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?
When I first saw the University Library as a new Cambridge student last October it looked like something from a dystopian novel. The library tower loomed above me – a modernist monument to humanity’s pursuit of knowledge. With the addition of a few slogans on the walls, I thought, it would fit right into Orwell’s 1984. What this says about my sense of trepidation embarking on a PhD aside, the library tower has long been a focus of mystery and myth since it was completed in 1934. Now, the new exhibition Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, which opened at the University Library earlier this month, uncovers some of its secrets for the first time.
By Clemency Anderson
Does the past sometimes feel ‘far away’? Can we ever ‘go back’? And ‘where’ did we come from? These questions demonstrate that we often conceptualise and speak about history in spatial terms. That is, we describe the past as a place. History has famously been called a ‘foreign country’. Perhaps the more ancient the history, the more time we need to spend in transit – interpreting, translating, contextualising – to get there.
By Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton)
Gossip in politics today brings to mind the political rumour-mill from the fallout of Brexit, political infighting, or frequent leaks from the White House criticising the Trump administration. But gossip, the ability ‘to talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs’, isn’t unique to twenty-first-century politics. In the Victorian period, it could even serve a more positive political purpose. Gossip facilitated intimacy not only between women but also men. The sharing and receiving of gossip allowed men to identify and participate in different political communities, such as in the gentleman’s club.
Last Wednesday, 4 April, the world commemorated the assassination fifty years earlier of a man widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures. Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for having played an instrumental role in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. federal government, and for doing so through an unwavering commitment to non-violence and interracial cooperation. Accordingly, the shooting of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is seen to epitomize the tumultuous year of 1968 in U.S. history, during which opposition to the Vietnam War and ongoing racial antagonism saw American society turn from peace to violence, and from consensus to division.
Vladimir Putin was unsurprisingly victorious in this month’s presidential elections on the 18th of March. As with all political campaigns, candidates routinely utilise powerful self-branding images. In Putin’s case, historic forms of Russian exceptionalism were re-imagined to run on a distinct platform based on anti-Americanism, similar to his previous campaigns. Michael Bohm, in a 2013 article, suggested that Putin was determined to turn Russia into the only leading world power that can hold its own against the U.S. This anti-American branding of Russian exceptionalism alongside long held notions of Russian Orthodoxy and Holy Russia were harnessed to amass public support throughout the election. His conservative stance on gay rights and support of the Russian Orthodox church are indicative of this. Read more
The disturbing events which have recently unfolded in the small English town of Salisbury appear to belong more to the set of a Hollywood spy thriller or the pages of an Ian Fleming novel than to reality. From a historical perspective, the role of spies and informants on all sides during both the Second World War and the Cold War is well known. However, over the last twenty years, historians have increasingly come to recognise that it was during the early modern period that ‘modern’ methods and strategies of international espionage first began to develop. Stephen Alford, for example, has shone new light on Francis Walsingham’s role as Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’ – research which informed a three-part BBC series last year. Similarly, a recent article by Sebastian Sobecki has uncovered the importance of an English spy, John Peyton, in providing intelligence on Spanish diplomatic activity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the turn of the seventeenth century. Read more
This year’s International Women’s Day, on March 8th, was marked across the world with various marches, proclamations and campaigns highlighting inequalities and celebrating women. In the last two years, we have seen feminist campaigns in various institutions to challenge ongoing inequalities that disproportionately affect women, including sexual abuse, the gender pay gap and governmental policies. The earliest observance of a day for women was held by the Socialist Party of America on 28th February 1909 in New York at the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel. German Marxist Clara Zetkin initially proposed an International Women’s Day in 1910 with no fixed date. It had been predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted by the United Nations in 1975. Many historical demonstration actions have occurred on International Women’s Day, including in 1981 a demonstration when French women marched under the banner of the Movement for the Liberation of Women (MLF).
Independence and interdependence: one Scot’s perspective on Anglo-Scottish relations in early-seventeenth-century London
Laura Flannigan | @LFlannigan17
Notions of Scottish devolution or independence from England and the rest of the United Kingdom have been reiterated across the last few generations, with the 2014 ‘IndyRef’ and its potential sequel only the most recent examples. Much of the discussion south of the border hangs on how Scotland could think to sustain itself outside the UK, ‘its chief exports being oil, whisky [and] tartan’, as one panel-show quipped in 2013. This often-disparaging discourse has parallels in the conversations being had about Scotland’s contribution to the original Union of the Crowns of 1603, when the Scottish King James VI naturally acceded to the throne of England.
Boris Johnson’s declaration last week that Brexit ‘can be good for carrots too’ caused a mixture of despair, mild amusement, and utter confusion. For those trying to get their heads around Britain’s Brexit-based future, this was hardly the ‘clarity’ they demanded. What few registered, however, was that Johnson had unwittingly tapped into a long history of the manipulation of this versatile vegetable for political ends. Read more
On the Monday before Lent, wrote comedic poet John Taylor in 1639, a farmer returned home to his wife ‘busily making Pancakes for him and his family’. After he criticised the quality of the fare – ‘the coursenesse of the flower, the taste of the Suite [suet- fat], the thicknesse of the Batter’ – the farmer’s wife decided to teach her husband a lesson, ‘knowing he was better experienced in the Plough, than the Panne, and to eate Pancakes better than to make them’! Telling him to wait outside with his back to the door and the plate outstretched in front of him, she promised to toss the pancake through the chimney from which it would land merrily onto his dish. Instead, in retribution for his snide comments, the wife ‘came suddenly behinde him, & with the pan and all clapt the Pancake upon his head’. With his hair ‘well basted with the fat of the Panne’, the ridiculed husband scorned his wife as ‘an arrant Shrew’ and named the day ‘Shrewes Munday’ and the next ‘Shrews Tuesday’ in her honour. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
6 February will mark one hundred years since the first women in Britain gained the right to vote in national elections. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised 40% of women in the UK and was the result of decades of campaigning by various organisations across the country. It was a key step towards women getting the vote on equal terms to men ten years later. To celebrate this milestone in women’s history, Cambridge University Library is displaying some of its collections on women’s suffrage for the first time. Read more
By Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith)
Donald Trump’s proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico is back in the news, this time as debates over how the wall is to be funded, and over the issue of immigration more broadly speaking, played a role in prompting a U.S. government shutdown. While Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, suggested that the president was changing his mind on the subject, Trump retorted in a series of tweets that ‘The Wall is the Wall’, and that without it, there could be no deal over the funding bill.
Whatever your opinion of the developments of 2017 it was undoubtedly an interesting year for history, or at least for future historians. In January an unpredictable and somewhat controversial Twitter-wielding former businessman and television personality was inaugurated as President of the USA amidst allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct. As David Runciman pointed out in a DHP post in June, investigations into Donald Trump’s conduct took a surprising turn towards twelfth-century England in a comparison between Trump and Henry II (bizarrely, it was quite a good parallel). This has also been the year of “fake news”, or at least allegations of fake news, so much so that last week Trump announced that he was going to hold a ‘Fake News Awards’ for those he regards as ‘the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media’. We shouldn’t get carried away assuming that we live in a unique age of misinformation, however, as Alex Wakelam’s March DHP post highlighted.
By Zoe Farrell @zoefarell
According to the UK charity Shelter, there are currently more than 1.8 million households on the waiting list for social housing in England; an 81% increase since 1997. The ‘Housing Crisis’ is perhaps one of the defining issues of modern society and is likely to be at the forefront of the political agenda for many years to come. Social housing is perhaps more important now than ever, yet we can trace its existence long into the past. To find one of the most interesting examples of early modern social housing we need only to travel to present-day Germany, where Augsburg’s Fuggerei still exists as the oldest functioning social housing complex in the world.
By Ruth Singer | @CriminalQuilts
Back in 2012 I was commissioned to make a piece of contemporary textile artwork inspired by the Shire Hall in Stafford including 18th century court buildings. I found that I was drawn to archive photographs rather than the building itself. I created a series of miniature ‘quilts’ taking inspiration from photographs of women prisoners with their hands on their chests. I was haunted by these images and found the details of their clothing intriguing. I based my work on the textile details in the images and made quilts in reference to their lack of comfort in the prison system.
I have continued to work with these images and am now Artist in Residence at Staffordshire Record Office engaging in further research into the prison photo albums and the lives of the women they show. New work will be shown in exhibitions in 2018.
By Alice Soulieux-Evans
An English literature student, my ‘conversion’ to history came through studying the Reformation. Yet this scholarly ‘conversion’ coincided with my coming to faith. Whilst as a historian I seek to be objective, it doesn’t mean I don’t find my research and the people I study spiritually edifying as a Christian. One of my most memorable ‘encounters’ in the archives was one such occasion, when I came across a copy of Laud’s last will and testament. Read more