The Sagas, the Solstice and the Supernatural, by Anne Lawrence-Mathers

As a medievalist it is always satisfying to point out that many traditions can be traced back to the medieval period – and this applies also to the custom of setting and telling tales of ghosts and monsters at the time of the winter solstice.  It is well known that this time, one of long-established feasts and rituals both inside and outside the Roman Empire, was deliberately chosen as the time to celebrate the birth of Christ.  What may be less well known is that the supernatural conflict between the old religion and the new is a haunting presence within the ghost stories told by the sagas.  Encounters between human heroes and destructive monsters were often set at Yule and in the semi-pagan past.  In this post I shall try to illustrate the point by retelling stories which set lasting patterns for tales of the supernatural.

I. The Saga of Bard the Snowfell God

Helluland, Earthstar Geographics (2021)

First up is the Saga of Bard the Snowfell God, which tells the story of the half-human Bard, son of King Mist, ruler of Helluland in the mysterious far North, and his descendants.  Bard’s mother, Mjoll, was human but Mist was part giant and part troll, and Bard inherited superhuman strength.  He added study of sorcery to this before leading his family to settle in Iceland.  When he grew old Bard disappeared from human society into the glacier at the head of his valley.  He reappeared to give protection to those who called on him, gaining the name of ‘God of Snowfell’.  One such reappearance was to Odd, son of Onund, whom Bard invited to a Yule feast.  Odd fought his way through the gathering midwinter storms and the devious behaviour of enemies, and was rescued from the mountainside by Bard himself in time for Yule.  However, Bard was not always so kind.  He abandoned one of his lovers, with her son, Gest, and only took Gest into the glacier when he was almost an adult.

Gest willingly learnt both law and magic from Bard and was thus well prepared when the troll, Bag, invited father and son to a great Yule feast in her cave.  Like Yule feasts across Scandinavia and Britain this one involved competitive drinking and violent games, during which Gest made an enemy of the ogre, Kolbjorn, but lived to leave the cave with his father.  This was a time when both trolls and ogres preyed on humans and their animals, killing many but also kidnapping women.  Kolbjorn followed this pattern and, as well as causing terrible losses to local farmers, stole and starved Bard’s daughter, Solrun.  During another violent feast in Kolbjorn’s even more terrifying cave Gest rescued Solrun and killed a small army of ogres, despite the intervention of Kolbjorn’s mother, a powerful sorceress. 

Ultimately more threatening for Gest is King Olaf Tryggvason and his energetic promotion of Christianity.  Gest and Solrun are invited to court for Yule, known to King Olaf as Christmas.  Gest refuses to be baptised but attends the Christmas Eve celebrations, where events strongly anticipate the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Into the court strides a tall and evil-looking warrior, wearing mail and armed with a sword, who issues a challenge (of course).  He dares all the assembled company to try to take his treasure – and then disappears, leaving most people unconscious.  Gest identifies this revenant as Raknar, ancient king of Helluland and murderer of his own parents amongst very many others, who was buried alive in his ship along with 800 warriors.  At Olaf Tryggvason’s request Gest, bound by the rules of hospitality and honour, agrees to take up the supernatural challenge.  He is given assistance in the form of two magicians and a priest, though he is not happy about the priest.  Magical equipment is also given – a sword, a piece of cloth and a candle.

In the early stages of the quest the priest is something of a hindrance, killing a pagan who offers more magic and having to be carried on Gest’s back.  However, the priest, unlike the magicians, proves to be immune to magical threats and uses his crucifix to kill a supernatural bull which nearly kills Gest.  The priest is also able to watch through the night, despite terrifying apparitions and ghostly visions.  Gest’s own powers are great enough to enable him to reach the inner depths of the enormous burial mound within which Raknar and his undead army wait to kill him.  Gest cuts off the heads of 500 warriors, seizes the treasure and finds Raknar himself seated on a carved throne.  At this crucial moment the magic in Gest’s equipment becomes exhausted and, as Raknar is about to kill him, he calls upon Bard.  The call is answered but, when the candle burns out and the dark returns, the dead men rise up and prevent Bard from reaching Gest.  It is only when Gest calls upon Olaf Tryggvason and his new God that Raknar is vanquished.  Gest then has no real choice but to accept Christianity, although the decision proves fatal when Bard arrives to punish him. 

II. The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Bjarg, North Iceland, birthplace of Grettir the Strong

The second saga is the better-known story of Grettir the Strong, a heroic but deeply flawed warrior who encountered a series of monsters (human and otherwise) at Yule.  His career can be placed c1,000 CE, at the time when Iceland accepted Christianity.  Even as a child Grettir was noted for his strength and courage – and also his stubbornness and love of insults.  This complex character was demonstrated when, after being shipwrecked, Grettir was taken in by a wealthy landowner called Thorfinn.  This man’s father, Kar the Old, was buried in a mound on an isolated headland but returned to haunt everyone who tried to farm on ‘his’ island.  Grettir could not resist the challenge and broke into Kar’s barrow, opening up its roof, before venturing further in.  Here he found treasure and the bones of an enormous horse, as well as the barrow-dweller himself, sitting on a carved throne.  Like Gest, Grettir was able to seize the treasure but was attacked from behind in the dark while trying to escape.  Unlike Gest, Grettir was able to cut off Kar’s head without assistance.  This exploit, unsurprisingly, was not greeted with unmixed joy by Thorfinn.  Grettir’s next adventure on the island took place while Thorfinn and most of his warriors were away at a Christmas feast on the mainland.  A boatload of Vikings took the opportunity to attack Thorfinn’s hall but were routed and killed by Grettir, thus earning the reward he desired.

The next Christmas season found Grettir at Saltfjord in Halogaland, where an enormous bear was causing havoc.  Only Grettir was able to kill the bear, after wrestling it over a cliff – but once again he made enemies and was forced to move on.  He was now famous enough to go back to Iceland and work for rich men who needed his protection, as well as to pursue old enmities.  One of Grettir’s clients, Thorkell, owned land in a valley which was permanently dark in midwinter and haunted by an ogre-like creature.  This had led Thorkell to hire a Swedish fighter called Glam, who was nearly as gigantic and frightening as the monster.  Glam was perfectly willing to fight ghosts but completely unwilling to go to church, and demonstrated his hostility to the new religion by demanding to be fed on Christmas Eve, when all good Christians were fasting.  Later that night he went out on guard but failed to return.  On Christmas day a search party found his mangled body on the mountainside, with monstrous footprints, splashed with blood, leading away into the mountain.  The body resisted all attempts to take it to church for burial but allowed itself to be buried in a cairn.

Glam himself now became an undead monster, reappearing at night through the winter and causing terrible fear and harm until the return of sunlight forced him away.  A new shepherd was hired but Glam returned with the winter, killed the shepherd on Christmas Eve and left the mangled corpse to be found on Christmas morning as another unwelcome ‘Christmas present’.  Glam then grew even more powerful and destructive than the first monster – at which point Grettir arrived.  Like the monster Grendel in the story of Beowulf, Glam broke into Thorkell’s hall at night, so strong he could tear the building apart and so huge his head reached the rafters.  In the human space of the hall Grettir held his own against the monster, but Glam managed to drag him into the moonlight, where Glam’s strength grew greater.  Grettir managed to overcome Glam, although only after Glam laid a curse on him.  The curse turned Grettir’s own strength against him and condemned him to lifelong bad luck, outlawry and loneliness, as well as constant haunting by Glam himself.

Drangey Island, Grettir’s place of death

The curse took effect and Grettir found himself almost alone when facing an enemy named Thorbjorn and his foster-mother, Thurid.  Thurid was human but retained great powers of sorcery, despite being baptised.  Once again the power of the supernatural increased in the darkness of winter, and Thurid took advantage of this to carve enchanted runes into the trunk of a fallen tree, chanting spells while walking widdershins and filling the runes with her own blood.  Grettir had seized Drang Island, where he hoped to hold off his enemies, but the enchanted tree trunk reached the shore, against wind and tide, and was fatally taken as firewood by his servant.  Under the power of the curse Grettir’s own axe caused a festering wound in his leg, making him vulnerable to his enemies.  He died at Christmas, supported only by his brother, Illugi, despite all the people he had saved.  It was only after death that he was reconciled with Christianity and was buried in a churchyard. These stories, like their heroes, reflect supernatural conflicts on many levels.  The new religion triumphs and its enemies are identified with sorcery.  And yet Christmas remains a time when feasts are threatened by many kinds of darkness and when the cold of the solstice reduces most humans to huddling around their fires, telling stories of heroes and monsters until light and warmth return.  The sagas of Bard, Gest and Grettir, like many others, make it clear that elements of the old religion retained their powers – even if only in the forms of barrow-dwellers and undead warriors – and their stories can still bring a sense of darkness and cold to a midwinter’s night.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers is a Professor of medieval history at the University of Reading, specialising in medieval magic and science, and the interfaces between the two. Anne’s latest monograph, Medieval Meteorology, is available here.

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Ghostly Christmas Tale, by Professor David Stack

Charles Dickens loved Christmas and he loved a good ghost story too. His first attempt at a seasonal story, A Christmas Carol (1843), combined these two passions.

The tale of Scrooge’s haunting and redemption was subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas, and its four ghosts, the remorseful Marley shackled by the chains he has forged in life; the gentle Ghost of Christmas Past; the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present; and the ominous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, are the organising points that structure and drive Dickens’s narrative.

He followed it with four further Christmas novellas:The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). But whereas A Christmas Carol endures in popular culture, and even sits proudly on the GCSE English Literature curriculum, defying the efforts of Gradgrind educationalists and examination boards to drain the joy from its message, his four follow-ups are now rarely read.

Dickens undoubtedly peaked early with A Christmas Carol, but his subsequent efforts all sold well in their day, and enjoyed stage adaptations. The critical reception was sometimes mixed, but Dickens’s readership delighted in the way all four books took up and developed themes from A Christmas Carol, including the power of ghosts to deepen human understanding and bring about a character’s redemption. In the fiercely anti-Malthusian The Chimes, goblin spirits persuade the lead character, Trotty Veck, to shake off his debilitating assumption that the poor are ‘born bad’. But it is in the last of his stories, The Haunted Man, or the Ghost’s Bargain, that Dickens achieved his most interesting take on a Christmas ghost story.

‘Frontispiece’, John Tenniel, The Victorian Web

The man haunted in the book’s title is Professor Redlaw, a ‘taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy’ academic, who we first meet on a darkening winter’s night, ensconced in his study, and staring into a fire that sends ‘a crowd of spectral shapes’ dancing across his wall. These, however, are not the phantoms that haunt him. Redlaw’s tormentors are the ghosts of his memories, of ‘sorrow, wrong, and trouble’ past that play upon his mind and are etched in the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks of his face. He yearns for release from this pain and towards the end of the first of the book’s three chapters, ‘The Gift Bestowed’, he makes the bargain of the book’s subtitle.

A doppelgänger phantom, ‘an awful likeness of himself’, emerges from the gloom and offers Redlaw the chance to cancel all painful remembrance. He agrees, and only then learns that this gift, once bestowed, is contagious, and that he will involuntarily bestow the same destruction of painful memories on all he meets.

The consequences of this power are explored in chapter two, ‘The Gift Diffused’, where Redlaw sees the kind, and previously happy, Tetterby and Swidger families become mean, selfish, and argumentative as they lose the ability to recollect painful and sorrowful memories. In the final chapter, ‘The Gift Reversed’, Redlaw sees the memories restored to those around him, and reaches the realisation that our sorrows, as much as our pleasures, are necessary for our happiness. ‘[M]y point’, Dickens explained to his publisher John Forster, ‘is that bad and good are irredeemably linked in remembrance, and that you could not choose the enjoyment of only recollecting the good. To have the best of it you must remember the worst also.’

‘Redlaw on the landing of the staircase’
Frank Stone, The Victorian Web

When Dickens had first conceived the story, in Lausanne in the summer of 1846, whilst still writing Dombey and Son (1846), he descried it as a ‘very ghostly and wild idea’.  But by the time he returned to it in the early winter of 1848, the ghostly element was more allegorical than supernatural. This is consistent with much of Dickens’s other work. Despite what Forster called his ‘hankering’ after ghost stories, and Dickens’s delight in reading them, he never seemed entirely comfortable with his own ghostly creations. At the end of A Christmas Carol Dickens teased his readers that it might not have been ghosts haunting Scrooge  after all: ‘He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards’. And he did something similar at the end of The Haunted Man, commenting that some thought Redlaw’s ‘Ghost was but the representation of his own gloomy thoughts’.

His readers, however, and more particularly the audiences who came to see the theatrical renderings of his Christmas novellas, had fewer qualms: they wanted ‘real’ ghosts! They got one in the first production of The Haunted Man, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 20 December, 1848, two days after the book’s publication. (Dickens had provided advance proofs and advised on the final stages of rehearsal.) But it was another production of The Haunted Man, fourteen years later in an 1862, that proved more significant in the history of theatre.

This featured the first performance of the technique known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, in which a brightly lit figure below the stage was reflected in a pane of glass placed between the actor playing Redlaw and the audience, to make it appear as if he were interacting with the ghost. This technique, which took its name from its inventor, science populariser John Henry Pepper, has been credited with launching the fashion for later-nineteenth century ghost-themed plays. It also, perhaps improbably, laid the basis for the technology which, in recent years, has been used to bring a number of deceased rappers, such as Tupac Shakur, Easy-E, and Ol’Dirty Bastard back to the stage.

The Haunted Man itself had no comparable literary legacy. Although some scholars have identified it as a staging post in Dickens’s development towards his mature masterpiece, Bleak House (1853), it is better read simply as another example of his insatiable fascination with Christmas. From his early essay, ‘A Christmas Dinner’ in Sketches by Boz (1836), through Magwitch’s Christmas Eve appearance in the graveyard in Great Expectations (1861), and the Christmas Day murder in his final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Christmas was a constant in Dickens’s writing. Ghosts gave him a tool with which to explore this theme, but as with so many of us, it was memories of his youth, good and bad, that made the season for Dickens.

David Stack is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in the inter-relationship of ideas and politics in the history of Britain and beyond.

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021), News | Leave a comment

Christmas at Sea: 400 Years of the Festive Season Afloat, with Dr Richard Blakemore

Dr Richard Blakemore gave this talk as part of an event on ‘Christmas at Sea: 400 Years of the Festive Season Afloat’ on 7 December 2021, organised by the Royal Museums Greenwich and Institute of Historical Research Maritime History & Culture Seminar. We are grateful to the seminar convenors for recording this session, and for their permission to share this video.

Dr Richard Blakemore is a historian and lecturer of the Early Modern Atlantic World at the University of Reading. His research explores the social history of seafarers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. If you would like to find out more about Richard’s work on the maritime world of Early Modern Britain, you can do so in his recent edited collection here.

Additional Readings:

Journal of Edward Barlow, 1656-1703:

Merry Boys of Christmas, 1660:

Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays, 1700:

On Cromwell and Christmas:

On Christmas dinner in Tudor and Stuart England:

On Father Christmas:

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gothic ‘Other’ at Christmas, by Dan Renshaw

The tradition of telling scary stories at Christmas is an old one. Tales of ghouls and goblins during the festive season, dating back to the Elizabethan period, have become part of Christmas tradition. In the years before the First World War M.R James, provost of King’s College Cambridge, would in December invite a select few of his undergraduate students to his rooms, where, over a strong drink and by a crackling fire, he would recount his own accounts of the supernatural. These stories would eventually be published, and their author acknowledged as the primary exponent of the modern ghost story. To this day, it is rare for a Christmas to pass without James’s work being featured on radio and television.

But the relationship between the gothic and yuletide goes beyond M.R James. A number of writers of horror fiction at the turn of the century used Christmas as a suitable background for their work. One vampiric example is ‘The Old Portrait’ by Hume Nisbet, set on Christmas Eve, where an artist acquires a second-hand painting of a beautiful woman who, as he dozes and dreams, emerges from the frame to drink his blood.[1] However, the two short stories I will look at in more detail are Christmas horror tales which reveal contemporary late-Victorian and Edwardian concerns about the presence of the ‘ethnic other’, migration, and violence, in the British Empire, and in Britain itself; one set in rural India, and the other in a country manor, blanketed by snow, in the English countryside.

Dâk Bungalow

It is no coincidence that the gothic genre experienced an upsurge in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, at a point when British colonial power was at its peak, but also a time where it was widely felt that the imperial juggernaut, and the wider society, were entering a period of decline, cultural as well as geopolitical. The gothic, not always consciously, dealt with these fears – of sexuality, of the position of women in society, of the results of technological change, and of ethnic difference.[2] It was also concerned with events in the empire – and India was a particular focus. Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, both enthusiastic exponents of British colonialism, were fascinated by the South Asian ‘other’- the former using the Raj itself as a setting, whilst the latter often wrote of the Indian supernatural intruding on a British domestic tableau.[3] The story I will discuss, however, is by the British author B.M Croker, ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ (1893).[4] Croker herself was from the (closer) boundaries of empire, born into a Protestant family in Ireland, but spent many years working and writing in India.[5] ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ is notable for featuring two female protagonists, who are journeying across Gujarat to join their husbands for Christmas Day. These two Englishwomen are warned against doing so – a friend suggests they equip themselves both with quinine and with revolvers. The journey initially passes without incident, until the women stay for two nights in a house in a village on the route. Here, in the early morning, they have an encounter with a restless spirit, and witness his murder, which took place years before, played out again before them. At the conclusion of the story, they find his body, buried in a shallow grave, and resume their travels, in time for Christmas dinner with their partners.

This story reveals some of the assumptions, and fears, underpinning British control in the Indian Empire, as well as gender roles in both India and Britain. Firstly, Croker intends her heroines to be self-sufficient, despite others attempting to dissuade them, they travel independently (and armed), and solve the mystery of the haunted bungalow without male involvement. But crucially, they feel protected, and confident enough to traverse the Indian countryside, because of their white British identity. They are not in truth alone on this journey, they are accompanied by an Indian guide, Abdul, but they are unaccompanied by white men. Nevertheless, there is sufficient confidence in British hegemony and control in imperial India for the journey to be attempted, their Britishness and their whiteness giving them the right to travel where they please, without fear of injury or impediment. But in the second half of the gothic narrative this confidence is called into question. The man who is murdered is a white, British colonial administrator; his killers are both Indians, ‘othered’ in the text, portrayed as treacherous and avaricious, and one is described in the following terms: ‘a strange servant in a yellow turban, with cruel greedy eyes.’[6] Croker is suggesting that the assumptions that provide the basis for this sense of security are partially false – the British elite in India are resented by the Indian population, including that section of the society employed by or collaborating with the colonial administration, and this antipathy can potentially be expressed in extreme violence. The story might end with the women eating plum pudding in the company of their husbands, but this tale is not as cosy or as straightforward as it might initially appear.

The second gothic ‘othering’ to be discussed here that takes place over Christmas is set in Norfolk. This is the now obscure ‘The Terror in the Snow’ (1904) by B. Fletcher Robinson. Robinson is almost forgotten today, but was a close friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, and their discussions inspired the latter author to write The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).[7] The adventure, partly horror and partly detective story, occurs in a palatial mansion in the countryside, where it appears that the bloody killing of a financial magnate as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day is supernatural in nature, and possibly the work of a werewolf. In the end it is ambiguous whether a lycanthrope is responsible or not. The murdered man is called Baron Steen, and it is made clear that he is a shady entrepreneur, who has made his money by nefarious means and ‘played a bold game on the Stock Exchange’.[8] Indeed, on the night he is torn to pieces he is about to flee the country by boat, with the police circling. It is also heavily implied, although not explicitly stated, that he is Jewish. This characterisation grows out of a contemporary antisemitic stereotype that depicted Jews as corrupt businessmen, and also as arrivistes. Baron Steen has bought the country estate from an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times, and in a classic gothic plot device, have been cursed for several generations by a beast that haunts the environs of the mansion on snowy winter nights. The Baron represents modernity, but also the widespread Edwardian trope of Jews financially supplanting non-Jews (especially the old landed gentry), as well as being ‘vulgar’ and ‘flash’. Ultimately, he pays for this with his life. The sentiments that informed these depictions resulted in political change; the year after this tale was published, the Aliens Act was passed, which allowed for restriction on entry into the United Kingdom (and was particularly concerned with Jewish migration from Eastern Europe), and also facilitated deportation.[9]

Christmas is often accompanied by spooky tales. But it is not solely the ghosts of Christmas past who are there at the festive celebrations with clanking chains and cold draughts. In the fin-de-siècle gothic narrative contemporary prejudices lurk, sometimes acknowledged, and sometimes suppressed, but always present, and haunting the society in which they were formulated.

Dan Renshaw teaches modern British and European history at the University of Reading, and is particularly interested in migration history and the overlap between migration, minority identity and the gothic.

[1] Hume Nisbet, ‘The Old Portrait’ in Richard Dalby (ed.), Dracula’s Brood (London: Harper, 1987) pp.275-279

[2] See Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Victorian Studies (vol. 33, no.4, 1990) pp.621-645, Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, (London: Duke University Press, 1995), David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: Longman, 1996)

[3] Ailise Bulfin, Gothic Invasions: Imperialism, War, and Fin-de-Siecle Popular Fiction, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018), Darryl Jones, ‘Introduction’ in Arthur Conan Doyle, Gothic Tales, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[4] B.M Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ in Roger Luckhurst (ed.), Late Victorian Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) pp.96-108

[5] Luckhurst, ‘Introduction’ in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, p.xxiv

[6] Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’, p.104

[7] B. Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, in Mark Valentine (ed.), The Werewolf Pack (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2008), pp.61-79

[8] Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, p.62

[9] Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: The Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 (London: Heinemann Educational, 1972), Carol Margaret Davison, Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021), News | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Supernaturally chattering teeth: Romanticism and the politics of gathering winter fuel, by Dr Jeremy Burchardt

In recent years I’ve been researching and teaching on rural landscape and the way it has been represented in England since the late eighteenth century.  It is widely agreed that the Romantic movement, and in particular the Romantic poets, played a key role in shaping these representations.  Romanticism is often criticized for purveying a lush, idealized vision of rural life, with much of the hardship and social conflict written out of it.  Poets such as Wordsworth and Keats and painters like Constable are seen by many as progenitors of the so-called ‘rural idyll’ which scholars have devoted much attention to debunking.  However, although there may be some truth in this view, closer attention to some of the foundational texts of English Romanticism and to the social context in which they were written suggests that the simplification and distortion lay more in the subsequent reception and (mis)use of these works than in their original message.  In this blog I want to look at one of the poems published in the first edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), often regarded as the first major Romantic statement in English literature.

Poems by William Wordsworth (1815), Volume I, Wikimedia Commons

The poem in question is Wordsworth’s ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’, which tells the story of how a well-to-do farmer, Harry Gill, apprehends a poor woman, Goody Blake, when she attempts to steal some firewood from one of his hedges in the midst of winter.  Goody curses him and, thereafter, his teeth will not stop chattering, however many overcoats he puts on.  Superficially this could be read as a conventional seasonal injunction to the wealthy to show charity to the poor, with a whimsical and even sentimental come-uppance for the hard-hearted, from the same ideological stable as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and John Mason Neale’s ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (1853).  But a closer reading and contextualization of Wordsworth’s stanzas show that his social criticism was sharper and more penetrating.

At first sight, Wordsworth’s choice of a farmer as protagonist is surprising.  Farmers were not at the apex of rural society at this time – that place was occupied by the aristocracy.  Farmers were several rungs down the social ladder and most of them rented their land from aristocrats and other landowners.  If Wordsworth wanted to compose a parable to teach charity, it would have been more natural to juxtapose Goody Blake with a wealthy landowner, rather as ‘yonder peasant’ is matched with King Wenceslas in Neale’s carol.  However, Wordsworth was well aware that the rural poor in fact had few points of contact with landowners.  It was farmers who employed most of them, and as population growth depressed agricultural wages from the late eighteenth century onwards, a social gulf opened up between farmers and the rural poor.  Commentators observed that newly genteel farmers were buying pianos and sofas, while there were tales of labourers being paid through holes in farmhouse walls so their employers should not have to sully themselves with direct social contact.  In pitting Harry Gill against Goody Blake, Wordsworth was drawing attention to the human consequences of this widening chasm in rural society, a chasm that over the next half century would spawn repeated outbreaks of politically motivated arson and machine-breaking culminating in the ‘Captain Swing’ riots of the winter of 1830-31.

Elderly Woman Gathering Firewood, The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading

Wordsworth’s decision to focus his poem on collecting firewood underlines the extent to which he had his finger on the pulse of the tensions racking Georgian rural society.  As Wrigley and others have demonstrated, England was suffering from a growing fuel crisis in the eighteenth century.  Across much of the country, wood was the cheapest fuel but it was in competition with food crops for land, and as population grew, the latter proved more profitable.  Tree cover decreased and firewood became an increasingly valuable commodity, often fiercely protected by farmers and landowners.  In this situation it was coal that came to the rescue, but because road transport was difficult and expensive, only for those with good access to navigable water.  This rarely applied to inland parts of rural counties like poverty-stricken Dorset, where Wordsworth set his poem:

This woman dwelt in Dorsetshire,

Her hut was on a cold hill-side,

And in that country coals are dear,

For they come far by wind and tide.

Nor is it an accident that Goody Blake’s income derives from spinning.  Ironically the Industrial Revolution resulted in a deindustrialization of rural England, especially in southern counties like Dorset, as small-scale, cottage-based industries were out-competed by larger, factory-based enterprises, mainly in urban settings.  The result was that the price of yarn fell and independent producers like Goody Blake, reliant on it for their income, had to work longer hours to earn enough to feed themselves, often having to work long into the night to do so.  But this brought further problems.  It is difficult for us to comprehend the sheer darkness of the countryside in winter before the arrival of mains electricity.  Candles, the only tolerably bright and durable light source, were an expensive luxury.  These issues particularly affected women, who were the mainstay of domestic industry in the countryside, above all widows and ‘spinsters’ (as the name implies), who were unlikely to have any other major income source.  Wordsworth draws attention to these interlinked issues in a few succinct lines:

Auld Goody Blake was old and poor,

Ill fed she was, and thinly clad;

And any man who pass’d her door,

Might see how poor a hut she had.

All day she spun in her poor dwelling,

And then her three hours’ work at night!

Alas! ’twas hardly worth the telling,

It would not pay for candle-light.

Beyond this, the poem addresses a more fundamental change – the hardening of property rights as pre-modern paternalism gave way to a capitalist market economy.  The old ‘moral economy’ whereby the wealthy recognized reciprocal obligations to the poor and property rights were often non-exclusive was rapidly waning in the 1790s and this was felt especially acutely in the countryside.  Firewood like the sticks Goody Blake attempted to take from Harry Gill’s hedge was just one example of the commodification of rural resources.  This was also the great age of Parliamentary enclosure, whereby the commons with their multiple users were fenced and made over to exclusive private ownership, and of the rapid withering away of gleaning, the practice of allowing the poor to gather grains spilled during harvesting for their own use, now increasingly prohibited by farmers.  Wordsworth calls into question the legitimacy of these vast changes in social custom and mores, and the legislative framework that codified them, by framing property rights in relation to two even more fundamental sources of authority: nature and divinity.  Although Harry Blake lays claim to the hedge, it is also a natural object and, especially in the context of other poems in Lyrical Ballads that identify nature as a source of transcendent truth and meaning, the implication is that it resists subordination to ‘unnatural’ purposes such as Harry’s.  Nature in early Wordsworth is often difficult to distinguish from divinity but here the supernatural curse that falls on the young farmer is clear evidence that he has outraged the divine as well as the natural order.  Hence, although Wordsworth’s poem might appear to be no more than a seasonal folk tale enjoining a clichéd conventional moral, once restored to their social history context Harry Gill’s chattering teeth turn out to have a surprisingly sharp political bite.

Jeremy Burchardt is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading, specialising in the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English rural society.

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021), News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sugar and Slavery: Reproductive Mills, by Jude Reeves

I have been given the opportunity to share my experience working as an intern at the Mills Archive Trust on Watlington Street, a registered charity dedicated to the protection and preservation of records of milling history, in the summer of 2021. My placement was funded by the University of Reading’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROP) programme, which offers six-week funded student research projects, supervised by a member of staff, in the summer vacation before final year.

This placement involved exploring how sugar milling during the era of slavery contributed to the development of new global markets in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. I researched the role played by enslaved people, especially women, in sugar milling and how this changed over time. I researched technological changes in sugar milling and I also considered the legacies of the subsequent decline in sugar milling on Caribbean islands in relation to the rise of tourism on the islands. My findings have all been collated into a digital exhibition which can be accessed, below. These are important subjects to research as Britain as a nation increasingly confronts its colonial past and seeks to develop more inclusive histories and associated teaching resources.

My placement saw me moving between the office of the archive and the university library to utilise both places’ resources, supervised by Emily West in the Department of History, and Liz Bartram, Director of the Mills Archive Trust. It was my first chance to be in an archive – COVID has a lot to answer for in that respect! Having begun university in 2019 and then going into lockdown in March 2020, this was my first opportunity to gain hands on experience in heritage and to get to physically touch history and learn in such a visual way. When I began my placement, I knew very little about the history of milling and so I was apprehensive about how I would settle into the research. It turns out, it was far more accessible than I expected. The first two weeks of my placement were full of reading, reading, and more reading. Getting my head around the topic and building my confidence were my top priorities of the first couple of weeks to make sure I felt confident going into the next stage of my placement.

The second half of my placement was surrounding the creation of the literature for the digital exhibition, including making use of the Mills Archive Trust’s extensive collection of images related to sugar milling. It made me focus in on selecting the best material that I had collected and collating it into a coherent narrative for the audience to view. This was where I felt I gained the most from my time at the archive, I was introduced to a totally new way of writing and presenting material. Until this point, I had only written in an academic style and in a rather passive voice. This was the first time I had written in such a direct way and it helped me develop an understanding of the way curators present digital exhibitions.

Partaking in the UROP scheme has been a truly formative experience. It has given me the opportunity to explore different areas of history and various jobs in the heritage sector. It has further invigorated my desire to work in curatorship in the future and I cannot thank Liz and everyone else at the archive enough for taking me under their wing and giving me this fantastic experience during possibly the most seminal period of my academic life.

Jude Reeves is a third-year student studying History and English Literature. Her UROP project focused upon creating a digital exhibition which displays the links between sugar milling in the Caribbean and the treatment of enslaved people, especially women. See below to view the digital exhibition of Jude’s UROP project at the Mills Archive Trust:

Learn more about the Mills Archive Trust and the University of Reading’s UROP programme.

Jude will be giving a presentation about her project via MS teams on Wednesday 27th October at 1pm. To receive the joining link, please email

Posted in Black History Month 2021 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, and a Challenge to White Fragility, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

NPR, the US American public radio station, was broadcasting some critical reporting on the day of the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, 7 October. The journalists were discussing that, while the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o had been nominated many times, surely again the Nobel Committee would name not an accomplished and celebrated author from the global south, let alone a black writer, but to what many would be an obscure artist or eccentric choice of usually a white male from the west. Then the news broke that Zanzibari born Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Prize, the only second black African author, after Wole Soyinka from Nigeria in 1986, among a list of white writers from the region spread across 1957 to 2008. This set news agencies scrambling to find information on Gurnah and his work.

Much can be noted about this, not least considering that in addition to older forms of oral literature such as epics, Africa’s rich literary output since the mid-20th century in the genre of the novel has not merely added to or enriched the literary corpus. A British colleague pointed out to me a few years ago that literature is what was written by British authors up to 1900 and another colleague added that of course in English lessons at school one reads authors whose first language is English. The range of views on what that corpus encompasses still includes a significant articulation of ignorance, white privilege, and indeed what Robin DiAngelo coined ‘white fragility’, here the fear that ‘the other’, i.e. in this case non British English writers, the global south, black authors, has produced art that does not just rival but that stands shoulder to shoulder with works from the west.

Abdulrazak Gurnah
By PalFest – originally posted to Flickr as Abulrazak Gurnah on Hebron Panel, CC BY 2.0

When fellow Zanzibari born and British based artist Lubaina Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017, annually awarded to a British Artist (based or born), she was the first black woman to achieve this prestigious honour since its inauguration in 1984. Himid emphasises how much her positionality as a black woman informs her art and chosen role as a cultural activist. In whatever manner Abdulrazak Gurnah wishes to identify – black, Zanzibari, diasporic, after having lived the majority of his life in Britain – his art must be foregrounded in this critical discourse of the asymmetry of power in cultural, economic, and global relations between the west and the global south.

The Nobel Prize committee issued the Literature Prize announcement and press release with this explanation: Gurnah won ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’[1] This author cannot claim to have read all of Gurnah’s literary output. But there are two aspects that as an Africanist and gender historian one may take some issue with. The verb ‘penetration’ is an unfortunate choice for various reasons not least because it has been shown that it represents an androcentric and sexualised view of power and forcefulness that was part of the colonial and imperial discourse.[2] More importantly, one particularly celebrated work by Gurnah is his tremendous novel Paradise (1994) which is a beautiful, troubling, and wonderfully complicated exploration as a coming of age story of a boy, Yusuf. It is set in the early colonial period in what today is Tanzania, consisting of the mainland, first colonised by Germany as German East Africa from the late nineteenth century – and then after World War I handed over by the League of Nations to Britain as mandated territory when it was renamed Tanganyika – and the islands of Zanzibar which were under British rule. Both gained independence in the early 1960s and after a revolution in Zanzibar chose to join as the Republic of Tanzania in 1962. Gurnah carefully situates the novel indicating that German rule had arrived without engaging the theme of colonialism at all. Instead of, to paraphrase the Nobel announcement, ‘penetrating the effects of colonialism’ what Gurnah does brilliantly in this novel that made him globally famous is to look into the complexities of Swahili society and the lived experience of a boy pawned by his parents from a Swahili town in the interior to the coast.

Hamish Hamilton: London, 1994

The complex negotiations that characterised identities of the western Indian Ocean became even more pronounced in the nineteenth century. The volume and geographic reach of the East African slave trade increased after abolition in the Atlantic, and the Sultan of Oman moved his capital city to Africa, anointing himself the Sultan of Zanzibar, as it was here where the emirate was generating its wealth and where direct control of the merchant activities was important, with the main palaces facing the harbour, with the warehouses at their feet. The exceptional choice of composing this coming of age story of a boy before abolition of slavery on the islands of Zanzibar in 1897 and on the mainland in 1922 was, when first published, and is to this day mesmerising and astonishing. Who could one be in this world? With the boy Yusuf experiencing both bondage and accompanying a slave trading caravan into the interior, first love across ethnic boundaries with the complicated articulations of slave, Swahili (free or unfree), Indian, and Arab as some of the identities, in a predominantly Muslim world where Islam having arrived a thousand years before, the reader is literally and metaphorically taken on a moving exploration of self. One of the uncomfortable identity markers is the African and Arab othering of non-Muslims as washenzi (Kiswahili: barbarians, uncultured people) in contrast to Muslims as ustaarabu (Kiswahili: civilised). In the understanding of the time washenzi could be enslaved.

The novel Paradise challenges western stereotypes of Africa as a continent of tribes, as Africa predominantly shaped by the black Atlantic, as Africa south of the Sahara a Christian world region threatened by recent Islamicist extremism. It takes the reader on an at times uneasy path, accompanying Yusuf growing up as he negotiates manliness and masculinity and tries to find a place in the world he inhabits, something that existentially all humans do as a rite de passage through puberty. For many westerners, and especially those with white privilege, that lived experience appears safe, achievable, and certainly well-deserved. What maybe is most astonishing about Gurnah’s literary achievements is that he weaves narrative without pointing an educational finger. His art invites the reader to travel and explore the human experience that we all share, takes us to raw and even painful places but also the magically beautiful and secluded garden where Yusuf experiences the longing of first love.

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter. 

[1] The Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee,, 7 October 2021.

[2] Much has been published since. For an early treatment, see H. I. Schmidt, ‘”Penetrating” Foreign Lands: Contestations over African Landscape. A Case Study from Eastern Zimbabwe’ Environment and History 1, no. 3 (1995), 351-376.

Posted in News | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Black History Month: Citizenship, Belonging and the Political Imagination of Women in Rhodesia, by Shepherd Mutswiri

Re-posted from our Gender History Research Cluster

I was struck by the imposing Irish symbols and their historical meaning. The Irish Defence Forces marched on stage holding the Irish flag which had been chosen as the national flag during the Irish War of Independence in 1919.  As I sat there, I heard the national anthem and I looked up with a great sense of belonging and pride. Then we all stood up and pledged our fidelity to the Irish State. The Army Band under the command of Captain Carroll provided the music that day. The carefully choreographed ceremony was celebratory, and the mood was jovial, but it was the simple but poignant display of patriotism that was immensely moving. It left an indelible impression on me. Since then, my identity and belonging were intricately interwoven with the past and future of the Irish State, while being immensely proud to be Zimbabwean. When I look back at this internalization of symbols and images on the day of my Irish citizenship ceremony, I realise that identity is not static.

I had been a bit fraught wondering how long my application would take, but it turned out not to be an arduous wait. Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice (2011-2014) cleared a backlog of over 20,000 citizenship applications and in 2011 introduced the first-ever citizenship ceremonies in Ireland. Shatter was born to a Jewish family in Dublin. He remarked on the day of my citizenship ceremony how immigrants had contributed positively to Irish society.  Sadly, his reputation went up in flames in 2014 after a report by a barrister raised concerns about whether Minister Shatter had properly investigated complaints by a whistle-blower concerning Garda (national police force) misconduct. He would later write in his book that, ‘After my resignation from government all of the allegations that led to my political downfall would be discredited and established to be entirely untrue by two different independent statutory Judicial Commissions of Investigation’. He observed that ‘truth and justice matter but they do not inevitably win out’.[1]

Often tied to the idea of citizenship is the question: what underlies a sense of community and how is it constructed? Anderson (2006) suggested that communities are imagined through print culture.[2] Allman (2013) suggested that it is time to go beyond imagined communities that were formed through a shared print culture and explore how community was constructed through forms of culture such as song and dance to excavate claims of nationalism in performance.[3] This idea tests the limits of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities.

Belonging is an ongoing process that involves membership in, or exclusion from a community. In this regard, when people negotiate identities, it is done so with other people’s consent.  Newcomers to a community may not be imagined to be part of that community and shared identity might not necessarily be extended to them. Furthermore, others may choose not to seek belonging or reciprocal obligations that come with certain social identities. The concept of belonging is central to our understanding of how people ascribe meaning to their lives. The ascription of ethnic identities is a common subject in African studies. Ethnic naming and how people were categorised into distinct groups during the colonial period is also essential in researching belonging. Worby (1994) observed that the power to name others, and the authority to create maps and boundaries to categorise ethnic identities and culture formed an important part of colonisation.[4] These divisions had the potential to undermine or marginalise certain groups. A similar concern with the interaction between inventions and imaginings has been central in Terence Ranger’s writing on Zimbabwean history. His early work situated this dialectic in the form of contestation between collaboration and primary forms of resistance to modern political nationalism.[5] His complementary perspective on resistance and imaginings provided a more dynamic counterpoint in the face of any repression and oppression.

I would like to go back to the point Alan Shatter made about truth and justice. It resonates with what Cornel West, a scholar of African American studies perceives to be important in any discussion about gender, race, or equality. He states that ‘The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak’.[6] In analysing the transition from the imperial system to nation-states, some voices have been misrepresented or ignored. Oppressed peoples have often used religion and culture to express their freedom. In the 1940s and 1950s, Africans were driven off their land by the colonial state and put into Reserves which led to crippling overcrowding in Makoni, Manyikaland in Zimbabwe. In 1965, the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson sought to decolonize Southern Rhodesia and bring majority rule, but the Rhodesian Front (RF) led by Ian Smith’s minority government resisted the ‘winds of change’. To avoid majority rule, RF illegally declared independence from Britain. Although Britain was still legally responsible for Southern Rhodesia, it had great difficulty asserting power to end Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from 1965-1979. In the 1950s and 1960s, people in Makoni were desperate to align with anyone who would help them fight land alienation as a result of RF’s policies. Unfortunately, the revolutionary nationalists did not have it easy either. Nationalist parties were banned, and their revolutionary leaders were put into detention in 1964 and for 8 years there was no formal organisation of African opposition in Makoni. The banned political parties formed African National Council (ANC) and pinned their hopes on a Bishop of the American Methodist Church, Abel Muzorewa to lead the party in their absence.[7]

Women’s agency has previously been marginalised in political discourse and they were often regarded as passive observers in nationalist discourse. However, in Makoni, Ranger argued that the ANC nationalist party acquired most of its energy from the political participation of Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai (RRW), a women’s self-help group within the American Methodist Church.[8] The RRW women played a huge role in nationalist activities by taking part in pro-Muzorewa political protests. This mobilisation added to the fight against the colonial state, engendered by an idea of citizenship and belonging. In 1979, for the first time in the country’s history, citizenship was expanded to incorporate black Africans after Ian Smith conceded to ‘one man one vote’ to Rhodesia’s 6.5 million blacks and 268,000 whites.

Frederick Cooper has challenged historians to investigate the dynamics of citizenship in colonial Africa. Citizenship was not just about rights, but about belonging to a political unit that could make demands on its citizenry.[9] Social movements could also operate within the imperial system and make demands on the colonial state. More importantly, the political imaginations of workers, peasants or women did not always fit neatly into the nationalist framework.[10] We must reflect on the ethical importance of respecting these deeply interwoven narratives. To accommodate various imaginativeness that existed in Rhodesia, we must recapture the political imagination of RRW women through the appropriation of Christian theology and culturally idiosyncratic agency. This will require going beyond Benedict Anderson’s print capitalism’s explanation of imagined communities to looking at how political imagination was performed and articulated.

Recently scholars have looked at music and dance as forms of culture that not only construct but reflect claims of nationalism in performance. The performative art of song and dance had meaning in the lives of RRW women. Perhaps now we can begin to ask questions about how a sense of community can be constructed through songs and dance. This will allow us to get a clearer picture of the important roles played by women in mobilising and performing nationalism.

Shepherd Mutswiri is a PhD Student of History, specialising in nationalism and religion in Zimbabwe between 1960 to 1980.

[1]Alan Shatter, Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination, (Dublin, 2019), pp.7-9.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 2006), pp. 9-37.

[3] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History: African Nationalism and Decolonization’ in: John Parker and Richard Reid (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Modern African History (Oxford, 2013), 10-11.

[4] Eric Worby, ‘Maps, Names, and Ethnic Games: The Epistemology and Iconography of Colonial Power in Northwestern Zimbabwe’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20, no. 3 (1994), pp. 371-92.

[5] Terence Ranger, ‘Connections between “Primary” Resistance Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa’, Journal of African History, 9, 3 and 4 (1968); ‘The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa’ in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983).

[6] Cornel West, There Is Joy in Struggle, Harvard Divinity School. (2019).

[7] Luise White, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago, 2015). p.214.

[8] Terence Ranger, Religion and Rural Protests: Makoni District, Zimbabwe, 1900 to 1980′, in J. Bak and G. Benecke (eds), Religion and Rural Revolt, papers presented to the Fourth Interdisciplinary Workshop on Peasant Studies, (British Columbia, 1982). p. 329.

[9] Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (New York, 1996). pp.266-268.

[10] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History, p.10.

Posted in Black History Month 2021, News | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to prepare for your seminars, by Abbie Tibbot

Hello everyone! My name is Abbie and I’m a PhD student in the History department.

University is a lot to take in when you first get here but, when you’re feeling a bit more settled, it’ll be time to get stuck into to your seminars. In 2016, I started my BA in History, and I also studied for my MA at Reading. My experience as a student here means I have some advice on how to prepare for seminars and make the most out of the contact time you have.

1.Show up

I know, it’s obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many of my former course mates thought that they could muddle through a module without attending all the seminars. Small-group teaching is a core method of learning for History modules and missing out on these key moments of discussion will be to your detriment! 

It can be daunting to head to a seminar with only a few people, especially during the first few weeks, but I promise the nerves will be worth it as it’s a great environment to learn in. I’d advise leaving a little bit early if you’re not sure where to go and take some time to read the floor plans on the walls of buildings to find out where you’re based that session. Arrive, set up your laptop or notebook and take a few minutes to acclimatise rather than rushing in at the last minute. Having regular attendance will also help you get into a good routine straight away, which I found difficult to achieve when living away from home for the first time.

Shy? Not to worry, the environment is new to everyone, which leads me onto my next tip.

2. Prepare to get involved

Trust me, the last thing I wanted to do in my first semester at university was to make myself look stupid in front of everyone else, but those fears were quite quickly put to rest once I made the commitment to contribute to every seminar in some way. You may find that some lecturers assign group reading or small presentations to encourage people to speak up, but other staff members will play it by ear regarding how much involvement there is in the discussion. 

There’s no hand raising at university, so jump on in and say what you’re thinking. I decided early on that I wanted to contribute something at least once in each seminar I attended, and I found that rule built the confidence to say even more. Everyone is nervous, and your contribution may inspire others to say something too! I naturally made friends with the more talkative people in my seminars, so this tactic may bag you some good friends along the way. 

3. Get your reading done

There are always going to be a few disasters along the way but, as a general rule, turning up to seminars without reading the assigned work will make the class a lot less useful than it could have been. Here are a few tips for getting it done:

  • Assign a time each week to work on your reading. Wednesday afternoons are a good choice if you don’t play a sport as it’s most likely you’ll have the afternoon off. 
  • Once you’ve made some friends, split the reading up between you, copy and paste your notes onto Google Sheets (it updates in real time) or email them to each other. 
  • Make notes. You’ll read so much that it’ll be hard to remember everything off the top of your head. 

4. Ask for help when you need it

Studying at university is different to school, so don’t let yourself fall behind unnecessarily. There are lots of resources both within the department and outside it, but if you’re struggling with reading, essay planning or just what to do (we’ve all been there), please go and see a member of staff. Your academic tutor is a great choice for study related issues, and they’ll be able to guide you towards the relevant help.

I’d been taught to reference completely incorrectly at school, so I had to quickly relearn before I started writing essays. I was directed to support at the library where I had a quick session giving me tips on how to quickly master the referencing system that our department uses.

If you’d like to find out more about me, I run a #studygram account on Instagram, with the handle @tibbotttalks_study, where I share my life as a student and promote my own blogging platform: where you can find lots of undergraduate-themed content to help you be a thriving history student. I write new blogs every week about the university experience, as well as sharing insights into major decisions I’ve made along the way. 

If you see me on campus (or any other PhD History Student) come and say hello – we are always happy to lend an ear!

Abbie Tibbot is a PhD Student in women’s history, focusing on Conservative Cabinet politics of the interwar cabinet concerning women’s citizenship in Britain.

Twitter: abbie_tibbott

Posted in Comment, News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Tips for New Undergraduate Historians

Welcome to the University of Reading History department! If you are reading this, you are most likely a new student about to embark on their journey for an undergraduate History degree. Starting university can be overwhelming. In all the uncertainty of the past year, you might not have had the chance to visit campus in person or are nervous how to prepare for your course.

Worry not!

We asked our wonderful staff and experienced PhD students for their top tips for incoming historians at the University of Reading….

The main thing that I would encourage any new undergraduate to do is to try new things. We’re so fortunate here at Reading to have a History department with such a fascinating variety of expertise, with modules that span the medieval period to the recent past and cover a huge swathe of the globe. It’s the perfect opportunity in your first year to encounter topics that you haven’t studied before, gain new insights, and perhaps find your own future area of expertise. I had never studied American history when I started my undergraduate degree – and frankly didn’t think it was all that interesting – and now I teach and research it! Make use of this unique time in your life to move beyond your comfort zone and see what else is out there. Find the modules that intrigue you and enjoy them! – Dr Liz Barnes, Lecturer

Follow you heart and try something new.  While you require a pass mark for the first year, the overall mark does not contribute to your overall degree classification. A such, be brave, follow your heart and delve into a topic you have never done before or even thought about. There is always a temptation to fall back on what you have done at A level and often an EPQ – try not to do that. As a student I was interested in radicalism and revolution, but rather than sit in the modern period I looked at the Peasant’s Revolt, the Interregnum alongside the French and Russian Revolutions. I am now a Modern British Political Historian but all that I studied provided a rich backdrop for my research on class and gender in parliament today. – Dr Jacqui Turner, Associate Professor

You probably need to do less than you think you do, but try and give whatever you do a spirit of very careful, focussed, attention. Notice what excites your mind and move towards that. – Dr Dina Rezk, Associate Professor

Read the introduction followed by the conclusion of any set reading before trying to tackle the middle. This will speed up your reading and set you up well for the rest of your degree! Treat yourself to a lunchtime bagel in the union, because they are literally the best. Finally, spend time perfecting your knowledge of the referencing style for essays in your first year! Try to remember that as nervous as you feel meeting so many new people, you are all in the same boat. Try to get involved if you can in seminar activities to seek out new friends and turn to trusted seminar tutors/academics for support if you need this! – Beth Rebisz, PhD Student

See the first year as a learning process where you’re figuring out how to write at undergraduate level, not A Level – and if your marks are not Firsts all the time, that’s normal! A lot of people go from being at the top of their school classes and then panic if they get 2:2s, when actually that’s just helping them learn a whole new set of skills. – Amy Austin, PhD Student

Identifying your preferred learning modality and experimenting with different methods of study will reduce stress and improve retention. This is a form of self-care. Learning to embrace criticism and negative feedback is essential for growth… and do the readings. We can tell when you didn’t. – Richard Balzano, PhD Student

Learn to skim read and that the index is your friend – you don’t need to read every single book cover to cover. – Aisha Djelid, PhD Student

Don’t be scared to ask questions! Make the most out of the fact that you actually have a specialist in the field right in front of you – ask questions and question the ideas and thoughts that are discussed in class. Make sure you enjoy your first year. Try to find ‘your’ topic in each class. Even if it’s the caricatures of politicians in a class on 19th Victorian political philosophy. Get to know the library and the people who work there. They can be the biggest help when you write your papers. – Michelle Tessmann, PhD Student

I remember being totally crestfallen when I got the marks back on my first paper, and it took me a while to realise everyone was in the same boat (& I wasn’t an imposter who’d slipped through the net). I find it super useful to read other people’s work early on – e.g. by asking module leaders for past essays that have scored well, just to get a feel for style. It’s crazy how being out of essay writing mode over the summer impacts the quality of your work in the first term of the new academic year, and reading other people’s work who are at a more advanced stage can provide a useful barometer of where you should be aiming for. Also, be to be open to seeing what other departments are up to and what events are on, and where they can add to your experience both academically and socially! – Emily Peirson-Webber, PhD Student

And last, but certainly not least….

I would recommend figuring out where the toilets are in all the random parts of Edith Morley! – Amie Bolissian

Remember, always reach out if you are feeling overwhelmed. We can’t wait to see where your journey as a historian takes you.

©University of Reading
Posted in News | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cold War, the Drug War, and… Summer Camp in the 1980s, by Richard M. Balzano

The Cold War shaped the latter half of the American twentieth century, and the bipolar standoff and its peripheral contests could be felt in every corner of domestic American life. Washington’s security pursuits often generated results that contradicted domestic goals, especially so with drug policy. When Ronald Reagan assumed the US presidency in 1981 on a campaign promise to reignite the Cold War, he delivered on that promise in such a way that Cold War security initiatives exacerbated America’s drug crisis. In turn, Reagan responded by escalating the ‘war on drugs’ in all the wrong hardline places. These inconsistent and contradicting policies are evident throughout the 1980s, but most glaring when they intersect in the least likely of places: the American summer camp.

Nancy Reagan at Summer Camps, Hudson Institute

First lady Nancy Reagan visited America’s summer camps throughout the 1980s. During her visits, the first lady participated in recreational activities and spoke on matters of leisure and importance, using these visits as a platform for her ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign. Although the campaign sought to reduce demand, ‘Just Say No’ was a far cry from the enlightened, support-based demand-reduction model that experts would promote in coming decades, nor was it a step in that direction.[1] ‘Just Say No’ appealed to individualism and personal responsibility through intimidation and alienation, aligning ‘“drugs”…with a dangerous and roughly defined “other”’, and presenting America’s addiction problem ‘as the consequence of collective personal failure in affected communities rather than a public health crisis’.[2] After extolling the virtues of accountability on campers, the first lady would on occasion seek to extract sobriety pledges from children as young as age six.[3]

The Reagan administration escalated both the drug war and the Cold War throughout the 1980s, although the methods and outcomes were contradicting. On the foreign policy front, the administration exacerbated civil strife in Central America by backing rights-abusing anticommunist regimes and insurgents. Despite legislative obstacles and congressional opposition, Reagan put his weight behind the Nicaraguan Contra insurgency and made overt and clandestine efforts to fund them, while his perception management team worked tirelessly to package these initiatives in the altruism and simplicity of Manichean Cold War rhetoric.[4] Ronald Reagan’s February 1985 State of the Union address famously identified the Contras as ‘freedom fighters’, a brand his administration vigorously projected.[5]

Ronald Reagan with a ‘Stop Communism in Central America’ T-Shirt

On Reagan’s watch, American intelligence enabled Nicaraguan expatriates to bring substantial amounts of cocaine into the US, and the proceeds of which were used to fund the Contra insurgency.[6] The Contra-cocaine connection was first exposed in late 1985 by journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger, and investigated further by then-Democratic Senator John Kerry as the Iran-Contra affair unfolded in 1986.[7] Diligent and controversial research by late journalist Gary Webb in the following decade exposed a labyrinth of American complicity, and Webb identified this particular supply chain as a catalyst in America’s 1980s ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak.[8]

Journalist Gary Webb

On the domestic front, the Reagan administration escalated the ‘war on drugs’—the same war that US intelligence was simultaneously exacerbating. Draconian legal penalties were introduced for non-violent and drug-related offenses throughout the 1980s, proving an early step towards America’s current mass-incarceration model.[9] The administration’s punitive and contradicting initiatives were flanked by Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, presented in classrooms, summer camps, and similar environments.

Nancy Reagan was likely not privy to the scope of American complicity in the ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak of the 1980s, but the Iran-Contra scandal and the reports of cocaine trafficking carried out by her husband’s favourite pet insurgency would have been difficult for the first lady to ignore.[10] Perhaps Nancy Reagan dismissed the Contra-cocaine connection as a liberal media’s partisan conspiracy? After all, the Contras were supposed to be ‘freedom fighters’ central to American security. Dismissing the connection was much easier than the mental-gymnastics required to rationalize selling ‘crack’ for freedom and security—although the intelligence community held no qualms about it![11]

In the summer of 1987, Nancy Reagan’s only summer camp visit took place at the Agassiz Village camp in Poland, Maine. It was her first camp visit since the Iran-Contra story broke, and it would be her last camp visit as first lady. She pitched ‘Just Say No’ to 300 children aged six to sixteen, and 100 camp counselors, after which she invited them to declare their commitment to sobriety by signing pledge cards. Only 250 of the 400 attendees signed—a disappointing 62.5 percent.[13] If Hollywood’s depictions of the American summer camp experience have merit, we may assume that commitments to sobriety were lowest among camp counselors. If we move forward under the assumption that counselors monolithically chose Bacchus, or if they were gerrymandered and excluded from pledging, 250 pledges from 300 campers (83.3 percent) is not particularly impressive either, especially if one considers that the age six-to-nine demographic will sign most anything at the prospect of sugar or if the writing utensil produces colour. We may safely assume that the 150 missing pledges came from older campers and counselors.[14]

If Hollywood is wrong, which it usually is, then perhaps there was more to those missing signatures than teenage delinquency. Perhaps the first lady was unable to solicit a high number of sobriety pledges in her final summer camp visit because of the way her message resonated with her audience. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum describes Camp Agassiz as a summer camp for handicapped children, but this is misleading.[15] Although Agassiz Village integrated children with disabilities into their programming in the 1950s, the camp’s goal was ‘to provide a camping experience for boys from various social agencies, hospitals, clinics and schools in the Greater Boston area’. By the mid-1970s the camp was co-ed, and their doors were open to not only disabled children but children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and communities at the time of Nancy Reagan’s 1987 visit. Further, the camp enjoys a tradition of alumni returning as counselors.[16] Many of these economically disadvantaged campers were likely predisposed to the perils of addiction described in Nancy Reagan’s message, although it wasn’t a dangerous ‘other’ but rather a personal or communal experience. While it is tempting to presume that 150 of Agassiz Village’s campers and counselors chose an iconically dazed and confused American summer camp experience, perhaps they refused to sign because they recognized that the perils of addiction were brought on by the administration’s reforms and/or interventionist policies.[17] Nancy Reagan’s final summer camp visit was a blunder, indicative of the tone deafness of ‘Just Say No’ and America’s failing drug war on the whole.

Richard M. Balzano is a PhD student of History at the University of Reading. He specailses in US foreign policy and inter-American relations in Latin America’s Cold War, and therein intersections of development, human rights and US financial assistance. 

[1] See Global Commission on Drugs, ‘War on Drugs: Report on the Global Commission on Drug Policy’, (accessed 06 July 2021); Organization of American States (OAS), ‘The OAS Drug Report: 16 Months of Debates and Consensus’, (accessed 06 July 2021).

[2] Michael McGrath, ‘Nancy Reagan and the negative impact of the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign’, The Guardian, 08 March 2016, (accessed 01 July 2021).

[3] Howard Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village, Lewiston Daily Sun, 07 July 1987.

[4] There was a whole office designated to shape the media narrative around Washington’s Latin American engagements. The Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD), run by Otto Reich. The OPD was created by Reagan and its supervision was limited to the US State Department, keeping it insulated from accountability. The OPD unraveled during the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was investigated and shut down after Congress determined it violated US law by projecting propaganda on US citizens. For the OPD, see Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2006), 124-136, 229. For a goldmine of documents on Reich’s activities, see Thomas Blanton, ed., ‘Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda: The Declassified Record of Ambassador Otto Juan Reich’, National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 40, 02 March 2001, (accessed 01 July 2021). For a comprehensive account of the Reagan administration’s perception management efforts in Nicaragua, see Eldon Kenworthy, America/Americas: Myth in the Making of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995).

[5] The Reagan Doctrine was cast at the 1985 State of the Union address. Reagan’s support for ‘freedom fighters’ implied Washington’s intention to support subversive and insurgent forces when geopolitically convenient.

[6] Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999); Robert Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’, Salon, 25 October 2004, (accessed 02 July 2021). In the spirit of bipartisan fairness, clandestine relationships between US intelligence and international narcotics operations were not unique to Reagan, occurring under administrations ‘across the aisle’ throughout the Cold War. See Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2003).

[7] Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’. Parry and Barger’s original piece appeared in AP on 20 December 1985, linking Contra cocaine smuggling to their war financing. The extent to which Contras smuggled and distributed cocaine in the US with intelligence complicity and de facto immunity was explored by Webb, Dark Alliance.

[8] For an unfortunate number of journalists and people on the whole, challenging the official word of the State Department in real time was enough to brand Webb’s Dark Alliance as a conspiracy. Webb was cannibalized by his own profession, although time has revealed his activist journalism was more accurate than not. Webb claimed ongoing intimidation during and after his research, and, as conspiracies go, his death was ruled a suicide, despite having died from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds… to the head. For controversy over Webb’s journalism, see Greg Grandin, ‘“The New York Times” Wants Gary Webb to Stay Dead’, The Nation, 10 October 2014, (accessed 01 July 2021).

[9] One in four persons incarcerated worldwide is in the US. The population of incarcerated persons in the US was 2.3 million as of  2020, which, in perspective, is 6.74 times the population of Iceland. If the US prison population were itself a country, it would have the 145th largest population in the world..

[10] Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’.

[11] To be fair, the intelligence community was not selling ‘crack’ per se, although the image of a black suit working a Los Angeles street corner in the 1980s makes for an appropriate metaphor. Washington simply allowed Nicaraguans to import cocaine and offered them de facto immunity, and that cocaine was funneled into the hands of notorious drug dealers of the 1980s like Freeway Rick Ross of Los Angeles, who in turn built a narcotics empire on crack-cocaine sales. The appropriate framing is that US intelligence allowed cocaine to be imported… for freedom and national security. See Webb, Dark Alliance.

[13] Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village’.

[14] While it would be almost logical for non-Americans to presume that children who could not read were not required to sign a pledge, it should be reminded that children as young as five years of age are required to pledge their allegiance to the American flag at the start of each school day.

[15] ‘Nancy Reagan’s Travels as First Lady’.

[16] ‘The History of Agassiz Village’, (accessed 06 July 2021); ‘Parent and Camper Facts’, (accessed 06 July 2021).

[17] Perhaps the older counselors observed the administration’s budget cuts to food subsidies for low-income campers? Mary Battiata, ‘First Lady Downs Hot Dog, Bug Juice During Visit to Virginia Summer Camp’, Washington Post, 23 July 1982, (accessed 01 July 2021).

Posted in News, Summer Blog Series 2021 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Joys of Being an Africanist: Summertime in Tanzania, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Part II

Conducting oral history interviews as well as participant observation are the prerogatives of the modern historian. These methods also need to be carefully learned and critically questioned as the research itself generates primary sources. They require the researcher to make him- or herself vulnerable and it is this vulnerability that can lead to comic and uncomfortable moments, often going hand in hand, at times leaving the researcher having little understanding of the research encounter. Two examples from my Tanzania research in 2001 come to mind. I spent a few weeks at a Benedictine mission station, Peramiho, where the abbot, Lambert Doerr, generously provided support for my interviews and granted access to the monastery archives holding documents in Kiswahili, German, English, French, and Latin. Peramiho is the Benedictines’ main mission station in East Africa, founded in 1898. Soon joined by nuns in 1901, and both brothers and sisters with motherhouses in Bavaria, St Ottilien and Tutzing, one significant contribution the mission has made is through its seminary, the largest in Africa by the year 2000. Staying in the mission guest house was a tremendous luxury after a very long bus ride of almost 1,000 kilometers from Dar es Salaam, with reliable electricity provided by a hydraulic plant, built by the German development agency and overseen by the monks, three meals of German food a day, and a washing machine provided with German washing powder.

Research on the mission station was fabulous but venturing beyond it was a problem. The two rainy seasons had merged into one and the rains never stopped. Assigned as the main interlocutor for my research was Brother Polykarp, a German monk who, I was told, knew the history of the area better than anybody else. I also found a teacher who was willing to serve as interpreter, switching from Kiswahili to Kingoni as the interviews required. My research project examined gender, political authority, slavery, and the slave trade in the Songea area[1] and Brother Polykarp suggested to interview an elder who could share his family memory of having been slaves of the politically dominant Ngoni ethnic group. Because travel even in a four wheel drive was treacherous Brother Polykarp suggested to take an additional man along, Zulu Gama, son of the ruling nkosi (king), ethnically Ngoni, the formerly slave raiding, trading, and owning society.

Brother Polykarp, Namabengo, Songea region
© Heike I. Schmidt

Mzee Edmund Simba, the elder, was most welcoming and eager to talk.[2] He shared that his grandfather, like so many slaves in the area, joined the German troops during the Maji Maji war of 1905 to 1908. At that time the able-bodied male enslaved population of the area either joined the Germans as auxiliary forces or fought as warriors with their Ngoni owners which was a route to gaining freedom and to changing their ethnicity to Ngoni. Zulu Gama had kept an eye on things outside and mid-interview entered the room. The elder noticed him, established that he was the nkosi’s son, and immediately changed his facial expression, his body language, his intonation, and with excitement in his voice, repeating words and phrases, insisting that I understand the importance of what he was saying, insisting that we all heard what he was telling us, performing with gestures, getting up, sitting down, moving around. Mzee Simba performed the utter humiliation that his grandfather had enacted upon Zulu’s grandfather and his warriors. As casualties were at times significant, so he told us, his grandfather and other slaves went to the killing fields, took the skulls of Ngoni warriors and drank alcohol from them. He recalled this inversion of power, an utter gesture of disgrace with great passion. The point here is that he may not have done so had Zulu not entered the room. The written sources contain an account that the German officers ordered the auxiliary troops to collect skulls, a power gesture, demanding of colonial subjects to touch the untouchable, human remains, probably to do a head count of enemy casualties, possibly to collect trophies. The elder’s recollections in contrast are of empowerment, of slaves proudly imbibing from their defeated masters’ skulls. His performance was triggered by and probably aimed at Zulu Gama, the researcher becoming a facilitator in an ethnic discourse while creating a tremendously important account of the past that complicates colonial history beyond a simple oppressor-oppressed dichotomy.

Brother Polykarp arranged also what I thought would be an audience and hopefully an interview with Nkosi (king) Xaver Gama, Zulu’s father and the ruler[3] of the Ngoni ethnic group in the area. After a warm welcome, being seated with the men, and Brother Polykarp serving as interpreter, I was trying to strike up a conversation with the nkosi. I soon realised that while I had acquired a cultural archive in Zimbabwe that gave me the confidence to know where and how to sit, how to speak and what to say – I lacked this expertise in Tanzania which was further complicated as Kiswahili was not the first language for anybody present. Loosing my linguistic and cultural bearings, I was presented with a huge mango and a sizeable knife. That put me in a conundrum. Was I really to cut it? How was the use of this knife gendered? And if I cut the mango, was I to taste it first or offer the first piece to the nkosi? How was I to cut it? Coastal style? As one of the councillors eventually took over, with me, the white woman, clearly out of her depth, he cut it and indicated for me to eat it. It was a delicious mango, the seed brought into the interior of East Africa by the slave and ivory trade. This was a pre-imperial mango, not yet filled with the fibres that the British introduced by domesticating the trees in India so that they could transport mangos to Europe. As all of this was going through my mind, and I tried to catch some of the conversation in a language I did not speak, Kingoni, when what transpired was that the visit served as a celebration of Brother Polykarp, a true friend of the Ngoni nation. I eventually took the hint that all the much to do was not about me at all. I relaxed into observing unless addressed directly by the nkosi.

Women cooking ugali (maize flower porridge) at the royal household
© Heike I. Schmidt

It is careful and informed planning in combination with adaptability and letting go of one’s own narratives and assumed authority, it is the making oneself vulnerable, listening for the unexpected, unknown that make a great researcher. In a cross-cultural environment this comes with linguistic translation and it also requires the creation of a cultural archive that provides the researcher with the necessary tools to understand what they hear and to know what to listen for in the first place. With the exception of partisan history, which has its own challenges, historians always research the other – if not across space, then across time. One of the great fallacies of researching in one’s first language, in one’s own country, and certainly from one’s desk is not to take these steps. The result is often unreflective, intent driven research the relevance of which has been increasingly questioned in the last few years by LGBTQ+ activism, Rhodes Must Fall, and by Black Lives Matter. The true challenge is not to conduct research in the hot summer on the equator in the global south but to design and carry out research on the history of the west that has relevance in today’s world.

Having a stroll in Songea, regional capital
© Heike I. Schmidt

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter. You can find Part I of this blog here.

[1] Heike Schmidt, ‘(Re)Negotiating Marginality: The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Southwestern Tanzania, ca. 1905–1916’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 43, no. 1 (2010), 27-62, ‘”Deadly Silence Predominates in the District:” The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Ungoni,’ in Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War, eds James Giblin and Jamie Monson (Leiden, 2010), 183-219, ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule’, in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.

One unintended outcome of the realities of fieldwork was my research on sexual violence and male same sex desire during the German colonial period. ‘Colonial Intimacy: The Rechenberg Scandal and Homosexuality in German East Africa’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 17, no. 1 (2008): 25-59 and ‘Who is Master in the Colony? Propriety, Honor, and Manliness in German East Africa,’ in German Colonialism in a Global Age, edited by Geoff Eley and Bradley Naranch, (Durham, 2014), and ‘The German Empire and its Legacies: Propriety, Respectability, and Colonial Hegemony, in Colonialisms and Queer Politics:Sexualities, Gender, and Unsettling Colonialities, eds Sonia Corrêa, Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos, and Matthew Waites (Oxford, forthcoming).

[2] Interview with mzee Edmund Simba, Mpitimbi, Songea region, 21 March 2001.

[3] Even though chieftaincy was abolished in 1963, two years after independence from British colonial rule, in some areas chiefs maintain political authority in the eyes of their followers. Interview with Nkosi Xaver Gama, 3 March Ndirima, Songea region.

Posted in News, Summer Blog Series 2021 | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Joys of Being a Historian: Summertime in Tanzania, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Part I

I knew exactly what I was doing. I planned my fieldwork to utter perfection. After all I was an experienced postdoc, having spent about three years living in Zimbabwe while studying and researching the country’s past. Now working on Tanzania, I had visited the country twice, travelled far and wide to find my ideal field site, started to learn Kiswahili, and won a significant funding bid. What I did not consider is what I could have learned from reading Laura Bohannen’s ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’.[1] Published in 1966, the essay is a classic and read by generations of students. The attention is well deserved. While it is a product of its time, it does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of fieldwork.

A US American, studying for a doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford, Laura Bohannen was just as confident about her research. Alas, the idea of carrying out fieldwork during the rainy season so that the households she intended to observe and people she wanted to interview in rural Nigeria would not be busy with agricultural work did not quite come to fruition as intended. Homesteads became islands as swamp water levels rose and so much alcohol was consumed that Bohannen withdrew to her sleeping hut reading. Eventually elders, tired of her trying to ask them questions, turned the tables and insisted that for a change she tell them a story. Bohannen chose Hamlet, surely a classic. Soon the elders began interrupting her to correct the story line. As she describes becoming cranky and exasperated the brilliance of the essay emerges to the reader, realising that the skill of the researcher is to listen and that listening can only succeed with a critical reflection of one’s positionality. Here Bohannen had to let go of what Hamlet meant to her and the idea of universality. She had to learn to listen to elders sharing knowledge, experience, and thinking different from hers. What makes her essay a must read to this day is that she addresses the core of research skills as well as the practicalities that are involved in fieldwork, all packed into a wonderfully humorous account.

Admittedly the Covid-19 health crisis for the first time in my many years of studying the African past has made me envious of my colleagues who sit comfortably at their computer at home and in their office accessing primary sources online or who can travel locally to an archive and conduct their research. I have even become pensive about my past fieldwork exploits. After all I have managed to catch many infectious diseases from malaria to typhoid, cholera, and both bacterial and amoebic dysentery and twice came very close to death in Africa. I managed to break my back when hitchhiking, sitting on the bed of a lorry in Zimbabwe and hit my head quite badly in an accident in a dala dala (mini bus) in Dar es Salaam on my way to the university. I cannot claim that I enjoyed learning Shona and Kiswahili, my sixth and seventh languages, as a manifestly linguistically challenged person. This is the point where the narrative continues with but – but what will always enthral me, arouse my passion, and put a light into my eyes are the unpredictability and demands on being in this world that make a great field researcher – something to which I lay no claim.

My research in Tanzania was, to reiterate, perfectly planned. At the time, in 2001, Assistentin (assistant professor) at Humboldt University at Berlin, for once I was not travelling alone but with my spouse whose project was on the islands of Zanzibar, while I studied mainland Tanzania. Two days before departing for nine months to East Africa, I returned from a brief visit in the US on a flight sitting close to a group of Pentecostal Americans who chose to sing and pray for hours as members of their congregation invited travellers to join, sharing that they had a bug going around. Stepping off the next plane two days later in Dar es Salaam, the coastal air on my face like a thick, damp, hot cloth, I realised that I was coming down with the flu. The heat of the rainy season was unbearable as my fever spiked. I do not remember much after that for the next few days.

Picture I: Approaching Zanzibar harbour by ferry, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: View from our house, Baghani Street, stone town, Zanzibar, © Heike I. Schmidt

I cannot recommend bringing a winter flue to the summer heat of the Swahili coast. I can also not propose that one can realistically plan one’s fieldwork. Having applied a year before, I had to wait for the research clearance for several months with frequent visits to remind the officials in person that I was wasting my research funds by just living in Tanzania with nothing to do but to improve on my language skills. So I moved from my tiny room in a guest house in Dar es Salaam to join my spouse in stone town, the centre of the capital of the islands of Zanzibar, where he rented a house. Considering myself heat resistant when healthy, I quickly learned that this time the summer heat of the rainy season did me in. Even with nothing to do other than continuing my Kiswahili lessons and learning about Swahili female propriety and sensuality from neighbours and the umma (Muslim community) kindly providing our water supply from one of the many mosques nearby – it was unbearably hot. The incoming rain clouds raised humidity and instead of bringing reprieve had me lying under the fan that did not work without electricity. I lay there waiting for the neighbourhood boys running through the streets shouting ‘Umeme! Umeme! (electricity!) as most days the power came on for one hour, albeit at any point during day or night.[2] I spent a lot of time imagining new superlatives beyond excruciating.

Picture I: View from the entrance to our house, Baghani Street, stone town, Zanzibar, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: Some of the Sultan’s palaces and the Zanzibar harbour, © Heike I. Schmidt

In the end, my nine months in Tanzania were much shaped by the usual two rainy seasons turning into one long rain that simply never seemed to end. A joke that ran through the newspapers – with photographic evidence – was that when the president with his security detail was inspecting the flood damage in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main city, one of the secret service cars hit a pothole so deep that it sank completely, and the agents were scrambling to get out of it not to drown. In fact, one day in the city center I saw a woman walking towards me, crossing a street disappearing to her shoulders in a pothole, invisible under the water that appeared to be just ankle deep. In Dar es Salaam my thirty minute walk to the National Archives, with the last stretch on a dirt road, became too precarious. Civil servants working in the area and other passers-by built fords with stones and bricks for pedestrians but those had started to be covered by the rising water as well.

Picture I: Dar es Salaam city center, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: The embassy quarter in Dar es Salaam in 1991, © Heike I. Schmidt

Some days I travelled to the archives taking a cab. The driver deadpanned that all we needed was a fishing rod for me to hold out of the car window as he very slowly and carefully made his way to the archives. None of this is to say that research in Africa is exotic and dangerous. This is not least confirmed by recent manifestations of climate change and environmental challenges to human life in the west with floods and fires. The global south, including Africa, offers a research environment that challenges the researcher to listen by being flexible, adaptable, and to negotiate and explore the boundaries and especially the certainties of one’s life. As frustrating as it may be at times, the true joy of being a historian is the unpredictable.

Dhows off the cost of Zanzibar
© Heike I. Schmidt

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] Laura Bohannen, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’, Natural History (August-September 1966), 28-33. A rare treatment of fieldwork for historians is Carolyn Adenaike and Jan Vansina, eds, In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 1996).

[2] This made for interesting, brief windows of editing African Modernities: Entangled Meanings in Current Debate eds Jan-Georg Deutsch, Peter Probst, Heike Schmidt (Portsmouth/NH and Oxford, 2002).

Posted in News, Summer Blog Series 2021 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Marrows Over Maths: The history of England’s school harvest camps, by Tamisan Latherow

Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (1961) © Walt Disney

There are certain images from the mass media that, as a child of the 1980s growing up in America, are ubiquitous to summer for me. The 1961 Disney film, The Parent Trap, staring Hayley Mills is one of them. Mills, who plays the role of twin sisters separated by their divorced parents, meet up at Camp Inch, a summer camp for girls in the middle of the woods. Beyond the humorous antics and the rose-coloured family dynamics, to me the idea of summer camp was solidified by the wooden planked bunk houses, canoes across a dark mountain lake and innocent flirting with the boy’s camp ‘down the way’, even though I never attended one of these fabled camps.

Now, more years than I care to admit to later, I come across a different kind of summer camp. One that feels just as nostalgic, but that had very different consequences: the school harvest camps of the world wars. Let’s take a step back though and try to see the big picture. In 1914, the official school leaving age for children in England and Wales was 12-years-old. This meant at twelve students could ‘graduate’ from school and start working, which many of them did. In the agricultural areas, some went on to join the Young Farmer’s Clubs or even the Farm Institutes before potentially going off to an agricultural college or university. However, the idea of child labour became a sticking point in Parliament, where the official government decision was to give no decision. 

Prime Minister Asquith (1915) stated that the question should be left up to the local education authorities to decide on their particular regions’ needs. MP T. Williams stated that same year that an estimated 45,000 boys and girls had participated in the various camps and that he anticipated at least the same amount would be needed the following year[1], which sounds less like ‘volunteering’ and more like being ‘voluntold’. Still, it took a combination of school children, women’s land army members, prisoners of war and soldiers to bring in the harvest due to the acute labour shortage over the next few years.

When World War Two came about, the situation wasn’t much better, but certain lessons had been learned. The Women’s Land Army was stronger than ever, POWs were used more extensively and civilians, both adults and children, were put to work on ‘holidays’ at farm harvest camps across the country and managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1943, the Minister of Agriculture R.S. Hudson hinted that the extra 150-200,000 adults and over 300,000 school children needed to bring in the harvest could potential become conscripted should not enough volunteers be found.[2] Yet the term volunteer is a slight misnomer, not for the conscripted part, ironically, but for the implied non-payment part. Those working the land for a week or two during the summer and harvest seasons were paid at set rates, though that amount was, in many instances, not enough to cover their room and board. For example, wages in 1939 were 6d-8d an hour while room and board was 11s. a week. This did rise slightly when in 1941, school holidays were timed to coincide with the harvests. Children aged 14 (now the school leaving age) were permitted a maximum of 22 half-days a year away from school as well as received the minimum wage for agricultural workers which was around £3/week. Though some school groups were paid by the product.

Peter Clarke (South Lincolnshire) was part of a gang of 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls (around 20) that were sent from farm to farm and allocated jobs such as driving the horse, picking potatoes, weeding and even ploughing.[3]

“Although this was hard work and several children did not last the full time most of us found it great fun and had a sense of helping the War effort,” Peter said to the BBC in 2003. “[We received] about one shilling and sixpence (7.5p) per bag [of peas], which weighed 28lbs and took about 4 hours to fill. If it was underweight, it would be rejected. [While, f]or early potatoes the pay was three shillings (15p) a day. Working under the control of the school we received one shilling and ninepence (13p) per day”.

Daphne Jones (Warwickshire) was a 15-year-old student learning typing and shorthand when she was sent off to the first Farming Camp School in 1944. She remembers that they would study agricultural related matters in the morning and then help on the land in the afternoon weeding onions, digging potatoes and picking strawberries.[4] Jean Ramsell (Yorkshire) was 17 when she volunteered for her first farm camp.[5] “Much of the work involved potatoes in one form or another,” she remembers, “but another job was gathering flax that had been ‘laid’ i.e. flattened by the rain and couldn’t be harvested by machine. It all had to be pulled out by its roots and it could cut your hands”. As a female, certain issues arose that the boys didn’t seem to mind. “We had no access to the loos. Of course, the men could just disappear behind a hedge but it sometimes caused a problem. In one field there were some low triangular hen houses of a kind that I don’t think you see now and we often got the giggles crouching down in these. Fortunately, there were no hens at the time”.

London schoolboys gathering the potato harvest on Hampstead Heath, Museum of English Rural Life reference: PFW PH2/W13/10.

While such work was often typical for rural children, the experiences were new and exciting for urban school children who were now being led by their teacher into the hedgerows and forested areas in the search for windfalls, medicinal plants such as foxglove, yarrow, rose-hips and other plants of medicinal value for the nation’s pharmacies. Some schools ‘adopted’ local farms and went to help with tasks such as rat-catching and poultry plucking, or students worked on their school farm and allotments raising pigs, bees and sheep.[6] 

Working during breaks was fine, but the fight came when the Ministry of Labour suggested making the children work during term time, as part of their compulsory education. Such an action was illegal as per the Education Act and the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act and met with fierce opposition from the various educational unions. “A Durham headmaster told the 1950 conference of the National Association of Headteachers that during the previous year he had been confronted by an irate farmer complaining that eight boys working on his farm had gone on strike – merely because they had been given no time to rest during the day! This lack of compassion and understanding did little to endear the generality of farmers to teachers and the Board of Education.”[7]

Such concerns were brought up in Parliament, though little was done to mitigate them. The camps did in fact continue until 1951 when they were finally disbanded, however discussions remained in the House of Commons and the National Farmer’s Union and Ministry of Agriculture[8] and in Lincolnshire alone eight camps occurred in 1950, seven in 1951 and six in 1952[9], a shrinking number, but one that persists until this day. Of course, there are no air raids, doodlebugs or POWs working beside them and the activities are much more relaxed, more in line with the glorified summer fun of Disney’s Camp Inch where we started than the dirty and potentially dangerous war work of just a few decades ago. Still interviews from the children that attended these harvest camps show a time of childhood innocence and excitement at getting out of school and doing their bit for Queen and Country.

Perhaps that’s the true lesson here. That feeling of nostalgia that suffuses the public imagination of a period which was not rosy and happy, but in many respects a time of hardship and sacrifice. However, the volunteers who took their two-week vacation from the factory and school yard and helped bring in the harvests came together in common cause. As Jean Ramsell explained, “You didn’t expect to make any money – that was not the object of it. In the spirit of the time, you all pulled together and were united by the fact that it was wartime and you all wanted to do your bit”.

Spend your holiday at a farm camp satirical notebook, Queen Elizabeth School Collections Reference code A/DRA/001

Tamisan Latherow is a second year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences.


[1] HC Deb 03 December 1945 vol 416 cc 1914-15

[2] How labour shortages were met in the Humber’s rural areas, My Learning,; Agricultural Camps in the 1940s (2021) Bolton School Former Pupils

[3] The People’s War, BBC

[4] The People’s War, BBC

[5] The People’s War, BBC

[6] Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from

[7] Farmers Weekly, 2 June 1950, in Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from

[8] HC Deb 30 November 1950 vol 481 cc1292-3

[9] HC Deb 11 June 1952 vol 516 c28W

Posted in News, Summer Blog Series 2021 | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How did a fear of climate lead to a climate of fear in which demonic witchcraft loomed large? Professor Helen Parish explores the connections between weather, witchcraft, faith, fears, and the human imagination…

In the first blog in this summer series, my colleague Ruth Salter invited us to hang up our umbrellas and celebrate the role played by St Swithin in our summer weather. While Ruth encouraged us to turn our eyes to the heavens, I was musing on the connections between manipulation of the weather, and, well… the other place.

That connection is not as tenuous as it sounds. We know that extremes of weather can leave an indelible mark on collective memory, and it is hardly surprising that these events are reflected in miracle collections, sermons, providential writings and discourses on the supernatural.

The summer of 1666 was so hot and dry that the diarist Samuel Pepys made the prescient observation that ‘even the stones were reading to burst into flames.’  But when the tinderbox ignited, the Great Fire was attributed to the wrath of God, and a day of fasting, prayer and repentance declared for October. That same mindset is evident in the anonymous A True Report of Certain Wonderful Overflowing of Waters(1607) in which such weather events were described explicitly as a call to ‘tremble, be fore-warned, Amend.’

We can see here a reciprocal relationship between weather and human imagination within which it is read and interpreted. And that relationship exposes the extent to which the sky and the land were – and are – a palimpsest on which successive human generations have inscribed their faith and their fears.

In the early modern period, these ideas started to crystallise around the formidable figure of the witch, capable of unleashing storms that caused widespread disruption. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) established a clear connection between witchcraft and the weather, including first-hand encounters with witches who used demonic magic to conjure hail.

In response to what was interpreted as a politically-charged act of weather magic in 1589, more than 100 suspected witches were arrested, tortured, and condemned in the area around North Berwick. And when storms swept across Europe in 1562 they left in their wake a sense of panic which was fuelled by preachers and cheap popular print. Sixty-three witches were burned in the German town of Wiesensteig.

References to climate permeated other cultural forms – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream cataclysmic floods left the fold ‘empty in the drownèd field’ while Titania declares ‘the summer still doth tend upon my state.’ Prospero can cause a storm in The Tempest, and the rain and thunder that attends the three witches of Macbeth establish an association between witchcraft and weather.

Torrential rain, storms, and flooding were certainly to be feared, but how do we get to the point at which a fear of climate created a climate of fear in which demonic witchcraft loomed large?

Part of the answer to that question lies in what is often referred to as the ‘Little Ice Age.’ Between c.1300 and c.1850, Europe experienced bitterly cold winters and cool wet summers. Seas and rivers froze, fish migrated to warmer waters, and crops failed, and famines followed.

The English chronicler John Stow recorded near-continuous rain between May and July 1594, and further ‘greate raines’ in September. Rivers swelled, and destroyed vital bridges. Simon Forman’s diary paints an equally dismal picture of a summer “very wet and wonderful cold like winter, that the 10 dae of Julii many did syt by the fyer yt was so cold.” An unusually chilly spring disrupted crop-growing the following year, in a cycle that was repeated across Europe for decades to come.

But such weather itself did not cause witch hunts. A fear of climate might create a climate of fear, but the link between witchcraft and weather events was the product of the linguistic, cultural and religious interpretations that were layered onto personal and collective crises. Witches, providence, and miracles each provided a language of causation that constructed meaning, established accountability, and offered a solution in the face of disaster.

Fifty year ago, in his history of the Mediterranean, Fernand Broedel suggested that humanity was a ‘prisoner of climate.’ I read the opening pages of his book with my second year class as a route into thinking about the ways that climate and landscape shape cultures, societies and beliefs. And yes, we read it in the context of a much sharper awareness of the extent to which we are not just the creation of climate, but also its creators. But the complexities of the human imagination and its imprint on culture, nature and environment demand a better understanding of our history, and enable a more nuanced and ‘human’ response to the challenges of the present.

Helen Parish is Professor in History at the University of Reading, with interests in the history of belief, broadly understood, in the early modern period.

An earlier article on connections between meteorology, magic, and miracles in early modern Europe was published in The Conversation on 14th July 2021.

Posted in Summer Blog Series 2021 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer Weather and Winchester’s Patron Saint, by Ruth J. Salter

If you are anything like me you will be thinking that after what felt like a prolonged grey, cold winter it feels like we should’ve turned a corner into summer. I suppose it’s mild at least and that’s almost enough to break out into a rendition of Reading Abbey’s own thirteenth-century composition ‘Sumer is icumen in’ … almost (you’d have to be a better singer than me for that though!).

Of course, as is always the case with the British weather, there’s no guarantee that it will stay warm, and it’s looking like this summer might be a bit of a washout, if this rain continues! But, what does any of this have to do with St Swithun, Winchester’s saintly ninth-century bishop?

Swithun (d. 863) was a Winchester churchman through and through, rising to the position of bishop of Winchester in c. 852-4.[2] However, it is his posthumous work, as a saint and miracle worker, that Swithun is best known for. Among various miracles of aiding and healing those who petitioned him for his aid, a curious reputation has become attached to Swithun and his feast day, 15 July – oh, wait, that’s today!

This superstition is perhaps best summed up in the words of the following Elizabethan poem:

St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain,

For forty days it will remain,

St Swithin’s day if thou be fair,

For forty days will rain na mair.[3]

Where does this folkloric tradition come from? Well, the earliest-known textual reference of weather prophecy in relation to Swithun comes from a manuscript now held by Emmanuel College, Cambridge, that dates from the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century.[4] However, the claim is backdated to the translation of Swithun’s tomb in the tenth century. This translation (the moving of a saint’s tomb or reliquary, or the moving of a saint into a new tomb or reliquary) occurred on the anniversary of Swithun’s death, his feast day, 15 July 971.

George Cruishank (d. 1878) ‘St Swithun, Patron Saint of Umbrella Makers’, produced 1895 [5]

According to the later texts, the moving of his body from its initial burial place outside the church into Winchester Old Minster was proceeded by a storm that lasted (as the above poem states) for forty days. From this grew a tradition that if it rained on 15 July it would rain for the next six weeks.

Now, while Swithun is pretty amazing (I’ve always had a soft spot for him), it would be fair to say that this belief sounds like superstition. But, that doesn’t mean that there’s not some truth about the weather patterns between mid-July and the end of August. While I am all for encouraging my students (as well they know!) to understand sources and beliefs within their own time, this is one occasion where a little modern meteorological know-how actually adds to our understanding of this idea…

St Swithun from Robert Dudley’s Monthly Maxims: Rhymes And Reasons To Suit The Seasons, And Pictures New To Suit Them Too (London, 1882).

Why? Well, it has to do with the jet stream and its positioning. As meteorologist Derek Brockway (among others) has highlighted, the jet stream’s position in the middle of July can impact on the weather for the remainder of the summer.[6] If it’s north of the UK, then we can expect warmer, drier weather. However, if it’s over the UK this causes low pressure and wetter weather.

The Met Office on the jet stream [7]

Although it is unlikely to rain continually for forty days, prolonged wet weather during the summer can feel like it drags on. So, if it rains on St Swithun’s day will it rain until late August? Probably not. But, does this old association with the saint’s feast day and the weather have some grounding in meteorology? Yes.

So, let’s hope that this year we get good weather on 15 July and that both Swithun and the jet stream permit us a warm, dry summer!

Forecast for Thursday 15 July 2021 for Reading (UK), via Weather Underground (as of 11am, Monday 12 July 2021) – let’s hope this doesn’t change![8]

Dr Ruth J. Salter is a lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Reading. Keep up with her blog ‘Medieval Miracles, Medicine and Miscellany’ here.


[1] This blog post can also be found on Ruth’s own blog.

[2] B. Yorke, ‘Swithun [St Swithun] (d. 863), bishop of Winchester’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004, (accessed 16 June 2021).

[3] J. Somerladd, ‘St Swithin’s Day 2018: Who was the British saint and why is he associated with the weather?’, Independent, 12 July 2018 (accessed 12 July 2021). NOTE: this article states the poem is twelfth century in origin but I am not aware of this being the case and the use of Middle English would suggest later.

[4] ‘St. Swithin’s Day’, Encyclopedia Britannica, rev. E. Rodriguz 30 April 2020 (accessed 12 July 2021).

[5] G. Cruikshank, ‘St. Swithin, Patron Saint of Umbrella Makers, vignette fragment from Plate 6 of Scraps and Sketches, Part II’, Ackland Art Museum (accessed 17 June 2021).

[6] D. Brockway, ‘St Swithin’s Day’, BBC Wales, 15 July 2009 (accessed 16 June 2021)

[7] Met Office, ‘What is the jet stream and how does it affect the weather?’, YouTube, 29 May 2018 (accessed 17 June 2021).

[8] ‘Hourly Forecast for Thursday 07/15’, Weather Underground, as of 11:00 12 July 2021 (accessed 12 July 2021).

Posted in News | Tagged , , | Leave a comment