British Museum blog

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

Building a nation

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode The Flag That Failed examines some of the challenges involved in uniting England and Scotland.

Design proposals for the new flag of Great Britain, from 1603-4. © The Trustees of the National Library of Scotland


John Morrill, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Cambridge

I think James had real problems with the union of England and Scotland from the very beginning. There was the great problem that he was a Scot taking over England – the junior kingdom taking over the senior kingdom, as it were – by which I mean that for many centuries the English had claimed that Scotland was a feudal dependency of England.

Such historical prejudices and historical legacies made it very difficult for a rapid movement. Initially, James went for an all-out push for union; political union, economic union, religious union. But very quickly he saw that the scale of the opposition was too great so he backed off and went for what he called the `union of hearts and minds’.

There was such a long animosity between the peoples of England and Scotland that the idea of them becoming one new people came up against a huge amount of prejudice. James wanted to try and get rid of this prejudice. For many centuries there had been border raiding and people in the far north of England rustling and stealing in southern Scotland and visa versa. What James did was to create a new administrative structure called the Middle Shires which brought the English and Scots together to sort out lawlessness in this particular region, and it worked pretty well.

James did small things wherever he could which slowly and surely moved the two nations towards being willing to have more of a union. He created a new coinage and, as we hear in today’s programme, he attempts to create a flag for this new nation.

What he couldn’t do is anything which affected legal freedom, and he couldn’t touch the property of the subjects in either kingdom without the agreements of his parliaments. The problem was the English would always preferred to create common institutions covering the whole of the island, so there would be one parliament, there would be one system of law, there would be one church. What the Scots preferred was a federal structure in which both countries retained independent institutions but they co-ordinated, they worked together. In a sense the Scots would always prefer devolution to integration.

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 Flag That Failed

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

The role of the pedlar

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Disguise and Deception looks at the importance of appearances in Elizabethan England.


Margaret Spufford, historian

The pedlar was a very elusive figure indeed. He (or she – there were women pedlars too) was peripatetic and they lived literally near the edge of society, the vagrant fringe.

Pedlars were essentially salesmen who worked in and out of markets and there were large groups of them around big towns. London had the largest contingent of pedlars who would have worked out of the city, up and down the roads. There would have been people circulating to and fro; some people travelled as far as Edinburgh to London and back. They travelled by foot, carrying their wares in packs on their backs. As they became more prosperous, they might have been able to afford to buy a horse.

As well as pedlars based in the bigger cities, there were those based solely in individual market towns all over the country. They would live in a market town and would work out of it, circulating during the week to spread wares.

Pedlars were also entertainers. They were certainly multi-skilled and often earned their night’s lodging by singing. They sang, told stories, shared the latest news. Pedlars were talkers and were highly socially skilled people. In fact, I would say that the whole business of singing and performing which you find amongst these people is an aid to selling. The skills are almost indistinguishable, they have to be entertainers to make a living.

Their role was extremely important in circulating goods and news very widely, but they were unpopular with the authorities. Pedlars were heavily legislated against. I think there were something like 11 bills in parliament against pedlars and hawkers in the 17th century. They were beaten, they were unpopular and with a town’s shopkeeper they were very unpopular indeed because their living was being undercut by the pedlars’ presence.

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 Disguise and Deception

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

The Salcombe Bay treasure

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode From London to Marrakech looks at sunken treasure and global trade networks.


Venetia Porter, curator, British Museum

This extraordinary find, discovered at Salcombe Bay in Devon in 1994, provides a glimpse into a fascinating period of history. In 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Barbary Company was established to facilitate trade between England and Morocco. English merchants were excited by the commercial possibilities of obtaining sugar, saltpetre for making gunpowder and gold which was in short supply in Europe at this time.

Stories of the Moroccan ruler Ahmad al-Masur’s 1591 conquest of gold-rich Timbuktu and Gao in West Africa filtered out to the West and increased the desire for trade. A letter from one Laurence Madoc to Anthony Dassel (called ‘a merchant of London’ in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations) describes the feat of the conquest: ‘there went… for those parts seventeen hundred men: who passing over the sands for want of water perished one third part of them: and at their coming the Negroes made some resistance but to small purpose.’ Madoc marvels at the quality of gold available to the Moroccan ruler: ‘The rent of Tomboto [Timbuktu] is 60 quintals of golde by the yeere’ (approximately 600 kilos).

Ahmad al-Mansur (r.1578-1603) was known as al-Dhahabi, ‘the golden one’. He is said to have paid his functionaries in pure gold; his palace supposedly had golden walls. Legend also has it that during his reign, ‘1,400 hammers continuously struck coins at the palace gate.’ He had excellent relations with Elizabeth I. About a quarter of the coins from the wreck – more than a hundred – were struck by this ruler, and another hundred were struck by one of his sons Mawlay Zaydan (r.1608-27). The rest are mostly coins of other members of the family, down to the 1630s.

How were they acquired? In the souk of any city in the Islamic world, money-changers and dealers in jewellery would have been located together and often conducted both businesses. The fact that much of the jewellery is in pieces suggests that out merchant or sea captain obtained this as bullion to be melted down.

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 From London to Marrakech

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

‘Eerie’ innovation from the seventeenth century


An Van Camp, curator, British Museum

If you visit Room 90 on the fourth floor here at the British Museum, you will find a display of some of the stranger prints in our collection. Hercules Segers and his printed paintings, is on show just outside the study room of the Prints and Drawings department and is a rare outing of the unusual and weird-looking etchings created by this visionary printmaker. Honestly, they attract the amazement of everyone who lays eyes on them.

Distant view with a mossy tree branch

Distant view with a mossy tree branch

Hercules Segers lived and worked at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He created prints that looked completely different from anything that came before. While other printmakers tried to make identical impressions of their engraved works in order to distribute them to a large market, Segers wanted to create unique works of art.

Every single one of his prints looks entirely different from any other one and the eeriness and desolation they emit makes them stand out from other artists’ work from the same period. This is because, after the printing process, Seger’s hand-coloured most of his works in a wide range of colours, from aubergine purple to olive green (see Distant view with a mossy tree branch: S.5528), while the etched lines are often printed in blues, greens or even bright turquoise (see River valley with a waterfall: S.5519). While most prints of the time were made by applying black to white background, he went against the grain and printed one of his etchings in white on a black background (see Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg: 1854,0628.73).

Segers also invented a completely new printmaking technique called sugar-lift etching, creating darker areas within the landscapes which look grainy upon closer inspection and evoke a sense of the supernatural (see Rocky mountains with a plateau: S.5521).

It is no surprise that when I became curator of Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints in 2010 I was itching to share my passion for this eccentric artist with the Museum’s visitors who I am sure will grow to love his colourful works.

Hercules Segers and his printed paintings is in Room 90 until 16 May, and An Van Camp will be giving a gallery talk on 3 May.
Read more about Segers’ printmaking techniques.

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Venetian glass

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Sex and the City looks at the role Venice in Shakespeare’s England.


Dora Thornton, curator, British Museum

In the mid 15th century, Venetian glass workers perfected a wonderful new medium: Cristallo or crystalline glass. It’s called Cristallo because it has the clarity and transparency of rock crystal. Unlike rock crystal, however, it can be moulded and blown into fantastic forms and shapes. It can also be decorated, as this goblet is, with beautiful brightly-coloured enamels and gilding to make a really splendid object to hold in your hand, admire and drink from.

The making of Cristallo was a very closely-guarded trade secret. The glassmaking guilds in Venice controlled not only their workmen, but the trade and import of the raw materials for their industry. There are many materials needed to make this goblet and Venice dominated the trade in those precious commodities.

To make the glass body (known as “metal”) for this object you would need ingredients from all over the world: plant ash imported from Syria; a special kind of river pebble from the River Ticino in northern Italy; and manganese as a decolourant. Analysis in the British Museum by x-ray fluorescence of the enamels used to paint the woman on the glass indicates that the striking cobalt blue is likely to come from the Erzgebirge mountains on the German/Czech border. We can also tell that the white colour, which is made from tin oxide, has probably been made using tin imported from Cornwall or Brittany. The gold, heavily used all over the rim and for touching up details and for the arms, is probably from Africa.

Questions remain about this particular glass. We do not know for certain that it is Venetian, made on the island of Murano in the lagoon. It may have been made by Venetian glassmakers who had set up a glasshouse elsewhere, as happened throughout the 1500s. It belongs to a group of rather heavy glasses all of which have full-length enamelled portraits of men and women and German-style arms. Enamelling like this was less fashionable in Venice from the mid 1500s but continued to be admired in Northern Europe. Was this glass made in Venice for a German, Swiss or Austrian customer (I have not yet been able to identify the arms) as a kind of souvenir of the city? The way the woman is presented is a picture-postcard stereotype of the beautiful Venetian lady or courtesan. Or was the glass made in a German or Austrian glasshouse by a Venetian emigrant, or by a native craftsman working in the Venetian tradition? Either way, when we’re looking at this goblet, we can not only marvel at the highly-skilled craftsmanship involved in its creation but also the extensive global trade networks that were fundamental to its production.

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 Sex and the City

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

Spreading the word

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Treason and Plot examines a fascinating collection of stories about royal murder plots.

A print of the Lopez Plot from the book A Thankfull Remembrance of God's Mercy by George Carleton, first published in 1624. © British Library


Adam Fox, University of Edinburgh

There were a number of centres in which news was generated. At the Royal Exchange, opened by Elizabeth I in 1571, merchants and brokers from around the nation and across the world met to do business and to exchange gossip and news.

The second crucial centre would have been Paul’s Walk, the central aisle of the old St Paul’s Cathedral, in which the great and good would promenade, meet each other and gossip. The churchyard outside was the centre of the book trade in the Elizabethan period, where books and pamphlets were sold and news items were dispersed in printed as well as in oral form.

The third place would perhaps be the Great Hall of Westminster, a wonderful medieval hall where political information was exchanged and swapped. `Men will tell you all the world between Paul’s the Exchange and Westminster’, one contemporary tells us, but of course from London that news radiated out along the streets and alleyways and along the major thoroughfares going across the country in the mouths of tradesmen, pedlars, itinerants and merchants of various sorts.

`What news at London?’ was the classic opening gambit whenever anyone met anyone else and by that means oral communication helped to spread what may have originated in London to the various corners of the land. However, the information available at these places was often highly unreliable, so they could be centres of information and also of misinformation.

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 Treason and Plot

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

On witchcraft

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Toil and Trouble looks at a foiled plot to kill a Scottish king.

A church offering in the shape of a ship from Leith, Scotland, which is the object at the centre of today's programme. © National Museum of Scotland


Keith Thomas, historian

The key to understanding why people made witchcraft accusations lies in personal relationships in the villages and in the countryside. Typically, a witch was somebody who lived quite nearby and whom you had encountered. And typically that witch had a grievance. It wasn’t motiveless malignity, there was thought to be some good reason why the witch wanted to do you or your household harm.

Although there were lots of grievances, the most typical one was that the witch had come to the door begging for food or asking to borrow some household utensil and was turned away from the door and the next day the little child in the house fell ill or the wife was taken ill or somebody died. And, in my view, it was really the guilty conscience of the householder that led to the accusation because in those days borrowing and lending was an acknowledged neighbourly duty.

Why is it that witches were predominantly women? I think there is a combination of reasons for this. The first and perhaps most important reason is that old women, widows, were the most dependent members of the community. They are the ones whose names figure most frequently on the lists of people in receipt of poor relief, and they were the ones most likely to be caught up in this situation of begging for help and not getting it. But on top of that there was undoubtedly a feeling that women embodied some curious supernatural dimension. For example, the effects produced by a witch were more or less the same as those which were popularly attributed to a menstruating woman. When a woman was menstruating it was said – and this was even in the case in my boyhood, I grew up on a farm – that they shouldn’t come near the dairy because the butter wouldn’t set and that if they looked at a mirror they’d tarnish it.

In the later 17th century, the belief that old women could harm others supernaturally was beginning to wane among the educated clergy, gentry and academics in universities. At that stage there were those who felt that the belief in the existence and possibility of witchcraft was integral to establish religion because if you said there were no evil spirits at work, you were really denying some primary tenets of Christianity. You were saying effectively that there was no devil or that the devil had no physical powers, and by saying that you were suggesting that God couldn’t intervene in the world either. So a lot of people tried to prop up orthodox religion by reasserting the reality of witchcraft and investigating cases and publishing information about it and so on, to reassure people that the world really was a place where a great contest between good and evil spirits was occurring.

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 Toil and Trouble

Find out more:

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

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

Making magic

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode New Science, Old Magic takes us closer to Dr John Dee and his magical world.


Greg Doran, Artistic Director Designate, Royal Shakespeare Company

I have always been intrigued by theatre magic. Dr Dee is famous for having created an amazing illusion when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1540s, and even now I can’t work out how he did it. He put on a play, Aristophanes’ Peace, in which an Athenian mortal flies to heaven on the back of a dung beetle basically to ask the Gods to stop the Peloponnesian war. How did Dee manage to convince the audience that he was flying around Trinity Hall on the back of a giant dung beetle? I would have real problems doing that in the Swan Theatre in Stratford.

Unless you have the mechanics that are available to productions like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Mary Poppins, that kind of illusion is really hard to pull off, so I am rather fascinated by Dee. On open stages like the Swan or the Globe, with no lighting effects to speak of and the audience wrapped all the way around the stage, it’s very difficult to hide the strings.

It is intriguing to wonder how Shakespeare and his company at the Globe created magic. We know they did have effects; they could create thunder, for example. But in the controlled environment of the indoor theatres like the later Blackfriars Theatre, where there was more theatre machinery around, they had a far greater control of light – and if you can control the light, you can control the effect.

When you go to a Shakespeare play you are wondering how they are going to do Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth or how Hamlet’s father is going to appear. On an open stage this kind of illusion is harder to do. Patrick Stewart played Hamlet’s ghost in the 2008 production of Hamlet with David Tennant and we created an illusion that wherever he went on the stage, smoke surrounded him. It was actually a little machine tucked up under his great coat, but it made him look as though he was floating on a cloud of smoke wherever he went.

We did a production of Macbeth with Tony Sher and Harriet Walter in 1999, and we decided at the end of the banquet scene we needed to spook the audience. As Lady Macbeth left the banquet, she picked up one of the candles from the table and as she left, suddenly all the candles on the table extinguished by themselves. In fact the witches were sitting under the table and pulled the wicks through the candles, which is why they went out. The witches then suddenly pushed all the chairs over from underneath the table and threw the table in the air and the audience were pretty shocked; I have to say that was fun.

We spend a lot of time trying to work out the very simple magic that, of course, Shakespeare’s theatre was investigating all the time.

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 New Science, Old Magic

Find out more:
Royal Shakespeare Company
Behind the scenes at the RSC

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

Reading the Romans


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

If you want to find some really vivid stories about ordinary ancient Romans – not just about the toffs, the generals, and the emperors – some of the very best places to look are their tombstones. These give some amazing insights into the lives of real Romans – not those right at the very bottom of the social heap (people down there couldn’t afford a memorial) but those not all that far from the bottom.

OK, the epitaphs are written in Latin – but it’s often very easy Latin. And even if you don’t know a single word of the language, you can get quite a lot out of them with only a very little help.

In the BBC Two series Meet the Romans, we have looked at some really memorable – and quirky – epitaphs. I’m particularly keen on one ex-slave woman we came across: Allia Potestas, who lived in a ménage à trois with her two lovers (she was always the first up and the last to bed of the trio, we’re told – do things ever change?). But my other favourites were poor little Doris, who died in a terrible fire, and a splendidly pushy baker called Eurysaces, who didn’t only tell you what his job was, but even had his tomb built in the shape of a baker’s oven.

We actually filmed one epitaph from the British Museum, which we didn’t in the end use in the series – partly because there was almost too much to say about it. You can find it on the wall in Room 70

It’s a tombstone from Rome (first century BCE) of a husband and wife pictured in the middle. He (on the left) is called Aurelius Hermia and she (on the right) is called Aurelia Philematio (or Philematium, as it’s written a bit further down). They are both ex-slaves, who have at some point been given their freedom.

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

How do we know that? Well right in the middle of both their names are two give-away letters “ L. L” – short for “Lucii libertus” or “Lucii liberta”, that is, “the ex-slave man or ex-slave woman of a man called Lucius”. One of the most extraordinary facts is that well over half the tombstones discovered from the city commemorate ex-slaves, and most of them are instantly recognizable with the letter “L” or more often the abbreviation “Lib” in their names. Romans owned hundreds of thousands of slaves, but also freed loads of them. Slavery in Rome wasn’t always a life-sentence.

Anyway, the husband takes the left. This side is more battered (as you can see, even a bit of the name has been lost). But we can still work out that he was a “lanius de colle Viminale”, “a butcher from the Viminal hill”, one of the seven hills of Rome. (The word “lanius” is missing its first couple of letters… but if we had, in English, the phrase “…tcher from the Viminal hill”, we’d have little doubt what it meant!).

He goes on to explain that his wife had predeceased him (you can spot the word “praecessit”), and of course that she had always lived devoted to him, as he was devoted to her (that is, she “stood by her man”, “fida viro” on the fifth line from the bottom). That, I guess, is a cliché even of epitaphs today. I don’t think we have to imagine that there was literally never a cross word between this pair.

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

It’s the woman’s side on the right, though, where things get really curious. It starts off with some fairly conventional praise for a Roman woman. She was “casta, pudens, volgei nescia”, that’s “chaste, modest and unknown to the crowd” – she was “not gossiped about” would perhaps be a better translation. But after that it starts to get intriguing, if not downright odd.

The husband, we are told, “was more than a parent” to the wife (you can spot the word “parens” seven lines up). They had met when she was just seven years old (“septem me naatam annorurum”) and he took her on his lap (“gremio”), and she died when she was 40 (“XXXX”) – meanwhile her husband had flourished under her dutiful care (“meo officio”).

Hang on, we think. He took her on his lap when she was just seven years old? What exactly was Hermia up to with little Philematio on his knee? When precisely did they get married? Of course we don’t – and can’t – know. But explanations tend to fall into two broad camps.

Explanation A. Some people imagine that when this pair had been slaves, the older Hermia had looked after the little girl, just like a dad… and maybe years later when both had been freed by their master Lucius, they married. This was a slave friendship that grew into free married union.

Explanation B. Other people take a rather more dismal view of the partnership. They point out that Roman girls often got married much earlier than we do. In Meet the Romans we find one 12 year old, dying just before her wedding day. Even seven years old is not absolutely unheard of. So forget all those romantic notions of a kindly Hermia innocently befriending the young Philematio in the slave quarters. Slave or free, he had probably marked her out (at least) as his partner at the tender age of seven.

I hope Explanation A is the right one. But we certainly can’t be sure. The dutiful, chaste and modest Philematio may have been, quite literally, a child bride.

Professor Mary Beard presents Meet The Romans on BBC Two at 21.00 on Tuesdays from 17 April

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