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Early Modern England, Scatological Humor, and the Democratizing Force of the Internet

By Clarissa Sansone

Sometimes an off-color joke can be more culturally revealing than a philosophical tome. Where 17th-century British gender roles are concerned, sources well outside the canon have plenty to say on the subject. Prof. Don Herzog had surmised as much, and his research confirmed it.

In his book Household Politics: Conflict in Early Modern England, Prof. Herzog examines the period between 1650 and 1750—a time "routinely cited as the setting in which patriarchy was thriving," he said—in order to demonstrate that it was "not true that patriarchal authority was naturalized," that male dominance was not unquestioningly accepted, and that politics were as prevalent in the home as in parliament. As he writes in his introduction:

I cheerfully demolish two views that have enjoyed some currency. First: people back then imagined that male power was natural or necessary, part of the woodwork of the world, not a contingent social practice that could be reformed or even abolished. Second: the public/ private distinction was gendered—so public man, private woman—and that explains the political subordination of women.

He goes on to write, "Political theorists inherit a canon…centered on abstract theoretical investigations of the ideal government. It’s a mistake to enlist those sources as the distilled essence of their times and places." Therefore, in order to backfill the "quaint divide between social and intellectual history," Prof. Herzog combed online historical databases for "popular songs, jokes, sermons, pamphlets, diaries, letters, and more"—including Jonathan Swift's crudely humorous poem "The Lady's Dressing Room," and contemporaries' lyric reactions to it—to see what the masses, as opposed to the philosophers, had to say about men's and women's roles. As the book's introduction explains, "Maybe noncanonical contemporaries had all kinds of interesting things to say about household politics. …[W]e could shrug and admit that our canon has served as a straitjacket. I hereby shrug."

When it came to doing the scholarly legwork, Prof. Herzog was pleasantly surprised. "At this point [research is] incredibly easy. It feels like cheating," he said. With the number of historical documents and early publications now digitized, it's possible to do research from the comfort of one's office—no bibliographic gymnastics of inter-library loan, no trips to special library collections overseas to hunt for original texts. Prof. Herzog praises this new availability, pointing out that even a scholar in a remote location, with a limited budget, has access to untold source documents.

Given the accessibility of his source material and its decidedly non-elitist nature ("It's like they're all in fifth grade," Prof. Herzog said of the early-English penchant for scatological humor), it's not surprising that the professor was equally democratic in publishing the book, making its entire text available for free online. "I have tenure; I don't have to worry about impressing anybody. I'm just going to put it online," Prof. Herzog said of his decision. It was after he had made this decision that Yale University Press approached him to publish the book in hard copy (which is planned for spring 2013).

The online edition of the book will remain, however (and Yale's copyedited version will also be uploaded once it's published). The market for university press books, often with high price points and low print runs, is usually limited to college libraries, and "There are other people in the world with brains in their heads," said Prof. Herzog. "I'm hell-bent on making this thing available for free."

Online historical databases (may require U-M password)
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674–1913
Early English Books Online
Eighteenth Century Collections Online
The Humanities Text Initiative


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