Early Thoughts on the Archives

…and now for something completely different.

After last week’s performance workshops, this post moves us from the rehearsal space back to the library; I have been revisiting archival documents associated with the rise of the commercial playhouses and getting a clearer sense of the context that surrounds extant references, restrictions, and correspondence about playing. The sheer amount of legal acts, statutes, and precepts is eye-opening. One central aspect of the Before Shakespeare project is to think again about these documents and their implications for our understanding of Elizabethan playing spaces. These acts, particularly those created by the City Council, are issued with such frequency that they can appear impotent; yet a number of documents return to older acts, insisting on their validity and importance. What to make of all this material?

I have been creating a spreadsheet database of archival references cited by theatre historians, critics, and historians in reference to the Elizabethan playhouses, ranging from figures associated with the innyards to nefarious activity around performance spaces to extraordinarily lengthy court cases on, for instance, the erecting of the Theatre in Shoreditch.

In the last two months, I have been working in archives at the British Library and the London Metropolitan Archives to look at these documents (starting with innyard/tavern playing). I am at the very beginning of this endeavour, but already certain points of interest have piqued my curiosity and a few thoughts have struck me about the merits of such work.

First, it is always useful to recontextualise documents. Often—and necessarily—theatre historians and catalogues (like the excellent resource, English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660) offer a snapshot of a document, focussing on direct or explicit reference to theatres, playhouses, or playing. These publications simply cannot represent everything to do with lengthy acts or statutes or reprint wide-ranging correspondence. In the documents I have looked at so far, it has been refreshing to see the context in which the playhouses are invoked. Bishop of London Edmund Grindal’s letter in 1563, for instance, addresses players and “ye owners off ye howses, wher they playe theyr Lewde enterludes.” He complains about “Histriones, Common players who now daylie but speciallye on holydayes, sett vp bylles, wherunto ye youthe resorteth excessively”; the letter in its entirety reveals that Grindal has lately moved into central London to reside by St Paul’s (due to his no doubt relative claim that he was “destitute off necessarie prouisions att fulham”) (British Library Lansdowne MS 7, fo. 141). What difference does his new proximity to the centre of London make to his observation of playing—and where and in what manner has he observed daily play performances? Similarly, the Mayor Thomas Blanke’s letter to Burghley regarding the “greate myshappe at Parise gardenne” in January 1583 spends the first two thirds concerned with passage in and out of London, especially via Westminster. Movement of people, and their whereabouts, routes, and ways through London are of the utmost importance to those running the City (and the country), and so the treatment of the collapse of the Paris Garden bearbaiting arena in Southwark, with fatalities and severe casualties, is also part of a concern about the gathering and movement of “multitudes”—a word not infrequent in these documents.

Primary documents are now generally encountered as excerpts limited to their concerns about playing, and such excerpting inevitably results in a theatrical exceptionalism (excerptionalism?); seeing these references slightly more in the wild, so to speak, shows that restrictions on playing are one of a number of wide-ranging concerns for the City—and allows us to ask why they were concerns. These wider contexts are telling, both where documents are bound or collected with a varied approach, as with the Burghley papers, and where they appear in a “natural” order, as with the Journals of the Common Council, which can be viewed on microfilm at the London Metropolitan Archives in largely chronological order. Alehouses and victualling, for instance, are also a preoccupation—both from unfit spaces to questionable measures and dodgy tapsters. William Fleetwood, Recorder of London, notes in a letter to Burghley on the 6 August 1575 that he has shut down above 200 alehouses in Southwark and elsewhere, naming places we might, across the range of the early modern period, associate with playing: the “Clinke / the banke / Parris garden … Newington” (BL Lansdowne 20, fo. 20r).

The city’s drinking holes are tightly policed, a practice closely connected to restricting playing. The City is concerned about the types of spaces afforded by victualing houses, inns, and taverns; a call for a “privy search” (a night-time hunt for vagrants) in 1577 notes such a “pryvye searche [is] to be made . . . in all Innes, Alehowses, Victuallinge howses, and all other suspect places” (London Metropolitan Archives JORS 20 fo. 377). As with innyard playing spaces, any place where crowds might gather is, in a vague but insistent way, concerning.

Indeed, far from a theatrical exceptionalism in the City Council, restrictions on playing are in line with attitudes to all forms of perceived social deviance, and the Journals show that among chief concerns are the “youth,” “strangers,” and provision for rogues and vagrants—and all of these seem to relate to and inform anxieties about playing spaces. An “Act for Prentices apparel” in 1572 (LMA JORS 20 fo. 13) complains that the youth are “growne to grete disorder in excesse of Apparrell and the ffasshions.” The Act points to the sumptuary laws of the period, which delimit different attire for different sections of society (a means of visually reinforcing power and hierarchy); such “disorder” is not only to do with early modern fabric and couture but with the very fabric of culture. Part of the Act warns against apprentices and servants frequenting dancing houses, schools for teaching instruments, and masking houses, and notes that such youth are too often to be seen “haunting … inconuenient places.”

The language echoes closely a major act aimed at restricting playing passed two years later; “A Lawe for Playes and enterludes” points to the “sondry greate disorders and inconueniences” occasioned by:

the inordynate … haunting of greate multitudes of
people specially youthe, to Plays, enterludes, and shewes
namelye occasions of ffraies and quarrels, euill practises
of incontynence in greate Innes, hauinge chambers and
secret places adyoininge to their open stages and gallarys…
(6 December 1574; LMA JORS 20, fo.187v)

The City’s attitudes to dresscodes, youth, vagrancy, and playing are aligned through space: the “secret places” available to innyard playgoers are exactly the same as those where vagrants might be hiding or where young fashionistas might stow away their transgressive eveningwear.

On that note, it is salient to remind ourselves that the City is not exactly an “enemy” to theatricality, as Tracey Hill importantly insists. In a period in which the plague was never far away, it is no surprise that the City sought to limit public gatherings. Numerous documents show a measured response to playing as part of a wider concern for ensuring that order is kept within the City. It is tempting to see the rise of playing as a narrative of counterculture, transgression, and displays of anti-authority (a social reading to match many literary ones), but—aside from its reliance on numerous other forms of authority—the mayors and City Council were doing their best to police a city ravaged by plague, threatened by disorder and discontentment, and dealing with changes in the economic and social order, however much their politics might seem at times objectionable.

It is pleasing to read Mayor William Webbe’s measured response to the riots of the Feltmaker’s apprentices in Southwark in 1592, for instance, in which he acknowledges the disorder of the young rioters but points to the cause of the friction: the Knight Marshall’s Men (city debt collectors, in effect), who deal their warrants with excessive force. They frighten families, burst through doors, and conduct their business in “a most rough & violent manner, prouoking men by such hard dealings to contend wth them, wch would otherwise obey in all Duetifull sort” (BL Lansdowne MS 71, fo. 31r). A follow-up letter (fo. 32) calls again for an equal punishment for the Knight Marshall’s Men as for the apprentices. Webbe rebukes not only the “meaner sort” (fo. 32) in the City, but does not hesitate to condemn the behaviour of authority (even if it is an authority somewhat distinct from his own) and to point out the problems of “policing” in the City. (On a side note, I know Tracey Hill is amused to hear I am a “fan” of a sixteenth-century Lord Mayor…).

On the matter of legislation, one impression I sometimes get from reading the mass of restrictions on playing is that the City Council and mayors were shouting into the void: producing reams of documentation, issuing statutes, and pouring out precepts with little effect. Indeed, theatre historians have been at pains to show that innholders and players flagrantly ignored major acts and statutes (cf. William Ingram’s suggestion in The Business of Playing [1992] that the 1574 Act was influential in prompting theatre-people to take hold of their own spaces). It is clearly often the case that inhabitants flouted the City’s laws, as the Council itself acknowledges in 1568:

Fforasmuch as all transgressors and offenders of the good and politique lawees & ordinaunces that from tyme to tyme wth great study, payne, and diligence are lawfully deuised and made for the honor of the quenes majesties Cytye and Chamber of London and the aduauncement and increase of the comonwealth of the same And of all the Citizens and inhabitantes thereof do comenly for there excuse and disregarde thereof Alledge & pretend ignoraunce and lacke of knowledge of the said lawes and ordinaunces. (JORS 19, fo. 142v)

Yet it is curious to be reminded by the wealth of material produced by the City Council that they had faith in the legal force of the documents they were producing. They sometimes refer back to previous legislation, reminding both the inhabitants of the City and those with whom they are corresponding that what has been previously issued remains law. Records in the Journals attach statutes on the matter of dress from earlier reigns to their concerns about apparel and clothing (i.e. LMA JORS 20 140v). Similarly, “A precept to wtdrawe prentices from dauncinge and ffensse scooles” in 1573 encloses the previous year’s act (quoted here above) to remind aldermen and constables of their duties. Reading from a privileged position of hindsight, law after law and precept after precept begin to appear trivial and disposable. Yet the Council clearly saw reason to insist on certain acts. In 1584, the Queen’s Men petitioned for the right “to exercise wthin the Cittye,” because the season “of the yere” was “past to playe att anye of the houses wthout the Cittye of London” (BL Lansdowne 20, fo. 30). This exchange contains many fascinating aspects, and among them is the City’s reference to earlier acts. They sent the petition to Burghley with other documents enclosed: “by the two actes of common Counsell which I send yow wth note directing to the [relevant] places,” the manicule representing the literal hand of the law:

Manicule Lansdowne 20

The Council repeatedly point to the ongoing importance of earlier acts: “The first of these actes of Comon counsel was made in the maraltie of Hawes xvij Regine….” This forms the legal basis of their unfavourable response to the Queen’s Men’s petition: “in an Act of Common Counsel for releafe of the poore wch I send yow printed, in the Article 62 the last leafe is enacted as there appeareth, by wch there are no Enterludes allowed in London in open spectacle but in priuate howses onely.” They point, forcefully, to a document now nearly ten years old, and go so far as to enclose it within their correspondence with Burghley (the Act is also available among the Council’s 1570s documents in JORS 20, fo. 187-.). This action makes the binding together and the inter-reference of these documents interesting, aligning a 1574/5 document with mid-1580s playing problems and thereby giving it renewed currency: the City enclosing this material suggests that we cannot regard this Act of Common Council as only a “1570s” document. At the same time, the City’s anxious reference to older material (sometimes reinforced by reference to an act’s potentially temporary currency at the end of documents) suggests that these restrictions are indeed not as efficacious as they might wish.

These documents, surrounded by a wealth of other correspondence and documentation generated by mayors, aldermen, privy councillors, bishops, and others, show that playing spaces in the years of the “purpose-built” playhouses’ early development are part of an array of “suspect places” in a City seeking “by all meanes to preserue their Cittie and the Inhabitants of the same …” (JORS 20 fo. 61v).



NB: Please note that the London Metropolitan Archives JORS references are part of the “old” references attached to material brought over from the Guildhall library; these are easily updated to “new” references at the LMA, which has a folder that lists both new and old codes, and I will update all my references in due course (this is tricky, as existing history and criticism mostly uses the “old” references, and I want to avoid duplication for the meantime). Either way, they are accessible only on microfilm under the codes X109/060 (JORS 19) and X109/061 (JORS 20). These transcriptions are as accurate as I can make them, but please be aware that there may be the odd error that will be ironed out on a closer check of the materials for transcription errors.



4 thoughts on “Early Thoughts on the Archives

  1. This post is not only very interesting but also quite important, I think. Far too many theatre historians have no time for the kind of rich contexts that Callan indicates here, and as a result they are too prone to generalise across generations/individuals. The old canard that ‘the City fathers’ (whatever that means) were perpetually and entirely opposed to theatre is in dire need of re-examining, and I’m sure that Before Shakespeare will play a leading role in such an exercise. Bill Ingram exposed many of these myths to scrutiny decades ago but too many scholars have ignored his work; the same applies to David Kathman’s important and revealing work on apprentices, livery companies and theatre. In this period, the City was constantly subject to exhortations from the Crown to focus on particular issues – such as vagrancy, or over-crowding – whether they wanted to or not. It’s therefore a-historical to assume that the former body (inasmuch as one can generalise) worked entirely independently of other forms of authority in early modern London.

    (On a more personal note, it’s good to no longer be a lone voice in this area! More on this anon, when I get the next book finally underway…)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: “Specially youthe”: Regulating London “Venues” | Before Shakespeare

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