Recently, while on the hunt for signs of the reception and expression of legal ideas and practice in late medieval and early modern writing, I had cause to dip into some of the commonplace books surviving from the period. A ‘commonplace book’ has been generally classed by historians as an idiosyncratic, miscellaneous compilation of transcribed and original materials, usually in manuscript form. Surviving examples of these books were produced by urban merchants, country gentlemen, monks and village priests, amongst other now-anonymous scribes. Though their contents vary from professionally-copied poetry and literary works to scribbled accounts, family histories, and household recipes, I was struck by a particularly niche common theme: arboriculture.
By Elissa O’Connell (@ElissaOConnell)
As readers will surely be aware, 2018 has been a historically significant year for women’s history and archives. The centenary of some women gaining the vote has created many opportunities to celebrate women-led activism across the UK, as well as to reinforce the need to document and protect these herstories through archiving and heritage. 2018 also marks the 40th anniversary of the Feminist Archive South (FAS), established in 1978 to document the herstories of international feminist social movements active between 1960-2000. The need to celebrate these vital campaigns for democracy and women’s rights has raised important questions about imperialism in women’s movements more widely.
In recent rhetoric, the ‘rise’ of consumerism has been challenged. Our throw-away culture has led to a multitude of problems for the environment, as well as issues surrounding body-image, debt and over-corporatisation. In a recent article, George Monbiot, for example, argued that ‘regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems’. Whilst the scale of this problem and its issues are in many ways unique to our age, questions surrounding the ethics of consumerism are certainly not new and our passion for acquisition is one which has its roots deep in the past.
As I come to terms with the fact that I will soon no longer be able to call myself a first-year PhD student, I want to give some advice to those starting their doctoral research. Things I wish I knew when I started, some things I’ve learnt and others that I am still working on…
- Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start. This is completely normal. Moving to a new city and a new university, everything felt quite overwhelming at first. With post-induction information overload, it took a good couple of months for me to settle into a research routine. Read more
By Ana Núñez (@anac4_nunez)
The Byzantine princess Anna Komnene (1083-1153) appears to have been a most devoted daughter. The first-born of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r.1081-1118), Anna took it upon herself to continue the work started by her late husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, and write a history (The Alexiad) of her father’s eventful imperial reign. From the outset her goal is clear: to record the events of her father’s reign so that they are not ‘swept away on the flood of Time into an ocean of obscurity’. Thus, she proceeds to compose a fifteen-book history of her father’s rule and his many great struggles and triumphs within the borders of the Byzantine Empire and beyond.
Making historical subjects accessible to a wider audience is an important part of public history. Some public history writers target readers seeking to escape everyday life by immersing themselves in the fascinating stories of the past. Works on the history of political thought might not be an obvious choice here. Tales of medieval chivalry, historical intrigue or the details of ordinary people’s lives seem more likely to fulfil that purpose. The history of ideas is a very important field, but its reputation of inaccessibility and density means it often draws an academic rather than a broader public audience. However, the history of political thought can make an important contribution to public history which uses the questions, ideas and events of the past to illuminate contemporary issues.
By Matilda Embling
Women and fashion are often explicitly linked. One only has to consider the media coverage of the new Duchess of Sussex to uncover how frequently a woman’s identity is equated to, or even entirely subsumed by, the clothing she wears. In a recent Guardian article , the more conservative muted wardrobe she has opted for after her marriage was equated to the muting down of her opinionated, questioning personality.
This rhetoric is not new and has not been limited to public figures. In the letters of eighteenth-century women for example, descriptions of new female acquaintances are almost always accompanied by long reports of their dress. An East Anglian gentlewoman, Barbara Ward described a relative’s fiancé as ‘genteel and agreeable’ before immediately documenting her dress ‘the best cloths she has apeard in last sonday at church was blue and gold rich silk and black laced hood’.[i]
Getting stuck into my summer reading, I have spent the last few weeks trawling through volumes of early twentieth-century teachers’ magazines. I am scouring these weekly periodicals for references to politics in the classroom. Hidden among the teaching tips, correspondence pages and reports on government activity, are examples of political topics in the curriculum, and even teachers and students displaying political views at school.
What fascinates me about this kind of research is the unexpected discoveries. Reading the magazines cover to cover has thrown up some good examples, from the amusing to the macabre. Schoolroom ‘panics’ caused by intruding dogs and even cows cropped up on more than one occasion. On a darker note, reports of pupils’ accidental deaths at school and suicides were disturbingly frequent.
By Jess Rome
Modern-day Girl Scouts champion the importance of an ‘all-girl, girl-led’ environment in which girls can learn in ways tailored to their needs. Juliette Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of America in 1912, had much the same attitude. Low saw Girl Scouting as providing girls with the adventure and activity of Boy Scouting, combined with womanly training through badges designed to teach proficiency in areas such as sewing and nursing, all within a safe and respectable female environment. The early Girl Scout movement was run by women who were often unmarried and had careers, providing girls with modern role models – ‘New Women’ who were challenging Victorian gender roles.
By Matthew DJ Ryan
Growing up I would often take the eight-hour train ride from my home town in the ‘bush’ (country) down to Sydney, Australia. For at least half of that trip the train would zip past coal mine after coal mine, sharing the tracks with cargo trains carrying their fossilized loads, often hundreds of cars in length. Most people are aware that mining is a central feature of the Australian political economy – and a contentious one too, in the age of the ‘Anthropocene,’ and its accompanying environmental crisis.
But even as people argue for the end of coal in Australia, very little is known about the origins of coal mining in the colonies. Passing the mines of the Hunter valley, New South Wales, I never once asked ‘how long have these mines been here?’ or ‘why did we start mining coal in the first place?’ While the disinterest of a teenager might be forgiven, the neglect of these questions by both historians and policymakers is far more concerning. So, what can we learn from the history of coal mining in the Hunter valley that might better inform our politics and policies?
By Madeleine Armstrong
If you’ve ever had to make a difficult choice, you’ll be familiar with the nauseating conflict between the head and the heart. You may have drawn a dozen pros-and-cons lists, only to go with the option that simply felt right. We are accustomed to seeing reason and passion in conflict, and always feel we need to choose one over the other. This is one of the reasons I, as a historian, am drawn to the eighteenth century: it is an era which appears caught in the crossfire between a ‘rational’ Enlightenment, and a cult of ‘sensibility’. But reason and passion were not always enemies. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century in Britain, many philosophers tried to bring the two together in harmony. The movement for ‘rational sentiment’ is an important and overlooked feature of the eighteenth century, and offers wisdom for our own time. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
‘The Weather for some Days past is said by the Curious in such Observations, to have been several Degrees hotter than for these four Years past.’
As I write this piece under another cloudless Cambridge sky with temperatures soaring well into the high twenties, this July 1757 report from the London Evening Post seems oddly familiar. The UK’s unusually long spell of dry, warm weather has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, ranging from the serious – such as the two major moorland fires in Lancashire – to the less so. Brits should apparently brace themselves for an impending lettuce shortage and, of course, revive the obligatory ‘how hot does it have to get for a day off work?’ debate. The summer of 1976, which saw over two weeks of consecutive plus-thirty-degree temperatures, has reached an iconic place in popular memory when it comes to this much-loved subject. But looking back a couple of centuries earlier, does our national obsession with the weather have deeper roots? Read more
By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)
As part of my research fieldwork this year, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the city of Bolzano in Northern Italy. This South-Tyrolean city provides a perfect example of how small, provincial cities often have rich and diverse histories which make them prime points of study for enquiries into historical change throughout Europe.
‘About the beginning or middle of June in every year the following symptoms make their appearance, with a greater or less degree of violence. A sensation of heat and fulness is experienced in the eyes…until the sensation becomes converted into what may be characterized as a combination of the most acute itching and smarting…a general fulness is experienced in the head, and particularly about the fore part; to this suceeds irritation of the nose, producing sneezing, which occurs in fits of extreme violence, coming on at uncertain intervals’ – John Bostock, ‘Case of a periodical affection of the eyes and chest’, 16 March 1819.
If, like me, this summer has reduced you to Googling ‘why is my hay fever so bad this year?’ and ‘when will it stop?’ then the above symptoms may sound familiar. Partly because of the recent dry, warm, and windy weather, this year’s hay fever season is set to be the worst in twelve years, and many of us are suffering for it. Unable to find a contemporary cure for this affliction, I sought distraction by looking at how people had dealt with it in the past. Read more
For any football fan, and even for many who don’t usually indulge in the ‘beautiful game’, the arrival of the World Cup every four years provides pure escapism. Even in England, the disappointment of a predictable penalty shoot-out defeat is assuaged by the tournament’s association with long hot summer days, the colours and sounds of packed stadia, and the creation of iconic images on the pitch below. Simply put, the World Cup seems to exist in a vacuum which transcends any given moment in world history. This year’s tournament perhaps exemplifies this fact – at a time when tensions between Russia and ‘the West’ are at their highest since the Cold War, representatives from all over the world can gather on Russian soil to play football. Murmurings about corruption, boycotts, and hooliganism bubble under the surface, but in the build-up to kick-off excitement about the sport itself takes over, along with a shared sense that the show must go on. Read more
As historians, we are often used to thinking about an archive as a fixed set of documents kept in a static physical location. An appropriate historical source is often considered as such only if it can be verified by ‘real’ material from a ‘real’ archive. Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database. For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites. World historians, and specifically those working on the social and cultural history of empire, often contend with the colonial archive and are required to read along the archival grain, as Ann Stoler puts it. One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.
Tom Smith and Helen Sunderland (Doing History in Public) talk to Judd Birdsall, Managing Director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies based at Clare College, Cambridge
Doing History in Public: Hi Judd. Could you tell us a bit more about CIRIS and its work?
Judd Birdsall (CIRIS): The Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies (CIRIS) is a multi-disciplinary research centre at Clare College, Cambridge. We aim to provide students, practitioners, and the general public with credible and engaging insights that will shape new scholarship, sound policy, and constructive debate on the role of faith in international affairs. Read more
by Holly Dayton | firstname.lastname@example.org
Few people know that Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother, was a playwright. If they happen to know of her, they only know her as the mother of Winston Churchill. Yet she wrote three plays over the course of her life: His Borrowed Plumes (1909), The Bill (1913), and Between the Devil and the Deep Sea (1920). Though her first two plays were produced on the West End and all three were donated to the Churchill Archive Centre in 2012, they have never been studied in detail.
This is not wholly surprising, as Lady Randolph was part of a community of female playwrights from the turn of the century that are barely remembered or discussed. Yet, by the late 1800s, more women were playwrights than ever before, attracted by the potential to make a significant profit through their work. Whereas in the early first few decades of the 1800s, a playwright would only receive a small lump sum upfront for their text, by the end of the century one could reasonably hope to receive 10% of the gross profits from a production. A female playwright could, ostensibly, make a tidy profit from a successful play. However, few female playwrights received financial arrangements equally generous as those given to men. Read more
One of the many advantages of being a historian who studies other countries is the ample opportunities for travel. My work focuses on artisans and material culture in sixteenth-century Verona, and I have therefore spent a lot of time in Veronese archives. However, I am also interested in how Renaissance culture travelled, especially through the Alps and into Germany. As part of a major fieldwork trip this year, I decided to follow the route of my research to Germany, visiting archives of interest along the way. In total, I visited thirteen archives in three different countries. During this time, I went from eating lunch outside in the piazzas of Italy, to walking through the snow in -14 degrees Celsius in Germany. No two archives were the same and I learnt a vast amount about research, travel, and independence. Here, I will share some of the most important things I learned. Read more
What is history if not a series of contingencies? For every thing that happens, an infinite number of other possibilities are extinguished. But what if things had been different? Although writing history certainly involves a good dose of imagination, academic historians have generally tended to be nervous of counterfactuals and their capacity to re-imagine the past. Historical fiction, by contrast, has built a thriving industry on the question of ‘what if?’ What if Germany had won the Second World War? What if John F. Kennedy’s assassin had failed? What if there had been no Protestant Reformation?