June 2021


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).