Material Culture ‘from Below’

Mark Hailwood

I went to a conference, and all I got was this lousy blog post.

That’s right, this is one of those blog posts thought up whilst staring pensively out of a train window on a journey home from three days at a wonderfully stimulating and sociable conference – in this instance, on ‘Gender, Power and Materiality in Early Modern Europe’, at the University of Plymouth. Back in April. Of 2016. Still, better late than never.

Gloves

Gloves: they fit the conference theme

I signed up for said conference, despite my lack of familiarity with the field of early modern material culture studies, to try out a paper on the spatial division of labour in rural England, 1500-1700, based on material coming out of the Women’s Work Project. The paper went well enough, and over the course of the conference as a whole I learnt a huge amount about the material culture of the period, and about the sophisticated methodologies used by the reflective practitioners of material cultural history. It whet my appetite for the study of material culture. But it also left me hungry for more of a particular type of material culture history – one focused on the common people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In what will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, I wanted more material culture ‘from below’.

The conference offered a rich diet of papers focused on the gentry and aristocracy of early modern Europe, but was light on the material things that populated the worlds of their social inferiors. Not for the first time as a social historian I found myself experiencing ‘modernist envy’, as my mind turned to examples of research into the material culture of the working class in the industrial age – Ruth Mather on working class homes in the period 1780-1830; Julie-Marie Strange’s focus on ‘father’s chair’ as a way into the domestic relationships of the Victorian working class; Carolyn Steedman’s wonderful essay on the meanings of a rag rug.[1] And how about the insights into working class material culture to be gleaned from Lark Rise to Candleford? Continue reading

A reading list of scholarship by people of colour on slavery and colonialism, c.1500-1750

Brodie Waddell

While putting together a reading list for a new undergraduate module at Birkbeck on ‘The Early Modern World, c.1500-1750’, I decided to seek advice from the twittersphere. I was particularly annoyed that my initial list for the weeks on slavery and colonialism was overwhelmingly white.

So, with that in mind, I asked twitter for suggestions of work by people of colour and received an outstanding response:

Thank you all for such a great response! I’m not going to be able to include all of suggestions in my final module list due to danger of swamping first-year undergrads with readings, but I thought it might be helpful to share the list that I collated in case other people were putting together their own lists. I’m also very keen to hear of further suggestions.

51DBGdFEPFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I should note a few caveats. First, I had to exclude a few excellent suggestions even from my long list as they were focused primarily on the post-1750 period, which is covered by another module. Second, there were a few publications that I don’t have access to, so I put them on a separate list too. Third, there may be errors, so let me know if I’ve miscategorised anyone. Fourth, I know that people of colour write great scholarship about all sorts of history other than colonialism and slavery, but I thought this would be a good topic to start with given the particularly egregious nature of my initial list. Finally, I’m very aware that this list is incomplete. I’d welcome the chance to update it, so please comment below with your own ideas! Continue reading

What is microhistory now?

Brodie Waddell

Ulinka Rublack, in her introduction to a recent symposium at the Institute for Historical research, argued that it was time for us to revisit ‘microhistory’. Partly, she said, this was because microhistory had been explicitly challenged by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in their History Manifesto for being too focused on narrow and specialist histories at the expense of the ‘big picture’. However, Rublack also suggested that microhistory has been misconstrued by the tendency among even sympathetic scholars only engage with the ‘classics’ of the genre – especially Carlo Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre – rather consider the wealth of new microhistories that have been written in recent decades.

Combined image

As someone long fascinated by microhistory, it was wonderful to be able to come along to this event. I’ve written about defining it, branding it and defending it before on this blog, and I’ll be running an MA module on microhistory at Birkbeck in the coming year, so I was keen to hear more about the current scholarship, and I was not disappointed. It was a excellent event and it touched on facets of this concept that I had hardly considered before. It would be far too ambitious to attempt to summarise each of the six speakers much less the discussion that followed, but I thought it might be productive to draw attention to two angles that particularly caught my attention.

Microhistory as a meeting place

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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

Concluding Thoughts

This concluding post to our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Jonathan Willis, monster-head and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  Jonathan is a reformation historian who has worked on the musical and material cultures of the English parish church, in his Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England and in his forthcoming book The Reformation of the Decalogue.  Here he reflects on Collinson’s article, its influence, its relevance, and some of the challenges it still presents.

Collinson’s original lecture, which posited a shift in Protestant attitudes to religious imagery, music and drama around the year c.1580 from creative engagement (his idiosyncratic definition of ‘iconoclasm’) to ideological disengagement (‘iconophobia’) presents three challenges to historians.  Well, it probably presents more than three, but there are three in particular that I want to focus on here…

3666e534c7bdb9746caf03110c90dc4fThe first challenge, and the one which has been taken up and answered with the most gusto, in the contributions to this symposium as well as in the scholarship more broadly, has been to disprove the notion of a shift to ‘iconophobia’ through the identification and presentation of concrete counter-examples.  Religious imagery, religious music and religious drama did not cease to exist c.1580.  It is worth pointing out at this juncture that Collinson’s article (perhaps unsurprisingly) stands up much better today upon re-reading than I had anticipated.  Much of what people have challenged him on, he doesn’t actually claim.  He doesn’t speak about religious music in general, for example; just godly ballads.  He doesn’t speak about pictorial art in general, and explicitly rules out domestic decoration from consideration.  His claims and evidence are much more limited than they are often taken to be, and therefore in a narrow sense they remain more or less correct. Continue reading

Historiographical Reflections

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Alec Ryrie, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.  Alec has expertise and has published widely in a variety of areas pusuant to the history of the English reformation, including Being Protestant in Reformation Britain. Here he offers some historiographical reflections on Collinson’s Stenton lecture and the model of doing history which it offers.

The consensus view of the workshop was that significant parts of Collinson’s argument in this lecture were, simply, wrong; but also that they were fascinatingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong. Pieces of this kind appear periodically in historical scholarship: powerful arguments which do not necessarily command any kind of assent, but which unsettle and stimulate a wide range of scholars and end up advancing an entire field. We can all come up with a short list of works of this kind. They are a very useful part of the scholarly ecosystem. My question is, how do we encourage this kind of work? And I ask not least because I fear that it is becoming less common than once it was.

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