Friday, 19 August 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No.5: Naming and Shaming

Even though urbanisation had led to greater flux in the population of 16th century London, parish communities such as that of St Botolph’s without Aldgate remained tightly knit groups, where protecting one’s reputation and avoiding the opprobrium of one’s neighbours were powerful motivating forces. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the church’s stance on sexual misconduct, where the involvement of the wider congregation played a key role, as Edith Ellis found when she and her husband were accused of consorting with women of ill repute...
19 Ianewary 1583
Richard Ellis and his wife weare Adioyned To make Thier purgation of thier Suspected evell Lyfe
Memerandumm that Richard ellis and his wyfe beinge presented by the church warden and Swornemen to live verye Suspitiuslye and contrarye to Lawe, by the wch prsentment beinge Suspeckted, it apeared that it was for receyvinge of Lyght women and for Suspition of Bawdrye
The Sayde wyfe whose Christian name is Edithe apearinge and Juditiallye answeringe ther to hathe denyed herselfe to be giltye thereof and thereupon She is inioyned to make her canonycall purgation therof in dewe forme of Lawe in the consistorye place in powles churche London upon Wensdaye beinge the xxixth daye of Janewary 1583 Betwene Howeres of ix ands xj of the clocke before noone wt Six honest women her neygbores beinge parishoneres and Inhabitantes of the parishe of St bottolphes extra algate of good and honest name fame and credit. These wordes weare pronownsed in ower parishe churche this xixth daye of Janewa'y in ano 1583
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol.13r
You may have noticed that although both Richard and Edith were accused, it would appear that only Edith had to answer to her peers to make her purgation. The Parish Clerk gave no explanation of this, other than stating that Edith had denied being guilty of the charges. I could find no further mention of Richard Ellis, for example as having been excommunicated, so his fate remains a mystery.

Barely a week had passed before another scandal came to the community’s attention: there was a love rat within their midst...
26 Ianewary 1583
Iost Williamson Alijs Soll his penance
Jost Williamson alijs Soll a dutchmann beinge a cutler and Dwellinge in whightchapell parishe Ded pennance in a whyghet sheete in ower parishe churche of St buttolphes wt owt allgate London the xxvjth daye of Janewarye in ano 1583 And was For contracktinge him selfe unto one womann, and marryenge wt an other contrarye to the Law cannonicall
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol.16r
Now this is interesting as it is an example of a well-documented form of shaming punishment which appears to have originated in medieval times and continued through until the 18th century, known as “sheet penance”. Being paraded before one’s fellow parishioners in a white sheet brought the penitent’s private indiscretions into the full glare of the public view just as effectively as today’s tabloid press exposés of Jost’s modern equivalents. But in the closely-knit communities of the 16th century, the potential repercussions were potentially more damaging, as those who were named and shamed could find themselves expelled from the community as well as publicly humiliated. Shakespeare drew on this practice in Henry VIth part 2, when he portrayed Humphrey’s wife Eleanor being led through the streets wearing a white sheet and carrying a candle after being accused of dabbling in witchcraft in order to further her husband’s political career, before being promptly banished.

I have been unable to find any information about how these practices originated, and what exactly was represented by the white sheet and candles. If any historians can shed a bit of light on this, or if you have further interesting information on shaming punishments in medieval or Early Modern England, please do let us know!

To return our Tales from St Botolph’s, I can only imagine the heavy sigh with which Mr Hayes the minister prepared his homily for that week:
26 Ianewary 1583
A part of a homelye read
A part of a homelye conserninge the dewties of maried folkes was Red in ower churche by mr Hayes the xxvjth day of Janewarye in ano 1583
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol.16r

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;

Friday, 5 August 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No.4: No Direction Home

We have two very sad tales this week from the summer of 1588, both of which illustrate the harshness of life on the streets of 16th century London. While the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda contain many instances of collections being taken up for parishioners who have fallen on hard times, they also document numerous tragic endings to the lives of those who, for whatever reason, have not had recourse to such a safety net. First, a tale of homelessness, and possibly mental illness, that resulted in the death of a nameless child:

5 Iuly Anno 1588
A man Chyld kept by Margerett Hewse the Wyfe of William Hewes alijs pewe a carpenter Sometymes Dwellinge in Islingtonn whose wyfe nowe beinge vagarant and caryeinge the Sayde chylde althowghe not beinge Her owne up and Downe wth Her and callinge it by the name of Markes Hewes Fatheringe it uponn Her Husband The Sayd chyld beinge no parishioneres Chyld Dyed in Her armes neare the Cadge by the tower beinge in the Libertie of est Smithfield, And Some Speeches beinge used that She had Starved the chylde where uppon the aldermans Deputie cawlinge to Hem Agnes Porter Jone More and the wyfe of william Pond beinge Searcheres, wt Dyveres other Honest neyghbors to vewe the Sayde chyld and fyndinge no Hurte done to the Sayde chyld, But that it Seemed to Have beene evell looked unto or tended, For that it was Full of Lyce and Dyed of a pynenge Sicknes as the wyves Sayde And the Sayd chyld Havinge Beene Thus vewed By the consent of The Aldermans Deputie the Sayde chyld Buried the vth Daye of Julye anno 1588 beinge Halfe a yeare and xiiij Dayes owlde [Cause of death] pynenge
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/002 f88r and f88v

Only a few days later, a short but evocative entry describes the lonely death of a 30-year old widow:

11 Iuly Ano 1588
Christiann [Blank] beinge a Widowe Whose Sur name Was not knowne and havinge no Dwellinge place but lyeinge Sicke amongst the Broome that Dothe Lye one the Hill before mr Crewes Dore beinge in the libertie of east Smithfield where She endid Her Lyfe and was Buried the xjth Daye of Julye ano 1588
yeares xxx She dyed of the pox
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/002 f92r

Although it would be comforting to think that such tragedies belong solely to a London existing over 400 years in the past, a quick search through the website for Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, reveals that 3,975 people slept rough at some point in London during 2010/11, of whom 38% were known to suffer from mental health problems. Today, rough sleepers have a life expectancy of just 42 years. We have more in common with the people whose lives are detailed in the Parish Clerk’s Memoranda than we sometimes might like to think.

ATTENTION HISTORIANS: If you are can tell us more about any of these issues in Early Modern England, or indeed, the exact meaning of “pynenge”, which is a very common listing for cause of death in the PCMs, we would love to hear from you. And many thanks to Lucy Inglis, whose comments on Tales from the PCMs No.3 were very illuminating regarding the question of what it meant to be “free” of a Livery Company in the 17th century.

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Digital research and editing environments workshop 2

One of the first posts on this blog discussed our planned workshop on what we have been calling Digital Research and Editing Environments (or DREE). It was held almost a month ago, on 7 July, and proved to be a fascinating and thought-provoking event. Parts of the workshop were live-streamed, and you can watch both the opening panel discussion and the final round up session at We are very grateful indeed to Philip Schofield, Mark Hedges and Rob Iliffe for their presentations on the Bentham Project, TextVRE and the Newton Papers Project respectively.

In the intervening weeks we have been sifting through the dominant themes and ideas that emerged during the workshop's 'Ideas Cafe'. Following the main panel session, the delegates divided into four groups, each of which was charged with focusing on a particular question, whether authorship, skills and training, ongoing engagement or the wider research ecosystem. The discussions have been summarised in a short paper published in SAS-Space, the School of Advanced Study's e-repository ( We hope that this will be the first of a series of meetings looking at digital editing and the tools that are being developed to support it.