As I emerge from the British Library, blinking like a mole in the winter sun, I see Martyn Cornell has been doing what he enjoys best, demolishing a passing historical claim that someone else has made.
There was a spat before Christmas about the excellent Oxford Companion to Beer. Many in the beer blogosphere were queueing up to find errors and cite them as proof that the book is worthless, or at the very least, deeply flawed. This turned into a rather worrying witch hunt where almost any positive mention of the OCB online was rooted out and lambasted (one beer writer was even attacked on his Facebook page for posting that he was looking forward to reading it).
My response to this was along the lines of ‘of course there are errors – but if you take the thing as a whole, it’s a great piece of work’. This was (mis)interpreted by some as me saying that errors didn’t matter, and the pursuit of truth, of fact, in beer history was unimportant.
That is not what I meant at all. If I did mean that, I wouldn’t, for example, have spent all day yesterday in the London Metropolitan Archives reading through letters sent between brewers Flower & Sons and their lawyers regarding their taking over the lease of the George Inn, Southwark – something that will surely take only a line or two in my new book, but which I took a thousand words of notes on, because I want to make sure I get it absolutely right.
What I do think, though, after spending nearly a year doing research that is as forensic and detailed as I can possibly do on the history of coaching inns, pubs in general and one pub in particular, is that some who are interested in the history of beer are in danger of strangling the study of it by imposing standards that are too strict, that are tighter than any proper academic historian would insist upon.
If you’re not that bothered about the study of beer history, please stop reading now, because you’re going to get really bored if you don’t.
First, a few caveats:
One, I greatly admire the work that people like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson do. I know from great experience myself that it’s not exactly easy, fun or rewarding to trawl through historical documents in search of the truth. It’s much easier to simply cite what some bloke said in a book eighty years ago without checking where he got it from. Standards of beer scholarship are improving, and people like Martyn and Ron are playing a significant role in this.
Two, I don’t want to excuse errors – where they are in fact errors, as opposed to differing interpretations. And I’m not here to defend the OCB’s entry on the yard of ale. I actually agree with Martyn that the original yard of ale entry in OCB looks like it’s wrong, though I believe that it’s the result of a simple confusion with the ‘stirrup cup’, which is a similar shape to the yard, but smaller – still wrong and in need of correction, but not exactly the biggest controversy ever to rear its beery head.
Three, although this post was prompted by Martyn’s latest, it shouldn’t be read (just) as a criticism of Marytn – he makes points similar to those below towards the end of his post, and I agree with a lot of what he says there. What follows has been inspired by Martyn’s post – and other comments he’s made previously – rather than being a direct rebuttal. I’m sure he would agree with much of what follows.
With those out of the way, my main beef is this: there seems to be a growing view that if there isn’t definite, written, primary source proof of something, than we cannot assert that it is true in an historical context, and we shouldn’t be saying it.
I’m sorry, but that’s just not right. If real historians behaved like this, we wouldn’t have any history at all.
Having come fresh from the coalface, here’s how written historical sources work: since the mid-twentieth century and the age of mass communication, you can find lots of references to pretty much anything if you know where to look. The biggest problem facing future historians looking at the early 21st century will be too much material relating to any subject, not too little.
Go back to the nineteenth century, and it’s a bit harder. There are newspapers and magazines – quite a lot of them – and if you’re lucky enough to find databases that have them as word-searchable PDFs, you can fillet all mentions of your chosen subject from tons of last century’s chip paper within minutes. The trouble is, you know how now, the mainstream press don’t write much about beer? Well, they didn’t much then, either. For example, over 99.9% of the 16,000 mentions of ‘India Pale Ale’ in the Burley Collection of 18th and 19th century newspapers are in the classified ads section, and while the first few you look at are very revealing (that’s where I discovered the earliest actual mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ for example) after that, they’re all the same.
Go back before that, and most of the population were illiterate. Newspapers die out altogether when you reach the seventeenth century. Now it gets trickier. There’s the odd diarist whose work has survived, which is why if you read anything historical about the seventeenth century (including my new book) you will unfailingly discover what John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys thought about the subject at hand.
Before that, anything that the Church had direct involvement in, you’re laughing, because they kept copious records of everything. Anything the monarch did, you’re on safe ground. But social history? Stuff that everyday people did? That gets tricky. There are legal records if your subject got into trouble. But unless the Church or the law were interested, written records start to become very thin on the ground. You’re relying on diarists, the odd pamphleteer (who usually had a particular view on his subject – many of our best descriptions of Elizabethan alehouses come from Puritans who thought they were the ‘nests of Satan’) and the occasional, isolated traveller or chronicler, and you kind of have to go with what those individuals say.
In terms of tangible fact, this is then supplemented by archaeological evidence. This is incredibly useful. But foodstuffs, clothing and almost anything else soft and perishable haven’t survived.
Our accurate record of what Elizabethan theatres looked like inside rests on a one page description and a drawing done by a Swiss traveller in 1594 – the rebuilt Globe Theatre relied on this, and the partial foundations of the original. There are three surviving portraits which we think are William Shakespeare, and scant references to him in legal documents. There isn’t even a definitely agreed version of his complete works, as whole plays were rarely copied. Bill Bryson set out to write a book on Shakespeare that just stuck to the known facts. It’s less than 200 pages long, and he’s padded it out with all sorts of more general stuff about Elizabethan England. And this is Shakespeare – not some pub, brewery or drinking custom.
So when primary source stuff gets thin, what do you do?
You do not ‘make things up’.
But you do become flexible.
Martyn regularly pours scorn on historical claims that are made long after the fact. But the first real account of the Battle of Hastings (leaving aside the Bayeux Tapestry) was written by William of Malmesbury over a century after to happened, and historians accept it as definitive. Historians haven’t always provided academic references and footnotes – that doesn’t mean their work is invalid. Also, when most people were illiterate, much history was handed down orally before someone put it to paper. Inevitably, this introduces an element of Chinese Whispers. But it’s that or nothing – and academic historians, while not always accepting such accounts as gospel (now there’s an interesting example) will usually at least take the gist of it to be true, or use it as a guide. So while I’m not saying (because I don’t believe) that the yard of ale was invented for stage coach drivers, I am arguing that the fact that this claim wasn’t made until the 1950s is not on its own sufficient grounds to dismiss it.
Martyn’s other maxim is along the lines of ‘the first law of history is don’t assume’. I’d like to see where these universally agreed laws of history are written down, and have a look at what the others are, because in the history I’ve been reading – mostly books written by academics who work in history departments in reputable universities – educated, reasoned assumptions are being made all the time. ‘Could’, ‘might’, ‘perhaps,’, ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ are some of the most popular words in academic history. Where I would agree with Martyn 100% is that if it is a ‘could’ or a ‘might’, any writer – especially one working on something as illustrious as the OCB – has an obligation to make this clear rather than writing ‘was’ or ‘did’, and this is a sin of mine that I’ve now resolved to fix. But I’d argue that this is the main area where standards need to be improved. The simple ‘there’s no written evidence so we must assume it’s wrong’ approach simply is not how history works.
These issues have particular relevance for the study of beer and pubs, because at the time, a lot of this shit just didn’t get written down. Whenever the yard of ale was invented, and for whatever purpose, no one whose work survives thought it worth recording. So what are you going to do? It obviously was invented by someone, at some point, so we are not wrong to speculate on what did happen.
If we don’t, we reduce history to virtually nothing. And we have to look in a broader context. That first mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ came at least seventy years after strong, hoppy pale had been exported to the Indian market – so how can we assert when this beer called ‘IPA’ first appeared?
The now pretty-much dismissed claim that George Hodgson began exporting pale ale to India in 1785 is based on this being the date it was first advertised in the Calcutta Gazette. But the reason it wasn’t advertised before then is not that the beer didn’t exist in India, but that the Calcutta Gazette didn’t. So when did Hodsgon first export his beer?
Another useful example for me is the story that IPA was first introduced to Britain in 1827 when a ship bound for India was shipwrecked off Liverpool, the casks washed up on the beach, and were auctioned by the ship’s insurance company, and the locals loved the beer and started demanding it at home. Martyn has dismissed this as ‘myth’ because the claim was made fifty years after the fact, and it’s not mentioned anywhere else. He says it never happened. Now, if we’re talking about how IPA was introduced to Britain, I totally agree. A quick look at Peter Matthias’s brilliant brewing history shows that Bass and Allsopp were advertising pale ales domestically in the early 1820s. In the 1830s, IPA became popular in Britain among families returning from India. Hodgson, while being squeezed out of the Indian market, saw an opportunity back home and started advertising his beer as the taste of India. But to say the shipwreck never happened? That’s an even bolder claim than the original assertion. Visit any Cornish coastal pub, for example, and you’ll find walls decorated with facsimiles of posters advertising auctions of cargo from shipwrecks from the early nineteenth century. They happened all the time – surely at least one of these auctions would have included India-bound beer. I’m certain that the 1827 shipwreck did happen, that India-bound beer was sold to Scousers and that they loved it. After all, why would anyone simply make up such a story from their imagination? But this is not how IPA was introduced to Britain. It’s an important distinction in how we read historical data, how we interpret it.
Writing history is all about interpretation, and we have to make assumptions, especially when studying the history of the beer and pubs. For example, I will be claiming that inn-yard theatre happened in the George Inn, Southwark, despite a complete lack of evidence that it did. Why? Because there are records of it happening in inn-yards across London and all over the country. It often happened when there was a big fair. It happened in larger inn-yards. The George had a large inn-yard. Southwark Fair was one of the biggest fairs in the country. Plays happened in the yard of the Queens Arms just down the road. Therefore, I can assume, with a high degree of confidence, that plays also happened in the George.
One final point – and forgive me if this sounds defensive. As a historian, you have an obligation to be as thorough in your research as you can be. But as a writer aiming at a mainstream audience, you have an obligation to be as readable and interesting as you can be. For the mainstream writer, in any discipline, it’s a balance between the two, and Bryson’s Shakespeare is a perfect example of how to do it brilliantly. Just because the detail isn’t on the page in front of you, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
At the end of Martyn’s yard of ale post he gives a brilliant acknowledgement that we cannot research every single last fact back to primary sources, so I don’t think we’re that far apart in the overall scheme of things.
But please – even on the big stuff, sometimes, just because there is no primary source, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Sorry, but that’s not how history works.
If you’ve read this far, then you’re obviously pretty interested in beer history. So I’d just like to give a plug to the Brewery History Society. Membership is only £15 a year, and you get a lot for your money. Martyn is on the editorial board so he would definitely agree with me on this!