By Luisa Hulsrøj
“The national state . . . must set race in the center of all life,” Hitler declared in Mein Kampf, exemplifying his movement’s exaltation not only of the nation but also of its ostensible basis in race. This pernicious ideology encountered challenges, recent scholarship has found, when it met with populations in East-Central Europe that had difficult-to-distinguish ethnic backgrounds and no, or at least no stable, national identities. Such so-called national indifference is difficult to imagine, for today we take nationality for granted as universal and timeless. Yet nations did not emerge in their modern form as the model for state organization until the 19th century. Even then they had to be actively constructed. Compulsory public schooling, for example, was widely introduced to teach standardized national languages and national history in an attempt to make citizens into members of nations. The course of nationalization did not, however, run smooth. Well into the 20th century national indifference persisted, not just in backwaters like the early Soviet Union’s rural Western frontier but also in some of Europe’s industrialized heartlands, such as Bohemia and Upper Silesia. During the Second World War, Nazi occupation authorities in such areas adopted racist rhetoric. However, acknowledging ethnic ambiguity internally, they also instituted policies designed to recruit the nationally indifferent for the German nation.
By Marina Iní (@MarinaIni_)
During part of the last academic year, I travelled to several archives and libraries collection in the Italian peninsula for my PhD fieldwork. It has been an extremely rewarding experience on the research side, but it was also thought-provoking. I saw with my own eyes the disheartening situation of different Archivi di Stato (Italian National Archives, usually one per provincial capital), Archivi Storici Comunali (City Archives) and other public archival collections and libraries.
By Albert Kohn
In a certain sense, sleeping is the great unifying experience across time and place. Regardless of time period, almost every person spends one-third to one-half of their life asleep thus a good portion of our modern lives are identical to those of medieval people!
Yet, sleeping is not just the experience of unconsciousness. Recent scholarly work—particularly on the early modern period in Europe—has highlighted numerous differences in how people have structured their sleeping. While modern people have come to almost sacralize the ideal of one person per bed, the norm for most of history was to share beds; while we generally (attempt to) sleep continuously through the night, many in preindustrial Europe segmented their sleeping patterns so to be awake for a few hours in the middle of the night. These variations, though, pale in significance to the differences in how premodern people reflected upon their sleep.
By Jennifer W. Reiss
The history of American medicine often follows a declension/ascension narrative: it’s a teleology of medical progress dominated by professionalised and scientifically-minded male physicians of the nineteenth century bringing the light of modernity to backward-looking, female-dominated folk practice of earlier periods. Even comparable British scholarship on early modern medical history follows a top-down story of professionalising medics ineffectively controlling a diverse ‘medical marketplace’ – a position which appreciates the place of vernacular practice generally, but underplays non-commercial, domestic medicine. Lay, and especially female practitioners were an essential alternative source of medical knowledge, particularly for poor and rural populations with limited access to other forms of health care, as well as a complement to the professional medicine available to urban and elite populations.
By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)
One rainy winter day in 2016, I was navigating the cavernous halls and corridors of the British Museum, looking for the Department of Prints and Drawings. I had arrived to examine two seventeenth-century engraved frontispieces depicting Saint Augustine, the early Church Father, for an MPhil project on the reception of Augustine’s works. When I finally located the correct floor, I was hailed down by a museum guard at the entrance: ‘Madam, this is not the tourist section’ they volunteered. I mumbled an explanation about an appointment with the Curator of Prints—which presumably got muffled, because the staff repeated (this time louder and slower): ‘Maadamm, NO touurissts here’, making a wide crossing-arm gestures to clarify. Something about my age, gender or the colour of my skin and hair, signalled tourist, not researcher.
By Savannah Pine (@savannah_pine)
El Paso, Texas (my hometown) features in the news frequently nowadays because of the migrant crisis and the administration’s desire to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. The border, which lies along the Rio Grande, separates a large urban area into two cities: El Paso in the US and Juárez, in Mexico. But people have long travelled across the border, as this early-twentieth-century postcard demonstrates: a streetcar rides the El Paso & Juárez Streetcar Line from downtown Juárez, over the international bridge, and down El Paso Street to downtown El Paso. My professor sent me this postcard last year as a graduation gift and I decided to find the modern version. However, it was more difficult than I thought without institutional access to research resources. This is the story of how I did unconventional historical research.
By Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)
Although it may come as a shock to a twenty-first-century consumer, tea was once a political brew. The strong, steeped leaves and the teapots, teacups, and silverware that accompanied them were representative of clashes between imperialism and commercialism in the Atlantic world. As tea shifted from luxury to necessity in early modern Europe, Britons wanted tea-time utensils as fashionable as the drink itself. Sensing a profitable opportunity in this spike in tea consumption, British manufacturers raced to meet demand for teaware and challenge the Chinese stronghold on the porcelain market through the invention of ‘creamware’ or ‘pearlware.’ Both attractive and cost-effective, creamware opened up new markets for fine tableware beyond the middling classes, allowing ordinary men and women whose pocketbooks had once restricted them to rough earthenwares to dabble in the finer things in life. New-and-improved British ceramics were marketed throughout the Empire, including in the North American colonies, where tea and teaware would set the stage for now-infamous taxation protests. Long before disaffected colonists threw around 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, Americans had already begun to associate pots and politics. Take, for example, the ‘No Stamp Act’ teapot.
By Emily Redican-Bradford
As the Second World War in Europe entered its final stages, Allied governments began to focus on how to deal with a defeated Germany. The leaders of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were determined to eradicate Nazism, in the hope of preventing the eruption of another global conflict. In an effort to achieve this, each of the Allied powers embarked on a policy of re-education, with the aim of weakening loyalty to National Socialism amongst the Germans already in their custody: prisoners of war.
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories. Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies. Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting. As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.
PhD students Eleanor Barnett (@eleanorrbarnett), Trina Moseley (@trina_moseley) and Lewis Defrates (@lewisdefrates) talk to Doing History in Public about their experiences running sessions with primary school children for the Faculty of History’s History for Schools programme.
What was your History for Schools session about and how does it link with your research?
Eleanor and Trina: Our History for Schools session was called ‘Hungry Historians: A Delicious and Disgusting Journey Through Time’. We used our combined research interests in early modern (Italian and English) and modern (British) food history to teach about how flavours and ingredients have changed over time. We tried to have as many hands-on activities as possible, including opportunities to taste historical sweets and cakes! You can find out more about our session on the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group blog.
Lewis: My session was on the first visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to London in 1887. More broadly, my research concerns the movement of a variety of cultural actors and performers from the United States to Britain between 1880 and 1914 and differing conceptions of ‘Americanness’ that travel and performance enabled these figures to formulate, but this was a great chance to focus on one particular instance of travel and explore what it would have shown British audiences about ‘America’ in the late nineteenth century.
By Kate Schneider
Every era has material nova that signal the newness of the present age. In the 1930s, it was the shine of early plastics such as Bakelite and celluloid that made them attractive modern surfaces. But in the 1950s and 1960s, domestic daydreams about ideal homes were played out in the medium of linoleum. First manufactured in 1863 — transforming linseed oil and other raw natural matter into mechanically flattened sheets — its inventor Frederick Walton acknowledged that linoleum might not rank in importance with Watt’s steam engine, but he hoped that ‘many housewives will […] bless my memory in the future, although my name will be forgotten.’ And it was as part of the postwar aesthetic of ‘damp-cloth’ consumerism that linoleum — ‘easy on the nerves and feet’ — came to be the ground on which an aspirational domesticity could be built. We can read postwar linoleum adverts as a way into understanding the appeal of domestic fictions of the time, and as powerful proposals about the home.
By Dominic Birch
One of the most pleasurable parts of archival work is discovering new stories, narratives and characters. In the type of work I do (early modern social history) some subjects seem to jump out of the page, demanding attention. Take, for instance, the case of Sara and Elizabeth Mayhew, two women who were taken to court for slander in 1617. The Mayhews were accused of sowing ‘discord, debate and strife’ amongst their neighbours. They had a particular antipathy for Dr. Wells, the vicar of Brockely. The Mayhews interrupted Wells as he attempted to deliver service, sang bawdy songs outside his door, and called his children ‘priest bastards’.
By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)
Female students were admitted to Queen’s College Cork (QCC) – now University College Cork – Ireland in 1886. One might imagine that these women were innovative and progressive, as they challenged the boundaries placed upon their gender by entering the predominantly male space of the University. But despite their pursuit of higher education, their behaviour was also conventional, as these students sought to preserve their traditional femininity. For these first women students, the primarily male space of the university needed to be navigated carefully.
By Jacob F. Field (@jakeishistory)
Charitable giving is an intrinsic part of contemporary British society. In 2017 the total amount given to charity in the United Kingdom was £10.3 billion, with the most popular causes being medical research, animal welfare, children or young people, hospitals and hospices, and overseas aid and disaster relief.[i] Early modern England was no different – donating to charity was widespread, although the causes deemed most worthy, and the methods of publicizing and administering collections, were slightly different. Read more
By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)
It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.
By Christopher Whittell (@ChrisWhittell)
This post is related to my research for a recent conference paper on the influence of ancient coins on the portrayal of early modern British monarchs. It also highlights the possibilities of catalogues of coins collections as useful sources for early modern historians including insights into a monarch’s thinking and influences. This includes the one compiled by Elias Ashmole of the original English royal coin collection between 1660 and 1662.
By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)
The historians’ job is akin to the detectives’: we ferret out clues, evaluate evidence and make deductions. But what do we do when trails run cold? My doctoral research is on the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar. Sometime between 1820 and 1830, the painter Hippolyte Silvaf made twelve water-colours of the fishery in Ceylon. As sources, these paintings would have offered incredible visual insights into the industry long before the advent of photography. Unfortunately, in 1989, all the paintings were stolen from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) where they had been held since 1908. No one has been able to track them down since. But perhaps we needed to broaden our search.
On 25 May 1868, Captain James Steuart donated a box of 11 oyster specimens to the British Museum. Although the box is rarely consulted by historians, mounted on the inside lid of the box is a painting of the fishery titled ‘Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March’. * Although it is unsigned, we can compare it with Silvaf’s oeuvre and with the description of his paintings recorded by RCS librarians to deduce that this is a copy of one of the lost paintings, ‘Scene at Silawatorre: boats returning from the Pearl Banks’. The box of specimens, which, bound up with colonial practices of collection and documentation, has ensured that at least one of these remarkable paintings survives today!
*My thanks to Tom White at the Museum of Natural History and Rachel Rowe at the Royal Commonwealth Society for their help putting the pieces together.
Image: Edwin William Streeter, ‘Auction of Pearl Oysters in Ceylon’ from Pearls and Pearling Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
By Marina Inì (@MarinaIni_)
During my research trip in Verona, I came across a striking document among the letters from the Lazzaretto in Verona to the Chancellor of the Health Office of the city. The letter, written in 1738, was not important for its content, but rather for its aspect: the colour of the paper was brownish yellow with a lighter part in the middle, which seemed to be the imprint of an object. This made me question why there were only a few letters with these marks. The reason, it turns out, lies in the complexity of the protocols of the lazzaretto and in the Early Modern theory of contagion.
By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)
In 1305, William Wallace was hanged, drawn, and beheaded. Notes from the court state that ‘his heart, liver, lungs and all his entrails be cast into the fire and burned’ and ‘his body be cut into four parts.’ His head was to be placed on London Bridge, with each ‘quarter’ of Wallace hung at Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick, Stirling, and the town of St. John ‘for the terror and punishment of all who pass by’.
Crimes against the monarch or realm have often been treated harshly under English common law. Owing to Wallace’s role in the Scottish wars perhaps this severe punishment was to be expected. Legal historian, Sir John Baker, suggested that absence of legislation on treason was a risk to liberty and justice. A tyrannical ruler could choose to inflict the greatest punishment for the slightest offence. This is the likely reason why in 1351 the Commons and the Lords petitioned King Edward III to outline treason, resulting in it being the first major offence to be defined by statute.