The Early Quakers

The Quakers came into existence during the uproar when England fought a civil war, deleted a king, founded a start-up republic, and then rebooted the king (a new one, not the one they’d deleted). And whenever people found some down time, they argued about religion. 

And you thought we were living through interesting times.

Let’s start the tale with George Fox. He was the son of a weaver and came from Fenny Drayton. I mention the first fact because it places him in a relentlessly hierarchical society (he wasn’t anybody grand) and the second because I can’t help myself. It’s as absurdly English a place name as you’ll find anywhere. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An old-fashioned kind of hydrangea. If I have my British snobberies right (which is far from a sure thing), they’re the classier kind, and the fuller ones for the people like me who don’t know any better.

He left home at  nineteen to seek the truth.

About what? When people talk about seeking the truth, they’re pretty much always talking about religion. And religion, remember, was what everyone talked about anyway. Politics was religion. Everything was religion. Where’d you lose your mittens? I didn’t lose them. They went where god willed them to go. What’s for supper? Even that would circle back to religion. 

Fox listened to preachers–the country was well stocked with preachers–and inevitably he began to preach himself. I never thought of the Quakers as a preaching-type group, but it was a Quaker website using the verb, so we’ll let them set the tone: He preached, and he did it to increasingly large crowds. 

What he told them was that god’s light was in everyone. Or since he’d surely have used a capital letter, so let’s use his presumed style: God’s light. Follow that thought to its logical end–and he did–and you’ll end up attacking the social structure of the day, which held that God had made some people a whole lot better than other people, and that this was natural and good and necessary. 

Not only did everyone have that inner light, he preached that they had to follow it, even when it diverged from the Bible. 

In 1650, he was jailed for blasphemy. The early Quakers spent a lot of time in jail. I won’t list many of their arrests, but keep in mind that this was a risky set of beliefs to live by.

In 1652, Margaret Fell (later Margaret Fox) heard him preach and was convinced, and she quickly became central to the movement, coordinating the communications of its far-flung preachers and offering the safety of her house and the protection that her husband, who was a judge, could sometimes provide. She was one of the few founders who was from the gentry and she was the first to put the movement on record as being against violence. 

It was also in 1652 that Fox gained another key follower, James Naylor (or Nayler–it wasn’t possible to spell a word wrong back then). He was a more difficult personality than Fell and we can have more fun with him, so he’s going to get more space. Sorry. 

Naylor had served in the Parliamentary army. This was before the Quakers dedicated themself to nonviolence, and some branches of the army had Quakers hanging from every bough.  He was charismatic and a good debater, and he attracted a personal following that made other Quakers uneasy. 

He and Fox clashed. Meetings were disrupted. In an attempt to make peace, Fox offered Naylor his hand to kiss. Naylor told Fox to kiss his feet instead.

Yes, they believed all men were equal–and by men, of course, they meant both men and women. Yes, they meant what they said. No, it’s not easy to step outside the biases and assumptions of your time and place, or even to see them.

In 1656, Naylor and some followers re-enacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in Bristol. The scene included a couple of women walking beside Naylor’s horse and singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” 

Whatever they intended to get across, the authorities decided that Naylor’d presented himself as Christ, and it couldn’t have been too hard a case to make. At some point–earlier, later, during; I have no idea–he called himself the Sun of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace, the only Begotten, the fairest of ten thousand.

Not to mention the soul of modesty. 

His followers said he was the anointed king of Israel. No one thought to phone Israel to either check on that or tell them the news.

He was brought to London to be tried. We’re still in the middle of the Protectorate here–that period between the deletion of one king and the reboot of the next–and the Protectorate was all for freedom of religion, but only up to a point. You had to be Christian to take advantage of it. And you couldn’t be a Catholic kind of Christian. Or a licentious kind. 

Naylor was whipped, branded, imprisoned, and had his tongue pierced with a hot iron. 

After he was released, he and Fox made a reluctant sort of peace, with Naylor kneeling to Fox and asking his forgiveness.

Like I said, it’s not easy to step outside your time and place.

But enough about Naylor. Let’s go back to the Quakers as a movement.

By 1660, some estimates put their numbers in England at 50,000. By way of comparison there were about 35,000 Catholics. Eleven of their sixty key people–called the Valiant Sixty–were women. Women preached. Women spoke at meetings. Quakers promoted education for both girls and boys. If everyone had a spark of god in them, then everyone was spiritually equal.

And in case that wasn’t radical enough, they refused to use the titles that were so important to a hierarchical society, so no sirs, no madams, no lordships. They–and this would’ve applied only to the men–wouldn’t take their hats off to their social superiors. They addressed everyone by the informal thou, and people back then knew their thou from their you, so they knew when to consider themselves insulted. These days, if you address someone as thou and all you’ll get is a blank look. 

After the kingly reboot, the Church of England was back in power and in a position to demand tithes. Quakers refused to pay them. 

They wouldn’t take oaths. Not oaths as in curse words but as in I swear to tell the truth and all that stuff. They told the truth all the time, they said. But the culture took oaths seriously, and if you refused the swear one in court it was easy to convict you of pretty much anything. If you wouldn’t swear to tell the truth, who could believe you?

In short, they were principled, upright, and a pain in the ass to a society that took the symbolic stuff as seriously as the practical. They stuck quietly, consistently, and relentlessly to their beliefs.

In 1662, the Quaker Act made it illegal to refuse to take an oath of loyalty. It also outlawed meetings of five or more Quakers. In 1663, a hundred Quakers were arrested in a single day. 

It was 1689 before the Toleration Act allowed them to meet legally. And at that point we’ll leave them. Their later history is better known, from their implacable opposition to slavery to their long opposition to war. 

*

I’ve drawn on a number of books for this post, as well as the websites I’ve linked to, but the longest and most interesting section I found is in Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: The Rise & Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, which gives James Naylor a good chunk of text.

Everything we don’t know about Aphra Behn

The first English woman to make her living entirely as a writer was Aphra Behn. She’s known to have been born, to have been a spy, to have been a writer, and to have died. After that, information about her ranges from the sketchy to the questionable. 

What could be more fun than writing about someone nobody knows much about?

She was born in 1640. Her father might have been a barber and her mother might have been a wet nurse. They might also not have been. 

Her last name might have been Johnson. She might have been adopted. 

Since we can’t sketch in her family, let’s sketch in the times she lived in: The English Civil Wars ran from 1642 to 1651. In 1660, the Stuart kings settled their hind ends back on the throne they’d been lusting after. So she grew up in turbulent times and was twenty at the start of the Restoration, which is a fancy name for the aforesaid Stuart hind end settling back on that throne.

Irrelevant photo: This is one of about a dozen big, flat wildflowers that don’t look alike but are similar enough that I doubt I’ll ever learn their names.

She may or may not have spent some time in Surinam.

Suri-what? A small country in South America. It was an English colony until 1667, when it became Dutch. Under the English, it evolved into a place of sugar plantations and slave labor, which gets an early mention because it feeds into one of Behn’s books. 

(It’s irrelevant but interesting to note that the Parliamentarians–the folks who threw out the Stuart kings–were no more opposed to slavery than the Royalists were. That won’t be on the test. In fact, there won’t be a test. This is a blog. You can stop reading right here if the mood takes you.) 

If Behn had been a man, an aristocrat, or a religious nonconformist, she’d have left more information behind, or so say Abigail Williams and Kate O’Connor in an essay. The surprise in that, for me, is the nonconformists. They were prone, both the men and the women, to keeping spiritual journals. 

In 1664, Behn married a merchant named Johan Behn, although the marriage might not have lasted long. He might have died the next year. He might not have. Either way, that’s the last we’ll hear of him. 

She was a royalist spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch War. If she was in Surinam, she might have been there as a spy. 

Of course, she also might not have been in Surinam as a spy. 

She might not have been in Surinam at all. 

Don’t you love history?

Spying wasn’t a good way to get rich. According to one source, she wasn’t paid at all and had to borrow money to get home from Antwerp.

That leads to our next questionable statement: She ended up in debtors prison, according to one source (a different one this time) for “debts she incurred in service to the crown.” None of the other sources I’ve found mention the reason for her debts. In fact, the British Library entry on her says there’s no documentation that she was ever in debtors prison.

If she was, though, either somebody ponied up the money needed to break her loose or she started writing as a way to get herself out. Either way, write she did, and back then it was a better way to make money than it is today. Writing was still the hot new medium. You know how parents yell at their kids to get off their phones and turn off their computers? “Go read a book and learn something,” they say. Well, back then parents yelled at their kids to put down their books, get out in the fresh air, and be ignorant.

Yes, every last parent. Every last kid. That’s how you can tell what the hot new medium is: Parents are appalled by it.

Now we’ll take a quick step back. Bear with me. Before the Restoration, the theaters were closed. They were frivolous and led to perdition and fun. Then the king sashayed back to London, the party began, and theater companies were licensed. It wasn’t exactly a new medium, but it was hot all the same.

Behn started working for two of the theater companies that had started up, first as a scribe, then as a playwright. Fittingly, the timelines I’ve seen are contradictory, but her first plays either were or weren’t commercial successes, but either a later or the first one was. But forget which play it was, one of them ran for six nights, and that counted as a smash hit. The income from the third day (and the sixth if there was one, and the ninth if miracles should occur) of a run went to the author, so she got the income from two nights. 

She went on to write and publish an assortment of other plays, some successful, some not, and one–now lost–a complete disaster, involving an arrest for an abusive prologue (or epilogue–take your pick) attacking the Duke of Monmouth. She was (probably) let off with a warning. 

Nope, I have no idea what it said. It’s lost. Sorry. 

Some of her plays were definitely her plays. Others might have been her plays but might have been someone else’s. During her lifetime, a lot of her work was published anonymously, which helps explain the murkiness over what was her work and what wasn’t.

She also published novels and poetry. 

She had a couple of lovers. One of them, John Hoyle, is believed to have written the epitaph (not to be confused with that troublesome epilogue) that’s on her tombstone: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be Defence enough against mortality.”

She died in 1689, at forty-nine. 

So what did she have to say? Well, in her novel Oroonoko, the narrator swears the story’s true, that she either saw everything in it  or was told it by its hero, thus muddying the autobiographical waters by pouring fiction into alleged fact. The book’s unusual in English literature in its choice of hero, an African prince sold into slavery in Surinam. Behn wasn’t not free from the prejudices of her time and place–who is?–but she allowed him his humanity, something it took European writers and their descendants centuries to find their way back to.

She also wrote about sex–about women enjoying sex and about men sometimes failing to enjoy it, much as they would have liked to. “The Disappointment” is full of seventeenth century roundaboutness, but it’s also frank: The man couldn’t get it up. 

 

      . . . In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid

      To call his fleeting Vigour back. . . .

      In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,

      Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands.

 

After Behn died, Memoirs on the Life of Mrs Behn. By a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance was published, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. The gentlewoman was probably a man named Charles Gildon, who drew heavily on her fiction, along with her letters, to piece together a life, leaning heavily on sex to sell the story.

Behn went out of fashion in more prudish centuries and–well, Restoration literature doesn’t draw a mass audience anymore, but feminists since Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf have been rediscovering her, reinterpreting her, re-appreciating her, and in Sackville-West’s case reimagining her from the ground up. 

Which given the gaps in her story is easy to do. You have no facts to lean on but you also have none to contradict you. 

The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

English history: how heavy was the Norman yoke?

In the years before 1066, English history was chugging along very nicely, thanks, with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse royal houses at each other’s throats, as they had been for long enough that everyone thought, Well, families, you know. They’re like that. Because by then they were family, and that was part of the problem. They’d intermarried enough that it wasn’t always clear who was supposed to inherit the chairs, the dishes, the crown. 

It wasn’t what you’d call peace, but at least everyone knew more or less what to expect. 

Then the Normans invaded. In no time at all (as history measures these things) the family broke apart. The Norse became distant relatives who the Anglo-Saxon didn’t see anymore–except, of course, for the ones who’d settled in England. A lot of them had done that in the north, and the Anglo-Saxons saw them all the time but they didn’t seem quite as Norse as they once had, what with the Normans stomping through. By comparison, they seemed positively–English.

Or so I like to think. You won’t find that in any of the history books. 

Just something to break up the text. It has nothing to do with anything.

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

The new outsiders, the Normans, replaced England’s governing class (with themselves, you’ll be surprised to learn), along with its language (sort of; it’s complicated and we’ll leave it alone for now) and its social structure (mostly; everything’s complicated when you give it enough thought). People who’d once been free became serfs–tied to the land and subject to the lord of the manor and his whims. 

See the end of the post for the grain of salt that goes with that last sentence.

Some 600 years later, during England’s Civil War, people who wanted to level out the country’s massive inequalities (called, surprisingly enough, the Levellers) talked nostalgically about the time before the Norman yoke was imposed on free Anglo-Saxon England. That was what they wanted–the freedom the land and its people had once known.

So just how free was Anglo-Saxon society?

Well, it depended on who you were. Free men were free. Free women were freer than they’d be again for many a century, or at least free women upper-class women were. Less is known about free women further down the social ladder. Slaves, though, were anything but free, and although the poorest peasants weren’t slaves, their situation sounds a lot like serfdom, which is somewhere between slavery and freedom.

Let’s work our way through it–or at least as much as I’ve been able to wring out of the internet and the books I have at hand. It won’t be a full picture. So much about Anglo-Saxon England has been lost.

Slavery

In Anglo-Saxon England, people could be born into slavery or they could be enslaved as a penalty for some crime. They could be captured in war, and capturing slaves was as important a reason to go to war as capturing land was. Finally, children could be sold into slavery by their parents and adults could make themselves into slaves. Both of those were probably desperate steps that people took in the face of famine.

There was a well-established slave trade, both within England and to other countries. So slavery’s roots reached deep into the economy. Bristol was a slave port, trading with the Viking merchants based in Ireland.

Slavery wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition, although it could be. Slaves could buy their way out; they could marry out of slavery; or they could be freed by their owners. It wasn’t uncommon for people to free a few slaves in their wills. Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, speculates that people freeing slaves in their wills could, at times, have been done it with an eye toward not imposing the liability an older, unproductive slave on their heirs. She doesn’t offer any hard evidence for that, just raises the possibility. Either way, freeing a slave seems to have been considered a pious act. 

Not that Christianity pitted itself against slavery. Toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, ecclesiastical landowners had more slaves than lay people did. 

What did slaves do? They were plowmen, stockmen, beekeepers, dairymaids, swineherds, seamstresses, weavers, domestic servants, concubines, cooks, millers, and priests. 

I’m not sure what to make of priests being on that list, but it’s very much a part of the picture.  

Crawford writes about Anglo-Saxon slave owners having reciprocal obligations to their slaves–primarily to keep them fed and clothed, but also, possibly, to train some of them for skilled jobs. They also had the power to beat their slaves–not, she says, because slaves were considered a lower form of human but because Anglo-Saxon law punished transgressions with fines, and they couldn’t fine someone who couldn’t pay, so they fell back on physical punishment. 

Is she right about the reciprocal nature of Anglo-Saxon slavery? I’d have to hear it from the slaves before I’d be convinced, but they left no record. 

HIstory Today paints a less forgiving picture. “As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female.” 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, no line clearly divided slaves from the “other members of the labouring classes.” They wouldn’t have lived separately, and “almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves.”

As the years ticked away and we come closer to the Norman invasion, Crawford says, slavery became less widespread. Free labor was available to do the same work and slaves had become an economic liability. The Domesday Book, which counted every chicken feather in England so that the new Norman king would know just how many chicken feathers he’d amassed in his conquest, counted slaves as 12% of the population. 

History Today isn’t convinced that slavery was on the wane and estimates that slaves made up 20% to 30% of the population. 

I’m staying out of this. Can we say that slaves made up a significant portion of the population and stop squabbling, please? 

Non-slavery

Just above the slaves on the social ladder were people who owed service to their lords. Most of them were serfs. 

Cottars were one step up from slaves and many of them might have been freed slaves. (You notice how hazy that got? “Many”; “might have been.” We can’t know, so let’s not pretend we do.) They worked on the lords’ estates in exchange for some land they could work for themselves. It was often marginal land. 

Above them came bordars, or geburs, who are in italics because the word’s Old English (it means tenant farmer) and Old English is foreign enough to a modern English speaker’s ear that we treat it like a foreign language and use funny-looking letters. Bordars don’t come in italics because the word crept into Norman usage, although most of us won’t recognize it. 

Look, don’t ask me to explain it. I’m following Crawford’s system of italics and inventing explanations as I go. You shouldn’t trust me too far on this. 

Have we gone off topic? Of course we’ve gone off topic. It’s what we do here.

The  bordars/geburs weren’t as poor as cottars but still owed work to the lord. Some were brewers or bakers. 

Above them came the coerls–small freeholders. They paid taxes, sat on juries, and owed public service, all of which marked them as free, but they also owed service to a lord. They may or may not have been armed and may or may not have fought with their lord when called on. It’s not clear. 

The word coerl comes into modern English as churl–a peasant; someone who’s rude or mean spirited, probably because from the Norman point of view, all Anglo-Saxons working the land looked alike and sounded alike. And were inherently rude and mean spirited, not to mention muddy, and so they could all be treated like dirt.

Coerl didn’t bring any italics with it. I’m only using them here to talk about it as a word, the same way I italicized churl.

And that, my friends, has nothing to do with our topic. Don’t you just love the way I keep us focused?

Under Alfred the Great’s version of Anglo-Saxon law, you couldn’t treat a free person like a slave–couldn’t whip him or her, say, or put him or her in the stocks. If you did, you’d be fined. You also couldn’t cut his hair–and here we’re only talking only about his hair, not hers–“in such a way as to spoil his looks” or to leave him looking like a priest. You also couldn’t cut off his beard, which is one of the things that convinces me that his really does mean his here. 

Anglo-Saxon pronouns were gender neutral. Without the beard, you can’t tell a his from a hers.

The point of the law, apparently, was to keep a lord from forcing a free person into the ranks of slaves, because the hair and beard were marks of a free man. 

Free boys, when they turned twelve, had to swear an oath to the king–at least from the time of Athelstan onward–and the king’s shire reeve visited every community once a year to hear them swear.

What they swore wasn’t just loyalty, but to favor what the lord favored, to discountenance what he discountenanced–and to turn in anyone who didn’t. “No one shall conceal the breach of it on the part of a brother or family relation, any more than a stranger.”

So that’s what freedom looked like.

The Norman conquest

Crawford’s reading of the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman society was that the lives of serfs and slaves might not have changed much. Rural life still focused on the manor and the lord, even though the manor would have been owned by a new lord, who’d have spoken Norman French. I can’t help imagining that those new lords, given a huge amount of power and surrounded by a language and a culture that frustrated them and made no sense to them, would have been ruder than the old ones–more churlish, if you like irony. They were conquerors, and conquerors do tend to act that way.

I said earlier that people who’d once been free became serfs after the conquest, and that seems to be the general belief, but I can’t document it. Lots of things from that time can’t be documented. Be cautious about how much belief you pour into that particular juice glass. If I had to guess–and I don’t but I will anyway–I’d guess that it was the coerls who dropped down the scale into serfdom. If that’s true, it would have been a loss of both freedom and status.

As for the Anglo-Saxon elite, they lost their lands and their status, and many fled abroad. Some lost their lives in various rebellions. I haven’t seen anything that says they became either serfs or slaves. Aristocrats recognized other aristocrats, even those who were their enemies.

The lives of both the poor and the rich were massively disrupted–or ended–by the harrying of the north, the Norman response to a rebellion. The Domesday Book lists land in northern village after northern village as waste–valueless and unoccupied. But we’re not talking about whether the transition to Norman rule was brutal–it was–only about whether life, once things settled down, became less free than it had been before they came. 

To weigh against any losses of freedom, it was under the Normans that slavery gradually died out. 

If people ceased to be slaves and became serfs, did their lives improve? Possibly. Probably. But again, they left us no documents. We can’t know.

So although my heart’s with the Levellers, I’d have to say that the picture of Anglo-Saxon freedom and Norman oppression was photo-shopped.

The South Sea bubble and the national debt

It all started with the War of the Spanish Succession, which Britain got involved in, and lucky us, all we need to know about it is that it cost Britain money. Lots of money. £5 million a year, according to Roy Strong’s The Story of Britain. That was more then than it is now, but even today it’s more than you could raise by running a raffle.

Okay, I lied. We need to know one more thing about the war, and that’s when it happened: from 1701 to 1714. If your mind’s anything like mine, you’ll have forgotten that by the end of the next paragraph, but even so it’ll give you a picture of what sort of silly clothing people were running around in.

Irrelevant photo: mallow

Of course, war isn’t the only expense a country has, because governments cost money, so even though we started with the war, we can’t stop there. This was a time when bureaucracy was growing, and along with it the professionalization of government. As much as we like to complain about bureaucracy, the people who write about this time–at least the ones I’ve read–say its growth was a good thing. Governmental departments were now run by people who lived off their pay instead of off the fees they took in and what Strong calls perks, which I suspect we’d call bribes.

Maybe you had to live through the alternative to understand how good the growth of bureaucracy was.

The government also had other expenses. The king’s wigs, for example. They needed maintenance, and so did his palaces and his family and household and hangers-on. 

In 1698, parliament had created the Civil List, which paid for both the king or queen’s household’s expenses (think wigs, palaces, banquets, relatives, endless staff) and his or her government’s expenses. For life. This was a huge change. In the past, Parliament had voted the king money by the teaspoonful in order to keep some sort of power in the relationship. Now it had enough power that it didn’t have to do that.

The Civil List didn’t cover out-of-the-ordinary governmental expenses, such as war, but it did give the government a predictable base to work from.

At more or less the same time, what had once been the king’s debts became the national debt.  

The problem with all this is that once you have power, you’re responsible for running things and fixing whatever breaks, and a lot less fun than getting into power–something Boris Johnson may have noticed by now. So once parliament was in charge of the national debt, it had to figure out how to pay the damned thing. 

I know, we still haven’t gotten to the South Sea bubble. We will.

I said £5 million was more than you could raise in a raffle, but parliament did try paying off the debt by running a lottery. They also borrowed money from trading companies and sold annuities. They’d have sold Girl Scout cookies, but the Girl Scouts weren’t around yet. Cookies, however, were, although it’s hard to say whether they’d reached Britain. They’re first recorded in Persia in the seventh century. Or so Lord Google tells me.

While you were thinking about cookies, I changed books. A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins, puts the national debt in this period at £50 million, although it doesn’t put a date on that. But what do we care? We wouldn’t remember it anyway. Somewhere along in here is close enough. 

So somewhere along in here, parliament was looking at a big debt and some genius came up with the idea of the South Sea Company taking on part of it. 

Why would a company do that? Because they planned to profit from it, of course. We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about what the South Sea Company was. It was set up to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, and Britain had granted it a monopoly on the trade. So yeah, nice guys. And not all that unusual. Plenty of British traders and aristocrats made money off of slavery in one way or another. You could argue that it was money from the slave trade that fueled the industrial revolution.

We won’t, though, because that’s not our topic. 

Would somebody shut me up, please?

I said earlier, if you were paying attention, that the government had tried financing the national debt by selling annuities. The problem with annuities was they weren’t transferable, meaning you couldn’t sell them, and that limited their appeal. But now that the South Sea Company had entered the picture, if people wanted to convert their annuities into stock in the company, hey, that would be wonderful, because they could sell the stock any old time. And if they didn’t sell, they’d get dividends from the slave trade. They’d make money, money, money, and money causes people’s vision to go so fuzzy that they don’t notice where it’s coming from. 

The South Sea Company promised to pay the treasury £7.5 million just for the joy of taking over part of the national debt. It didn’t have the money, but never mind. Keep your eye on the shell with the pea under it. It’s right here in the center. 

It also promised to give the first lord of the treasury and the chancellor of the exchequer stock in the company, which they’d be able to sell back to the company once the price went up. That gave them an interest in seeing the price go up. According to one source, the stock didn’t exist, but I haven’t found a second source to confirm that and it doesn’t matter. Whether the stock was real or not, it was still a bribe. 

The pea’s on the left. 

If you want names, the chancellor was John Aislabie and the first lord of the treasury was the Earl of Sunderland. Which isn’t a name, but it’s close enough. We don’t really need to know them, but doesn’t the story feel authoritative now that they’re in place?

Company directors circulated rumors about the wondrous profits the company was making. The stock price went up. Then it went up more. The company took on a larger portion of the government’s debt. And everyone was happy. Except of course the slaves, who’ve been shoved to one side of the story anyway because unless all hell breaks loose–as it does periodically and has recently if you follow the news–history’s about the rich and powerful. 

Buying South Sea Company stock became a mania. Everyone with two guineas to rub together wanted it. The price rose to something like ten times its original price.

And then the price crashed. In part because the trade that the company was going to get rich on turned out to be more restricted than they’d hoped. Blame wars. Blame treaties. Blame all kinds of complications. 

But I said “in part,” so we need at least one more part to keep things in balance. The other part is that people lost confidence.  You can’t read much about the South Sea Company without someone telling you about the loss of confidence. What does it mean, though?

It means the whole thing had been a Ponzi scheme: You only made money if you convinced other people that they could make money. That pushed up the price of your shares. Look at how much that paper in your hand is worth! You’re rich!

Then some spoilsport started yelling that none of it was real–the pea wasn’t under any of the shells. Or–new metaphor–the poker chips were just bits of colored plastic (which hadn’t been invented yet). You couldn’t buy so much as a sandwich (which also hadn’t been invented) with them. 

Or forget both metaphors. There was no money to be made by owning the stock and its price collapsed. People who had fortunes lost them. People who’d taken out loans using their stock as security or sold land or property to buy shares went bust. Bankruptcy listings hit an all-time high.

To give you a quick picture of the moment, I’ll get out of the way and quote Jenkins: “The Riot Act had to be read in the lobby of parliament. Stanhope had a stroke in the House of Lords and died. The Postmaster General took poison and the chancellor of the exchequer . . . was thrown into prison.”

Everyone wanted someone to blame the disaster on, so the Commons set up an investigation, and this was when a lot of people who had reputations lost them. The king, however, wasn’t among them, even though he and his two mistresses had gotten involved in some questionable transactions. As had everyone with money for miles around. Sir Robert Walpole managed the investigation by sacrificing a few visible politicians and leaving the rest to skip merrily on.

One of those he didn’t save was Sunderland. Remember the Earl of Sunderland? One of the people whose name I said we wouldn’t remember? He resigned and Sir Robert Walpole replaced him as the first lord of the treasury, making himself pivotal enough that he effectively became the prime minister–Britain’s first, although the title didn’t come into use until later. The king gave him a house in Downing Street, which Walpole insisted should go with the job, not stay with him. And there you have 10 Downing Street.

Larry the Cat has done well out of it.

Britain’s chimneys and chimney sweeps

Britain’s earliest chimneys were strictly for the rich, and in the Tudor era, they were the must-have accessory. The aristocracy’s news feeds were clogged with targeted ads saying, Heat Your Castle the Modern Way

Heat Your Hovel ads didn’t show up for many a year. 

Hovel-dwellers didn’t have news feeds anyway.

Hovel-dwellers lived in single-story houses with a central fire whose smoke worked its way out through the roof (thatch is good that way, and I’ve heard that slates aren’t bad) or through a hole in the roof. If you were clever about covering the hole, you could let the smoke out and keep the rain from pouring in, all in one go, but no matter how clever you were, above a certain height these houses were smoky.  

Irrelevant photo: osteospermum, with a bit of valerian getting ready to bloom.

With the introduction of the chimney, though, at least some of the the smoke went politely up and out, changing the residents’ lives and lungs. On the other hand, a good bit of the fire’s warmth was polite enough to follow the smoke, so the change wasn’t all about gain.

If you have a third hand, balance this on it: Chimneys also meant you could heat a second story. You could even add heat to rooms that didn’t have fireplaces. All they had to do was cuddle up against the back of the chimney and suck up a bit of warmth. 

By the seventeenth century, enough chimneys had been built around the country that they were worth taxing. Enter the hearth tax, which was based on the size of the house and, most importantly, the number of chimneys it had. 

So what did the rich do? To minimize taxes, they started running the flues of multiple fireplaces up a single chimney.  Many fireplaces, many flues, fewer chimneys. In a big house, they’d still end up with more than one chimney, but nowhere near as many as they had fireplaces.

What innocents they were back then. Today, they’d just build the chimney in a tax haven and have as many as they wanted. So what if it cost more to build them there and import the heat? They’d still be saving on taxes, and the point of the game, once you have that kind of money, is to pay as little in taxes as possible and then yell, “I win!”

Nothing I’ve read tells me how people first discovered that chimneys had to be cleaned, but I’m reasonably sure the realization took the form of chimney fires, complete with the neighbors standing around saying, “I could’ve told them this would happen.” Or whatever the era-appropriate version of withering scorn was.

That’s how the occupation of the chimney sweep  was born, and when the country’s primary fuel shifted from wood to coal, which lines chimneys with creosote, it became even more important.

I’d love to pinpoint the moment when children were first used as sweeps, but I can’t find any information on it. My best guess is that children working in dirty and dangerous occupations was so much a part of life that for a long time it was barely worth mentioning. Kids worked in mines and quarries and everywhere else. In slate quarrying country, where I live, they’d send boys over the cliffs in baskets to set the explosives. It only made sense: They were lighter than the adults. 

A website maintained by a chimney sweeping outfit in Hartford, Connecticut, doesn’t give a start date but does say that kids were used most heavily as sweeps during the two hundred years between with the Great Fire of London (that’s 1666) and the mid-nineteenth century, when Britain outlawed them. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but any number of chimney sweepers’ sites include some history of the trade, and they’re reasonably consistent.

So let’s talk about those kids. The apprentices to master sweeps were usually boys but sometimes girls, and they were generally paupers or orphans. Anyone who had choices in life would look somewhere else for their kid’s apprenticeship. 

How old were they? Well, they had to be strong enough to be useful but small enough to climb up the inside of a chimney. And since narrow flues created a better draft, you’d be talking about a very small kid–usually around six, but they could (rarely) be as young as four.

And here we circle back to all those flues running up a single chimney. Remember them? The flues made sharp turns and had awkward angles, making them that much harder to get through and putting even more of a premium on smallness.

The kids worked their way up the chimneys using their backs, elbows, and knees, knocking the soot loose with a brush as they went, so it fell on and past them.

According to some sources, the apprenticeships were for seven years and according to others until the apprentice was an adult, although reaching adulthood wasn’t guaranteed. The dangers of sweeping chimneys included getting stuck, suffocating, and breathing the carcinogenic soot (one form of cancer was common enough to be called chimney sweep cancer). The kids also lived in the soot, because we’re talking about people who had minimal chances to wash and who generally slept on the sacks of soot that they collected and the master sweep sold. They grew up stunted and deformed and were prone not just to cancer but to lung problems. 

So yes,it was just like in Mary Poppins, all singing and dancing along the rooftops.

They also had to contend with hot chimneys and rough brick on their knees, elbows, and backs.

Their conditions horrified a fair number of respectable people, and many attempts were made to improve their conditions, mostly without changing anything substantial, although over time the pressure did grow. The turning point came when a twelve-year-old, George Brewster, got stuck in a chimney. A wall was pulled down and he was gotten out, but he died not long after. After that, child sweeps were finally banned.

The sweeps were replaced with brushes on long, long handles, which an adult could work up a chimney.

The bright spot in sweeps’ lives was their one yearly holiday, May Day, which coincided with local celebrations that predated chimneys and sweeps–and Christianity, for that matter. In a few places, May Day is officially a sweeps’ festival. 

Why that day? No idea. We just have to accept that it is and go with it.

I’ll leave you with a link to William Blake’s poem about a child chimney sweep. He wrote two versions. This strikes me as the stronger of them.

Censorship and freedom of the press in England: a quick history

Let’s talk about freedom of the press in England.

Why not in Britain? Because we’ll start before Britain became a country and because English law doesn’t apply to all of Britain. It’s enough to make a non-Briton dizzy. Don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.

We’ll start in 1403, before the printing press was brought to England. Before, in fact, it was invented. That’s when the Guild of Stationers was recognized by London, and it’s an important part of the story, so stay with me. The guild’s members were text writers, book illuminators, booksellers, bookbinders, and suppliers of parchment, pens, and paper. Just to confuse things it’s also called the Stationers’ Company.

They were called stationers because they set up stations–what we’d be more likely to call stalls–around St. Paul’s Cathedral. So there’s one mystery solved. 

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom.

Then the printing press came to England and printers joined the guild. 

Printing was the hot technology of the day, so what would any sensible government do but restrict it? When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English–both Henry VIII and England were still Catholic at this point–he played hide and seek with government agents in print shops all across Europe, where he’d fled. Copies of his translation were printed in Germany and smuggled into England.

In England, though, printing could be done only by English citizens, and anything that was going to be printed had to be approved by the privy council. 

Eventually Mary Tudor became the queen and the Guild of Stationers got a royal charter. That gave them a monopoly on printing, so members didn’t face competition from outside the guild. They could only have seen that as a good thing. They also had to settle disagreements over who owned what works within the group, and that led to the invention of copyright. 

We won’t go down that rabbithole today. 

The royal charter also meant that the guild had the power–and presumably the responsibility–to search out seditious and heretical books. Or, as its preamble puts it, “seditious and heretical books rhymes and treatises [that] are daily published and printed by divers scandalous malicious schismatical and heretical persons”.

The heresy du jour  was Protestantism, but after Mary died the heresy du jour was Catholicism, along with more Protestant forms of Protestantism than the approved form of Protestantism. 

So the content of sedition and heresy changed but the concept itself didn’t. 

Isn’t the world a strange place?

In their search for heresy etc., the stationers had to power search, seize, and destroy

Didn’t they get to have all the fun? 

This wasn’t exactly state censorship. It was censorship by a body chartered by the state but working in response to its own interests. I’m speculating here, but you might have been safe enough printing heretical pamphlets on the quiet if you kept on the good side of the guild’s more powerful members. And you might have found some surprising pamphlets stashed in a quiet corner of your workshop if you pissed off the wrong person.

We won’t slog through the period Tudor by Tudor. Let’s just acknowledge that each of them had an interest in stamping out sedition and heresy, in all its alternating forms. Freedom of the press was the next-door neighbor of sedition and would’ve been a dangerous concept to defend in public. If you had nothing to hide, you wouldn’t have any problem showing it to the privy council. 

During the Civil War and under the Commonwealth–that brief period when England was a republic–religious and political thinking went in directions no one could have predicted and no one could control, and print, being the social media of the day, was what all that intellectual ferment poured itself into. 

Given that this was during and just after a civil war, if you’d wanted to argue that freedom of the press and anarchy went together, you’d have found a good stack of evidence for your argument.

Then Cromwell died and Charles II took the throne, and he needed to put all that debate and argument and printing back in the box. The government passed the Licensing Act of 1662. Anything printed now had to carry the name of its printer and its author, and it had to be submitted to a licenser–that was a government official–before it could be printed. 

The licenser kept a copy to check against the printed version, just in case some sly devil inserted a disparaging paragraph about the size of Charles’s wig.

If the text was approved, then it had to be registered with–they’re back again–the stationers. 

The act was meant to be temporary–a placeholder until something better could be pieced together–so it came with an end date, but when nothing better appeared it was renewed. Until 1679, when everyone important got into a tizzy because of Titus Oates’ fantasies about a popish plot, and the act lapsed.

Newspapers moved into the empty space where censorship had once been.

Six years later, the act was reinstated, but the fun had gone out of it, somehow. Licensing print didn’t have the appeal it had once had. It had grown a pot belly and a chicken neck, some mornings it didn’t bother to shave, and heads didn’t turn anymore when it walked down the street. 

But guess what: The government found it could still punish treason, seditious libel, and blasphemy, and it could keep the press in line pretty well that way. And it was all so much more efficient.

A Jacobite printer was executed to prove the point. 

The threat of prosecution was enough to keep most publishers well back from the political edges. And those didn’t stay back? Some were fined. Some were jailed. Some fled abroad. Most played nice.

Before long, London had multiple newspapers and towns around the country had their own papers. The newspaper had become an integral part of the political landscape and that’s glorious but a lot less interesting.

English defamation law has worked at times to limit freedom of the press, since it puts the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiff. In other words, if someone wants to shut you up, unless you have enough money and sheer cussed energy to defend yourself in court, you might just consider shutting up. 

And there are specified limits on freedom of expression. They include making threats, harassment, glorifying terrorism, incitement to racial hatred, or–oh, hell–calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Or imagining overthrowing the monarchy.

That last one carries a life sentence, although the law hasn’t been enforced since 1879. The Guardian challenged it in court and lost on the grounds that the law was a relic of a bygone age and that any change was unnecessary.  

And with that, we’ve come to the present day, so let’s check in with the Stationers’ Company and see what they’ve become now that they can’t stamp out heresy and search other people’s premises. The organization says it has almost a thousand members and sounds deeply snoozeworthy. Most members are “senior executives in the complete range of trades within the Communications and Content industries.” That’s so dull I had to copy it and paste it into place. I tried typing the words but kept passing out.

One of the group’s goals is to create a broad balance of membership. Toward what end? Why, so it can maintain balance, of course. In its membership. 

Listen, don’t ask me these things. They have a hall. You can rent it if the pandemic ever ends.

The Anglo-Saxons and the Normans: how hunting turned to poaching

If you read enough English history, you’ll start to wonder how life in England changed once the Normans conquered the place.

Or you will if you’re me, anyway. Which admittedly, you’re probably not.

Be grateful. It’s strange in here.

Let’s look at one change: hunting and access to the woods. I’m working in part from The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, an Englishman’s World, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. It’s a book–one of those odd things involving paper and ink. I just love them, but then I’m several hundred years old. To me, they’re still an exciting new technology.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. They weren’t here when the Anglo-Saxons and Normans were running around–they were a much later import.

One important change involved hunting. Before the Normans invaded and seized the place, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy hunted with expensive dogs and birds and horses but any free-born Anglo-Saxon had the right to hunt.

Notice the restriction there. Anglo-Saxon England  had slavery, and wars were fought in part to capture slaves. What percent of the population was enslaved? Dunno. But however many people were involved, you can take that group of people and set them outside the freedoms the rest of the inhabitants had.

Don’t forget they’re there. It’ll keep you from romanticizing things.

The forest was as important and productive a part of free people’s world as their fields were. They didn’t just use them for hunting, they gathered wood and turned their animals out to forage in them. How did that coexist with private ownership of woodlands? I’m not sure. My best guess–and I haven’t been able to verify this–is that we’re talking about local people’s access to local woodland. In other words, to woods owned by a lord they had some sort of relationship with.

As a whole, the population ate well. Lacey and Danziger argue that the people of that time were as tall as people living today. Where recent generations have grown taller than their ancestors, it’s because during the intervening generations their ancestors were overcrowded and underfed.

The Normans–somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 of them–barged into this well-fed country, and William made himself the owner of the whole shebang. Under him were 180 chief tenants, who owed him military service. And under them? More tenants, who owed military service through the people above them. The top lords were all or almost all Normans, and they replaced the entire upper crust of Anglo-Saxon society.

And to make sure he’d have a matching set, William did the same with administrators and church officials: He replaced them with Norman versions.

William kept a fair bit of Anglo-Saxon administrative organization–it was efficient and, for its time, centralized–but (among many other things) dramatically changed people’s rights to use the forest. The right to hunt was now reserved for the top one percent of the one percent. Maybe I should add another “of the one percent” there, but forget the numbers: It was reserved for the aristocracy–the landowners, that thin (and Norman) top layer of the population. Anyone else was poaching–stealing the lord’s game.

This was codified into the forest law, which protected the animals so the king could hunt them and also protected everything the animals fed on. Common people not just lost their right to hunt, but to fish, to gather fruit and wood, to dig peat and clay, to pasture their animals. It was a disaster for a people whose living had depended in part on the forest.

What happened if they broke the law? The punishments ranged from fines to death, and in the early years after the conquest the law was enforced with a heavy hand. Hunting had gone from being something any free man might do to something reserved for the aristocracy.

But what was this about pasturing their animals in a forest?

Under Norman law, forest didn’t mean forest as in a place with lots of trees. It could mean woods, but it could also mean pastures and even villages. It meant a place the king might want to hunt and it meant anything that fell within that place he might want to hunt. If he designated it a forest, it was a forest, and you wouldn’t want to stand there arguing about its lack of trees. If you happened to live inside what he said was a forest, you not only couldn’t hunt or cut wood or do any of those other things, you couldn’t use a fence or a hedge to protect your crops because it might get in the way of the hunt.

At the time of the Domesday Book–William’s massive, nitpicking survey of the land he’d conquered–there were 25 royal forests, but forest law applied not just to royal forests but also to forests owned by major lords of various flavors.

Norman forest law led to a lot of confusion over land ownership. Since all land belonged to the king and was granted downward from there–and since it could, if the king got mad at you, be un-granted–ownership had some murky edges. The law was muddled enough that it was possible to own part of a forest but not have the right to hunt in it or cut trees.

All of this is what made the 1217 Charter of the Forest so important: It gave free men certain rights in royal forests–and by then there were 143 royal forests. Commoners could gather wood, honey, and fruit; dig clay; fish; cut peat; and pasture animals. The charter laid the groundwork for rights that held (and were fought over) throughout the medieval period and for the rights of commoners today on some 500 surviving commons.

On the other hand, only about 10 percent of the population was free. Serfs weren’t slaves but they weren’t in any realistic or legal way free. So although the charter was important, both in practical terms and in terms of the precedent it set, but it was also limited.

Covid-19 and the Dunkirk spirit 

We’ve all (I’m going to assert on the basis of no proof whatsoever) heard about the Dunkirk spirit, and then (ignoring my assumption) I’m going to explain what it is anyway. Because we all know better than to believe me entirely. 

We’ll get around to Covid and why Dunkirk is suddenly relevant. Stay with me.

Lord Google tells me the Dunkirk spirit is ”an attitude of strength, determination, and camaraderie, especially by the British people as a whole, during a difficult and adverse time or situation.” 

Thank you, Lord G. I have left my data in more places than I realize and I trust you’ve scooped it in by now. I also trust that you’ll accept data as a singular even though we both know it’s technically plural.

The Dunkirk spirit has been evoked a lot lately because, what with the pandemic and all, we’re wading through rising water, wondering where the shore is and whether we still have one. Not to mention (so I can stretch the metaphor closer to the breaking point) wondering how high the water’s going to rise. 

Being of the short persuasion, I’m particularly concerned with that last bit.

Semi-relevant photo: This is called honesty, which comes into the story toward the end, when we talk about myth-making.

So what happened at Dunkirk

Let us go back, children, to May 1940, which is so long ago that not even I had gotten myself born. Yes, history really does go back that far and, lo, even further than that. Germany was ruled by the Nazis. Not Nazis as in a couple of syllables you carelessly tack on to something you don’t like (feminists and grammar come up a lot in this context, although you may notice that those aren’t closely related categories)–

Let’s start over, because I’ve wandered. It’s your own fault for leaving me in charge.

The people running Germany were real Nazis. The kind who killed first their political opponents and pesky unionists, then the disabled, then the Jews and the Gypsies and the gays, then assorted categories of people I’ve forgotten to mention by name but yes, even you might have fallen into one of them. The kind of Nazis who invaded lots of other countries and forced people into slave labor. The kind who–

Okay, you get the point: that kind. The kind also called fascists. Not the dangerous kind who pester you about your use of who and whom or don’t put up with jokes about their breasts

By May 1940, Nazi Germany had already signaled that it had its eye on expansion. Most recently, it had invaded Poland. How did the other European powers respond? They told themselves they were playing a long game. If they waited, they could defeat Germany through economic warfare.  

Oh, and Britain–since that’s the country we’re focused on here–dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and passed the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, giving the government amazing internal powers in case of a war. It could detain anybody it decided was a threat and take any property needed by the government other than land, which sounds like a strange exception, but remember the aristocracy’s base is in land ownership. It could also enter and search any property and change any existing law if it was necessary for the war effort.

As an opponent commented at the time, those were fairly fascistic powers with which to combat the fascists.

Winston Churchill, the country’s newly minted prime minister, wasn’t what you’d call a natural antifascist. In 1927, he’d told Mussolini–who led Italy’s equivalent of the Nazis–that he’d “rendered a service to the world” by destroying the Italian labor movement. “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”

To be fair–and I do occasionally want to be fair, if for no better reason than that it confuses people–Britain and France were more or less expecting to fight a war, but they were torn about whether Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union was the greater threat.

France was prepared to fight a better version of the last war with Germany. This would be a version where they didn’t (slight exaggeration warning here) lose the male half of an entire generation. One where they won a decisive victory and they came away with undisputed bragging rights. 

In comparison, Hitler had tried out all sorts of new war toys in the Spanish Civil War. He’d saved the instruction manuals and was prepared to fight the next war. 

After its invasion of Poland, Germany turned west and invaded the Netherlands and Belgium, which were (and still are) a whole lot closer to France and Britain than Poland was and is, and all of a sudden playing the long game didn’t look like as good an idea to France and Britain as it had the week before. 

Belgium and the Netherlands joined Britain and France in an ad hoc anti-fascist coalition, complicating what sounds like an already chaotic command structure. Governments and orders contradicted each other. Belgian and Dutch resistance collapsed. The allied troops retreated and the Germans advanced. 

Some of the best French units didn’t do much fighting. Their orders had them chasing hither and yon without anyone getting much use out of them. Read enough articles and you come across descriptions of generals being unable to take decisive action and of other officers being without orders for eight days. The word farcical comes up.

Churchill prime ministerially promised France that it would have British military support. Meanwhile his secretary of state for war, Anthony Eden, was (apparently) agreeing with Lord Gort, who was in command of the British troops, that the only possible thing they could do was fight a retreat to the coast.

The French defenses collapsed and the Germans swept into northern France. By May 15 the French government considered itself defeated, although a BBC article (and a few other sources) say that a concerted allied attack at this point could have stopped the German advance. They were vulnerable, exhausted, and low on fuel. A lot of their tanks had broken down.

Instead, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud called Churchill and said, “We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” The French government was burning its archives, assuring the public that everything was fine, and preparing to abandon Paris.

What was left of the allied forces fell back to the coast at Dunkirk, and French and British troops (which includes Muslim troops fighting under the French flag) formed a perimeter, holding off the advancing German troops. Those who weren’t killed in the fighting were captured and either became prisoners of war or were killed on the spot.

They don’t get a whole lot of acknowledgement.

As soldiers gathered on the beach, Britain launched Operation Dynamo–an evacuation of as many troops as possible. The optimistic goal was 45,000. But the beach at Dunkirk is shallow, making it impossible for the navy’s ships to get in close, and there was only one usable, although less than ideal, jetty. So a call went out for small craft, and some 800 to 1,200 responded, ferrying troops from beach to ship. It was a patchwork collection of fishing boats, pleasure crafts, and just about everything above the level of a rowboat.

Some of the small craft–and according to one source, most of them–were crewed by navy personnel. Others were crewed by civilians–their owners and crew. 

The evacuation went on from May 26 to June 4, with the German air force bombing the beach, the town, and the harbor. Sunken boats quickly added yet another problem to an already messy evacuation.

On the beach, in between runs by bombers, the troops lined up nicely and waited to be evacuated. It was, on the one hand, absurd–the British forming orderly lines as if they were waiting to buy ice cream cones, while bombers shrieked above them and the ships they were waiting to board were blown out of the water. And on the other hand, it avoided panic and people fighting to be first. It surely saved lives.

In the end, some 198,000 British and 140,000 allied troops–mostly French–were evacuated, and many thousands of British, French, Polish, and Czech troops were evacuated from other, less well-remembered, beaches in northern France. 

What made the Dunkirk rescue possible? British air cover helped. The discipline of the troops gets a mention. The heroism of all those civilians in their small boats was part of it, however overplayed. The heroism of the troops who died or were captured protecting the evacuation doesn’t form as large a part of the picture as it should–especially (let’s face it) those who weren’t British.

But in large part it was Hitler who made it possible. German troops were in a position to cut off the allied troops by May 23, but on May 24 Hitler ordered them to pull back. Historians argue about why, and some half a dozen reasons are suggested. It’s probably enough to say that he did give the order, and it was hugely important. 

When people talk about the Dunkirk spirit, they’re talking about a British win. In a masterful piece of propaganda (or spin, to use a more modern word) it was cast as a story about civilians in tiny boats, braving bombs and the angry sea to save not just hundreds of thousands of people but the country and possibly the war itself.

Saving so many battle-hardened soldiers might, arguably, have saved the war, but Dunkirk still wasn’t a win. The British army had to abandon almost all its heavy equipment and lost 50,000 troops. Of those, 11,000 died, a handful escaped, and the rest became prisoners of war. If you count the allied troops, 90,000 were lost. Thousands of French troops were left behind and either taken prisoner or massacred.

At the end of the evacuation, if you were standing on Britain’s coast and looking across to Europe, Germany looked like it could conquer anything and anyone. And the body of water separating you was frighteningly narrow.

Creating the story of the Dunkirk spirit meant the propaganda machine had to (or could, with relief) bury the bungling that made Dunkirk inevitable. It was wartime. People needed hope. They needed something to believe in.

We create our myths–or accept them if we’re not their creators–only by being selective. Are they lies? Well, yes. Not entirely, but they’re not the truth, the whole truth, the et cetera truth either.

And here we are in 2020, with all but a few governments bungling their response to the pandemic and a few bungling it on an epic scale. I was about to write “on a Wagnerian scale” but I’ve never seen a Wagner opera and caution got the better of me. But really, the incompetence with which they’ve met this has been stunning. You almost have to admire how awful they’ve been, because it’s not easy to screw things up that thoroughly and still haul yourself out of bed in the morning, never mind trumpet your successes. And yet they do both.

Britain has responded with the Dunkirk spirit. People make protective gear for hospitals. They deliver food to their more vulnerable neighbors. They raise money for a National Health Service that the government has been starving of money for a decade. Every one of those acts is a triumph of the human spirit and community. 

And they became necessary because of massive government bungling.

As Bertolt Brecht said, Unhappy the land that needs heroes.

Marriage, sin, and sexuality in Tudor England

Even if you know nothing more about English history than Henry VIII and his assorted wives, you will have figured out that people back then had sex. Throughout history, people mostly did. But how did they think about it? Because how people think about it colors everything.

I’m working largely from Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor here. Hence the lack of links.

The late Tudor period was a time of increasing literacy. Printed books–in English, yet, as opposed to Latin–were increasingly available, and they included advice books. It’s one of the oddities of human nature that no matter how little a person knows on a subject, someone will turn to them for advice. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in any society and any time period, some fixed number of the people who know nothing, next to nothing, or less than nothing will offer themselves up as experts. These days they’re all over the internet. Back then, they were limited to print.

But of course, printed books were the internet of their day. 

Irrelevant (and note very good) photo: Daffodils. I need to take more pictures. Apologies.

Goodman draws from both advice books and popular songs–another era-appropriate version of the internet. Ballads were printed and sold relatively cheaply. She describes some being plastered to ale-house walls. Even then, the English sang when they drank. 

She also draws from writings that educated men circulated among themselves, some of which were downright salacious, and from the sexual language, both positive and negative, that was in use. 

The Tudor period wasn’t entirely medieval, so we can’t just plaster medieval attitudes (to the extent that we know what they were) over the era. But it wasn’t entirely not medieval either. By Henry VIII’s time, the hermit crab of English history was poking its head out of the medieval shell it had been living in and thinking it might be time to find something more comfortable. And not just because the country was shifting from Catholicism to Protestantism. The economy, education, and government also needed a bigger shell. 

Inevitably, there were holdovers from the medieval period, including a belief in the purity of virginity and of chastity in general. But even so, most people married, and married sex was considered chaste. 

I had assumed–the belief is so deeply embedded in our culture that all you have to do is breathe for bits of it to lodge in your lungs–that it was only unmarried women that society had no place for, but it turns out not to have had much use for unmarried men either. To be fully adult, you had to marry. An unmarried man couldn’t head up a household any more than an unmarried woman could, and like an unmarried woman he faced a lifetime of living in other people’s households–a spare part from a bit of machinery that had long since been lost. 

He also couldn’t take on an apprentice or hold public office. Marriage that central to how society was organized.

The culture appreciated sex, not just for procreation–which was the only kind of sex the Catholic Church approved of–but for its ability to hold a couple together. It was the sweetness in a marriage, the source of love that helped a couple get through its difficulties. And they expected both partners to find pleasure in it. Both had a right to expect it, each owed it to the other, and a marriage that wasn’t consummated could be annulled. 

Medical experts disagreed on what it took to produce a child. One group saw the woman’s womb as a field where the man’s seed could take root. The other believed that both the man and the woman had to produce a seed. From that second theory it followed that if the woman didn’t have an orgasm, she didn’t produce a seed. And with no seed, there was no baby. 

On the positive side, this meant that everyone involved (and they didn’t share our concept of privacy) had an incentive for the woman to enjoy herself. Even the Catholic Church–and England was Catholic for a fair part of the Tudor era–had an interest in it. On the negative side, it followed that if woman became pregnant after being raped, she was must have enjoyed consensual sex.

Some days–some whole eras–you just can’t win.

For at least for part of this time, marriage wasn’t entirely in the hands of the church. Starting in late medieval times, the church had been pushing toward taking control of it, and it had made inroads, but still, if two people said some version of “I marry you” and then had sex, they were married. It was legal, it was binding, and it didn’t need witnesses or a written record. But it was also hard to prove if one party decided to ride off into the sunset claiming to still be single. 

Marriages didn’t have to happen in the church, although most couples did go to the church door and have a ceremony. 

Not everyone talked openly about sex, but some people did. The Victorian era it wasn’t. A man might be boastful about sex outside of marriage, but a woman pretty much had to find extenuating circumstances, because the consequences were harsher for her. In spite of acknowledging that women enjoyed sex, and even needing them to enjoy it, society was still patriarchal. Children born outside of marriage had no legal father and were seen as a drain on society’s resources, because men controlled the resources. It was somewhere between impossible and next to impossible for a single woman to raise a child without the support of the parish–that’s the local government–and that in turn meant the support of the people who paid taxes. So they had an interest in there being as few children as possible born outside of marriage, and in fact there weren’t that many of them. Communities were still small enough that policing people’s sexual activity was, for the most part, possible. And if I know what a village is like, the task was undertaken enthusiastically by at least some residents.

Any child born inside a marriage was legally the husband’s, even if he’d been away for two years, so society as a whole was less concerned about them. 

If Henry VIII is any guide, aristocrats–or at least the king and his lovers–weren’t held to the same standard as the average person. Contemporary accounts show Henry VII as faithful to his wife, but Henry VIII was open about his mistresses. 

As were wealthy men in Wales. Goodman has found wills men they left property to their “base born” children–something that wasn’t typical in England. Welsh legal tradition had allowed them to inherit if their fathers acknowledged them, but in 1536 English law replaced it and the wills she found may have been made by men looking for a way around the change.

Social attitudes were slower to change than the law was. The mistress of an elite man was in a better social position if she lived in Wales than she would have been in England. There was a grudging acceptance of long-term extra-marital relationships. The Church didn’t approve, but it didn’t yet have control.

Where it did have control, though, it was relentless. Church courts could convict people of sexual offenses and sentence them to physical punishment or to public shaming. Goodman mentions people having to kneel in front of the congregation for weeks, in their underwear, holding a candle. 

In general, there was no scale of sexual misbehavior that made one offense worse than some other. They were all bad–from thought to act–but the person who strayed often was worse than the person who only wandered off the path once, then skittered back to safety. Although homosexuality was a sin, it was also not a category. A person might have sex with the wrong flavor of human, and that was a sin, but that was as far as thinking on the subject seemed to go. The division wasn’t between straight and gay but between chaste and not chaste, and the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah was about all sorts of sexual sin, not homosexual sex alone. 

Sex between men, though, did seem to get people riled, and it became illegal under Henry VIII. The penalty was death, but it wasn’t clear exactly what act had been made illegal. Both prosecutions and accusations were rare. 

Sex between women seems to have been invisible. It shows up very little in writing and not at all in the courts.

In spite of all that emphasis on chastity, prostitution was often tolerated. It was most common in cities, where women were more likely to be away from family support and become desperate (men controlled the resources, remember), where enough potential clients could be found, and where some level of anonymity made it simpler. 

In the first half of the Tudor era, licensed brothels worked just outside of London under the protection of the Bishop of Winchester. Yes indeed, kids, the world’s a strange place and sometimes it’s even stranger than that. They were closed in 1546 out of fears about venereal disease and a new outbreak of the plague. 

At times, the authorities would crack down on prostitution, parading women through the streets and pillorying them, but a brothel with a powerful patron would be able to operate relatively freely.

There are references to be found to male stews–which is what they called brothels–but that’s about all the record has to offer us.