John Walter – Panning for Gold in the Archives
‘I knew it would be a privilege to come to TCD and work with its historians - but I had not anticipated the incredible intellectual atmosphere and the amazing spirit of the Hub…I know that not only have I been through a process of self-education, but that I will make a significant contribution to our ongoing struggle to understand 1641. And that’s very much to do with the Hub giving me the Fellowship and the support to do that.’ – John Walter, Visiting Research Fellow (R) with Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and Artist in Residence Dan Hoyle
25 May 2018 As a young post-doctoral student in the University of Pennsylvania, living in a borderline ghetto area near campus, John Walter was involved with the 1960s civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements in the United States. John himself had grown up in post-war England and was a beneficiary of the 1945 Education Act that, he says ‘gave bright working-class kids the opportunity to get an education and go to university’.
His U.S. experience fuelled John’s sense of social injustice to the extent that he switched research focus to the social and political upheaval of the English Revolutionary period and early modern England. Returning to Cambridge, he became involved in both student radicalism and the development of what became known as the New Social History.
John began work on radical movements in the English Revolution, but soon understood that the surviving accounts of popular protest are the accounts of authority, laden with all the prejudices and political motivations of the propertied elite of that time. These were the people who had the ability, resources and motivation to leave a written record.
So John began to find his way towards the people who had not left any records, but whose actions could, he realised, be interpreted by examining them closely in their social and political context - enabling those actions to speak to our modern age as loudly as any written word.
This was perhaps the most significant turning point in his career: ’to understand the traditions of popular political activity, I would have to study crowds and so I ended up really being a historian of crowds and popular protest and that’s been the dominant theme of my research from the early 1970s to the present day.’
But back in the 1970s, John met with resistance to his decision from established historians on two counts: firstly, that there just weren’t sufficient records to enable this kind of investigation; and secondly, a prejudice (handed down by the authority-driven historical record of the centuries) against the notion that studying the crowds of early modern England could reveal anything of interest or significance.
John persisted, developing new methodologies to interrogate the usual historical sources, as well as finding new sources. The New Social History movement was engaging in a dialogue with other disciplines; sociology and anthropology helped to re-orient his perspective towards the relationship between belief and behaviour: ‘partly a new way of conceptualising a theoretical approach using other disciplinary insights’.
Over time, John developed a more neutral and less elitist language: he studies ‘crowd actions’ rather than ‘riots; the lives of the ‘non-elite’ rather than ‘ordinary people’; and ‘performative violence’ rather than apparently ‘barbaric’ violence because: ‘people shape their actions in particular ways that’s…communicating something, so even if we don’t have their words we can…get some sense of what they think and what they’re trying to do in protest.’
In his search for traces of the unrecorded people, John became ‘an archive rat’ which he proudly remains: ‘looking at court records over long time periods… it’s like panning for gold, you’d start to find crowd actions, protests. It was… about creating the records that would... not simply take the top-down authority-laden view.’
As well as interdisciplinarity and forensic archive research, the third factor driving John’s work as a historian is, he says ‘the idea that you shouldn’t fragment history…people don’t live their lives in separate little boxes named ‘economic’, ‘social’ or so on’.
John’s most recent book ‘Covenanting Citizens: The Protestant Oath and Popular Political Culture in the English Revolution’, (written during a two-year Leverhulme Fellowship), demonstrates this desire to integrate, to ‘understand the relationship between lived experience and big historical forces which shape those lives…to bring together popular politics and what is called high or elite politics’. The book won the 2017 Samuel Pepys Prize, a biennial award to the publication that makes the greatest contribution to our understanding of Samuel Pepys, his times or his contemporaries.
John has a relationship with Trinity going back to 2005 and had increasingly incorporated Irish history into his teaching - partly due to his partner Professor Bronwen Walter’s ongoing research on Irish migration to Britain – but it was after the online launch of the 1641 Depositions that he began in-depth work on Irish crowds.
For a historian of crowds and violence ‘to suddenly be confronted with the 1641 Depositions, which have at their core the destruction of property and extraordinary episodes of violence…it was an extraordinary opportunity’. Once again, John applied his rigorous methodology to look beyond records heavily influenced by the propertied elite and assess anew the scale and motivation of what actually happened: ‘as historians I think we’ve done an important job in scaling down the actual levels of violence in 1641, myths around which have been politically damaging on the island of Ireland; nonetheless there was a great deal of violence, so [I took] that interdisciplinary approach, to understand why people felt the need to kill people’.
Examining the ‘performative violence’ of the period, John found that, just as in the English Revolution, much of it mimicked methods of the authorities and in doing so made important statements: in England, about the failure of the authorities and in Ireland, about the Anglicization of Ireland.
Having retired from his teaching role at the University of Essex, John was at liberty to take up his current Fellowship at Trinity Long Room Hub and delve deeper into the 1641 Depositions as well as renew conversations with the TCD history community: ‘One of the great things about the 1641 Depositions is that it gave work to some really bright young people and I was lucky to get to know them. Some of them are still in the academic world and we’ve had a continuing dialogue, they’ve been doing work on crowds and protest, I’ve been learning from them and they’ve been learning from me. So it [is] a bit like resuming that conversation, from within the Hub.’
During his fellowship John is working on several articles under a working title that encapsulates the methodology of his career: ’Contextualising Violence, Challenging Stereotypes: Recovering the Micro-Histories of Ireland 1641’. Once again, his starting position is not to accept authority’s version of events, but to understand the context of the time and place – and as regards the view of authority, the context of 1641 is ‘that the English are civilised and civilising and the Irish are wild and resistant and barbarians – and why bother to understand what they’re doing?…’. So John will look beyond the Depositions, to communication made by the performative violence within the contemporary context and so ‘get back into the mental world of that society…understand what they did and why they did it.’
This work is balanced by what John describes as ‘light relief’: returning to writing an account of the Tichbornes, a wealthy landed Catholic family in Hampshire, famous for a complex saga that began with a charitable bequest by a 12th century Lady Tichborne and her curse on any generation of the family that failed to pay it, and the supposed ramifications of that curse as played out in a famous Victorian court case involving a false claimant to the Tichborne name. And although the Tichborne saga has been recounted many times in print and film, who can doubt that John’s forensic research will yield a fascinating new perspective?
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