This post is an introduction to our online symposium, ‘The Voices of the People’. For more information on this event see our symposium homepage.
The doors of the ivory tower are being dismantled, and it’s no bad thing that historians are being forced out of hiding. Indeed, debates about the role that professional academic historians should be playing in wider society seem as pressing as they have done for many years – not least because research funding has come to be increasingly linked with the requirement to demonstrate that the resulting research has ‘impact’ on the economy, society, culture, or public policy, ‘beyond academia’. Historians are finding their voices, and are starting to intervene in public debates with greater regularity.
‘Is it safe to come out?’
The resulting interventions have not been without controversy, as the recent exchanges in History Today over the historic role of Britain in Europe have shown. In fact, much of the public debate involving historians is really a debate between them about the type of history we should be doing. The History Manifesto, a recent high profile open access publication, called for historians to focus their efforts on the analysis of ‘big data’ and very long-term trends so as to make their conclusions more applicable to contemporary policy questions. Yet the authors of the manifesto, and the Eurosceptic ‘Historians for Britain’ collective, have been criticised for leaning towards over-simplified ‘big stories’ and clear ‘lessons from history’ at the expense of the complexity and nuance that many see as central to what the study of history should really be about (something our own Laura Sangha has written about on this blog recently).
But debates about the type of history that is best suited to bridging the gap between academics and a wider public need to be about more than just the scale we adopt: there is also the issue of what – or who – that broader public history should be focusing on. Great institutions, great men, and national stories of war and conquest, have long dominated our collective sense of the past: the historical experiences of ordinary women and men, it is fair to say, have not. It is telling that The People’s History Museum in Manchester, the UK’s principal museum for working class history, has lost government funding because it is not considered to be a ‘national’ museum: the history of ordinary people is not part of the national story. Telling too that the Prime Minister, in a speech to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, saw human rights as ‘the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons’. No place here for the Trade Unions, Chartists, Suffragettes – and countless other grassroots movements across the world – that have fought for the rights of ordinary citizens: for Mr Cameron it was the barons wot won it. Continue reading
The monster heads
We are delighted to report that we recently received our 100,000th view on the many-headed monster! We would like to thank everyone who reads the blog, as well as all those who share posts with others, or who take the time to comment. It is safe to say we wouldn’t be here without you.
The monster celebrates like it is 1566.
We usually mark milestones with some reflection, so here goes:
The monster’s first post appeared 18 July 2012 (so we will soon be 3 years old as well). Mark Hailwood and Brodie Waddell were the founding members, soon joined by Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis. Since then we’ve:
- Posted 167 blogs
- Had 48,500 visitors
- Featured 11 mini-series
- Received 766 comments
Our most successful post is now Brodie’s ‘A missing child and a suspicious meat pie in 1645’, relating the strange case of human flesh allegedly being sold as food. After being featured on the suspiciously named Hacker News, this post received an astonishing 4,857 views (4,246 visitors) on 2 June 2015. Continue reading
Last week, I delivered the introductory lecture for a second year undergraduate module, ‘Doing History’, and for various tedious reasons, I also recently spent some time reading, reflecting on and writing about why I consider history to be valuable. In the process, I conducted an entirely unscientific google trawl, trying to gauge what the general perception of the discipline was. I was struck by the fact that the popular or ‘commonsense’ perception of history encourages a rather limited assessment of its social and intellectual usefulness. What exactly do I mean?
Narratives and stories
Drake’s defeat of the Armada – a rollicking yarn!
Perception: The past provides a seemingly endless supply of rollicking good yarns, from Henry VIII’s tortuous relationship status to Sir Francis Drake’s swashbuckling Caribbean adventures. These are easily converted into good reads.
That’s nice, but it doesn’t make history particularly valuable. Anyway, the best stories are made up ones. Continue reading
It’s the time of year when our thoughts start drifting to relaxing summer holidays on the beach… and that crucial question: what books to take? Well, if you are thinking of brushing up on your history our ‘Marooned on an Island Monographs’ series is designed to provide handy reading lists on a range of historical themes. Today we have another great guest contribution to the series on the theme of the history of masculinities….
Joanne Bailey is Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University. Joanne is a historian of early modern, Georgian and Victorian Britain, with particular interests in marriage, marriage breakdown, family relationships, the domestic economy, parenting, masculinities and identities. She ‘Muses on History’ on her own blog, and tweets @JBHist.
I have developed a very personal relationship with the books below; to me they are entities in themselves. Picked up to learn more about the research I was doing at the time (marriage, family, gender), each provoked that ‘YES’ moment and I revisit them all repeatedly. Thankfully this is due to their quality not my deteriorating brain cells. They are my comfortable good friends who continue to surprise me with their wit and insights! Continue reading
On 26 June 1645, as the war between the King and Parliament raged, John Coleman sat down at his lodgings in London to eat a meat pie. As he ate it, a strange thought occurred to him: ‘What flesh eatest thou’?
At that moment, even as he chewed, a flood of doubts and suspicions swept into Coleman’s mind. Why had his landlady made meat pies on a fast day? Why had the girl who delivered it to his room been acting so oddly? What had happened to the child who had been missing the previous evening?
The answers must have struck him like a blow, because suddenly ‘hee could eate noe moore’, verily believing ‘the Pye was made of a Childs flesh’. According to his later testimony, Coleman then went out into the neighbourhood to try to learn more. Here he heard from several women that a child in a yellow coat had been seen wandering the streets on previous evenings and that a butcher’s wife had unexpectedly given the child bread and butter. A gentlewoman, it was said, was ‘almost madd for her chyld which was lost’.
Although Coleman’s testimony ends there, an incident six weeks earlier seems to reveal more. On May 13th, a crowd attacked Mary Hodges, saying that under her apron she had ‘sugar plumbs and dyer bread to entice young Children away’. Another group attacked Hodges on June 2nd, accusing her of being ‘a night walking whore’.
Then the story, like the pie, goes cold. Continue reading
Many ‘monster readers will have already deduced that I recently started a new job. So I thought it would be a nice idea to write a very short post introducing the project that I’m now working on. It is based at the University of Exeter, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and will run until the summer of 2018. The leader of the project is Professor Jane Whittle and I will be the main researcher. Our aim is to gather an unprecedented level of information about the everyday working lives of early modern English women by extracting incidental information about work activities from witness statements given in court cases (and a few other types of record too). We hope that this innovative methodology will help us to capture aspects of women’s work – for instance domestic and other types of unpaid work – that more conventional history of work sources – such as wage data – do not.
If you want to know more about the aims, methods and sources we will be using I have set up a website for the project here, that contains a lot more detail about what we will be doing. I’ll also be blogging over there about our progress from time to time, so if you are interested please do follow the project.
In fact, we already have a couple of blog posts up:
- ‘What is Work?’ – project leader Jane Whittle challenges some of the more conventional definitions of work that historians use, and offers a more suitable alternative that we will be adopting for the project.
- ‘Did Women Work in Agriculture?’ – in this post I examine some of our first archival gleanings, and use them to raise some questions about the gendered division of agricultural work in rural England.
Finally, I should mention that we are looking for a third person to complete our project team, and as such are offering a fully-funded PhD studentship at Exeter. So, if you like the sound of the project or know of someone who you think might like to apply, then all the relevant details can be found here. The deadline for applications is 1st June.
A large part of my job will be working through thousands of witness testimonies from quarter sessions and church courts, with their rich and fascinating vignettes of everyday life. In addition to the information I am after for the project this will turn up plenty of stories about the lives of ordinary men and women in early modern England for me to regale ‘monster readers with, so keep watching this space!
R.H. Tawney claimed that ‘the sixteenth century lives in terror of the tramp’. He wrote that over a hundred years ago, but more recent research has largely confirmed Tawney’s contention that Tudor and early Stuart England was a society deeply anxious about the movements of the ‘masterless’ poor.
As a result, it is not difficult to find fearful, satirical or insulting depictions of ‘vagrants’ and ‘vagabonds’ from this period. However, just as it can be hard to find images of early modern working women, it is also rare to come across sympathetic pictures of the poor. Yet, we know that many people continued to see at least some beggars as victims who deserved compassion and charity.
The one particularly sympathetic portrayal of poverty that does appear repeatedly in early modern culture is the biblical story of Lazarus and Dives. In this parable, Jesus tells of a diseased beggar, Lazarus, who arrives at the door of a rich man, Dives, to beg for the crumbs off his table. Dives refuses and is condemned to hellfire while Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven by the angels.