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Keith Thomas: Working Methods, 10 June 2010

... which could be used to support an argument or adorn a literary composition. As the historian Thomas Fuller remarked, ‘A commonplace book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field on competent warning.’These compilations were not necessarily a preparation for writing, but could become ends in ...

No High Heels in Paradise

Keith Thomas: John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum, 19 July 2001

Elysium Britannicum, or the Royal Gardens 
by John Evelyn, edited by John Ingram.
Pennsylvania, 492 pp., £49, December 2000, 0 8122 3536 3
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... though he also draws from English authors, like John Parkinson, John Rea and Sir Thomas Hanmer. He describes ‘coronary gardens’ (to produce garlands and wreaths) and ‘philosophico-medical gardens’ (yielding simples and adorned with effigies ‘of the most skillfull & illustrious Botanists, Physitians and Philosophers’). His ...

Wicked Converse

Keith Thomas: Bewitched by the Brickmaker, 12 May 2022

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World 
by Malcolm Gaskill.
Allen Lane, 308 pp., £20, November 2021, 978 0 241 41338 8
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... bewitching a cow belonging to Pynchon’s servant Francis Pepper. Another of Pynchon’s servants, Thomas Miller, cut his leg with a saw and immediately assumed that Parsons was responsible. Up to this point, Mary had kept quiet about the fact that she had given herself to the devil and that her soul, leaving her body, had attended a witches’ meeting. But ...

Universities under Attack

Keith Thomas, 15 December 2011

... We are all deeply anxious about the future of British universities. Our list of concerns is a long one. It includes the discontinuance of free university education; the withdrawal of direct public funding for the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences; the subjection of universities to an intrusive regime of government regulation and inquisitorial audit; the crude attempt to measure and increase scholarly ‘output’; the requirement that all academic research have an ‘impact’ on the economy; the transformation of self-governing communities of scholars into mega-businesses, staffed by a highly-paid executive class, who oversee the professors, or middle managers, who in turn rule over an ill-paid and often temporary or part-time proletariat of junior lecturers and research assistants, coping with an ever worsening staff-student ratio; the notion that universities, rather than collaborating in their common task, should compete with one another, and with private providers, to sell their services in a market, where students are seen, not as partners in a joint enterprise of learning and understanding, but as ‘consumers’, seeking the cheapest deals that will enable them to emerge with the highest earning prospects; the indiscriminate application of the label ‘university’ to institutions whose primary task is to provide vocational training and whose staff do not carry out research; and the rejection of the idea that higher education might have a non-monetary value, or that science, scholarship and intellectual inquiry are important for reasons unconnected with economic growth ...


Keith Thomas, 20 April 1995

Theatres of Memory. Vol. I: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture 
by Raphael Samuel.
Verso, 479 pp., £18.95, February 1995, 0 86091 209 4
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... of names and places are buzzing around: the 17th-century antiquarian was William Dugdale, not Thomas; the early Victorian author of The Mansions of England in the Olden Time was the artist Joseph Nash, not the architect John; the authority on Hadrian’s Wall is Robin Birley, not Robert; William III’s historiographer was ...

Porringers and Pitkins

Keith Thomas: The Early Modern Household, 5 July 2018

A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 
by Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson.
Yale, 311 pp., £40, October 2017, 978 0 300 19501 9
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... ballad which the opera singer Jenny Lind made wildly popular. Ten years later the great antiquary Thomas Wright published his History of Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England during the Middle Ages. Reissued in 1871 as The Homes of Other Days, it contained more than three hundred illustrations drawn from medieval manuscripts by the brilliant engraver ...


Keith Thomas: Smells of Hell, 16 July 2020

Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times 
by Robert Muchembled, translated by Susan Pickford.
Polity, 216 pp., £17.99, May, 978 1 5095 3677 1
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The Clean Body: A Modern History 
by Peter Ward.
McGill-Queen’s, 313 pp., £27.99, December 2019, 978 0 7735 5938 7
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... with strong smells tended to breed acceptance or even dependence. The Elizabethan entomologist Thomas Muffet (now remembered only for his daughter’s encounter with a spider) told the story of a man who used to clean privies entering an apothecary’s shop in Antwerp. He smelled the spices and promptly fainted. Fortunately, a bystander rushed ...

Gentle Boyle

Keith Thomas, 22 September 1994

A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in 17th-Century England 
by Steven Shapin.
Chicago, 483 pp., £23.95, June 1994, 0 226 75018 3
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... the new experimental philosophers should rely only on their own reason and experience. Sir Thomas Browne declared that ‘a powerfull enemy unto knowledge’ was ‘confident adherence unto any Authority, or resignation of our judgments upon the testimony of any Age or Author whatsoever’; and Robert Boyle ruled that it was ‘improper’ to ‘urge ...

Killing Stones

Keith Thomas: Holy Places, 19 May 2011

The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland 
by Alexandra Walsham.
Oxford, 637 pp., £35, February 2011, 978 0 19 924355 6
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... Day. The Puritan preacher Hugh Peter wanted to pull down Stonehenge, and the 18th-century Baptist Thomas Robinson boasted that he had ‘killed’ 40 stones at Avebury with his own hands. But, like the radicals who proposed that all churches and cathedrals should be razed to the ground, they were generally thought to be going too far. Protestants retained ...

Hugh Dalton to the rescue

Keith Thomas, 13 November 1997

The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home 
by Peter Mandler.
Yale, 523 pp., £19.95, April 1997, 0 300 06703 8
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Ancient as the Hills 
by James Lees-Milne.
Murray, 228 pp., £20, July 1997, 0 7195 5596 5
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The Fate of the English Country House 
by David Littlejohn.
Oxford, 344 pp., £20, May 1997, 9780195088762
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... The stately home is England’s most characteristic contribution to international tourism. Many countries have old houses which are open to the public. But neither the châteaux of the Loire nor the Palladian villas of the Brenta nor the antebellum homes of Natchez can offer the spectacle of an ancient house, set in its own gardens and park, surrounded by its agricultural estates, crammed with furniture, books and paintings from the past and, best of all, still occupied by a descendant of the family which built it ...

Verie Sillie People

Keith Thomas: Bacon’s Lives, 7 February 2013

The Oxford Francis Bacon Vol. I: Early Writings 1584-96 
edited by Alan Stewart, with Harriet Knight.
Oxford, 1066 pp., £200, September 2012, 978 0 19 818313 6
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... to editing the legal works. The result ranks among the greatest works of Victorian scholarship. Thomas Carlyle called it ‘the hugest and faithfullest bit of literary navvy work I have ever met with in this generation’. Spedding received no payment for his vast labours, but was allowed to buy copies of the finished work at the trade price. He professed ...


Keith Thomas: Two Years a Squaddie, 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 again or take up my scholarship at Oxford ...

Lights On and Away We Go

Keith Thomas: Happy Thoughts, 20 May 2021

The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 
by Ritchie Robertson.
Allen Lane, 984 pp., £40, November 2020, 978 0 241 00482 1
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... 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 another such intervention: God ‘purposely chose such a place, where there is so great a concourse of nobility and gentry every year ...

Death in Cumbria

Alan Macfarlane, 19 May 1983

Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 
by Keith Thomas.
Allen Lane, 426 pp., £14.95, March 1983, 0 7139 1227 8
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... love for the wild, the wet and the non-artificial was most developed. Part of the achievement of Keith Thomas’s delightful new book is to explain these paradoxes. His central argument is that these are not real oppositions, but are linked as cause and effect. It was because of the urbanism, the industrialism and the general distancing and control of ...

Apocalypse Now and Then

Frank Kermode, 25 October 1979

The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850 
by J.F.C. Harrison.
Routledge, 277 pp., £9.95
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... Thanks to​ the work of Norman Cohn, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Keith Thomas and others, we have, over the past few years, acquired a lot of information about millenarianism as a social and historical force. The belief that the end is nigh, or that a new series of times is about to begin, is very ancient, but it is also modern ...

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