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Curiosity and reality: the context and interpretation of a seventeenth-century image

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date2010
JournalHistory Workshop Journal
Journal number1
Volume70
Number of pages26
Pages21-46
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

This article traces the varied uses made of a single woodcut image over the course of 350 years. Its repeated issue, first in interregnum tracts – ostensibly newsbooks – in 1644, 1648 and 1651, from which it was archived by picture libraries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, led to its publication in schools‘ textbooks in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries and to widespread use by teachers throughout Britain.

In the course of its diverse deployment, interpretations of what it depicts have ranged widely. In the earliest depiction which the author has managed to trace, it illustrated a story of post-partum rape by detachments of French soldiers under Prince Rupert's command; subsequently, the image was slightly doctored, tailoring it to illustrate tales of Henry Marten's ‘Leveller’ troops; and finally in the Commonwealth period, it formed part of the ‘anti-Ranter literature published following the Blasphemy Act. The events depicted were reputed to have taken place in Dorset, Leicestershire and York respectively.

The disparate employment of the image in the seventeenth century points to the interpretative interdependence of image and text, and makes possible a discussion of the nature of news – propaganda or reportage; ‘curiosity and reality’ as a contemporary journalist had it – in the depiction of truth and fiction when recounting violence and criminality.

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