On 9 February, Prof. Diana Paton delivered an RHS lecture entitled ’Mary Wiliamson’s Letter, or: Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’. You can watch the lecture and read Prof. Paton’s abstract below.
“I was a few years back a slave on your property of Houton Tower, and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.” Thus begins Mary Williamson’s letter, which for decades sat unexamined in an attic in Scotland until a history student became interested in her family’s papers, and showed it to Diana Paton. In this lecture, Paton will use the letter to reflect on the history and historiography of ‘Brown’ women like Mary Williamson in Jamaica and other Atlantic slave societies. Mary Williamson’s letter offers a rare perspective on the sexual encounters between white men and Brown women that were pervasive in Atlantic slave societies. Yet its primary focus is on the greater importance of ties of place and family—particularly of relations between sisters—in a context in which the ‘severity’ of slavery was increasing. Mary Williamson’s letter is a single and thus-far not formally archived trace in a broader archive of Atlantic slavery dominated by material left by slaveholders and government officials. Paton asks what the possibilities and limits of such a document may be for generating knowledge about the lives and experiences of those who were born into slavery.
(Image used with the kind permission of Nicholas James)
On 24 November, RHS President Margot Finn presented her first annual Presidential address, discussing the subject of ‘Loot’ in her series on ‘Material Turns in Modern British History’. You can watch the lecture, and read Prof. Finn’s abstract below.
The first of four annual addresses deploying methodological approaches associated with the ‘material turn’, this lecture focuses on the relationship between imperial warfare, on the one hand, and the writing of History in modern Britain, on the other. It does so by tracing the entangled histories of booty, plunder and prize in the Third Anglo-Maratha or Pindari campaigns of c. 1817-1819, and by examining the material afterlives of Indian loot in late Georgian and Victorian Britain. Not least among the consequences of military men’s efforts to regulate (and profit from) the vibrant indigenous and imperial plunder regimes of the East India Company era was an efflorescence of historical research conducted on the subcontinent under the Company’s aegis. Co-produced with Indian scribal and princely elites, the historical writing that flourished in the Pindari War and its aftermath was caught up in and fostered by wider processes of material exchange that saw plundered jewels, weaponry, textiles and manuscripts fuel , rationalize and reward both Indian and British combatants. The history-writing of these campaigns differed sharply from the Whig verities which were to dominate later Victorian historiography. But these earlier and later varieties of historical interpretation are viscerally related—most notably in the biography and the material possessions of the Royal Historical Society’s fourth President (1891-1899), Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff. On the eve of the Society’s 150th anniversary, it is timely to render more visible History’s connection—by blood, capital, and the spoils of war—to earlier practices of archiving, researching and writing the past born on the battlefield.
On 22 September, Prof. Chris Marsh (Queen’s University, Belfast) delivered an RHS lecture entitled “The Woman to the Plow and the Man to the Hen-Roost”: Wives, Husbands, & Best-Selling Ballads in Seventeenth-Century England. Prof. Marsh’s lecture included musical performances by himself and the singer Vivien Ellis. You can watch the lecture and read the abstract below.
This lecture grows out of a research project that aims to identify 100 hit songs from seventeenth-century England. Two historians are working with a group of musicians to produce new recordings of the period’s most successful broadside ballads (single-sheet songs that were sung and sold on the streets), and the results will eventually appear on a website. Today, we will concentrate on ballads about marital relations, and the importance of these sources for our understandings of early modern culture and society will be assessed. The talk will feature murder, adultery and monstrosity, though it will also be suggested that a tendency to concentrate on the exotic and extreme in early-modern balladry needs to be held in check. Some of the ballads will be performed live by the singer, Vivien Ellis.
Professor Simon Dixon (UCL) presented this year’s Prothero Lecture, ‘Orthodoxy & Revolution: The restoration of the Russian patriarchate in 1917’ at University College London on 7 July. You can watch the lecture, and read Professor Dixon’s abstract below.
At the height of the October Revolution in Moscow – a much bloodier affair than the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd – the Orthodox Church installed Tikhon (Bellavin) as Russia’s first patriarch since 1700. At the most obvious level, this was a counter-revolutionary gesture aimed at securing firm leadership in a time of troubles. It was nevertheless a controversial move. Ecclesiastical liberals regarded a restored patriarchate as a neo-papal threat to the conciliarist regime they hoped to foster; and since Nicholas II had explicitly modelled himself on the Muscovite tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, the potential for renewed conflict between church and state was clear long before 1917. This lecture will emphasise the extent to which a single individual haunted the whole debate. For, until the last moment, it was widely assumed that the new patriarch would be not the little-known Tikhon, but Archbishop Antonii (Khrapovitskii) [pictured above], whose attempts to model himself on Patriarch Nikon – the most divisive of seventeenth-century patriarchs – helped to make him the most controversial prelate of the age.
Ordinariness was a frequently deployed category in the political debates of 2016. Brexit was, according to one political leader, ‘a victory for ordinary, decent people who’ve taken on the establishment and won’. In this lecture I want to historicise recent use of the category by returning to another moment when ordinariness held deep political significance: the years immediately following the Second World War. I explore the range of values, styles, and specific behaviours that gave meaning to the claim to be ordinary; consider the relationship between ordinariness, everyday experience and knowledge; and map the political work ordinariness was called upon to perform. I conclude with some thoughts about how historians use the category today.
Prof. Claire Langhamer is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Sussex
Over the past four years, RHS President Professor Peter Mandler has presented a series of Presidential Addresses on ‘Educating the Nation’, charting the impact of mass education on Britain since the Second World War.
I: Schools (video, text)
II: Universities (video, text)
III: Social Mobility (video, text)
IV: Subject Choice (video)
A video of Dr Hunt’s lecture is available here via Gresham College.
More than a hundred years after the death of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote one of the most damning of all portraits of the queen. According to Josephus, almost all the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt showed great favour to their Jewish subjects and valued their loyalty; he highlights in particular the role of Egyptian Jews in fighting for Cleopatra’s powerful predecessors, Cleopatra II and Cleopatra III. By contrast, the last Cleopatra is a monstrous aberration: hostile to the Jews of Alexandria; a dangerous predator with designs on the land of Judea and its king, Herod the Great; a traitor to all. Should we trust Josephus? This lecture examines the wider context of Josephus’s claims, his apologetic interests, the influence of Herod’s memoirs on the reputation of Cleopatra, and the value of other evidence that suggests a positive account of relationships between Cleopatra VII and her Jewish subjects.
Prof. Sarah Pearce is Ian J. Karten Professor of History at the University of Southampton.
‘The Making of Chronicles and the Making of England: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles after Alfred’
In the early 1950s the English Historical Documents series was launched, its aim to ‘make generally accessible…fundamental sources of English history’. The first two volumes opened with the same text – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This text merited ‘pride of place’. It is with this text – or rather with the series of chronicles which go under this heading – that this lecture is concerned. These chronicles have long been accorded fundamental status in the English national story. No others have shaped our view of the origins of England between the fifth and eleventh centuries to the same extent. They provide between them the only continuous narrative of this period. They are the story that has made England.
My subject is the relationship between that story, these texts, and England: how they have been read and edited – made – in the context of the English national story since the sixteenth century; but also their relationship to, the part they may have played in, the original making of the English kingdom. The focus is on developments during the tenth and eleventh centuries, when a political unit more or less equivalent to the England we now know emerged. Special attention will be given to their possible role in the incorporation of Northumbria into that kingdom.
These chronicles were made by scribes a millennium ago, and to some extent have been reworked by modern editors from the sixteenth century on. They are daunting in their complexity. The differences between them are as important as the common ground they share. But understanding the making of these foundational texts has its own light to shed on the making of England.
Pauline Stafford is Professor Emerita of Early Medieval History at the University of Liverpool, and former Vice-President of the Royal Historical Society.
Historians justly celebrate 1258 as the year when baronial opposition to Henry III culminated in parliament’s imposition upon the King of the Provisions of Oxford. Less well remembered is the fact that this constitutional conflict unfolded against a background of bad weather, failed harvests, scarce and increasingly dear food, and mounting hunger. Recent discovery of mass burials in the excavated cemetery of the London hospital of St Mary Spital has refocused attention on the plight of the poor at this time of political turmoil, when the superior institutional and economic resources of the capital rendered it a magnet to those in need. Scientific identification in 2013 of the Samalas Volcano, Indonesia, as the source of perhaps the most explosive eruption of the last 10,000 years, re-dated from 1258 to spring/summer 1257, has endowed the food crisis with further interest, for, analogously, it was global fallout from the mega-eruption of the neighbouring volcano of Tambora in April 1815 that was responsible for the northern hemisphere’s notorious ‘year without a summer’ in 1816. Evaluating the seriousness of the English food crisis of 1258 thus assumes considerable comparative significance, always provided that volcanic forcing of global climates and not some other less conspicuous but equally powerful perturbation was responsible for the run of bad weather that led harvests repeatedly to fail. One thing alone is clear, the 1258 food crisis is the earliest of the long sequence of English subsistence crises upon which documentary evidence of harvests, prices and the comments of contemporaries can shed systematic light, alongside that provided by tree rings and other palaeo-climatic proxies. Although less momentous in its consequences than the concurrent political drama, it demonstrates that the weather, food supplies, charitable relief and the poor all have histories as worthy and rewarding of investigation as affairs of state.
Bruce Campbell is Professor Emeritus of Medieval Economic History at The Queen’s University of Belfast, Fellow of the British Academy, co-author (with Steve Broadberry, Alex Klein, Mark Overton and Bas van Leeuwen) of British Economic Growth 1270-1870, CUP, 2015, and author of The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World, CUP, May 2016.