Autumn leaves outside the History Faculty

Letter from the Chair

Alex Walsham

Welcome to the History Faculty’s newsletter for October 2021.

After eighteen months of pandemic-related disruption, we are greatly looking forward to the return of students to Cambridge for the Michaelmas Term, and to resuming as much in-person teaching as possible. Staff and students have shown enormous resilience in adapting to online formats for learning and assessment and to navigating the challenges of lockdown, quarantine, and self-isolation. We very much hope that this year will be less unsettled, but only time will tell.

In the meantime, it is cheering to see the streets and spaces of the city coming back to life and to feel a little of the old excitement that traditionally accompanies the beginning of the academic year. We are pleased to welcome several new university appointments and a large crop of early career researchers associated with the Faculty and Colleges, for whom we held an informal sandwich lunch this week – our first social occasion in two years.

Against this backdrop, it would be wrong to claim that it has been business as usual. For some the closure of archives and libraries and restrictions on mobility have necessitated a creative redirection of their intellectual energies. In this issue, Dr Sara Caputo, reports on how her latest book project, Tracks in the Ocean, evolved in this context, while Thomas Osborn, explains how his dissertation on perceptions of the British Civil Wars in the seventeenth-century took unexpected and rewarding directions. One of our PhD students, Malik Al Nasir reflects on the personal journey that has led him to Cambridge to study for a PhD interweaving his interests in genealogy, slavery and the digital archive. Dr Caroline Goodson shares some of her fascinating research on food-growing in medieval cities and Dr Dror Weil, who joined the Faculty in April 2021, provides us with a taste of his work on scientific and other textual exchanges between the Islamicate world and China between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Colleagues have remained remarkably busy and active. This newsletter reports a pleasing array of achievements, prizes and awards at all levels of the Faculty – from undergraduates to senior professors. We celebrate and congratulate them all.

On a sadder note, we lament the passing of several legendary members of the Faculty, who will be fondly remembered by many of our alumni: Jonathan Steinberg, David Washbrook, and Betty Wood. Fuller tributes to them can be found on the Faculty’s website. 

We hope you enjoy reading this issue. We also hope to see some of you at the series of online lectures for alumni we are continuing this year. Please do keep in touch and let us know ways in which we can involve you in the life of the Faculty as it begins to emerge from the shadow of coronavirus. We are always delighted to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Alexandra Walsham (Chair of the Faculty) 

Of ship tracks and constrained mobilities

Sara Caputo

Photo of Sara Captuto

There has been much discussion of the personal and practical ways in which the global catastrophe of the past year and a half has impacted on our work as historians. My second book, Tracks on the Ocean, forthcoming in late 2023 or early 2024, is most thoroughly and bizarrely the offspring of these times. It is, first of all, the economic offspring of privilege – of my position as a lucky ECR, in the first year of a three-year research post when the music stopped and the job market switched off. It is the practical offspring of archival closures, which derailed and relegated what was originally meant to be my second book project, and made me fall back onto materials I had already hoarded. And it is the intellectual offspring of the constrained mobilities which have chopped us off from our families, friends, and hobbies.

Post-urban gardening, now and in the Middle Ages

Caroline Goodson

My new book, Cultivating the city in early medieval Italy (2021) examines the social, economic, and political values of food-gardening in Italy in the early Middle Ages (c. 500-c.1050). I was spurred to look at food-growing in medieval cities when I spent some time in Berkeley, California. I saw the urban cooperatives growing food in burnt-out residential neighbourhoods of Oakland, and the chic edible gardens in upscale Berkeley. When I sat down to read the preserved property documents of early medieval Italy, I kept finding references to gardens, vineyards, and orchards attached to houses in Rome, Milan, Naples, Verona, and Benevento and I wondered if there were similar patterns at play. I started examining how and why people farmed in the city in the Middle Ages, and then received a Leverhulme Foundation Research Fellowship to work intensively on the project.  

Reconstruction of two phases of the Forum of Nerva

Genealogy, slavery and the digital archive

Andrew Watson

Andrew Watson (1856-1921), the world’s first black international footballer.

Malik Al Nasir

It’s not every day you turn on your TV and see someone who looks almost exactly like you, especially when they were born in 1856. However, that’s what happened to me in 2002, when a documentary aired, on the world’s first black international footballer—Andrew Watson—who’d captained the Scottish national football team in the 1880s. He came from the same part of what was then British Guiana as my father, had the same surname, and the likeness to me was uncanny. That’s when I resolved to find my ancestral roots. The search would bring me to an important archive and eventually to Cambridge.

Researching a Dissertation from Home

Thomas Osborn

Thomas Osborn

Thomas Osborn

My experience writing a dissertation in American History was, unsurprisingly given the last eighteen months, very different from what I’d envisioned when I handed in my proposal in early 2020. I planned to research how seventeenth-century colonists in Virginia experienced the British Civil Wars, but instead of jetting across the Atlantic to Washington DC and exploring rarely viewed documents in archives across Virginia, I spent my summer at a desk in my front room.

Blocked from travel, I desperately tried to find materials published online, scanned through lists of documents in the hope that some titles might stand out, and browsed Google Maps to look at locations I’d wished to go to in the hopes of gaining some understanding of the local geography. It certainly didn’t match up to what I’d expected dissertation research would look like when I began my degree, but in a sense it was all the more rewarding because of that.