By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
In early January 2020, a newsletter disclosed an unknown pneumonia spreading through Wuhan, China.[i] This understated report failed to lade me with extreme anxiety on an otherwise ordinary day in Cambridge. Many of my peers did not anticipate any interruption to our annual schedule of international trips, but lockdowns and travel restrictions were looming. The infectious virus, later named as COVID-19, fermented an ongoing crisis that enveloped the world within months. It marks an unusual epoch when the globalised world has suddenly become suspended with immobility.
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”.
By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)
Have you ever left an online review after dining at a café or staying in a hotel? What about after a visiting a museum or a local heritage site? You probably left your comment for the benefit of future visitors or to get the attention of management, but that review may have had unintended consequences. Although you not have known it, your opinions could be creating valuable digital sources for the historians of tomorrow.[i]
It might feel like websites such as Google Reviews, TripAdvisor and HotelWorld are a pretty new phenomenon. Certainly, online reviews are a product of the twenty-first century. But as consumers, we humans have been recording our opinions on recreational experiences for a long time. The best historic example of this is the visitor’s (or guest) book. Typically identified by its leather cover, heavy pages, or dusty appearance, this thick tome sitting in the corner of a museum room or end of the gallery corridor should not be overlooked. Though some visitor’s books may only elicit a signature, akin to ‘X was here,’ most are filled with colourful and reflective feedback. Even the briefest of autographs can open intriguing avenues of research, whether exploring the nature of the ink to the style of the handwriting.[ii]
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.
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 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 Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam
There is an often repeated quote that is thrown around when speaking of “the past” and knowledge thereof in the kind of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for gods and kings – that those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it and, principally, repeat its mistakes. As such, there are many out there who claim to have learned the lessons of the past and are able to make suggestions about future courses of action based on them, or to prophesy the end times thanks to lessons learned from the Black Death or a basic understanding of world war two. However, as almost any historian will attest, very few two historical moments are directly applicable to one another – humans are just too variable a factor to control for. More problematic though is that the very material the historical record is based on is often far from infallible. The inherent biases of the sermon preachers, victor historians, and letter writers is well known and the requirement to read between the lines of sources is a well hashed subject. What is often less well understood is that number “facts” often lie in a similar fashion, or at the very least skew the truth through over simplification. Read more
In the second of our posts on doing research abroad, Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith) traverses the United States.
Working on American history from a British university as I do, it was inevitable that at some point during my PhD research I was going to have to spend some time abroad. Courtesy of two Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded fellowships, first at the Huntington Library in California, and secondly at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, ‘some time’ rapidly became more-or-less an entire year. While I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of abandoning family, friends, and familiar settings to enter the political inferno that is the contemporary United States, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read more
by Tom Smith
What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. Read more
By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam
In May 1906 the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lay in his sick bed. That evening an old friend arrived from town to see the aged tragedian. Entering the room he greeted the nurse with “How is Mr Ibsen today?” “Oh”, she cheerily replied, “he’s doing much better.” At this Ibsen sat up incredulous in bed declaring “Tvert imod!” (tr. On the contrary!) upon which he fell back into his pillow unconscious, dying shortly thereafter. For a writer whose characters rarely even cracked a smile, he managed to exit the world with one of the finest deathbed jokes in history. Read more
Bias is a fundamental problem encountered by historians studying all time periods, using all methods, and at all stages of their career. The conveners of a one-day workshop on Facing the Challenge of Bias in History, to be held on Sunday 15th May 2016 at the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, therefore invite papers from historians in all sub-disciplines. Whether your work has confronted selection bias, bias inherent in a source, researcher bias, or any other form of bias, we would like to hear from you. By bringing together researchers from disparate areas of history, who might never usually come across each other’s work, we hope to explore a common problem and to collectively discuss ways of confronting this problem. Read more
by James Lloyd – @jtlloyd3
James is a PhD student at the University of Reading/Exeter in Classics. His thesis is entitled: ”Music and Ritual in Ancient Sparta: the lead votive figurines of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia”
In recent years, there has been a flurry of new technologies emerging at a price which makes them (just about) affordable, notably 3D scanners and printers, and such technologies have attracted attention in the news of late for their employment in the digital recreation of artefacts and archaeological sites destroyed by IS. Indeed, 3D printing is a wonderful tool for bringing the past to life: Museum3D, for example, uses its 3D prints to engage museum visitors with low-vision and Alzheimer’s. However, as this post will show, 3D scans are just as important to public history. Read more
By Jess Hope
When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a history essay where my main primary source was an ‘eyewitness account’ of the events I was describing. It was detailed and colourful, full of vivid descriptions, quotes and recollections. It was great fun both to read and to write about.
It was only later that I discovered that this particular ‘eyewitness’ may not have actually, exactly….well, been there. Read more
By Matthew Tibble
Matthew is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching religious counsel during the mid-Tudor period.
I have been studying history for the better part of four years, yet it was only recently that I managed to fulfil the archetypal ambition of making an original ‘discovery’. Like so much of modern historical research, it began by persistently trawling through online resources, flicking through digital facsimile images of countless early printed works, and noticing a small peculiarity. Laurence Saunders, a clergyman who died on 8th February 1555, had purportedly written a book that described in great detail the trial of two Protestant martyrs, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, who had later been burned at the stake by Mary I. The trial is known to have taken place in October, eight months after Laurence Saunders’ death, inherently undermining his contention that, ‘I was there presente at the doing of thys…and heard al for the most part with mine eares’. Read more
By Kayt Button, @kayt_button
Today we collect a vast array of readily available information in the form of statistics, stories, reports, and videos available publicly on the internet or through more official channels. These are created by journalists, public servants, and the public at large who are able to self-publish. Before the advent of what has been named “Big Data”, events were written down, or photographed, by a few individuals and published. Before that, pictures and oral histories recorded important events. All these sources have their own difficulties – in the case of Big Data, as the name suggests, the volumes of available information can be overwhelming. Hard copy written sources were authored by someone and understanding the writer can be as important as what they reported, which is also true of oral history, drawings, and photographic evidence. Read more
By Emily Ward, @1066unicorn
Palms sweating, mouth dry, heart pounding in my chest, my thoughts racing. I realise that I’m going to do it. Tentatively I gather my courage, swallow down the fear and start to raise my hand. Hand up, there’s no going back; I’m spotted and heads turn my way. Eyes on me, I open my mouth. Barely formulated sentences tumble out. I wait. Then clearly I have made enough sense that the watching eyes turn forward again. I have just asked my first question at a history conference.* Read more