Because I was administering the Social History Society Conference a couple of weeks ago, I largely missed two other conferences at which I was actually speaking! I’m glad to say that both were recorded, so I’ve been able to catch up on them later, although to be honest, I simply haven’t had the time to listen to everything that I might have liked to… I’m going to start by talking about the second of the two, Soundscapes in the Early Modern World.

The first session of interest was Roundtable 1: Recreating Soundscapes, chaired by Mariana Lopez (York). First, each participant outlined their interest in researching and recreating soundscapes. Peter Falconer (Southampton) described his work with the Early Modern Soundscapes network to create a soundscape for Speke Hall in Liverpool. The residents of the Hall were Catholic and the property has eavesdrops and a priest hole. Andy Popperwell (LSBU) worked for many years as a studio manager for the BBC World Service but is now working on recreating the soundscape of a Georgian mansion in Essex. He noted the problem of recording on location in the reverberant spaces of the unfurnished house with the noise of the M25, and raised an interesting question: do 21st century sparrows sound like 18th century ones, who knows, and does it matter? Abigail Wincott (Falmouth) is a journalist who makes a podcast about ‘Past Sounds’ in which every episode she interviews a different person about how they know about the past, as well as what they want to know. Her challenges were around recreating the sounds that people mentioned in their interviews to create a podcast which included sound as well as just talking about it.  Laura Wright (Oxford) is writing a book about sound effects on the seventeenth-century stage and how they were created in the moment.  Because of the pandemic, much of her practice-based research ended up taking place online, so raised issues about how you recreate those sounds – can we, for example, be scared by the same things?  How do we trace affect across the centuries and whether violent sounds can be replicated today, especially when we are online.

Marina posed the question of why we think the soundscapes that we study are important.  Abigail suggested that it was partly about wanting to share the experiences in order to understand how people felt.  Andy added that it helps people to understand the past – by recreating the voices and sounds – for heritage visitor experiences.  Laura pointed out that everything we work on is recreated sound – every performance of Shakespeare or Jonson is recreated from the text.  Andy added that many heritage venues are artificial, in that they are not furnished with original objects, in order to enhance visitor experiences.  Peter pointed out that even if we could recreate a sound identically (which we can’t), we would still here it differently because we are in a different context.

The discussions raised some interesting questions about authenticity and expectation. For example there were problems around things being too ‘fun’ to be real or be scholarly, even when they are well-researched. Moreover, people sometimes don’t believe things that don’t meet their expectations even when recreations are historically informed.

Finally, the panel discussed what constitutes a scholarly approach to public history, and how practice led research has changed the field.  Things don’t have to be dumbed down to reach a public audience, nor does it necessarily lose rigour and accuracy simply because of the field in which it is presented. If we can’t communicate what we are doing, what is the point.  Andy suggested that the fundamental point is that we must speak to an intelligent but uninformed listener who will try to understand, while Abigail pointed out that visitors are going for an experience, and we should always explain why stuff matters, not just provide an empty experience.  Commercial interests mean that the public are consumers of history, and we need to think about what they would like to consume, be happy to consume or ought to consume.  As a lot of our knowledge comes from experiences, so we need to make sure those experiences are well-researched.

I was also interested in the two panels on ‘Authority, Royalty and Noise’. During the first session, Katelyn Clark (UBC), described the difficulties she faced when trying to recreate the soundscape of the Sans-Souci Palace soundscape, due for example to the differences in acoustic details in the rooms; and Catriona Cooper (RHUL), John Cooper (York) and Damian Murphy (York), talked about their project ‘Listening to the Commons’ in ‘The soundscapes of Parliament in early modern England’.

In the second, Oscar Patton (Oxford), gave a fascinating paper on ‘Royal authority and religious identity in the Elizabethan Chapel Royal (1558-1603)’. The Chapel Royal was an institution made up of priests and singing men called Gentlemen of the Chapel, not a building. It was under no episcopal jurisdiction because it was a royal peculiar. Most of the gentlemen came from cathedrals.  The music of the Chapel Royal was intended to glorify Queen Elizabeth as well God, stressing the queen’s Protestantism, while the spaces could be sumptuous. It seems likely that Latin was not sung in the Chapel Royal, while references to singing in English made it clear that this was the norm.  Therefore Patton argued that the Chapel Royal’s music was a political expression of Elizabeth’s Protestant faith for the ambassadors who would be expected to attend, reinforced by the decoration of the physical surroundings.  But he also suggested that Elizabeth, and her Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker, were rather out of step with the generally Calvinist views of many of her Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. Likewise, sermons at court were calculated to mount a defence of the queen, as well as counsel and criticism of the queen. And prayers were heard to which reminded people of their civic duty to their queen.

Elisabeth Natour (Regensburg), then spoke on ‘The politics of the soundscape and the politics of music. Tracing the idea of musical rulership in early modern Europe’. She tackled the relationship between the sounds of rulership and music of rulership. She described how the harmony of the spheres contributed to rulership by invoking harmony. Creating musical harmony on earth was an image of godly rule, shaping discordant voices into harmony and the opposite of chaos and disorder.  Processions represented both heirarchy, in the participants’ closeness to the monarch, and order and disorder.  She used the court of Charles I of England as a case study, beginning by describing the masque Britannia Triumphans which moves from noisy disorder in the antimasque and to the angelic sound of those close to the king in the masque, then she looked at the way Charles staged his authority at Durham Cathedral in 1633.  She also pointed out that different soundscapes are equally importnt, but it isn’t a single audience.

Much of my time over the last couple of months has been taken up by organising the Social History Society Online Conference and by the time you read this, it will just have finished. My role has been to co-ordinate more than 100 speakers and host most of the panels (quietly in the background – most of the time the audience wouldn’t have known I was there). With days that started by sending out zoom links before 7am, it’s been a tough couple of weeks, but I’ve heard a really, really wide range of research papers on things that I wouldn’t normally have come into contact with, which has, at times, been absolutely fascinating. Without copious amounts of tea, though, the whole thing would have gone belly up!

My personal highlights from the conference including hearing Professor Matthew Kelly talk about Beatrix Potter and her very important later years as a landscape preservationist in the Lake District, where she was an active land manager as well as a significant benefactor to the National Trust; and Dr Barbara Crosbie’s paper on her experience of carrying out a public history project during a global pandemic, and how it affected the progress of the research. As an early modernist myself, I found Alice Blackwood’s paper on ‘Defining Local Politics for Men and for Women in Early Modern England’ really interesting and useful in challenging our assumptions about participation in local politics.

I also really enjoyed Ian d’Alton’s paper on Protestant citizenship in post-independence Ireland. If I hadn’t been an early modernist, I would almost certainly have ended up working on 20th-century Ireland, so this was an area that really interested me. Ian highlighted the difference between public and private feelings about being Protestant in a Catholic state, and he outlined the many different ways in which Protestants could figure their belonging to the new state, despite being an internal ‘other’. He described how prosperous Protestants retreated into an imagined community which was muted in public, and this suited both sides.

I was also very interested in Rona Wilkie’s paper on Song as Active Resistance in Nineteenth-century Gaelic Scotland. She described the ways in which Gaelic song has been left out of research into the Highland Clearances, and convincingly set out three reasons why it should be central to future work on the subject. She demonstrated that song is crucial to Gaelic culture and creates a sense of community, and its exclusion skews our understanding of the transformation of Highland experience in the nineteenth century.

It was lovely to hear my PhD student Amy-Louise Smith talk about how libel seems to demonstrate the power of the community to enforce inherently conservative views on those who transgress social norms. She was on a mini-panel with Brodie Waddell, who described some early results from his AHRC-funded Power of Petitioning project. In the pre-civil war period, the largest proportion of petitions are regarding poor-relief and paternity, followed closely by those related to local rates. This shows that the majority of petitions are to do with local fiscal issues.

A small but enthusiastic audience heard three researchers from Nijmegen talk about Commerce and Cultural Transfer in 19th-Century Dutch Music Markets. Floris Meens described how 19th century Dutch music journals talked about Dutch music publishers. Authors of articles in these journals were critics, consumers and performers who were encouraged to reflect on Dutch musical culture, although they were heavily influenced by the German canon. The musical journals reported that there was a marked improvement in the quality of music printing, and that this change seems to have been quite radical. One of its major concerns was the lack of an effective copyright oversight system. Although the cheap music sheets that were produced as a result meant that more people could now afford to buy music, the journal Caecilia feared that this would lead to sloppy musicianship and it lamented that the audience had a clear preference for foreign music over Dutch compositions. Veerle Driessen explored the popularity and profitability of French operetta in Dutch theatres in the 1860s, 70s and 80s. She looked at the ways critics praised and criticised the performances of 3 French operettas to see what aspects were appreciated by Dutch audiences. For example, she pointed out that the political satire in La Belle Helene did not really translate for Dutch audiences, so the focus was on pleasure and sexuality, and it was criticised for its vulgarity. By the 1870s, reviews criticised operettas’ simplicity. Finally, Thomas Delpeut described recommendations for Dutch concert programming and Kist’s ideas about the position of the symphony, which he advised be moved from the beginning of a concert programme to the end where it provided a climax and ensured the audience’s sustained engagement with the programme. Moreover, the symphony would resonate and be the piece that the audience returned home remembering.

It has to be said that two weeks, wall to wall, of zoom, was quite hard going, but hearing about everybody’s exciting research kept me going. Well, that and the tea, of course!

This year, the Historical Association conference moved online, with mainly pre-recorded lectures available for several weeks before the conference and live Q&A sessions during the conference week itself. This meant that I could not only flit about between lectures much more, but also access them in an order that suited me. This is the third in a short series of posts about the conference.

Having listened to all the lectures for the sessions I would be chairing at the conference, I was then able to move on to some of the other content, such as A history of Pan-Africanism by Hakim Adi, of the University of Chichester. Adi’s lecture was a fascinating overview of the development of the Pan-African movement over the long term.  He argued that we might see its roots in the 18th century Sons of Africa, which included men such as Olaudah Equiano, who were concerned with activities such as human trafficking. They clearly thought of themselves as African despite living in London and concentrated on their common problems despite coming from different places.  He pointed out that sometimes groups of Africans managed to find common language and cause in order to liberate their new countries, and he argued that we could see the Haitian revolution as Pan-African – it became a symbol of African achievement until the mid-20th century. He also talked about key 19th century figures such as Edward Blyden, who produced one of the first Pan-African newspapers and was seen by contemporaries as one of the leading fighters for Africans. 

But the modern Pan-African movement really began in Britain when the London Pan-African Conference was held in London in July 1900.  This was the first time the phrase ‘Pan-African’ had really been used. Although it’s often associated with Henry Sylvester Williams, the actual inspirer of the conference was an African woman called Alice Kinloch who came to Britain on a lecture tour talking about the problems that Africans faced. The conference was hugely important in highlighting problems around colonialism and racism. Du Boise presented a report at the conference which included the famous line that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the colour line. Du Boise organised a series of Pan-African Congresses. The first was held in Paris in 1919. Student activism was led by Bandele Omoniyi, a Nigerian student at Edinburgh who wrote ‘A Defence of the Ethiopian Movement’, the Ethiopian Movement being another term for Pan-Africanism.  Other activities in the early 20th century included a black beauty competition. Marcus Garvey was one of the main activists of 1920s. He set up the Universal Negro Improvement Organisation, which was established in Jamaica and then re-established in New York. It soon had more than a million members. He is best known for the slogan, ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad’, symbolic of his campaign for the return of African territories, such as the former German colonies, to Africans.  He also set up the Black Star Shipping Line to trade between west Africa and the Caribbean in order to encourage black self-reliance. Of course, Adi also talked about the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, and even brought the lecture up to the end of the 20th century with the African Union and into the 21st with Black Lives Matter.

I was also able to listen to Steven Gunn’s fascinating account of Accidental Death in Tudor England, from which the take-home messages included don’t fall asleep at the reins of a cart and don’t dance round the kitchen! To some extent, the information here was much as you would expect, given that accidents with livestock were more common in livestock raising areas and death by rockfall was more common in the Lake Disctrict. Nevetheless, Gunn was able to bring out some interesting aspects such as the way that the progress of enclosure can be tracked through particular types of accidental death. I was also interested to hear about how to cross a river – sometimes ‘bridges’ might only be 6 inches wide, so it’s hardly surprising that plenty of people fell off them and drowned, or that people chose to pole vault across rivers instead.

Such is the wide-ranging nature of the HA Conference that I was able to follow this with a fascinating update on American Civil War historiography (The Civil War Among Civil War Historians – Adam Smith, University of Oxford), and an insight into the visits of indigenous Americans to England (Legacies of Empire: Native North American Travellers to Britain, David Stirrup and Jacqueline Fear-Segal, University of Kent), although in the case of these two lectures I wasn’t able to take any notes because I had to listen while I was doing other things… One of the simultaneous blessings and curses of online conferences!

This year, the Historical Association conference moved online, with mainly pre-recorded lectures available for several weeks before the conference and live Q&A sessions during the conference week itself. This meant that I could not only flit about between lectures much more, but also access them in an order that suited me. This is the second in a short series of posts about the conference.

One of the things I love about the HA is that it brings together people from all walks of life who are interested in history – it’s not just for academics, or the public, but for history teachers too. This means that at the conference, I can keep an eye on useful teaching strategies, which is something that I think often gets overlooked in higher education. It was with this in mind that I listened to Using academic literature to enhance students’ subject knowledge and history-specific vocabulary at A-level by David Brown and Amy Diprose, of The Sixth Form College Farnborough.

They started by outlining why they thought that explicitly teaching subject-specific vocabulary matters, basing this on research into the literacy levels of GCSE students.  The ability to comprehend meaning begins with word recognition, and research has shown that the gap between levels of word recognition in families of different socio-economic backgrounds is already significant by the age of 3.  Then when students move from primary to secondary school, pupils are exposed in a single day to 3 or 4 times as much language as they had been at primary school.  This means they cannot use their normal strategies such as looking at context, to work out what words mean.[1]  But of course this isn’t all they are doing, so their brains are trying to do this at the same time as learning subject content and activating knowledge schemas.  It’s a lot to do.  Amy pointed out that a similar thing might happen at the transition to A level, and this made me think (again, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot) about how we might approach the transition to university, as the same thing is happening.  Anyway, the Oxford Language Report Bridging the Word Gap at Transition recommends explicit teaching of vocabulary, which is planned into the curriculum so that it builds up cumulatively throughout the years. It also recommends teacher modelling and promotion of rich, complex and specialist vocabulary so that students see and hear it used, as well as visual representation of words. 

The question is, which vocabulary do you need to teach, and which can you ignore? The key is to identify which ‘tier’your vocabulary belongs to: [2] 

Explicit teaching of tier 3 is normal, but we tend to assume that they will just ‘get’ tier 2. In fact, these are the most beneficial to teach because they can often be used in many contexts.

One way of approaching this is to get students thinking about morphology – the way parts of words are in fact building blocks which can be combined in different ways – and etymology – the study of the origins of words.  This draws on existing knowledge and connects new words to old.  Amy recommended the Frayer Model for teaching vocabulary, as it uses examples. [3]

David then explained how his school had applied these techniques through the use of essential readings with his 6th formers. Selected articles and book chapters are set throughout the course, with whole lessons based around the readings, not just questions on the readings for the students to answer and then move on. This sounded quite familiar – it’s basically what we do in university seminars!  I was also mildly amused by the fact that this college is setting long book chapters right from the word go, with questions, in a way that some of my university students over the years have complained about!

Suggested key questions for essential readings focussed around three main areas:

  • Are there any areas you didn’t understand? Are you still unsure about anything?
  • What is the overall impression you get from the reading?
  • What are the key arguments? (these can be specific questions about the arguments the author makes in order to ensure that students have understood and can summarise them)

But one of the key problems with history readings is that GCSE students are used to reading large literature texts, but they only read a few paragraphs of history texts at a go, so they aren’t familiar with the vocabulary.  David then decided to make students print out the history texts and annotate them, following the same process with every text:

Complete the next essential reading. You will need to print this out and annotate it (this should include adding a summary of the key points in the margin every two to three paragraphs, highlighting key words, taking notes).  This will be our process for each essential reading you complete going forward.  You also need to update your vocab sheet with another 5 words from the essential reading.[4]

WordMeaningUse in SentenceRelated words (synonyms)Etymology

Then the teaching of the lesson involves having the reading on the desk in front of them.  The long discussions are always used to relate the readings to useful activities, such as how it would be useful for essays.  But in terms of the vocabulary, they are brought carefully into the discussion on a regular basis, reminding students to check their notes when they have met a word before.  Then the students are tested regularly on their word lists by using them in questions (eg Why might a political vacuum have an adverse effect on a poorer country?).  Amy reminded us that language only becomes embedded when it has been used 7 times, so this process can be time consuming, but without the students accumulating these language skills they are unable to comprehend the texts fully.  So overall, by explicitly teaching vocabulary, you save time in other areas because the students are better able to recall and use their subject specific vocabulary in other classroom and homework activities – and of course the exam!


[1] Alison Deigan, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition.

[2] https://communicationwindow.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/what-is-tier-two-and-academic-vocabulary/

[3] https://www.n2y.com/blog/language-and-literacy-frayer-model/

[4] David Brown.

This year, the Historical Association conference moved online, with mainly pre-recorded lectures available for several weeks before the conference and live Q&A sessions during the conference week itself. This meant that I could not only flit about between lectures much more, but also access them in an order that suited me. This is the first in a short series of posts about the conference.

Because I was chairing some of the live sessions, I prioritised the lectures for those! The first lecture I listened to was The trial of Michael Würth, a 17th century male ‘witch’ by Alison Rowlands of the University of Essex. This was a fascinating paper on the case of Michael Würth, a wheelwright from the city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber who was accused of murder by witchcraft in 1662.  One of the reasons the case study is so interesting is because it challenges the stereotype of witches being women: in fact a significant minority (24%) in Germany were male.  Würth wasn’t one of the elite, although he was a master craftsman so a man with some status, not least because making wheels involved a high level of mathematical ability as well as craftsmanship.

The case is particularly interesting because we have letters from Würth to the city council which give us a sense of how he tried to portray himself.  It was an imperial free city and had no territorial overlords although it owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, it was in fact run by the city council, who also constituted the highest criminal court.  it was a Lutheran Protestant city.

Rowlands argued that Würth was lucky in that he lived in a city where witch persecution was relatively restrained.  He was one of 65 people  from Rothenburg who were caught up in witchcraft allegations between 1549 and 1709, of whom 36 were arrested and 12 were questioned under torture. 3 women were executed, 11 people were banished and 21 released unpunished.  As only one person had been executed prior to his arrest, he would have been aware that the accusation didn’t necessarily mean a death sentence.

Würth worked closely with his next-door neighbour, the master blacksmith Georg Leupold, but when Leupold lay dying in 1662 from a mysterious and debilitating illness, he accused Würth of giving him a bewitched drink.  When Leupold died, his wife Appolonia made a formal accusation of witchcraft to the council – she appears very energetic in pursuing the case as she would have been at risk of a counter-allegation of slander, but also a death-bed accusation meant that the accuser was confident enough in the allegation that they were prepared to go to meet their maker without retracting it.  But murder wasn’t the only thing he was accused of – other accusations of maleficum went back several years – nor was his wife immune from suspicion, although it would appear that she is dragged into the case rather than being the source of the problem.

The suspects were questioned at the town hall but not taken to the gaol.  This might have been pragmatic, because they were hesitant of torturing craftsmen who had skills that they needed, or because they as citizens also have some legal rights.  When they moved to arrest and interrogate under threat of torture, Würth fled Rothenburg for neighbouring Ansbach, leaving his wife to be arrested and to admit all the charges against her husband.  They were tried and sentenced to banishment.

His letters show admissions of what is known as weapons magic – the idea that they could improve their shooting or protect themselves from harm – which appears more frequently during the 17th century because of the ongoing tensions of the Thirty Years War.  He also admitted to owning two booklets of magical arts, although he was keen to point out that he didn’t use it and he handed it in.  Rowlands suggested that he was probably less than honest in this claim, and noted that weapons magic could be construed as harmful witchcraft. But she also pointed out that none of this would be enough without other historical accusations of antisocial behaviour which gave him a poor reputation.

Next I listened to David Paterson, of the HA’s Nuneaton Branch, give a paper entitled Father of a genius: Robert Evans and the making of George Eliot. David pointed out that although Robert Evan’s influence on his daughter’s novels, it came as a surprise to him just how influential he was even though he died long before the novels were written.  For example, David argued that the rural crafts such as the scenes in carpenters’ workshops were based on her experience of her father’s trade rather than book-learned descriptions, since Robert was skilled in a variety of rural crafts, used innovative agricultural methods, and, through his various jobs and roles, came into contact with a wide variety of people from all sorts of social backgrounds.  Despite a limited education, he managed to rise socially, through hard work, to be a land agent. As a child, Mary Ann (aka George Eliot) often travelled with him.

Scholars have often noted that Robert bought unusually large amounts of alcohol. David put forward the proposition that it was Robert, rather than his wife Christina as some have suggested, who was an alcoholic, since his death certificate cites liver disease as the cause of death, not to mention that land agency involved collecting rents, sometimes in people’s homes (which might have ended with dinner) but often in inns. George Eliot’s novels depict many characters who are heavy drinkers but nevertheless managed to carry out their jobs effectively, and David suggested that this might therefore have been modelled on her father. His lecture essentially covered the topics of land agency, rural poverty, agricultural developments, education and politics.

I also listened a really interesting lecture on Old Age Care in the Time of Crisis given by Christine Fox of Utrecht University. She talked about the key results from her project on how care for the elderly in sixteenth century London changed because of the Reformation.  She described a system of care that started with the family, but also included religious institutions, almshouses, parish fraternities, chantries and hospitals, and she went on to describe the impact of the dissolution of monasteries and chantries on this system.  For example, more than 800 monasteries and 20,000 fraternities were lost in the Reformation. Only a handful of London hospitals survived, but two more were founded.  She pointed out that this meant the city’s hospitals could no longer cope with demand and the poor were forced to turn to the parish for help.  She concluded that this was a crisis for the poor which turned institutional care on its head, putting the pressure on the parish to support their community.  Parish taxes to support the poor moved from being voluntary to being compulsory, and the Tudor system of poor relief was the backbone of national strategies for more than 200 years.  She therefore argued that this was the beginning of a public health policy for England. But actually, what I found really interesting about this lecture was that it showed how the medieval system of old age care lasted well into the sixteenth century…

My fiend hasn’t featured much lately in the blog (so if you’ve only arrived here recently, you can be forgiven for wondering what I’m on about), but a few weeks ago, when I was completely snowed under with work that meant I was working 14 hour days, he sent me Mary Lindemann’s presidential address to the American Historical Association, ‘Slow History’, with the instruction that I should read it when I had time to take a break and savour it.[1]  It was a good call.  He knew I needed to take things a bit easier, and he knew that the sentiments in the address bore that out.  What he probably didn’t realise was how it would help to set my mind slightly more at ease over some of the anxieties that have been brewing for the last few weeks.

In her article, Lindemann calls for us to recognise that the best history is not only serendiptous, but also the product of painstaking research and considerable thought – things which are instrinsically slow.  For a research culture in which ‘publish or perish’ has become the order of the day, Lindemann’s is a timely reminder that we do our best work when we give it time.

So why was this so resonant for me just at the moment? Well for one thing, the two projects I really want to work on are my big ones – the ‘Fake News?’ project looking at the overlap between ballads and pamphlets, and, even more importantly, the Pilgrimage of Grace project.  And the one thing I haven’t got is time.  I am grappling with the difficulties I face in the constant stop-start (and if I’m honest, it’s far more stop than start) of my research time.  Even when I think I have a few days set aside to work on my research, something invariably comes up and puts an unexpected stop to it.  Then when I come back to it, often months later, I have to spend a lot of time going over what I’ve already done in order to get my head back to where it was when I took the forced break. I get a bit of work done, and then I have to stop again.  Honestly, this is not a problem I’ve solved, so if anyone has any tips for handling it, I’d love to hear them.  But, as Lindemann pointed out, this time, even when I’m not engaging directly with my research, is giving me time for my ideas to mature and for me to take in more knowledge from other sources – it’s giving me even more background on which to draw.

The other reason that I’m so interested in this at the moment is because of the Special Subject that I will soon have to prepare for my 3rd years.  Lindemann’s article really gave me the confidence that my teaching instinct was right – I will take the time to teach my students some skills, not just hope they pick them up by example. Moreover, I’m going to concentrate on quality not quantity.  I was a little concerned as to how I was going to fill the 23 weeks, but actually, that shouldn’t be an issue – I would rather do more with less than cram too much in and have the students only scratch the surface.  It’s going to be a slow news year.


[1]  Mary Lindemann, ‘Slow History’, American Historical Review, 126:1, (2021), pp 1–18.

For the first time since I go tmy PhD, I know before the summer vacation that I’m going to be teaching next academic year. I’ve got 5 dissertations to supervise and the possibility of a module on a distance learning course, but the thing I’m really looking foward to is creating my own 3rd year special subject, ‘Fake News or Facts? Ballads and News Culture in Early Modern England’. It’s going to mean a lot of work, but I’m finally going to be able to teach a course on something I really love!

The course is designed to teach students about the different ways people found out about the news before newspapers were invented. Too often we assume that ordinary people in the early modern period knew little and cared less about the great debates of the day, yet contemporary records show that they could be surprisingly well-informed about local, national and international events. My new course will explore the exchange of news through oral and literate media, in a period when there was no regular and reliable access to information. 

My plan is that we will investigate the history of news culture from the explosion of print in the 16th century to the birth of the newspaper. Of course, because I’ve put it together, it will focus particularly on ballads! They are, after all one of the most contested forms of news, both historically and historiographically. But we will also address themes of literacy & orality, trust & reliability, and free speech & censorship. I’m going to include sources such as protest songs, news ballads, letters, sermons and pamphlets and the topics might well include things like witchcraft, crime, executions (Una McIlvenna, I’ll be looking at you!!!), gender and foreign affairs. I also want to include a bit about European news networks, and point students in the direction of some of the European ballad repositories. Examining the soundscapes of early modern England through performance, melody and memory, we will explore how, in Andrew Pettegree’s words, the early modern world ‘came to know about itself’.[1]


[1]  Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News. How the world came to know about itself (Yale University Press, 2014).

Back in April I spent a wonderful day in the company of the Post Workers Theatre and several academics working in the field of precarity and the marketisation of education. It was the culmination of the Post Workers Theatre residency at the University of Gothenburg, and the idea was that we would all contribute ideas to the writing of a new ballad – The Ballad of Goodwill. I was invited for a dual purpose – the first and most obvious being my expertise in ballad history, but the second was my lived experience as a precariously employed academic, something on which I’ve accidentally become a voice since my Precarity Story tweets in February last year.

Professor Rajani Naidoo (Director International Centre for Higher Education Management), Dr. Joanna Figiel (Centre for Cultural Policy and Management, City University of London), Dr. Stevphen Shukaitis, (Reader at the University of Essex, Centre for Work and Organisation) and myself spent the first hour or so discussing how goodwill is being transformed by the rise in competitive regulatory instruments generating anxiety for academics; how ‘the pursuits of what we love’ results in university staff sacrificing time and wellbeing without reward; and how goodwill is often biased and excludes those who are unable to perform unpaid overtime or survive on part-time or precarious contracts. It was a wide ranging discussion which gave me plenty of things to think about ahead of my upcoming keynote lecture on loneliness, academic precarity and history.

The next section of the day was where I talked a bit about the history of ballads and social protest, as well as the practicalities of how ballads work and how they can be used effectively to spread messages. I explained that they have a long history of highlighting social injustice, and talked for a while about the early modern idea of the commonwealth, in which every person had a role to play in society and it was believed that everyone needed to play their own part in order for the community to prosper. I also described the inclusive language that ballads use to bring people together or exclude those who disagree, as well as the ways in which rhyme, rhythm, metre and melody all help listeners to remember the message.

The next step was to begin suggesting ideas for a modern ballad based on the idea that goodwill in the modern university is undermined by increasing marketisation. We came up with the plan that we would use personification making characters out of goodwill, competition and collegiality who meet on the road.

At this point I had to take a back seat, because I needed to start work on my Social History Society admin role. But the good thing about being an administrator one day a week is that I finally have a job where I can listen to the radio while I’m working (normally I can’t because there are Too Many Conflicting Words in my head at once). So that Thursday afternoon, instead of switching on the radio or listening to Spotify, I was able to listen to the creation of the ballad in the background, and just interject occasionally for a few moments when I thought I could usefully help out.

At 4 I took a five minute break from the SHS to join the communal singing of the new ballad, set to the tune Packington’s Pound. I’d love to be able to share it with you, but I can’t at the moment because the Post Workers Theatre are continuing to work on it. On the plus side, this means I’ll be able to write another post later to tell you all about the finished piece. I’m really hoping that it will be ready in time for me to include some of it in my keynote!

One really positive thing to come out of the event was the way we’ve been sharing information since the day itself – I’ve now got all sorts of things that I can read to help me add some depth and scholarly credentials to a paper that was, up to now, essentially based on anecdote and personal experience. So I’m going to set aside a few days in the next few weeks to look into the literature around marketisation and precarity in the academic world.

Another was some affirmation. I raised the point that I fear my keynote is going to be fairly depressing – although there are some positive points about my fabulous colleagues, my story does not as yet have a happy ending. Rajani immediately stepped in and told me not to worry – that that is the reality and it’s time we stopped sugar coating it. People need to hear just how bad things are.

I recently took part in an online study day on Ballad and Song in the History of North West England run by the Regional Heritage Centre at Lancaster University. Although I’ve taken part in a lot of online activities over the last 12 months, this was a little bit different. Back in April we speakers went up to Lancaster Castle to record our papers, in pairs, meaning that the audience was made up of two or maybe three people – the organiser, the cameraman and, possibly, the other speaker. I went up in the morning, and listened to Jennifer Reid talk about the similarities between Mancunian songs from the Industrial Revolution and those she had collected on her recent trips to Bangladesh. I can’t help but think that there’s the potential for some really interesting work in this area…

I then talked about John Balshaw’s Jig, in a paper heavily based on the work I did for it’s upcoming publication (it’s gone off to the printers, by the way, and I’m just waiting for the proofs to come through – exciting times!). I talked about the manuscript itself and the plot of the jigg, giving a few sung examples from each section of the script, as wel as how it related to the Civil War and who John Balshaw might have been. Having done a several recordings for Sovereign Education prior to this, I’m beginning to get used to talking to a camera!

The other two speakers recorded their lectures during the afternoon, so like all the participants in the study day, I caught up with those papers on Moodle in the week running up to the live event. Dr Martin Purdy described what he saw as Industrial Bias and North West Song from the Victorians to the Modern Age, and why he believes the few north west folk bands who are active on the national scene explicitly engage with their northern roots by singing some of this repetoire. Finally, I listened to Dr Sue Allan’s paper, Folk Song in Cumbria – a distinctive regional repertoire? She talked about how she discovered that Cumbrian folk songs tended to be made up of dialect songs and poems as well as hunting songs.

Then on the Saturday afternoon, we joined a Teams call with the study day participants where we gave a quick precis of our talk, and then discussed some wide ranging questions from the audience. It was certainly an interesting afternoon, and I’m pleased to have got a few emails with useful pointers in them since the live event itself.

I’m really proud to announce that at the end of April, I was made an Honorary Fellow of the Historical Association. I’ve done an awful lot of work for the HA over the years, not least in being secretary of the Bolton Branch for some long time and of course I was Associate Vice President of the charity from 2016-19. Nevetheless, I have no idea who proposed my election nor on what grounds – so whoever it was, I’m immensely grateful and touched.

This is a big honour, as far as I’m concerned. The HA is instrumental in bringing together academics, teachers, students, and the general public with people from public history bodies in order to promote the enjoyment of history at all levels, and it only creates a limited number of Fellows each year – each being recognised for their contribution to the history community. I’m proud to be in such distinguished company (just look at the rest of the names on that list!), and I really hope that we get to celebrate together at the Medlicott Award Ceremony in the autumn.