Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas is working on a collection of his essays.

These days​, Springfield is the most populous suburb of Chelmsford, the county town of Essex. But until the 1950s it was a mere village, situated a mile north-east of the city on the old Roman road. This is where William Pynchon, a key figure in Malcolm Gaskill’s new book, went to live in 1610. Born in 1590 in Writtle, another Essex village, he grew up to be a convinced Puritan,...

On​ 1 November 1755 an earthquake in Lisbon, followed by fire and floods, killed between thirty and sixty thousand people. The disaster, all the preachers said, was God’s punishment for sinfulness. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, saw it as divine vengeance for the cruelties of the Portuguese Inquisition. He had identified a minor earthquake near a racecourse in Yorkshire as...

Noisomeness: Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas, 16 July 2020

Ionceasked the great historian Richard Southern whether he would like to have met any of the medieval saints and churchmen about whom he wrote so eloquently. He gave a cautious reply: ‘I think they probably had very bad breath.’ He may have been right about that, but it would be wrong to infer that this was something which didn’t bother them. The men and women of the...

The history​ of domestic life is not a new subject. Like so much else, it was pioneered in the Victorian age, when the cult of domesticity reached its peak. In 1852 the composer Henry Bishop relaunched ‘Home, Sweet Home’, the parlour ballad which the opera singer Jenny Lind made wildly popular. Ten years later the great antiquary Thomas Wright published his History of Domestic...

Diary: Two Years a Squaddie

Keith Thomas, 5 February 2015

I sometimes have​ bad dreams about being back in the army. It’s not that the experience of National Service was entirely unpleasant; indeed some of it was highly enjoyable. But even at the best of times there was a sense of living in an open prison. In my case, this oppressive sense of unfreedom lay in the knowledge that it would be many long months before I would see my family...

Civility​ as a concept, or an ideal, didn’t take hold in England until the 16th century – when the national mood, insofar as we can speak of one, was a mixture of bravado and...

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Keith Thomas prefaces this book with a quotation from the greatest of English medievalists, F.W. Maitland: ‘A century hence . . . by slow degrees the thoughts of our forefathers,...

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Death in Cumbria

Alan Macfarlane, 19 May 1983

England in the 19th century presented the enquiring foreigner with a series of strange paradoxes. It was the most urbanised country in the world, yet the one where the yearning for the...

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