Some Resources for Learning about Britain’s Slave Past

It’s been years since I’ve posted, and that’s because I’ve been busy in my new post as a Lecturer in British Social and Cultural History at the University of Leicester.  But this post isn’t about that…

In the wake of hugely symbolic events in Bristol today, and in response to the numerous tone deaf ‘BuT hE dId GoOd ToO’ comments I’ve seen in response to friend’s posts and tweets, I thought I put together a quick list of resources for learning and teaching about Britain and the slave trade. I’ve used several of these in my own teaching, and as well as my own learning (because I still have a lot to learn, too).

Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: This is a database of claims for compensation in the wake of the abolition of slavery in 1830s. No, these are not former enslaved peoples claiming compensation; these are former slave owners who filed for compensation due to loss of income. Approximately £20 million pounds (in 1830s erms) was paid out; an amount so huge they Treasury only paid this debt off in 2018.

The awesome David Olusoga made a BBC documentary about this. 

Slave Voyages Database: This is a huge database mapping the triangular trade, with ports of departure (such as Bristol), ports of landing, and most harrowing, the number of enslaved people forced on board, and the smaller number forced off, and into slavery.

An excellent overview from the Black Cultural Archives. This is a really good place to start.

Resources on slavery at the National Archives that includes a range of useful links to archival material, general overviews, and teaching resources.

As an historian of Wales, this one is particularly relevant to my own research. Think Wales was a country of abolitionists? Think again. Welsh wool clothed enslaved people in the British west Indies. Welsh copper was traded for human lives, and was also used in ship building that made British ships cross the Atlantic quicker. It’s not free online, but Chris Evans wrote a book about all of this.

Britain and the slave trade at the British Library

And the National Museum Liverpool.

If I’ve missed any you think should be here, please comment below and I’ll include them.

There are so many more, so there’s no excuse to not educate yourself.


‘He moved his backside and body as mankind do when in copulation with womankind’ Bestiality in eighteenth-century Wales

**Content warning: this post contains details of a sexual nature which some readers may find offensive or upsetting**

In keeping with last week’s raunchy theme, I thought I’d write about a court case relating to a far more extreme form of sexually deviance. I bring to you the tale of John Hughes, a farm labourer in Denbighshire in the eighteenth century, who was allegedly caught ‘in the act’, as it were, with one of his father’s cows.

The account, as recalled by neighbour Morris Edwards, a farmer, was recorded in a pre-trial witness deposition and can be found in the Court of Great Sessions gaol files held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Here’s a Full Transcription of Morris’s witness statement.

On a June morning in 1772, Morris visited his neighbour David Hughes (the accused’s father) to see if one of his sheep had strayed into David’s flock. As Morris searched the neighbourhood for his missing sheep, he spied John herding three cows through his father’s field.

And that’s when things start to get a bit strange. Morris claimed he saw John chase after two of the cows, but neither would cooperate. The third cow, a medium sized red brindle cow, proved more docile, and John was able to get her into position. Morris said he then saw John drop his breeches, wrap his arms around the hindquarters of the cow and, move ‘his backside and body as mankind do when in copulation with womankind’ for about a quarter of an hour or so. All this time the cow apparently stood there still, with her head hung low.

When he was finished, John pulled up his trousers, and that was that. Crucially, Morris testified that he didn’t actually see John penetrate the cow. Morris never confronted John, and only confessed what he saw to a neighbour several months later in the autumn of that year. He was formally examined by a justice of the peace two years later. However, John wasn’t indicted for the crime of bestiality, and the case was dropped.

Morris’s testimony is interesting for a number of reasons, and not only because it appears to capture what was intended to be a private, deviant sexual act. However, it is possible that John Hughes never actually engaged in a sex act with this poor cow. Morris may have spun this rather salacious story to tarnish the reputation of his neighbour, who he believed stole one of his sheep. John wasn’t tried for the crime, which was likely due to a lack of evidence. Proof of penetration would have been required as evidence that, ‘the detestable crime of bestiality with a cow’ actually took place, but Morris said outright that he did not actually see Morris penetrate the cow. Despite the fact that this case never made it to trial, John’s neighbours undoubtedly knew about the accusations, and the stigma of this alleged event would have hung over John’s head for some time.

Another interesting feature of this, and most bestiality trials from Wales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, are the profiles of the accused and their victims. In total, between 1730 and 1830, twenty-one men were accused of bestiality across Wales. These included servants, yeoman, labourers, mariners, farmers and an earthenware seller named William Shakespeare (I’m not making this up). So, all were from relatively lower down the socioeconomic ladder. Only one man – and eighteen-year-old servant – was actually convicted of the crime, but the reasons for this aren’t clear.

In addition, in all but two cases, the sex of the animal is given, and in all of these the animals are female. So, despite the fact that these men were allegedly engaging in sexual activity with animals, they still opted for the ‘appropriate’ sex (by eighteenth century standards, that is).

The last observation from all of these records challenges a long-standing derogatory assumption about Welshmen. Out of twenty-one alleged instances of bestiality in Wales, not a single case involved a sheep.


Wait, that’s not a prayer! When parish records turn raunchy

Anyone who’s spent countless hours researching in the archives knows the feeling of elation that comes over you when you find that proverbial needle in the haystack. Whether it’s a letter, a diary, a parish register entry, or a court deposition, locating those bits of evidence that fill gaps in your research makes all the dusty, eye straining, physically uncomfortable effort worthwhile.

This post isn’t about that. This post is about those times you come across seemingly out of place random miscellany that reminds you that the past isn’t really all that foreign after all. When you’ve spent several days searching and photographing the same sorts of material – some of which can be quite grim – over and over these little gems can bring some much needed comic relief. Especially when the file you’re digging through looks like this.

Meifod WTF (2)

Meifod parish records, held by Powys Archives Office (photo: Angela Muir)

These are some of the parish documents dating from the middle of the eighteenth century for the parish of Meifod, formerly in the county of Montgomeryshire, now held by Powys Archives Office. Tucked away in one of these folders was a small, modern envelope with, ‘’PRAYERS’ CAREFUL! LOOSE PAPERS’ written on it in felt marker. Inside that envelope was this acrostic little gem:


Powys Archives Office M/EP/41/O/RT/1 (photo: Angela Muir)

A knight delights in deeds of armes,

Perhaps a Lady loves sweet musicks charms

Ritch men in store of wealth delighted be

Infants love dangling on their mothers knee

Coy maids love something, nothing I’ll express

Know the first letters of these lines and guess



Yes, dear readers, this is a raunchy, eighteenth-century riddle about a penis carefully filed away in church records. The identity of the writer, and how and why this little scrap ended up tucked away with prayers for ailing parishioners is a mystery. The idea that this could have been a cheeky parishioner sneaking a bit of smutty poetry into the prayer box to shock an unpopular and over-serious church official is both amusing and appealing, but that’s speculative at best.

Regardless of this bawdy little poem’s provenance, it is clear that having a dirty mind is not a modern invention.


Do you have your own archival randoms? Please share in the comments.


Book Review – Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany

Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany  by Margaret Brannan Lewis

(Routledge, 2016), 204 pages, £95 Hardcover, £34.99 Kindle


Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany by Margaret Brannan Lewis is a compelling and comprehensive analysis of the social, cultural, economic, legal and medical context of these crimes over a 300 year period. Focusing both on diverse causes and perceptions, Lewis effectively strikes the fine and difficult balance between broad and robust research, thorough analysis, and accessible, well-crafted prose which makes it suitable for both academic and lay audiences.

Using records predominantly from urban centres across German-speaking regions of the Holy Roman Empire, this study covers roughly three centuries and is framed around legal reforms which reflected and influenced how the crimes were understood and prosecuted. Like the witch craze, instances of infanticide and abortion were rare, but were nonetheless a central feature of cultural anxieties. Lewis draws on this significance throughout the book.

However this is not merely a work of legal history concerned with female deviance, but rather a study which considers the broader cultural influences, understandings, anxieties, and socioeconomic motives, as well as the role fathers, families, communities, local authorities, and legal and medical experts played in the construction and perpetration of these crimes. Importantly, Lewis broadens her analysis beyond the culpability of unmarried women to demonstrate the complex ways in which local officials and legal reformers were also, paradoxically, responsible for the very circumstances which compelled some women to conceal their pregnancies and dispose of their infants.

The book is structured both chronologically and thematically, employing various approaches throughout. Starting with an examination of the legal, religious and socioeconomic context, which influenced the codification of laws pertaining to the closely-related crimes of infanticide and abortion in the early sixteenth century, the focus shifts to the ways in which these crimes were perceived and problematised more broadly across the Holy Roman Empire. This is followed by a somewhat tangential but relevant analysis of portrayals of violence against children found in the popular literature, which serves to illustrate anxieties about the precariousness of childhood and parenthood, and the perceived threat of individuals and groups on the margins of society. This is then rounded off with a discussion of the growing involvement of legal and medical experts in prosecutions, and the simultaneous emergence of sensationalised literature and Enlightenment attitudes towards these crimes, which ultimately shifted perceptions of perpetrators away from murderous mothers to hapless victims.

Those familiar with the history of infanticide in Britain will be struck by the brutality with which women accused of committing infanticide in early modern Germany were treated by the legal system, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The use of torture, which became a central point of debate in the eighteenth century, was frequently employed. Guilty verdicts carried the death penalty, and, as in Britain, verdicts were rare, but were still achieved approximately 50 per cent of the time. The proscribed means of execution ranged from drowning to being buried alive then impaled, to the more ‘humane’ beheading. The most significant differences to the British system is that those who were not convicted of killing their children, and those who were suspected of intentionally terminating their pregnancies, were still likely to face banishment from their community.

The strength of Lewis’s work is in her broad analysis of the socioeconomic, religious and legal circumstances which reveal the complex and diverse perceptions of, and responses to, unwanted pregnancies in early modern Germany. She effectively draws out broad trends while also emphasising the diversity of experience, noting that, ‘infanticide and abortion exist universally but are historically and culturally contingent’ (p. 186). Crucially, Lewis demonstrates that she is acutely aware of the significance of this in light of the current debates surrounding women’s reproductive rights, both in the United States where the book was written, and further afield.

The only problematic part of Lewis’s analysis is in her discussion of suicide by proxy. This is a fascinating phenomenon in which individuals who desire to end their lives without risking their eternal soul do so by committing crimes that carry the death penalty. Lewis locates the connection between suicide by proxy and infanticide in the targeting of unbaptised infants who, because of their innocence, would not suffer purgatory or damnation by dying without receiving the last rights. Lewis arguably goes one step too far by suggesting that both infanticide, as committed by unmarried mothers who sought to prevent their own poverty, and suicide by proxy shared similar motives in that both were driven by a desire to avoid destitution. It is likely that some instances of suicide by proxy were motivated by this, but it cannot be said that all suicides in the early modern period were economically motivated. Suicide is an immensely complex phenomena which cannot be attributed so single, universal causes. Lewis does acknowledge this, but her analysis of suicide by proxy would have been just as strong – if not stronger – without this tenuous and unnecessary link.

However, this is only one small part of what is, overall, both an accessible introduction and comprehensive analysis of the construction and perceptions of the crimes associated with non-marital childbirth in early modern Germany. Given the difficultly of the subject matter, the readability of this book striking, and is a testament to Lewis’s well-honed skills as as an historian and as a writer.


Further Reading (Infanticide and Abortion in Britain):

Peter C. Hoffer and N. E. H. Hull, Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England 1558-1803 (New York: New York University Press, 1981)

Mark Jackson, New-Born Child Murder: Women, illegitimacy and the courts in eighteenth-century England (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1996)

Mark Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (London: Ashgate, 2002)

Anne-Marie Kilday, A History of Infanticide in Britain c. 1600 to the Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Laura Gowing, ‘Secret Births and Infanticide in Seventeenth-Century England’ Past and Present, 156 (1997), pp 87-115

Angus Mclaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth Century to the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1984)

Emma Milne, ‘Courts must stop judging women who kill their babies as morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’’ The Conversation (3 May, 2016)

Book Review – Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports

Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports by Marion Pluskota

(Routledge, 2015), 178 pp, £95 hardcover

Prostitution Cover



Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports by Marion Pluskota adds to the growing body of scholarship on prostitution which seeks to frame the topic not as a moral and social problem, but as a socio-economic reality for countless women from the poorer and labouring classes.

As a comparative history, this book focuses on the judicial and civic records of two important European port cities – Bristol and Nantes – from the mid eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, and demonstrates how the experiences in these provincial ports varied from their respective capitols. Although a range of police and court records are used this is not a history of crime, but instead uses criminal proceedings as a means of accessing the lives of women who were identified as prostitutes in their dealings with authorities.

Pluskota effectively challenges depictions of prostitutes as young, naïve, helpless victims of circumstance and poverty portrayed by artists such as Hogarth, showing them instead to be economically disadvantaged women who drifted in and out of what we would now understand as prostitution by choice as their need required. They were not ‘fallen women’ but active participants in a female economy of makeshift (p 8). Pluskota argues that prostitution was a strategic choice made by many single, married and widowed women of varying ages and for varying periods of time which enabled them to earn enough income to survive. As such, these women were self-employed, independent and frequently mobile, and were not powerlessly bound by a system of dependency to pimps, madams and brothels.

Throughout the book Pluskota stays ‘low to the ground’, focusing on prostitutes and their clients who were typically labourers, lower middling sorts, mariners and soldiers; the landladies and landlords of the pubs, inns and residents they occupied; and the watchmen and territorial police they interacted with.

The overarching themes of this work are twofold. First, women who were identified as prostitutes experienced far greater independence and agency than previously assumed. Secondly, the primary forces of social control which acted against prostitution came from within prostitutes’ own networks of community, and were concerned more with civil rather than moral order. Pluskota does a superb job of developing these two golden threads.

Prostitution in the eighteenth century was, for Pluskota, first and foremost a form of economic exchange between prostitutes and their customers, landladies and landlords rather than a form of subjugation and sexual exploitation. Her rationale for this is the absence in the archives of stories of misery, destitution and powerlessness (p 148) and the strong evidence of various manifestations of female agency, such as choosing when and where they lived and worked, selecting customers and negotiating prices, integration within communities, and interactions with authorities.

The social control Pluskota is interested in is not the top down moralising control of the elites but, more interestingly, the ways in which various networks and communities negotiated the broader problems associated with, but not unique to, prostitution. These were not stereotypical concerns about venereal disease or immorality, but rather concerns such as noise and disruptions of the peace raised by neighbours, which then found their way into court records only after all other attempts to mitigate these problems failed.

The contemporary relevance of Pluskota’s work is made most evident in her final chapter which brings together the themes of female agency and social control in a discussion about the spatial distribution of prostitutes throughout these towns (chapter 5). She demonstrates that the geographic location of prostitutes was based more on the laws of supply and demand than on the wishes of civic officials, and that the creation of red light districts was influenced by the appropriation of space by prostitutes rather than the will of the state. She uses this evidence to effectively and compellingly (although briefly) recommend that the policing of prostitutional spaces in our own times ‘should be based on a systematic review of prostitutes’ needs’ (p 140).

The strongest feature of this book is how Pluskota maintains her focus on the women themselves rather than on the ‘problem’ of prostitution as constructed by social commentators and moral reformers. In so doing, she is able to uncover narratives of female agency and autonomy which have been overlooked by many writers.

However, at times this focus on agency teeters on the brink of Pollyannaism in that the reality of what must have been a bleak and grim experience for many women is sometimes lost. Although women chose to enter into prostitution of their own free will, they were compelled to do so out of necessity because of the risk of extreme poverty, and in so doing exposed themselves to violence and disease. These may have been independent decisions, but they may still have been decisions under duress. The voices of these women are now lost, so we cannot know how difficult such decisions really were on an individual level. Although prostitutes in these centres were not bound to a brothel economy we cannot necessarily assume that agency is evidence of emancipation.

However, given that until very recently most works on prostitution emphasised the tragic plight of impoverished women this perspective is both fascinating and refreshing. Furthermore, chipping away at the Dickensian stereotype of the exploited, coerced victims of pimps and madams allows us to better understand the harsh structural realities which oppressed poor and labouring women in the eighteenth century which ultimately compelled many into prostitution.

Overall, Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports is an excellent contribution to the history of gender, sexuality and social control in eighteenth-century Europe. This book is suitable for both a specialist academic and a general audience. It is thoroughly researched, well written and is an engaging and compelling read.

‘For shipping his corpse which was become very loathsome and nauseous.’ The provision of care for the poor, sick and dying in the eighteenth-century

I’ve recently become rather obsessed with the medical app ‘figure 1‘ which provides a fascinating glimpse into medical cases around the world. It’s not for the faint of heart. Nor is this post.

While searching for evidence of midwives in the parish records held by the Flintshire Records Office I came across a graphic, detailed and tragic account which serves as an excellent example of the treatment of the sick and dying in eighteenth-century Britain.

In 1749 a gravely ill man was found lying in the road in the parish of Hawarden, Flintshire. His condition was described by parish officials as ‘helpless and starving’, and he had clearly been in this state for some time as his limbs were ‘mortified’. A retrospective diagnosis based on this small but striking detail is impossible, but he was likely suffering from gangrene caused by an illness such as peripheral artery disease or an infection which had turned septic. This excruciating condition would have completely incapacitated him, and rendered him unconscious if not feverishly delirious. On top of this, he was also penniless. It would have been clear that he was not long for this world.

In eighteenth-century Britain the responsibility of care for the poor fell on parishes. Individuals were only eligible for support from the parish in which they were born, or in which they had been granted legal settlement through marriage or long-term residence and employment. Parish officials collected poor rates from better off residents, and distributed support to the deserving poor either in the form of cash, tangible goods such as clothing, shoes or basic food stuffs, or by paying other parishioners to house and nurse the sick and poor during their time of need.

So what happened if a person fell ill somewhere other than their parish of legal settlement? They would either be ‘removed’ to their home parish, or they were cared then and there, and their parish of legal settlement would be sent a bill. In this case, however, officials we not able to identify this ‘poor traveller’, where he came from, or where he was going. So what happened to him?

Parishes not only had a legal duty to care for the sick and poor, they also had a moral one. Church authorities would have been familiar with moralising biblical stories such as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in the Gospel of Luke. In the story a rich man refuses to give scraps from his table to the poor, sick Lazarus who lay at his gate. When both men eventually die Lazarus goes to heaven, but for his greed the rich man is damned. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between the poor, starving, gravely ill man found on the highroad in Hawarden and poor Lazarus.

We’ll never know if such stories played on the minds of parish officials in Hawarden, but we do know this poor, sick, unnamed traveller was provided for at the parish’s expense. A widow named Martha Lewis was paid 11 shillings to take, ‘him in that wretched and deplorable condition’ and care for him until ‘the time of his death‘, however long that was. 11 shillings was more than double the average payment made to Mrs Margaret Johnson, the local midwife when she delivered the babies of paupers and tended to mothers as they recovered.

The poor man seems to have died a horrible, festering death as the next rather detailed entry of expenditure was for the removal of his corpse, ‘which was become very loathsome and nauseous.’ One can only imagine the putrid smell, which if his limbs were gangrenous would have been lingering around him from the moment he was discovered on the road. Martha Lewis must have had an iron constitution! So bad was his state that his coffin had to be carried away to the churchyard on a hired cart because the neighbours refused to carry him on a bier, or stand.

And that was then end of the story for this poor, desperately unwell, unknown man. Infections, wounds and the visible signs of disease were not rare in the eighteenth century, but the amount of vivid detail the official who recorded these entries went into suggests this incident was particularly graphic, even by the standards of the day.

Breast Cancer and Parish Poor Relief in the Eighteenth Century

In Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century (which I recently reviewed) Marjo Kaartinen notes that this disease was a great equaliser which afflicted rich and poor women alike. First-hand accounts of the experience of breast cancer are rare, and those that do exist are typically from more well-off women. Rarer still are reports which discuss the diagnosis and treatment of women from the lower ranks of early modern society, however I was fortunate enough uncover a brief but revealing case on a recent research trip to Powys Archives

Prior to poor law reforms in the nineteenth century those who were not able to provide for themselves could appeal to their parish of legal settlement for support. This support was in cash or kind and provided the basic necessities of life including food, clothing and shelter as well as medical care. As such records kept by parish overseers of the poor can provide evidence of diseases and their treatments.

The case which I discovered is tragically and frustratingly short, accounting only for what the parish spent on one woman’s care, but it does provide a glimpse into life of someone who likely suffered and ultimately died from the disease.

In 1792 the overseers of the poor in the parish of Meifod, Montgomeryshire (now in modern-day Powys) made seven separate payments relating to the care of one Elizabeth Humphreys,  a poor widow who was likely under the age of 45 and who most probably had breast cancer.

Record for Parish support of Elizabeth Humphreys Reproduced with permission from Powys County Archives

Record of parish support of Elizabeth Humphreys
Reproduced with permission from Powys County Archives (M/EP/41/O/RT/3 unsorted)

Either through the course of her illness or her financial circumstances or both Elizabeth was no longer able to financially support herself. From this record we know she suffered for at least 11 weeks before succumbing to her illness as this was the duration of the support provided, but she was likely ill for some time before this. This payment of 16 shillings and 6 pence was paid directly to Elizabeth, which indicates that she was still physically able to care for herself, as at this point there is no mention of another parishioner being paid to care for her. What her circumstances were prior to her receipt of parish support, and just how sick she was we don’t know, however she does not appear to have been in receipt of parish support prior to this. 

Over the course of her illness Elizabeth was provided with at least two medical treatments, one of which was a salve, which could have been the popular ‘goose dung and celandine’ treatment discussed by Kaartinen (p. 59), or something more aggressive and caustic such as mercury, hemlock or carbonic acid (pp. 32-34). The second treatment is described only as a cure by vestry, which suggests parish officials acquired the services of a professional medical practitioner who may have even operated on Elizabeth, as lumpectomies and mastectomies were seen as options in all but the most advanced of cases. 

Following this treatment Elizabeth was cared for by a Mary Davies, which suggests that she could have been further incapacitated by an invasive procedure.

Prior to this treatment an expense was incurred for the movement of Elizabeth’s goods. This could have been part of the preparations made in advance of an invasive surgical procedure which would have necessitate a lengthy recovery period in the home of Mary Davies, or it was because it was clear that her illness was terminal and the parish was making arrangements for the provision of palliative care. 

 Whatever the treatment was we know it was not successful, as the following entry is for funeral expenses for Elizabeth, and she was either buried in January or June 1792 (the burial register lists two Elizabeth Humphreys in that year, both of whom were widows and both were paupers). Sadly, Elizabeth left behind a young daughter who was likely under the age of 12 as she was subsequently placed in an apprenticeship, which gives us a clue to Elizabeth’s age range. As an apprentice Elizabeth’s daughter would have learned practical skills in housewifery rather than one of the trades associated with professional apprentices, and the apprenticeship would have served as a foster home for the orphaned girl. Unfortunately her indenture does not appear to have survived.

Although at presentit is not possible to know any more about Elizabeth Humphreys and her illness, it is clear that when individuals were inflicted by diseases such as cancer but were not able to support themselves certain measures were in place to ensure that they did receive whatever care was reasonably available and within the means of the parish. 

(with thanks to Kerry and Roz at Powys County Archives) 

 Further Reading

Lorie Charlesworth, Welfare’s Forgotten Past (London: Routledge, 2010) 

 David W. Howell, The Rural Poor in Eighteenth-Century Wales (Cardiff: Cardiff University Press, 2000)

 Marjo Kaartinen, Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth-Century (London: Pickering Chatto, 2013)

Book Review – Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century

Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth-Century by Marjo Kaartinen

(London: Pickering Chatto, 2013), 256 pp Print: £60  eBook: £24

  Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century

Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century is a compelling and compassionate investigation of both contemporary medical understandings of cancer and the lived experience of what is still a horrific disease.

By dividing the book logically into four thematic sections (definition and diagnosis, treatments, women’s agency, and the emotional and physical experience of pain) Kaartinen is able to effectively intertwine narratives of medical knowledge, popular beliefs, and experiences without creating an hierarchy which champions empirical advancements and subordinates the role of women in their diagnosis and treatment. Instead, what she has created is an accessible and engaging work of medical and cultural history which captures the humanity of the women who suffered from breast cancer, their family networks and the practitioners who attempted with the best of intentions treated them.

This book’s two strongest features are the quantity and diversity of evidence it draws upon, and the author’s skillful balancing of objectivity and empathy in a study of a problem which many women still face today. The extent of the research which went into producing this book is evident in the range of rich sources such as medical treatises, recipe collections, receipts books, diaries, letters and popular literature. These sources are drawn primarily from England, with some reference to cases in continental Europe and in Scotland.

As much as possible Kaartinen attempts to incorporate the voices of the women who experienced breast cancer themselves, which is rarely in their own words but rather as recorded by the medical practitioners who treated them, or by family members such as husbands and fathers. Despite this the author makes it clear that women played an active role in their diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes this results in problematic assumptions which are, perhaps, beyond the limits of evidence and which many historians would steer clear of, such as when she suggested that a patient, ‘probably thought that it was her stubbornness, her keeping her own mind that saved her breast.’ (p. 75), or speculating about Jane T’s motives in going against doctor’s orders when she was discovered mending her dress shortly after her surgery (p. 112). However such instances are infrequent, and more often than not Kaartinen’s analysis of the sources is measured and pragmatic.

Moreover, Kaartinen’s discussion of the role of women in their diagnosis and treatment is a valuable contribution to our understanding of gender and disease in early modern Europe. Throughout the book she effectively demonstrates women’s agency in how they understood the disease, sought various diagnoses and treatment opinions, utilised networks of female knowledge, shared and expressed their experiences, and ultimately decided for themselves whether or not they would subject themselves to invasive surgeries, which at that time would have been conducted without anaesthetic.

Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century uncovers many interesting issues which provide insight into early modern beliefs, such as understandings of the causes of breast cancer, which were linked to problems with women’s reproductive capabilities including breastfeeding (pp. 14-16) and childbearing (pp. 16-17), or the paradoxical notion that women were both the weaker sex and as such more susceptible to suffer from cancer, but also, because of their ability to endure childbirth, women were better able to withstand the pain of the disease and aggressive treatments such as mastectomies, which was seen as the worst pain any patient could endure (p 110).

This work may have benefited from a discussion of some of the diseases which could have presented as cancer, but which may not have been diagnosed as such by modern standards, particularly those cases with patients or practitioners who reported a positive outcome from what we now know would not have been a cure. However the author never set this out as a purpose, and her work does not suffer without this. Furthermore such retrospective diagnoses may themselves be problematic, if not impossible.

Kaartinen’s prose can at times be abrupt, with some sections reading as bullet points reassembled into paragraphs, however this does not detract from its readability, and it succeeds in achieving the difficult balance of being suitable for both a general and an academic audience.

This work is by no means lacking in detailed descriptions and discussions, and the deeper Kaartinen delves into the experience of the disease the richer her work becomes. The most notable and brutal account is that of Fanny Burney as captured in a difficult letter written to her sister several months after mastectomy, which clearly was both physically and emotionally excruciating (pp. 101-107).

Kaartinen closes her work with a reminder that what modern readers may interpret as brutal and barbaric treatments are by no means worse than the drastic and invasive treatments for the disease today. In the eighteenth century as in today such heavy-handed treatments arise from a genuine desire on the part of patients and medical practitioners to restore health and eliminate the pain and suffering caused by breast cancer.

Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?

I’ve changed my blog’s URL so wanted to reblog one of my more popular posts for anyone looking for it. Thanks for reading!

Deviant Maternity

What is Culture?

If the past is to be understood as an enormous landscape that historians are charged with the task of exploring, then cultural historians are the academics gazing at every vista and examining every pebble asking the question, ‘but what does it mean?’

Influenced by anthropology in the 1970s, and building upon the new directions taken by social history in the 1960s, cultural history gained increasing momentum until reaching virtual domination as one of the leading methods of historical inquiry in the present day. This expansion has now reached a point of crisis where practitioners and critics alike argue that the field is so expansive as to encompass everything, and therefore mean nothing.

With this growth has come extensive theoretical debate about what constitutes ‘culture’ and whether it is even possible for historians to understand what something meant to individuals in the past. In the midst of such a crisis of…

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Tragedy in the Archives

A recent BBC news article made me think it high time to revive my blog, which has remained inactive since last summer due in part to me taking up a Wellcome Trust-funded doctoral post in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter last September, which has kept me rather busy.

The story in question highlights the brutal, heartbreaking reality of infant and child mortality in Early Modern England as expressed in church graffiti from the sixteenth century when the south of England was ravaged by plague.

Although the period I’m looking at is two centuries later a similar tragic reality is just as apparent. In my research I’m looking at illegitimacy in Wales during the long eighteenth century. One of the many things I’m interested in is infant and maternal mortality and how it may have been influenced by factors such as illegitimacy and the different types of conjugal unions which may have led to the birth of an illegitimate child. For more on the different types of unions please see my 2013 article in Welsh History Review.

As an academic historian my job is to remain objective and professional, but while analysing parish burial records from Denbighshire, Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire (the latter two are both in modern day Powys) it was hard not to be moved by what must have been pretty devastating circumstances for some families.

For example, in the parish of Marchwiel in April 1699 a sixteen month old child named Elizabeth Clark was buried. Also buried that month were her brothers Frances, Jacob and Peter. Jacob and Peter were buried on the same day. The cause of death is not given, but a common contagious disease, or a water-borne illness such as dysentery, or the effects of undercooked meat or even poor harvests,* which all had a far worse prognosis for the very young and very old could have been responsible, but there is no way to be certain. The Clark children were the only burial entries for the month of April that year, and there were no more burials in 1699 than in the preceding years therefore an outbreak of an epidemic such as small pox is unlikely.

The fate of twins in particular appears to have been quite bleak. Every set of twins born in the parish of Glascwn, Radnorshire between 1680 and 1740 experienced the death of one if not both children within days or weeks of birth, such as the twin sons of David Bowen baptised on 15 October, 1681 and buried on 25 and 31 October, or James and Catherine the twin children of John and Catherine Gwyn baptised on 29 June, 1710 and buried on 15 and 16 July respectively. Illegitimate twins also fared as badly, such as Elizabeth and Jane, the twin daughters born to Jane Probert baptised on 2 August, 1733 and buried on 19 and 23 August respectively.

Baptism and burial records for Elizabeth and Jane Probert, illegitimate twin daughters of Jane Probert, August 1733.

Baptism and burial records for Elizabeth and Jane Probert, illegitimate twin daughters of Jane Probert (Glascwm, August 1733)

For other families their tragedies played out over a period of months or years rather than days and weeks. In Llanfihangel Nant Melan, Radnorshire on 3 May, 1761 Peter and Mary Thomas baptised their twin children Peter and Susannah. Five days later Peter was buried, and five days after that Susannah was buried. The couple had another child who was baptised on 27 November, 1762; he was buried the next day.

Also in Glascwn, in February 1705 Thomas Matthews and his wife Johan buried their three week old son James, and in September the following year they buried their five month old son Henry. In the same parish between 1699 and 1720 Thomas Parry and Elizabeth Lloyd, who were not married but were likely in a stable conjugal relationship, had six illegitimate children, three of whom died within three months of birth.

Less explicitly, the parish records of Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, on the boundary between Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire, uniquely lists the cause of death for several of those interred in the parish grave yard in the latter half of the eighteenth century. This record provides rich evidence of understandings of disease and death at that time, and perhaps the most telling indication for the purposes here is the frequent absence of a cause of death for children, particularly under the age of one. Infant mortality for children in their first year of life was so common that it frequently required no medical explanation.

Perhaps most poignant is the case of Roger Tonman, a local gentleman, and his wife Theodosia.  In May 1708 the couple baptised their infant daughter, who they named Theodosia. She was buried less than one month later. In March 1711 they again had a daughter who they also christened Theodosia. She too did not live to see her first birthday, having died in November of that year aged only eight months. Finally, in December 1713 Roger and Theodosia had a third daughter who they named Theodosia and she does appear to have survived the precarious first year of life and reach adulthood, however her mother and namesake was not so lucky, as she succumbed to the physical perils of childbirth three days after giving birth, most likely from puerperal fever.

This final example is evidence that risks of childbirth and infancy were not the reserve of the lower orders alone. The risks associated with pregnancy, labour and the precarious period immediately following birth had the potential to be incredibly dangerous for both mother and child, and the first months and years of life carried almost as much risk for young children. In a modern setting with very low rates of infant mortality and ready access to pre and postnatal care for mothers, neonatal care for infants, early diagnostic techniques, antibiotics, specialists doctors, trained midwifes and so on it is difficult to imaging just how tragic family life could have been for some.

Although most historians now reject the theory that parents in the past did not form close bonds with their children due to high infant mortality rates these examples, and the countless others that exist in parish records and personal correspondences do raise interesting questions about how the imminent threat or actual experience of loss in childbirth and infancy must have shaped the emotional worlds of early modern families.

Further Reading:

Mary J. Dobson, Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England

Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times

Hannah Newton, The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720

Alun Withey, Physick and the Family (*see p. 22)