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.

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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

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.

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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

Imagining the Past

Mark Hailwood

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‘Tis ale good and new

So, I recently had the chance to pop into a seventeenth-century alehouse for a quick beer – not a bad way to mark the publication of the paperback of my book on the subject, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was during a recent trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex with our Women’s Work Project team, which gave us the chance to recreate some early modern work activities, and in a spare half hour at the end of our visit I took the chance to visit the rescued seventeenth-century cottage that the museum thinks might have served as an alehouse in that period.

As I sat in front of the fireplace at the alebench with my quart in hand I tried to conjure up in my mind the other elements that would have filled out this scene four centuries ago. What sounds would have filled the place – what conversations and songs? What smells would have filled the air – the wood smoke, baking pies? Who might have been there? What would they have looked like, been wearing… smelt like? What bawdy or godly ballads might have been pasted up on the wall? How would the beer have tasted? What would the toilet facilities have been like? I tried to imaginatively immerse myself in a seventeenth-century alehouse scene.

The challenge of recapturing these sensory and experiential components of the past is something I have often blogged about, and this trip was obviously a stimulating one in bringing these issues to the forefront of my mind. But as I sat there in the alehouse mining my imagination I reflected that this process of imagining the past isn’t only triggered by being in an immersive environment like this one. It is something we all do all the time – just not as explicitly and self-consciously as we do when visiting a living history museum. 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

A fictional review of Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton

This book review is intended as a homage to Thorpe’s inspirational historical novel, and is offered in a spirit of experimentation and playfulness.

Laura Sangha

16 June, windy. Email quiet. This day began Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton (1992). Have heard v good things from M. Hailwood, and Hilary Mantel ‘Sometimes you forget that it is a novel, and believe for a moment that you are really hearing the voice of the dead’. Is historical fiction: social history of West Country English village across 300 yrs, each chapter different style and set in different yrs chronologically.

19 June, rain, windy, cat sick all over blue rug. Discovered original meaning of word ‘broadcasting’ from Ulver (pre-radio, telly and Wi-Fi) – OED has: to scatter (seed, etc.) abroad with the hand; examples are (romantically) ‘They sow the barley, spraining the first half, and broad-casting the second.’ [1807 A. Young Gen. View Agric. Essex I. vii. 333] or (sniggeringly) ‘It is preferable to broadcast the guano’. [1846 Jrnl. Royal Agric. Soc. 7 ii. 591]. Wonder when that would ever be preferable.

25 June, dry, but slugs have taken over garden: all pansies eaten. 1689 chapter of Ulver is styled as sermon, interesting but bit ‘busman’s holiday’. Excellently researched so far, am completely convinced, but not that enthralled.

30 June, dry. Arthur from next door gave me some rhubarb: roasted with sugar. Ulver continues good, diary-style chapter exploring continuity/change, fertility of land/women: mix of dull impenetrable (to me) agriculture and imaginative rendering of rural life, relationships, folklore etc. Gender v strong theme (exclt research again!), reminds me: excited to see new ‘all women’ Ghostbusters movie.

4 July, sun came out and noticed how deep cat scratches are in floorboards. Finished neat chap. in Ulver, ‘lady’ writing to ‘pleb’ lover, lots of nice detail. Remarkable way Thorpe can conjure characters through use of genre/style: is like all early modern diaries, sermons and advice manuals I read raised from the dead – boring bits beginning to make more sense. Continue reading

Understanding Sources: Churchwardens’ Accounts

To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Jonathan Willis

I have a confession to make: I love churchwardens’ accounts, and in this post I want to tryPicture1 to convince you that they have something to offer pretty much everybody interested in researching, reading or writing about early modern England.  As well as co-editing Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources with Laura, I contributed a chapter on ‘Ecclesiastical Sources’, and one of the nice things about editing or co-editing a volume like this is being able to choose exactly what you want to write about!  I happen to be, of course, a reformation historian, and so sources relating to or generated by the Church are naturally something I’m going to be interested in.  But in that chapter, and in this post, it is my intention to show that ecclesiastical sources in general (and churchwardens’ accounts in particular) are of enormous interest and value, almost no matter what area of history you are interested in.  Politics?  Economics?  Society?  Culture?  They’ve got it all! Continue reading