Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Things I Learned From Other Podcasts: Criminal Trials of Animals

I listen to a lot of podcasts and thought you might like to know when I've heard a particularly interesting bit of history so that you can listen to it as well. This is TILFOP 1.
 
The second part of the first ever episode of Criminal mentions a 1490s case of a pig tried, found guilty, and executed for the murder of a child, and goes into a wider description of animals tried as if they were human actors and what the meaning of that might be. The cases mentioned are from E.P. Evans' The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals from 1906. Being out of copyright, this is freely available to read via Archive.org, so I planned to write a quick post pointing people to the episode (and the podcast as a whole, which is consistently excellent) and to the free book. If you want to give money to someone then there's also an abridged version on Amazon which has the most delightful cover although I can't personally attest to the quality of the content.
 
I planned to write a quick post. Then I thought I'd see if there's a more recent source on the history of animal trials that I could point people to as well. Consequently, I have written something else entirely.
 

Why I'm frightened of The Sow of Falaise

In his introduction to Seeing Justice Done, Paul Friedland details the historiography of the most widely-discussed case of an animal on trial, the case of "the sow of Falaise" from 1386. There's a preview available via Google Books and I recommend reading the full introduction if you can because it's a brilliant bit of clear, well-balanced history writing. He starts with the original evidence of the execution of a pig for murder - which is just one document related to the executioner's expenses - and explains how subsequent accounts have added details based on the writers' assumptions about what must have taken place and what significance the event probably held for medieval participants. These assumptions are of course coloured by what capital punishment meant to a particular storyteller, in their time, as well as their understanding of medieval attitudes. Rather than simply criticising past historians for their mistakes, Friedland rather sportingly brings up his own less-than-rigorous use of the same story in one of his published articles.
 
According to Friedland, a significant amount of embellishment was added to this story by P.G. Langevin in 1814. Among other additions, Langevin writes that the pig went to the gallows dressed as its child victim and that the victim's father, the pig's owner and other local pigs were made to attend the execution so that they could all learn important lessons about responsibility. He claims that the entire incident, including the pig's costume, is depicted on a frieze on the wall of a church in Falaise, but that this has since been painted over and is no longer visible.
 
This is the best approach to referencing sources that I have ever heard and I will be adopting it forthwith. "Oh you want evidence? It's painted on a wall a few towns over. No, you can't see it now but you could twenty years ago and I'll be proved right once that paint peels off again, you'll see."
 
As Friedland explains:
"Langevin's rewriting of the story of the Sow of Falaise allowed an incomprehensible anecdote from the past to fit neatly into the modern paradigm of penal deterrence. Yes, it was true; they had punished a pig. But the real purpose of the execution was teach a lesson to the pig's owner and to the boy's father - and presumably to other pig owners and fathers - about negligence and about what can happen when pigs and little boys are left without proper supervision." (p.5)

 
Friedland's own interpretation of historical capital punishment is significantly different and his book has been added to my reading list for future consumption. What I want to cover here is his point about how and why this embellished and highly dubious account took root and spread:
"Over the course of the twentieth century, the legend of the Sow of Falaise appeared in countless articles, magazines and books, most of which have cited the numerous works that had told the story before them as if they were separate, corroborative pieces of evidence, rather than a long and increasingly distorted retelling of the same story derived from the same source, which, we should remember, is merely the executioner's receipt that does not reveal much more than the simple fact that a sow was dragged and hanged for killing a small boy." (p.9)

 
And further on the role of historians (which I suspect may sadly describe an ideal rather than a uniform reality):
"Historians, particularly present-day historians, are always on their guard against anachronisms, always careful not to allow their own modern-day assumptions to colour their readings of the past. But there are clearly certain visceral assumptions that, despite our best efforts, we historians have great difficulty not bringing along with us on our journeys into the past. Langevin played upon these assumptions by supplying the details, which enabled us to rewrite the story in a way that made intuitive sense to us. Thanks to him, we could understand the execution of the Sow of Falaise to be the story of our own cultural ancestors, caught between a primitive, almost crude form of retaliation and an early, almost infantile and simplistic attempt at modern penal deterrence. The people of fourteenth-century Falaise were shown to be what we so often assume the inhabitants of the past to be; coarser, more simplistic versions of ourselves." (p.10 - emphasis mine)

 
That last sentence is where I feel Friedland really knocks it out of the park because I've seen this play out in my own research into early-modern witch trials and in countless articles written for academic and popular consumption about seemingly "incomprehensible" events from history. In every case there seem to be two things that we want to see in these stories: evidence of where we came from and evidence of how far we've come. There's something seductive about these nineteenth-century embellishments, distortions and outright inventions which still speak to modern audiences and that makes books such as Evans' The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals excellent hunting ground for people who are looking to write engaging material which scratches that weird history itch.
 
My worry is that the important work of contextualising - and in some cases thoroughly debunking - these older histories, which are very much historical documents in their own right, is never going to keep pace with the digitisation and wider distribution of material which is now out of copyright. In terms of academic publication and career progression, there's not a lot of benefit to historians in focussing on this sort of work, except for an occasional noteworthy example which might illustrate a wider point. At the same time, economic constraints in the media and in academia mean that this sort of intense digging doesn't make sense from a content-production or outreach perspective either. Quite simply: few people have the time or inclination to do this stuff for free, and less accurate work may well bring in more money.
 
Does it matter? Well, I think that accuracy is always worth striving for where possible. Our present attitudes inform our reading of historical events, as we've seen here, but the reverse is also true. In the case of Friedland's work on capital punishment, it's clear that our understanding of public execution as a deterrent (whether to humans or potentially murderous pigs) comes in part from historical examples. This in turn affects debates around capital punishment today; a continuous line is drawn from executions of the past in order to demonstrate both why it existed (and still exists), and how it became "less brutal". Our twin desire for precedent and progress is a very powerful force in politics and unquestioningly feeding that desire could lead to some very negative outcomes.
 
So that's why I couldn't just write a brief post linking to an old book. And that's why I'm quite frightened of the Sow of Falaise.

Alex Marshall: Nationalism, Zionism and Utopianism

Your host returns to her undergraduate roots in German Studies for this episode, to the messy question of national identity in German-speaking Central Europe. The terrain is the life and writings of Theodor Herzl and our trusty guide is Germanist and all-round fact-fountain Alex Marshall.

We cover concepts of nationhood and Jewish identity in pre-war Vienna, as well as duelling societies, impressive beards and what we can learn from the telling of jokes.



Dr Alex Marshall lectures in German and Academic English at Sheffield Hallam University. His doctorate was on early Zionism and concepts of nationhood and his research interests cover nationalism before the First World War, fin-de-si├Ęcle Jewish identity politics, the Habsburg Empire, utopianism, anti-modernity and theory of humour. He's on Twitter as @ralexm.

If you read German and want to immerse yourself in nineteenth-century Viennese news and culture then The Austrian National Library has an extensive collection of digitised newspapers and magazines available online, completely free, with no log-in required.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Swapcast Pt2: Just the archaeology

This is my edit of the joint episode with the podcast Ask An Archaeologist. In this interview,  archaeologist and comedian Paul Duncan McGarrity explains how archaeological methods can be used on standing buildings. He also tells me some things I didn't know about dead bodies in pubs and we confess ourselves to be somewhat underwhelmed by the mortal remains of Richard III.

Many thanks to Paul for breaking the back of the editing work.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Relaunch and Swapcast with Ask An Archaeologist

Hello! It sure has been a while...

I'm finally able to bring 1066 Wasn't All That back from suspended animation and to relaunch I've recorded a "swapcast" interview with the podcast Ask An Archaeologist. If you want to hear a little about what I've been up to in the past four years (finished my PhD, worked on a few projects with a museum, filled out a lot of job applications, then decided not to fill out any more) then you can listen to the full recording here: https://askanarchaeologist.podbean.com/feed/
More interestingly, you'll also hear archaeologist and comedian Paul Duncan McGarrity talk about common misconceptions about archaeological research and why pubs are his favourite type of building to study (it has nothing to do with what they sell). I'll post a shorter version of the recording on Sunday, covering just Paul's material.

Beyond this, I'm making a few changes to my original plan for the podcast. It's still largely a one-woman project and scheduling regular interviews with busy researchers (who do more than enough work for free as it is) was difficult enough even before I got a full-time job outside of academic history. I also need deadlines and a sense of completion occasionally to keep myself motivated. So here's the plan:

The first four episodes shall henceforth be known as Series One.

Welcome to Series Two.

Series Two will have several types of episode, hopefully at a rate of two per month. There will be the original format of interview about someone's ongoing research, whenever I can make this happen. There will also be solo episodes in which I talk about the types of evidence I used in my own PhD research and some of the problems and rabbit-holes which that involved. There may also be a few special episodes where I invite a guest to talk us through a specific topic, such as a type of source or a phenomenon that poses a particular problem for historians. I have some ideas in this direction but would be delighted to hear suggestions.

At some point, Season Two will give way to another extended break, though I will try to keep this to less than four years.

There are a lot of reasons why I had to stop the podcast after the first four episodes but almost as many reasons to have another crack at it now. One big thing is the fact that I really miss talking to other researchers. I am incurably curious about the things that other people are excited about, however dry they may seem on the surface. This is a passion project for me and I'm thrilled that a few other people have been listening along.

Another reason to continue is that in spite of the proliferation of podcasts that cover history topics or that examine questions of evidence, there's not much of any media that does both - that takes its audience deep into the issue of exactly how we know the things that we think we know about the past. How do researchers use different forms of historical evidence? How do they deal with the ambiguities and the gaps? How do they take this imperfect, accidental mess that the past has left to us and put together an account of that past which is more accurate than our previous understanding?

The past continues to be invoked to justify current policies, campaigns and conflicts. At the same time, the very concept of expertise has been publicly dismissed by some, and certain types of historical research are attacked as being self-indulgent, irrelevant, insufficiently rigorous or just plain invalid. If we allow this disparagement to stand unchallenged, it would be a tragic waste of the progress which has been made towards a better understanding of ourselves, our cultures, our politics and our future. I'm not claiming that historians can save the world but I do think that the types of critical thinking that historians and other researchers use in their study of the past could also be useful outside of academia. I want as many people as possible to be able to benefit from the techniques we've developed and the knowledge we've gained. Neither of these belong behind a paywall.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Emily Magrath: Native American Identities in Oklahoma

[Editor's note: this episode has been on Podbean for many months and I can only apologise for failing to update this site until now.]

In our fourth episode, Benazir Kamal interviews Emily Magrath about her research on changes to Native American identity in early twentieth-century Oklahoma. They discuss the varied effects of boarding schools, the English language, and formalised religion, as well as the lasting impact of the attempt to create the State of Sequoyah.
 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Daniel O'Neill: Smoking, Advertising and Consumer Culture 1960 - 1980

How did the marketing strategies of British cigarette companies change as the dangers of smoking became better known? What difference did voluntary codes and self-regulation make? And how many packets would you have to smoke to get a free rubber dinghy? Daniel O'Neill has (some) of the answers for you in this episode.


Dan studied history at the University of Sheffield both for his undergraduate and Master’s degrees, specialising in post-war British history. He is the current holder of a Collaborative Doctoral Award organised by the University of Nottingham and Nottingham City Council Museums and Galleries. His PhD is on the changes cigarette marketing went through in the face of the smoking and health issue, and is titled ‘Promoting Player’s: Smoking, Advertising and Consumer Culture 1960-1980’. Broadly, his research interests cover twentieth-century social and cultural history, but more specifically they include:

  • The history of advertising
  • The history of tobacco and public health
  • Leisure and sport history
  • Gender history and the history of domesticity
  • The history of broadcasting and the media

Recommended reading:

  • Matthew Hilton, Smoking in British popular culture 1800-2000 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
  • Virginia Berridge, Marketing Health: Smoking and the Discourse of Public Health in Britain, 1945-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • Penny Tinkler, Smoke Signals: Women, Smoking and Visual Culture in Britain (Oxford: Berg, 2006)
  • Sean Nixon, Hard Sell: Advertising, Affluence and Transatlantic Relations, c. 1951-69 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013)
By Hans Rudi Erdt (1883-1925) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Advertisement for the short-lived Mahala-Problem company, Berlin.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Robbie Rudge: Royalists in Defeat

How did Royalists cope following the defeat of their cause in the British Civil War? What made it into their letters, diaries and scrapbooks? And how did they prevent their letters from giving the recipients smallpox? Plus forged passports, suspiciously tired horses, and why a good camera can be a historian's best friend.



Further information on Robbie's research will be posted here when he next emerges from the archives... In the meantime, here's a link to Volume 7 of Edward, Lord Clarendon's History of the Grand Rebellion, which contains additional illustrations and extracts from the Clarendon papers mentioned in the episode.
________


A very Victorian view of the Civil War: W.F. Yeames' 'And when did you last see your father?'.