December 2017

My portfolio career is such that among my teaching is an introductory module for Liverpool Hope University on twentieth century Europe. This is ‘flipped learning’ course, where the students access recorded lectures and course materials via the course moodle and then attend seminars and tutorials ready to discuss the issues that they’ve come across.

Last year, I enjoyed teaching in a maths classroom.  The benefit of this was that the walls were covered in huge whiteboards, which I used frequently to brainstorm ideas and, for example, to get students to create composite drawings which reflected their understanding of the issues that led to the civil war.  This year, to my horror, I am teaching in a psychology room.  The whiteboard is minute and placed directly behind the teacher’s desk.  Well, I wasn’t prepared to jettisone those carefully prepared activities that get students talking, thinking and creating.  How then to solve the problem of classroom activities that required those whiteboards?

In the first instance, I decided to use post-it notes.

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The task was for students to brainstorm aspects of European society c1900, writing each one on a post-it note and placing it in a ring around the central idea.  From there, the students had to break those aspects down into their component parts, and place them down as spokes coming off the ring.  It wasn’t perfect, but it did get the students (who at that stage didn’t really know one another) out of their seats, talking to one another and discussing the different angles and issues that Europe faced at the turn of the century.


IMG_20171031_182647003 (2)The end of October was very busy, what with several Historical Association meetings in London as well as two public engagements.  The first of these was a speaking engagement at Ewecross, but the second was something a bit different – a 45 minute performance of Tudor ballads at the John Rylands Library event to commemorate 500 years since the Reformation. 31 October 2017 marked 500 years since the theologian Martin Luther supposedly pinned his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.  Whether or not this particular aspect of the story is apocryphal, Luther’s propositions for the reform of the church were certainly written around this time – he sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz in an attempt to start a dialogue about the theology of, for example, confession.  The 95 theses famously attacked clerical abuses such as the sale of papal indulgences – official documents which reduced the amount of time a soul would spend in purgatory being punished for their sins.

The Rylands event was called ‘The Reformation: Who Gives a Fig?’ and my performance was one of several aspects of the evening.  Opposite me, library staff were operating their printing press, printing mock papal indulgences for visitors to the library.  And the evening finished with a debate bIMG_0697etween one of my former

supervisors, Dr Ros Oates, Manchester University historian Dr John Morgan and  Canon Dr David Holgate from Manchester Cathedral, which unfortunately I couldn’t stay for.  The purpose of the evening was to examine the relevance of the Reformation in 21st century Britain.

John Rylands reformation evening

With thanks to Michael Smith (@infante_miguel)

My part was to sing a selection of ballads related to the Reformation in England, and I took my husband along to help out.  I decided to approach it chronologically, starting with Down in Yon Forest, a pre-Reformation carol thought to come from Derbyshire and based on the Corpus Christi Carol.  I then sang extracts from the Pilgrimage of Grace ballad that I’ve done a lot of work on – The Exhortation to the People of the North – followed by a setting of the first of the Cromwell flyting, Troll on Away. In both these cases, the tunes have been lost (indeed there is some debate over whether the Pilgrimage of Grace ballad was intended to be sung at all), but I set them to tunes that fitted: ‘Wilson’s Wild’ and ‘Half Hannikin’.  We then sang two songs from the reign of Queen Mary I.  One was a pious Protestant ballad focussing on sin and the nature of forgiveness, and the other a piece of vitriolic anti-Catholic satire which I asked my husband to sing as it simply doesn’t suit my voice.  To bring home the ironies and contrasts of this period, we sang three verses of a hymn that was written in the mid-sixteenth century by one of the most acerbic anti-Catholic polemicists in England, William Kethe.  The tune, which was taken from the Genevan Psalter, has become known as Old Hundredth, as it was used by Kethe for his translation of the 100th psalm:  All People that on Earth do Dwell.  It would go on to be not only one of very few 16th century English hymns still sung to this day, but also one of the most popular hymns of the 20th century.

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We had great fun with The Ballad of Constant Susanna. We then moved on to the 1570s, and Elizabeth I’s reign. I performed a few verses of a loyal ballad set to a psalm tune, before rounding off my performance with Steven Peele’s satirical ballad A Letter to Rome to Declare to the Pope, John Felton his Friend his Hanged in a Rope.

The surroundings of the John Rylands Library were absolutely gorgeous, and the acoustics were stunning.  It was really nice was to see several familiar faces in the crowd, too.  It was lovely to get back to performing again, and if anyone wants an evening of the Reformation in popular song, please get in touch: it was a project I’d love to repeat.

IMG_20171030_193529523I was delighted earlier this year to be asked to give my talk on Singing the News in mid-Tudor England at Ewecross Historical Society which meets in High Bentham on the top edge of the Forest of Bowland (being a forest, there’s no direct route there from here, so it’s actually about an hour’s journey away!).  I was even more delighted when I received the confirmation email from the new secretary a couple of weeks before the event in late October, because it came from my lovely former RE teacher, John Wilson, who used to take the very few A-level music students in school to concerts in Manchester and Huddersfield.

It was, in fact, a thoroughly enjoyable evening.  The society meets in a Methodist church which has excellent acoustics, which made it a pleasure to sing in.  I even managed to organise a small person to record a short video of one of the ballads I sang that evening, A Letter to Rome to Declare to the Pope, John Felton his Friend is Hanged in a Rope.

IMG_20171030_194912639The best thing about it (apart from being able to catch up with Mr Wilson, of course) was the excellent questions which the audience raised at the end.



At the end of September I went down to London to hear a paper by Chris Marsh at the Royal Historical Society, so I took the opportunity to travel down a bit ahead of time and spend the afternoon in the British Library.  This is something I haven’t done for a couple of years, for one thing because it isn’t all that easy for me to get down there, but also because up to now I’ve been working mainly on the documents that I found while I was carrying out my doctoral research.  But with the submission of the manuscript to Routledge, the time has come to move on.  This post is less about what I found when I was there and more about the process of carrying out the research itself.  It’s about how I work.


I only knew that I would be going to London a couple of days in advance, so I had to drop everything and start finding something to look at when I was there.  The first job, in fact, was to check up on how to renew my reader’s pass, as it had expired since I last went.  Once I’d got that sorted out, I knew that I would only have a few hours in the library itself. This affects the way I work, I think: I need to make sure that I am well prepared with a list of exactly what I want to look at.

I ran a search on the British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue for ‘ballad’, up to the mid-seventeenth century, and read through the descriptions of each result (of which there were many).  If I thought it looked potentially interesting, I copied the entry into Word, making each manuscript number a heading and including the descriptions for each entry.  It makes for a long document (at the moment, it’s 45 pages long!), but at least every item was easily accessible and the descriptions mean that when I’m in the library I know what I’m looking for and where to find it in the manuscript itself.  Next, I sorted the descriptions into the order that I wanted to look at them – by which I mean I put the materials I wanted to see first at the top of my list, running right down to the ones I considered to be less urgent.  Finally, I logged into my British Library account and pre-ordered as many as I could for the day of my visit.

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IMG_20170922_211455954When I arrived at the library I renewed my reader pass, had a quick brew and then settled myself into the Western Manuscript Reading Room with my tablet (much easier to carry than my laptop), my camera, notepad and pencil.  My trips to the British Library are a bit like a smash and grab…  metaphorically-speaking, of course.   This visit was going to be a particularly short one.  My priority is to accumulate as much evidence as I can, so that I can then work on it at home.  I looked at the documents that I ordered ahead of my visit and made notes on their features which I added to my Archive Research Document.  Then I photographed the relevant parts of the manucript. Often, I took several photos of the same folios, showing the overall layout on one and the detail on others. For each document that I’d looked at, I added a tick before its title in my list.

IMG_20170922_125155155What I didn’t do much of when I was in the library itself was to make transcriptions.   As I mainly work on 16th century documents, they are often in secretary hand, which can take a bit of deciphering at times (and yes, I suffer palaeographic jealousy when I look at the people working on beautiful italic hands!). I usually do my transcribing at home.  So when I’d looked at all the ones I’d pre-ordered, I prioritised working on what I thought was the most useful manuscript.  I kept this out, sent the others back to storage and called up some more.  While I waited for them to arrive, I started to transcribe the document that I’d kept, making the transcription in the big document but in a different colour of text so that I knew that it was my own transcription.  I then repeated the process until I’d looked at as many items as I could that afternoon – it was the bell that stopped me!

Once I got home, I transferred my archive photographs to dropbox and a mobile hard drive, putting each document into a separate folder under the heading Archives/British Library. Then I spent a relentlessy boring day renaming each individual file by the name of its folio number – I have learned in the past how difficult it is to find the relevant image of a particular folio later if I don’t do this.

I’m now in the process of transcribing the document in which I was most interested – I open the image on one screen and use another, usually my tablet, to make the transcription, making sure that I mark any words about which I’m uncertain with a question mark and each new folio with it’s number.  I am doing this in a new document, which I save alongside the images in the relevant folder.