This post was kindly written for us by Alex Porter – Head of History, Parmiter’s School
The paradox of teaching A Level history is that you know very well your students’ education would be better served by studying topics in greater depth but unfortunately this has the potential to hamper their achievements in examination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in textbooks.
An A Level textbook can be a comfort but the range of sources provided in textbooks is very limited. This limitation is for two reasons, the first being the examiners need to hold onto some sources to base examination questions on, but also because the textbook is supposed to be just enough for the average student to get by on. In theory you could use it all on its own and get the top grade. Yet this doesn’t necessarily help make the best historians, and the best students know this. The high achievers need to be stretched and this means more sources.
As a result, many history teachers will punch phrases into Google on a regular basis in the forlorn hope that there will be some magical archive of sensibly arranged contemporary information that could be mined for use in lessons. Those that teach courses on Henry VIII will likely have found solace in the comforting embrace of British History Online. I am one of them.
I was initially searching for contemporary accounts of Henry VII in order to put together a lesson investigating the circumstances of Henry VIII ascension. What I ended up finding was Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1: 1509-1514, an extremely rich seam of court papers and accounts from the reign of Henry VIII. It included a missive apparently from the Venetian ambassador dated 8th May 1509, in which Henry VII was described as ‘a most miserly (miserissimo) man but of great genius, who has accumulated more gold than that possessed by all the other Christian kings’.
This was perfect material. The provenance was such that it afforded the students an opportunity to consider how Henry VII might have been considered outside his realm, but also gave real meat to the idea of his wealth in comparison with others around Europe. It wasn’t long before I was reading details of the condolence note to Henry VIII from Ferdinand of Aragon.
Such information is invaluable to me in the delivery of this course. It provides me with a deeper understanding of the affairs at court in the period and allows me to drop anecdotes into lessons that pique the interest of my students. It also gives me the material needed in the delivery of lessons that go beyond the narrow confines of the set text.
Since this happy find, I have been back on British History Online more than once and not alone. My school has developed a “Bring Your Own Device” policy allowing students to safely use their phones and tablets in lessons, I was able to encourage my students to undertake their own research in a subsequent lesson. It wasn’t long before a number of them were trawling through these records, attempting to establish the use of the term Alter Rex for themselves to see if it only ever applied to Wolsey.
With the use of websites such as British History Online and the assistance of a progressive ICT policy it has become possible not only to find extremely useful resources for myself but to encourage students to develop their learning independently. In ordinary circumstances I would be harvesting their finds as Wolsey gathered tithes but we have to change our A Level for next year and no doubt there’ll be a new set of narrowly focused textbooks to use. At least this time I’ll know where to look for some sources.
The Institute of Historical Research was officially reopened by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, on Tuesday 14 October. The Princess Royal, who is Chancellor of the University of London, was given a tour of the Institute’s new facilities including the library, seminar rooms and the conference suite.
More than 80 people assembled in the remodelled IHR Common Room for the rededication, where the Chancellor met students and junior research fellows as well as members of staff and representatives of the Friends of the IHR. After unveiling a plaque, she gave a short speech about the Institute’s ongoing work.
The refurbishment, made possible by a University of London investment of more than £10 million, took place over a three-year period, during which time the Institute was temporarily housed in Senate House. Charitable foundations, individual benefactors and the many historians who use the IHR’s library and attend its research seminars, made further contributions.
The Institute has been the focus of a rich historical culture in London since its foundation in 1921 and now the many improvements to its premises, equipment and facilities can only enhance its national and international roles as a centre for historical studies.‘The Institute of Historical Research has always had a special place in the affections of academic historians in Britain and around the world. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else’, explained Professor Lawrence Goldman, IHR Director.
‘Historians have come here for decades to work in our library with its unique resources, attend the many seminars which convene in the Institute, and meet and chat in the IHR’s common room. We can now accommodate them in purpose-built facilities for research and exchange. We look forward to an exciting new phase in the IHR’s history.’
Dr Simon Trafford, head of research training at the IHR, in his natural environment
Training in research skills for young and aspiring researchers has been central to the IHR’s remit since its foundation in 1921. In recent years, the training programme has expanded and diversified, reflecting both a great broadening in the scope of historical enquiry and also the increasing prevalence of highly specialised approaches that require of their practitioners detailed technical knowledge or computing skills. In the 2014-15 programme, which has just been announced, we have courses covering every aspect of current historical practice, ranging from the very traditional skills of archival use and analysis of written sources through to the currently burgeoning area of historical GIS.
Taught by University of London historians and other expert practitioners from national institutions, the programme has been designed to help students to acquire all the techniques necessary to their research quickly and inexpensively. The Institute’s training will also be of interest to those already established in an academic career but wishing to acquire or renew skills in particular types of specialist analysis. New courses will be announced throughout the year, but please see here for a complete listing of the current programme.
We start this week with Michele M. Strong’s Education, Travel and the ‘Civilisation’ of the Victorian Working Classes. Susan Barton recommends an interesting and significant work covering the under-researched topic of educational tourism (no. 1674).
Then we turn to Craft, Community and the Material Culture of Place and Politics, 19th-20th Century, edited by Janice Helland, Beverly Lemire and Alena Buis. Heidi Egginton praises a worthy addition to the global history of material culture (no. 1673).
Next up is Penelope Buckley’s The Alexiad of Anna Komnene: Artistic Strategy in the Making of a Myth. Elisabeth Mincin and the author discuss an immensely valuable addition to the scholarship on this 12th-century epic (no. 1672, with response here).
Finally we have Travellers, Merchants and Settlers in the Eastern Mediterranean, 11th-14th Centuries by David Jacoby. Wei-sheng Lin believes that this book helps to open up room for more nuanced understandings of the Eastern Mediterranean between the 11th century and the 14th century (no. 1671).
This article examines three vernacular chronicles written from contrasting view-points: the Scalacronica of Sir Thomas Gray, whose father was linked with Edward II’s court, and the ‘Long’ and ‘Short’ continuations of the prose Brut, both markedly sympathetic towards Thomas of Lancaster, leader of the opposition to the king. This is a period which saw a sea change in the crown’s attitude towards rebellion, but the accounts of these chronicles suggest that a significant part of the political community did not accept the crown’s new definition of treason.
John Knox’s First Blast and Christopher Goodman’s Superior Powers arguably represent two of the most radical pamphlets produced during the reign of Mary Tudor. Both texts were published in Geneva in early 1558 and attracted the displeasure not only of their authors’ fellow exiles, but also of Queen Elizabeth herself when she heard of their publication. Ever since, these pamphlets have been closely associated with the climate of radicalism which supposedly prevailed in Geneva under the aegis of Calvin. Yet, it is also clear from his writings that Calvin never went so far as to endorse any of the Marian exiles’ most controversial ideas. Rather, archival and bibliographical evidence suggests that it was the lively and highly competitive Genevan book trade, combined with inconsistent mechanisms of censorship and a system of monopolies favouring the wealthiest printing firms, which provided ideal conditions for the publication of these pamphlets.
Coming to the IHR feels like coming home. I was once a postgraduate working on collections in London who needed a base in the city and a warming cup of coffee in the IHR Common Room. And on those forays for doctoral research I would occasionally attend a seminar in the Institute and marvel at the cosmopolitan nature of the audience, more varied by age and background than anything I was then used to. More to the point, I grew up in London and, as an undergraduate, would use the Senate House Library next door in university vacations. I have known these university buildings for as long as I’ve been a student and a historian.
At Cambridge as an undergraduate I was drawn to the nineteenth century (though, if I had my time again, it might be the seventeenth century). I thought I would be a straight Victorianist, and I have certainly published on Victorian political and intellectual history. But, in the best historical traditions, I had an epiphany while taking a term of American History – something I knew little about before then. The history of slavery and the Civil War grabbed me (I was hardly the first). Reading about the life of the slaves, the historical debates concerning their experience of slavery, and the relation of slavery to the origins of the Civil War made me want to learn more, and on graduating I was fortunate enough to spend a year in Yale as a Harkness Fellow taking courses with some of the leading American historians of that era: Ed Morgan, David Montgomery and David Brion Davis (who is still reviewing and publishing).
Cambridge reclaimed me, however, and to a project in intellectual history: the relationship in the mid-Victorian decades of social thought and social policy as evidenced in the work of a neglected Victorian organisation, the Social Science Association (1857-1886) which hoped to do for social science what the British Association, founded in the 1830s, had done for Victorian natural science – to popularise it, raise its profile, and bring its authority and expertise to bear on government. Occasionally patronised by some of the most notable Victorians – intellectuals including John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and F. D. Maurice, and politicians including Brougham, Russell and Gladstone – the SSA gave plenty of scope for analysing the relations between intellectual and political life in this period. It led to a book, Science, Reform and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Britain. The Social Science Association (CUP 2002).
On the back of this work, and after a Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge at Trinity College, I went to a first job in Oxford – an interesting and unconventional position as History and Politics tutor in Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education, teaching adult students. For five years I was an extra-mural tutor in the old manner, teaching classes, often co-organised with the Workers’ Educational Association, in Oxford but also going out to teach courses to groups all over the region in places like Maidenhead, Windsor and Great Missenden in the Chilterns. It was the greatest fun and I met some remarkable people who took a broad interest in History and current affairs. What I taught, and how I taught it, was often my choice or was negotiated with class members. I developed a deep interest in the life and work of the designer, poet, businessmen and socialist, William Morris, for example, finding him a fascinating subject in himself and a brilliant vehicle for the discussion of wider Victorian themes in politics, culture and the arts. These five years also led, later, to a book on the history of workers’ education – Dons and Workers. Oxford and Adult Education Since 1850 (OUP, 1995) – and to a biography of perhaps the most influential and charismatic tutor in this educational movement, the political thinker and historian, R. H. Tawney (Bloomsbury, 2013; paperback edn. 2014).
Moving after five years to a more conventional university lectureship and college fellowship at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, allowed me greater scope still to teach American History, in particular the popular undergraduate Special Subject at Oxford on ‘Slavery and the Crisis of the Union 1854-75’. Building American History from the bottom up – by generating student interest and demand for this and other courses on the United States – has been one of the most satisfying (if arduous) aspects of my career. I enjoyed the breadth of tutorial work as well: to teach British, American and sometimes even modern European History was a challenge few young historians now face. But it led to some enjoyable research and learned articles on comparative and transatlantic history, and I have continued to favour breadth in the undergraduate curriculum and also in the training of future academic historians. During this time I supervised a range of doctoral theses as well and in my case the range was indeed broad: from studies of Ruskin’s posthumous influence to British diplomacy in Texas between 1836 and 1845 (when Texas was a republic in its own right) and from American financial diplomacy during the Civil War to the ‘Southern Lumber Industry 1870-1920’, an early exercise in multi-disciplinary environmental history.
Ten years ago, on its publication in 2004, I became the editor (alongside the role of college tutor) of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It had been designed by the late Colin Matthew, Gladstone’s biographer, brought to publication by Sir Brian Harrison, and it combined the work of more than ten thousand contributors in the longest single work ever published in English. The Oxford DNB is a compilation, online and in print, of more than fifty thousand biographical essays on more than sixty thousand people who have contributed to British history over two millennia. The scope of the work, and its variety, once more demanded breadth – but I needed help! Colleagues could tell me of medieval bishops, early modern poets, and twentieth century scientists: my three children were required to keep me up to scratch on figures from popular culture, for they are also included in the Oxford DNB. It was stimulating work in which I especially enjoyed ‘taking the Dictionary on the road’ and demonstrating its remarkable potential to unlock the past to local historical societies and civic groups.
After 29 years in Oxford the move to the IHR feels like a natural next step, combining breadth and depth, and giving me the opportunity to use the experience of teaching, supervising and writing academic History in encouraging and stimulating others. The IHR has more than 20 Junior Research Fellows at any one time; it is the home of many different historical projects covering all periods, medieval, early modern and modern; it hosts the most ambitious (and still very cosmopolitan) historical research seminars; and it puts on cutting-edge conferences. It is the natural focus for History and historians in London and has a national and international role to play in presenting British research to the world. There could be no better preparation for this than to have taught all those stimulating and demanding evening classes in the home counties before the most discerning (and best read) students I’ve ever encountered. As I have come to understand, if you can cut it in Great Missenden, you can cut it anywhere.
This week we start with Francisco Bethencourt’s Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century. Panikos Panayi and the author discuss a book which moves the genesis of modern racial biologically determined ideology away from the ‘modern’ period (no. 1670, with response here).
Next up is Homicide in Pre-Famine and Famine Ireland by Richard McMahon. Conor Reidy reviews a book which activates a much-needed and more inclusive discussion in a clear and confident manner (no. 1669).
Then we turn to Hannah Greig’s The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London, which Susie Steinbach enjoys as a masterful integration of gender, politics, space, and material culture (no. 1668).
Finally we have Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues by Hans Ulrich Vogel. Na Chang believes this excellent book offers a wonderful resource for anyone wishing to study Marco Polo and Chinese economic history (no. 1667).
In a major collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the IHR is taking Fashion as the theme for its annual conference in summer 2015. Fashion in history is a topic which has come of age in recent years, as scholars have turned to addressing what is chic and what is style over the ages and across different cultures. The history of fashion, and the role of fashion in history, is not just confined to the study of dress and costume, but encompasses design and innovation, taste and zeitgeist, treats as its subjects both people and objects, and crosses over into related disciplines such as the history of art and architecture, consumption, retailing and technology. And across the world, fashion brings together museums, graduate teaching programmes, learned societies and the fashion profession around a common set of interests and concerns. The IHR conference next year we hope will be a perfect showcase and a meeting-point for the wide spectrum of specialists in this exciting field.
Our plenary speakers include Christopher Breward (Edinburgh), Beverly Lemire (Alberta), Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge) and Valerie Steele (Fashion Institute of Technology, New York). Proposals for panels on the themes of dress, imitation and emulation, taste and style, body-art, the fashion-industry and its media, fashionability and trend-setting, catwalks, fairs and exhibitions, innovation in interior design, architecture and public space, fashion education and technology will be accepted down to the middle of December. Individual paper proposals will also be accepted. Panels should comprise three papers and a chair, and proposals must include the name and affiliation of the speakers, the title of the panel and the titles of the individual papers. Please send proposals by 15th December to IHR.Events@sas.ac.uk Decisions will be made known once the Programme Committee has met in early January 2015.