Author: mlmccor

‘Turns’ in eighteenth-century British history

Matthew McCormack gave this paper at the ‘Eighteenth Century Now’ conference at University College London on 26 April 2019. This conference was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the ‘British History in the Long Eighteenth Century’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and was intended to reflect on the state of the field.

Today I am going to talk about methodological turns. In order to do this, I am going to take an autobiographical approach, reflecting on my own work in eighteenth-century studies. This may sound self-indulgent, but the journey that I have been on over the last quarter century is probably similar to many other scholars in this field.

I emerged from a History degree at York with an interest in nineteenth-century political culture. I chose to go to Manchester to do my postgraduate studies, because of the work on elections by Frank O’Gorman and James Vernon. It was Frank who turned me into an eighteenth-century historian, but it was the developments in the department in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British studies that impacted on my method as a historian.

Manchester in the 1990s was one of the few departments in Britain where postmodern ideas really took hold, and was probably the leading promoter of the linguistic turn. It was invigorating for me as a postgrad to be based in a department where history was so politicised and where methodology was taken so seriously. This very directly impacted on my work. Whereas I started out doing a fairly standard history of electoral culture, I soon switched to thinking about how the electoral citizen came to be defined. Working backwards from when this was codified in the 1832 Reform Act, I thought about how citizenship was talked about and lived, particularly in terms of masculinity.

My thesis became my 2005 book, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England. This book was an early attempt to link the histories of masculinity and politics – and this is a link that I have tried to develop ever since – but its methodology was linguistic.

After Independent Man, I tried to repeat the trick by historicising other keywords that were significant in the history of masculinity and politics, but with rather less success. In common with a lot of work on the linguistic turn, my contention that historians had used terms anachronistically was a good one, but I was less successful at proposing what they should do with them.

Part of the problem was that, by the mid-00s, I had access to ECCO and online newspapers, which quickly generated thousands of hits that I did not know what to do with. For Independent Man I had spent months poring over Hansard, so had a good sense of context and intention of my source material. Digitisation made the linguistic turn very easy, but for the same reason I wonder if it helped to kill it off. Indeed, around this time there was a reaction against the cultural turn. Many historians expressed anxiety that the focus on representations was losing sight of human experience; some argued for a re-engagement with the ethos of social history.

Instead, I found a way forward from an unexpected source: the history of war. Historians often assume that military history is methodologically conservative, but it is a very practical field, concerned with physical and material questions. Even if you are doing the cultural history of war, you can’t get away with the kind of abstractions that are acceptable in other fields.

During my PhD I had come across the debates about the militia in the eighteenth century, which used highly gendered and nationalistic language to talk about the citizen soldier, and which resulted in the Militia Act of 1757. I wrote two articles about this and moved on to other projects. But I kept coming back to the militia and in particular the question of what it was like for the men who actually served in it. It had been relatively straightforward to reconstruct the role of masculinity in the way the militia had been represented, but in order to think about masculinity in terms of experience I had to ask different questions and use very different source types. This led to a series of studies on questions such as embodiment, space and material culture. Eventually I had enough of these for a book, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England (2015). This was a typical mid-career book, produced on the installment plan.

The structure of the book reflected its gestation, with the first half on representation and the second on practice. I could justify this structure, as debates around the militia (both at the time and among its historians) revolved around ideal and reality. Whereas most historians argued that these were completely at odds, this method allowed me to show that the ideal of the masculine citizen soldier was projected onto the practice of the institution itself. That said, I was conscious at the time that it was a bit of a fudge. Separating representation and practice is artificial, and I did not use it as an opportunity to explore the relationship between them.

I only really engaged fully with the material turn since I have been working on shoes. This was partly a development of my work on military uniforms and the masculine body. It was also a consequence of being at Northampton: I had to work on shoes eventually. The national shoe and leather collections were on my doorstep, so accessing the objects (one of the practical obstacles in the way of doing material culture history) was relatively straightforward. Indeed, building up relationships with museums (which you have to do to carry out this kind of work) has been a rewarding spinoff for me.

Previously, I had struggled with material culture. I had struggled to ask the right questions of the objects, or to get any usable answers from them. But the shoe is a very eloquent object. Shoe styles are often very striking and revealing, and the materiality of the object is key to its purpose and meaning. Shoes are also very personal objects, as they mould to the foot of the wearer and therefore provide a unique source about them. They retain traces of the wearer’s body, and impacted on that body itself, in terms of its posture, movement and health. I have therefore found men’s shoes to be a hugely revealing source about masculinity. It allowed me to think about the embodiment, the national identity and the class distinction of the public man – which takes me back to politics, where I started.

In conclusion, my third book is out this summer. It’s a textbook on Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 (which is very ‘long eighteenth century’). Whereas my previous books had compartmentalised the linguistic and the material turns, this one doesn’t. Perhaps this suggests that the approaches that come under the umbrella of the ‘cultural turn’ need not be opposed to one another.

Matthew McCormack

Shoes and conferences

Last Wednesday I travelled up to Liverpool to give a paper at conference on ‘Getting Dressed in the Eighteenth Century’. My paper was on shoes, thinking about the relationship between footwear and the body. I was going to discuss the impact that the body has upon shoes: shoes stretch to the shape of the foot and so present a unique source about their wearer. I also wanted to talk about the impact that shoes have upon the body: in the eighteenth century, inspired by the new science of ‘hygiene’, various writers were exercised about the healthiness, fit and flexibility of footwear.

I have been working on shoes for a few years now, and in preparing for a paper on the topic I particularly had shoes on the mind. Checking twitter that morning I was therefore excited to see the hashtag #asecsshoes: was there a panel on shoes at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, which was also happening at that time? No, it turned out that numerous ASECS attendees were working out what shoes to take with them.

I could relate to this as I too put a lot of thought into what shoes I wear to conferences. Academic conferences (especially big ones like ASECS) involve long days, walks between venues and lots of standing around. You therefore want to be comfortable but you may also choose to shod yourself smartly if, say, you are presenting, attending a reception or (in the case of some American conferences) on the job market.

(The issue of what constitutes an ‘academic dress code’ is a political minefield that I do not want to get into here, so I will confine myself to shoes. I am also aware of the irony of a man writing about uncomfortable footwear, but please bear with me.)

Since I have been going to conferences to talk about shoes, I have put a bit more effort into what shoes I wear to them. Talking about shoes will draw attention to what is on my feet, and I don’t want to let the side down. As I live and work in Northampton – the centre of the British shoe industry – and because I am largely talking about examples from the town’s museum and its National Leather Collection, I have taken to wearing shoes made in the area when I talk about them. Shoes made in the UK are normally expensive, but as a good Northamptonian I know how to get them cheap from factory sales.

I usually only take one pair of shoes to conferences, as I can’t be bothered to lug another pair of size 12s around. So I wore a pair of brown brogue boots with thick leather soles. Fetching and practical, I thought.

I travelled up to Liverpool the day before the conference, to be there for an early start the next day. This gave me time to wander round this fantastic city – something I always try to do on conference trips. By the evening, though, I was beginning to wish I’d worn trainers. It was a hot day and Liverpool is very hilly, so the heavy boots gave me blisters. The hard leather soles were unforgiving on the city’s Georgian flagstones and cobbles.

When I gave my paper the next day about unsuitable footwear and sweaty feet, I could therefore empathise with eighteenth-century urban walkers. I should have followed the advice of the Georgian chiropodists cited in the paper, who recommended woollen socks over cotton, for preventing dampness and blistering.

It was a fantastic conference, which concluded at the Walker Gallery with a discussion about their collection of eighteenth-century costume. Many of the garments discussed during the day – including shoes, women’s pockets and men’s wigs – featured in the exhibition. The gallery have also produced a popular series of videos on ‘Getting Dressed’, showing how these garments were worn on actual bodies, rather than displayed statically like they usually are in museums.

Walking back to Lime Street station, I passed the Empire Theatre where the touring production of the hit musical Kinky Boots is currently playing. Northampton’s shoes get everywhere.

Matthew McCormack is Professor of History at the University of Northampton

Research Seminars 2018-19

Here are the History contributions to the Education and Humanities Research Seminars at the University of Northampton. All papers are at Learning Hub LH017, Waterside Campus at 6pm.

25 October: Dr Toby Purser (UoN), ‘The dog that didn’t bark: Sir John Sandys, social mobility and the community of knights and esquires in late medieval Hampshire’

8 November: Prof Andrew Williams and Fred O’Dell (Northampton General Hospital), ‘UK premature baby care 1947-1965. The Doctor Isaac “Harry” Gosset Collection’

6 December: Dr Huw Davies (King’s), ‘The British Army’s use of military knowledge, information and intelligence, 1750-1850’

17 January: Jane Crellin (formerly Foreign and Commonwealth Office), ‘”Sacred images for a secular society”: Southern icons in black and white from 1930s America’

14 February: Antony Bounds (UoN), ‘Decolonisation and Federation in the West Indes, 1945-62’

14 March: Dr Sarah Goldsmith (Leicester), ‘Re-embodying the Aristocrat: A History of the Eighteenth-Century Elite Male Body’

All welcome!

For further information please contact matthew.mccormack@northampton.ac.uk

Aristotle’s Masterpiece, the “banned Georgian sex manual”

As a historian who works on the eighteenth century, I am always interested when Georgian stories appear in the news. And right on cue for Valentine’s Day, various news outlets were covering the sale of a “banned Georgian sex manual” at an auction in Derbyshire.
The book in question was an edition of a book entitled Aristotle’s Masterpiece from 1720, which contains advice on sex, pregnancy and female health. It is a window on a world that had very different ideas about medicine, the body and sexual difference.
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Contrary to the headlines, it was not by Aristotle, it was not banned and it was not a sex manual. We don’t know who wrote it: the title “Aristotle” was probably adopted as he was an authority on matters scientific. It was not “banned” as books in England could not be banned in that way: shops may have been nervous about stocking it in the wake of the Obscene Publications Act in the 1850s, but that was a century later. The Georgians were much more open in talking about sexual matters, and indeed the book went through dozens of editions so was widely available. It was often given as a wedding present, as it was more of a guide to obstetric health than a “sex manual” as such.
The book does indeed give advice about sex, but it is a short chapter at the end of a very long book about pregnancy. Its advice should therefore be seen in that light. For example, it recommends that couples should “cherish the body with a generous Restorative, to charm the Imagination with Musick, to drown all Cares in good Wine”. This was about having better sex, but not just as an end in itself. Rather, they believed that good sex was the key to a successful and healthy pregnancy.
This is because people in this period thought that the body was based on the four humours and was governed by fluid and heat. Conception occurred when men’s and women’s fluids mingled and transformed, and this required the “heat” signified by orgasm. So men and women both had to enjoy sex, suggesting that the Georgians believed in equality in the bedroom.
The book continues, that “when the Act is over, all is not done; for … the Husband must not presently separate himself from his Wife’s Embraces”. To us this sounds merely affectionate and considerate, but the advice is given with conception in mind: “lest the Air should suddenly strike in, and so prevent the happy issue of their Labours”. Afterwards, the woman should “compose herself to all the rest and quietness imaginable”, since they believed that the woman’s thoughts had a direct impact on the foetus, and would affect the health and appearance of the child. This was therefore a holistic understanding of the body, which understood “generation” in terms of the universe, magic and God’s creation.
This week’s tittilating reportage therefore tells us more about 2018 than 1720. The book reads more like an NCT class than the Kama Sutra. Georgians were fairly relaxed about bodily pleasure, and did not regard sexuality as a matter for anxiety, neuroses or embarrassment. Our own hangups about sex owe more to the Victorians than their predeccessors.
It was a fun story for Valentine’s Day though. And the auction house are no doubt happy, as an obscure item estimated at around £100 will now probably go for much more than that.
Matthew McCormack

Heritage on CBeebies

This is another instalment in my occasional series on history and children’s TV, following blogs on Thomas the Tank Engine and Teacup Travels. Which may give the reader an insight into what is mostly on our screen at the moment…

Our five year old is currently obsessed with Go Jetters on CBeebies. (His older brother has graduated to CBBC, home of Horrible Histories, but that has been widely dissected elsewhere.) Go Jetters is colourful, fast-paced and funky. In the curricular world of CBeebies, it also has several educational functions. It introduces the topics of geography, problem solving and – most interestingly from my point of view – history and heritage.

The plot of each episode is as follows. The four young Go Jetters fly to a famous landmark with the paternal Ubercorn, a disco-loving unicorn. This is sometimes a natural feature such as the Grand Canyon, but more usually a historic structure such as the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower. Ubercorn then gives them three ‘funky facts’ about the history and significance of the location. They fasten their seatbelts and head down to explore.

When they get there, the site will invariably be ‘glitched’ by their nemesis, Grandmaster Glitch. Glitch is the best thing about the show. He once dropped out of the Go Jetter Academy, and this has apparently turned him into a narcissistic megalomaniac, since he likes to embellish famous landmarks, usually with large amounts of rusty metal, in order to create vast statues in his image.

The Go Jetters instinctively know that this is bad, so go about rescuing the heritage site. They are superhero conservators, with high-tech materiel including robot suits, jetpacks and high-powered magnets. In no time the heritage site is saved so everybody can enjoy it – there are usually lots of tourists with cameras, who are sad when a site is glitched and happy when it is saved. Grandmaster Glitch is foiled (‘grimbes!’) and the Go Jetters take a ‘souvenir selfie’ with the landmark in the background.

The programme therefore encourages children to think about historic sites as heritage sites. They are sites that have to be preserved, both for their own sake but also so that ordinary people can experience them, photograph them and consume them. The Go Jetters are essentially taken to a heritage site by their guardian, who attempts to enthuse them about it – like many a family at the weekend.

In Grandmaster Glitch, there is a humorous critique of the insensitive developer, who has no regard for a site’s historic value or the right of the public to access it. Or perhaps it is drawing attention to the folly of some of the heritage sites themselves: how is Glitch’s desire to erect huge statues of himself any more pompous than, say, Nelson’s Column or Mount Rushmore?

My personal favourite episode is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Go Jetters rush off to visit it without hearing Ubercorn’s funky facts, so don’t realise that the tower is supposed to lean. They therefore fix the tower, only to be greeted by disgruntled tourists and souvenir sellers. Perhaps there is a warning here to the overzealous conservator.

Matthew McCormack

 

Leather at Lunchtime

On 21-23 November, we hosted a series of public events at the National Leather Collection. ‘Leather at Lunchtime’ was funded by the Being Human Festival of the Humanities, and featured in their national programme.

The idea behind the event was to give people an opportunity to explore the history of leather. This versatile material is inextricable from Northampton’s history, economy and even urban design. For decades, Northampton has been the home of the National Leather Collection and, for the first time in years, this collection is now fully accessible to the public in a new museum in the Grosvenor shopping centre.

The opening of the museum coincided nicely with the Being Human festival, and this year’s theme of ‘Lost and Found’ seemed very appropriate, so the History department worked with the National Leather Collection on these public engagement events.

On each of the three days we had stalls by leather crafters and object handling sessions. The History students had a go at making leather crafts such as keyrings and bookmarks (and probably sorted out some of their Christmas presents early).

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We were also lucky enough to have stalls by craftsmen who made historically-accurate leather goods such as shoes, tankards and buckets. These are used by re-enactors, and theatre and film productions. As historians, it was fascinating to learn about the processes involved in making these articles.

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Each day we had a different guest lecture. I did the lecture on the first day, on the history of Georgian boots, illustrated with several examples of footwear from the collection. On the second day we welcomed Tom Rusbridge, who is doing a PhD on eighteenth-century leather goods at Birmingham University. He introduced us to leather drinking vessels, and we had an opportunity to drink John Smiths from a modern replica!

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On the final day, the focus shifted from history to contemporary design. We welcomed Bill Amberg, the renowned leather designer, to talk about his career and the work of his studio.

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Around 120 people visited ‘Leather at Lunchtime’, so it was a lively opening to a museum that will be a fixture of Northampton town centre for years to come. As the university moves into the town centre it will be closely involved with the museum – its leather library will be hosted there, in what will become a major study centre on the material – so the History department hopes to work with them regularly in the future.

Historians and Twitter

Last Wednesday I gave a talk to the English and Creative Writing seminar at the University of Northampton, about how historians use social media and blogs. As I tend to do, I put a quick announcement on Twitter.

Blogging

Jessica Meyer, a historian from Leeds University, asked if I was going to podcast the talk and I replied that I would probably write a blog instead. So here it is.

Some of the talk was about the range of things that we as a department do online – much of it can be viewed on or via this revamped blog site, so I won’t go into that here. But one issue I touched on was why history as a discipline has really taken to Twitter. This is something that I have been thinking about for a while, so I thought I might develop it here.

The impression I get from using social media is that historians use Twitter more than many disciplines. Clearly we aren’t the only ones – my colleague Jeff Ollerton tells me that it is huge in the biological sciences, for example – but we do seem to use it more than our adjacent subjects in the humanities. We had an entertaining discussion at the seminar about the possible reasons why it has not been taken up to quite the same extent in literature. Poets often use it, since their craft lends itself to Twitter’s enforced brevity of expression (although the recent shift from 140 to 280 characters takes some of the pressure off in this respect). Colleagues in the audience who work on novels joked about  whether the same was true for them!

Lots of historians are on Twitter: the ones at Northampton alone are listed at the bottom of this post. The field as a whole even has its own hashtag, #twitterstorians, which is a great way to reach large numbers of us, working on many diverse areas.

But why is Twitter so popular among historians? My theory is that we tend to work on our own but we like talking to people. Historians usually conform to the ‘lone scholar’ model, and even those working in research teams or on joint projects tend to do their own thing from day to day. But we like sharing stuff: history is all about discovery and debate, and Twitter’s format lends itself to sharing snippets of information and punchy opinions.

The immediacy of the format lends itself to topical comment. Historians like to connect the past to the present, and microblogging is a great way to make quick points about parallels or precedents. The popularity of ‘on this day in history’ twitter accounts relates to this. The format also encourages ‘hot takes’ about contemporary events and many historians like doing this – much in the way they might drop a throwaway comment or joke into a lecture.

The openness of Twitter (as opposed to closed platforms like Facebook) also fits the historian, since sharing information about the past is what we do. We are usually a generous lot. Requests for help, such as palaeography quandries, quickly get responses. I know from my work on soldiers that it was a great way to get information about factual details or individuals, especially from the historical reenactor community who are hugely knowledgeable about issues like military materiel. The fact that history is a ‘crossover’ discipline that is accessible and interesting to the general public is a good fit for a platform that knows no barriers.

Finally, the format of the blog or microblog is arguably a liberating one for historians. As with all disciplines, historians have a very particular genre of writing. Whereas scholars in the sciences and social sciences tend to reflect on their research experiences in their published work, this is generally excised from historical writing, which hides the author and aims for narrative closure. Many journals now have an accompanying blog, where writers can publish a piece parallel to their new article in the journal itself. So the ‘historical’ writing goes in the article and the reflection goes in the blog. I wrote one recently, where I reflected on the experience of working on the material culture of shoes for an article in Social History. More regularly, it is fascinating to see glimpses into other historians’ work processes in their daily grumbles, pleas for help and ‘eureka!’ moments on Twitter.

So that’s my theory. Others will no doubt disagree or will have other suggestions – but that’s what Twitter is for, isn’t it?

 

Northampton historians on Twitter

@historyatnmpton – Tweets from the history corridor, managed by Drew Gray

@SearchltArchive – Tweets from the Searchlight Archive, managed by Daniel Jones

@JECSjournal – Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies

@pnjackson101 – Paul Jackson

@historymatt – Matthew McCormack

@C_L_Nielsen – Caroline Nielsen

@mroth61 – Mark Rothery