Featured Historian: Alexander Casse

Alexander Casse is a video producer and historian from Luzerne, Switzerland, and is in his final year as a history student the University of Bristol. He enjoys producing documentaries, video essays and thought pieces on topics historical and political, and has been honing my video production, graphic design, 3D animation and general animation skills since 2016.

Picture of Alexander Casse

Hi Alexander, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new documentary, and what is it about?

My new documentary is called Understanding Orban: Rhetoric and History. [You can watch it here.]

It’s a political investigation of the manner in which Orban uses history to legitimize and rationalize his policies and rhetoric. It also looks at the ways in which history plays a role in defining Hungarian self-perception and how that has affected their approaches to the past.

A still from the documentary.

How did you become interested in this?

It’s a fairly peculiar and somewhat spontaneous story.

I was reading an Economist article about Viktor Orban’s populist policies and I wondered to what extent Hungary’s history of subjugation and misfortune affected them. I had a theory that the indignation brought upon Hungary as a result of centuries of mistreatment may have had some bearing on why the Hungarian people are so willing to chase what they perceive as greatness in any form.

What is the importance of this topic right now?

A number of European nations have elected populists and far-right governments, including Hungary, Turkey and Poland. Many more are now drifting towards populism: Italy, Austria, Germany, and even my place of birth Switzerland.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this topic?

It’s fairly difficult to decide on a topic in my experience!

Usually, I just have to start working on it to be able to actually commit to it. It may sound clichéd, but you really just have to engage with something until you find yourself regularly working on it.

In terms of video production, if you’re not all too versed in editing then you might want to pursue something like amateur journalism.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history when you were a student?

Again, this might sound obvious, but structure your research and don’t write your essays as you go.

It can leave a lot of holes, inconsistencies and discrepancies. Your argument won’t be as cogent.

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

Probably Nietzsche’s All Too Human – It’s a very interesting, if sometimes impenetrable and arcane book.

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

Grab a bite to eat at the Burger Joint: it’s a great place for burgers and it has some good vegan options.

What’s next for you?

I’m not quite sure currently.

I’ve played with the idea of completing a master’s in political science or foreign relations, or perhaps even philosophy. However, I’m not quite sure what my results will be so I can’t commit to any one institution currently.

Featured Historian: Charli Veale

Charli Veale is a recent graduate from the University, having completed her BA in History earlier this year (2020).

Picture of Charli Veale

Hi Charli. First of all, thanks for making the time to talk to us. Could you start by telling us a little bit about what you are up to now?

During my time at Bristol I mostly worked – as well as doing my degree I worked for Bristol Futures, running academic drop-in sessions and workshops for students, as well as for M&S, part-time. It was hard but rewarding.

Graduating in a pandemic was harder, going from 100 miles an hour to nothing, but by that time I’d realised I wanted to work in the arts/culture sector, hopefully still working with history to a degree. I spent the summer volunteering at an art gallery and at the Imperial War Museum to gain skills and I have just accepted a job offer to do marketing & events at a heritage house in North London.


Congratulations! It’s especially interesting to see you are going into an area – heritage work – that is related to your undergraduate dissertation research, which was on ‘Shaping Memory: London’s new national Holocaust memorial’.

That’s right. Since 2015 the government have been debating and developing a memorial project, for a new monument to the Holocaust to be built in central London.

My dissertation looked into this project, treating the memorial as if it was already built, to analyse how memory is organised and influenced by the present day. I argued that the government are using Holocaust memory, and in part pushing for this memorial, as a way to advance other domestic aims. An example of this is their promotion of ‘British values’, as a way to encourage integration. I argue that, in doing so, they’re at risk of promoting a false, self-serving narrative to the British public and threatening actual historical understanding of what we know to be a terrible and complex event.

A picture of the Holocaust memorial garden in Hyde Park

The existing Holocaust Memorial erected in Hyde Park in 1983 was the first monument to the Holocaust in Britain. Photo: Charli Veale.


How did you become interested in this topic?

I’d always been interested in Holocaust history. Then, at Bristol, my second-year module ‘Public History’ made me realise I’d always been interested in, and relatively good at, history in the public sphere, and it opened my eyes to the relationship between history and memory. I knew I wanted to combine these topics in some way for my thesis, and so with the advice to keep it British-centric (to make it easy for myself to find sources!) I came across the memorial project, and it was perfect.

Here was a topic in which history and memory were being debated and moulded in the present day – even throughout my time of writing.


What is the importance of the topic today?

The topic is hugely important because of the ongoing debate over where to put the memorial.

The project is led and controlled by the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, who are an ‘independent’ body,  but appointed by the Prime Minister. The decision over where to put the memorial has created quite the argument…

The site – Victoria Tower Gardens (VTG), outside of Parliament – was announced in January 2016, with no publicly available information on how this was decided. Resistance against using this space, for many reasons, has sprung up in resulting years. A Planning Application was submitted to Westminster City Council, but was ‘called in’ by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, and in the last six weeks an independent Planning Inquiry has been taking place, as both sides argue over whether the memorial should be located in VTG or not.

I spoke on behalf of the opposition at the Inquiry on 11th November, summarising my dissertation argument and contending that I believe the UKHMF are insisting on the site as a means to promote these ‘British values’, and not because it’s a genuine endeavour into Holocaust memorialisation.


What advice would you give to a student interested in doing a similar project?

Choose something that genuinely interests you.

I dithered for ages over what might be good, fearing what I really wanted to do was too hard, but you’ll be so much more motivated if you love the topic you’re contributing to!


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

My favourite book that I read for my dissertation was James Young’s The Texture of Memory. Since graduating, maybe it’s Daring Greatly by Brené Brown – I would recommend her work to anyone!


What’s your must-do Bristol activity?

Picnicking on the downs in the summer is a must, as is Harbourside Festival if it’s going to run anytime soon! For everyone in lockdown I’d definitely recommend a takeaway pint from the Green Man, Kingsdown – Bristol’s finest.


What’s next for you?

Starting my new job!

I’m also hoping to maybe travel a bit and develop my language skills sometime soon, and I’m applying for a few master’s programs for next year – so we’ll have to wait and see.

Featured Historian: Andy Flack

Andy Flack is Lecturer in Modern and Environmental History. He is an environmental historian who specializes in histories of human relationships with animals and their wider environments in Britain and the US across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He teaches environmental history across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, as well as contributing to team-taught units on a wide array of subjects relating to the period since 1800.

Hi Andy, thanks for joining us! So what’s the title of your new project, and what’s it about?

My new project is entitled ‘Dark dwellers as more-than-human misfits: a new synthesis of disability studies, environmental history and human-animal relations’. It is a cutting-edge eighteen-month project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Leadership Fellows scheme), and it initially examines the ways in which the senses and ways of life of nocturnal animals – from bats to blind cave fish – have been historically understood across scientific communities in Britain and North America over the past couple of centuries. Secondly, it considers the emergence of threats faced by these species as a consequence of human action, from light pollution impacting on sensory systems to transport infrastructures fragmenting nocturnal habitats. In so doing, it not only provides new insight into the ways in which people have imagined ‘deficiency’, ‘ability’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’, but also asks whether it is possible to consider animals as having been ‘disabled’ from participation in their world as a result of human interference. Through a focus on animals who live in the darkness, I will develop a new agenda for research at the intersection of disability studies, environmental history and histories of human relationships with animals.

In addition, I will work with the Bristol Zoological Society, Bristol Eye Hospital, educational consultants and artist practitioners to develop new ways of teaching Key Stage 2 children about diversity, vulnerability and resilience, and new ways of coaching sight-impaired people through their sight-loss journeys.

It’s a really exciting, challenging, and important project. I can’t wait to get started!

So how did you become interested in this?

There are three main reasons underpinning my interest in this research. I’ve always been interested in the darkness. I was fascinated by caves, by the night sky, and by the character and atmosphere of cities in the dead of night. All three are other-worldly in ways that are peculiar to themselves but which each tap into what I think is a very human sensory and emotional response to a world normally obscured (from us) by the absence of light. This interest joined with my specialism working in the fluid borderlands between humans and other animals. Historically, people’s relationships with other animals have been complicated by the fact that, culturally, we recognize similarity but insist upon fundamental difference. I wondered how this relationship manifested in the context of environments from which we are usually excluded as a result of our own sensory capacity. Finally, my own sight-impairment motivated my pursuit of this kind research. I wanted to find a way of thinking with and through the concept of ‘disability, of using my expertise to intervene in the field of disability studies in a way that made sense.

What is the importance of this research today?

There are a few reasons why this research is important.

It’s the first time that disability studies, environmental history and histories of human animal relations have been brought into conversation with each other. I hope that in the process, historians will learn to think about ‘normalcy’, ‘ability’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ in new ways, as historical terms which transcend and cross-fertilize ideas about human and non-human realms. Secondly, this is vital research that brings dark environments into view. Historians -including and perhaps especially environmental historians- have tended to focus their enquires on events in the light of day. In so doing, they miss half of what happens and has happened in the world. Indeed, recent scientific studies have suggested that night-time ecosystems are perhaps more vulnerable to climate change than those of the daytime. If humanities scholars are to contribute to understanding of the past, present and possible futures of planetary change, then, they must engage with the world after dark. Finally, there is a personal importance attached to this project. Its my first real foray into the realm of disability studies. As a sight-impaired historian whose impairment has been – and remains – hidden (sometimes consciously), my work on this project, in full view of colleagues, friends, collaborators, and students, represents a step in a perpetual process of ‘coming out’, of becoming more authentic.

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

For students interested in working in the field of environmental history, I’d encourage them to think historically. This might sound like a fairly obvious suggestion. It is, however, particularly important for those of us working in this field of research, because thinking ahistorically is a peril that is particularly acute for us. Today’s environmental crises – from climate change to mass extinction, and from plastic pollution to pandemics – evoke strong emotions that are of our time. People in the past rarely shared such emotional responses and so we need to be particularly careful not to let our sense of grief and outrage for the loss of much of the natural world’s beauty and biodiversity to infect and distort the way we read past and tell stories about it. Look for complexity, change, and continuity. Look for context and explanation that are rooted in time and space. Look for the roots of where we are today and keep your feelings in check – channel them elsewhere.

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

Be adventurous.

Seek out material at the margins, at the peripheries. Don’t confine your study of history to the mundanely familiar. Read widely, and explore stories about the past that feel strange, unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortably weird. If you are to really understand past people, places, and events, you need to have a feel for the past as a tapestry comprised of complex entanglements, of loose threads, of knotted aberrations. This is the advice I was given, but it has infinitely enriched by understanding of what the past was and of that the study of history can be.

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

My mind keeps being drawn back to a book I read during the first uncertain days of lockdown. Mudlarking, by Lara Maiklem really caught my imagination.

Lara spends early mornings and late evenings – actually, any point at which the tidal Thames has receded enough to expose sections of the shoreline – searching for treasure, for items that form the residue of everyday lives long passed. The book is structured as a journey down the Thames towards the river’s mouth. On the way, Lara uses the objects she has found across her mudlarking career – from children’s shoes to items of jewelry and fragments of pottery – as a means of telling stories about past lives. I love the serendipitous nature of her explorations and discoveries: during my undergraduate degree I undertook a range of archaeology units, mainly because I fancied myself as an Indiana Jones type figure. I adore that fact that the past remains with us – admittedly in fragments but also often in the midst of our everyday. If we go looking, we can travel in time.

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

Deciding which one place I’d like to go if I were lucky enough to acquire a time machine is really quite tricky. There are so many times and places that I’d like to visit, though when I think of them, most potential visits to past times become quite unappealing in the context of the absence of antibiotics and similar medical interventions (I’m worried about getting trapped in the past like in Back to the Future). But, on balance, I’d probably head to a small shop, at 221 St George’s Street in London’s East End, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. There I’d find a gentleman called J. D Hamlyn, who ran a wild animal emporium. Employing agents to scout ships as they came up the Thames, he would meet mariners once they’d docked in order to buy from them wild beasts they’d acquired over the course of their travels. His emporium would have been stocked with an astonishing array of creatures, and the sensory impact would have been incredible. I’ve read so much about these places and I’d love to see what they were really like. Most of all, though, I’d like to verify a tantalizing comment in the sources: that Hamlyn ‘employed’ chimpanzees to run the front-of-house- operation of his shop.

Unlikely, surely, but worth a look.

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

I’m biased on this one.

I think everyone who comes to live in Bristol ought to visit the Zoo in Clifton. I wrote my PhD and my first book on the subject, so I’m perhaps unhealthily obsessed with the place. Whatever your view on zoos as places of entertainment, conservation and/or suffering, there is no denying that Bristol Zoo is intimately woven into the fabric of our city. Established in July 1836, it’s the oldest surviving provincial zoo anywhere in the world. The site itself, embedded in the affluent neighborhood of Clifton, remains largely the same size and shape as that when it opened. The history of the place is inscribed on the landscape itself, from the original bear pit to the otter grotto of the original zoo, and from the remnants of the polar bear enclosure made nationally famous by the pacing behaviour of a psychotic creature to the death mask of Alfred, the city’s wartime mascot. Young people, in particular, have been visiting the zoo for decades. According to past students, the zoo is the place to go for a Bristol first date….

What are you working on next?

My AHRC project is part of a larger book project that examines nineteenth and twentieth centuries of what I like to call the ‘wild night’.

Entitled ‘Nights on Earth’, the book examines a range of dark environments – from the midnights of the underground and the deep sea, to the seasonally long nights of the poles, the artificial nights of the nocturnal house, and the more familiar nights of our every day: the night outside the front door. The book asks how people have learned to access these diverse nights, how they’ve understood what they’ve found there, and how nights on earth have changed in the face of human ‘colonization’.

Its super exciting!

Featured Historian: Robert Bickers

Robert Bickers is Professor of History and also the University’s Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Postgraduate Research. As well as supervising nine PhD students with colleagues in the Department, he coordinates the University’s work with all its research postgraduates. He works on the history of modern China, and within that specifically how this intersects with the wider history of colonialism and imperial power.

Early visit to a Chinese archive: Shanghai 1994.

Hi Robert! Thanks for joining us. Could you tell us the title of the new book?

China Bound: John Swire & Sons and its World, 1816-1980 has just been published.

What’s the book about?

John Swire & Sons is a British-based conglomerate that has a substantial presence in East Asia, and especially in Hong Kong. It’s 150 years since it opened a branch in what was then a British colony, having established itself in Shanghai in 1866. It’s probably best known today as the owner of the airline Cathay Pacific. I use the story of the firm’s development from its roots as a one-man import-export business based in Liverpool as a different focus for a history of the globalization, modern China, and the rise and decline of British empire and British power.

I’m primarily interested in the people involved, whether they were from Liverpool or Guangzhou, Bristol or Shanghai, and whether they were its owners, Cantonese crewmen on its ships, dockyard staff at Hong Kong, or the passengers on its ships or aircraft.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I was commissioned to write this by the firm, and given a free hand in how I did so.

John Swire & Sons is a family-owned enterprise, and this has encouraged a strong interest at the top of the company in its own long history. The original John Swire first appears in any records in Liverpool in 1816. One challenge in writing the book is that I had five John Swires to deal with across the period.

You can imagine my relief when I got to its  Chairman in the 1930s, Warren.

What is the importance of Swire today?

Really? Have you read the news recently? But put it another way: whenever I ask an audience what they learned about China at school the answer is almost always nothing. And that’s not just ‘nothing about Chinese history’, that’s nothing about China.

But the British presence in China was the most visible and most disruptive the country suffered over most of the century before the Japanese invasion began in 1931. All schoolchildren in China know the outline of this story, and they know much of the detail too.

What advice would you give to a student interested in doing this kind of work?

Challenge yourself; dive in!

I can’t say I knew much about maritime history, the history of commercial aviation, or sugar refining, before I began working on the book.

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

Well, I learned from marginal comments on my undergraduate essays by my UCL tutors Conrad Russell and John Hale not to mistake rhetorical flourish for argument.

The advice I give, though: read, read, read, read, read, read, read.

And read anything and everything.

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

My reading highlights in the last year have included reading through all six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s letters, and most of John Le Carré. Much to learn from both about writing, structure, their times.

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

I’d like to travel out 1st class to Hong Kong on a P&O steamer, say in about 1851.

In June that year I might have caught the Ganges, stopping at Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria, changing to travel overland then along the Nile to Cairo and on to Suez by carriage (the canal would not open until 1869), there taking another steamer stopping at Aden, Galle, Penang, and Singapore before arriving in Hong Kong seven weeks later.

Who wouldn’t want to do that?

What’s your must-do Bristol activity?

Eat a Pitta, Chilli Daddy, Swoon;

Bosco Pizza;


…which actually makes a really unimpressive haiku. This is why I am a historian and not a poet.

What are you working on next?

Returning to an incident that took place in south China in 1932, digging into which led me back and forward in time, and across the globe. It all began when I spotted the words ‘abduction’ and ‘lighthouse’ in a file title in a catalogue back in, er, 2004. These things sometimes take time.

Featured Historian: Simon Potter

Simon Potter is Professor of Modern History and Head of History. His research focuses on the global history of the mass media, and the impact of the press, radio and television on politics, society, and culture. His work on radio and internationalism, and on the BBC and empire, grows out of his wider interest in the history of imperialism and decolonization.

Headshot of Simon Potter

Hi Simon, thanks for joining us. So what’s the title of your new book and what’s it about?

Wireless Internationalism and Distant Listening looks at radio when it was a ‘new medium’ – the equivalent in some ways of today’s social media. In the 1920s and 1930s radio broadcasting (most people called it ‘wireless’ at the time) looked like it was going to transform the way people, and nations, interacted with each other.

I was really struck when I was researching and writing the book by how people thought radio broadcasting was going to change the world, ushering in a new era of international peace and understanding. That seems very utopian, but for people who had just lived through the First World War, it was a pretty attractive prospect. It was part of the wider internationalism of the period, part of the same climate as the League of Nations.

However, in the 1930s, people quickly became aware that they were in fact dealing with a very powerful weapon of mass deception. First the Communist USSR, then the Fascist states, turned radio into a means of international propaganda, and democratic countries soon followed. In writing the book I’ve also become really interested in cultural histories of listening and ‘soundscapes’ – trying to think about the history of sound as part of the lived experience of the past. So the book also looks at how international broadcasting was heard and experienced in the noisy context of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, and beyond.


How did you become interested in these ideas about radio, internationalism and sound?

My last book was about the history of the BBC and empire and ranged from the 1920s to the 1970s. I was very aware as I finished writing it that empire was a really important part of the BBC’s wider international engagement, but had to be put in a wider context – and that the existing historiography didn’t really do that.

I also got really interested in the early years of international radio, which is again a topic that has been a bit neglected – the Second World War and the Cold War have attracted a lot more attention. The whole topic of interwar internationalism has really taken off, so reading about that formed a lot of the backdrop for my research – I wanted to connect with all the great new work on the Wilsonian moment, the League of Nations, and so on. I managed to get a big grant from the Leverhulme Trust to put together a network of historians working on international radio, and while writing this book, I met regularly with them. We are co-writing another book at the moment on the global history of international broadcasting across the whole twentieth century. Together we spent a lot of time talking about the history of sound and soundscapes, so working with other historians (something that historians are doing more and more, particularly because it is one of the only ways to do global history well, bringing out its diversity and complexity) has really enriched my understanding of this area.


What is the importance of the history of international radio today?

People have been saying that radio was dead for a long time – since at least the 1940s, with the advent of television. But radio has in fact remained one of the most pervasive and adaptable media throughout its hundred-year history – 15 June is the centenary of the first organized entertainment programme broadcast in Britain (Dame Nellie Melba singing Home Sweet Home from the Marconi station at Chelmsford) and 2022 is going to see the centenary of the BBC.

Radio now reaches people via the internet, and also gets to people who don’t have reliable internet access, all around the world. It allows all sorts of people to have a voice, and also continues to be a very powerful tool of soft power and cultural diplomacy – or if we don’t want to use euphemisms, propaganda. The British government stopped funding the BBC World Service in 2014, but quickly reversed that decision, because it realized what a powerful tool of persuasion international broadcasting is. In an age of fake news, a lot of the themes of my book really resonate. The League of Nations itself tried to run a campaign against what it called ‘false news’, and established its own radio station to try and present a source of ‘pure’ news that would counter the lies of other broadcasters.

I’ve explored some of the themes relating to the book in my third-year Lecture Response Unit ‘The Development of the Modern Mass Media’, which looked at the role the mass media is meant to play in a democratic society. I taught that course for the last time this year, but I’m hoping to teach some more media history as part of our new curriculum.


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

This is a great field to get involved in – it is still relatively unexplored, and there is a huge amount of original research to be done.

It is a fantastic subject for original student research projects, with lots of great digital primary source material that you can easily access and use. The Library has lots of subscriptions to various digital newspaper archives, for example, and you can find links to these on the subject resource page.

You also need to think a lot about what you are actually trying to achieve when you are doing a media history project. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the content, just report on what you read, listen to, or see, and not be critical. You need to think for yourself about how far the media are shaping as well as reflecting the societies and cultures of which they are a part.

There is also lots of scope to integrate media history with ‘mainstream’ history, showing how media history can shed new light on some well-established topics in social, cultural and political history. Work by critical media scholars like James Curran and Laurel Brake provide some great background reading.


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

It was advice about life as much as history – from my personal tutor, Brian Harrison. He told me to cultivate a healthy disregard for what others around me were doing – don’t feel the need to conform, or to accept that you should be doing what everyone else is doing. That advice has always stayed with me.


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

It is not History – I’m a huge Sci Fi fan, and I just finished Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. A very thought-provoking exploration of imperialism, oppression, resistance and (the Sci Fi bit) a world in which an individual can be a part of a wider consciousness (and not in a good way).


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

During the lockdown I watched a lot of Dr Who with my kids, so this is quite topical for me. I think it would either be to see prehistoric England before massive deforestation – what our countryside covered with trees looked like (that would have to be from an airborne TARDIS). Experiencing Mayan civilization would be nice, too.


What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I live in North Somerset and am a big fan of walking in the beautiful countryside that surrounds Bristol. In the city I love going to venues like St George’s and the Fleece – there is a huge amount of great live music going on, which I’m really missing at the moment. The Orchard Inn is pretty good for cider.


You can also hear Simon talking about his new book on the New Books in History podcast here.

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.)

Looking for Chan Ching Yau: the first Chinese undergraduate at Bristol

Chan Ching Yau: The first Chinese undergraduate at the University of Bristol

‘In passing’, a colleague in our Library Special Collections recently wrote in an email to me, ‘I saw the attached entry in the ‘Register of Undergraduates’. ‘Passing’ being relative, he appended the file reference number and all the details: Chan Ching Yau, of 3170 Great Western Road, Shanghai (date of birth: 21 August 1897; matriculated: 27 November 1916).[1] Mr Yau’s entry was no 1,027. ‘I wonder what happened to him?’, he signed off, provocatively.

So began a lockdown project. In academic year 2019-20 over 2,300 students from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, were studying at the University of Bristol, but Yau’s is the first Chinese name ever to have appeared in the register. The annual University Calendar, which cumulatively recorded the names of all graduates up to the 1939-40 edition, showed that he graduated with a BSc in Civil Engineering in July 1919, and what immediately happened next to Chan Ching Yau is easy to find out: on 22 October 1919 he boarded the White Star line’s SS Lapland at Southampton and sailed to New York.

The immigration record notes that Yau was born in Beijing, and was 5ft 5in tall, but what struck me immediately about the passenger list is that Yau was accompanied by his wife, Ivy. Gloucester-born Ivy Hillier, daughter (according to her baptismal record) of a cowman who later became a farm bailiff, had married Yau in Somerset in 1917. It seems likely that she was in domestic service when they met, for in the 1911 census she was listed as a nursemaid at a school in Weston-Super-Mare.

Ivy proved to be key to unlocking Chan Ching Yau’s story, as far as I can recover it, for she is mentioned under her maiden name in a family history, The Zhangs of Nanxun, published in 2010 and co-authored by Laurence and Nelson Chang. While the couple were at sea, Yau’s older sister, Yau Hui 姚蕙, was fatally injured in a freak accident in a New York park when a tree branch fell and hit her. Ivy Hillier found herself on arrival in New York helping to look after Yau Hui’s five traumatised, ‘spoiled and headstrong’ daughters, who lived with their uncle, Foo Yau Chang and his wife in an apartment on W108th St. It is hardly surprising to find the family history noting that for an Englishwoman from rural Gloucestershire, this unexpected turn in the course of her life proved equally unsettling. But, as a result, the Changs record her in the text by her maiden name.[2]

In 1923 this ménage travelled to China, the couple accompanying Yau’s older brother, the girls, and their mother’s remains which were then taken to the Zhang family mausoleum in Nanxun, a town equidistant between Hangzhou and Suzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. I do not know what Yau did in New York. He may have worked with his brother (although in the 1920 census he lists his occupation as ‘Engineer, Civil’), but he may well also have pursued further study. I have found a few brief references to Yau’s subsequent career. In 1926-28, he was employed by the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Peking Union Medical College as Chief Engineer, known there as Yu-Van Yau (or Yuvan, possibly a transliteration of the Chinese for John: Yuehan (in Mandarin)).[3] The was a grandly conceived ‘Johns Hopkins for China’, a medical school that would have a profound impact on the evolving new medical infrastructures being created across China. It is also probable that he is the man referred to in a 1927 note that ‘A highly qualified Chinese engineer has lately been placed in charge of the mechanical equipment, filling a position formerly held by foreigners’.[4] In the 1930s, Yau is said to have taught at a municipal school in the International Settlement. At the same time, between about 1932 and 1937, he privately tutored two sons of Zhang Shuxun, a cousin of his former brother in law, Yao Hui’s husband Zhang Jingjiang 張靜江, who is better known as Zhang Renjie 張人杰. Yau, wrote Chang, slightly mis-remembering,

was very Westernized, as he had been educated at Cambridge University and was married to a British woman. As a result, we learned much from him about Western customs, manners, and culture.[5]

Yao Hui (Yao Jingsu), from an article in Shennü Shibao 婦女時報 May 25, 1913

Some of these names are familiar to students of modern Chinese history and culture. Yao Hui was a prominent feminist and literary figure. A poet herself, she was, as Yao Jingsu 姚景蘇, a member of the editorial board of the magazine Shenzhou Nübao 神州女報, in which she published literary articles. Her brother, C. F. Yau – Chang Foo Yau 姚昌復 – was a prominent gallery owner in New York, managing his brother-in-law’s business, the Ton-Ying Gallery, which relocated from Paris during the First World War. Ton-ying (Tongyun 通运公司) had been founded by Zhang in 1902, when he was posted to Paris as a junior diplomatic official.[6] The New York branch had opened on 1 March 1915 on 5th Avenue. As well as operating a bank, and a teahouse in Paris, in 1909 Jiang with his friend Li Shizeng, had also founded Europe’s first beancurd factory.

Europe’s first beancurd factory

The Yau siblings grew up in a literary family, their father, best known as Yao Jupo (姚菊坡, also: 姚菊岐, 姚丙然)), was a scholar, and chief education official in Shandong Province before he was sacked for corruption. Yao was heavily involved in the International Institute of China 尚賢堂. Although its origins lay in the missionary world, and it was originally known as the Mission among the Higher Classes in China, this was in fact an enterprise aiming to promote what we would now call intercultural dialogue. It had been established in 1897 by American missionary Gilbert Reid, a controversial figure who was the subject of a scathing critique by Mark Twain, ‘The Ethics of Loot’, about his role in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising. Very closely associated with reformist officials involved in 1898 in what was called the ‘One Hundred Days’ of radical reform that was cut short by a conservative coup, the Institute and its activities relocated from Beijing to Shanghai in 1903, where it offered classes and public lectures. Yao died in early February 1916, and Reid composed an obituary and presented a tribute to his friend of twenty years standing at a memorial service in Shanghai.[7] Here is Yau senior (one of the three men seated on the right) at a dinner to celebrate Reid’s fiftieth birthday in 1907.

Chan Ching Yau’s brother-in-law, Zhang Jingjiang, had long been involved in political activity, and was a strong supporter before the 1911 revolution in China of the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (who stayed in their apartment when visiting Paris). Zhang remained so, returning to China from France immediately after the revolution broke out. In Shanghai he became heavily embroiled in financial and political affairs, would become one of the right-wing elder statesmen in the political party Sun founded and led until his death in early 1925, the Guomindang, and a friend and sponsor of Sun’s successor as party leader, Chiang Kai-shek. After Yao Hui’s daughters, the eldest of whom was 17 at her death, returned to China they were befriended by Chiang’s first wife, while one of them married Eugene Chen (Chen Youren), the Trinidad-born politician who became Foreign Minister in the Guomindang’s revolutionary National Government.

This is a notable pedigree, encompassing art and culture, the missionary enterprise, Qing reformers, and different strands of twentieth century radical and conservative nationalist politics, and feminism. We might also remember the beancurd.

It has been hard to trace Chan Ching Yau otherwise. His father’s obituary records that he was already in Britain in February 1916, and it would make sense to assume that he had earlier joined his older brother in Paris, probably before the outbreak of war in August 1914. He and Ivy had a son, Arthur Joseph Yau, who was born in New York in February 1921, and who in February 1949 moved to the United States from China. Arthur Yau settled in Burlington, Massachusetts. In May 1927 Ivy had taken him to Britain, sailing at the high-tide of the Guomindang’s Northern Expedition, during which it launched its National Revolutionary Army, led by Chiang, which saw it established a new National Government with Nanjing as its capital. Ivy gave her address as 18 Ma Chao Miao in Peking (and her husband’s name as Yuvan, as his brother had also recorded it in 1926).[8] Her passage across the Pacific, and that of another British woman married to a Chinese man on the same vessel, was paid for by the Peking Union Medical College. Mother and son sailed to Seattle, and then out of New York 18 days later, making their way back to China in April the following year travelling via Suez to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.

Almost thirty years later, Ivy returned to Britain. In July 1958 she landed at Liverpool, having been living in the United States, travelling on to live in north Bristol with her sister and brother in law. Ivy Yau died in Horfield, Bristol, in September 1969 on the day of her 80th birthday. Her grandson recalled that she had lived with them in Massachusetts for a few months before she moved on, having left her husband, but it is not clear when she entered the US. She claimed, he later noted in a poem, ‘to be a descendant of the Huguenots’, which he in his child’s mind conflated with the Argonauts. Perhaps he was closer to the spirit of her life’s voyage than he thought.[9]

Chan Ching Yau himself seems to have China in late 1956, when as Yuvan Yau he is recorded as one of the passengers arriving at Hong Kong on a ship that had sailed from Tianjin and Shanghai.[10] He will not have had an easy time in China after the Communist Party seized power in 1949 and established the People’s Republic. His own Chen family background, the family’s network of relations with the defeated Guomindang, his professional status – which made him an intellectual in the rigid caste system of the new regime – his Anglophone education and cosmopolitan background, and probably even his foreign wife, would have made him an obvious target. He did well to leave when he did.

So, that stray reference, a name noticed ‘in passing’, set off a search that led me swiftly into a rich historical landscape, woven across with forking paths that could track us this way into revolutionary politics, that way the international trade in Chinese art and antiquities, there feminist literary culture and political activism, or high finance in Shanghai (and low, for Zhang Jingjiang was embedded in Green Gang networks), the Protestant missionary enterprise at the end of the Qing, social gospel initiatives such as PUMC that evolved from it and presaged the era of international humanitarianism, and China’s cosmopolitan modern cultures, international mobilities and international migration. That reference, glimpsed in passing, that recorded the moment a young Chinese man presented himself in suburban Bristol to commence his studies, offers a direct route from the heart of this university into the heart of China’s long and arduous twentieth century.

In preparing this post I have greatly benefited from the assistance of Vivian Kong, and Ning Jennifer Chang, who found vital references, and I am grateful, too, to Jamie Carstairs, who set me off, and to John Yau.

[1] ‘Register of Undergraduates 1’, DM2287/9/4.
[2] Laurence Chang & Nelson Chang, with Song Luxia, The Zhangs of Nanxun: A One Hundred and Fifty Year Chronicle of a Chinese Family (Boulder: C.F. Press, 2010), pp. 270-71.
[3] A personnel record is listed in the China Medical Board Archives finding aid at the Rockefeller Archives, datd 1926-28: https://dimes.rockarch.org/xtf/media/pdf/ead/FA065/FA065.pdf , p. 150.
[4] The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1926 (New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 1927), p. 301. In its 1928 report, Yu-Van Yau is listed as Chief Engineer: Peking Union Medical College, Annual Announcement (Peking, 1928), p. 20.
[5]Chang & Chang, with Song , The Zhangs of Nanxun, p. 425. Elsewhere in the book Yau is described as an Oxford graduate.
[6] https://carp.arts.gla.ac.uk/essay1.php?enum=1096638570; New York Times, 15 March 1915, p. 4.
[7] Tsou Mingteh, ‘Gilbert Reid (1857-1927) and the Reform Movement in the Late Qing’, in Daniel H. Bays (ed.), Christianity in China From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 73-90; Renata Vinci, ‘Meeting the West in a Conference Hall: Gilbert Reid’s Lectures at the International Institute in Shanghai’, in Marina Miranda (ed.), Dal Medio all’Estremo Oriente. Studi del Dottorato di Ricerca in ‘Civiltà dell’Asia e dell’Africa’ (Rome: Carocci, 2018), pp.119-13; ‘姚先生’, 尚賢堂紀事第7卷第3期(1916), pp. 5-6; ‘纪本堂为姚菊坡先生开追悼会事’, in 尚賢堂紀事第7卷第6期 (1916), pp. 20-25.
[8] A problem with searching for the Yau family, and others, is that people used various names. (In addition, Yau is now written as Yao in the Hanyu Pinyin transliteration system, but in this period might be Yau or Yao). They might have a Zi (字) a courtesy name, and a Hao. In this case also, foreign immigration officials mangled the Chinese names they heard, misread what they received (Yau becoming Yan), and in addition Francophone and Anglophone conventions differed. Yao Hui was Mrs Ysang on arrival from Europe in 1917, also Tsang, Chang, and sometimes can be found today referred to as Zhang Yaohui, but also Zhang Jingsu, Jingsu being her pen-name.
[9] John Yau, ‘Ing Grish’ (2005) in Joshua Beckman & Matthew Zapruder (eds), State of the Union: Fifty Political Poems (New York: Wave Books, 2008), p. 74.
[10] ‘Coming and Going: Arrivals from China’, South China Morning Post, 31 October 1956, p. 5.

Featured Historian: Janek Gryta

Dr. Janek Gryta  is a Lecturer in Modern European History. His research focuses on the Holocaust and its impact on postwar Communist Poland, but also Europe more broadly. He writes about the history and memory of death camps, and about heritage sites, museums and memorials, and has more recently starting exploring the histories of health spas in Communist Europe. His book Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków, 1980-2013: Between Urban Past and National Memory has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Hi Jan! Can you tell us what Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków is about?

This book analyses how the Holocaust has been remembered in Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland, from the 1980s onwards. There are many assumptions about the memory of the Holocaust in my home country. My colleagues often insist that it is an artificial memory imposed on Poles by Western Europeans after 1989. They claim that no one in the relatively anti-Semitic country wanted to remember the Holocaust and that Poles trying to join the European Union were asked (forced?) to ‘become more European’ by remembering the Jewish Genocide.

Tracing the history of the museum exhibitions in Kraków I tell a different story. I show how local activists have been working hard to recover the memory of the Holocaust from at least the early 1980s onwards. They wanted to use the memory of the suffering of Poles of Jewish origin to remind their compatriots that Poland was not always a monoethnic state and the openness and tolerance are important aspects of being Polish.

portrait of Dr. Janek Gryta

Happier times: a library!

How did you become interested in memory of the Holocaust?

I was always very interested in memory and its relationship with history.

From my early undergraduate years, I wondered how the research of professional historians is translated into what people know and remember about the past. I think I was always a bit frustrated with the fact the people don’t actually that know much…

When I approached my MA supervisor, Professor Jan Rydel from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, with that idea, he suggested looking into the memory of the Holocaust, as it is a socially very sensitive and important topic in Poland. It snowballed from there.

First, I looked into the history and memory of the Nazi death camps that were located in Poland. Then, I moved to a far more ambitious project. When I started my PhD, I had a vision of writing a complete history of postwar memory in three different Polish cities. Fortunately, my supervisor, doctor Ewa Ochman from Manchester, quickly popped that bubble and helped me shape my idea into something more manageable.

I ended up focusing on Kraków only, writing about the heritage sites, monuments and museums in the city. In the past couple of years, I worked only on the museums to finally publish the book.

What is the importance of the memory of the Holocaust today?

Remembering the Holocaust in Poland, but also across Europe, is important not only because it enshrines a tragic fragment of European past in stone. It is also used to redefine what does it mean to be Polish or, for that matter, European. The heroes of my story grapple with big questions: who were the people killed during the Holocaust? What do we owe them? Were the victims part of the Polish nation, were they Polish Jews? Or were they some different, separate group that only happened to live in Poland?

If we admit that some of those Jews were indeed Poles, we can ask what exactly is the definition of Polishenss? Does one have to be ethnically Polish to be part of the nation?

Moreover, if we say that Jews living in Poland were Polish, then we have to ask ourselves, have we done enough to help our co-nationals at the time of need? Thinking about the plight of minorities of the past, we can take a leap from the past to the present. Are we doing enough now to support members of our nation who are somehow not like us? Are we supporting, in fact, do we owe any support to present-day minorities?

Some of those questions are specific to Poland but people ask similar questions globally. Looking into how we failed Jews during the Holocaust can help us redefine obligations we have towards ostracized or suffering minorities in the present.

What advice would you give to a student interested in memory studies?

Be prepared to get disappointed.

Looking into how our societies fail to tackle problems from our pasts is hardly the most cheerful topic. You’ll have to be ready to get disenchanted with humanity on a daily basis.

On a more practical note, chose the strand that interests you the most. In memory studies, we can analyse space and memorials. We can tour museums. We can study films. It’s an interdisciplinary field which is in equal measures fascinating and daunting so be ready for a great (and challenging!) adventure.

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

A good dissertation is a submitted dissertation. A very good dissertation is a defended dissertation. Can I say that? Or is it giving a bad example and setting the bar low?

(Editor: You can say that, Jan.)

Ok. Well. It is true, though. As historians, we always push ourselves and always try to become better. There is always another book we can read, a different archival collection we can consult. Being able to stop in the right place is very important. We have to deliver something (an essay, a dissertation, a book) that is good. The best it can be at that particular moment in time. But we have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that our writing is never going to be perfect because ‘perefect’ doesn’t exist. And this is fine. Maybe master Yoda was wrong after all. Maybe trying is enough.

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

I’m half-minded to say the Witcher saga which I’ve revised last Autumn. I’m Polish so I feel I should promote Polish fantasy. But I also suspect this question is not about my procrastination strategies but about my scholarship. So, I think I’ll go with Leisure Cultures and The Making of the Modern Ski Resorts a fascinating edited volume about … the history of skiing. It has a chapter on skiing and James Bond which is the most amazing topic ever. But it is also an inspiring read about modernity, tourism and environment; a set of problems that are topical and important to a lot of us.

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

This is an easy one. I always wanted to experience life in a medieval castle. I’d have to choose the right moment very carefully though. More plagues, religious prosecution, sieges, famines are not something I want to face. If there was a moment in time when life was peaceful, stable and safe then I’d be in!

So maybe, this question wasn’t easy after all… 

Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?

Can I admit, I’ve never tried any of those? I know. Eat a Pitta is basically a Bristol institution. In fact, there is one just around the corner from my place so I should have visited. But there is also another place which is even closer to my flat and that is where I normally end up going: Pinkmans. Pinkmans is the place to try.

I’m Polish so I’m very picky when it comes down to bread. Pinkmans sourdough is amongst the best breads I’ve ever tried.

But what is truly addictive is their chocolate and salted caramel sandwich cookie…

What are you working on next?

Right now, I’m writing one last article stemming from my PhD project.

At the same time, I’m deciding on the next big project. I’m torn between three ideas as different as the memory of the Second World War, history of Carpathian spas, and history of persecution of Jews by ethnic Poles during the Holocaust in Kraków. So, to answer your question I can only say… watch this space!

Stranded in Antarctica

view of Shackleton's hut

Shackleton’s hut

Getting stuck in Antarctica is not quite as exciting as it sounds, writes Dr. Adrian Howkins.

Most of the time it involves checking monitors, being driving to and from the runway, and just sitting and waiting.  But at the very end of my recent extended stay at the US McMurdo Station I had an opportunity to visit Ernest Shackleton’s ‘heroic era’ hut at Cape Royds.

For a polar historian, it was an evening that made the delay seem worthwhile.

I was in Antarctica working with the soils team of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site.  We were visiting sites of former scientific field camps in this predominantly ice-free region of Antarctica to collect soil samples to see if we could detect any continuing environmental legacy of human presence, thirty or forty years after the structures were removed (the initial results suggests that we can).  It was a very productive and enjoyable season until bad weather and mechanical problems with the plane delayed my flight north to Christchurch in New Zealand for almost a week.

On what turned out to be my last evening in Antarctica, some colleagues from the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER were flying by helicopter to Cape Royds on Ross Island to take samples of the soils and ponds around the site of the hut of Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909.  Knowing that I had done the training to be a ‘hut guide’ for entering the three historic huts in and around McMurdo Station (Captain Scott’s huts from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds from the Nimrod expedition) they invited me along so that they could see inside.

Adrian Howkins poses in an Antarctic hut

Not as fun as it looks, or so Adrian claims.

I’d visited Shackleton’s hut a couple of times before on previous trips to Antarctica.  But the experience of stepping back in history as you enter the hut never gets old.

The Cape Royds structure feels light and airy, especially in comparison to Captain Scott’s two huts.  The different designs of these early twentieth century huts have been used to highlight the different leadership styles of these two famous Antarctic explorers, with Scott’s naval discipline reflected in the compartmentalised design of the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton’s more egalitarian leadership style reflected in the more open plan layout at Cape Royds.

Such comparisons are not entirely fair, since Shackleton’s hut would have seemed a lot less light and airy when it was crowded with men in the middle of the darkness of the Antarctic winter.  But the architectural choices made by the two explorers can still tell us something about their differing approaches to Antarctic exploration.

Photo of shelves in Shackleton's hut, stacked with tins and provisions

Corned beef and lemons: a balanced diet

The Royds hut is full of the material culture of early twentieth century exploration, which has been painstakingly restored by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.  Tins of corned beef, canned fish, and ‘Irish Brawn’ give us clues about their diet.  A jar of decayed pickled lemons demonstrates an awareness of the dangers of scurvy, which had blighted Shackleton’s first trip to Antarctica on Scott’s Discovery expedition.  Copious quantities of table salt hints at the need to preserve and eat penguin and seal meat as a supplement to the diet of canned food.

Less obvious as a historical source are the ice-covered ponds located near Shackleton’s hut. The biologist on the expedition, James Murray, collected samples of algal mats, which he deposited with the British Museum of Natural History on return from Antarctica.  The microscopic diatoms contained in these samples can be used to compare the Antarctic environment in the early twentieth century with the Antarctic environment today.  Most of the diatom populations in the ponds remain largely unchanged.  The only pond where there has been a major shift in diatom taxa is Pony Lake, immediately in front of the hut.  We initially thought that this might have been caused by the presence of humans at Cape Royds, but it appears that the change is more likely the result of fluctuations in the local penguin population.

close up of sampling from the algal mat in the pond at Cape Royds

Penguins did this?

As I flew back to McMurdo Station from visiting Cape Royds I reflected on the feeling of being delayed in Antarctica.

Home feels a lot further away when your efforts to get back are being frustrated, even just for a few days.  On Shackleton’s third expedition to Antarctica on board the Endurance, his ship sank and his men ended up spending four and a half months stranded on Elephant Island with only a small chance of rescue.

In the event all members of this expedition were saved, and Shackleton gained a reputation as the Antarctic explorer who ‘never lost a man’.  Getting back to Bristol a few days late pales in comparison to the experience of these early explorers, but it still offers a timely reminder of the power of the Antarctic environment to frustrate the best laid plans.

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