The intellectual value of gaming: Sid Meier’s Civilization, Oregon Trail and a streetview of London in the 1660s

Brodie Waddell

Some time ago I claimed that Eric Hobsbawm’s work was one the initial spurs that pushed me towards becoming a historian. However, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the long journey to my current profession was prompted solely or even primarily by such an academically reputable source. In fact, a larger part was probably played by a computer game: Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

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Matthew Jackson, ‘Relocating history from below: places, spaces and databases’

[This is the fifth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Matthew Jackson is a doctoral student at the University of Warwick undertaking a comparative study of drinking culture in early modern Bristol and Bordeaux. He recently published an article on the contested character of female publicans.]

Three interrelated issues arose at the recent workshop at Birkbeck that stood out for me as central to the current condition and future directions of the field of ‘history from below’: studying dispersed geographical places, investigating specific physical spaces, and using large-scale online databases.

Let’s begin with the debates about comparative, transnational and global approaches to ‘history from below’, spurred by remarks at the workshop from William Farrell and Tawny Paul. The idea that global history – typically vast geographical transactions of people and commodities – can combine with social history – prioritising analytical depth over geographical breadth – poses methodological challenges for historians, and the issue was the focus of some provocative debate at the workshop. How, though, might social historians ‘from below’ consider larger comparative examinations without diluting the detail and depth of their own approaches to the subject? Continue reading

Nicola Whyte, ‘Landscape history from below’

[This is the third piece in the ‘Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Nicola Whyte is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter whose research focuses on the interface of early modern social history and post medieval landscape studies. Her publications include Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2009), and she is currently part of an interdisciplinary team studying ‘The Past in its Place’.]

The field of landscape history and archaeology in Britain is a divided one. Fault lines separate proponents of the traditional, ‘empirical school’ from those who advocate more theoretically informed landscape research. I want to argue that this division is unhelpful for not only does it reduce interpretation to a set of binaries (objective/subjective, physical/cognitive, economic/symbolic), it also detracts from the importance of landscape research in addressing current concerns about environmental change and sustainability, and how research can engage people outside the university. In this brief piece I want to advocate an interdisciplinary approach to ‘history from below’ from a landscape perspective, which takes on board recent theoretical scholarship but retains empirical research at its core. Continue reading

Ruth Mather, ‘The Home-Making of the English Working Class’

[This is the second piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Ruth Mather is a doctoral candidate at Queen Mary, University of London, studying the links between working-class political identities and the home in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She also blogs about her adventures in research.]

I became interested in ‘history from below’ as an undergraduate through the encouragement of Professor Robert Poole, who introduced me to E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson’s book, which reaches its half-century this year, showed me a new way of doing history, one which didn’t patronise working people, or subsume them in a narrative of progress, but instead constructed a story about thinking, feeling people with their own ideas about their lives and their own strategies for living them. It’s important that our histories show the humanity of our subjects  – in my case the English labouring classes in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. This is not about glorifying poverty or writing hero narratives, but simply attempting to understand the messy, complicated details of the real lives of ordinary people.

I’m not alone in thinking this is particularly crucial at the moment, when a new history curriculum threatens to take us back to stories of great men and Whiggish progress and welfare recipients are demonised for political gain. However, other participants in this symposium will be discussing the continued relevance of ‘history from (and for) below’ in much more detail over the coming weeks, and it is not difficult to find excellent explanations of why ‘history matters’ more generally. So, having outlined why ‘history from below’ is important to me, I’d like to focus on the question of how we can find sources that can help to uncover the domestic lives of ordinary people as part of this wider project of uncovering voices that have been underprivileged in the historical record. Continue reading

Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king

Brodie Waddell

Welcome to the 94th edition of Carnivaleque! Today we will be introducing you to a wonderfully motley menagerie of historical blogs and bloggers.

Finding any overall unifying theme is impossible with a collection of this sort, but there are a few key subjects that emerged from the nominations, each of which receives a section below:

  • The historian as detective
  • Bodily functions
  • A venerable criminal enterprise
  • Places, spaces and sites
  • Thinking about the historian’s craft

I think it is particularly interesting what’s not in the links below, namely kings and queens and ‘great battles’, the traditional material for popular histories. Not that political history and military history are entirely absent, just that they are approached from a different direction than usual. Although there are a few of gentlemen and noblewomen as well as a famous scientist, the vast majority of the nominated posts are focused on people who would have been largely excluded from textbooks written fifty years ago. What should we make of this? Is old-fashioned ‘top down’ history dying off? Or is it just that the type of people who read this blog and pay attention to Carnivaleque are predisposed against reading yet another story about Henry VIII and his wives or Charles I and his parliaments? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

However, before wandering into the carnival below, take a look at this truly heart-warming short animation that tells the tale of ‘the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, 1590’, a German werewolf. For more details, see the two posts at LOLManuscripts, but in the meantime, watch the video and be amazed.

Now, on with the show…

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Norwich Entertainments – Part II: Pieces of plays and the spatial turn

Brodie Waddell

On October 17th, 1677, a month before Bartholomew Laskey arrived with his monstrous hairy child, the Norwich Mayor’s Court licenced Mr Robert Parker ‘to act pieces out of Playes &c for 14 daies at the Redd lion’ and John Argent ‘to make shew of such tricks as are mentioned in his patent at the Angell’.¹

Norwich Mayor’s Court Book, 17 Oct. 1677

Norwich Mayor’s Court Book, 17 Oct. 1677: Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 9 (Sorry about the poor reproduction. The documents were only available on microfilm.)

These are exactly the sort of tantalisingly vague references to popular entertainments that one expects to find in early modern legal records. The ‘pieces of plays’ and unspecified ‘tricks’ surely amused their audiences, and the title ‘Mr’ suggests that at least Parker earned a decent livelihood, so they probably represent typical examples of provincial urban popular culture in the late seventeenth century. Continue reading