We typically think of digital media outputs as relatively impermanent and ephemeral: they enjoy a brief window of exposure before sinking to the bottom of timelines, coming to rest in obscure corners of the web or vanishing behind broken hyperlinks. They are timely, not timeless.
The blog post might fit this mould in some ways, and when we started the many-headed monster ten years ago we were very much writing posts for the present rather than posterity. But without particularly planning to (planning has never really been our MO) it turns out we’ve created quite the archive over the years. A blog archive. A blarchive, if you will.
Whilst some of our posts were rapid responses to specific current events – remember ‘plebgate’? – or conferences we had attended – History after Hobsbawm – a great many of them have aged fairly well. When we joined in debates about periodisation, or the importance of history from below, we were engaging with issues that continue to be relevant. Not least of all in the classroom: its clear that some of our posts and series have become widely used as teaching resources.
So we’ve come to think about the many-headed monster not just as a platform for posting new content, but as a repository of pieces that often come in useful years after they were first written. We’d like our readers to see it – and use it – that way too.
Our plan this this summer then, as we mark our tenniversary (I know, enough with the portmanteaus already…) is that each monster head will take a little trawl through our archives to highlight some of the older stuff that lurks there that might still have value for our readers. We hope it might even encourage you to seek out your own gems from our blarchive too!
I started my own search by calling up my first ever post back in July of 2012. Unsurprisingly it was on a drink history topic – the 17th century hangover. I think it was mostly just an excuse to throw together some references to hangovers that I had come across in my research, but it did raise a bigger question that I came back to regularly in later posts: can historians recover the physical and sensory experiences of the past?
What did 17th century drinking songs sound like, for instance? How do – or should – we picture or imagine the events we read about in records like depositions? Did dancing with Paddy Fumerton at the Huntington give me a better understanding of broadside ballads? I’m not sure I answered any of these questions very effectively, but looking back at these posts reminded me of one of the great virtues of blogging: you don’t need all the answers.
Writing formal academic publications usually involves having a well-formulated argument to make: some original and significant contribution to existing debates. But blogging has provided a space to ask questions about – and to think about, with the help of readers – stuff that I don’t have the answers to and wouldn’t know how to write a conventional article about. This has been very intellectually freeing, and rewarding, and these types of posts can also serve as a great starting point for more open-ended, reflective classroom discussions about the historian’s craft that a lot of traditional secondary readings don’t necessarily open up.
Inspiration for blog posts can come from anywhere: this one, about how class conflict is embedded in the English landscape, was provoked by a walk in the Sussex countryside. And the comments can take you in interesting directions too – this post resulted in me being asked, politely, if I was Marxist. (The answer, apparently, which I talked about on another blog in a post I have no recollection of writing, is that I’m a ‘Post-Marxist’.)
Of course, with the title of our blog taken from a Christopher Hill article, it isn’t surprising that discussions of Marxism have reared their head on the blog every now and then. So too have debates about what precisely we should call the group of people that seventeenth-century gentlemen labelled ‘the many-headed monster’ – what we refer to playfully in our tag line, again borrowing from early modern elites, as the ‘unruly sort of clowns’. It’s easy enough to dismiss these terms, but much harder to put something appropriate in their place. Is ‘plebeian’ a helpful term, or an insult? Is ‘the people’ used reflectively enough by historians? Just precisely who is ‘below’? It has been a really fruitful ongoing discussion on the blog, but again it is one where we haven’t necessarily offered any easy answers. If I ever come up with one, I’ll probably write a conventional journal article about it…
So those are just a handful of themes that we’ve explored in our archive of posts, and you can find many more with a bit of digging. You might not find all the answers to the big historical questions, but you’ll certainly find plenty of food for thought, and perhaps some inspiration for contributing your own post to our archive as part of this year’s Monster Carnival, where we’re calling for guest posts on why early modern history matters.