Review: Emigrants by James Evans

Otto von Bismarck was once asked to identify the pre-eminent fact in modern world history. That America spoke English, he replied. In Emigrants, James Evans attempts to explain how and why that happened.

For much of the 17th century, England was something of a failed state. In mid-century it collapsed into a brutal and protracted civil war, but extensive persecution of religious minorities was rife throughout. Widespread enclosures drove people off the land. Prices rose. Wages fell in real terms. Harvest after harvest failed. Famine and plague killed thousands. Begging children were so numerous they were like “the lice of Egypt”, it was said.

It is hardly surprising then that people looked for deliverance from what looked, to a religious-minded people, very much like the wrath of God.

But America? At the beginning of the century it was a far from obvious choice. Sir Walter Ralegh had tried and failed to establish a colony in the 1580s. Jamestown in Virginia was founded in 1607, largely in the illusory belief that gold would be found nearby. Further north, in Newfoundland, settlement began in 1610, primarily to support the extensive fisheries offshore.

This did not sound like the promised land, but it is a measure of England’s failure that it seemed like such to so many people. Close to 400,000 emigrated over the course of the century, roughly half of them to North America, out of a total population of some 5.5million.

We think of the early colonists, especially in New England, as Puritans and many of them were. But they came seeking the freedom to be themselves, not to allow others a similar freedom; Evans reminds us that the Puritans were hanging Quakers in Boston in the 1660s.

During the Interregnum, however, many disillusioned royalists came here too, and in particular to Virginia where the governor, William Berkeley, was loyal to the Stuart cause. It took four ships from by Cromwell to dislodge him.

Between the English settlements in Virginia and New England lay New Amsterdam, Dutch in theory but even in its earliest days a melting pot. By the 1640s, although there were just 500 people in the settlement, they spoke more than 20 different languages. Its leader, Peter Stuyvesant was more clear sighted than most – or perhaps merely more cynical. He dismissed those who sought “an imaginary liberty in a new and, as some pretend, a free country” with contempt.

But still they came. In the case of New Amsterdam, the principal economic draw was beaver pelt. Thanks to changing fashions in Europe, four beaver skins could buy enough grain to feed a family for a year. And it wasn’t just their fur that was in demand: eating their tails was said to help men maintain an erection. “If some of our ladies knew the benefit thereof,” one colonist wrote, “they would desire to have ships sent to trade for the tail alone.”

Many who came were far from the pioneers we imagine them to be. Soon, the slave trade would fulfil the need for cheap labour, but for much of the 17th century indenture that answered that want. The starving and desperate of England sold themselves to the colonies for fixed terms – usually five years for an adult – in exchange for the promise of land and a house thereafter. Nearly half of the 200,000 who sailed to North America were indentured. But fewer than one in ten of them lived to claim their reward.

Some 8,500 poor children were simply taken from the London streets between 1619 and 1625. Often parents never knew what happened. Poignant letters home from one such boy, Richard Frethorne, form one of the more moving passages in the book.

The attrition rates for all were extraordinary, however. Often, 50% of those onboard died before they even made shore. Likewise almost half of those who reached America were dead within a few years of arrival; in some areas, the death rate was as high as 80%. Virginia was particularly deadly.
Why did so many English men and women emigrate? The same reasons people emigrate now: freedom from persecution; freedom from poverty; political exile; religious liberty; the pursuit of wealth.

But Evans’ book is eloquent testimony to the fact that the commodity America has always traded in, above all others, is hope.

This review first appeared in the Financial Times.

Review: Shakespeare in London by Hannah Crawforth, Sarah Dustagheer and Jennifer Young

Shakespeare in LondonThis review first appeared in the August 2015 issue of History Today.

The world might be forgiven for rolling its eyes at the prospect of another book on Shakespeare. Does Shakespeare in London, the latest addition to the Bloomsbury Arden list,  have anything new to say? The answer is a confident yes.

Shakespeare in London is a short book with big ambitions. It weaves together various narratives – Shakespeare’s London career, a physical journey west to east across early-modern London – with vivid readings of eight plays, each of which is used to explore aspects of London life around the turn of the 17th century. So, for example, the book opens with an account of Titus Andronicus, relating it to the culture of punishment, bloodshed and retribution embodied in the site of Tyburn.

The process is not without its difficulties. Where the Merchant of Venice, say, can be mapped closely onto an examination of the law, or King Lear onto early modern ideas of medicine and madness, the approach taken to Romeo & Juliet – marrying it to the domestic wealth and power evident in the great riverside mansions on the Strand – is more subtle, perhaps even metaphorical.

But on balance the flexibility of that approach is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The fact that the book is a wholly collective effort and each chapter is co-authored by all three authors seems commendably appropriate to the collaborative working practices of the theatre they describe.

Shakespeare is one of the least literal of the early modern playwrights. Whereas the work of Jonson, say, or Middleton gains strength and purpose from its precise and detailed evocation of contemporary London, Shakespeare is characteristically more elusive – evasive, even.

The authors both capture and, in some ways, mirror that trait: reflecting on Shakespeare’s writing at the Globe they self-consciously echo their own description of early-modern London as being always and never the same.

The society revealed here, whether focusing on religion or scientific experimentation or economics, is one undergoing a seismic collision of values. Innovation is competing with tradition; modernity with the memorially fixed. This is, of course, as true of the material city, in which the great monastic houses had been repurposed into mansions – as well as the odd theatre or two – if not torn down all together, as it is of the multitude of ideas the city contains.

The book is clearly aimed at a general audience and, as such, benefits greatly from the bold decision to dispense with the compulsive hat-tipping and knee-bending to the vast array of literary critics that so bedevils much contemporary academic writing. That is not to say that the text is unacademic – the ideas and insights of others are scrupulously noted where relevant and there is an excellent selection of further reading and works cited at the end. But the writers’ decision has freed them to create a more allusive, thought-provoking and approachable work that should be required reading for any undergraduate student of early-modern English literature.

Shakespeare in London offers useful insights into Shakespeare’s work and his working practices. But it is also a wonderful, wide-ranging introduction to the richness and complexity of late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean society. It would be instructive reading for anyone, including young historians, although its play-by-play structure might sadly alienate those outside the silo of English studies who are less engaged by the literary culture.

 

Review: The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

the-black-prince-of-florenceThis review first appeared in the Financial Times on April 29, 2016

Alessandro de’ Medici reigned from 1532 to 1537 as the first duke of one of Italy’s greatest city-states. Yet just as he lived in obscurity until his teens in the late 1520s, he has largely been returned to that obscurity by historians ever since.

Why then, asks Catherine Fletcher, has her subject been so ill-served by posterity? He was by all accounts intelligent and charming, and a great patron of the arts; Vasari was a life-long friend. If he was also ruthless and decadent, those qualities hardly make him unique among Renaissance Italian princes. And while it is true that Alessandro was illegitimate, so was his patron, Guilio de’ Medici — who rose to become Pope Clement VII in 1523 — and his chief rival and cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici.

What role, then, does the colour of his skin play in all this? Certainly, racist pseudoscience served to demean Alessandro in the Victorian era, with one 1875 study describing him as having “all the known features of the delinquent amoral constitutional type: proud, arrogant, selfish, sensual . . . a born criminal”.

The irony, as Fletcher shows in The Black Prince of Florence, is that these kind of pejorative racial distinctions are distinctly modern categories of thought. Alessandro’s father was Lorenzo de’ Medici, the duke of Urbino. His mother, Simunetta, was most likely a servant or slave of the Medici family with a partly African ancestry. Although after his death he was given the descriptive sobriquet Alessandro il Moro, no one seems to have thought the complexion of his skin worth disparaging while he was alive — and enemies were not in short supply, not least within his own family.

In fact, Alessandro’s illegitimacy seems to have been a far more potent issue for contemporaries — and for the duke himself. Alessandro would rule on an inheritance dispute that revolved around the birth of a nephew out of wedlock: “For all that he’s a bastard,” he asked the respondent, “is he not made of flesh, and born of a man and woman like you? . . . Does he not have soul and body like all those legitimately born?”

It is his illegitimacy that accounts for the obscurity of his upbringing, then, and familial necessity that accounts for his dazzlingly swift rise to power. Alessandro’s father died in 1519, which made Alessandro’s older cousin Ippolito the focus of the family’s political aspirations in Florence. But when Clement VII suffered a life-threatening illness in the late 1520s, he made Ippolito a cardinal to ensure the family retained its firm grip on the church. Ippolito never forgave him — or Alessandro, who was next in line.

Indeed, Ippolito never stopped scheming to seize Florence for himself, and his complicity in a plot against Alessandro led to his own assassination in 1535, almost certainly on Alessandro’s orders; Fletcher’s more-or-less verbatim account of the assassin’s interrogation and torture makes one of the more astonishing setpieces in the book.

Alessandro would ultimately be murdered by another cousin, Lorenzino, for reasons that remain unclear. It seems unlikely that Lorenzino, regarded by some contemporaries as little more than Alessandro’s pimp, acted on principle; nevertheless, the lurid allegations of despotism and tyranny used to justify the murder have tainted Alessandro’s name ever since.

Fletcher’s first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (2012), was a study of Vatican intrigue that demonstrated her ability to use rarely accessed Italian archives to create a gripping and original account of a well-worn subject. Here she has used the same skills to even greater effect, creating a compelling portrait of a forgotten man — himself both brutal and brutalised — once at the very heart of the Renaissance world order. Her narrative follows the extraordinary arc of Alessandro’s life closely, but also uses it to illuminate the bloody opulence of Renaissance Italian politics in all its squalid, operatic glory.

If we think of the Renaissance courts constructed by the Medici as simply corrupt or venal, however, we are missing the point. They merely commoditised power — and sex and art and information and all things besides, but above all power — to an exquisite degree. The Medicis knew the price of everything, but they knew its value too, right down to the last drop of blood.

Country Life, Shakespeare and midsummer madness

Country-Life-May-20-2015-400px-300x387Like most people, I suspect, I was surprised by the news that someone had discovered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare. And bemused, too, that they would chose to reveal the fact in Country Life.

My heart sank, though, when I saw that the case relied on ciphers. I am sure there are carefree souls for whom the word ‘cipher’ conjures up the happy image of Alan Turing/Benedict Cumberpatch at Bletchley Park. Well, happy-ish. For anyone with any knowledge of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, however, it brings back the chilly absurdities of Baconianism, which twisted language, logic and sense with ciphers in order to torture Bacon’s hand from the handiwork of Shakespeare.

Would the much-trumpeted discovery of botanical historian Mark Griffiths be any different? The promise of identities encoded in flora was at least novel and refreshing. But what level of certainty could the argument possibly claim after 500-odd years?

I think you know where this is going.

The answer is: Not much.

Are there any actual facts in Griffiths’ piece associating Gerard with Shakespeare? No. What Griffiths presents are a range of speculations – typographical, literary, historical – which mutually reinforce each other without any reference to provable evidence.

The maker’s mark
The keystone of his argument is the mark beneath the portrait of “the fourth man”, having identified the first three portraits as Gerard himself; Rembert Dodoens, Gerard’s collaborator until the latter’s death a decade before; and Gerard’s patron of twenty years, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

You will have to read Griffiths’ piece yourselves to see the heavy lifting he has to do to turn what has usually been regarded as a printer’s mark known as a sign of four into a cipher for Shakespeare’s name. It involves far more wishful thinking than any decent argument should, finding a bewildering range of nuances in character widths, Latin puns, and other factors besides. It requires the presumed owner of the book to identify Shakespeare by knowing the colour of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and relating what looks like an A in the mark to his maternal familial roots in the Forest of Arden. It also involves ignoring the very evident numeral 4 in the mark.

Mark Griffiths clearly regards his discovery as following iron laws of logic. The identification he puts forward is not a suggestion. It is incontrovertible fact. This is far from the case. Ockham’s razor is an imperfect tool but I fear Griffiths was rash to discard it.

He describes the title pages as being full of “encoded, typically Cecilian cleverness”; but the cleverness – an excess of it – is all his. The laboriousness of it; now that is authentically Cecilian.

It is through Burghley that Griffiths seeks to bring Shakespeare and Gerard together. But he fails to make the case that this ever, in fact, happened. His argument is based on the premiss that Cecil’s political reputation was so damaged by his handling of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 that three years later he needed to hire the then unknown William Shakespeare as a kind of Tudor Dan Draper to restore his fortunes.

The former is, to say the least, wildly over-stated; the latter without historical basis.

He also asserts that Shakespeare addressed Venus and Adonis to Southampton on behalf of Burghley, the latter’s guardian. Is there any evidence adduced for this? No. Yet the idea that Southampton himself might have been Shakespeare’s patron is brushed aside with reference to an 18th-century anecdote about Shakespeare being given £1,000, which is as convenient a straw-man argument as you will find.

Of course, none of this necessarily means that Shakespeare and Gerard weren’t familiar with each other’s work. Shakespeare’s writing is famously full of detailed observation of English flora; they both share a sense of the landscape and its infinite possibility, great riches in a little room. But the lack of corroborating evidence ought to at least to cause Griffiths – and his editor at Country Life – some concern.

Certainly, Griffiths pads his argument with a range of speculative readings of plays and entertainments. None of the latter have been attributed to Shakespeare before, although Griffiths clearly wishes to do so with regard to the 1591 Theobald’s Entertainment. A “new” Shakespeare play is promised next week; perhaps that is it. But the readings do little to enhance Griffiths’ case.

Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.

Ralegh and Gerard
One last thought, a little mischievous perhaps.

As regular readers will know, I have written a book about Walter Ralegh. It seems to me that if the figure in the engraving represents any contemporary figure – a tendentious claim, still – Ralegh is a more plausible candidate than Shakespeare. A low boast, I agree.

The mysterious fourth figure is holding an ear of maize, a clear reference to the Americas, with which Ralegh was publicly – even notoriously – associated. Moreover, Ralegh, a known patron of and enthusiast for scientific knowledge and progress, was the dedicatee of Gerard’s Catalogus Arborum, published the following year.

Griffiths notes that the two men were friends and comments that Gerard was an investor in Ralegh’s first Virginia colony – something Griffiths dates to 1589 rather than 1585 for some reason.

So: Ralegh was a friend of Gerard’s, one of his patrons in the late 1590s and was closely associated with one of the plants apparently linked with the mysterious fourth figure in the engraving.

Is this a strong case for Ralegh? Not particularly. But it is far stronger than anything Griffiths has to offer for Shakespeare, alas.

Review: Merchant Adventurers by James Evans

merchantsThis review appears in the current December/January issue of  Management Today.

The recent media coverage of the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, on the sea floor in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is a reminder of the public’s abiding fascination with the Age of Exploration and of its huge cost, in terms of both blood and treasure. Neither the Erebus, nor HMS Terror, the other ship under Franklin’s command had been seen since 1845. A search party found three graves in 1850. The other 126 bodies have never been found.

With this in mind, James Evans’ new book Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England seems particularly timely.

Franklin and his men were among the last to perish in the centuries-long quest for a North-West Passage over the top of the Americas to the rich markets of the east, and in particular to China, or Cathay as it used to known. While many books have been written about that quest, Evans has, quite literally, gone in another direction.

At the heart of his book is a 1553 voyage, seeking to find a North-Eastern route to China over the top of Scandinavia and Russia. It is one of the great untold tales of English exploration. Three ships sailed out of London on May 10th that year under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby a soldier of great character but unremarkable achievements – and precious little knowledge of the sea. More vital to the expedition’s success was its pilot – and also captain of the largest ship – a young man fully versed in the nascent science of navigation named Richard Chancellor.

A year later just one ship returned. It was Chancellor’s. The three ships had become separated by a storm the previous July; no-one yet knew the fate of the others. Chancellor, however, had travelled inland to the court of Ivan the Terrible, initiating the first contact between England and Russia. It was, says Evans, in some respects a model for how England – and the future East India Company – would create an empire.

As for Willoughby, he and his men would die trying to see the winter out. Their bodies were discovered perfectly preserved on board their ships by Russian fishermen the following year. It is often said they froze to death, although Evans persuasively argues that they may have been died from carbon-monoxide poisoning as a result of burning sea-coal and closing all the vents to preserve the heat.

Where Evans’ triumphs is in the breadth of his interest: the story of the 1553 voyage is superbly told, drawing on Willoughby’s surviving logbook and accounts given by Chancellor and his men on his return. But, unusually for a maritime historian, Evans also has much to say on the less viscerally exciting material – the formation, structure and financing of the Muscovy company and, more generally, on the economic climate that made it an attractive investment. It is hard to say which he excels in most.

The Muscovy Company was the first joint-stock company in England. As such, Evans argues, its importance is hard to overstate. On previous international trading ventures, merchants might have come together to fund a voyage, their mutual interest was strictly limited to the period of the journey, and any goods their individual factors bought and sold were always held separately.

But the incorporation of the Muscovy company allowed no individual trading. All stock was held in common. Investors were asked to buy shares not just in the voyage, but in the ongoing trade that the voyage was intended to spawn. The company would exist in perpetuity.

It was certainly an innovative and influential model for England, although as Evans notes it seems to have been based on existing business practices in Italy and was likely introduced to the Company by one of its prime movers, the Bristol-born Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot. It was also immediately successful: the company quickly found 240 investors at £25 a share.

Evans all this brings to vivid life: not merely the courage and peril of the men who risked and often sacrificed their lives at sea, but also the foment of political, economic and intellectual life. Importantly, he captures the sense of these great endeavours not merely as enterprises but first and foremost as ideas, as projects that grew of the new-born sciences of cartography and navigation, out of the daily reality of world’s map being redrawn, and of the need for men of commerce to adapt their own practices to these bewildering, exciting developments.

In that sense, the subtext of the book might be seen as the battle between traditional thought – the supposed givens of trade and travel – and newer empirical approaches. In their different ways all these men are battling to find a way forward at what Elizabeth I called the unknown limits of the world.

Shakespeare, the Blackfriars and the theatre of experience

It has always bemused me that there is so little formal – or, for that matter, informal – dialogue and collaboration between historians and literary scholars. Each are aware of the others’ work, certainly; but the intellectual, cultural and administrative inheritances that maintain the academic silos of schools and faculties surely seem increasingly outdated in a 21st-century, hyper-connected world.

But each discipline has much to learn from the other about the way our ancestors explained the world and their place in it to themselves, how they negotiated that place with one another, and more generally about how meaning is shaped and expressed over time through language, thought and action.

In particular, I would argue that only inter-disciplinary approaches can hope to recover the human experiences of the past, the texture of each now, the resonance of the senses for historical actors whose lives we tend otherwise reduce to mere thought.

I was thinking about this while rereading a couple of Shakespeare’s later plays recently, specifically Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale. Both were among the plays Shakespeare’s company performed at its indoor theatre, itself created out of part of the Great Hall of the former Blackfriars priory.
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History Today column: All was not feigned

In May Brighton College, an independent fee-paying school, announced its intention to make the study of history compulsory for all pupils through to 18. Whatever one’s view of the decision, the fact that it was considered unusual and innovative enough to make the national newspapers should give us – and anyone interested in the practice and pleasures of history – pause for thought.

Should it not be obvious why the past is worth studying all the way through school? And, if it is not obvious, do we make the case for our subject’s virtues with sufficient force? What, indeed, are its virtues?

For me history isn’t really about the past. It is about how we engage with the past, which isn’t quite the same thing. That is what makes it such an excellent educational tool: to read history is to be constantly aware of the struggle between certainty and doubt. Indeed ‘bad’ history – poor research, weak methodology, clumsy arguments and so on – can be just as instructive and illuminating as its counterpart, precisely because it draws attention to the processes and techniques that all historians use.

All history is selective. But where, then, is its truth? One way to answer that question is to consider the areas in which history is most unlike itself, the margins of the discipline where it clearly shades into other traditions of thought, where facts are at best unstable and often largely absent.
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