Alsatia: A Very Short Introduction

Two weeks ago, I – along with 10 other PhD students – to give a brief talk at the Long Eighteenth Century Seminar at Senate House. In a variant of the Pecha Kucha format, we had just 3 minutes each to describe our projects.

My slides and talk are below. It’s more an introduction to what I am doing than the subject itself; nearly half of it is about methodology, especially the digital aspects. I hit the three minute mark – just! – and what I said was very close to the prepared text.

There was also time for a few questions, again with a strict time limit. Would I be using literary material? Yes. Was there a ‘normal’ community living in these areas? Not sure, although there certainly were landlords profiting from the added value the privileges bestowed. And what is my argument, as opposed to my subject? This is a tricky one that’s given me much pause for thought. I have themes (the geography of sanctuary, the challenge sanctuary poses to debt and prison), but not yet theories.

There were also questions posed to all the presenters, about space (most of the talks had an important geographical aspect) and about historical influences and schools. E.P. Thompson garnered the most votes there, but then, this was a social history seminar.

 

ALSATIA
The Debtor Sanctuaries of London, 1660-1724
John Levin, University of Southampton

ABSTRACT: From around 1660, until the abolition of Wapping Mint in 1724, there were areas of London apparently exempt from certain aspects of the law. The most famous of these was Whitefriars, nicknamed ‘Alsatia’, on the north bank of the Thames; the most successful was Southwark Mint, eventually dissolved in 1723.
Although frequently portrayed as criminal dens, their core population were debtors seeking – and organizing – refuge from bailiffs and imprisonment.
Starting from the Southwark amnesty lists printed in the London Gazette, my PhD seeks to create a prosopography of the debtors, to build a collective profile of those who resisted prosecution for debt.

Slide 1: Introduction
Good afternoon. I’m John Levin, and I’ve just started a PhD at Southampton, on Debtors’ sanctuaries in London, from around 1660 until 1725.

Slide 2: Sanctuaries
Sanctuary is an old – and global – phenomena, especially in its religious form, of a space overseen by the Church, with various temporary or permanent exceptions to secular legal process. Although frequently reformed and abolished, a form of sanctuary revived in London, starting in the 1660s and ending with the suppression of Wapping Mint in 1725.

These sanctuaries were not exempt from criminal law: those seeking asylum were debtors under threat of imprisonment through civil actions started by their creditors.

However, such areas attracted other groups: Southwark Mint hosted a Molly House, criminals, protesting weavers, Fleet Marriages; and also ejected the press gang in one notable riot.

Slide 3: Dimensions
I am analysing the Debtors’ sanctuaries under four headings.

First, space and place. Place is the geography of the sanctuaries themselves; space how they related to the wider context of London and the nation.

Secondly, economics. How can loans – essential to the economy, and inevitable at this time due to the lack of specie – be enforced, when repayment is simply impossible? How does sanctuary subvert such contracts? Can imprisonment adequately enforce them?

Thirdly, governance. What was the attitude of the authorities to both contract law and the sanctuaries? What were the extents and limits to their powers over these?

Finally, opposition. That is, the self-organisation of the Debtors, and how they constituted what were described as ‘Little Republicks.’

Slide 4: Methodology
There is a strong digital component as to how I analyse the refuges.

There is mapping: I need to map and ‘gazetteer’ the sanctuaries and their relation to the city. What were their limits? How many people could they house? What other facilities – inns, taverns, shops – were within? How were they distributed around London?

There is topic modelling and text mining, most especially in relation to the changing language of the statutes concerning contract, debt and debtors.

And there is prosopography.

Slide 5: Prosopography
With the dissolution of the Southwark Mint in 1723, an amnesty was offered to all those Minters with debts under £50. 6,254 people applied for this, their names, trades and home parishes being published in the London Gazette. There is an abundance of digitized material available, whether free – such as Connected Histories – or behind paywalls – Ancestry. The number of people I am dealing with makes individual searches ‘by hand’ implausible, but open to automation.

Automation allows for the creation of collective biographies, and for tools that can be applied to other social groupings.

Slide 6: End
And whilst I do this PhD, I will – I hope! – be blogging regularly.
alsatia.org.uk
I’m John Levin, and thank you for listening to me.

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