By George Newth
Caffeine and sugar kick started the day as researchers and staff mingled whilst clutching coffee, tea and biscuits, getting ready for the first panel of the day on Medieval England and its contacts with Europe. Not that caffeine was needed to maintain focus and attention on a fascinating presentation of eclectic and thorough research which proposed an examination of both the individual and the collective in Medieval England. Sam Gibbs kicked off proceedings by sharing with his fellow historians insights into the life and career of Simon Fellbrigg. Sam’s talk gave an illuminating insight into Fellbrigg, a Knight of the Realm who was also the standard bearer for King Richard II. Sam set a difficult act to follow with his engaging presentation of meticulous research. Nevertheless, both Katie Phillips and subsequently Bridget Riley accordingly rose to the challenge with their research on the Franciscan order of Monks in the middle ages; Katie with her insightful reflections on how King Henry III’s court was influenced by the doctrines and practices of the Franciscans and Bridget with her thought-provoking and quasi-anthropological look at the significance of dress codes amongst the Franciscan order – The panel stimulated discussion of contemporary parallels with each presentation and provoked reflections on how political decisions have influenced history and vice versa whilst discussing on the role of dress codes on modern society.
After a well-deserved traditional colloquium lunch-break of a spread of sandwiches, crisps, fruit and fruit juice between 1pm-2pm, the focus of the colloquium jumped forward 7 centuries to look at contemporary American history. Dan Hale gave an enlightening talk on cases of clemency in Texas in the 19th Century, showing us key examples of when, why and how this state, notorious for its history of using the death penalty, in fact pardoned many men who were otherwise destined for the electric chair or other means of execution. The talk also dispelled common notions that such calls for clemency were based on appeals of a religious nature due to Texas forming a key part of the Bible belt, Hale instead encouraged a focus on the idea of ‘honour’ in Texan character, which gave way to discussion of national character and the building of a nation around such values. Jumping forward to the 1950s, the Colloquium was delighted to welcome the first of its three guest speakers of the day, Alex Ferguson of Southampton, who like his managerial namesake was authoritative and convincing in the presentation of his ideas. Focusing on the period of 1950-1952, Alex presented his revelations on Donald R Heath’s role in influencing de-colonization in French Indo-China, providing interesting reflections on an under-researched area of history and its implications on the geo-political situation in Vietnam and the role of American policy in the early stages of what would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War. The Cold War continued with our second guest speaker Flavia Gasbarri from Kings College London who impressed her fellow researchers not only with the style of her presentation, which made full use of the potential of PowerPoint, but also the substance of her talk, which presented her fascinating research on the final years of the Cold War Southern Africa. Drawing on archival research and interviews carried out both in Africa and the United States, Flavia looked at the complicated process of deals and arrangements between the United States and the Soviet Union which were played out in Southern African states which were pivotal in the Cold War polarization between Capitalism and Communism.
A tea-break from 3.30-4pm allowed time for a breather before the panel of Italianists. Our Italian panel on Italians at Home and Abroad started with Ester Lo Biundo’s fascinating look at the BBC’s Radio Londra between 1943-45, a radio station which played a key role in the propaganda war between Britain and Italy and aimed to reach various members of the Italian public. Ester looked at how it mirrored the interests of the British government whilst providing an alternative source of information for Italians in Italy. Next up to speak on Italy was English Italianist, George Newth who spoke on the historical origins of what has until now been considered a contemporary phenomenon, the Northern League. George presented a paper on the paradoxical role of Piedmont in the Italian peninsula, which in spite of playing a key role in the formation of the Italian unitary state was also home to a strong regionalist sentiment which emerged in the 1950s and sowed the seeds for a re-emergence of regional discontent in the 1980s. George also proposed a comparative approach to the Northern League, looking at the movement in comparison with other European movements in a wider context of economic regionalism which has roots in the 19th century. Last but most definitely not least was our final guest speaker Marco Giudici from the University of Bangor. Marco’s paper was an extract of his PhD research on the role of Italians in Modern Welsh Society. In particular, Marco’s presentation looked at the role played by Italian cafés and the significance of these places in terms of social cohesion, inclusion and multi-culturalism in Wales. The final panel sparked discussion surrounding the North-South divide in Italy whilst also questions on the role of Britain and the Allies in the spread of anti-fascism.
Throughout the day, the precise timing of papers which each lasted 20 minutes and effective chairing of the panels ensured not only that there was more than enough time for questions and discussion but also that the colloquium did not over-run. This last point was particularly important as it allowed everybody to arrive on time for the final scheduled event of the day, a well-deserved beer and bite to eat together at an Ethiopian restaurant in the centre of Reading.