Food for Thought at the Gloucester History Festival

My love for history travel is not restricted to physical travel. It is also to travel into new areas of history I know little about but also, and importantly, to find out more about what I already think I know and especially to open my mind to new information which potentially challenges what I think.

So you can imagine what a fantastically energising weekend I have just had attending 6 history talks in the past 2 days at the Gloucester History Festival. Each one helping me reform my understanding of areas of history, both familiar and less so. Some of the things I learned can be described almost as trivia and yet others fundamentally undermining the received history I had until now taken for granted.

If you, like me, love learning new things then here are just a few to challenge your thinking. Some are simple and quick to comprehend, others perhaps will exercise your grey matter a little more, some may even challenge what you have accepted as ‘truth’ for a long time.  So, keep your mind open and enjoy the challenge!

The first is from Dr Sam Willis, Naval historian and author of the updated Ladybird book on The Spanish Armada. Next time you’re in a medieval building with a hammer beam ceiling, think of the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace as a perfect example, you could also be looking at a ship’s hull of the same era as they were built using the same design and techniques - just the other way up in the final finish.

The next is from Sam again and was one of the many, many fascinating things I learned at his ‘Histories of the Unexpected’  talk along with his co-presenter Prof James Daybell. (They are also co authors and presenters of a series of books and a podcast by the same name.) This one I shall call ‘The White Glove Myth’. You know when a historic document is being handled by someone for a TV programme and they are careful to always don white cotton gloves? Well, they are not only completely unnecessary for the conservation of the documents but worse, they represent a real hazard in themselves for, they make the wearer more clumsy. They can no longer feel the document with precise touch and are in fact more likely to damage it by accidental tearing. It is for this reason that some curators have in fact banned the wearing of gloves to handle precious manuscripts, books and documents. 

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb’s talk about her most recent book focussed on the accounts of women, written as part of civic record in Protestant areas of France in the 16th century. She raised many points in terms of understanding the role and behaviour of women in Europe in this period but I will share just one with you. Suzannah pointed out that only 5% of women at this time were literate. This was a flash bulb moment for me. We are reminded frequently of how women’s stories have been lost to history because they were only ever footnotes to the stories of men, unless they were extraordinary or in an extraordinary positions, in other words, simply could not be ignored, for example women holding public roles such as Elizabeth I. This however, points us to a much more simple but actually more significant reason - the women weren’t writing anything down. They had no diaries, didn’t write letters or even make shopping lists. This also goes for the illiterate male population. So it is not always that sections of society have been purposely underrepresented but that the raw materials are lacking from which to build a representation and record.

Women weren’t writing anything down. They had no diaries, didn’t write letters or even make shopping lists.

In the final section of this blog I am going to repeat the shocking injustice and misrepresentation of 5 victims of the heinous and unjustifiably glamorised murderer, Jack the Ripper, as articulated by Social Historian Halle Rubenhold. I expected to learn a few more details about the women as I knew Halle’s new book covered their life stories. What I didn’t expect to learn was that these ‘prostitutes’ who had been easy picking for the murderous intentions of this never identified murderer, were in fact not. Only one had ever worked in the sex trade and she had been a high class prostitute, what we would term an escort and she was not working as that at the time of her death. Add to this the fact that there was no sexual element to the crimes and you undermine the common beliefs surrounding this most infamous case. It also shines a bright light into the eyes of us so willing to believe unquestioningly the categorisation of these women by the police at this time and our faith in the written record. 

I hope this has provided food for thought.  As always I would encourage us all to question both received history and our own viewpoints when interpreting stories and forming opinions. It is absolutely impossible for any of us to be impartial. Our thought patterns are not just a result of our own experiences but also of those who have ever had influence on our thinking too; and this is not a problem so long as it is something we at least aim to recognise and acknowledge. 

Until next time, take care

Philippa

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