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Posts from the ‘Research’ Category

‘Go with your gut’? Reason and passion from the eighteenth century to the present day

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

A tale of two cultures: a historian’s guide to Bolzano

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.

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Constructing an archive: a reflection on British Library collections

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

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.[1] Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database.[2] For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites.[3] 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.[4] One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.

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The Grand (Archival) Tour

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

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

Reorienting the Home Front: Spatial History and Collective Memory

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.

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Gossip, men, and Victorian politics

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.[1] 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.[2]

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England’s First Double Agents?

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith

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.[1] 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.[2] Read more

Resistance in Russia: A Reflection on International Women’s Day

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

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).

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A social housing model from the past – the case of Augsburg’s Fuggerei

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.

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Experiencing the law in sixteenth-century England

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

‘To London once my stepps I bent,
Where trouth in no wyse should be faint,
To westmynster-ward I forthwith went,
To a man of law to make complaint.
I sayd, “for marys love, that holy saynt /
Pyty the poore that wold proceede.”
But, for lack of mony, I cold not spede. [1]

This vivid tale of a Kentish husbandman seeking legal redress in the Westminster courts comes to us through ‘London Lickpenny’, an anonymous, fifteenth-century popular poem.  It stands out for the insight it provides on the litigant’s experience of the late medieval and early modern legal system – something which, it might be assumed, we cannot gather so easily from the formulaic and arcane court records for this period. Read more

The Making of Dürer’s Rhinoceros

by Eleanor Russell

This famous sketch of a rhinoceros was created in 1515 by the influential German artist, Albrecht Dürer, reflecting the growing interest in foreign curiosities that had emerged in tangent with the overseas voyages of exploration, commerce and conquest by the Spanish and Portuguese. The rhinoceros had been given as a gift by the ruler of Cambaia to Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese viceroy in India, who in turn gifted it to king Manuel I of Portugal.

While the drawing itself provides a great deal of information about art and Orientalism in the Renaissance, among other things, the backstory of the painting is equally as fascinating. How did Dürer, then living in Nuremberg, ever come to make such a sketch?

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Changing rooms in eighteenth-century London

 

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

On 8 February 1750, some time between the hours of 12 and 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Baptist Minister Benjamin Wallin was ‘musing’ at his desk in the upstairs study of his Southwark home when he suddenly

‘felt the Desk move the floor shake and the Front of the house seemed to incline forwards the strut and presently an sensation of some large body falling and sounding as the covered with a Blanket or as could arise from the fall of a Woolpack of a prodigious size’ [1]

The alarming sensation, also experienced by his daughter, wife, maid, and neighbours, turned out to have been an earthquake, the first of two to hit London within a month of each other. Wallin was among the many who interpreted this as a providential act; he preached on the matter three days later. Of more interest here, however, is that in the course of the detailed description he gave of the event in his diary, Wallin inadvertently left us a rich insight into the domestic space of a moderately wealthy eighteenth-century London household. 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

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

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

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

The Wandering Historian: Reflections on a Year of Research Abroad

In the second of our posts on doing research abroad, Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith) traverses the United States.

Working on American history from a British university as I do, it was inevitable that at some point during my PhD research I was going to have to spend some time abroad. Courtesy of two Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded fellowships, first at the Huntington Library in California, and secondly at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, ‘some time’ rapidly became more-or-less an entire year. While I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of abandoning family, friends, and familiar settings to enter the political inferno that is the contemporary United States, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read more

Sweet harmony or rough music? Singing in the seventeenth century

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

If you’ve ever been in a roaring rugby crowd, a church full of carol singers, or even just broken into song in the shower, you’ve probably noticed that singing can have a powerful effect. The physical, psychological, and social benefits of singing are now widely recognised, although the underlying reasons behind these are less well understood. But what if you could harness the power of singing, and use it for ill? In seventeenth-century England, it was generally agreed that singing could have a significant impact on the emotions. What was less clear was whether this was always a good thing. Read more