Family, Friends and Gifts: Bess of Hardwick’s Correspondents

For today’s post, I’ve chosen four letters written to Bess of Hardwick by female relatives and friends of varying ages and status, revisiting the themes of material culture and gift-giving in Magdalen Lloyd’s letters but in a very different social context. Food and textiles were particularly common gifts between early modern women. Moreover, gift-exchange was a key element in Tudor elite political patronage as well as social relationships, and receiving gifts well was just as important as giving them.

Lady Frances Pierrepont, Bess’s daughter sends Bess linen and a drinking glass [c.1575]

my most humble duty done vnto your honour with lyke desire of your blesinge vnto master pierrepont and me and our cheldren/ I haue sent vnto your honoure a peece of lawne and a drinckinge glasse as a remembrance of my intyre louynge dutie/ with most hartie wishe of manye happye newe yeares vnto your honoure then the wiche no yearthlye thinge can be more to my comforthe for I am soe muche and many wayse bounde vnto you as none can be more and so neare vnto you as none can be nearar that your longe and most happy lyfe is the graytest ioye in the wich I besecche the allmyghtye to grannte yow with all the rest of his best blessinges and so I humble tak my leue from holme thes wensdaye…

Elizabeth Wingfield, Bess’s half-sister, on gifts of clothing Bess sent to the queen [1576?]

my humbil duty remembred yow honour shall know that after my cousin wilame and my carefull toyll by reason of the shurt tyme we haue reped such recompence as could not dissire better furst her majesty neuer liked any thinge you gaue her so well the color and strange triminge of the garments with the reche and grat cost bestowed vpon yt hath caused her to geue out such good speches of my lord and yow ladyship as I neuer hard of better she toulde my lord of Lester and my lord chamberlen that you had geuen her such garments thys yere as she neuer had any so well lyked her/ and sayd that good nobell copell the show in al things what loue the bere me and surely my lord I wyll not be found unthankefull/ if my lord and yow ladyship had geuen v hundrd pound in my opennon yt would not haue bene so well taken/ and for yow other thinge my cousins william and charls wyll geue yow ladyship full aduertysment but surely in generall al was so well and thankefuly taken as ys posibell with master aturnoye and hys wyues most humbill duty/ and now I humbely pray yow honour that I may reseaue the rest of the money I haue received lli and haue promised payment for the rest with spede and so I beseche the almighty to make the rest of my very good lorde and yow ladyship’s yeres as prossorous as thys beginynge so with my humbill prayer to god for you and all yours I end with my humbill duty thys ij Ienouory…

Elizabeth Smyth, mother to a goddaughter of Bess, thanks Bess for a gift of a bowl with a cover (1578)

My moste honorabel good Lady; I thought it my duty to sende to geue your honor humbel thanckes; that it would please you to acseppte of parte of my lettel one, so that therby your honor hath bownde bothe me and myne; if it please god to blese her with liue; to do you seruise; For I haue allwayes founde your honor so lyke a Mother vnto my selfe; that it made me presume to geue your Ladyship parte of my Childe; I haue reseued frome master Hamond a Boule with a couer; for the whiche I moste humbely thancke your honor in my gerles behalfe; Thus moste humbely Crauinge pardon for this my bowldnes: and geueinge your honor humbel thanckes for all your fauors contenually bestowed apoune me; desiering no longer to liue then I shall by all meanes sycke to deserue the same besehinge your honor to remember my humbel duty to my Honorable Good Lord; I most humbely take my leaue: prainge to god for the increase of all honor and happynes to you bothe…

Arbella Stuart, Bess’s 12-year old granddaughter, sends Bess some strands of her hair and a pot of jelly (1588)

To the right honorable, my very good Lady, and Grandmother, the Countesse of Shrewsbury

Good Lady Grandmother, I haue sent your Ladyship, the endes of my heare which were cutt the sixt day of the moone, on saterday laste; & with them, a pott of Gelly, which my seruante made; I pray God you finde it good. My Aunte Cauendishe was heere on Monday laste, she certified me, of your Ladyships good health, & dispositione, which I pray God longe to continue. I am in good health, my Cousin Mary hath had three little fittes of an agew, butt now she is well, and mery. Thus with my humble duty vnto your Ladyship & humble thanckes for the token you sent me laste, and craueinge your dayly blessinge, I humbly Ceasse. Frome Eims, the .viii. of February. 1587

Your Ladyships humble, and obbediente childe
Arbella Steward

  • Letters from the website Bess of Hardwick’s Letters
  • EMLO also includes the correspondence, with a wider range of search options (including the facility to search by gender of correspondent).
  • Felicity Heal on The Power of Gifts in early modern England
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Magdalen Lloyd (late 17th century): on money, family, and gift horses

For Women’s History Month 2017: Who was Magdalen Lloyd? A good question. All I know of her is from 26 letters she wrote during the 1670s and 1680s, from various addresses in Denbighshire and London, to her “cousin” Thomas Edwards, an agent of the Chirk family at Chirk Castle. Magdalen worked as a maidservant in London for several years in the 1670s before returning home to Denbighshire. Her letters are filled with everyday gossip and anxieties and aspirations, rare survivals which I’ve loved since I first came across them during my PhD research.

The three letters here cover her pre-occupations with money and getting a better job (the wage she mentions seems fairly average [see p.188 here]), her cares for her family (especially her mother) in Wales, and also the idiosyncrasies of her spelling and punctuation. I haven’t modernized the transcriptions: deciphering them is half the, errrm, fun.

Magdalen Lloyd to Thomas Edwards, Wrexham, 13 November 1675 [NLW CC E3348]

Good cosen
My humbul servis presented unto you I desire ye favor of you yt you will be plest to lend mee 10 s shillings with the berare that I may give my goone to be be made my mother send mee 10 shilling after yu wear att Palley celyn she could not help mee of any more att present ther will goe for trimings to make it 9 s or 10 shilling and for the makeing of it ther will goe 8s at lest and for ye rest I will by a pare of shous for I want them very much pray good cosen help mee this time and I hope I shall not trobull you for any mony to gett me close as long as I shall contynue in Wrexham for in deed I was very bare of klose when I cam hear I men of klos fit for me to goe to sirvis but I am very well furnis now I pray God reward you for mee I hope in God my mother can have som way to bay all yt you are plest to lend me with my prayers with you as long as I live forom
your obleged cosen
and thankfull Magdalen Lloyd

Magdalen Lloyd to Thomas Edwards, London 12 June 1676 [NLW CC E6210]

Ever honord cos:
I have recived your kind letter wch I render you many thanks for your care about mee I hope in my God I shall be able to recompens soon of your kindness yt you wear plest to shwee unto mee in time of need wch I shall ever acknowleg as long as I live dear cos I hope Mr Thomas hath aquaint you yt I went to a place indeed dear cos I doe not like it very well it is not for any work yt I doe mislike it but I will not part with it til I hear of a better all ye profit I shall have I shall be fitter for a better my wages is but 3 pound ten shillings indeed Mr Thomas taks great care about mee hee came to bring me to ye place if I had bin his sister he could not doe more for me conserning a place indeed he is very faithfull to you ther was not wan night as long as I have bin ther but he tokes of you and drink to your health and wis you to bee with him hee gave me 2 pound ten shillings to by cols I was very loth to take soe much after you went in soe much charity about me I hope yt you shall not lous a peny of all yt you gave me pray good cos satisfie Mr Thomas for his mony I make soe bould as to give cos Ed is letter in yours this time for I sent to letters for her to Dembis but I understand by ye letter yt I had lost in cek[?] is of ye humble servis of her yt is your ever thankfull cos to pray with you
M Ll

Magdalen Lloyd to Thomas Edwards, [London] May Day 1680 [NLW CC E3731]

Honrd cos:
I give you many thanks for your kindness in sending mee a hors: mrs and her husband was gon: about 10 mile to live from London soe that I had not your letter in a week for ye hors was att ye inn 8 days a fore I hard of [i]t: I have put him in a stable in ye littill town whear my ould mrs lived in hee is weell looked to for I doe not lett him want for heae and oats I am a frayd ye have wronged him in coming for his eys runs: and hee yt looks to him tells mee: yt hee will bee blind hee canot see with wan eye ye perswayd mee that hee can never cary mee down but I hope hee will mend now hee is soe carefull looked to: I have bought mee a sadle: I am afrayd I canot gett company till ye later yend of ye term but as soon as I can have company I will sett out for ye contry I shall writ to you afore then: I am att London and shall bee till I goe to ye contry as for parting with my place Mr Thomas can satisfy you for I beelive I shall truble them if I can understand thay my caus is good the wod not a parted with mee by all mean but ye know ye reson: I am sory I have bin soe true to them in my mrs life time: as for a place I doe not fear in ye least I pray God send mee my health: pray good cos send this letter to cos Ed as soon as you recd it that cos Ed may writ to mee the very next post for I am to by some things haveing noe more: but my dayly prayers: for your care of me and I hope God will bless you what you have don for mee
M Ll
Pray lett mee know if my mother is well

The letters are held in the Chirk Castle archives at the National Library of Wales. The Chirk Castle archives are massive and wide-ranging, but have not been digitised as far as I know, though the correspondence is catalogued. (If you’re interested in seeing more of the letters, I have transcriptions…). This recent article in Wales Online gives a broader overview of Magdalen’s experiences from her letters.

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Mary Prince (1788-c.1833): on slavery and freedom

For Women’s History Month 2017: Mary Prince was a West Indian slave who freed herself from slavery in England and subsequently narrated her life story to an English woman.

On the break-up of her family after the death of her first master:

Our mother, weeping as she went, called me away with the children Hannah and Dinah, and we took the road that led to Hamble Town, which we reached about four o’clock in the afternoon. We followed my mother to the market-place, where she placed us in a row against a large house, with our backs to the wall and our arms folded across our breasts. I, as the eldest, stood first, Hannah next to me, then Dinah; and our mother stood beside, crying over us. My heart throbbed with grief and terror so violently, that I pressed my hands quite tightly across my breast, but I could not keep it still, and it continued to leap as though it would burst out of my body. But who cared for that? Did one of the many by-standers, who were looking at us so carelessly, think of the pain that wrung the hearts of the negro woman and her young ones? No, no! They were not all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us aloud, without regard to our grief–though their light words fell like cayenne on the fresh wounds of our hearts. Oh those white people have small hearts who can only feel for themselves.

At length the vendue master, who was to offer us for sale like sheep or cattle, arrived, and asked my mother which was the eldest. She said nothing, but pointed to me. He took me by the hand, and led me out into the middle of the street, and, turning me slowly round, exposed me to the view of those who attended the vendue. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words–as if I could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beasts. I was then put up to sale. The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven, when I was knocked down to the highest bidder; and the people who stood by said that I had fetched a great sum for so young a slave.

I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners: so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep up a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing. [p.4]

On slave-owners claims that slaves are happy and well cared for:

They tie up slaves like hogs–moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged;–and yet they come home and say, and make some good people believe, that slaves don’t want to get out of slavery. But they put a cloak about the truth. It is not so. All slaves want to be free–to be free is very sweet. I will say the truth to English people who may read this history that my good friend, Miss S—-, is now writing down for me. I have been a slave myself–I know what slaves feel–I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery–that they don’t want to be free–that man is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so. I never heard a Buckra man say so, till I heard tell of it in England. Such people ought to be ashamed of themselves. They can’t do without slaves, they say. What’s the reason they can’t do without slaves as well as in England? No slaves here–no whips–no stocks–no punishment, except for wicked people. They hire servants in England; and if they don’t like them, they send them away: they can’t lick them. Let them work ever so hard in England, they are far better off than slaves. If they get a bad master, they give warning and go hire to another. They have their liberty. That’s just what we want. We don’t mind hard work, if we had proper treatment, and proper wages like English servants, and proper time given in the week to keep us from breaking the Sabbath. But they won’t give it: they will have work–work–work, night and day, sick or well, till we are quite done up; and we must not speak up nor look amiss, however much we be abused. And then when we are quite done up, who cares for us, more than for a lame horse? This is slavery. I tell it, to let English people know the truth; and I hope they will never leave off to pray God, and call loud to the great King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery done up for evermore. [p.23]

Documenting the American South: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (1831)

British Library: British Slave Narratives

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Alice Thornton (1627-1707): on childbirth and Providence

For Women’s History Month 2017: Alice Thornton was a seventeenth-century Yorkshire gentlewoman who wrote extensive memoirs of her life and travails.

On the birth and illness of Alice’s eldest daughter Alice (‘Naly’), 1654-55

It was the pleasure of God to give me but a weak time affter my daughter Alice her birth, and she had many preservations from death in the first yeare, beeing one night delivered from beeing overlaide by her nurse, who laid in my deare mother’s chamber a good while. One night my mother was writing pretty late, and she heard my deare child make a groneing troublsomly, and steping immeadiatly to nurrse’s bed side she saw the nurse fallen asleepe, with her breast in the childe’s mouth, and lyeing over the childe ; at which she, beeing affrighted, pulled the nurse sudainly of from her, and soe preserved my deare childe from beeing smothered.

Affter I was delivered, and in my weary bed and very weake, it fell out that my little daughter Alice, beeing then newly weaned, and about a yeare old, beeing asleepe in one cradle and the young infant in annother, she fell into a most desperate fitt, of the convultions as suposed to be, her breath stoped, grew blacke in her face, which sore frighted her maide Jane Flouer. She tooke her up immeadiatly, and with the helpe of the midwife, Jane Rimer, to open her teeth and to bring her to life againe. Butt still, affterwards, noe sooner that she was out of one fitt but fell into annother fitt, and the remidies could be by my deare mother and aunt Norton could scarce keepe her alive, she having at least twenty fitts; all freinds expecting when she should have died. … These extreamitys did soe lessen my milke, that tho’ I began to recrute strength, yet I must be subject to the changes of my condittion. Affter my deare Naly was in most miraculous mercy restored to me the next day, and recruted my strength; within a fortnight I recovred my milke, and was overjoyed to give my sweete Betty suck, which I did, and began to recover to a miracle, blessed be my great and gracious Lord God, Who remembred mercy towards me. [pp. 91-92]

On the birth of Alice’s first son in 1657

It pleased God, in much mercy, to restore me to strength to goe to my full time, my labour begining three daies; but upon the Wednesday, the ninth of December, I fell into exceeding sharpe travill in great extreamity, so that the midwife did beleive I should be delivered soone. But loe! it fell out contrary, for the childe staied in the birth, and came crosse with his feete first, and in this condition contineued till Thursday morning betweene two and three a clocke, at which time I was upon the racke in bearing my childe with such exquisitt torment, as if each lime weare divided from other, for the space of two houers; when att length, beeing speechlesse and breathlesse, I was, by the infinitt providence of God, in great mercy delivered. But I having had such sore travell in danger of my life soe long, and the childe comeing into the world with his feete first, caused the childe to be allmost strangled in the birth, only liveing about halfe an houer, so died before we could gett a minister to baptize him, although he was sent for. [p.95]

Internet Archive: The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, of East Newton, Co. York, ed. by C.Jackson (1875)
See also the recent modern edition of Alice’s autobiography, My First Booke of My Life, edited by Raymond Anselment (£, but much fuller than the 19th-century edition).

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Women’s History Month 2017: Early Modern Women’s Voices

For Women’s History Month this year I’m doing a series of posts highlighting primary sources of women’s writings and voices (in English or translated into English) between the 16th and early 19th centuries. There will be autobiographical writings, letters, archival sources. Some may be familiar, others (hopefully!) less so; wherever possible the sources will be freely available online (though they may be in less than satisfactory editions).

The first will appear tomorrow (no spoilers, but anyone who knows me won’t be too surprised by the subject…), and then there’ll be a post every two or three days – should be about a dozen in total. I’ll finish up the month with a round-up of women and sources I found which I liked but didn’t quite make it into the series. (They’ll be tagged whm17.)

If you think that women’s history is something to be celebrated every month, I agree! But I like to do something extra in March, because it gives me an opportunity to seek out and share new online resources, and find women (and historians writing about women) who I didn’t know about before. And if you want more, you could:

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The London Lives Petitions Project: What can you do with 10,000 18th-century petitions?

A very late note that I blogged about my petitions over at the many-headed monster in November 2016.

the many-headed monster

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Sharon Howard, an early modern historian and a project manager at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield. Here she shows how use of a digital ‘macroscope’ can both reveal the changing nature of local petitioning in eighteenth-century London and make these documents more easily available to anyone with an interest in this important set of sources.

Last year at the Voices of the People symposium, Brodie Waddell argued the importance of amplifying the voices of the people through digitisation and online access. This, along with another symposium post by Jonathan Healey on petitions, got me thinking about the petitions addressed to magistrates in the voluminous records of eighteenth-century London and Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, which were digitised several years ago by the London Lives project.

Although already digital, these petitions have…

View original post 1,743 more words

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‘I fear ye man is lost’

A sad traveller’s tale from early 18th-century Denbigh, occasioned by this tweet:

In September 1726 the Denbigh coroner Thomas Lloyd, held an inquest and examined witnesses concerning the death of John Davies of Oswestry, gentleman. The jury brought in a verdict of misadventure.

John Myddelton of Denbigh, feltmaker:

saith that whilst he stood att the tyth barn near Astrad Bridge within the sd burrough on the afsd day, he saw the sd decedt John Davies on horse back comeing up to the sd bridge and immediatly observd the sd horse as the sd examinant apprehended to make a stand as if he started att something that appeard before him & upon the sd John Davies giveing him a stroke with his whip to go forwards the sd horse made over the battlements of ye sd bridge whereupon the sd examinant called to one William Hughes who stood near him to go to the sd bridge saying I fear ye man is lost and as soon as  the sd examinant and ye sd William Hughes came to ye place they found the sd John Davies and his horse lyeing dead on ye ground under the sd bridge wch was occasion by the fall afsd

William Hughes of Denbigh, labourer:

saith upon oath that being called upon by the former examinant to go immediatly to the assistance of the decedt John Davies as he was seen to fall off the battlements of Astrad Bridge afsd this examinant ran with the other examinant to the sd bridge and found the sd John Davies and his horse lyeing dead on the ground under the sd bridge the water being att that time very low.

Source: National Library of Wales, GS 4/43/10.

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Remixing and Remaking Digital History: the London Lives Petitions

For those of you who like such things, this post explores the rationale and methodology for my work on London Lives Petitions: it’s a revised/extended version of my paper at the Digital Humanities Congress, September 2016, in the session on Adding Value: Challenging Practical and Philosophical Assumptions in the Digitisation of Historical Sources. You can also find the slides here (pdf).


If there’s one assumption I’d like to challenge here, it’d be that the digitisation of historical sources is all about this sort of thing:

some websites

Working on massive online history resources (Old Bailey Online, London Lives, Connected Histories, The Digital Panopticon, et al) has been keeping me occupied for the last 10 years; I very much like that state of affairs and I believe deeply in the importance of the work my colleagues and collaborators and I do at the Humanities Research Institute. But I also believe that online resources are just one facet of the digitisation of history. Our work should be a beginning, part of ongoing dialogues, adaptations and conversions, not the final word.

The good news is that both Old Bailey Online and London Lives data have been getting remixed almost as long as they’ve existed. For example, they were included in the federated search project Connected Histories, the GIS project Locating London’s Past, and in our current, massive record linkage project Digital Panopticon. And not just by us: there is the Old Bailey Corpus, and Old Bailey Online is also in the federated search sites 18thConnect and NINES. It’s also recently started attracting the attention of mathematicians and statisticians and this year has been used as a resource in a course on Scalable Data Science.

Re-use of the London Lives data outside our own domain is much less extensive, but parts of it have been used by Adam Crymble, Tim Hitchcock and Louise Falcini for a project and dataset on 18th-century vagrant lives (which we’re including in Digital Panopticon). And in fact it was their project and approach to data sharing that really got me thinking about the possibilities of remixing London Lives data on a smaller scale than our huge collaborative (and hugely funded) projects: extracting and reshaping sub-sets of data that are more manageable but nonetheless too large (tens of thousands of records rather than hundreds or low thousands) to work with entirely by hand. The London Lives Petitions Project (hereafter LLPP) is one of the results.

London Lives

London Lives is a major digital edition of a range of primary sources about eighteenth-century London, with a particular focus on the poor and crime. The project’s approach to digitisation was designed around an explicit research agenda: to foreground the lives and experiences of non-elite people and to de-emphasise institutions. More practically, the scale of the enterprise necessitated a pretty single-minded discipline to get it done. Of course we aimed to create a resource with more general usefulness, but those were the key conceptual and material factors underpinning source selection and setting the priorities for how sources would be digitised.

That meant: full text transcription followed by marking up in XML to make specific things searchable: the names of people and places, dates and occupations or social status, to facilitate nominal record linkage. And not (for example): paying detailed attention to institutional categories or structures, or cataloguing documents as archivists might do.

The result is a website (as the name suggests) that makes it easy to look for people, link together records about an individual’s life and even group related people together. But it can be harder to use for subjects that are related by other categories or themes. The keyword search is basic; there are no features to save and link, say, documents or places rather than names.

Also, the emphasis is on human judgment to make those links, and to answer questions like: what kind of person is this; how does this tagged name relate to other potentially relevant pieces of information in its vicinity? It’s been hard work to convert London Lives data for use in Digital Panopticon, which needs heavily structured name data for record linkage. So in the last couple of years we’ve been thinking a lot about ways to restructure, enhance, and build on the work we began a decade ago.

The other thing to note about London Lives is that we had to put a range of different kinds of records into a single framework, and some fitted better than others. Many of the records were bound volumes, coherent institutional products – registers, minute books, accounts, etc. A register for example is already quite structured, even when not tabular in layout; there is little ‘narrative’ language and you know what kind of info will appear where on each page.

But then there are the Sessions Papers.

18th-century Sessions of the Peace, presided over by magistrates, oversaw a wide range of administrative work in addition to criminal justice, including poor relief, trade and work regulations. They sat several times a year and after each meeting, the clerks would file assorted stuff from that session’s business into bundles that, ultimately, add up to a massive body of very diverse records. From three London courts (Middlesex, City of London and Westminster), London Lives has around 1250 session files (950 from the Middlesex Sessions, dwarfing all the rest) amounting to 86,000 document images, which include lists and calendars, witness examinations, petitions, court orders, accounts, and all sorts of miscellanea. (The Old Bailey Sessions Papers add another 13000 or so images but only about 20 petitions.)

Finding Petitions

Petitions are among the most common documents in those files: as it turns out, around 10,000 of them. Why are petitions interesting? The humble petition was everywhere in early modern Europe. Petitions were instigated by institutions, by groups, and by individuals, by elites and by paupers, and all sorts of people in between, direct appeals to powerful institutions or individuals to resolve a grievance or crisis. So they tell stories about lives and experiences; they aim to persuade, often to play off one source of authority against another. (work in progress bibliography)

The surviving documents are in many ways a pale shadow of the original interaction; we usually don’t know who actually wrote them, or how the voices of the petitioners might be filtered and mediated. Nonetheless, they have something to tell us about the agency of the governed and their relationships with and expectations of governments.

But also petitioners’ stories, however creative, had to conform to some formal conventions, employ certain forms of language. As a result, petitions form a potentially meaningful and findable textual corpus – if I could find the right strategies.

Just one example to underline why searching the London Lives website wouldn’t be that strategy (quite apart from scale!).

A keyword search of London Lives for ‘petition’ in Middlesex Sessions in the year 1690 returns 8 results, including 2 documents that are not petitions (although they are related). But the same keyword search and constraints in the current version of the LLPP dataset finds 11 petitions. And in total there are 66 petitions from Middlesex Sessions in that year.



[Confession time: I screwed up this example in the presentation; I said the total in LLPP for MiddS+1690 was 11, rather than 66. I somehow managed to forget the 11 results were only those including ‘petition’. Which is quite some difference. I thought it seemed low at the time…]

Why does the search miss so many? Many London Lives documents contain spelling variations, abbreviations, and not a few rekeying errors (which are not quite like OCR errors, but can cause similar problems for machine-readability). In fact, about one third of the LLPP petitions overall don’t contain a text string spelled ‘petition‘ at all. Others do, but only as part of a longer word (‘petitioner’, etc), which the London Lives search would only find with a wildcard search (which is unavailable at the time of writing).

I put the texts into the neat little linguists’ concordancing tool Antconc to get a wordlist, which indicates there are, in total, several hundred possible variants of words with the stem ‘petition’. In fact it’s not really as bad as that suggests, since there are a small number of particularly common forms (and often a petition text will contain slightly varying repetitions, so at least one of the common forms is likely to occur somewhere). The two endings -tion or -con will find 90-95% of petitions. So, I could handle this particular issue without too much trouble by searching with regular expressions.

But unfortunately that doesn’t deal with the problem of false positives. Many pages in the Sessions Papers that are not petitions contain ‘petition’ in some form: in fact if I simply search the entire Sessions Papers for ‘petition’ or ‘peticon’, my search will return more than 5000 pages that are not actually petitions (or in some cases, are continuation pages of multi-page petitions).

Keyword searching, extended with regular expressions, was a useful starting point for exploration, and it also highlighted just how many related documents the SPs actually contain – more than I think I’d realised. But I would obviously need a slightly smarter approach to identifying petitions.

So here’s a pretty typical petition, highlighting the formula parts of the document around the actual complaint of this petitioner. [I’ve already discussed how they work rhetorically in this earlier blog post but here I’m thinking about how they function as markers of document structure.]

Jane Browne's petition,

Jane Browne’s petition (1691), LL: LSMSPS500100091

The example shows the elements or markers that are common to petitions (notwithstanding various minor spelling/word order variations) and aid both identification and location of start and end of the petition itself when there can be various annotations before and afterwards, including signatures:

  1. start (1): “To The Right Honourable/Worshipful/similar title…” [After “to the”, this line can be very variable; and also it’s quite often missing or damaged]
  2. start (2): “The humble petition of” [appears in the majority of petitions; ‘humble’ is sometimes omitted, and there can be a lot of small but annoying spelling variations]
  3. start of the main body of petition: “Humbly Sheweth that” (again, ‘humbly’ is optional).
  4. additionally, it’s worth noting that in the body of the text petitioners almost always refer to themselves in third person: “your (humble/poor) petitioner(s)”. ‘Humble’ and ‘humbly’ will appear somewhere along the line.
  5. the ubiquitous ending (though again it can have quite a lot of small variations): “And your petitioner(s) (as in duty bound) shall ever pray etc

So there’s plenty there to track them down much more reliably (and, moreover, to identify their component parts), making it possible to let the computer find the bulk of easy ‘typical’ petitions and definite ‘not’ petitions, leaving a smaller set of ‘maybes’ for more manual sifting: a few hundred, rather than several thousand.

And there are plenty of petitions that depart from the “typical” model to some degree: they might omit, or truncate, some of the expected conventions, use particularly idiosyncratic or archaic spellings, or have been penned by scribes whose handwriting was less than fluent (which is in turn likely to affect accuracy of rekeying).

Loyal readers of this blog may recognise this example:

The petition of Ester Cutler (1715). LL LMSMPS501460090

Ester Cutler’s petition (1715). LL LMSMPS501460090

(The phonetic “sh” spelling in petitioner is really unusual: it appears in just 8 petitions in LLPP. The entire petition is full of equally unusual spellings, and I’m pretty sure Ester wrote her own petition – the signature matches the rest – which is also very rare.)

In the end, the “non-typical” only amount to around 4-5% of petitions. But they are a little different from the rest. They skew towards the first half (and possibly the first quarter) of the 18th century (as do variant spellings of ‘petition’), and towards petitioners I’m particularly interested in, lower-status individuals and women. Not perhaps by much: women make up 20% of identifiable petitioners in the ‘typical’ 95%, and 25% in the non-typical 5%; a small number overall, but for me, doing women’s history, finding those extra 100-odd women, like Ester, is quite a big deal.

Besides, at the very beginning, it wasn’t clear just how many non-typical petitions there would be – it could have been nearer 5000 than 500 (mind you, then I’d have been looking for a different method!). But it didn’t take long to establish that they would be a relatively small number, and I do think that in a different context – if this work had been part of a much larger project working to tight deadlines – it would be a valid decision not to spend substantial amounts of time sifting manually to find those hard cases – as long as you were transparent about your methods and their limitations. But for my own purposes, and my own satisfaction, I could weigh up that choice differently – as long as I remember that, however much I’m drawn to petitions like Ester’s, they are atypical. (And I do at least know in what ways they’re atypical, and can quantify that difference.)

So, having got this data…

What Now and Next

Remix Culture?

Remix Culture? Data transformations

A key element of the project has been sharing and documenting the data and the research in progress:

Firstly, the open data contains some fairly basic metadata for the petitions and the corpus of plain text files. (This has been released in stages; I deliberately put some initially very rough work in progress out there for a couple of reasons. I’m as prone as any historian to getting bogged down in perfectionism; making public much less than perfect data is slightly painful, but creates incentives to improve it rather than keep hiding it away. I think it’s also a practical way of emphasising how data creation is a process rather than an event, and underlining the importance of versioning and documentation.)

There has also been further processing of the data for analysis (some of which will end up in the open data):

a) work on the petition texts, primarily “VARDing” and trimming. VARD is a great tool: like a spell checker, but for early modern English. It’s trainable, though I was impressed at its accuracy straight out of the box. It makes mistakes; I wouldn’t use it to “correct” transcriptions; but it’s ideal for making a more regular version of the data for textmining and quantitative analysis. VARDing was followed by stripping out annotations, signatures and so on at beginning and end of petitions, for example to enable analysis of petition lengths (nb: link is a dataviz that may be slow to load).

b) work on improving the metadata, especially

  1. separate individuals’ petitions from institutional (especially ‘parish’) ones
  2. using the existing London Lives name tagging to identify petitioners and start linking petitions to related records
  3. in particular, I want to link petitions to related documents in the SPs, especially orders, so that I can examine responses – these don’t exist for all petitions but there do seem to be a lot more than I initially was aware of; as well as to related records elsewhere in London Lives, like pauper examinations .

Finally, something I’ve not really got very far with yet: identifying what petitions are about and exploring meanings. (Some early attempts at topic modelling didn’t work very well, another reason I needed to create the VARDed and trimmed version of the data.) Other sessions on text analytics and linguistic tools at the conference gave me new ideas, although this still feels like a whole new and slightly intimidating challenge.

Concluding Thoughts

“Remixing” digitised history is something that historians do all the time, when they search online resources and copy whatever results seem relevant into their own spreadsheets and databases. But I’m not sure that they’re always doing it with the best tools for the job, or with the critical understanding they need of those resources and their limitations. Laborious “search-select-copy-paste” is fine if a resource is simply a supplement to your main sources. It becomes less appropriate if the resource is your main source, you’re using it on a large scale, or you intend to make quantitative (including implicitly quantitative) arguments based on the results. It is possible to use online search critically, but difficult without some knowledge of the underlying sources, the ability to compare different resources for the same material, and/or the time and willingness to explore different searches and methodically compare results (for a brilliant example, see Charles Upchurch, ‘Full-Text Databases and Historical Research: Cautionary Results from a Ten-Year Study’, J. Soc. Hist, 2012 [link]).

On the other hand, self-conscious digital historians (and digital humanists) are making strong critiques of online search as a methodology. “Search struggles to deal with what lies outside a set of results”, as Stephen Robertson points out. Ted Underwood argues, similarly, that “Search is a form of data mining, but a strangely focused form that only shows you what you already know to expect”.

But it seems to me that Digital Humanities-based answers to this problem often focus on the application of advanced distant reading techniques to the interpretation of Big Literary Data. I think those critiques and techniques are vitally important, but even so, the usefulness of learning how to employ them can seem rather less obvious to a social historian grappling with creating some usable research data out of digitised forms of the archival detritus of governance than to those lucky bastards screwing around with a million books (pdf). Miriam Posner has argued that what many digital humanities scholars really need, before they can get on to the fun stuff, is a lot more help with and tools for finding, cleaning and modelling data. (As she says, and Adam Crymble reminded us at the session, ‘that garbage prep work‘ is Digital Humanities too!)

The London Lives Sessions Papers can in one sense be considered big data in that there’s too much material for a person, realistically, to read all of it manually (and make sense of it). But they aren’t Big Data like a million books is Big Data. And having eventually made my dataset, I certainly want to try out that kind of analysis on the petitions texts and explore what’s possible; but I also need to do nominal record linkage and to study petitioners. My methodology for discovering petitions has been, when you get down to it, an extended kind of search. But at least for working on data creation at this sort of medium-to-biggish scale, once you’re freed from the constraints of a large database optimized for web delivery, you can get a long way screwing around with search.

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