About drsang

Laura Sangha is a lecturer in history at the University of Exeter. She also tweets @_drsang

Remember, remember: ‘Gunpowder’ and our nation’s bloody past

Laura Sangha

This is a reproduction of a piece that I wrote for the local press after watching the first episode of Gunpowder.

When Gunpowder first aired a few weeks ago it reportedly shocked audiences with its graphic scenes of capital punishment. People particularly objected to an execution scene in the first episode, where a women was stripped naked and crushed to death, and a man was hung, eviscerated and his body chopped into quarters. Viewers were split between those who found the brutality gratuitous and unnecessary, and those who welcomed a historical drama that didn’t shy away from our gory, violent past.

Gallows scene

A still from the execution scene that some viewers thought crossed a line.

I’m no expert on how violent television programmes should be, but I can say that this was a historically accurate representation – judicial execution was a part of Tudor and Stuart life, and killings were bloody affairs. Those who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty in court did face the hideous ordeal of ‘pressing to death’ – that is being laden with weights and stones until the victim either spoke to enter a plea, or died of suffocation. Although the character who suffered this fate in Gunpowder is fictional, her death appears to have been closely based on the execution of the catholic Margaret Clitheroe, who was accused of harbouring priests in 1586. Similarly, men convicted of high treason were hung, drawn and quartered, a punishment that reflected their deplorable crime of attacking the monarch’s authority. And the manner of execution was suitably deplorable – one historian estimated that the process of hanging, disembowelling and quartering a person would take at least half an hour, and there are contemporary reports that the smell and sight provoked horror and disgust in audiences at the time as well. Yet execution days could also be rowdy affairs, with crowds gathering to vent their anger at the victim, whilst pie men and ballad sellers circulated, taking advantage of the chance to earn a few extra pence. In some cases, public executions seem to have taken on an atmosphere of carnival. Continue reading


the many-headed monsters’ resources for teaching

Laura Sangha

**shiver** The nights are drawing in. There is a cold wind blowing from the east. Berries weigh down the hedgerows. Fungus sprouts on your lawn overnight. The traffic in your inbox has increased tenfold in the last week. That’s right. Term is coming!

September finds many of us emerging from the archive into the daylight and turning our sore eyes to teaching once again. As I write, another module handbook will be finished off, another final item will be added to a module bibliography. So to help ease us all through this difficult time, I have put together a list of some of the many-headed monster posts that go particularly well with teaching. I hope they bring you comfort in the wars weeks to come.

Continue reading

What should prospective history students read over the summer?

Laura Sangha and #twitterstorians

tweetLast week I asked historians on twitter what three books they would recommend for prospective students to read over the summer – those students starting a history degree in September. I got a lot of responses (thanks very much, brilliant #twitterstorians), and you can read the full list at the end of this post. Before you do, here are a few thoughts that struck me about summer reading for history students.

Question: exactly what is the best way to prepare for studying history at university? People evidently had widely differing opinions on this. Or rather, the books that they recommended seemed to suggest differing opinions. It all did seem to add up to some key themes though, which I have summarised as:

Bloch1) Students need to get to know the discipline, since what they did at school is not representative of it. So they should read ‘what is history’ books which explain why and how academics study the past. These might mainly cover historiography, or might be focused on issues that are fundamental to the discipline, i.e. what footnotes are, or why there is fiction in the archives. (See list section ‘The Historian’s Craft’).

2) Students need to think about the skills and techniques needed by historians. Therefore they should read ‘what is history’ books, but preferably ones with practical, hands on advice about how to read, analyse, write essays and research etc. Continue reading

Employability: the role of the academic tutor

Employability may be an ugly word, but it is increasingly an important part of teaching and learning at my higher education institution. In a world of tuition fees, student satisfaction scores and information gathering about leavers’ destinations, I imagine that its importance will also continue to grow. Whilst I am not a fan of any of the aforementioned trends, employability is something that I have been thinking about. If students are spending their time and resources on degree study because they think it will make them more employable, then they should be reflecting on what precisely it is they have learned that makes them distinct from people who didn’t attend university or who took a different course. They need self-awareness about their own development and the ability to articulate this to a potential employer in a meaningful way.

HEAIf you want to know more about employability then the HEA has a framework for ‘embedding’ it in your institution, but if you haven’t got time to wade your way through this, I can tell you that the sorts of provision that universities offer include: help with CVs; mock interviews; confidence building activities; work experience/placements; shadowing; help researching the job market etc.

Which leads me to wonder…what is the role of the academic tutor here? Is it our responsibility to talk about skills and ‘employability’ in our history seminars and lectures? Or is that something that is better left to the professionals in Careers Services? If tutors do have a role, what is it? Continue reading

Asking questions of speakers: top tips

Laura Sangha

Presentation ‘season’ has just begun at my University, where group and individual talks are part of the assessment for modules at every undergraduate level. Public speaking is apparently once of the most feared aspects of modern life, yet it is also a skill that students may well need in their future workplace, so it makes sense that all are called upon to regularly research, write and deliver presentations, building experience and confidence.


Many people aren’t fans of public speaking

At Exeter, the marking criteria is focused around preparation, content, structure, creativity and delivery, but students are also assessed on their handling of questions in a Q&A segment after they have presented. And it is this that has inspired this post. Of course, a presenter needs some good questions in order to be able to demonstrate the depth and scope of their knowledge in a Q&A session, but I have found that people can struggle to formulate queries and that they can as a result be a bit hesitant to raise their hand. So I have come up with some suggestions about the sorts of things that it might make sense to ask about, as a teaching resource I can point my students to. Please do add your own below the line. Continue reading

All ancient history now: England’s damaging Reformation

Laura Sangha

On Tuesday 16 January, in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Archbishops and Canterbury and York issued a joint statement on ‘the damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church’. It reads:

The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed…

…Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.

MANDATORY CAPTION: (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

For a Reformation historian this was a fascinating moment. It was also humorous (in a sort of bitter, 2017 way), since the Daily Mail immediately took offence at this show of remorse, declaring that since Henry VIII’s ‘war with the Pope’ began 500 years ago, and that it wasn’t even a required subject for the National Curriculum, it was hardly a ‘burning issue’. Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister and Strictly Come Dancing Star provided a quote, saying:

These gestures are pointless. The Archbishop has not put anyone to death, as far as I know… Modern Christians are not responsible for what happened in the Reformation… You might as well expect the Italians to apologise for Pontius Pilate.

I’m looking forward to discussing all this with my students this term. There’s certainly a lot to be said of the way that the media are reporting this statement as an ‘apology’, as well as to ponder in the emphasis on unity and the healing of past divisions. Of course, Widdecombe is right that modern Christians are not individually responsible for what happened in the Reformation, but I disagree with the implicit argument underpinning the Mail article, that the Reformation is ancient history, and nothing to do with ‘us’. Since our understanding of the past and of where we came from is intimately tied to the way we conceptualise our contemporary identities, the way that we think of and interpret that past has a direct and immediate importance for the present. Members of the Church of England today are informed by, and understand their institution with reference to the past, so it seems appropriate to reflect on the evolution of the Church and to reconsider contemporary responses to it in this anniversary year. Continue reading

The ghosts of early modern England, part III: a ghost story

Laura Sangha

A Perfect particular of the strange Apparition
and Transactions that have happened
in the House of Mr. Edward Pitts
next Door to the Still at Puddle-Dock.

This blog is a paraphrased version of a pamphlet published
in London in 1674. For other posts on early modern ghosts click here.


f any year might justly be termed Annus Mirabilis, then this is certainly it. A year in which it is as though Nature had forgot to walk in her common road, thrusting out into the World a multitude of prodigious and almost extravagant Events. Wonders in Warfare, wonders in Death, wonders in Politics.

At least our costly and fruitless War with the Dutch ended in February. And I was pleased to see the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane reopen after its Great Fire rebuilding, though Joy-in-Sorrow and Fly-Sin Lofthouse, my door neighbours, were less pleased. They say these, and other signs of Gods anger against the Nation are only to be expected as the just reward for our abominable and crying sins against the Divine Majesty, God Save Him. (Though I say his Divine Majesty is hardly spotless himself). Fly-Sin said we can hardly be surprised that the Devil is loose amongst us in such troubled and sinful times!

On which, I must tell you about the strange and stupendous disturbances at the house of Mr Edward Pitts of Puddledock (it’s near Blackfriars on the river). The house is two Rooms of a Floor; and for the 15 or 16 Nights past, the two Rooms up one pair of stairs have been continually haunted between 12 and 1 of the clock. How it is, is when the family goes to bed, the two doors to the rooms are shut fast, but in the morning they hath always found them open. What’s more, not one night in all this time but the Goods in this Kitchin, and Parler have been removed from one place to another in a most strange manner. In the Kitchin the Pewter hath been taken off the shelves and laid any where about the Room. A Box of Candles of 5 or 6 pound have been taken out of the Box and planted about the Room, some put in Candlesticks, and others laid by two and two.

But what is most remarkable was on the last Lords-day at Night. The Family going to Supper, a Fold-up Table (which stood on one side of the Kitchin) was brought to the fire side, upon which the Meat was set. Mr Pitts takes up the Loaf off the Dresser to cut bread to lay on the Table, then as he was cutting the Bread he spied on the Dresser a great thing like a Catt. At which he being a little affrighted, he started back calling to his Wife, saying, here’s a Catt, I never saw a Catt in this house before. Upon which, this Cat-like thing seemed to slide off the Dresser, giving a thump on the Boards, and so vanished away. Of all those in the Room, only Mr Pitt and his daughter (15 years of Age) could see the Catt, and they say it was as bigg as any Mastiff Dog, but they could not perceive that it had any Leggs.

That night, the Watchmen as they have gone by have called, have a care of your lights Pitts! Upon which Mr Pitts endeavoured to rise and see if he could find any light in his house; but he told me himself that he had no power to stir. He said he was not fearful, but he could not rise; he also told me that that night he had a great light in his Chamber several times, and that it diminished little and little till all his Room was dark, and then of a sudden he had as much Light as if it had been clear day.

In the morning when he got up and went to see what alterations he could in his 2 haunted Rooms, when he came down he found his Kitchin-door wide open, but his Parler door was off the Latch a little ajar, barricadoed with a great 2 handed Chair. He thrust the Chair aside and opened the door, when he came into the Room, upon the Table there he found a great Wooden Sand-box, upon which was 2 snuffs of Candles burnt to Ashes. A 3d Candle had been upon that Box, which had burnt all one side of the Box and made a terrible stink in the house (which I should have mentioned before). The Sand-box Candlestick Mr Pitts had never seen before; but that which was yet more Wonderful is this, by this Sand-box was placed upon the Table two Splinters of Wood cross-ways. Three Ends or Corners of this Cross was cleft, and in each cleft there was stuck a Paper printed on both sides as you it here verbatim:



Right against this Cross and Papers by the Table side was placed a Chair, as if some one had sat there viewing them over.

This night, Mr Pitts intends to have some people to sit up, that may speak to any thing that shall appear, and to demand in the name of the Father, what are you? I’ve a mind to go along myself.