Tweeting from the Grave: Sickness and Survival in the 17th Century

by Dr Hannah Newton [i]DSC_4480

My favourite thing about being a historian is reading other people’s diaries. I began to realise this at the tender age of eight, when our teacher asked us to write a series of diary entries from the perspective of someone during the Great Plague. It seems that I’ve never really grown up: over the next nine days, I will be tweeting as 17th-century mum, Alice Thornton (1626-1707), whose young daughter Nally fell dangerously sick 351 years ago.

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Postgraduate Teacher Training Live Q&A

Calling our amazing history students!  Have you ever considered a career in teaching, but have some questions about whether it’s the right career for you?

This Friday at 11am, the University’s Institute of Education (IoE) are holding a Postgraduate Teacher Training Live Q&A over on their Facebook page.

Programme Directors from Primary and Secondary teacher training programmes, Admissions and a current PGCE student will be ready to answer your questions.  So if you have ever thought about a career in teaching nd want to know more about it, make sure to make the most of this opportunity.

The IoE are ranked 3rd in the UK for Education (The Guardian University League Table 2018), with internationally renowned and award-winning academics. In 2016 they were ranked 7th for Initial Teacher Training with 92% overall satisfaction in Education and 95% satisfaction with academic support in Education, and partnerships with over 300 schools enable the IoE to train the next generation of outstanding teachers.

For more information about the IoE, who are based on the London Road campus,visit their university webpages (and you can also find them on Twitter too!)

IoE Secondary teaching science small (002)

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Reading Welcomes the Summer (in the manner of c. 1218!)

by Prof Anne Lawrence

The manuscript in this image (below), now British Library Ms. Harley 978, was once owned by Reading Abbey, and contains an eclectic mixture of texts, including the poems of a twelfth-century author and performer now known as Marie de France.  There are also poems by Walter Map, a cleric and commentator who is best known for his satire on the beliefs and behaviour of the great and the good in the court of King Henry II (in which he preserved some of the earliest stories concerning vampires – but that is a tale for a winter’s night, not a summer’s day).

BL. MS Harley 978 fol. 11v

British Library, Ms. Harley 978, fol. 11v, via British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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Celebrating Women in the Department for International Women’s Day

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Yesterday, Thursday 8th March, was International Women’s Day.  To celebrate this, we decided to champion some of the amazing women, staff and students, in our department and their excellent research.

Check out their profiles below:

  • Dr Jacqui Turner

  • Dr Mara Oliva and Beth Snyder

  • Beth Rebisz

  • Victoria Page

  • Eva Van Herel

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The Long Read: Saint Guinefort the Holy Greyhound

by Dr Rebecca Rist

St Guinefort via Pinterest

In April 1988 the New York Times published a review of Suzanne Schiffman and Paméla Berger’s film Sorceress (French version Le Moine et la Sorcre), which debuted at the 68th Street Playhouse. It described it as ‘a parable about the clash between a dedicated healer and a dedicated pursuer of heretics, over whether God prefers to tend man’s body or scourge his soul’.  The film tells the story of a thirteenth-century Dominican who, deployed to seek out heretics, arrives in a small French village where he discovers a mysterious lady who performs healing rites. Although it received mixed reviews, the psychological exploration of trauma, secrecy, control and oppression, feminist ideas of patriarchy, childbirth and sexual violence, and moral themes of pride, lust, corruption, spiritual blindness, celibacy, virginity, and forgiveness, make it intriguing watching.

As a medievalist I was delighted to discover that the film was not only based on an original manuscript, like the famous film Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982), but a retelling of the medieval legend of St Guinefort, the Holy Greyhound. Throughout its two thousand year history, Christianity has honoured animals as part of God’s creation. In hagiographies they are the friends of saints with whom they are depicted: John the Baptist and St Agnes with a lamb, St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Roch with dogs, St Antony of Egypt with a wolf; St Eustace with a stag. Saints care for animals: St Anthony pigs, St Bridgid cows, St Cuthbert eider ducks, St Jerome a lion. St Antony of Padua preached to the fishes, St Francis of Assisi to the birds. Animals are divine symbols: Jesus is the Lamb of God, the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, the lion represents courage, the dog loyalty.

St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds via Pinterest

Yet although animals were often associated with popular saints cults, the medieval Church did not approve of the veneration of animals. Circa 1261 the inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon visited an area of south-eastern France known as the Dombes, and there found that women were venerating a St Guinefort as a healer of children. He was extremely pleased, until he discovered that St Guinefort was not a holy man, but a greyhound.

According to Stephen’s account recorded in his book On the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, this greyhound had saved the life of the baby of the lord of the castle who was attacked by a snake, but the lord, mistakenly believing the hound had tried to harm his child, killed it in anger. Subsequently, having discovered the baby safe and the serpent dead, he deeply regretted his actions. A cult grew up where the hound was buried and women brought their sick children to the site. It is likely the dog’s name was derived from a certain Saint Guinefort who had died a martyr at Pavia where his cult was established and spread to France. We know that stories of a dog saving a baby’s life are found in many places and periods from the ancient to the modern: Pausanias in the second century AD; the thirteenth-century Welsh story of the faithful Gelert; the fourteenth-century The Seven Sages of Rome, a popular collection of moral stories or exempla; the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp (1955).

A modern retelling of St Guinefort via Pinterest

Stephen visited the cult’s location where he disinterred and burnt the greyhound’s remains. The Church’s disapproval of animal saints was philosophical and stemmed back to Ancient and Patristic ideas, developed by St Thomas Aquinas, Stephen’s contemporary, that since they were not rational beings with the capacity to make moral choices, they could not actively choose good over evil.

This was not the only reason for Stephen’s dismay. Something more sinister appeared to be afoot:

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