Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Up an' at 'em! Bringing history to life through professional re-enactment

Next week's lab! Usual time and place

Exercises in Greenwich Mean Time Confluence: PhD from a Distance

About once a month, I wake up at 04:00, make myself a terrifically strong cup of coffee, and settle down at my desk. This is not out of a misguided form of self-flagellation, but rather, for the privilege of academic work with which presumably all New History Lab readers and attendees are familiar. I’m enrolled as an overseas PhD student in American history at Leicester, based in the United States, working full time as an historical researcher for the State of Pennsylvania. While I have the tremendous boon of close proximity to archival sources in my favour, I also have a 5 hour time difference between myself and the university, and most importantly, my supervisors, with whom I regularly schedule 06:00 Skype meetings. While this situation is certainly unique when compared with how most postgraduate students pursue their degrees, it’s also a method that’s becoming increasingly common, thanks largely to readily-available social technologies.

This May, I was able to attend and give a paper at the School’s Postgraduate Conference, while another overseas-based student delivered her research via projection of a Skype call in the conference room. While I was there, and since, many people have asked me about what it is like to conduct degree work from afar. Truthfully, most of the time, my work as an off campus student is conducted likely in much the same fashion as most campus-based students. I communicate with my supervisors via email, I visit archives, compile research, read articles, and write. During the day, where the activities for my day job are not all that different from what I pursue outside of the office, I spend most of my time conducting biographical research on individuals who have served as Representatives or Speakers of the House throughout Pennsylvania’s long and storied history. The most significant difference in my own attempts at postgraduate historical research is that supervision meetings are conducted via Skype, but, when possible, I visit the campus for brief full-immersion academic ‘retreats’, as I did this May, further diminishing the distance distinction. Even when seminars and workshops cannot be attended due to distance, I’ve found the staff in the School of History to be tremendously helpful in accommodating students like me by linking to Powerpoint presentations and uploading webinars.

Technological advances aside, for humanities researchers, there is one element that could pose a real problem for the distance researcher (aside from lacking access to a computer with an internet connection), and that is a strong library resource. Not all libraries are created equally, and it is crucial to have access to the literature necessary for your research at large and to conduct your historiographical review. It’s best to make arrangements with a nearby Inter-Library Loan department that can request the books you need; this is particularly useful with out of print texts, and in some cases even microfilm can be requested for reading on the library’s machines.  As Matthew Wale mentioned in his recent post, most researchers are quick to tell you that pursuing a PhD is a lonely endeavour. In some senses, for the distance researcher, this makes little difference, when your modus operandi is independent data collection and interpretation. The vicissitudes of research that one must endure to pursue a PhD require much the same temperament whether one resides on the same landmass as their guiding institution, or with the Atlantic Ocean in between. Discipline, organization, time, and dedication are essential no matter the location. And the rewards of shoring up your reserves of those qualities and directing them toward your PhD are no less satisfying when you don’t have a designated office space on the Salisbury Road, lovely as those accommodations may be.

A few weeks ago, while poring over testimonies given by pauper migrants in Philadelphia in the 1820s, I came across the story of one man, an African American who had lived and worked in many locations prior to enduring the destitution that led him to seek alms-house admission in 1827. This man, Samuel Black, listed aloud to the alms-house administrators every job he had held in his adult life. Chief in this list of positions was a year and a half spent as a manservant for someone whose short biography I was scheduled to write for the state’s website the very next day: Speaker of the House for the 1799 session Cadwalader Evans. As far as I can tell, Black left no other records that have survived to the 21st century; Evans, too, is not among the best-remembered of the state’s legislative leaders. But the satisfaction of recognition that comes from two separate research pursuits colliding unexpectedly is one that is not necessarily contingent upon your own location at the moment of discovery. Synchronicities can happen anywhere, and while it can be a challenge not only building detailed work schedules for oneself but sticking to them, or locating the right primary sources and using them to their fullest analytical potential, the intellectual benefits of all of these endeavours are just as palpable regardless of location.

For anyone who is considering basing themselves away from their university for their PhD, it’s definitely worth considering (and I’m happy to answer any questions!). It’s also a great excuse to keep up via Twitter!



Monday, 17 November 2014

Château de Guédelon: Ils bâtissent un château fort…

Deep in the forests of northern France (and in the year of Our Lord one thousand two hundred and forty-six) a small group of people are making history. There is no electricity, no cars and no plastic; men shouting, hooves on stone and the hammer and anvil create the sounds of Guédelon – the site of one of the most incredible archaeological projects of the twenty-first century (sorry, Richard). It is not just a case of test pits or trenches; it’s almost archaeology in reverse. The Guédelon team comprises all members of the castle-building trade: quarrymen, woodturners, stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths, tile makers, rope makers… the list goes on. This wonderful bunch began building their medieval castle from scratch in 1997, using those techniques familiar to our thirteenth-century counterparts.

I was lucky enough to visit the site in September 2013 and have included a selection of photographs below. I must admit, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect before our trip. I’ve visited countless castles in various states of grandeur and ruin, but never one literally in the throws of construction. Whilst walking around the city of Leicester I often find it incredibly frustrating that I can’t properly imagine how medieval Leicester would have been – how it would have looked and in particular, how it would have sounded. We can look at drawings, archaeological finds and contemporary accounts, but nothing comes close to actually being able to walk amongst it. Guédelon gives us this opportunity. 

I will be visiting Guédelon at intervals over the next few years. The project is due for completion in 2022, so there’s still time to have a gander! Those who want to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach also have the chance - volunteers are able to actually participate in its construction - different lengths of castle-building courses are available for individuals with no previous experience or students working towards professional heritage skills. I’m already planning to apply. How often can we say we’ve casually nipped across the Channel to build a castle?

Falling marginally short of a time machine, it really is remarkably refreshing to be able to leave our world behind (health and safety regulations do come along for the ride) and to become completely immersed in the atmosphere present at the Guédelon site. There is the most incredible attention to detail here. Everything is sourced locally; cloth is made from wool spun and dyed on site (much to my delight.) The dye itself is created from the landscape: yellow and red ochre, hematite, burnt charcoal dust… it’s all completely natural. Tiles are sourced from clay pits in the forest and pressed with its leaves and stone is quarried from the foot of the castle. Visitors (and those interested in absentia) are welcome to purchase products made onsite to support the project: http://www.boutique-guedelon.fr. Wooden bowls, anyone?
The catalyst for my blog post is the discovery that our own BBC Two will be providing Guédelon with some well-deserved publicity – Secrets of the Castle will be broadcast tomorrow (Tuesday 18th November) at 9pm and is the first of a five-part series (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04snhsg.) Don’t miss it! I for one am incredibly excited to see the progress made in the last year or so. Further information on l’aventure Guédelon can be found at http://www.guedelon.fr.

New History Lab Podcast

Reading.  It's a difficult task at the best of times and for the most part demands your complete attention.  What if you could hear us though?  What if, through the cutting edge technology of audio recording, you could instead listen to us pontificate on a variety of matters historical?  Well now you can in the our new Podcast!

In this episode Sam Grinsell (chair), Matthew Wale, Nicola Blacklaws and Dan Porter discuss The History Manifesto:

History Manifesto Podcast 

You can read 'The History Manifesto' itself here

Other texts that we mention include (in order of reference):

Kuhn, T. S. (2012)  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (4th Ed.)

Hexter, J. H. (1972) The History Primer

Zeldin, T. (1994) An Intimate History of Humanity

Darnton, R. (1984) The Great Cat massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History
Please let us know what you think of the content and the podcast itself.  As always we're looking for ideas for subjects to discuss and panel members to take part.  Leave your comments on our discussions below and feel free to drop by our Facebook group with ideas and suggestions.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Once more unto the breach: The dawn of the PhD

So.. Welcome to my first blog, everyone! I’m Katie, and I have just started my first year here at Leicester. As a previous inhabitant of what is increasingly being referred to as The Real World, it is rather strange to be able to finally say, “I am a PhD student”. Since graduating with my MA in January I have been dwelling in a limbo somewhere between being a University member of staff, a member of staff elsewhere, a volunteer, a researcher, a future student, a member of the NHL Committee and all of the above. On my drive home to a small village near the Warwickshire border I have often been able to see the three tallest buildings on campus, wondering if 29th September would ever arrive.
It did indeed arrive and a month has flown past since. The last few weeks have generally consisted of socialising, reading, listening, a vague sense of panic and a series of induction and training events relating to the fundamental basics of study at postgraduate research level (see my fellow first-year Matt’s recent Lab blog instalment for further information!). Now, as an official PhD student in the Centre for English Local History, I have definitely been wondering where the carpet went.  I’m pleased to report, though, that the majority of my short-term PhD-related woes (the long-term woes can sit tight for the moment) have been – happily – placated.
Induction events are unable to solve the various concerns that may (or may not, but probably will) alight on the shoulders of incoming students; the PhD is an alien thing in itself for all disciplines concerned. Whether we are undertaking an MA, MRes, PhD or otherwise, we all have one goal – to complete the degree at hand to the best of our abilities – and hopefully to make the most of it along the way. On so many occasions I’ve had the brilliant opportunity to discover real people who are studying disciplines beyond the realm of the College of Arts and Humanities. I know, I know, it’s insanity gone mad. But in all seriousness, as we move forward through higher education each stage becomes slightly more estranged from the last, and the experiences of each student branch even further apart. This often ripens potential feelings of isolation which, as I have been told, are perfectly normal. (Again, see Matt’s blog - PhDs must try to stay in the world of the living but ensure to bring their books with them).
It might sound a little odd, but I find it reassuring that I don’t know today what I’ll (hopefully) know in days, weeks or months from this moment. I’ve recently discovered that a lot of my ‘tried and tested’ techniques were a little dusty, so the beginning of the PhD isn’t just about familiarisation with your subject. For want of a better paradox, uncertainty is certain; uncertainty is one of those feelings that most people will experience in these first few weeks, and probably beyond. A large majority of the people I’ve spoken to have mentioned the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, but seeing as we’re all in the same boat, it doesn’t seem as terrifying – some boats are just painted differently. We all have skills to learn and skills to refine; we all have research to shape and research to test us when we could probably just do with a cup of tea/glass of wine and a nice, dark room.
The first month of my PhD has taught me more than the average induction or training session, and the lesson has been learnt largely from current and previous PhD students and members of staff. The most important piece of advice I could probably give at this point is to write things down, and to make sure it’s written in the same place! I am under no illusion that the journey I have just signed up for will be an easy one and, at this stage, it is difficult to forecast exactly what is ahead. The bottom line is this: it will be hard, but thoroughly enjoyable, and I am looking forward to it immensely. Hope, as always, springs eternal.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

100 Years of the First World War

Also next week, in our usual Friday slot, we have a talk by Adam Prime exploring a century of perceptions of the Great War

Private Parts in Public Places: Regulating sex in 1970s Toronto

Very pleased to be able to announce a joint event with the Centre for Urban History next Tuesday 11th in our old home 5 Salisbury Road

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A potted history of the real Dracula

Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows as it flickered in the draught of the open door. The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation:

“Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!”

'Dracula', Bram Stoker

With Halloween nearly upon us I've been thinking about the one of my favourite literary monsters that has been a mainstay of pop culture for over a century.  Dracula and his vampiric offspring have gone through numerous iterations on film from 'Nosferatu', the Hammer Films stalwart Christopher Lee (Saruman the White to you younger readers) through to the sparkly skinned, eternally moody teenagers of the Twighlight franchise.  Most recently Dracula Untold puts a different spin on the tale weaving the classic vampire mythology with elements of historical fact (quite tenuous and selective facts though I should say).

This latest retelling goes back to the presumed source material for Stoker's novel and the history of a Wallachian nobleman by the name of Vlad.  Vlad would be known by a number of names during his life and after his death including Vlad Tepes, which translates as Vlad the Impaler and "Kazikli Bey" or "Impaler Lord" by the Ottoman Turks.  The name Dracula derives from the induction of his father (also called Vlad) into the Order of the Dragon.  This gave his father the honorific surname of Dracul from the Romanian word for Dragon. Draculea means "son of Dracul" although in modern Romanian the word now translates as "Devil" which of course has very different connotations.  Below is an image of Vlad's signature:

It transcribes as "Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum". 

Born in 1431 Vlad came into the world at a very precarious time.  Wallachia was a border principality between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian kingdom of Hungary.  Both struggled for control of the border principalities, intervening in local politics and striving to put their own puppets on the throne.  In addition to external forces, the internal politics of Wallachia was a veritable snake pit with powerful noblemen or Boyars vying for control of the incumbent.  Think "Game of Thrones" but with less humanity. Vlad's father was inducted into the Order of the Dragon as a calculated part of these machinations.   

Vlad would spend his formative years in captivity in the Ottoman court; held with his younger brother as a ransom against his father's compliance with the Sultan.  Vlad was an adept if unruly student mastering the arts of war as well as Turkish and the Quran.  Vlad's brother, Radu (with the epithet "the Handsome") would make himself at home at the Ottoman court ingratiating himself with the Sultan and powerful Ottoman nobles.  Vlad on the other hand was rebellious and constantly at odds with his captors.  Several writers attribute his future atrocities to the enmity he felt towards the Ottomans from this time.

Vlad would rule over Wallachia three times in his life.  The first time it would be for a mere two months; sponsored by the Ottomans following the usurpation and death of his father Vlad captured the throne whilst the incumbent was away fighting against the Ottomans in the Balkans.  His second period on the throne would the longest and also the period when he secured his bloodthirsty reputation.  Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 enabling them to invade Europe proper.  Vlad came to the throne in 1456 and immediately adopted an anti-Ottoman stance.  Documents contemporary to Vlad describe a number stories of his brutality.  In one he invited the most troublesome of his Boyars to a feast only to have them all stabbed and impaled  on stakes to discourage dissent.  Perhaps the most famous incident followed an Ottoman invasion of Wallachia.  Vlad fought a guerilla war against the invading Turks, raiding their camps and taking prisoners all the while retreating and leaving behind nothing but scorched earth behind him.  Finally, after a punishing march to reach Vlad's capital, the Ottomans found the city deserted.  Along the road and in the surrounding fields however all of the Ottoman prisoners had been impaled on wooden stakes.  Their morale destroyed and with no enemy to fight the Ottomans finally withdrew from Wallachia.  After this victory Vlad was forced into exile once more by rebellious subjects but would return for one last period on the throne in 1476.  Within a year however he and his bodyguard were ambushed by Ottoman forces and killed.  One tale of his death says that the Ottoman Sultan was so terrified that Vlad might have survived to terrorise his army again he demanded to see Vlad's head.  The severed head was preserved in honey and brought to the Sublime Porte only for the Sultan to be too frightened to look upon his nemesis' countenance.

As is often the case with those perceived as villains by outsiders, Vlad is considered a national hero in Romania today.  There is something Arthurian in his representation as a hero of the people; He is acknowledged as a harsh ruler but always fair.  Well, he probably distributed the impalings evenly at least.

If you want some more halloween themed history why not come alone to the New History Lab this Friday at 4.30 pm?  Not only will there be stimulating discussion but cake as well! Hopefully we'll see you there!

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Since I came into existence ...

My grandfather always used to say "it's not history if you can remember it".  I was never quite sure what he meant but having turned 44 in the last 24 hours I got thinking about what has happened during my life time.  Some of those events may well have been studied by considerably younger colleagues which is a terrifying thought in its own right.  With that in mind I thought I would catalogue some of the stuff that has happened during my life time so far.

On the day I was born the Vietnam War, "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, The Black September civil war in Jordan and the Dhofar Rebellion were in full flow.  In fact during my lifetime there have been 191 armed conflicts involving at least one nation state.  The UK has been at war longer during my lifetime than the combined durations of the First and Second World Wars.  I was eleven during the Falklands War and I remember watching the evening "news" reports with my grandfather who would give a running commentary of the meta-text of the reporting.  I remember being at University for the first Gulf War in 1990; it was the only time I ever remember the news getting priority over sport on the common room TV.  When I think about it, conflict, whilst not having a direct impact on me, has been a persistent part of my life.

Politically my first conscious recollection of who was in charge was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.  She would dominate the British political scene for for over a decade and indeed her legacy can still be felt today.  I also remember watching the events of the Miner's Strike unfold in 1984 and 85, again, with the meta-commentary of my grandfather. He predicted with enormous clarity the demise of the trade union movement at that time.  He was always at pains to point out that I was watching history unfold.  This event both politicised my thinking and would be decisive in me choosing to do Politics as one of my A levels.

Intriguingly what I am doing right now was not possible for nearly half of my life.  When Tim Berners-Lee activated the first ever website at CERN (you can browse a simulation of it here http://line-mode.cern.ch/www/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html) on 6th August 1991, I was working as an au pair about 20 miles from his lab.  It was just before the start of my second year at University.  Oddly enough I remember the day very well, not for the nascent revolution in communications technology but rather because I had a date with a very intriguing Swiss girl by the name of Lysette which would ultimately turn out to be the worst date of my life.  That is a story for the pub post-New History Lab, however.  More interestingly from a historical point of view is that the industry I have worked in for most of my working life did not exist on that date and would not exist without that seminal moment.  As an industry IT has even managed to create a potential apocalypse.  I spent many months working on solutions to "the Millenium Bug" and indeed spent New Year's Eve of the millenium in a server room making sure the world didn't come to an end in a digital cataclysm.  You're welcome by the way.

To bring my aged ramblings to an end I want to share one last thing with you.  It is the shocking realisation that, over time, you yourself will become historically interesting if only because you were there when events occurred.  About a year ago I was having a conversation with Tom Hulme (of this very blog) and Simon Dixon in the Library.  We were discussing the research Tom had done into the use of old industrial buildings in Leicester for alternative uses over time.  As it turned out I used "go raving" in one of the very locations that Tom had been studying.  Before I knew it I was being quizzed on my experiences.  It felt rather similar to those interviews you see of war veterans describing their experiences of one conflict or another.  In essence, the things I used to do in my youth were no longer cutting edge but rather the subject of historical enquiry.  I can remember it though so it can't be history can it?

Oh ... I get it now ...