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.
Posts from the ‘Research’ Category
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
‘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. 
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
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?
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