The Centre for Medieval Studies: Examining the Past into the Future

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

Centre for Environmental Humanities – Who we are and what we do

By Dr Adrian Howkins and Dr Paul Merchant

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).  

The River Avon at low tide, with the Clifton Suspension Bridge above. It is dark and the lights from nearby buildings are reflected in the water
The River Avon at low tide. Credit: Kristoffer Trolle, CC-BY 2.0

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.   

We are very excited to be developing a new MA in Environmental Humanities, which is due to start in September 2023. You can find out more and apply on our website. 

Dr Adrian Howkins and Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Directors, Centre for Environmental Humanities 

Introducing the Centre for Creative Technologies

By Dr Paul Clarke and Dr Ed King, Co-Directors of the Centre for Creative Technologies 

We are excited to be launching the new Centre for Creative Technologies this autumn and to have been supported by the Faculty of Arts. The Centre will provide a focus for colleagues from a wide range of disciplines working with and on creative technologies, using creative technologies as a method in their practice-as-research and working historically, critically, or theoretically on media. Our understanding of creative technologies is inclusive of both analogue and digital technologies, and of media from print and film to gaming and Virtual Reality. Bristol Common Press is part of the Centre, and we are closely associated with the new Bristol Digital Game Lab which is advertising upcoming events on its new site. 

Over our first foundational year we’ll be defining the Centre’s identity and scope through a series of events and doing so in dialogue with Centre members and our partners, both within and beyond the University, locally and internationally. We hope that bringing Faculty researchers together through the Centre will lead to inspiring conversations and collaborative exchanges, building our critical mass in this priority area for both the University of Bristol and the city region. 

In the foreground is a smart phone in landscape orientation on a selfie stick. Someone's left hand is holding onto the selfie stick. The phone screen displays a blue and white digital image of the scene in front of the phone's camera viewfinder, which is blurred in the background.
Billennium, by Uninvited Guests and Duncan Speakman. Photo by Paul Blakemore.

As evidenced by the success of the MyWorld Strength in Places bid, the University of Bristol and the South West region have a reputation as international trailblazers in screen-based media and creative technology research and development. Our Centre’s Management Committee includes Ki Cater, Professor in Computer Science and co-investigator on MyWorld, alongside Susan Halford, Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the new Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Sociodigital Futures, and Dylan Law from the Research and Enterprise Division (RED), who’s responsible for managing and developing creative and cultural opportunities. The intention is for the Centre to be a vehicle for more cross-Faculty STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) research projects and to promote interdisciplinary collaboration on creative technologies innovation. 

The Centre also aims to enable and encourage further engagement with creative industries and communities on impact or knowledge exchange, including exploring social and civic applications of creative technologies with partners like Knowle West Media Centre. Our recent publications, activities and interdisciplinary projects range from Dr Ed King’s book Twins and Recursion in Digital, Literary and Visual Cultures and the AI and Literature symposium, which the Centre co-hosted, to Professor Esther Eidinow’s Virtual Reality Oracle, Connecting Through Culture as we Age: Digital Innovation for Healthy Aging and Dr Paul Clarke’s augmented reality engagement activity for planning consultation, Future Places Toolkit. 

The Centre will be based at the Pervasive Media Studio, which is a partnership between Watershed, UWE Bristol (UWE) and the University of Bristol, where UWE’s Digital Cultures Research Centre (DCRC) is also based. Jo Lansdowne (Executive Producer, Pervasive Media Studio) said: “We look forward to hosting the Centre in the Studio, to members contributing to the community of residents, and increasing the presence of the University of Bristol here. We’re planning a range of activities together, including a welcome event on Thursday 1 December, speculative co-design workshops around ‘Alternative Technologies’, and a series of public Friday lunchtime talks that will take critical perspectives on creative technologies. These will be co-curated with the Studio and the DCRC and it will be great to get Bristol and UWE researchers together with the creative technology professionals resident in the studio for discussions, to share skills and ideas, and to imagine exciting new collaborative projects.” 

A screenshot from the Virtual Reality Oracle, showing a figure in ancient Greek robes with arms outstretched, palms up, and looking up to the sky. The figure is standing in front of a large tree with bright green leaves.
Virtual Reality Oracle Project, Esther Eidinow , Kirsten Cater, et al, with Friday Sunday Studios, funded by AHRC, University of Bristol.

A priority for the Centre will be to support Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and postgraduates (PGRs), to attract new PhDs in this area, and to build the Faculty’s community of practice and research in creative technologies. One of the ways in which we’ll be doing this is through a new ECR and PGR-led reading group run by Dr Francesco Bentivegna and Katy Dadacz. As they say: “This will be open to those beyond the University, including Pervasive Media Studio residents and Control Shift Network. The group will focus on readings that explore creative relations between humans and machines, with invited presentations, discussions of interactive experiences and media, plus sharings of research and practice in progress. As far as professional development for researchers at all stages of their careers, there are plans to work with the Library and Jean Golding Institute on training, potentially with funding from a bid recently submitted to the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Embedding Digital Skills in Humanities and Arts Research scheme, and also for immersive media training in partnership with MyWorld. The MA Immersive Arts, which is part of MyWorld’s skills provision, is also associated with the Centre. 

The Centre for Creative Technologies will have a soft launch this semester, building towards a larger-scale and higher profile event at the end of this academic year, developed through exchanges with related centres internationally (and potentially in collaboration with the Virtual Reality Oracle project, Bristol Digital Game Lab and Bristol Common Press). The aim is for this to be both a symposium and showcase, to share Bristol’s thought- and practice-leading research in this growth area for both the University and local creative and immersive industries.  

We’re currently growing our membership, so do get in touch, whether your interests relate and you’d like to get involved in contributing to Centre activities, or if you’d like to join our mailing list to hear about upcoming events and opportunities. 

Dr Paul Clarke and Dr Ed King (Centre Co-Directors) 

Supporting digital literacies in Brazil through videogame design

From digital inclusion to digital literacies

Associate Professor Ed King tells us about his latest project to develop a science-fiction videogame to raise awareness of the dangers of social media disinformation in Brazil. To do this, he’s been working with local Brazilian organisations. It is an example of how arts research can address societal challenges. The project has recently received an AHRC Impact Acceleration Account award.

With help from the AHRC Impact Acceleration Account, I am currently collaborating with artists and non-profit organisations in Brazil to develop a videogame which will improve digital literacies. Our videogame will raise awareness about the dangers of disinformation by providing them with an accessible, engaging, free and enjoyable educational resource which will encourage young people to think critically about these issues through the medium of digital play.

In the early 2000s, during the first administration of the left-wing Worker’s Party President Lula da Silva, the Brazilian government invested heavily in ‘digital inclusion’ initiatives as a way of reducing social inequalities in the country. The ‘Pontos de Cultura’ project, for example, which funded media centres based in community spaces across the country, including in favelas and socially deprived neighbourhoods, became a model for approaches to free software among policy makers in Europe and North America.

‘Future calls’ by Rafael Coutinho, Cachalote Produções

However, now that there are extremely high levels of smartphone ownership and social media usage in Brazil, it has become clear that access to digital networks is not a guarantee of social inclusion but can entail exposure to manipulation and data surveillance. As a result, the focus among governmental and non-profit organisations working in this area has shifted from increasing digital inclusion to supporting digital literacies across the social spectrum.

Why is this research important?

Through my research, it has become evident that a digital literacy skill in need of particularly urgent support is the identification of disinformation online. This emerged as an important issue during the last presidential elections in Brazil in 2018 and was cited by many reports as a key factor in the rise to power of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro (who is seeking re-election in October 2022). It was also an important factor in the consolidation of cultures of denial during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, government and non-governmental organisations (such as Global Network Initiative and Direitos na Rede) have been attempting to tackle the issue at the levels of policy and law, including through the regulation of content.

Over the last few years, I have been working with a network of organisations that have been working with communities across Brazil to develop digital literacies as a way of expanding social inclusion.

  • In 2020-21, with support from an ESRC-IAA grant, I collaborated with the Ubatuba-based Instituto Neos to produce the ID21 report, which provides a survey of the major challenges facing these organisations.
  • With funding from a Bristol Digital Futures Seed Corn grant and the Participatory Research Fund, we used this report as the basis for developing an online repository of educational resources to be used in constructing new community digital inclusion initiatives and policies.
‘Future calls’ by Rafael Coutinho, Cachalote Produções

What does the research project involve?

Our project aims to support those organisations looking to tackle disinformation at the level of its reception, particularly among marginalised communities. ‘Futuro Chama’ is a videogame that uses a science fiction plot to encourage young people to think critically about the spread of disinformation through social media. It was developed in collaboration with a group of digital artists led by Rafael Coutinho and members of non-profit organisations based across Brazil that contributed to the ID21 report. These include: Instituto Neos (Ubatuba); Instituto Procomum (Santos); Coletivo Digital (São Paulo); Casa de Cultura Tainã (Campinas); and Associação Thydewá (Olivença).

We developed a prototype of the game with ESRC-IAA funding and have recently received AHRC-IAA ‘Proof of Concept’ funding to complete the game’s development and carry out beta testing. We will also start looking for potential users of the game beyond Brazil. This will involve translating the game into English and approaching organisations that support creative technological approaches to the challenges of democratisation.

Who will the game’s initial users be?

The first users will be the same organisations that contributed to the ID21 report and collaborated in the development of the game. They will use ‘Futuro Chama’ during the digital literacy workshops they run to support the development of digital literacies among marginalised communities. However, we will also distribute the game more widely through the same social media networks that the game critically engages. The aim here will be to raise public awareness of the dangers of misinformation, particularly in a context of social upheaval such as the current political crisis in Brazil.

The Centre for Black Humanities: Who we are and future directions

The Centre for Black Humanities is an international hub for Black Humanities research in the heart of Bristol. The Centre aims to foster the broad range of research currently being done at the University of Bristol around the artistic and intellectual work of people of African descent. Some of our current interdisciplinary projects include Dr Josie Gill’s research on ‘Black Health and the Humanities’, Dr Elizabeth Robles’ work on Black British Art, and Dr Justin William’s project on UK Hip-Hop. Other research projects include those relating to ethics and social justice, literary activism, and slavery and its legacies.

The Centre is committed to reaching audiences outside the traditional university through a diverse programme of film screenings, reading groups, performances, and research collaborations with local communities. Such activities enable our research to generate impact in other areas including the cultural industries and higher education policy.

Our main priorities as a Centre are: collaboration, interdisciplinarity, engagement, exchange, and internationalism. The Centre works with academics, artists and practitioners – nationally and internationally –  to produce world-leading research in Black Humanities. We work across disciplines in the Arts and Humanities but also beyond, with researchers in the Sciences and Social Sciences. Centre members also facilitate a wide range of public engagement activities based on our research in local, national and international settings, working with museums, charities and other organisations to deliver high-quality, non-academic outputs.

Additionally, we have active research partnerships with local writers, artists and grassroots organisations in Bristol. These help create high-profile opportunities for mutual exchange and collaboration on issues of local and national importance. We also have academic and creative partners in Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Portugal, Brazil, and the US, amongst others. A list of our international board members can be found on our website.

The Centre has had a series of visiting scholars join us. In 2021, we were delighted to host Professor Nicola Aljoe. Professor Aljoe’s research is on Black Atlantic and Caribbean literature with a specialisation on the slave narrative and early novels. She described her time in Bristol:

‘Despite the ongoing COVID pandemic, my sojourn at the Centre for Black Humanities in Bristol during the fall term of 2021 was an incredibly productive and intellectually engaging experience. I conducted research in the Bristol archives on two related projects. The first was the creation of a digital map of the various locations associated with Black people in 18th – century London through the lens of Ignatius Sancho. The second project was my book manuscript on representations of women of colour from the Caribbean in fictional European texts between 1790 and 1830. Such data productively challenges notions of absence of Black people in the archives of Britain at this time, and provides more details about the complexities of their lives.’

The Centre offers exciting opportunities for our early career and postgraduate community, through cutting-edge research and dialogue with arts and community activists. This year, Adriel Miles, Alice Kinghorn and Francis Asante are coordinating a programme of events. Francis explained:

‘The Centre plans to organise a number of postgraduate research (PGR) seminars and reading groups. Two seminars are planned for the first teaching block on topics related to the exploration of racial communities in online spaces, and the relationship between race, music, and cultural politics. These events are designed to encourage a sense of community in the Centre, and to provide a space for learning and socialising. Preparations for the seminars are still ongoing, and further information about them will be shared soon.’

Dr Saima Nasar and Professor Madhu Krishnan

(Centre Co-Directors)

Talking about grief: how can we lift the taboo?

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 10 October 2022.

On World Mental Health Day, 10 October, we connected with Dr Lesel Dawson, Associate Professor in Literature and Culture at the University of Bristol, and Arts and Culture Lead for The Good Grief Festival, to hear about her research into grief and creativity.

Throughout history, humans have created art to honour the life of someone who has died—from ancient Greek and Roman gravestones to Victorian hair locks, from Renaissance elegies to modern memorial tattoos. While forms of mourning change over time and from culture to culture, our need to express grief and have our pain recognised and witnessed persists.

However, over the last century, we have lost many of the communal and creative ways that we come together to grieve, and with them perhaps, the confidence to support bereaved people we know. Worried about saying the wrong thing, we can slip into tired clichés or avoid the subject altogether, so that people who are grieving often feel lonely, stigmatised, and isolated.

Good Grief

We set out to help change this with Good Grief: A Virtual Festival of Love and Loss, led by founder Lucy Selman (co-lead of the University of Bristol Palliative and End of Life Care Research Group) and initially funded by a grant from the Wellcome Trust. The festival brings together grief therapists, academics, palliative care doctors, comedians, artists, and musicians to have open and honest conversations about grief, death and loss, aspiring to provide a platform for bereaved people to share experiences and facilitate a shift in how we approach and understand death and grief. Integrating the arts into the festival has both helped engage audiences and highlighted the individual and varied nature of grief. Our new project, Good Grief Connects aims to further this work by collaborating with partners (Compassionate Cymru, The Ubele Initiative and Compassion in Dying) to deliver and evaluate three pilot projects that will help support diverse communities talk about death and grief and access the support they need.

My work as the Good Grief Festival’s Arts and Culture Lead has impacted my research, which explores the role of creativity and the imagination in grief. Drawing on the work of Robert Neimeyer, I explore the way bereavement shatters our ‘assumptive world’, the beliefs and assumptions that frame how we conceptualise ourselves and our futures. As part of a process called ‘adaptive grieving’, creativity can help enable us to confront the painful reality of our loved one’s death and begin to integrate the changes that follow our bereavement. When we create art, we both share our experiences with others and act as our own witness in a self-dialogue which can be illuminating and therapeutic. In this context, our imagination is both a source of suffering and a means to process what has happened.

Grief and art

Drawing from an Art Therapy Session showing red hearts and yellow and gold stars
Artwork from an Art Therapy Session with Victoria Tolchard

Creative expression can be particularly valuable for children, who sometimes struggle to express their feelings verbally and often learn and communicate through play. Children grieve as deeply as adults and need to be allowed to express their feelings and told the truth in age-appropriate language so they can be part of their family’s narrative of what has happened. Toys, paint, clay and sand can provide non-verbal forms of communication, and allow children a safe, structured space to explore difficult feelings and tell their story.

These ideas are explored in two Brigstow-funded short films which I co-produced: Children, Grief and Creativity, created with psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE (Founder Patron of Child Bereavement UK and bestselling author) and animator Gary Andrews (creator of ‘Doodle-a-Day’ and Finding Joy), and Children, Grief and Art Therapy made with Art Therapist Victoria Tolchard and Gary Andrews.

Grief education

While the Good Grief Festival has supported more open conversations about bereavement, we need more foundational, systemic changes if we are to transform a culture that still treats grief and death as taboo. One long-overdue change is to make grief education a statutory component of the curriculum in all four countries of the UK. As charities and organisations (such as Child Bereavement UK, Childhood Bereavement Network and Winston’s Wish) and psychotherapists, psychologists, child specialists and academics have demonstrated, grief education can help destigmatise grief and death, enabling children and young people to understand bereavement and better support friends and peers who are grieving. Schools are uniquely placed to prepare children for difficult life experiences, and the charity sector has developed a wealth of lesson plans, resources and expertise which make mandatory grief education both timely and actionable.

To support this change (and the work that has already been done), Rachel Hare, Lucy Selman and I are working with Tracey Boseley (National Development Lead for the Education Sector for Child Bereavement UK) and Alison Penny (Director of Childhood Bereavement Network and Co-ordinator for National Bereavement Alliance) on a review that brings together research on the benefits of grief education, explores the most effective ways to integrate the topics into schools, and considers issues with teacher training and other obstacles. Statutory grief education would be an effective and efficient way to help school pupils talk about death, preparing them to manage their own grief and support others, and fostering the development of a more compassionate society.

More information:

Introducing the Faculty Research Centres

By Hilary Carey, Faculty Research Director

We are delighted to launch five Faculty Research Centres (FRC) for a new cycle of five years of funding at the University of Bristol. They are:

  • Black Humanities
  • Creative Technologies
  • Environmental Humanities
  • Health, Humanities and Science
  • Medieval Studies

We like to think of the FRCs as the crown jewels in the Faculty’s glittering treasure chest of activist, interdisciplinary research. The five Centres showcase arts and humanities research at the cutting edge of new knowledge, asking key questions about themes and issues critical to the city of Bristol, the people of the West of England, and the world.

Each Centre has developed a diverse programme of activity including public lectures and debates, workshops and seminars, conferences and collaborations that engage colleagues and the public beyond the University.

Here is a sneak preview of some of the many Centre activities and opportunities that we can look forward to this academic year:

  1. The Centre for Black Humanities has a postgraduate research (PGR) group planning a series of seminars, reading groups and away days.
  2. The Centre for Creative Technologies will co-design sandbox events (isolated testing environments) with civic partners – the Pervasive Media Studio and Knowle West Media Centre – to explore social applications of arts and technologies.
  3. As part of the Centre for Creative Technologies, Bristol Common Press will host a global summer school on Technologies of the Book, which will run for three weeks in summer 2023.
  4. The Centre for Environmental Humanities has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the environmental humanities ‘Greenhouse’ at the University of Stavanger, demonstrating the positive potential for partnership working.
  5. The Centre for Environmental Humanities plans to host a ‘Future of the Environmental Humanities’ workshop that will bring together researchers to think about the question of what comes next for the field of environmental humanities.
  6. The Centre for Medieval Studies (CMS) has a regular seminar series including one session on ‘What every medievalist should know…’.
  7. The Medieval Studies Global Professor, Kathleen Kennedy, has developed links with the Bristol Central Library, and is planning an ambitious exhibition of medieval manuscripts in Bristol libraries and archives.
  8. The Centre for Health, Humanities and Science plans a symposium on ‘Hoarding’, convened by Andrew Blades.
  9. The Centre for Health, Humanities and Science is planning its first collaborative book, Key Concepts in Medical Humanities (Bloomsbury Academic), to be published in 2023.
  10. Each Centre will have its own site on the Bristol Blogs platform through which they can showcase their research and activities.

There is a lot more to look forward to, so find out more about our five fantastic Faculty Research Centres.

The entrance lobby and hallway in the Faculty of Arts, with pillars, brick wall and red furniture
The Faculty of Arts. Photo by Nick Smith.

Sea shanties

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

Mariners: Religion, race and empire in British ports, 1801-1914

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. 

A painting by Henry Herbert La Thangue depicting dockside evanglising, with sailors and missionaries.
Henry Herbert La Thangue, ‘A Mission to Seamen’ (1891). Credit: Nottingham City Museums & Galleries. CC-Non Commercial License.

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.  

Black and white photo of Mere Hall Hostel for Indian Seamen in Liverpool, showing sailors reading and chatting by the fire
Mere Hall Hostel for Indian Seamen, Liverpool. Credit: National Museums Liverpool, Archives Centre, reference B/BROC/7/5/12

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! 

Find out more about research in the Faculty of Arts. 

Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research

In May 2022, the University of Bristol announced the launch of the Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research, the first academic research centre to specialise in addressing the impact of gambling harms across Great Britain. Through taking new and multidisciplinary approaches, the Hub aims to build a greater understanding of gambling harms, leading to evidence-based action to prevent and reduce the negative impacts of gambling.  

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.  

A roulette wheel mid-spin

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.  

Cricket ball on a dark background

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.  

Read more about the Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research  

Find out more about research in the Faculty of Arts