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Dear NACBS community,

Access to research materials has become more difficult than ever in these unusual times. Given this, NACBS has worked with Adam Matthew to make their research databases available to all of our members who are PhD candidates. They will also provide access to thirty more of our members who do not have access through their employers; this group will be helped on a first come, first served basis. We are extremely grateful to Adam Matthew for allowing us to make use of these materials.

For access information, please contact Executive Director Laura Beers at [email protected]

With best wishes for your research,

The NACBS Executive Committee
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NACBS 2020 Will Now Take Place Online

Posted by rdaily under annual conference, COVID19 | 0 Comments

Dear NACBS Members,

In light of continuing concerns about Covid-19, the NACBS Executive and Council have decided to move this year's conference online rather than meet in Chicago. 

We are excited about the new conference model that Kate Staples and the program committee have begun to build. They will be in touch soon with those who submitted paper, panel, and workshop proposals. All other NACBS activities—our prize competitions, production of the Journal of British Studies, our mentorship and other programs—continue uninterrupted. Admission to this year’s conference will be free to all NACBS members.

We look forward to seeing you online this fall, and to gathering again in person in the not-too-distant future.

With best wishes,

NACBS Executive Committee
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“Dr. Short and Global Environmental History”

Ruma Chopra, Professor of History at San José State and winner of the 2019 NACBS-Folger Fellowship, on researching at the Folger Shakespeare Library for her forthcoming book, “Before Darwin: Early Modern Transitions in the Understanding of Climate”

Dr. Thomas Short’s nearly 1000-page assessment of the relationship between climates and diseases stands out as a gem in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. Published in 1749, his two-volume history, A general chronological history of the air, weather, seasons, meteors, &c. in sundry places and different times, correlates astronomical and climatic conditions to a variety of diseases in the world by placing hundreds of scattered episodes in one chronological sequence. Dr. Short’s spatial orientation – akin to map-making -  adds a critical dimension to our understanding about the process of globalization, the focus of my book project, “Before Darwin: Early Modern Transitions in the Understanding of Climate.”

We associate the eighteenth and nineteenth century West with plantation slavery, revolutionary upheaval, industrialization, and European colonization across the globe. But this era, which ended with a second European wave of colony-grabbing in Africa and Asia, shared another critical dimension, one that complicates the picture of our typical cast of industrialists and the imperialists. This dimension of empire was so fundamental and obvious as to have passed unnoticed. Put simply, European colonizers in India and Africa, in the Caribbean islands, as well as in Canada, waged a silent war with diseases in unfamiliar climates. In an age before central heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, and other amenities that remove people from the natural world’s direct and immediate influence, people were literally “surrounded” by the natural elements in ways that seem alien to most of us today. Widely-held beliefs about climate’s effects on bodies created worries: Heat and cold could “invade” bodies; they could cause diseases and influence behavior in ways that appeared entirely possible. In the words of  the French hygienist Jean-Christian Boudin, bodies could only adapt by turning “Hottentot in Southern Africa and Eskimo in Antarctica.” This price of acclimatization was too high. Dr. Short’s work, an eighteen-year project which placed diseases as well as earthquakes, hurricanes, and meteors in the same chronological and spatial framework, suggests an exhaustive effort at planetary order, an attempt to impose an intellectual system on inherently untidy phenomenon. 

Thomas Short's table pulls the world into one chronological frame

Ironically, the environment’s central relationship to empire and to early modern thought structures requires excavation and not merely explication. Illuminating this history poses formidable challenges because no records have been preserved with the convenient keyword of “nature” or “climate.” Yet, climate is ubiquitous in documents relating to exploration, nationalisms, missionary expeditions, transplantations of people, military recruitment, and longevity. It appears in personal documents such as love letters and diaries, in shared correspondence such as missionary records, and in widely circulated natural histories. “Before Darwin” involves a creative and exhaustive filtering, a retrieval and an analysis that exposes moments in which climate played an essential role.

Thomas Short describes environmental extremes in Jamaica and Germany for 1688 

This project has taken me to various archives in the Caribbean, as well as in London and Oxford. The collections at the Folger stand out as especially important for conceptualizing the framework of “Before Darwin.” First, because the sources range from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, they allowed me to explore hard-to-prove shifts in cultural emphasis. Second, the variety of sources on hand ­– almanacs, travelogues, calendars, essays on natural history and longevity as well as physicians’ comprehensive histories – provided an avenue to consider climatic metaphors from vantage points not readily available in other archives. Curators, fellows, onsite presentations, and regular tea-and-cookie breaks created a wonderfully rich and collaborative experience.

In a recent review of Alexander von Humboldt’s Selected Writings, Joyce Chaplin rightly notes that  environmental history is not “thrillingly new.” Early modern historians have deeply investigated how ideas about the climate, and the environment generally, shaped the West’s encounters with the world. Charles J. Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967) established why theories of “airs, waters and places” need to be considered in their own right. “Before Darwin” draws upon these foundational efforts to explore how conceptions of human fallibility and even death interconnected with ideas about global climate. Dr. Short’s work points to one of the reigning paradigms used to imagine peoples and places in faraway places: what connected us globally was our frailty to diseases and our vulnerability to catastrophe. 

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The NABCS has extended the deadlines for its Dissertation and Pre-Dissertation grants to June 1, in the hopes that graduate student applicants will be better equipped to make informed plans about travel and research.  Nonetheless, the selection committee understands that applicants' proposed plans may necessarily be provisional.  Please visit the pre-dissertation grant  or dissertation fellowship prize pages for further application guidelines.  

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Captivity, Confinement and Incarceration

NACBS Workshop Call for Proposals

“British Liberty” has never precluded confinement. This workshop explores forms of captivity and unfreedom in the British Isles and British Empire. We invite papers that consider slavery, hostage-taking, war captivity, debt imprisonment, medical quarantine, the detention of political suspects, sanctuary, the confinement of refugees and social outsiders, and punitive incarceration. We will ask how to conceptualize the relationship between different forms of confinement, and how practices of holding persons in a state of captivity were reconciled with the “birthrights of Englishmen.” Other questions include: How were confinement and captivity mediated by race, gender, social class, and geography? How was captivity institutionalized at different historical moments? Is Foucault’s paradigm of a “great confinement” or a modern “carceral archipelago” still useful? How do histories of confinement shed light on incarceration in the world today?

Participants will be chosen with a view to the complementarity of their research topics and strong preference will be given to graduate students and early career scholars.

The session will include 6-8 pre-circulated papers of 6,000-8,000 words each. Participants must be prepared to submit their papers by 1 October 2020. Each participant will be required to read all papers for the session, and to share written comments on two of the papers, prior to the conference. The session itself will include brief presentations and discussions of each paper, followed by a more extensive conversation between participants and the audience around common questions and themes.

Those interested must submit a CV and a one-page abstract to Rachel Weil ([email protected]) and Aidan Forth ([email protected]) by April 30th. The organizers will endeavor to announce results by the middle of May. Please title your email “NACBS Workshop Proposal.”

Note: Some financial assistance will be available for graduate students (up to US$500) and for a limited number of under/unemployed NACBS members within ten years of their terminal degree (US$300). Details of these travel grants will be posted to and emailed to members once the 2020 meeting program is prepared.

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Interview with Tiraana Bains

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: imperialism, South Asia | 0 Comments

Tiraana Bains, PhD candidate at Yale and winner of a 2019 NACBS Dissertation Travel Grant, shares some of her research on “Making and Debating Imperial Transitions in South Asia, circa 1756-1799”

Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah (r. 1749-1795), the Nawab of Arcot, a principality on the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent, was an inveterate composer of lengthy missives, in Persian and in translation, to a range of British figures. It may hardly be surprising that he wrote to prominent English East India Company officials such as Robert Clive, whose own rise to prominence was inextricable from his successful seizure of Arcot from the French-supported Chanda Sahib. What might appear to be more surprising is that the Nawab did not restrict his petitions, complaints, and diplomatic overtures to members of the Company hierarchy in South Asia. Rather, he actively undermined the Company’s claims to authority in the East Indies by maintaining correspondences with prominent figures in metropolitan Britain, including Lord North, Lord Shelburne, and George III. These letters reveal the shrewd political machinations of the Nawab. Equally, they demonstrate that the Nawab was not merely acting pragmatically; he was also deploying his knowledge of British political institutions to put forward a particular vision of what British imperium in South Asia could resemble, not to mention the reconfiguration of Mughal imperium. The Nawab of Arcot not only wrote letters; he also dispatched carefully selected gifts. If one were to visit the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, or the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, one would find the painted likeness of the Nawab, portraits being one of the many objects he regularly gifted his addressees. The range of the Nawab’s correspondents, the substance of his letters and indeed, the spread of the archives and museums in which one might find the Nawab’s imprint all point to the crux of my dissertation: that the formation of a British imperial state in eighteenth century South Asia was shaped by multiple actors, British and South Asian, many of whom were located outside the political centers of London and Calcutta.

With the support of the NACBS Travel Grant, I have been able to study the ways in which diverse eighteenth century actors, from the Nawab of Arcot to humble salt workers, articulated and debated their own conceptions of British imperial rule in South Asia. Through the process of tracing both mundane and more momentous musings on how imperial authority ought to operate, I was struck anew by the sheer variety of materials housed across multiple British archives that could be brought to bear on such a study of imperial state formation. While the India Office Records held by the British Library are undoubtedly the most exhaustive collection for any study of the East India Company (EIC) and British governance in South Asia, even relatively smaller, seemingly provincial archives and libraries possess a wealth of material associated with the evolving British presence in eighteenth century South Asia. The Nawab of Arcot’s letters and papers, sometimes accompanied by the original seal, have found their way into multiple collections and archives, from Edinburgh to Maidstone. Pamphlets, notices, songs, analyses of faux epic poems, and caricatures in many such archives attest to everyday discussions of a British state-in-formation in South Asia.

The pervasive presence of materials from and about South Asia demonstrates that the subject of “East India” politics was a dominant and pressing concern for many Britons in the second half of the eighteenth century. It did not simply erupt into prominence in moments of spectacle such as the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings. The lives and livelihoods of tradesman and merchants were inextricably linked to the commercial policies and currents governing the East India trade. Indeed, the clamor over the right and freedom to trade with the East Indies had long framed debates about the future of the EIC across the British Empire, from England itself to Ireland and North America. Moreover, politicians and parliamentarians of all stripes recognized that the transformation of British governance in South Asia was not a matter extraneous to the fortunes of the British Isles. In other words, they believed and often argued that there could be no neat boundary drawn between ostensibly local or domestic affairs and imperial or foreign affairs. Accordingly, in the midst of especially quarrelsome parliamentary sessions dedicated to debate over so called “East India bills,” multiple parliamentarians made the case that the remaking of British governance in South Asia was a matter of far-reaching constitutional importance.

Researching plans and schemes for the government of India, some more fanciful than others, I discovered interlinked discussions surrounding other imperial spaces. The desk of William Pitt the Younger was covered with intelligence and proposals from agents in Ireland, Jamaica, and India. Such volumes of official correspondence that swerve swiftly between discussions of trade in the Indian ocean and the question of abolishing slavery in the Atlantic world encompass the possibilities for studying the making, unmaking, and remaking of the British Empire in the late eighteenth century as a truly interconnected and global phenomenon. I am grateful for the NACBS’s generosity in facilitating this opportunity to visit multiple archives in Britain and work my way through this array of diverse materials.

Portrait of Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah by George Willison. Displayed in the Asia and Africa Studies Reading Room at the British Library, London. Photo Credit: British Library

Tiraana Bains


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Stephanie Barczewski
Clemson University 
Like many of us, I have had difficulty focusing on much except the coronavirus pandemic for the last few weeks. So, I decided to turn my lack of attention on anything else to a minor historical research project.

As I heard reports of the spread of coronavirus around the world, it struck me that, in a number of former British colonies, travelers – in some cases returning citizens and in others tourists or overseas visitors -- from the United Kingdom were responsible for bringing the first case of coronavirus to those countries.

This led me to a question: were the historical ties resulting from older colonial and continuing postcolonial relationships more responsible for spreading coronavirus than the ties of present-day globalization? The answer is yes, though it’s a close race.

Of sixty former British colonies, twelve (officially anyway) have no cases of coronavirus as of March 27 (Botswana, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Nauru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvaluand, Vanuatu and Yemen). For one other (Barbados) I was unable to determine the source of its first case.

Of the remaining forty-seven, coronavirus was brought to eleven of them (23.4 percent) by travelers from the United Kingdom, either tourists or their own returning citizens. The eleven are: Antigua and Barbuda, Cyprus, Dominica, the Gambia, Grenada, Jamaica, Mauritius, Myanmar, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Zimbabwe.

The United Kingdom was tied with China as the leading bringer of the virus to its former colonies. In six (12.8 percent), the virus was brought by someone from Iran; in five (10.6 percent) by someone from the United States; and in four (8.5 percent) by someone from Italy.

Of thirteen current British Overseas Territories, seven (the Falkland Islands, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, South Georgia Island, Tristan de Cunha and the Turks and Caicos Islands) have no cases of coronavirus as of March 27. For one other, the British Virgin Islands, I was unable to determine whether there was a British source of its first case.[1]

Of the remaining five, coronavirus was brought to two (40 percent) by travelers from the United Kingdom, again either tourists or their own returning citizens.

If we add the former colonies and current overseas territories together, travelers from the United Kingdom were responsible for bringing coronavirus to thirteen of fifty-two (25 percent), a larger proportion than any other source. China is once again in second with eleven (21.2 percent), with the USA, Iran and Italy again next in line. It’s important to note that Chinese tourists take around 160 million trips outside the country each year, while British tourists take only 75 million, and around two-thirds of those are to the European continent, which means that the United Kingdom is playing a relatively bigger role as well as an absolutely bigger one. Although tourists, at least from what I can glean from press reports, are not the main issue: in only three of the thirteen cases were tourists the first bringer of the virus to a particular country. In ten, it was brought by a returning resident of the country who had traveled to the United Kingdom. (I would speculate that many of those ten were probably visiting relatives.)

Assessed regionally, the role played by travelers from Britain in spreading the virus was by far the strongest in the Caribbean, with eight of the thirteen nations located there (Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). Next comes Africa with three (the Gambia, Mauritius and Zimbabwe), and the Mediterranean (Cyprus) and Southeast Asia (Myanmar) contain one each. So the global impact was far from uniform.

The ties of empire are therefore still strong, particularly in the Caribbean, when it comes to determining the patterns of global travel, and unfortunately in this case in the determining the routes that a virus takes in its spread around the world.

This is obviously quick-and-dirty analysis, and I’d love to hear more thoughts and insight from my fellow NACBS members.

[1] The first two cases arrived in the British Virgin Islands on 26 March and are categorized as being from ‘Europe and the United States’.

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Interview with Jonathan Connolly

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: labour, south africa, walter d. love | 0 Comments

Jonathan Connolly is the recipient of the 2019 Walter D. Love Prize. Connolly’s winning article (for the best entry in British history) was “Indentured Labour Migration and the Meaning of Emancipation: Free Trade, Race, and Labour in British Public Debate, 1838-1860,” Past & Present 238 (February 2018).

In August 2020, he will take up his new position as assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

 How did you become interested in this topic?

Early on in graduate school, I began reading about indenture in the South African context, where I was interested broadly in processes of imperial expansion. Like many I think, I was struck by how quickly the indenture system took shape, so soon after abolition. An interest in origins led me to the southern Caribbean and then in particular to Mauritius. As I read more, I became increasingly concerned not only with what indenture ‘was,’ but with how it was represented. Many of my interests and nascent commitments as a historian involved the political culture of imperial rule—attempts to understand and rationalize power. So my earliest question, the question that eventually led to this article, was ‘why did indenture become less controversial over time?’ By extension, ‘how was indenture rationalized, alongside Britain’s commitment to antislavery?’ And, ‘what might debate on indenture tell us about the concept of “emancipation” and what it did and didn’t mean?’

Did you make any particularly important archival findings? Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research? 

I relied mainly on newspapers and other public representations for this project, and many of the individual articles I read are fascinating in their own right, rhetorically and politically. But if there was a sense of ‘breakthrough,’ it came through the gradual realization of a longer-term pattern of change. Seeing the dramatic transformation in the Times’ position on indenture for example, over the course of twenty-odd years. That pattern made many individual claims all the more striking. Meanwhile, teaching also played a significant role. In the midst of the project, I taught a small seminar on antislavery and abolition. Rereading canonical antislavery texts (with students encountering them for the first time, no less) helped emphasize how later representations of indenture subverted antislavery ideals, often radically.

Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?

I certainly hope so. My earlier training in comparative literature played a role in generating the project and in the close reading of political language more generally. One of the article’s key themes is discursive normalization, which is I think of interest broadly in cultural studies, but also potentially in the social sciences, especially historical sociology. And certainly the article takes inspiration from an interdisciplinary methodological tradition traceable back at least to Said: that is, the use of interpretive methods to uncover how, historically, particular modes of thought have helped justify and enable particular relations of power.

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

In large part, the project was an attempt to understand how indenture, in spite of its severities, came to be seen as a natural part of the modern world. If scholarly work on humanitarianism often foregrounds moments of recognition, histories of emancipation may emphasize an inverse trajectory: about the hiding of violence and responsibility. That dynamic is of both historical and contemporary interest. In this case, the logic that emerged in favor of indenture in the 1850s bears a striking resemblance to something that may seem inevitable today: that patterns of mass consumption in parts of the world depend on extreme low-wage labor far away.

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

The article is part of a larger book project, tentatively titled Worthy of Freedom. The focus of the project initially concerned political culture and ideologies of power, as this article attests. But over time, the project grew larger and more diverse methodologically. In addition to the ideology of indenture, the book examines the system’s legal structure and its local and global economic effects. I endeavor to show how the legal category of ‘free labor’ changed over time, and trace a set of private, official debates on the subject, whose trajectory largely mirrors that of the public debates analyzed in the article. Meanwhile, I became fascinated by the ways in which indenture shaped the political economy of emancipation, and by the material relationship between indenture and free trade. I published some of my economic arguments focused on state debt in “Indenture as Compensation: State Funding for Labor Migration in the Era of Emancipation,” Slavery & Abolition 40, no. 3 (2019). A key interest and challenge for the book is interweaving these three levels of analysis.

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Interview with Melissa Glass

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: early modern, essay prize | 0 Comments

Melissa Glass of Dalhousie University, winner of the 2019 NACBS M.A. Essay Prize, tells us about her project, “‘The Rust of Antiquity’? Print Culture, Custom, and the Manorial Court Guidebooks of Early Modern England”

I have a reputation among my friends for being a bit obsessed with manor courts. My twitter handle is even @ManorCourts, for goodness sake (which, yes, is both evidence of my obsession and shameless self-promotion)! Manor courts were local administrative and judicial tribunals in medieval and early modern England that functioned partly as small claims courts and partly as forums to resolve issues that impacted the community—all administrated by the landlord and his steward representative. Usually held twice a year, these courts expected participation from people throughout the manorial community in order to settle minor disputes between tenants (especially regarding debts), create local byelaws (especially to protect communal agricultural resources), and present and punish misdemeanours that disrupted the peace. They also created a public record of customary land transactions, elected local officials, and ensured all obligations to the landlord were met. At their heyday before the Black Death, at least 10,000 of these courts existed throughout England, but they slowly and steadily dwindled as economic and social circumstances changed and other institutions gained power—especially parishes and the petty sessions of the Justices of the Peace. These courts left behind terse entries written in Latin on parchment rolls and books, with very few details regarding the events’ circumstances or the court’s decision-making process. Their quotidian entries with lack of context or explanation make manor court records simultaneously revealing, yet opaque sources.

I first stumbled upon the existence of manor courts at the Lancashire Archives in Preston, England, while I was on a semester studying abroad in the UK as an undergraduate student. It was my first time at an archive, and I was looking for a topic for my honours thesis. I started ordering—almost randomly—the oldest documents in the archive, mostly just for the thrill of handling parchment that was over 450 years old for the first time. My first discovery was the manor court rolls from the Honour of Clitheroe. The challenge of the handwriting and Latin was initially very daunting, but luckily the archive had a published translation of the records, and a new window into the world of early modern England suddenly opened up to me. The squabbles between individuals, the attempts to manage shared resources as a group of neighbours, and the complex arrangements of land sales were not at all what I had expected from this “antique” society. The idea that nearly every community in medieval and early modern England had a public institution where everyday problems could be sorted out and recorded, and that many of these records still existed, simply blew my mind.

My honours undergraduate thesis ultimately became a close examination of the early Elizabethan records of the Honour of Clitheroe, and I am currently completing my master’s thesis on women’s role at a variety of manor courts from 1558 to 1700. I started my master’s program at Dalhousie University by taking a seminar on “Print Culture in Early Modern England” with my supervisor, Dr. Krista Kesselring. In this class, I realized that before I progressed any further with my research I needed a better understanding of what these courts were, how people viewed them at the time, and how they fit into the broader English legal system. I turned to the various manuals that were written for court stewards that provided step-by-step instructions on how to properly run a manor court. These manuals explained whose participation at the courts was expected, what issues were within the courts’ jurisdiction, and added some thoughts on how these courts had come into being. This essay won me the 2019 NACBS MA essay prize—possibly only due to the wonderful wealth of material provided by Early English Books Online. I was particularly interested in a group of manuals written between 1561 to 1666 because they were the first ones written in English as opposed to Latin or French (making them accessible to a wider audience) and they were written during the manor court’s main period of decline. I was much less interested in the authors’ detailed explanations of court procedure than in their brief but illuminating comments on the broader function of the manor courts in English society. I scoured the texts for clues about the authors’ opinions hidden in between dry, legalistic descriptions.

Ultimately, I found that the legal scholars who wrote these guidebooks saw manor courts as a still necessary but old-fashioned form of justice without a clear role in the legal system moving forward. The function of custom and communal memory, so fundamental to local manorial courts, continued to play an important role in the organization of early modern English society, but these unwritten “ancient” customs were increasingly in tension with broader cultural impulses towards codification and uniformity. The authors nevertheless treated manor courts as subjects worthy of study, examining them with sincerity and solemnity as institutions integral to the traditional functioning of the commonwealth and the execution of justice throughout the country. However, these guidebooks helped to articulate an ideal form of court procedure, which, apart from never actually existing in any one court, ultimately hindered the flexibility and localism that had been so central to manor courts’ operation for many centuries. This genre of early modern manorial court guidebooks demonstrates an unusually clear sense of the transition from “medieval” to “modern”.

I am hoping to start a PhD in early modern English history in September 2021, and my research is broadening into a much wider range of topics as I progress. But I believe that focusing on manor courts as an undergraduate and master’s student has helped me to build a stronger foundation of knowledge than many other subjects would have done. In studying manor courts, I have had to become familiar with early modern agricultural practices, the economics of the land market, the social dynamics and politics of landlord-tenant relations, how civil litigation could transfer between jurisdictions, the importance of stewards and lawyers in the countryside, women’s work, and the impact of coverture—and much, much more. Writing my essay on manorial court guidebooks was essential for helping me to develop a holistic understanding of the often-disparate pieces of daily life that were handled by manor courts and place them within the intellectual context of their time. It is truly an honour and so encouraging that this research has been recognized by the NACBS – thank you!

Melissa Glass with fellow NACBS prize winner, Zach Bates of the University of Calgary, at the 2019 NACBS in Vancouver. 


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Interview with Penelope Ismay

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: Friendly Societies , Penelope Ismay, Stansky Prize | 0 Comments

Interview with Penelope Ismay, Boston College

Co-winner of the 2019 Stansky Prize for best book in post-1800 British Studies, Trust Among Strangers: Friendly Societies in Modern Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2018)


How did you become interested in this topic?

I came to graduate school interested in modernity; it was EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class that pointed me in the direction of friendly societies. I had been dissatisfied with the old stories of modernization because they seemed to suggest that competing individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest inadvertently produced social cooperation. I could not understand how people trusted such individuals. Reading Thompson, I came across the mention he made of friendly societies, an organization I had never heard of. I was shocked to learn later that these mutual aid societies were the largest working-class organization of the nineteenth century. Yet in his book about the making of the working class, an 800+ page book, Thompson mentions an organization with millions of working-class members only three times. Friendly societies seemed like a missing link that might help me tell a new story of social cooperation in modern societies.

Which archives and/or collections did you find most helpful?
I conducted research at the national archives in London, but then toured the country, visiting as many local archives with friendly society records as I could. Local archives gave me access to the minute books of local Odd Fellow lodges, covering many years in the institutional life of individual societies. This enabled me to follow the way members talked about the problems they encountered and the dead ends they hit before they found a solution that worked. One problem that kept coming up again and again was the problem of trust, both trust in other people and trust in institutions. How could they trust the strangers knocking on their door claiming to be Odd Fellows from some other town? And why should they be obligated to relieve such strangers even if they were legitimate Odd Fellows? By tracing their solutions, including the ones that failed, I began to see larger patterns emerge. The shape of the national system of reciprocity was a result of the process through which the members solved problems of trust over the years.

Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research?
 Yes! I remember it clearly. Historians had long assumed that the Odd Fellows had been part of a system of extra-local reciprocity since the eighteenth century that merely expanded in response to industrialization. But as I tried to find traces of these connections in order to flesh it out, it became apparent no such system existed. The crackdown on associational life during the French Revolution effectively eliminated any functional institutional ties between lodges. So, how the working class members of isolated Odd Fellow lodges in the early nineteenth century built an international organization that, by the end of the century, distributed tens of thousands of pounds annually in mutual aid became my story.

Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?
My project engages a number of other disciplines, most notably sociology. My historical questions tend to be sociological in nature, how do modern societies work? How is cooperation achieved in a society of strangers? They are versions of questions that people have been asking for hundreds of years. The trick for me as a historian was finding versions of these questions as they emerged historically. Obviously, as Britain changed so radically over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people wondered how the whole thing would hold together. So, I tried to listen to how they talked about it, what solutions they offered, and how they justified those solutions.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?
The idea that you are now the historian, leading other historians through a story of your own creation, is scary enough to generate some extraordinary anxiety and some extraordinarily creative procrastination techniques. The strategy that worked for me was to observe myself in these moments and note the steps I took before I finally sat down to write. I learned to understand these steps as “my process.” In fact, I wrote them down on a sticky note and then the next time it happened I tried to accept that there would be a process that unfolded before the writing happened, but that the writing would in fact happen. Because we are all so different, I think the best thing to do is to keep asking other scholars how they approach it. Sometimes learning that everyone experiences some version of a fear can diminish it. My only other advice is to celebrate every accomplishment of research and writing, no matter how small.

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.? 
It strikes me that if there is not anything new under the sun, we might do worse than to listen to some of the ideas that intelligent people in the past articulated for solving the problems we continue to face.

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?
I am working on a book about the different kinds of boundaries Victorians drew around self-interest. It is a new project. But it addresses questions related to those I examined in Trust Among Strangers, about how modern societies hold together. Economic self-interest used to go a long way in explaining how strangers could engage in economic exchange and cooperate socially. A number of early Victorians certainly held this belief. But after the 1850s, such a view was hard to sustain. Faced with increasingly regular financial crises, rampant political corruption, and a revolution in family relations, Victorians gave as much attention to the dangers as to the merits of self-interest. I am interested in the new ways they talked about bounding it.
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Priya Satia
Rights Task Force
speaker series
test category
walter d love prize
Zoom Session
“White House Conference on American History”


Affiliated Organisations