Happy Historical 2016!

Well, the hangovers have (mostly) subsided, the words to Auld Lang Syne have been hastily reforgotten, and Jools Holland has at last returned to his cave. All that remains, then, is to have a look at some of the big historical anniversaries we hit in 2016. And it’s going to be a bumper year… Everyone will…

When was it okay to bugger a horse in 1650s Yorkshire?

I recently came across an astonishing pair of documents in the National Archives. The documents are ‘depositions’, witness statements, collected for a trial at the Yorkshire Assizes – the local court which dealt with serious crimes – from 1656. They relate to an alleged case of bestiality. William Clarke, labourer, it was alleged, had been…

An Unhelpful Guide to Wagner’s Ring

Perhaps there should be a rule that Historically Important Works of Art should be nice and short. Mozart knew this when he was writing dinky little tunes for tight-wearing Austrians with miniature attention spans. Alfred Hitchcock knew it too, famously quipping that no film should last longer than the capacity of a human bladder. Richard…

Taylor Swift… and the English Reformation!

It’s been a busy few days of discoveries. Water has been found on Mars. A large power station might’ve been discovered deep in space. Arsenal seem to have worked out what those two pointy sticks at the end of the pitch are for. But here at Oxford University, we think we’ve just made a discovery…

‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!’

Out of all of Shakespeare’s lines, we can be pretty sure that few – if any – got as big a cheer as this one. The play is Henry VI part 2, the context is the popular rebellion by Jack Cade in 1450. The line is spoken by ‘Dick the Butcher’, one of Jack’s henchmen,…

Rubbish Rebellions!

Like many of my fellow social historians, I love a good rebellion. Who wouldn’t? Most of history is about the rich and the powerful screwing the rest of us. Rebellions are the moments when ordinary people get to fight back. And let’s be honest about this: all of us, if we found ourselves in a…

17th-century cats who don’t have time for this shit

‘Asses are made to bear, and so are you.’ — ‘I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.’ — ‘I find my familiarity with thee has bred contempt.’ — ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have…

Who Wrote All The Plays?

I recently had the misfortune of watching the film ‘Anonymous’. For those who’ve not seen it, it’s a kind of weird Elizabethan conspiracy flick. There’s intrigue, there are moody scenes in darkened manor houses, there are illegitimate children, and there’s rebellion. A plot is afoot to topple Queen Bess, and to defraud posterity. It’s all…

Sex, Whipping and Pottage in Stepney

One day, probably in 1618, William Wilton returned to his house in Artillery Lane, Spitalfields to find a piece of paper under his door. It was folded, ‘in manner and fashion of a letter’, and addressed ‘To his friend William Wilton give thee’. Unfolding it, William found it contained a verse. William Wilton in the…

Pisspoor Parliaments

Tomorrow, we in the UK will vote in a new parliament, taking part in a process that in England dates back – in one form or another – seven and a half centuries. Sometimes, this has gone well. Sometimes we’ve even produced parliaments full of fantastic MPs that are dedicated, honourable, and not Nigel Farage….

Seventeenth-Century Problems!

Just because they happen to people in woodcuts, doesn’t mean they’re not real. Stay safe, people. 1. When everyone starts dancing to ‘Saturday Night Fever’, but you can’t join in. — 2. When the local witch won’t let you borrow her paddling pool.  — 3. When you can’t quite remember if you turned the oven…