Postgraduate Spotlight: Manon Williams

Blog written by Manon Williams. Manon is a first-year PhD student. Her research examines how medical knowledge was constructed at sea among surgeons in the British and French navies

Manon is a first year PhD in Modern History under the supervision of Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith and Professor Aileen Fyfe. Her doctoral research, funded by a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholarship in the Humanities, explores how medical knowledge was constructed and implemented at sea among surgeons in the British Royal Navy. Using naval medical journals from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, her thesis examines how surgeons applied various contemporary medical theories to different patient populations. She is especially interested in the role of medical bias, including how patients were categorised based on preconceived or constructed notions of disease susceptibility and transmissibility.

After an undergraduate degree focused on late antiquity, a master’s degree in medieval history, and a brief interlude as a research assistant in a paediatric hospital, Manon has inexplicably yet irrevocably landed on late-eighteenth-century naval medicine. She likes to think that her previous study of hermits and monks has some bearing on her current research, but in general it was her experience analysing data in a paediatric infectious diseases department that brought forward many of the questions that drive her research. After nearly two years of analysing patient data, she realised how powerful of a story those data points could tell once interpreted and contextualised. In her search for historical records of patient data, Manon discovered the National Archive’s collection of naval surgeons’ journals (series ADM 101) and fell into a world of poisonous fruits and arachnids, death by lightning and battle, and the devastating effects of tropical diseases. By analysing various illnesses and comparing their treatment in different geographic locations and among different patient populations, Manon hopes to identify how prevailing medical theories informed patient care and shaped modern clinical practice.

Raised by a family of architects and engineers, Manon’s passion for history has often perplexed relatives whose experiences with the discipline consisted mainly of rote memorization and monotone lectures. Undeterred, Manon has spent nearly a decade trying to convince her friends and family that history is a fascinating subject requiring deep critique and contextualisation. To Manon, history teaches empathy, introspection, and awareness. Whether discussing medieval saints or eighteenth-century sailors, Manon’s drive is to find ways to make history interesting, engaging, and approachable to all. She is looking forward to taking this time during her PhD to explore opportunities with public engagement and public history.

Originally from Denver, Colorado, Manon has happily exchanged her 300 days of sunshine a year for a PhD on the windy east coast of Scotland. After an undergraduate semester abroad in Edinburgh, she is excited to be back and looks forward to exploring the country further. When not buried deep in a monograph or computer screen, Manon enjoys bicycle rides, long walks in nature, photography, games, and gardening. This summer’s task is to figure out how to grow vegetables in a new climate. She hopes that the excess of moisture, compared to semi-arid Colorado, will make up for the loss of sunshine. Any tips are most welcome.

Staff Spotlight: Felicity Hill

Blog written by Dr Felicity Hill. Dr Hill’s research is focused on social and religious history. Her forthcoming book, Excommunication in Thirteenth-Century England: Community, Politics and Publicity (Oxford University Press), examines the social, political and spiritual consequences of the medieval church’s most severe sanction. 

Dr Felicity Hill

I came to St Andrews at the start of 2019 as a lecturer in medieval history, leaving a postdoc at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Before that I was based in London and have degrees from Manchester, UCL, and University of East Anglia. I’m currently in the final stages of turning my PhD thesis into a book—fingers crossed it’ll come out next year.

The book looks at the practice of excommunication in thirteenth-century England. Excommunication was the church’s most powerful weapon, and it affected everyone from popes, kings and emperors to artisans, peasants, monks, nuns and priests. Children couldn’t be excommunicated, but they would witness announcements of excommunication sentences (which were made in vernacular languages rather than Latin). All sorts of offences could result in excommunication. Some were very serious (murder), others far less so (nicking some herbs). A considerable proportion involved injuring clerics or clerical property. Buying a baby in order to pass it off as someone else’s heir or simply being Scottish could get you excommunicated in thirteenth-century Britain.

My book is a social and political history, focusing on what it meant to be excommunicated and the consequences for people at all levels of society. Because enforcement was in the hands of the community, which was supposed to ostracise excommunicates, the effects of excommunication were by no means limited to the individual. People reacted in all sorts of ways. ‘We’d rather go to hell than give in’ is one of my favourite rejections (in a dispute about taxes). Others said that they thought their excommunications were unfair and that they were willing to take their chances with God. Most people, however, did reconcile with the church by seeking absolution sooner or later. Excommunicates were, however, angry about the publicity that accompanied excommunication – constant denunciations that painted excommunicates as ‘sons of Belial’, ‘limbs of the devil’, ‘satellites of Satan’, forcefully condemning their actions and damaging their reputations. Bad press, rather than any shunning, was the worst part. I am particularly interested how sentences were publicised: excommunication was an early form of mass communication.

While there is a lot of information about excommunicates—bishops’ registers in particular provide so much rich material about people’s lives—we have very incomplete records for some types of analysis. One of the things I am asked most often is how many people were excommunicated. It’s a question I cannot answer. Any attempt to give a sense is made difficult by the huge gulf between the assumptions of medieval historians and everyone else. Many people tend to think that excommunication must have been very serious in the Middle Ages and so have been rare, so I need to explain that it was used quite routinely and certainly wasn’t exceptional. Amongst medievalists, on the other hand, the idea that excommunication was overused and so of little interest has taken hold. This is too far: excommunication had fascinating and important effects for individuals, communities and politics.

When not teaching or working on my book, my COVID-year has involved a lot of (unplanned) DIY. It’s been a good lockdown distraction and provided a change of scenery when we’re not allowed to go anywhere (painting especially). As much as I’m pleased with my new-found skills, I am very much looking forward to returning to the pub garden this summer.

Publication Spotlight: Political Advice: Past, Present and Future

Blog written by Prof Colin Kidd and Dr Jacqueline Rose. Their new book Political Advice: Past, Present and Future is now available from Bloomsbury.

‘Could you give me some advice?’ is a question we have all asked at various times in our lives. But whom do we ask? When do we turn to a person that we feel we can trust, a friend we can confide in, somebody with experience and expertise in a particular area, or someone whose job it is to advise on such matters? Such questions are daunting. But how much more fraught for political leaders, who take decisions on crucial matters far beyond their knowledge base, is the selection of appropriate advisers.

Few would dispute the need for political advice, yet it has a remarkable propensity to cause problems. Is the leader listening to enough people? To the right people? Are they listening at all? Do they have to? Can they be made to and, if so, would this be by formally constraining them to hear advice or by changing the way in which that counsel is presented? There are certain functions that advice perennially performs—compensating for a leader’s limited knowledge, time, and (occasionally) abilities; balancing long-term objectives with crises that require immediate attention; resolving conflicts and extracting consent; providing support in the lonely and dauntingly burdensome business of governing. Yet the mechanisms for managing it have varied over time and space. Indeed, what works for one president or prime minister may be disastrous for their successor: some respond well to rigidly structured advice, others thrive in a seemingly undisciplined atmosphere in which they receive multiple pieces of conflicting counsel.

Dr Jacqueline Rose

It was with the aim of reflecting on these themes that we embarked on what became Political Advice: Past, Present and Future. Somewhat embarrassingly for a pair of historians, we can’t pinpoint its precise beginning and causes. But it may have had something to do with conversations about Joan Quigley, the Reagans’ astrologer, an adviser on auspicious dates whose role, originally revealed by a disgruntled former chief of staff, proved to be a revealing way into the politics of counsel in the late-twentieth century White House. The themes of formal vs informal advice, access and influence, and the interplay of personal trust with official constitutional structures, seemed to be ones offering excellent opportunities for dialogue across periods and disciplines.

Assembling a team of interdisciplinary contributors from academia and public life, we began with a day-long workshop in the ‘Public Life’ series at All Souls College, Oxford, settling on a date of 8 June 2017. As it turned out, we were not the only ones for whom 8 June 2017 ended up being an important day, for it was the one that the then-prime minister, Theresa May, chose as the date for a snap general election. The aftermath of that election included the high-profile removal of May’s joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Media attention to the vicissitudes of advice in the Trump White House, the advent of Dominic Cummings as a key adviser to Boris Johnson, and a steady stream of reports about projects to reform Whitehall kept political advice constantly in the news during the period in which our volume took shape.

Prof Colin Kidd

Even as we put the final touches to the introduction in early 2020, conflicts over ministerial control of special advisers and civil service reform were still making headlines. We thought we were up to date in including a mention of Sajid Javid’s resignation letter, which urged the importance of advice. It’s just as well, therefore, that we expressed ‘the characteristic historian’s caution about predicting tomorrow’s headlines’ in the acknowledgements (dated February 2020). For the volume ended up being dispatched on one of the last days before we moved to working from home. In the early weeks of lockdown, it looked like the politics of advice had vanished from view. A year later, less so. At the point of publication, the other forecast in our acknowledgements—that ‘future events will continue to generate stories about political advice’—holds true. Indeed, the still-unfolding story about who gave what advice to whom and when during the pandemic demonstrates the vital and contested role of political advice—past, present, and future.

Staff Spotlight: Felicity Loughlin

Blog written by Dr Felicity Loughlin. Dr Loughlin is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of St Andrews, where she is working on the ‘Learning & Unbelief’ strand of the After the Enlightenment project. Her research and teaching interests lie in the intellectual, cultural and religious history of Scotland and Europe, c.1650–c.1850.

I came to St Andrews as a postdoctoral Research Fellow in September 2018. I’ve spent over two happy years here as part of the After the Enlightenment project team. Before that, I was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, where I wrote my thesis on the Scottish Enlightenment’s fascination with ‘pagan’ (non-Abrahamic) religious cultures. I’m now working on transforming my thesis into my first book, The Scottish Enlightenment Confronts the Gods: Paganism & the Nature of Religion.

More generally, I’m fascinated by the history of religious belief, which has profoundly shaped how individuals view the world and their place within it. I’m especially interested in how religious thought and ideas about religion have contributed to long-term patterns of intellectual and cultural change. Joining the After Enlightenment project has allowed me to pursue these interests in the context of nineteenth-century Scotland.

The project aims to explore Scottish intellectual life, c.1789–1843, reconstructing the legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment’s debates in three fundamental areas: natural philosophy, political economy, and religion. My contribution belongs to the religion strand and focuses on unbelief. Working with a variety of colourful material (anti-infidel apologetics, freethinking newspapers, court records, catalogues of infidel bookshops, and scientific, literary, theological, and historical writings), my research seeks to answer several interlocking questions. What did unbelief mean in the early nineteenth century? How far did unbelievers continue the religious debates of the Scottish Enlightenment? In what ways did they take unbelief in new directions? And how did infidelism, and the civil and ecclesiastical responses it elicited, transform the Scottish religious landscape?

Pamphlet produced in 1824 by the Edinburgh Freethinkers’ Zetetic Society, found in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh. Credit: Felicity Loughlin

Strikingly, unbelievers are at present almost entirely absent from existing historiography on nineteenth-century Scotland. Yet from the 1820s, unbelievers of various stripes – including sceptics, deists, and atheists – acquired unprecedented visibility in Scotland’s urban communities. Freethinking societies were formed in numerous towns and cities, attracting hundreds of members from the middling and lower classes, and infidel bookshops appeared in Glasgow and Edinburgh, prompting the last blasphemy trials in Scottish history. Numerous scientific and literary works were also accused of endorsing or fomenting unbelief, including the writings of the phrenologist George Combe (1788–1858), the writer Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), and the publisher Robert Chambers (1802–71). Christian thinkers engaged actively with the perceived rise of unbelief, responding diversely with abhorrence, qualified respect, or sympathy. Strikingly, shared commitment to issues such as freedom of speech, ultimately led to tentative alliances between certain religious and non-religious groups. Debates on religion were often framed in highly emotive language, and I’ve recently become especially interested in probing the emotional as well as intellectual factors that determined changing belief positions and relations between believers and unbelievers.

Outside of work, I very much enjoy walking along the coastal and forest paths of the beautiful Fife countryside. I’m also an enthusiastic (if rather unskilled) knitter, an activity that became particularly attractive in the cold winter months. A great advantage of living in the vicinity of St Andrews is proximity to its excellent selection of cafés, and I very much look forward to partaking of their tea and cakes once again when they reopen!

Postgraduate Spotlight: James Earnshaw

James Earnshaw is a third-year PhD student. His research focuses on gender and ‘Englishness’ from 1850 to 1914, examining these ideas in the context of Anglo-German relations during this period. His thesis examines how concerns over English masculinity shaped perceptions of Germany and responses to German foreign policy. 

James Earnshaw

Born and raised in ‘the city of dreaming spires’, James was encouraged to apply to St Andrews on the basis that ‘it’s just like Oxford, except it has three beaches and you can walk on the quad.’ Perhaps placing an inadvisable degree of faith in these incentives, James arrived in September 2013 as an undergraduate to read history having never visited the town. Fortunately, the recommendation was well-founded: this is his eighth academic year in the town having completed an M.Litt in Modern History in 2018 before starting his PhD! 

Despite the efforts of his classicist father to guide him to Ancient History at a young age (including illicit showings of Gladiator, Alexander, and Troy), James finally allied himself to the nineteenth century after reading Richard Aldous’s The Lion and the Unicorn for an A-S history module. At honours he continued this interest by taking modules on British and German foreign policies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the former, he was introduced to The Battle of Dorking: Reminisces of a Volunteer (1871), a short story written by George Chesney which imagines a successful German invasion of Britain. A gripping tale which shifts effortlessly from pulsating military action to moments of tenderness, James was fascinated by the sensation caused by the story and sought to unravel its popularity. Under the supervision of Professor Aileen Fyfe, James explored how the story exhibits and exacerbates anxieties over the condition of English masculinity in ‘The Battle of Dorking: A Re-Examination Through Gender’, which was awarded the Alan Robertson Memorial Prize for best undergraduate dissertation in Modern History.

The Battle of Dorking. Reminiscences of a Volunteer, 1871

After holidaying from the nineteenth century during his master’s dissertation, which analysed British army chaplains’ responses to regulated maison tolérées on the Western Front, James returned to more familiar territory with his PhD project. Drawing on the concept of ‘gender damage’, his thesis explores how recurrent concerns expressed over English masculinity between 1850 to 1914 illuminate contemporaries’ sensitivities to the social construction of binary gender categories. Examining English press articles, public speeches and popular cultural works, James explores how these mediums encouraged contemporaries to fear non-conformity to prescribed gender roles. James applies this theoretical framework to Anglo-German relations in the period to illustrate how these sensitivities underpinned interpretations of German foreign policy and influenced ensuing political, social and cultural responses. Beyond his thesis, James also researches the histories of sexuality and emotion in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Outside of academia, James can be found playing cricket for both the university and staff sides. Elected captain of the latter prior the pandemic, he hopes to be able to lead the team this coming season to avoid the ignominy of being the only captain in the club’s history never to win a game. In the winter months James plays six-a-side football, martyring himself for the team as goalkeeper in the freezing conditions. Like many during the pandemic, James has become well-acquainted with Strava (other fitness apps are available) and now enjoys long walks and runs with greater enthusiasm. When travel restrictions end, James intends to complete an academic pilgrimage to Dorking and trace the Volunteer narrator’s footsteps like an ambling Michael Portillo. Hopefully the excursion will end in a less calamitous fashion.

Staff Spotlight: Bridget Heal

Blog written by Professor Bridget Heal. Professor Heal’s research focusses on the long-term impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on German society and culture. She has published two monographs: The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500-1648 (2014) and A Magnificent Faith: Art and Identity in Lutheran Germany (2017).

I came to St Andrews in 2002. Before that (long, long ago) I studied history and art history in Cambridge and London and had a postdoctoral research position in Cambridge. St Andrews has been home for nearly 20 years now, and I’m very grateful for the colleagues and students who make it such a fantastic place to live and work. As a historian of Germany, I try to spend as much time as possible there. I’ve lived in Nuremberg, Munich, Cologne and most recently Berlin. Much as I love St Andrews, it’s great to escape to a big city now and again. My son, Tom, was born in 2007. Because of my work he’s spent 3 years living in Berlin and has developed a strong liking for Currywurst.

A bronze statue of Martin Luther, in front of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Ad Meskens. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

My research focuses on the long-term impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on German society and culture. I’ve always been particularly interested in images, and in the ways in which historians use visual evidence. My first book, based on my PhD, drew on both visual and textual sources to investigate what happened to the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary during the Reformation era. My second explains why Lutheranism, a confession that is usually understood as being built around the spoken and printed word, made such extensive use of images. It originated in my desire to explain seeming paradoxes like the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden, a Lutheran church that deployed the visual idioms of the Catholic baroque and was compared by eighteenth-century observers to St Peter’s in Rome. If you want to know more, I wrote a blog.

Epitaph for Christian Lehmann and Euphrosyna Lehmann, born Kreusel, parish church, Scheibenberg (Saxony). Credit: Bridget Heal

I’m working now on a very different project: a religious history of the Thirty Years War (1618-48). During my research on Lutheran art I came across a wonderful set of sources written by a pastor, Christian Lehmann. He served in a small mining village in southern Saxony for 50 years from 1638-88 and witnessed the worst predations of the war and its difficult aftermath. I am using his writings and the records relating to his parish as the basis for a book that examines the role of religion in the survival and recovery of individuals and communities during Germany’s first ‘Great War’. Lehmann’s writings are excellent to work with, as he recorded all kinds of interesting things, from local gossip to ghost stories. And he had nice handwriting – something historians of early modern Germany can never take for granted.

Since lockdown, and the temporary end of research trips to Germany, my main achievement has been the acquisition of a kitten, Clio. I’m hoping that someday she’ll grow into her role as a muse of history and stop bouncing off the furniture. In the meantime, she’s made some star appearances on Teams…

Postgraduate Spotlight: Irina Mattioli

Blog written by Irina Mattioli. Irina is a second-year cotutelle PhD Student in medieval history, completing her degree at both the University of St Andrews and the University of Milan. Her research focuses on the history of animals in thirteenth-century Italy.

A portrait of Irina using the collodion process invented in 1851, by Alessio Vissani.

Irina grew up in Umbria, a region in central Italy that still looks very ‘medieval’. It is reasonable to assume that the landscape and constant exposure to ancient art and architecture played a role in her fascination with the past. She is quite confident, however, that she would not be doing her PhD in history without the input of some notable figures in her life. These include her grandmother Maria Adelaide (a schoolteacher who was very fond of humanities, history, and culture) and the inspiring mentors she worked with through her university cursus: Professor Donatella Scortecci at the University of Perugia, Professor Paolo Grillo at the University of Milano, and Professor Frances Andrews at the University of St Andrews. The last two are currently supervising her cotutelle PhD in Medieval History.

In her PhD Irina focuses on Animal History in thirteen-century century Italy, particularly on horses and their polyvalence in the society of the time. The idea is to explore the socio-economic implications, ethos, and ideology of an animal which, for a thirteen-century commune, was undoubtedly a multifaceted being. It was at one time war mount, means of transportation and communication, work resource, valuable asset, and, above all, a powerful symbol in the collective imagination and iconography. The commune of Perugia in the second half of the thirteen-century seems to provide the ideal case study for her project: it experienced a great phase of expansion, and its prosperity had visible effects both on the flourishing of architectural and cultural production. In this scenario, the horse emerged as an essential component of both the ‘state machine’ of the commune and of the needs of the society.

Credit: c. 50v, Massari 1bis, Archivio de Stato di Perugia-1277.

Irina’s choice to study animals in her historical studies was an intuitive, yet unavoidable one. She has always had a deep love and an utter fascination for nature, plants, and all the living creatures that are part of the Earth system: we share the present as we shared the past, and it is something worth investigating. To keep a broad perspective about this, she is also quite fond of ethology and ecology themed readings.

Irina prides herself on her interdisciplinary methodology in her studies. Since her bachelor’s degree, she has learned how to incorporate material evidence and iconography in her research alongside written primary sources. Due to this interest, while proceeding in her studies as a historian, she has worked at archaeological excavations every summer for the past eleven years on sites ranging from the Roman to Medieval periods.  

Irina photographing prima ballerina Joy Womack (Kremlin Ballet) in Moscow

Alongside her PhD, Irina has been a full-time professional photographer for the past fourteen years (www.irinamattioli.com). She has accomplished several artistic achievements between commissioned work with notable clients, exhibitions, publications, and prizes (first place at the Anna Pavlova international ballet photography competition, awarded in Moscow). Her photography focuses on portrait, reportage, fashion, and ballet, the latter subject being near to her heart as a former dancer with more than 20 years of experience and passion.

Postgrad Spotlight: Christin Simons

Blog written by Elena Romero-Passerin. Elena recently submitted her PhD thesis, which focuses on the comparison of public botanic gardens in Scotland and Tuscany in the late eighteenth century.

Christin grew up in the Ruhr valley, a region of Germany historically well-known for its Roman camps and important coal mining industry. Though she was not particularly taken with history at school, Christin did like practical approaches to the discipline, enjoying visits to museums and ‘medieval markets’ (which, by her own admission, might shock actual medievalists). As she finished school these visits inspired her, and she decided to take an internship in her local museum, where she guided visitors around exhibitions about—surprise, surprise—Roman history and coal mining!

After doing an undergrad in Classics at the Ruhr University of Bochum (those Romans really got to her!), Christin decided to switch topics for her master’s degree and began studying Early Modern History. This was when her great peregrinations around the world started, as she decided to leave Germany for an Erasmus exchange in Stockholm. There she began to take an interest in Swedish history, an interest that was helped along by her attending the course of a visiting professor from St Andrews who introduced her to maritime history and the East India Companies. Christin decided to continue her exploration of the world and registered for a PhD at the University of St Andrews to work with that very same visiting professor, Prof Steve Murdoch.

Before moving to St Andrews, Christin spent a year in Beijing with the support of the Chinese Scholarship Council. She ‘tingbudonged’ (Chinese for ‘I don’t understand’) her way through a language course and started to work in the archives the very same year. She then moved camp again to come to Scotland where she fell in love with St Andrews.

Christin works on the perception and legal strategies of the Swedish East India Company during its first charter (1731-1746). Her research explores the understanding of maritime conflicts in the absence of international maritime law and the role of foreign influence in the Swedish East India trade. She focuses in particular on the ‘Porto Novo affair’ of 1733, a conflict between the British and the French Companies on the one side and the Swedish East India Company on the other. The affair resulted in an eight-year-long lawsuit and illustrates the struggle between British exceptionalism and Swedish sovereignty. It involved characters such as the Scot Colin Campbell, director of the Swedish Company (but condemned ‘interloper’ by British legislation), who used his knowledge of British law to further the success of the Swedes in the East India Trade.

During her PhD Christin has continued to travel all around Europe as funding from St Andrew’s University, the Economic History Society, St Leonard’s Postgraduate College, the Royal Historical Society, the World Ship Society, the Society for Nautical Research, and the Dutch-Belgian Society for Eighteenth Century studies allowed her to go collect sources and speak at many conferences. She has also taken on a lot of organising duties, co-organising the Early Modern and Modern History Postgraduate Seminar for two years, as well as the International Postgraduate Port and Maritime Studies Network Conference twice (2019, 2020) with Scott Carballo (Stirling). In addition, she has pursued her interests in public history by developing an historical board game with her officemate Elena. ‘Merplantilism’ explores eighteenth-century trade, navigation, and science, and Christin has presented it to various audiences in Britain, Ireland, Sweden, and Germany.

Christin’s passion for engaging with wide audiences about history also shines through her work as a tour guide in Stockholm, where she now lives. She misses the time she spent riding, hiking, and dancing in Ceilidhs in Scotland. When she left St Andrews for Sweden in November 2019, she could not have foreseen that she would not be able to return before submitting her thesis, but she hopes to one day see her PhD colleagues in the flesh again

Staff Spotlight: Huw Halstead

Blog written by Dr Huw Halstead. Dr Halstead is a Research Fellow on the ERC-funded project ‘Dictatorship as experience: a comparative history of everyday life and the ‘lived experience’ of dictatorship in Mediterranean Europe (1922-1975)’ led by Dr Kate Ferris.

­When I was an undergraduate student looking for a dissertation topic, I was asked to consider what it was in particular about history that I found engaging. I struggled for a sensible response and ultimately came out with something along these lines: ‘I guess I’m interested in the little stories in history’. At the time, I felt that my answer was a bit inadequate. But, in one way or another, the search for history’s little stories has underpinned my research ever since.

My interest in the tales people tell about their pasts has led me to spend a lot of time talking to people directly about their historical experiences. This sometimes involves formal sit-down interviews in fairly controlled settings, but at other times takes on a more anthropological and ethnographic character. I sometimes refer to this latter part of my research as ‘ethnokafenology’, which is a wonderful term coined by archaeologist Bill Alexander to describe chatting with the elderly patrons of village and neighbourhood cafés as a means of learning something about the past. These more informal and multivocal encounters often throw up information and perspectives that wouldn’t necessarily come up in the course of more formal one-to-one oral history interviews. Extending this concept to other everyday settings, I’ve variously conducted ‘interviews’, for instance, outside a nightclub, in a barbershop, and trailing a shepherd with his flock around the outskirts of a village.

I completed my PhD in History from the University of York. I wrote about the expatriated Greeks of Istanbul and Imbros, who, persecuted on the basis of their ethnic and religious identity, left their birthplaces in Turkey in the second half of the twentieth century and resettled in Greece. My focus was on how members of these communities used stories about the past—both their own recent histories and more distant historical legacies—in their everyday lives as they sought to process their displacement and to negotiate their sense of self and belonging in their new places of residence. This led to my 2019 book Greeks without Greece, published by Routledge. I’ve also worked more broadly on the Mediterranean world and former Ottoman territories, having written about how Armenians, Assyrians, Cypriots, Kurds, and Turks relate to, contest, and/or borrow from each other’s stories about their shared pasts in print and digital media.

I came to St Andrews in 2018 to work on Kate Ferris’ ERC-funded ‘Everyday Dictatorship’ project. We’re exploring what it was actually like for people to live under dictatorial regimes in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. I’m focusing particularly on everyday life under the dictatorships of Metaxas (1936-1941) and the Colonels (1967-1974) in Greece. Again, what drives my interest is the little stories that indicate how—on local levels and in intimate settings—people adopted, adapted, ignored, evaded, and/or accommodated themselves to the ideologies and diktats of dictatorial rulers. At the moment, I’m also hosting a podcast called Miniatures on which we invite guests from various fields (historians and non-historians) to discuss their research with a focus on the ‘miniature’—the local, the individual, the everyday—and what these miniature histories can in turn reveal about the big picture in history.

Like many people, I think, the global pandemic has changed how I spend my time outside work, with a lot of my normal pastimes currently inaccessible. So, inspired in part by my interviewees from this Twitter paper, I’ve been trying to use the spatial restrictions to find new ways of looking at and experiencing familiar places, for instance looking for new walking routes around my local area, or noticing interesting details with the kind of curiosity I might have if I was visiting a place for the first time. Look out for this and other stories about everyday life under pandemic on an episode of Miniatures coming soon!

Publication Spotlight: A Companion to Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome

Blog written by Dr Emily Michelson. Dr Michelson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, and her work focuses on the cultural and religious history of early modern Italy. She worked on the ‘Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome’ project (2018) with postdoctoral researcher Dr Matthew Coneys Wainwright. His research deals with late medieval and early modern Italian pilgrimage culture, travel writing and the history of the book between manuscript and print. He currently teaches at the University of Oxford and the Warburg Institute.

Dr Emily Michelson

We are really excited about A Companion to Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome, which is the product of an AHRC early-career leadership grant: Dr Emily Michelson was the grant-holder and Dr Matthew Coneys Wainwright the stellar postdoc. The papers were developed in two workshops, one held at St Andrews and the other at the British School of Rome, with other scholars joining the project later. 

The project itself is exciting because it dismantles the assumption that Papal Rome was Catholic and homogenous in the early modern period.  The essays in our volume look at all of the different religious groups and individuals that passed through or lived in Rome and the many ways they made an impact.  

Dr Matthew Coneys Wainwright

We think this is an especially important project because the city of Rome has more layers of meaning than any other place in Europe. In the period this book covers, the Eternal City had a triple function. It provided Europe’s strongest link to the classical past and was revered as the gateway to antiquity. As the capital of the powerful Papal States, it was also a major political player. Above all, Rome was the religious heart of a growing, newly global Catholicism. Roman institutions and governments put a huge amount of effort into making their city seem pure, holy, and uniform. They wanted it to seem like a perfect model of Catholic piety as they set out to evangelize the entire known world. They would probably have hated what we’ve uncovered. 

One of the things that makes the book meaningful to us is that nobody could have written it alone – it relies on too many different and specific areas of expertise.   It discusses Ethiopian humanists, Eastern Orthodox pilgrims, enslaved Muslim galley workers, Jewish and formerly-Jewish scholars, Japanese and Persian ambassadors, Portuguese conversos, and European Protestants. Another thing we’re really pleased about is the range of scholars who contributed to this work. Our authors live or work in (if we’ve counted right) seven countries on three continents; some are junior scholars and others are very senior. Their approaches are very different: some analyse images, some do close textual readings, some crunch numbers. A few of them have also included valuable primary sources for future use. They were all deeply committed to the volume and we are impressed with their work. We’re especially pleased that almost every group discussed in the volume is the subject of more than one essay. It suggests that none of us has the final word, and that there’s far more left to study. We’ve also tried to allow for blurred boundaries as much as possible. People bore more than one identity and related to their backgrounds in complex ways, just as they do today.  We hope this shows that the volume is intended to start new and lasting conversations about religious encounters in the early modern world.