Monthly Archives: July 2015

Were flowers thrown at Defoe in the pillory?

John Waller in the pillory. The Newgate Calendar. Via wikimedia commons.
John Waller in the pillory. The Newgate Calendar. Via wikimedia commons.

The pillory was a purposefully ignominious punishment meted out to those, according the Old Bailey Online, convicted of ‘notorious crimes such as attempted sodomy, seditious words, extortion, fraud, and perjury’. It was also sometimes very dangerous: crowds might throw more than just garbage at the criminal.

In July 1703, Daniel Defoe was convicted of sedition and on July 29th began the first of three appearances in the pillory: the first day in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange; the second day at Cheapside; the third day at Fleet Street near Temple Bar. However, Defoe’s appearances were far from humiliating – at least on the first day. According to contemporary, and hostile, reports, on the 29th Defoe was surrounded by supportive crowds, including City big-wigs as well as ‘the rabble.’ Moreover, Defoe’s works were being ‘Hauk’d and Publickly Sold’ (including the very work he was convicted for, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, as well as his Hymn to the Pillory) while he ‘Glory’d’ in the experience.[1] But there is also a tradition that flowers were strewn around Defoe as he stood in the pillory. The image of Defoe standing nobly in the stocks whilst the populace of the City lay down flowers in admiration was memorialised most memorably in the 1862 painting by Eyre Crowe (see here for more details); it was also engraved in the same year by James Charles Armytage (see here at the National Portrait Gallery). The painting’s caption is worth quoting:

July 31, 1703, Daniel Foe, alias De Foe, this day stood in the pillory at Temple Bar in pursuance of his sentence, given against him at the last sessions at the Old Bailey for writing and publishing a seditious libel, entitled The Shortest way with the Dissenters. During his exhibition he was protected by the same friends from the missiles of his enemies: and the mob, instead of pelting him, resorted to the unmannerly act of drinking his health, etc..

This depiction also appears a few years later in William Lee’s 1869 biography of Defoe, The Life and Recently Discovered Writings of Daniel Defoe.[2] We also know that Lee had been writing on and researching Defoe since at least 1860, so would have likely seen the Crowe painting.[3] We can go back further: Walter Wilson, in his 1830 biography, Memoirs of the Life and Times of Daniel De Foe, had this to say:

Tradition reports, that the machine, which was graced with one of the keenest wits of the day; was adorned with garlands, it being in the midst of summer. The same authority states, that refreshments were provided for him after his exhibition.[4]

But Wilson doesn’t cite his ‘authority.’[5] Recent biographers have been more reticent: while John Richetti recounts the story of his works being sold, he considers the flower-throwing as ‘a less likely tradition’ and Maximillian E. Novak chooses not to mention it at all.[6]

It may be a ‘tradition’ but the shakiness of its foundations can be glimpsed in a few ways. Eyre’s painting sets Defoe’s pillorying at Fleet Street, Temple Bar (which can be seen in the background). There might have been a nice piece of bookish irony to place Defoe’s triumph at the heart of the eighteenth-century publishing industry. However, his appearance at Fleet street was on the third day, July 31st: the surviving contemporary reports place the scene of a supportive crowd only at his first appearance on July 29th at Cornhill. Moreover, Wilson’s evocation of a summer’s day complete with drinking and flowers is given the lie via another contemporaneous account. The diarist John Evelyn noted that on July 31st and August 1st there was ‘Thunder & lightning & raine’.[7] [my emphasis]. The scene of a summer’s day, with a pillory strewn with flowers and surrounded by merriment seems the stuff of myth.

[1] Contemporary accounts quoted in Paul Backscheider Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p.118; Maximillian E. Novak, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.191.

[2] Lee (3 vols), 1:73. Eyre’s painting is reproduced between pages 74 and 75.

[3] Furbank, P. N., and W. R. Owens, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p.64.

[4] Wilson (3 vols), 2:69.

[5] Paula Backscheider, in the one of the most detailed accounts of Defoe’s imprisonment, questioning and pillorying, replicates this scene without giving a source: ‘By all accounts, … the only things thrown at him were flowers,’ p.118; P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens also repeat the claim of flower-pelting by ‘contemporary accounts’ , but without citing their authority. A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007), p.24.

[6] John Richetti, The Life of Daniel Defoe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p.24

[7] Evelyn cited in F. Bastion, Defoe’s Early Life (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981), p.300.


Distant reading a conference

Conference hashtags via TAGSExplorer
Conference hashtags via TAGSExplorer

Last week I volunteered to chair some sessions for the MIX: Writing Digital conference at Bath Spa University. The conference brought together a wonderful and eclectic mix of creative digital writing and trans-media publishing projects. As perhaps the only literary-critical scholar at the conference (and an eighteenth-centurist to boot), I was on the borders of a lot of the discussions taking place – enjoyable and intriguing though they were. It was perhaps this that led me to play around with my engagement with the conference. So below are some visualisations of the conference programme – in this case the programme also included bios of the delegates and abstracts of the presentations, so it’s reasonably representative of the conference’s themes . The first is a word-frequency analysis of the conference programme using Voyant Cirrus, but with some of the obvious large-frequency words  – like ‘University’ ‘Writing’ and ‘Digital’ – edited out, a move that I think brings out some of the finer detail of the conference’s themes.


Similarly, when the words were visualised as a network (this via Textexture) one can follow connections between themes. A suprising ‘reading’ of the conference programme was produced when I submitted it to the Scientific Music Generator (with its self-deprecating acronymn, SMUG) to generate a 2-minute song. This is perhaps the most radical ‘deformation’ of the programme (a term borrowed from Mark Sample’s ‘Towards a Deformed Humanities‘): while some of the lyrics are nonsense,  I was particularly struck by this wonderfully suggestive verse:

that game technology in-in-incantations experiences will
my-my-my voices for oversharing, and these moved at submissions ways space
ooh author, adaptations
open other working, includes that author

Finally, since I love tweeting during conferences, I put the conference hashtag through Mark Hawksey’s TAGS to produce a visualisation of the conference tweets (see above for the screen grab).

Given so many of the projects and writings discussed during the conference were thinking through the possibilities offered by asychronous engagements with text, it seemed apposite that this kind of playing around with various analysers offered another way of engaging with the various texts of conference.