What’s in a name? Fact and Fiction in Family History: Part II

This is part 2 of a couple of posts written by guest blogger Robyn Noble. You can view the first post here

Laura Sangha writes: I am delighted to introduce a very special pair of posts written by guest blogger Robyn Noble. Robyn currently works at the London Palladium but not so long ago she was studying for her BA in History and Philosophy at the University of Exeter, where I had the great fortune of teaching her sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious history. Robyn and I have stayed in contact since her graduation and recently we have been discussing her exploration of her family history. Fascinating in isolation, it became clear that Robyn’s research touched on many of the regular themes discussed on the many-headed monster, particularly relating to life-writing, history from below, and social identity. Robyn was enthusiastic when I suggested that she should write something about it for the blog, and these two posts are the result. Whilst not an early modern life, by drawing on and contextualising one extract from her great-grandfather’s journal, Robyn’s posts complement our ongoing ‘Page in Life’ series, since it explores a text that tells the story of a life in a self-conscious way.

Portrait

Bharat Chandra Nayak was born in March 1887 and was one of seven siblings. He married Sakrabati Devi and the family he created with her was orthodox in some ways, yet very progressive in others. For Bharat believed that independence for women could only be attained if they were given a modern education, which was unheard of in India at the time. From an early age, his daughters were given a lot of literature to read, and as a result they all had a love of the written word. Indeed, this is a trait which is still very much evident within the family, including for myself. Bharat later admitted them into a school where English was taught and both he and his daughters were subjected to shaming and social boycott as a result. All of the daughters went on to become at least post-graduates, with some becoming doctors, teachers and university professors. It seems unlikely then, that someone with Bharat’s broadminded view of women would have cared so little for his daughters that he would have believed his lack of sons to be a family curse. Rather, we find that Bharat was a man who was so devoted to his daughters that he was willing to face social ostracization if it meant that he could give them a modern education.  Continue reading

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What’s in a name? Fact and Fiction in Family History: Part I

Laura Sangha writes: I am delighted to introduce a very special pair of posts written by guest blogger Robyn Noble. Robyn currently works at the London Palladium but not so long ago she was studying for her BA in History and Philosophy at the University of Exeter, where I had the great fortune of teaching her sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious history. Robyn and I have stayed in contact since her graduation and recently we have been discussing her exploration of her family history. Fascinating in isolation, it became clear that Robyn’s research touched on many of the regular themes discussed on the many-headed monster, particularly relating to life-writing, history from below, and social identity. Robyn was enthusiastic when I suggested that she should write something about it for the blog, and these two posts (the second part will be published tomorrow) are the result. Whilst not an early modern life, by drawing on and contextualising one extract from her great-grandfather’s journal, Robyn’s posts complement our ongoing ‘Page in Life’ series, since it explores a text that tells the story of a life in a self-conscious way.

Robyn Noble

Last year, whilst researching my grandfather, an Indian man whom I never knew, I stumbled upon his whole extended family. An avid diary writer myself (I have filled nineteen notebooks in just under ten years), I was ecstatic to learn that my great-grandfather, Bharat Chandra Nayak, kept a diary which he wrote in every day. These diaries went on to form the basis for his published memoir, a book which my new-found family assured me would shed a lot of light on these relatives I had just discovered.

Bibhus book

Bharat’s memoir, Mora Purbasmruti Katha (Tales of My Past Recollections) was written in 1964, and in 1967 it went on to receive the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award as a work of high literary value. As well as an autobiography, it is also a travelogue and a description of the social, political and economic circumstances in India throughout his life. In many ways, it is also an ode to topics very dear to him, including higher education for all members of Indian society, female emancipation and social reform in general. As it is written in Odia (or Oriya), the predominant language of the state of Orissa in which my extended family live, I am sadly unable to read the book myself, but I have slowly been receiving English translations of certain passages from various members of the family. The first passage I received throws light on one of the great family mysteries: why it is that my grandfather, Bibhu, had the surname ‘Dash’ as opposed to the family surname ‘Nayak’? Continue reading

The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England: The Long Road to a New Project

Brodie Waddell

How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to create a petition or supplication. Even today, every year hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens sign e-petitions addressed to parliament which can lead directly to high-profile debates in the House of Commons.

In seventeenth-century England, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard. Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; others were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and also offer a unique means to map the structures of authority that framed early modern society …

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That was our pitch to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a grant of over £200,000. To my surprise and delight, they liked it.

So, from January 2019, I’ll be running a project looking at ‘the power of petitioning in seventeenth century England’. The co-investigator is Jason Peacey at UCL and we will hire a full-time postdoctoral research associate for twelve months as well. There will be much more information available once we have the project website up and running, but in the meantime I thought I’d announce it here and explain how it came to be. I hope it might be useful, or at least interesting, to other scholars thinking about their own projects. Continue reading

‘Here I lie as warm as they’: who was buried where in the early modern period?

Laura Sangha

kingsbridge

This spring I had the good fortune to visit Kingsbridge, a small market town in South Devon. The town sits on a steep hill overlooking the many-branched estuary, and it is home to The Shambles (or market arcade) with five Elizabethan granite piers, and a seventeenth-century grammar school (now an excellent little museum).

Of course I popped into the church – St Edmund King and Martyr on Fore Street was largely rebuilt in 1414, then restored and extended in 1849 and 1896. What caught my eye there was an inscription on a tablet just outside one of the doors of the church, which inspired a twitter thread which in turn has become the basis of this post.

DSC02051

What does this rather colourful epitaph mean, and what can it tell us about the early modern world? Continue reading

The Living, the Dead and the Very Very Dead: Ethics for Historians

Laura Sangha

Students of history are no strangers to ethics. Indeed, universities have ethics committees and policies which cover instances where the conduct of research involves the interests and rights of others. For historians, this usually means that they must reflect on the possible repercussions of their research on the living – particularly those relatives, friends, descendants and other groups or communities otherwise connected to the subjects that the historian writes about. Indeed, many ethical statements produced by historians concentrate on the interests and rights of the living – for examples see the Royal Historical Society statement on ethics, or the American Historical Association ‘Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct’.[1]

But I don’t work on the living.

I work on the dead. In fact, I work on the very very dead. People who died at least 300 years ago, and in some cases half a millennium ago. And since the dead don’t have any human rights for a while I was rather dismissive of ethics policies. They were for modern colleagues working on the recent past.

Yet eventually I came to think differently. Continue reading

Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think

Mark Hailwood

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about the story telling techniques that historians use in their writing.

This was not a long time ago, and nor was it far away – you can read it here in fact. Inspired by the ‘Storying the Past’ reading group, and a series of ‘Creative Histories’ events, the post reflected on some of the ways academic historians draw on the writing methods associated with more creative genres, and considered how they might fruitfully do more of this.

One example of the latter that I discussed was Philip Ziegler’s attempt at an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the experience of the Black Death in a medieval English village. In essence it is a piece of creative writing, informed by historical evidence, intended to ‘evoke the atmosphere’ of that moment in time. As Ziegler himself put it, he was essentially borrowing the approach of the ‘historical novelist’ to try and recover an aspect of the past that his cold, hard analysis of the facts – the supposed purview of the historian – could not: how people at the time felt about their villages being ravaged by the plague.

But can the approach of the historical novelist really bridge this gap? Continue reading

“As I Went Forth One Summer’s Day”: Putting the Story in Early Modern History

Mark Hailwood

Twas the night before Christmas, in the year 1681, and one Soloman Reddatt was drinking in the Nag’s Head in Reading, with his sister, Elizabeth, and a friend, George Parfitt, when, at around 9pm, their sociability was disturbed by the shattering of glass. Moments earlier, Debora Allen had burst into the alehouse in search of her husband Edward. After locating him in the kitchen drinking with the alehousekeeper, William Newbury, she flew into a rage, picking up a quart pot and throwing it through a window. As a startled Reddatt and his companions looked up from their drinks, Debora Allen emerged from the kitchen into the room where they were drinking, where the angry wife ‘levelled her passion’ against Sara Newbury, the alehousekeeper’s wife, who was busy serving customers. Debora Allen called Sara Newbury a whore and a bawd, and accused her of running the alehouse as a bawdy house, before turning her fire onto the alehousekeeper William Newbury, labelling him a cuckold. The furious Debora Allen repeated the accusations several times, both within the alehouse and at the street door, ensuring that her opinion of this alehouse and its proprietors received a public airing.


A version of this vignette appears at the start of a chapter that I have written for a forthcoming Bloomsbury textbook on the cultural history of alcohol in the early modern world. The focus of the chapter is the relationship between gender, sexuality and alcohol in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I use an analysis of this opening anecdote to highlight several of the themes that run through the essay: the gendered character of alcohol retailing; the extent and character of women’s public consumption of alcohol; the complex relationship between masculinity and drinking; and so on.

It is a classic technique of historians in my field – that is, the social history of early modern England – to start an article or a chapter with a story; a telling anecdote that draws the reader in and sets up the analysis that is to follow. Indeed, I have just used it here. More often than not, though, the storytelling ends there – the historian steps out of the role of fireside narrator, and proceeds to offer up their analysis in a cool, detached, ‘academic’ register, deemed more suitable for the pages of a peer-reviewed journal or academic monograph.

This is a writing convention that I myself have followed many times, and one that I relatively uncritically absorbed and mimicked from my own academic mentors and inspirations. But the endeavours of the ‘Storying the Past’ virtual reading group, and associated ‘Creative Histories’ events, have encouraged me to become more reflective about the storytelling techniques that I use in my writing as an academic historian, and those employed in my particular field of academic history.


What storytelling techniques, other than the trusty opening anecdote, do the historians that I spend most of my time reading deploy? Continue reading