Monthly Archives: September 2015

The household inventory as urban ‘theatre’ in late medieval Burgundy by Katherine Anne Wilson

Figure 1: Map of Dijon 1574. Edouard Bredin. Archives municipales de Dijon, cote 4, Fi 956.

Figure 1: Map of Dijon 1574. Edouard Bredin. Archives municipales de Dijon, cote 4, Fi 956.

In 1413 Jean Aubert, resident of Dijon faced what many would consider to be their worst nightmare: both the untimely death of his spouse and a fiscal evaluation of his marital household. Then, as now, any emotional upheaval had to give way to an impersonal process, the drawing up of an inventory cataloguing and valuing household objects. Such a process may well have been made all the more distressing by the presence of witnesses in the form of heritors and neighbours and from watching objects with emotional attachments being reduced to mere numbers. The only trace of this sensitive moment lies in a rather dog eared, terse, and at first glance, potentially dull document which is but one of hundreds of inventories held in the archives of Dijon that describe objects room by room. 

A household inventory may not seem the best place to start to provide insights into the biographies of people or their objects in the past, and it is right to approach them with caution, given their tendency to omit objects and be based to a certain extent on subjective judgments made by individuals. After all, how much would a modern household inventory really tell us about us or our own homes? A brief description of an armchair and its estimated value, does not necessarily convey the emotional or symbolic value that the chair might have held for a family, as it might omit the crucial information that it was a gift from a much beloved grandfather, and was the very armchair in which the children of a house had been nursed.

An Urban Theatre

However, what if we step back from the list of rooms and objects presented in the inventories and consider the dusty document as an autobiographical statement in its own right? By thinking about an inventory as a performative act, it becomes a window onto a bigger historical picture.

First, we can use the inventory to reconstruct the ‘theatre’ for the performance. In the case of the Aubert inventory, this ‘theatre’ was both the urban context of the town of Dijon and the Aubert town residence.[1] Today, Burgundy and Dijon are famous for wine and mustard. In the later middle ages, while Dijon exported wine and textiles, the town was important as one of the administrative capitals of the dukes of Burgundy and their state, the Burgundian Netherlands. Created over the period 1384−1477, the Burgundian Netherlands became the most powerful state in Northern Europe, a political, economic and cultural leader that English and French rulers sought to emulate. A good career and living could be made out of working for the Burgundian administrative machine: perks included tax breaks, fiscal bonuses and gifts. Many individuals connected with the Burgundian household were based in Dijon during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Jean Aubert was one of these men; he eventually carved out an impressive career serving three Burgundian dukes and their duchesses over 40 years. However, his Burgundian career was not unblemished, in 1404 he was suspended for fraud, but he was quickly reinstated after paying back the defrauded money. He like other Dijon elites, may well have lived in the wealthiest parish of the town, by the church of Notre Dame, where impressive stone residences lay just a stone’s throw from the ducal palace−a layout still visible in modern Dijon.

The Actors of the Inventory

Thinking about the urban context and the layout of the Aubert residence, allows us to use the inventory for a second purpose, to reconstruct the ‘actors’ of the performance, here the Aubert family. Although Jean Aubert’s biography can be recreated, several other ‘actors’ remain more elusive. His wife Guillemot, whose death prompted the existence of the inventory in the first place remains in the shadows. We know from the inventory that she was cared for during her final illness by a servant of the house, and several of the objects have a connection to her. Bench covers in the upstairs chamber of the house bear her initials and armorial bearings. The presence of a female servant also reminds us of other ‘actors’, household staff. A wealthy later medieval household would commonly have servants, and if it was the household of a guild master, it could also accommodate apprentices, who would live there for the duration of their apprenticeship.

A Local Audience: Urban Elites

From the well-known actors, to actors who stood in the sidelines, we can then move to consider the ‘audience’. For this inventory, the audience can be reconstructed from the list of the witnesses that are given at the beginning of the document. Four witnesses can be identified. It comes as little surprise that these individuals in part mirror Jean Aubert’s own biography, in that they appear as participants in town government, both as mayors and aldermen, and many also have connections with the Burgundian court. Given their own backgrounds, they must have been unsurprised at the layout and objects present in the Aubert household.

Inventory Objects As Actors

Yet, what of the objects listed in inventories? Can they ever be anything more than a static list of items? For the Aubert inventory, if we think of the objects as ‘actors’ in their own right combined with our knowledge of the ‘theatre’, ‘actors’ and ‘audience’ we can establish new insights on the operation of Burgundian state power and the ‘consumer revolution’ of the later middle ages.[2]

Chests are but one example of this. Chests now are rather unfashionable, if they appear in a house, they may well act as a coffee table and some useful extra storage−it is unlikely that a modern residence would own or display more than one. However, in the later middle ages they were a staple of house furnishing and storage. Rooms frequently contained multiple chests, in a variety of sizes with or without decoration. They were used functionally, for storage of almost everything we can think of: clothes, jewels, cloths and documents are but some of the items we find listed in chests in inventories. They also appear as plot devices in popular literature of the period. Lovers in Boccaccio’s Decameron could find themselves in the rather undignified position of being concealed in a chest when a suspicious husband returned home earlier than expected. But they, among other objects like textiles, devotional portraits and books are also representative of bigger historical narratives. The first is the growth of the Burgundian State. One of the chests in Jean Aubert’s residence bears the arms of Margaret of Burgundy, wife to Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy. As researchers we might ‘read’ this chest as purely reflecting Jean Aubert’s career in her household. But if the chest has an agency of its own, it might be also be considered as an ambassador from the Burgundian dynasty, a dynasty that achieved authority and power partly by plugging themselves into town elites through the giving of occasional gifts. Chests recorded in inventories can also help us think further about the ‘consumer revolution’ of the later middle ages. Chests can reveal a changing world, where more products were available than ever before. But with more objects, different choices had to be made about their presentation and storage. Chests concealed and preserved objects that were not for everyday use, they facilitated choices about which textiles were to be used to furnish beds, which cushions were to be used and on what types of furniture and what was to be worn, and when. They, along with other objects in inventories, are a reminder that the purchasing trends and patterns of the ‘consumer’ revolution’ were driven by the desire of these urban individuals to act and perform in an urban theatre and by the ambiguities and uncertainties of their everyday lives and careers. It is in these ways that medieval and modern household inventories can become more than a simple list of objects, instead revealing an ‘urban theatre’.

Dr Katherine Anne Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Chester.

Her full article on ‘The household inventory as urban ‘theatre’ in late medieval Burgundy’ from Social History 40:3 can be accessed at:


[1] E. Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (London, 1990).

[2] B. Latour, Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor–Network–Theory (Oxford, 2007).

Historians reflect on Piketty and Inequality by Jim Tomlinson

Mad Bankers Disease - Norwich Grafitti 2011

At the annual Economic History Society conference at the end of March 2015 four economic historians (Martin Daunton, Avner Offer, Jim Tomlinson and Keith Tribe) offered perspectives on Piketty’s (2013) Capital in the Twenty-First Century. All of the contributors welcomed the book’s focus on inequality as one of the key issues of our time.

They also welcomed Piketty’s view that historical evidence was crucial to understanding how current inequality levels had developed from the much more egalitarian distributions of income and wealth achieved in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Avner Offer described Piketty’s ‘rich descriptive account’ as a ‘stupendous achievement’, but the overall tone of the discussion was largely critical. This criticism focused on the underlying ideas behind the book, some of its key conceptual underpinnings, and its politics.

The book’s title is a self-conscious reference to Marx’s (1867) Capital and the comparison with Marx’s work is instructive. Like Marx, Piketty sets out to establish the fundamental ‘laws of motion’ of modern capitalism, but (like Marx) what is really established are tendencies, but without adequate account of the counter-tendencies, and how their operation might undermine the prediction of greater inequality. Thus Piketty’s key ‘law’ is ‘r>g’, where the rate of return on capital is greater than the growth rate, and so capital enjoys an increasing proportion of total returns. But, as the book argues, for the years from World War I down to the 1970s, this tendency was offset by a low level of ‘r’ due to war followed by capital destruction and then high taxation, whilst after 1945 ‘g’ was exceptionally high due to much of the world catching-up with the GDP levels of the USA. These counter tendencies appear as highly contingent, rather than derivable from Piketty’s ‘fundamental laws’.

While Marx is invoked by Piketty, his definition of the key term ‘capital’ is not Marxist; it’s not about a social relationship. But neither is it about the physical capital that serves as a factor of production in neo-classical growth models. Rather, his ‘capital’ is actually wealth, the sum of all assets, real and financial. This definition has a number of implications. It means Piketty’s argument is a hybrid, adhering systematically to neither Marxist nor neo-classical norms, though owing more in practice to the latter. This definition also means that housing, the fastest growing source of wealth in rich countries in recent decades, is hugely important in the data Piketty presents, but the significance of this fact is never dealt with in any depth in the discussion.

This absence is very important for how we think about the overall trends in wealth distribution. Piketty focuses most of his attention on the top ten per cent of the distribution, but he does note how housing wealth especially has been re-distributed to what he calls the ‘patrimonial middle class’, those lying between the top ten per cent and the mid-point of the distribution. As he notes: ‘In historical terms, it was a major transformation, which deeply altered the social landscape and the political structure of society and helped to redefine the terms of distributive conflict.’[1] But this insight is not followed through to look at the way in which property ownership below the top ten per cent has buttressed the ownership at the top. To put the point in another way, in a country like Britain because of the spread of owner-occupation, the median voter is now a property-owner, and this must be seen as crucial to understanding modern property-distribution and the politics linked to it.(The recent explosion of buy-to-rent just adds another layer to this property-owning group).

Despite assertions about the importance of politics, Piketty has strikingly little to say about what has driven the rise in inequality, especially in the US and UK, since the 1970s. How has the underlying tendency of ‘r>g’ been allowed to re-assert itself? Piketty points to ‘changing social norms’ without explaining the mechanisms of change. He also argues that tax competition has, in Britain and the US, led to a ‘race to the bottom’ in income and wealth taxes. This has some force, but it doesn’t explain why such a race has not dragged most European countries down as well. A key feature of Anglo-American capitalism, which is mentioned but not well explained, is the rise of the ‘super-manager’; the corporate boss who combines enormously high salary with stockholding in the same company. The modern super-rich are decreasingly rentiers, but instead use their dominance of corporate hierarchies to extract large rents. Again, this is a particularly strong feature of Britain and America which has had much less impact in continental Europe, and so an explanation is unlikely to be yielded by postulating general ‘laws of motion of capitalism’.

Piketty proposes a global wealth tax as a solution to growing wealth inequality, albeit he accepts this is a ‘Utopian’ idea. Plainly a more sophisticated analysis of possible options is required. A key question is the ‘room for manoeuvre’ in the tax system, in the light of the political constraints. Here Martin Daunton was pessimistic, because of his perception that, in Britain at least, big property had built powerful ‘ramparts’ of smaller property-owners around itself, which meant that direct assault through higher income and wealth taxes was unlikely to be politically successful. Others accepted that some degree of pessimism about the politics of raising the standard rates of tax was appropriate, but pointed to the possibilities of acting to challenge many of the regressive tax expenditures embodied in, for example, tax breaks for pensions.

Away from these pragmatic discussions, Avner Offer stressed that Piketty, like so much of contemporary discussion, was still constrained in his thinking by an unwillingness to offer an ethical critique of inequality, rather than one stressing its ‘dysfunctionality’. The underlying thought was the pernicious impact of neo-classical economics individualistic assumptions, and the failure to recognise that in most of everyday life what mattered was our numerous, diverse obligations (to family, friends, profession, country etc), not the calculation of self-interest.

By contrast, Keith Tribe emphasised the importance of the development of a distinct tradition of welfare economics in Britain from the late nineteenth century (Sidgwick, Marshall, Pigou) which had made the key arguments for redistributive tax policy. In his view this tradition in economics still had much to offer in thinking through how inequality can be analysed and addressed.

Finally, on the question of Piketty and history, there was agreement that whatever the strengths and weaknesses of his own historical argument, he had set an agenda for the historical investigation of inequality which desperately needs pursuing. As Pat Hudson stressed in the discussion, the specific historical circumstances which made economic growth the centre-piece of much economic history in the 1950s and 1960s (not least the Cold War) have passed away, and a new focus is greatly needed which gets closer to the determinants of popular economic welfare.

Jim Tomlinson is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow.

You can read Jim’s full assessment of Capital in the Twenty-First Century in Social History 40:1 at:



[1] T. Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century translated by Arthur Goldhammer, (Cambridge, Mass., 2014), 262.

Meet the Social History Editorial Board: Professor Samuel Cohn on ‘Epidemics: Plagues of Hate, Plagues of Compassion from Antiquity to the Present’

Jews, Nuremberg Chronicle   (1493), Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibl., Sign. Inc. 119, f. 230v

Jews, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibl., Sign. Inc. 119, f. 230v

Samuel Cohn is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, where his interests include the history of medicine and histories of popular protest in medieval and early modern Europe. He is the author of eleven monographs, most recently Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns (CUP, 2013) and Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance (OUP, 2010). He is currently working on a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust to complete a project on ‘Epidemics: Waves of disease, waves of hate, from the Plague of Athens to AIDS’. In this blog post he discusses that project and the research he has been conducting recently.

What are you working on at the moment?

 A scholarly consensus persists: across time, from the Plague of Athens to AIDS to the present, epidemics provoke hate and blame of the ‘other’. As early as the late Enlightenment, the Danish-German statesman and scholar of antiquity Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1816) proclaimed: ‘Times of plague are always those in which the bestial and diabolical side of human nature gains the upper hand.’ [1] In a famous article in Annales (1952), René Baehrel reasoned: epidemics induce ‘class hatred (La haine de classe)’; such emotions have been and are a part of our ‘structures mentales… constantes psychologiques’. [2] With the rise of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, this chorus resounded. According to Carlo Ginzburg, ‘the prodigious trauma of great pestilences intensified the search for a scapegoat on which fears, hatreds and tension…could be discharged’. [3] Dorothy Nelkin and Sander Gilman claimed, ‘Blaming has always been a means to make mysterious and devastating diseases comprehensible’. [4] Roy Porter concurred with Susan Sontag: ‘deadly diseases’ especially when ‘there is no cure to hand’ and the ‘aetiology… is obscure…spawn sinister connotations’. [5] And most recently, from earthquake wrecked, cholera-hit Haiti, Paul Farmer concluded: ‘Blame was, after all, a calling card of all transnational epidemics.’[6] Many other scholars and public intellectuals can easily be added to this consensus. The problem is: these pronouncements have been based on few examples—sometimes, the Black Death and the burning of the Jews, 1348-51; sometimes, the rise of Malfrancese (or Syphilis) at the end of the fifteenth century; sometimes, a handful of cholera riots of the nineteenth century; and AIDS in the 1980s (but based almost entirely on the U.S. experience).

What have you been finding?

For several years I have been engaged in a study of the socio-psychological reactions to epidemic diseases that cuts across the canonical periods of history—Antiquity, Middle Ages, Early Modernity, and Contemporary History. From a wide range of sources, I have been collecting thousands of descriptions of epidemics as early as the ‘great pestilence’ during the First Dynasty of Pharaoh Mempses, c. 2920 BCE. Against the grain of the historiography, I am finding that few epidemics spurred hatred against the ‘other’ or indeed against any insiders. Instead, before the nineteenth century and the ‘laboratory revolution’ of the 1870s, when epidemic diseases rarely, if ever, had effective cures and most were medically mysterious, my research reveals the opposite: such outbreaks tended to dissolve class conflicts (at least for the course of the epidemic) and to elicit compassion and self-sacrifice.

What about the Black Death?

Indeed, the Black Death of 1347-51 was the striking exception, not only for the Middle Ages, but for any epidemic or pandemic across time and space. But with numerous successive waves of plague during the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, its mass terror against Jews or against any other minorities was not repeated. However, as early as 1530 and into the seventeenth century, accusations of intentional plague spreading (‘engraisseurs’ in France; ‘untori’ in Italy) emerged, even if the numbers accused or executed never approached those of 1348-51. This early modern rise in accusations, trials, and execution of supposed plague-spreaders was not the result of ‘ideas and fantasies’ tumbling forth from isolated alpine foyers as Yves-Marie Bercé once alleged. [6] Not only did such accusations arise in cities near the Alps as with Geneva, Lyon, and Milan, they spread with early modern plague in Toulouse, Rouen, Palermo, Messina, Madrid, Rome, and other places awaiting to be studied. More importantly, their impulse had nothing to do with imported ideas or individuals from backward places outside cities. Instead, with the backing of physicians, university-educated judges compiled and authorized the accusations, imposed the tortures, and executed the victims. During Milan’s plague of 1630, where trial transcripts survive, one of Europe’s most advanced health boards, steeped in the latest scientific knowledge about plague contagion and its mechanisms of transmission, gave ‘scientific’ credence to the allegations and supported the executions. In addition, the accused were not ‘outsiders’ but ‘insiders’, beginning with solid native-born skilled artisans and ending with young bankers and even the son of one of the most important military leaders of the city.

What then of modernity?

With the spread of cholera across great swaths of Europe from 1830 to 1837, epidemics’ social toxins became more widespread and virulent. This explosion of hate and blame, however, did not in the main target any ‘other’. Rather, it was a class struggle, whose arrows of hate shot in the opposite direction. Across radically different social and political regimes from Czarist Russia to Liberal Manchester, impoverished and marginal groups such as Asiatic Sarts, newly arrived in cities and villages of the Crimea, and Irish Catholic immigrants in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London, and New York imagined the state allied with physicians and health workers concocting a new disease to cull the poor and thereby lower the state’s welfare expenditures. In riots often numbering in the thousands, the targets of these labourers and others living on the margins were physicians, nurses, pharmacists and public officials from the police to regional governors, with cholera hearses, hospitals, and town halls ritualistically broken to bits or burnt to the ground. These riots were not exclusive to the cholera’s first major European tour of the 1830s, when the disease was new and mysterious. In Italy they persisted to the sixth cholera wave in 1910-11, long after its pathogenic agent and preventive measures had been discovered. Moreover, in later waves of cholera, the Italian riots were no longer confined mostly to Sicily as in 1836. They, instead, fanned across southern Italy and reached places north of Rome such as Segni and Civitavecchia, spread into Tuscany and as far north as Piedmont. With these, the same mythologies as seventy-five years earlier of doctors poisoning the poor fuelled these riots of Italy’s last major cholera wave. In Russian history such riots endured even longer, well into the Soviet period, and in Latin America, they surfaced during the seventh wave in the 1990s.

Did other epidemic diseases exhibit such disastrous social toxins?

Cholera was not the only disease to spawn hate and violence into the twentieth century, even after their pathogens, modes of transmission, and effective preventive measures had been discovered. For the United States smallpox was its disease par excellence of hate, and its social toxins burst forth not when the disease was scoring its greatest moralities as during the colonial period or with an epidemic of the early 1850s that spread across the United States and killed a third of Hawaii’s population. Instead, numerous riots and acts of violence exploded with this disease in epidemic waves from the 1870s into the first decade of the twentieth century, that is, at the very moment of the laboratory revolution’s scientific breakthroughs. Again, suspicion and hate spread along class lines, but now hate’s class nature switched directions. Property holders from farmers to merchants comprised ‘the mobs’, while the victims were among the marginal—‘tramps’, ‘negroes’, Bohemians, and the Chinese. Unlike in cholera riots, when the rebels saw themselves as the patients’ liberators, triumphantly processing them from supposed poisonous hospitals back to their homes, with smallpox riots, the disease’s victims were doubly victims, persecuted by elite vigilantes and often shot or burnt alive in makeshift smallpox hospitals. In addition, other epidemic diseases such as modern plague, especially in India and China from 1894 to the 1920s, Poliomyelitis in the United States with epidemics in 1907 and 1916, and typhus in Nazi Germany sparked hatred, blame and violence. In each case the disease’s social toxins possessed their own distinctive traits and targets.

So what big epidemic killers in modern times have inspired compassion and self-sacrifice instead of hate and violence?

Far from all epidemics of modernity divided populations or sparked blame and hatred. Two of the most deadly yellow fever pandemics to race across southern states in America, with New Orleans at the centre in 1853 and Memphis in 1878-9, brought blacks and whites together in mutual support and respect and saw contributions and volunteers pour in from the north as well as other southern states, creating martyrs to the plague, eulogized in the stricken southern cities’ newspapers and later commemorated with works of poetry, paintings, and sculpture. Despite its monumental mortalities and mysteriousness with its usual symptoms, quickness of death, peculiar age structure of its victims, and extraordinary contagion, the Great Influenza of 1918-19 failed to ignite hatred of victims, doctors, nurses, municipalities or against any other ‘others’. Instead, massive waves of volunteers, especially women, risked, and in many cases lost, their lives to assist and comfort the afflicted. Instead of erecting divisions, this highly contagious, deadly pandemic dissolved divisions as volunteers eagerly crossed state and international borders and broke barriers of class and ethnicity. El Paso, October 1918, is a case in point. Against the rising tide of anti-Mexican sentiment, the growth of the Klu Klux Klan, and nationalist fervour brewed by the Great War, debutants and middle-class girls and ladies ventured into the worst-hit Mexican neighbourhoods to deliver food, sweep floors, clear bed-pans, care for children, and nurse the dying.

So why does this study matter?

I aim to challenge the one-dimensional and trans-historical consensus that presently dominates the study of epidemic diseases’ social toxins. Even with the growth of epidemics’ hate-nexus in the nineteenth century, some diseases tended to provoke hate and blame, while others beget remarkable acts of compassion. Why has Ebola, for instance, recently provoked violence against clinics and health workers (April to December, 2014)? Was it something to do with Africa as many health workers now believe? Rather, the history of cholera readily demonstrates that such reactions have had a long heritage in Europe, and in places, well into the twentieth century. What characteristics of epidemic diseases are more likely to spark violence and blame? Just as different diseases affect our bodies differently, so too they tend to affect our collective psychologies differently. From this simple axiom, my work intends to open and explore this field of historical psychology with new and systematic research. It is a field that must cross the canonical barriers of historical chronologies and ultimately must become global history.


[1] R. Baehrel, ‘La haine de classe en temps d’épidémie’, Annales: E.S.C., 7,3 (1952), 351-360.

[2] C. Ginzburg, ‘Deciphering the Sabbath’, in B. Ankarloo and G. Henningsen (eds) Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, (Oxford, 1990), 121-138, 124.

[3] D. Nelkin and S. L. Gilman, ‘Placing blame for devastating disease’, Social Research, LV (1988), 362-378.

[4] R. Porter, ‘The case of consumption’, in J. Bourriau (ed.) Understanding Catastrophe, (Cambridge, 1992), 179-203, 179.

[5] P. Farmer with J. S. Mukherjee, Haiti after the Earthquake, (New York, 2011), 191.

[6] Y.-M Bercé, ‘Les semeurs de peste’, in Jean-Pierre Bardet and Madeleine Foisil (eds.) La vie, la mort, la foi, le temps: Mélanges offerts à Pierre Chaunu, (Paris, 1993), 85-94.

Wrestling with history by John Griffiths

Publicity photo of Earl McCready by Crown Studios 1935

Publicity photo of Earl McCready by Crown Studios 1935

My recent article in Social History 40:1, which explored the introduction of ‘All-In’ Wrestling in North America, Europe and the Antipodes brought to light some of the benefits of adopting a transnational approach to historical inquiry. I would like to explain in this post why I chose to explore this ‘sport’ and why I think it is of significance.

A few years ago I published an article on dancing and dance halls in the inter-war years.[1] This was provoked by a curiosity as to what the popular pastimes in these two decades were. It was during the research for this article that I read what to me appeared a rather curious publication called New Zealand Sporting and Dramatic Review – an antipodean variation of a British publication.  Why was it curious? Mainly for the fact that it combined coverage of what I at first regarded as two distinct realms of popular culture ‘News from Hollywood’ and ‘News from the Wrestling World’. I contemplated such an odd combination for some time and came to the view that there was something these two rather odd bedfellows did indeed share –  ‘escapism’ from the mundane.  As I read more about the wrestling world I began to see that ‘All-In’ wrestling, which emerged at the end of the 1920s in the USA, was a way in which promoters competed with the cinema for an audience; an audience by then in thrall to melodrama with its attendant heroes and villains. American footballers who wanted to keep in shape in the off-season could supplement wages by using their tackling skills in the wrestling ring, and promoters could find stooges to take a fall from a flying tackle. It wasn’t too long before wrestling circuits were put in place linking the USA wrestling scene with the Australian and New Zealand market, but reactions to the new style were not uniform across the Anglo world.

Antipodean Wrestling

Using the digitialized newspapers provided by the Trove (National Library of Australia) and Papers Past (National Library of New Zealand)  a substantial body of evidence was relatively quickly amassed which began to shed light on audience reaction to ‘All-In’ in Australasia.  The project really came alive however, when I became aware of the Vern Ross archive held in the Hocken Collections at the University of Otago Dunedin. This archive contains some 55 boxes of material relating to international wrestling and most valuably held two or three boxes containing runs of American and British wrestling publications.  It became clear on examining the evidence, that local tastes were a significant variable when it came to the question as to whether this rather wild wrestling style was accepted. Whilst the style was accepted in Australia, it was substantially modified in New Zealand, where popular taste favoured a more ‘scientific’ or cleaner style. The role of the judiciary and the police in New Zealand played a more significant part in ensuring that the wilder ‘All-In’ was prevented from appearing. Thus, New Zealand tended to represent a half-way house between British reactions, where ‘All-In’ was at first treated with caution before being banned in 1938, (so too in South Africa in the same year) and Australian where it was accepted without any real questions being asked. Consequently, the case of wrestling tends to confirm a wider thesis that Australia had (and is?) influenced by American popular culture to a greater extent than in New Zealand, which retains a British sporting culture.

Perhaps one influence in the realm of wrestling which shaped local taste was the extent to which audiences would suspend disbelief in what they were seeing, or put another way ‘believe a lie’. The relatively large Scottish Presbyterian immigrant population might have played a role here, as Scots did wrestle at Caledonian games, but would not have wished to con the crowd by feigning falls and submissions. Another factor in this is the ‘cult’ of the science of exercise that gripped many parts of the world until at least the outbreak of the Second World War. The wrestling magazines depicted to readers how to perform a variety of orthodox wrestling holds. New holds were also developed. If they were seen as legitimate they could make a wrestlers name.  (New Zealand wrestler Lofty Blomfield developed the ‘Octopus clamp’ with which he became associated in the 1930s for example). Given this knowledge some audiences wanted to see these holds performed legitimately on the stage and did not want to see burly men simply throwing each other out of the ring, eye-gouging or even setting about the referee.  Where wrestling journalism that celebrated scientific wrestling put down roots might have influenced local taste. American promoters could not simply send wrestlers to the antipodes who would flout local taste, as it often led to contract termination and effectively deportation.

The local and the transnational

The question of what ‘shapes’ local taste is a complex one that I am still pondering. In other games, sporting cultures are also seen to diverge, for example the rejection of the kicking game in the southern hemisphere in relation to rugby union, (particularly in New Zealand where it’s seen as ‘bottling it’), the Australian refusal to use a night-watchman in cricket (a more recent innovation I think?), the fact that only Australians seems fascinated by Aussie Rules football (and really only in the State of Victoria) and even more topically, the way games are run.  At the time of writing a furore has broken out over the issue of whether the cricketer Kevin Pietersen should play again for England, which has resulted in accusations of gentlemanly buffoonery within the English Cricket Board from the likes of Piers Morgan and others. Would the Australians get in such a pickle?

Writing transnational history is possible to a greater extent than ever before, because of the digitalization projects of the respective National Libraries around the globe. Students do not need huge grants to undertake this kind of research any more. The transnational approach does not need to be limited to the sporting realm either of course. My 2014 publication Imperial Culture in Antipodean Cities examined how successfully or indeed unsuccessfully British imperial culture was projected within the antipodean city.[2] Here too, the Trove and Papers Past projects were an invaluable starting point for the research.

Dr John Griffiths is Senior Lecturer in History at Massey University.


[1] J. Griffiths, ‘Popular Culture and Modernity: Dancing in New Zealand Society, 1920-1945’, Journal of Social History, 41, 3 (2008), 611-632.

[2] J. Griffiths, Imperial Culture in Antipodean Cities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).