The beloved zoo pet ‘Jumbo the Elephant’: Animal History as History from Below

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Daniel Phillips. Daniel is a College of Humanities funded doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter whose work focuses on the London Zoological Society and the British Empire, 1847-1903. Find him on twitter at @Daniel_Ph1llips.

Nearly everyone has seen Dumbo: the 1941 Disney film that tells the story of an elephant that learns to fly. The film not only parodies the relationship between mice and elephants with Dumbo’s only friend, Timothy Mouse, but also includes racially stereotyped crows and a drunken hallucination of pink elephants.  However, what is less well known about the film, is Dumbo’s real name. In her only line of the film, Dumbo’s mother is asked to name her child and, in response, Mrs Jumbo names her child Jumbo Jr. Like every good story, Dumbo has a basis in truth. Namely, a real life elephant called Jumbo who led an extraordinary life.

Historians are beginning to reassess the human centred conditions of history writing, now looking to uncover complex roles animals played in historical narratives. Research is drawing attention to the fact that animals were very much part of the collective past, and were remembered and memorialised in ways that shaped human views and thinking. The story of Jumbo the elephant is a great example of this, revealing a history of human-animal relations and the various influences Jumbo had on human historical experiences. 

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Jumbo as a young elephant eating buns. Illustrated London News.

Born around 1860, Jumbo was the first African elephant to set foot in England. Like a lot of zoo animals, he was captured at a very young age by a party of hunters who had separated him from the herd. After initially spending some time in Paris zoo, he was bought on exchange by the London Zoological Gardens (now known as London Zoo) and shipped to England on 26th June 1865. He was an instant hit and, after an initial struggle, Jumbo learnt to obey the voice and commands of his keeper Mathew Scott. Under Scott’s constant care and love, Jumbo soon became ‘very frolicsome’, and would kick at the woodwork pieces of his den, and occasionally wind up neighbouring animals. For example on one occasion, he angered the male hippopotamus, Obaysch, by throwing up dust into his eyes. The infuriated hippo then charged at the bars causing further injury to his nose, thus enraging him all the more.

Continue reading

Decolonising and Black British History: a teaching resource

Laura Sangha

If you are thinking about decolonising your history module this year, this seminar plan [pdf] might be of use to you. It’s based around ‘Black Lives in Early Modern England’, but with minor tweaking of the reading and primary sources it could be adapted for most modules, whether pre-modern or modern.

John Blanke (detail from 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll).

The seminar aims to introduce students to some key concepts whilst also encouraging them to think about methodology and historiography. It combines synchronous and asynchronous activities, and is equivalent to four hours of synchronous seminar time (it’s designed for my Special Subject which in non-pandemic years is taught by means of 2 x 2 hour seminars a week).

In this post, I want to share some of my recent experiences which provide some context to where the seminar emerged from.

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Teaching Microhistory: small things, big questions and a global pandemic

Brodie Waddell

Over ten weeks in April, May and June this year, as a pandemic raged across the world and most of us found ourselves confined mostly to our homes, I taught one of my favourite modules. It’s called ‘To See the World in a Grain of Sand: Reading and Writing Microhistories’, and it’s open to most of the MA students in my department at Birkbeck.

microhistories-promo-slide

There’s no obvious reason why about twenty postgrads would sign up to do an optional module focused on theories and methodologies, especially as most of them were living in locked-down London, one of the hardest hit cities in the world. But they did, and I’m glad they did. Continue reading

Books as Open Online Content: Paper Trails

Laura Sangha

This year I joined the editorial board of a BOOC for UCL press titled Paper Trails, and if you are an academic, librarian, curator, collections manager, archivist, or educator, we want to work with you.

Paper Trails imageThat might need some explanation: a BOOC is a new, fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. Living books for the digital age, if you will.

The innovative BOOC format comes with many benefits. It means that Paper Trails can offer space not only for peer-reviewed, ‘REF-able’ academic articles, but that these can be published alongside work by other practitioners who both study the past, and who make the study of the past possible. We thus hope that one of the things our BOOC will do will be to make visible and showcase the work of collection managers, curators, librarians, archivists and educators. The intellectual focus, multi-form content, and the four streams in our Call for Papers are designed with this in mind.

The Paper Trails BOOC therefore presents an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary reflection on the ways that we construct the past, and on the collaborative nature of that project. In particular it will allow us to consider our relationship with research material more closely and coherently, by juxtaposing critical histories with reflections on practice, sources and materials.

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‘Engaging’ Lead Editor: Andrew WM Smith

Paper Trails is also intended as a means to capture and promote some of the excellent education and engagement work that many scholars are involved in, but which we often don’t get to hear about. We hope that the ‘Engagement’ stream will become a repository of shorter cases studies or think pieces that demonstrate particular skills or techniques, and which can therefore inform broader professional practice. Since creative and dynamic ways of engaging non-professionals with the past are now widespread, the BOOC can be the means to preserve and disseminate the best of this work. Continue reading

Against the Long Eighteenth Century

This post speaks to the themse of our ‘On Periodisation’ series. The other posts are:

Brodie Waddell

The idea of a ‘long eighteenth century’ in British history has only been around for a few decades, but it has proved powerful. It is regularly used in teaching and in research publications. It even has a popular seminar at the Institute of Historical Research.

This post is an attempt to offer a case against the ‘long’ eighteenth century as a period of study. For reasons that will soon be obvious, it should not be taken too seriously, but I hope it will still offer some food for thought. I hope it will also contribute to the wider conversation about historical periodisation that we’ve been having on this blog.

My argument today is two-fold:

  • First, the long eighteenth century is too long.
  • Second, the long eighteenth century is too short.

Let me explain… Continue reading

‘Now, who the Divell taught thee so much Italian?’ Language-learning for historians of early modern England

[This guest post comes from John Gallagher of the University of Leeds. He also can be found on twitter talking about language, education and mobility.]

In an English-Italian phrasebook written in 1578, one character complained about the rudeness of the English towards foreigners, muttering that ‘fewe of these English men delight to haue their chyldren learne diuers languages, whiche thing displeaseth me’. He and his fellow-speakers discussed how best to learn languages, how fast it could be done, and whether it was worthwhile, with one speaker complaining that ‘I reade, write, and speake three or foure tongues, and yet I finde no profite’.[1] Four centuries ago, the usefulness of language-learning was already up for debate.

Early modern England, like England today, was multilingual. It was a country where Latin (and Greek and Hebrew) was heard in schools and universities, where Law French and Latin were spoken in the courts, where Dutch and French were languages of London courtrooms and fenland towns. While English tourists polished their Italian at home and abroad, soldiers and sailors encountered languages from Swedish and Spanish to Ottoman Turkish or Akan. From Ireland to India and from the Americas to Japan, England’s global expansion was shaped by multilingual meetings.

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Irish/Latin/English phrasebook compiled for and used by Elizabeth I of England (Wikimedia Commons)

Studying a language other than English can be of enormous value to historians. For students of early modern England, language skills can highlight new voices, new sources, and new perspectives on familiar histories. The UK – and the historical profession – seem to be facing a language crisis, so it couldn’t be more important to support our students in developing language skills or in putting ones they already have to use in their work as historians. From students who want to start a language from scratch to those who come to us with excellent Welsh, Polish, or Punjabi, as teachers we can always do more to show our students how their skills and interests can enrich their work as historians of all places and periods.

With this in mind, and partly prompted by Rebecca Rideal’s twitter discussion on the topic, I’ve put together some suggestions for students, researchers, and teachers who are interested in the rich and multilingual histories of early modern England and the early modern world (and hopefully many that will be of use beyond this period). Here are some resources that might be helpful to any early modernist seeking to learn a new language, or looking to brush up on one they’ve studied before: Continue reading

The Living, the Dead and the Very Very Dead: Ethics for Historians

Laura Sangha

Students of history are no strangers to ethics. Indeed, universities have ethics committees and policies which cover instances where the conduct of research involves the interests and rights of others. For historians, this usually means that they must reflect on the possible repercussions of their research on the living – particularly those relatives, friends, descendants and other groups or communities otherwise connected to the subjects that the historian writes about. Indeed, many ethical statements produced by historians concentrate on the interests and rights of the living – for examples see the Royal Historical Society statement on ethics, or the American Historical Association ‘Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct’.[1]

But I don’t work on the living.

I work on the dead. In fact, I work on the very very dead. People who died at least 300 years ago, and in some cases half a millennium ago. And since the dead don’t have any human rights for a while I was rather dismissive of ethics policies. They were for modern colleagues working on the recent past.

Yet eventually I came to think differently. Continue reading

Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think

Mark Hailwood

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about the story telling techniques that historians use in their writing.

This was not a long time ago, and nor was it far away – you can read it here in fact. Inspired by the ‘Storying the Past’ reading group, and a series of ‘Creative Histories’ events, the post reflected on some of the ways academic historians draw on the writing methods associated with more creative genres, and considered how they might fruitfully do more of this.

One example of the latter that I discussed was Philip Ziegler’s attempt at an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the experience of the Black Death in a medieval English village. In essence it is a piece of creative writing, informed by historical evidence, intended to ‘evoke the atmosphere’ of that moment in time. As Ziegler himself put it, he was essentially borrowing the approach of the ‘historical novelist’ to try and recover an aspect of the past that his cold, hard analysis of the facts – the supposed purview of the historian – could not: how people at the time felt about their villages being ravaged by the plague.

But can the approach of the historical novelist really bridge this gap? Continue reading

“As I Went Forth One Summer’s Day”: Putting the Story in Early Modern History

Mark Hailwood

Twas the night before Christmas, in the year 1681, and one Soloman Reddatt was drinking in the Nag’s Head in Reading, with his sister, Elizabeth, and a friend, George Parfitt, when, at around 9pm, their sociability was disturbed by the shattering of glass. Moments earlier, Debora Allen had burst into the alehouse in search of her husband Edward. After locating him in the kitchen drinking with the alehousekeeper, William Newbury, she flew into a rage, picking up a quart pot and throwing it through a window. As a startled Reddatt and his companions looked up from their drinks, Debora Allen emerged from the kitchen into the room where they were drinking, where the angry wife ‘levelled her passion’ against Sara Newbury, the alehousekeeper’s wife, who was busy serving customers. Debora Allen called Sara Newbury a whore and a bawd, and accused her of running the alehouse as a bawdy house, before turning her fire onto the alehousekeeper William Newbury, labelling him a cuckold. The furious Debora Allen repeated the accusations several times, both within the alehouse and at the street door, ensuring that her opinion of this alehouse and its proprietors received a public airing.


A version of this vignette appears at the start of a chapter that I have written for a forthcoming Bloomsbury textbook on the cultural history of alcohol in the early modern world. The focus of the chapter is the relationship between gender, sexuality and alcohol in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I use an analysis of this opening anecdote to highlight several of the themes that run through the essay: the gendered character of alcohol retailing; the extent and character of women’s public consumption of alcohol; the complex relationship between masculinity and drinking; and so on.

It is a classic technique of historians in my field – that is, the social history of early modern England – to start an article or a chapter with a story; a telling anecdote that draws the reader in and sets up the analysis that is to follow. Indeed, I have just used it here. More often than not, though, the storytelling ends there – the historian steps out of the role of fireside narrator, and proceeds to offer up their analysis in a cool, detached, ‘academic’ register, deemed more suitable for the pages of a peer-reviewed journal or academic monograph.

This is a writing convention that I myself have followed many times, and one that I relatively uncritically absorbed and mimicked from my own academic mentors and inspirations. But the endeavours of the ‘Storying the Past’ virtual reading group, and associated ‘Creative Histories’ events, have encouraged me to become more reflective about the storytelling techniques that I use in my writing as an academic historian, and those employed in my particular field of academic history.


What storytelling techniques, other than the trusty opening anecdote, do the historians that I spend most of my time reading deploy? Continue reading

Creative history is … ?

Laura Sangha

This post was inspired by the conversations, presentations, exhibitions and performances at ‘Creative Histories’, Bristol Zoo, 19-21 July 2017. The conference was organised by Will Pooley, and you can read more of the posts that came out of the conference here.

 

Creative history is…?[1]

not a luxury[2]

an active part of the historical process at every stage of the process[3]

a way to uncover and reveal the research process[4]

a way to work out how others look and see[5]

a curiosity, a delight[6] Continue reading