news and updates on the Past & Present Blog


Solitude and Soul Union: the Seraphic Friendship of John Evelyn and Margaret Godolphin

By Josh Allen - February 12, 2024 (0 comments)

by Barbara Taylor (Queen Mary, University of London)

What is solitude? The question tends to stop people in their tracks. The commonsense definition – an absence of other people – clearly won’t do, first because one can be wrong about this, that is be in the presence of others when one thinks one isn’t, but also because being with others is for many people the most solitary condition of all. Isolation, seclusion, privacy: none of these are solitude, although some may be preconditions for it. Sometimes aloneness is lonely – for some people unbearably lonely: ‘Solitude,’ the poet John Donne wrote after a period of confinement with illness, ‘is a torment which is not threatened in hell it selfe’. For other people – especially but not exclusively religious solitaries – solitude is a privileged site of intimate connection, an always-accompanied condition. ‘Never less alone than when alone’; ‘[nothing] so companionable as solitude’; ‘Alone in a crowd’; ‘solitude is best society’…The famous epigrams say it all; the language of solitude is crammed with such paradoxes.

Solitude is a human eternal that is nonetheless historical, its meanings and valuations varying over time. Its history is one of controversy: from antiquity on people have argued about the relative merits of solitude versus sociability, the active life as opposed to the contemplative life, retirement versus public duty. Solitude has been widely perceived as egoistical, slothful, and psychologically debilitating. ‘Be not solitary, be not idle’ the Oxford don Robert Burton counselled in his compendious 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, for those that are solitary risk ‘feare, sorrow, suspition…discontent, cares, and wearinesse of life’ [sic]. And still today a marked preference for solitude tends to be perceived as eccentric and/or neurotic.

Exploring this long, complex history is challenging, not least because the historiography is thin. This is now changing, but when I first began my research (on Mary Wollstonecraft and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two solitude-lovers) relevant studies were hard to come by. My familiarity with 18th Century ideas about selfhood and subjectivity made my work slightly easier, but the 17th Century was entirely new terrain. Sometimes a book makes all the difference. Frances Harris’s prizewinning Transformations of Love: the Friendship of John Evelyn and Margaret Godolphin (2002) is not a study of spiritual solitude but it is rich in sources for such a study. I was fortunate enough to get to know Frances, who sadly died in 2021. For over a year I learned from her, shared my ideas with her, and was taught by her how to read John and Margaret’s copious correspondence. My article “Solitude and Soul in Restoration Britain” in Past & Present No. 262 is dedicated to her.

The ‘soul union’ between John and Margaret was rooted in a mutual passion for a numinous solitude that both expressed and disguised a deep emotional entanglement that, in John’s case, clearly had an erotic component. It was both an enriching and parlous connection, lived out in the steamy, seedy atmosphere of the Restoration court. This was a period when secular and spiritual solitude were, in related ways, flashpoints of contention. A deeply intellectual man, steeped in the classical tradition, John publicly intervened in debates over the merits and demerits of the solitary life. By contrast, Margaret’s reflections on solitude were private, shared only with John himself.

Godfrey Kneller “John Evelyn 1687”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Women’s relationship to solitude has always differed from men’s. In Margaret’s day they were perceived as exceptionally vulnerable to solitude’s perils, including diabolic seduction, while lacking the mental and moral resources to take advantage of the vita solitaria. In fact her commitment to solitude was well-informed and thoughtful. Nonetheless, her six-year relationship with John provides a valuable case-study of the complex relationship between gender difference and solitude.

Matthew Dixon “Margaret Godolphin 1673” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While seraphic friendships, as these relationships were also known, were not unusual in the Restoration elite, John and Margaret’s passionate fraught liaison provides a unique window into the early modern history of solitariness. I welcome comments on my treatment of this and the historiography of solitude more generally.

E.P. Thompson Centenary

By Josh Allen - February 8, 2024 (0 comments)

by the Past & Present editorial team

Saturday 3rd February 2024 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Edward Palmer Thompson (best known by his publication initials E.P.).

E.P. Thompson was a key member of the Communist Party Historians Group out of which Past & Present emerged. However, he is widely remembered today for his pioneering approach and significant contribution to the study of social history, exemplified by the work The Making of the English Working Class, as well as his trenchant interventions in the fields of historiography and politics.

E P Thompson at 1980 protest rally (cropped)

E P Thompson addresses anti-nuclear weapons rally, Oxford, England, 1980, Kim Traynor (1980), image via WikiMedia;Commons

Between the 1960s and the 1990s Thompson published three articles in Past & Present. The first of which “Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” (No. 38, 1967) is according to Altmetrics the “most citied” in the history of the journal.

In honour of Thompson’s centenary our publisher Oxford University press has made his three articles for the journal free to read for the next fortnight:

*“Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, Past & Present, Volume 38, Issue 1, December 1967, Pages 56–97

*“The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”, Past & Present, Volume 50, Issue 1, February 1971, Pages 76–136

*”Hunting the Jacobin Fox”, Past & Present, Volume 142, Issue 1, February 1994, Pages 94–140

Past & Present journal masthead

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved


Germs of doubt

By Josh Allen - February 6, 2024 (0 comments)

by Will Pooley (University of Bristol)

Where did “Doubt and the dislocation of magic: France, 1790–1940” my piece in Past & Present No. 262 come from?

All origin stories are, of course, excuses. Historians are no more immune than anyone else from inventing their own pasts to suit the present. After all, historical fictions are fun.

So let me tell it like this: I wanted the piece to do what the Wild on Collective have called ‘historically grounded theory’.

I wanted to take seriously the possibility of ‘alternative epistemological inquiries, orientations, or starting points’. Historians are not passive consumers of ‘theory’: we have a record of proposing theoretical categories that are applied in other fields, too: ‘emotives’, ‘moral economy’, ‘critical fabulation’.

I did not want to take a set of existing theories and applying them to an example, but wanted to ask how historical evidence challenges historians to – perhaps – rethink categories that appear commonsensical. What does it mean to say that people in the past ‘believed’ something? Is ‘belief’ really what the sources convey? And how do historians think about what the sources habitually omit, mischaracterise, or misunderstand?

‘Drawing by a “paranoid demoniac”’ from a clinical report by J. Capgras, 1911, via BnF Gallica

So, the truth is that I started with the category of belief.

When I began this research, I thought – for some stupid reason – that what I could do would be to survey what kinds of people ‘believed’ in witchcraft in France in the long nineteenth century. Were they men or women, young or old? What kinds of work did they do? Where did they live? I still think those social historical questions are important, and they underpin the book project I’m writing about witchcraft.

I am now embarrassed by the naivety of the category of ‘belief’ that I wanted to use to frame these social and quantitative questions.

Take an example I mention in the article, a man named Joseph Auloi who murdered a neighbour in 1886. All of the circumstantial evidence indicated that Auloi suspected his victim of bewitching his family. Yet after his arrest, Auloi fervently denied believing in witches. I cannot see this as some kind of strategy. If anything, juries and even judges in this period proved surprisingly sympathetic to people who committed murder out of a fear of witches. I think he was telling the truth. The ways that people talked and behaved about witchcraft in this period were inconsistent. Auloi may have been a dramatic example, but he was not even the only witch-killer who denied believing in witches after the fact. Whatever these people were doing, belief came to seem to me to be far too blunt, too total.

The article is my attempt to fashion something truer to the attitudes I find in the sources: uncertain, inconsistent, even incoherent, perhaps unconscious, often contagious. I have called these attitudes ‘doubts’ and tried to explain how different they are to disbelief, as well as to belief.

It’s an attempt to ground a theoretical insight of wider importance in the specific evidence that puzzled me. It led me down some relatively familiar paths – such as anthropology – and down some that felt riskier – philosophy, and especially Tamar Gendler’s theories of ‘aliefs’, and the psychological research that inspired those ideas.

If all origin stories are excuses, what am I trying to excuse?

Well, to write about incoherence is to risk obscurantism. When I look back at it now, I can see how dense and tortuous the piece ended up being. It’s not easy going.

When I try to recall the argument in my head, it is something quite simple: instead of ‘beliefs’, let us think about doubts. But on the page, that simplicity is so hard to pin down and spell out with any precision. It’s not an easy piece to read. But I could not find simpler ways to make the arguments the piece makes, to show the consequences of thinking about doubts rather than beliefs.

There is a sterile argument that resurfaces periodically that laments the inaccessibility of most academic historical writing, as if all history must be written for a general reader.

I am very sympathetic to the ideal of writing for broad publics. But not all history. Sometimes historians need to make difficult arguments, with specialist terminologies, or that challenge the concepts that are taken for granted. Sometimes, to return to the Wild on Collective’s call for theoretically grounded history, historians need to go to ‘the obscure navel of the dream, the place where narratives and interpretation stop making conventional sense’.

The challenge is coming back, to try to make it make sense.

How can we best use sound to support access to heritage?

By Josh Allen - February 1, 2024 (0 comments)

by Suzie Cloves (Manchester Metropolitan University)

As part of Disability History Month 2023, Past and Present funded an event designed to answer “How can we best use sound to support access to heritage?”. This was hosted by Manchester Centre for Public Histories + Heritage (MCPHH) and its aim was to generate practical ideas that would encourage thoughtful use of sound to support access to heritage. The discussion was recorded so it could be shared as a freely available podcast and transcript, which you can find on the MCPHH blog.

“I believe that our futures are defined by the elements of our past that we choose to preserve, display, destroy or keep hidden. So I view heritage as a sort of public vocabulary for defining our identities and perpetuating our values. All the different elements of heritage – be that a shoebox of letters, or a meeting place, or a memory, or a tune – are potential parts of an ongoing conversation about what matters and where we’re going next. If any one of us is excluded from that conversation, we are excluded from exploring our identity, finding our connection to community, and from defining how we’re treated in the future. This is why many of us who work in heritage are exploring ways to make its elements open and accessible.”
Suzie Cloves, MCPHH researcher & discussion anchor, introduces the event

The event was in two parts: a structured discussion between guest panellists and public audience, and a professional DJ set which showcased the art of sampling as a sonic heritage framework. The audience included gallery, library, archive, museum professionals, and interested members of the public who ranged from artists to engineers. The panel of guest speakers included:

  • Luke Beesley (Researcher at University of Liverpool, Archive Lead at Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People)
  • David Govier (Sound Archivist at Manchester Archives+)
  • Steve Graby (Access and Inclusion Worker at Disabled People’s Archive, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People)
  • Olivia Hewkin (Museum, Galleries and Heritage Programme Manager at VocalEyes)
  • Mariana López (Professor in Sound Production and Post Production, University of York)

and the discussion was anchored by MCPHH researcher Suzie Cloves, who is a specialist in the use of geolocated sound for heritage communication and research. The discussion structure was presented as a problem-solving exercise. Three questions were asked to elicit examples of best practice, and of practice that could be improved, then to collectively work out what improvements might lift the “not so good” examples into the best practice category. Our intention was that the audience would feel comfortable enough to join the discussion, so the panellists were there to do the heavy lifting, but the audience was invited to answer each question as well.

Four people spread out in an orderly row in front of book stacks in a library. One of them is speaking earnestly and everyone looks serious.

Photograph: Manchester Centre for Public Histories + Heritage (2023), all rights reserved

Q1: What sort of sonic experience are we aiming for?

What are some really good ways that sound has improved your experience of heritage? It can be a public setting or behind the scenes.
asking for examples of best practice

To set the bar and get a sense of what to aim for, the first question asked for examples of best practice use of sound (or experiences of sound) in any heritage settings. Common themes emerged around sound’s ability to have a powerful and immediate empathetic effect, the benefits of sound as an inherent (and invisibly accessible) aspect of a heritage narrative, satisfaction when a method for triggering sound is thematically relevant to a narrative, and satisfaction with well-balanced sound design or well-implemented sonic technology. Specific examples included:

  • the humanizing effect of being able to hear an idolized political philosopher lose their temper in an archived Dictaphone recording
  • a seamless experience at Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments, where recordings of exhibited instruments played automatically when the visitor moved near to each one with a handheld audio guide
  • an upcoming Wellcome Trust exhibition which will include inherent invisibly accessible audio description by the disabled artist who is the subject of the exhibition
  • the well-balanced use of sound in the People’s History Museum (Manchester) Nothing About Us Without Us exhibition, which never became sonically chaotic or overwhelming despite multiple sounds being used
  • oral histories in the synagogue thats preserved at Manchester Jewish Museum, which are activated by physically placing oneself in the interlocutor’s position in the synagogue seats
  • at Glasgow Riverside Museum, the oral histories of Italian immigrant ice-cream makers which you can listen to whilst sitting having a rest in a beautiful reconstructed ice-cream parlour
  • at Speke Hall (Liverpool), a sonic reconstruction of what it might have been like to be hiding inside the (physically inaccessible) priest hole during the Catholic purges of Elizabethan England
  • he use of 1990s CD-reviewing booths in the record shop exhibition in Manchester Museum’s South Asian room
  • the Working Class Movement (Manchester) library’s Invisible Histories blog, which is a sound heritage exhibit and repository done brilliantly on a very low budget

Q2: What hasn’t worked so well for you?

“It’s very important now that you don’t name and shame any organizations, [because] heritage is often underresourced and on a steep learning curve. But so we can understand and hopefully surmount the challenges around use of sound in heritage settings, I’m now inviting you to gently dish the dirt. What hasn’t worked so well for you?”
asking for examples of notsogood practice

Common themes that emerged from the not-best-practice examples focused around excluding people who would use sound to access heritage by failing to consult them when designing sonic access, wasting resources by putting sound into practice before asking accessibility and sound experts how to do it well, making heritage inaccessible or incomprehensible with poorly designed or badly controlled sonic environments, failure to get sound collections out from repositories and into the world, and ethical issues around use of sound to convey traumatic heritage. Examples given included:

  • live audio description (AD) of an opera which was broadcast (from a gantry above the stage with the sound of the singers included alongside the AD) at a two second lag behind the actual performance, rendering it totally unlistenable
  • pre-recorded audio description for live theatre which didn’t match or sync with what was happening on stage
  • a heritage organization insisting on using QR codes (i.e., a visual medium) to trigger audio description for use by blind and partially blind people
  • a venue having sonic accessibility technology but not training its staff about what that’s for or how to use it
  • two events that were drowned out by sound from adjacent events, particularly for wheelchair users whose designated area was far from the stage
  • failure to use honest sonic reconstructions of traumatic heritage
  • large well-funded sound repository websites that are written in academic lingo that makes no sense to public visitors
  • a city library depending on Heritage Lottery grants for one-off sound exhibits but not funding ongoing curation or digitization of their vulnerable collections
  • a heritage cinema where the staff members didn’t know how to operate the AD headsets, embarrassing the blind visitor who needed to use the AD, and disrupting the screening for everyone else
  • sound heritage repositories not making their collection catalogues visible enough to the public or researchers
  • sound assets being kept inside archives and institutions instead of being put out into the world in everyday venues (such as cafes or old phone boxes)
  • building and exhibition design using hard surfaces, poor quality speakers and poor speaker placement, making sounds chaotic and impossible to understand
  • failure to design services with accessibility principles built in from the start

Q3: What’s the difference? How can we lift the not-so-good examples into best practice?

  • recognise that accessibility measures don’t just help a small minority of people – integrated accessibility usually has far-reaching benefits for the broad population – such as audio description making your visual assets more memorable for sighted visitors
  • consult with disabled visitors and sound technicians from the start of exhibition design instead of tacking it on as an afterthought – this will give you better design and better value in the long run
  • don’t just consult a passive focus group then do whatever you pleaseco-create, co-curate and co-monitor with a diverse group to give yourself every chance to get the balance right and avoid wasting resources
  • improve education and training about accessibility design, adaptations and toolkits
  • more money (please), but spend it wisely by building something from the ground up, for your collection’s community, using language that makes sense to them instead of using funding application jargon
  • design from the understanding that sound tends to generate immediate emotional effects
  • design sound installations so that the method of interaction is thematically relevant to the story that you’re telling, and helps to put the listener in the storyteller’s shoes
  • treat each context afresh rather than shoehorning one-size-fits-all solutions
  • have a discussion about how to honestly represent traumatic heritage using sound without traumatising listeners
  • get sounds out of the archives and into our public environments
  • don’t start from the assumption that disabled people are vulnerable and need protecting
  • don’t assume that AI and algorithms will solve all your problems!

We ended the event feeling collectively inspired and keen to get our teeth into the design challenges and solutions presented by our discussion! Wed like to thank everyone who spoke at the event for sharing their excellent ideas, and hope that they’re helpful for other heritage practitioners. If you’d like to discuss any of the topics and issues raised by the event please contact the event organizer Suzie Cloves.

MCPHH is based at Manchester Metropolitan University. We create a shared platform for public histories + heritage by collaborating with community groups, the public, academics, students, galleries, libraries, archives, museums and historic sites. We share knowledge about the practice and purpose of public history research via public talks and a regular podcast and newsletter. We’re very approachable, so please do get in touch if you’d like to discuss a potential project, talk or workshop.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and supports other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

Programme and Registration for Gender and Sainthood, c. 1100–1500 (5-6 April 2024)

By Josh Allen - January 22, 2024 (0 comments)

Received from Edmund van der Molen (University of Nottingham)

Event Title: Gender and Sainthood c. 1100 – 1500 Conference

Date: 5th – 6th April 2024

Location: History Faculty, University of Oxford

Organisers: Antonia Anstatt (Merton College, University of Oxford) and Edmund van der Molen (University of Nottingham)

Full Programme

Registration Link

This conference is supported by the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, the Hagiography Society, the Past & Present Society, and the History Faculty, University of Oxford.

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and supports other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

Past & Present journal masthead

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved