Power, charity and control in an early modern prison account book by Richard Bell

In early modern England, prisoners relied on charity to survive. With next to no state funding, prisons were run for profit from fees and rents charged to those incarcerated, most of whom were either destitute debtors or awaiting criminal trial. As many of these prisoners were too impoverished to subsist in prison, let alone pay these fees, complex economies of aid developed around these institutions, and with these came ethical judgements about what prisoners deserved and how prisons might be used to punish and reform as well as to detain. My article in Social History 47.1 traces both these practices of prison charity and the developing ideologies of incarceration that they reveal, exploring new ideas about what prisons were for and how they might be used to shape and control social relations. Continue reading

Sympathy with Jewish refugees in Early Modern Amsterdam by Hans Wallage

On 20 November 1684, months before Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, the French king ordered 93 Sephardic converso families to leave the southern part of present-day France. Around half of those families, known as the desterrados de Franca, arrived in Amsterdam, either directly or via detours by boat and on foot. One of the desterrados was Sara Gomez del Valle, who described her situation to the mahamad, the Jewish board of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, as ‘helpless and without brothers.’[1] Asking for ‘legal powers of matrimony to her orphaned daughter Esther Gomez del Valle,’[2] del Valle’s request was one of many made by those arriving around 1685 in Amsterdam seeking assistance. In media, literature, and movies, the city of Amsterdam is depicted as a tolerant shelter and safe haven for persecuted Jews and is praised for its early modern benevolence and fair treatment. But what this treatment entailed and the reason behind the assistance is less known. In Dutch Jewish historiography, historians such as Tirtsah Levie-Bernfeld, Jonathan Israel, and Miriam Bodian, depict the early modern Jewish charity system as a communal endeavor, organized by the board of the Jewish community who asked their members to donate.[3] For example, Tirtsah Levie-Bernfeld wrote in her book Poverty and Welfare that the ‘religious commandment to help and assist persecuted fellow Jews – in Judaism called a mitzvah – created the urge of the Jewish community in Amsterdam ‘to join’ the godly plight.’[4] By examining the charity initiatives for the incoming Jewish refugees from France, this blog post will demonstrate that the early modern civic authorities in Amsterdam also started to support the needs of arriving Jewish refugees. Continue reading

Why write local social history in a globalised world? By Thomas Pickles

What, you might ask, is the point of writing the longue durée social history of one medieval fish weir? In the case of my article in Social History 46.4, this is a history of the Horngarth (later the Penny Hedge) at Whitby, North Yorkshire. Local histories have been somewhat marginalised by the recognition that we need to write global histories and decolonise and diversify accounts of the past. However, local histories and global histories may be fundamental to one another; and local histories have a key role in addressing the decolonisation and diversification of the past in the service of the present. To exemplify this, we can reflect on how the history of the Horngarth speaks to the present state of Whitby and plans for its future. Continue reading

Billeting, inequality, and the problem of state-building in Renaissance Europe by Fernando Chavarría-Múgica

One of the typical characteristics of pre-modern military life was the chronic shortage of barracks. This is why troops used to stay in private homes. At the time, the coexistence of soldiers and locals under the same roof was the rule and not the exception. In fact, the accommodation of soldiers was an exaction that all commoners were compelled to satisfy when it was required. It was not an arbitrary measure, but a legitimate prerogative recognised by the monarchs, although it was no less unpopular for that reason. Continue reading

Invisible workers: 9/11 and American Labour by Timothy J. Minchin

Although they are usually seen purely as a terrorist event, the attacks of September 11, 2001, had clear social dimensions.  As we mark the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, my Social History article (46:3) opens a conversation about these little-known dimensions.  I emphasize that the attack targets were workplaces, and most of those killed – close to 3,000 people – were at work.  On the day of the attacks, Manhattan’s World Trade Center was home to 430 companies with more than 35,000 employees.  My article seeks to explore the workers who were killed or survived the attacks, as well as the 90,000 more who toiled at Ground Zero in a lengthy – and dangerous – clean up process that left many scarred, physically and mentally.[1] On the tenth anniversary of the attacks, the Washington Post first identified these ‘invisible workers.’[2] As the twentieth anniversary approached, I wanted to try and detail their experiences more closely, and to draw some parallels with the Coronavirus crisis, another generation-defining event. Continue reading

The Power of Sound in the Colonial Mid-Atlantic by Daniel Johnson

The growing importance of ‘politeness’ in English culture between the 1660s and 1740s coincided with Britain’s emergence as a major imperial power. Alongside a new elite emphasis on refined speech and manners were criticisms of the ‘vulgar’ and the disorders allegedly engendered by traditional festive practices. Non-genteel sounds – or ‘noise’ – were important elements in these criticisms, though they possessed a unique relevance in new colonial environments. I argue in Social History 46.3 that novel colonial soundscapes in the Americas were important sites of early modern sociocultural contestation. Continue reading

An ‘epidemic of shoplifting’? Working-class women, shop theft and Manchester’s new retail culture, 1918–1939 by Charlotte Wildman

Shopping and shoplifting were fundamental to urban culture in the regional city. The history of shoplifting has largely focussed on middle-class women’s experiences of kleptomania in the grand magasins of large metropoles. However, by shifting the focus to popular department stores in a regional city, we can see that police and emerging forms of social work focussed on the crime to express concerns about working-class women’s increased autonomy and visibility in the interwar urban landscape. For example, in 1923, when Manchester’s branch of the popular Lewis’s department store announced its plans to extend the store to reach 6000 square yards of retail space, the Manchester Guardian celebrated the ‘million pounds scheme.’[1] Its expansion made it the largest store in Manchester and one of the largest in the country. In Urban Redevelopment and Modernity in Interwar Liverpool and Manchester (2016), I showed how the expansion of Lewis’s and its deliberate marketing aimed at working-class consumers facilitated a thriving culture of retailing and was integral to these cities’ programmes of regeneration in the face of economic turbulence and urban decline. Further exploration into the press coverage of Lewis’s expansion revealed that its success in cities like Manchester was mirrored by reportage that noted its location of shop theft. Continue reading

Pauper Responses to the Central Poor Law Authorities by Natalie Carter and Steven King

Our Social History 46.2 article ‘“I think we ought not to acknowledge them [paupers] as that encourages them to write”: the administrative state, power and the Victorian pauper’ focuses on the responses from the central poor law authorities (the “Centre”) to initial complaints from poor people and paupers both inside and outside of the workhouse. For the outdoor poor these complaints centred on dissatisfaction with the amount or nature of out-relief they had been allowed or the fact that relief had been denied altogether.  For the indoor poor the majority of the complaints tended to be around issues of ill-treatment, neglect or poor conditions in the workhouse.  We highlighted that the Centre quickly developed routine standardised ways of responding to these complaints. Continue reading

Class, Consumption, and Clerical Workers by Paul Michel Taillon

Are white collar workers part of the working class? The middle class? Or somewhere in between? In my article for Social History I consider this question, drawing upon letters written by railroad clerical workers in April 1920 in the United States. Generations of historians and sociologists have debated just where clerical workers fit in the class structure. Much of their effort has focused on the workplace and the experiences and struggles of workers—female and male—engaged in office work and retail sales. However, these studies have generated little consensus beyond the takeaway that the collar line is as permeable as it is ambiguous.[1] Continue reading

Sailors Ashore: The Exploration of Class, Culture and Ethnicity in Victorian London by Brad Beaven

 ‘Sailortown’ was a seaport’s urban quarter where sailors would stay, eat, drink and be entertained.  It was a transient and liminal space and a unique site of cultural contact and exchange. Despite the rich array of research areas in class, race and gender relations that these districts have to offer, sailortowns have tended to be overlooked. Why is this? Well, it may come down to how historians have worked in particular subject silos.  Sailortown sits at the cross-roads between the urban and maritime realm and, because of this, it has traditionally fallen between these two schools of history. Thus, historians became blinkered into examining either the land or sea and, consequently, the waterfront, which was a crucible for this fusion of urban and maritime cultures, was forgotten. Continue reading