The Social History Society Conference

Last week I attended the Social History Society’s annual conference, this year at the University of Northumbria. This was my first visit to the conference and it will definitely not be my last. I went to some excellent papers and was lucky enough to chair a panel that one audience member described as the best panel of any conference he had ever attended (it was very good indeed). The panels were organised around several themes, and I spent most (if not all) of my time at the life-cycles and life-styles papers. However, I was sorry to miss some of the other papers and have promised myself that next year I will try to branch out a little bit more.

Here is a quick summary of just one or two of the papers that I really enjoyed.

Hortus Sanitatis: bed bugs, delousing. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Hortus Sanitatis: bed bugs, delousing.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The panel I chaired was on bodily health in the early modern period and feature four papers. I won’t talk about all of these as the post is getting rather long, but I want to mention so parts. Sasha Handley‘s on regulating sleep for physical and spiritual well-being revealed how this personal and often private act allowed for the demonstration of religious identity. Importantly though Sasha explored how the need to get a moderate amount of sleep was tempered by pragmatic issues like work or restlessness. The final section of this paper left me, and most of the audience I think, squirming in our chairs as she explored the sanitation of the bed chamber. The free movement of air and the cleanliness of the bedstead all sounded rather appealing. However, the prevalence of fleas and bedbugs was rather less pleasant.

Leah Astbury’s  paper covered a moment that has been rather overlooked by scholars, the moment just after birth, and thought about the health of both mother and baby at this time. She argued that for a certain period of time the new offspring was not considered a newborn or a baby but something in between. Its health and physical state at this time had to be carefully managed to encourage the appropriate development of the child’s body. Drying had to be encouraged and the limbs had to be formed through swaddling. The child’s body had to be cleansed and rubbed to encourage the movement of humours around the body. These early care activities culminated in the first feed which signified a baby’s transition through this first delicate stage of life and into infancy.

Both of these papers and Hannah Newton’s paper on recovery from illness and the risk of relapse, which covered a severely neglected aspect of the historiography on early modern health, prompted me to think about my own work on sexual health in new ways and made me rethink the ways in which health was connected to other elements of life.

One of the first papers I attended was Rebecca Holdorph talking about the fascinating life of Alice de Lacy who experienced widowhood several times over. Rebecca explained how each of these experiences varied slightly with Alice manoeuvring herself into the best possible political position. After the death of her first husband Thomas of Lancaster, who was branded a traitor, Alice was allowed by the King to marry whoever she wished. Rebecca explained how this was particular unusual for a woman of Alice’s wealth and influence. Alice it would seem took advantage of this and married a social inferior, which allowed her to claim dominance in the marriage. In the wake of this husband’s death, Rebecca went on to explain, things got rather complex as Alice was abducted and taken to the tower of London. She eventually married her captor. All of these event and intrigues, it was argued, were a part of Alice’s strategies to keep her lands, wealth and influence. Marriage was thus a stabilising force in Alice’s life that allowed her to achieve certain aims and be protected against the manipulations of her enemies and the King. This paper not only encouraged me to think about power relationships in marriage in new ways but also highlighted the difficulties associated with accessing medieval women.

Another paper that encouraged me to think about traditional structures in a new way was Krissie Glover’s paper on arson in Victorian London. This paper explored who committed arson, as revealed by the Old Bailey Proceedings, and at how these cases question our notions of the household. Krissie detailed a case of a servant who was accused of arson simply because she was at home when the fires had started and had previously had a row with her master. In another, and my particular favourite case, a grocer set fire to his rivals shop because they had been taking away his custom. His response to the accusations was to state that he did it to scare his rival  and that he felt arson was less serious than stealing. Finally Krissie outlined the case of a poor mother who was acquitted because her children were inside the home when it caught fire. This paper was a fascinating insight into ideas about agency within the home and about material culture. Items were meticulously listed in these cases for the purposes of insurance claims.

In the same panel Susan Woodall explored the criticisms of homes for fallen women in Cambridgeshire. These criticisms, Susan explained, were shaped around two core tenets; the idea that the girls were forced into a gruelling work regime with no leisure time and that the homes themselves were drab and depressing. In particular, Susan outlined that some commentators felt that skipping would be very beneficial to girls in these homes who became over-excited – the physical exertion, some said, would dissipate any building sexual passions and would allow the girls to regulate their bodies and focus on their moral and spiritual purpose. As an early modernist this was truly fascinating as for  theorists exertion and exercise would have raised heat potentially resulting in sexual excitement. Alongside these criticisms many argued that the reform homes should be more homely and less like institutions. The girls these commentators said needed a little fun and brightness to aid their reform.

X-ray of slate pneumoconiosis sufferer's lungs. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

X-ray of slate pneumoconiosis sufferer’s lungs.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

I also attended a panel on disability, which was very interesting but rather difficult to listen to. The stand out paper in this panel for me was Ben Curtis‘s rather bleak examination of the health problems of miners in South Wales. In his paper on pneumoconiosis we heard about young men whose bodies were ravaged by illness and who experienced a sharp decline in their lung function and musculature. These men ages very prematurely and Ben’s paper was filled with heart wrenching testimonies of those speaking of friends they no longer recognised and contemporaries that had been buried. As he noted  it was bad for the soul of a man to be broken at 40 years old. The paper addressed issues of work, disability, health and masculinity. As I have just started working on masculinity and bodily health myself this paper was really intriguing even though it was on a completely different time period. Ben’s paper, of all the ones I went to, was the only other one than my own to talk about hernias, so there was a shared interest there as well.

The conference, for me at least because I couldn’t attend the final day, culminated in an excellent conference dinner where my fellow delegates and I planned research networks and further conferences. I am thoroughly looking forward to next year’s conference and the paper’s it will offer.

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