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Rachel Weil

Cornell University

Curriculum Vitae


My project looks at the language of corruption as it applies to specific institution, the early modern English prison, c. 1600-1800." I ask why "corruption," a key term in early modern political discourse, was often connected with prisons. Notoriously corrupt gaolers like William Pitt of Newgate and Thomas Bambridge of the Fleet, for example, were known to the public through pamphlet literature, printed trials, and reports of government enquiries. I will look both at discourse about prisons, and at what prisons were actually like -- their finances, governance, living conditions, and even sanitary arrangements. Whereas many political theorists and commentators from the eighteenth-century forward have seen "corruption" as a sign of moral failing (which in turn leads them to ask how we can create virtuous people) , I approach talk of "corruption" as a sign that boundaries are contested, and thus use corruption as a window onto the important but often incomplete emergence of the key conceptual distinctions (freedom/unfreedom, public/private, government/marketplace) associated with the "long early modern" emergence of modernity.

Prisons, I contend, were understood to represent an extreme case of boundary-collapse. The line between public and private interest was straddled breached by gaolers who were state officeholders but made a profit charging prisoners for room and board. The distinction between rulers and ruled inside the prison became hazy when, as was the case in many gaols, some prisoners were recruited or employed to manage the others. The borders within the prison became unstable when "virtuous debtors" shared space with felons. The border between inside and outside the prison was also surprisingly fluid, as prisoners found ways to extend their range of movement, as families of prisoners made homes and livings within prison walls, and as smells and infections spread (it was feared) from prison to the entire city. These threats to boundaries, I argue, made the early modern prison a lightning-rod for early modern concerns about corruption, and a metaphor for corruption itself.


Rachel Weil is a historian specializing in the political, cultural, intellectual and gender history of early modern England. She has published articles on a range of subjects: Restoration political pornography, the "Popish midwife" Elizabeth Cellier, John Locke's concept of the family, political informers, and national security legislation targeting Catholics after the Revolution of 1688, as well as two books: Political Passions: Gender, the Family and Political Argument in England, 1680-1714 (Manchester University Press, 2000) and A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England (Yale University Press, 2013). Her work has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Center, the Huntington Library and Cornell University.

Her current project looks at practices of detention in 17th and 18th-century England. It explores prisons as sites of politics, where both gaolers and prisoners engage in pragmatic and ideologically charged ways with notions of rights, constitutions and authority; and how this in sometimes gave actors in the wider political world an investment in what happened in the prison. It further considers how the detention of prisoners was understood to be similar to (or different from) other situations in early modern England in which people were restrained from moving where they pleased: the confinement of the sick to hospitals or their own houses, the commitment of lunatics to asylums, or slavery. She is a co-founder of and contributor to the blog Early Modern Prisons, where aspects of her research are regularly published.

She is currently Professor of History at Cornell University, where she has taught courses in early modern English and British History (covering 1500-1800), early modern Europe, modern Europe, the history of monarchy, gender history, the history of childbirth, the English Revolution, legal and constitutional history, and the history of prisons.

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