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

‘Can You See the Real Me’: Bank Holidays and Quadrophenia, by Professor Matthew Worley

 ‘Quadrophenia’ by The Who, Polydor/MCA.

August Bank Holiday means it’s time for my annual viewing of Quadrophenia (1979), the film built around The Who’s 1973 LP of the same name. Jimmy, a young mod from London, prepares for a beano in Brighton, travelling to the coast for pills, punch-ups and a knee-trembler in a back alley. Set in 1964, the backdrop to both the film and the album is provided by the clashes between mods and rockers that sparked a moral panic in the media at the time. Deckchairs fly and windows smash as style wars play out in spectacular fashion. Heady highs and crushing lows coalesce as Jimmy experiences the best and the worst time of his life. He gets the girl and loses the girl. He’s inspired by the ace-face mod and rises to the challenge, sharing a police van and staring down ‘the beak’ in court. He feels a camaraderie and a liberation, but then has to return to a mundane job and a troublesome home with troublesome parents: trapped. He also discovers the ace-face (played, rather incongruously, by Sting) is by day a Bellboy at a hotel, carrying bags and doing what he’s told. Having travelled back to Brighton, with added eye-liner accentuating the fact he’s out of his brain on the train, the film ends with Jimmy hurtling towards a cliff-edge on the ace-face’s scooter. The arc of flight leads only to the rocks below, the scooter smashed – like Jimmy’s mod identity – to pieces. There’s no sign of Jimmy (at the start of the film we see him walking away from the same spot) and no sign of a way out. We know, from the album sleevenotes, that Jimmy’s on route to the psychiatrist. More than schizophrenic, his psyche is so fractured that he’s ‘quadrophenic’ – only the ‘real me’ for a moment.

Moral panic in the media, Daily Mirror (1964)

I’ve always loved the film, as much for the aura around it as the actual ‘viewing experience’. When I was at school in 1980, Malcolm Grant brought in a copy of the tie-in book written by Alan Fletcher. Its cover was garish: a purple (violet?) scooter decorated with mirrors set beneath a bulging title in silver and red. Being a Corgi paperback, it was pure pulp and well thumbed, the pages of sex and violence flopping open on command. We were 9 or 10 and Malcolm was a mini-mod with an older brother. He even had a parka if memory serves; bunked off school to buy The Jam’s ‘Funeral Pyre’ the day it came out. Magic. None of us had actually watched the film: we’d just seen the pictures, heard the rumours and imagined the ruckus. Pre-teen dreams of what life might be like.   

Quadrophenia, by Alan Fletcher

When I finally did see Quadrophenia, circa 1983 or 1984 (probably Channel 4), I was smitten. I absorbed and adored the dialogue: ‘pillhead’, ‘you killed me scooter’, ‘I AM one of the faces’, ‘it don’t matter where you go, there’s always some c*** with stars and stripes wants to tell you what to do’. I wondered about the youth cultural stylings: the custom-made suits and Steph’s leather raincoat. I liked the deviant thrills and, though I’d not express it like this at the time, the capturing of temporal experience. Equally, and I guess this is why I ended up an academic, I liked the existential quandaries the film (and album) explored: the search for a way out of (or around) the structures that contain and shape you; an escape from the boredom of everyday life; a desire to feel life lived in the moment rather than viewed vicariously (and, yes, I realised the irony of thinking this while watching a film based on an album with a fictional narrative). I also liked the music, especially ‘My Generation’, ‘Green Onions’ and an opening sequence where Jimmy rides his scooter through London streets to the flailing noise of The Who in full flight.  

Forty years on and the film still forms part of my cultural fabric. The obsessions of my youth – integral to the film – now determine what I write, teach and think about. Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), inspired by the same seaside scuffles that triggered the album and film, remains a set-text and essential reading to understand how the media works and perceptions of youth cultures repeat. The Subcultures Network I’m part of published a book on Quadrophenia as part of its book series for Palgrave Macmillan (Quadrophenia and Mod(ern) Culture | Pamela Thurschwell | Palgrave Macmillan). And the existential angst remains, now ravaged by age rather than the desperation of youth.

So, when the August Bank Holiday comes, I’ll watch Quadrophenia again. I’ll enjoy the bath-tub sing-off between Phil Daniels’ ‘Jimmy’ and Ray Winstone’s ‘Kev’ (The Kinks vs Gene Vincent). I’ll think about what might have happened if Johnny Rotten had, as was touted, played Jimmy. I’ll mull over how the notion of youth (sub)cultures providing only an illusory (‘magical’) solution to life’s inequities still has resonance.  Maybe I’ll play the album. Most of all, however, I’ll remember Malcolm bringing the book into school and sparking my imagination. ‘Me’ in a moment.

Matthew Worley is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Reading, specialising in twentieth-century British culture and politics.

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