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Early Modern History Research Challenge 2016

The Research Challenge is a long-established feature of the Cambridge MPhil in Early Modern History. Throughout the first term, our students gather early on a Friday morning to receive their instructions. It’s always interesting to see how they respond. We encourage them to work in small groups. Some head straight to the café for brainstorming and discussion. Others divide up the job with professional assurance and allocate tasks to each member of the group. For many students, it’s obvious: the journey must always start at the University Library; for others, their smartphone is the first port of call. Reflecting the diverse historical interests of the Cambridge early modern community, challenges range from writing a catalogue entry for a painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum to contextualizing an early modern manuscript (date and author’s name unknown, of course…)

Thanks to Dr Victoria Avery, Keeper of the Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam, we were able to start the term behind the scenes at the museum, handling early modern objects. Among the most intriguing objects on the table were a barber’s basin, an Italian dish (doing its best to look Turkish) and a sampler by Mary Moyse. The students’ research that day took them in many different directions: from the history of medicine to global encounters to gender in eighteenth-century England. One of the purposes of the challenge was to think about the ways in which handling a physical object can contribute to our historical understanding. Despite the encumbrance of purple latex gloves (essential for protecting metal or fabrics from our sweaty fingers; less necessary for ceramics), we touched, lifted, held up to the light and sniffed our objects, in order to get a better sense of how early modern objects were used and experienced.


 Preparing an early modern meal

Making ice cream - early modern style
Making ice cream, early modern style
Perhaps most challenging of all was the final task of the series: making an early modern meal. This was brilliantly conceived and organised by food historian Dr Annie Gray, and the challenges were very practical. How do you make ice-cream without a freezer? How do you mince venison without a mincer? How do you whisk cream without a whisk? Our highly enterprising cooks solved all these conundrums and by the end we were replete with mince-pies, lime and brandy punch, bagge pudding, curry, peppery hot chocolate and syllabub. The exercise raised a lot of questions. How would an early modern household have sourced 50 limes? Who rolled the pastry? Were there fewer intolerances and allergies before processed food? Did children partake of the (highly intoxicating) wine chocolate? It was a memorable lesson in the unfamiliar tastes and values of a past society.