Question: Why be a Historian?

Last night I navigated my way across the tube system to Queen Mary’s Mile End campus to attend the first, of what I hope will be many, meetings to discuss and explore what it is to be a historian. Actually to be exact, what it is to be a historian now, especially a fledgling historian, of the PG/ECR breed.

Hosted by a joint committee of BBK & QMUL students and facilitated by the Raphael Samuel History Centre, I was glad to see some familiar faces that I will never tire of listening to, as well as some new faces, which I look forward to hearing more from. Also in attendance were the two centre directors from QMUL and Birkbeck, Professor Barbara Taylor and Dr Matt Cook.

The theme of the evening was to discuss to discuss the question of Why be a Historian? and Studying History Now. A focus of the discussion was the question ‘what is History for?’ and ‘who is History for?’, as well as exploring issues surrounding the responsibilities of the historian.

For me, what was most exciting, and useful, about the meeting, was that it was not about our research, rather it was about the uses of our research, and about us as the researcher. We all know that doing a PhD, and being a historian, is a lonely path, and often the only spaces we get to engage with one another is at conferences, where discussion ultimately turns to ‘What is your research’, ‘Have you read X,Y,Z’, and ‘Oh that was done in 19XX’. But we seldom get the opportunity to discuss, or are asked, why we do the research we do, or who we are as researchers.

At conferences, seminars, workshops and department events I have often asked my fellow postgraduates what led them to their research, more out of nosiness and curiosity than as an extensional question. I am interested in how people come across the amazing subjects that they research, such as the cultural representations of psychopaths, to the medical and cultural place of postnatal distress. However I was staggered to be rebuffed quite a few times when I have asked this question, some people even rolled their eyes stating that it was a really boring question to ask. To be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed their answer anyway, and I feel that they might have misconstrued my inquiry as more a banal uninterested question about their research, rather than it being about them.
So you can imagine my excitement when I first saw the email advertising the event, and also my relief that it was not only me who asked this question, or was interested. Also you can imagine my utter delight as the event progressed, as the presenters were indeed discussing why and how they came to do their research, why it matters to them on a personal level. They also provided an insight into how this informs and shapes their approach, and why they engage with the subject and produce the history that they do.

A common theme across the four presentations, two from BBK students, two from QMUL students, was questions over representation, engagement, purpose and use. How history provides answers, stories, insights and alternative views to questions, events, activities and assumptions.

It was also interesting to note the language that was used by many of the speakers, and by the audience, words/terms such as ‘partial truths’, ‘stories’, ‘experiences’, no mention of the word fact, though data and information did feature.

It was the word story that really grabbed my attention, as that is what history is about, stories, narratives, finding our place in the story, or another re-telling of the story that appeals to our view of history, or of ourselves.

There was also the mention of how one does history, how we can work with others doing other types of history, namely family historians, and local historians, community groups and organisations, who bring with them not only stories and insights, they bring a wealth of knowledge and insight that is often missing in ‘official’ documents and sources.

This led to a wonderful point on the use of history, especially in terms of heritage, activism, and representation. Matt Cook discussed his interest in the way that community history and heritage projects were funded, and the changing trends and interests of groups and projects funded by the HLF. An important question and point which he raised was what happens when the project is over to the product of these events and projects, many of which culminate in an exhibition. Quite often it is the process of ‘doing’ the history, of researching, of collecting, of investigating, and of producing that is the transformative agent, rather than the end product, or the ‘history’ itself.

This led me to think several things about my research, namely
A) what is the history that I am doing, rather than the broader subject or type of history it is.
B) what are my aims for it in terms of my own personal connection with it
C) what is my role as a historian in being active and activist with my research.

This also led to me to really think about who I am as a historian, as a scholar, and as someone investigating a sensitive subject (I research the social history of ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ in the long nineteenth century). It also led me to think about my research approach and my angle, the way I interpret, understand, use, and analyse sources, stories, narratives and information. How are these informed by me, and my own personal history? I am a woman, I am working-class, I am a parent, I am a lone-parent, I am a parent of a female child, I am a parent of a child who has a syndrome/disorder/learning disability, I am a mature student, I am a former professional, a creative, a former political, green and animal rights protester, I am also a feminist, a child of the 80s, and a teenager of the 90s, and a member, whether willingly or not, of Gen-X.

All these personal facets and attributes inform and enhance my research rather than clouding or colouring my view, or distorting my historical lens. Coming away from the meeting I felt elated and inspired, as well as safe and secure in the fact that I was not alone in being actively reflective and thoughtful about my past and my present informing my research, the form it takes, the avenues it will turn down, and the varied pathways that it will cross – and all the wonderful discussions it will meet, inspire, encourage and produce.

I look forward to future meetings where the content of our research in terms of the written thesis, the looming conference paper, or the never ending chapter will be on the back burner, and we can explore and discuss ourselves as historians, and the wider purpose, use, application and meaning of our research can be explored.

Viewing Texts

I have recently been pointed in the direction of corpus linguistics, which I wish I had been made aware of in the first year of my PhD, when grappling with psychiatric texts on the subject of idiocy.

In the course of discovering what corpus linguistics was, and how it could help me, I stumbled across the website Voyant, a web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.

Running a digitzed text through the tool produces a word cloud, word trends, frequency tables, and much more. It can also put keywords in context, allowing you to navigate through the text and see the wider setting of keyword(s).

Luckily my research is nineteenth century, and lots of texts have been digitized and easily accessible thanks google, and the Hathi Trust.

So I chose three texts that have been identified both by contemporaries and by scholars as key publications, and ran them through Voyant.

This is what I got.

Fletcher Beach The Treatment and Education of Mentally Feeble Children (1895)


William Wotherspoon Ireland On Idiocy and Imbecility  (1877)W W Ireland

George Shuttleworth Mentally Defective Children and their Training (1895) Shuttleworth

The Voyant tool also produces frequency lists, word counts, and word trends.

I was struck by the similarity of words used, and the clear focus being on children. Whilst Beach and Shuttleworth are explicit in their titles that they deal with children, Ireland aims his publication as a general text, yet ‘children’ is very much a central theme in his work.

This is indicative of the wider literature on the subject of idiocy, publications written by those who were dealing with idiot and imbecile children, not adult patients. This influenced the wider literature on the subject, which was primarily produced by, and for, those involved in the management of smaller idiot and imbecile asylums.

Other frequent words that appear across the texts, such as intelligence, education, ordinary, deficiency, development and power (in the sense of abilities and faculties) suggest that the wider perception and understanding of idiocy is related to intellect and function.

Yet it is the quantifiable elements and terms emerging in the word clouds that are interesting. The attention to the physicality of the patients, as suggested by the frequency of the words ‘mouth, head, circulation, condition, teeth, lips, hands, feet’, and their measurements as seen in words such as ‘small, size, large, circumference, and inches.’

Finally, what is most surprising to discover in these word clouds, and the accompanying frequency lists, is the dearth of other terms to discuss idiocy and imbecility.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was a period of intense discussion regarding the classification and definition of idiocy and imbecility. Psychiatrists regularly discussed the classification of idiocy, filling the pages of medical journals with articles and referenced to the various classification schema on offer, with many devising their own.

One of the more infamous of these classification systems was John Langdon Downs ‘Ethnic Classifications’, which included the classification ‘Mongoloid Idiocy’, nowadays known as Down Syndrome, Down’s Syndrome or Trisomy 21 .

Yet as can be seen in the word clouds, idiocy, imbecility, feeble- and weak-minded were the most frequent terms used. It is interesting to note that not one of these texts employs Down’s terminology or classification system, with the word ‘Ethnic’ appearing in Ireland’s text just once, as does the word ‘Mongol’.

The word clouds, and lists, have allowed me to see the texts in a different light, to view them as whole bodies, rather than the individual pages, chapters, or sections that I was concentrating on at any one time. The Voyant tools are not definitive! But for me they have provided a wider view of the texts, to see patterns,  frequency, use, and correspondingly the lack of use, that is extremely useful.

There will be more Voyant themed posts in the near future – stay posted!


People, places, spaces and meaning

On 28 November 2014 I will be presenting a paper at my old university, Hertfordshire, on my research into Caterham Asylum, the first state imbecile institution (along with it’s sister asylum Leavesden.)

Below is the abstract:

Alongside the nineteenth century chimneys and workshops of industry, Victorian asylum buildings provide us with a stark visual reminder of a sometimes difficult past. Originally situated on the outskirts of towns, these infamous edifices, through the processes of historical and popular inquiry, and the spread of our cities, have become more visually, physically and emotionally prominent. 

Originally viewed as isolated and punitive institutions, where the insane were sent to be shut away from society, more recent scholarship has shown them to be dynamic sites, with permeable walls, and varied populations. Yet despite nearly forty years of dedicated historical inquiry, the common perception is that Victorian asylums were the province of the mentally ill. Furthermore, there has been little scholarship that explores the asylum population as a whole, preferring to discuss staff and patients as separate entities.

Caterham Asylum opened in 1870,  built to provide long-term accommodation for the harmless chronic pauper insane. The asylum’s  design, character and remit was shaped by contemporary understandings of idiocy, the role and purpose of institutions, and the interactions between those who worked and lived within its walls.

My paper will focus on the design, building and perception of the first state imbecile asylum, provide an insight into the institutional experience of its staff and patients, and illustrate how an alternative reading of the asylum landscape can provide new avenues for discussing nineteenth century welfare, psychiatry, and institutions.


Idiocy: Making the private public.

Idiot: noun
a. A person without learning; an ignorant, uneducated person; a simple or ordinary person. Now archaic and rare.
b.  (a) A person without professional training or skill ;  (b) a private (as opposed to a public) person, an inward-looking person (now rare).
c. Chiefly Law and Psychiatry. A person so profoundly disabled in mental function or intellect as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct; spec. a person permanently so affected, as distinguished from one with a temporary severe mental illness. By the older legal authorities in England an idiot was defined as a person congenitally deficient in reasoning powers, and this remained for a long time the common implication of the term.[1]

The definitions above neatly illustrate how the term idiocy has taken on various social, legal and medical meanings. As suggested in the second explanation, in ancient Greece the word was used to refer to one who was ‘private’, those who did not engage in matters of society, democracy or debate.

The privacy aspect of idiocy remains a feature of the socio-medical term idiocy, which to some degree has evolved into a form of isolation. In recent years, whilst research into mental illness, asylums and the development of psychiatry has blossomed, across this wider history idiocy has been overlooked, at best a footnote, at worst utterly ignored.

Yet throughout history idiots were not hidden or unknown, nor where they private or isolated individuals. They were visible members of society, sometimes referred to as village idiots, holy fools, or saintly solitaires. Perhaps the most renowned and visible ‘idiots’ in history are William Somer and ‘Jane the Fool’, members of Henry VIII’s court. They can be found in a royal family portrait displayed at Hampton Court Palace, alongside Henry himself, Jane Seymour, and his children Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, illustrating both their high status, significance and importance to the king, and the wider visibility of idiocy.  Idiocy was present across all spheres of life, appearing in art, literature, folk and popular song, and, as illustrated in the Henry the VIII painting, families.


It was at the end of the eighteenth century that the psychiatric profession turned its attention to idiocy, differentiating it from insanity, and attempting to create a specific classification schema and definition for the term and associated conditions. Yet almost as an echo of the Greek meaning of the term idiocy, in terms of scholarly research and the focus of the academy,  it has become a secluded and isolated term, frequently discussed in terms of segregation and seclusion, rather than as a feature of life, which has led to a number of misconceptions, misrepresentations and misapplications.

So, hence the title of this blog entry Idiocy: Making the private public.

My research is on the social and cultural history of idiocy in the long nineteenth century, going beyond the ‘great men’ such as John Langdon Down and Henry Maudsley, and focusing on the popular meanings and perceptions of the terms idiocy and imbecility. I use Caterham Imbecile Asylum, the first state asylum for idiots, imbeciles and the weakminded, concentrating on the experience of those identified as idiots and imbeciles, in order to explore the various socio-medical perceptions of idiocy, the development of both the language and classifications surrounding idiocy, and the changing attitudes of both staff and families.

My research touches on the history of learning disability, asylum history and the development of nineteenth century welfare and medical services. With that in mind I am looking forward to uncovering elements of idiocy, imbecility, and disability in the various archives and collections of the Language of Access partner groups, learning how to grapple with language, use language and disseminate my findings to a (hopefully) wide range of audiences.