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October 11, 2010

History Division News
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» Slaves, Speed Demons, Snake Stones: New Welsh History?

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/10/8/snapshot.jpg" alt="Welsh History Logo" />

Why a 'New History of Wales'?

The Western Mail claims to be 'ripping up the stereotypes' for Welsh History Month. Three members of Glamorgan's history division have contributed to the newpaper's 'New History of Wales' series. Drawing on their recent research, they've tackled questions with contemporary resonance.

Did Wales nurture its own brand of science, independent of its neighbours? Alun Withey looks at the case of early modern medicine).

Have the Welsh always been politically engaged, fighting for the downtrodden? Chris Evans examines the Welsh contribution to anti-slavery.

Did Wales ever experience a golden age of morality - and have we now slipped from former high standards to become a 'loutish generation'? (<http: />Andy Croll on manners and morals in South Wales)

This initiative by the Western Mail reflects the huge public appetite for history - but is new academic research, challenging existing impressions, really what's wanted? Is this 'new history' knee-jerk iconoclasm? Is the emphasis on shattering stereotypes just media-friendly rhetoric?

As well as meeting popular demand, the 'New History of Wales' is one of the first public endeavours of History Research Wales, a collaboration between researchers at Welsh universities aiming to maximise results in the sector. These articles show the researcher at work - building on results from earlier historians but also finding ways to probe under-valued sources, to capture new voices from the past. It's this broader and more representative account of historic Wales which makes it possible to speak of a 'New Welsh History'.

July 20, 2010

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» On the Beach

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/7/20/New_Image.JPG" alt="tourist poster" />

Andy Croll recommends some summer reading

It’s that time of year again. Put down your history books for a couple of weeks, slap on the sun cream and head for the beach. Think again! Here’s some good news for you. You can take some history books with you next time you head for Barry Island.

As all good history students know everything has a history. This even goes for a space as apparently ‘natural’ as a beach. The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth (1998) by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker is a wonderful reminder that the beach is in fact a social and cultural artefact – it has a history that changes over time.

If lying on a beach can seem like a timeless experience (surely people in every age have enjoyed frolicking in the waves on a hot summer’s day?) read about the ‘beach phobia’ that gripped medieval society, ponder the rediscovery of the beach that took place in the eighteenth century and consider the changing ways in which the beach has been experienced in the intervening two centuries – from a place of recuperation for the sick and weakly to a site of pleasure.

The Beach is longue durée history that will make you appreciate afresh an everyday phenomenon. You’ll never be able to don your swimming costume again without thinking about how much beach attire has changed – in just the last one hundred years.

From a formal three-piece suit in the Edwardian period to skimpy Speedos in just half a century – the speed with which we’ve exposed ever larger areas of flesh to the sun and to the gaze of strangers is another remarkable indicator of just how much the way we experience the beach – and our bodies – has been transformed over time.

So, pack your sun cream, swimming costume – and The Beach – and enjoy your summer holiday!

Andy Croll

October 7, 2009

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» The History Boys and the Bayonet

Investigating the Butcher Blade

<image class="left" title="Bayonet found in Abercynon" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/10/7/smallbayonet_copy_1.jpg" height="900" alt="Photo of Bayonet" width="150">

Imagine the scene: students moving into a shared house in Abercynon.

A van full of furniture, an empty house awaiting the house-warming party.

After much puffing and panting we get the furniture in and get ready to dash for the pub (Ian’s forgotten the milk and coffee, so the pub is the only answer).

Peter hands me a rusty piece of metal. “It’ll look good on wall above the fireplace“, he says.

When I get home I am amazed to find the object is a military bayonet.

Although I'm not an expert restorer I begin to clean off the rust and paint (someone had been using what later turned out to be a significant historical artefact to stir paint) to find a series of numbers and symbols etched into the blade and hilt.

The symbol was of a crown surmounted by an arc in which was written the word Wilhelm. Also clearly embossed on edge of the hilt was the letter P with the number 15.

The thing that stood out about this 18 inch Bayonet was the serrated or sawback edge to the weapon. Our research revealed that the symbol of the crown surmounted by the arched word Wilhelm represented Kaiser Wilhelm II. The number 15 related to its year of issue, 1915, and the letter P to Prussia, where a German Pioneer Regiment was raised. That in itself was worth recording.

But the most striking issue was the sawback edge on the blade of bayonet which extended approx 12-14 inches along what would normally be described as the blunt edge of the bayonet. Continued research established that it was in fact a “German Sawback Butcher Blade”. British and allied media spun great political propaganda from these weapons. They gave readers details of injuries allegedly inflicted with this weapon as proof of the levels of atrocity commited by the 'Bestial Hun'. There were unconfirmed reports of German prisoners who were caught in possession of this fearsome-looking weapon being summarily executed. |ndeed the great anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front includes a scene where two German soldiers discuss the risk of being executed on the spot by 'British Tommies' if caught in possession of the dreaded sawback blade.

Our research shows that the sawback blade was issued to only 6% of German troops and indeed, the sawback serration was intended to be used by pioneer corps NCOs for cutting fence poles and barbed wire etc. But such was the power of propaganda that German Command recalled all sawback bayonets and had their edges ground down in 1916. This helped us narrow down the date the blade was captured. Clearly it must have been captured before 1916 when these blades were recalled, but after 1915 when it was made.

Hopefully further research will help us establish in which battle or skirmish this bayonet was actually taken and identify its rightful owners. The bayonet itself has been verified by the National Army Museum as an authentic ‘sawback butcher blade’ used in the bloodiest of conflicts.

As good history boys, we started our research by contacting the leader of foundation history, Dr Andy Croll, who proved to be a mine of valuable information. He put us in contact with Dr Fiona Reid, Glamorgan History Division's expert on Word War One. She has since lent the ‘sawback butcher blade’ to a secondary school as a teaching aid.

For us, most importantly, as history students, it shows that history is all around us and historic puzzles appear in some of the most unlikely situations. Stay tuned to the History boys for sequels. You can find us on the facebook group site of Glamorgan University's History Society.

Gary Brady

June 18, 2009

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» Glamorgan Historians work with Welsh Museums

<image class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/6/18/museums.jpg" alt="Photographs, Museum Storehouse and Cardiff City Centre">

Two of Glamorgan's historians, Dr Jonathan Durrant and Dr Andy Croll, are working with Welsh museums as part of the Strategic Insight Programme (SIP). The programme enables staff in universities to build relationships with external partners.

Jonathan Durrant has been working with The National Museum of Wales at St Fagan's on the interpretation of space in its early modern buildings, particularly Hendre'r-ywydd Uchaf and the merchants' house from Haverfordwest which is currently being re-erected there. This secondment will lead to a workshop drawing together the expertise of historians, museum professionals, archaeologists, re-enactors and architects.

Andy Croll is working with museum experts who are setting up the 'Cardiff Story', a new museum dedicated to presenting the city's history. The museum is to be based in the Old Library in the Hayes - the former home of Cardiff Municipal Museum which closed its doors in 1922. Since that time, Cardiff has been without a civic museum dealing with the city's own history. The 'Cardiff Story' will fill that gap when it opens in the summer of 2010. Dr Croll has been joined on the museum's Academic Panel by two other Glamorgan historians - Professors Chris Evans and Gareth Williams.

History students will also benefit from the experience gained by Jonathan and Andy. Second-year students already visit St Fagan's while learning about different approaches to history. With these new collaboration, there are opportunities for student placements with the two museums and exciting courses in Public History can be developed that build on the insights gleaned in both Cardiff and St. Fagan's.

February 6, 2009

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» News from the classroom ... What was the Black Death?

History Foundation Module: What was the Black Death

St Roch with marks of the plague

What was the Black Death? The answer – as every schoolchild knows – is simple: the Black Death was the bubonic plague (or Yersinia Pestis to give it its scientific name). It’s a belief not confined to school children. Lots of websites – and lots of serious history books – confidently tell us that the disease which spread through Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s was none other than Y. Pestis. How could it be anything else? The painful buboes – or gavoccioli (swellings in the groin and neck) – that were mentioned so frequently by observers in the mid-fourteenth century are surely some of the strongest indicators we have that bubonic plague was responsible for the worst catastrophe in human history.

However, students on Andy Croll’s foundation history module, ‘The Black Death: A Medieval Disaster’, have been looking afresh at some of the primary evidence from the mid-fourteenth century as well as considering some of the latest research by scientists and historians of medicine. Whilst many chroniclers mentioned buboes and painful swellings, we’ve seen how many didn’t. Likewise, we’ve seen how the Black Death spread far more quickly than Y. Pestis spread in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how top scientists from Oxford failed to find DNA evidence of Yersinia in the teeth and bones of Black Death victims exhumed from five mass graves. The death rate of the fourteenth-century disease was also much higher than the modern form of bubonic plague.

So, just what was the Black Death? Experts put forward a number of possibilities ranging from anthrax through to haemorrhagic plague. It could be that the Black Death was an earlier, more deadly, form of bubonic plague that has since mutated. Or it could be that whatever was responsible for millions of deaths in the medieval period has itself died out. Whatever the answer, it’s clear that we have to read our primary sources with much more care than was hitherto the case. One gavocciolo does not make a bubonic plague epidemic.

October 20, 2008

History Division News
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» News from the classroom ... Into the Victorian slum: in search of the real-life Fagin

Students taking Andy Croll’s History foundation module ‘Crime, Vice and Lowlife in the 19th century’ have spent the last two weeks thinking about the so-called ‘criminal’ classes. Many Victorians were convinced that the slums and rookeries of their great cities and towns were inhabited by a class of ne’er-do-wells who lived on the proceeds of crime and vice. One of the most notorious of these ‘little hells’ was the ‘China’ district of the South Wales iron town of Merthyr Tydfil. The inhabitants of China were supposed to have their own Emperor and Empress who headed-up an organised criminal network comprised of ‘rodnies’ (juvenile thieves), pimps, bullies and ‘nymphs of the pave’ (prostitutes). Marxist historians and writers of popular history were often happy to accept contemporary reports of an underclass of Robin Hood figures who lived outside the norms of bourgeois society. But recently scholars have cast doubt on the reliability of sources that were invariably penned by middle-class observers (like Henry Mayhew). Were the slums really populated by real-life Fagins, sharpers, mudlarks, magsmen and till-friskers or are such figures the products of the fevered imagination of waves of bourgeous social explorers who, too often, confused crushing poverty with immorality and viciousness? Can we, as historians, ever know?

Want to know more about the Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation Programme? Click here