Have we learned anything from the past?Or are we as superstitious as our early modern ancestors?


History is supposed to give us a sense of perspective, some way of understanding current events by looking backwards, at those in the past.

I’ve seen some very good articles, comments and blogs on the 1919 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic (which wasn’t Spanish at all of course), and some reflections on how our ancestors coped with the ‘Black Death’ and outbreaks of the plague at various points in the past. The waves of cholera  that hit Britain and Europe in the nineteenth century also offer us some context for understanding (and possibly coping with) what is to us at least, an unprecedented pandemic.

But even a cursory glance at social media this weekend reminds me that for all the advances in medical knowledge, for all our modern technological superiority, for all that mass education has achieved in the past 150 years we are, in fact, very closely connected with our ancestors.

It is easy to look back at the ancients with their multitude of gods that had to be appeased; at medieval people with their belief that the world was flat and their unshakable faith in God; at early modern Europeans who believed in witches that could fly to sabbats where they communed with the Devil.  These might all seem crazy to us but were widespread beleifs in the past.


And I’m sure there are many more examples of the beliefs and actions of people in the past that we would find ridiculous, unbelievable, or simply mad.

But it only takes a great event – a tragedy, a war, a natural disaster, or a pandemic – to turn us back into the gullible, frightened, and credulous people we so often fail to understand in the past.

This current pandemic (CV-19, or coronavirus) is not man made but of course it is spread by mankind. That is why the instructions to stay at home, to wash your hands, to avoid unnecessary contact with others, is sensible. At a time like this we should listen to the scientists, to experts, who, even if they themselves do not yet have all the answers to how this disease has come to cause such chaos in the world, are best placed to find those answers.

Be assured folks, the answer won’t come from minor TV celebrities, from washed out boxers, from fake tanned US presidents, or some bloke ‘down the (virtual) pub’.

Yet now some people would prefer to believe in a conspiracy theory rather than the advice of women and men who have trained their whole lives in the science of pandemic diseases. Just as some people prefer to believe that 9/11 was a US plot against Islam, that the Moon landings never happened, that JFK was killed by the Russians, or that aliens roam amongst and that the Queen and Prince Phillip are 9’ shape-changing lizards. images

Conspiracy theories are fun when they remain the strange musings of people who’ve had too much weed or surface in science fiction or the movies. But when they start to infect mainstream discourse, via social media and the internet superhighway, they become dangerous.


Why do we believe in them when reason screams out against doing so?

Well, I suspect that just like our ancestors we choose to believe in anything that seems to offer hope or point blame at someone else. Something that absolves us of any blame or necessity to curb our own behaviour. But also because very many people (far too many in my opinion) are simply ignorant and easily influenced by rumour, especially if that rumour is propagated by persons that they look up to.

In the past that might have been the clergy, the Church, the keepers of knowledge in many people’s eyes. Now the clergy are virtually redundant, consigned in many western countries to a small clique. Now we should value science but so few of us understand science so limited is its teaching in school, that we choose the easy path and valorise celebrity.

If someone with a million followers on Twitter says it, it must be true, however stupid. If Donald Trump says it must be true, however incredulous it may be. We are not so far removed from our medieval or early modern ancestors then, but it is high time we took control of our own lives and our own ignorance and, once this is all behind us, set about educating the public properly.

CV-19 is spread by people, it is real, it is not fake news, or a conspiracy to introduce 5G by the back door. A tin foil hat will not save you and your loved ones, but good hand hygiene, social distancing, and listening to medical experts just might.

Stay at home, stay safe.

Drew Gray, Head of Humanities, University of Northampton.


Comfort food always helps in a crisis, so here’s a very cheap recipe to keep you going.


Hello everyone.

As we struggle with the uncertainty and disruption to normal life that the Coronavirus pandemic has brought I thought it might be nice to share some basic ways to cope with isolation and a reduction in social interactions.

I am staying at home as much as possible but have stocked up (sensibly, not by panic buying) on the basics for everyday life. I love to cook and have been cooking since my teens but I recognise that quite a few of my students either don’t cook or can’t cook. When you are relying on takeaways and ready meals a crisis like this can look even more daunting.

So, starting today I thought I’d post a series of simple meals that anyone can make (so long as they’ve access to a kitchen that is!). If anyone else from the History team at Northampton wants to get involved and post their own recipes, the more the merrier! Who knows by the end of the crisis we might have enough for our own recipe book 🙂

Today’s is one of the simplest soups know to mankind – leek and potato. It is tasty, healthy, and super easy to make. It will take you 30-45 minutes so within an hour you’ve got a great healthy (and very cheap) lunch or light supper.

Drew’s Leek and potato soup 


You will need: 

One gas or electric hob ring.

A largish saucepan.

a chopping board and sharp knife.

A blender if possible (stick blenders like this one are ideal). NB don’t worry if you can’t blend your soup, it’s lovely as it is. IMG_2961

1 large leek

1 medium sized onion

1 large or 2 medium sized potatoes

About 1 litre of vegetable stock (made by adding boiling water to a veggie stock cube) – you can use chicken stock if you prefer but it won’t be vegan or veggie.

About a tablespoon of olive oil (you can use sunflower or vegetable oil just as well) and/or a large knob of butter. (Butter will make this richer but its not vegan).

Salt and pepper and (if possible) a bay leaf or two (these are easy to get from the shops and last for ages so they won’t go off).

Wash your hands !!!

Ok, to start with peel and roughly chop your onion . It doesn’t have to be too fine. Then slice the leek lengthways and separate the layers. You can now wash it under the tap holding on to the end where the root is. Make sure you get all the dirt out.

Now chop the leek in to slices about 1cm think. Again, don’t be too worried about perfection here!


Finally peel and chop the potato (above) into 1-2cm sized pieces.



You’re now ready to cook. 

Hate the oil and/or butter in the saucepan and quickly add your onion. Don’t have the heat too high, you want to gently soften the onion not burn it. When it is beginning to look a little translucent add the leeks. Cook for about 5-10 minutes until the leeks look nice and soft and have reduced down in the pan. Stir them from time to time so they don’t burn.

Now add the chopped potatoes, stir so everything gets nicely mixed together and pour in the stock.


Add some salt (a large pinch should do it), a grind of black pepper, and a bay leaf or two.


Bring to a gentle boil, turn the hurt down and simmer for about 20-25 minutes.

The idea is to make sure everything is cooked, the leeks and onion are soft, and the potato is beginning to break up. Test it with a spoon (right). IMG_2962

The soup is now pretty much ready to eat. You can taste it (be careful it will be very hot – potato really retains its heat – so wait a few minutes) and add some more salt and pepper if you think it needs it.

Take out the bay leaf (you can eat them but they aren’t nice to eat!)

At this point you can ladle it in bowls and eat but I prefer it blended so take it away from the heat, let it cool for five more minutes and attack it with a stick blender.

Be careful that the head of the blender is always under the liquid or you will pebbledash your kitchen (and yourself) with hot soup!

Once you’ve blended it for a few minutes it will be mostly smooth but check for escaped potato cubes. If you want to be really fancy you can pass it through a large sieve for super smoothness.


Now all you need is a bowl (or two or three if you are feeding others), a spoon, and perhaps some bread. This recipe will make enough for 3-4 hungry people so you can either eat seconds or let it cool, cover, and keep it in the fridge and have for lunch tomorrow or the next day.



oh, and when you’ve done…wash your hands again.