From an idea of Dr Jacqui Turner, we are proud to present our new special feature “Our Videos”
Dr Turner has created and produced a series of mini-documentaries featuring our members of staff discussing their research expertise and teaching.
This week Professor Matthew Worley discusses youth culture and the Punk movement
The relationship between youth culture and wider British society and politics has long fascinated sociologists. By contrast, relatively few historians have considered youth culture worthy of serious study. My own work seeks to help rectify this, using the cultures that evolved through punk from 1976 to understand shifts in British polity and to capture the concerns, feelings and desires of young people during a period of significant socio-economic and political change.
Punk, after all, emerged to coincide with a period of uncertainty as to Britain’s status and stability. As the Sex Pistols sung of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘No Future’, so the British government appealed to the International Monterey Fund to offset the concerns raised against a falling pound and economic instability. As The Clash sung of ‘White Riot’ and ‘sten-guns in Knightsbridge’, so the media and political discourse of the time spoke of ‘crisis’ and ‘decline’ amidst fears of social collapse, militant trade unionism and a resurgent far right. As Crass recovered the peace symbol of CND and the black flag of anarchy, so the Cold War reignited between the communist east and the capitalist west. As The Jam depicted ‘A Town Called Malice’, so the politics of Thatcherism began to reset the political and economic agenda across the UK.
More than this, however, punk stimulated a period of cultural innovation defined by its critical position. Through ‘post-punk’ and various other outgrowths of punk’s initial ‘moment’, it initiated a cultural and political challenge that reinvigorated British pop music and popular culture more generally. The upsurge of independent labels and fanzines embodied the DIY-ethos that lay at the heart of punk’s stimulus. The musical hybrid of 2-tone and the innovations of ‘new pop’ revitalised the charts as well as saying much about Britain’s transition into the 1980s. As the symbolic year of 1984 loomed, so punk presented dystopias and alternative futures that both reinforced and offset the Orwellian doomsday.
This video helps introduce the point and purpose of my research. It features Steve Ignorant of Crass, a band who sold a million records but eschewed the charts and mainstream media; a band who took up punk’s cry of anarchy to inspire an activist movement that continues to influence anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation protest to this day. As well as supporting CND, Crass also provided the most vocal protest against the Falklands War, for which they were threatened with prosecution. All in all, Crass serve as an example of how politics and culture can mesh to notable effect. They provide an alternative to the ‘popular history’ of 1980s (black flags not shoulder pads); a counter-narrative born from a counter-culture.
Professor Worley’s research interests lay in twentieth-century British politics. He is currently part of the steering Committee of the Interdisciplinary Network for the Study of Subcultures, Popular Music and and Social Change
You can find our more about Prof Worley’s research and teaching on https://www.reading.ac.uk/history/about/staff/m-worley.aspx
This week Dr Emily West visits the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool to encourage people to think more broadly about the difficulties of researching slavery, especially the lives of enslaved women.
Visiting museums and galleries is a really good way of engaging students with numerous types of sources and different representations of history, often in a more visual way than through written words. In this film I visit the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool to convey something of the vast array of evidence the museum contains, and also to encourage people to think more broadly about the difficulties of researching slavery, especially the lives of enslaved women. Finally, Liverpool stood at the heart of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people, and slavery (through cotton and other products shipped to the UK) helped shape Britain’s economy, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so it is fantastic that the city has a museum devoted to slavery itself. Particularly impressive is the museum’s depiction of the ‘middle passage’ – the transatlantic journey upon which newly captured Africans were forced to travel for some months to their new lives as slaves, often at the bottom of dirty, overcrowded, unsanitary ships.
The states of the US South passed various laws and ordinances banning enslaved people from reading and writing, meaning that historians have to think laterally about how to find evidence on slaves’ lives from their own perspectives (rather than from those who held them in bondage). Having recently written a textbook on enslaved women in America, I am all too aware of the challenges of researching the lives of female slaves! These women endured a dual exploitation as workers and as reproducers, and many faced the threat of sexual assaults by their owners or other white men. In the film I also discuss the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, a woman who was able to escape slavery and publish her life story in 1861 as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. For me, studying history is about finding empathy and compassion in our understanding of the past. Tracing the history of racial discrimination though slavery helps us explain both historic and more modern instances of racial tensions so we can seek to live in a more tolerant present.
Many thanks to the International Slavery Museum for allowing us to film in its galleries. Thanks too, to Jacqui Turner for arranging the day, and to Toby Rinkoff and Robbie McKane from MotionBlurr for putting together such a fantastic film!
Dr Emily West’s research interests are in the history of US slavery and the antebellum South. She is the author of Enslaved Women in American from Colonialism to Emancipation African American History Series. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, USA, pp160. ISBN 9781442208711.
She is also Co-Investigator of the international research network funded by an AHRC network grant entitled: Mothering Slaves: Comparative Perspectives on Motherhood, Childlessness and the Care of Children in the Atlantic Slave Societies
She recently discussed her research work on BBC2 The Culture Show
You can find out more about Dr West’s research and teaching on http://www.reading.ac.uk/history/about/staff/e-r-west.aspx
Professor Helen Parish on Witchcraft
I probably wouldn’t describe myself as a historian of witchcraft; the sheer weight and range of scholarly writing on the early modern witch trials in recent years is a clear indication that there are many others who are much more qualified to comment on the phenomenon. Yet witches and witchcraft have increasingly found their way into my own modules at the University of Reading, into some of the work that I do with local schools and colleges, and into a range of other recent activities including a recent mini-documentary on the witches of sixteenth century Windsor. In part, I think this is indicative of a burgeoning interest in the study of witchcraft, magic, and the supernatural among our undergraduates, but it also reflects the way that such topics have become embedded in what we might describe (badly!) as the academic mainstream. A cursory exploration of the online content of History degrees around the globe suggests that modules that focus upon, for example, the genesis and theologies of the Protestant reformations are now increasingly accompanied – or superseded – by those that debate ‘belief’ more broadly defined, encompassing religion and magic, society and the supernatural. What we learn from such approaches is the extent to which there was a potential symbiosis between wide-ranging ideas and forms of belief and unbelief in our period; responses to, and interactions with, the material and spiritual content of religious orthodoxy often existed within a broader range of complex and unsettling mental worlds and relationships. Witches, and beliefs about witchcraft, have quite rightly taken their place on the curriculum as part of this richer and more nuanced understanding of what early modern attitudes to religion and the supernatural might encompass.
To some extent, to study the witch trials is to encounter some of the most exotic, and perhaps to the modern mind, implausible, aspects of early modern world view. It might reasonably be objected that to research the experience of individuals who were put on trial for a crime that was neither well defined nor universally understood, and which was in many respects practically impossible is a rather futile endeavour. There is a tendency, particularly in some of the older literature, to discuss beliefs in witchcraft and magic in a rather pejorative manner, and to suggest that the existence of such ideas presents compelling evidence that our ancestors were ignorant, superstitious, or misguided in their interpretations of the world in which they lived. The daily weather charts and satellite images that we encounter might mitigate against the assumption that meteorological events are either providential acts of God or more malevolent designs of witches who conjured storms with the help of demons. As neonatal care and paediatric medicine has reduced levels of infant mortality, so the image of the infanticidal witch that punctuated early modern demonologies and popular beliefs about witchcraft has become less threatening, and perhaps as a result less plausible. In a culture that is technologically rich and scientifically described, what we now tend to regard as a mechanical universe has, for many, overturned the sense that humankind inhabits an animistic and sacramentalised world.
So why study early modern witchcraft? Ideas about witches, often in a cartoon like form, are embedded in our culture (think about what you might find in the ‘seasonal’ aisle of your local supermarket in October!), but it is a big step to understand from this the centrality of witchcraft in early modern discussions of science & natural philosophy, religion, politics, law, social interactions, and women, marriage, and family life. Like so much of the topography of the early modern mental landscape, witchcraft is simultaneously familiar yet strikingly different. The so-called witches of Windsor, Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dewell, Mother Margaret, and Mother Dutten were variously accused of keeping a spirit or fiend in the likeness of a toad, cat and rat, of causing physical and mental suffering to those who crossed or offended them, and of bringing about the deaths of three men by image magic. Of course whether they actually committed these deeds we will never know, but we have a lot to gain by thinking seriously about why there were people who thought that they did. In such cases, we can see some intriguing interactions between learned and popular belief, between the spoken and written word, and between the trial process and belief. Witchcraft beliefs offer insights into the intermingling of fantasy and reality, the natural and the supernatural, in early modern Europe. Demonological writings embodied a dialogue between the imagined and the real; witchcraft was, in many respects (and particularly through modern eyes) is an imagined crime, but that did not make it any less terrifying. In trying to make sense of the early modern supernatural, witchcraft included, we need to resist the temptation to dismiss or explain it, and think instead about why and how it functioned as a way of understanding the human condition. As Alice learned in her encounter with the White Queen, it is too easy to assume that one can’t believe impossible things. “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Professor Helen Parish’s research interests lie in Early Modern relogious and cultural history, particularly the Reformation in England and Europe. She is the author of Clerical Celibacy in the West c1100-1700 Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700. Ashgate, Farnham, UK, pp282. ISBN 9780754639497
You can find out more about her research and teaching on http://www.reading.ac.uk/history/about/staff/h-l-parish.aspx