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“Dr. Short and Global Environmental History”

Ruma Chopra, Professor of History at San José State and winner of the 2019 NACBS-Folger Fellowship, on researching at the Folger Shakespeare Library for her forthcoming book, “Before Darwin: Early Modern Transitions in the Understanding of Climate”

Dr. Thomas Short’s nearly 1000-page assessment of the relationship between climates and diseases stands out as a gem in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. Published in 1749, his two-volume history, A general chronological history of the air, weather, seasons, meteors, &c. in sundry places and different times, correlates astronomical and climatic conditions to a variety of diseases in the world by placing hundreds of scattered episodes in one chronological sequence. Dr. Short’s spatial orientation – akin to map-making -  adds a critical dimension to our understanding about the process of globalization, the focus of my book project, “Before Darwin: Early Modern Transitions in the Understanding of Climate.”

We associate the eighteenth and nineteenth century West with plantation slavery, revolutionary upheaval, industrialization, and European colonization across the globe. But this era, which ended with a second European wave of colony-grabbing in Africa and Asia, shared another critical dimension, one that complicates the picture of our typical cast of industrialists and the imperialists. This dimension of empire was so fundamental and obvious as to have passed unnoticed. Put simply, European colonizers in India and Africa, in the Caribbean islands, as well as in Canada, waged a silent war with diseases in unfamiliar climates. In an age before central heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, and other amenities that remove people from the natural world’s direct and immediate influence, people were literally “surrounded” by the natural elements in ways that seem alien to most of us today. Widely-held beliefs about climate’s effects on bodies created worries: Heat and cold could “invade” bodies; they could cause diseases and influence behavior in ways that appeared entirely possible. In the words of  the French hygienist Jean-Christian Boudin, bodies could only adapt by turning “Hottentot in Southern Africa and Eskimo in Antarctica.” This price of acclimatization was too high. Dr. Short’s work, an eighteen-year project which placed diseases as well as earthquakes, hurricanes, and meteors in the same chronological and spatial framework, suggests an exhaustive effort at planetary order, an attempt to impose an intellectual system on inherently untidy phenomenon. 

Thomas Short's table pulls the world into one chronological frame

Ironically, the environment’s central relationship to empire and to early modern thought structures requires excavation and not merely explication. Illuminating this history poses formidable challenges because no records have been preserved with the convenient keyword of “nature” or “climate.” Yet, climate is ubiquitous in documents relating to exploration, nationalisms, missionary expeditions, transplantations of people, military recruitment, and longevity. It appears in personal documents such as love letters and diaries, in shared correspondence such as missionary records, and in widely circulated natural histories. “Before Darwin” involves a creative and exhaustive filtering, a retrieval and an analysis that exposes moments in which climate played an essential role.

Thomas Short describes environmental extremes in Jamaica and Germany for 1688 

This project has taken me to various archives in the Caribbean, as well as in London and Oxford. The collections at the Folger stand out as especially important for conceptualizing the framework of “Before Darwin.” First, because the sources range from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, they allowed me to explore hard-to-prove shifts in cultural emphasis. Second, the variety of sources on hand ­– almanacs, travelogues, calendars, essays on natural history and longevity as well as physicians’ comprehensive histories – provided an avenue to consider climatic metaphors from vantage points not readily available in other archives. Curators, fellows, onsite presentations, and regular tea-and-cookie breaks created a wonderfully rich and collaborative experience.

In a recent review of Alexander von Humboldt’s Selected Writings, Joyce Chaplin rightly notes that  environmental history is not “thrillingly new.” Early modern historians have deeply investigated how ideas about the climate, and the environment generally, shaped the West’s encounters with the world. Charles J. Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967) established why theories of “airs, waters and places” need to be considered in their own right. “Before Darwin” draws upon these foundational efforts to explore how conceptions of human fallibility and even death interconnected with ideas about global climate. Dr. Short’s work points to one of the reigning paradigms used to imagine peoples and places in faraway places: what connected us globally was our frailty to diseases and our vulnerability to catastrophe. 

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Interview with Melissa Glass

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: early modern, essay prize | 0 Comments


Melissa Glass of Dalhousie University, winner of the 2019 NACBS M.A. Essay Prize, tells us about her project, “‘The Rust of Antiquity’? Print Culture, Custom, and the Manorial Court Guidebooks of Early Modern England”

I have a reputation among my friends for being a bit obsessed with manor courts. My twitter handle is even @ManorCourts, for goodness sake (which, yes, is both evidence of my obsession and shameless self-promotion)! Manor courts were local administrative and judicial tribunals in medieval and early modern England that functioned partly as small claims courts and partly as forums to resolve issues that impacted the community—all administrated by the landlord and his steward representative. Usually held twice a year, these courts expected participation from people throughout the manorial community in order to settle minor disputes between tenants (especially regarding debts), create local byelaws (especially to protect communal agricultural resources), and present and punish misdemeanours that disrupted the peace. They also created a public record of customary land transactions, elected local officials, and ensured all obligations to the landlord were met. At their heyday before the Black Death, at least 10,000 of these courts existed throughout England, but they slowly and steadily dwindled as economic and social circumstances changed and other institutions gained power—especially parishes and the petty sessions of the Justices of the Peace. These courts left behind terse entries written in Latin on parchment rolls and books, with very few details regarding the events’ circumstances or the court’s decision-making process. Their quotidian entries with lack of context or explanation make manor court records simultaneously revealing, yet opaque sources.

I first stumbled upon the existence of manor courts at the Lancashire Archives in Preston, England, while I was on a semester studying abroad in the UK as an undergraduate student. It was my first time at an archive, and I was looking for a topic for my honours thesis. I started ordering—almost randomly—the oldest documents in the archive, mostly just for the thrill of handling parchment that was over 450 years old for the first time. My first discovery was the manor court rolls from the Honour of Clitheroe. The challenge of the handwriting and Latin was initially very daunting, but luckily the archive had a published translation of the records, and a new window into the world of early modern England suddenly opened up to me. The squabbles between individuals, the attempts to manage shared resources as a group of neighbours, and the complex arrangements of land sales were not at all what I had expected from this “antique” society. The idea that nearly every community in medieval and early modern England had a public institution where everyday problems could be sorted out and recorded, and that many of these records still existed, simply blew my mind.

My honours undergraduate thesis ultimately became a close examination of the early Elizabethan records of the Honour of Clitheroe, and I am currently completing my master’s thesis on women’s role at a variety of manor courts from 1558 to 1700. I started my master’s program at Dalhousie University by taking a seminar on “Print Culture in Early Modern England” with my supervisor, Dr. Krista Kesselring. In this class, I realized that before I progressed any further with my research I needed a better understanding of what these courts were, how people viewed them at the time, and how they fit into the broader English legal system. I turned to the various manuals that were written for court stewards that provided step-by-step instructions on how to properly run a manor court. These manuals explained whose participation at the courts was expected, what issues were within the courts’ jurisdiction, and added some thoughts on how these courts had come into being. This essay won me the 2019 NACBS MA essay prize—possibly only due to the wonderful wealth of material provided by Early English Books Online. I was particularly interested in a group of manuals written between 1561 to 1666 because they were the first ones written in English as opposed to Latin or French (making them accessible to a wider audience) and they were written during the manor court’s main period of decline. I was much less interested in the authors’ detailed explanations of court procedure than in their brief but illuminating comments on the broader function of the manor courts in English society. I scoured the texts for clues about the authors’ opinions hidden in between dry, legalistic descriptions.

Ultimately, I found that the legal scholars who wrote these guidebooks saw manor courts as a still necessary but old-fashioned form of justice without a clear role in the legal system moving forward. The function of custom and communal memory, so fundamental to local manorial courts, continued to play an important role in the organization of early modern English society, but these unwritten “ancient” customs were increasingly in tension with broader cultural impulses towards codification and uniformity. The authors nevertheless treated manor courts as subjects worthy of study, examining them with sincerity and solemnity as institutions integral to the traditional functioning of the commonwealth and the execution of justice throughout the country. However, these guidebooks helped to articulate an ideal form of court procedure, which, apart from never actually existing in any one court, ultimately hindered the flexibility and localism that had been so central to manor courts’ operation for many centuries. This genre of early modern manorial court guidebooks demonstrates an unusually clear sense of the transition from “medieval” to “modern”.

I am hoping to start a PhD in early modern English history in September 2021, and my research is broadening into a much wider range of topics as I progress. But I believe that focusing on manor courts as an undergraduate and master’s student has helped me to build a stronger foundation of knowledge than many other subjects would have done. In studying manor courts, I have had to become familiar with early modern agricultural practices, the economics of the land market, the social dynamics and politics of landlord-tenant relations, how civil litigation could transfer between jurisdictions, the importance of stewards and lawyers in the countryside, women’s work, and the impact of coverture—and much, much more. Writing my essay on manorial court guidebooks was essential for helping me to develop a holistic understanding of the often-disparate pieces of daily life that were handled by manor courts and place them within the intellectual context of their time. It is truly an honour and so encouraging that this research has been recognized by the NACBS – thank you!

Melissa Glass with fellow NACBS prize winner, Zach Bates of the University of Calgary, at the 2019 NACBS in Vancouver. 


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My NACBS: David Clemis

Posted by StephenJackson under my NACBS | Tags: David Clemis, early modern, spotlight | 0 Comments



This is the second post in our new series designed to introduce and connect NACBS members. Taking our lead from the American Historical Association’s member spotlight posts, we hope to deepen our sense of community through short posts that delve into who we are and what we value. For more information on this new series, contact Blog editor Stephen Jackson at [email protected].

Name and title: David Clemis, Associate Professor of History, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

What are your fields of interest?

British intellectual and cultural history, 1600-1800. More particularly, the history of understandings of moral agency, cognition and identity in “the British enlightenment.” My current work is on the social and cultural history of alcohol use in England, 1600-1830.

What are you currently working on?

I am writing an article on “Galenic medicine” and conceptions of intoxication and addiction in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  This work fits into a larger study of legal and medical understandings of intoxication and addiction in early modern Britain.

Do you have a favorite archive, digital or physical? What about it draws you in? 

Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online are indispensable.  Given that where I live, I can manage only a few weeks per year in relevant physical archives.  Although the Rare Books Room of the present British Library is serviceable and pleasant, one longs for the very different atmospheres of the old round Smirke and north library reading rooms.

What is the most fascinating text, artifact or object you’ve encountered in your work?

I have recently been fascinated by Humphrey Brooke’s Ugieine or a Conservatory of Health (London, 1650). I am intrigued by the striking parallels between Brooke’s conception of the causes and nature of chronic drinking and very recent researchers’ notions of addiction, not as a disease, but rather as more of a matter of habit. Despite the obvious differences in this seventeenth-century “Galenic” physician’s views and modern neuro-scientific models, it is interesting how they both thread together the physiological effects of alcohol, the social context of its consumption, and a degree of moral agency on the part of the chronic drinker. 

What attracted you to this work? Why British Studies?

When I was undergraduate and master’s student there was much excited talk of “postmodernism.” I was rather interested in finding out what “the modern” was and where it had come from before it vanished. That led me to studies of the period 1450 to 1800. Of course, Britain and its history figured conspicuously in most accounts of the development of modernity. Further, as graduate student at the University of Toronto, I found the most interesting and challenging historians generally happened to study Britain: J. M. Beattie; Michael Finlayson; and Trevor Lloyd.

Who most influenced your academic work?

As an undergraduate studying philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Norman Brown and Carlos Prado kindled the conceptual, analytic, and epistemological character of my academic interests. While at Queen’s, the philosopher Michael Tanner, a visiting professor from Cambridge, inspired my passion for the historical study of culture. Those teachers at Queen’s lit a passion for intellectual life that thwarted my family’s intention that I should practice law.  John Beattie at the University of Toronto was an excellent teacher of social history methods, a great model of scholarly rigor and integrity, as well as an indispensable supporter of my career, however, bogged-down it has occasionally been. As a co-supervisor of my doctoral thesis and the indomitable, ebullient leader of the IHR’s “Long Eighteenth-Century Seminar,” Penelope Corfield has been wonderful inspiration for both my teaching and research. 

Less personal but important early influences on the kind of history I try to practice have been the work of E.P. Thompson, Natalie Zemon Davis, Keith Thomas, and Roy Porter. The endeavor to understand values, attitudes, and beliefs within their social contexts is a matter of great interest to me. More recently, in the field of drug and alcohol history, the work of Phil Withington, Mark Hailwood, and James Nicholls has also shaped the direction of my research interests.

Have your academic interests transformed over time?

As a graduate student, I was privileged to have John Beattie and Peter King as supervisors. Under their influence I was much engaged by the social history that developed in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the study of crime and local authority in the eighteenth century. Over time, however, my deep-seated interests in cultural history and the history of ideas have become more pronounced in my teaching and research activity. In 2001, I left England for a job in Western Canada, which meant I was able to spend only a few weeks a year in local archives, the British Library, and the National Archives. Digital versions of printed sources necessarily became by the greatest objects of my study. This has reinforced the intellectual and cultural historical turn in my work. 

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.? 

Addiction is, of course, a matter of much public concern, particularly since the emergence of the opioid crisis in recent years. One hopes that historical studies of the changing conception of chronic drinking and compulsive behavior might enrich contemporary, much vexed, debates over the nature of addiction. More broadly, I hope that this kind of study of historical medical and legal texts, and the understandings they convey of human behavior, moral agency, and personal identity, will constitute some kind of contribution to wider debates within the humanities.

Do you have a favorite text to teach?

Voltaire’s Candide, which I teach in an Enlightenment survey course, is always a lot of fun for students and it nicely engages a variety of course themes. That experience tempts me to try to teach Tristram Shandy as a cultural history text in an eighteenth-century Britain course, but that seems too big a challenge and is best left to colleagues in the English Department.  The Old Bailey Online - The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 is a fabulous resource to use with students because it affords explorations of so many interesting themes. 

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

Worry about how much work I need to get done?? But, I also enjoy cycling and travel. I love reading and seeing Shakespeare performed.


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Finding Margaret Morice

Posted by jaskelly under BISI, Blog | Tags: early modern, eighteenth century, Gender, Scotland, women | 0 Comments


By Dr Deborah Simonton, University of Southern Denmark

I ‘met’ Margaret Morice in 1998. I had just finished writing A History of European Women’s Work.[1] Needing to get into some real primary research and since I was working at Aberdeen University, I asked myself the fairly simple question, ‘What kind of work were women doing in eighteenth-century Aberdeen?’ It was provoked by a number of factors, curiosity not being the least of them.

One of the first steps was a visit to Aberdeen City Archives, one of the best in Scotland. The initial visit was a bit demoralising, because the staff could only suggest the usual finding aids. Undeterred, I trundled through these and found the Register of Apprentices. This produced the first surprise, and was where I first found Margaret. With the exception of one entry for another female baker, she was the only one on record — but in regular entries, between 1776 and 1797, she traded as ‘Margaret Morice and Co., baker in Aberdeen’.[2] This is notable on a number of levels. The bakers, along with the weavers, were seen as the most prestigious of the seven Incorporated Trades in Aberdeen. As their historian insisted:

Notably in Aberdeen, the baking of loaf and biscuit bread has been preserved as a strict monopoly for the men bakers. According to the acts and ordinances of the Baker craft in Aberdeen, women were not allowed to bake any bread, pastry, or pies to be sold in the streets or chops, a restriction that was maintained until the abolition of trading privileges in 1846.[3]

Margaret also traded using her married name, when most Scots women kept their family name. She did so, I believe, because it furthered her commercial position as a widow.

Her husband had not been recorded in the Aberdeen Register of Apprentices, which misled me until I discovered that his apprentices were recorded in the Inland Revenue Apprenticeship Registers. Margaret’s, in contrast, appeared only once at Inland Revenue; all of her apprentices followed his death.[4] As a relatively prominent member of the Incorporated Trades, and their Council representative from time to time, her husband would have paid the stamp duty and ensured that his apprentices were properly recorded. On the one occasion when she did, she had just ended a partnership with a previous apprentice. (She twice entered into such a partnership.) Thus a ‘properly’ registered apprentice may have been essential to retaining the prestige of the business. Over the 30 years that she ran the business herself, Margaret Morice apprenticed 16 boys from the tradesman classes (compared with John’s 12 over 25 years). The apprentice fee paid and the boys’ terms of service compared well with those for male bakers, including John’s, in Aberdeen, Essex, Birmingham and Staffordshire.[5]

The discovery of Margaret Morice sent me on a trail, which I followed alongside other research on Gender in European Towns.[6] In fact, I became addicted to finding Margaret Morice. Since there was little business information available in the archives, I turned to the parish records of births, deaths and marriages, available on microfilm in the Local Studies section of the Public Library. Here I found her birth on 25 August 1718 and the birth of her seven children, including twins, beginning in 1739 and ending in 1750. Through serendipity, tucked in the back of the Council records, I found a notice of John’s burial in January of 1770, when she was 52. These also noted the death of a ‘child of John Morice’ on a couple of occasions. Thinking laterally, I tried, and found the death of four of the children at very young ages. The eldest, David, and the female twin, Barbara, have a bigger part to play in her story. The seventh is still AWOL.

Trying a different line of enquiry, I went to the National Archives of Scotland (now National Records of Scotland), hoping for a will or inventory — no luck. I did however find window- and inhabited house-tax lists, showing her to have paid these through much of the same period that she was taking apprentices. Council Enactment Books added snippets here and there, mostly about John, but clarified that the bakery was well-established, that they owned the property from 1752 and that he was gradually building up a business and political persona. I felt I was coming closer to ‘seeing’ Margaret Morice, but frustratingly still with a great deal of speculation on my side. Gradually her story was becoming more and more visible — but still with gaps and a sense of incompleteness.

A return visit to the Archives, assisted greatly by a Strathmartine Trust grant, turned out to be an epiphanic experience.[7] On arrival, Fiona Musk, the archivist, simply asked what I was trying to do. Not very optimistically, I told her, and then said flippantly, ‘What I would really like to do is find Margaret Morice’, that is, literally locate her in the town. I knew roughly where the business was, but Fiona’s response, ‘I am sure I have seen her name on a map,’ was astonishing after sixteen years of research. A few hours later, she returned with a bundle — and there was Margaret, on the plans for the ‘New Street ‘(now Union Street) — in one of the houses to be demolished.[8] I confess I did a dance in the record office to the amusement of the other four people in the room.

Furthermore, Fiona pulled up the records of saisine, which I had previously been told would be useless. They unfolded the story of the property, from John’s purchase to its sale to the Council in 1800. At first I was perplexed as to who the sellers were: the two boys were named Abercrombie. Through antiquarian books in the Record Office, we identified that they were her grandsons, the sons of her daughter Barbara, who had become the second wife of an esteemed clergyman. This bundle corroborated and clarified the narrative of her son David’s bankruptcy and Margaret’s right to the property.[9] I had simultaneously been reading the Aberdeen Journal for the period, and there, in a notice Margaret Morice placed in 1789, I found her ‘voice’ for the first and only time. Her statement ensured that none of David’s debts were charged to her and asserted her role as baker in Aberdeen.[10] Up to then, all other mentions of her in the press had been oblique: a partner announced the end of a partnership with her; her son asked for a lease for his mother; and lawyers asserted her claim to the property.

There are still other small trails to follow up, but from piecing together an array of disparate records, I have been able to create a picture of her business, which was clearly long-standing and central to the commercial area of Aberdeen. It was also tolerated by the guild and held its own until near her death. Stories of women such as Margaret Morice are the bread and butter of our research; they whet our curiosity and through them we see the lives of towns come alive. This tale is not yet finished. Margaret Morice’s story, taken together with that of other businesswomen, about whom there may be yet less detail, will help us to explore how women’s businesses inflected the character of eighteenth-century towns.

This tale of discovery probably replicates many other searches and journeys made by other historians. Our curiosity leads us on; we get ‘addicted’ to finding answers, not all of which are terribly important. Perseverance and asking the same question, or similar ones, of the records, over and over, or of tangential material and of librarians and archivists is our stock in trade. In an age that prioritises publication — and publication of a particularly designated sort — we must not lose the curiosity and love of the past that drives us; we need to hang on to the wonder and joy of discovery — even with a little dance or two. And we need to keep using our skills, training and insight to solve these little mysteries; they can help solve the big ones.


[1] Deborah Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work, 1700 to the present (London: Routledge, 1998).

[2] Aberdeen City Archives (ACA), Enactment Books, 5. Register of Indentures, 1622-1878, see also Simonton, ‘Margaret Morice’, in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, eds, Elizabeth L. Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds and Rose Pipes (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 272; Simonton, ’Negotiating the Economy of the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Town’ in Katie Barclay and Deborah Simonton, eds, Women in Eighteenth-century Scotland (Ashgate, 2013), 225.

[3] Ebenezer Bain, Merchant and Craft Guilds, A History of the Aberdeen Incorporated Trades (Aberdeen: 1887), 212.

[4] Great Britain, Public Record Office, Board of Inland Revenue. Apprenticeship Regis­ters, 1710-1808, IR1. For John, volumes for 1743-68; for Margaret, 1788.

[5] Simonton, ‘Education and Training’, 341, 352; see also Joan Lane, Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914 (London, 1996), 117.

[6] Gender in the European Town,

[7] See the Strathmartine Trust website on support for Scottish research,

[8] ACA, New Street Trustees, CA/10/1/30 South Entry Plan - Castle Street & Narrow Wynd, 1799

[9] Ibid, CA/13/NStT/5-16 Act ordaining David Morrice jnr to dispone his real & personal estate, 1789.

[10] Aberdeen Journal, 20 July 1789.

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H-Albion is looking for candidates who would like serve as our Book Review Editor for England, Wales, and Scotland, 1540-1689. Applications are invited from scholars specializing in the early modern period. The successful candidate will serve as book review editor for two years and will be responsible for commissioning and editing book reviews.

Please send a cover letter and CV to Jason M. Kelly at [email protected].

Application deadline is 5 May 2010.

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