History Carnival 159: A Question of Scale

By Lisa Smith

Image credit: Wikipedia, Pratheep P S, www.pratheep.com.
Image credit: Wikipedia, Pratheep P S, www.pratheep.com.

Welcome to History Carnival 159! We’re delighted here at The Recipes Project to be hosting the September edition. It’s been a great month for history blogging and I was spoiled for choice. Some months, themes just seem to suggest themselves. What jumped out at me was ‘big’: discoveries, personalities, thinking and questions…

First up, September 2016 was notable for an exciting  discovery in Canada’s north: the HMS Terror. The HMS Terror was one of the lost ships of the Franklin expedition, which had set out in 1845 to explore the Northwest Passage. Out of the ones written this month, my two favourites were by Tina Adcock and Shane McCorristine. The first I like as much for its presentation (a Twitter essay) as for its powerful story in which Adcock looks at the forgetting of indigenous knowledge and the legacies of colonialism. The second is an article by Shane McCorristine rather than a blog post, but I’ve included it for its supernatural twist to the history of the expedition. (And we are heading into the spooky month of October, after all.)

HMS Terror. Image credit: After George Back - National Archives of Canada / C-029929.
Image credit: HMS Terror, After George Back – National Archives of Canada / C-029929.

There were also a lot of big personalities who arrived in my submission pile. Yvonne Seale provides a beginner’s reading list for medieval nuns, which includes some fantastic biographies of interesting women and will appeal to academics and non-academics alike. James Keating introduces us to the iconic Australian feminist, Vida Goldstein, and her contributions to the international suffrage movement. He considers why Australian women like Goldstein remained marginal figures in the transnational campaign, despite their early success back home. (Answer: local context is everything.)

The one woman I really wanted to meet, though, was Mary Scales*, an Australian psychic and ancestor of Samadhi Driscoll. In Driscoll’s words:

A famous clairvoyant, Mary would fall into dramatic psychic trances in which she would foretell the future. She apparently foretold everything from the Boer war to the winners of the Melbourne Cup. Then there were her highly-publicised and victorious court appearances in both criminal and civil trials – one of them at the High Court of England, where Mary’s eccentric antics captured the imaginations of the media worldwide.

Need I say more?

In September, thoughts of historians lightly turn to thoughts of… methodology. There was a lot of big thinking going on this month. As part of a roundtable on LaShawn Harris’ book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, Brian Purnell reflects on ‘The Difficulty of Uncovering Obscure Lives and Hidden Histories’. He wonders: ‘How can a researcher and writer find information and recreate a story about people and practices that, by their very nature, did not want to be found or known?’ The result, he notes, is a complicated methodology and messy categories. Categories were also Brodie Waddell’s inspiration for thinking about early modern society, more specifically terms used to describe people’s social status.   As Waddell puts it, “if we hope to understand past societies, we need to know much more about how people labelled themselves and their neighbours, and how these labels related to the concrete realities of daily life.”

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For Nadine Weidman and Will Pooley, historical imagination and narrative were at the heart of their musings. Weidman revisits Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale to think about how ‘Ulrich faces, as all historians must, the fundamental unknowability of the past’—in her case through imagination, close-reading and contextualisation. Pooley wonders how we can find causes for behaviour in the past and the importance of big (issues) and small (individual behaviour) scale in the narratives we find. I also include his post for its reference to cheese and magic and one of the post’s comments, which is a cracking example of cheese-related history.

Historians were also asking some big questions. Some questions were with the intent to explain. Andrea Eidinger attempted to answer her students’ question: how can they identify peer-reviewed articles? Her focus is on Canadian History journals, but she gives useful advice for students more generally! If you’ve ever wondered how Spanish got its ‘n’ with a tilde, there’s a helpful v-log for you. Other questions were broader. David Brydan looks at Franco’s Spain to identify how the Francoists found their way around a tricky situation: “how to talk about international cooperation without adopting the language of liberal or socialist internationalism, particularly without recourse to the familiar internationalist language of peace, freedom, tolerance and equality?” For Migraine Awareness Month, Katherine Foxhall has a thought-provoking post entitled ‘’Migraines were taken more seriously in the past – where did we go wrong?’

But historical recipes, in particular, highlighted the way in which fragments of information can be used to answer big questions.  RP editor, Amanda Herbert, has the chance to use a test kitchen to try out old recipes. She concludes that ‘through careful study and experimentation, our community of scholars uncovered important, large-scale concepts: questions of authorship and identity, experiences of material culture, evidence of labor patterns, constructions of gender and social status, and examples of the cultivation, dissemination, and sharing of early modern knowledge.’

An episode in Tristram Shandy: Doctor Slop, having fallen off his horse, is greeted by Obadiah. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
An episode in Tristram Shandy: Doctor Slop, having fallen off his horse, is greeted by Obadiah. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

With all of the ‘big’ themes going on this month, it is important not to forget the opposite—those small stories, those fragments. September certainly offered up some tasty crumbs of history. Hels offered a few thoughts on Shakespeare’s schooling. Rebecca Johnston looked at one fascinating letter, which was written to the Cheka in 1921 to request the release of an art historian and critic, Nikolai Punin. And last, but certainly not least, Sharon Howard offers a tale of a strange horse-related accident in eighteenth-century Denbigh.

Take care and travel safe, everyone. See you at History Carnival 160, which will be hosted by Frog in a Well on 1 November!

*Could Mary Scales’ name be any more appropriate for this month?


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