By Jana Hunter @janakhunter
At the heart of Europe lies Prague: a city centred around the River Moldau, embodying antiquity, mysticism and the sublime. Its imposing and grandiose scenes received little attention from travel writers up until the Napoleonic Wars. Through travel literature, Prague emerged as a fantastical city providing escapism, both physically and mentally, for travellers. Mapped like a medieval German city, and located in Central Europe, Prague was home to a dynamic cultural milieu. Yet, it was also deemed to be uncivilised, possessing an Oriental grandeur. This contentious portrayal epitomises the difficulty travellers had – and continue to have – in defining the city and challenges the powerful concept of a binary Europe.
By Marina Inì (@MarinaIni_)
The past few months have been unexpected and distressing for everyone. As an Italian citizen originally from Lombardia, the centre of the outbreak in Italy, I strongly felt the anxiety caused by COVID-19 weeks before the declared global pandemic. As a historian, however, I have been especially puzzled and even intrigued by the news around me. My PhD dissertation examines quarantine centres, called lazzaretti, as plague prevention strategy in the eighteenth-century Mediterranean, focusing on the Venetian territories (which included Italy but also the Balkan peninsula and the Ionian Sea), Malta, different states of the Italian peninsula, and France. Suddenly, my topic has become extraordinarily relevant in the ongoing circumstances. Deep down, every historian knows that historical research, even the most specific and peculiar topic, helps to understand the present day. But never would I have imagined that my topic on early modern quarantine could resonate so much with current events, nor that I would be writing my dissertation on quarantine while preventatively isolating myself amid a global pandemic.
By Charlotte Coyne (@charlottecoyne_)
Recently, there has been a rise in the number of musical theatre productions which choose to depict historical events. Many even delve into discussing historiography and the process of creating history as a major theme of the show. Most lauded among these is, of course, Hamilton: An American Musical, to which biographer Ron Chernow’s role as historical consultant arguably added a stronger claim of historical authenticity. However, despite this proliferation of ‘history musicals’, and though considerable research has also been done on the strengths of historical re-enactment in promoting public engagement with history, there are still academics who argue that theatricality and historical veracity are too disparate to coexist effectively: Nancy Isenberg has notably claimed that “history cannot be reduced to song and dance”.
Philippa Carter (@extispicium)
In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’ Read more
By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)
When Parliament was suspended this September, several bills making their way through the Commons and Lords were dropped. Although three pieces of legislation were carried over to the next session, the remainder fell into a legal limbo, with their only hope of resurrection being that the government would choose to re-introduce them upon the return of Parliament. One such bill lost in the Brexit shuffle is a reform of the divorce laws of England and Wales, which at the moment demand that couples provide evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or years of separation before a divorce can be granted, even if both parties have amicably agreed to end their marriage. Put simply, the proposed legislation aims to establish ‘no-fault divorce’, in which neither partner need be apportioned blame for the failure of the marriage. Under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973 currently in force, those seeking a divorce must prove their partner was at fault through adultery, desertion, or unreasonable behaviour. If there is no evidence of fault, consenting couples still must live apart for two years before they can file for divorce, while cases in which both sides cannot reach agreement must endure five years of separation.
By Max Long
My first encounter with moving image archives took place in a windowless room in the basement of a building in London. I was there to view a selection of natural history films. I had watched similar films online, but here I could load, spool, and wind up the films myself. Films are the principal source in my research, but prior to my PhD, I had little experience with the medium. Here I was left alone with two towering piles of 35mm and 16mm films, and an unexpected lesson in the materiality of film technology.
By Spike Lister
The utilisation of history in political discourse has itself a long history. For as long as there has been a public space and a shared experience, communities have looked to the past as a lens through which to understand their issues. History offers us a guiding light by which to move forwards or a source from which to draw blood-curdling parallels to our present circumstances. Consequently, it should not surprise us in such complex and disruptive times that historical parallels abound as a means of garnering political support. In periods of political intricacy and seemingly tectonic historic change, it is inevitable that politicians draw from the past to assert the continuity of their policies within a nation’s historical experience, or to draw ominous parallels between history and the present day.
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 Alistair Moir (Archive and Library Collections Manager, https://www.hatads.org.uk/.)
The History of Advertising Trust (HAT) is a nationally accredited archive service established in 1976 to preserve the heritage of the UK advertising industry and make it available for study and research. Today the HAT archive is the most comprehensive collection of British advertising and marketing communications in the world. Over the past forty years the Trust’s collections have developed into a truly unique resource for advertising industry and brand heritage records. Archives of several major advertising agencies and industry professional bodies form the core of HAT’s collections, alongside ephemeral press, poster and commercials collections.
By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)
Thanks to programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? there has never been more interest in family history. Since the turn of the century, family historians have started to look beyond traditional records such as the census, and birth, death, and marriage indices to new scientific methods. DNA tests are now being used to shed light on ethnic or biogeographical origins and to identify genetic relatives. In 2017, more people took an ancestry DNA test than in all previous years combined. Moreover, it is estimated that by 2022, the genetic testing market will be worth approximately £261 million. The ease and reasonably low cost of heritage DNA tests has made this technology accessible to everyone. So, with that in mind, I decided to give it a go.
By Claire Sosienski Smith & Christine Pungong, (email@example.com & firstname.lastname@example.org)
My experience as a student at Cambridge centred around the feminist activism I chose to get involved in, as part of the Women’s Campaign. I learned that feminist work is legacy work in the physical spaces I shared and created with women and non-binary people. My involvement in these spaces led me to run for my current position as the full-time Women’s Officer on the students’ union (CUSU), where I work closely with people who influenced my feminist activism. Christine Pungong, the current CUSU and GU Welfare and Rights Officer, was one of the first people I met when I joined Cambridge as an undergraduate and has been part of my feminist community during the last four years of our involvement with the Women’s Campaign and student organising. The Our Streets project, a collaboration between the Women’s Campaign and Welfare portfolio, represents these kinds of feminist communities that enable us to survive in these spaces, legacies which are often missing from our depiction of Cambridge as an intensely competitive environment.
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 Ruth Singer | @CriminalQuilts
Back in 2012 I was commissioned to make a piece of contemporary textile artwork inspired by the Shire Hall in Stafford including 18th century court buildings. I found that I was drawn to archive photographs rather than the building itself. I created a series of miniature ‘quilts’ taking inspiration from photographs of women prisoners with their hands on their chests. I was haunted by these images and found the details of their clothing intriguing. I based my work on the textile details in the images and made quilts in reference to their lack of comfort in the prison system.
I have continued to work with these images and am now Artist in Residence at Staffordshire Record Office engaging in further research into the prison photo albums and the lives of the women they show. New work will be shown in exhibitions in 2018.
Image: Work by Ruth Singer, photography by Joanne Withers and original image courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.
By Alice Soulieux-Evans
An English literature student, my ‘conversion’ to history came through studying the Reformation. Yet this scholarly ‘conversion’ coincided with my coming to faith. Whilst as a historian I seek to be objective, it doesn’t mean I don’t find my research and the people I study spiritually edifying as a Christian. One of my most memorable ‘encounters’ in the archives was one such occasion, when I came across a copy of Laud’s last will and testament. Read more
By Laura Achtelstetter
In the Gerlach-Family Archive in Erlangen (GER), a copy of the diaries of Leopold von Gerlach, General of the Prussian Army and aidé de campe of Frederick Wilhelm IV., can be found. The originals have been lost since the Second World War. Signature LE02776 contains letters between Frederick Wilhelm IV, his wife Elisabeth and von Gerlach. What is interesting to note is the private tone some of Frederick Wilhelm’s letters contain. As an example, he addresses his general and subject with his nickname “Polte”. This salutation is normally used by von Gerlachs family members and very close friends. One might conclude that Frederick Wilhelm saw himself as a close friend. In another letter Frederick Wilhelm refers to Leopold’s gout disease. He urges von Gerlach to take a rest and the concludes ‘Hätte Papa sein Zipperlein vor etwa 20 Jahren fröhlich aufgenommen wie ich das meine, er lebte noch!’*
Those sources are interesting, as a king referring to his father and predecessor as ‘papa’ in front of a subject is quite uncommon and indicates that Frederick Wilhelm did not always see a need to maintain a respectable distance towards Leopold von Gerlach.
*Letter nb. 26, Berlin 14 March 1852. Transl.: If papa had happily accepted his gout/ minor ailment 20 years ago, as I did, he would be still alive.
Image: Franz Krüger, ‘Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia’, 1846. Oil on canvass. Public domain via Wikimedia commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1846_Krueger_Friedrich_Wilhelm_IV_anagoria.jpg.
By Spencer Brown
I was helping curate a museum exhibition in York on the life of Lawrence Rowntree, grandson of the famous businessman, philanthropist and social reformer Joseph Rowntree. Lawrence died at Passchendaele in the First World War, aged just 22. He kept a journal of his time with the Friends Ambulance Unit, in which his intelligence and compassion shone through. He was repulsed and exhausted by war, but the man-of-action wrote: “The excitement of it, even the fear is enticing; the glorious feeling when you overcome difficulties you thought were insuperable, and the jolly companionship of everyone which you get in the face of a common danger, and never so truly anywhere else.” His spirit was indomitable. It is a tragedy that his life – along with so many others – was cut short in the mud at Passchendaele, and his journal was the most interesting, and poignant, text or material I have encountered in an archive.
Spencer Brown has a BA in History from Durham University and an MA in Public History from the University of York. He is a recipient of the Thouron Award and is currently studying at the University of Pennsylvania.
Image: Stretcher bearers at Passchendaele, August 1917. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stretcher_bearers_Passchendaele_August_1917.jpg.
By Chris Wilson (email@example.com)
The Father Christmas figure pictured here is Theophilus Waldmeier, a Swiss Quaker missionary based in the Levant from the 1860s until his death in 1915. Late in his life, Waldmeier began raising funds for the construction of a mental hospital at Asfuriyeh, near Beirut, which opened its doors in August 1900. Envisaged as introducing modern and humane forms of treatment for the mentally ill, Waldmeier’s own annual reports on the hospital reveal some of the tensions engendered by his approach. Waldmeier saw work as regenerative, but not everyone agreed. In 1907, he wrote: ‘when the relatives of the patients come and see them at work they do not like it, often saying, “Why does my son or daughter work? This is not right – look at their hands and feet, how hard and dirty they are”, etc., etc., but soap makes all right again.’ Well they might have complained; in the same year, the medical superintendent reported that a large raised terrace had been built on the grounds of the hospital ‘almost exclusively by patients’ labour’. Even a source as official as the annual report of a hospital, read carefully, can offer up valuable glimpses of abuse and resistance. Patient work remained important at the mental hospital at Asfuriyeh long after Waldmeier’s death, but took on very different forms to the back-breaking labour performed by patients in the opening years of the twentieth century; in 1950, to end on a more festive note, patients were responsible for printing sketches of the hospital, which were then sold as Christmas cards.
Image: Theophilus Waldmeier, from Henry T. Hodgkin, Friends beyond seas (London, 1916), p.64. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theophil_Waldmeier#/media/File:TheophilWaldmeier2.jpg.
By Valerio Zanetti
When studying early modern female horse riding, Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) is an inescapable figure to deal with. She was internationally renowned for her skilful horsemanship. However a doubt arises: did she ride astride ‘like a man’ or did she prefer a more feminine style à l’amazone? Written and visual sources provide different accounts. In my investigation I turned towards a saddle preserved at the Livrustkammaren in Stockholm. Commissioned by the queen in 1650, the year of her coronation, this was reserved for her particular use until she left Sweden in 1654. Velvets preciously embroidered with gold and silver thread were ordered especially from France to be then mounted by the court saddler Simon Jüterbock. Such saddles were employed to ride both ways, but the key to the problem is to be found in an accessory element, a half-moon shaped velvet and leather cushion. This was tied to the main body of the saddle and served to support the right leg of the rider as it was wrapped around the pommel when mounting side-saddle. Evident signs of wear provided me with clear evidence of the queen’s favourite riding style.
Image: Sébastien_Bourdon, ‘Queen Christina of Sweden on Horseback’ (1653). Oil on canvas, 383 x 291 cm. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sébastien_Bourdon-Christina_of_Sweden_1653.jpg.