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“Free debate” has hidden costs – TD Jacobs

When I was a bachelor student, there was a conspiracy theorist who regularly appeared outside our university buildings to harangue students. His interests ranged from the relatively mainstream moon landing and 9-11 conspiracies, to an extremely offensive fringe belief that birth control pills turned women into hairy lesbians. Nor did he settle for handing out fliers – he demanded, in the name of freedom of speech and academic debate, admittance to lecture halls during classes to present his evidence. Once, a professor gave him ten minutes to mathematically prove that humans have not achieved space travel. When this entertaining interlude in our otherwise dull day ended, the conspiracy theorist was shown the door and I don’t recall any professor providing him with a platform ever again.

Rather more recently (and somewhat less amusingly) a university funded student group at my own institution invited a well-known misogynist to give a lecture on university grounds. Among other things, the speaker expressed the quaint Victorian notion that women are simply biologically not suited to academic pursuits. Understandably, this event was roundly denounced by many – including myself, many of my colleagues, the ACCOD union, and other student groups – and demands made that neither the university buildings nor its funds be used for such purposes.[1] Not only have his opinions long been consigned to the scientific dustbin, but his airing of them at our institution was seen as contributing to the creation of a hostile work environment. Moreover, many have rightfully pointed out that this is particularly damaging in consideration of the systematic and structural inequalities women are already confronted with in academia.

The denial of an academic platform in either instance is not an attack on free speech. Our resident conspiracy theorist was free to say what he wanted out on the sidewalk. The misogynist is free to seek gullible audiences and speaker’s fees elsewhere. Moreover, academics routinely place limits on speech in academic settings. Scientists recognize that there are points at which unstructured, unlimited debate is not productive, and is even disruptive to the advancing of a discussion. For example, you will not find a creationist ‘teaching the controversy’ alongside evolutionary biologists at very many accredited institutions.[2] Nowhere, I dare say, will you find an expert in phrenology plying their trade in a medical school. No astrologers on staff in astronomy departments, or practitioners of alchemy in chemistry or physics. The debates between these competing views on the world are regarded as settled, and to continuously rehash them would waste time, money, and material resources.

Historians also place limits on debate. Just as with the ‘hard sciences,’ claimants must establish their knowledge of the subject with regard to what has been argued, dismissed, and demonstrated. Students and professionals alike must identify new questions that critique and build on older analyses and – above all – provide evidence, with receipts. Pupils who fail to meet these criteria are not given passing grades. Under ideal circumstances, colleagues who don’t meet these criteriawill not pass peer review processes. And historians who stray entirely outside their field of expertise to make pronouncements in another area of scholarship are often met with derision.

This is why I find it incredible that colleagues both at my own university and elsewhere are struggling to critically engage with the open letter published in Harper’s Magazine recently, decrying the “restriction of debate” in society and academia.[3] Perhaps this is because Noam Chomsky was, unsurprisingly, among its signatories. For decades, Chomsky has led the fight for free and open discussion in academia and elsewhere.[4] And I have generally been behind him in his crusade, which has helped draw attention to the problems of conservative reactionary movements against developments in the field of history such as the increased critique of a-historical nationalist narratives that have helped to justify and perpetuate state violence.[5] Not this time, however.

The letter was endorsed by a number of other individuals, including JK Rowling, who recently published her own essay on ‘cancel culture.’[6] And her signature highlights a problem that the letter fails to address: imbalances of power in public and academic spaces that help to perpetuate discrimination against minorities. Rowling, who achieved wealth and renown as a beloved children’s author, has become the avowed champion of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) in academia. TERFs – or ‘gender critical theorists’ as they prefer to be called – have aggressively targeted the transgender community.[7] According to their reductionist and antiquated view of biology,[8] gender identity, expression, or perception are irrelevant. Transgender men (such as myself) are women who have been brainwashed into hating our biological sex, while transgender women are predatory men in dresses. Such claims are, of course, extremely offensive. But more importantly for the purposes of this essay, they are unfounded. Not only do they lack evidence and a cohesive body of nuanced interdisciplinary research to support their views, their opinions are actually contradicted by both researchers and practitioners across various disciplines, including biology, gender studies, psychology, transgender healthcare, [9] and even in history and anthropology.[10] Indeed, the last two fields have contributed enormously to our understanding of how gender has been variously socially constructed through time and space.

TERFs have no convincing response to any of these critiques, and for that reason they are – like the misogynist mentioned above – largely shut out from serious academic discussions on gender. Instead, they have had their greatest successes in the areas of media and politics, where intellectual honesty and scientific standards generally don’t apply but where their academic credentials hold some sway.[11] And the ensnarement of a platform such as Rowling’s has substantially increased their reach. For example, Rowling was recently cited in the US Senate during the debate on the Equality Act, which seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous areas, including employment, education, housing, and public accommodations. The vote on the act was blocked by James Lankford, an anti-gay rights Republican from Oklahoma, who quoted a passage from Rowling’s essay on ‘cancel culture’ in which she claimed that women were being threatened and abused while trying to express their concerns regarding the threat posed by transgender people.[12]

The women Rowling referenced complain that they are being victimized by transgender activists pushing a radical agenda that seeks to stifle free speech and intellectual debate. But the reality is quite different from the scenario that Rowling has presented on Twitter and in her essay. For example, one TERF that Rowling has supported, Maya Forstater, was not – as Rowling has insisted – ‘fired’ for saying biological sex is real (something that the vast majority of transgender people do not dispute.) In actuality, Forstater continually Tweeted undeniably bigoted statements directed at specific individuals, and made other more generally discriminatory statements on the platform in an effort to derail changes to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act that would have granted transgender people easier access to necessary paperwork changes. Colleagues at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank, complained of Forstater’s transphobic Tweets. However, she persisted, and her contract as a tax expert was not renewed. Forstater decided that she was being unfairly discriminated against and took her case to an employment tribunal, where she lost. The judge applied a carefully formulated set of criteria and ruled that her intolerant, absolutist views were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society,” and did not warrant the special protection afforded other strongly held, philosophical beliefs.[13]

Rowling has also cited a highly contentious study that led to accusations of academic censorship against its critics. In 2018, Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a paper in PLOS ONE in which sheinvented the diagnosis ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria.’ The crux of Littman’s argument was that gender dysphoria among transgender youth is not real, but rather is a socially induced phenomenon that may mask other mental health disorders.[14] However, Littman interviewed no transgender youth or transgender healthcare specialists before coming to this conclusion. In fact, her research consisted of a survey for parents that she posted on anti-transgender websites. Following critiques that Littman’s research was ideologically biased, lacked methodological rigor, and fell below scientific standards, the journal opened a post-publication review and her university withdrew a public endorsement in the form of a press release.[15] While Littman agreed to rewrite her paper to clarify her methodology and provide context,[16] her invention is still not recognized as a legitimate diagnosis among medical professionals, including her own colleagues in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).[17]

Neither of these cases represent factual attacks on freedom of speech or academic debate. Forstator’s bigoted speech was not limited. It was criticized. Transgender activists and allies have the freedom to respond to attacks on efforts to gain greater equality in society. She sought to perpetuate a gross injustice, but was not the victim of one. Moreover, freedom of speech has never been an absolute guarantee against the consequences of said speech, and not all speech is protected. In many countries, including her own, hate speech such as Forstator’s is not. In Littman’s case, she attempted to engage in academic debate, but her initial argument was deemed scientifically invalid upon closer examination because her methodology was poor and her results improperly founded. That is, as indicated above, how academic debate is supposed to work. A fact based charge of incompetence is not censorship.

Rowling’s defense of Forstator and Littman, among others, as the victims of ‘cancel culture’ is disingenuous, and the Harper’s letter does nothing to address this increasingly common discursive power play.[18] As several critics of the missive have pointed out, Rowling is not the only high placed signatory who cannot be considered to be engaged in “good-faith disagreements.” Quite a handful of them have been called out for misconduct or the promotion of extremist ideologies.[19] Nor do the claims made in the letter regarding discrimination or censorship appear to hold up under closer scrutiny.[20] And now, as Valentini puts it, “they want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”[21] This is, as Hannah Giorgis has termed it, “a deeply provincial view of free speech.”[22]

Some of my colleagues, I am afraid to say, are overlooking this key point. And Rowling is once again a prime example of this feigned victimhood. She demonstrably does not care about the freedom of speech of others, and is more than willing to use her considerable resources to ‘cancel’ her critics. After all, Rowlingsigned the Harper’s letter but recently threatened one critic of her outspoken transphobia with a lawsuit – and since she has all the lawyers one could buy at her disposal, the threat was effective. Nicola Spurling deleted her Tweet stating that Rowling can’t be trusted around children, but has stood by her point regarding the harmful nature of Rowling’s views.[23] And considering Rowling’s recent remarks equating legitimate medical treatment for transgender youth with the increasingly banned practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy,’[24] the author’s opinions most certainly do pose a danger to transgender children, who are already at a higher risk of suicide.[25] She cannot be trusted around them. Her signature – alongside those of others with platforms that they’ve used to ‘debate’ the validity of transgender people via such ‘concern trolling’[26] – cannot simply be dismissed as an obscuration of a greater point as some of my colleagues have proposed.

That brings me to the following: colleagues rushing to jump on Chomsky’s now hijacked bandwagon need to acknowledge that not all proposed academic debates have the same weight in terms of their potential consequences, nor do they burden those most closely concerned with the same amount of mental and emotional labour. For example, if I lost an argument regarding my own research, which centers on early modern diplomacy, the cost is somewhat negligible in that it would mostly affect my own career and not have any broader societal implications. And I engage in those debates because it’s my job.

However, the debate TERFs persist in demanding despite having long ago lost on scientific grounds concerns my validity as a person, my life. And the ultimate price of failure in such a debate is my right to move unmolested through society. It is not an ‘academic’ debate in the colloquial sense because it is not confined to academic spaces, and it can have a real-world impact on a marginalized and vulnerable minority by legitimizing discrimination. Academics have a professional, ethical obligation to ask who is demanding and framing such debates and to what end, and how is general societal capital – as well as academic access and resources – being distributed between the participants and subjects of such debates. And the same holds true for debates regarding the real-time struggles of other minorities, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the resurgence of Indigenous activism against settler colonialism – the latter being of particular interest to me as a Native American. If the concerns and the costs to these communities are not actively taken on board or are condescendingly dismissed as ‘identity politics’ by those debating with no risk to themselves other than a witty riposte, then that isn’t an honest intellectual pursuit. It’s exploitative mental masturbation.

Lastly, like other transgender scholars who are not actually working in the field of gender studies, I feel press ganged at times to engage in conversations I’m not paid to have, don’t want to have, and in which I simply don’t have the luxury of ‘agreeing to disagree’ as I can with points of contention relating to my dissertation. Apart from having to educate people about being transgender – which I generally don’t mind so long as the subject of what’s in my pants isn’t raised too often – I’ve also had to defend my existence to some colleagues, ward off attacks from conservative students, and at times fight the Byzantine university administration for the most mundane changes to paperwork. Nor have role models or peer support always been readily at hand. Indeed, I have often felt obligated to provide help to students facing similar problems. That is the reality of being a minority in an academic setting. The toll in terms of additional stress and anxiety is significantly higher than what is demanded of me by my actual job, not just because of what is at stake but because there is no apparent end in sight. At least my dissertation has a definitive deadline.

So before colleagues excitedly and enthusiastically endorse calls for more ‘free debate’ from the intellectually dishonest and yet disproportionately powerful, I’d ask them to carefully consider what they are asking for. Because unlike recondite arguments concerning the ceremonial use of hats in diplomatic encounters in the seventeenth century, these debates have actual costs.

[1] Mingtje Wange, “KVHV onder vuur na seksistische uitspraken op lezing,” Schamper, 11.12. 2019. is UGent’s student magazine, and it has done a great deal of reporting on the rise of extreme right student groups. There was a video made of the event, “Video opgedoken van seksistische uitspraken Jeff Hoeyberghs aan UGent,” De Morgen, 9.10.19.  The complaints also led to investigation being opened into the conduct of the misogynist by the Orde der Artsen, the national licensing board. Tuly Salumu, “Massa klachten na seksistsche lezing van Jeff Hoeybergs, Orde der Artsen opent onderzoek,” Het Nieusblad. 10.12.2019.

[2] The assertion that there is a controversy between creationist beliefs and scientific findings that deserves to be debated in classrooms is actually a known tactic that is specifically employed by religious groups in order to gain access to academic and educational platforms. See, among others, Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: the wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, updated edition), and the chapter “The Wedge Document: a design for Design” in particular.

[3] “A letter on justice and open debate,” Harper’s Magazine, 7.7.2020.

[4] This is not the first time that Chomsky’s longstanding work on intellectual freedom has become embroiled in controversy. See Jean Bricmont, “Chomsky, Faurisson, and Vidal-Naquet,” in Julie Franck and Jean Bricmont, eds., Chomsky Notebook (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 292-308.

[5] Among others, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media (first published in 1988, revised in 2002); Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal scholarship (first published in 1997); Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or survival: America’s quest for global dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003).

[6] J.K. Rowling, “J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues,” 10.6.2020.

[7] TERFs generally claim that the term is a slur, but in my opinion that is the discursive equivalent of racists complaining about being called racist, and I am not going to participate in their rebranding efforts. However, Sophie Lewis has provided a useful critique of the term, noting that there are anti-trans individuals and groups, particularly in the United States, willing to associate with TERFs but who do not claim – and cannot be considered to have – any kind of connection to feminism, Sophie Lewis “How British feminism became anti-trans,” The New York Times, 7.2.2019. Viv Smythe, thought to have invented the term, has since written about it: “I’m credited with having coined the word ‘Terf.’ Here’s how it happened,” The Guardian, 28.11.2018.

[8] Biological sex, both in terms of genotypes and phenotypes, is more complicated than the binary narrative (i.e. XY equals boy, XX equals girl) taught in primary schools. Nor do genotypes map directly to complex human behaviors. Having XX chromosomes does not mean an individual will prefer the colour pink, any more than it means that they are unsuited to academic pursuits. For a basic,general rebuttal of essentialism, see Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers, Gene worship: moving beyond the nature/nuture debate over genes, brain, and gender (New York: Other Press, 2003).  For an advanced review article on the plasticity of the phenotypical expression of sex characteristics, see Malin Ah-King and Sören Nyllin, “Sex in an evolutionary perspective: just another reaction norm,” Evolutionary Biology 37, (2010).

[9] A biological basis for transgenderism in at least some portion of the population is still being established, but epigenetics is an increasing area of focus. An overview of various theories, and those relating to epigenetics in particular, can be found in Dana Jennett Bevan, Transgender health and medicine: history, practice, research, and the future (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2019). Bevan’s tome contains such a wealth of references to peer reviewed papers that it is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to study the subject further.

[10] Anthropological studies on non-Western conceptualizations of gender include Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: third and fourth gender in Native North America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998); Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). Individuals in pre-modern Europe who appear to have engaged in more than mere situational cross dressing have been subject to investigation, see for example Sherry Velasco, The lieutenant nun: transgenderism, lesbian desire, and Catalina de Erauso (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). Studies relating to early modern European conceptualizations and performance of gender in literature are particularly numerous, but a good and nuanced oversight is provided by Simone Chess, Male-to-female crossdressing in early modern English literature: gender, performance, and queer relations (New York: Routledge, 2016).  Modern and contemporary’Western’ transgender history has been covered elsewhere; see for example, Susan Stryker, Transgender history (London: Hachette: 2007).

[11] For an excellent essay on the history of UK media representation, see Hannah Ewens, “Inside the great British TERF war,” Vice, 16.6.2020.

[12] Chris Johnson, “User clip: Kames Lankford cites J.K. Rowling in opposition to Equality Act,” C-Span, 18.6.2020.

[13] “Forstater v CGD,” Case Number: 220909/2019.

[14] Lisa Littman, “Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 13, no. 8 (2018).

[15] Brown University, “Updated: Brown statements on gender dysphoria study,” 19.3.2019.

[16] Lisa Littman, “Correction: parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 14, no. 3 (2019).

[17] WPATH, “WPATH position on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD),” 4.9.2018. The reasons why Littman’s invention has no credibility in the medical community are pretty much summed up in just one review of her work: Arjee Javellana Restar, “Methodological critique of Littman’s (2018) parental-respondents accounts of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2019). Somewhat worryingly, Littman is now purportedly researching desistance and de-transitioning.

[18] The Harper’s letter has already inspired an equally ridiculous Belgian equivalent, warning against “radical activists” purportedly seeking to silence debates that according to the text “deserve to be held on every topic.” However, it must be noted that the so-called “radical activists” in this case are further identified as those that “say they want to fight (institutional) racism.” In other words: the Black Lives Matter movement. It is therefore not surprising that the letter was signed by a prominent nationalist who has been criticized for his bigoted positions. Bonne Kerstens, “Theo Francken (N-VA) en tientallen anderen ondertekenen manifest tegen ‘afrekencultuur,” De Morgen, 16.7.2020.

[19] It seems some of the lesser known signatories of the Harper’s letter were unaware of the other signers, and some may not have agreed to sign it at all: Aaron Huertas, “How did the organizers of the Harper’s letter mislead some of the signers? (It’s about ethics in open letters),” Medium, 9.7.2020.

[20] “A more specific letter on justice and open debate,” The Objective, 10.7.2020.

[21] Jessica Valenti, “‘Cancel culture’ is how the powerful play victim,” Gen, 8.7.2020.

[22] Hanna Giorgis, “A deeply provincial view of free speech,” The Atlantic, 13.7.2020.

[23] Megan Lalonde, “J.K. Rowling threatens legal action against Coquitlam transgender activist over tweets,” Tricity News, 29.5.2020. Despite this, and in an example of the kind of solidarity that Rowling purports to believe in but does not practice, a group of transgender and non-binary activists recently criticized a UK tabloid for its lurid reporting regarding Rowling’s personal life: Jim Waterson, “Trans activists write to Sun condemning JK Rowling abuse story,” 15.7.2020, The Guardian,

[24] For just one critique of Rowling’s remarks on conversion therapy see: Garrard Conley, “J.K. Rowling’s bigotry is painful and maddening,” CNN, 8.7.2020.

[25] Two of the most recent studies include Russell B. Toomey, et al. “Transgender adolescent suicide behavior,” Pediatrics, 142, no. 4 (2018); Brian C. Thomas, et al. “Suicidal disparities between transgender and cisgender adolescents,” Pediatrics 144, no. 5 (2019).

[26] Among other critiques see: Zack Ford, “Atlantic cover story is a loud dog whistle for anti-transgender parents,” Think Progress, 20.6.2018,; Karter Booher, “(Trans)itioning from false narratives,” South Seattle Emerald, 7.7.2017.; Noah Berlatsky, “We don’t value trans voices – even on trans issues,” The Establishment, 16.11.2015.

A not so holy household. A tale of drunkenness, debauchery and attempted parricide in eighteenth-century Ghent – K. Dekoster

Joseph Kerrebrouck, a 66-year-old grain measurer of the city of Ghent and a man of “honest and irreproachable behaviour”, did not have an easy life. By 1784, he had been married to Marie Caroline De Rocke for about 32 years. And while their first names might suggest otherwise, their household could hardly be compared to that of the biblical Joseph and Mary. Marie Caroline was generally reputed to be having an affair with a certain Gillis Jacobs. Furthermore, she spent large sums on what was probably the actual love of her life: alcohol. She passed these dissolute habits on to her son Jacobus, who by the age of 16 was known far and wide as a drunkard “who caused many scandals”. To make matters worse, Marie Caroline constantly pit her son against Joseph, who she said was not Jacobus’s real father. In October 1783, the aldermen of Ghent sentenced Jacobus – aged 25 – to an imprisonment of three weeks on bread and water because of his frequent drunkenness and disobedience towards his father. If he were ever to commit similar infractions again, the aldermen warned, they would send him to the house of correction. When Jacobus was finally released, his father took him back into the home.

Despite the punishment, however, on March 15 1784, the family conflict reached a dramatic climax. When he came home from work around noon, Joseph found Jacobus and Marie Caroline in an inebriated state. Furthermore, he discovered that they had broken his cabinet and had stolen some textiles, which they had hocked at the local pawnshop (the Berg van Barmhartigheid or Mount of Charity) to buy beer and gin. Joseph, who was fed up with his son’s behaviour, went out to call the local watchmen. However, he was unable to find them and returned home. Once there, he was attacked by Jacobus, who stabbed his father in the left shoulder with a knife. Jacobus immediately fled the house, and a number of neighbours rushed in to help Joseph. Surgeon Pieter De Buck was called to provide medical assistance. He judged the injury to be lethal, and asked a priest to administer Last Rites. While this was being done, De Buck wrote a report for the judicial authorities. Following an ordinance from 1615, the surgeons of Ghent were required to report all injuries they treated to the local authorities so they could obtain a better overview of violent crime. This allowed them to initiate judicial proceedings as soon as possible while preventing victims from seeking private revenge.

Ghent’s authorities leapt into action. Two aldermen and a representative of the hoogbaljuw or public prosecutor were sent to Joseph’s home to question him regarding the incident. Furthermore, the town physicians and surgeons were required to examine the victim and write an official report on his medical condition. They judged the wound to be dangerous but curable. However, the medical experts also declared that – given the possibility of sudden complications – a proper prognosis was only possible after a certain interval of time had passed. Luckily, Joseph’s condition rapidly improved, and De Buck reported on March 18 that most of his symptoms (pain in the chest, a fever, red-tinged phlegm) had greatly diminished. Now, the aldermen could turn their full attention to the suspect, who had been arrested at one of the city gates on the day of the attack and imprisoned in the city jail. When interrogated on March 16, Jacobus Kerrebrouck immediately admitted that he had stabbed his father in the shoulder with a knife. He imputed this act to a combination of anger and drunkenness.

The aldermen did not take this incident lightly. The act in question was nothing less than an attempt at parricide, one of the most serious offences in early modern criminal law. According to the Flemish jurist Filips Wielant (ca. 1441/2-1520), those who committed parricide should be dragged “in the most dishonourable and degrading way” to the place of execution, where they would be beheaded and their corpse displayed on a wheel. If judges wished to impose additional punishments, they were allowed to do so “because of the enormity of the crime and as an example to others”. This harsh language is mirrored in the sentence pronounced by the aldermen against Jacobus Kerrebrouck on April 24 1784. They called Jacobus’s attack on his father “a horrendous, denatured and abominable fact”. Therefore, a harsh punishment was required “as an example to other denatured and evil children”. Jacobus was sentenced to be publicly whipped on the scaffold before the city hall and branded with the mark of the city. Moreover, he was condemned to fifty years of imprisonment in the provincial house of correction. If Jacobus actually served his full term in prison – which seems very unlikely – he would have been released in 1834. Not only would he be 76 by then, he would probably hardly have recognised the world he re-entered. He would have missed the Brabant revolution against Austrian rule in 1789-90, the annexation of the Austrian Netherlands by revolutionary France in 1795, the rise and fall of the Napoleonic Empire (1804-14) and the brief existence of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-30). The convict would have been a subject of the newly independent Kingdom of Belgium, a state whose existence no one living in 1784 could have imagined.

However, this scenario belongs to historical fiction rather than historical fact. Let’s return to the criminal case records. After his son was confined to the house of correction, Joseph Kerrebrouck took action against his wife. On May 8, he submitted a petition in which he asked that Marie Caroline be confined in a “secure place”. In eighteenth-century Flanders, confinement on request was a very common procedure for dealing with unruly, debauched or insane relatives. The aldermen interrogated Marie Caroline regarding the allegations contained in her husband’s petition and even subjected her to a medical examination by a surgeon, who diagnosed her with scabies. Although the medical report does not explicitly mention the examined body parts, one might reasonably assume that the surgeon was looking for signs of venereal disease, the presence of which would confirm Joseph’s statement about her debauched lifestyle. Unfortunately, the records do not tell us whether Marie Caroline De Rocke was confined, and if so, for how long. But after this series of unfortunate events, we can only hope that Joseph Kerrebrouck was allowed to spend his remaining days in relative tranquillity.


City Archives Ghent, Old Archives, series 108bis, no. 41: Ordinance of 2 January 1615; series 213, no. 294-295: Criminal trial records, 1784.

Wielant, Filips. Corte Instructie in Materie Criminele, ed. Jos Monballyu. Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1995.

Selected Readings

Doyon, Julie. ‘Les enjeux médico-judiciaires de la folie parricide au XVIIIe siècle’. Crime, Histoire et Sociétés/Crime, History and Societies 15 (2011), no. 1: 5-27.

Lis, Catharina and Hugo Soly. Te gek om los te lopen? Collocatie in de 18de eeuw. Turnhout: Brepols, 1990.

Roets, Anne-Marie. ‘Rudessen, dieften ende andere crimen’. Misdadigheid in Gent in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw: een kwantitatieve en kwalitatieve analyse. PhD thesis, Ghent University, 1987.

Disease and diplomacy, RBE 34 – TD Jacobs

Another day, another delayed blog. Things have been rather busy here of late. I got ill last month – happily just a really ugly cold – and now, my university is closed. We’re doing our best via online classes and long-distance working schemes. I can’t say that I mind that much, but I really feel for my colleagues who had organized major events, like our “Past Week” program, which have been cancelled. Hopefully, we will be able to repurpose some of the planning next year, after all of this has passed. In the meantime, I am pressing forward with my research, as are other members of UGent’s history department.

Professor Isabelle Devos, a colleague and historical demographer, recently published a newspaper article regarding the Belgian cholera epidemic of 1866, which resulted in 43,400 deaths, and the measures enacted at the time. Her field of study is of obvious relevance now. However, one of the advantages of New Diplomatic History is that the expansion of subject matter from the purely political aspects of interactions has opened up entirely new vistas for research, and all aspects of peoples’ social and personal lives become topics for investigation. This includes illness.

Diplomats and monarchs both fell ill during the early modern period, and indeed, one of an ambassador’s primary tasks was to report on the health of the ruler(s) of his receiving country. They may not have always had much of substance to report. According to Dr Klaas van Gelder, the prime minister of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, Kaunitz, was a noted hypochondriac. His correspondence with the Marquis of Prié, Prince Eugene of Savoy’s plenipotentiary governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, often mentions his imagined health problems. Despite his various ailments, the former diplomat lived to the ripe old age of 83.

Balthazar Gerbier, the agent of Charles I in Brussels during the 1630s, also had health complaints, and they appear to have had an actual impact on his work. In November of 1633, Gerbier reported to the secretary of state that “a sciatike had kept me twoe monthes from this Court” but that he had nevertheless had an informal, domestic audience with the Queen Mother of France – then in exile – to congratulate her on the birth of a grandson in England. What precisely he meant by “sciatica” – lower back pain in modern medical terminology – or what caused it, is unclear. But it was apparently not his only ailment. Among the letters in his registers dated to October of 1633, is an entry containing a cure “the effects are most exillent” for a “stone and obstruction of water” – a bladder stone, in other words. It ran as follows:

Receipe to draine of the gravell, and to make
water in time of observation:
Was king Henry ye 4th of France his sole remedy
Take fresh butter, put it in a silver dish on the fire to
make it boil, while it boils take of the feumme wth
A swannes quill feather, till the butter be purified
Take a silver porrenger heated by the fire, putt three spoones
full of the said purified butter in ye porringer, & ad to it
Instantly two spoones full of white wine, & one spoone full
Of white sugar candy beaten into fine powder, mingle
it together, take it in ye morning, fast two howers
after it:
This may be taken weekely

It is doubtful that this actually was an effective remedy, although drinking wine on an empty stomach at the start of every day probably helped to make it seem like it was working. While his early morning tippling may have caused the agent some minor (and possibly amusing) impairment, infectious diseases constituted a much more serious threat to diplomacy. At the same time, however, they also presented opportunities for acting outside the framework of the usual ceremonial and protocol.

John Finet’s entries in his notebooks for 1636 indicate that the newly arrived Spanish ambassador, the Conde de Oñate, took advantage of an outbreak of the plague in order to delay his public entrance. Knowing that the infection was going around, he claimed he had an “indisposition,” “the remaynes of a feaver that had seized him in Spayne.” He used the delay to haggle over his quarters. Finet met the ambassador’s demands for a fancier house by pointing out that it would be difficult to arrange this in “the tyme of contagion.” The lord chamberlin eventually tried to stick Oñate – much to his displeasure – in a house on the other side of the river, “with especiall regard to the ambassadors conveniency, as being remote in this tyme of plague from danger of infection.”

I suspect that the remoteness was intended to discourage the exceedingly punctilious Grandee from afflicting the court with his presence too often. However, a further outbreak in 1640 appeared to have more serious consequences, and not just for the diplomatic corps. People had died near Hampton Court, and Charles removed for safety to Oatlands – a no longer extant palace located in Surrey. Yet another Spanish ambassador found his plans put on hold as a result of illness. He was unable to ride in state to his first audience as the plague had spread to the king’s coachmen and grooms – one of whom had died. They were quarantined, “and theyr coache also sequestered, as not without danger if they should be sodaynly made use of.”

While nowhere near the size of the epidemic of 1665/66 (the subject of my next blog), these relatively small occurrences of infectious disease clearly had an impact on diplomatic business. However, it is worth noting – given our current situation –  that they did not bring it to a complete standstill. Despite fears of contagion, people took what they considered sensible precautions and got on with things as best they could.  In one instance, ‘social distancing’ (as they understood it) may have even been used as a way to avoid company unwanted even under healthier circumstances. 


Isabelle Devos, “Gezondheidszorg in tijden van cholera,” De Standard, 16.3.2020,

John Finet, Ceremonies of Charles I. The note books of John Finet, 1628- 1641, Albert J. Loomie, ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 204-07, 285.

Balthazar Gerbier, The Letterbooks of Balthazar Gerbier, National Archives at Kew, UK, State Papers, SP 105/10, folios 262v-263r and 272r-275r.

The dismissal and appointment of ambassadors, RBE 33 – TD Jacobs


Bulstrode Whitelocke, anon. artist, 1634, National Portrait Gallery

I have spent the last month writing a draft of the introduction to my dissertation. I still have three years to go, but my contract is for half time teaching, half time researching. So it is above time that I got started writing. Although it was difficult knowing that I will probably end up rewriting the entire introduction just prior to submission (that seems to be the norm) it remained worth it as I now have a very clear overview of the literature. Moreover, I now have an outline for my analysis, which I can start filling in. I currently plan to have the first chapter completed by September 1, 2020.

The activities of the past few weeks have prevented me from following the US news with my usual interest, but I have since got caught up. And the evolving case surrounding the former US ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, has caught my eye. It appears that the Ukrainian authorities have started an investigation into allegations that she was spied upon during her time in office. The tip off derives from documented text messages that were released as part of the impeachment trial of Trump. Yovanovitch was a witness during the House of Representatives’ investigation, when she testified regarding her recall, and the possibility that she was removed from her post so that she could not prevent Trump’s long-time associate and TV lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, from brokering a deal with the Ukrainians to interfere in the upcoming presidential election. There is a growing body of evidence, much of it from Lev Parnas – another White House hanger-on turned snitch among a long list of indicted and eventually convicted criminals – that this may indeed be true.

Scandals involving Early Modern diplomats – and their subsequent recall – are not unknown. Balthazar Gerbier is a good case in point. But I recently came across allegations made by one, Bulstrode Whitelocke, concerning his appointment. Whitelocke wrote in his Journal of the Swedish embassy in the years 1653 and 1654, that he was blackmailed into accepting the post in an effort to get rid of him following his protests over Oliver Cromwell’s dissolution of Parliament. Another government official – in fact, the man originally appointed to the position – came to him, arguing that it

“would be a very great honor and advantage to him [Bulstrode] and his family, and to his profession, wheras his refusal of it would extreamly endaunger him and his fortune; that those in power would be highly offended att it, and all clamours of persons discontented att any thing that he had done would be let loose upon him, and favoured against him; an though he ware free from the least corruption, yet in these times, it was not prudent to put a man’s selfe upon the duanger of complaints, and to judges not his friends”

The problem with Whitelocke’s account, however, is that the preface (at least) appears to have been produced after the Restoration. And he had good reason to attempt to distance himself from the disgraced regime. Other members of the Interregnum governments had had their property seized and/or were imprisoned for treason, and those who had signed the warrant of execution for Charles I had themselves been executed.  Blair Worden has thoroughly covered the problems that Whitelocke poses as a credible source. However, I find this aspect of his account rather credible. The ambassador, prior to his falling out with Cromwell, had been a very influential member of the government. He was a long-time member of Parliament, and that institution’s lead negotiator with Charles I during the Civil Wars. During the first years of the Commonwealth, he served as a councillor of state and commissioner of the Great Seal. And the historical record (not just his self serving report of a conversation in his Memorials) shows that he did indeed object (and publicly at that) to the increasing concentration of power in the circle around Cromwell.  

So an extended trek to see Queen Christina of Sweden may have been a convenient way for him to be got rid of. It was both an honourable position, and a long way away. The fly in the ointment, however, is that he resumed his Interregnum career upon his return, sitting in the Protectorate Parliaments, was a commissioner of the treasury, and advised Cromwell on foreign affairs. So he wasn’t exactly an enemy of the rebel state. At the same time, however, he was not a staunch republican – which may have been what saved him following the Restoration. Maybe Whitelocke was temporarily got out of the way while the Protectorate was consolidated. It does seem plausible.

In any case, it certainly makes me wonder how many modern day ambassadors may be serving time in honourable exiles. And how many more career diplomats in the Trump regime may be treated as dishonourably as Ambassador Yovanovitch before all is said and done.


Ruth Spalding. The improbable Puritan. A life of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.

Bulstrode Whitelocke. Journal of the Swedish embassy in the years 1653 and 1654, impartially written by the ambassador Bulstrode Whitelocke, 2 vols. Edited by Henry Reeve. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855. (Revised edition).

Bulstrode Whitelocke.  Memorials of the English affairs: or, an historical account of what passed from the beginning of the reign of King Charles the First, to King Charles the Second his happy restauration […] London: Nathaniel Ponder, 1682.

Blair Worden. “Review: the ‘Diary’ of Bulstrode Whitelocke.” The English Historical Review 108, no. 426 (1993), 122-34.

‘Worlding the Low Countries,’ RBE 32 – TD Jacobs

Another November, another conference. I attended this year’s annual Association for Low Countries Studies gathering, titled “Worlding the Low Countries.” For me, the first highlight of the congress came with Yolanda Rodríguez Pérez’s presentation “On the transnational peregrination of early-modern Netherlandish pamphlets: a remarkable anti-Hispanic case.” I’d previously come across the pamphlet A pageant of Spanish humours, as I suspect that anyone working on English and Dutch or Spanish diplomatic relations has. But I did not know just how widespread the work was. Nor that it was originally an illustrated Dutch broadsheet titled Aerdt ende Eygenschappen van Seignor van Spangien. As Dr Rodríguez Pérez points out, the English publisher, John Wolf, states that is “Translated out of Dutche” but I never took the time to see if I could find it, and I wish that I had. The text (and the illustrations as it turns out) is remarkably flexible and could be easily adapted to suit whatever anti-Spanish sentiment was current. Certainly, Dr Rodríguez Pérez’s research has convinced me that I should replace the translation of Las Casas that I normally employ in my freshman course as a heuristics case study with A pageant of Spanish humours. It is entirely in line with the politics of the period and I will be able to kill two birds with one stone by discussing her work on the dissemination of images as well. An additional interesting question arose during the follow up regarding the nature of such publications – with so very many sins and flaws accredited to the Spanish, are these works really reflective of fear, or are they actually ridiculing?

The next two key presentations of the conference were made by my co-panelists, Cristina Bravo Lozano and Maurits Ebben. Dr Bravo Lozano has already made an important contribution to the field of diplomatic studies with her work on Spain and the Irish during the course of her PhD research. However, her investigations of ceremonial and material aspects of diplomacy were at the centre of our panel. Dr Bravo Lozano’s findings regarding the entrance of Dutch ambassadors into Spanish capital some time after the conclusion of the Peace of Madrid indicates an interesting interplay in which ceremonial may have been used to settle an issue of reciprocity and ambiguity. Moreover, her work highlights the importance of access to certain spaces for diplomats, and showed some similarities with what I’ve found regarding the entrances and defrayments of ambassadors in London. Maurits Ebben’s investigations into the material aspects of the Dutch embassy in Madrid played into this very well and formed a nice continuity in the presentations. Of particular interest is the matter of the ambassador’s art collection. An analysis conducted by Dr Ebben of the genres shows that the ambassador concerned – Hendrick van Reede van Renswoude – had a ‘diplomatic’ collection, with a mix of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Dutch’ themes. In fact, the embassy and ambassador’s belongings support the argument that Early Modern European ambassadors had a shared culture in many regards, influenced more by their socio-economic backgrounds than their nationalities.

Finally, Matthijs Tieleman’s presentation “‘Get rid of that vreempie!’: Dutch perceptions of America during the American Revolution, 1775-1784” returned to the themes of circulation and adaptation of nationalist stereotypes. Interestingly, both Dutch royalists and republicans made use of German based stereotypes of Americans at the time – illiterate, boorish, and living beyond their means. However, as Tieleman showed, these discourses had far more to do with struggles within the Netherlands, as well as tensions in the run up to the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War and the involvement of the Hanoverians in the government – in particular, that of the Duke of Brunswick (Louis Ernest – not to be confused with his brother Charles). Of even more interest was the discussion that followed, in which the subject of ‘presentism’ arose. I appreciated Tieleman’s response – I believe he cited Gadamer – concerning the fusion of the horizons of the past and present.

There were also presentations by librarians, archivists, literature specialists and linguists. Many, in consideration of the theme of this year’s gathering, spoke in relation to contemporary topics such as museum repatriation policies and immigration. And while I was glad to see these more contentious subjects covered, there were some responses that I found it difficult to relate to. For example, there were gasps and expressions of disbelief when a presenter mentioned that the current head of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s national museum did not object to repainting items to keep them contemporary and relatable – and during a discussion of Dutch migration to Australia, Aboriginals were never once mentioned. That absence was particularly odd to me considering the in-depth talks on other periods of Dutch colonisation, and I think  more ‘worlding’ is required in these areas. But on the whole, the Association for Low Countries Studies conference was well worth attending, and I look forward to doing so in the future.

ALCS – Association for Low Countries Studies