Ralph Tailor's Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague Hardcover – 16 Aug 2011
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Shortlisted in the non-fiction category for the 2012 Portico Prize for Literature, as given by the Portico Library and Gallery.
--Portico Prize for Literature"The Portico Library and Gallery" (09/20/2012)
About the Author
Keith Wrightson is the Townsend Professor of History at Yale University and the author of Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain. He lives in Guilford, CT.
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If I had to describe Ralph Tailor's Summer in a single word it would be "charming." It is the little details that make it so, from the opening anecdote in the prologue, – with accompanying illustration – of how a signature drew the historian Keith Wrightson's attention to the eponymous Mr. Tailor and this project; through the facsimiles and skillful integration of the beautiful hand-drawn maps of seventeenth century Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the aptly chosen quotes as chapter titles, to the glimpses into the daily lives – and deaths – of the people in England at the time. Readers who interpret charming to mean a quick breezy read, however, should beware. For beneath that veneer of charm lies an impressive work of both scholarship and craftsmanship with many lessons to impart to readers from different levels and walks of academia.
The book is a work of microhistory, a word that to me has been virtually synonymous with the author Keith Wrightson, who along with his co-author David Levine, brought it to English social history. Here he brings it to the history of disease. Microhistory is not so much a separate branch or school of history, as Wrightson points out, as a "distinctive approach to history" which predates the label, the latter having become a popular term since the later 1970s. Like microeconomics, it focuses on the small scale – of individual people, families, communities or villages – rather than big movements or trends. But there is another feature to microhistory which distinguishes it as a way of doing history. This feature is the "close scrutiny of sources," or "an intensity of focus" which in turn, leads to an attention to details overlooked in many bigger histories. The main aim of microhistory then is to gain access to and reconstruct what is often lost if not inaccessible, namely, the experience of the common people in a given moment or time in history. It is about illuminating the history of lived experience.
Wrightson achieves this goal admirably, gaining and subsequently granting access to the common man's lot during Newcastle plague of 1636 through the surviving documents that were generated during that epidemic. These documents are wills, which the dying typically dictated to a professional writer of wills –the scrivener in the title – and the inventories of the goods belonging to the deceased, also undertaken by members of the same profession; this book focuses on that subset of these documents which bear the signature of Ralph Tailor. According to Wrightson, Tailor's "sheer presence in the surviving probate records of the epidemic is striking," in and of itself. In contrast to other professional scriveners whose names appear in up to a maximum 3 wills or inventories, Tailor's distinctive signature – "arresting in its extravagance" of loops and curls – appears in 20 of the 54 records (wills and inventories) that have survive. By connecting these records to others such as parish registers of deaths during the plague, Wrightson take us on a journey in the footsteps of Ralph Tailor who followed the plague as it wound its devastating way through the streets and homes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
The book progresses through twelve chapters – and I've deliberately said "progresses through" rather than "is divided into" to give some sense of the rhythm of Wrightson's narrative. As he describes it, the book derives it's overall structure from the course of the plague through the city, and by the activities of Ralph Tailor in relation to the epidemic. It begins with some background information on plague writing in general (Chapter 1), the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early 17th century – its demographic distribution, economics and layout and architecture – in the second chapter before moving on to focus on the specifics of the progression and effects of the 1636 plague epidemic for the remaining 10 chapters. Early on we learn that Newcastle-upon-Tyne was considered as "the Eye of the North," and "much admired" by the English people in the seventeenth century (p. 11). Wrightson makes good use of such parish records as have survived and contemporary accounts to assess the damage wrought by that plague: While the mortality figures of certain witnesses, most notably a merchant named John Fenwick might well be exaggerated (p. 28), Wrightson argues convincingly that the impression of the epidemic as a swiftly destroying "wildfire" is nevertheless an accurate portrayal of how the disease must have appeared to the people in the city at the time (chapter 3).
Naturally we meet Ralph Tailor again, although given the amount of information Wrightson has gleaned from the wills dictated to him, there is surprisingly little known about this man from before the time he entered his profession (as documented in chapter 5). But Tailor is by no means only denizen of Newcastle that we make our acquaintance with; we also meet the various people whose wills he wrote and notarized – and through them their beneficiaries as well. Amply evident in chapter 11 on "Discords, variances and suites," is the fact that trouble and contention give the historian more to work with than amicable relations among people. To name any individual or their particulars would, to my mind, give readers a very patchy sense of the book, even misrepresent it, because of the way in which Wrightson has integrated the events of the time with his own explorations and interpretation. Rather than tell the readers what they can learn for themselves, I will simply add that most of the people mentioned were ordinary citizens, people whose names we would not recognize. Paradoxically however, there is a familiarity to them. But for the specifics of time and place, we might recognize in them in the folk that we interact with in our daily lives - the grocer, milkman, and cleaning lady. What Wrightson illuminates brilliantly through his analysis and account is how various members of society were connected with one another in myriad ways. Thus, the writings of a single person start to fill in the picture of an entire community at work in a time of disease and adversity. Microhistory at its masterful best.
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