Sunday, June 27, 2004

Web Review: Tyburn Tree

  Tyburn Tree: Public Execution in Early Modern England

(Created by Zachary Lesser of Columbia University in October 1995; expanded and maintained by Charlie Mitchell, Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Tyburn Tree is a fine and deservedly popular online resource. It covers a range of executions - from high-profile political beheadings, burnings, to the hangings of felons. It's divided into five main sections at the front page: Background and Documents, Dying Speeches, Pictures, Bibliography, Links to Other Sites.

Tyburn Tree is a remarkably plain and simple site in these high-tech days, which means that it's simple to access and quick to load. Still, a more distinct style - if only to give the site a clear identity – might not go amiss. More seriously, it could be more clearly organised and signposted. In particular, the front page gives no clues to the diversity of the 'Background and Documents' section, which is a mixture of primary and secondary sources of different types, with both internal and (slightly confusingly, given the 'Links to Other Sites' page) external links, on several topics. The bibliography is also extensive and varied; and there is also a very useful glossary of terms. However, a substantial number of the external links on several pages are broken.

The site's own material is generally excellent, perhaps especially its pages on the locations of executions, and the standard of transcribed material seems good – as far as it goes. There are distinct limitations to the content. Firstly, it isn’t really about executions in early modern England, as its title claims, but in London (although this emphasis is acknowledged in the about page). This risks giving the impression that the London experience was representative of the country as a whole, which is problematic to say the least. The capital city is the most fertile source of information about capital punishment, especially if one is dependent on printed sources. In terms of numbers, London was quite simply the foremost site of executions of all kinds in England and Wales, not least but not only high-profile political ones. (There has been to my knowledge no systematic comparative study of the use of capital punishment relative to population across the country, but even given its size, it's quite possible that London was exceptional.) Might greater familiarity with executions and their sheer scale have meant that execution had different social and cultural significances for Londoners?

It feels rather unfair to say that my first main criticism of Tyburn Tree is that it leaves me wanting more. Charlie Mitchell comments in an interview that he wanted to balance the disproportionate attention paid to the eighteenth century with more information on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the site indeed does this. But London is not England, and it would be equally useful to see more about the provinces to redress the similarly excessive focus on the capital by many writers. Secondly, judging by the broken links (and absence of any links to recent essential resources such as The Old Bailey Proceedings), little has been done to the site in some time. And, finally, it really does need a proper site map and/or (at the very least) a slightly more informative front page.

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