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Solving the Historical Puzzle of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum

By Atlanta Rae Neudorf

Approaching the past as an historian is comparable to trying to solve a puzzle whose pieces are constantly changing shape. An element which momentarily appears to fit snugly in place comes suddenly into focus as glaringly wrong when new evidence comes to light. Whilst frustrating at times, these moments of clarity during the historical research process can also be wildly exciting and lead to new understandings of the past. Equally thrilling is the experience of applying different approaches to one’s research that results in two apparently incongruous pieces of the historical puzzle joining together perfectly. The process of piecing together the complex puzzle of historical problems involves searching for the hidden tensions and unspoken meanings inherent in all human activity. Read more

Should we learn from history?

By Fred Smith@Fred_E_Smith

“…all cities and all peoples are and ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions; so that it is easy, by diligent study of the past, to forsee what is likely to happen in the future” – Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, c. 1517.[1]

The idea that we can ‘learn from history’ or that ‘the future is in the past’ has a long and distinguished pedigree. Nearly three hundred years after the Italian historian Niccolò Machiavelli advocated the lessons of history, English historian Edmund Burke similarly envisaged history as ‘a great volume…unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.’[2] Both in their own eyes, and those of their contemporaries, historians such as Machiavelli and Burke were political diviners, valued by princes and rulers for the insights they could share. Read more

Reformation parallels: the case of Gottschalk of Orbais

By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans

Five hundred years ago this October, the German monk, Martin Luther (probably) nailed his famous 95 theses to Wittenberg’s cathedral door. This sparked a lengthy and complex process of religious transformation across Europe. Luther’s views continue to have consequences for the modern world and as this anniversary approaches, there are many questions to ask about Luther’s legacy. It is, however, also instructive to consider the parallels between the Reformation and earlier Christian debates. How radical or new was the Reformation within the broader sweep of Christian history? Read more

‘In fair Verona, where we lay our scene’ – my research reconnaissance mission

In the third of our series on research abroad, Zoe Farrell  (@zoeffarrell) scopes out Verona.

One of the most exciting yet intimidating elements of PhD research is the archival visit. This is perhaps particularly daunting for those of us venturing to foreign pastures and putting into practice hard-earned language skills. However, the rewards of navigating the maze of the foreign archive are substantial and the experience can be enriching in more ways than one. Read more

Proclaiming tolerance and maintaining integrity

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

Theoretically, twenty-first-century Britain is tolerant; it is a place where diverse opinions can flourish. However, when opinions come into conflict, the appropriate course of action is not always obvious. As last year’s “Gay cake” row highlighted, the line between intolerance and a principled stance can be unclear. At the same time, as the recent resignation of the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron demonstrates, those who appear willing to put aside their personal belief in the name of promoting the principle of tolerance can find their integrity under scrutiny. Read more

‘Rejoice Moscow, Russians are in Paris!’: The curious history of a popular melody

By Jimmy Chen

Within the collection of Cambridge University Library, there is a piece of sheet music for a Russian song dating from the Napoleonic Wars. Insignificant at first glance, this simple song can provide important insights into European musical culture in the early nineteenth century. Read more

Is Trump the new King Henry II?

By David Runciman

The testimony of Former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee was a highly anticipated moment of political drama. There were many stand-out moments. But as a medievalist, it was particularly interesting to hear Comey and one of his interlocutors compare President Trump to King Henry II of England. So why was a medieval English king invoked in a modern American congressional hearing? And does the comparison provide any insight into what might happen next? Read more

What’s in a Name? Creating and Commemorating Historical Events

By Harriet Lyon@HarrietLyon

It is a well-known pub quiz fact that the Hundred Years’ War was not one-hundred years long. Nor was it a war, exactly, but rather a series of intermittent conflicts that raged between the House of Plantagenet and the House of Valois during the years 1337-1453. But, for some reason, the ‘Hundred-and-Sixteen Years’ War’ has never caught on.

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What’s in a map?

By Zoe Farrell  | @zoeffarrell

At first glance, a map is a simple entity. It is a tool through which towns and cities can be organised so that people can gain knowledge of places, roads, waterways and significant buildings. However, maps are often in fact complex objects of state building, propaganda and identity formation. J. B. Harley described cartography as ‘inherently rhetorical’ and it is exactly within this rhetoric that historians can search for clues to the past.

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Royal Palace or Hellish Temple? Using Architectural Style as a Source

By Atlanta R. Neudorf  //  arn26@cam.ac.uk

When one pictures the historian undertaking their archival research, it is common to conjure up an image of the scholar poring over sources of the written word: newspapers, letters, pamphlets, or book manuscripts. Few would imagine this dusty figure staring at a building. Read more

Carnivorous Protestants and Radical Vegetarianism in Early Modern England

By Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

L0000657 Portrait of Roger Crab.

A meat-free diet is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. The number of vegans, for instance, who avoid all animal products as well as meat, has more than tripled since 2006.[1] Increasing awareness of environmental issues caused by the meat industry, concerns about animal welfare, new claims about healthy living, and greater access to a variety of foodstuffs, are among the driving forces of this trend. In the social media age, trend seekers aspire to the meat-free diets of several high-profile celebrities and the copious crafted-snaps of vegetarian and vegan #foodporn on Instagram. Most recently, comedian Simon Amstall’s ‘mockumentary’, Carnage, envisaged a utopian vegan future (2067) in which now-elderly meat-eaters repent their carnivorous past. Yet, whilst the term ‘vegetarian’ was not coined until 1847, the question of whether or not to kill for food has concerned human societies across history.

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When Numbers Lie – Cautioning Quantitative Enthusiasm

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

There is an often repeated quote that is thrown around when speaking of “the past” and knowledge thereof in the kind of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for gods and kings – that those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it and, principally, repeat its mistakes. As such, there are many out there who claim to have learned the lessons of the past and are able to make suggestions about future courses of action based on them, or to prophesy the end times thanks to lessons learned from the Black Death or a basic understanding of world war two. However, as almost any historian will attest, very few two historical moments are directly applicable to one another – humans are just too variable a factor to control for. More problematic though is that the very material the historical record is based on is often far from infallible. The inherent biases of the sermon preachers, victor historians, and letter writers is well known and the requirement to read between the lines of sources is a well hashed subject. What is often less well understood is that number “facts” often lie in a similar fashion, or at the very least skew the truth through over simplification. Read more

‘All Men are Created Equal’? Race and the Declaration of Independence in American Museums

Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

The Declaration of Independence, approved on 4 July 1776 by the thirteen colonies which were about to form the United States of America, has returned to the headlines recently after a parchment copy of the iconic document, only the second known to exist, was discovered in the somewhat unlikely surroundings of the West Sussex Record Office. The excitement generated by this discovery on both sides of the Atlantic is testament to the enduring power of the Declaration. Read more

Snap elections: a brief historical guide

A week ago UK Prime Minister Theresa May caught almost everyone by surprise by calling an election for the beginning of June. As the dust settles and the party machines grind into action,  Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys) takes a brief look at the key facts. Read more

Gospel truth? History and the writing of the New Testament

By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans

This Sunday, millions around the world will gather to celebrate Easter. They will listen to historical documents written almost two thousand years ago, purporting to describe the last hours, death, and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a religious teacher from first-century Palestine. Those events, and the documents which supposedly describe them, have had an unsurpassed impact on world history. Yet for many in modern society, the first Easter seems clouded in mystery and suspicion. Among the writings known as the New Testament, we have four lives of Jesus, known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but what are we to make of them? What is a ‘Gospel’? Why and how were they written? What do they claim to be? Read more

‘Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?’

By Rosa Hodgkin

In 1708 the Apollo Magazine printed the query, “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?”. The answer received was

“It may not improperly be derived from a memorable transaction happening between the Romans and Sabines, mentioned by Dionysius, which was thus: the Romans, about the infancy of the city, wanting wives, and finding they could not obtain the neighbouring women by their peaceable addresses, resolved to make use of a stratagem; and accordingly Romulus instituted certain games, to be performed in the beginning of April (according to the Roman Calendar), in honour of Neptune. Upon notice thereof, the bordering inhabitants, with their whole families, flocked to Rome to see this mighty celebration, where the Romans seized upon a great number of the Sabine virgins, and ravished them, which imposition we suppose may be the foundation of this foolish custom.” [1]

People still seem to be curious about the origins of April Fools’ Day, but few clear answers have been found.[2] Chaucer’s 1392 story The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is often cited as the first mention of April Fool’s Day. In the story a rooster is fooled by a fox and is almost eaten. Chaucer describes this tale as taking place: Read more

Catholic murderers in your area put loyal Protestants at risk, SAD! – Benjamin Harris, fake news, and the Popish Plot

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

Anyone with even a passing awareness of  western politics over the last year will have been bombarded with the phrase “Fake News”, whether to describe genuine falsehood circulated as fact or as the rallying cry of bombastic autocrats denying the validity of news sources that disagree with them. While the phrase seems like a recent development (the Wikipedia page for fake news was only created in January 2017), the concept of disseminating falsehoods as factual recaps of events is certainly not a new one. Probably one of the most famous pre-modern examples is the Donation of Constantine, an excerpt of the Constitutum Constantini which was itself drawn up from a ninth century Frankish work entitled Peseudo-Isidorian Dectrals, also known as the False Dectrals. This forgery supposedly consists of a decree of the Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) giving the Pope control over Rome and the Western Roman Empire. Unsurprisingly, it was used by a number of Popes from the eleventh century in their attempts to enforce authority over unruly feudal lords until it was finally proved to be a forgery in the fifteenth century by humanist Lorenzo Valla.[1] Spreading deliberate, politically motivated, fake news in the middle ages took a serious amount of effort and while false stories of a mythical nature travelled across Europe organically, it took the printing press and the continent wide paranoia that came with the Reformation to usher in the first great age of fake news. Read more

The Allotment as Fertile Ground for Historical Study

By Zoe Farrell  | @zoeffarrell

_Allotments_in_Kensington_Gardens,_London,_all_part_of_the_'Dig_for_Victory_'_scheme_in_1942._D8336

Allotments in many ways seem like a quaint symbol of the past; reminiscent of that kind elderly neighbour who always shared the fruits of their overabundant crop.  However, allotments have a long history and were brought about in their current form for a very serious purpose. The history of allotments can reveal a lot about governmental responses to economic crises, as well as encapsulating fundamental questions about the treatment of the poor and the issue of land rights. Read more

Newnham College Cambridge hosts Wikipedia edit-a-thon to mark International Women’s Day 2017

Know something about an eminent woman? Think it should be shared? Newnham College Cambridge are marking International Women’s Day 2017 by improving the gender balance of Wikipedia, and they’re looking for contributors. Read more

Absent leeks, lost voices? Cooking and recording in early modern Wales

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

My original intention for a blog post for St David’s Day (1 March) had been to cook and write about early modern leeks. Quite apart from being one of my favourite vegetables, the humble leek is one of the national symbols of Wales and features in a number of “traditional” Welsh recipes, including Cawl and the misleadingly-named Glamorgan “Sausages”. Unfortunately, the leeks proved surprisingly elusive. What I found in their place were some interesting hints at the dynamics of society and literacy in early modern Wales. Read more