Tag Archives: phd

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.


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.
I’m John Levin, and thank you for listening to me.

From Blog to PhD

I am happy to announce that, come September, I will be starting a PhD at the University of Southampton, with the debtors’ sanctuaries of late seventeenth and early eighteenth London as my subject.

I started this blog for three reasons. The first was simply to find out what lay behind this enigmatic word ‘Alsatia’. Consulting the usual histories of London would not suffice for what little is known of the sanctuaries is eclipsed by presumption and fiction. This tale was yet to be told. In order to tell it,  the sources needed collecting, transcribing, organizing; and reading, teasing out their many attributes, contents and contexts. Research requires some level of organization (but not too much of it); the ad-hoc nature of the blogging format seemed suitable for it.

This happily coincided with my second ambition, to have a digital history project to call my own. I wanted to get experience of every aspect of building it, from writing and design to curation and coding, and all the mundane maintenance. The total is more than the sum of the parts, yet the parts are entwined and and work upon each other. The nature of the subject has meant that this hasn’t been particularly taxing; being mainly text-based and lacking numerical data there’s little need for anything beyond the standard WordPress features. (This will be changing when I get the amnesty lists in good order.) There are, however, a host of tweaks yet to be made to the site.

Beyond the technical and academic aspects, such a project also has a social dimension. By publishing on the internet, I’m inviting others to read my work; by publishing documents – and specifying their status as public domain – I’m inviting others to share and reuse. And in turn I’ve re-used others’ work – ballads from EBBA, accounts from the Old Bailey Online. This is one example of the happy effects the open internet has on historical practice; without it this blog would not be possible. Partaking of this network – giving and taking, joining in – was my third aim.

The PhD will change my circumstances more than anything else. It gives me time and space to focus on the subject, allows access to those infuriatingly restricted-access databases, and opens some archival doors. The blog will continue, at a higher tempo I hope, gathering the sources but also giving more and broader analysis.

What will not change is my commitment to an open history. I think it essential that any historical argument should exhibit its method and evidence. I see the internet as augmenting the text with all its ‘dependencies.’ I consider the computer to be a most versatile tool for reading. I know that potentially everything can be at everyone’s fingertips.

Yet I am astonished that so much great research is so difficult to access.  I am outraged that documents long in the public domain should – at the very moment when reproduction becomes trivial – be locked up by copyright and paywall. I am mystified that those same documents are often poorly curated. I am dumbstruck at the prices charged for them.

And given that the past flows into our present, that it materially affects our lives, I believe it an ethical imperative that history should be a commons for all to partake of.