London, Libraries and Ligaments

Here is London
Home of the brash, outrageous and free
You are repressed
But you’re remarkably dressed
Is it Real?

In this last week my studies took me to the Big Smoke. I was on my way to a family gathering for my parents 40th wedding anniversary and a very old friends stag do the following weekend and thought I should use my time productively and visit the British Library. Like all the best laid plans, this soon changed. But sometimes the best laid plans are wrong and need to be adapted to the surroundings you find yourself in.

As a quick aside I just want to mention a personal thing, but one that i think has historical significance so is valid. To celebrate my parents 40 years of marriage I compiled, with my brother and sister, a book of memories/photos/poems etc from all their friends and family. The task was like a mini PhD in itself, following tip offs as to who would have good material, assessing the sources provided and finally using the best available evidence to show what their relationship was like. After a lot of hard work the result was well received. My only hope now is that in 3 years time I’ll be writing the same thing about my PhD!

So, personal witterings aside, most of my week was dedicated to reading journal articles. I tried for 3 a day and managed to meet the target on all five days. To an outsider that may not sound like a lot, but to properly engage with 130-150 odd pages a day, critique them and think what they are saying in relation to your subject is pretty tough going. The article that has really stuck with me this week was by Randall McGowen, on the Body and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England.

Understanding notions of the body and what it represented is essential to understanding the role of execution in the criminal justice system in the c18th and c19th. One of the most famous interpretations of the role of the body in punishment is Foucault’s who argued that the major transition in the period was from a brutal spectacle of punishment on the body (execution), to a more considered and structured punishment of the mind and soul (prison).

Notions of punishment and justice are intrinsically linked with medical analogies in the C18th and early C19th. Many commentators, priests and sentencing officials of the time frequently convey the link between the human body and wider political body.

For as in the natural body….so in the body politc

George Osborne, Subjection to Principalities, Power and Magistrates, Explained and Enforced (London, 1735) pp. 12-13

It was widely believed that crime was damaging the wider body politic, so as was commensurate at the time, you cut of the part that ails the wider body. The condemned’s body was presented as a symbol of something much greater than him or herself and so if it was failing to work, must be sacrificed for the greater good of society.

The symbolism of punishment was employed to point beyond the body to relations within society, to the natural unity of society, and to its human and divine purpose.

R.McGowen, The Body and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England, The Journal of Modern History (Dec, 1987) p.654

Interestingly McGowen posits that it is because of this wider medical understanding that the punishment itself did not seem as brutal to contemporaries of the condemned as it does to us.

The pain that seems to stand out so monolithically for us was in fact diffused, not only because the individual was less important than the body politic but also because the pain spoke of other things than just itself. In the very elaboration of the drama of suffering one was supposed to see through the agony to the message inscribed upon it’.

Ibid,  p.666

There is a fascinating study to be done on the advancement of science and it’s effect on execution policies.¹ I can’t help thinking that a society that promotes the idea of amputating all it’s deviant parts will fairly quickly be a limbless society.

The fundamental shift in the period sees the condemned move from being viewed as a connecting part in a wider body to being perceived primarily as an individual. From this new understanding the violent physical punishment meted out on the body of the condemned starts to be seen for what it is, an act of state sanctioned violence. This ‘inhumanity’ becomes a key part of abolitionist causes and, in many of the reports I am viewing from the early 1800’s onwards, there is a marked disgust at the spectacle of execution itself, even if the punishment itself is still tolerated.

¹ If someone knows of a good study of the period, monitoring the link between scientific advancement and effects on capital punishment policy i’d be very grateful for the tip off.

Distraction 1: During my stay in London I was based in Angel at the flat of one of my oldest friends. I’ve never explored Angel properly and on my morning walks to study I came across a quaint little set of antique shops in a place called Pierrepont arcade. I initially mistook this for Pierrepoint, one of Britain’s last Hangmen, and got excited that I had stumbled upon a place of significance to my study (I must learn to properly read the sources!). However, in the arcade, I did find a brilliant antique prints shop run by a lovely gentleman called Finbar MacDonnell. In this cosy little shop, there were stacks and stacks of drawers filled with eighteenth and nineteenth century prints. The Hogarth drawer particularly interested me. In the end, given the nature of my favourite article this week, I decided on a colour print Lithograph of the ‘Dissection of a thigh’ by G.V.Ellis. For the cost of a few pints (london pints) it now is a frame away from taking pride of place in my study. I highly recommend a visit, for anyone who has read Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, the owner is like Hobie.


Finbar MacDonnell – Antique Prints. 10 Pierrepont Arcade, Camden Passage, London N1 8EF

Distraction 2: I’m always on the lookout for free events when I’m in London and I came across a talk at the Institute of Historical Research that was entitled ‘The Biggest Man in England’: The Tichborne Trial in the Victorian Visual Imagination. Previously unknown to me, the trial was one of the longest in legal history in the Victorian period and is well worth reading about. The talk was given by Jennifer Tucker (Wesleyan) and was really fascinating. Amazing what you find when you go looking.

Tichborne Trial Tryptich courtesy of Wikipedia
Tichborne Trial Tryptich courtesy of Wikipedia

Distraction 3: Before I went to London I caught Sunderland University’s Photography and Fine Art Degree Show. There was some fantastic work on display and I was particularly taken by an exhibit done by Phoebe Friggens entitled A Little Love and Death.  It was a great reflection on the Victorian tradition of memento mori. I’m only sorry I’m posting this now as the exhibition is over.

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