History Carnival 157: Anything but Brexit

Brodie Waddell

If you’re in Britain and reading a history blog, you’ve probably spent most of the last week thinking about Brexit, reading about Brexit, and arguing about Brexit. I’m sure at least some of you would like to mentally escape the current omnishambles, so here’s your chance.

Hey, look! An amusing historical image that has nothing to do with xenophobic populism or constitutional crisis!

‘Skimmington Triumph’ (c.1720). An amusing historical image that has nothing to do with xenophobic populism or constitutional crisis!

Today the Many-Headed Monster is hosting the 157th edition of the History Carnival which means I get to share a selection of some of the best history blogging from around the web from the last month or so. Thankfully there has been a bunch of great posts about all sort of fascinating topics that have nothing to do with the current political omnishambles. There are, of course, also a few that are directly related to The Vote That Shall Not Speak Its Name, but I’ve attempted to quarantine those by putting them in a separate section at the end. If you are looking for a bit of historical escapism, read on. If you are a masochist, just skip to the end.

Anything but Brexit

Screen-Shot-2016-05-04-at-18.31.35The history of women’s work is a key topic for research right now, and that’s reflected in some recent blogging. Yvonne Seale looked at the gender pay gap in the middle ages, and talks about the possible impact of the Black Death on women’s work. Jane Humphries has a series of podcasts from earlier this year that provide some new evidence on this long-debated question. Mark Hailwood also has a new post on the topic. Drawing on material from the project at Exeter on Women’s Work in Rural England, he examined how much of this work was ‘domestic’, reminding us that ‘domestic’ does not necessarily mean ‘unpaid’. Relatedly, Sara Pennell had a new post looking at the kitchen as a ‘domestic space’, previewing her new book on this issue. Finally, although this happened well over a month ago, I’d recommend taking a look at Laura Gowing’s wonderful inaugural lecture on ‘A Trade of One’s Own: Freedoms for Women in Seventeenth-Century London’.

The history of medicine and health has also sparked some new blog posts. The practice of medicine and charitable care in medieval Islamic hospitals is the focus of a post by Hels. She draws our attention to an interesting collection of art and objects from the period and a recent book by Ahmed Ragab on these hospitals. Meanwhile, Jennifer Evans has several new posts on early modern medicine, including one on John Evelyn’s various illnesses and another on the spectacle of watching surgery.

The big questions about why and how we do history got some attention. Tim Hitchcock posted a lovely rant about the dangers of digitising historical sources which implicitly privilege the culture of the western literate elite. After the VC of Queen’s University Belfast off-handedly insulted historical study, Jonathan Healey replied with a piece setting out his view for ‘why society needs historians’. (Our own Laura Sangha asked a similar question some time ago too.) Simon Briercliffe started thinking about the value of microhistory and then put together a series of posts putting these thoughts into practice. Moving further along the research-writing-publishing continuum, Matt Houlbrook tried to figure out ‘what is a successful book?’ for an academic historian? Finally, Catherine Baker talks through some of the fraught present-day issues raised by the way we think and write about the history of sexuality, particularly the historicity of the label ‘lesbian’.

Inevitably, there are a couple items that don’t fit into an obvious category. For example, Alex Parsons has drawn on Shelia Moore’s work to provide an account of how suicide became legal. Also, Russell Phillips looked at the British ‘Auxiliary Units’ set up in 1940 as ‘stay-behind squads’ to wage guerrilla warfare in case of an invasion from Europe – totally unrelated to the vote last week, I promise.

Historicising Brexit

I warned you that there’d be some of this at the end, didn’t I? Like it or not, history is a part of the discussion – or argument? or complete socio-political collapse? – that we’re having right now. In the massive vote day poll last week, it was striking that the biggest difference between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters was over this question ‘Is life in Britain better or worse today than it was 30 years ago?’. That seems to be the question that most clearly divides Remainers (76% said ‘better’) from Leavers (58% said ‘worse’). It also helps to explain the splits on other big issues such as multiculturalism, social liberalism, feminism and environmentalism. Essentially, half of the country is looking to history – perhaps an ‘invented’ past, but that’s not usual – as the blueprint for the future.


So, given that that’s the case, it is not surprising that historians have had a few thoughts on this. Some of them have simply tried to offer a bit of long-term perspective. John Reeks, writing in the halcyon days of early June, examined the nature of ‘parochialism’ in early modern England and found it to be surprisingly ‘outward looking’. Julian Hoppit, perhaps unintentionally, offered some interesting perspective on the current constitutional crisis by looking at Anglo-Scottish fiscal relations in the eighteenth century. Catherine Fletcher made a valiant effort at providing some comic relief in her post on ‘Eight things Henry VIII’s break with Rome can teach us about negotiating Brexit’.

Others have been more pointed in their interventions. Matt Champion, director of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, looks at the damaging impact that Brexit will have on archaeology both inside and outside academia. Rachel Moss had a lovely post on the academic kindness of Chris Wickham and the importance of such deeds in a post-referendum Britain. Looking more closely at one particular region, Simon Briercliffe surveys the politicised history of immigration in the Black Country, which voted strongly for Leave. Finally, Will Pooley and his colleagues at Bristol expressed the feelings of many of us in their statement on the personal and professional blow which came last Thursday.

At least this week has provided plenty of material for the historians of the future…

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