Jackanapes to historical self-awareness

I’ve mainly been wading through a book by David Cressy, Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), which covers a range of case studies, including the fantastic tale of a woman who gave birth to a cat. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself, but it’s a great book, which touches on my research interests in a number of places. At the moment I’m reading a chapter on the language that was used by the laity towards the clergy – usually because the person was cross with the clergyman, for a number of reasons. Such incidents, where clergymen were told they were a ‘scurvy rascal knave!’ or a ‘jackanapes’, or even compared to an ‘ass’ (as in donkey, rather than the current equivalent of a backside, all found on page 138 of his book), could be very upsetting to the clergyman concerned, undermining his authority and it could mean that the person spitting the insults was taken to court (the church courts), which is how the records of these incidents have survived.

I was reading this in the bath (I do my best reading in the bath – I just read, obviously you can’t take notes, and that frees up the process, I think. Churchill did the same – working in the bath, that is) and as I put the book down I got to thinking. We are all products of our time. There is a school of thought in History which says that it is impossible for us to truly understand the past, as we are not of their time, but of ours, and which is why we study History, and not the past. I see the world – and the past – differently to how my mother sees it, and differently to how her mother saw it.. and so on. But it isn’t even a generational thing – someone just 5 years younger than me will see the world differently – have largely grown up with the internet, with mobile phones, whereas someone older than me will remember, even more clearly than I do, a time without those things.

The world has changed a great deal in the last 15 years. 9/11 had a massive impact. Terrorism, which in the UK, at least, seemed to have gone away (since the Irish question had been… well, not sorted out, but at least the various sides were no longer resorting to terror to solve it), surged back into people’s awareness. I remember, vividly, in the pre 9/11 years, working with someone who was Muslim, asking her questions about Islam, with no sense of worrying that she, or her family, might be extremist. It never crossed my mind at all. I just learned, and when I was asked if I would consider marrying into her family, I took it as the compliment it was intended (although I said no). The rise of al-Quaeda, and then of ISIS, is shaping a whole new generation of historians. I grew up with the threat of IRA bombings in my life. It never changed what I did, I never came close to them, but it was still a presence. Just going to the museum, having your bags searched. Things like that. I went to a boarding school – with children from all over the country – including 2 from Northern Ireland. One Catholic, one Protestant. And I learned, from them, about the enmity of the two groups for each other. I experienced – at a remove – that dichotomy, and it shaped my understanding, as an adult, of history. Where I differ, I think, from those who are growing up now, who experience the terrorism of ISIS, of other extremist Islamic groups, is that I saw – rightly or wrongly – that what was going on in Northern Ireland, and to a certain extent in the UK, as a war that we were caught in the middle of, waging war on the innocent, yes, but also with each other, and the British Government. Both sides were resorting to this. It didn’t make it okay, but it was different to what is going on now. With ISIS, with what is going on with the attacks in France.. there is only one side, them, waging war on the innocent. Sure, there were extremist Muslims in the seventies, and I remember the fatwah against Rushdie, but it didn’t register on my radar in the same way as the Irish terrorism did.

My time, as it were, has turned me into someone who sees ‘sides’, polarity, dichotomy, very readily. I don’t think its any co-incidence that I’m studying relationships – dichotomy again – or religion, and how people have experienced it. Will someone growing up now, see the Reformation differently? As a group of extremists – early Protestants – doing all in their power, to force the masses to worship the way that they wish? They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, just different. This is why in studying History, we study not only the facts of the past, which are relatively straightforward – e.g. Henry VIII died in January 1547 – but also the shifting theories, the shifting histories. Never mind ‘Who do you think you are’ … ‘WHEN Do you think you are’ becomes important too. It shapes your thinking, and that self-awareness is critical when developing a history. For that reason, I think, all historians should have an awareness of modern history, at least as it pertains to their own lifetime. The idea that scholars can live, oblivously, in an ivory tower, has long gone. And good riddance too.

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A quick catch up on the last few weeks…. they have been busy. Unfortunately, not so busy with my studies! Between housework (or work to do with the house, to be more accurate), home admin stuff (the car needs MOTing, for example), other admin, work that I’m doing for Leicestershire Victoria County History – and voluntary research for Charnwood Roots… I have done my own work but not so very much of it. This will be changing though – next week, I will be heading into the archives in Hereford and I am thoroughly looking forward to it!

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… daily PhD?

… maybe not. Not so sure that particular style is working for me – as evidenced by the lack of daily posts. There is only so much one can say about reading articles after all (I may as well post my notes), and I suspect at this point that won’t change until the second year of PhD studies.

Quite how this is going to shift, I don’t know. But it is a young blog, and blogs often take a while to find their feet, to settle down into their style. I’m not too concerned about that. Maybe a weekly post would work better. Let’s try it, for now:

Monday morning was primarily spent away from my studies, catching up with a few necessities like food shopping and so on. I still have to eat! I spent the afternoon working through a few ideas for increasing the social media use and engagement of a project that I’m going to be working on, in preparation for a meeting on friday. I started to read through an article, but had to leave to collect my partner from the station before I could finish it, unfortunately. In that respect, its a forced ending to my day – 6.15pm or so, is when I more or less have to down tools. I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or not – I suspect it both is, and isn’t.

Tuesday… Tuesday was amazingly productive actually. Every single thing on my to-do list was crossed off, plus some additionals, making for a very positive end of the day. I finished reading, and making notes on, the article from Monday. I use the Cornell notes method at the moment, which helps a lot in terms of not only getting it straight in my head what the article is about (active, rather than passive reading), but also helps me to relate the material to my own research topic. Then I made some rough notes, starting to draw together the plan for the lit review, starting to think about how to frame and position various historians and theories with relation to my research topic.

I got quite a few emails done as well, in a veritable blizzard of productivity. Some of these I had been putting off for too long, but they got back to me fairly quickly, and they turned out to be relatively painless. I did a little housework (such as the ever-eternal washing up!) and prepared for a trip to the Record Office in Wigston, on Wednesday.

Wednesday… the planned trip to the record office. I’m doing a little voluntary work as part of the Charnwood Roots Project, where I’m researching the history of stage coaches and small carriers in parishes in the Charnwood Forest area (to the North West of Leicester). I’m well overdue in doing work on this, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, so … time to knuckle down. I managed to make serious inroads on the trade directories, which I think will be the main source for this project, starting from 1794 and I managed to get to 1849. It seems that although the stage coaches died fairly quickly after the introduction of the railways, the small carriers, going between the parishes and the towns, survived much longer – serving the equivalent of the rural bus network today. It will be interesting to trace the services for each parish, see how much continuity there was. I’ve already seen that with coach builders, there was a continuing trade from one particular street in Leicester, for example, although the actual business changed hands at least once. I suspect, that for parishes where the same person/family did this role for decades, they would have been seen as of key importance to the parish, like the parish clergyman or school teacher – if they weren’t disreputable in other ways. I have found evidence in local newspapers, later on (latter part of the 19th Century) that the carriers sometimes had a relationship with alcohol that was, well, lets describe it as less than healthy! Anyway, I’ve scanned/photographed the relevant pages with my phone and camscanner (more about that in another post), so what needs to be done now is a) extracting the relevant information out of the trade directories into parish format, and b) organising the photographs so that they’re ready for turning over to the wider Charnwood Roots project, ready for someone else to incorporate as part of the parish histories. So that will be a day or two’s worth work – probably starting next week.

One thing that I should really note is how good it felt to get into the record office and back into primary sources. I reflected on this in a comment on this post, by someone else who is doing a DailyPhD style blog, although in the sciences rather than the humanities like me. Stewart commented on how he got ‘far too excited’ because he was doing real science (for a change, rather than other stuff) and it immediately struck home for me, because I felt the same way in the record office. Nothing quite like the smell of a record office in the morning… (!) but in all seriousness, I think most people who work as serious historians will recognise what I mean: the excitement that comes when handling old documents, primary sources, of figuring out how to make them relate to your theory, of the implications of them… For me, however, there’s the ‘ding’ moment when you find a document or something that completes the puzzle, makes your theory work, makes you understand something that you were trying to work out… how it contributes to the ding isn’t so important, but the ‘ding’ moment is this moment of incredible clarity where the world, just a little bit, a tiny little bit, suddenly makes sense, or more sense than it did before, and I just feel on cloud nine when I get that. I don’t know whether other historians feel the same way – its not something that I think most people would feel comfortable discussing!

Anyway, back to the week’s review. Thursday, I uploaded the photographs and PDFs (of the trade directories) from my phone to my laptop, so they’re in a better format for working with next week. This was easier said than done as previously I had done this on a one-by-one basis – not suitable when you’re dealing with several hundred photos! So I had to research, investigate and download a suitable app for downloading large amounts of material, and finally found one, then had to sort them out – what with one thing and another that took most of the afternoon. I also did some final preparation for Friday’s meeting, then rounded off the day with a little reading of an edited book.

The meeting on Friday went well – that was discussing a new job that I will be doing, very part time, working as a social media officer for the Leicestershire Victoria County History project. This is something I’m looking forward to getting involved with – even did a little work on it on Friday afternoon and was very happy to see results immediately, so that’s good news. I’m also hoping to put in for another part time job doing research – it all looks good on the CV and its something I enjoy doing, so why not?

Next week: More work on the social media project, applying for that other research role, more work on Charnwood Roots, starting to pull together that Lit Review, more reading, and more research work in the record office – can’t wait for that day, at least! My mother is dropping by for a cup of tea tomorrow, on the way past, so it will be good to see her too 🙂