Black mermaids and the long legacy of eighteenth-century racism

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Onni Gust is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nottingham. Their research focuses on ideas of sex and the human-animal boundary in eighteenth-century British imperial thought.

Onni Gust

Towards the end of the summer, Disney launched a trailer for its new version of The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel. The launch generated much excitement on social media. Parents of young Black girls posted videos of their daughters’ faces lighting up when they saw a heroine that looked similar to themselves. And then came the inevitable pile-on by racists. According to some commentators, the casting of a young, Black actress as Ariel was a distortion of the original, ‘authentic’ and necessarily white Ariel. To turn Ariel into a Black mer-girl was yet another egregious example of ‘wokeness’.

Arnaud Gautier D’Agoty, ‘A mermaid, with a measuring scale’ (1757). Wellcome Collection, 3327i.

Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid in 1836 and the best-known adaptation is Disney’s 1989 film. In both versions Ariel is portrayed as having white skin – ‘delicately fair’ – with long flowing hair and blue eyes. There is nothing politically neutral about this physical description. These images are deeply embedded in racialised concepts of beauty and femininity that were being developed in the long eighteenth century in the context of European colonial expansion. A brief look at the history of mermaid sightings, capture and display during this period offers some insights into this history of racism and anti-blackness that resurfaces continuously in our own times.

Mermaids have a long and enduring presence across the globe in literature, myth and spiritual beliefs. As Celeste Headlee and Kalyani Saxena write, Black mermaids, notably the gender-fluid Mami Wata, have an important presence in African folklore; aquatic goddesses and spirits also exist in various forms in myths and legends across Asia; in Europe mermaids and sirens were regular features of sea-faring stories and ancient myth. In eighteenth-century Europe, however, a renewed fascination with merfolk formed part of a wider interest in the limits and possibilities of the natural world.

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Changing minds on early modern disability

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Alasdair McNeill completed a BA in History this year at Birkbeck, University of London, and is now undertaking an MA in Early Modern History.

Alasdair McNeill

Earlier this year while writing my undergraduate dissertation about how eighteenth-century London polite society treated the physically disabled, the most common reaction from friends, family and fellow students was ‘oh, it must have been really terrible for disabled people back then’.

I understood what people were getting at, partly because my view had been similar before starting the research, and it is certainly hard to disagree that life back then was much more difficult than it is now.  But the early modern period was tough whoever you were, and I doubt many people today would willingly swap their life now for that of anyone, rich or poor, disabled or not, back then.

During these conversations I always asked that people suspend most of what they thought they knew and consider a couple of things unearthed during my research, things that might help them towards a view that was more nuanced than ‘life was terrible’.  One was the different use of language; the terms ‘disabled’ and ‘able-bodied’ were in use but did not divide people into categories based on their ability to participate equally in society.  Early modern society did not see a distinct group of ‘disabled’, and the sources reveal a great degree of community acceptance, support and simply living alongside those with physical impairment or mental illness. Continue reading

How dead are my early modern merchants?

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Christophe Schellekens (@Christophe_Fir) works as a non-permanent lecturer in social and economic history at Utrecht University (The Netherlands). His main research interest is the history of commerce and capitalism in the pre-modern period.

Christophe Schellekens

“How are your dead Florentine merchants doing today?” A friend and fellow PhD-researcher regularly asked me that question when we ran into each other in the corridors of the European University Institute. In that institution, where we both did our doctorate between 2013 and 2018, a small but vibrant group of early modern historians (at the time five faculty members) was often confronted with such questions about their topic from colleagues working in other disciplines.

Why did my doctoral research on (absolutely certainly physically very dead) Florentine merchants in sixteenth century Antwerp matter to my friend, who studies EU administrative law? What did I have to share with my EUI flat mate researching contemporary welfare state regimes, or with one of the many other colleagues at the institute who were tackling topics that are more readily considered as socially or policy relevant? How dead or alive is the early modern world that I study?

The EUI’s Villa Salviati, a Renaissance building where lawyers inquire about the dead subjects of historians. Photo by Sailko on wikimedia.

The question how early modern history matters can be approached from a variety of angles and experiences. As I later worked as a postdoc in a EU Horizon 2020 project with a strong focus on societal impact, and then started to work as a lecturer in a PPE-program, my take on it is strongly shaped by working over the past decade as an early modernist in environments where early modern history is not at the institutional and intellectual core of the agenda of my direct workplace. In that sense it is thus a take from the margin. Continue reading

Plague, Religion, and Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Lisa Olson is a librarian and recent graduate of the Master of Information program at Dalhousie University where she completed a thesis focussed on plague publications in seventeenth-century England. Find her on Twitter @Olson_Bochord.

Lisa Olson

Three years since the start of the pandemic seems like an apposite time to see what lessons we can learn about the experience from a closer examination of early modern history. We have seen how widespread illness can effect profound change in society, as it has many times before. We have yet to understand the lasting effects of the current pandemic, however, and may benefit from a closer examination of similar occurrences throughout history.

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The Suspicious Smell of Witchcraft

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022: Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Jordan Graham graduated from Cardiff University with a BA in History in the summer of 2022.

Jordan Graham

Over the last few years it is likely that you or someone you know has had Covid-19. One of the common side of effects has been loss of taste or smell, so much so that often when someone tells you they had Covid it may be one of the questions you ask. Could you smell anything? Could you taste anything? While the thought of not being able to taste your food is dreadful, how often have we really thought about how our sense of smell affects our daily lives? How did smell affect those who lived before us? How did smell help people decide between what was good or bad? The early modern witch offers an unexpected case study.

Throughout history the sense of smell has been viewed as nothing more than average. Even Aristotle put it in the middle of his hierarchy of the senses, behind sight, and hearing, but before taste and touch. When we think of the early modern witch we similarly often privilege how she looked or sounded. But smell mattered too. Early modern medical texts, plays, demonological texts and trial records all show that the witch’s foul-smelling qualities permeated society. This influenced early modern individuals to suspect and accuse others of witchcraft based merely on their personal odour.

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Colonialism From Below

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Misha Ewen (@mishaewen) is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Bristol, and has published on gender, colonialism, and trading companies in The Historical Journal, Gender & History, and Cultural and Social History. She has just published The Virginia Venture: American Colonization and English Society, 1580-1660 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022).

Misha Ewen

Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, we have witnessed renewed scrutiny of British involvement in colonialism and the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. Many of the names and institutions at the centre of debates (and the manufactured so-called culture war) are early modern, from Edward Colston and Tobias Rustat to the Bank of England. It’s through the lens, and understanding, of the early modern period that apologies have been issued, new findings about institutional complicity have been made, and statues have been torn down. Calls for reparations, from private individuals like Richard Drax MP and institutions like the British monarchy, are also distinctly early modern in their basis and legitimacy.

With good reason, recent action and debate has focused on these particularly prominent individuals and institutions, but this narrowing of attention does mean that we often don’t discuss the wider public interest in and support for colonisation that permeated society in early modern Britain. My impression is that our general understanding about early modern colonisation does not extend to knowing how ordinary women, men, and children encountered and engaged with colonial activity in myriad ways, how they profited from it and upheld it. There were those who shaped policy in the Houses of Parliament and meeting rooms of trading companies, and then there are those who outfitted ships and provided food and lodging to colonists in the days leading up to their departure: women like Elizabeth Hibbert, who earned fifteen shillings providing this service to Virginia colonists departing aboard the Margaret from Gloucestershire in 1619.

Participation in the colonial project operated on a spectrum like this, from what could be considered more passive or fleeting, to active, deeper, engagement. For those individuals and institutions which were more tightly involved with colonial policy and projects, we sometimes have ample evidence of their outlook and activity, and this is where our focus usually lies, rather than on others like Elizabeth Hibbert, who contributed at the margins and remain there. Their imprint on the archive is much lighter, and their interaction with the colonial project appears short-lived. How does evidence of this kind, however fragmentary it is, not only impact how historians understand histories of colonisation and empire, but potentially challenge engrained narratives about our heritage?

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The Depressing Relevance of Early Modern Russian History

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Clare Griffin is an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington and a historian of the early modern Russian empire in global context. You can find more of her work at

Clare Griffin

If you have been in a state of consciousness at any time since February ‘22, you may have noticed something is up with Russia and Ukraine. Depending on which news sources you read, you may or may not know how central early modern Russian history is to this twenty-first-century war. Yet it is. Russian propaganda justifying the war, and Ukraine’s responses to that, are heavily concerned with both medieval Kyiv and early modern Moscow and its empire.

Earlier this year, I was in the bizarre situation of having an interview for a Russian history job on the same day that Russia invaded Ukraine. I had a pitch all lined up for why early modern Russia is relevant, but when the leader of the country you study is justifying an invasion on the basis of what you study this all becomes a decidedly dark moot point.

So what is Putin’s version of premodern East Slavic history, and why is this important to the Kremlin’s propaganda machine?

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