As the extraordinary The Violence records at double-album length, 17th century British people believed in witches — believed in them enough to hang a few hundred poor, defenseless old women. Surely this has to be the apogee of superstition?
But there was another aspect to 17th century Britain, one that we would call ‘modern’. These are some of the things that happened in 17th century Britain: the introduction of coffee, tea and drinking chocolate; the introduction of coffee houses, where you could drink a cup of coffee and read a newspaper; the first printed newspapers; the first playing cards; the first gambling on horses; the first (indeed the only) written constitution in the history of England; the first cabinet government; the creation of the Bank of England; the first banknotes; the creation of the National Debt; the invention of the forceps to deliver babies; the invention of the pressure cooker; the first documentary histories; the introduction of opera to London; the first professional women actors; the introduction of telescopes and microscopes; the discovery of the vacuum; the creation of the scientific method of experiments, and the use of a journal to disseminate scientific knowledge.
Now this may sound as if the 17th century had one foot in the ancient and one foot in the modern. But this is not an entirely helpful way of seeing it. Because witch-persecution seemed perfectly reconcilable with all of the above to almost everyone. It’s to us that they seem incompatible. In a way an interest in witchcraft and magic and astrology not only coexisted with the scientific method; they were different elements of the same belief system. Isaac Newton believed in alchemy and angels and magic, and revolutionised modern mathematics.
No doubt there were charlatans among the astrologers in London; but there were also honest and sincere people. The song ‘Bold Astrologer’ tells of one. In the song the astrologer is visited by a young serving girl; but later the same day he might have been visited by Shakespeare, Cromwell, or Isaac Newton. Plenty of people, especially the educated, expressed scepticism about astrology, but nonetheless attended them, or bought their books.
There was not only a civil war in the 1640s and 50s but also a political revolution. Men and women (mainly men) argued about the democratic franchise and property rights. In a debate held in a church in 1647, one colonel in Cromwell’s army famously said: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice [i.e. a vote] to put himself under”. People argued about the king’s prerogative and the power of parliament. They argued about whether a republic
Darren Hayman and & Short Parliament’s album Bugbears is a rare thing. It’s a vision of the 17th century, and particularly the civil wars that saw Britain turned upside down; but it’s done through music that, though it’s more-or-less folky, is not at all nostalgic. Modern folk and 17th century history: it could be a little offputting. Putting aside the question of folk music, why would anyone be interested in the 17th century?
Here are three reasons, three things that everyone should know about Britain during those times:
There was an information revolution. Really this began in mainland Europe with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the middle of the 15th century, which revolutionised printing. But in Britain it happened between the late 16th and 17th centuries. What happened? New communication media — cheap print — opened up new kinds of dialogues, speeding up communication, making great swathes of information that had previously been the preserve of educated elites available to a much broader public. At the same time many people worried about these new media: would they disrupt old ways of learning and traditional values? Would they undermine knowledge as much as they spread it? How could you know whether something in these new media was true?
Does any of this sound familiar?
Cheap print was in some ways the equivalent of the internet. It seemed exciting and threatening at the same time. In Britain pamphlets began to appear — short books that argued about politics and religion in popular, accessible writing. They were intended to change what the reading public thought about things. Governments were concerned about the way pamphlets and pamphleteering might turn the world upside down, and from time to time tried to quash them. Pamphlets could not only be read by cobblers and tinkers: they could be written by them (actually the few who were literate). Gradually, however, politicians and governments accepted that pamphlets couldn’t be eradicated entirely, and increasingly they became part of the conduct of ordinary, everyday politics. If you wanted people to take your side, you persuaded them through print.
Pamphlets were like blogs: pithy statements of fact and opinion, arguments with invisible enemies that sewed new ideas, explorations of popular religion that were not controlled or authorised by the church. Writers didn’t care who their anonymous readers were: this was a very public, perhaps democratic, form of engagement. With a pamphlet you could try to persuade people to take your side in an already polarised conflict; or you could just throw an idea out there and see if it floated. When the civil wars began — in 1637 or 1642 depending on how you look at it — pamphlets were part of the warfare. They were paper bullets.
Meanwhile weekly newspapers (which appeared in 1641) speeded up the news, and made more news accessible to more people. In a way they created the first news cycle (at least in Britain), because readers expected weekly updates. These days
As a natural born skeptic, I was excited to have the opportunity to illustrate a song about superstition in the Age of Reason, and chose to depict a learned man of means plagued by his own doubts and fears. I’ve tried to construct an image that wouldn’t look totally out of place in an early edition of The Gentleman’s Field Guide to Efficient Grouse-Stalking, or similar.
JW Paterson is an artist and illustrator based in Brisbane, Australia.
His illustration work can be seen on local and international t-shirt and skateboard brands, and is about to be published in a Dungeons & Dragons book due out later this year.
He held his first art exhibition, Resurrection, in Melbourne in June last year, which featured original art on repurposed second-hand skateboard decks. Selected pieces from the show also appeared at the Look Hear Art & Design Festival in Newcastle in October last year.
A second video preview from the album…
One of the many things I really like about the Violence and Bugbears albums is that as well as the sound of the songs, we get words and pictures, even for the instrumental pieces!
In the seventeenth century too, if you bought a song you had heard and liked from a singer – perhaps in the street, at a market or in an alehouse or tavern – you would buy the words and pictures, printed on one side of a single sheet (known as a broadside ballad), and put it in your song collection. For example, Anthony Wood, in later life a scholar at Oxford University, began his ballad collection – of more than four hundred songs – as a young boy of 8 years old.
Incredibly, four hundred years later, ten thousand of these flimsy single-sheet songs still exist thanks to collectors like Anthony Wood. Many have been made freely available on the web by Oxford University: http://bodley24.bodley.ox.ac.uk/cgibin/acwwweng/maske.pl?db=ballads
And the University of California, Santa Barbara
I’ve been studying these songs for a long time now – in particular what we might today call ‘politopop’ – topical songs that tried to make political or religious messages. Interestingly, not only the Cavaliers used songs to get their points across. Puritans too had a way with words and music and merry morality was being sung in the towns and cities of Old England. Many broadside ballads supported parliamentarians and even Cromwell and his armies in the 1640s and 50s.
But Cavaliers won the war, and so they got to dictate the tune of history ever after. Today, the songs that are best remembered are the royalist ones – only historians like me know about the Puritan ones – while evidence shows that many ‘puritan’ songs were destroyed by their collectors after the King returned – perhaps because they were afraid that their loyalty would be questioned.
One of the longest lasting royalist songs was not in fact ‘When the King Enjoys is own again’ – though this was a popular tune. It was a song lamenting the death of Princess Elizabeth Stuart (b. 1635), sister to Charles II, in 1650, just a year after her father the King’s execution by Parliamentarian forces.
Though placed under house arrest throughout the period of the civil wars, Elizabeth was well-known as a stalwart supporter of the royalist cause and famously wrote an account of Charles I’s last meeting with his children. Among the gifts he distributed, he gave his young daughter a Bible.
Elizabeth proved a thorn in the side of Parliament, vigorously complaining about the treatment and housing she and her brothers endured. Parliament tried to break her spirit not only by moving her around but also by condemning her and her youngest brother to listen to two sermons a day. This, however, was just what she liked! Poems were published celebrating her pious scholarship and knowledge of languages, including Greek and Hebrew.
Her final move to the Isle of Wight when