Keith Wrightson


On his book Ralph Tailor’s Summer

Cover Interview of December 23, 2011

A close-up

Your browsing reader might be attracted by the striking cover of the book, which shows a dying man making his will, while a friend leans forward at his bedside, looking at him intently.  It is the frontispiece from the Braithwait Bible, a beautifully customized Geneva Bible, made around 1607 in memory of Thomas Braythwait, which is now in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art.  Having got that far, I hope the browser would pick up the book and open it first at the Prologue, and then perhaps turn to the final page.  (That is what I do myself in such situations: first paragraph and then last paragraph.)

On page 1, the reader would immediately encounter a reproduction of the elegant and elaborate signature of Ralph Tailor, which is described in my first paragraph.  It was my own encounter with that signature that began this book.  The following pages describe how I came upon it, at the bottom of a deposition made before the probate court of the Bishop of Durham in 1637.  It stopped me in my tracks because it was so unusual.  Most people in this period signed depositions with a rather labored hand, or simply made a mark because they could not write.  This was the work of a professional penman.

As a result, I read the deposition, and found in it an account of how on 8 August 1636, Ralph Tailor, accompanied by two witnesses, climbed up on to the city wall of Newcastle in order to get close to the attic window of a house located by the wall.  From that window a man called Thomas Holmes dictated the terms of his will, which Ralph took down.  Thomas Holmes was dictating his wishes from the attic window because he was isolated there.  He was dying of the plague.

That deposition first alerted me to the fact that the testamentary records of 1636-7 contained a wealth of vivid evidence about the terrible plague outbreak in Newcastle in 1636.  It also introduced me to Ralph Tailor.  As I read on I encountered him repeatedly in the records, and both the potential of the material and the presence of such a central character caught my imagination.  My Prologue describes all this.  It is intended to explain how a historical research project of this kind gets started.  If the reader finds that intriguing, then he or she may well find the book rewarding.

The final paragraph of the book, on p. 161, is a reflection on how most past events (including the plague of 1636) fade and are forgotten—but also on how they can be recovered.  The records are still there.  They tell stories.  They name names.  They contain voices that deserve to be listened to.  My book is an effort to hear and interpret them.