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The Murder of Mr. Grebell

The Murder of Mr. Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town

Paul Kléber Monod
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    The Murder of Mr. Grebell
    Book Description:

    On a winter night in 1743, a local magistrate was stabbed to death in the churchyard of Rye by an angry butcher. Why did this gruesome crime happen? What does it reveal about the political, economic, and cultural patterns that existed in this small English port town?

    To answer these questions, this fascinating book takes us back to the mid-sixteenth century, when religious and social tensions began to fragment the quiet town of Rye and led to witch hunts, riots, and violent political confrontations. Paul Monod examines events over the course of the next two centuries, tracing the town's transition as it moved from narrowly focused Reformation norms to the more expansive ideas of the emerging commercial society. In the process, relations among the town's inhabitants were fundamentally altered. The history of Rye mirrored that of the whole nation, and it gives us an intriguing new perspective on England in the early modern period.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13019-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Spook Stories
    (pp. 1-53)

    This is the story of a violent murder that happened in 1743 in a town on the south coast of England. No mystery surrounds the identity of the killer, but his motives have never been clear. He may have been insane, he may have been possessed by devils, or he may have been seeking revenge against the leading men of the town. Whatever the explanation for his crime, he was tried very irregularly, by a judge who was brother-in-law to the murdered man and was allegedly the intended victim. After his execution, the murderer’s body was put on display in...

  5. 2 A Parcel of Devils
    (pp. 54-93)

    How does the crime of John Breads connect with the wider context of social change in early modern Rye? We can begin where the preceding chapter ended, with the meaning of his madness. John Breads made only one comment about his own “Distraction.” According to the newspaper report of his trial, he announced to the court that “the Night he met William Fowl in a Lane, call’d the Dead-Man’s Lane, just without the Town, he thought he was then among a Parcel of Devils.” In other words, Breads likened madness to demonic possession. So did Robert Burton inThe Anatomy...

  6. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  7. 3 The Valley of Humiliation
    (pp. 94-137)

    Religion was the catalyst of social and political change in early modern Rye. Its absence from the John Breads case therefore seems all the more conspicuous. The murderer was not attended by a clergyman in prison or on the scaffold. What were his religious sentiments? We can judge them only from his reported final words, which amount to a last-ditch attempt to expiate his guilt. Breads said of himself that he was “a very wicked Liver, and deserv’d the Punishment he was subjected to by Law. He desir’d all People to take Warning by his unhappy End.”¹ More interesting is...

  8. 4 Oligarchs
    (pp. 138-183)

    Political assassination was rare in eighteenth-century England. The previous century had been marked by famous attempts against kings and ministers, starting with the Gunpowder Plot. A few were successful, like the stabbing of theDuke of Buckingham in 1628. In the second half of the 1600s, numerous plots were hatched by disgruntled royalists or republicans to murder Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, although with these failed conspiracies it is difficult to sort out which were real and which invented by the authorities. The Assassination Plot of 1696 was the last politically motivated plan that posed a serious threat to the life...

  9. 5 Politeness and Police
    (pp. 184-235)

    Butchers were more likely than other tradesmen to be hanged in the eighteenth century—at least the poet John Gay thought so. In his poem “Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London,” written in 1714–16, Gay advised strollers in the capital to “resign the Way / To shun the surlyButcher’sgreasy Tray, / Butchers, whose Hands are dy’d with Blood’s foul Stain, / And always foremost in the Hangman’s Train.”¹ Butchers were used to blood, and they worked with knives that could be turned to assault or murder. There may have been a further, more...

  10. 6 Looking for Allen Grebell
    (pp. 236-248)

    Rye has never been typical. Call it odd or unusual, special or strange; but do not try to force it into the straitjacket of typicality. Its uniqueness is rooted in a long, complicated history. From its foundation as a port in the late eleventh century until today, the town’s location and poor land connections have given it a strong maritime character that it still retains in spite of the silting up of the harbour. Its incorporation in the thirteenth century set up a fiercely independent system of local government that endured to the 1830s in practice, long after that in...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 249-284)
  12. Index
    (pp. 285-294)