Jewish life in medieval England

Many of us in England like to think of ourselves as a fairly tolerant people, accepting of many traditions and ethnic groups. I would venture to say that this has some basis in truth, at least in contemporary Britain – it is true that if you go back a few decades, English society, unused to mass immigration, gave a frequently hostile reception to Caribbean and Asian immigrants. At any rate, when we hear the term ‘anti-Semitism’ we are most likely to think of Nazi Germany, or the Russian pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet in medieval England, Jews were persecuted and eventually expelled, left to wander the rest of Europe. (After they were allowed back in the 17th century, England became one of the better places in Europe to be Jewish, but that’s another story).

The first written record of Jews in England goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror. In 1070, William invited a group of Jewish merchants from Rouen to England, possibly to help the Crown in financial matters. The Jewish community grew over the next few centuries, during which time the discrimination against English Jews ebbed and flowed. At certain periods, Jews were better tolerated, often for policy reasons. They were granted a number of rights at various points. In Henry I’s reign, a royal charter ensured that Jews were permitted to buy and sell goods and property, to be tried by their peers, to swear oaths on the Torah rather than on a Christian Bible, and to move about the country without paying tolls. It should be borne in mind that a great many English peasants didn’t enjoy the last right, because of the restrictive feudal system which prevented much movement away from the lord’s estate.

By about 1140, Jews were to be found in many of the major English and Welsh towns: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Windsor, Reading, Winchester, Newport, Norwich, Bungay and Thetford. A number of Jews managed to do very well for themselves, at least in financial terms. Aaron of Lincoln, for instance, is believed to have been the wealthiest man in 12th-century England, perhaps even wealthier than the king. Testament to the wealth of certain individuals in the Jewish community is the Jew’s House in Lincoln, one of the earliest extant town houses in the country. Dating originally to the mid-12th century, the house is well-built out of stone, and has impressive features such as elaborate Romanesque windows.

Jew's House in High Street, Lincoln
The Jew’s House in Lincoln

However, for all the concessions granted to English Jews, their overall experience was one of discrimination and persecution. Numerous statutes limited their freedom of action, and they were never accorded the full rights of other English subjects. Petty legal discrimination abounded. For instance, before 1177, Jews were not permitted to bury their dead anywhere outside London, and in 1280 Edward I ordered that ‘Jews and Jewesses’ had to pay a special toll in order to cross the bridge at Brentford. Edward I also stripped Jews of their right to lend money, restricted their movements and activities, and forced them to wear a yellow patch on their clothing.

Frequently the king would seize Jewish assets simply because he needed money and could get away with it more easily than if he imposed onerous taxes on the whole population, which would run the risk of inciting rebellion. The persons and goods of the Jewish community in England were therefore rarely secure. One of the first such recorded incidents is when King Stephen burned down the house of Jew in Oxford when the man refused to pay a contribution to the royal expenses. Further incidents of intimidation and coercion followed. When negotiating an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor in 1168, Henry II abducted the chief representatives of the English Jews and sent them to Normandy, imposing a land tax on the rest of the community to the value of 5,000 marks. Raising money for the Crusade against Saladin in 1188, Henry then demanded a quarter of all Jewish chattels for the purpose, a far greater proportion than was required of his Gentile subjects.

Jews were forced to wear special hats (England, 13th century)
Jews were forced to wear special hats (England, 13th century)

Persecution of the Jews grew increasingly serious, and indeed violent, towards the end of the 13th century. When Jewish moneylenders found themselves unable to fund the war against Wales in 1276, Edward’s response was brutal. He accused English Jews of disloyalty and enacted various punitive statutes. The heads of Jewish households were arrested, with over three hundred taken to the Tower of London and executed. On November 17, 1278, every Jew in England was arrested on suspicion of coin clipping and counterfeiting. Coin clipping was in fact carried out by Christians as well as Jews, but this little detail does not seem to have alleviated the Crown’s harsh treatment of the accused Jews. The Bury Chronicle records how:

“All Jews in England of whatever condition, age or sex were unexpectedly seized … and sent for imprisonment to various castles throughout England. While they were thus imprisoned, the innermost recesses of their houses were ransacked.” 

On a wider level, many English people were anti-Semitic as a matter of course, and augmented discriminatory laws with persecution of their own. Underpinning much of this was the contemporary Catholic attitude towards Judaism. Using the ancient idea that Jews were to be despised as ‘Christ-killers’, the medieval Catholic Church played a shameful role in inciting violence against Jews and their property. All over Europe, rumours abounded that Jews were the malevolent members of a great conspiracy against Christians. Jews were blamed for many unfortunate events; it was commonly believed, for instance, that outbreaks of plague originated from the wicked Jews poisoning wells.

13th century English caricature of the Jew Aaron, son of Satan
13th century English caricature of the Jew Aaron, son of Satan

This anti-Jewish sentiment periodically erupted into mob violence. For instance, when a rumour went around London in September 1189 that the king had ordered a massacre of the Jews, a frenzied mob set fire to houses in Old Jewry, killing those who attempted to escape. Further massacres followed at Lynn, Stamford Fair, Bury St Edmunds, and Lincoln, where the Jews only survived by taking refuge in Lincoln Castle.

The most infamous massacre took place in York in March 1190, on the night of the sabbath. Religious feeling was high at the time, as the crusaders were just preparing to leave on the Third Crusade, off to slaughter the Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land. Anti-Jewish violence in York was increasing, and Josce, the leader of the Jews in York, asked the warden of York Castle to shelter them and their families. They were duly accepted into Clifford’s Tower. However, crusaders surrounded the castle and demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity. The Jews’ religious leader, Rabbi Yomtov of Joigney, advised his flock to commit suicide rather than convert. The father of each family apparently killed his wife and children, beginning with Josce killing his wife Anna and their two children. Josce and Yomtov set fire to the wooden keep; the handful of Jews who did not kill themselves died in the fire, or were murdered by the rioters.

Clifford's Tower, York Castle
Clifford’s Tower, York Castle

The history of the Jewish community in medieval England ended suddenly when King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, which exiled between 4,000 and 16,000 Jews from the country. A number of Jews favoured by the monarchy were permitted to sell their properties before leaving, but more often, Jewish goods and property were confiscated by the Crown. With a few exceptions, Jews did not return to England until Oliver Cromwell invited them back in 1655.

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Jewish expulsions in Europe, 1100-1600

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Painted faces: cosmetics in the 18th century

The vicissitudes of pre-modern life invariably took their toll on the health and appearance of 18th-century Europeans; their faces were often riddled with smallpox scars, their teeth decaying, their gums caved in from lost teeth, their gait uneven from childhood rickets. One way both men and women could hide these defects was to wear a thick face of makeup. A very specific beauty ideal was common to European countries at the time, which often involved using highly toxic cosmetics. Recounting a visit to the theatre in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described what would remain the fashion for the rest of the century: ‘all the ladies have…snowy foreheads and bosoms, jet eye-brows and scarlet lips’. The only thing she missed out was brilliantly red cheeks. So, how did men and women achieve this desirable look?

A white complexion

For centuries, the fashionable skin colour in Europe was palest white as it suggested wealth and idleness, rather than having to labour in the fields and get sunburnt. This pale look became even more pronounced in the 17th and 18th centuries as fashionable men and women increasingly resorted to artifice to make their complexion yet whiter.

A pasty face could be achieved by using one of the many face creams and washes which promised to whiten and bleach the skin. One advertisement for a ‘Chemical Wash’ promised to get rid of ‘all deformities…[such] as Ringworms, Morphew, Sunburn, Scurf, Pimples, Pits or Redness of the Smallpox, keeping [the skin] of lasting and extreme Whiteness’.

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English portrait, 1780s

Rather more dangerously, people used heavy white foundations to achieve the desirable pale complexion. These were slathered over the face and bosom, and in order to heighten the effect, some ladies painted blue veins on their bosoms. The more harmless ingredients in white makeup preparations included rice powder, vinegar, hartshorn, gum arabic, and bismuth subnitrate (the latter still being used in modern paints). However, many of the most popular facial cosmetics included lead, as it had desirable opaque qualities. One toxic recipe for white face paint went as follows:

Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of [horse] manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can be pounded into a flaky white powder [chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white], grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

Of course, the major downside of using lead-based makeup was that it proved highly poisonous to the wearer over time. Incredibly, people used it even though the effects of lead poisoning were pretty well known. Several English socialites actually died from lead poisoning this way, such as Maria, Countess of Coventry, who died of blood-poisoning in 1760 at the tender age of 27.

Maria, Countess of Coventry
Maria, Countess of Coventry

Rouged cheeks

A white complexion was not, however, deemed complete without a very visible application of rouge. This could range from a large swathe of red from the eyes down to the mouth, to neat red circles in the middle of the cheeks. The most harmless rouge concoctions were made of vegetable matter. Rouges made in this way might contain sandalwood, brazilwood, safflowers, red wine, or carmine (derived from the cochineal insect).

Some of the most popular recipes for rouge were, however, like the lead-based white makeup, highly toxic. Many women used a vermilion-based rouge as it gave a particularly brilliant red colour; vermilion is made from the mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulphide! The author of the 1760 work The Art of Beauty warns against using cinnabar as a component of rouge, arguing that ‘it is very dangerous; for by using it frequently they may lose their teeth, acquire a stinking breath, and excite a copious salivation’. The author correctly identifies the effects of mercury poisoning, but goes on to recommend ‘a fine White Paint’ containing the equally poisonous lead!

Madame de Pompadour at Her Toilette Boucher 1758
Boucher, ‘Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette’ (1758)

Aside from the very real dangers posed by cosmetics containing large quantities of lead and mercury, white face paint and vivid rouges were disadvantageous in other ways. For one thing, they were susceptible to run off in stressful conditions, leaving the wearer looking rather ghastly. In Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina, the narrator says of a distressed Frenchwoman who had suffered an accident, that ‘her face was really horrible, for the pomatum and powder from her head, and the dust from the road, were quite pasted on her skin by her tears, which with her rouge made so frightful a mixture, that she looked hardly human’. Indeed, not everyone thought that rouge made a man or woman more attractive. The French critic Charles-Nicolas Cochin, writing in about 1750, opined that:

It is well known that rouge is nothing more than the mark of rank or wealth, because it cannot be supposed that anyone has thought to become more beautiful with this terrible crimson patch. It is surprising that such distinction has been attached to a colour so common and inexpensive that even the lowliest grisettes [working-class women] can make this expenditure as abundantly as a person of the highest birth.

Roslin, ‘The Countess de Bavière-Grosberg’ (1780)

Eyebrows

The ideal 18th-century eyebrow was thin, half-moon shaped with tapered ends, and conspicuously dark. Eyebrows could be darkened with lead, kohl, burnt cork, elderberry juice, or the soot from oil lamps. If someone had lost their eyebrows from excessive plucking, they could always stick on a pair of false eyebrows made of mouse-skin. Satirists made much of this particular phenomenon: Jonathan Swift describes a woman’s ‘eyebrows from a mouse’s hide / Stuck on with art on either side’, and the poet Matthew Prior described in 1718 how: ‘HELEN was just dipt into bed / Her eye-brows on the toilet lay / Away the kitten with them fled / As fees belonging to her prey.’

From 'The New London Toilet' (1778)
A recipe to darken eyebrows, from ‘The New London Toilet’ (1778)

Beauty patches

Beauty patches, made of silk velvet, taffeta or satin and attached with glue, were fairly common in the 18th century. They served several purposes. Due to their dark colour, beauty patches heightened the contrast with artificially whitened skin, and were also very useful in covering up particularly noticeable smallpox scars. In fact, beauty patches developed a whole language of their own. At the French court, for instance, a beauty patch at the corner of the eye signified passion; one on the forehead was supposed to look majestic; and a patch on a dimple was considered playful. According to Joseph Addison in an early issue of The Spectator, the position of beauty patches in England could even be a symbol of political allegiance. He described the following scene at the Haymarket Theatre:

I could not but take notice of two parties of very fine women, that had placed themselves in the opposite side boxes, and seemed drawn up in a kind of battle array one against another!  After a short survey of them, I found they were patched differently; the faces, on one had, being spotted on the right side of the forehead, and those upon the other on the left…Upon inquiry, I found that the body of Amazons on my right hand were Whigs and those on my left Tories…

portrait_of_a_lady_in_blue-thomas-gainsborough-patches2
Gainsborough, ‘Portrait of a Lady In Blue’ (1777-79)
boucher_applying-beauty-patches
Boucher, ‘A Lady Applying Beauty Patches’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attitudes

The public attitude towards ‘painting’ one’s face was mixed. At the French court, no one would have been caught dead without a thick face of makeup, but England was more conservative, and the English generally thought it inappropriate for younger women to paint their faces. In Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda, we are supposed to feel pity and contempt for the aging socialite Lady Delacour when she tells the young eponymous heroine, ‘but you don’t paint – no matter – you will – you must – every body must, sooner or later’.

Many moralists condemned the practice of painting altogether. Society was more willing to forgive the foibles of the young, but was particularly vicious towards older ladies who resorted to paint and other beauty aids to hide their aging complexions. Lady Archer in particular came under much critical scrutiny for her continued application of heavy makeup as she grew older:

HER Ladyship’s figure has been for many years common to this metropolis, but the natural complexion of her face, is no more remembered, it having been so long disguised by cosmetic art, that flesh and blood seem not to form the least part of its composition. The art of painting, however, of brushing up an old decayed picture, is not the only art in which she excels…

'Six Stages of Mending a Face'
‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’. A 1792 Rowlandson caricature of Lady Archer

Never…did any person labour more indefatigably to fill up the wrinkled deformities of nature, with the impotent remedies of art; but all is labour in vain, the remedy worse than the disease, it chiefly consisting of mercurial and a variety of pernicious ingredients, often inflicting palsies and other most fatal maladies: nor…does it ever answer the purpose intended, exciting disgust, instead of stimulating desire: a revolting melancholy instance of which, we have now before us—a PAINTED SEPULCHRE…

If it be men whom [women] aspire to please, if it be for them that they daub and varnish their complexions, I have collected the opinions of mankind, and I promise on the part of the great majority…that the use of paint renders women hideous and disgusting, that it withers and disguises them, that men hate as much to behold the female countenance thus plaistered, as to see false teeth in the mouth, or balls of wax in the jaw; that they decidedly protest against every artifice employed to disfigure the sex.

 

Caricature of Lady Archer driving to a shop on Pall Mall selling rouge and mouse-skin eyebrows
Caricature of Lady Archer driving to a shop on Pall Mall which sells rouge and mouse-skin eyebrows

Further reading

Anon., The New London Toilet (1778)
Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz, The Toilet of Flora (1772)
Charles Pigott, The Female Jockey Club, or, a Sketch of the Manners of the Age (1794)
J. Williams, The Art of Beauty: or, a Companion for the Toilet (1760)

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Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th-century pirates

The eighteenth century was, as any landlubber knows, the Golden Age of swashbuckling Pirates-of-the-Caribbean style piracy. Eighteenth-century pirates (as opposed to their unglamorous modern counterparts) have acquired their own roguish mystique. What is less commonly known is that women, too, had their place in eighteenth-century piracy. I remember, when I was small, being entranced by their stories in my Ladybird Book about Pirates. In a society which gave women very limited choices, there must have been a certain attraction for some young women in the thought of cutting off their hair, donning men’s breeches and running away to sea in search of adventure and fortune.

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Would-be female sailors and pirates would have to be a lot more convincing than Keira Knightley, who looks…just like a woman

Two of the most famous female pirates, who became notorious in their lifetimes, were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. The primary account we have of their lives comes from Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, which is a highly entertaining read, even if we must doubt its reliability. Johnson begins his account of the two women with a bold assertion as to the truth of his narrative, which suggests how unusual Read and Bonny would have been thought at the time:

The odd Incidents of their rambling Lives are such, that some may be tempted to think the whole Story no better than a Novel or Romance; but since it is supported by many thousand Witnesses, I mean the People of Jamaica, who were present at their Tryals, and heard the Story of their Lives, upon the first discovery of their Sex; the Truth of it can be no more contested, than that there were such Men in the World, as Roberts and Black-beard, who were Pyrates.

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Each woman led a highly unconventional life, beginning with an unorthodox upbringing. Mary Read was born the illegitimate daughter of a sea captain’s widow, some time around 1691. Mary’s life posing as a man began early, when her mother started dressing her as a boy after the death of her (legitimate) older brother, Mark. This deception was necessary in order to continue receiving financial support from Mark’s paternal grandmother, and it does seem to have fooled the lady in question, as she gave Mary’s mother a crown a week for the child’s maintenance.

When Mary was thirteen years old, the grandmother passed away, and with her the financial assistance. Mary was obliged to find a job to support herself, and began working life by waiting on a French lady as a foot-boy. However, she soon grew bored of the life of a domestic servant and, still dressed as a man, ran away to join a man-of-war. She then escaped to Flanders and joined the British Army, fighting against the French during either the Nine Years’ War or the War of Spanish Succession. Although she ‘behaved herself with a great deal of Bravery’, she was unable to get a commission as they were generally bought and sold; promotion in the British Army depended more on connections and money than merit. Mary went on to fall in love with a Flemish soldier, and revealed her true gender to him, upon which:

…he was much surprised at what he found out, and not a little pleased…that he should have a Mistress solely to himself, which is an unusual Thing in a Camp…so that he thought of nothing but gratifying his Passions with very little Ceremony; but he found himself strangely mistaken, for she proved very reserved and modest, and resisted all his Temptations, and at the same Time was so obliging and insinuating in her Carriage, that she quite changed his Purpose, so far from thinking of making her his Mistress, he now courted her for a Wife. This was the utmost Wish of her Heart, in short, they exchanged Promises, and when the Campaign was over…they bought Woman’s Apparel for her…and were publickly married.

Mary quit the army, and the couple scraped together the funds to buy a public house near Breda Castle in the Netherlands, named ‘De drie hoefijzers’ (‘The Three Horseshoes’). We know little about Mary’s life as a tavern landlady, but the premature death of her husband along with a decline in her business led her to again assume men’s apparel and enlist as a foot soldier in Holland. There was, however, little chance of either adventure or advancement during peacetime, so she quit and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies, in search of her fortune. Unfortunately for Mary (though fortunately for her posthumous reputation), the ship she was on was boarded by pirates, who forced her to join their crew. Evidently she grew somewhat accustomed to the pirate life, as in 1720 she joined the crew of notorious pirate John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, which is where her story joins that of Anne Bonny.

Mary Read, from 'A History of the Pyrates'
Mary Read, from ‘A History of the Pyrates’
Mary Read reveals her sex to a vanquished enemy (1846)
Mary Read reveals her sex to a vanquished enemy (1846)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anne Bonny was born the illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer, William Cormac, and his servant Mary Brennan. The affair estranged Cormac from his wife, who went off in high dudgeon to live with her mother-in-law. Cormac grew very fond of his little Anne and wished her to live with him, but as it was common knowledge that he had an illegitimate daughter, he decided to start dressing Anne as a boy, pretending that it was a relation’s child whom he was breeding up to be his clerk. Cormac’s wife grew suspicious, though, and found out through the enquiries of a friend that the ‘boy’ was in fact the illegitimate offspring of Cormac and his maid, with whom he was still involved. Upon the discovery, she immediately withdrew the annual allowance which she had thus far been giving her husband

In response, Cormac started publicly cohabiting with the maid. This caused a great scandal among his neighbours and led to the decline of his legal practice, eventually driving him to emigrate to the Carolinas with Mary and Anne. After a rough start in the colonies, Cormac turned merchant and became a well-to-do plantation owner near Charleston. Now raised as a woman, Anne had striking red hair and a fiery temper to match; it was later put about by her detractors that she killed a servant maid with a knife when she flew into a rage, and also that when a young man attempted to rape her, she beat him up so badly that ‘he lay ill of it a considerable Time’.

Given her now considerable dowry, Anne’s father expected her to make a good match, but she disobliged him by marrying an impecunious sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny who was ‘not worth a groat’. Bonny had probably hoped to inherit the plantation by marrying Anne, but was disappointed in his expectation when Anne’s father disowned her. The couple decided to try their luck in the Bahamas, moving to Nassau, which was a well-known sanctuary for English pirates. Disenchanted with her marriage, Anne began mingling in the local taverns, where she met and became romantically involved with the pirate captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham. He induced her to run away and take up the pirate life with him.

John "Calico Jack" Rackham
John “Calico Jack” Rackham

It is at this point that Mary Read enters the story. She joined forces with Anne and Rackham, possibly when stealing a ship from Nassau harbour. The three of them, along with a pirate crew, spent the next few years sailing around Jamaica, capturing ships and gaining much treasure thereby. From now on, the fates of Anne and Mary were to remain intertwined. Both took part in combat alongside the men, and the accounts of their exploits present them as highly competent and respected by their shipmates. It was said of them that ‘in Times of Action, no Person[s]…were more resolute, or ready to Board or undertake any Thing that was hazardous’. Their true gender was known only to each other and John Rackham. Johnson gives the following account of the discovery of Mary’s true gender:

[Mary’s] Sex was not so much as suspected by any Person on Board, till Anne Bonny, who was not altogether so reserved in point of Chastity, took a particular liking to her; in short, Anne Bonny took her for a handsome young Fellow, and for some Reasons best known to herself, first [revealed] her Sex to Mary Read; Mary Read…being very sensible of her own Incapacity that Way, was forced to come to a right Understanding with her, and so to the great Disappointment of Anne Bonny, she let her know she was a Woman also; but this Intimacy so disturb’d Captain Rack[h]am, who was the Lover and Gallant of Anne Bonny, that he grew furiously jealous, so that he told Anne Bonny, he would cut her new Lover’s Throat, therefore, to quiet him, she let him into the Secret also.

One unlucky day in October 1720, Rackham’s ship was attacked by a Captain Jonathan Barnet, who had obtained a license from the Governor of Jamaica to hunt and capture pirates. The ship was quickly disabled by a volley of fire and boarded by Barnet’s men. It seems that it was left to Anne, Mary and one other crew member to put up a fight; apparently the rest of the pirates were incapacitated by a heavy rum-drinking session, and in no state to resist capture. When Read demanded that her crewmates to come up and fight like men, and received no response, she allegedly fired into the hold in anger, killing one of the men.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Anne Bonny and Mary Read

It was of course only a matter of time before Barnet’s crew eventually overcame the women. Rackham surrendered, and he and his crew were brought to trial in Spanish Town, Jamaica, where they were sentenced to hang for acts of piracy. According to Johnson, Anne’s last words to Rackham were, ‘had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog’.

Mary and and Anne managed to delay their executions by ‘pleading the belly’; this was an English legal custom that allowed pregnant convicts to give birth before being executed. Mary, however, died of a violent fever while in prison, and as there is no record of the burial of her baby, she probably died while pregnant. There is no historical record either of Bonny’s release or execution, which has fed speculation that she escaped in some way. Whether she died in prison, under the hangman’s noose, or much later, what we can say for certain is that Anne Bonny and Mary Read lived extraordinary lives for women of their time.


Further reading

This was possibly the hardest blog post I’ve ever written in terms of gathering reliable information. Even discounting the obviously suspicious sites (assassinscreed.wikia.com, badassoftheweek.com), such usually reliable sources as Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Smithsonian Magazine have wildly differing accounts of the two women’s lives.

In the end, I decided to go back to the original source we have about them, namely Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. It very likely lacks reliability in itself, and so anything written about Read and Bonny should probably taken with a tablespoonful of salt, but it’s probably preferable to a version of the story which has been filtered through hundreds of websites.

So, you can find A General History of the Pyrates here at Project Gutenberg.

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Before the Revolution: images of secular Iran

Notwithstanding the recent diplomatic thaw between the US and Iran, most people in the West, if asked to envisage the Islamic Republic, would likely see in their mind’s eye a country of angry religious fundamentalists, full of oppressed women swathed in black robes.

While that picture has some elements of truth, what is perhaps not so well-known in the West is that for much of the 20th century, Iran was a secular regime in which women wandered the streets of Tehran in miniskirts. This, from a country where state television currently forbids showing musicians in the act of playing instruments, as it is supposedly damaging to public morals.

This is not to say that Iran was an ideal country; far from it. The Shah of Iran was unpopular and autocratic, using the country’s oil revenues to fund his lavish lifestyle. Political dissent was not tolerated. Great swathes of the country remained poor, conservative, and illiterate – in fact, one of the current regime’s greatest achievements has been in raising literacy standards so that literacy for women aged 15-24 now stands at 97.70%, as opposed to 42.33% before the 1979 Revolution.

Yet notwithstanding these caveats, Iranian society (especially in urban areas) became modernised and westernised to an extent unimaginable today. Echoing the spirit of Ataturk’s modernising reforms in Turkey after World War One, the Iranian shahs were determined to turn Iran into a nationalistic, militaristic, secular and westernised country by hook or by crook. To that end, women were actually forbidden to wear the veil in 1936, were granted suffrage in 1963, and attained high positions in government and the judiciary.

Below, I have collected a number of Iranian photographs dating from the 1930s to 1970s which capture something of the spirit of this brave new world.

Magazine cover
Magazine cover

girls reading

POI_0298_Nevit

fairground ride

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The board of directors of a women's rights association in Tehran (1923-1933)
The board of directors of a women’s rights association in Tehran (1923-1933)
Magazine cover
Magazine cover

25Bahman1

Iran Air hostesses
Iran Air hostesses

picnic

Female parliamentarians in mid-1970s Tehran
Female parliamentarians in mid-1970s Tehran

flares

beach

POI_0304_Nevit

 

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‘Butcher Cumberland’ and the smashing of the Highland clans

Perhaps the most calamitous chapter in all Scottish history was opened when Charles Edward Stuart, more commonly referred to as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, decided to invade Scotland in 1745 in hopes of regaining the British crown. Charles Stuart was either the ‘Young Pretender’ or the legitimate heir to the British throne, depending on whether one’s sympathies lay with the Hanoverian dynasty or the Stuarts, the latter having lost the throne to George I in 1714. Supporters of the Stuart claim to the throne were known as Jacobites. They could be found all over Europe – the Pope, for one, wished to see a Catholic British monarch – but Jacobitism was especially strong in Scotland, from where the Stuart dynasty originated. The Highlands and Islands, in particular, were full of Jacobites. It was consequently to the Highland clans that Charles first turned to for support, upon landing on the Scottish coast with just a few thousand soldiers. Perhaps out of their ancient sense of feudal loyalty, Highland chieftains sent men in their hundreds to swell the ranks of the Jacobite army, although a number of canny chieftains hedged their bets by sending men to fight both for Charles and George.

Charles Edward Stuart, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745
Bonnie Prince Charlie, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745

Initially, the Rising of 1745 seemed to be going very well for the Jacobites, with a decisive victory against British forces at the Battle of Prestonpans, and the unopposed takeover of Edinburgh. However, Charles, flushed with his first taste of victory, made the great mistake of pressing on into English territory instead of consolidating power in Scotland. Much of his Highland army was made up of farmers, not fighters, and as the months dragged on, the army experienced desertions as men slunk away to look after their farms and families. Charles Stuart and his army got as far south as Derby, but then began an ignominious retreat back to Scotland. Charles Stuart lay low in Edinburgh over the winter of 1745/46, gathering strength and waiting for his relation, the French king Louis XV, to send him desperately needed funds.

By this time, George II had put his youngest son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, in charge of the British troops who were deployed to crush the Jacobite rebels. Cumberland was of an age with Charles, but unlike Charles, he was an experienced soldier, having fought campaigns in Flanders and Germany. He recognised that one of the problems which beset British forces was the fear that set in at the sight of the infamous Highland Charge, in which thousands of wild-looking kilted Highlanders ran shrieking towards British lines. Cumberland therefore trained his soldiers to hold their ground until the Highlanders got close enough that they could be mown down by cannon and gunfire. This tactic worked to devastating effect when Cumberland’s army met the Jacobites on the field of Culloden, near Inverness, in April 1746. The British obtained a resounding victory, and Charles fled to France, never again to return to Scotland.

1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden
A very orderly 1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden

After Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland was hailed in much of England, and even in parts of lowland Scotland, as a patriotic hero. The University of Glasgow awarded Cumberland an honorary doctorate, and Parliament granted him a staggering income of £25,000 per annum. A thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral that included the first performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, composed especially for Cumberland, which contains the anthem ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’ (incidentally, the tune of the hymn ‘Thine be the Glory’). By contrast, Cumberland was seen by Jacobites and his English Tory opponents as a cruel and vindictive man, and awarded the nickname ‘Butcher Cumberland’. His terrible reputation sprang, however, not so much from the events at Culloden as from his violent reprisals in the Highlands following Culloden.

Cumberland stayed in Scotland for several months, establishing himself at Fort Augustus (which was in fact named after him). He sent out troops all over the Highlands, with orders to kill anyone suspected of having been in the Jacobite army. In practice, many Scots who had taken no active part in the Rising were targeted; even women and children were driven out of their homes and murdered. The Highland economy was ravaged, as farms were razed to the ground and thousands of cattle rounded up and stolen. Even after Cumberland left for London in triumph, Highlanders were left to suffer the ongoing depredations of British soldiers. The resultant devastation almost certainly precipitated the economic and social crises which eventually led thousands of Highlanders to emigrate to America.

'The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant'. 1746
‘The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant’. English pamphlet, 1746

In an age when long-distance communications took weeks or months, the actions of Cumberland’s army were presumably not individually sanctioned by King George, but the purpose behind them was nevertheless supported by the full force of British law. Legislation was passed to ensure that a Jacobite rising never happened again, by forcibly integrating the Highlands into the mainstream of British society. To this end, land was taken away from Jacobite rebels and given to those who had remained loyal to the Crown. The 1746 Act of Proscription outlawed the wearing of traditional Highland dress such as kilts and tartans. Repeat offenders were liable to be transported to the colonies as indentured servants. The Act also forbade the carrying of weapons; Samuel Johnson remarked of this that ‘the last law by which the Highlanders are deprived of their arms, has operated with efficacy beyond expectations…the arms were collected with such rigour, that every house was despoiled of its defence’. To a traditionally warlike society which still revered the warrior hero, depriving men of their weapons must have been a terrible psychological blow.

The Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act of 1746 had more far-reaching effect in that it abolished the traditional judicial rights afforded to a Scottish clan chief. Universal royal jurisdiction was thereby extended throughout Scotland, in an attempt to encourage closer union with England. It was argued in Parliament that to abolish the rights of clan chiefs to judge civil and criminal cases among their dependants would increase the allegiance of ordinary Scots to the British throne, as they would both depend on the Crown to obtain justice, and fear the retribution of the Crown. Clan chiefs were also stripped of their ancient feudal right to call men to arms. The cumulative result of these military depredations and punitive laws was, as Professor Rab Houston has argued, the destruction of ‘the social nexus of the clan that was at the heart of Highland society’.

"After Culloden - Rebel Hunting" - John Seymour Lucas (1884)
“After Culloden – Rebel Hunting” – John Seymour Lucas (1884)

‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is commonly remembered as a patriotic hero who fought valiantly against the Hanoverian usurpers in order to preserve Scottish independence and culture, only to have his campaign meet a tragic end at the brutal hands of the British. Brutal the British forces may have been, but the fact remains that Charles’ reckless attempt to reclaim his throne actually plunged Scotland into even deeper chaos and precipitated the death of the Highland clan system which many loyal Highlanders believed he had come to protect. This sentiment is perhaps best expressed by the Jacobite commander Lord Elcho, who, on seeing Charles fleeing the field at Culloden, leaving his troops to be massacred, apparently cursed him as ‘an Italian coward and a scoundrel’.

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Creole women in the British imagination

One consequence of the expansion of European colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries was that many Europeans came into closer contact with African peoples as the slave trade boomed alongside the plantations of the West Indies and the American colonies. With European planters and their slaves living in close proximity, it was inevitable that mixed-race unions should occur, the children of which were known as ‘mulattos’. For many anxious observers, this development called into question the racial and moral purity of West Indian planters. White Creoles (this being the term used to differentiate West Indians of European descent from white people living in Europe) became a much-maligned group in literature and the popular imagination, particularly in Britain.

 

18th-century mulatto women of mixed descent
18th-century mulatto women

The everyday experience of white Creoles in the West Indies was certainly very different from that of white people living in Britain, but differences in personal character were much exaggerated by British commentators. Notably, the diaries, histories and travelogues written by British people in the West Indies tended to reserve special criticism for white Creole women. A web of mainly negative assumptions and stereotypes grew up around Creole women, which deeply influenced their reception in Britain, whether in person or in literature (see for instance the treatment of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre).

“The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos”
One longstanding stereotype about white Creole women was that they were cruel and autocratic. Edward Long, author of History of Jamaica (1774), believed that Creole women developed a temper which would frighten away even the most obliging of spouses ‘whose misfortune it may be to be linked in the nuptial bonds’. Maria Nugent, wife of the governor of Jamaica from 1801-1806, said that

‘The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos; they never speak but in the most imperious manner to their servants, and are constantly finding fault. By nature they are arrogant people…and quick to anger. They give orders with great authority so that their underlings tremble and shake every time they are called and asked to do something. They are ill-tempered, harsh, sour-looking and quite severe towards anyone subordinate to then. They are nasty and lazy, which is why they call anyone a slave whom they observe being industrious’.

A white Creole plantation mistress angrily rebukes her household slaves (1837)
A white Creole plantation mistress angrily rebukes her household slaves (1837)

British observers thought that this behaviour stemmed from the way Creole girls were raised in the West Indies. Nugent explained it by the fact that Creole children were usually raised not by their mothers, but by a bevy of slaves who were ordered to obey the child’s every whim. The result, as Maria contended, was that children were:

‘…allowed to eat every thing improper, to the injury of their health, and are made truly unamiable, by being most absurdly indulged. Since the native Whites, or Creoles, have been accustomed from childhood onward to be served by slaves, as well as to give those same slaves orders, they, therefore, become aware quite early of their external superiority over those poor creatures. From there, the transition to pride and a domineering character is quick and easy. Neither does the example which they witness on all sides in the treatment of slaves by others lead to the development of humanitarian sentiments’.

As the anti-slavery movement gained steam in Britain, the stereotype of the cruel Creole woman was exploited in abolitionist propaganda. Children’s stories such as The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale for Young People (1818) played on popular Creole stereotypes in order to evoke sympathy for mistreated slaves. In this particular morality tale, a young Creole girl named Matilda is sent to England following her father’s death. She is portrayed as a spoilt child who treats her female slave companion in a cruel and derogatory manner. Gradually, however, Matilda is transformed by the English characters into a humble and compassionate child who understands that slavery is an evil in the sight of God and man. At the end of the novel, Matilda exclaims that ‘European children know everything, but I am little better than a negro; I find what your mamma said was very true – I know nothing at all’.

“Mrs. C. is a perfect Creole, says little, and drawls of that little”

In The Barbadoes Girl, Matilda is sent to England for her education. Many planter families did send their daughters to expensive British boarding schools, primarily in order to acquire social polish and suitable husbands. Although the education offered to girls in most British schools was narrow by today’s standards, contemporary British observers felt that their system was superior to the West Indies. Educational opportunities for girls in the West Indies were in fact very limited. Every now and again, perhaps, a school would be established by a British schoolteacher who had moved to the West Indies in search of adventure, freedom or financial security. J.B. Moreton, author of the 1793 work West India Customs and Manners, thought that such schools, with ‘proper English masters and mistresses’, were desperately needed, as British visitors argued that the lack of education made Creole women vacuous, ignorant and idle. Edward Long was particularly concerned that by failing to develop their ‘excellent talents’, Creole women would not attract husbands due to their ‘gross ignorance’.

The developmental influence of black slaves on white Creole girls was thought to be particularly iniquitous. Moreton deplored the behaviour of ‘those who receive their education amongst negro women, and imbibe great part of their dialect, principles, manners and customs’; ‘cultural deterioration’ was experienced as a result of ‘constant intercourse’ with black slaves. Maria Nugent thought that white Creole women were ‘ninnies’, and claimed that she was incapable of enjoying intellectual conversation with them.  She criticised their lack of education and described a certain Mrs. C. as ‘a perfect Creole, [she] says little, and drawls of that little, and has not an idea beyond her own [plantation]’.

Lady Maria Nugent, with her husband and children
Lady Maria Nugent, with her husband and children: the model of virtuous British domesticity

Nugent found the different speech pattern of Creole women especially grating, complaining that those who had not been educated in England ‘speak a sort of broken English, with an indolent drawling out of their words, that is very tiresome if not disgusting’. She gave as example a Mrs. S. who would regularly say “dis, dat, and toder” (this, that and the other), and a lady who, in response to Nugent’s observation that the air was much cooler than usual, answered “yes ma’am, him rail-ly too fra-ish. Moreton also mocks the Creole speech pattern; he recounts dining out on one occasion, where upon asking one girl if she would like some turkey, she replied ‘tank you sir, with all my hawt’.

“Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men”

British observers commonly described Creole women as immoral, possessing pronounced lascivious tendencies. Moreton maintained that women who lived in Jamaica from their infancy amounted to little more than ‘ambitious, flirting play-things’. He was shocked at their behaviour at home and found that ‘if you surprise them [during the day]…you will find [them]…on a clumsy, greasy sofa, in a dirty confused hall…with a parcel of black wenches…singing obscene and filthy songs, and dancing to the tunes’. A common saying had it that ‘Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men [sic]’. Worst of all, Creole women were thought to completely neglect religion; Moreton said that instead of going to church, they sat at home learning ‘jilting, intrigues, and scenes of obscenity’.

Creole women engage in lewd dancing, in "A Grand Jamaica ball! or the Creolean hop a la muftee" (c. 1800)
Creole women engage in sexually provocative dancing. – “A Grand Jamaica ball! or the Creolean hop a la muftee” (c. 1800)

White Creole women were, moreover, believed to be indolent and incapable of amusing themselves in any rational manner. Bryan Edwards, author of an 1807 history of the West Indies, remarked that ‘except in the exercise of dancing, in which they [Creole women] delight and excel, they have no amusements or an avocation to impel them to much exertion of either body or mind’. Their idle disposition was thought to result from their dependence on slaves to perform even the most menial tasks. One British cartoon portrays a Creole woman sitting at an upstairs window calling to her slave, demanding that the slave come up to her room and take her head in from the window. As a result of such slothfulness, the very voices of Creole women would become ‘soft and spiritless’, with their every movement betraying ‘langour and lassitude’. Writers conjured up domestic scenes of indolence and  impropriety: ‘we may see in some of these places, a very fine young woman awkwardly dangling her arms, with the air of a negro servant lolling almost the whole day upon beds or settees…her dress loose, and without stays [without corsets – this being a signal of loose virtue]’.

The historian Jon Sensbach, while eschewing the moral judgments of earlier writers, does write of the planters’ daily schedule that it:

‘…could not be said to be taxing. They slept late each morning, rose for a bit of light work – women sewed, men tended to business – then, exhausted after the midday meal, they napped for an hour in their hammocks, fanned to sleep by a slave waving a palm branch. Afternoon tea was followed by card games lasting long into the night, the men often repairing as well to a tavern for extended bouts of billiards. Observing this routine, some European writers concluded that planters, particularly Creoles, were a feeble lot, enervated by climate and luxury, torpid of spirit and physical energy except in sexual excess, indolent and cruel.’

Creole men and women being drunk and disorderly. - "Cigar smoking society in Jamaica" (1802)
Creole men and women engaging in drunken debauchery. – “Cigar smoking society in Jamaica” (1802)

 

As Sensbach remarks, many Britons attributed the supposed indolence and lewdness of Creole women to the climate in which they grew up. The idea was that while British women were as cool and moderate as the British climate, Creole women were influenced by the tropical humidity and lush abundance of the West Indies. Edward Long thought that in the West Indies, ‘women attain earlier to maturity and sooner decline, than in the Northern climates’. Moreton wrote that ‘Creole ladies, who have been properly educated and polished in England from their infancy in polite schools…[are] no doubt, as prudent, chaste and fine women as any in the world, save only what difference of climate produces’. Thus – unfortunately for Creole women – even with the best education, their propensity for improper conduct still remained, due to the exotic West Indian climate.


Further reading

Barbara Hofland, The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale For Young People (1818)
Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (1774)
J. B. Moreton, West India Customs and Manners (1793)
Philip Wright (ed.), Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801-1805  (2000)

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Toilet soap, cleanliness, and imperialism

Soap, in some form or other, has been used by humans for millennia, with the oldest surviving products dating back to the ancient Babylonian period. Come the Industrial Revolution and the growth of mass consumption, distinct brands were formulated and aggressively marketed. Yet how could an advertisement for something as everyday as soap possibly be exciting, or indeed distinctive?

 

Prominent manufacturers such as Pears’ Soap (still in existence today) tried every advertising angle when promoting their products. Pears’ depicted the most famous actress of the day holding a bar of their soap; they paid a leading pre-Raphaelite artist for the right to use his material in an advertisement; and they tapped into dominant narratives of racist imperialism in order to sell as much soap as possible. Their most famous advertising image is probably Millais’ whimsical painting, Bubbles, and their most infamous is the 1884 advertisement showing a white child scrubbing away the ‘blackness’ from another child, which appears jolly delighted with the result.

Bubbles: Millais' painting used to advertise Pears' Soap
Bubbles: Millais’ painting used to advertise Pears’ Soap
A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White
A Pears’ Soap advertisement based on the fable ‘Washing the Blackamoor White’
More overtly political messages could also be found in Pears’ Soap advertisements. The concept of the White Man’s Burden – the duty of the superior white race to civilise the black savages – is illustrated in an advertisement from the 1890s in which spreading cleanliness is used as a justification for imperialism. The text reads: “The first step towards lightening the White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilisation advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.”
 Pears' Soap advert

 

A contemporary advertisement for an American brand, Ivory Soap, follows along in much the same vein, caricaturing Native Americans and featuring a cheery poem:

 

Said Uncle Sam: “I will be wise,
And thus the Indian civilize:
Instead of guns, that kill a mile,
Tobacco, lead, and liquor vile,
Instead of serving out a meal,
Or sending Agents out to steal,
I’ll give, domestic arts to teach,
A cake of IVORY SOAP to each.

 

“Before it flies the guilty stain,
The grease and dirt no more remain;
‘Twill change their nature day by day,
And wash their darkest blots away.
They’ll turn their bows to fishing-rods,
And bury hatchets under sods [earth],
In wisdom and in worth increase,
And ever smoke the pipe of peace;
For ignorance can never cope
With such a foe as IVORY SOAP.”

A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White

 

An even more preposterous Ivory Soap advertisement from 1888 reads as follows:

 

“We once were factious, fierce, and wild.
To peaceful arts unreconciled;
Our blankets smeared with grease and stains
From buffalo-meat and settlers’ veins.
Through summer’s dust and heat content,
From moon to moon unwashed we went;
But IVORY SOAP came like a ray
Of light across our darkened way.

 

“And now we’re civil, kind, and good,
And keep the laws as people should.
We wear our linen, lawn, and lace
As well as folks with paler face.
And now I take, where’er we go,
This cake of IVORY SOAP to show
What civilized my squaw and me,
And made us clean and fair to see”.
The great irony is, of course, that the Native Americans are depicted as anything but ‘fair to see’; they are grotesque, bestial parodies.

 

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