1665: London's last great plague - a video lecture

The mid-1660s plague outbreak in London is often conflated with the 1666 Great Fire in the public imagination, as well as in more than a few history books too. Here's a rather fine lecture on the 1665 outbreak, from Vanessa Harding of Gresham College:

The Prospect of the City, my 1666-set novel, is available here

Market stall book finds

One of the many upsides of living in a smallish market town is, well, the market. Louth in Lincolnshire has three a week: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. So on Wednesday, I was mooching through, about not-doing-much-writing business. Once you get to know the market, you know the people and the regular stalls; new arrivals and no-shows are cause for comment.

So, there was some chit-chat about the rumour that a new tea van would be pitching up soon; the lack of a consistent tea van has been an ongoing source of much grumbling since Stan hung up his apron a few years ago. Other talk centred around the lack of development of the market square pub, the Mason's Arms, which has been dark since August Bank Holiday, despite assertions of a refit and a swift reopening.

A few purchases: a loaf of cheese-topped bread, some bacon. No DVDs today from the music and movies stall though. And then a browse over the books. The fella on the book stall does most of his trade in Lee Childs and in Cooksonesque sagas of rosy-cheeked millowners daughters done wrong by the wastrel son of the local landowner, though one end of the stall is given over to historical-related stuff. It's always worth a look. On Wednesday, he had a copy of a 1991 publication called Land, People and Landscape: Essays on the HIstory of the Lincolnshire Region.  

It's gold. Articles on the Green Man in rural churches, enclosure systems, abandoned villages, playground skipping rhymes, medieval pottery finds, imports into the region, on pan tiles, 17th century gravestones, Regency wanted posters for the Grimsby area and the like. Naturally, I bought it.

This is part of the thing about having a mind that is attuned to possible sources of inspiration. There's a lifetime's folklore and local story stuff here potentially. And as I'm a 17th-century nerd, articles titled "Rural furnishings of the seventeenth century" are like catnip.

This isn't the kind of book I might have bought online, but having had a chance for a quick outdoor browse, I was hooked. All the "look inside" pages on Amazon in the world, handy though they might be, can't really compare to a riffle through the index on a blustery February morning. Anyway, I went off, purchase in hand, got a coffee and spent the thick end of an hour cooing at the pictures. Here's a few by way of example.

The last one's my favourite, I think. The bed's a roll-out; it fits back under the four-poster. Think of the implications of that. The fella's taken his hat off, either to show some manners, to get in closer, or else to hide trouserly fluctuation, the impetuous fool. On the left-hand side, look close. There's a little face poking out from under the covers. 

Plus, you pick up little bits of language. A brandreth, for example, is another word for trivet. Who knew?

Records exist of household good not least because probate inventories from the time record what was in the home at the time of the householder's death; something like a third of householders of the time have extant records, so there's scope to make some generalisations about what folk had. However, small items are generally not recorded, except as "things seen and unseen", "trumpery" or even "lumber".

Lots of good stuff, then. And all from a market stall.   


Bawcocks and beanbellies: on 17th century century slang

A little side-project (I've got a few of these, it seems) of mine is compiling a dictionary of seventeenth-century slang. This is partly for its own sake (it's interesting as heck) and partly for research purposes. Not, though, as one might imagine, for use as a writing tool in and of itself, but for context.

Too much period folderol, and you run the risk of, at best, showcasing research for its own sake ( the "I've read it and made notes dammit, so I'm going to use it" school of writing) or, and perhaps worse,  making the text all but unintelligible to anyone other than period experts and the worryingly patient.

What the language specific to any point in time gives you, though, is a sense not just of the way words were used, but of the contexts in which slang developed. You get a peek into the crimes and the prejudices, the working lives and the enthusiasms, the obsessions and the mindsets of the age. You also get a feel for the speed of language mutation. In the 21st century, slang burns itself out fast: instant dissemination ensures that the language of a year loses its novelty fast, and we, addicted to above all the new, crave the fresh.

Language moved slower before social media, before TV and almost universal ability to read, before radio, before the ubiquity of the printed word. Some of the slang from the Restoration era (and earlier) is still around, and a surprising amount of contemporary insulting and denigrating wordage has its roots in the age. The connections, the shared associations, and the abiding preoccupations link us, through slang - often the unfiltered and thus a truer picture of the time - to the past.

My compilation method is pretty basic and long-winded. It involves a copy of Jonathan Green's Dictionary of Slang, a pen and a ledger, and some time. It means reading the dictionary alphabetically and writing down longhand entries that are specific to the 17th century.

Yeah, I know.

What you get, though - partly through the exercise and partly through the time it takes to make notes on each - is a better sense of the period. It's hugely useful. And yep, the occasional word might make its way into a story, but better and handier than that, the feeling for the history is magnified. As someone who's written one seventeenth century-set novel (and with others on the horizon) any tactic that gets you back to the past is to be welcomed.

By way of example, a few snippets from the early pages. These are my notes but the work derives from Green's Dictionary of Slang - a book that's pretty much essential for anyone with a love of words. Mine's an old edition picked up in a branch of The Works, though there's a three-volume set from 2010 that's a thing of beauty. 

an admiral of the narrow seas: a drunk who vomits over their neighbour at table

an affidavit man: a professional witness - someone who will swear to anything

allicholy: melancholy through drink

angler: a thief who uses a hook and a pole        

arse-worm: a small person

badger-legged: having one leg shorter than the other

a barleybun gentleman: a rich man who chooses to live poorly

barnacle: a toady, a hanger-on

barnacles: spectacles

basket-scrambler: someone who lives on charity

bawcock: a fine fellow

beanbelly: someone from Leicestershire

beau trap: either a fixed card game, or else a badly-laid paving stone, the kind that would splash one's finery

belly-up: pregnant

bingo: brandy (a bingo-boy is a man who loves brandy, and a bingo-mort a woman likewise)

 Halfway through the Bs and you get a feel for a world obsessed with sex, food, vomiting, illness, thievery, swindles and cons, insults, mockery, taking the mickey out of rustics, and so on. Maybe not that much has changed in the last 350 years or so...