Passion & ikigai

The word ‘passion’ is overused in many ways. Does anyone remember a few years back, in Masterchef? The contestants would be asked why they want to go through the competition. Not just in interview as they were cooking, but as a key stage (usually at around the same time as the skills test). Almost invariably the phrase ‘I have a real passion for cooking’ would be trotted out. Admission tutors see it too – enough that prospective undergrads are warned not to use the word in their personal statements.  Almost invariably, people are told not to use the word; to show it instead. And yet, a conversation that I’ve been having online in the last 24 hours with a variety of people has shown me that to study at PhD level, perhaps even Master’s degree level, it really is essential to have a passion for the subject at hand.

I’m still working on my MA dissertation which I wrote about a few days ago, transcribing depositions – witness statements, in other words – and one particular one described the night that Foulkes completely lost it. I don’t mean the event in London, where he murdered his newborn child (1679), but earlier, around the end of July 1676. Foulkes had had gone for a drink in what may have been the nearest alehouse. There, the vicar of the neighbouring parish had talked with him, reporting the rumours he had heard about Foulkes and Ann, his lover, and trying, gently, to warn Foulkes of what was being said about him. Foulkes initially seemed to have taken the warning ‘very kindly and quietly’, but later became angry, and returned home somewhat drunk. He sent for two neighbours and their wives and after drinking more, a fight ensued. The neighbours promptly left, and Foulkes turned on his wife. This whole evening was described in the first (secondary) source that I found on Foulkes, Peter Klein’s book The Temptation and Downfall of the Vicar of Stanton Lacy (if anyone has it, and would like to read the relevant section, then see pages 47-50). The particular deposition that I was working on was the statement by William Hopton. While – as I said before, he most certainly had an axe to grind against Foulkes – transcribing the document proved to be difficult.

This was not because the handwriting was bad or it was full of latin or abbreviations – I don’t mean that kind of difficulty. It was emotionally difficult. When I came to the section where Hopton described that the neighbours had left, and ‘the said Robt Foulkes did fall out with his wife againe & beat her soe violently that she did cry out 3 times’, and when the neighbours – who were still outside, along with others who had gathered, drawn by the noise – tried to calm Foulkes, his wife, Isabella, was seen to be lying on a bed, bleeding (it did not say from where), complaining about Foulkes and asking the neighbours to stay with her till morning, ‘to save her life for that she was in danger to be murthered by her husband’. Crying out three times may not seem so much to modern eyes – or ears – but to contextualise this; early modern husbands were allowed, encouraged, even, to discipline their wives (to a certain extent, at least). Just as with those people in modern day abuse situations, a great deal of shame would probably have accompanied these disciplinary occasions, shame that the husband thought it necessary that the wife be punished. The average early modern woman being punished by her husband, even legitimately (the rod no wider than a thumb is a rule oft bandied), would probably have tried to keep any involuntary sounds to a minimum, to keep the neighbours from knowing that she was being disciplined. That Isabella was unable – or unwilling, in fear of her life – to do this indicated to me either how violent Foulkes was being towards her; or how afraid she was. Either way, it was disturbing.

When I had typed the transcription, I sat back in my chair and found tears creeping down my cheek at the plight of Isabella. Now… I’d be the first to admit that I can be a right old soppy sod. I regularly cry at movies, anything to do with the queen or royal family (a republican I am not) or weddings or mushy stuff. Its a family trait – I blame my maternal grandfather, he did the same thing. But really? Crying over something that had happened not quite 340 years earlier, where the participants were long since dead and buried and not so much as dust in the ground? But it really did disturb me. I finished transcribing the page, then went for a turn around the garden and a cup of coffee, and then turned to my colleagues and discussed my disquiet with them. And I was surprised to find that I was by no means alone in finding primary sources emotionally disturbing, to the point of needing a break from the material.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. One colleague, working on records that detailed historical instances of racial abuse said that they saw the cup of tea, the break afterwards, as an integral, necessary part of transcription work (and I think they’re right about that; something I will have to mentally account for when calculating transcription time in future). Others described sitting in archives and openly crying over what they were reading, the strong emotions, primarily pain, recorded by people in the past. I don’t think this is something that is readily discussed amongst historians, except perhaps those who routinely work with material that would – by almost anyone – be described as ’emotionally distressing’. It certainly isn’t something that we’re taught how to handle at either BA or MA level: we’re left to find our own methods of dealing with this kind of emotional upheaval.

But something else someone said to me also resonated. They said I cry, because I’m passionate about my research, about history, and also observed that if people don’t have that passion, they don’t get far as historians. And I realised they’re right. In all the people I’ve met, whether already qualified and practising academics in one university or another, or those of us who are still studying to get there (MA and PhD students), the one thing we’ve all shared, regardless of actual subject, is that passion. It’s not enough to find history interesting. That’s like me enjoying cooking enough that I enjoy – when I’m not tired and stressed – creating a meal for family or friends, or a cake for our local history group at Uni. That doesn’t make me a chef, even a trainee one. I think too often people confuse an interest with a passion. It’s perfectly okay to have an interest, to want to practise something, even to want to practice it a lot. I have to eat every day, after all! But its still only an interest, and having a passion, I can see the difference. People envy me sometimes, they say, because I seem to have such a clear idea of where I want to go, what I want to do, but I think sometimes there is too much emphasis laid on the quest to identify one’s passion, right now, right this minute, instead of waiting for it to come to you, quietly and in the fullness of time.

The Japanese have it right, I think. There, the quest for ‘ikigai’ is a deep, extensive search of self, the quest to identify what you love; what you’re good at; what the world needs; and what you can be paid for. Where what you love and what you’re good at overlap, is your passion. Where what you love, and what the world needs overlap, is your mission. Where what the world needs overlaps with what you can be paid for, is your vocation. Where what you’re good at overlaps with what you can be paid for, is your profession. Where all four overlap, is your ikigai. It is your reason for being, your reason for getting up in the morning. The French might refer to it as one’s raison d’être.

I count myself fortunate to have found my ikigai, and if it means occasionally sitting at my desk, weeping as I cry for the fate of a woman who was violently beaten by her philandering husband 340 years ago, then so be it. I don’t think its a cost that I would ever pass up, and I doubt many other historians would disagree.

Nose to the grindstone

My supervisor fired the gun on the MA dissertation last week; he wants a draft chapter by 5th July (and its been suggested that we submit our worst chapter). Erk. Note to self: next time he asks me when I’m thinking of submitting… say the deadline, idiot, not the middle of August!

[although, seriously, I do want a break before the PhD kicks off; I’ve got a talk to give in early September which I have to write, and a wedding to attend (not mine) as well as a 2 day training course at the end of September – I think a break will be much needed and highly valued. And if I’m honest with myself, this deadline is what I need. I work better to deadlines.]

So I’ve dusted off my PDFs of primary sources that I collected ages ago and taken an evaluative look at them. These are consistory court records from Herefordshire (from Herefordshire Archive and Record Centre or HARC, to be specific), from the 1670s, where a number of Foulkes’s parishioners took him to court over his affair with Ann Atkinson – this was in the years before the calamitous events that occurred in London and which led to Foulkes’ execution. There are ten PDFs altogether; the largest has 120 or so pages, the smallest just one. Altogether, there are something like 800 pages, which is an awful lot to try to read in a short space of time (especially given that they are handwritten). However, I do have some advantages; some 100 or so pages are in Latin and are likely to be official court documents. These I will leave for now, because a) my latin is pretty awful (at the moment) and b) I’m not sure how much is to be gained by wading through them that I cannot get from the other documents, which are all in English. These are things like lawyer’s records, notes that were passed between various people in the court (quite a few from Foulkes himself) and many, many depositions. The writing is pretty awful – I’d post a sample, but copyright does apply and I’d need to get permission from HARC – so, I thought, time to brush off the palaeography how-to notes from a module I did last year with the MA.

Surprisingly, I found that I could read something like 75-80% of the clearest document  (start with the easier one, always – it takes time and practice to ‘get the eye in’). I’ve worked through a couple of lengthy depositions from that collection, which is twenty six pages of depositions by eight people. These are what we would today call ‘statements’, with a few latin phrases, dated and signed in some way by the person giving the deposition. The first, by a chap called Richard Hopton, was one of the members of the ‘combinators’ (as they called themselves) bringing the case against Foulkes. He refers to Foulkes as ‘very contentious and quarrellsom’, says that Foulkes ‘disturb[s] their peass and quiett’. He goes on to say that Foulkes ‘had a bastard’, which was ‘begotten by him on the body of Ann Atkinson’. The second, that I have worked through so far, was by William Hopton, younger brother of Richard. He starts out by referring, like his brother, to Foulkes as ‘a quarrellsom and contentious spirit’ who was ‘endeavouring to disturb the peace and quiet of this neighbourhood and parish by threatening and abusive words’. He said that Foulkes called him ‘a sonne of a whore’, and that Foulkes would often refer to Ann’s mother, Elizabeth, as a whore and an old baud. Lovely!

There’s no real conclusion to this; other than that to reflect that the Hopton brothers seem determined to paint Foulkes in the worst terms possible (perhaps understandable, given that they were part of the conspiracy against Foulkes). There’s a but, though. There are words that I am currently unable to read; and because of that, I don’t fully understand everything that has been said in the statement. Less than ideal, obviously and a situation that I have to correct, fairly urgently.

I’ve arranged a meeting with my supervisor early next week because I think many of the words I can’t read are either abbreviations (Early Modern clerks adored abbreviations – it saved paper and ink!) or latin phrases, and I think he’ll be able to help with that. Beyond that though, its a case of nose to the grindstone to try to get some of these documents read. Not necessarily transcribed, just read. At the moment I am, of course, making notes as I go along, but that’s different to transcription, which is a word for word, letter for letter copy of exactly what is on the page but in a print format (some of the conventions adhered to by transcribers can be seen here). Transcription will have to be done eventually, as I think I will return to this case again and again – the material from this case can be used in a number of different ways. But for now, with that deadline looming, its a case of getting as much read as I can, so that in a few weeks, I can crack my knuckles and bash out a draft chapter of my dissertation.

So for now, keep reading, trying to make sense of what I can, and make notes as to the bits that I can’t read. It keeps life interesting, anyway!

The penitential sermon of Robert Foulkes

As part of my MA dissertation I’ve been researching the case of Robert Foulkes, and I gave a paper on a part of my research at the University of Leicester’s School of History Postgraduate Conference on May 17th. The full title was ‘Every step thou makest in sin, brings thee in greater danger’: The penitential sermon of Robert Foulkes‘, and I’d like to write a little bit about that paper here.

I’ve written about Robert Foulkes before, and his affair with Ann, and the dreadful circumstances that led him to commit murder. In the paper I gave, I focused on two different theories around execution, and explored which I thought Robert Foulkes’s case might be more relevant towards. Continue reading

Early Modern Charitableness – a lesson for today?

The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy – I’ve had two paid jobs to work on, one is very temporary (lasting only a week, but almost full time work during that week), and the other is also temporary but only 5 hours work per week over the course of about 5 weeks. Between the first two jobs I’ve spent almost an entire week on campus, and my studies have had to fit inbetween those jobs. And if I’m honest, they’ve fitted in quite well. The week-long job required me to do some survey work, which was around 15-20 minutes out of every hour. I managed to find a computer most days at uni which I could use, and the remaining 40-45 minutes out of every hour I succeeded at working – transcribing or making notes, the kind of thing where the constant stop-start doesn’t matter too much.

One of the documents I’ve been working on is called ‘An Alarme for Sinners‘. This was a long document written by a chap called Robert Foulkes during January 1679, and published after his execution on 31st January 1679. Foulkes had been found guilty of the ‘horrid murther’ (murder) of his just-born child on 15th January 1679(1), and had been sentenced to be hung. What was unusual about Foulkes is that he was a married vicar, and the child had been born to one of his parishioners, not his wife. Indeed, the relationship with his mistress (Ann Atkinson) had been subject to a lengthy court case in Herefordshire (the parish they lived in was subject to the Hereford Diocese), and Foulkes and Atkinson had celebrated their way when they thought the case was defeated, leading to pregnancy and, eventually, the scaffold. Atkinson pointed the finger squarely at Foulkes when they were arrested and she was found not guilty of the baby’s murder. Before his execution, Foulkes receved a number of visitors from the leading authorities in the Church of England; because the scandal had occurred during the Popish Plot/Titus Oates affair when the Church was still feeling under seige, the divines who visited had asked Foulkes to write a document extonerating the wider Church from all blame. An Alarme for Sinners is the result.

The copy I had saved onto my computer was made up of a series of PDFs; each double page spread being saved as one file. This, together with the problematic print and preponderance of fs instead of s made me decide to retype it – not difficult for me, as I learned to touch type years ago. In the event it took me slightly over a day and a half to type the entire thing, inbetween surveys. This is for my MA dissertation, and my research is focusing more on the relationship that Foulkes had with his parishioners as a whole, and what the case can reveal about clergy-lay relations rather than the scandalous behaviour of Foulkes and Atkinson. Still, having gone through the process of typing the document, a number of thoughts have come to mind. At least one of these is the difference by which we regard a document like this now, compared to 1679, and what the document reveals about general society and crimes in that period.

In An Alarme for Sinners Foulkes had – or so he said – a number of objectives. His primary objective was to ensure that the church was not blamed for his crimes. His pamphlet decried his actions and attempted to warn other people from following on his path. He gave thanks that his sins were discovered so that he had a chance to realise his errors before he died (and was inevitably sent to hell), and he addressed those people who he thought had done wrong (on a general level), to try to advise them on where to go right from that point on.

One thing that was very clear in Foulkes’s document was that sexual relations with prepubescent children was regarded as a horror; something very very wrong, especially when said child had been handed into one’s care. In his pamphlet, Foulkes went to some length to deny a group of accusations which said: that Akinson’s father had made Foulkes her guardian; that he had that he had used his position as her minister to persuade her that polygamy was lawful (a persuasion that today might be referred to as grooming); and finally, that he had ‘attempt and endeavour to vitiate’ Atkinson when she was nine. The accusations clearly upset Foulkes a great deal – it ‘imbittered my Cup both at my Trial and at my Sentence’. He also said that while he accepted that he was guilty of many other things, he took comfort in being innocent of both of these accusations, even though he had sins that had ‘exceeded’ them – i.e. the murder of his child. What is clear is that Foulkes’ horror of the charges, and his anxiousness to deny them, despite already being found guilty to hang for murder speak volumes about how those crimes were regarded by his contemporaries and society at large.

[While it is impossible to be sure at this remove, it has to be said that recent work by historians does support Foulkes’s claim of innocence of these charges. Foulkes was not made the incumbent of his parish until Atkinson was around ten years old, although Klein felt he first met her when she was around seven. He was certainly never made her guardian, (although he was, of course, her minister), and the two historians who have written about the case regard the affair has having begun around 1669 – when Atkinson was around 19 or 20.]

Interestingly, the document seemed to suggest that it was because Foulkes was placed in a position of trust, that the accusations were so serious. In other words; it would not have been deemed so serious if Foulkes had attacked a stranger. Did they regard the breach of trust as the more serious crime, or was the breach of trust deemed more as what we would now call ‘an aggravating factor’ in the sexual assault? Interesting questions. I have to admit that I have done no research into this topic at all; but it certainly shows, for those non historians that bewail a ‘plague of modern paedophilia‘, that social awareness of the crime existed at least as far back as 1679.

Moving now to the issue of charitableness, as promised in the title – when I first read the entire document, I reflected on how it would be regarded if an equivalent document was produced today by a man condemned to life imprisonment for the same crime – infantcide. Foulkes is clearly trying to restore his honour and the honour of the Church in this document and admits as much. Today, a document like this would be regarded with a great deal of cynicism. (Just imagine the tabloid newspaper headlines!) In 1679 there was some cynicism – Foulkes even anticipated this, as he preceded one section with: ‘For satisfaction to those who were at my Tryal, and may have their belief warpt to uncharitableness…’ and then addressed  various accusations (including the ones discussed above). At the same time, Foulkes clearly believed that publishing this pamphlet would let his voice be heard. He admitted to horrible crimes, crimes that he abhorred, and even a crime that he was not charged for, a crime that he said no one else considered or felt was a crime at the time. As he pointed out, he murdered his child without baptising her first. In doing so, he ‘murther its Soul’. In 1679, as it had been for centuries, it was strongly felt by many – including Foulkes – that unbaptised children could not enter heaven (which is why midwives had long been permitted to baptise children where it was clear that a child would not live long enough to permit baptism by a clergyman, although this permission was starting to disappear by the seventeenth century (2)). By murdering his child before baptism, Foulkes ensured his child could never enter heaven. He had failed the child on two levels, as both a father, and as a minister. His sheer anguish and pain at having failed his child on both levels leaps from the page; the reader almost has to accept that he felt as he did, his misery is utterly convincing.

He did not have to write this. He was originally asked to assist the wider Church by making it clear that she played no role in his crimes – no more, no less. Foulkes made the choice to try to reach out to people, to show them where he had gone wrong, to confess where he had gone wrong (and where he had not gone wrong). In this, he succeeded in his aim of restoring his honour; he was prayed for throughout the City of London on the night before his death – a day that also marked the anniversary of the death of Charles I. (3) Public pamphlets, which widely published not only the Alarme for Sinners, but details of the crime, his sentence, and pre-execution actions, also suggest that Foulkes succeeded in restoring his honour. The final line of one reads: ‘Thus ended this unfortunate Gentleman, who by the temptations of Satan was thus brought like Holy David into the horrid sin a Adultery, but as his sin resembled his, so did his Reptentence, and we hope they are now both singing Hallelujahs in the glorious Region of Eternal joy’ – i.e. we (the publishers) hope that this chap has gone to heaven. The message here is: if he, who committed such a dreadful crime, can repent and reach Salvation … maybe we, who are guilty of much lesser crimes, can too.

And therein lies the main difference between 1679 and today, I think. Today, we – as a society, I mean – regard a document like this, and cynically ask what the author got out of it, and question it no further; any thought of repentance is dismissed with ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’. In the Early Modern society, perhaps, people were more charitable, more willing to accept that there could be multiple motivations for it, but that they are not all ultimately self-seeking and self-serving, and that perhaps repentence could be real. Perhaps, in the western society that we have today, more charitableness towards people’s motivations would not be a bad thing.

Continue reading