive the caption. I get excited quite easily.

The dough made, it was rolled and cut out…

And then, after fifteen minutes in the oven, a quick prayer to St. Honoratus of Amiens (he of the Gateau Saint-Honoré), and some truly heroic washing up, out they came – albeit with one thing missing from the recipe.

So what were they like? Well, I hate to spoil the surprise. But I did take the unusual step of recording my reactions to the first one. You can watch it via the link below – but do note that I’ve yet to perfect my on-screen chewing à la Mary Berry

So there you have it. An All Souls’ Day treat for the penniless Ph.D student in your life. And for the souls of the dead, of course. Though if I’m honest, that lot are useless at the washing up.

Is it research? Is it jokes? No… it’s Bright Club!

1 Nov

So it’s well past my bedtime, and I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a furrowed brow and a kettle on the go. It’s almost as though I’m working on my Ph.D.

Of course, dear readers, you know that couldn’t possibly be the case. What I’m doing here – with my sharpened pencil and my pad of yellow paper* – is writing a set for tomorrow night’s Bright Club.

To loosely paraphrase Saint Teresa of Avila, ‘What in buggery is Bright Club?’ Well, very simply, it’s a kind of comedy club where your comedians are researchers. Tomorrow night, a bunch of us from various Cambridge colleges and departments will stand up in front of a (distinguished, tasteful, attractive) audience and talk about our research for seven minutes or so. It’s kind of like an academic seminar, but with far more jokes and (hopefully) plenty of swearing.

It sounds like it could be dreadful, but more often than not it ends up hilarious.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be talking about the Grand Tour – a period of European travel among rich young men which became a kind of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gap year – and how difficult it gets when you’re trying to write history but the people you’re researching turn out to be colossal bellends. Joining me will be all sorts of awesome people talking about the funniest, nerdy stuff there is, including the frankly hilarious Harry Cliff, the ‘pet particle physicist’ of the Science Museum, who absolutely killed it last time out. I’m excited already.

Since starting to do Bright Club, I’ve seen liquid nitrogen ice-cream made on stage. I’ve seen an optometrist wielding an accordion. I’ve seen a man put the LOL in Large Hadron Collider. (It’s in there. Keep looking.) Come join us tomorrow night and you never know what you might hear.

The gig starts at 7.30pm tomorrow evening in Cambridge’s Portland Arms. You can get tickets here. And in case it sways you, there’s a chipper opposite the venue that sells battered sausages and Bass shandy. Hope to see you there.



*Studies have shown (except they haven’t) that yellow paper makes you at least 400% smarter.