Women & the Country House #2: Anne Lister and Shibden Hall

Are you watching Gentleman Jack? I am, and I’m very happy that Sally Wainwright got her hands on this story. Anne Lister, born 228 years ago in Halifax, is potentially one of my favourite historical figures because of how unashamedly transgressive she was. She was a landowner, a traveller, a queer icon who wore only black (I empathise) and climbed mountains in her spare time. She’s best-known for the racy content of her diaries and for being one half of what is considered the first lesbian marriage in Britain, but her life was incredible, and there’s a lot of resources out there to help us learn more.

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Women & the Country House #1: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

‘The use of knowledge in our sex (beside amusement of solitude) is to moderate the passions and learn to be contented with a small expense, which are the certain effects of a studious life and, it may be preferable even to that fame which men have engrossed to themselves and will not suffer us to share.’ – Lady Montagu to her daughter, 1753

I’ve been writing a lot this week about the history of country house studies, and one thing that really stands out to me is now inevitably gendered it all is. Whether academics are writing about architects, households, style or substance, it’s inevitably coloured by the expectation that the subjects of their attentions are all men. And, mostly, this seems to be true. Men have often been the prime movers and shakers behind the country house because they were usually in control of the legal, social, and economic systems from which the upper classes who owned these houses gained their power. Even when someone of another gender is discussed they’re usually framed by conventionally masculine traits and occupations. Take Bess of Hardwick, one of the most famous country house women; she’s defined as a shrewd business owner and builder, obtaining the fame and name recognition usually ascribed to men because she fulfilled the role expected of them. There’s nothing necessarily wrong in this (she was pretty awesome), and it’s hard to deny the influence those gendered as male have had on the houses I research. However, these aren’t the only stories to be told, and today I want to tell you another.

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Updates & recommendations

Hi all, I just wanted to write an update/apology about my absence from this blog; turns out doing a PhD is a wonderful but time-consuming process (who knew?). I have some posts planned & written for you about my research and other interesting things, so keep an eye out for those over the next few months. In the meantime, here’s some other web links I’ve enjoyed recently:

  • The WRoCAH blog, especially Izzy Cook’s piece on being a long-distance learner.
  • British Pathé’s collection of archaeological excavations
  • This YouTube piece on the Masquerade treasure hunt, featuring the town I stay in during archive trips
  • And this article on the women soldiers of the Tamil Tigers


Exploring the archaeological archives at Wrest Park

Last week, I visited English Heritage’s Archaeological Collections Store at Wrest Park to prepare to research one of the collections from Audley End House in Essex. The store is massive, with more than 160000 historical objects, organised into aisles that make you feel like you’re in Hangar 51 from the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. The boxes of finds from Audley End make up only one corner of one aisle, looking so compact that it’s easy to forget that they hold at least 5000 artefacts of various types and provenances. They have all been labelled and packaged by Wrest Park’s volunteer team, making my job a lot easier since my PhD research is based around these boxes. It’s really exciting to open them, as this is the first opportunity for anyone to devote serious time to understanding their contents.

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Samuel Pepys in the Archaeological Record

On this day back in 1633, Galileo was being tried in Rome for thinking that the earth revolved around the sun, Charles I was preparing to be crowned in Scotland and, in a house off Fleet Street in London, Samuel Pepys was born. He became known for his diary, recording the lives of the middle classes in urban London throughout the 17th century. The diary was filled with his personal and political successes and failings. It detailed his daily life as both social butterfly and a naval administrator, which in itself left large quantities of documents to be explored. He was an incredibly active man, seemingly winding his never-ending way from plays to pubs to work and back again. Can we explore this life beyond the documentary record? Can we use archaeology, and what can this tell us about Pepys and about our discipline?

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Bell-ringing and the soundscapes of medieval England

‘It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations’ – Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Book 3, Chapter 2)

Church bells are one of my favourite sounds. There’s just something beautiful about hearing an echoing bell from a distance that places me back in the world around me. It’s a sound with nuances of meaning. To me, they mean a shared experience with people of the past who marked their time in the same way, and also a reminder the pleasure of being in the countryside where the sound is at its clearest. To medieval people, they acted as a mnemonic for complex messages around religion, rulership, and community.

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TNAPast: Medieval & Early Modern Documents

I’ve spent the last couple of days at the National Archives in Kew, the UK government’s official archive that preserves some of our most important documents and encourages researchers to use them. I was there for the Postgraduate Archival Skills Training session based in the medieval and early modern collections, a 2-day course that explored the skills and methodologies needed to make the most of the archive. I really recommend taking part in the next one if you want to work with the collections, but if you can’t make it, here’s some of the highlights.

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