Skip to content

‘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

Dying Declarations – Last Words in the hands of Historians

By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam

In May 1906 the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lay in his sick bed. That evening an old friend arrived from town to see the aged tragedian. Entering the room he greeted the nurse with “How is Mr Ibsen today?” “Oh”, she cheerily replied, “he’s doing much better.” At this Ibsen sat up incredulous in bed declaring “Tvert imod!” (tr. On the contrary!) upon which he fell back into his pillow unconscious, dying shortly thereafter.[1] For a writer whose characters rarely even cracked a smile, he managed to exit the world with one of the finest deathbed jokes in history. Read more

Identifying and removing barriers to digital history

By Carys Brown, James Baker, Richard Deswarte, Adam Crymble

Originally posted on the Defining Effective Mentorship in Digital History site.

What factors are preventing academics from learning the digital skills that could enhance their research? A diverse group of twenty scholars consisting of postgraduate students and academic staff, assembled in Cambridge this past month to find out. Together, they critiqued a range of learning opportunities and they have identified the following challenges that must be overcome to encourage further growth in new skills acquisition amongst students and colleagues. The list is not exhaustive, but we hope it provides a useful starting point for those seeking to promote digital history and who are in a position to lower the barriers to access for learners.

Read more

From ‘liquid flesh’ to chocolate – a brief history of Easter Eggs

by Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

Elly is an MPhil student in Early Modern History. Her current research focusses on the links between food and the English Reformation.

For most of us, the long Easter weekend was filled with family, drink, and an excessive amount of chocolate. Of course, Easter Sunday is the principal Christian feast in the liturgical calendar, a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Recent historians of the medieval and early modern period have recognised that religious identity is linked to the physical self rather than just the intellectual mind, involving taste, smell and touch.[1] With that last piece of chocolate egg remaining, then, I offer some thoughts on the history of Easter eggs in England and their importance to the religious experience of medieval and early-modern Christians. Read more

‘Trojan horse’ and indoctrinating youth in eighteenth-century England

Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Two years ago ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ caused widespread alarm in the media and panic on the part of the British government. Yet the concern about religious and political influences in schools is hardly new. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, writers concerned about the enemy within targeted Protestant Dissenters. Their suggestions about who should control the education of the nation’s children, perhaps worryingly, have surprising resonance today. Read more

Call For Papers – Facing the Challenge of Bias in History: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches

Bias is a fundamental problem encountered by historians studying all time periods, using all methods, and at all stages of their career. The conveners of a one-day workshop on Facing the Challenge of Bias in History, to be held on Sunday 15th May 2016 at the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, therefore invite papers from historians in all sub-disciplines. Whether your work has confronted selection bias, bias inherent in a source, researcher bias, or any other form of bias, we would like to hear from you. By bringing together researchers from disparate areas of history, who might never usually come across each other’s work, we hope to explore a common problem and to collectively discuss ways of confronting this problem. Read more

Electricity – public or private? Does it Matter? Is it even the right question?

by Kayt Button

ICR Byatt, an economist who went on to advise The Treasury under Margaret Thatcher and held a number of posts related to public utilities and regulation wrote in his The British Electrical Industry 1875 to 1914 “electric lighting and electric tramways became commercially feasible at a time when Parliament was experimenting with methods of public utility regulation, and when the municipal trading movement was gaining ground rapidly. By 1880 the old idea that utilities could be regulated by competition was over; the 1870 Tramways Act had inaugurated the system of granting limited-period franchises; the big towns had begun to buy up gasworks and waterworks”.[1] Read more

The Case of Betty John – gender ambiguity in a late eighteenth century small-claims court

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

Alex is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of History. His thesis is entitled “Imprisonment for Debt and Women’s Financial Failure in the Long Eighteenth Century”.

Before the eighteenth century, it was potentially possible to stand at the window of an English townhouse and gaze out across the milieu of different classes, ages, and ethnicities crowded in the streets below and immediately understand what an individual person was and where they belonged in society. People dressed their status, not simply out of choice, but in accordance with law. Sumptuary laws were regularly enacted from Edward III’s reign into the early modern period though they weren’t always as regularly enforced. These laws listed with varying degrees of specificity the type, cut, colour, and style of dress for various members of society. Read more

3D scans – bringing History to a wider audience.

by James Lloyd – @jtlloyd3

James is a PhD student at the University of Reading/Exeter in Classics. His thesis is entitled: ”Music and Ritual in Ancient Sparta: the lead votive figurines of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia”

In recent years, there has been a flurry of new technologies emerging at a price which makes them (just about) affordable, notably 3D scanners and printers, and such technologies have attracted attention in the news of late for their employment in the digital recreation of artefacts and archaeological sites destroyed by IS. Indeed, 3D printing is a wonderful tool for bringing the past to life: Museum3D, for example, uses its 3D prints to engage museum visitors with low-vision and Alzheimer’s. However, as this post will show, 3D scans are just as important to public history. Read more

“In their reckless lust they forget their sex” – LGBT history in the Middle Ages

by Tim Wingard – @Physiololgus

Tim is a graduate of the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies. His research interests include issues of historical sexuality, the latin bestiary, and medieval travel writing.

There is a tendency in popular histories and in the teaching of the subject at school to assume that the Middle Ages were an inherently heterosexual era. The stereotype of medieval life involves hyper-masculine knights fighting each other for the affection of damsels, according to a code of chivalry that set strict boundaries for relations between the sexes. LGBT identities are generally regarded as a ‘modern’ phenomenon, something that simply did not exist in this premodern world. In fact, some of the most exciting research in medieval scholarship since the 1980s has been done on unearthing the ‘secret history’ of diverse medieval sexualities.

Read more

Electrical Entrepreneur? – The Life and work of Henry Massingham

by Kayt Button

In the 1880s, long before the concept of Dragons Den, when the electrical supply industry was born it was up to pioneers, experimental entrepreneurs and evangelists who believed that electricity would change the world, to nurture it from a scientific possibility to a desirable and profitable commodity. One such man who believed in electricity “as a pure light for our homes” was Henry Massingham who introduced electricity supply to much of the South West of England.

Read more

Heritage in Austerity Britain

By James Dowsett – @jdowsea

James in an MPhil Student in Modern British History at Cambridge. His research focusses on plebeian constitutionalism in the long eighteenth-century.

March will be the final month the Queen Street and Helmshore Mill Museums are open to the public. These beleaguered monuments, the last working examples of the Lancashire cotton spinning and weaving industry upon which Britain’s industrial revolution was built, are faced with an uncertain future. That these sites of unquestionable national significance are to be forced to close their doors is nothing other than a national shame. Local residents have established a change.org petition pleading Lancashire County Council to save both mills from imminent closure. 1st April is the date designated for their termination. However, the Queen Street and Helmshore Mill Museums are only the latest soon-to-be fatalities of an austerity agenda that places the funding position of local authority museums at an astonishingly high risk. Cuts to local government grants outlined in the 2015 spending review will undeniably result in more museum closures. The Museum Association’s 2015 cuts survey recently revealed that in response to government cuts to local authority funding, 18% of museums were forced to close, or partially close, in 2015-16.

Read more

The Black Cantabs Project – Uncovering Cambridge University’s diverse past

By Louise Moschetta @LouiseMoschetta

As I began jotting down some ideas for this blog post in a background of clinks and clatter of a coffee shop in Cambridge, I overheard a conversation from two individuals talking at the table behind me. They were referring to what I believed to be a white, wealthy, male individual, with the statement that sums up the entire image, ‘he’s very Cambridge’.

The launch of the Black Cantabs Project last October under the auspice of Black History Month complicates what it exactly means to be Cambridge. The aim of the Black Cantabs Projects is to uncover, or recover, the university’s ‘lost students’. At its core, the project is archival – it is an organised opportunity for ‘current and former students of the University of Cambridge to write the black students of this institution back into its history’ and publish these findings online.

Read more

‘I got drunk – fie upon it’ – A look back at early modern alcohol consumption and guilt

By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam

With the passing of the first month of the year many people across the country will be able to return to their vendor of choice and dispel their sobriety as Dry January ends. As a modern practice Dry January has its detractors but most agree that it’s a sensible idea to take a little break from drinking now and then. However, historically it seems a bizarre departure from this country’s cultural norm. The first official UK Dry January only dates back to 2013 and seems to remain a peculiarly British phenomenon with the only other similar national event being Finland’s 1942 Sober January launched as part of the war effort against Russia.

Read more

History on stage: Queen Anne

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

For the first ten minutes of Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, I have to confess I was sceptical. The complex political intrigue of the reign of this little-known monarch (1702-1714) is fascinating, but impossible, I thought, to convey on stage in a mere two hours and thirty-five minutes. I was wrong. In a play hooked around the relationship between Queen Anne and her favourite, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the audience were immersed in the world of eighteenth-century high politics.

Read more

Editorial: Top history reads

Inspiring historical writing brings our discipline alive. DHP editors Carys Brown, James Dowsett, Louise Moschetta, Tom Smith, and Alex Wakelam give their personal recommendations.

Read more

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,101 other followers