Conference report: “Prisons and Prison Writing in Early Modern Britain”

Last week, on Monday 10 April, I was fortunate enough to attend a day conference hosted by the International John Bunyan Society on “Prisons and Prison Writing in Early Modern Britain” held at Northumbria University. Given how relevant the conference was to this blog, and how enjoyable it was, I thought I’d provide a brief report on proceedings.

Jerome de Groot presented the first keynote, “‘Ile make my very Gaole your Liberty’: Royalist Prison Writing”, an excellent paper that sought to position the prison text as a central genre of the early modern period, building on understandings of prisons as a central site of literary production. In particular, he argued that prison writing was a core part of a vibrant and inventive royalist literature that explored the complex experience of duty and loyalty among supporters of the King. He noted how self-depictions of conviviality within loyalist prison communities functioned as a form of resistance to parliamentary persecution, a demonstration of freedom of the mind despite the constraints of the body. On the other hand, Jerome fascinatingly showed how royalists drew upon stoic philosophy to undergird prison experiences, revealing how royalists likened imprisonment to martyrdom. He linked this to the sudden rise in interest in Boethius during this period, arguing that he provided a theory of virtuous suffering to incarcerated royalists.

Following this, there was a panel of PhD students working on prisons and prison writing. Jenny Cryar, a student at Queen Mary, London, presented some of her fascinating research in a paper titled “‘They are temperate here, for they eate not ouer much’: Life in London’s Bridewell”. Jenny was drawn this project, she explained, by the phrase “except Bridewell”, which she found throughout the literature on early modern prisons, distinguishing Bridewell from London’s many medieval gaols. Bridewell, she explained, was something new, a deliberate attempt at a novel programme of social reform through labour. As a charitable institution, it did not operate on a system of fees for profit, and those fees that were charged were more tightly controlled. Bridewell also had its own court, with the power to punish petty crimes and misdemeanours much more quickly than in the established legal system. This was a fascinating paper on a well-known but understudied institution that shed light on changing early modern attitudes towards vagrancy, social control and incarceration.

After Jenny’s paper, I presented some research on social control and self-government in London’s seventeenth-century prisons, and was followed by Maximilian J. Hölzl’s paper “Protective Custody at Wartburg and the “Denn” at Bedford: Bunyan’s Affinity with Luther”. He traced some telling connections between Bunyan’s thought and some of Luther’s works in exile, as well Bunyan’s prison use of Fox’s Book of Martyrs, which contains a detailed account of the reformer’s persecutions. Thus, Maximilian explored how, despite significant theological differences, Bunyan had a distinct affinity for Luther, perhaps explained by shared experiences of incarceration, exile and persecution for their religious beliefs.

After lunch, we enjoyed a panel on connections between imprisonment and religious nonconformity in seventeenth-century England. Although Catie Gill sadly couldn’t be at the conference, her paper—“‘For the Truth … and Good Conscience’: The Polemics of Quaker Prison Writing”—was nonetheless valiantly delivered by Jenna Townend. The paper traced George Fox’s autobiographical depiction of his imprisonment, including a veritable ‘rogues gallery’ of legal officials and prison staff, whose misfortunes and deaths Fox attributed to providential punishments for Quaker sufferings. It concluded with a revealing discussion of how, writing in the 1690s, William Penn chose to focus on Fox’s forbearance of suffering rather than the (by then outdated) emphasis on providential vengeance.

This second panel was concluded by Rachel Adcock’s engaging paper, “‘The resurrection to all in darkness”: Baptism and Release in the Works of Anna Trapnel (c.1654-59),” which explored mixed metaphors of baptism and release. Trapnel underwent believer’s baptism shortly after her release from Bridewell, and Rachel considered how baptism memorialised and vindicated her trials in prison. Baptism as a death and resurrection was thus mirrored in the descent into, and deliverance from, incarceration. This metaphor was extended beyond the individual, so that the ritual of baptism offered the promise of millenarian release from worldly persecution to all believers.

The conference concluded with a keynote from Molly Murray entitled “Freedom, Constraint, and the Rule of Art: Prison Poetics in an Age of Emergency”. Molly suggested that imprisonment was not so much a system of constraint but a state of emergency: a precarious and anxious predicament. She argued that the 1530s to the 1680s amounted to an “age of emergency” in the early modern prison, which experienced a simultaneous breakdown of rules and an emerging of the significance for imprisonent. This was the outcome of the exercise of power in moments of emergency, starting in earnest with the expansion of the penal code and extra-legal uses of imprisonment under Henry VIII. This began a period in which imprisonment was characterised by the exercise of Royal prerogative power and arbitrary imprisonment that only slowed with the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Molly also argued that there was a parallel concern about arbitrary power within prisons themselves, which operated in an ad hoc and chaotic manner at the whim of prison staff. Thus, she suggested that prisoners didn’t necessarily want greater freedoms, but increased and more discernible order, and that prison writing, particularly verse, offered ‘surrogate’ order through the rules of art.

Molly’s was a provocative and exciting paper, concluding a day that revealed the ongoing vibrancy of studies of early modern prison writing. The special 2009 issue of the Huntington Library Quarterly (vol. 72, no. 2) on prison writing in early modern Britain (itself the product of a conference) has quickly become one of the foundational texts on early modern imprisonment, and it was fascinating to see how the field has developed in the past seven years. We heard how scholars like Jerome, Molly and Catie have developed and refined their conceptions of early modern prisons and the writing they produced, as well as to see how new researchers have approached the subject since. Many thanks are owed to Bob Owens, Rachel Adcock and David Walker for organising such a thought provoking day.


Finally, while on the topic of conferences, I am going to shamelessly take this opportunity to plug my own Call for Papers for “Ordering the margins of society: space, authority and control in early modern Britain”, a workshop to be held at the Institute of Historical Research, London on 5 September. I’m organising it with two other fellows at the IHR, Charmian Mansell and Joe Harley, and it’s already shaping up to be a great event. Please circulate widely and submit abstracts!

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