Think Piece

“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture

by guest contributor Sarah Bendall

Our everyday lives are surrounded by objects. Some are mundane tools that help us with daily tasks, others are sentimental items that carry emotions and memories, and others again are used to display achievements, wealth and social status. Importantly, many of these objects are gendered and their continued use in various different ways helps to mould and solidify ideas, particularly, gender norms.

In the early modern period two objects of dress that shaped and reinforced gender norms were the busk, a long piece of wood, metal, whalebone or horn that was placed into a channel in the front of the bodies or stays (corsets), and the busk-point, a small piece of ribbon that secured the busk in place. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these accessories to female dress helped to not only shape expressions of love and sexual desire, but also shaped the acceptable gendered boundaries of those expressions.

Busks were practical objects that existed to keep the female posture erect, to emphasize the fullness of the breasts and to keep the stomach flat. These uses were derived from their function in European court dress that complimented elite ideas of femininity; most notably good breeding that was reflected in an upright posture and controlled bodily movement. However, during the seventeenth century, and increasingly over eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lovers not only charged busks and busk-points with erotic connotations but also saw them as tokens of affection. Thus, they became part of the complex social and gendered performance of courtship and marriage.

The sheer number of surviving busks that contain inscriptions associated with love indicate that busk giving during courtship must have been a normal and commonly practised act in early modern England and France. A surviving English wooden busk in the Victoria and Albert Museum contains symbolic engravings, the date of gifting, 1675, and a Biblical reference. On the other side of the busk is an inscription referencing the Biblical Isaac’s love for his wife, which reads: “WONC A QVSHON I WAS ASKED WHICH MAD ME RETVRN THESE ANSVRS THAT ISAAC LOVFED RABEKAH HIS WIFE AND WHY MAY NOT I LOVE FRANSYS”.


‘English wooden Stay Busk, c.1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Accession number W.56-1929’

Another inscription on one seventeenth-century French busk exclaims “Until Goodbye, My Fire is Pure, Love is United”. Three engravings correspond with each line: a tear falling onto a barren field, two hearts appearing in that field and finally a house that the couple would share together in marriage with two hearts floating above it.

Inscriptions found on other surviving busks go beyond speaking on behalf of the lover, and actually speak on behalf of busks themselves, giving these inanimate objects voices of their own. Another seventeenth-century French busk, engraved with a man’s portrait declares:

“He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover

Who would very much like to take my place”

This inscription shows the busk’s anthropomorphized awareness of the prized place that it held so close to the female body. John Marston’s The scourge of villanie Three bookes of satyres (1598, p. F6r-v) expressed similar sentiments with the character Saturio wishing himself his lover’s busk so that he “might sweetly lie, and softly luske Betweene her pappes, then must he haue an eye At eyther end, that freely might discry Both hills [breasts] and dales [groin].”

Although the busk’s intimate association with the female body was exploited in both erotic literature and bawdy jokes, the busk itself also took on phallic connotations. The narrator of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712, p. 12) describes the Baron with an ‘altar’ built by love. On this altar “lay the Sword-knot Sylvia‘s Hands had sown, With Flavia‘s Busk that oft had rapp’d his own …”  Here “His own [busk]” evokes his erection that Flavia’s busk had often brushed against during their love making. Therefore, in the context of gift giving the busk also acted as an extension of the male lover: it was an expression of his male sexual desire in its most powerful and virile form that was then worn privately on the female body. Early modern masculinity was a competitive performance and in a society where social structure and stability centred on the patriarchal household, young men found courtship possibly one of the most important events of their life – one which tested their character and their masculine ability to woo and marry. In this context, the act of giving a busk was a masculine act, which asserted not only a young man’s prowess, but his ability to secure a respectable place in society with a household.

Yet the inscriptions on surviving busks and literary sources that describe them often to do not account for the female experience of courtship and marriage. Although women usually took on the submissive role in gift giving, being the recipient of love tokens such as busks did not render them completely passive. Courtship encouraged female responses as it created a discursive space in which women were free to express themselves. Women could choose to accept or reject a potential suitor’s gift, giving her significant agency in the process of courtship. Within the gift-giving framework choosing to place a masculine sexual token so close to her body also led to a very intimate female gesture. Yet a woman’s desire for a male suitor could also take on much more active expressions as various sources describe women giving men their busk-points. When the character Jane in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600) discovers that the husband she thought dead is still alive, she abandons her new beau who tells her that “he [her old husband] shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”, alluding to women’s habit of giving busk-points as signs of affection and promise. John Marston’s The Malcontent (1603) describes a similar situation when the Maquerelle warns her ladies “look to your busk-points, if not chastely, yet charily: be sure the door be bolted.” In effect she is warning these girls to keep their doors shut and not give their busk-points away to lovers as keepsakes.

To some, the expression of female sexual desire by such means seems oddly out of place in a society where strict cultural and social practices policed women’s agency. Indeed, discussions of busks and busk-points provoked a rich dialogue concerning femininity and gender in early modern England. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bodies (corsets) elongated the torso, until the part of the bodie that contained the busk reached to the lady’s “Honor” (Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon…., p. 94)[1] In other words, the lowest part of the busk which contained the ‘busk-point’ sat over a woman’s sexual organs where chastity determined her honour. The politics involved in female honour and busk-points are expressed in the previously discussed scene from The Malcontent: busk-points functioned as both gifts and sexual tokens and this is highlighted by the Maquerelle’s pleas for the girls to look to them ‘chastely’.

As a result of the intimate position of the busk and busk-point on the female body these objects were frequently discussed in relation to women’s sexuality and their sexual honour. Some moralising commentaries blamed busks for concealing illegitimate pregnancies and causing abortions. Others associated busks with prostitutes, and rendered them a key part of the profession’s contraceptive arsenal. Yet much popular literature and the inscriptions on the busks themselves rarely depict those women who wore them as ‘whores’. Instead these conflicting ideas of the busk and busk-points found in sources from this period in fact mirror the contradictory ideas and fears that early moderns held about women’s sexuality. When used in a sexual context outside of marriage these objects were controversial as they were perceived as aiding unmarried women’s unacceptable forward expressions of sexual desire. However, receiving busks and giving away busk-points in the context of courtship and marriage was an acceptable way for a woman to express her desire precisely because it occurred in a context that society and social norms could regulate, and this desire would eventually be consummated within the acceptable confines of marriage.

Busks and busk-points are just two examples of the ways in which the examination of material culture can help the historian to tap into historical ideas of femininity and masculinity, and the ways in which notions of gender were imbued in, circulated and expressed through the use of objects in everyday life in early modern Europe. Although controversial at times, busk and busk-points were items of clothing that aided widely accepted expressions of male and female sexual desire through the acts of giving, receiving and wearing. Ultimately, discussions of these objects and their varied meanings highlight not only the ways in which sexuality occupied a precarious space in early modern England, but how material culture such as clothing was an essential part of regulating gender norms.
[1] Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon, p. 3.

Sarah A. Bendall is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Her dissertation examines the materiality, consumption and discourses generated around stiffened female undergarments – bodies, busks, farthingales and bum rolls – to explore how these items of material culture shaped notions of femininity in England between 1560-1690. A longer article-length version of this blog post has appeared in the Journal of Gender & History and Sarah also maintains her own blog were she writes about the process of historical dress reconstruction.

Think Piece

Writing the History of University Coeducation

by Emily Rutherford

When Yung In Chae told me that she was going to Nancy Malkiel’s book talk, I begged her to cover it for the blog. After all, my dissertation is a new, comprehensive history of coeducation in British universities, and as I was writing my prospectus Malkiel helped to put coeducation back into historians’ headlines. As Yung In’s account shows, Malkiel’s weighty tome restores some important things that have been missing in previous histories of university coeducation: attention to the intricacy of the politics through which institutions negotiated coeducation (and an emphasis on politics as a series of negotiations between individuals, often obeying only the logic of unintended consequences), and attention to the men who were already part of single-sex institutions and considered whether to admit women to them. Histories of coeducation usually focus on the ideas and experiences of women who sought access to the institutions, whether as teachers or as students. But that tends to imply a binary where women were progressives who supported coeducation and men were reactionaries who opposed it. As Malkiel shows—and as we might know from thinking about other questions of gender and politics like women’s suffrage—it just doesn’t work like that.

Malkiel’s book strikes me as a compelling history of gender relations at a specific set of universities at a particular moment—the 1960s and ’70s, which we all might point to as a key period in which gender norms and relations between men and women came under pressure on both sides of the Atlantic. But we should be wary, I think, of regarding it as the history of coeducation (Malkiel isn’t suggesting this, but I think that’s how some people might read it—not least when glancing at the book’s cover and seeing the subtitle, “The Struggle for Coeducation”). Malkiel’s story is an Ivy League one, and I’m not sure that it can help us to understand what coeducation looked like at less selective universities whose internal politics were less dominated by admissions policy; at universities in other countries (like the UK) which existed in nationally specific contexts for institutional structure and cultural norms surrounding gender; or in terms of questions other than the co-residence of students. Some of Malkiel’s cases are unusual universities like Princeton and Dartmouth which admitted women very late in the game, but others are about the problem of co-residency: merging men’s and women’s institutions like Harvard and Radcliffe that already essentially shared a campus and many resources and administrative structures, or gender-integrating the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and thus meaning that men and women students would live alongside each other. But at these institutions, as at other, less elite universities, student life was already significantly coeducational: men and women had some, though not all, teaching in common; they joined mixed extracurricular organizations; they socialized together—though this was limited by curfews and parietal rules, which in 1960s style became the focus of student activism around gender relations. Women teachers and administrators faced other, historically specific challenges about how to be taken seriously, or how to balance a career and marriage. Those who opposed coeducation and sought to support single-sex institutions did so—as Malkiel shows—in ways specific to the political and social context of the 1960s.

But my dissertation research suggests that lasting arguments about co-residency that persisted into the 1960s—and ultimately resulted in the coeducation of hold-out institutions like Princeton and Dartmouth—were the product of an earlier series of conflicts in universities over coeducation and gender relations more broadly, whose unsatisfactory resolution in some institutions set up the conflicts Malkiel discusses. Let’s take the British case, which is not perfectly parallel to the US case but is the focus of my research. My dissertation starts in the 1860s, when there were nine universities in Great Britain but none admitted women. The university sector, like the middle class, exploded in the nineteenth century, and as this happened, the wives, sisters, and daughters of a newly professionalized class of university teachers campaigned for greater educational opportunities for middle-class women. In the late 1870s, Bristol and London became the first universities to admit women to degrees, and activists founded the first women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, though they were not yet recognized by the universities. By 1930, there were seventeen universities in Britain as well as many colleges, all except Cambridge granting women degrees. Cambridge would not admit women to the BA until 1948, and as Malkiel shows the Oxford and Cambridge colleges wouldn’t coeducate until the 1970s. Indeed, higher education did not become a mass system as in the US until the period following the 1963 Robbins Report, and national numbers of women undergraduates did not equal men until the higher education system was restructured in 1992. But it’s already possible to see that a definition of coeducation focused not on co-residency but on women’s admission to the BA nationally, and on the first women on university campuses—as teachers, as students, and also as servants or as the family members or friends of men academics—changes the periodization of the story of coeducation, placing the focal point somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century and taking into account the social and cultural changes wrought by significant factors within British history such as massive urbanization or the First World War. Of course, it’s not just about the BA, and the cultural aspects of this shift in norms surrounding gender relations in Britain are an important part of the story—as middle-class men and women (particularly young men and women) found themselves confronting the new social experience of being friends with each other, an experience which many found perplexing and awkward, but which the more liberal sought out regardless of whether they were educated at the same institutions or whether there were curfews and other regulations governing the ways they could meet each other. University administrators had to confront the same questions among their own generation, while also making decisions about institutional priorities: should accommodation be built for women students? should it look different from the accommodation offered to men students? should women be allowed into the library or laboratory or student union? should they be renovated to include women’s restrooms? how would these projects be funded? would philanthropists disgruntled by change pull their donations? These were questions universities faced in the 1920s as much as in the 1960s—or today.

I’m still early in my research, but one focus of my inquiries is those who opposed coeducation. They haven’t been given as much attention as those who fought for it—but what did they perceive to be the stakes of the question? What did they think they stood to lose? Who were they, and how did they make their claims? I already know that they included both men and women, and that while many of them were garden-variety small-c conservatives, not all of them were. I also know that for many, homoeroticism played an important role in how they explained the distinctive value of single-sex education. By 1920, the battle over women being admitted to the BA was over at all British institutions except Cambridge, but these opponents put up a strong fight. They help to show that coeducation wasn’t foreordained in a teleology of progress, but was the outcome of certain compromises and negotiations between factions, whose precise workings varied institutionally. Yet the opponents also were in many respects successful. After their institutions admitted women to the BA, they carved out spaces in which particular forms of single-sex sociability could continue. The Oxbridge collegiate system enabled this, but it also happened through single-sex student organizations (and persists, it might be noted, in universities that today have vibrant fraternity and sorority cultures), many of which were sponsored and fostered by faculty, alumni, or donors who had a stake in the preservation of single-sex spaces. Coeducation is often viewed as a process that ended when women were admitted to the BA. But even after this formal constitutional change, single-sex spaces persisted: colleges, residence halls, extracurricular organizations, informal bars to women’s academic employment, and personal choices about whom teachers and students sought to work, study, and socialize alongside. Understanding how this happened in the period from, say, 1860 to 1945 helps to explain the causes and conditions of the period on which Malkiel’s work focuses, whose origins were as much in the unresolved conflicts of the earlier period of coeducation as they were in the gender and sexuality foment of the 1960s. I suspect, too, that there may be longer-lasting legacies, which continue to structure the politics and culture of gender in the universities in which we work today.

Think Piece

Evolution Made Easy: Henry Balfour, Pitt Rivers, and the Evolution of Art

by guest contributor Laurel Waycott

In 1893, Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, conducted an experiment. He traced a drawing of a snail crawling over a twig, and passed it to another person, whom he instructed to copy the drawing as accurately as possible with pen and paper. This second drawing was then passed to the next participant, with Balfour’s original drawing removed, and so on down the line. Balfour, in essence, constructed a nineteenth-century version of the game of telephone, with a piece of gastropodic visual art taking the place of whispered phrases. As in the case of the children’s game, what began as a relatively easy echo of what came before resulted in a bizarre, near unrecognizable transmutation.

Plate I. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

In the series of drawings, Balfour’s pastoral snail morphed, drawing by drawing, into a stylized bird—the snail’s eyestalks became the forked tail of the bird, while the spiral shell became, in Balfour’s words, “an unwieldy and unnecessary wart upon the, shall we call them, ‘trousers’ which were once the branching end of the twig” (28). Snails on twigs, birds in trousers—just what, exactly, are we to make of Balfour’s intentions for his experiment? What was Balfour trying to prove?

Balfour’s game of visual telephone, at its heart, was an attempt to understand how ornamental forms could change over time, using the logic of biological evolution. The results were published in a book, The Evolution of Decorative Art, which was largely devoted to the study of so-called “primitive” arts from the Pacific. The reason that Balfour had to rely on his constructed game and experimental results, rather than original samples of the “savage” art, was that he lacked a complete series necessary for illustrating his theory—he was forced to create one for his purposes. Balfour’s drawing experiment was inspired by a technique developed by General Pitt Rivers himself, whose collections formed the foundation of the museum. In 1875, Pitt Rivers—then known as Augustus Henry Lane Fox—delivered a lecture titled “The Evolution of Culture,” in which he argued that shifting forms of artifacts, from firearms to poetry, were in fact culminations of many small changes; and that the historical development of artifacts could be reconstructed by observing these minute changes. From this, Pitt Rivers devised a scheme of museum organization that arranged objects in genealogical fashion—best illustrated by his famous display of weapons used by the indigenous people of Australia.

Plate III. Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, The Evolution of Culture, and Other Essays, ed. John Linton Myres (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906).

Here, Pitt Rivers arranged the weapons in a series of changing relationships radiating out from a central object, the “simple cylindrical stick” (34). In Pitt Rivers’ system, this central object was the most “primitive” and “essential” object, from which numerous small modifications could be made. Elongate the stick, and eventually one arrived at a lance; add a bend, and it slowly formed into a boomerang. While he acknowledged that these specimens were contemporary and not ancient, the organization implied a temporal relationship between the objects. This same logic was extended to understandings of human groups at the turn of the twentieth century. So-called “primitive” societies like the indigenous groups of the Pacific were considered “survivals” from the past, physically present but temporally removed from those living around them (37). The drawing game, developed by Pitt Rivers in 1884, served as a different way to manipulate time: by speeding up the process of cultural evolution, researchers could mimic evolution’s slow process of change over time in the span of just a few minutes. If the fruit fly’s rapid reproductive cycle made it an ideal model organism for studying Mendelian heredity, the drawing game sought to make cultural change an object of the laboratory.

It is important to note the capacious, wide-ranging definitions of “evolution” by the end of the nineteenth century. Evolution could refer to the large-scale, linear development of entire human or animal groups, but it could also refer to Darwinian natural selection. Balfour drew on both definitions, and developed tools to help him to apply evolutionary theory directly to studies of decorative art. “Degeneration,” the idea that organisms could revert back to earlier forms of evolution, played a reoccurring role in both Balfour’s and Pitt Rivers’ lines of museum object-based study. For reasons never explicitly stated, both men assumed that decorative motifs originated with realistic images, relying on the conventions of verisimilitude common in Western art. This leads us back, then, to the somewhat perplexing drawing with which Balfour chose to begin his experiment.

Balfour wrote that he started his experiment by making “a rough sketch of some object which could be easily recognized” (24). His original gastropodic image relied, fittingly, on a number of conventions that required a trained eye and trained hand to interpret. The snail’s shell and the twig, for instance, appeared rounded through the artist’s use of cross-hatching, the precise placement of regularly spaced lines which lend a sense of three-dimensional volume to a drawing. Similarly, the snail’s shell was placed in a vague landscape, surrounded by roughly-sketched lines giving a general sense of the surface upon which the action occurred. While the small illustration might initially seem like a straightforward portrayal of a gastropod suctioned onto a twig, the drawing’s visual interpretation is only obvious to those accustomed to reading and reproducing the visual conventions of Western art. Since the image was relatively challenging to begin with, it provided Balfour with an exciting experimental result: specifically, a bird wearing trousers.

Plate II. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

Balfour had conducted a similar experiment using a drawing of a man from the Parthenon frieze as his “seed,” but it failed to yield the surprising results of the first. While the particulars of the drawing changed, somewhat—the pectoral muscles became a cloak, the hat changed, and the individual’s gender got a little murky in the middle—the overall substance of the image remained unchanged. It did not exhibit evolutionary “degeneration” to the same convincing degree, but rather seemed to be, quite simply, the product of some less-than-stellar artists. While Balfour included both illustrations in his book, he clearly preferred his snail-to-bird illustration and reproduced it far more widely. He also admitted to interfering in the experimental process: omitting subsequent drawings that did not add useful evidence to his argument, and specifically choosing participants who had no artistic training (25, 27).

Balfour clearly manipulated his experiment and the resulting data to prove what he thought he already knew: that successive copying in art led to degenerate, overly conventionalized forms that no longer held to Western standards of verisimilitude. It was an outlook he had likely acquired from Pitt Rivers. In Notes and Queries on Anthropology (1892), a handbook circulated to travelers who wished to gather ethnographic data for anthropologists back in Britain, Pitt Rivers outlined a number of questions that travelers should ask about local art. The questions were leading, designed in a simple yes/no format likely to provoke a certain response. In fact, one of Pitt Rivers’ questions could, essentially, offer the verbal version of Balfour’s drawing game. “Do they,” he wrote, “in copying from one another, vary the designs through negligence, inability, or other causes, so as to lose sight of the original objects, and produce conventionalized forms, the meaning of which is otherwise inexplicable?” (119–21). Pitt Rivers left very little leeway—both for the artist and the observer—for creativity. Might the artists choose to depict things in a certain way? And might the observer interpret these depictions in his or her own way? Pitt River’s motivation was clear. If one did find such examples of copying, he added. “it would be of great interest to obtain series of such drawings, showing the gradual departure from the original designs.” They would, after all, make a very convincing museum display.

Laurel Waycott is a PhD candidate in the history of science and medicine at Yale University. This essay is adapted from a portion of her dissertation, which examines the way biological thinking shaped conceptions of decoration, ornament, and pattern at the turn of the 20th century.

Dispatches from the Archives

Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures: ‘History in English criticism, 1919-1961’

by guest contributor Joshua Bennett

A distinctive feature of the early years of the Cambridge English Tripos (examination system), in which close “practical criticism” of individual texts was balanced by the study of the “life, literature, and thought” surrounding them, was that the social and intellectual background to literature acquired an equivalent importance to that of literature itself. Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures, in common with his essay collections, Common Reading and Common Writing, have over the past several weeks richly demonstrated that the literary critics who were largely the products of that Tripos can themselves be read and historicized in that spirit. Collini, whose resistance to the disciplinary division between the study of literature and that of intellectual history has proved so fruitful over many years, has focused on six literary critics in his lecture series: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, Basil Willey, William Empson, and Raymond Williams. All, with the exception of Eliot, were educated at Cambridge; and all came to invest the enterprise of literary criticism with a particular kind of missionary importance in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Collini has been concerned to explore the intellectual and public dynamics of that mission, by focusing on the role of history in these critics’ thought and work. His argument has been twofold. First, he has emphasized that the practice of literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical in nature. The second, and more intellectual-historical, element of his case has consisted in the suggestion that literary critics offered a certain kind of “cultural history” to the British public sphere. By using literary and linguistic evidence in order to unlock the “whole way of life” of previous forms of English society, and to reach qualitative judgements about “the standard of living” in past and present, critics occupied territory vacated by professional historians at the time, while also contributing to wider debates about twentieth-century societal conditions.

Collini’s lectures did not attempt to offer a full history of the development of English as a discipline in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they raised larger questions for those interested in the history of the disciplines both of English and History in twentieth-century Britain, and what such histories can reveal about the wider social and cultural conditions in which they took shape. How should the findings from Collini’s penetrating microscope modify, or provide a framework for, our view of these larger organisms?

First, a question arises as to the relationship between the kind of historical criticism pursued by Collini’s largely Cantabrigian dramatis personae, and specific institutions and educational traditions. E. M. W. Tillyard’s mildly gossipy memoir of his involvement in the foundation of the Cambridge English Tripos, published in 1958 under the title of The Muse Unchained, recalls an intellectual environment of the 1910s and 1920s in which the study of literature was exciting because it was a way of opening up the world of ideas. The English Tripos, he held, offered a model of general humane education—superior to Classics, the previous such standard—through which the ideals of the past might nourish the present. There is a recognizable continuity between these aspirations, and the purposes of the cultural history afterwards pursued under the auspices of literary criticism by the subsequent takers of that Tripos whom Collini discussed—several of whom began their undergraduate studies as historians.

But how far did the English syllabuses of other universities, and the forces driving their creation and development, also encourage a turn towards cultural history, and how did they shape the kind of cultural history that was written? Tillyard’s account is notably disparaging of philological approaches to English studies, of the kind which acquired and preserved a considerably greater prominence in Oxford’s Honour School of “English Language and Literature”—a significant pairing—from 1896. Did this emphasis contribute to an absence of what might be called “cultural-historical” interest among Oxford’s literary scholars, or alternatively give it a particular shape? Widening the canvas beyond Oxbridge, it is surely also important to heed the striking fact that England was one of the last countries in Europe in which widespread university interest in the study of English literature took shape. If pressed to single out any one individual as having been responsible for the creation of the “modern” form of the study of English Literature in the United Kingdom—a hazardous exercise, certainly—one could do worse than to alight upon the Anglo-Scottish figure of Herbert Grierson. Grierson, who was born in Shetland in 1866 and died in 1960, was appointed to the newly-created Regius Chalmers Chair of English at Aberdeen in 1894, before moving to take up a similar position in Edinburgh in 1915. In his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh, Grierson argued for the autonomy of the study of English literature from that of British history. As Cairns Craig has recently pointed out, however, an evaluative kind of “cultural history” is unmistakably woven into his writings on the poetry of John Donne—which for Grierson prefigured the psychological realism of the modern novel—and his successors. For Grierson, the cultural history of the modern world was structured by a conflict between religion, humanism, and science—evident in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth—to which literature itself offered, in the present day, a kind of antidote. Grierson’s conception of literature registered his own difficulties with the Free Church religion of his parents, as well, perhaps, as the abiding influence of the broad Scottish university curriculum—combining study of the classics, philosophy, psychology and rhetoric—which he had encountered as an undergraduate prior to the major reforms of Scottish higher education begun in 1889. Did the heroic generation of Cambridge-educated critics, then, create and disseminate a kind of history inconceivable without the English Tripos? Or did they offer more of a local instantiation of a wider “mind of Britain”? A general history of English studies in British universities, developing for example some of the themes discussed in William Whyte’s recent Redbrick, is certainly a desideratum.

Collini partly defined literary critics’ cultural-historical interests in contradistinction to a shadowy “Other”: professional historians, who were preoccupied not by culture but by archives, charters and pipe-rolls. As Collini pointed out, the word “culture”—and so the enterprise of “cultural history”—has admitted of several senses in different times and in the usage of different authors. The kind of cultural history which critics felt they could not find among professional historians, and which accordingly they themselves had to supply, centered on an understanding of lived experience in the past; and on identifying the roots—and so, perhaps, the correctives—to their present discontents. This raises a second interesting problem, the answer to which should be investigated rather than assumed: what exactly became of “cultural history” in these senses within the British historical profession between around 1920 and 1960?

Peter Burke and Peter Ghosh have alike argued that the growing preoccupation of academic history with political history in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries acted regrettably to constrict that universal application of historical method to all facets of human societies which the Enlightenment first outlined in terms of “conjectural history.” This thesis is true in its main outlines. But there were ways in which cultural history retained a presence in British academic history in the period of what Michael Bentley thinks of as historiographical “modernism,” prior to the transformative interventions of Keith Thomas, E. P. Thompson and others in the 1960s and afterwards. In the field of religious history, for example, Christopher Dawson – while holding the title of “Lecturer in the History of Culture” at University College, Exeter—published a collection of essays in 1933 entitled Enquiries into religion and culture. English study of socioeconomic history in the interwar and postwar years also often extended to, or existed in tandem with, interest in what can only be described as “culture.” Few episodes might appear as far removed from cultural history as the “storm over the gentry,” for example—a debate over the social origins of the English Civil War that was played out chiefly in the pages of the Economic History Review in the 1940s and 1950s. But the first book of one of the main participants in that controversy, Lawrence Stone, was actually a study entitled Sculpture in Britain: the middle ages, published in 1955 in the Pelican History of Art series. Although Stone came to regard it as a diversion from his main interests, its depictions of a flourishing artistic culture in late-medieval Britain, halted by the Reformation, may still be read as a kind of cultural-historical counterpart to his better-known arguments for the importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of social upheaval. If it is true that literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical, perhaps it is also true that few kinds of history have been found to be wholly separable from cultural history, broadly defined.

Joshua Bennett is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Christ Church, Oxford.

Think Piece

Shooting the Moon: Martyrdom and Sacred Kingship in the Twenty-First Century

by guest contributor Peter Walker

On the cold afternoon of January 30, 1649, King Charles I was publicly beheaded in London, condemned as a traitor by parliamentarians. Royalists, who viewed the king as head of the church, immediately began celebrating the executed King as a martyr. Three hundred and sixty eight years later, this devotional cult remains alive and well, flourishing in unexpected places. This year, the American Society of King Charles the Martyr met for a church service commemorating “Martyrdom Day” at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia, a dozen blocks from Independence Hall.

What is the appeal of a royalist devotional cult in the twenty-first-century United States? The cult of King Charles the Martyr had its beginnings in seventeenth-century conflicts between royalists and parliamentarians, and remains entangled with the political theology of sacred kingship. Politics in the United States have taken some unexpected twists recently, but—whatever else might happen—the American experiment in democracy and republicanism probably won’t end with a return to monarchy. Of course, Americans retain an appetite for royalty, as Hello! magazine attests, but Charles I is hardly a celebrity. According to Mark Kishlansky’s unfortunately-named biography, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life, he remains “the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Yet to his fans, King Charles I was and remains a Christian martyr whose spiritual importance transcends the politics of the seventeenth-century Civil War.

The frontispiece to the 'Eikon Basilke' (1649)
The frontispiece to the ‘Eikon Basilke’ (1649)

Historians tend to disagree about Charles’s reign: was he a victim, a tyrant, or simply incompetent? Whatever the case, once he was deposed he played his part as a martyr with dignity, bravery, and political acumen. On the morning of his execution, he wrote that he would greet the day as “my second wedding day; I would be as trim today as may be, for before tonight I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” He wore two shirts so that he would not shiver from the cold and appear frightened. Addressing the crowd from the scaffolding, he declared himself “the martyr of the people.” He left a spiritual autobiography titled Eikon Basilke (“The Royal Portrait”), which provided an account and justification of his conduct. Here, Charles explained that he could have saved his life if he had given into the demands of the parliamentarians and abolished the bishops of the Church of England. The historian Andrew Lacey calls the Eikon “the most successful book of the century.” Its heavily symbolic frontispiece was particularly influential, showing Charles exchanging the royal crown for a martyr’s crown. Charles himself thus provided his supporters with the material for his cult.

Charles’s martyrdom was his greatest political success. Widespread uneasiness about this national sin eased the restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660. In 1662, Charles’s martyrdom was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the Church of England.

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)
Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

The commemoration of Charles’s execution on January 30 was one of three explicitly political services enjoined by the Book of Common Prayer. On May 29, congregations observed the Restoration of Charles II, and on November 5, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The latter, directed against Catholics, has remained popular to this day. Martyrdom Day, by contrast, was politically divisive, and was denounced as idolatrous by reforming Protestants.

Following the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty at the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89, Martyrdom Day remained part of the Anglican liturgy but its divisiveness made it a political liability. The festival was popular with high churchmen such as Henry Sacheverell, who feared that the generous toleration given to Protestant Dissenters threatened the safety of both church and state. Nevertheless, the theory of sacred monarchy articulated in the January 30 service, and the close association of Charles’s cult with the exiled Stuart dynasty, clashed with the political imperatives of the new regime. By 1772, when Sir Roger Newdigate defended the Church of England’s “only canonized saint” in the House of Commons, he was met with derisive laughter. Charles’s status as a martyr proved even more divisive in the American colonies. His memory was venerated by loyalist Anglicans during the American Revolution, who found in his patient, steadfast suffering a model for their own behavior during the political crisis. For American Anglicans who supported independence, however, Martyrdom Day was an embarrassment. Following independence, the newly-formed Episcopal Church excised the service from its Book of Common Prayer. In Britain, meanwhile, it remained officially observed until 1858, when the service was removed from the Book of Common Prayer by an Act of Parliament.

Today, the cult of King Charles the Martyr is thoroughly anachronistic, doubly so for its American adherents. The festival is not officially observed in either the UK or the US, and it no longer serves the political uses to which it was put in the seventeenth century. It nevertheless retains supporters among high church Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Anglo-Catholics. The cult was revived by the Oxford Movement, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded in 1894. Part of the cult’s attraction, perhaps, lies in the nostalgic and reactionary appeal of deliberate political anachronism. This appears to have been the case for the Society’s Anglo-Irish founder, the Hon. Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent. But rather more important is its theological meaning to Anglicans who place a particularly high value on the longevity and perpetuation of the church’s institutions. As the cult’s political utility recedes, it becomes easier to see the theological concerns which have always underpinned it.

Perhaps the greatest part of the cult’s power, from its origins to the present, is not so much the sacred monarchy part as the martyrdom part. Charles provides that rare thing, a specifically Anglican martyr. The Society’s hymns celebrate “Royal Charles, who chose to die / Rather than the Faith deny.” The power of martyrdom lies in this choice: by choosing death, the martyr triumphs over the worst that the world can throw at them. Like shooting the moon in a game of cards, martyrdom turns a weak hand into a trump hand. It is the ultimate weapon of the weak, with the potential to upend structures of social and political power. This tradition is embedded in Christianity, ultimately referring to the model of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Brad Gregory showed in his classic book Salvation at Stake, martyrdom was revived during the Reformation, when the martyr’s willingness to die seemed to indicate that they died for the true faith. However, this claim was progressively undone by the undiminishing capacity of rival versions of Christianity to produce their own martyrs. While martyrdom could no longer be counted on to point the way to religious truth, it continued to demonstrate the irreducible resilience of individual religious belief, marking out the limits of the coercive power of the modern state. For all its deliberate anachronism, then, the cult of King Charles the Martyr might just be an essentially modern form of religious observance.

Peter Walker has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. His dissertation is about Anglicanism and martyrdom (among other things).

Think Piece

(Prison) Note(book)s Toward a History of Boredom

by guest contributor Spencer J. Weinreich

Act III, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) sees the imprisoned Antonio following his creditor, Shylock, through the streets, in hopes of mercy. Unmoved, Shylock expostulates, “I do wonder, / Thou naughty gaoler, that thou art so fond / To come abroad with him at his request” (III.iii.8–10).

But sixteenth-century English audiences would not have been surprised at Antonio’s freedom, for early-modern prisons “were not hermetically sealed sites of discipline; they were instead physically and socially enmeshed with the surrounding city” (Freeman, “The Rise of Prison Literature,” 135–36). Friends, relatives, and servants could come and go with relative ease. Moreover, prisoners might purchase from their jailors whatever luxuries they could afford: the Catholic printer Stephen Vallenger’s cell contained, inter alia, “a feather bed, silver and pewter spoons, money, jewelry, and a library of 101 books” (141). Texts circulated within and through prison walls—even into printing presses.

Faced with such evidence, it is understandable that the abundant recent scholarship on early-modern prisons sees these institutions as defined by contact, both personal and textual. Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier regard the prison as “the venue for the most exciting and imaginative battles” between Catholics and Protestants, whether in interrogation, proselytization, or disputation (196). Molly Murray and Thomas S. Freeman have both gone so far as to call it “a site of culture, one that ought to be considered alongside the court and the university as a place of significant textual, and literary, production” (150).

If we regard the prison as characterized by contact, we are predisposed to regard prison writings as the products of contact, and as fundamentally discursive. That is to say, as communicating something to someone, some audience beyond the author’s cell. Thus, scholars have concentrated on letters, life-writing and other forms of self-presentation, and polemics or apologetics. Even ostensibly private or non-discursive forms of writing, such as personal poetry or graffiti, are interpreted along these lines, as directed (if obliquely) to jailers, future inmates, or God.

Yet to normalize the prison as a site of cultural production risks glossing over a critical feature of its intellectual landscape: constraint. Rivkah Zim identifies constraint as the commonality unifying “prison writings” as a category: “though the experience of different centuries and regimes varies greatly and there is no single category of space implied […] being a prisoner or captive in any period means being cut off and kept apart from the continuities of normal life” (2). Even the most lenient carceral regimes included controls on communication and the movement of texts and persons, circumstances absent at court or within the universities. But if we take seriously the isolation Zim places at the heart of the carceral experience and look for its presence in the early modern English prison, new approaches to literary history, and the history of ideas more generally, become possible.

My case study is Stephen Gardiner, Tudor bishop of Winchester. In the reign of Edward VI, Gardiner was twice imprisoned for resisting the radical Protestant agenda of the young king’s regents. In September 1547, he was confined to the Fleet, probably to prevent him attending the coming parliamentary session. Released in January 1548, Gardiner was not to enjoy his freedom for long: in June, after months of more or less open defiance, he was again arrested and sent to the Tower,

“a dankish and uncomfortable house,” as his servant Wingfield called it, for one ‘much given to rheums’—and lodged for the first month “in a place called the Garden Tower… fast locked in, without coming abroad in all that space.” Then […] he was removed to “a place in the same Tower called the King’s Lodging.” Here he was kept no less closely, not even being permitted to exercise in the gardens. For eleven months more he saw no one save the Lieutenant of the Tower, the jailors, a physician who came when he was sick of a fever, his chaplain, William Medowe, who was permitted to visit him once in his fever and again on Easter Day, and two servants of his household, who waited on him and who were not allowed to leave the Tower confines. (James Arthur Muller, Stephen Gardiner and the Tudor Reaction, 183)

As we have seen, this was severity entirely out of keeping with sixteenth-century English norms. In October 1549, Gardiner protested to the Privy Council,

[I] have continued heere in this miserable prison now one yeere, one quarter, and one moneth, this same day that I write these my letters, with want of aire to relieve my bodie, want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world, and finally, want of a just cause, why I should have come hither at all. (442)

Although eventually permitted occasional walks in the gardens, Gardiner’s systemic isolation continued. He was to be denied books, paper, and writing implements, but this stricture, at least, was not observed—as evidenced by the six treatises and numerous letters produced during his captivity. Gardiner also kept notebooks, two of which survive as Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 127, fols. 167–342. He filled page after page with quotations from Desiderius Erasmus’s Adages, Plautus, Martial, Juvenal, and Virgil, as well as his own Latin elegiac verses (mostly biblical paraphrases).

These notebooks are not easily read as the product of interpersonal contact and or as a medium of communication—they do not cohere into a message or reveal an intended audience. To take the pages of Plautus as an example, to all appearances Gardiner is simply copying out lines from the playwright’s collected works, as edited by the French humanist Robert Estienne and published in Paris in 1530 (identifiable by textual variants). The quotations are ordered according to their appearance in each play, the plays according to the arrangement of the edition. As a result, adjacent verses seem to bear little relation to one another. An excerpt from folio 177, drawn from Pseudolus (191 BCE), gives a sense of the organizational incoherence:

“Imbrem in cribrum gerere” (“pouring water into a sieve,” l. 102)
“supercilium salit (“my eyebrow is twitching,” l. 107)
“dictis facta suppetant” (“your deeds support the words you speak,” l. 108) (all translations by Wolfgang de Melo).

Some lines could be interpreted as responses to Gardiner’s situation (“Animus equus optimum est arumne condimentum” [“That’s why self-possession is the best seasoning for sorrow,” Rudens, l. 402]), but others seem irrelevant at best (“meas opplebit aures sua vaniloquentia” [“she’ll fill my ears with her idle chatter,” Rudens, l. 905]) (fols. 172, 185). Some quotations are abbreviated past the point of potential relevance: from the line “so that I’d be treated a little bit more neatly at last” (Pseudolus, l. 774), Gardiner has copied only the word “gnitiudscule” (“a little bit more neatly”) (fol. 179).

Perhaps the apparent absence of a message simply is the absence of a message; perhaps the content of these pages was of no more than incidental interest to Gardiner. Instead, I suggest the key to understanding these compilations lies in the prisoner’s own words: his continued “want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world.” Gardiner was a celebrated scholar of canon and civil law, the master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a distinguished diplomat, and, until his deposition in 1551, a prominent bishop. He was a man at the center of English intellectual and political life. And, locked away in the Tower, he was bored. Copying out quotations occupied his eyes, hands, and mind, at once ameliorating the tedium of endless hours alone and distracting him from the frustrations and anxieties of his isolation. In this instance—and in many others as yet unidentified—the act of writing was more important than what was written.

Apart from renewed attention to the isolation that did exist in early-modern English prisons, Gardiner’s notebooks beckon toward the possibilities of a history of boredom. Scholars are not unnaturally attracted to the firmly-held conviction, the engrossing passion, the fascinating and the fascinated. But these are often exceptional cases, and their more ordinary fellows are no less deserving of our attention. What of the listless student alongside the prodigy, the listless churchgoer alongside the zealot? Disinterest, tedium, and rote are the mirror images of intellectual history’s more usual fare, and offer a very different way of thinking about the production, dissemination, and uses of knowledge.

Spencer J. Weinreich is an M.Phil. student in ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford, where he is an Ertegun Scholar. His dissertation examines the prison writings of Stephen Gardiner in the context of early modern intellectual history. His work has appeared in Early Science and Medicine, Names, and The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.