Friday, 2 October 2020

Europe's Great Witch Hunt (Thursday 22 October)

Belief in supernatural powers and in the existence of individuals who are able to communicate with and manipulate them pervades all human history. Such powers and such individuals may be regarded as benign and beneficent, but some may be thought malign and harmful. From the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century many people who professed skills in the use of spells and potions or who challenged religious and intellectual orthodoxy or who were in some way 'odd' were liable to be accused of practising witchcraft and being witches.

In Europe from about 1200 to 1500 various individuals and groups who challenged aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine were likely to be accused of collaboration with the devil or devils. The development of printing from the 1430s aided the spread of 'heresy'. The Dominicans were prominent among those who hunted and prosecuted 'witches'.

During the religious turmoil of the sixteenth century both Catholics and Protestants persecuted witches. The peak period for prosecutions for witchcraft was from about 1580 to about 1630. Mass witch trials accompanied by hundreds of executions took place in Catholic southern Germany, in Trier (1581-1593), Fulda (1603-1606), Wurzberg (1626-1631) and Bamberg (also 1626-1631). There were witch trials in the Basque Country (1609-1611). Witches were pursued with intensity in Protestant Scotland. In the 1590s King James VI set up royal commissions to hunt down witches and in 1597 published Daemonologie, describing the menace witches posed to society.

By the mid seventeenth century the phenomenon of witch trials was in decline, though major trials of alleged witches still took place in Austria (Salzburg, 1675-1690), Sweden (Torsaker, 1675) and Salem, Massachusetts (1692-1693).

The last witch trials in Britain were staged in the early eighteenth century. In 1735 the Witchcraft Act ensured that witchcraft was no longer a legal offence.

Tens of thousands of 'witches' were executed, most of them women, but by 1800 witch trials had ceased.

To guide us through Europe's Great Witch Hunt we are delighted to welcome back to Bath Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. Ronald's two most recent lectures to the HA Bath branch concerned Charles II and Elizabeth I. As well as being a leading historian of sixteenth and seventeenth century British history, Ronald is an expert on British folklore, pre-Christian religion and contemporary paganism. He has published at least fourteen books and has broadcast frequently on television and radio. He is one of the eleven trustees of English Heritage and chairs its Blue Plaques Panel.

Mike Short   


Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Spoils of War: The treasures, trophies and trivia of the British Empire (Thursday 24 September)

One way to introduce our first speaker of the new season is to refer you to his website, www, Christopher Joll lives in Bath. Educated at the University of Oxford and RMA Sandhurst, his varied careers have included a commission in the Life Guards, executive and director roles in a range of high-profile businesses, devising, writing and directing national events for charities, and writing. Christopher's busy programme of lectures, both in person and online, reflects his role as the regimental historian of the Household Cavalry and his wide-ranging interest in the history of the British Army.

Spoils of War is the lecture title and the title of Christopher's book published this year. Its 33 chapters begin with the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) and end with the Falklands War (1982). The book describes the treasures and trophies - and the trivia too - collected by assorted men and women engaged in military action during the rise and fall of the British Empire. There are stories of courage and cowardice, ingenuity and farce, and sometimes elements of mystery. Christopher will dip into them and illustrate their variety when he gives the branch's first lecture since February.

As I write this preview we expect to have to limit the number of members attending Christopher Joll's lecture to 30. On Monday 7 September I will contact members by email to invite them to reserve places at the lecture on 24 September,

Mike Short       

Thursday, 13 August 2020

The 2020-21 season

The national lockdown that followed the arrival of Covid-19 in England brought an early end to the Bath branch's 2019-20 season of lectures, delayed the Annual General Meeting, and caused the postponement until 2021 of members' visits planned for May, June and July.

The branch committee has organised a full programme of lectures and visits, including a special pre-Christmas event, to run from September 2020 to July 2021. As I write, we cannot know how much of this will actually take place. Everything will depend on the national and local situation and the rules that apply at the time for gatherings in public places.

The programme should begin on 24 September. Christopher Joll, regimental historian of the Household Cavalry, will speak on Spoils of War: The trophies, treasure and trivia of the British Empire. It is likely that the audience for Christopher's lecture will have to be limited to 45 people. If so, a booking system will operate during the preceding 14 days.

Christopher Joll will be followed in October by Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, a long-term friend of the HA Bath branch and a celebrated interpreter of the past on television and radio as well as in the lecture room. On this occasion Ronald, whose most recent lectures for the Bath branch have focused on Elizabeth I and Charles II, will speak about the European witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

All being well, on US Thanksgiving Day in November, Dr Ellie Woodacre of the University of Winchester, who is American, will talk to us about medieval queens, some who ruled in their own right and some who exercised power behind the throne.

Number 1 Royal Crescent has been booked for our members' Christmas visit and buffet, though currently we do not know whether it will be possible to hold the event there. I will circulate more information when the situation becomes clearer. The Bath branch committee has made a contingency plan to hold an alternative event, possibly early in the New Year.

I will send regular updates to members. For now, this is the programme planned for the 2020-21 season ...

24 September 2020
Spoils of War: The trophies, treasure and trivia of the British Empire
Christopher Joll (Regimental historian, Household Cavalry)

22 October 2020
Europe's Great Witch Hunt
Professor Ronald Hutton (University of Bristol)

26 November 2020
Medieval Queens: Ruling Women in a Man's World
Dr Ellie Woodacre (University of Winchester)

10 December 2020
Members' Christmas Visit and Buffet at Number 1 Royal Crescent

21 January 2021
'That Epidemical Madness': Women and elections in eighteenth-century England
Professor Elaine Chalus (University of Liverpool)

18 February 2021
The Execution of Earl Waltheof, 1076: Rebellion and its consequences in eleventh-century England
Professor Ryan Lavelle (University of Winchester)

25 March 2021
The Triumph of Music: how it became the master-art of the modern world
Professor Tim Blanning (Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge)

22 April 2021
The Crisis of the Meritocracy: How popular demand made Britain into a mass education society
Professor Peter Mandler (Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge)
President of the Historical Association

All lectures will take place on Thursday evenings at 7.30 at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square. I will introduce each lecture in this diary.

Mike Short 

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The search for women in the Viking Age (Thursday 26 March)

Vikings! Bewhiskered helmeted warriors brandishing swords. Fearsome energetic invaders arriving in magnificent longships. Men of the other side, our opponents. ... Few of us will not have been introduced as children to the Vikings. For many of us they entered our history as glamorous exciting figures: dangerous, effective, brave. And now we know more, how easy is it to throw off the mythology of those early encounters as archaeological and historical research reveal a more nuanced account of the lives and deeds of those men and women of the early Middle Ages?

From the late eighth century to the late eleventh people from Scandinavia travelled, raided and traded across much of Europe. Trade and military conquest established Vikings in increasing numbers in the British Isles, France, the Baltic, Kievan Rus (parts of present-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) and Sicily. They traded throughout much of the Mediterranean including North Africa and the Levant. Their seafaring took them to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. They knew how to build sleek slender longships capable of travelling great distances at high speed. They possessed pre-eminent navigational and seafaring skills.

Viking men were clearly expected to be men of action. But what of Viking women? Historical research has shown that women could have property rights and the status of head of family. They were allowed authority in matters of religion. There were women poets and runecarvers. Women could be merchants and dispensers of medicine. In Scandinavian folklore and mythology there were shield-maidens - female warriors - but the historical evidence has been heavily debated.

In the tenth century a large ceremonial burial took place at Birka, near Stockholm. It was excavated in the 1970s and found to contain a human skeleton, a large number of weapons and the bones of two horses. Study of the human bones and recent DNA analysis (2017) confirmed that this was the grave of a woman. But what could be the conclusion? Was she necessarily a warrior? Some other Viking women were also buried with weapons. What does this tell us?

The great Viking era and the Viking empire ended almost a thousand years ago. Scholars who seek to understand and interpret the history of the Vikings face a unique set of challenges, Viking artefacts reflect a restless mobile people who spread widely and were accustomed to adapting to local circumstances. In their leisure time they appear to have been great tellers of stories. The stories add to the fictions that may distort later understanding of reality.

In our next lecture Dr Chris Callow of the University of Birmingham will endeavour to illuminate the lives of women in Viking society, sharing with us some of the challenges posed by the evidence and its interpretation.

Mike Short      


Sunday, 2 February 2020

Who is the tramp? Vagrancy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Thursday 27 February)

Throughout history vagrants or vagabonds or tramps or drifters - homeless people without regular employment or income - have been considered troublesome outsiders by people living in settled, ordered communities. They might be thought worthy of scorn or mistrust, or they could be the recipients of charity.

The first major vagrancy law in England and Wales was the Ordinance of Labourers (1349). At a time when the population had been depleted by the Black Death it made unemployment an offence. A person who was judged able to work but declined to do so would be branded or whipped. Four Vagabonds Acts in the sixteenth century included as legal punishments flogging, disfigurement, enslavement, transportation and execution.

In 1821 a parliamentary review recommended the consolidation and simplification of earlier vagrancy laws, the removal of the abuses and fraud that had developed in their operation, and, for certain types of vagrants, longer prison sentences with hard labour. The outcome was An Act for the Punishment of Idle and Disorderly Persons and Rogues and Vagabonds (1824).

On 27 February we will welcome as our speaker Nick Crowson, Professor of Contemporary British History at the University of Birmingham. Nick has a particular interest in homelessness from the 1880s to the present. In his lecture for the Historical Association Bath branch he will use records of court cases, censuses and personal documents to demonstrate how genealogical research can be used to recreate the hidden life stories of the vagrant and the tramp in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Nick Crowson's findings challenge the frequently-made assumption that tramps adopted their way of life because they were personally inadequate. Through exploring their life stories it becomes apparent that there were varied pathways into, through and out of homelessness.

Mike Short