Saturday, 8 July 2017

1666: Plague, War and Hellfire Hardcover by Rebecca Rideal- 304 pages-Publisher: John Murray- ISBN-10: 1473623537

Let the flaming London come in view, Like Nero's Rome, burnt to rebuild it new

The Second Advice to a Painter by Andrew Marvell

“sure, so sad a sight was never seen before as that city is now lying in ashes”-

 Lady Elmes

It is fair to say that 1666 was not a very good year to be in London or England for that matter. In rapid succession, she was struck by a deadly plague that wiped out swathes of the population. The second war with the Dutch caused mayhem and much bloodshed for both nations and to end with London was struck by a deadly fire.

All these events are told with a fair degree of panache by Rebecca Rideal in her new book. The book which reads like a historical novel with bits of academic essay thrown is based on a significant amount of original archival research and makes use of little-known sources. It is safe to say the that Rideal did her fair share of “grubbing in the archives”. Rideal has claimed her approach is novel, but this has been hotly contested.Regarding publications, 1666 joins a very crowded market. Lloyd and Dorothy Moote’s The Great Plague and Adrian Tinniswood on the Fire of London are two which come to mind.

Rideal has not attempted to differentiate her book from these by claiming to have found new evidence. However, she does try to place the events in a more broader context of the bourgeois society. Rideal is correct to point out that 1666 was a crucial turning point in English history. The devastation caused by these events did, however, enable the bourgeoisie to hasten further the process of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

It was also a time when some of the finest representatives of the bourgeoisie were around. 1666 saw Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, complementing Robert Hooke's microscopic discoveries. It was also when the great John Milton completed Paradise Lost. Last but not least was the rebuilding of London by Christopher Wren. The three events mentioned in the book came at a time when England in the seventeenth century witnessed a fundamental change.

As the 21st-century Marxist writer David North wrote the “17th century started to fundamentally change the way man saw the world. Up until then, mankind's worldview had largely been dominated by the Aristotelian worldview. Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way.[1]

The book outlines that the fire and plague cruelly exposed the class divide and class relations in England at the time. The poor endured the most of both plague and fire. The rich could either stay in their well-built houses to wait out the fire and plague, or they could move out of the city with their possessions. The poor had no such luxury.

As Lady Ann Hobart complained in a letter “I am almost out of my wits, we have packed up all our goods & cannot get a cart for money, they give 5 & 10 pound for carts … I fear I shall lose all I have and must run away … O pity me.”

As Rideal explains the fire was only extinguished when the rich allowed some of their houses to be blown up or knocked down to provide a firebreak. If the rich people had acquiesced to their houses being blown up earlier the fire could have done less damage.

The fire caused widespread panic and paranoia. Riddeal cites one gruesome incident in graphic detail when a Frenchwoman in Moorfields had her breasts cut off after the chickens she was carrying under her apron were mistaken for fireballs. Many foreign nationals especially French or Dutch were accused of starting the fire was attacked by the mobs.


1666 is a debut book and tells the story of that year in narrative form and borrows heavily from the genre of History from Below. The book written during her research on her PHD is orientated to the general reader but does retain a good academic level. Her use of anecdotal evidence is very well done.

The reader will see in her book a contradiction in that it is part “public history” and part academic history. This reflects Rideal’s current predicament. A foot in both camps is a difficult place to be but not entirely impossible, but Rideal will have to make a choice.

Given her life history, I would say she will continue with a more publicly minded history. She was born in Chester in 1983. She studied history at Leeds University. Her MA was completed at University College London. She is a founding member of the History Vault and had an early career in television. This would tend to point her future career more in the public history arena.

Her main historiographical interest lies with a study of the 17th-century England. Her time spent in television will keep her in good stead for the future. If she does manage to combine Public history with a more academically minded history, then that would be a novel approach.

She describes this method.  “The thing is I am a procrastinator,” she says, “and the way that I combat procrastination is by coming up with something that in my mind is even more important than the thing I am supposed to be doing. So I start something, and that takes over everything, and then I start something else.”

Much of her book is grounded by using contemporary accounts. Although she sometimes gets carried away causing one writer to say that her style is more to do with live television than with dead history. She recognises this saying “There are probably lines in there that I will cringe about afterwards. There are certainly some that I took out because I was pushing it too far. I am really, nervous about this being published because I’m so nervous about the way I’ve written it, the language that I’ve used, the fact that I’ve written a narrative history before I have written a PhD. I feel very, very conscious of all those things. It is frightening.”

The book does not follow a logical pattern and tends to jump from one event to another. This seems to be the unorthodox style that Rideal has adopted. Once you get used to it does make the reading interesting and allows the historian to set a fast pace almost novel-like. The question being does Rideal want to pursue this style of history writing or as she comes to the end of PHD pursue a more conventional academic style?

Twitter Wars

Not everyone is comfortable with her style which is their right, but as a historian, she should start to develop a thicker skin. That does mean she must put up with the personal abuse she has received on Twitter. Much of the abuse appears to be provoked by the fact that she is an attractive female historian. The general thrust of the abuse is the simple fact that she is a female trying to make a living out of public history writing.

The writer Graham Smith has sympathies for Rideal when he recounts “I have some sympathy with these grumblings. Back in 1982, I returned from completing an MA in Social History at Essex to my first university armed with a poster for Leonore Davidoff’s course. I was just pinning it to a noticeboard when the department’s senior professor of economic history spotted me and declared, ‘Women in History, Graham? Whatever next?’

However, as others have pointed out, the fact that the struggle to go beyond hegemonic discourses continues suggests that winning once is not enough. My belief is that evidence of a new generation reinventing ways of taking up that fight should be a cause for celebration rather than condemnation. As tends to happen on Twitter, battle-lines were drawn, allies and enemies were quickly made, and exchanges sharpened after those initial criticisms of Rideal. On one side were historians who clearly identified with Rideal, especially those aiming to make a living from producing popular histories. On the other, for the most part, were historians working in universities, some of whom began to question whether Rideal was even qualified to write early modern history”.[2]

He continues “these days, the battles within ‘the profession’ are mainly over resources and too often fuelled by egotism. With its proponents organised into warring tribes according to the periods and places they study or corralled into sub-disciplinary groupings, History is fractious even within the academy. In all this sound and fury, and despite constant internal sniping, the discipline has been traditionally slow to innovate, and much of the sparring is about maintaining rather than extending boundaries. It is worth noting, for example, that those pioneering courses in women’s history and oral history at Essex were taught in the Sociology Department. While members of other disciplines frequently offer support for new ideas, historians – too often operating as lone scholars – revel in knocking lumps out of one another, reserving spite for those who try to innovate. The result is that in open competition for resources, most obviously for research grant income or in the formation of mutually beneficial research partnerships, historians do not achieve the same results as, say, political scientists or human geographers. Nor are we as prepared to look after our researchers or early career colleagues as would be the case in economics or sociology”.

Although I use Twitter, I am not a fan of using it for public debates on historical matters. It is too short and how you can explain complex historical differences in 140 character it is just absurd.


The book has been well received but that is not to say it is without criticism. One writer has pointed out that the book tends to concentrate too much on what was known about an individual at the time and to leave it at that according to one reviewer “she refers several times to mysterious rumours about Sabbatai Zevi, the charismatic rabbi who, in Turkey in 1665, proclaimed himself the Messiah. “Questions over the authenticity of Sabbatai abounded,” she says and leaves it at that as if nothing more can be known. However, there is a vast amount of scholarship on this extraordinary man, whose conversion to Islam in 1666 shocked the entire Jewish world; we do not need to confine ourselves today to contemporary rumours”.[3]

My criticism of her does not arise from the book which is very enjoyable it stems from her theoretical position or historiography. Recently she stated, “The time of the grand histories that are all about male figures is coming to an end,”. “I think people are understanding now that there were women around, too, and they were doing important things.”

The main advocate of this type of history was the historian Thomas Carlyle. If that were all she was staying, then no one would have too many complaints. However, as the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky was fond of saying "every sociological definition is at bottom a historical prognosis."

Rideal’s prognosis is that more history should be written from the standpoint of Gender and race. It is high time that the absurdities of basing a study of history on race, gender, and sexual orientation end. The fundamental division in society is not race or gender but that of class.

As North explains “The logic of class interests’ rules politics. This is a basic truth that is frequently forgotten, especially by academics, which tend to evaluate political factions by subjective criteria. Moreover, their judgments are influenced by their own unstated political biases, particularly when it is a matter of evaluating a dispute between opportunists and revolutionists. To the petty-bourgeois academic, the policies advocated by the opportunists usually appear more “realistic” than those advanced by the revolutionaries. However, just as there is no innocent philosophy, there are no innocent politics. Whether foreseen or not, a political program has objective consequences”.


Rideal is a gifted young historian her debut book 1666 is an enjoyable book. Her chosen subject is probably one of the most interesting times in not only British history but world history. If Rideal wants to write more academically minded stuff which she will have to for her PHD, then she will have to develop a different technique because the one used for this book will not do as it has severe limitations. This is not to say that Rideal’s book does not meet main academic standards. Her use of source material is carefully chosen mostly and up to date, and she provides footnotes for all citations and statistics.There is no point hoping the book gets a wide readership as it already has but I would recommend taking on summer holiday.

[1] quality, the Rights of Man, and the Birth of Socialism-By David North 
[2]Beyond Us and Them: Public History and the Battle for the Past on Twitter by Graham Smith- 

Further Reading

[1] See Buettner, Ricardo, and Katharina Buettner, ‘A Systematic Literature Review of Twitter Research from a Socio-Political Revolution Perspective’, in ResearchGate, 2016

[2] Oh, O., C. Eom, and H. R. Rao, “Role of Social Media in Social Change: An Analysis of Collective Sense-Making During the 2011 Egypt Revolution,” Information Systems Research, vol. 26, no. 1, pp.210–223, 2015.

[3] Lea, Richard, ‘Rebecca Rideal: “The Time of the Grand Histories Is Coming to an End”’, The Guardian, 25 August 2016. [accessed 3 September 2016].