‘Those Vagabond Quakers’

David Hitchcock

 

Articles are funny things. Sometimes the material for a research article comes at you sideways, winking slyly up from manuscript pages interleaved with your primary quarry. Other times, you get both an idea and material generously handed to you. There’s a story behind every article, not just of the author and their interests, arguments, talents, and evidence, but of the many people who inform that article’s creation, who read drafts, suggest avenues of inquiry, edit work, and serve as indispensable support in this collective labour of knowledge production and dissemination that we undertake. We may often feel like isolated islands of specialisation, but the ways that we work together to produce even the most individuated forms of research surely suggest our connections are rather more peninsular in shape.

The story of the gestation of my recent publication in Cultural and Social History, on the intriguing intersection between religious radicalism and vagrancy during the Interregnum, is in no small part a story about how helpful Professor Bernard Capp is. Not that a ton of other folks who assisted me with the piece, or heard versions of it, or read it in different forms aren’t themselves amazing academics, they definitely are, and readers can see their collective influence (and writings!) at work in the finished piece I hope. But I got the idea for this piece essentially handed to me on a platter, by a generous, considerate, grounded senior academic who has a practised eye, nay a specialism, for finding exceptional stories in everyday living. Bernard assuredly could have produced his own interpretation of this topic at basically any point in the last eight years with a skill I’ll be lucky to manage decades from now.

During the latter stages of his research into England’s Culture Wars (OUP 2012), Professor Capp happened across several intriguing cases of local Quakers, often women, being punished as vagrants during the 1650s and as it happens I was writing up my PhD on vagrancy at Warwick at the time. I’m sure the many other students who have benefitted from Bernard’s advice and suggestions will recognize this next bit: I eventually had a well-populated email folder, you see, titled ‘Sources from Bernard’, chock full of gentle emails about this or that example of Quakers being punished as vagrants and considered (and quite correct) thoughts on why the practice ceased so abruptly at the Restoration.

With a bit of time to spare and interest firmly piqued, I took a short trip down to Friends House on Euston Road in search of vagrant Quakers in 2012. I was introduced there to some of my favourite sources and even some of my favourite early modern people; the fiery twenty-something Edward Burrough, yelling at Cromwell in a letter in 1656 about the mistreatment of his co-religionists; Barbara Blaugdone, herself punished as a vagrant while proselytising, whose writings to Margaret Fell contained a religious intensity I’d not encountered so directly ever before: ‘i have seen i have seen i have seen’ the Truth, the Light and the Glory, she haltingly wrote, in a short letter that shows both her relative lack of formal education and status but also her uncompromising spirituality. Blaugdone, like many of the first Friends, proved her conviction repeatedly and at real danger to her own wellbeing: during a stay in Exeter a local official ‘whipt me till Blood ran down my back, and I never startled at a blow’. Archive trips have a way of making a project ‘real’, they centre you and give you a clear corpus to work with, a specialist literature to interrogate, and having now been introduced to these extraordinary individuals and their records first-hand, I was hooked.

Though this project always felt a little bit like an aside, I also ended up discovering a very straight-forward reason why I absolutely had to write it all up: the clear majority of vagrants, then and now, never get to contest their definition as such. Their everyday experience might give lie to the basic assumptions about homelessness which were commonplace in early modern English society, their face-to-face interactions with authorities might be humane and charitable. However, most vagrants cannot stage a fightback against the pejorative nature of the language used to describe them, they cannot repurpose the terms. In the early modern period this is generally due to the socially unequal distribution of literacy and writing skill, not to mention gated access to publication routes, time to write, materials to do so, and the many other innumerable economic and social barriers between the poor and self-authorship. But boy could Quakers fight back, and so for this one brief moment in the histories of homelessness and spatial nonconformity I had an articulate, tightly organised, angry response to the labels of ‘vagabond’, ‘rogue’, ‘sturdy beggar’. Given the appalling one-sidedness of this language generally across, well, most of history really, I knew I needed to highlight this moment in scholarship. How could I not?

When I got around to finally writing up this article in 2017, I thought often on how generous Bernard had been with his time, material, and considered advice, not just on this project but on several others too. I was casting around for a way to open the piece, and I knew I wanted to speak obliquely to how helpful Bernard had been, and that he was one of the first people I wanted to cite in the text. I hit on Ralph Robinson and his ‘spiritual vagrants’ line, I think one of the clearest summarising phrases in the entire piece, and, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, a quote I chased down straight from my email folder full of choice Capp tidbits. I never would have written about those vagabond Quakers at all without the guidance and generous scholarship of others, and it cheers me greatly to imagine an entire network of us out there providing the same generous service to our students and peers day in and day out.

 

Read more in his recent Cultural & Social History article

Social History Society members can access the journal via this website here.

 

Read Bernard Capp’s Research Exchange post on early modern siblings

 

About the author: Dr David Hitchcock is a Senior Lecturer in History at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 (Bloomsbury, 2016) and is currently working on a second book, a history of ‘ending’ poverty in the British Atlantic world, c. 1600-1848. His most recent article is ‘He is the Vagabond without habitation in the Lord’: The Representation of Quakerism as Vagrancy in Protectorate England, 1650-1660′, Cultural and Social History, vol. 15, no. 1 (2018), pp. 21-37.

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