The History Woman's Blog

Pretend less, read more

Posted in Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on March 15, 2014

nerd-glassesSince being a nerd has become cool I don’t like it any more. Big glasses are no longer the indicator of a visual impairment caused by too much reading, and pasty skin is less likely caused by long hours spent in libraries, archives or labs. It’s more likely the result of an overpriced holiday in Finland and cleverly applied make-up.

It is now socially acceptable, even hip, to be seen sitting by yourself in a murky café reading Camus. It is even more so if you’re wearing a baggy jumper you found in a charity shop, while frantically scribbling notes into your Moleskin notebook or are indeed staring into your MacBook. Not even questionable personal hygiene or unkempt hair are a safe indicator that the person next to you is a borderline genius.

On the other hand, real nerds are now heading to the gym to fight the pen pusher’s wobbly thighs and bingo wings, while buying the pretty plaid skirts and cardigans now cheaply available in American Apparel. So how am I supposed to tell them apart?

Chances are you will never know if someone is a real nerd until you have seen them walking into a glass door or actually had a conversation with them. In conversation, watch out for tell-tale signs: if the first association they make with the name ‘Churchill’ is that of a nodding dog in the back of a car, they might not be the real thing. If they can tell the difference between Thomas and Oliver Cromwell, you might be on to something. (more…)

Keeping the customer satisfied

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education by thehistorywoman on February 18, 2014

UCU_posterStrike action might be entering the hot phase later this year as the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has approved ‘a marking boycott to be implemented from 28 April if university employers still refuse to thrash out a deal over pay’.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association ‘have so far refused to engage in any meaningful talks over pay, despite six strikes since October 2013 and increasingly vociferous complaints from students about cancelled classes and missed seminars.’ So their employees are now going to strike where it hurts most, and it is the students who are going to suffer.

It is unfortunate that things had to come this far. Academic staff do not want to hurt their students. Lecturers are aware how important marks are to them, especially to final-year and postgraduate students who are going to apply for jobs and will be desperately waiting for their results. But nothing else will now make a difference.

As the UCU points out, in recent negotiations

This is untenable.

Academics are not greedy. Most of us are in the job we do because we love it. We are a bunch of geeks who enjoy research, writing and teaching. We want to share our knowledge with our students. Most of us could get much better paid work elsewhere. But we are still here because we care, and university bosses are taking advantage of that. They know we would not abandon our passion for research and teaching over a couple of quid a month. So they put the pressure on and see how far they can go. (more…)

CfP: Urban Ritual and Ceremony in Pre-Modern Europe, c.1300-c.1700

Posted in Academia, CFP, Conferences, Early Modern, History by thehistorywoman on January 13, 2014

A one-day conference to take place at Northumbria University on 29 May 2014.

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation in the study of ritual and ceremony in pre-modern European towns. Once considered a topic of only marginal interest, the study of late medieval and early modern ritual and ceremonial practices now lies at the forefront of historical investigation; indeed, many of the most innovative works of recent years have focused on these themes. The purpose of this one-day conference is to draw together urban historians of later medieval and early modern Europe who are working on any aspect of ritual and ceremony.

The development of multiple ritual and ceremonial practices in pre-modern European towns reflected the corporate nature of urban society. Such events could be cohesive or divisive, fostering unity or creating dissension. Towns were also the principal location for the royal rituals, such as coronations or baptisms, which were performed on the urban stage. While often giving the impression of immutability, urban ceremonial forms were constantly changing in response to contemporary needs.

This conference will cross the traditional late medieval/early modern divide to consider aspects of change and continuity in ritual and ceremonial forms. As well as examining the role of the participants in urban rituals, this conference also hopes to address the role of the spectators who watched the event, as all rituals and ceremonies required an audience. The conference is not restricted to one geographical area, and submissions are encouraged from scholars working on any part of Europe.

The keynote paper will be given by Dr Christian Liddy (University of Durham)

Possible topics include:

Rituals of Revolt

Guild Ceremonies

Royal or Ducal Ceremonies (entries, baptisms, coronations, etc)

Corpus Christi and other Religious Processions

Executions and Punishments

Honorable Amends and Acts of Penitence

Childbirth, Marriage and Funerals

Ritualized violence

Ceremonial Space and the Urban Environment

Recording Ritual and Ceremonial Practices

Rituals and Warfare

*

Please send abstracts for a 20- minute paper with a short CV to urbanritualandceremony@gmail.com by 18 February 2014

For further details, email Dr Neil Murphy (neil.murphy@northumbria.ac.uk)

The woman who almost became queen

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 23, 2013

Sophia MemoirsI got an early Christmas present this year when the Memoirs (1630-1680) of Sophia of Hanover landed in my pigeonhole about a week ago. They arrived unexpectedly, but my curiosity soon got the better of me, and I was not able to resist the life story of the woman who nearly became queen of England.

As the granddaughter of James I by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick, the German elector Palatine and king of Bohemia, Sophia was the next Protestant in line to the English throne when the Act of Settlement (1701) was drawn up, so the right of succession was transferred to her and her heirs. Alas, she died in 1714 only seven weeks before Queen Anne, the last Protestant monarch of the House of Stuart, and in the event the crown fell to her son George Lewis, who was to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sophia’s Memoirs, edited and translated by Sean Ward for the Toronto Series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe offer a rare glimpse this remarkable woman, who enjoyed life at the centre of the German nobility with pragmatism, wisdom and a good sense of humour. Consequently, as her editor notes – and despite a number of biographies – Sophia ‘tells the story [of her life] better herself’ (p. 26) to convey her acute observations and highly entertaining sense of mischief.

As a youth in The Hague she apparently enjoyed to play practical jokes on unsuspecting courtiers, including Mr. de Zulestein, the ‘natural child of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau’, whose head received ‘a good dousing’ from a handkerchief soaked ‘in a chamber pot’ (p. 40). Thus, through Sophia’s eyes we get a look at the humans behind seventeenth-century European politics and their struggles and mishaps beyond the limelight.

Marriage politics also play a key role in her Memoirs. Not only does Sophia let us know that she was once intended as a wife to Charles II, whom she met at The Hague during the 1650s, she also tells us of her betrothal to Duke George William of Brunswick-Lüneburg, then duke of Hanover (pp. 65ff) and her pragmatic transfer to his younger brother Ernest Augustus, when the former decided he preferred to live as a bachelor (p. 69). In Sophia’s own words, the only love she had felt ‘was for a good establishment’ and she would ‘have no difficulty trading the older brother for the younger’ (p. 75), not least because the older brother was willing to leave the Brunswick-Lüneburg possessions to her children. Love in these arrangements, it seems, followed later. As Sophia lets her readers know, ‘Resolved to love him, I was delighted to find him lovable.’ (p. 79). But not all were so fortunate. (more…)

The survey that didn’t surprise us

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on October 19, 2013

Stress-ZebraStripesSome surveys shock us, others fill us with a sense of relief that it’s not just us. The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) survey undertaken by the University and College Union (UCU) does both.

The summary of key findings  states that nearly two thirds of the 7,000 respondents said they thought the REF had ‘a detrimental impact on the sector’ and believed it created ‘unreasonable expectations of research outputs’. More than half of respondents also said they would ‘like to see the REF replaced by an alternative method.’ Among the most shocking, though not surprising, findings was that ‘67% of all respondents (and 73% of women responding) felt unable to undertake the necessary work on REF outputs without working excessive … hours.’

In UCU’s 2012 Stress at Work survey ‘over 59% of respondents in HE indicated they worked 46 or more hours a week’ (while being paid for 35), and ‘over 35% worked 51 or more hours.’ Over half of the respondents felt ‘pressured to work long hours’, with many citing the REF as contributing factor to this pressure.

I don’t need a UCU survey to tell me that. I have seen my colleagues panicking about getting that last item for their REF submission out on time, panicking about the quality of the book they had to rush out before the deadline, even though an extra month or two might have enabled them to add that extra bit of research that would have given it the edge. I have also panicked myself hoping to exchange an item I didn’t like so much by something I felt would rate more highly. I have also chided myself for spending my time editing collected essays while the University keeps telling me the two books I have been so proud of and enjoyed so much producing with my friends and colleagues won’t count much in the world of the REF. They want monographs and articles in the top journals. You know the story.

Balancing research and teaching

Another key problem cited in Section 10 of the report, which covers workload issues, was the inability to meet the demands of the REF while undertaking regular teaching duties, including lesson prep or giving feedback to students. According to the survey, the stress caused by the REF is ‘combined with the increasing administrative duties that academics face, including teaching-related administration, grant applications and the significant amount of bureaucracy related to the REF itself.’

I find myself so many times politely (or not so politely) ushering students out of my office to finish that lecture Power Point five minutes before I have to go to the next class, or putting the finishing touches to an article or a chapter before it has to go to the journal, editor or publisher. Conversely, I have also found myself taking home a piece of work because I was talking to a student and didn’t manage to finish it in the office. I hardly ever finish in the evening what I set out to do in the morning, and then I get another email from Registry that I was meant to hand in form X, Y or Z – yesterday. And have I marked…? In other words, something has to give, and in many cases – poor conscientious creatures that we are – this is our free time. (more…)

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Why transnational history doesn’t work quite yet

Posted in Comment, Early Modern, History by thehistorywoman on September 22, 2013
Europa regina

Europa regina

Most historians would agree that transnational history is a good thing in theory. Yet, as an article by Jeroen Duindam of Leiden University in the European History Quarterly (2010) has reminded me, many of the same historians would also agree that it doesn’t quite work in practice. There are a number of reasons for this beyond what Duindam calls ‘the strengthened need for identity and confirmation in an age of global change and insecurity’.

On a very basic level, historians find it difficult to produce work that transcends national boundaries because we simply lack the skills and time. While we would like to be specialists on more than one country and language region, access to archival sources and lack of linguistic skills might prevent us from following down that path. Besides, in order to detect parallels across regions and nation states we might need to study a broader range of issues across time as well as space, as characteristic changes (Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrialisation) might have happened earlier or later in one place than in another. (more…)

The Library Basket

Posted in Comment by thehistorywoman on August 28, 2013
The KB library basket: practical style.

The KB library basket: practical style.

The Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) in The Hague has solved all my problems – with the library basket! The coveted item looks like any old shopping basket you get in Tesco’s or in Boots, and it holds everything you might need inside a library reading room: a laptop, a purse/wallet, a notepad, pencils, a memory stick, tissues, a mobile phone (switched off), and even your own books, if necessary. No more balancing of 100 items on top of a laptop, no more worrying that the clear plastic bag might break if you put your computer in, and no more piles of rubbish for library staff to clear away at the end of a day. So it’s even environmentally friendly. I propose we introduce them in all the libraries across the UK, or in all libraries everywhere. Well done, KB!

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Selling French books in Enlightenment Germany*

Posted in Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Reviews by thehistorywoman on July 21, 2013

Books_without_bordersJeffrey Freedman’s engaging Books without borders in Enlightenment Europe (2012) looks at the French book trade in the German-speaking territories during a pivotal period in the European history of ideas. This French book trade did not just cater for a small elite of princes and courtiers, it was absorbed by a variety of well-educated German speakers from scholars to doctors and lawyers and a variety of other professionals and thus played an important role in spreading and popularising the Enlightenment. By the 1770s, the French segment accounted for some ten per cent of all books sold on the German market.

Among the works sold by the German agents of French-language printers and booksellers were also many unlicensed and prohibited books. But thanks to the political fragmentation and the many administrative quirks of the German lands, censorship laws were virtually unenforceable, so that heterodox and libertine works could reach their readers relatively easily. The ban of a work often only served to make it more popular and more desirable to ‘procure the forbidden pleasure’ (118) as no one less than the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked recalling the burning of a French book in his native Frankfurt.

Following in Darnton’s footsteps

Books without borders feels in many ways like a sequel to Robert Darnton’s seminal Business of Enlightenment (1979), not just because Freedman draws on the same depository of sources of the Swiss Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), which here represents ‘a slice of the French book trade in Germany’ (11) but also because he, like Darnton (who was his PhD supervisor at Princeton), offers the reader a carefully researched and well-informed book history intermixed with numerous little personal stories of the STN’s correspondents in the German lands, zooming in and out of the bigger picture.

Some of these personal stories are quite detailed, and readers might be inclined to skim read them. But this would mean to miss the colourful picture Freedman paints of the lives, successes and struggles of eighteenth-century printers and their agents. Occasionally, we even get a rare glimpse of their political inclinations and the convictions that might have driven the latter to get involved in the business of books.

Censorship and self-censorship

There is, for instance, the ‘native Parisian and Freemason’ François Mettra, who had his shop in Münz, near Cologne, and moonlighted as a ‘radical journalist’ (63); or Charles Fontaine in Mannheim, the semi-educated ‘son of a fisherman’ who is unlikely to ‘have read many of the books in his own bookshop’ (75); and finally Johann Conrad Deinet in Frankfurt, who ended up as the Empire’s book commissioner (or chief censor) despite having had various run-ins with the authorities himself for dealing in prohibited books. But as Freedman points out, ‘it would be a mistake to assume that in the eighteenth century, censors and booksellers were always on opposite sides of the ideological barricades and that if booksellers obeyed the law, it was only because they feared the consequences of transgressing it.’ (110) Many exercised a certain amount of self-censorship too, selling prohibited material, but drawing the line, say, at ‘atheism and pornography’. (110) (more…)

Beating the queue and staying warm at the British Library

Posted in Academia, Education, History by thehistorywoman on July 18, 2013
The morning queue at the British Library, London.

The morning queue at the British Library, London
(courtesy of Rachel Weil).

Recently, an American friend of mine posted this picture of the morning queue a the British Library on Facebook. It seems to say a lot about an unashamed nerdiness (or rare regard for learning) in this country as well as about the British love for queuing. Having grown up in Germany, I usually find myself at the front of that queue no later than 9.15am reading The Guardian, waiting for the doors to open at 9.30am. Beating the BLQ is the beach towel equivalent in the world of scholarship. The British Library is my Mallorca, my Lanzarote.

Naturally, I’ve already put all the things I might need in the Reading Room in a clear plastic bag, so I can head straight down to the lockers, stow away my coat, handbag and laptop case and secure a place on the beach of learning. No minute of my valuable research time will be wasted!

The coolest place to be

In the summer months, the British Library is the coolest place to be. Literally. While other people were moaning about the heat last Saturday, I found myself freezing in the air-conditioned Rare Books Room despite wearing my denim jacket and an extra pair of leggings with my light summer dress. Presumably they need to keep the room at a certain temperature to help with the preservation of the valuable printed material held here. But it’s almost normal for us nerds to come home with the obligatory British Library summer cold.

The best advice I can give my research students before heading down to the BL is therefore not to remember to take all their documents, bank statements and electricity bills to obtain a library card. It is this: take a cardigan!

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Creating and Preserving the Digital Republic of Letters

Earlier this week I attended the excellent Durham conference on ‘Intellectual Networks in the Long Seventeenth Century’. With a theme like this it seemed inevitable for participants to talk about the early modern Republic of Letters and to draw parallels between early modern and modern networks around the (known) world. So I had the honour of chairing an exciting panel themed ‘Electrifying Intellectual Networks’ featuring ‘Three Case Studies in the Digital Republic of Letters’.

Professor Antony McKenna presented the critical electronic edition of the correspondence of the French philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) he is working on with colleagues at the University Jean Monnet at St Etienne in France. With this online database ‘we can accomplish the traditional tasks of a critical edition more quickly and efficiently’, including ‘indexing, annotation, and so on’, says McKenna.

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle

Researchers can simply click on a highlighted name in any given letter to be taken directly to an entry with more information about the individual mentioned and a list of further links to letters authored by or featuring the person in question. There is also an extensive critical apparatus on the correspondence as well as plenty of visual material and more.

More than a gadget

But McKenna is eager to point out that the electronic Correspondance de Pierre Bayle ‘is not simply a fashionable gadget or another free-standing online edition, but in combination with other tools could be a key resource for the study of the social history of ideas.’

One of these ‘other tools’ is the brand new ePistolarium launched by Dr Charles van den Heuvel and his team at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands in The Hague only three weeks ago. This resource helps ‘to analyse the circulation and appropriation of knowledge produced by Dutch scholars’, explains van den Heuvel. (more…)

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