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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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Hay fever: An irritating history

 By Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys)

‘About the beginning or middle of June in every year the following symptoms make their appearance, with a greater or less degree of violence. A sensation of heat and fulness is experienced in the eyes…until the sensation becomes converted into what may be characterized as a combination of the most acute itching and smarting…a general fulness is experienced in the head, and particularly about the fore part; to this suceeds irritation of the nose, producing sneezing, which occurs in fits of extreme violence, coming on at uncertain intervals’ – John Bostock, ‘Case of a periodical affection of the eyes and chest’, 16 March 1819.

If, like me, this summer has reduced you to Googling ‘why is my hay fever so bad this year?’ and ‘when will it stop?’ then the above symptoms may sound familiar. Partly because of the recent dry, warm, and windy weather, this year’s hay fever season is set to be the worst in twelve years, and many of us are suffering for it. Unable to find a contemporary cure for this affliction, I sought distraction by looking at how people had dealt with it in the past.  Read more

World at their Feet: The World Cup and History

By Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

For any football fan, and even for many who don’t usually indulge in the ‘beautiful game’, the arrival of the World Cup every four years provides pure escapism. Even in England, the disappointment of a predictable penalty shoot-out defeat is assuaged by the tournament’s association with long hot summer days, the colours and sounds of packed stadia, and the creation of iconic images on the pitch below. Simply put, the World Cup seems to exist in a vacuum which transcends any given moment in world history. This year’s tournament perhaps exemplifies this fact – at a time when tensions between Russia and ‘the West’ are at their highest since the Cold War, representatives from all over the world can gather on Russian soil to play football. Murmurings about corruption, boycotts, and hooliganism bubble under the surface, but in the build-up to kick-off excitement about the sport itself takes over, along with a shared sense that the show must go on. Read more

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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Theatre History: Out of the Archives and Onto the Stage

by Holly Dayton |  hollyedayton@gmail.com

Few people know that Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother, was a playwright. If they happen to know of her, they only know her as the mother of Winston Churchill. Yet she wrote three plays over the course of her life: His Borrowed Plumes (1909), The Bill (1913), and Between the Devil and the Deep Sea (1920). Though her first two plays were produced on the West End and all three were donated to the Churchill Archive Centre in 2012, they have never been studied in detail.

This is not wholly surprising, as Lady Randolph was part of a community of female playwrights from the turn of the century that are barely remembered or discussed. Yet, by the late 1800s, more women were playwrights than ever before, attracted by the potential to make a significant profit through their work. Whereas in the early first few decades of the 1800s, a playwright would only receive a small lump sum upfront for their text, by the end of the century one could reasonably hope to receive 10% of the gross profits from a production. A female playwright could, ostensibly, make a tidy profit from a successful play. However, few female playwrights received financial arrangements equally generous as those given to men. Read more

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

Staging History: Mary Stuart

Harriet Lyon (@HarrietLyon) reviews Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, adapted and directed by Robert Icke.

What is history if not a series of contingencies? For every thing that happens, an infinite number of other possibilities are extinguished. But what if things had been different? Although writing history certainly involves a good dose of imagination, academic historians have generally tended to be nervous of counterfactuals and their capacity to re-imagine the past. Historical fiction, by contrast, has built a thriving industry on the question of ‘what if?’ What if Germany had won the Second World War? What if John F. Kennedy’s assassin had failed? What if there had been no Protestant Reformation?

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Tall Tales and Shaping the Research of the Future

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

When I first saw the University Library as a new Cambridge student last October it looked like something from a dystopian novel. The library tower loomed above me – a modernist monument to humanity’s pursuit of knowledge. With the addition of a few slogans on the walls, I thought, it would fit right into Orwell’s 1984. What this says about my sense of trepidation embarking on a PhD aside, the library tower has long been a focus of mystery and myth since it was completed in 1934. Now, the new exhibition Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, which opened at the University Library earlier this month, uncovers some of its secrets for the first time.

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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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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

By Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

Last Wednesday, 4 April, the world commemorated the assassination fifty years earlier of a man widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures. Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for having played an instrumental role in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. federal government, and for doing so through an unwavering commitment to non-violence and interracial cooperation. Accordingly, the shooting of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is seen to epitomize the tumultuous year of 1968 in U.S. history, during which opposition to the Vietnam War and ongoing racial antagonism saw American society turn from peace to violence, and from consensus to division.

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Expressions of “Russian exceptionalism”: a historical continuity?

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

Vladimir Putin was unsurprisingly victorious in this month’s presidential elections on the 18th of March. As with all political campaigns, candidates routinely utilise powerful self-branding images. In Putin’s case, historic forms of Russian exceptionalism were re-imagined to run on a distinct platform based on anti-Americanism, similar to his previous campaigns. Michael Bohm, in a 2013 article, suggested that Putin was determined to turn Russia into the only leading world power that can hold its own against the U.S. This anti-American branding of Russian exceptionalism alongside long held notions of Russian Orthodoxy and Holy Russia were harnessed to amass public support throughout the election. His conservative stance on gay rights and support of the Russian Orthodox church are indicative of this. Read more

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

Empty Shops and the Housing Crisis: a Perspective from the Second World War

By David Cowan

Britain lacks enough affordable housing. The problem is clear: too few houses are being built to meet the needs of an ageing population. One estimate suggests that about 300,000 new houses are needed each year, whilst about half of that are actually constructed. With the demand for new housing exceeding availability, renting is becoming increasingly unaffordable; buying is now a pipe dream for many, especially the young.

Policy-makers are rightly considering the solutions to this crisis. Theresa May recently proposed, amongst other measures, ‘to make it easier for shops to be turned into housing if that’s appropriate’. It is good that Britain’s shortage of affordable housing is being taken seriously by the government. 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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Children’s strikes, school walk-outs, and youth political activism

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

In the last two weeks, university students across the UK have been coming out in solidarity with lecturers and staff in the University and College Union’s USS strike. On the other side of the Atlantic, the news has been dominated by the aftermath of the latest US mass school shooting. Survivors from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have spearheaded the national #NeverAgain campaign, renewing debate on the ever-controversial issue of gun control. Pledging his support in a tweet on 22 February, Barack Obama implied the high school students had the weight of history behind them: ‘Young people have helped lead all our great movements.’ Major twentieth-century protest campaigns – from civil rights, to women’s rights, gay liberation and nuclear disarmament – were in large part youth movements. It was university students who started the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and, more recently, the 2014 Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. But children and young people’s strikes have a much longer history. Read more

Independence and interdependence: one Scot’s perspective on Anglo-Scottish relations in early-seventeenth-century London

By Laura Flannigan | @LFlannigan17

Notions of Scottish devolution or independence from England and the rest of the United Kingdom have been reiterated across the last few generations, with the 2014 ‘IndyRef’ and its potential sequel only the most recent examples.  Much of the discussion south of the border hangs on how Scotland could think to sustain itself outside the UK, ‘its chief exports being oil, whisky [and] tartan’, as one panel-show quipped in 2013.[1]  This often-disparaging discourse has parallels in the conversations being had about Scotland’s contribution to the original Union of the Crowns of 1603, when the Scottish King James VI naturally acceded to the throne of England.

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The roots of vegetable politics

By Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys)

Boris Johnson’s declaration last week that Brexit ‘can be good for carrots too’ caused a mixture of despair, mild amusement, and utter confusion. For those trying to get their heads around Britain’s Brexit-based future, this was hardly the ‘clarity’ they demanded. What few registered, however, was that Johnson had unwittingly tapped into a long history of the manipulation of this versatile vegetable for political ends. Read more

Fritter-filled Paunches: Pancake day in Reformation England

By Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

On the Monday before Lent, wrote comedic poet John Taylor in 1639, a farmer returned home to his wife ‘busily making Pancakes for him and his family’. After he criticised the quality of the fare – ‘the coursenesse of the flower, the taste of the Suite [suet- fat], the thicknesse of the Batter’ –  the farmer’s wife decided to teach her husband a lesson, ‘knowing he was better experienced in the Plough, than the Panne, and to eate Pancakes better than to make them’! Telling him to wait outside with his back to the door and the plate outstretched in front of him, she promised to toss the pancake through the chimney from which it would land merrily onto his dish. Instead, in retribution for his snide comments, the wife ‘came suddenly behinde him, & with the pan and all clapt the Pancake upon his head’. With his hair ‘well basted with the fat of the Panne’, the ridiculed husband scorned his wife as ‘an arrant Shrew’ and named the day ‘Shrewes Munday’ and the next ‘Shrews Tuesday’ in her honour.[1] Read more