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

Featured Historian: Victoria Bates

Dr. Victoria Bates is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, with research interests in the modern social history of medicine and the medical humanities.

A picture of Dr. Victoria BatesHi Victoria, could you start by telling us about  your new research project?

I have just started a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship called ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare: Rethinking the NHS Hospital’. The project rethinks healthcare environments through the body and the senses, focusing on how places have felt rather than how they have looked. The historical part of the project will consider how NHS hospital sensory environments (or ‘sensescapes’) and the perception thereof changed as a result of new design trends, architecture, materials, technologies, nature and human behaviours. This history is just one part of the research, though, which is a complex 4-7 year project with many components. As well as the historical and archival research, there is a strand of the project (led by the project RA – Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith) working on site in hospitals (Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Southmead Hospital in Bristol). This part of the project will use participatory arts to understand and improve people’s sensory experience of hospital spaces.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I actually get this question quite a lot because my PhD was on a quite different area of medical history (sexual forensics in Victorian Britain). The project has long roots, so I will try to keep the answer short but with apologies it is difficult to do so!

During my PhD I was co-lead on two projects together broadly called ‘Medicine, Health and the Arts in Post-War Britain’ that included a conference, exhibition, workshop series and edited collection. My interest in this area of research at first related to the roots of the ‘medical humanities’, as a named field of academic enquiry, and its relationship to the history of arts and health. I also became interested in the development of different professional areas (art therapy, hospital arts and the arts in medical education) and their use of similar language (the idea of ‘rehumanising’ medicine through the arts).

I was inspired to conduct further research: why was there a perceived need to ‘rehumanise’ medicine in the post-war period, and why was there a turn to the arts, as a tool to do so? In 2013 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a small study of late twentieth-century multidisciplinary medical education in the UK. In 2014 I was awarded scoping funding from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute to look at archives in the UK and USA relating to all three areas (art therapy; arts in medical education; art in hospitals). Of these topics, I found myself most drawn to the history of hospital arts; this subject opened up interesting questions about the relationship between arts, design, space and architecture.

I soon became immersed in spatial theory, new materialism, and sensory studies as well as in histories of art, architecture, and design. I found myself moving away from a human-centred approach to design and perception, and thinking more about space as dynamic and as co-produced between the different objects and people in it. Art is just one of these objects, so I moved my focus to the sensory as a better way to think about space and the ways in which it is made through interactions between people and environments. I was fortunate to receive University of Bristol Strategic Research Funding to develop this work (2017) and to spend a month as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal (2019).

Alongside this research I engaged in a couple of projects working with artists, designers, smell technicians and others. One of the projects involved designing a sensory prototype called InTouch and the other was about the non-visual aspects of nature and wellbeing, for which we created an ‘immersive experience’. These projects also got me thinking a lot more about the impact of my work and collaboration with non-academic partners, and is why my new project has a large design and prototyping element. Overall, I am always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone!

What is the importance of this research today?

Design is a pressing issue in healthcare. Poor hospital design impacts staff, patients and visitors, and critiques of hospitals are increasingly widespread. The project’s findings will feed into a rethinking of current and future hospital design, including the development of design interventions for healthcare environments.

The historical research can help us to rethink the root causes of perceived sensory problems. For example, my work so far on the history of hospital ‘noise’ has shown that it has long been defined in social terms rather than in terms of volume. Perceptions of noise have changed over time in line with societal change, ranging from attitudes to race or gender to ideas about privacy. Understanding the societal aspects of such change can help us to think more creatively about solutions to noise as more than an engineering problem.

The part of the project working with GOSH Arts and Fresh Arts at Southmead will pinpoint sensory challenges for specific types of hospital user/worker or hospital spaces, which might range from sensory under-stimulation to sensory overload. In turn, these challenges will form the basis for sensory design solutions through a prototyping and development process in collaboration with artists, designers, charities and NHS Trusts. These outputs will be produced with and of value to all those who use hospitals, from patients to professionals. We are also working with Architects for Health to develop a hospital building note around sensory design. Overall, the project offers a novel approach to the history of healthcare spaces that helps us to rethink hospital histories and their relevance to current-day design.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this area of research?

Talk to me! I would love to work with more PhD students or postdoctoral researchers interested in this area of research. I would be particularly keen to see some comparative or international work in this area.

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

I took Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations away for a weekend to read for leisure, but it turned out to be extremely relevant to my research. It has a section that captures her sensory experience of hospitals, and which addresses this subject explicitly in a way that I have never seen before. For example, she describes noticing the sound of air conditioning after weeks in hospital; the sound becomes extremely aggravating to her, but nobody else can hear it. I found it not only a really engaging book, but also a useful reminder that we need to think about the sensory environment of hospital as dynamic, and as different for every person in them (or even for the same person, on a different day).

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

I have never come up with a good answer to this question – how could you possibly choose from all of time and place? My possible answers have ranged from an iconic music concert to solving some great historical mystery or crime or visiting an extinct species. I know that I should pick something related to my research, but I do not think it would be a historic hospital if I wanted to return with my health intact… 

What’s your must-do Bristol restaurant?

I love Korean food, so Sky Kong Kong is my classic Bristol ‘go to’ when people come to visit – it is small and serves really interesting food, with a personal touch, as well as being very good value.

What are you working on next?

This UKRI project is going to take up most of my time for the next few years, so first job is to organise a launch event for it. I’m also co-leading a couple of really interesting, interdisciplinary networks funded by the Wellcome Trust: one on the senses and health/care environments and one on the intersections between medical and environmental humanities. We have lots of workshops, writing retreats and conferences coming up for those over the next two years and I will be really excited to see what comes out of our collaborations. Watch this space on both!