Dead Certainties; & The London Hanged

Clive Emsley | Published in History Today
  • Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations
    Simon Schama - Granta Books, 1991 - 333 pp. - £15.99
  • The London Hanged: Crime And Civil Society In The Eighteenth Century
    Peter Linebaugh - Allen Lane, 1991- 484 pp. - £25

History is a subject of innumerable varieties. This is not just because of the potential range of the subject matter, but also because of the way in which historians choose to communicate their findings. Simon Schama's Dead Certainties and Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged both touch on the subject of violent death; but their motives in writing history, and the way they have chosen to tell their stories, are vastly different.

Schama takes the story of two deaths: that of General Wolfe at Quebec, shot as his small army beat the French and conquered Canada for Britain, and that of George Parkman, a product of Harvard Medical School, a hard landlord, and noted pedestrian, who disappeared one afternoon later to turn up in pieces, some of which had to be retrieved from the medical school furnace. From these incidents Schama goes on to discuss the re-telling of these deaths. Wolfe, most notably, expired heroically in Benjamin West's celebrated painting, so far removed from the event itself that one of the recognisable characters at Wolfe's side was actually still in England when the battle took place. Yet, of course, it was the heroism of Wolfe's death as mediated by West, on which Victorian and Edwardian schoolboys were weaned. Parkman's death was re- constructed in a court-room drama and in the eventual confession of his killer; the adversarial proceedings of the courtroom, and the mind-focusing intensity of the condemned cell, make for good drama, though quite how close they get to any approximation of historical truth is a moot point. The somewhat tenuous links between the two stories is the fact that Parkman's nephew, Francis, wrote a classic study of the Anglo-French struggle for North America.

Some historians linking these stories might have chosen to launch into an essay on the nature of historical evidence and historical communication. This seems to be lurking in Schama's mind but he opts rather for narrative, especially in the murder trial where speeches are paraphrased and quoted at length. The question here is what sort of history is he presenting? Indeed will the boring professionals (like me) consider it 'History' at all, especially when he ghosts, splendidly, the recollections of a British soldier at Quebec. It is tempting, though may well smack of sour grapes, to ask whether, but for the success of Citizens, he would ever have got away with it.

Peter Linebaugh begins and ends with what for him is a dead certainty: all history is the history of class struggle. The eighteenth century, in Linebaugh's estimation, was a central period in the conflict between rich and poor as the former, growing fat on the profits of trade and empire, sought to redefine property; and as the poor, victims of this process, were further separated from the means of production. He roots his analysis in what he calls a 'Tyburnography', a study of those executed at Tyburn in the first three quarters of the eighteenth century. The gallows, he considers to be the dramatic focus of the developing class struggle; virtually all those hanged were poor, and were hanged for property offences. Linebaugh's hook develops the ideas of Albion's Fatal Tree, the essay collection which, more than fifteen years ago, re-focused our understanding of eighteenth-century crime, and to which Linebaugh himself was a contributor.

The criminal records, Linebaugh insists, are a way into understanding and appreciating the lives and struggles of the poor. In many respects he is right, and the book presents a feast of details on the poor, their argot, their trades, their image of the world. But there are problems: while those who were hanged provide Linebaugh with a glimpse into the lives of the London poor, it has to be asked just how typical the fruit of Tyburn's tree really were. They had, after all, gone through a thorough filtering process of indictment, trial and sentence, before being executed. Rather too often Linebaugh seems to imply that a large number of a particular trade ended up at Tyburn; for example he notes a depression in the early 1730s sending 'a number of hatters' to Tyburn (p.237). But how many is 'a number'? especially when hatters do not figure on his list of the principal trades of those executed. Furthermore while he might he correct in stressing the way that eighteenth-century employers were developing the monetary wage and criminalising many customary perks in the traditional trades, it is not clear that there was a precise link between stealing from the work place and the London hanged. Indeed this criminalisation might easily be said to have gone hand in hand with the search for an alternative to execution, and, while the population rose, the number of executions declined during the eighteenth century.

Schama, in Dead Certainties and in other recent essays, seems to want to take us back to a history that took people, often ‘great men’, as its focus and which can be substituted for novels as bedtime reading.

Linebaugh is also concerned with people. His knowledge of, and deep feeling for, the poor of eighteenth-century London, strikes the reader from every page, but The London Hanged is no easy bedtime read; with his brilliant links encompassing Milton and Defoe, imperial expansion, barrel-making, street slang, and so on, Linebaugh makes his readers work with the same determination as a Hanoverian taskmaster.

  • Clive Emsley is the author of The English Police: A Political and Social History (Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1991).
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