Featured Historian: Benjamin Pohl

Benjamin Pohl is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History. His research interests are medieval European history and historiography with a focus on the Anglo-Norman world, palaeography (the study of old handwritings), codicology (the material study of books, specifically old books), book history and monastic cultures. He is the author of numerous journal articles and several books, including the monograph Dudo of St. Quentin’s Historia Normannorum: Tradition, Innovation and Memory (2015) and the edited volume A Companion to the Abbey of Le Bec in the Central Middle Ages (11th–13th Centuries) (2017). He is currently writing his new monograph Medieval Abbots and the Writing of History and editing The Cambridge Companion to the Age of William the Conqueror (both forthcoming).

Hi, Ben. Could you tell us the title of your current research project? What’s it about?

My current research project is called ‘History for the Community: Monk-historians and Communal Heritage’. Funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship and partnering up with the present-day Benedictine community of Downside Abbey in Somerset, I investigate the role(s) of historical writing within medieval (and modern) monasteries, and I’m interested specifically in the involvement of abbots as historians.

You can learn more about this on my project blog, where you can watch an introductory video about the project, follow its latest events and activities and listen to regular podcasts and recordings of public lectures such as this one. The project also has a dedicated Twitter profile @AbbotsMedieval, so please do consider following us if you’re interested.

 

How did you become interested in this subject? What is the importance of medieval historical writing today?

 I’ve been interested in medieval cultures of monasticism and historical writing for some time, thought the concrete idea for this project emerged from my previous research on one particular abbot-historian living and writing during the twelfth century, Robert of Torigni.

Robert started his career at the great Norman abbey of Le Bec before being promoted to the abbacy of the island monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel. In both these places, Robert used his resources and influence to record selected events from both the distant and the recent past and commit them to writing, either by putting his own pen to parchment or by delegating this mechanical task to others within the monastic community.

I soon began to wonder whether what I found with regard to Robert and his work was specific to him and his situation, or whether similar practices were at play elsewhere in medieval Europe, too, which is how the idea for this new project came about. I believe that closely investigating the working methods of medieval historians and they ways in which they interacted with their communities can teach us a lot about our own work and how we use the past, both individually and as a scholarly community.

 

What advice would you give to a student interested in medieval history?

I’d like to offer you four pieces of advice: always be curious, don’t take anything at face value, embrace the unfamiliar and – I can’t stress this enough! – try to get your hands on original manuscripts and documents as often as you can.

We all know that studying distant historical periods such as the Middle Ages and their rich cultural legacy can be dauting at first, especially when the surviving sources seem strange and difficult to access. Don’t shy away from them, though, but learn to love the challenges of dealing with languages, scripts, media and mentalities from a thousand or more years ago. I promise you that the more you do it, the easier it gets, and before you know it you’ll be thinking of these unique and fascinating artefacts as ‘old familiar friends’.

Despite what some people might tell you, there is always more to be discovered in the archives and research collections that contain medieval holdings (some of them don’t even know what they’ve got), so make sure you get in there early and often!

 

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

To read it as I would read literature.

 

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

Apart from this blog, you mean? Well, I guess in terms of research-related reading, my recent top three would have to be, in no particular order: Elisabeth van Houts, Married Life in the Middle Ages, 900-1300; Samu Niskanen (ed.), Letters of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Vol. 1: The Bec Letters; Paul Bertrand, Documenting the Everyday in Medieval Europe.

In terms of pleasure reading, my recent top picks are, again in no specific order: German singer-songwriter Hannes Wader’s brutally honest autobiography Trotz alledem: Mein Leben; Philip Pullman’s brilliant pre-/sequels to His Dark Materials, namely The Book of Dust Vols. 1 & 2; Jo Nesbø’s creative modern adaptation of Macbeth.

 

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go? 

I’d quite like to visit Earth prior to human civilisation.

 

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Pre-Covid-19, I definitely would’ve said running the ‘Bristol Half Marathon’ is a must-do experience. It’s a great event that brings together people from all walks of life (no pun intended), from fair-weather runners to pro-level athletes. The route is quite easy, mostly flat and will take you past some of Bristol’s most spectacular landmarks, including a loop through the Avon Gorge underneath the towering Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Post-Covid-19, I might add a somewhat less sporty and more gluten-based recommendation: Hart’s Bakery. Located in one of the arches underneath the Temple Meads station approach, they’re hands-down the best bakery in the city. Their bread and bread-based products are a real treat – as a German in exile, you can (and should) take my word for it! One of my personal favourites is their cheese-and-mustard Danish, but you’ll have to get up early if you want to get one before they’re gone!

 

What are you working on next?

 For my next project, I’m planning on studying the practical ways in which medieval scribes and copyists acquired their exemplars across long distances, specifically as regards the logistics of borrowing, lending and transporting these valuable books.

Got some money down the sofa that you’d like to use to fund this research?

(Editor: no.)

Featured Historian: Will Pooley

Will Pooley is Lecturer in Modern European History. His research explores popular cultures, folklore, and witchcraft in modern France. He is particularly interested in creative historical practices, such as history through games, theatre, poetry, art, and creative writing. 

What’s your new book Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-century France about?

The book is about trying to understand what it felt like to be an ordinary agricultural worker or artisan in nineteenth-century France. What were the bodily experiences, and how did ordinary people use their own bodies?

Headshot of Will PooleyTo answer those questions, I used this huge ethnographic archive collected by the folklorist Félix Arnaudin in a small area around his hometown, between about 1870 and 1914.

Arnaudin’s an interesting man in some ways, but what really interested me was the people he collected folklore from and photographed. I wanted to understand their stories, songs, and proverbs. So, I use the tools of comparative folklore to explore they talked about sex, work, and body parts.

What do werewolf stories, for instance, tell historians about how the rural population thought about identity and transgression? How does analyzing dialect speech help us to understand a bodily culture that was quite different from our own?

How did you become interested in Arnaudin and French folklore more generally?

I owe the interest in folklore to David Hopkin, who first suggested folklore as a research topic to me when I was a master’s student. I did a master’s thesis on one storyteller and singer from the Massif Central, an illiterate woman named Nannette Lévesque.

Book cover: Body and TraditionFor my PhD, I wanted to do something much more ambitious. I was going to compare three folklorists from southwestern France – Arnaudin, along with Jean-François Bladé, and an interesting folklorist named Antonin Perbosc, who had very unconventional politics, and collected a lot of obscene folklore. But when I was about 14 months into the PhD, I knew I would only have time to do Arnaudin’s work justice… so that’s how I ended up with the subject of this book.

What is the importance of this research today?

Everyone has a body: it’s the definition of being human. And one of the things about embodiment is that our own experience and expectations of the body can seem deeply ‘natural’ to us. The ways we use and talk about our bodies become automatic, invisible.

I’ve always thought that one of the things history can do is to challenge that seeming naturalness. Even our very recent ancestors felt differently in their skin. They described and understood their bodies differently. They had different expectations and fears of their flesh.

How different I am from a shepherd born in 1815 might not seem a burning issue, but I think that part of the value that history has for the wider society is that it highlights some of these differences, and makes them visible. It’s a reminder that what we experience as ‘normal’ for our bodies now is not necessarily what other people around us are experiencing. And that’s a message that some people need to hear more than others, because their unspoken assumptions are normalized and taken for granted in all sorts of ways in everyday life.

If bodies were different in the past, they can also be different now, and they will be different in the future. That’s the message I have always taken from work by scholars like Barbara Duden, Lyndal Roper, Annmarie Mol, and even Michel Foucault. 

What advice would you give to a student interested in the history of the body?

There’s so much exciting work being done in the intersecting fields concerned with bodies in the past. I was always fascinated by the new work on anthropometrics, for instance, even though I never did any of that kind of research. Anthropometricians like Deb Oxley and Jane Humphries have used historical and archaeological records of body sizes and weights to investigate questions such as the effect that the Industrial Revolution had on the health of workers, or the ways that families divided limited resources when they did not have enough to eat…

But my advice for someone interested in the history of the body would be two things. First, get to grips with the philosophical and theoretical work on the body. When I started this project ten years ago, I found Lisa Blackman’s short introduction The Body pointed me in the direction of lots of useful things.

The other thing I think I would advise anyone who wants to be a historian of the body is to use practice as research. Cooking historical recipes, trying historical clothing, even imitating movements, gestures, and work can be a really important way of grappling with the difference of the past.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

‘You’ve got enough.’

I have a running conversation with one of my colleagues at Bristol, Julio Decker, about not overdoing research. I’ve been working on a database of material collected from historical newspapers for the last six years, and I have too much material. But [in the time before COVID19] every few days, I [would] say to Julio, ‘I really want to go and visit this archive to find a few more cases’, or ‘I just need to spend a few hours nailing some of these details down in some online newspaper records’.

And Julio says to me, ‘Stop it. You’ve got enough.’

That’s great advice. There’s such a temptation to just keep collecting and hoarding material.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I really loved David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which was a present from a colleague, the playwright Poppy Corbett, who has been working with me on my latest project.

It’s a provocative book made up of lots of little short sections, organized into broadly thematic chapters. There are no quotation marks or footnotes, but the afterword explains that some of the material is actually taken from other writers. The book is about this hunger for reality that has dominated lots of cultural forms for the last generation or so – from memoir, to documentary, reality TV, and hip-hop.

I think it has a lot to say to historians about history as part of the same cultural impulse, a desire to ‘tell it like it really is’ but to do so in a way that is artful and compelling.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

This is a tough one! I don’t think I would really much enjoy visiting many of the people I research. I’m not sure we would even be able to understand one another: I taught myself to read the Gascon dialect Arnaudin recorded folklore in, but I can’t speak it!

I’d be quite interested to attend a nineteenth-century criminal trial in France, though. I’m working on criminal trials at the moment, and sometimes the newspaper reports give vivid impressions of courtroom dramas. Sometimes you want to know more. It would be fascinating – as well as probably quite distressing – to sit in on one of those cases, and see how they played out.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Chilli Daddy’s is a Szechuan restaurant with a few branches, and a stall at St Nicholas’ Market.

If you haven’t tried it, you should definitely have the soup noodle first. They offer it in a spice rating of 1-5. I’ve never tried higher than 3!

What are you working on next?

The newspaper database and court cases are research from my current project on crimes of witchcraft in France from 1790-1940. It’s a big topic, and I’m halfway through an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to work on ‘creative histories’ based on this material. You can read some of the things we’ve been up to here: https://creativewitchcraft.wordpress.com

Forest 404: A Chilling Vision of a Future Without Nature

by Professor Peter Coates , Professor of American and Environmental History, University of Bristol

Binge-watching of boxsets on BBC iPlayer or Netflix is a growing habit. And binge-listening isn’t far behind. Podcast series downloadable through BBC Sounds are all the rage (with a little help from Peter Crouch). Enter Radio 4’s ‘Forest 404’ – hot off the press as a 27-piece boxset on the fourth day of the fourth month. This is something I’ve been involved in recently: an experimental BBC sci-fi podcast that’s a brand-new listening experience because of its three-tiered structure of drama, factual talk and accompanying soundscape (9 x 3 = 27).

Try to imagine a world in which not only forests but every last trace of the natural world as we know it has been erased (almost……). This eco-thriller by Timothy X. Atack (credits include ‘Dr Who’) is set in the 24th century following a data crash called The Cataclysm (404 is also the error message you get when a website is unavailable). The action follows lead protagonist Pan (University of Bristol Drama alumna and ‘Doctor Who’ star Pearl Mackie), a sound archivist who uncovers some recordings from the early 21st century that grab and intoxicate her.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a project with the world-famous, Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), exploring wildlife filmmaking over the past quarter-century. We wanted to include and support a creative dimension going far beyond the project’s more strictly academic and historical elements. Something poetic and performative that could take the study of nature at the BBC into new territory, and away from the visual. But the core theme remains the same: the value of the natural world and its representation in cultural form. This haunting drama focuses on that cultural value very closely by exploring an alien and alienating future world without nature – a world where the only memory of its former existence is preserved in Pan’s sound archive.

This is a deeply historical approach that re-unites me with a piece of research I published some time ago on what I called the strange stillness of the past – how sounds, both human and non-human generated, were overlooked by most historians. Me and my partners at the BBC and Arts and Humanities Research Council see ‘Forest 404’ as part of an emerging research area known as the environmental humanities. The starting point of ‘enviro-hums’ is the conviction that a scientific perspective, no matter how important, cannot do full justice to our complex and many layered relationships with nature.

The humanities and arts also have a big contribution to make, especially in helping us to appreciate the value of what ecosystem services researchers call cultural services. This refers to the so-called non-material benefits we derive from the natural world – its aesthetic value (beauty), how it inspires imaginative literature, painting and music, its spiritual significance, and its role in forming cultural identities and giving us a sense of place. ‘Forest 404’ confronts us with the brutal possibility of a world not just without forests and trees but even lacking a conception of nature. And it makes us think about how that absence impoverishes us culturally as well as the more obvious ecological dangers we face.

Accompanying the podcast is an ambitious online survey devised by environmental psychologists at the University of Exeter and operated by The Open University. Data on how we respond to nature has previously concentrated on the visual. This focus on natural soundscapes will add a fresh dimension to what we already know about how contact with nature benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. So give the podcast a listen. Then please do the survey. It takes less than 10 minutes.

 

‘An Arena of Glorious Work’

UOB PhD student Gary Willis writes for us, below, on the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. Gary wrote his Masters dissertation on the role of British conservation organisations during the Second World War, and this forms the basis of an article about the role of CPRE during the war which is now published in the October 2018 issue of the Rural History journal.  He is currently undertaking a PhD on the impact on the rural landscape of Britain’s expanded war industry in the Department of History (Historical Studies) at Bristol, supervised by Professor Peter Coates.

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‘An Arena of Glorious Work’ . Such was described the Council for the Preservation of Rural England’s work during the Second World War, trying to protect the nation’s rural landscape against the consequences of its own war effort.  The quote comes from Professor Patrick Abercrombie, Executive Committee member of the CPRE, National Trust and sometime consultant to the Air Ministry, whose unpublished account of his activities during the Second World War is preserved in the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections.  That and the (now) Campaign for the Protection of Rural England’s archives at its South London HQ and at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, enable an expanded understanding of ‘Home Front’ activities during the Second World War.

The CPRE archives show an increasing pre-occupation with concerns over demands for land from late 1935 onwards, particularly by the Air Ministry for airfields, the Ministry of Aircraft Production for aircraft factories, the army for training camps, and the Ministry of Supply for munitions factories.  With no significant protective legislation in existence until 1947’s Town and Country Planning Act over the use to which land could be put, there was in effect a War Department land-grab free-for-all in 1936 and 1937, with CPRE performing a reactive, rear guard action to stop swathes of countryside from being requisitioned by the military at a time when war was by no means assured.

A flying boat factory at Calgarth on the shores of Lake Windermere during the Second World War; CPRE fought unsuccessfully to stop the factory being built, but extracted a promise that the factory would be dismantled at the end of the war. It was. (photo courtesy of Allan King, photographer Derek Hurst).

Whilst CPRE was supportive of Britain’s war effort once war was declared, it nevertheless sought throughout the war to remain an effective advocate for the preservation of the rural landscape – a landscape which whilst regularly being evoked by State propaganda to stimulate the population’s support for the war effort, was subject to alteration and degradation by that very same effort.  With normal public means of securing influence such as parliamentary debate and the press severely limited by war regulations, CPRE’s response was a generally private campaign by letter, phone calls and meetings, central to which was support from its political allies in government and tip-offs from sympathetic civil servants.  CPRE’s policy and priorities during the war years was a mix of opposition to some war-effort related proposals for rural land use, acquiescence to others, such as open-cast mining and the felling of mature woodlands, and persistent efforts to seek to ensure that requisitioned land was returned to its pre-war use once the war was over.

Central to CPRE’s capacity to influence was a consultative mechanism created by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, following sustained lobbying by CPRE.  It established the organisation as a stakeholder that Government ministries were required to consult with over their proposed use of land in rural areas for airfields, training camps, war industry, and other purposes.  This directive was never revoked by the Coalition Government, but perhaps inevitably became less influential as the war wore on.  Nevertheless CPRE’s stake was still high at war’s end, as in November 1946 the organisation was invited to arrange for the coordination and presentation to the Inter-Departmental Committee on Service Land Requirements all of the evidence which voluntary organisations throughout the country might wish to give regarding the effects of the Services’ post-war land proposals from the point of view of amenity, archaeology, natural history and other scientific interests.   This led to CPRE having under review hundreds of cases across England and Wales, using confidential material supplied by the Defence Departments.

The CPRE poacher had at least momentarily turned gamekeeper.  CPRE found itself, albeit temporarily, an agent of the State, tasked with dealing with multiple voluntary organisation interests and agendas, some more capable of objectivity than others, rather like the different shades of opinion within the broad church CPRE federation itself.  CPRE complained, on behalf of and in defence of the War Office, and without a hint of irony, that there had been frequent unjustified complaints about the Services’ proposals being suddenly announced and precipitately decided.  It was all rather reminiscent of the 1936 to 1937 period, when CPRE had been making those very same criticisms of the Defence Departments.  Except that in between CPRE had been engaged in ‘an arena of glorious work’.

 

Twitter: GaryW_Env_Hist

Email: gw17409@bristol.ac.uk

‘The Maltese Soul’ and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Identity

During a recent visit to Malta, Research Associate, Dr Andrew Hillier, found a country seeking to establish its identity in the post-colonial world.

 

Save for the odd passing reference, Malta tends to go un-noticed in British imperial history. Yet, for over 150 years,  the island, together with neighbouring Gozo, was an important British colony, playing a key role in the empire’s Mediterranean strategy. Moreover, when the country finally gained its independence, this ended not just British rule but two thousand years of colonisation. Its history, therefore, is instructive as to both Britain’s imperial project and, more generally, the impact of imperial rule on a nation and its people.

Whilst, according to the standard narrative, the Maltese have been Christian ever since St Paul’s arrival in 60 A.D., they may have converted to Islam during the period of Arab rule (8th to 11th century).  Certainly, Arabic influence can be found in the local language, which is still widely-spoken, and in some of the architecture, which, though of a later date, has echoes of the Arabic style, particularly in the former capital, Mdina. [i]

A building in Mdina, possibly 15th century.

However, since the Arab departure, the country has been inextricably linked to the church in Rome, beginning with some 400 years of Norman, Angevin and Aragonese rule, and followed by that of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who were ceded the island by Charles V in 1530.  Whilst Catholicism predominated, the key characteristic throughout this period was the authoritarian subjugation of the island’s indigenous population. Restricted to administering their local affairs, they were considered useful only for paying taxes and providing services to the colonial rulers.  Although the Knights are celebrated for leading a heroic defence of the island against the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565, their presence was always resented. When Napoleon landed in 1798 and persuaded them to leave, he was initially well- received. However, he flattered only to deceive and, for the next two years, his army embarked on an orgy of plunder and pillage, before an uprising led to his expulsion.

Not surprisingly, the British were warmly welcomed, the royal coat of arms over the portico of the Main Guard recording the granting of the country ‘by the desire of the Maltese and with the consent of Europe’.  However, whilst the island was crucial to the defence of the eastern Mediterranean and the route to India, there was no sense of imperial mission. Ruled by a governor and his officials, the Maltese were confined to the more junior posts in the public services and the armed forces and had no significant say in the running of their country.  Although the economy prospered, it was a period of dignified subservience, punctuated only by the odd incident of imperial insensitivity. For example, in 1912, the Royal Navy caused great offence by inexplicably re-naming its headquarters at Fort San Angelo, HMS Egmont, and, only twenty years later, in a placatory gesture, changed this back to the somewhat incongruous-sounding HMS San Angelo.

Fort San Angelo

It was the Royal Navy and the island’s superb fortification system, strongly reinforced in the aftermath of the Great Siege,  that enabled the Maltese to mount a heroic resistance against Germany during the Second World War, one that resulted in appalling hardship and the award of the George Cross, still an important reminder of the solidarity between Britain and Malta at that time.  After the war, a plummeting economy fuelled an intense but always peaceful drive towards independence. Achieved in 1964, for the more radical element, the country only truly became free when the Royal Navy and other NATO forces withdrew on 31 March 1979, now celebrated as Freedom Day. Although this dealt a severe blow to the economy, through tourism and various commercial initiatives, by 2004, it had recovered sufficiently to be admitted as a full member of the EU and the Eurozone.

From this complex history, it is difficult to disentangle the multiple influences that have shaped Malta’s identity. English remains widely-spoken and scattered through the island are references to Britain’s presence, in particular in connection with the war. However, whilst there is the odd statue and memorial plaque, there is little evidence of the architecture so familiar in its other colonial settings.

Emblems of Britain’s Imperial presence, Valetta

Inspired by the Palace of the Grand Masters and the Knights’ auberges, the principal buildings, constructed in the local honey-coloured limestone, are mainly of baroque design.

Palace of the Grand Masters, Valetta, 1571

For the rest, the style and mood is quintessentially Mediterranean in a country with an extraordinarily rich cultural history, one that boasts the oldest standing temples in the world at Tarxien (3600-2500 BC), an outstanding Museum of Archaeology and an exquisite mosaic from the Roman era. Supported by generous EU grants, there is a substantial programme to promote this heritage.

If this all contributes to a new identity, the country is also grappling with major issues. The government has recently closed its borders to more refugees, it has been accused of a cover-up in relation to the murder of the investigative reporter, Daphne Galizia, and has been heavily criticised for selling citizenship to anyone who can afford the extortionate fee.

Memorials in Valetta to Daphne Caruana Galizia, murdered 16 October 2017

Lamenting what he sees as a cynical commercialism, one commentator has suggested that the people ‘have lost their Maltese soul’: ‘we have always welcomed foreigners amongst us, be they imposed without our consent or as refugees from conflict or persecution…It was because we were friendly, generous, warm and altruistic’. But, he argues, ‘we have forgotten the meaning of solidarity and need to ask, “am I still truly Maltese?”’[ii] Others, however, consider this as no more than the birth pangs of a young nation, slowly emerging  from a long history of colonial exploitation.

It seems clear that, whatever the outcome, Malta’s identity will be forged within the framework of the European Union, which has given it the confidence to assert itself as a nation. The geo-political wheel has turned full circle and it now has the right to veto whatever terms are proposed by its old imperial master for leaving the E.U.

[i] All photographs by the author taken in July 2018

[ii] Anthony Buttigieg, ‘Are we still truly Maltese’, The Sunday Times of Malta, 8 July 2018, p.19.

The Roots of ‘Springwatch’

BBC 2’s ‘Springwatch’ recently completed its fourteenth annual 3-week run. It’s become as much a part of the British spring as bluebells, wild garlic, frogspawn and ducklings. But it didn’t mushroom into success overnight. Environmental historian Peter Coates, who’s working on a project with the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit, has written a blog for the Arts and Humanities Research Council about the origins of this national institution: https://ahrc-blog.com/2018/06/14/how-springwatch-was-sprung/

Why are Indian earthquakes missing from history?

Dr Daniel Haines is Senior Lecturer in Environmental History and principal investigator on the project ‘Broken Ground: Earthquakes, Colonialism and Nationalism in South Asia, c. 1900-1960′.

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I first started thinking about earthquake histories because of an accident. It was 2014. I had just started a new job at Bristol, and decided to teach an undergraduate course on natural disasters in South Asia. Looking for ‘good’ disasters to include as case studies, I stumbled across this piece by Roger Bilham about a huge earthquake in Assam in 1897.

The article focused on Tom LaTouche, a British scientist in Kolkata with the colonial Geological Survey of India. The head of the Survey, Richard Oldham, sent him up to Shillong in Assam, near the epicentre, to find out more about the quake. LaTouche wrote extensive letters, to his wife as well as his boss, detailing what he saw.

The letters contained plenty on physical effects, but more intriguing were the incidental references to how people had experienced the earthquake. Usually these were other Brits that LaTouche came across, but sometimes also Indians.

It was clear that the earthquake had been huge, frightening, and calamitous to people across hundreds of square miles.

Why had I never heard of it before?

Over the following couple of years, I dug more into South Asia’s earthquake history, and gradually realised that big, destructive earthquakes are a common occurrence along the Himalayan arc.

The Gorkha earthquake in Nepal in 2015 was a tragically immediate reminder. ‘You must be happy to have a big new disaster in your area, Dan,’ one of my students said shortly afterwards. I wasn’t. But I did notice how vast the media coverage was, even in Bristol, thousands of miles from Nepal. The same was true of other recent South Asian disasters – the 2010 floods in Pakistan, or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Earthquakes and other calamities are not just horrible. They are also big news. But where were the historical earthquakes in the literature?

An earthquake that flattened Quetta (now in Pakistan’s Balochistan province) in 1935 also killed roughly 30,000 people. I did my PhD research on the next-door province, Sindh, in the 1930s-1960s. Quetta’s population included numerous Sindhis, and Karachi was the chief destination for refugees evacuated in the weeks after the shaking. Yet I don’t recall coming across any substantial reference to the earthquake, either in primary sources or in history books.

The 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake is better known, partly because two of India’s key national figures, Mohandas K. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi and the Nobel laureate Rabinranath Tagore, disagreed sharply over how to interpret its meaning. Gandhi favoured reading the earthquake as divine punishment for what he termed the sinful practice of untouchability in the Hindu caste system. Tagore preferred a secular approach that focused on natural forces.

Even here, though, the focus has been on the intellectual clash between Gandhi and Tagore’s opposed worldviews. Although leaders and volunteers of the Indian National Congress were instrumental in organising relief and reconstruction in Bihar, only the Indian historian Tirthankar Roy has analysed the earthquake’s broader effects.

My current AHRC-funded research project, Broken Ground, is a partial attempt to correct the record. I’m investigating six earthquakes that shook various parts of colonial and postcolonial South Asia between the 1890s and 1950s, looking at their political, social and environmental ramifications. Such natural disasters are not only a humanitarian issue today, they were also an important part of the experience of colonialism, nationalism, and the post-colonial period for Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Myanmar people and the British alike.

Looking beyond South Asia, earthquakes are surprisingly absent from environmental histories more generally. Historians have tended to focus on other types of hazard: storms, flooding, drought. These disasters usually recur much more frequently than major earthquakes, so it is easier – more satisfying? – to track the changing ways that humans and hazards have impacted on each other over time.

Meanwhile, a handful of historians have looked at the social implications of earthquakes, often with considerable literary and analytical success (find examples here and here). But these works tend to use post-earthquake reconstruction as a prism on local society and politics. The earthquakes themselves can seem more like jumping-off points for general history, rather than historical actors in their own right.

I’ve (just!) discovered Conevery Bolton Valencius’s compelling 2011 book on earthquakes in the early nineteenth century Mississippi Valley. Valencius argues that the earthquakes transformed the middle Mississippi region by turning the St Francis river’s hinterland –which had been a booming trading zone where Cherokees, Osages, Creole boatmen and white American settlers rubbed shoulders – into a swampy marsh. Contemporary American intellectuals wrote extensively about the quakes’ effects on the landscape and its inhabitants, but by the twentieth century this conversation was almost entirely forgotten. The quakes helped drive the region’s diverse population away, but subsequent frontier narratives cast the land as ‘always empty’. History had swallowed the earthquakes.

Perhaps the absence of South Asia’s earthquakes from historical narratives is also due to accidents of geography and timing. Assam’s two earthquakes, in 1897 and 1950, killed relatively few people directly (around 1,500 apiece) and did their worst damage away from the population centres of the plains. The 1905 event, centred on Kangra in today’s Himachal Pradesh, had a much higher death roll (about 20,000) but occurred up in the Himalayan foothills, a region which barely figures in the literature. The three earthquakes of the 1930s, in Bago (Myanmar), Nepal/Bihar and Quetta, coincided with the eventful rise of popular nationalism, the decline of colonial power, the Second World War, and then independence.

By studying all six of the earthquakes together, I hope to tell a coherent story about the changing relationship between the colonial state and its subjects, and between humans and the landscape that these earthquakes dramatically reshaped. Perhaps they were not as central to political changes in late-colonial India as I first thought. But they deserve a more prominent place in the region’s history.

 

A History of Bristol Reading List

Continuing our series of posts by new staff, Dr Mark Hailwood  (Lecturer in History 1400-1700) offers a ‘history of Bristol’ reading list.

 

Despite growing up just outside the city of Bristol, in nearby Portishead, my knowledge of the city’s history is pretty thin (my excuse is that I’ve always considered myself more of a rural historian). So, when I was appointed to my Lectureship here last summer I quickly took to twitter to canvas for suggestions of good books to fill me in. Now, I haven’t had the chance to read all of these yet, but taking inspiration from the ‘Marooned On An Island Monographs’ series that runs on my own blog, the many-headed monster, I thought I would share the top 5 suggestions that I have narrowed my initial to-read list down to. Of course, my choices reflect my own interests – both chronologically and thematically – so there is a strong early modern and ‘history from below’ flavour to the list.

 

1) David Harris Sacks, The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1750 (1991) 

The story of Bristol’s transformation from a small medieval commercial city to an entrepot of early modern capitalism is, obviously, an important part of the city’s history – and Harris Sacks’ book is admired for approaching it in a way that identifies the connections between the economic, religious, political, social and cultural developments that made it possible. It’s big, it’s bold, and very much a traditional academic monograph, so it might not be the easiest place to start for uncovering Bristol’s history, but it is regarded as the go-to history of early modern Bristol – even if my colleague Richard Stone’s forthcoming book is set to challenge some of its key arguments (watch this space).

2) Madge Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port (2001)

Bristol’s emergence as a major port city was in no small part a consequence of its involvement in the slave trade, and much of the city’s urban growth and built environment were funded by the profits of slavery. Although a number of more recent debates about prominent buildings in the city being named after individuals with strong links to slavery have achieved a high profile, the place of slavery in the city’s history has long been overlooked. But the research efforts of Madge Dresser have done as much as anyone to change that, and this important book provides a detailed account of Bristol’s relationship with slavery that is a must-read for anyone who wants to make an informed engagement with these debates.

3) Steve Poole and Nicholas Rogers, Bristol from Below: Law, Authority and Protest in a Georgian City (2017) 

As an unashamed advocate of ‘history from below’ I was very excited to hear about the publication of this book within a few weeks of my arrival in my new post. Poole and Rogers focus on the city’s ‘golden age’ between the Restoration and the riots of 1831, and explore the way that ordinary people contributed to the making of their city – often through conflicts with the mercantile elite that formally governed the city. Riots, protests, class conflict, the lives of ordinary men and women – it’s the kind of classic social history that any social historian wants to read about the place where they live and work.

 

4) Carl B. Estabrook, Urbane and Rustic England: Cultural Ties and Social Spheres in the Provinces, 1660-1780 (1998).

Although the title doesn’t give it away, this is a book focused on Bristol and its environs. Having grown up in the latter – in Estabrook’s definition the settlements lying within 12 miles of the edge of a major city, in Bristol’s case the area sandwiched between the Cotswolds, Mendips and Severn – I’m interested in this book’s exploration of the relationship between city and countryside in the age of the ‘urban renaissance’. For Estabrook the rural / urban divide ran deep in English culture, and even the inhabitants of rural settlements that sat in the shadow of the big city never felt at ease when they visited it. Hopefully I won’t suffer the same fate…

5) Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (2017)

A bit of a curveball here – this is a work of historical fiction. But these too can help us to connect with the history of our homelands, right? Set during the early 1790s, against the backdrop of a Bristol house-building boom and the fallout of the French Revolution, Lizzie Tredevant negotiates married life and the loss of her radical writer mother. Probably best if I don’t give too much more away, but it is a skilful imagining of life in the Georgian city, and if nothing else there are lots of nice descriptions of walks on Downs in all weathers to inspire you to get out and explore the city for yourself.

If you’ve got your own suggestions of good books on Bristol’s history then please leave a comment below, as I’d love to have them.