The Centre for Medieval Studies is a leading centre for research and training in all aspects of medieval studies, providing an ideal research environment for staff and graduate students in an area that is inherently interdisciplinary. With more than 30 Centre staff members from across the Faculty of Arts and beyond, we have an exceptionally broad range of specialists learning from the different methodologies of our individual disciplines.
Internally, the Centre nourishes excellence in research, promoting interdisciplinary research and training in medieval studies, facilitating grant capture, and providing a network for mutual support and exchange of knowledge and expertise. Lecturer, Dr Steve Bull, comments:
‘As an ECR still finding my place in the wider academic community, the advice, support, and connections that I have gained through the CMS have been invaluable. There is a genuine feeling of collegiality amongst the centre’s members.’
We are raising the profile of Bristol’s medieval research community nationally and internationally. We have an extensive network of partners, including local heritage organisations, facilitating impact, and offering student placements (e.g., Bristol Cathedral and Berkeley Castle), and national and international research partners. Professor David Wallace (University of Pennsylvania), a frequent visitor to the Centre, comments:
‘Bristol’s Centre for Medieval Studies has great medievalists across the range to sift the secrets of Bristol (a great medieval city), of Europe, and of the global Middle Ages. A truly exceptional centre for student education and international scholarly collaboration.’
We lead several externally-funded projects. A recent project we initiated is the Marie-Curie Doctoral Training Network ‘Re-mediating the Early Book: Pasts and Futures’ (REBPAF); it will support 13 PhD researchers at the universities of Bristol, Galway, Antwerp, Alicante, Vienna and Zürich, enhancing our already strong postgraduate cohort and international reach. PhD applications for the REBPAF project close on 10 January.
We offer exceptional support to our postgraduates, integrating them into our research community with regular social events and research seminars, some tailored to meet their needs, including seminars on ‘what every medievalist needs to know about…’ (useful for us all, but especially early career researchers) and an annual ‘student choice’ seminar with a speaker nominated by the students. We also host on our Blackboard site a constantly upgraded ‘training hub’ with online resources and run a range of reading groups, notably for medieval languages, such as Old French and medieval Latin. Our successful MA in Medieval Studies, with its unique placement unit, attracts students from different disciplines and diverse backgrounds with a high conversion rate to postgraduate research, here and elsewhere.
A highlight is the annual postgraduate conference, the longest-running of its kind; this brings to Bristol, and now also online, an international group of postgraduates. PhD student Maria Rupprecht, from Germany, who chaired last year’s organising committee, notes:
‘It is the perfect environment for postgraduates to present their research in progress and connect with medievalist peers and leading scholars from Bristol and beyond in a most benevolent, constructive, and supportive framework. The conference is an absolute highlight in the CMS. It is conceptualised, organised, and managed by Bristol’s postgrads and with this approach allows for discovering and developing organisational and managerial skills as well as teamwork in a committed and friendly environment.’
In the year ahead, in addition to our regular programme, we look forward to strengthening local ties through the research of our BA Global Professor, working with Bristol Central Library on their early books, including a planned public workshop. Visiting professors enrich our research environment: we are currently hosting a specialist in Old French from Stockholm, and we look forward to welcoming a Newton International Fellow next year. Our research into the past always looks to the future.
Professor Ad Putter and Professor Kathleen Kennedy, Co-Directors, and Professor Marianne Ailes, former Co-Director, Centre for Medieval Studies
The stories we tell about the environment and the images we make of it end up shaping the environment itself, for better and for worse. This is one of the key principles of the environmental humanities, an interdisciplinary field that brings together historians, literary critics, philosophers, scholars of visual culture, cultural geographers, and more.
As the COP27 climate change summit gets underway in Egypt this week, it is striking to note how little coverage the summit has had in the media, especially when compared with the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year. It seems that expectations of meaningful progress are low, despite stark warnings from the UN that drastic action is needed. The environmental humanities can help us understand how we have arrived at this point, and reflect on how culture can play a role in building a more hopeful future.
The Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol, established in 2017, has rapidly built a reputation as one of the leading centres in the field. Our community spans all of the disciplines in the Faculty of Arts, and our members include postgraduate researchers, professors, and all career stages in between.
We support our academic members in developing their research ideas, by providing seed funding, and supporting applications for external grants – recent funded research from Centre members includes Andy Flack’s ‘Dark Pasts’ project and Paul Merchant’s ‘Reimagining the Pacific’ project, both funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We are particularly proud of our vibrant postgraduate community, whose members organise reading groups, workshops and the Literary and Visual Landscapes seminar series (you can watch a recording of their most recent seminar).
“It’s really great being part of the Centre for Environmental Humanities here at Bristol. Being involved in a community of researchers from many different disciplines—from History, English, Geography, and many others—is incredibly stimulating. It’s a genuinely creative melting pot centred around a brilliant programme of events, seminars, reading groups, and field trips.”
Milo Newman, PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences
In the 2022-23 academic year, we are exploring the future of the environmental humanities – where does the field need to go next? Where are the gaps in current research? How can our interdisciplinary community of scholars and students at Bristol shape new developments? With these questions in mind, we will be holding a special workshop in February 2023, with internal and external participants.
Over the next few years, we are also looking to expand our network of international partners. This year, we established a formal partnership with the Greenhouse Center for Environmental Humanities at the University of Stavanger in Norway and the Environmental Humanities Center at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Partnerships provide opportunities for visiting fellowships, networking, and collaborative grant applications to our members. We are also developing a series of co-hosted online seminars on environmental humanities in Latin America with the Center for Environmental Studies at Rice University (USA). Professor Gisela Heffes from Rice will be visiting as a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor in May and June 2023.
Collaboration both within the University and with community partners, including Bristol’s Black & Green Ambassadors and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, is fundamental to our work, and the Centre is at the forefront of interdisciplinary innovation. One recent initiative, ‘Keywords in Environmental Research and Engagement’, worked with a range of community organisations across the city and academics from different disciplines to explore how to generate a common understanding of key terms like ‘resilience’ and ‘transitions’.
We’ve also been promoting a place-based approach to collaborative scholarship, where we use field trips to provide a focal point for interdisciplinary conversations. Recent field trips have included visits to the Island of Lundy (see our co-authored article), Exmoor, and the Brecon Beacons. We’re planning to continue these field trips this coming academic year with visits to the See Monster in Weston-super-Mare and to the Somerset Levels.
With the Bristol Harbour Festival 2022 not long behind us, we caught up with Dr Nick Nourse, Honorary Research Associate in the Department of History, to learn more about sea shanties – their relevance, their history, and their intricacies. A trained violin maker, Nick went on to study for a musicology MA and PhD at the University of Bristol. His PhD thesis ‘The Transformation of the Music of the British Poor, 1789-1864’ focused on his research interest in the low ‘Other’ in society, in particular their musical tastes and their roles as listener, consumer and performer of popular entertainment. As part of this research, Nick studied the musical history of sea songs, and he shares some of that knowledge with us now:
In January 2021, the Bristol band The Longest Johns were signed by Decca Records after their version of a nineteenth-century sea song, ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’, went viral on TikTok. During the restrictive measures of various Covid lockdowns, The Longest Johns also became one part of an online craze under the heading of shanty-singing. With the return this summer of the Bristol Harbour Festival and a Bristol Sea Shanty festival arranged for September, now would be an ideal point to explore the history of this unique sea song.
In brief, the sea shanty was a work song sung on board merchant sailing ships. Its purpose was to synchronise the crewmen’s effort when engaged in heavy and monotonous physical tasks, such as hauling on a rope or tramping around the capstan to raise the anchor.
Stan Hugill, the acknowledged expert on the subject, divides shanties into two primary groups: hauling, and heaving songs. Broadly speaking, he places regular-paced and continuous heaving work at the capstan or bilge pumps as being to poorly disguised marching songs in 4/4; the hauling songs were for stop-start strenuous work often to a 6/8 metre and less musical. The hauling shanties in particular follow the call-and-response form, in shanty-dialect called ‘order-and-response’.
Take, for example, the shanty ‘Blow the Man Down’. This is a Halyard Shanty, a song sung while raising or lowering the sails (in full sailor parlance, this is halyard hauling: halyard = haul + yard). The work could be extremely heavy, and a halyard shanty therefore was sung with the crewmen taking a rest during the leader’s call and only pulling on stressed words of the chorus. Sung in 3/8 time, the shanty often starts:
Solo: ‘As I was a-walkin’, down Paradise Street’
Crew: ‘To me Way, hay, Blow the man down’
Solo: ‘A sassy young clipper, I chanced for to meet’
Crew: ‘Oh, Give me some time, to Blow the man down’
Given how long it took to raise a large sail, for instance, sea shanties could be 20 or 30 verses in length, and it did not matter what order they were sung in. The main aim was rhythm, but also distraction, to take the mind off the boredom of the physical task. To that end, songs could be re-written on the spur of the moment, so Paradise Street could become a well-known street in the ship’s last port of call. And like folk songs, the words often held more than one meaning: the ‘sassy young clipper’ is not a reference to a ship, but to a woman.
One particular function the shanty could achieve was to voice complaint about the captain or another crewman: singing out their grievance was often the only way for a sailor to voice his anger without being disciplined.
The sailor’s sea song is subject to much superstition. The shanty, for example, was only ever sung on board ship, never on shore, always to work, and never off-duty or for entertainment. Likewise, anchor-hauling songs were split into outward- and homeward-bound songs, and they should never be sung on the wrong leg of the voyage.
The origins of the sea shanty are unclear, but its heyday was in the early- and mid-nineteenth century and followed the end of hostilities between the French and the English. Peace saw the resumption of world sea trade and travel, trade which was encouraged by the gold rushes of North America and Australia. The term itself comes in multiple spellings: shantey, chanty, or chantey — all pronounced as if with a ‘sh’ — plus various grammatically dubious plurals. The Oxford English Dictionary date ‘shanty’ to 1869, but Nordhoff’s The Merchant Vessel, first published in 1855, writes of ‘The foreman is the chantey-man, who sings the song, the gang only joining in the chorus, which comes in at the end of every line’.
Musically, Hugill suggests the sea shanty as having its origins in the folk songs of England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, and colonised North America – including Canada and Newfoundland – and in the slave plantations of the southern states of America.
To return to The Longest Johns and ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’, this is not a working song, but a fore-bitter. In contrast to the shanty, the fore-bitter was sung off-duty and for entertainment, but still as a distraction. It gets its name from the fore-bits, large wooden rigging posts in the foc’sle (forecastle), and the place where sailors would gather in good weather to relax and kill time. The subject and sentiment of either form of song was tremendously wide, from love — both true and sentimental — to loss, often of home, from complaint to celebration, and from wealth to glory.
The sea shanty today holds its place alongside traditional, or folk, song as a recovered and preserved work song. As steam replaced sail in the second half of the nineteenth century, the need for collective physical duties on board ship declined, and with it, the sea shanty.
Dr Nick Nourse, Honorary Research Associate, Department of History
The weekend of 15-17 July 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Bristol Harbour Festival. This event is a calendar highlight for many in the region, showcasing Bristol’s talent and heritage, and celebrating the diverse communities that form the heart and soul of the city. Set, as its name suggests, around the unique setting of Bristol’s harbourside, the festival hosts several events and activities with a maritime theme. This got us thinking about Bristol’s seafaring history, and what port cities in Britain might have been like a century or two ago.
Ahead of the festivities, we caught up with Professor Hilary Carey, Professor of Imperial and Religious History, and Dr Sumita Mukherjee, Associate Professor of Modern History, who have recently been awarded a grant, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on ‘Mariners: Religion, race and empire in British ports, 1801-1914′.
Can you tell us about your latest project?
We’re really excited to be working together on ‘Mariners’, which brings together our interests in the history of religion, race and empire. Spanning from 1801 to the beginning of the First World War, we are aiming to create a new religious history of missions to seamen. Marine missions were once ubiquitous features of British ports, coasts, canals and lighthouses where their objective was to save the drunken and lascivious sailor from themselves. They evolved into vitally important humanitarian societies which continue to support merchant crews around the world.
We are working in partnership with the Anglican Mission to Seafarers (founded in 1856) and the Hull History Centre to investigate the ways institutional missions grappled with local and global issues, including over-rapid expansion in the age of steam. We have a special interest in the mission work to lascars, the common term for Asian seafarers, who by the later decades of the nineteenth century made up to a third of the British marine workforce. We are also focusing on three port cities – Bristol, Hull and Liverpool – to show how local missions were integrated into port environments and the significance of their legacy today.
Why is this research important?
This research highlights the mentalities and realities of working seamen in the age of imperialism and the Christian charities which sought to convert and support them. Many of the problems faced by the merchant marine – from low wages, insecure employment and hazardous conditions to risk of shipwreck, piracy, disease and abandonment – remain just as urgent today. Some Victorians had a sentimental view of the work of missions to seamen, as in La Thangue’s 1891 painting of dockside evangelising. The reality – which is what we want to uncover – was rather different.
How will you go about the research?
One of the key research collections we’ll be using is the Mission to Seafarers archives, deposited in Hull History Centre between 2005 and 2014. There are 98 linear metres of archives, so there’s a lot to get stuck into! Alongside this, a key focus of the project is on Asian seamen, and we’ll be bringing together a huge range of official reports as well as material on dedicated homes for Indian seamen across a number of British ports. We’ve already found some wonderful photos which we’re excited to share in the future.
Lascars found it particularly challenging to find accommodation in British ports, and there were few places which catered to their needs. We want to find out more about places such as the Mere Hall Hostel for Indian seamen in Liverpool and the London Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders, which opened in 1857.
Can you tell us about some of the Bristol connections?
Bristol is and was a significant port, and has always supported charities for poor sailors, including those shipwrecked, disabled and too old to work. The Bristol Channel Mission, founded by John Ashley in 1835, was one of the first organised missions for seamen, later incorporated into today’s worldwide Mission to Seafarers. There was also a Floating Seamen’s Chapel, and even a Home for Seamen’s Orphan Boys, established in 1859 in Brixham, Devon, by William Gibbs, the wealthy owner of Tyntesfield, near Bristol.
As in other ports, many of Bristol’s sailors’ homes and missions have been destroyed, including the Seamen’s Mission Chapel at 53 Prince Street which was badly damaged in the Bristol Blitz on 2 December 1940.Other sites have been demolished outright, as sailors no longer require the services they used to access in missions, sailors’ homes, or even the wild, old sailor towns. We hope to keep the memory alive of why these places were built and what they tell us about Bristol’s maritime past.
What impact do you expect the research to have?
Part of the project will involve some oral history interviews with existing and retired marine chaplains. We’re also going to commission some artistic impressions of marine missions. We’re hoping to include these on our website and in a forthcoming exhibition, and alongside this engage in several public talks and with schoolteachers. We hope our project will deepen understanding of the multi-racial and multi-faith nature of Britain and British maritime history, and we’re excited to see what develops from this.
What are the next steps?
We’re looking forward to appointing two postdoctoral researchers, hopefully to start in January 2023, to work closely with us on this project, alongside a dedicated project administrator. We’ll be hosting a conference in 2024 and a visiting exhibition in 2025, but first a dedicated project website should be up next year. Watch this space for more news and links to our activities!
We caught up with Professor John Foot, Professor of Modern Italian History, to hear about his role in the Hub, and to learn more about the importance of the Arts and Humanities in interdisciplinary research.
Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research
Professor John Foot
It is rare to be involved in a project that covers six faculties in the University, but the new Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research, funded by the Gamble Aware charity, was just such a bid. The Hub will seek to increase understanding and awareness of the dangers of gambling, and covers public health (from a number of perspectives); social and geographical research into gambling; the interactions between gambling and poverty; the role of advertising; the history, economics and politics of the gambling industry; and the psychology of gambling, among many other areas.
This £4-million+, four-year project will allow for an unprecedented series of interactions between expert researchers across a range of different departments and schools in a way which has hardly ever been seen in any institution. The Hub aims to make concrete recommendations for the treatment of gambling addicts and the reform of the gambling industry. It will provide a forum for debate and the dissemination of research, policy discussions, and publications, as well as funding for PhD students and a lectureship in gambling studies.
The role of the Arts and Humanities
In terms of the Faculty of Arts, the Hub will bring together academics from Modern Languages and other disciplines – including Anthropology, History and Philosophy – to cover a range of focus areas, such as the ethical implications of gambling, debates around advertising, and the history of how gambling has changed and evolved.
My particular areas of interest involve research into the long history of illegal gambling, the deep connections between gambling and corruption in professional sport, and the development of gambling from a rigidly controlled activity carried out in person using cash in betting shops to one using digital and phone technology. Other key areas being investigated include the connections between the illegal and legal sectors, and the ways in which gambling has led to numerous sporting scandals.
Some ex-footballers with gambling issues, such as former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, have become campaigners against advertising in sport. One of the aims of our research will be to connect these campaigns and campaigners and their personal experiences of gambling addiction.
There are also ongoing and long-running debates around the ethics of betting advertising during sport, and the connections to match and spot-fixing which has affected sports in a serious way, in particular within football, tennis, snooker and cricket. Major sporting scandals have arisen around betting connections to match fixing and other forms of fixing, such as Calciopoli in Italy in 2006.
The importance of multidisciplinary research
Academic colleagues joining me to help develop these research ideas include Professor Matthew Brown and Professor Martin Hurcombe, experts on sport in South America and France, respectively. They bring historical and other methodologies to bear on this subject, as well as access to networks in specific regions (such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia) and expert areas (such as sports specialists). The Hub will also tap into networks and expertise provided by the Brigstow Institute, which has a special emphasis on local actors and coproduction of research.
Another key area of study for the Hub is the transition of gambling from an activity which had boundaries and borders, to the ability to bet internationally on an almost limitless variety of events, and through mobile phones and computers. The study of this transition and its effects on the spread, impact and business of gambling is essential to an understanding of harm reduction and how it can be brought about today.
February marks LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to reflect upon the rich history of LGBTQ+ communities. It offers an opportunity to remember those who have fought for LGBTQ+ rights, consider the progress made, and look ahead to engage in a more inclusive, visible and equal future.
Piecing together history can be a fascinating puzzle. How can we properly represent the nuances of history in situations where the little information available to us comes from biased sources? What more can we learn about trans history? How can we talk about trans lives today by examining a story from over 100 years ago? The Brigstow Institute brought together a team of researchers from different disciplines – history, law and performance art – to answer these questions.
‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ explores the life of Jenny Moore, a person from an impoverished background in Gateshead in the early 1900s. Little information was available about Jenny and her life, save for criminal records and a few related newspaper articles. How did living outside the law shape her identity and experience?
We caught up with Dr Sarah Jones, a social and cultural historian of gender and sexuality, to learn more about the project, breaking the mould of traditional historical investigation, and using performance to enhance research.
‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ is a fascinating interdisciplinary project bringing together the worlds of history, law and performance art. What led you to carry out this research, and why is this research important?
Often, the evidence about LGBTQ+ lives we find in the archives is focused on processes of regulation and control. While it is a rare gift to find personal testimonies or clues about what ‘real life’ might have been like for LGBTQ+ people in the nineteenth century, it is far more likely that we will find accounts of persecution and prosecution at the hands of bodies such as medicine and the law.
To some extent, this is true in the case of Jenny Moore – a person a judge said ‘always lived in the shadow of the prison door.’ When we encounter her story in our sources, we can learn a little about her arrests for theft or loitering, and perhaps gain little snippets of insight into the challenges of being what we might think of as a trans woman in Victorian Britain. Our research, though, attempted to tell new and different stories about Jenny and her life. Bringing together our different fields of expertise, combining creative and academic practice, we wanted to capture more of the rich, complex essence of a character like Jenny Moore. As well as helping us reflect on how our understandings of queer lives are shaped by archives focused on their often brutal encounters with the state, our project also sought to think about how we could tell fuller stories about LGBTQ+ people in both the past and present.
How did the team go about this research?
The project brought together a group of scholars and artists to try and explore Jenny’s life through different lenses. On the academic side, a group of colleagues (Professor Josie McLellan, Dr Jeanie Sinclair, Professor Lois Bibbings, Nic Aaron, and myself) with backgrounds in history or law explored the background and context of Jenny’s life. We considered what her world might have looked like, and also tried to track down more details of what she got up to as the Victorian era gave way to the twentieth century.
While we tried to create as rich a picture as possible of her life and times, we also attempted to ‘fill the gaps’ through creative practice – to use our existing knowledge to imagine the kinds of spaces she might have frequented, and the people she might have met. All of this research was workshopped with Tom Marshman – an artist and performer interested in ‘the outsider’ and their story, particularly regarding the LGBTQ+ experience, and stories from the queer history that have been omitted through silences in the archive. This process of collaborative and creative research has been feeding into a performance created by Tom, alongside composer, singer, and musician Jenny Moore, writer and performer Enxi Chang, and puppeteer Emma Powell.
What impact has this research had?
At the most basic level, we’ve told a version of Jenny’s story. Her little corner of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain could have easily been totally lost to history – dismissed, perhaps, in traditional academic work because the evidence we have about what her life was like is patchy and our picture of her incomplete. Creative projects like this one give us room to tell different stories of the past, and to build insights into LGBTQ+ lives that might slip between the cracks in the archive. In a contemporary moment where the rights of LGBTQ+ (and particularly transgender) people are under attack, it feels more important than ever to engage the public with stories like Jenny’s.
Beyond this, we’re also hoping the project will have broader applications. Nic, one of the research team, is investigating how we might be able to use Jenny’s story to uplift trans people – especially, they note, those at the sharp end of criminalisation like Jenny was. As part of this, for example, Nic has connected our work with the Bent Bars Project, drawing links between Jenny and the experiences of trans people who are currently incarcerated. Our research, then, has helped us to reflect on how we approach LGBTQ+ history, engaged the public with some intriguing and timely trans history, and has started us thinking about how historical work around gender diversity can be relevant to trans communities today. In short, the project honours Jenny but is bigger than her alone.
What are the next steps for the project team?
For now, our collaboration is wrapped up. On the research side, Nic, Jeanie and I are preparing a chapter that reflects on the project and how and why we worked together. In that publication we look to reflect on the messiness of working with an incomplete and often problematic archive, and the benefits and challenges of multi-disciplinary and creative research. We also look forward to seeing the performance take shape. Tom has prepared a work in progress version of the show, and we’re hopeful that there will be a full performance coming to a theatre sometime this year.
By Professor Helen Fulton, Chair in Medieval Literature, Department of English
One of my research directions is aimed towards medieval towns and urban culture, especially in the region of the March of Wales. Some while ago I collaborated on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project on medieval Chester which resulted in an online map of the medieval streetscape of the city, with links to its major churches and buildings. This inspired an interest in the possibilities of mapping – both digital and hard copy – as a tool for research, education, and public engagement.
As a Trustee of the Historic Towns Trust (HTT), which produces hard-copy maps of historic towns throughout the UK, I took on the leadership of a project to produce a map of medieval Bristol, which was published in December 2020. I worked in partnership with Professor Peter Fleming at UWE, a renowned expert on medieval Bristol, and a team of local historians and archaeologists from the city of Bristol. Our first job was to decide roughly what period of time would be covered by the map – it is possible to layer maps on top of each other to show features and streetscapes from different periods of time, and some of the HTT maps have done exactly that. For Bristol, however, it made sense to focus quite precisely on the year 1480, when a well-networked Bristolian, William Worcestre, made a survey of the city of Bristol on foot, literally counting how many paces there were between landmarks. Using this survey, together with many other historical records of the city, the team was able to reconstruct the layout of Bristol in 1480, along with its major churches, abbeys, gentry houses, taverns, industrial buildings, and even its water supply.
The production of this unique map was funded partly by public donations and partly by a generous grant from the University of Bristol Knowledge Exchange fund. We used the money to employ a research assistant, Dr Bethany Whalley, who researched the history of the various streets and buildings that are described in the Gazetteer on the back of the map. Crucial information was also supplied by our team of local experts, each of whom had specialised knowledge of the city’s history. I co-wrote the introduction to the map, describing the work of William Worcestre, and edited all the textual information on the map, including the street names and other words on the map itself as well as the Gazetteer. We worked closely with the HTT cartographer, Giles Darkes, whose beautiful artwork makes all the HTT maps stand out not only as useful reference guides but as works of art.
Despite being published during a pandemic lockdown, the map has sold very well and has been the topic of numerous public lectures, in person and online. The map was launched during the Fifteenth Century Conference in early September at St James Priory. We are now planning a workshop at the annual Historical Association conference to be held in Bristol in May 2022, and we are working with an educational consultant to produce a study package for Key Stage 2 students.
Entre Memorias e Historias (Between Memories and Histories) is a new podcast in Spanish dedicated to the role of history and memory in present-day Colombia. Through dialogues with experts, listeners will gain an understanding of the inequality, joy, conflict and resilience found in contemporary Colombia. The themes covered range across two centuries of history, from transitional justice to curriculum reform, from the heroes and villains of the past to the uses of the machete over time.
Entre Memorias e Historias came to fruition as a result of travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic which prevented Professor Brown from continuing to learn about Colombia through his usual channels: archival research, conference participation, and the workshops that had been planned as part of the UKRI/Newton Fund project ‘Bringing memories in from the margins’.
“This feeling of enhanced remoteness, of somehow being even further away from Colombia than normal, motivated me to reach out and have longer, deeper dialogues with people who I would normally have shared a conference panel or archive coffee with,” said Professor Brown.
The audios – each a conversation of around 30 minutes – were originally recorded via Zoom in late 2020 as part of ‘Colombia: History and Culture since Independence’, a final-year undergraduate unit taught by Professor Brown in the School of Modern Languages. The podcast uses technology to build previously unthought-of dialogues, so that they can be used as instruments for reflection and transformation.
Pumpkins have been carved. Costumes are being donned. Scary films are being watched from behind cushions and hands. Yes, Halloween is upon us once again, so we decided to delve into the past to find out more about the fascinating history of witchcraft. We’re joined (virtually!) by Dr Will Pooley, a social and cultural historian who gives us some interesting (and at times gruesome) insights. Read on, if you dare…
Trigger warning: the following interview contains mentions of violence and abuse.
Hi Will, thanks for joining us for this Halloween special. To many people, the word ‘research’ conjures up images of labs, safety goggles and petri dishes (all of which are important, of course!), but your area of research is quite different altogether and rather niche – can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s true, I don’t spend a lot of time in a laboratory! My research is on modern histories of witchcraft. I focus on France, and on criminal trial records and newspaper accounts that deal with cases where people really did fear witches.
I’m certainly not the first person to notice these cases, but what I’ve been trying to do is get up close and personal with modern sorcery. Rather than just reading newspaper accounts – which often get things muddled up – I’ve spent a lot of time in regional archives taking advantage of the expertise and help of archivists who have worked to preserve the witness statements, medical reports, and other documents from nineteenth- and twentieth-century trials. I want to know what ordinary people thought and believed about witches, and the harms they believed that witchcraft caused.
That sounds fascinating! What do you think it is about witchcraft that people find so intriguing and has led to witch ‘stereotypes’ being so solidly linked to Halloween?
My colleague here at Bristol, Professor Ronald Hutton, recently wrote a wonderful book called The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present which really delves into why it is that so many societies around the world share a concept of the witch: a malevolent living human being who causes harm through supernatural means. One of the things I take from Professor Hutton’s work, as well as the equally brilliant book by Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History, is that the stereotypes we have of ‘the witch’ do have a history.
A lot of people in Europe and North America will immediately picture similar images in their mind’s eye when you mention a witch: probably a woman, old, ugly, with a pointy nose, pointy hat, cat, broomstick, and cauldron. Of course, that is a cartoon image, but one of the things that the very long history of witchcraft around the world confirms is that witches have been thought of in many ways. Many societies have feared female witches, but others, such as early-modern Iceland, believed most witches were men. In some periods and regions, including the Democratic Republic of Congo today, it is children whose witchcraft has been most feared.
As for the link with Halloween, I have to confess I am no expert! What I would say is that while the connection between Halloween and the spirits of the dead is a longstanding one in western Christianity, witchcraft has – as far as I know – not been as intimately connected with Halloween. In my own research, I find that witches and witchcraft aren’t really tied to Halloween specifically. In fact, conflicts over witchcraft were probably more likely to bubble over during Carnival and other celebrations, when spirits were running high, and the wine, beer, or cider had been flowing!
Many people will have heard of seventeenth-century cases, such as the Salem witch trials in North America or the Pendle witches in Lancashire, but they may not be as familiar with the more recent history of witchcraft on which your research is focussed – what was it about this particular time period that sparked your curiosity?
I do find that a lot of people – even a lot of historians – are surprised when I say that I work on ‘modern witchcraft’, and that I mean fear of malevolent witches in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries in France.
In fact, a range of researchers have been working on this for many years. The historical field has really been led by Professor Owen Davies, who has written about a range of British, French, American and global examples. But as far back as the 1950s, the anthropologist Marcelle Bouteiller showed that fear of witches was very much still alive in France.
I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious and the supernatural, and I originally wanted to do my PhD on this topic. I’m glad I didn’t (great advice from my supervisor Professor David Hopkin!) because there is far too much material for a PhD. In fact, I know of close to 1,000 criminal trials or police investigations into cases involving witchcraft in France between 1790 and 1940, and there must have been a great deal more. Perhaps these cases are not as prevalent as during the most intense periods of witch-hunting in the early modern period, but they aren’t that rare! There are some villages and towns in western France where it seems as if there were witchcraft cases every few years in the nineteenth century…
How did perceptions of witches change following the decriminalisation of witchcraft in France?
So, witchcraft was effectively decriminalised in France in 1682, and definitively excluded from the new penal code in 1791. After that point, there were no grounds to prosecute people suspected of harmful magic for that magic alone.
How did this change perceptions of witches? Well I’ll give two contradictory answers – the truth is probably somewhere between the two!
The first is that it didn’t change perceptions that much. Many witches continued to be suspected of the same misdeeds: they caused illnesses in humans and animals, especially afflicting young infants, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and dairy cows. The stereotypes of the witch remained stable in many ways, too. Normandy had been a region of male witchcraft in the early modern trials and continued to be so in the nineteenth century. In fact, so many of the cases I have found are from Normandy and the west of France – where witches were also predominantly thought to be men – that male witches dominate my research, much to many people’s surprise. But other regions with fewer cases, such as the Occitan-speaking regions of southern France, preserved the patterns of female witchcraft they had displayed during the witch trials.
On the other hand, there are really important changes in how witches were perceived and dealt with. I’ll mention just three. First, the Catholic Church generally tried to distance itself from questions of witchcraft. That didn’t stop some local priests from getting involved in witchcraft disputes, but the general effect it had on perceptions of witches was dramatic. Where the early modern trials were often focused on uncovering evidence of a pact with Satan, the modern cases have lost this drive. The Devil does not feature in most of them at all.
The second change in perception is connected to French colonialism and imperialism. From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries there was a progressive racialisation of thinking about ‘witchcraft’. Journalists and researchers did not find it convenient to dwell on the ‘superstitions’ of the French population, and preferred to associate belief in witchcraft with the colonised populations of north and central Africa, the Caribbean, Madagascar, and Indo-China. One of the most depressing examples concerns Hégésippe Jean Légitimus (1868-1944). As a representative of Guadeloupe, Légitimus was only the second black man elected to the French National Assembly, and the first in over a hundred years. But his time in Paris was dogged by tabloid coverage of accusations of ‘witchcraft’ in Guadeloupe directed against Légitimus and other socialists.
The final thing to say about new perceptions is just how easily witchcraft in France – as elsewhere across the globe – adapts to new situations and problems. In addition to bewitched cows, French men and women complained of enchanted automobiles and bicycles. They described feelings of bewitchment in terms of electricity, images seen at the cinema, and in the language of up-to-date psychiatric and medical theories, such as neurasthenia. It’s very easy to slip into the same language that newspapers at the time used to describe people who feared witches, which assumes that these people lived in rural areas. But the truth is, there were witchcraft disputes in all of the large cities, and even rural witchcraft cases often involved individuals who worked in nearby industrial centres, in mines, or factories.
What is the most common misconception people have about the history of witches and witchcraft?
The biggest mistake people make is to think that the history of witchcraft is over! The ways that we – including historians! – talk about the early modern trials as a ‘craze’ or a ‘panic’ imply that our ancestors briefly lost their reason, before cooler heads restored order. There’s actually a lot of work by historians now that questions this story of the progressive rationalisation and secularisation of criminal justice and elite culture.
It’s not the area I research myself, but I think one good way to put this story of progress into perspective is to ask: how many countries today have laws against witchcraft? Violent persecution of witches today is such a great problem that the United Nations Human Rights Committee and UNICEF have both been working on measures to combat the harms justified by fear of witches. Closer to home, the Metropolitan Police in London have a special unit devoted to cases of child abuse connected to spiritual beliefs.
I think it’s really important to be careful about the continuing racialisation of these harms in the media and by the authorities. UN agencies focus their attention on cases in sub-Saharan Africa, and a lot of the coverage of the cases in the UK has concerned immigrants, as in the terrible child abuse case in Haringey at the turn of the millennium. But from what I know of contemporary French cases, it would be hasty to assume that witchcraft disputes in Europe today are limited to immigrant groups. In Brive-la-Gaillarde in 2016, for instance, an old woman was badly assaulted by her family members for witchcraft. Many people who do know something about ‘modern witchcraft’ will assume that I research Wiccans and other modern pagans. But I’m more focused on the fact that, sadly, fear of witches and violence connected to sorcery have not gone away in Europe even today, although the scale may have greatly decreased.
Why is your research specifically – and arts and humanities research more generally – so important?
I’ve been very influenced by other historians who argue that history performs a similar function for society as literature does: it allows us to imagine how different things could be. And the advantage that history has over literature in this respect is that we know this is not just an imaginative possibility: I research events and processes that really did take place. The past contains vast and varied different ways of organising societies and culture.
It might seem that the topic of my research is something of a depressing one to choose from this point of view. Who wants to update their sense of progress by discovering that belief in witches has continued to cause serious harms into the present day in Europe? But I would say that we do have responsibilities to come to terms with that, and to adapt our own self-understanding to recognise that – perhaps – fear of witches runs so deep in our culture, or even in some more fundamental layer of the human mind, that it cannot simply be educated away in science lessons or religious studies. A suitably scary thought for Halloween?
But I don’t think it has to be understood in a purely negative light. Conflicts, and especially the most violent ones, glow in the darkness of our knowledge of the past. It’s much easier to find evidence, for example, where fears of witches led to tragic results. And that isn’t always what happened. It’s harder work, but I am very interested by cases where tensions were defused through the interventions of clergy, or healers, or local officials, or community leaders of some kind.
I know many historians are uneasy about learning ‘lessons’ from the past, but I do think it’s worth thinking about how some communities and authorities have succeeded not in eradicating the fear of witches, but in mitigating and alleviating the harms these fears can cause.
You know people for whom witchcraft is a real force in the world, even if you do not realise it. The problem is not how to persuade them they are wrong about this, but how to prevent a situation in which a belief like this could cause harm. I still have some faith in arts and humanities research to address real problems like this!
People often talk about the creative aspects of Arts and Humanities, but I was drawn towards studying History because I enjoyed the idea of challenging established facts and ideas. This has only grown through my Bachelors and Masters degrees, and now at PhD level I get the chance to design the questions I want to answer, and work out how to answer them.
My PhD research looks at the British community in Hong Kong from 1980 to 2000, tracking how it changed in preparation for the handover of the territory to China in 1997. Researching for this has taken me all over the UK, to the US, and to Hong Kong, allowing me to collect a variety of sources and interview many different people. Now in the final stages of my PhD, I am weaving these sources together to form a narrative that hopefully gives a unique insight into a relative recently period of history.
The Arts and Humanities have a reputation for exclusivity, and distance from the ‘real world’, but I have found this to be patently untrue during my studies. The stories I uncover on a daily basis, through newspapers, diaries, oral histories, letters, and other countless sources, put ordinary people at the centre of the historical narrative. They often have similar hopes and fears as people do today, and provide us with valuable insight into their period, and how it relates to today’s events.
History is also about developing skills that we sometimes take for granted. During my years of study I have learned how to research and find information quickly, comprehend the meaning of documents, and synthesise these into a narrative that can be written up. These skills are useful in everyday life, and I have used them extensively in jobs I have held during my studies.
The best thing about studying History, and the Arts and Humanities, is discovering the links between the city and country you live in, and much wider narratives. It helps give meaning to the streets you walk down everyday, and things we take for granted in everyday life, especially in a deeply historical city like Bristol. It also means that people here are interested in and care about the Arts and Humanities, and the times I have interacted with them at talks, debates, and exhibits have been the most rewarding of my time at university and remind me that arts matter outside the university just as much as inside.