British Museum blog

Horses: by royal appointment


Nigel Tallis, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

Royal Jubilee weekend is here. You may well be tuning in to watch the royal regatta work its way down the River Thames, or even going to watch the festivities in person.

We’re thinking royally right now at the British Museum, as we celebrate the opening of our new exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. Her Majesty the Queen is the royal patron of the exhibition, whose great knowledge of horses is well known, but horses have been important to royalty for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Think of the royal family and horses and you’ll think of carriages on the way to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, of champion race-winners and the Queen’s own racing colours of purple, scarlet and gold. Aspects of these are all included in the exhibition and we also feature stories of royalty and their fascination with horses through the millennia.

Here’s a wonderful portrait medal by Pisanello, one of the first of its kind, showing the Byzantine or East Roman, emperor John VIII Palaeologus (1392–1448) riding a horse befitting a medieval monarch – interestingly, it was given to the Museum by another royal, the British King George IV (1738–1820).

Medal showing the emperor John VIII Palaeologus on horseback

The Amarna letters from New Kingdom Egypt – a group of clay tablets written in Babylonian cuneiform – form a diplomatic archive of letters sent to the kings of Egypt from fellow rulers in the Middle East. They vividly reflect how the possession of chariots and horses was a key indicator of prestige and status at the time.

Crop from the Amarna Letters, letter from Burnaburiash II to Amenhotep II

But kings haven’t always used horses for peaceful means. This 15th century manuscript painting shows a fierce cavalry battle between two much earlier Sasanian kings, Khusrow II and Bahram VI.

Battle between Khusrow II and Bahram VI

And here’s a charming drawing by Rembrandt, probably inspired by a set of Mughal miniatures. It’s thought to show another royal, Shah Jahan (reigned 1627-1658) riding on horseback.

A Mughal nobleman on horseback by Rembrandt

Don’t forget: if the exhibition is too busy to get into, you can see the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, riding on horseback and in a chariot, hunting lions in the famous reliefs which are the pinnacle of Assyrian art. They are on display in Room 17, throughout the exhibition’s run.

 

The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

The Beau Street Hoard: what’s in the box?

Eleanor Ghey, project curator, British Museum

Hoards of Roman coins from later in the third century AD are the most common sort of coin hoards we see at the British Museum but the Beau Street Hoard is very unusual. When I saw the X-ray of the hoard I was very excited to see what looked like clearly separate bags of coins deposited in a group – normally coins are found in a pot or in a hole in the ground together in one lump. Here we have at least six (and probably more) groups of coins – several hoards in one! It was even more exciting to learn that it was going to be possible for my colleague Julia Tubman to isolate the groups.

It raises all sorts of questions. Do the bags contain the same sorts of coins or different ones? Do they each contain the same amount in Roman money or in weight of metal? Are they all coins that were circulating at the same date or are they deposits of coins from different time-periods gathered together at a later date for re-burial?

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation. © University of Southampton

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation taken at the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences. © University of Southampton

It is already possible to start to speculate about the contents of the hoard from the few coins that have been removed from the block (although it may still hold surprises). The coins are mostly of the denomination known as a ‘radiate’ (from the spiky crown the emperor wears on the obverse (front) of the coin).

A silver radiate of Gordian III from the hoard

A silver radiate of Gordian III from the hoard

This type of coin first appears in the early third century AD and at the time was of a value double that of the denarius (the main silver coin in the earlier years of the Roman Empire). Initially, like the denarius this was a silver coin. Gradually over time the silver content of the radiate was reduced, until (by the 270s AD) they were almost entirely base metal (copper alloy) and became smaller in size.

The first coins Julia removed from the block were large and silvery in appearance (once cleaned) and came mostly from the first half of the third century AD. The earliest coin was a denarius of the emperor Septimius Severus (ruled AD 193-211) and the latest were coins of the emperor Gallienus and his wife, Salonina, dated to the AD 260s. This would be fairly typical for the contents of a hoard buried in the AD 260s.

A silver denarius of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) from the British Museum collection

A silver denarius of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) from the British Museum collection

However, when the hoard was first discovered, a sample of coins taken from another area of the block was quite different in nature. These were the smaller, more coppery radiates of the AD 270s (the most common type of coins we find in hoards from the 270s to 290s). This suggests that we may be dealing with bags containing different groups of coins, possibly gathered together at different times or sorted before burial.

Was this a secure store for bags of money that was added to gradually by one or more people over a fairly long period of time? It seems like an official store of money, organised into bags and purposely concealed in a place designed for that purpose. It was certainly a large amount of money (although we don’t have data for the later third century, pay scales for legionary soldiers in the AD 230s suggest they would have received about two and a half of these coins as a day’s wage) and it could have been looked after by an individual with authority.

It is rare to find hoards in Roman town centres. Perhaps it belonged to a local business in what was a busy town centre (deposited in a safe place in the way we leave money at the bank today). Why was it left for the archaeologists to find and not recovered by its owner?

Was there any connection with the nearby temple and sacred spring? We know that temples had treasuries; they may have periodically emptied out some of the coins thrown into the spring.

We are hoping that results from the archaeological excavation of the findspot will shed further light on this puzzle.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Beau Street Hoard, Conservation, , , ,

Horses and human history


Nigel Tallis, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

For 5000 years the horse has been an ever-present ally in war and peace. Civilisations have risen and fallen on their backs and evidence of the horse’s use is everywhere to be seen. Yet somehow, following the increasing pace of mechanisation in the 1930s, we have so quickly forgotten how indebted we are to the domestication of this animal.

Before the development of the steam locomotive in the early 1800s, the only way to travel on land faster than human pace was by horse. Since travel is one of the defining features of human development, so the history of the horse is the history of civilisation itself.

The upcoming exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot (opening 24 May) explores how horses have helped to shape our history for thousands of years.

Oxus chariot model, Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC

Oxus chariot model, Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC

Horses were first domesticated in around 3500 BC, probably on the steppes of southern Russia and Kazakhstan, and introduced to the Ancient Near East in about 2300 BC. Before this time, people used donkeys as draught animals and beasts of burden. The adoption of the horse was one of the single most important discoveries for early human societies. Horses and other animals were used to pull wheeled vehicles, chariots, carts and wagons and horses were increasingly used for riding in the Near East from at least c. 2000 BC onwards.

Horses were used in war, in hunting and as a means of transport. They were animals of high prestige and importance and are widely represented in ancient art, often with great insight and empathy.

The exhibition looks at how and why Middle Eastern horses, especially Arabians, were especially sought after and introduced into Britain for selective breeding between the 17th and 18th centuries, and shows how the vast majority of modern Thoroughbred racehorses are descended from just three celebrity stallions.

Paintings, including famous works by George Stubbs and William Powell Frith, prints, silverware and memorabilia explore horses in British society, especially in recreation and competition, from race meetings through to modern Olympic equestrian events.

So, how indebted are we to the horse?

We hope that this exhibition will help remind us of the long and fruitful alliance between humans and horses.

 

The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

The Beau Street Hoard: excavating Roman treasure, one coin at a time


Julia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

In November 2007, during a routine archaeological excavation in advance of building work in Beau Street, Bath (a stone’s throw from the famous Roman Baths themselves), archaeologists came upon what was clearly a very large number of coins contained within a cist (a stone-lined box). Upon further excavation, they quickly came to realise they were looking at one of the largest coin hoards found in the UK, representing quite a tumultuous time in Roman Britain – about AD 270.

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

When groups of coins that appear to be over 300 years old are found, they must be reported to the local coroner (according to the Treasure Act 1996). The coins enter what we call the ‘Treasure Process’ where, if necessary for identification, they will be cleaned in preparation for their formal declaration as Treasure and the property of the Crown, or eventual valuation. Usually this occurs at the British Museum, or in the case of Welsh Treasure cases, the National Museum of Wales.

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

In order to preserve its shape and context, the archaeologists cut around the hoard and lifted it in a soil block. As a metals conservator at the British Museum, my job is to excavate the coins from the soil and clean them up. The initial excavation should take about six weeks and during that time I will be regularly adding to this blog with updates of my work as it progresses. Colleagues from curatorial departments and our science team who are involved with the project will also contribute as the hoard gradually reveals its story.

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The coins are currently held together by soil and metallic corrosion. They are blue and green in colour indicating the corrosion of a copper metal, which would have been used as a base alloy for the coins. Interestingly, within this copper corrosion is actually a layer of silver that was plated over the copper during the manufacture of the coins.

The coins have also maintained the shape of the cist they were contained within, as the soil and corrosion has concreted together. Looking more closely, we can even see that there are groups of coins within the hoard; which is because this large hoard appears to be composed of six individual smaller hoards.

We had an idea that this could be the case because in December last year Dr. Mavrogordato, from the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences, kindly took x-rays of the block. The resulting images show what look to be ‘bags’ of coins. We don’t know whether the bags themselves have survived (they could have been made of an organic material such as textile or leather), but the corroded coins have kept the shape of their containers and I will be looking for evidence of them.

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

As my job will involve excavating the hoard, knowing that there are individual bags of coins gives me a very good starting point as it means I can deconstruct the soil block bag by bag. It will be very interesting to see if the coins were bagged together for a particular reason; for example, if they were grouped by emperor or denomination.

I’ve cleaned a few loose coins already and, after stripping away the copper corrosion, I’ve found some very impressive silver surfaces (nicer than we had previously hoped!) Given the large number of coins in the soil block, I’m hoping to be able to clean as many coins as possible using chemicals such as formic acid, rather than by hand using a scalpel. I have 18 months to complete this project, so time is of the essence.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

Initial estimates put the number of coins at around 30,000. After having excavated the block a little since then, guesses about the maximum number of coins in the hoard have decreased and estimates vary between everyone looking at it. Readers of the blog are welcome to suggest their own figures – I say no more than 22,000 coins, what do you think?

Removing the tough shell of the copper corrosion layer is important not just to find shiny surfaces but also to find the detail on the coins needed for identification by my colleagues in the Coins and Medals department, Eleanor Ghey and Richard Abdy (who will be blogging about the significance of the find next week). At this early stage in the project, I’m only cleaning the coins so that they can be identified: I’m not cleaning them for display, by completely removing all the corrosion or soil; that would require more time.

Some of the coins after being cleaned

Some of the coins after being cleaned

When looking at Roman coins, specialists will be hoping to identify features on the ‘obverse’ (side bearing the bust of an emperor or an important relative) and the ‘reverse’ (side bearing representations of deities, animals, and other important Roman symbols). The subjects depicted on Roman coins varied according to emperor and coins of more than one emperor could be in circulation at any given time. On both sides, revealing enough of the ‘legend’ (the writing around the edge of the coin) is important, especially where the figure in the centre is very corroded or worn. Eleanor and Richard will also be looking closely for any mint marks on the coins (usually on the reverse) which indicate where in the empire the coin was struck, so I’ll have to be very careful when cleaning to reveal as much detail as possible.

Coins identified thus far have shown a real mix of the many Roman emperors of the third century AD (it was such a politically unstable time that many of them only got to reign a few years): Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), Gordian III (AD 238-249), Philip I (AD 244-249), Decius (AD 249-251), Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253), Aemilian (AD 253), Valerian I (AD 253-260), Gallienus (AD 253-268) and Postumus (AD 260- 268).

The Roman Baths Museum hopes to purchase the hoard and eventually display it to the public. It’s fantastic to know where the hoard might ultimately end up, and I’m working closely with curator Stephen Clews at the Roman Baths.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Beau Street Hoard, Conservation, , , , ,

Pinning it down: the installation of the Money Gallery


Amanda Gregory, Senior Museum Assistant, British Museum

I manage the team of four Museum Assistants in the Department of Coins and Medals, and we are responsible for all aspects of practical collections care, which includes exhibition installation, loans, gallery maintenance, documentation and supervision of the Study Room, where any interested visitor can examine objects from our collection of over one million coins, medals, banknotes, badges and tokens.

The Citi Money Gallery installation is by far the biggest project I have ever dealt with, and one of the biggest challenges has been the schedule. In any gallery refurbishment, the objects are always installed last, after all the building, decoration and case refurbishment has been completed. This is to ensure that our collection material, particularly sensitive metal, is not adversely affected by fumes given off by paints and varnishes, a process known as “off-gassing”. The opening date is fixed, so if the initial building works overrun, the period we have to install the objects is squeezed.

Some money boxes ready to be installed in the gallery

Some money boxes ready to be installed in the gallery

We begin installing the first of over a thousand objects this week, and have three weeks to complete the task. In the meantime we have been laying out all of the panels for the wall cases and pinning the objects. As we have 48 panels to pin in a small department overflowing with numismatists, horizontal surfaces are at a premium.

Underwear with a concealed pocket to store cash

Underwear with a concealed pocket to store cash

As well as familiar objects like coins, medals, banknotes and tokens, we have had to tackle more unusual items such as a Barbie cash register, a beer-can shaped money box, and perhaps the most bizarre of all, a pair of lacy ladies’ pants with a concealed pocket to store cash. My colleague Henry nobly took up the challenge of pinning this item, which inevitably made him the butt of many lame jokes. Moments of levity like this, together with the plentiful supply of home-baked cake provided by a kindly curatorial colleague, have kept our spirits up during this challenging time.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, ,

Not of an age, but for all time

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Shakespeare Goes Global looks at how Shakespeare’s audience left the Globe and became the whole world.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


Barrie Cook, radio series curator, British Museum

Working with Neil on the Shakespeare’s Restless World programmes as series curator, I usually felt I had a pretty good idea of the focus and trajectory of each episode as it reached broadcast point. This was not at all the case for the final programme Shakespeare Goes Global. So many ideas, so many directions, so many locations had been mooted throughout the development of the script that, listening to the final version, my inside knowledge wasn’t that much better than anyone else’s. For this final blog post, we thought it might be interesting to look at some of the ideas that got away, from some that were dismissed in an instant to others that remained for some time through the development process.

For a while, Shakespeare’s impact on popular culture was going to play a big part: a programme that could open with the Beatles (‘Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song’, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) and end with the Arctic Monkeys (‘Oh, there ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets/ Are just banging tunes and DJ sets and/ Dirty dance-floors, and dreams of naughtiness!’). En route, we’d maybe call in on foreign-language Shakespeare, from the films of Kurosawa and Kozintsev, and dramatic re-workings like Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet) and of course YouTube hits (Green Eggs and Hamlet; the Star Wars Macbeth).

Shakespeare himself began as a purveyor of a vulgar form of entertainment, using understandable language full of references to the world he and his audience inhabited; he used clowns and caricatures and lots of jokes, good, bad and dirty. He wrote song and dance into his plays, some of which were virtually musicals well before Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story, and he set his own words to the pop hits of the day. He revisited other playwrights’ work and was happy to collaborate with co-authors, like a Hollywood screen-writer. So perhaps he wouldn’t have minded if, in turn, his own words and characters were adopted and adapted by generations of artists and entertainers. Even The Klingon Hamlet.

The core object for this final episode is one from the 20th century, a book of Shakespeare’s complete works annotated by prisoners from Robben Island. However, to keep in with the spirit of the series, we felt strongly that we also needed a firm root in the time of Shakespeare. Therefore the impact of the First Folio, the first Collected Works of Shakespeare, would inevitably loom large. Shakespeare himself, it seems, had next to no interest in publishing his plays (unlike Ben Jonson), so it was left to his friends to do it for him after his death.

There is so much to say about the First Folio – how many plays survive only through it, especially for the later part of his career; how important it was in creating the idea of the celebrity author and the cult of Shakespeare; how it changed attitudes to the importance of drama in English. For a while the story of the First Folio in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (acquired hot off the press in the 1620s and with a fascinating history), was going to be the focus of this approach, but it was too much of a digression. A little of this remains in the programme, now focussed on the British Library’s First Folio, but much does not.

The Eric Gill sculpture of Prospero and Ariel on the front
of BBC’s Broadcasting House

The interaction of Shakespeare with the BBC from the first broadcast of his work on 16 February 1923 was always going to be important, and remains in the final version of the programme. Inevitably dropping away was the bizarre controversy over the size of Ariel’s genitals on the Eric Gill sculpture of Prospero and Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House, arbitrated by a committee of eminent Shakespeareans and medical experts. Any reader of Shakespeare knows that prudery was not one of his characteristics and he would presumably have found this whole business in equal parts baffling and hilarious.

From the 2012 commemorative coinage to the opening ceremony of the Olympics (to take its cue from The Tempest’s ‘Be not afeard: the isle is full of voices’), Shakespeare is inescapable this year. Yet he always is; we just don’t usually focus on his importance so consciously.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Shakespeare Goes Global

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

The legacy of a gruesome death

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode The Theatres of Cruelty considers spectacles of torture both on and off the stage.


Jan Graffius, Curator, Stonyhurst College

Relics like this one would be probably the most moving testament to the bravery of those priests who were working undercover in England. Although the contents are rather gruesome, it would have been a very beloved reminder of their faith and a powerful inspiration to the English Catholics to hold firm because men had given blood for their faith. It might even be an inspiration to young boys to follow in their footsteps and become priest themselves.

Relics served as a reminder of what was in front of you. For many priests, the crown of martyrdom was the ultimate sign of God’s favour. Jesuit priests who served in England and came back to Europe without having been caught often describe themselves as too unworthy to share the crown of martyrdom.

Martyrdom wasn’t something they sought but it was something that was a huge honour if it occurred to them. This small relic is a reminder of the brutality, the courage and also the rightness of the faith because if somebody is willing to lay down their life in the most horrible way, the most dreadful form of execution, they have to be absolutely certain that they are doing it for good, strong and true reasons.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme The Theatres of Cruelty

Find out more:

Stonyhurst College

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

Description of the Arches

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode London Becomes Rome looks at the grand and theatrical coronation of King James I.


Ruth Levis, British Museum

The illustrations of the triumphal arches featured in today’s programme were published in a book, The Arches of Triumph, ‘invented and published’ by Stephen Harrison, the man behind the arches’ creation. Here is his description that accompanied The Temple of Janus (the Roman god of beginnings and transitions), the final arch in the procession.

The Temple of Janus. © Trustees of the British Museum

The seventh and last Pegme (within the Citie) was erected at Temple-barre [Temple Bar], beeing adioyned close to the Gate: The Building was in all points like a Temple, and dedicated to Janus Quadrifrons.

Beneath that Foure-fac’d head of Janus was advancd the Armes of the Kingdome, with the Supporters cut out to the life: from whence being remoude they now are placed in the Guild Hall.

The wals and gates of this Temple were brasse; the Pillars silver, their Capitals and Bases gold: All the Frontispice (downeward from those Armes) was beutified and supported by twelve rich Columnes, of which the foure lowermost, being great Corinthian pillers, stood upon two large Pedestals, with a faire Vaux over them in stead of Architriue, Frieze and Cornice.

Above them, eight Columnes more, were likewise set, two and two upon a large Pedestall; for as our worke began (for his Maiesties entrance) with Rusticke, so did wee thinke it fit, that this out Temple, should end with the most famous Columne, whose beauty and goodlinesse is derived both from the Tuscane, Doricke, Ionicke and Corinthian, and received his full perfection from Titus Vespasin, who advanced it to the highest place of dignitie his Arch Triumphall, and (by reason that the beauties of it were a mixture taken from the rest) he gave it the name of Composita or Italica: within the Temple stood an Altar, with burning Incese upon it, before which a Flamin appears, and to the Flamin comes the Genius of the City.

The principall person in this Temple, was Peace. At her feete lay Warre groueling. At her right hand stood Wealth. On the same hand likewise, but somewhat remote, and in a Cant by her selfe, Quiet was seated, the first hand maide of Peace, whose feete stood vpon Tumult. On the left hand (at the former distance) Liberty the second hand-maide of Peace had her place, at whose feete Seruitude lay subiected. Beneath these (on distinct degrees) sate two other hand maides of Peace, Safey and Felicity, Safety trampling upon Danger and Felcity upon Unhappinesse. Genius and Flamin spake thus much.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme London Becomes Rome

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

Avoiding the plague

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Plague and the Playhouse looks at impact of the plague on Shakespeare’s London.

Plague proclamations from King James I. © The British Library Board


Dr Richard Barnett, Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow and Honorary Research Fellow, UCL

The most common kind of plague and the kind most associated with historical plague is bubonic plague. The bacterium gets into the body and into the lymph nodes, generally found in the neck, shoulder, armpit, and groin. The bacterium reproduce in these lymph nodes and swell up and go black. In some cases they burst open and you get really nasty abscesses.

With bubonic plague you fall into a deep fever, you get multiple organ failure, your body starts to shut down and it has about 30 – 60% mortality rate. A period of about a week is the period in which you would either die or recover from the disease.

Certainly in modern terms it is treatable and there are various interventions with drugs and organ support that can be done. In terms of the medicine available in Shakespeare’s time, it was widely acknowledged by physicians and priests and the state that by far the best thing to do was just not to get this disease.

Most of the interventions that people make are about prevention and then about isolating people when they do get the disease. The classic image of prevention is the pictures of doctors wearing these very striking, rather beak-like masks which are filled up with herbs and the idea is that if you breathe through these masks you will purify the putrescent air that is causing the plague so you won’t suffer it yourself. One reads of aristocrats carrying around pomanders and nose-gays and walking through poor areas with these things held to their faces to try and purify the air.

There is also a very strong emphasis on keeping yourself healthy and this isn’t just about physical health, this is as much about what we would now call a spiritual and emotional and religious health. It is about confessing your sins, making sure you have a good relationship with God, so that God doesn’t decide to strike you down with this disease.

Going to the theatre was a very bad idea for your health, not only physically because you were crammed into a space with all these other terrible, dirty groundlings, but because the theatre was an immoral pastime.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Plague and the Playhouse

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

Perceptions of time

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode A Time of Change, a Change of Time explores the shifts in how time was measured and perceived.


Paul Glennie, University of Bristol

Most places had particularly elaborate ringing of the day bell, a period of continuous ringing for two or three minutes or more. It was an unmistakable marker of the day and it had important cueing information. It was a priming trigger, as it were.

There wasn’t a standard hour at which everything started but work very often started at a set time for a particular task or a particular workshop – and the presence of several people may have been necessary because work needed to be coordinated. If one imagines a Blacksmith’s, one needed to have a number of people working at the same time and in phase with one another so they all needed to be present once the forge was up and running, but those who were responsible for maintaining the fire need to be present earlier to get things started and so forth.

In Shakespeare’s time there would be plenty of sectors of the London economy in which workers were rather familiar with the idea of being driven hard to make sure that they worked a full day. But there was plenty of complaining about the volume and intensity of work and about hard task-masters long before time discipline comes in.

Although it might be very easy to blame the clock and the strong sense of urgency it brings, anyone who supposes that life in the pre-industrial countryside was an idyllic kind of existence doesn’t have a sense of how urgent it was to get the harvest in before it rained, for example.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme A Time of Change, a Change of Time

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

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