Rebecca and Jamie will introduce the blog series on Thursday 4 May, and we will then publish two posts a week over the following month – links to all the posts will be added to this page as we go, so you can bookmark it now if you want to follow along.
In a series of recent posts marking the tenth anniversary of the many-headed monster, my co-bloggers have reflected on a number of themes. Mark has discussed the transition of the blog from what seemed (at the time at least) to be a series of topical yet ephemeral interventions into something more permanent: a blog archive or ‘blarchive’ if you will. I fear the term probably won’t enter the running for OED word of the year, and if I’m being completely honest it puts me in mind of early 1990s children’s TV presenter Timmy Mallett (if you were a UK child born in the ‘80s you’ll know what I mean, if not, don’t worry about it!). Laura then highlighted a series of posts relating to the recurring theme of the relationship between historical writing and fiction, and Brodie explored how another prominent series of posts reflect the turbulent history of the historical discipline itself in UKHE and beyond over the past decade.
This post feels a little more ‘parochial’ (good reformation pun, that) in comparison, because looking back at my contributions to the blog has really given me pause to reflect on what blogging has meant to me at different stages of my career over the past ten years. So in some way this is quite a personal – really rather self-indulgent – set of autobiographical musings, but I hope it is also an interesting dive back into older content on the ‘monster, as well as a potentially useful series of thoughts about what the process of blogging can look like at different times and in different contexts.
This summer we are marking the ten-year anniversary of the many-headed monster blog with a collection of posts that highlight older material in our blog archive (or our ‘blarchive’, as Mark has christened it, to the great and growing pain of the other monster heads).
In my piece I want to pull at a thread that has run through our output over the years, that is, posts that sit on the fence between history and fiction.
Of course, there isn’t really a fence betweenthese two spaces. Or at least, if there is, it was only erected recently, and in fact it’s pretty shoddy work, full of gaps and holes, plus one part of it blew down in a winter storm a few years back, while another is so deeply lost in the undergrowth it’s no longer effective, or even particularly visible. But anyway, let’s not get lost in the encroaching greenery trying to pinpoint the boundary, but rather, let’s consider the fruitful relationship between history and fiction by revisiting some of our related content.
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?
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.
You may know that last year saw the triumphant release of the first cluster of publications for Paper Trails: The Social Life of Archives and Collections. Paper Trails is a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) published by UCL Press: a fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. The BOOC offers space for contributions both from practitioners who study the past, as well as those who make the study of the past possible. So if you are an educator, librarian, historian, curator, collections manager, archivist or just someone interested in critical histories as well as reflections on practice, sources and materials – read on!
I am privileged to sit on the editorial board of the BOOC and in our most recent meeting we had a noteworthy discussion about how to describe the innovative format to others. One of the things we worried at was the extent to which we wanted people to think of Paper Trails as being a bit like an online journal – so for instance, when we add our second, new cluster of publications, we could call this a new ‘volume’ or a new ‘issue’ of the BOOC, and allocate numbers to different articles accordingly. By making an association with such a well-established format we could familiarise the BOOC concept, and I suppose the comparison could in some way lend it more academic ‘legitimacy’. Continue reading →
The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Eleanor Hedger. Ellie is an M4C doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, and she has recently submitted her thesis, entitled ‘Soundscapes of Punishment in Early Modern England’, for examination. Find her on twitter @ellie_hedger.
It’s December 11, 1633. After hearing St. Sepulchre’s Church toll its ominous passing bell, you’ve made your way to Tyburn to witness the latest spectacle of public execution. This time, a woman found guilty of infanticide faces the scaffold. Hundreds of spectators have gathered in the surrounding streets and fields, with onlookers peering out of nearby windows or clambering onto rooftops. You jostle amongst the crowd in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, but to no avail. As the victim makes her final speech you strain to hear her words, but her voice is drowned out by the noise of the crowd. Once the grisly spectacle has come to a close you make your way home, but the doleful sounds of a nearby ballad monger selling copies of a song about today’s execution catches your attention. Having seen or heard very little of her demise, you want to know more, so you hand over a penny to the ballad monger. You fold up your copy of the large, single-sheet song, slip it into your pocket and return home, ready to sing, read, and listen to it with friends and family later that day.
Execution ballads, such as the one illustrated above, were an extremely popular form of news media in early modern England. Taverns, marketplaces, homes, and even the execution space itself resounded with the singing of these macabre ditties, allowing the public to reflect upon and relive the brutal spectacle of execution through the medium of song. Whilst ballads were probably read out loud, they were, first and foremost, intended to be sung, and the majority of ballad sheets usually contain an inscription under the title indicating its tune. These popular and memorable melodies were used over and over again, garnering new thematic and emotional associations with each rendering. The reuse of familiar tunes for new texts—a technique known as ‘contrafactum’—raises important questions concerning the reception and experience of execution ballads: how did the cultural associations of a melody amplify or subvert the meaning of a ballad text? And to what extent did the melodies of these songs influence the perception of public executions in the popular imagination? In this post I explore some of these intriguing questions by tracing the evolution of a well-known ballad tune called ‘Welladay’.
***NOW CLOSED TO SUBMISSIONS*** [But we will be back with future editions, so watch this space…]
We monster heads still strongly believe in the value of the blog format, but sadly life has conspired to mean none of us can post as often as we used to. The site remains popular though, and we receive an average of around 5,000 views per month. So rather than having this platform sit here twiddling its thumbs, we put our monstrous heads together to think about how we could make the most of it at the current time. The answer was obvious: for at least the next six months we want to make the monster a platform for our postgraduate and early career readers to showcase their research, and to voice their views on academic life.
We hope there will be a number of benefits. Obviously the takeover will give early career scholars the chance to bring the fruits of their research to a wide audience, but it is also an opportunity for writers to give blogging a try and for us to share some of the insights we have gained over the years. Of course with lockdowns still in place in many parts of the globe, and with further postponements of conferences and symposia, the takeover is also intended as an alternative way of encountering and engaging with current research and work in progress – and in a digestible format that can fit in around online teaching, caring duties, daily exercise and lying on the floor in a darkened room breathing deeply, etc.
So if you are a budding historian who does not have a permanent academic job (our deliberately baggy definition of postgrad/early career), then please consider writing a blog for us. You can download our simple guidelines and style guide here: Submission Guidelines For Authors.
The rest of this post provides a gloss on the guidelines, familiarising 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.
Today the Many-Headed Monster celebrates its seventh birthday. Katherine Foxhall of the Royal Historical Society recently asked us if we’d like to reflect on our experience as blogging historians. You can read the results on the RHS blog, or just read on …
How and why did you get started back in 2012?
It started with a conversation in a very dingy Cambridge flat – quite possibly over a few beers – between Mark and Brodie, about some of the interesting stuff that was turning up on other history blogs of the time: Sharon Howard’s Early Modern Notes as well as those by Gavin Robinson and Christopher Thompson which have sadly since disappeared. We chose our name ‘The Many-Headed Monster’, because we thought it captured the fact that we’d have a ‘history from below‘ angle, and that it would be multi-authored. It’s not easy to remember exactly how we justified taking on this new project right about the same time we were starting new jobs, but it was partly because we liked the possibility of an outlet for ideas and research finds that were not ‘big’ enough for articles, but which suited the blog format perfectly.
What are the advantages of running a blog collaboratively?
How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to create a petition or supplication. Even today, every year hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens sign e-petitions addressed to parliament which can lead directly to high-profile debates in the House of Commons.
In seventeenth-century England, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard. Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; others were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and also offer a unique means to map the structures of authority that framed early modern society …
That was our pitch to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a grant of over £200,000. To my surprise and delight, they liked it.
So, from January 2019, I’ll be running a project looking at ‘the power of petitioning in seventeenth century England’. The co-investigator is Jason Peacey at UCL and we will hire a full-time postdoctoral research associate for twelve months as well. There will be much more information available once we have the project website up and running, but in the meantime I thought I’d announce it here and explain how it came to be. I hope it might be useful, or at least interesting, to other scholars thinking about their own projects. Continue reading →