Early Modern Post

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Freelance research and the sixteenth century CV

This blog has been the oft-ignored ugly sister to my ADD PhD, the latter always clamouring for more and more attention, and probably pulling the blog’s hair when it thought no-one was looking. Being busy with writing up said PhD, and teaching, and working on projects to make ends meet, was an unarguably excellent excuse for not writing more blog posts.

However, as I confessed in the last post over two months ago, I’ve now finished my PhD. And as you can see from the sub-clause, finishing it hasn’t led directly on to a whole lot of free time.

So, what happened? Like with any all-consuming project, I think you make a deal with yourself that in exchange for ridiculous working hours and vein-popping stress levels, once the project is over you will have free time and instant bliss. And like any promise you bribe yourself with, it never quite works out like that.

The bottom line is, I’ve finished my PhD, and whilst that’s brilliant, I’m now unemployed, and I find myself at the bottom of another mountain to climb. It can take a little while to get your head around that, whilst simultaneously dealing with the real-world demands of paying rent and feeding oneself.

That’s what I’ve been doing since finishing: meeting real-world demands and scoping a route up the mountain.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a bit of freelance work to help with both of these (researching the plague in early C17th London for an American academic – you’ll have to wait for his next book for that, though). That, thankfully, was straightforward paid work; it’s the other time-consuming occupation that I want to talk about today, the route planning and ground-laying for the next step in the academic career – planning that isn’t paid but that amounts to very real work and takes a heck of a lot of time.

To get an academic job, I’m going to have to publish an article or two, and maybe try to publish my thesis as a book, which will absorb a huge amount of work and time, but will not be (in the first instance) remunerated. I will have to keep giving papers at conferences, and review books, to keep my foot in the door and my face recognised. In the academic world, as far as I know, none of these activities are paid, but are rather expected aspects of your full-time, well-supported university post. If you have one.

At my level, the idea is that all this work will be for deferred favour, for an increased chance of a job in the future. And – because this is another mental side effect from doing a PhD – this made me think of one of my thesis chapters.

If you were of a reasonable background in the sixteenth century, an educated gentleman, say, then you might be looking at the church or the law for your livelihood. One possibility would be to get noticed by a patron, and move into politics and crown service. If you were really skilled and really lucky, this might open further opportunities and sinecures. One way of getting noticed was to travel abroad under the encouragement and approval of a patron (not least to get your passport for you), and to send them news and intelligence of foreign lands. In a pre-multimedia, even pre-newspaper, world, the access granted by travel and the skills of researching and writing were valuable, and could land you a job in the Elizabethan polity: to scale that mountain you needed both a patron, and to demonstrate your skills.

Demonstrating your skills and pitching for favour could be done in the form of transmitting regular news, and by writing reports and topographical accounts of the host court and country; like the Venetian relazioni (diplomatic reports), but without the diplomatic salary. Travel and information gathering by the gentleman and nobleman essentially acted as both training for the next generation of political figures, and as an ad hoc intelligence service for the crown, and the best thing was, the crown rarely paid for it.

The problem, for the aspirant at least, was needing to secure patronage in the first instance – they would need to move in circles where they could build such contacts – and of course needing to support oneself whilst essentially working for free, or for unreliable or irregular returns.

Your young gentleman abroad was either supported by well-off kin, or commissioned by a patron, like the earl of Essex supporting Francis Davison in his travels in Europe. If the ‘commission’ was encouragement and instruction, but no money – i.e. deferred favour – then the traveller would be at risk of slipping from information gatherer to intelligencer-for-hire, from gentleman abroad to prison spy. If there was no encouragement and no money, then movement, whether physical or social, was impossible. Elizabethan society was far from meritocratic, but there was sometimes space for accession if one had the right contacts, experience, brains, and luck.

I am certainly not saying that we’re in the same state now – in fact, I just got some freelance work from asking around on twitter (the ultimate example of a move from patronage and closed elites to widened access and opportunity). However, working for free – building and displaying your experience – is still expected if you want to enter certain careers, and no more so than in straitened times. There’s no shortage of recent news stories highlighting the unfairness and social disparity in requiring incomers to an ever increasing number of careers to work for free; you need that well-off kin or patron. Internships and doing unpaid work to benefit your CV is all very well if a) you have support from elsewhere, and b) there’s actually a job at the end of it. I’ll keep you posted.



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‘A fearsome and treacherous world’

So says the Guardian website of life under the Tudors, specifically referring to the experience of Henry VIII’s supposedly adulterous fifth wife Catherine Howard as she faced execution.

Political executions, as well as uxoricide, were at a particular high under Henry, his daughter ‘Bloody Mary’ is famed for religious genocide, and England under Elizabeth has been described as a ‘surveillance state’, with her ‘spymaster’ Walsingham entrapping Mary Queen of Scots and torturing Catholics.[1]

So reads the ‘horrible histories’ style Tudor dynasty. And it has a point: torture and execution were common, accepted, and often public, life was surely hard, and death and pain were more present and more visceral than in our sanitized modern society.

There is a commonly held, even subconscious, metanarrative that history is progressing in a linear style, that between then and now we have been on an upward, civilising path, where evolutionary theory infiltrates our understanding of social and even global change over the past few hundred years. We have the technology and scientific advancement to prove it.

It’s not like we watch punishment as public spectacle or condone torture to protect our way of life anymore. Not in this country, at any rate.

In a totally unrelated comment, clicking back onto the front page of the Guardian today, the recent riots and phone hacking scandal are still figuring prominently, as well as the headlines ‘TV cameras to be allowed into courts’, and ‘MI6 knew I was tortured, says rebel’.

Did the Elizabethan-in-the-street feel that they were living through a fearsome era, or just accept it as the way of things? How will we be judged? Do we progress at all, or is it simply change disguised as progress?

Reading about the (alleged) condoning of torture by MI6, previously in Pakistan and now via British involvement in the rendition of a terrorism suspect – and his family – to Libya in 2003 made me wonder how torture was viewed in Elizabethan society, and question the notion of a degree of societal barbarism then and a moral high ground now.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s encounters with the subject, but it seems to me that it wasn’t just about blood and guts on the scaffold; it could be a quiet, embedded part of political life, perhaps to be regretted, but necessary for the greater good. Sound familiar?

Torture features heavily in the career of William Waad, diplomat, intelligencer and clerk of the privy council. Part secretary and administrator, part interrogator of English recusants and foreign Jesuits, this man gained a reputation for his involvement in prosecuting every well known ‘terror’ plot after 1585: ‘the Lopez plot, the Babington plot, the Essex rebellion, the trial of Ralegh, the Gunpowder Plot, the Main plot, the Bye plot’ and more.[2] It was part of his job, and he was known for it. These are the showbiz trials, but he and many others were involved in routine inquiries and investigations that had the option of torture hanging, as it were, in the air.

Sir Thomas Bodley was a career diplomat, of reasonably high standing, before he founded what he is known for today: the great Bodleian library in Oxford. It was envisaged as providing permanent access to a wealth of books for scholars to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, for the public good. He fits into another Renaissance narrative, of the scholar, the forger of a brave new world, the Renaissance man.

We don’t want to think of him beside Waad, participating in the darker side of state business. But there he is, under instruction from the privy council to interrogate terror suspect George Stoker with whatever means necessary:

‘A letter to Sir Owen Hopton, knight, William Waad, Thomas Bodley, Thomas Owen, Richarde Younge, esquiers, that whereas George Stoker, presentelie remayning in the Towre, being latelie apprehended … it was to be probablie conjectured that his repaire into this Realme was for some secrett practise or other notable mischeife … they are herebie aucthorised and required forthwith uppon the receipt hereof to conferre with him to declare the truth of the cause of his repaire thither, and likewise to examine him uppon certaine interrogatories by them to be framed for the better discouverie of the truth; whereuppon if they should perceave that he should refuse to declare for what cause and to what end he came into this Realme, then it is thought meete that they putt him to the torture of the Racke, therebie the better to withdraw from him the knowledg of his wicked entente and purpose, and likewise secretelie to examine all such suspected personnes as he hathe had conference with…’[3]

We cannot assume that we have advanced safely past this. Torture is not just an image of Mel Gibson being hung, drawn and quartered (insert pun on his acting if you wish), nor is it simply the horrible histories caricature or the English Grand Inquisitor Waad; it is also made up of Bodley the professional diplomat and scholar, and the official rubber stamping of the mundane privy council letter. It is not just a bloody picture of the past or of a Libyan jail, it is made up of people facilitating rendition or standing by and waiting for their turn to question the suspect. Some ‘progress’ has been made if we agree that torture is at least not common, accepted and public in this country, but I would suggest that this progress is not linear, not necessary, and not to be taken for granted.

[1] Curtis Breight, Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, (London: Macmillan, 1996)

[3] Privy Council to Lieutenant of the Tower, Owen Hopkins, 16th February 1588, in Acts of the Privy Council of England, vol 15, 1587-88, p365.