The Will of Frances Hughes, a 17th Century Welsh Midwife


The Last Will and Testament of Frances Hughes of Haverfordwest, Midwife
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

Frances Hughes was a midwife and widow who died in Haverfordwest in 1700. The only clues we have of her existence are found in her will, which was drafted on 26 April of that year. She died just a few days later.

We know nothing of her age at the time of her death, the details of her former occupation or that of her late husband (or husbands), but her will does provide some fascinating evidence about her circumstances at the time of her death, and offers a few tantalising clues about what appears to have been a long and perhaps eventful life.

At the time of her death she lived in a five room house consisting of two bed chambers, a garret, a small parlour and a kitchen. This in itself suggests she must have had some degree of wealth during her life as this was a substantial size house for the time, even in a market town such as Haverfordwest. Throughout Wales in the early modern period most homes were small and sparsely furnished, with single-room dwellings and small cottages being common. Frances, or at least her late husband, was likely one of the more well-off members of the town.

Despite the size of her home the moveable possessions recorded in her probate inventory were valued at the modest sum of £12. To put this in perspective, a study of fifty-six spinster wills from the Diocese of St David’s between 1700 and 1715 revealed a range of inventory values from as little as 2d to as much as £322, with many under £20, and eighteen with £10 or less.* A large portion of these women were rural householders able to maintain themselves through subsistence farming, however most lived in much smaller houses.  It would appear that Frances had a substantial house with a modest but comfortable level of wealth. She was essentially house rich but cash poor(ish) in an early modern sense.

At the time of her death Frances was likely quite old, which is made brutally evident by the repeated and somewhat bleak use of the adjective ‘old’ before virtually every item in the probate inventory drawn up following her death. Her inventory consisted primarily of domestic goods, including three bedsteads, featherbeds, tables, chairs, a chest of drawers, a rug, linens, clothing and a parcel of old wool, as well as kitchen goods such as pewter dishes and plates, brass pots and pans, a cauldron, spits and a dripping pan, billows and skillet.

She’s was far from wealthy when she died, but it doesn’t appear as though she was suffering in abject poverty either. That she possessed a range of household goods suggests she was living in her own home and was able to support herself at the time of her death, although the pattern of bequests in her will does suggest one of her children may have been caring for her.

Bequest to Gwillum Sons

Bequest to Frances Hughes’s Sons
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

In her will Frances listed six surviving children from at least two different marriages, all of whom had different levels of independence. She left one shilling to a son named John Roberts, who was a millwright; ‘seventeen or eighteen shillings’ to her son Joseph Gwillum, a farmer, to buy a ring; forty shillings to her son Thomas Gwillum, who had no occupation given; one shilling and some clothes to her daughter Sibley Davies of Sutton; one shilling to her son Richard Gwillum, a smith. The rest of her estate and clothing was left  her daughter Ann Bowen and granddaughter Mary Bowen. Ann was also made executrix of the will.

This discrepancy in bequest is not necessarily indicative of favouritism, but is likely a reflection of her children’s own level of independence. John Roberts and Richard Gwillum, the two children who were left the least, were both in occupations in which they could conceivably sustain themselves more readily. Given their professions of millwright and smith they were probably in better financial positions than her other children. Likewise her son Joseph Gwillum, who was a farmer, was bequeathed less than his brother Thomas, who appears to have had no notable occupation, and therefore may have been in worse financial circumstances.  Her daughter Sibley was likely married and living in a more stable, sustainable circumstances resulting in her smaller bequest as well.

Bequest to Ann Bowen

Bequest to Ann and Mary Bowen
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

This leaves Ann Bowen and her daughter Mary Bowen who inherited the majority of Frances’s possessions. Although we can’t know for certain it is possible that Ann and Mary were living with Frances in a reciprocal relationship with Ann providing care for ageing her mother and Frances providing a home for her daughter and granddaughter. It is quite possible that Ann was herself a widow who would have been in a much more precarious financial situation than her siblings, thus warranting her receipt of the lion’s share of her mother’s possessions. Furthermore, that Frances appointed Ann to be her executrix suggests that Ann had a clearer understanding of her mother’s wishes, which would be the case were they living in the same house.

Another interesting clue about Frances’s life comes from the differences in surnames of her sons. These suggest she had been married and widowed at least twice if not three times. John Roberts was probably her eldest surviving child from her first marriage, with the remaining three Gwillum sons from her second. But Frances herself was neither a Roberts nor a Gwillum at the time of her death – she was a Hughes. The husband who predeceased her was not mentioned in her will, but it is possible that she had been married and widowed a third time.

And what of her own profession of midwife? Unfortunately there is very little we can glean about that from this document. We only know she was a midwife because the appraisers listed her as such. We know very little about the practice of midwifery in early modern Wales in general, although documents such as applications for licenses to practice midwifery do exists, but have yet to be studied in detail. Much more is known about midwifery in England during this time.

What is apparent is that Frances Hughes had at least some level of modest prosperity during her life, and given her dwelling at the time of her death her last husband had a degree of wealth and standing. That her appraisers saw fit to list her own profession suggests it held some significance, and as such she was likely a respected member of the community. At present this document stands very much in isolation and cannot be seen as evidence of a norm, but in these regards it would appear that Frances Hughes did fit the mould of an early modern British midwife. It is also clear that much more research is needed.


*This post is very much indebted to Lesley Davidson and her chapter ‘Spinsters were Doing it for Themselves: Independence and the Single Woman in Early Eighteenth-Century Rural Wales’ in Michael Roberts and Simone Clarke, eds., Women and Gender in Early Modern Wales (Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2000), pp. 186-209.


Sorry, I don’t speak tattoo.

Photo credit: Margot Mifflin

Maud Wagner, the first known female tattooist in the U.S., 1911. In 1907, she traded a date with her husband-to-be for tattoo lessons. Their daughter, Lotteva Wagner, was also a tattooist. Photograph credit Margot Mifflin (from The New Yorker – see link below*)

Nowadays it seems as though everyone has a tattoo – even David Dimbleby, proving once and for all that the modern tattoo has become decidedly less rebellious. In true Hegelian fashion the tattoo has followed that dialectic process from antithesis to synthesis, and inked skin now appears to be the new norm.

There is still an element of stigma attached to tattoos. As someone with heavily tattooed arms who works in a professional environment I make a point of keeping them covered in an effort to be taken seriously. I’ve never had an employer tell me I need to do this but I implicitly feel it’s the right thing to do. I’ve received far more compliments and genuine questions than negative comments and dirty looks, but it just doesn’t seem right to show them off at work. I wouldn’t reveal them at an interview, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get fired for taking off my cardigan either.

Arguably the tattoo’s journey away from the subversive and into the mainstream began well over a decade ago with popular network TV shows like LA Ink, Miami Ink, London Ink and so on. Pre-watershed programmes like these showed the personal side of the ‘rough-around-the-edges-but-has-a-big-heart’ artists and the ‘they’re-just-like-me!’ clients, and proved to most unbelievers that a bit of permanent ink on skin really is okay. That many of the tattoos on these shows are very high quality pieces of art has helped destigmatise tattoos as well.

But around the world prior to the 20th century, where tattooing was practiced, tattoos were very much ‘mainstream’ (See: National Geographic: Pigments of Imagination). Granted, before they came into contact with tattooed Picts from northern Britain the Romans reserved tattoos for branding slaves, criminals and the condemned, and the yakuza of nineteenth-century Japan used tattoo imagery as a language of their criminal subculture, but for the most part, pre-modern tattoos were an important symbolic part of the ritual practices of various cultures. For South Pacific islanders they marked important rites of passage, they were used by crusaders to identify themselves as Christian so that if they died in a foreign land they could receive an appropriate burial, and to the inhabitants of the Alps over 5,000 years ago they served as healing charms or remedies. For sailors they told a story of where they’d been; for prisoners they told of what they’d done or for how long they’d served.

Speak to anyone alive today in Western Europe or North America who has a tattoo and you’ll likely hear a story that has parallels with any of these reasons. A young woman getting a tattoo to celebrate her 18th birthday shares something in common with a Tahitian woman having her buttocks tattooed black when she comes of age, a soldier having their date of birth and service number tattooed could relate to a crusader tattooing a cross on their arm, and anyone with a Om tattoo over a chakra shares something with an early European such as Ötzi.

We use tattoos for many of these same traditional reasons, but we do so in ways that aren’t necessarily readable to those around us. What makes modern (or perhaps postmodern?) tattoos so very different is not meaning but language. The cult of the individual that gave rise to the popularity of tattoos has blocked any hope of their symbolism having any readable meaning. We now need to ask someone what a tattoo means because there’s no obvious language, or there’s such a plurality of language we can’t decipher one from another. Whereas traditionally most tattoos served to identify a person’s place within a community able to read the symbolism, today tattoos are used to demonstrate how someone is unique. At most you could probably figure out from the artistic style which pop culture sub group a person identifies with, but likely nothing more than that.

Tattoos do still carry meaning, but now it is a meaning held and frequently created by the individual. We’ve appropriated other cultures’ symbolism and adapted the meaning to suit our own personal values as we see fit. Geometric Maori patterns, Japanese koi and dragons, kanji (sometimes with unfortunate hilarious consequences) have given us infinitesimal ways of expressing ourselves – a butterfly tattoo on one person can represent the birth of a child, the loss of a parent, recovery from addiction or a love of butterflies. I have the Virgin Mary and part of the Hail Mary tattooed on my arm, but I’m not Catholic, nor is my family. Nor do my Japanese tattoos reveal any of my gang affiliations. I don’t have any.

We are, of course, a product of our culture and the tattooed are being different in very similar ways, but that’s a different topic altogether. Modern tattooed bodies are scrapbooks of self fashioning, which, like their predecessors makes them incredibly interesting cultural artefacts. Even if you can’t understand what they’re saying they, at the very least, are a great conversational icebreaker.


Further Reading

Examining Woodlands: How far have we really come?

Recently I’ve been looking back through my portfolio of projects I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on. I came across an opinion piece I wrote for a local paper (local as in Metro Vancouver) following a multi-disciplinary event series I created, which was hosted by Douglas College in 2009.  The series was called The Woodlands Project, and it was a month-long exploration of the institutional experience inspired by a ‘school’ in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada for children who have physical and developmental disabilities.

Woodlands opened in the mid nineteenth century as an asylum for adults with problems ranging from psychological disorders to poverty. By the mid twentieth century it was a home for children whose parents were not able to care them because of their mental, physical and behavioural needs. Woodlands closed in the late 1990s as part of a province-wide move towards ‘community living’, which is a highly contentious topic – obviously integration into a community is positive, but if it’s done as a cost-cutting measure (which it was) then how do you ensure the most vulnerable don’t fall through the cracks?

There were many sides to Woodlands (and similar institutions such as Riverview in Coquitlam, BC). Although it was a haven for many it was a tortious, abusive hell for others. In 2001 the Government of British Columbia finally admitted that abuse at Woodlands was systemic, and many former residents launched a class action lawsuit. Some of the stories are horrific – from children’s teeth being pulled out without anaesthetic as a means of preventing biting, to children being left in soiled bedclothes, to headstones from the institution’s graveyard being pulled up because they were ‘too disturbing’ to look at for elderly patients in a nearby hospital (some of the stones were used to build a staff BBQ pit). But many of the stories were also fond and happy, with residents recalling memories of a sense of belonging and community – some former residents would regularly return to the Woodlands site and sit on their favourite bench long after the institution had closed.

Douglas College and the site of Woodlands (now a shiny new condo development called ‘Victoria Hill’) are less than a mile apart, and many former residents still live in the area, so their stories are tremendously interesting and relevant, but beyond the media coverage of the lawsuit and the urban myths and rumours their voices were seldom heard. In 2006 I was tasked with developing a project that was of relevance to the community and I found inspiration in their stories. What happened in the subsequent three years was a result of artistic collaboration, dedication and community support.

What follows is an updated version of an article that was published in a local newspaper following the event .

Source: Day Room, ward 62, 3rd floor, west wing, Centre Building, Woodlands

Photo Credit: Michael de Courcy Source:
Day Room, ward 62, 3rd floor, west wing, Centre Building, Woodlands

Examining Woodlands: How far have we really come?

Working on a project which examines the historical flaws in our system reveals the gaping holes that still exist.

Douglas College was abuzz with activity and excitement in anticipation of a project three years in the making as we launched our Woodlands Project – a month-long exploration of the institutional experience. For a bourgeoning special event coordinator, it was a major professional milestone. To conceive of an idea, convince colleagues of its worth, secure private funding and enlist the input of the community and the talents of various artists, and have everything fall into place—professional bliss.

That moment of personal satisfaction was quickly checked by the reality of what we were examining. Our project was an artistic and academic look at the ways we as a society have treated people who have mental and physical challenges in our province over the last 50 years. The stories we told were inspired by real people who experienced Woodlands and Riverview. Although many of the artistic elements were imaginary, the reality is that people lived this. As difficult as these stories are, they deserve to be told. These individuals deserve the respect and recognition afforded to everyone else in our community. Moreover, their stories resonate because they are not isolated; they are as old and far-reaching as the phenomena of institutionalization.

I believe you can judge a society by the way in which it treats its most vulnerable members. In Canada we pride ourselves on our public health care systems and social supports. But take a look around – do we really have that much to be proud of? Granted, we have come a long way in 50 years. We no longer lock everyone away for being deemed “unfit.” That is a definite improvement, but it is so shockingly evident that we haven’t come far enough.

I don’t think the average able-bodied, able-minded adult knows what support exists for those who cannot manage their own lives. You don’t have to look far to find countless stories of substandard, flea-ridden, bedbug-infested social housing units. If you are forced to survive only on the meagre pittance afforded to you by the government that is what you have to look forward to. If, by no fault of your own, you cannot support yourself you are essentially punished for it. How is this progress?

Many survivors of Woodlands and Riverview are pleased with the move towards deinstitutionalization. They are now active, contributing members of their communities, which is without question a positive thing. They have the same rights as everyone and are no longer locked away like criminals. But what about the others who need more support, of which there are many? Most decent, rational people should be in agreement that vulnerable children and adults need support, but so often it seems the burden of care falls to ‘someone else’ – the government, the family, the local community – and for as cheaply as possible too. Spare every expense.

We’re always so shocked by stories of abuse in care homes, but endemic indifference like this makes it easy to understand how that abuse happens again and again. We may not have lifted our hand to strike a vulnerable person, but how many of us have actually lifted a finger to help?


The Woodlands Project was held during March 2009 and included the following:

Imperfect – a play by Mary Burns with music by Doug Smith

Dead and Buried – a visual arts instillation by Michael de Courcy

Our Storya panel discussion with former residents and employees of Woodlands

Asylum – a screening of a film created by Heidi Currie and lisa g

Media releases from the project can be found here:

For more information about the history of Woodlands and stories from survivors:

What Fools These Mortals Be…?

Parish Ritual and Popular Memory in Late Tudor London

 In the moneth of May, namely on May day in the morning, euery man, except impediment, would walke into the sweete meadows and greene woods, there to reioyce their spirites with the beauty and sauour of sweete fouwers, and with the harmony of birds, praysing God in their kind

~ John Stow, Survey of London 

But fancie then, by serche of selfe deuyse,
Renouncyng thus to spende the pleasaunt Maye
So vainly out with sport of fruteles Pryce

Barnabe Googe Eglogs, Epytaphes and Sonettes

Seasonal feasts and festivities were an integral part of early modern English life. They not only marked changes in the calendar year, but also served to unite communities in observation and celebration of shared beliefs and values. But festive rituals were to undergo a profound and dramatic transformation in the sixteenth century in the wake of the Reformation. Ritual traditions that had flourished in urban parishes in the early decades of the century had all but disappeared by the century’s end only to be replaced with the emergence of one of London’s greatest cultural legacies – public theatre.

It was not only the myriad saints and holy days that came under attack, but also the semi-secular holidays such as May Day and Midsummer which celebrated and ritualized the turning of the seasons. By the late sixteenth century these parochial rituals connected with summertime celebrations were in an advanced state of decline, however it is not necessarily the case that these traditions were abandoned altogether. Elements of these former parish-based ritual activities were preserved in public theatre in such works as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This work, along with other works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, makes use of ritual language and reference, which suggests there must have been a popular demand for such material. Taking this a step further, it can also arguably be used as an indicator of religious conviction and conformity in late Elizabethan London.

It was in the parish that the customs and rituals of the liturgical and calendar year were most frequently enacted.  The great sacred seasons and holy days, such as Christmastide and Eastertide, and the other important moments including the dates allocated to patron saints were the primary focus of parish celebration.  But woven into the cycle of Christian fasts and festivals were the semi-secular traditions whose roots were often quite ancient.  The Christian calendar was closely related to the turning points of the seasonal year, which meant the many observations that were not exclusively Christian were incorporated into the Christian framework.   In order to accommodate semi-sacred seasonal celebrations the church often allocated to them a Christian identity to make their observance more acceptable.  Midsummer Eve, which was the last possible date on which the moveable feast of Corpus Christi could fall, and which was one of the most celebrated holidays in early modern London, was also the eve of the nativity of St. John the Baptist.  Less successful in incorporating a Christian identity was the appointment of Saints Philip and James the Apostles’ observation to 1 May and the celebrations at the start of the summer season, but these saints were rarely recognized on this day. These dates allowed for the blending of secular entertainment and parochial ritual into a mixture that was widely accepted and practised in pre-Reformation London.

Edwin Henry Landseer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edwin Henry Landseer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is absolutely riddled with reference to festive rituals associated with spring and summer, and virtually every action and character refers in some way to the ritual customs of May Day. The lover’s flight to the woods and the mischievous disorder that ensues speaks to countless pseudo-pagan rites of May; Oberon and Titania are clearly the Lord and Queen of Misrule, with Puck playing the former’s mischievous Robin Hood-esque sidekick; the play-within-a-play featuring Bottom and his fellow laborers with Philostrate as the Master of Revels harkens to the tradition of Mummers plays, as does the donkey head bestowed upon Bottom during his transformation; the progression from the night of lascivious opportunity to a day of moral redemption thru a triple marriage is the reintegration back into society with its stricter rules and norms – even the insult ‘thou painted maypole’ are examples of links between the play and the popular traditions practised in London during the first half of the sixteenth century.

Numerous literary scholars have drawn these parallels, and the connections, and clearly should be no surprise given the title of the play, but the context of when it was created and staged for the first time makes the play interesting.

The swinging pendulum of Tudor religious policy did of course have a significant impact on ritual celebrations, as did the influence of zealous Protestant reformers. By the 1590s when the play was written England was established as a Protestant nation, parish administration had been made more exclusive and professional, and the majority of parish-based rituals had virtually disappeared. Opponents to festival rituals writing in the 1570s and 1580s such as Barnabe Googe, William Harrison, and Edmund Spenser who had actively denounced the idle, self-indulgent sinfulness and lascivious temptations of seasonal festivities could have found some comfort in that. But there were those who openly lamented the loss of their traditional summer festivities, some going so far as to say that the Reformation destroyed a happy society, such as William Warner and John Stow.

So what then does A Midsummer Night’s Dream tell us about the sentiments and attitudes of Londoners in the last decades of the sixteenth century? It is clear that May Day and Midsummer served as a vital source of inspiration for this Shakespearian comedy. That Shakespeare chose to write a play based upon bygone seasonal rituals is not evidence in itself of a popular demand for the revival of such pastimes, but it does strongly indicate a pre-Reformation nostalgia for these ritual traditions, and these festivals must have lived on in popular memory. The public theatre in London was a commercial enterprise, and it was therefore important for the material presented to appeal to as broad an audience as possible to ensure the greatest profit.  The existence of supply indicates that there must have been a demand.

May Day and Midsummer were both holidays that had been traditionally celebrated at the parish level by a wide range English society in fairly universal ways, and so all who attended a performance would have understood the substance of the play. The parish had the locale in which community and communal identity were constructed, and parochial rituals were the means by which it was reproduced, and it was in the parish that the customs and rituals of the liturgical and calendar year were most frequently enacted. Protestant evangelism combined with changes to parish responsibilities and administration led to a sharp decline in festive communal rituals within parishes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrates the ways in which the communal rituals of the parish, which had also united diverse social groups, were transferred to the public theatre in London.  But although the theatre attracted a broad range of people from society, it was an activity of observation rather than participation, and it did not therefore replace the direct social bonding of parochial rituals, but at the very least it provided a nostalgic reminder.

Does the fact that so many citizens still found pleasure in their old pastimes, if only as spectators, suggest that their private sentiments were sympathetic to the old faith?  It is possible, but given the absence of major uprisings in the capital in response religious change, and the fact that the festivities brought to life on the stage were semi-secular in nature it is likely that the majority of Londoners who were attracted to works such as this had generally accepted the reforms of the Elizabethan church.  Although they were Protestant, they were not as enthusiastic as the evangelicals preaching and publishing against these much-loved customs.

Further Reading

Googe, Barnabe Eglogs, Epytaphes and Sonettes (1563)

Googe, Barnabe The Popish Kingdom (1570)

Harrison, William The Description of England (1587)

Overall, William Henry The Accounts of the churchwardens of the parish of St. Michael, Cornhill, in the city of London, from 1456 to 1608 (London, 1871)

Spenser, Edmund The Shepherd’s Calendar (1579);

Stow, John A Survey of London (1603)

Stubbes, Phillip Anatomie of Abuses (1583)

Archer, Ian The Pursuit of Stability (Cambridge, 1991)

Archer, Ian ‘Reordering rituals: ceremonies and the parish 1520-1640’ in Paul Griffiths & Mark S.R.Jenner (eds.), Londinopolis (Manchester, 2000)

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: a study of dramatic form and its relation to social custom (Princeton, 1959)

Brigden, Susan London and the Reformation (Oxford, 1989)

Bristol, Michael D. ‘Theatre and Popular Culture’ in John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan (eds.) New History of Early English Drama (New York, 1997)

Bucknell, Peter A. Entertainment and Ritual 600-1600 (London, 1979) pp. 71

Burgess, Clive ‘London Parishioners in Times of Change: St Andrew Hubbard, Eastcheap, c. 1450-1570’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 53, No.  I (January 2002)

Clark, Peter & Paul Slack (eds.) Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500-1700 (London, 1972)

Collinson, Patrick ‘Merry England on the Ropes: The Contested Culture of the Early Modern Town’ in Simon Ditchfield (ed.), Christianity and the Community in the West (Aldershot, 2001)

Collinson, Patrick The Birthpangs of Protestantism: religious and cultural change in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (New York, 1988)

Cressy, David Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London, 1989)

French, Katherine L. Gary G. Gibbs & Beat A. Kümin (eds.), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester, 1997)

Gibbs, Gary ‘New duties for the parish community in Tudor London’ in Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs and Beat A. Kümin (eds.), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester, 1997)

Griffiths, Paul& Mark S.R.Jenner (eds.) Londinopolis (Manchester, 2000)

Haigh, Christopher The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987)

Hassel, R. Chris Faith and Folly in Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies (Athens, Georgia, 1980)

Hindle, Steve ‘A sense of place? Becoming and belonging in the rural parish, 1550-1650’ Alexandra Shepard & Phil Withington (eds.), Communities in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2000)

Hutton, Ronald ‘The Local Impact of the Tudor Reformation’ in Christopher Haigh The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987)

Hutton, Ronald The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford, 1994)

Hutton, Ronald The Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford, 1996)

James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals (London, 1961)

Kümin , Beat A. The Shaping of a Community: the rise and reformation of the English parish, c.1400-1560 (Aldershot, 1996)

Laroque, Francois Shakespeare’s Festive World (Cambridge, 1991)

Shepard, Alexandra & Phil Withington (eds.) Communities in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2000)

Thorne, W. Barry ‘Folk Entertainment and Ritual in Shakespeare’s Early Comedies’ (MA thesis University of British Columbia, September, 1960)

Vlasopolos, Anca ‘The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1. (Spring, 1978) pp. 21-29

Wright, Susan J. Parish Church and People (London, 1988)

An Ode to Breakfast

And now for something completely different…I thought it time for something more light-hearted. The vast majority of my posts are about the social and cultural history of early modern Britain, however this is a Shakespearean post about breakfast. This is something I scribbled down a while back on a particularly indecisive morning. I had, for a time, considered starting a Shakespearean food soliloquy blog, but alas, that hasn’t happened…which is probably for the best. Finally, Manchester Festival is wrapping up this weekend, and I wasn’t one of the lucky few to snag tickets to see Kenneth Branagh in the Scottish Play, so to compensate I’ll post a spoof about the Prince of Denmark. Enjoy.

French toast or not French toast: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the kitchen to suffer
The whisk and fry pan of delicious breakfast,
Or to take frozen waffles and put them in the toaster,
And by toasting them end hunger? French toast: To eat;
No more; and by to eat to say we end
The hunger and the thousand hour fast
With said delicious breakfast, ’tis a consumption
Devoutly to be wish’d. French toast, to eat;
To eat: perchance a sugar rush: aye, there’s the rub;
For in that delicious breakfast what sugar is there?
When we have ingested such maple syrup and icing sugar
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so tasty a meal;
For who would bear the low-cal syrup and reduced fat margarine,
The dieter’s wrong, the proud man’s rice cakes,
The pangs of unsatisfied hunger, the meals delay,
The impatience of low blood sugar and the spurns
That eager gorging of the unhealthy takes,
When he himself might his fat girth make
With a large breakfast? Who would Aunt Jemima bear
To grunt and sweat under a massive waist line,
But that the dread of clothes with elastic waistbands
The unattractive clothing from whose closet
No thin person wears, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those hunger pangs we have
Than fly to obesity that we fear much of?
Thus tasty breakfast does make fat-asses of us all;
And thus the craving for thy French toast
Is sicklied o’er with the sober second thought,
And breakfasts of great food and enjoyment
With this regard their hankering turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?

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 identity, it is perhaps useful to go back to basics for an understanding of the fundamental features of cultural history, and perhaps the best way to get at the essential core is to consider what cultural history is not.

As historians gained more and more knowledge of ordinary people some became dissatisfied with what they saw as the limitations of social history because they believed it ignored details of everyday life and experiences. The desire amongst academics to explore new frontiers such as religious beliefs, sexuality and human agency led to new approaches being adopted from other academic disciplines such as anthropology, literary theory and philosophy.

The importance of interdisciplinary borrowing is particularly evident in two of the central figures in the development of cultural history who were not themselves historians by trade, but whose theories and writings would have a profound effect on historians and their work: Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist; and Michel Foucault, a philosopher turned ‘historian of the system of thought.’

Geertz saw humankind as existing in self-spun webs of significance, which could be analyzed and interpreted for their meaning. Culture for Geertz was a commonly understood yet unspoken by-product of a community, an acted document that can be read for its symbolic meaning. Culture was not a power that influences actions or events, but rather a system of signs that could be intelligibly (or ‘thickly’) described. His approach to culture introduced entirely new types of source material for historians who were more accustomed to using traditional textual sources – paintings, popular literature, diaries and the materials of everyday life as well as rituals, behaviours and practices could now be analyzed like texts as evidence of the culture that produced them.

One of Foucault’s greatest influences on cultural history is his emphasis on language and discourse as a means of analyzing change over time. His history was like no history ever done by a historian, and it forced a paradigm shift in the ways historians understood and interpreted the past. Instead of seeking the origins of, and causes for specific events he searched for cultural formations or systems of power and classification in the past. The relevance of Foucault’s work is not in the legacy of a specific theory or methodology, but rather in the aftershocks caused by his challenges to traditional understandings of how to approach questions about the past. By rejecting an understanding of history based on what happened and why and replacing it with an excavation of different systems of language, power and knowledge over time he completely shifted the focus of historical analysis.

Foucault Meme

Much has happened in the field of cultural history since Geertz and Foucault, and there has been much debate concerning the methodologies and limitations of cultural history. The history done in the wake of the cultural turn was termed the New Cultural History, which has since become somewhat old.

Over the past decade or more historians have become increasingly uncertain about the direction the cultural turn has taken them. These doubts are based partly in an ongoing epistemological debate about the fundamental basis of all knowledge, however of more pressing concern is the sheer breadth of the field. Virtually anything can have a cultural history, and it appears that most history done in recent years is of a cultural ilk.

The popularity and vastness of the field, both in academia and in the proliferation of popular television programming, has left many thinking that at present all history is cultural history, and many are questioning what the next direction may be. Perhaps it is at this point, when historians cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees that it may be more useful to step back and provide a clear and simple definition of what cultural history is and is not.

Some of the confusion surrounding what cultural history is may result from attempting to define it as a tangible ‘thing’ rather than an approach. Cultural history as a noun is a daunting concept because absolutely everything created by humankind is subject to interpretation through a cultural lens. Everything created is a product of a community within its own web of significance, and therefore in this regard everything is cultural history. The abundance of books with titles beginning with ‘The Cultural History of…’or ‘(fill in the blank): a Cultural History’ is proof enough of this.

The Cultural History of...

The Cultural History of…

However, cultural history as a verb is potentially a different matter. The pursuit of cultural history can be a clearly definable approach that goes beyond questions of what happened and why in an attempt to understand what things meant to past individuals, communities and societies. By this definition, at its most basic and broad, cultural history is the analysis of the significance of events in the past to those who experienced them, and how these meanings changed over time.

Defining culture in this manner assumes that humans living in any community will have at least some level of shared beliefs, values and understandings that shape their experiences and inform their actions. This definition of cultural history owes a great deal to Geertz. The influence of Foucault is also evident because the emphasis here is not necessarily on what happened and why, but on the underlying patterns of belief and behaviours that define groups and communities. All history that concerns itself with meaning and belief is cultural history. Any history that does not ask, ‘but what did it mean?’ is not cultural history.

This definition is useful because of its simplicity. It reduces an increasingly complex concept to its lowest common denominator to allow for a clear categorization of history into cultural and not cultural. It is perhaps an oversimplification, however given the extent to which complex philosophical debates regarding meaning and knowledge have gone it is a pragmatic means of rediscovering our bearings.

The cultural turn has had an undeniably massive impact on historiography, as well as on various other academic disciplines. It can be difficult at times to locate current history that is, by this definition, strictly non-cultural history, or histories that analyse the ‘who’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ without the ‘what did it mean.’ Although cultural history is the dominant approach it is not the only approach. In reality both cultural and non-cultural approaches sit comfortably side-by-side.

If, in fact, cultural history were the only approach to history the field would be at risk of drifting off into the philosophical abstraction of Foucault. In order to analyze what systems of meaning, belief, rituals and practices meant to anyone at any given time they must be put into the context of the who, the how and the why. In return cultural history can provide a more diverse and extensive understanding of a historical question by searching for beliefs and practices surrounding historical phenomena.


Further Reading

Jonathan Barry and Joseph Melling, ‘The Problem of Culture: An Introduction’, in Joseph Melling and Jonathan Barry, eds., Culture in History, (Exeter: Short Run Press, 1992)

Richard Biernacki, ‘Language and the Shift from Signs to Practices in Cultural Inquiry’, History and Theory 39 (2000), pp. 289-310.

Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999)

Peter Burke, What is Cultural History? (Cambridge: Polity, 2008)

Paula S. Fass, ‘Cultural History/Social History: Some Reflections on a Continuing Dialogue’, Journal of Social History, 37 (2003), pp. 39-46

Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

John R. Hall, ‘Cultural Meanings and Cultural Structures in Historical Explanation’, History and Theory, 39(2000), pp. 331-347

Richard Handler, ‘Theory in History Today’, The American Historical Review, 107(2002), p. 1512-1520.

Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989).

Peter Mandler, ‘The Problem with Cultural History’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004) pp. 94-117.

Patricia O’Brien, ‘Michel Foucault’s History of Culture’, in Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History, pp. 25-46.

Mirin Rubin, ‘What is Cultural History Now’, in David Cannadine, ed., What is History Now (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Carol Watts, ‘Thinking about the X Factor, or, What’s the Cultural History of Cultural History?’ Cultural and Social History, 1(2004), pp. 217-224

Jeffery Weeks, ‘Foucault for Historians’, History Workshop, 14(1982), pp. 106-119


What’s in a name?

I thought it time to change things up a little and post something a bit more light-hearted and less academic, and in light of recent events in my home town of Calgary, Canada, I thought this would be fitting.

Late last month Calgary, and areas across southern Alberta, were hit by severe flooding the likes of which have never been seen before. Over 100,000 people were evacuated, thousands lost their homes, four people lost their lives and the clean up bill will easily be in the billions.

I watched in helpless shock and horror as the natural disaster unfolded before my eyes via streaming online news footage from my current home on the other side of the world.  The one beacon of hope was the way in which the crisis was aptly, tactfully and charismatically navigated by the Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who can only be described as a legend. One need only look to his Twitter account, and the ‘Nap for Nenshi’ campaign that emerged imploring him to go to bed after he spent several sleepless days and nights leading the crisis response team for evidence of this.


Nenshi’s response is very much reflective of that good ‘ol fashioned Prairie fighting spirit. We Canadians, especially those in the west, seem to have an indelible sense of resolve and determination. Personally I think its embedded in our cultural DNA by generations of pioneers who endured the elements to create a better life for themselves and their families. From the earliest First Nations Peoples who managed to flourish and persevere despite the elements, to early European settlers eking out an existence in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, to recent immigrants from around the globe who pick up their roots and settle in the harsh extremes of the Canadian prairie: When bad stuff happens we all roll up our sleeves and get to work – we “get ’er done.”

This sentiment is reflected in the quaintly belligerent war cry coined in support of Calgary’s annual city-wide epically-boozy pancake-breakfast-fuelled-corporate-cowboy party, the Stampede, which was set to kick off two weeks after the flood hit. The entire stampede grounds, the parade route and all official Stampede facilities were virtually decimated by the flooding, yet City and Stampede officials insisted that the show would go on – Come Hell or High Water’.

I know, right? You can now purchase tee shirts sporting this slogan in support of the Canadian Red Cross’s recovery efforts.

Hell or High Water

If you’ve ever wondered about the precise origins of this phrase fear not! I have an answer (note: ‘an’ answer, not ‘the’ answer).

Now, I have absolutely no idea if the information I am about to convey is in any way accurate, but it’s something I read as a child and it stuck. If this is definitively incorrect, or if you have any hard evidence to support this, please comment away. If anything, I see this as an opportunity to channel my inner Cliff Clavin.

As a youngster my grandmother gave me a book about the nautical origins of every day expressions, which was called Scuttlebutt. Over the years many friends, acquaintances…unsuspecting supermarket cashiers, have fallen victim to the after-effects of its anecdotes being emblazoned on my psyche at an early age. Well, it just so happens that ‘come hell or high water’ is one of them, as are the related expressions ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’, and ‘hell to pay’.

According to the authors of Scuttlebutt, during those golden years of imperialism when Britain ruled the waves, ‘hell’ or ‘the devil’ was the nickname given to a horizontal seam running high up along the ship’s wooden hull. For whatever reason this seam was prone to letting water in, particularly in rough seas (high water). The solution was to have someone dangle overboard from a rope with a bucket and a brush and slather it in tar (or pay) to seal it. The unfortunate soul was then literally stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Paying hell in high water was a dangerous and loathsome task reserved as a punishment for sailors who broke the rules. This difficult, ardours and necessary job took so much determination to complete without sustaining major injury that ‘come hell or high water’ entered the vernacular, and voila! Stampede slogan.

Again, I cannot vouch for the authority of this information, but I hope it has amused you as much as it amused me.


All silliness aside, donations to the Canadian Red Cross to help victims of the southern Alberta floods are greatly appreciated!

And if kitsch tee shirts aren’t your thing and indie music is, my band is giving away free music to people who donate as well.

Illegitimacy and the Medieval Laws of Hywel Dda

In my last post I introduce the argument that I put forward in my forthcoming article in Welsh History Review, which is that certain regions of Wales experienced significantly higher levels of illegitimacy in the early modern period in comparison to England, which can be attributed in part to premarital courtship rituals and differing marital customs. Since there was no room for it in the article I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss some possible origins for these different attitudes and practices in Wales, which were rooted in medieval laws.

Geoffrey Quaife has noted that in the seventeenth-century Somerset women pregnant with illegitimate children were frequently sent or escorted by their families across the Severn to deliver their children in Wales. Once they arrived, their reception was based on their apparent ability to support the child, or their intention to return home or remain, settle and potentially become a burden on the parish in which they gave birth. Wales was undoubtedly appealing to many from England desirous of anonymity and set on avoiding stigmatization at home, could the appeal have also been because of differing attitudes towards illegitimacy in Wales?

The simple fact that illegitimate children were recorded in Welsh parish registers suggests that illegitimacy was of some concern locally and therefore was not entirely condoned, but if illegitimacy was a more common occurrence it could possibly have been more accepted socially, even if not administratively.

If we look far enough back into the history of Wales, evidence of differing attitudes towards illegitimacy does exist. Until the Acts of Union in the early sixteenth-century Wales enjoyed its own legal system based on the medieval laws of Hywel Dda, and illegitimacy featured prominently in them. If you’re curious a manuscript of the Laws in Latin can be viewed online courtesy of the National Library of Wales.

Photo Credit: National Library of Wales

Photo Credit: National Library of Wales

Concerns about illegitimacy in England were based at least as much on economic anxieties as morality, due to the potential financial burden posed by illegitimate children. The laws of Hywel Dda likewise had provisions for children born out of wedlock that demonstrate economic concern:

if it happens that a person makes pregnant a woman of bush and brake, it is right for him to maintain the child for the law says that though she may lose the man it is not right for her to suffer want from him or because of him though she gets no benefit and therefore it is right for the man to rear the child.

The wording here is interesting, as it suggests a concern not only for the maintenance of a child, but also the welfare of the mother, as it was deemed unfair for her to suffer the financial burden of supporting an illegitimate child alone. Through maintaining an illegitimate child a father was in essence acknowledging the child as his own, effectively legitimizing his or her status.

The maintenance of illegitimate children was only one of the economic concerns surrounding illegitimacy addressed in the laws. Of far more concern were issues of inheritance. Under English common law, an illegitimate son would not automatically inherit property.  In church courts as early as the fourteenth century illegitimate children had no rights to inheritance at all.

In Wales, prior to the 1530s, the rights of inheritance for illegitimate sons were dramatically different. A father need only acknowledge a son as his own and the child would receive the same rights as a son born out of wedlock. According to the laws an illegitimate son who had been accepted by the father had equal rights to inheritance as an innate bonheddig, or son whose ancestry was known, however an illegitimate son who had been rejected by his father had no claim to patrilineal inheritance whatsoever.

Acceptance of an illegitimate son could occur in one of two ways. If a father provided for the rearing of his son for a year and a day without rejecting him, or if he accepted a son laid to him by the mother in a laying ceremony, the son officially became legitimate. To lay a son to a man the mother would bring the child to a church and swear to the identity of the father at the altar. As it was a form of oath, a woman could only lay a child once and only to one man. If the father accepted the son he was irrevocably and legitimately his. If a father denied his son he was forever illegitimate.

If an alleged father was deceased, a chief and six other members of his family could accept or deny a son in a similar laying ceremony, or if there was no chief twenty-one men of the father’s kindred could made the decision, the end result of which was permanent. If there was no unanimous consensus amongst the kindred, then the son was to be accepted as legitimate because of the possibility that those denying him did so for their own gain by preventing another person from inheriting a share of property that would otherwise go to them.

Most of the laws refer specifically to the rules of affiliation and inheritance for sons. Illegitimate daughters are mentioned in the laws with regard to inheritance, but only to state that a brother could deny his sister under certain circumstances. For instance, a son could not deny a daughter if there was evidence that his motives were based purely on greed and not actual affiliation.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the laws of women, but these pertain mostly to her marital rights, property and sarhaed or galanas, which were forms of compensation payable according to her status or the status of her husband in the event that she was the victim of insult, dishonour or crime. This includes her agweddi, which was a woman’s share of matrimonial property, and her amobr, which was a fee payable to a woman’s chief or kin made by a man upon the loss of her virginity, either within or outside of wedlock.

By 1700 the laws of Hywel Dda had officially been out of use for nearly 200 years, making it seem unlikely that any trace of them would remain in Welsh social life and customs. However, if we consider that it took the majority of the Welsh population roughly the same length of time to embrace the Protestant Reformation, it is possible that some of these traditions and attitudes might have lingered on well past the Acts of Union.

The consensus amongst historians is that much of Wales retained many of its pre-Reformation traditions until the rise of Non-Conformity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is attributed to the general appeal of, and familiarity with, older customs and rituals, and an inability to relate to anglicized scriptures and rituals.

It could therefore be argued that many Welsh communities were slow to let go of other rituals and values as well. This is by no means clear evidence of specific attitudes towards illegitimacy in Wales in the early modern period, and it is by no means proof of the holdover of medieval values. It does however suggest that there may be a historical precedent for different attitudes towards legitimacy in Wales, which may help explain attitudes in later centuries.

Further Reading

Dafydd Jenkins, ed., The Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts of Medieval Wales (Llandysul, Gomer Press, 1986).

Alan Macfarlane, ‘Illegitimacy and illegitimates in English history’, in Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith, eds. Bastardy and Its Comparative History [1] Laslett, Bastardy and its Comparative History.

G. R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasant and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth -century England (London: Croom Helm, 1979).

Glanmor Williams, Recovery Reorientation and Reformation Wales c.1415-1642 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

Spurious rumours about illegitimacy in Wales

In my last post I discussed the case of Mary Morgan and the ways in which the community of Presteigne has remembered her. Anyone curious about Mary will not be at a loss to find websites conveying various versions of her story, many of which are based on myth and conspiracy theories and not evidence. Such are they perils of the internet. Unfortunately information leaflets available at the Judges Lodgings Museum are also, at least in part, informed more by myth and assumption than by evidence.

Those who know me can attest to the fact that it doesn’t take much more than a misinformed assumption passed off as ‘fact’ to wind me up, so this post is dedicated to my travel companion who patiently tolerated my post-visit, fallacious leaflet-invoked rant.

The author of said booklet, which I can only imagine has captivated many a wide-eyed schoolchild over the years, correctly made the connection between illegitimacy and infanticide. The author in question also correctly stated that illegitimacy in Wales in earlier centuries was relatively high, but then went so far as to say that mothers of illegitimate children were given a preferential place on the marriage market. Yup. That’s right. Women with illegitimate children were MORE favourable than women who had not bore children out of wedlock. My reaction to this can only be described as ‘gobsmacked’.

Now, in all fairness this was not an academic publication, so some unsubstantiated erroneous statements are to be expected, and perhaps even forgiven given that it has served as a convenient segue from my last post to the current one.

I can only assume that the anonymous author’s assumption is based on a combination of a misunderstanding of the concept of ‘bridal pregnancy’ and the ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’. I feel confident in addressing this misunderstanding because to my knowledge I am one of only a small handful of academics (if I may use that term) to carry out a study of illegitimacy in early modern Wales.

Using parish reconstitution techniques several historians have been able to demonstrate that it was not uncommon for brides to arrive at the altar with a bun in the oven. This can be deduced by comparing the date of marriage to the date of the birth or baptism of the couple’s first child. If the birth occurs less than 8 months after marriage (making room for some degree of survivable prematurity) then it was likely the child was conceived prior to marriage. In many instances a birth occurred well under 6 months, making it clear that the couple had engaged in premarital sex. It has been argued that this was typically the result of marriage being more of a process than a single event, with coitus permitted after a certain level of commitment was made, but before the final vows.

A misunderstanding of this phenomena is the closest I can get to an explanation for the leaflet writer’s misguided statement: If in some communities under certain circumstances engaging in prenuptial sexual activity was permissible, and perhaps even encouraged as a form of fertility testing, then maybe an illegitimate child in any context could be an attractive asset, right?

*Face palm*

Needless to say, this is a pretty big and ridiculous leap.

Furthermore, a study of premarital conception is dependent on the bride/mother and groom/father being clearly identifiable in parish records. Anyone familiar with Welsh records will immediately recognise the problem of this approach for Wales – the limited pool of Welsh patronymics makes parish reconstitution a virtually insurmountable challenge. The ancient tradition of using a father’s first name as a surname has led to a large number of individuals bearing the exact same name, making identification in records problematic.

The author does appear to be correct in stating that illegitimacy in Wales was high, as was reported in the infamous Report of Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales in 1847. Research conducted within the past 10 years supports the argument that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some areas of Wales did experience significantly higher rates of illegitimacy – sometimes as high as three to four times the average in England.

The Blue Books assumed that the reason for increased illegitimacy in Wales lay in the endemic immorality of the Welsh people.  Fortunately that argument has fallen out of fashion, and has been replaced by a call for research into Welsh courtship and marriage customs as a means of understanding why Wales experienced higher rates of illegitimacy. This is a call I’ve attempted to answer in a very small degree in my forthcoming article in Welsh History Review ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’.

Welsh History Review

The main sources for information about illegitimacy in early modern Britain are parish baptism registers. At no point were parish officials ever ordered to record illegitimate children, but most do so. The reasons for this were the potential economic impact an illegitimate child could have on the parish – a fatherless child was at risk becoming a burden on the parish. Therefore it was in parish officials’ best interest to list fathers of illegitimate children whenever possible so fathers and not the parish could be held accountable for the child’s maintenance. English records from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries suggest that many fathers fled, or out of shame were not named by mothers, as fathers appear in most records less than 50% of the time, and in some areas less than 7%.

What’s immediately striking about Welsh records is the sheer number of fathers of illegitimate children who are identified in registers. For example, in the parish of St. Peter’s in Carmarthen between the years 1700 and 1800 67% of entries for illegitimate children list a father or indicate the identity of the father was known. During the same period in the parish of Hawarden in Flintshire the rate of identifiable paternity is as high as 72%.

This analysis can be taken a step further by looking at the ways in which fathers are identified, which allows for a cautious distinction to be made between relationships that may have been more permissible in the eyes of the community and illicit relations that were not acceptable. Once such a distinction has been made the rates of illegitimacy resulting from illicit encounters drops significantly, which makes ‘illegitimacy’ in Wales that much more intriguing. Terms such as ‘legitimate’ are ‘illegitimate’ are loaded terms that reflect the values of individuals and communities. To understand what is and is not deemed ‘legitimate’ is to understand what is at the core of a community’s values. Therefore, to understand how and why illegitimacy in Wales was unique is to more thoroughly understand the rich social and cultural landscape of early modern Wales.

My purpose here has not been to summarise or repeat the substance of my article, and I would encourage anyone interested to read and comment on it once it has been published. My purpose has instead been to demonstrate that misconceptions about Wales and the Welsh that are based on pernicious conclusions drawn well over a century ago persist and are perpetuated, perhaps most harmfully, in places dedicated to revealing the lives of every day Welsh men and women from the past. This demonstrates how deeply embedded these myths are, and how important it is to dispel them by continuing to chisel away the fiction from the fact.

*Steps down from soap box*

Further Reading

Richard Adair, Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

Anna Brueton, ‘Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in a Rural Community: the Upper Tywi Valley, 1760-1860’ (MA Dissertation, Trinity University College, 2007).

P. E. H. Hair, ‘Bridal Pregnancy in Earlier Rural England Further Examined’ Population Studies, 24( 1970), pp. 59-70.

Martin Ingram , Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Peter Laslett , Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations: Essays in Historical Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, Richard Michael Smith, eds., Bastardy and Its Comparative History (London: E. Arnold, 1980).

Alysa Levene, Thomas Nutt, and Samantha Williams, eds., Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Belinda Meteyard, ‘Illegitimacy and Marriage in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 10(1980), pp. 479-489.

Angela Muir, ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’, Welsh History Review 26(2013), pp. 351-388

Stephen Parker, Informal Marriage, Cohabitation and the Law, 1750-1989 (London: Macmillan, 1990).

Catrin Stevens, Welsh Courting Customs (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1993).

Mary, Mary quite contrary

I was excited to learn about a forthcoming book about Infanticide in Britain by Professor Anne-Marie Kilday, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. On the eve of its publication I decided to write a post about a noteworthy case of infanticide in early nineteenth-century Wales.

One of the most famous, or infamous, historical figures associated with the Mid-Wales border town of Presteigne is Mary Morgan, who in 1805 at the age of seventeen was convicted and executed for the murder of her illegitimate child.

Although Mary’s case took place in the early nineteenth century her story reads like a typical case study of infanticide in early modern Britain: She was a young, unmarried domestic servant who fell pregnant and, in an act of apparent desperation, killed her newborn child in an attempt to avoid poverty and the shame of bearing a child born as a result of an illicit sexual encounter. Mary apparently confessed her crime to a fellow servant who had grown suspicious and questioned her. Her infant’s body was discovered hidden in bed clothes with a deep, almost severing cut to the neck. These circumstances are repeated again and again in court records across Britain from the seventeenth century onwards.

Mary was then tried, convicted, condemned, and unlike the vast majority of other women convicted of the same crime, her sentence was carried out. This may be one reason why Mary’s case has generated so much local interest, but what also makes her story interesting is that we have evidence of two opposing contemporary attitudes towards her crime. On the one hand we have the Judge’s lengthy, sanctimonious Verdict, and on the other we have two empathetically moralising memorials to her in the local church yard.

Mary Morgan Stone 01 Mary Morgan Stone 02

To make sense of this it would be useful to first understand infanticide in early modern England and Wales. In modern, developed nations infanticide is typically associated with the unbalanced mental state of a woman suffering from a temporary loss of sanity shortly after given birth. Although this must have been a contributing factor in some cases of infanticide in early modern Britain the overwhelming majority of cases in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the result of all too common socio-economic circumstances. Ultimately these led some women to the extreme measure of killing or abandoning their new born child.

As in Mary Morgan’s case, most of the evidence we have of infanticide is from trial records, which in many cases tell us the name, age and occupation of the accused. In Wales, as in England, available evidence indicates that the majority of women brought before the courts on charges of infanticide were young, unmarried domestic servants. Domestic service was the single largest employer of unmarried women at this time, and the nature of their living conditions and working environment created ample opportunities for both promiscuity and exploitation. It was not uncommon for female servants to share living quarters with male servants or male members of the household. The identity of the father of Mary’s child is not known, but he was likely someone she either worked with or for. Bearing an illegitimate child could be economically catastrophic for a domestic servant, as she likely would be dismissed and have difficulty securing future employment. Faced with the prospect of a lifetime of poverty some women in Mary’s situation chose to do the unthinkable.

Infanticide as a specific crime first appeared in legislation in Britain in the 1624 ‘Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children’, which specifically applied to the murder of illegitimate children whose death was concealed by the mother. What’s key here is that this law did not apply to children born in lawful marriage, and evidence of concealment rather than evidence of murder was what was required to pass a guilty verdict. As a result, common defences arguments included that the mother was in fact married, or that the mother had disclosed her pregnancy to others or had made preparations for providing for the child, such as acquiring infant clothing and bed linens.

Under the 1624 legislation the sentence for all guilty verdicts was death by hanging. In the decades after the Act sentences were carried out with relative frequency, but by the eighteenth century the frequency dropped, and continued to drop further. Towards the turn of the nineteenth century Wales and the north of England saw a 95% acquittal rate despite solid evidence against the accused. These changes can be attributed, at least in part, to changing attitudes towards women. More puritanical views of women as dangerous temptresses shifted to a more romanticised view of women as hapless victims, and conviction rates reflected this. The Act was increasingly seen as disproportionately harsh, and judges and juries grew increasingly reluctant to condemn young women to death.

The Act was repealed in 1803 for the very reason that law makers believed too many women were getting away with murder. Under the new legislation proof of the murder rather than concealment was required for a conviction, which carried a sentence of death. If a woman was acquitted of murder she could still be convicted of concealment, which carried a sentence of two years in prison.

Mary Morgan’s case was tried not long after the passing of 1803 Act, and the judge presiding, Lord Justice Hardinges, came down on her with the full weight of the law. His verdict emphasizes that her infant’s death was quite a violent one, and Justice Hardings shows her no mercy. Hardings clearly did not see Mary as a victim – she was a wilful agent who, according to him, acted on her passions with no consideration of the consequences.

But Mary was, and still is, remembered in a decidedly more commiserative way by the community. Following Mary’s execution the judge ordered her to be cut down and her body sent to the surgeons for dissection. We have no record of whether this part of his verdict was ever carried out, and we are unsure of her final resting place. The community has, quite poignantly, erected two memorials to her in the church graveyard, one of which is a gravestone bearing the inscription,

In Memory of
Mary Morgan who suffer’d April 13 1805
Aged 17 Years

He that is without sin among you
Let him first cast a stone at her…

The use of the word ‘suffered’, and the reference to John 8:7 strongly indicated that Mary’s crime, although tragic, was not seen as reprehensible.  Intriguingly, a single word on the headstone appears to have been carved away and replaced with the word ‘suffered’.

Another Stone remembers Mary not as a murder of children, but as a beautiful young woman bestowed with a good disposition, but lack of Christian knowledge, who was made a victim by sin and who only realised the gravity of her offence through the, “eloquent and humane exertions of her benevolent Judge.” There is clearly a moralising tone, but it is not disparaging. Mary is used as a tragic character in a cautionary tale.

To this day these stones are maintained and restored on a regular basis, with replicas made to replace the originals when they are taken away for conservation work. Tucked away in the local church yard these could hardly be considered a tourist trap.

So why has the community gone to such lengths to commemorate a convicted child killer? Did Mary’s own youth make her deserving of mercy? Did the community have greater compassion towards her plight because they possessed a deeper understanding of her circumstances? Was there a sense of communal guilt? With the evidence we have it is impossible to say. What is evident is that the values and attitudes of the local judiciary and the community were in opposition over the sentence, which is also reflected in the changes to legislation made in 1803. Law makers changed legislation to ensure more women were convicted and punished for committing infanticide because sympathetic judges and juries were using loopholes to acquit, and unfortunately for Mary, these loopholes were closed by time she killed her newborn, illegitimate child.

Various local conspiracy theories abound, some of which are even presented in information leaflets in the Judge’s Lodgings Museum in Presteigne, none of which are supported by evidence. Frustratingly, some of these accounts go so far as to make sweeping statements about the prevalence, acceptance and even the encouragement of illegitimacy in Wales at that time, which again is backed up by nothing. I will address these sweeping assumptions and present some real evidence about illegitimacy in eighteenth-century Wales in my next post, so please, stay tuned!

Further Reading:

Jill Barber, ‘’Stolen Goods’: The Sexual Harassment of Female Servants in West Wales during the Nineteenth-century’, Rural History Rural History, 4 (1993), pp. 123-136.

Russell Davies, Hope and Heartbreak : A Social History of Wales and the Welsh, 1776-1871 (Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2005).

J.R. Dickinson and J.A. Sharpe, ‘Infanticide in Early Modern England: the Court of Great Sessions at Chester 1650-1800’, in Mark Jackson, ed., Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment 1550-2000 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

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

Sharon Howard, ‘Echos of History’

Mark Jackson, ‘Infant deaths: The Statues of 1624 and Medical Evidence at Coroners’ Inquests’, in Catherine Crawford and  Michael Crawford eds., Legal Medicine in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Mark Jackson, New-Born Child Murder: Women, Illegitimacy and the Courts in Eighteenth-Century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

R. W. Malcolmson, ‘Infanticide in the Eighteenth-century’, in J. S. Cockburn, ed., Crime in England, 1550-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

Allyson N. May, ‘She at First Denied It: Infanticide Trials at the Old Bailey’, in Women and History, Valerie Frith, ed. (Toronto: Coach House, 1995).

Nick Woodward, ‘Infanticide in Wales, 1730-1830’, Welsh History Review, 23 (2007), pp. 94-125.

Keith Wrightson, ‘Infanticide in earlier seventeenth-century England’, Local Population Studies, 15 (1975), pp. 10-22.