New Year, Old Stuff, Revamped: things in progress

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1. Meet the new project, which also happens to be just about my oldest project: Gender and Defamation in York 1660-1700

The core of this is research I did way back in 1999 for my MA dissertation. It was the first archival research for which I had the use of a laptop, and I spent a couple of months transcribing cause papers in the old Borthwick Institute in the city of York (it nowadays has a much more modern home at the University of York), and creating a “database” of my 100 or so causes using the cutting-edge technology of 5 x 3 index cards.

The standard of the transcriptions was, well, about what you might expect of a student working for the first time in 17th-century legal archives, with a few months of beginners’ Latin and palaeography under her belt, and this put me off doing anything online with them for a long time. But I’ve been thinking about it on and off since the launch of the York Cause Papers Database in 2010 and subsequent mass digitisation of images. I’ve tinkered with the material from time to time, but not made much progress.

So rather than continue to keep it all under wraps until some mythical time in the future when it would be “ready”, I’ve decided to practise what I’ve been known to preach – put it online as a work in progress, and document revisions as I go along . Let’s see if putting it out there unfinished will help motivate me to get on with it at a slightly less glacial pace…

I’ve been following Michelle Moravec’s great ‘Writing in Public’ projects and her commitment ‘to making visible the processes by which history making takes place’. Well, the creation of historical data and digital resources is a process too, one that’s often obscured by the practice of launching finished projects with a great fanfare after months or years under wraps. Over in my paid job on the Digital Panopticon that’s something we’re aiming to avoid (watch this space…). So here goes!

The first stages of the project have involved making a useful resources: putting the causes into a database, linking through to the YCP database, keyword tagging, cross-referencing, and adding some links to background information. I’ve also put the data for the database and those crappy transcriptions on github.

Next steps:

  • get the uncorrected transcriptions into the database
  • start checking/correction (for those that have images available)
  • add more background resources (and integrate my existing defamation bibliography)
  • look at converting the thesis itself into a more web-friendly format, or perhaps turning it into shorter essays

Apart from finally sharing data I created such a long time ago, I hope this little project can do a number of useful things: showcase the York cause papers as a source, provide a useful resource for research into early modern defamation, slander, gossip and reputation, and encourage other researchers to do similar things with their old research stuff.

Record Linkage: project workshop and work in progress

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We’re holding an afternoon workshop on record/data linkage in Sheffield on 4 November. The aim is to explore the challenges and rewards of applying automated nominal record linkage to large-scale historical datasets, with all their variability, fuzziness and uncertainties, but we’d also very much welcome participants and insights from all fields concerned with data linkage including social sciences, health sciences and computer science. In addition to presentations about our work in progress on 90,000 19th-century prisoners and convicts, we have guest speakers who will bring extensive experience of historical record linkage projects to the discussion. It’s free to attend and anyone with an interest, at any stage of their academic career, is welcome (I’d particularly love to see plenty of PhD students!). More info can be found on our website here (and there’s also a programme to download).

Record linkage is really at the heart of the Digital Panopticon project’s goals to explore the impact of the different types of punishments on Old Bailey Online defendants between about 1780 and 1875 (along with working on data visualisations for exploring, presenting and communicating the data and research findings). Our research questions include: How can we improve current record-linkage processes to maximise both the number of individuals linked across different datasets and the amount of information obtained about each individual? What is the minimum amount of contextual information needed in order to conduct successful large-scale record linkage of data pertaining to specific individuals?

I’ve blogged in the past about problems associated with historical record linkage where you don’t have handy unique IDs (like, say, National Insurance numbers): names are often crucial but are highly problematic, and problems with a source like Old Bailey Online that tells us about sentences but not actual punishments. Those are among our biggest headaches with Digital Panopticon.

There are a lot of missing people when we link OBO to transportation records, and a lot of possible reasons for linking to fail. There might be errors in the data created at almost any point between the making of the original source and our production of a specific dataset to feed to the computer: eg, if you’re extracting a London-only subset from a national dataset and you’re not careful, you might also end up with records from Londonderry. Oops. (“You” there is an euphemism for “I”. )

Then there are problems caused by spelling variations in names, or the use of aliases and different names. And the problem of common names. As I blogged before: “How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?” But that gets much worse when the name in question is “Mary Smith”.

And the fails that are due to the gaps in our data: Were they pardoned? Did they die in prison or on the hulks before they could be transported? And so we are on a quest to track down sources that can tell us these things and fill the gaps (not all of which have been digitised; some of which have probably not even survived, especially from the 18th century).

Irreconcilable conflicts can emerge between different sources (eg, different trial dates and places). At this point we have to turn to the specialist knowledge of the project team on how, when and where particular sources were created so we can attempt to rate the relative reliability of two conflicting sources. But how are we going to handle those weightings when we’re dealing with  thousands of people and the links are all probables anyway? (Just because source A is generally more reliable for a certain piece of information than source B doesn’t mean A is always right and B is always wrong if they’re in conflict.)

So there will be plenty to discuss at the workshop and for the next three years!

For tasters of what we’ve been getting up to so far:

Repost: Tyburn’s Martyrs

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[Originally posted here, November 2007]

The criminals went to the place of execution in the following order, Morgan, Webb, and Wolf, in the first cart; Moore in a mourning coach; Wareham and Burk in the second cart; Tilley, Green, and Howell in the third; Lloyd on a sledge; on their arrival at Tyburn they were all put into one cart. They all behaved with seriousness and decency. Mary Green professed her innocence to the last moment of the fact for which she died, cleared Ann Basket, and accused the woman who lodged in the room where the fact was committed. As Judith Tilley appeared under terrible agonies, Mary Green applied herself to her, and said, do not be concerned at this death because it is shameful, for I hope God will have mercy upon our souls; Catharine Howell likewise appeared much dejected, trembled and was under very fearful apprehensions; all the rest seemed to observe an equal conduct, except Moore, who, when near dying, shed a flood of tears. In this manner they took their leave of this transitory life, and are gone to be disposed of as shall seem best pleasing to that all-wise Being who first gave them existence.*

In my research sources before I came to Sheffield, capital punishment appeared fairly infrequently, briefly and usually in the future tense: typically, the marginal note ‘suspendatur’ (abbreviated to sur’ or sr’), ‘to be hanged’. Even those terse notes of an event 300 years old, which quite possibly didn’t happen anyway (as many of those sentenced were reprieved), always disturbed me slightly.

I read the records of homicides and coroners’ inquests – murders, gruesome accidents, negligence and cruelty – and they are distressing and disturbing, yet they don’t evoke quite the same sense of culture shock as do the accounts of executions and ‘Last Dying Speeches’. We aren’t simply talking about the execution of murderers here: in the 18th century burglars, robbers, pickpockets, horse thieves, sheep- and cattle-rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters could all face slow, horrible deaths, in most cases public strangulation, and this was regarded by most people as perfectly normal and civilised. (Indeed, there were those who thought that hanging was not punishment enough.)

In my new job, I’ve spent some time reading Ordinary’s Accounts, which are one of the many sources we’re digitising. These are rich and fascinating sources, full of stories of the lives of common people. But they are also stories of death, and they give me the willies – not least because ordinary, decent, intelligent people in the 18th century had no problem with the idea of pickpockets, shoplifters, burglars, sheep rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters, receiving exactly the same punishment as murderers.

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Andrea McKenzie, since she has written an entire, densely detailed book about the subject and the source: Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England 1675-1775. She must be a tougher soul than me.

In fact, at the very beginning of the book she mentions some of the bemused reactions she received from people learning what her research topic was, including the gentleman who suggested that she should study “something pleasant, like great battles”. Continue reading

Repost: Of cats, rabbits and monstrous births

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[Originally posted here, February 2005.]

A couple of blog posts about monstrous births in the early modern period over the last few days: Natalie at Philobiblon discussing Agnes Bowker (supposedly delivered of a cat-like creature in 1568), and Ephelia on Mary Toft (who was reported to have given birth to a large number of rabbits in 1726). Mary Toft’s case is the better-known, to us at first an amusing tale of a trickster; when we learn that she had genuinely suffered a miscarriage, perhaps a little less so. But there’s a wider cultural context to both cases.

Such stories were commonly reported in print: Cressy’s essay on Agnes Bowker refers to many of them, and there is a further chapter on monstrous births in his book.* He suggests that contemporaries explained them in a range of possible ways: freaks of nature or manifestations of divine power; judgements or punishments against individuals or communities; portents of coming catastrophes, or even of the end of the world. Or they could simply be treated as freak-show entertainment.

Very often, the cases are associated with the widespread belief that what the experiences of a pregnant mother – beautiful or shocking, but most often the latter – could physically imprint themselves on her unborn child. In the case of Mary Toft, it was reported that she

hath made oath, That two months ago, being working in a field with other women, they put up a rabbit; who running from them, they pursued it, but to no purpose: This created in her such a longing to it, that she (being with child) was taken ill, and miscarried; and, from that time, she hath not been able to avoid thinking of rabbits.

(Agnes Bowker, on the other hand, claimed to have had sex with a human lover and with the Devil in the shape of (at various times) a man, a greyhound and a cat. As Natalie says, she was very likely trying to cover up an abortion or infanticide.)

Herman Roodenburg’s detailed study of the phenomenon of the ‘maternal imagination’ in Holland** notes that pregnant women were warned to be particularly careful with animals (strange and frightening or maimed animals seem to have been particularly dangerous); other cases were associated with the sight of human ‘freaks’ at fairs, or mutilated beggars, or black people, or lunatics, with paintings or statutes of grotesque subjects. (Conversely, pregnant women were advised to hang beautiful paintings on their walls in order to have beautiful babies.)

Equally, it was common to see these events as manifestations of divine power, even in providentialist terms, as punishments for a community’s sins, or warnings of greater punishments to come if the population did not repent and reform. In the case of Agnes Bowker in 1568, it was a matter of considerable concern to government ministers that her case could be used by Catholic propagandists to undermine the still rather shaky Protestant regime of Elizabeth I.

By the 1720s, Mary Toft could still convince doctors (to begin with), and the possibility was accepted. Even before doubts crept in, there was controversy, although in terms rather different to those used during the 16th century.

People, after all, differ much in their opinion about this matter, some looking upon them as great curiosities fit to be presented to the Royal Society, &c. others are angry at the account, and say, that if it be fact, a veil should be drawn over it, as an imperfection in humane nature.

And within a few weeks, there were severe doubts about the truth of the story, Mary confessed, and a fraud prosecution was initiated (although she was released later without being tried). Even so, she still had her believers, at least among those who still saw such births in political and providential terms; and such beliefs did not really die out until at least the 19th century.

[links have not been recently checked]

Monstrous births
Monsters and prodigies (no longer available: Wayback)
Monstrous children in English Renaissance broadside ballads
Mary Toft and the rabbit babies
A cabinet of curiosities: Mary Toft
The rabbit woman (contemporary newspaper reports: the Mary Toft-related quotes above are taken from this page)
A wondrous tale: Agnes Bowker (extracts from the primary sources)
Early modern pregnancy and childbirth bibliography

………….

* David Cressy, Agnes Bowker’s cat: travesties and transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 2000).
** Herman W Roodenburg, ‘The maternal imagination: the fears of pregnant women in seventeenth-century Holland’, Journal of Social History, ?, 1988.

Repost: Archive fever

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[Originally posted here (June 2005), in a series of posts on ‘Archive fever‘.]

I haven’t actually read Jacques Derrida’s Archive fever (Mal d’archive). But I have read Carolyn Steedman’s Dust, which mentions it (and I think this was at the back of my mind when I began to type the title for my posts about this summer’s research). For Derrida, if I have Steedman right, Archive Fever is really a kind of desire: “the desire to recover moments of inception: to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”… (Steedman, p. 5)

But Steedman takes us into other possible manifestations of Archive Fever.

Typically, the fever – more accurately, the precursor fever – starts in the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the historian cannot get to sleep. You cannot get to sleep because you lie so narrowly, in an attempt to avoid contact with anything that isn’t shielded by sheets and pillowcases. The first sign then, is an excessive attention to the bed, an irresistible anxiety about the hundreds who have slept there before you, leaving their dust and fibres in the fibres of the blankets… (p. 17)

(Oh, that passage brought flooding back the memories of a place where I stayed a few years ago. The problem was not wondering about previous human occupants of the bed, though. It was the much smaller occupants that were still there that were the trouble. I still don’t know precisely what they were, but either they or something else in the bed brought me out in hives, something I’ve never experienced before or since. So, no, I did not get too much sleep.)

Or the feverish anxiety of the penultimate day in the record office:

You know you will not finish, that there will be something left unread, unnoted, untranscribed. You are not anxious about the Great Unfinished, knowledge of which is the very condition of your being there in the first place, and of the grubby trade you set out in, years ago. You know perfectly well that the infinite heaps of things they recorded, the notes and traces that these people left behind, constitute practically nothing at all… Your anxiety is more precise, and more prosaic. It’s about PT S2/1/1, which only arrived from the stacks that afternoon, which is enormous, and which you will never get through tomorrow. (p.18)

Or even the possibility of real, actual fever. It is not particularly reassuring to learn that the archive could be seriously bad for your health (anthrax-related meningitis?!). Exaggeration? Yet I already know that archives (pre-20th-century, anyway) make you sneeze. And that those old papers and parchments leave their black marks on your fingers (unless you bag yourself some gloves) and your clothes (don’t wear white in an archive. There are smudgy blackish fingerprints on my silvery laptop, too). You watch the dust rise; you mark the passing of the researcher by the little scattering of fragments of fragile paper and rotting leather and red sealing wax (those 400-year-old seals on legal documents are often simply crumbling away).

There is always someone just across from you who has a cold, which you hope fervently that you won’t catch this time. And you get the headaches that come from squinting at near-illegible handwriting… and let’s not start on the backache, often helped along by badly designed chairs. Plus, why is it that archives are either freezing cold (good for the documents, but not so much for the humans) or hot and stuffy (the budget didn’t stretch to decent airconditioning, but it did cover all those new computer terminals blowing out hot air… NLW, I’m talking to you here)?

Still, at least this summer I’m at home for my sickness. My own bed and food, no travelling, just a nice brisk walk up the hill (I hated the commuting to the PRO last year!) to settle at a desk and continue the love-hate relationship with what I do.

I say love-hate because it’s an experience of extremes: it swings between utter boredom and an overwhelming desire to pack it in NOW (several times a day, usually), to the rising excitement of the latest find – it can be something entirely unexpected, or corroboration of something you’ve already begun to suspect, or funny, or sad. But it’s never just so-so, never just another job. If it were, who’d put up with all the discomforts and the frustrations and the crappy bits?

And back to Steedman’s book, which is one that should be read by all historians. And since I have work to get back to today (but a little break from the archives; I have to get on with working on some future teaching materials and planning future courses to impress potential employers next year), I’ll just let her sign off for me.

And nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught half way through: the middle of things; discontinuities. (p.45)

(I wish I’d remembered that quote when I was posting about disputes over livestock the other week…)

But in actual Archives, though the bundles may be mountainous, there isn’t in fact, very much there. […] The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and just ended up there. […]

The modern European public archive came into being in order to solidify and memorialise first monarchical and then state power. […] These are the origins of a prosaic place where the written and fragmentary traces of the past are put in boxes and folders, bound up, stored, catalogued …

And: the Archive is also a place of dreams. […]

To enter that place where the past lives, where ink on parchment can be made to speak, still remains the social historian’s dream, of bringing to life those who do not for the main part exist, not even between the lines of state papers and legal documents, who are not really present, not even in the records of Revolutionary bodies and fractions. (pp.68-70)

Repost: George’s choice: an 18th-century convict and a medical experiment

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Originally posted here (February 2008)

Last November, I dashed off a quick post about someone I’d encountered in an Ordinary’s Account: It’s Your Neck or Your Arm

On the evening before execution, a respite of 14 days was brought for George Chippendale, and to be continued, if within that time he shall submit to suffer the amputation of a limb, in order to try the efficacy of a new-invented styptic for stopping the blood-vessels, instead of the present more painful practice in such cases. For this indulgence, he, together with his brother and his uncle, had joined in a petition to his Majesty, and thankfully accepted it, appearing in good health and spirits, ready and chearful to undergo the experiment. (Ordinary’s Account, May 1763.)

Well, I got at least one important thing wrong, anyway. It wasn’t George’s arm that was, er, on the block. It was his leg.

How do I know this? Well, by sheer chance, a few weeks after I posted that, I got an email query at work, from a family historian who was searching for a George Clippingdale in the Old Bailey Proceedings. The problem was that the OBP reporters (unlike most other sources the researcher had consulted) spelt his surname Chippendale. (Spelling variations are not an uncommon problem in 18th-century sources, as I’ve mentioned here before.)

So, we got that sorted out, and that would normally have been the end of it. But then the researcher happened to mention that his George was reprieved from a death sentence because a surgeon wanted to use him in an experiment.

At which point, I thought ‘Hang on a minute… that sounds familiar’, and came over here and checked my earlier post. And it’s the same man!

Naturally, of course, I had to write back with a barrage of questions. And the researcher was kind and generous enough to send me his write-up of everything he’d found out about George – and to agree to let me tell you lot about it.

(But I warn you, there’s a sad ending.)

Continue reading