The world of UK universities has changed dramatically in the ten years since our first post appeared on the Many-Headed Monster, and it feels like the pace of change has recently accelerated.
So, while my co-bloggers are looking back at hangovers, Marxists, plebs and creative histories, I want to indulge in a bit of navel gazing. How has the role of the historian as a job been changing over the last decade? Much of my evidence comes from a sample size of one, but I think the sorts of things we’ve been talking about on the blog over the years give some sense of the wider climate.
I vividly remember my own circumstances in July 2012, when we started the blog, because it was a moment of personal chaos but also optimism. I was finishing up a postdoc and had recently been offered a three-year lectureship at Birkbeck, while at the same time trying to juggle the demands of a new baby. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good time to launch a new project, but I’m glad I did. Meanwhile, things were less chaotic but also less optimistic at the national level. The UK was in the midst of the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, and it was pretty clear that universities were generally going in the wrong direction, most obviously with annual tuition fees rising from £3,000 to £9,000 that very year.
What is intriguing, however, is that there is almost no evidence of this on the Many-Headed Monster. Posts from our first few years touched on lots of different historical topics, but very little on the job itself. That said, Laura’s reflections on conferences as ‘communitas’ and my complaints about boring exam questions are probably a fair reflection of the sort of day-to-day concerns of new lecturers, then and now, even if we somehow avoided mentioning the fact that we were then all currently or recently precariously employed. The closest we came to dealing with our jobs directly was ‘The Future of History from Below’ symposium in 2013, which included reflections on who we were writing for and why, an issue that we would now probably call ‘public history’, but which was barely discussed in academic circles just ten years ago. A couple years later, Laura set out her thinking on ‘What is history for?’ which again highlighted how we were increasingly questioning the purpose of our discipline in the wider world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Spring of 2014, it felt like a wave of anti-immigrant hostility was sweeping through England. In the European Union elections of May that year, the UK Independence Party won more seats than Labour and the Conservatives combined. The British press was running ever-more stories on migrants, many of them focused on the supposed dangers of ‘mass immigration’. As it turned out, this was merely a foretaste of the torrent of xenophobia that came with the Brexit Referendum in 2016, but we didn’t know that then.
Meanwhile, I was a junior lecturer scrabbling around for a good idea for a conference paper, as Koji Yamamoto had invited me to speak at an event he had organised on ‘Stereotypes in Early Modern Britain’ in June. Moreover, I was also an immigrant. As a white, anglophone Canadian, I was hardly the main target of Nigel Farage or the Daily Mail, but nonetheless I was probably more aware of my ‘foreignness’ that Spring than I had been since my arrival in the UK almost a decade earlier. Although as a historian I had long been interested in how notions of ‘Englishness’ influenced economic life in the early modern period, I think it was only because of my own status as an immigrant at that particular moment that I decided to focus on perhaps London’s most famous explosion of anti-immigrant hostility: Evil May Day.
In this guest post Dr Peter K. Andersson reflects on the challenges of trying to write a biography of Henry VIII’s court fool, Will Somer. Dr Andersson is based at Örebro University in Sweden and works on the history of fools and clowns from the early modern to the modern age. His previous research has looked at Victorian streetlife and popular culture from below.
It’s strange to think that among the people who were closest to King Henry VIII was a man who, by all accounts, was a humble commoner and possibly intellectually disabled. In the early modern period, there was virtually only one way in which a person of low birth from a poor background could become close to a monarch and spend as much time with him or her as their family members. Naturally, it was possible for a commoner to enter the royal household as a servant, but I think it’s safe to say that there was only one occupation that transgressed the social hierarchy in such an extreme way. I am, of course, referring to the position of court fool.
There were many hundreds of court fools and jesters from the Middle Ages until well into the eighteenth century, and most of them enjoyed a status not far from that of a stable boy or scullery maid, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a hired entertainer living at best close to the court, but only seeing the king when called for to entertain. One of the most famous fools in all of history, however, appears to have lived as close to the monarch as possible, and he did so for an unusually long time.
To posterity, his name is often known as Will Summers, or Sommers, but this spelling only really emerges after his death. To his contemporaries, he was Will, or William Somer – sometimes with an -s added. During the sixteenth century, he grew to become one of the most legendary comics of the age, and after his death turned into a recurring folk hero, cropping up in ballads, jestbooks and pamphlets – not to mention plays, most famously by Thomas Nashe and Samuel Rowley. When Shakespeare omitted him from his play about Henry VIII, he had to include a prologue that explained to the audience that they would not be seeing the beloved fool, so as not to force anyone to sit through it waiting for him to come on.
This guest post ties in with our traditional mid-September focus on teaching resources and pedagogy. Here, two Warwick Faculty of Arts undergraduates introduce us to an innovative interdisciplinary group research project that may provide inspiration for tutors elsewhere.
Jessica Barton and Dan Smith
This year at the University of Warwick, the Faculty of Arts introduced the Student Research Portfolio (SRP), which encouraged second- and third-year students to explore a topic, to develop their research and teamwork skills, and to produce an output. By allowing students across disciplines to work together, the SRP challenged its participants to step beyond the limits of their undergraduate degree and its typical forms of assessment. As the scheme was completed entirely online, students were also able to strengthen their digital skillset. We were part of one of the SRP groups, and worked on an outcome entitled The Georgian Ghosts Project. It was inspired by a ghost story from eighteenth-century Cork, Ireland, which has survived in a manuscript housed at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester .
Most likely written by the prominent Methodist Hester Ann Rogers (1756-94), the manuscript records the dramatic conversion experience of a candle-maker called Cadwallader Acteson. He is haunted by the ghost of his deceased mistress, assaulted by a ‘hellish monster’ with long claws, and finally reassured by a heavenly voice promising redemption. Along the way he navigates knotty relationships with various women, most notably the ghostly mistress, a scheming maidservant who convinces him to attempt the murder of his wife, and the long-suffering wife herself. The story provides a thought-provoking perspective on eighteenth-century religion, gender roles, and the potentially perilous results of household tensions.
Is that the sound of term hurtling towards us once more? I’m afraid so, UK readers. As tutors scramble to get their courses ready – against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, let’s not forget – we thought it might be helpful to highlight the many teaching resources we have available in the many-headed monster archive.
Back in 2017 Laura Sangha put together a comprehensive list of all the resources we had on the blog at that stage, and you can see that here.
Below is an addendum to that list, highlighting a few materials we have added since.
Good luck this term, I’m sure we will all need it…
#SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online Whilst this series of posts was focused on non-teaching types of online working, it does contain lots of good advice and ideas about things like online meetings that will still be applicable to many of us this academic year.
If you have any resources you would like to share, please do add links to the comments section below.
We are pleased to introduce the final post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, byIvana Bicak. Ivana’s latest research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and conducted at the University of Exeter, explored early modern satires of experimental medicine in Spain.
In the sixteenth century, new medicinal plants from America entered Spain. Apart from transforming the medical practice of the time, these novel products had an immediate impact on the literary landscape, particularly satiric poetry. The witty verses of Spanish satirists offer us a unique view into how these experimental medicines were perceived by the contemporaries. The satires of exotic drugs such as guaiac and sarsaparilla underline the acceptance and familiarity of the newly discovered materia medica, as described by Christopher Booth in his recent post ‘The World in a Jar.’
After Christopher Columbus returned from his famous voyage in 1493, a terrible disease struck Europe, transforming human bodies into decomposing masses of pustules, broken bones, bald heads, and missing noses. The epidemic of highly contagious syphilis spared no one, sowing destruction from seedy brothels to shiny courts, from Spain to England.
In a desperate search for a remedy, many different treatments were tried. One of the more ingenious prescriptions included applying a freshly cut chicken or pigeon to the ulcerated penis, as per advice of the papal physician Gaspar Torella. Most physicians and patients, however, turned to mercury, a long-standing cure for skin diseases. This heavy metal was not exactly the happiest solution as the severity of its side effects frequently surpassed that of the disease’s symptoms. Thanks to its potent corrosive properties, mercury acted much more as a poison than as a cure. If the patient did not lose their nose due to syphilis, mercury made sure their teeth fell out.
The arrival of the new American medicines in Spain was therefore eagerly welcomed in the hopes of relieving the suffering of syphilitic patients across European borders. American anti-syphilitic plants flooded European medical markets. Among them, guaiac wood and sarsaparilla achieved immense popularity. As a result, they were exported from Spain to other European countries.
Around ten o’clock on the evening of 30 May 1626 in Westminster, Thomas Powell, accompanied by a constable and watchman, arrived at the door of John Bonner with the pretext of asking for his landlord. Many ‘injurious wordes’ were made against Bonner and he was assaulted in his lodging. Powell, in a most ‘furious and barbarous manner’, then compelled the constable, watchman and others to take him to the local gatehouse.
Bonner gives his account of the incident in a petition to the Westminster Quarter Sessions in 1626, and states that Powell was acting on a grudge that had been conceived against him in his shop the Saturday before the incident. Bonner asked the Justices to take action against Powell and his associates, as he possessed no warrant and had wronged his ‘bodie and good name’. Bonner based this on the understanding of ‘most of the parishe’ that he had, as a ‘professor of phisicke’, willingly worked to cure ‘upon 500’ people of the plague in the 1625 epidemic. Bonner’s petition suggests that the experience of plague might be used as a currency of sorts to further the cause of the petitioner, in much the same way that poverty was made explicit and given focus when seeking poor relief.
One ill-fated day, sometime around the middle of the seventeenth century, ‘an old servant to a person of honour’ was bitten on the back of his hand by a monkey. The surgeon called to treat the man, ‘forbad him wine’ to reduce inflammation. But the next morning the old man complained of a sleepless night, feeling ‘faint and sick’, and that ‘his Wound was the least of his ailment’. After his patient swooned, and claimed he ‘could not live without Wine’, the surgeon finally relented, and allowed him to return to drinking ‘as he pleased’. As it turned out, this entailed a ‘Quart’ of wine every morning but, soon after, the wound healed, and the patient was cured.1
This story was just one of many medical case histories that Richard Wiseman, ex-civil war surgeon and personal practitioner to Charles II, included in his lengthy tome on surgery, published in 1676. He went on to explain that some heavy drinkers should never be forbidden wine and that with ‘Dunkerker’ sailors he could ‘scarce ever cure any of them without allowing them Wine’. Wiseman cited the saying ‘a Hair of the same Dog’, and admitted that his readers ‘may laugh’ at him for ‘pleading’ for these drinkers but, as he put it, ‘I hope you will consider I am a Water-drinker’.2 There is so much of historical interest to unpack in this short passage that it is hard to know where to begin. To start with: Whose monkey was it? And were monkey-inflicted wounds so common that this warranted no comment?