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Teaching A Level History using British History Online

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256px-Cardinal_Wolsey_Christ_ChurchThis 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’s accession. 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, so 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.

New reviews: working class travel, material culture, the Alexiad and the Crusades

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parisWe 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).

New reviews: Racisms, Homicide, Beau Monde and Marco Polo

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OrteliusWorldMap1570This 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).

New reviews: police control, British wildlife, communism, and child emigration

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policeIt’s all change at the moment at the IHR, with a new Director, Professor Lawrence Goldman, starting yesterday, our Events Officer Manjeet leaving (she’s only going across the corridor to the Institute of English Studies – as our receptionist Beresford brilliantly described it, she’s ‘leaving for pastures new. Well, pastures, anyway’), and a new venue being selected last night for departmental drinks.

On with the reviews, anyway, and we begin with Police Control Systems in Britain, 1775–1975: From Parish Constable to National Computer by Chris A. Williams. Kevin Rigg and the author discuss a book which helps fill a clear gap in the historiography of policing (no. 1666, with response here).

Then we turn to Tom Williamson’s An Environmental History of Wildlife in England 1650-1950. Terry O’Connor praises an engaging read, written with clarity and care, and with only the minimum use of specialized vocabulary (no. 1665).

Next up is The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism, edited by S. A. Smith. Jennifer Cowe believes this excellent book gives the reader the opportunity to see the global nuances of Communism (no. 1664).

Finally Christopher Bischof reviews Empire’s Children Child Emigration, Welfare, and the Decline of the British World, 1869–1967 by Ellen Boucher, an ambitious book of wide-ranging research and powerful analysis, which firmly establishes the importance of child emigration to modern British history (no. 1663).

Connected Histories, Lunatic Asylums and Witches in Early Modern England

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witchesThis review was kindly written for us by our intern Grace Karrach Wood.

My original intention was to use Connected Histories in order to research lunatic asylums during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as this is my dissertation topic and therefore I already hold some knowledge about it. In order to go about this I input the keyword ‘asylum’ and the dates 1700-01-01 – 1900-12-31, using the ‘simple search’ function and reviewed the 5 matching resources from which the 7,908 matches came. However, it came to my attention that of these 5 resources, the authorisation failed for British Newspapers, the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers required a login and 19th Century British Pamphlets directed to JSTOR which displayed a preview of the front cover only. These set backs were impractical in terms of completing my research imminently, though still highlighted places which would be useful if I were accessing the sources from my university, which holds a subscription, or if I were in a position to subscribe to these resources as an individual. Nonetheless as a result I decided to change my topic to one which would have more accessible resources.

In order to choose a new research topic which was likely to have hits from large amounts of easily accessible resources I went back onto the Connected Histories homepage and scrolled along the ‘other resources’ bar until I found one specific enough to inspire me and have sufficient, relevant results. It was this method which helped me find the Witches in Early Modern England resource, which is free to use and covers the time period 1540 to 1700. Selecting this resource allowed me to read a description of the records, strengths and weaknesses of the content and the technical method by which the sources had been accessed and uploaded. This was particularly helpful as it allowed me to get a better idea of the records I would find when using this resource. As a result of this promising source suggesting a large amount of relevant content on witches I returned to the home page and searched ‘witch’ within the dates ‘1600-01-01 to 1800-12-31’. This search returned 44,586 matches across 16 resources, with Witches in Early Modern England appearing at the top, due to Connected Histories displaying the sources in order of relevance.

Searching through these 16 sources was particularly easy due to the layout of the site enabling you to preview 3 records from the source in addition to the option to ‘view more’, which shows additional hits without leaving the page. This allowed me to quickly decide whether the sources looked relevant without too much difficulty and saved time.

The sources which I found most useful were from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments Online, Witches in Early Modern England, British History Online and Transcribe Bentham. Witches in Early Modern England was particularly useful due to the large number of first-hand accounts of witches it held from different perspectives, while Transcribe Bentham was advantageous because it showed the original document alongside the typed up text, allowing you to zoom and check for errors in the transcription yourself.

Overall I found that the Connected Histories page was useful in terms of identifying relevant sources in order to work from and discovering topics and details which you might not have been aware of before, however, the use of so many sources which needed subscriptions meant that it is only useful if you have a subscription. Furthermore, the fact that some of the resources had been published using inaccurate scanning processes meant that they were inaccurate and difficult to read.

New reviews: Childbirth, Melbourne’s youth, Justinian social conflict and early modern landscapes

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michaels2Your deputy editor is working at home today, while builders, tasked as far as I can see with knocking an ever-bigger hole in the wall of our flat, toil around me. In the office, tapping away with other desk-based types, it’s possible to think that we’re actually doing real work. Next to someone with a sledgehammer, I just feel a bit silly…

Anyway, back to the pretence. First up this week is Paula A. Michaels’ Lamaze: An International History, and Salim Al-Gailani and the author debate a book which deserves a wide readership (no. 1662, with response here).

Then we have Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870–1914 by Simon Sleight. Andrew May believes this book is important because it reminds us to constantly ask who and what the city is for (no. 1661).

Next we turn to Peter Bell’s Social Conflict in the Age of Justinian: Its Nature, Management, and Mediation. Douglas Whalin and the author discuss a study which self-consciously embraces a unique paradigm for the understanding of the age of Justinian (no. 1660, with response here).

Finally, James Mawdesley hopes that Earls Colne’s Early Modern Landscapes by Dolly MacKinnon will encourage other scholars to visit the rich treasure trove of evidence of early modern England’s rural landscapes (no. 1659).

Interning at the IHR

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internThis post was kindly written for us by our intern Grace Karrach Wood.

During September 2014 I spent 3 weeks working as a ‘digital humanities’ intern at the IHR in Senate House, London. Though most of the previous interns here had opted to work for 3 or 4 days a week for the full month, I instead opted for 5 days for 3 weeks, meaning that the experience was particularly full on and almost felt like I had already graduated and this was my new graduate job – though panicking about my dissertation at the weekends begged to differ.

On my first day I caught a far-too-early train up to Euston and spent half around half an hour pacing around London wondering how early was too early to go in and eventually arrived at reception. I filled out a few preliminary forms and was told that everybody ‘drank a lot of tea’, (which was most definitely an understatement) and that I should ‘feel free to ask lots of questions’, which I certainly did.

Throughout the weeks I was slowly given more and more tasks to work on, from listening to podcasts and writing their abstracts to proofreading and checking footnotes on unpublished journal articles. Some of my favourite tasks included learning to use Photoshop in order to edit scanned Parish maps and retouching and sizing book images for Reviews in History, as well as assessing and indexing collective volumes, as the books themselves were interesting to read and it required lateral thinking.

Although some of the tasks were less interesting than others, such as renaming map sheets, I always had a choice in what I wanted to do and was also given some more simple background tasks in order to break the day up, which meant that I always had at least 2 or 3 choices of tasks to undertake.

Overall my time spent there was enjoyable and I felt like I gained a lot experience, in terms of practical editing and writing skills as well as simply understanding what it’s like to work in an office environment and actually be awake and on a train before 9.00am. Everyone was really helpful and welcoming and the casual work wear and flexible days and hours meant the whole process was far more relaxed than stressful.

New reviews: Robert the Bruce, Wellington, pain and the Niger

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penman2As I’m sure you all know, it’s referendum day, and as well as marking the occasion with a relevant review (see below) I hoped to bring you breaking news from the polls, have texted my BBC correspondent pal earlier to ask how it was going. Just got his reply a few minutes ago – ‘Been up Arthur’s Seat. Sweaty’. I don’t think that really counts as a scoop…

Anyway, thanks to a super-quick turnaround from reviewer Fiona Watson and the author, we’ve got a discussion for you of Michael Penman’s new book Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots, an excellent work that shines a light on some extremely murky corners of history (no. 1658, with response here).

To a quintessentially British figure now, with Rory Muir’s Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814. Kevin Linch and the author discuss an outstanding achievement – the definitive biography of Wellington (no. 1657, with response here).

Then we turn to The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers by Joanna Bourke. Jennifer Crane enjoys a detailed, thought-provoking and fascinating piece of historical scholarship (no. 1656).

Finally we have David Lambert’s Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African Geography & the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery, and James Poskett hails an accomplished and creative account of the troubling connections between Atlantic slavery and geographical knowledge in the 19th century (no. 1655).

New Reviews: Edinburgh sanitation, Conservative Party, London Zoo, medieval revolution and reform

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Henry-Littlejohn

Henry Littlejohn, a great man to have at any party

This week, along with the rest of the country’s media, Reviews is focussing on Edinburgh – but rather than referenda, it’s the sewers we’re interested in, as Tom Crook and authors Paul Laxton and Richard Rodger discuss Insanitary City: Henry Littlejohn and the Condition of Edinburgh (no. 1654, with response here).

David Cameron was up there too, and one wonders what his predecessors in the Conservative and Unionist Party would have made of the prospect of a break-up of the union. Many of these feature in Stuart Ball’s Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918-1945. Andrew Thorpe finds this to be as much a major contribution to historical method as it is to the history of 20th-century Britain (no. 1652).

Then we turn to London Zoo and the Victorians, 1828-1859 by Takashi Ito, which Andrew Flack believes sets the agenda for future research in this area (no. 1653, with response here).

Finally Shami Ghosh reviews two works of medieval history which will stimulate many questions for future scholars and students, as he compares and contrasts Reframing the Feudal Revolution: Political and Social Transformation Between Marne and Moselle, c.800-c.1100 by Charles West and Episcopal Power and Ecclesiastical Reform in the German Empire Tithes, Lordship, and Community, 950-1150 by John Eldevik (no. 1651).

New Reviews: Middle Ages, Mexican conservatism, smell and prohibition

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wood2

Our featured piece this week is on The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages by Ian Wood. Paul Fouracre and the author discuss a thoroughly researched and written tour de force (no. 1650, with response here).

Next up is Benjamin Smith’s The Roots of Conservatism in Mexico: Catholicism, Society, and Politics in the Mixteca Baja, 1750–1962 , and Thomas Rath recommends a book which is necessary reading for historians of modern Mexico, and makes a lasting contribution to Latin America’s agrarian, political, and religious history (no. 1649).

Then we have Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell by Jonathan Reinarz. William Tullett finds this book neatly summarizes many current historical perspectives on smell (no. 1648).

Finally William Haydock reviews two very different approaches to the history of alcohol consumption and control, Pubs and Patriots: The Drink Crisis During World War One by Robert Duncan and Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44 by Dan Malleck (no. 1647).

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