A Time of Judgment (23-24 June 2016): Conference Report

Judgment everywhere. Implacable judgment in scarlet up in the Central Criminal Court or delivered in measured tones in the High Court of Chancery. Beside the Embankment in the imperial senate, judgment confidently uttered before the witnesses in committee chambers or mumbled amid the gilded crockets of a stifling House of Lords. Judgment by the bearded and caped men of the hanging committee, sat before the stacked canvasses at Burlington House. Judgment dropping glibly from the pen nib of the nameless gentleman of the press. Judgment in the eyes of the pedestrian, taught to read character in the faces and costume of his fellow foot passengers. Thundering judgment, delivered from a wrathful pulpit. Judgment in the small halls and lecture rooms of gas-lit institutes. Judgment accumulating, sweeping, failing.


So Charles Dickens did not begin Bleak House (1852-1853) in that way …  but the international conference ‘A Time of Judgment: The Operation and Representation of Judgement in Nineteenth-Century Cultures,’ held at Plymouth 23 – 24 June 2016, examined the ways in which judgment was everywhere in the nineteenth century: with all sorts of judgment operating and being represented in Britain, the British empire, across the Atlantic, and in continental Europe.

Organized by Kim Stevenson (Law); Annika Bautz (English), James Gregory and Daniel Grey (History), the conference brought together literary scholars, legal historians, cultural historians and others. It drew upon poetry, photography, painting, performance, prose and printing technology itself, to examine judgment.

The event began, suitably enough, on that ‘day of judgment’ on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. And while the conference papers presented, did not study the realm of judgment in electoral politics, delegates otherwise studied a very broad range of judgments and judgements.

For the figure of the judge and the acts of judging – whether explicitly worded in discourse to evoke ideas of the ‘men of the law’ or not – have not been studied sufficiently by historians of the nineteenth century, outside the specialisms of legal history or histories of literary and art criticism.

This conference brought these aspects together – the legal and the non-legal, and examined the ways in which divine, legal, aesthetic and scholarly judgments were represented or operated from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. The geographical coverage ranged from the local (South West) to the Antipodean.

Judgement (with its additional ‘e’) was particularly important, with papers on the portrayal of judges in photography (by Professor Leslie Moran, the second keynote speaker, using the mass-produced small photographs or cartes de visites of judicial celebrities), in the popular British illustrated press, and Australian painting. There were judges in divorce courts, in affiliation trials and in trials for child murder.

Public justice was studied through the perspective of the ‘court’ of public opinion in Britain and the United States, and in early nineteenth-century police courts in London. A panel explored Plymouth as a case study in provincial legal judgements, taking in police discipline, provincial press verdicts, and other voices of authority in the Three Towns.

There was judgment on sexuality and mental state. There was judgment in the aftermath of vengeful violence or intemperate behaviour due to alcohol. There was judgment in relation to aesthetics: with work presented on the relationship between taste and judgment in British stage adaptations of Walter Scott, in the field of British art criticism, and in gentlemen’s collecting practices.

Judgment in theology was approached through the figures of William Blake’s Urizen in his unpublished Four Zoas, and the ‘scourge of God’ motif in the poetry of Lord Byron, and through the place of judgement in the moral universe of Victorian secularists.

That all-important sphere for judgment, in scientific cultures, was reflected in the keynote paper by Professor David Amigoni, on the dispute between Charles Darwin and Samuel Butler (remember now as the author of Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh).

The international and national institutes for passing judgment in science, the organs and procedures for judging scientific truths, is an important aspect of the nineteenth-century ‘time of judgement’. The ‘pseudo sciences’ might also have been considered – since phrenologists developed their own theories about the faculties of judgment, but delegates also heard one paper exploring that commonplace mode of judging character – handwriting  – through graphology.

The judgment of mass readerships, the exercise of moral judgment by the masses and the inculcation in an exercise of judgment by working-class men and women through the agency of mechanics’ institutes, the judgment exercised via popular prize competitions, were topics presented.

But there is also the judgment of ‘the market’, and judgment related to business misconduct and economic failings – also themes highlighted in the conference through the figure of debtors (in novels by Frances Burney of the late eighteenth-century), the social reportage of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Judgment is a universal practice: we are all expected to exercise our moral judgment and, regretfully, we all make quotidian judgments about people on the basis of such externalities as physical appearance. It’s easy to be critical of the harsh legal or social judgments of the past – to lambast the Victorians, for instance, for their ‘judgmentalism’.

Rather than passing judgment on the nineteenth-century, this conference presented and interrogated the varieties of judgment in action and representation.




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