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The Late Medieval Christmas Feast

By Eleanor Russell

This article forms part of Doing History in Public’s Christmas series, which this year looks into patterns of consumption at Christmastide.

Like today, the most spectacular and anticipated part of the medieval Christmas was not the Mass, then mandatory, but Christmas feast, an event which offered not only an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ, reconnect with family and friends, and eat to bursting, but also  the chance to express social hierarchies and identity. Read more

Why We Need an Ethics of History Writing

By Dom Birch

The writing of history, we are told, is a political occupation—all historians have a political lens through which they work, or view the past. This viewpoint has led to historians convincing themselves that their work can almost always be justified in political terms. Justifying history as politics is doomed from the start: academic historians have very little influence on the political action and consciousness of the general population, and unavoidably political and intellectual purposes for writing history come into conflict. Historians inevitably need, at some point, to either change their politics or change their evidence. Read more

Optimo dierum! – Ancient winter festivals

chronography_of_354_mensis_decemberBy Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam

It should come as no surprise to most that the festival of Christmas, as practised by Europeans, did not come into existence at this time of year by itself. Long before the supposed birth of the Nazarene, ancient cultures celebrated a number of winter festivals. Nor is this acknowledgment necessarily a new one; in 1560 the new Church of Scotland issued its First Book of Doctrine (whose authors included John Knox), which declared that ‘the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady’ were the inventions of papists as they had no basis ‘in God’s scriptures’. Christmas was clearly an invention of the Church, but it is also clear that this invention was not without its own sources even if they were more pagan than biblical. Read more

Royal Power takes Flight: A Reconsideration of the Staircase in the Early Modern Palace

By Atlanta Neudorf | @ARaeNeudorf

In a letter written in 1663, Jean-Baptiste Colbert wrote to King Louis XIV of France that ‘in lieu of dazzling actions in war, nothing indicates better the greatness and spirit of princes than buildings’.[1] This sentiment illustrates the importance of palace architecture to the image and character of the prince in the early modern period. In the growing field of architectural history, the political and cultural functions of such grand spaces have been the focus of increasing interest in the last few decades. Scholarship has focused on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century trend for palace building and adaptation by European princes aiming to affirm their royal status. Read more

Healing History? The Reformation 500 years on

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther (supposedly) nailed 95 criticisms of the Catholic Church to the door of a Wittenburg church. His actions, alongside those of many other ‘reformers’, helped catalyse events which would ultimately splinter Catholic Christendom into a myriad of diverse, often antagonistic, sects. Fast-forward 499 years, and there are signs that the wounds of the Reformation may, finally, be healing. Read more

PhD Challenges: The Tangled Web of Historiography

By Eleanor Russell

Any historian endeavouring to research an area of history must investigate its historiography (the scholarship of previous historians); not only using their evidence and arguments but analysing, revising, and, where appropriate, challenging them. For historians, this process can be fraught with tension and doubt: which texts do I need to read? Who has already been debunked? What are the prevailing arguments and when and how did they develop? And – crucial for PhD students – who CAN I challenge? Read more

Staging history: “Kepler’s Trial” by Tim Watts

Harriet Lyon (@HarrietLyon) reviews the recent world premiere of Kepler’s Trial: An Opera by Tim Watts based on Ulinka Rublack’s book The Astronomer & the Witch.

In December 1615, the renowned astronomer Johannes Kepler first received news that his elderly mother, Katharina, had been accused by a neighbour of witchcraft. A victim of the witch craze that swept through early seventeenth-century Germany, Katharina’s torment lasted for six long years, during which time Johannes temporarily abandoned his research to concentrate on building his mother’s defence. After being subject to a humiliating criminal trial and serving a spell of more than a year in prison, Katharina was finally exonerated in September 1621. This was an ordeal from which she never recovered: Katharina died just six months later aged seventy-six. Read more

‘Where are the Dinosaurs?’: Reflections on Public History at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

by Tom Smith – @TomEtesonSmith

What connects the obscure lives of neurophysiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend and opera singer Madelena Delani? Are these people even real? Is there really an elaborate miniature engraving of the Crucifixion on that seemingly ordinary fruit stone? Are we supposed to take these heroic portraits of the dogs of the Soviet space programme seriously? Are bees really seen to be so integral to the life cycle within certain cultures that they must be told if a member of the family has married or died, and are invited (in writing) to funerals? And what on earth does that have to do with Alexander Fleming? Read more

From nose in a book to nose in the kitchen – musings on the place of historians in recipe recreation

by Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

When I explain that I am researching the links between food and the European Reformations, I am usually met with premature praise for my (in reality non-existent) cooking skills. The obvious location in which to research food, they assume, is the kitchen. The cooking of historical recipes, moreover, has gained much public exposure recently, especially after last week’s Tudor theme on the nationally-coveted show, The Great British Bake Off. Meanwhile, food is increasingly becoming a legitimate and flourishing subject of enquiry in academia, as it moves away from traditional historical narratives. How then, should historians react to this popular interest in historical cooking, and is there any academic value in moving research from the archives to the kitchen?  With these questions in mind I attempted to recreate an early-modern blancmange… Read more

The Public House – the struggle to find privacy in the eighteenth century home

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

Around two o’clock in the morning of February 15th 1732, Robert Atkinson, a sadler, returned home drunk from the alehouse. His mother Ann Atkinson, having sent the maid to bed at midnight, had sat up to wait for him so that she could lock the door behind him (the symbolic ending of the household day) and while she waited drank about a pint of gin. The drunken pair soon argued and maybe about twenty minutes later, Ann slipped under suspicious circumstances at the top of the stairs of the home she and Robert shared with their maid Mary Parrot, Robert’s apprentice John Barber, and their three lodgers: Captain Dunbar, Arthur Gold, and Gold’s younger brother. When she hit the tiles at the bottom ‘her Skull was broke … of which she instantly dy’d.’ As the trial at the Old Bailey that followed this case shows, for most people in eighteenth century cities, the idea of private personal space was little better than an illusion. Read more

Editorial: DHP’s top historical novels

Summer may be decidedly over, but reading for pleasure doesn’t have to be confined to the beach. Here are some of the DHP team’s favourite historical novels to keep you going as the evenings draw in. Read more

In praise of history teachers

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

I learned more about the nature of the discipline of history during my PGCE and year as a Newly Qualified Teacher than I have in all of the rest of my academic study combined. It might be that I’m a poor academic historian, but rather I think it says something about the immense value of the PGCE course I undertook, and the incredible work that many history teachers across the country do every day in striving to keep our discipline alive.

Unfortunately, however, the reflective approach which characterises PGCE training is under threat. Cuts to allocations of places for university-led teacher training in favour of more “on the job”-based training programmes has resulted in even Ofsted-rated “Outstanding” university-led courses having to drastically cut their provision. It might sound sensible to base teacher training at schools – after all, that’s where they’ll have to work. But, for historians at least, the idea is not as good as it sounds. Read more

Crying Wolf in the early middle ages?

By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans

The chronicles and histories of the early middle ages have a reputation for describing somewhat unusual events. In his history of contemporary events, for example, Prudentius, bishop of Troyes (d.861) describes how, in 846

‘Wolves attacked and devoured with complete audacity the inhabitants of the western part of Gaul. Indeed, in some parts of Aquitaine they are said to have gathered together in groups of up to 300, just like army detachments, formed a sort of battle-line and marched along the road, boldly charging en masse all who tried to resist them’ (The Annals of St-Bertin, 846AD, p. 62). Read more

Marian Mason: England’s Trailblazing Woman of Fitness

By Conor Heffernan

Although sporting historians have long noted the importance of English women in the development of sport in general, few studies have devoted themselves to the study of gymnastic exercise systems such as callisthenics. This has done a great injustice to Marian Mason, England’s first female physical fitness instructor who, beginning in the 1820s, ran one of the most sought after training studios in all of England.

Read more

‘Our story remains unwritten’: the ethics of writing histories across cultures

by Tom Smith

What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. Read more

Wanted: A More Complicated History of Belgium’s Congolese ‘Heart of Darkness’

by Eva Schalbroeck

Whenever I say that I study the history of Belgian imperialism in the Congo, most people confess to not knowing that Belgium had a colony. Others describe it as a particularly nasty and violent episode’. My explanations of ‘it’s far less black-and-white’ or ‘it’s complicated’ often confuse more than they illuminate. Popular media often associates Belgian imperialism with the ‘Red Rubber’ regime of the villainous and greedy King Leopold II. An article in New African calls him a ‘mass muderer’, who exploited the Congolese population to near extinction. Chopping off their limbs was ‘part of the “the butcher of the Congo’s” ‘repertoire’. According to an article in History Today ‘the Congo Free State evolved from a vanity possession into a slave plantation’. Leopold’s ‘playground’ and ‘hell’ operated with an insane logic’, allowing him to ‘cash in’ on rubber. It makes the bold claim that Leopold’s reign of terror anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism. Depicting him as the ‘African Hitler’, Leopold’s legacy is described as a Holocaust. Read more

In praise of grandmothers (and oral histories)

By Louise Moschetta @LouiseMoschetta

I’m not entirely sure whether I owe my interest in history to my grandmother but she certainly helped. Her house, which until very recently she still lived in, was built in 1972 and hasn’t changed much since. Walking through it has almost always been, with certain exceptions such as an ever larger and thinner television, a walk through a mish-mash of past time. Her attic is an attic of dreams where, as small children, my siblings and I unearthed an old dress from the ‘40s, a bird cage, yellowed women’s magazines with patterns for perfect postwar motherhood and other such treasures. Read more

Pylons and Protest – invoking the Marmite metaphor of Britishness

by Kayt Button

Whatever the period of history, Pylons seem to provoke the marmite response – either love ‘em, like The Pylon Appreciation Society, or hate ‘em like The Friends of The Lake District who are currently protesting against pylons planned for Ravenglass in Cumbria. Curiously enough, Marmite was invented in the late nineteenth century, around the same time Electricity first became available to the public as a commodity. Read more

History from below: fashion, freedom, and the female form

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Attempts to shape the female form are nothing new, as current exhibitions at the V&A and York Castle Museum show. Neither is the particular concern with the posterior, demonstrated today by an increased demand for buttock implants. Such permanent “improvements” are beyond the financial reach of most people. The less wealthy (or less confident that the fashion will be a lasting one) can employ rear-enhancing items of clothing such as the Booty Pop to supplement their behinds. Modern fashion and lifestyle magazines give ample guidance to those who want a large behind with a small price tag. But what did women in the past do, and what might paying attention to these fashions suggest about our modern obsessions? Read more