the many-headed monster is 10: looking forward

This year we are celebrating ten years of blogging about the unruly sort of clowns and other early modern peculiarities. But we are also laying out plans for the next ten years, because it felt like it was time to make some fundamental changes in how we do things at the Monster.

We started this blog in 2012, and in all sorts of ways the world is a very different place now than it was then. Back then, the global financial crash and the UK coalition government’s policy of austerity loomed large. Today, the ongoing impact of the covid pandemic, Brexit, the Trump presidency, the climate emergency and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine set an even more apocalyptic backdrop. The MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have brought more positive change, but in countless less obvious ways the nature and tone of public discourse often feels more radical and polarised than ever. Closer to home, the university sector in the UK has been transforming too, thanks simultaneously to the tripling of tuition fees and cutting of budgets, a central government increasingly hostile to the arts and humanities, the rise of decolonising initiatives, and a series of bitter labour disputes.

Our own situations have also changed. All four of us are now on permanent open-ended contracts, with solid publication records and ever-expanding administrative responsibilities. This is in sharp contrast to 2012, when two of us were still in temporary posts and the other two were very junior lecturers. We all now officially fit the label of ‘mid-career scholars’. All this could have spelled an ignoble end to our grand and monstrous venture. However, rather than simply puttering along and writing an occasional isolated post, squeezed in between our many other professional duties, we decided to take advantage of our current positions as established scholars of early modern history and build on the huge success of our recent Early Career Researcher Takeover event in 2021. More practically, we all now have extensive experience as peer reviewers and academic editors, so this seems like an ideal new long-term role for the Monster heads.

Welcome to the Monster Carnival! Johannes Lingbach, Carnival at Rome (1650-51)

Monster Carnivals

We are therefore delighted to announce that starting this year we will be hosting regular Monster Carnivals: online events that offer a platform for scholars of history, especially but not exclusively newer researchers, and those who study the late fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. The Carnivals will provide a forum for addressing critically important themes in current scholarship.

The Monster Carnivals will have something in common with conventional academic events and may sometimes be accompanied by online or in-person meetings. They will also share some features with issues of an academic journal, and we hope that they will be read and used by students as well as scholars. Their open-access nature means that they will also have plenty of readers beyond academia, as we have regularly discovered in our own blogging. And of course you’ll be able to follow along and join in the conversation via #MonsterCarnival on twitter.

Early Modern Matters: A Call for Contributions

Our first Monster Carnival will be launched in Autumn 2022 on the theme of Early Modern Matters. We are calling for contributions that highlight why early modern history matters to wider scholarly debates and to broader society.

This could be something very small – such as a microhistory that gives some unexpected insight into the human condition – or very something big – such as an argument about the long-term impact of early modern globalisation. It could be focused on the relevance of early modern history to issues that are central to current conversations such as racism, migration, disease or invasion. Or it could speak to the role of learning and teaching early modern history in an environment placing renewed official emphasis on STEM subjects and vocational training. Or it could be something completely different – as long as you can pitch a post that sounds interesting and might fit under the heading of Early Modern Matters, we’re happy to consider it!

Information on how to submit is below, the deadline for submissions is August 31 2022.

Marten van Cleve, Carnival in a Village with Beggars Dancing (c.1591-1600)

Early Modern Matters: advice for aspiring bloggers

Click here for our style guide and for information about how to submit [pdf].

Below is a brief explanation of some of the key principles behind our own blogging. It aims to familiarise potential contributors (or anyone else thinking of venturing into blog writing) with the reasons why we have come to write for the monster in the way that we do. As you will see, most of them relate to our sense of who reads the blog, when and why.

We’ve come to think of the monster as a ‘magazine’, rather than a research blog, so we ask for short, succinct posts no longer than 1,200 words, and potentially significantly shorter. As blog readers, we all know that once you get the gist of a post, you are unlikely to read right to the end of longer pieces unless you have a particular interest in the subject matter. So shorter is better when writing for a non-specialist audience, and fits with blog reading as a ‘supplementary’ research activity that scholars use to fill in gaps between other tasks. A neat side effect is that blog posts can serve as excellent brief introductions to topics for undergraduate students, so they work well as a teaching resource.

We’ve also found that it’s a good idea to approach a blog post in a different way to other writing, and indeed to make a virtue of the freedom the format gives you. A more conversational style, colloquialisms, and jokey asides can all find a place, or perhaps you want to write a listicle, or experiment by storifying or playing with genres. One of the reasons the monster has lasted so long is undoubtedly the enjoyment we get from speaking to a different and wider range of readers, and writing just for the pleasure of it. This also explains why we want you to keep footnotes to a minimum – posts are not intended to replicate or ape conference papers or research articles.

We know that many of our readers are not early modern specialists, nor are they all historians, so writing with this audience in mind and avoiding or explaining technical language and key concepts will expand the reach of a post.

the many-headed monster is 10: looking back

When Brodie and Mark quietly announced the birth of the many-headed monster to the world in July 2012, little did they know how big their baby would grow or just how many readers and contributors the behemoth would ensnare. But it’s been quite a ride.

four photos of the monster heads when they were young
monster heads when they were young

It’s possibly obvious to our readers, but we have never had a strict editorial line, preferring the blog to develop organically and to lead us in whatever direction seems promising. We share a consensus that we want to reach broader audiences than journal articles and academic monographs can, and that the types of history that we discuss, the format, and particularly the tone of our writing is intended to be accessible and engaging for non-specialists, but beyond that, there aren’t really any rules. Indeed, until we four co-authors met late in 2021 to discuss how to mark our ten year anniversary we’d never had an editorial meeting, rather we very satisfactorily conducted matters via email, or a scatter of shared google docs for when we were feeling fancy.

This informal approach is perhaps one of our great strengths. For one thing, it keeps editorial and administrative duties to the barest minimum. Just as importantly, it has allowed us to develop ways of publishing content online that retains the quick blog post format, but which expand and adapt it for different purposes. At its simplest, this might mean breaking a longer post into more easily digestible chunks and posting each chunk individually across a week or a fortnight, as Mark did with his posts on the application of theory to the history of food and drink.

More distinctively, our ‘Monster Mini-Series’ quickly became a feature of our output. These are both finite and current/long-running collections of posts focused around a particular theme or topic. Laura’s posts on the history of the Tudor Southwest is an example of the former, and our co-authored series ‘On Periodisation’ of the latter.  

One of these mini-series, ‘Marooned on an Island Monographs’ became an excellent means for us to bring new contributors to the monster, allowing others to showcase their expertise in guest authored blogs. The series asks an expert ‘what 5 history monographs would you take with you to a deserted island?’, so the posts are effectively starter reading lists for a variety of themes, including early modern social, economic or medical history, the English Reformation, or the histories of femininities and masculinities. Latterly, as we have all found it harder to free up time to write for the blog, we have more deliberately sought guest contributions as a way of breathing new life and bringing fresh perspectives into the monster.

Another monstrous feature we are particularly proud of are our ‘Online Symposiums’, a format that we pioneered and which has happily proven very popular. The inaugural event was ‘The Future of History From Below’ in 2013. The concept is simple – the monster publishes a series of research posts or think pieces, each by a different scholar, speaking to the symposium theme. In many cases these posts were written after an in person conference or workshop, extending conversations held there to a broader audience and providing the opportunity for further reflection and discussion. They are an easier and cheaper way to bring together scholars from across the globe (with a small carbon footprint), and they can reach out to those on the margins of professional academia, be they students daunted by hierarchies, distance learners with physical obstacles to navigate, or scholars not officially attached to universities and therefore denied access to many of their resources. We have found that online platforms can provide a permanent and stable space to develop a research community or conversation, something that a short-term contract and fleeting affiliation with a Research Centre does not. Other symposia hosted on the monster include: The Voices of the People and After Iconophobia.

Our laid-back approach has also allowed us to be experimental and creative, particularly in how we write our material. With minimal footnotes, plenty of jokey asides, listicles, and even book reviews written in diary style we have cast aside the fetters of the style guide to maraud happily through the digital landscape.

Finally, we can also respond quickly to developments and publish responses while timely topics are still relevant. Most recently we ran #SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online writing and asking others to reflect on how best to handle the ‘pivot’ to online teaching and research during the pandemic lockdowns.

After ten years, the monster is now a well-established beast. It currently averages around 4,000 views a month, rising to 5-9K when we host symposium and events. We have published 376 posts, and have received more than half a million views. I might be wrong, but I don’t *think* our latest journal articles had quite the same reach. This is the first in a series of posts to mark and reflect on the 10 year anniversary of the many-headed monster, but as well as reflecting on how we got here, we will also be talking about where we want the blog and it’s readers to go next – we hope you will stick with us as the monster enters its teenage years.

the many-headed monster is 10: a history of a history blog

July 2012: Brodie and Mark announce the birth of the many-headed monster to the world. Why do they hate Henry VIII’s wives so much though?

September 2012: the monster hits 1,000 views after a month and a half. After blogging about this milestone, by 12 September this had doubled to 2,000!

September 2012: two new monster heads sprout as Jonathan and Laura join as new authors and the monstrous dream team is complete.

April 2013: nine months since launch, the monster was viewed for the 10,000th time. Drawn from 74 countries, these readers had viewed 53 posts and left 205 comments.

March 2014: just under a year later the monster published its 100th post. It had now been viewed more than 40,000 times and 541 comments had been left. The most popular posts were on the future of history from below; 17th-century drinking songs; John Dee’s conversations with angels; a medieval mistress; and, er, a review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’.

June 2015: Brodie’s post on a missing child and a suspicious meat pie was featured on ‘Hacker News’ and the post received an astonishing (for us) 4,857 views in just one day! It remains our best day ever. P.S. If anyone can explain to us what Hacker News is we are still in the dark.

June 2015: just before its third birthday the monster devoured it’s 100,000th viewer. The post celebrating this milestone revealed some of the more entertaining search terms that had directed people to the monster. Our favourite is ‘a naked monster alone showing long panni erected’.

February 2016: the 200th post was published. It’s amazing to think that in earlier years we were publishing at an average rate of one post per week…

July 2017: the monster celebrated its fifth birthday. It had published 260 posts that had been viewed over 236,000 times by 123,000 visitors, who left thousands of comments.

July 2019: the monster celebrated its seventh birthday. We were delighted when the Royal Historical Society invited us to reflect on being ‘one of the longest-running and most successful of academic historical blogs’ for their own blog.

November 2021: the monster heads hold their first editorial meeting. We are considering having another, perhaps in 2031.

July 2022: the monster turns 10! It currently averages around 4,000 views a month, rising to 5-9K when we host symposium and events. We have published 376 posts, and have received more than half a million views [!]. Fittingly, our most popular page by far remains the landing page for the ‘History from Below’ Symposium, which has received 21,800 views to date.