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.
By Chioma Vivian Ngonadi (@ChiomaNgonadi12)
The process of precolonial metalworking is recognised by the presence of material fingerprints such as slags, remains of blooms, or finished objects (Chirikure 2013). In Lejja-Igboland, southeastern Nigeria, iron smelting is an indigenous craft specialization that flourished on an industrial scale from around 2000 BC (Eze-Uzomaka 2013). Evidence, in the form of relic furnaces and extensive slag and tuyere remains, are widely visible in the landscape today. The vast number of slag blocks on the surface reveal that iron working in this region was a highly sophisticated, long-lived and well-developed tradition with techniques that involved relatively large-scale metal production (Ngonadi 2017). The main village square in Lejja contains over 800 slag blocks weighing between 34 and 57 kg (Eze-Uzomaka 2013).
by Emily Tilby | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When I found out that I would be taking part in this summer’s season of Excavations at Shanidar Cave I was really excited as the cave is so important in our understanding of Near Eastern Prehistory and Neanderthal behaviour. I was also slightly nervous as this would be my first experience taking part in a full archaeological dig. The site is located in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan, around three hours north of Erbil. The cave itself sits within the valleys and the foothills of the Zagros mountains, specifically on Baradost mountain, after which one of the Upper Palaeolithic technological industries discovered at Shanidar was named.
By Eleanor Russell
Perhaps surprisingly to non-specialists, vast amounts of documentation survive from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, far more than from earlier periods. These surviving documents are not, however, necessarily coherent, and large bodies of sources remain rare. Even merchant correspondence, carefully preserved by traders for their records, has generally not remained intact. One important exception to this is the archive of the Spinelli, a Florentine family who were prominent in trade and silk manufacture in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. Their correspondence, tax records, wills, family trees, account books, and numerous other types of documents are kept in the Beinecke Library at the University of Yale, from where I was able to obtain a Visiting Fellowship to study this important collection. Read more
By Georgia Oman
While academic dress has been around for a long time, it is only more recently that the wearing of it in Britain has been permissible for more than a small but powerful elite. Until the 1830s, there were only two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, and academic dress was a part of their students’ daily lives. Indeed, until 1965, undergraduates at Cambridge had to wear gowns when going to lectures, supervisions, or into town after dusk. As Paul Deslandes notes, academic dress was about more than just wearing a fancy gown – it was a visible symbol of student identity, as well as university privilege, insider status, and masculinity.
By Mobeen Hussain | (@amhuss27)
On my first visit to the Punjab State Archives in Lahore this summer, I met with the archive’s Director, Mohammed Abbas Chughtai, who explained that the archive and its libraries have received fewer visitors after the events of 9/11 due to concerns about safety in the country. The archive does, however, receive some non-native and international scholars, and the Research Officer and Director were eager to help as well as point visitors in the direction of other useful resources. Coupled with this enthusiasm is the “chai and chat” culture of Pakistan; before delving into your research, you may well spend some time waiting, chatting, and being introduced to people. While researchers, including myself, will be in a rush to get started, these conversations have proved to be fruitful and a great way into the history and archive culture of Lahore. For instance, through conversations with the Director of the State Archives, I found out about materials at the Punjab Public Library and ended up spending a lot of time there. Indeed, the archives and libraries provide a snapshot of the vast archival and scholarly landscape of Lahore and are great, untapped treasure troves.
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
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.
By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)
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.
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
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.
By Zoe Alipranti (@ZAlipranti)
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.
By Helen Sunderland | @hl_sunderland
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.