Wednesday 9th November. Professor David Edgerton. What is and is not exceptional about the United Kingdom in the Twentieth Century – some reflectionsWednesday 9th November.

On Wednesday night 49 members of the Bristol Branch of the HA turned up for David Edgerton’s myth busting lecture.  There was a little nail biting when his train was delayed but it was well worth the short delay.  His thesis that the UK was exceptional in 1900 but had ceased to be by 1945 and had become a normal European country before we entered the EEC in the 1970’s was skillfully developed.  A free trading Imperial Britain had imported a third of all its food and especially its meat and wheat in the 19th century with large flour mills at every dock and chilled meat shipped from as far as Argentina.  We were also one of the largest exporters of energy with coal providing Lisbon’s Gas and fueling Argentina’s and Egypt’s railways. Our agricultural population had shrunk while our Empire had grown.  However, we still did more trade with Europe and the great British breakfast was made up of Danish bacon and Dutch eggs.  We were never just an Imperial economy.Another well established myth that “Britain stood alone in 1940” was challenged having only begun to be established in 1945 and become a commonplace by 1960’s. The role of the Commonwealth and Imperial countries in 1940 was key.  The Labour party not the Conservative party were presented as the great nationalist party by examining their manifesto of 1945 and their key policies.  Nationalised industries were presented as part of this economic nationalism.  In a very timely way Professor Edgerton looked at how the monarchy was redefined in 1952 with separate monarchies for Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth countries.  The transformation of UK agriculture from underdeveloped to self-sufficient between 1945 and 1970’s with the use of fertilisers and chemical pesticides led to the disappearance of the cargo ships carrying fresh beef from Argentina and other countries.  We were now self sufficient in wheat and meat so the Edwardian free trading docks were being wound down long before containerization.  The Britain Mrs Thatcher took control of in 1979 was not on its knees.  It had a modernized infrastructure (motorways, railways) an efficient Post Office and telephone system, a strong network of power stations, a modern housing stock including council housing.  The success story of “Thatcherism” was critiqued as a government not investing but sweating the economy.  Rates of growth were higher from 1945-73 compared with the 1980’s to 2000 and the inequality gap had fallen both in terms of income and regions in this post war period. Britain had become another European power not a weird exception. The contemporary arguments about Brexit versus Remain were an obvious conclusion to this excellent lecture.  Not unsurprisingly the questions came thick and fast from our audience and Professor Edgerton felt much of our present-day political system would need to change to recognize the needs of the younger generation. We must look to the see how much we had in common with other European countries who faced many of the same issues. A very thought provoking and lively meeting. 

Pub Quiz. Wednesday 25th January 2023.

The Bristol Historical Association pub quiz was a tremendous success. Forty four contestants divided into nine teams took part. There were a good many students, teachers and a sprinkling of veteran historians. They answered questions on art history, inventions, quotations, battles, Bristol, women in history and Sally’s music round. The winners were ‘The Original Blotto Von Bismarck’ with 82 points. They were closely followed by the ‘Umpires of Light’ with 79 points and the ‘Ridgeway Runners’ with 69.5 points. Thank you to the Eldon House for hosting us.

Professor Miri Rubin. Women in Medieval Society in Europe

ZOOM lecture. Wednesday 18th January. 2023.

On a very cold night the Bristol HA had their only Zoom lecture so far this season with an audience of 56.  Miri Rubin of Queen Mary University London addressed the lives of Women in Medieval Society.  Ranging over centuries and North and Southern Europe she brought out three main strands; marriage, work, and religion. Whilst acknowledging the wide differences between regions and kingdoms of different peoples, she pulled together some fascinating common strands.  She began with the early pioneers of this topic such as Eileen Power and Natalie Zemon Davies (The Return of Martin Guerre), how to study women and the need to find the evidence and sources for most women rather than the exceptional minority.  Patriarchy was she argued always a useful term.  Both Bible interpretations and the ideas of the Four Humours had supported this system but she also argued that Christian marriage with its emphasis on marriage for life and as an act of free will gave a different structure to European marriage.  In the world of labour women were shown as workers in textiles (especially silk), heavy agricultural work, brewing and even as members of Guilds.  The special status of widows of craftsmen were examined.  In family life the different views of male historians Phillipe Aries and Lawrence Stone that saw childhood as a later invention were set against the pioneering work of Shulamith Shakar which had examined the evidence in family for genuine grief for the death of children and the wide range of emotions of parents rather than the detached parenthood that the earlier male historian had argued for.  Tuscan cities with evidence from a detailed 15th century Florentine census gave evidence for women living lives as “singletons” and as in modern day cities a population where women outnumbered men.  Religion in parishes, nunneries and through personal devotion was another aspect of female life.  The role of female saints and Mary as role models for women was illustrated with some spectacular art work.  The holy family’s importance with both Mary and Joseph as the “social father” was discussed including a brilliant carving of St Joseph washing nappies and another of both parents at their work while Jesus was in a baby walker made parallels to modern day experiences. 

Art work by artists such as Giotto, Massacio and Van Eyck and by Flemish and German carvers were used as evidence.  The lecture was then followed by well informed questions from members and Miri invited expert contributions from Ronald Hutton on how the Reformation changed the position of women. Thanks to everyone who joined for a fascinating lecture. 

The Great Debate Bristol Heat 23rd November 2022 University of Bristol

Last Wednesday 14 students from 11 different sixth forms took part in the Bristol heat of the Great Debate.  Our largest number of contestants ever.  Our judges were Adam Vaitilingam KC, Claire Deering and Dr James Watts from the University History Department. The topic was “Why does History matter to me?”  The contestants came from a range of local sixth forms plus two schools which had travelled from as far as Cheltenham and Bourton on the Water on a dark and stormy night.  

The students all gave interesting and articulate presentations on the topic and answered the judges’ questions thoughtfully.  Many contestants related to the question back to their own families in particular grandparents and how this had made them first interested in History these included links to the partition of India and the Troubles in Ireland.   Others reflected on what they had learnt from the History of Medicine or events in the Twentieth Century in the wider world which they felt were still not understood well enough in Western Europe. A very witty presentation by Ella Ferris explained how she had looked for reassurance in our recent political upheavals by studying the reign of Roman Emperors.  Orla McMahon after a three and half hour journey from the flooded Cotswolds gave us some excellent thoughts on the local History of her area going back its Roman British heritage.  Our runner up Molly Fleming from Bristol Grammar School gave a very well researched presentation on the need for continued Holocaust History.  Our winner Catherine Saunders explained how her interest in History had been sparked by a balloon debate. She had researched Katherine Johnson, the black American mathematician contribution to the space programme which had once been written out of American History.  Catherine’s commitment to History was about finding out about these hidden figures and she introduced us to the concept of the Matilda effect where the bias against women in science has hidden the achievements of women like Rosalind Franklin and deprived several more of the Nobel prize.  Catherine was chosen as a worthy winner and presented with her certificate by our judges.  She will go on to the national final at Windsor Castle on Saturday 25th March 2023. Good luck Catherine and well done to all our contestants, Joe Hendy (Yate) Tianna Biddick (St Brendan’s) Orla Mahon and Maya Samuel (Cotswold School), Imogen Lee and Maddie Chan (Cheltenham Ladies College), Molly Fleming (Bristol Grammar School) Ellie Gooch and Lily Wiltshire (Churchill Academy) Saifullah Ahmed (Redland Green School), Ella Ferris and Niamh West (Clifton College), Catherine Saunders (Redmaids High School) and Alice Li (Badminton School). 

Finally, a big thanks to all the teachers who prepared these students for the competition and who supported them on the night and to all their parents and friends who also came along to support them as well. 

12th October Wine Through Time: A Vinous History of Bristol. Dr Evan Jones

Last Wednesday’s long awaited talk for members by Dr Evan Jones was definitely worth the wait.  Evan has already given us talks on death and disease and led a walk that illustrated the sex lives of Bristolians of the early modern period. What was awaiting us this time? He began with the origins of the wine connection, from the Roman Empire when wine drinking was a symbol of Imperial sophistication and wines was shipped over in amphorae. The extent of alcohol consumption during the medieval and early Modern times was a surprise to many of our members and especially that in Bristol much of this was wine. The cost of moving it elsewhere in the country by land meant that in Bristol it was a relatively cheaper drink and from Norman times it was regularly coming into the city (from Bordeaux and later Spain and Portugal). So it was not just the drink of the aristocracy. After members tasted small amounts of first the adulterated mixture that resembled those drunk by Bristolians in the thirteenth century we moved on to stronger and richer wines accompanied by French, Spanish wines and English cheeses. We also learnt the about the use of barrels in shipping wine and the amount of alcohol poisoning that went on when men sought to salvage the cargo of shipwrecks as well as the derivation of the name of Bristol’s most famous sherry (Cream as well as Milk). The social history of drinking is clearly a major field of research.  By the end of the talk we had had not only enlightening talk but a friendly meeting of members and surprisingly no-one spilt anything.