Collaborative History Education: Thoughts on Future Teaching Practices

In the second of our posts reflecting on the PGCE placement, participants were asked to think about the practical outcomes of the collaboration. The historians brought experience of teaching to the sessions, but little training. Many of them reflected upon the value of gaining knowledge of pedagogical theory and approaches in improving their future teaching. Another key outcome that the historians highlighted was a better understanding of what happens in schools, which they hope will enable them to better aid their students in the transition to undergraduate History. Most participants left the placement with ideas for individual lessons, tasks, and frameworks. For the PGCE students, this involved making use of source materials that have not made it into the secondary classroom on a large scale – the potential of oral history as a teaching tool was especially popular. All participants felt that their teaching will improve as a result of taking part in the placement.


 How will the discussions you had during the placement inform your approach to teaching in the future?


Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former PGCE History student [@alistairward]

This placement will enrich our lesson content, give us new depth where the textbooks and even scholarship are lacking. We have found out about so many excellent sources e.g Medicine: the Casebook of a Stratford Practitioner, Wellcome Images; Slavery: John Newton’s Ship logs, adverts where formerly enslaved people are searching for family –


Amy Gower, PhD Student [@AmyG_Historrry]

We discussed the concept of scaffolding, a term familiar to nearly all teachers, but less familiar to those of us in university teaching, especially given the nature of our roles as sessional staff, who don’t often have scope to design our own content. Thinking about how to build up to the big questions and create those supports early on, rather than just enthusiastically barrelling into a seminar with an ambitious plan, provoked some important reflections.

Hearing from the PGCE teachers about the way enquiry questions, and sometimes problematic exam requirements, shape the way secondary school history is taught was completely illuminating; we often encounter common misconceptions and clashing approaches among first-year undergraduates without interrogating why this is the case.

Building on this more nuanced understanding of what toolkit our students arrive with will, I hope, be transformative in how we can support students to develop this skillset further.


Becca Grose, PhD Student [@Becca_Grose]

The placement highlighted the importance of discussing reception and historiography in teaching and outreach when we talk about primary sources i.e. highlighting other historians, different interpretations, and other forms of interpretation like historical fiction.

Scaffolding emerged as key to classes and outreach. Backwards planning is not always possible as a seminar tutor or when speaking at a one-off outreach event. Collaboration is central, as is thinking critically about the knowledge or skills that we assume and whether we could make our sessions more inclusive.

Given the unusual format, we discussed spaces of learning both in my session and during the sessions with guest speakers. E-learning changes the way we interact, and discussion centred discussion about spaces and hierarchies. In the future I will consider the ways that space enforces or destabilises hierarchies when making decisions between different sites of learning (online, in seminar and lecture rooms, off-campus institutions and public spaces).


Beth Rebisz, PhD Student [@BRebisz]

This placement is particularly wonderful for PhD students as it provides us an opportunity to learn and better refine our own teaching practices with the experts themselves. They have offered me ways in which to teach my research, sharing ideas and strategies. Collaborating with the PGCE students has enabled me to better contextualise my own research in relation to broader topics. Preparing for this placement encourages me to reflect on how I can best present my research in relation to current affairs. For example, we discussed at length the ongoing need to decolonise the secondary education curriculum. This is something that sits at the forefront in my mind when considering further steps I need to take to ensure my teaching and writing is inclusive and actively anti-racist.


Charli Burns, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@cburnshistory]

I think, for me, the biggest issue that was raised in our discussions about History was around humanising the people of the past. I think for me, the place where this became the clearest was when looking at medieval/early modern medicine with Dr Katie Phillips [@ktfaith] and Amie Bolissian-McRae [@AuntieAmie]. What became apparent in both of our discussions was the massive role that women played in medicine at these times. By seeking to approach the history of medicine as a very human experience (which it is – what better way to get your students to relate to the people of the past, then through something which they will have experienced themselves), it is not unbelievable that students will be able to see the people of the past as more human, rather than as fictional characters. In my own experiences, students have laughed at the ‘nonsense’ cures people came up with during the Black Death, but by helping students understand not only the way that people thought about medicine in the past, but also the way that separate genders experienced medicine, perhaps this can lead to a more nuanced discussion in the classroom that goes further than ‘well they were stupid so that’s why they all died’.


Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher [@E_M_Barnes]

I have so much more awareness now of the skills, knowledge, and approaches that my students have when they first arrive at university. At times I have found it hard to meet my students where they’re at, but the placement has given me a much firmer understanding of why some of what I try to do doesn’t land.

The teachers had some fascinating, creative ideas about individual lessons that I’ll definitely try to work into my teaching. There were some especially interesting ideas about how to make historiography more interesting and approachable, using it as a lens to analyse not only the era we’re studying but also the changing nature of the history profession. Given the deeply embedded problems of inequality in the profession, this was something I was especially drawn to. Their commitment to weaving through different methods, sources, fields and lenses was inspiring. I’ve found that I often sacrifice creativity in teaching in the name of just getting the job done; this session made me realise that doing both at once isn’t actually as complicated as I’d convinced myself it was.


Tom Collins, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@Tomcol23]

I found the idea of using oral history in the classroom a fantastic idea and this is something that I will certainly be taking forward. The school where I will be teaching includes many SEN and EAL pupils and getting pupils to hear and/or see an interpretation of history becomes much easier for these pupils than simply reading them. Pupils can hear and see the emotion the historian gives, which making it easier for pupils to see that passion and enthusiasm from historians, rather than trying to imagine it simply by reading it.

I will certainly be using more scholarship in the classroom – it is vitally important for pupils to see the arguments historians write, and get them to identify history as a construct that can change over time with constantly having new information being released to the public.


Check back in tomorrow for our participants’ final thoughts on the placement as a whole, including reflections on this format as a space for thinking about gender history and teaching.

Please do join in the conversation using the hashtag #Rdgcollab2020

Collaborative History Education: Reflections on the Key Issues Raised in Our Discussions

In the first of this week’s reflective posts, today will cover our participants’ thoughts on the key issues raised in their individual sessions. Our participants highlighted a number of issues that particularly stood out to them, such as decolonising the curriculum, tackling difficult or uncomfortable histories and broadening the historical actors that pupils encounter. Another common theme was the pupils themselves, considering their journey from KS3 and in some cases, their transition from A level to undergraduate. Many participants considered how we can work together to better connect pupils to the stories they study and how those stories have been constructed.


 What were the key issues raised in your discussion?

 Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former PGCE History student

The content of many of the researchers’ presentations highlights some real discrepancies between up-to-date research and what is being taught in schools. For example, the  current very popular GCSE thematic study on Health (e.g. AQA) is woefully lacking on topics such as leprosy , women and sophisticated treatment of the four humours. We also discussed a more representative curriculum with sensitive ways to teach difficult histories. Slavery should be told through the eyes of the enslaved, with a focus on family and community and gendered experiences. The changing way the story of slavery has been told over time  also makes for a fascinating study of historiography. The Mau Mau Uprising would be a good example of violent decolonisation. Interestingly one of the most important Mau Mau field marshalls, Muthoni Kurima, was a woman. In fact, we learnt about the need to look deeper at ethnicity and race in the medieval world, too. Figures of notes were the Greek speaking Syrian refugee Theodore of Tarsus who became Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Libyan refugee Hadrian of Canterbury who became England’s greatest ever educator. One last standout issue was the different methodologies used by the researchers and how we might benefit from using  oral history in the classroom. 


Amy Gower, PhD student [@AmyG_Historrry]

Our session focused on two things; history teaching within the Inner London Education Authority in the 1980s, and the history of childhood more broadly. A key issue that we discussed at length was the current status of the inclusion of children in the history curriculum. We looked at the ways in which children and teenagers are not always in the most obvious places in the archive, and how this affects their representation in secondary history curricula. Some current practice focuses on the effects of broader historical change on children, for instance child labour in Victorian Britain, but not necessarily on how children themselves contribute to historical change. We agreed that seeing children and young people as instigators of change and as active historical agents would be incredibly beneficial to current school pupils, not just as a way of engaging pupils with history but also for developing pupils’ esteem and confidence. We took as inspiration the Motherland project, a two year project in the 1980s by Elyse Dodgson, which encouraged pupils in Vauxhall to design a play about West Indian women’s arrival to London in the 1950s based on oral history testimonies gathered by pupils. We hoped by developing similar projects now, pupils would be able to see themselves as historians and practitioners in their own right.

One of the most valuable aspects of this placement was our whole group discussion on the first day, when we talked about the leaky pipeline of pupils studying history from Key Stage 3 to university, and our roles in trying to plug those gaps, especially in relation to pupils already underrepresented in history throughout school, university, and academia.[1] Is the end goal just to get more pupils in general studying history, or is there more to it than that? And how can we make sure that, while making further study of history accessible to all, those pupils who choose not to study history from the end of year nine still benefit?


Becca Grose, PhD student [@Becca_Grose]

Some of the questions we discussed in my session included:

An earlier period does not mean a less complex history; how do we teach history chronologically without suggesting a more innocent or simple past?  What are the implications of simplifying ancient empires for later discussions of imperialism and colonisation? 

Late-antique and early-medieval history don’t feature in GCSE options: should we approach these areas differently at KS3 or outreach?

 Material culture is not as central to secondary teaching or History undergraduate courses as textual criticism. Can we use it as a bridge between primary and secondary teaching, and between secondary and tertiary teaching?

 How do we approach active debates (i.e. the use of “Anglo-Saxon”) and can universities help teachers with this by sharing current exam questions and reading lists?


Beth Rebisz, PhD student [@BRebisz]

I titled my session this year: ‘Deconstructing “The White Man’s Burden”’ with the overall aim of discussing colonial representations and marginalised narratives in the context of British colonialism in Africa. I used Rudyard Kipling’s poem of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (1899) as a springboard to explore colonial justifications to Empire-building. The session was designed with the harrowing events taking place in May in mind, particularly the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing indiscriminate brutality against #BlackLivesMatter protestors. Although my research is not situated in a US context, the issue of systemic racism and white supremacy sit at the core of any research of British colonialism and particularly the colonial encounters on the African continent.

My session was then used to have some broader discussions on ‘the Scramble for Africa’, settler colonialism and the process of decolonisation. More focused discussion came from our conversations on late-colonial conflict, mainly the counter-insurgency campaign fought by the British colonial government against anti-colonial insurgents in Kenya during the 1950s. During these discussions we tackled issues of gender and race when analysing how Kenyan insurgents were depicted to Western audiences at the time. This sparked fascinating conversations among the group of the enduring legacies of colonialism when we think about race and power dynamics today.


Charli Burns, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@cburnshistory]

A key takeaway from the discussions was around not only humanising the past, but also humanising the historian. So often in the classroom, pupils imagine historians as dusty old white men, hiding away in archives/libraries. Through this collaboration, many avenues have been opened to us as teachers to try and incorporate historians into the classroom. We can include one of the many wonderful young women historians’ faces next to something we are studying to help pupils understand who actually constructs the history they study. We can also use the new-fangled technology that everyone’s become accustomed to during COVID-19 to support a Q&A discussion with an ECR historian in real time, or even invite a historian in for the day. History is fundamentally a construction, influenced wholly by people’s beliefs and culture at the time of writing – what better way to demonstrate that to students than by exposing them to a wide variety of historians from different backgrounds!


Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher [@E_M_Barnes]

I really aimed to talk with the teachers about humanising histories of the transatlantic slave trade in the classroom. To that end, we discussed slavery as an institution beyond simply an economic system: we discussed enslaved people’s family lives, culture, religion, and their relationships to enslavement. We had some really interesting discussions about the nature of historical research and how to make students and pupils feel connected to that. We shared some especially interesting ideas about silences in the archive and encouraging learners to approach this as researchers do: thinking about what’s not there, considering where it could be found, drawing on methods from other disciplines. The teachers were all keen to highlight historians themselves in their classrooms, drawing pupils’ attention to the people behind the books they study. I was especially impressed by their commitment to weaving method and historiography into the curriculum, and it inspired me to think more about the extent to which I do this in my own teaching.

Our discussion went far beyond what I initially anticipated, however. The immediate context of the session really informed this – we met on Wednesday 9 June, around a week and a half after George Floyd was murdered by police, reigniting protests around racial inequality across the world. Calls in the UK to decolonise the curriculum were louder than ever, and I think we all recognised that we needed to discuss some of those issues. We spoke a lot about our positionality as white teachers and historians and thought about the best ways to acknowledge in our classrooms the privilege that we benefit from.


Tom Collins, History Teacher,  former PGCE student [@Tomcol23]

One of the interesting topics for participants was identifying and understanding the transition pupils face from A level History to being a first year undergraduate. We covered essay writing as the nature of assessment at A level tends to lend itself to structured and rigid writing and considering both sides of an argument is encouraged. This method can completely contradict essay writing at undergraduate level; the historians mentioned how frustrating it was when their undergraduates made a really good argument, and then counter-argued it. This will be good background knowledge for the historians when they teach modules in the future as they will understand some of the assessment expectations at A level and will be better equipped to train their first year undergraduates.

We covered a wealth of other topics too, including:

  • Different forms of pedagogy (we had a good discussion with one PhD student about how to get pupils more confident to speak out in seminar sessions)
  • Getting pupils to identify what historians actually do
  • Incorporating more representative histories in the classroom
  • Using oral history in the classroom
  • Using material sources in the classroom


Check back in tomorrow for our participants’ thoughts on how the placement will inform their teaching practice in the future.

Please do join in the conversation using the hashtag #rdgcollab2020


[1] The ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor has been used as a metaphor to refer to the decreasing proportions of women and black, Asian, and ethnic minority scholars in academia, from school, through university study and into the academic profession. For more on how this relates to the history profession, see the RHS Gender Equality Report here: and the RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report here:


Collaborative History Education: Roundtable Reflections on PGCE Enrichment Placement, by Charlotte Crouch

This summer, many of the postgraduate members of the Gender Research Cluster took part in one of the PGCE Enrichment placements run by the Institute of Education here at Reading. In its third year running, the placement connects postgraduate researchers in the History Department with History PGCE students at the Institute of Education here at Reading. The aim of the placement is to facilitate open exchanges of knowledge and expertise, challenge privileged hierarchies of knowledge, and improve the teaching practices of all participants.

Over the coming week, we will use this blog as a forum to discuss some of the placement’s outcomes and feedback from some of the participants. 

Run by William Bailey-Watson, subject lead of the History PGCE at the Institute of Education and Charlotte Crouch (I’ve recently completed my doctorate with the History Department), the placement invites postgraduate researchers and PGCE trainees to work together to access cutting edge research and up-to-date pedagogical knowledge. In its first year, emphasis was placed on the PhD students’ research and how this knowledge might be used in the classroom. Whilst this remains an important element, the placement has evolved over the past three years to facilitate meaningful exchanges between all participants as educators, both respecting one another’s expertise and learning how to develop all participants’ teaching practices. 

Each postgraduate researcher hosted their own morning session, which was followed by a collaborative afternoon discussion. Our researchers all used their morning sessions differently; some key themes included myth busting their particular areas of research, drawing attention to stories they thought important to share, and unpicking particular methodologies, types of sources or historiography. The collaborative afternoon sessions were both ambitious and practical, covering the particular opportunities or barriers to using each researcher’s work in schools, university and more widely in the history community. The trainees offered advice around how the researchers could approach teaching in seminars and where their research could fit within school history, whether that be an entire scheme of work, drawing from anecdotes to give a greater sense of period or understanding historians’ methodologies. There were also many exciting conversations about how all participants could continue to work together and collaborate after the placement.

This year had a different feel for several reasons. The main change was moving the entire placement online. Whilst this process had its challenges, it also brought many extra opportunities. We were able to invite external speakers to share their own experiences of collaborating with schools and universities. Jason Todd (University of Oxford) and Arthur Chapman (UCL) kindly acted as expert sounding boards when we were fine tuning our aims and suggesting shared reading and activities. [1] David Hibbert gave an insightful talk about the challenges and benefits of using historians’ work in the classroom and joined Claire Kennan in a Q and A about collaboration outside of the academy. Arthur Burns and Ben Walsh were also able to join us and take part in some of the discussions. We were able to introduce the placement with all participants together and discuss shared reading in breakout groups. 

Over this coming week, we will share the results of our participants’ collaborative discussions, their feelings on the importance of these exchanges, and why they were particularly relevant this year. 

Here are the researchers and teachers who took part in this placement: 

Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Amie Bolissian-McRae, PhD Student

Amy Gower, PhD Student

Beth Rebisz, PhD Student 

Becca Grose, PhD Student

Charli Burns, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Josh Dixon, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Judith Sotes, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Katie Phillips, Early Career Researcher

Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher

Robyn Sampson, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Sophie Springer, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Tom Collins, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student


Each day, we will share some of their responses to each of the following questions:

Tuesday: What were the key issues raised in your discussions? 

Wednesday: How will the discussions you had during the placement inform your approach to teaching in the future?

Thursday: How do you hope to benefit in future from the collaborative relationships established during the placement? Do you think the placement was a good forum for discussions about improving how gender history is represented in our teaching practices?

Friday: Reflections from Will and Charlotte

Please do continue these conversations on Twitter, using #Rdgcollab2020


[1] As recommended by Jason Todd and Arthur Chapman, participants all read and discussed the following: R Samuel (1996), Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, ch. 1; P Seixas (1993), ‘The Community of Inquiry as a Basis for Knowledge and Learning: The Case of History’, American Educational Research Journal

Image-ining Gender: Old Man Winter: Ageing Masculinity in Early Modern European Culture, by Amie Bolissian


By the seventeenth century, depicting Winter as an old man was nothing new. This painting, taken from a set of The Four Seasons by renowned Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), was part of an allegorical tradition stretching back to antiquity. The theme was old but the setting and detail were contemporary. In its need to convey symbolic meaning to early modern European audiences, the image can provide insights into cultural assumptions about masculinity and ageing from this period.

Teniers painted several versions of The Four Seasons. He used figures of men, and usually repeated the same allegorical motif for each version: Spring holds a tree to be planted, Summer gathers a wheatsheaf, Autumn raises a glass of wine or spirits, and Winter wears heavy clothing, and warms himself with a brazier. A clear visual clue that the figure of Winter is old is his ‘hoary’ (white) hair and beard. This age signifier was referenced in drama, artwork, and texts. The King James translation of Proverbs 20:29 stated: ‘The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the grey head’.

Using an old person to depict cold, wet Northern hemisphere winters worked on more than one level in this period. Not only was Winter perceived as the final senescent, barren stage of the year, but also old men’s bodies were believed to be constitutionally cold and wet. 

According to the dominant Humouralist concepts of the body, the process of ageing gradually used up our life-giving store of good moisture and heat. Eventually, ‘olde folk’ would be left cold, dry in their ‘solid parts’, and clogged up with cold, wet humours such as phlegm. The old man in our painting makes his way through a cold, snowy landscape beside a frozen lake or river, carrying a brazier for warmth. Winter is dressed in thick clothes, with a fur-lined hat. Instantly we can see old age visually related to both coldness and wetness. In medical understandings of the body, however, these associations had significant repercussions for masculinity.

Coldness and wetness were linked to weakness, softness, ill-health… and womanhood. Women’s bodies were believed to be cooler and wetter than men, compounding pervasive assumptions about women’s feebleness and inferiority. Conversely, healthy men in their prime (25-45/50 years) were supposed to be the perfect balance of heat and moisture, often labelled as ‘hot and dry’. Masculinity was consequently linked to heat, fire, and strength, whereas femininity was associated with coolness, water and weakness – especially in art. This meant that, in what Gail Kern Paster refers to as early modern humouralism’s ‘caloric economy’, as men entered old age and began cooling and abounding in cold, wet humours, they essentially started to embody undervalued ‘female’ constitutional properties.[1] 

In our image of Winter, the old man is also hunched, diminished in size, and his walking stick suggests lameness – both indicating a loss of manly strength. On his belt he carries a full purse which was probably a reference to widespread beliefs that older people, like women, were prone to ‘covetousness’ and ‘avarice’. The English author Thomas Wright wrote that ‘olde men, and women are consecrated to covetousnes’ because they lacked the ‘force’ of young men to gather more money and goods.[2] The expression on Winter’s face appears apprehensive, with his slightly opened, downturned mouth, and frowning raised eyebrows. Fear was associated with coldness, old age, and women. Emotions were deeply embodied in this period, and doctors believed that a person’s warm blood and lively spirits rushed to their heart when scared or fearful, abandoning the face and limbs and leaving them pale, cold, and trembling. The Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius explained that coldness made men ‘fearefull, timorous and fainthearted… which is a thing peculiar to womenkinde’.[3] 

Another unique feature of the figure of Winter is that he is looking backwards, unlike the other three seasons who stare straight out at the viewer into the present. A tendency to look backwards and dwell in the past was thought to partly explain a further non-masculine trait in old men, that of excessive talkativeness, and wanting to share ‘What they have bin, what they have done, what they have had’.[4] Talkativeness was firmly associated with women during this period, and was tainted with connotations of idleness and ‘folly’. Theologian Richard Baxter declared: ‘Women, and Children, and old folks, are commonly the greatest talkers’.[5]  The term ‘gossip’ originated from the group of ‘gossips’ or godparents who attended a baptism, and were mostly women. 

Yet, it was not all bad news for our figure of Winter and ageing masculinity. In comparison to the other seasons, Winter seems to be affluently dressed, with a fur trimmed coat and hat, and a gold chain. Older men, who had retained their status and their memories, and were ‘sober’ and ‘temperate’, were thought to have access to positive ageing masculine attributes. Authors listed wisdom, good council, and steadfastness as admired qualities which were easier to attain in old age, after the lusts and ‘heat’ of youth had subsided.[6] Richard Steele declared that ‘Youth have usually the large Sails, but Old-age hath the solid Ballast, and therefore doth sail more steadily and more safely’.[7] The ageing ‘male’ stereotype could therefore encompass authority and wisdom, as well as weakness, fear, and miserliness.

While Teniers’ allegorical image of Winter cannot testify as a historical source for a specific individual, event, or lived experience, it does seem to capture expressively the ambivalent cultural attitudes towards older men in Europe during this period. It helps illustrate how the ‘natural’ cooling and weakening of old age could both erode certain early modern masculine traits and give easier access to others during the winter of a man’s life.


Further reading: Shepard, Alexandra, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2003); Toulalan, Sarah, ‘‘Elderly years cause a Total dispaire of Conception’: Old Age, Sex and Infertility in Early Modern England’, Social History of Medicine, 29/2 (2016), 333-59.; Reinke‐Williams, Tim, ‘Manhood and Masculinity in Early Modern England’, History Compass, 12/9 (2014), 685-93.


[1] Paster, Gail Kern, ‘Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women’s Imperfection and the Humoral Economy’, English Literary Renaissance, 28/3 (1998), 420.

[2] Wright, Thomas, The passions of the minde in generall (London, 1604), 38.

[3] Lemnius, Levinus, The Touchstone of Complexions, (London: 1576), 16v.

[4] Steele, Richard, A Discourse Concerning Old-Age, (London: 1688), 47.

[5] Baxter, Richard, A Christian Directory, (London: 1673), 434.

[6] See: Cicero, Marcus Tullius, The worthye booke of old age (London, 1569), 11r.

[7] Steele, Richard, A Discourse Concerning Old-Age, (London: 1688), 108.


Amie is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @AuntieAmie

Image-ining Gender: ‘She hits massa with de hoe:’ The Weaponization of Plantation Labour Equipment by Enslaved Women in the Antebellum American South, by Erin Shearer

Three women and one man hoeing in field, (1899), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division []



This photograph, titled Three women and one man hoeing in a field, depicts the agricultural labour of unidentified African Americans in the late nineteenth century. The image not only offers a glimpse into the lives of Black Southerners before the turn of the century, but also provides an insight into the labour performed by enslaved people during the antebellum era (1815-1861) and the height of ‘King Cotton.’ 


The hoe served as a crucial tool of agricultural development on Southern slaveholding sites during the antebellum era.  Enslaved men and women often hoed crops alongside each other in back breaking conditions from ‘sun-up to sun-down’, cultivating the land of the elite and thus lining the pockets of their enslavers.[1] Consequently, for many African Americans, the hoe not only served as a tool of oppression but also stood as a symbol of their enslavement. 


Paradoxically, enslaved women often utilised tools of slavery such as the hoe as an object of resistance. Enslaved women created various violent strategies to resist victimisation, affirm agency and identity, and to protest against the legalised rape and abuse of their bodies in creative and subversive violent ways. The utilisation of plantation labour equipment ironically provided strategies for survival and allowed women to protest and resist white mechanisms of control. 


Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted in the 1930s reveal a clear and distinct theme of enslaved women’s violence and illuminate how agricultural implements, such as the hoe, were utilised as an object of women’s resistance. When interviewed in the state of Texas, one formerly enslaved man described how an enslaved woman, Clarinda, violently resisted her slaveholder’s sexual advances, or attempts to ‘[inter]‘fere with her,’  by physically assaulting him with the hoe she was operating in the plantation field: 


‘De worst whippin’ I seed was give to Clarinda. She hits massa with de hoe ‘cause he try ‘fere with her and she try stop him.’[2]


Additionally, a respondent named Richard Crump described how his mother would stand inside her cabin equipped with a hoe and would challenge the residing overseer to enter and beat her. Afraid of trespassing into the armed enslaved woman’s cabin, the overseer let her be.[3] Lucindy Allison reported to a WPA interviewer how her mother, while labouring in the field, violently threatened to ‘chop up’ the plantation overseer ‘into pieces’ with her hoe if he attempted to whip her pregnant daughter. Unwilling to take the risk of potentially combatting two armed women, the overseer relented.[4] These examples demonstrate that women converted agricultural equipment into deadly weapons which could be utilised against slaveholders and overseers at any time to subvert authority. Bondswomen used plantation equipment as their own form of personal protection which extended to their children as women attempted to curb the generational cycle of abuse which operated on slaveholding sites. 


Slaveholders expected women who laboured as field hands to perform the same heavy work as men and little distinction was made between the two sexes, as highlighted by Anne Clark, who informed her interviewer that she ‘ploughed, hoed, split rails. I done the hardest work ever a man did, I was strong.’[5] The enforced labour implemented upon enslaved women inadvertently gave them the skills and experience needed to be able to transition the hoe from an innocent farm implement into a deadly weapon within seconds. 


The weaponization of the agricultural hoe specifically had many practical advantages. The hoe easily transitioned from an everyday farming tool to offensive weapon due to its light weight, long reach and sharp metal blade. Swinging the lightweight hoe required minimal strength and the metal blade edge could easily damage skin or crack bones of the intended target. Additionally, its long reach allowed the user to attack the intended victim and kept them from any immediate short-range counterattacks. Overall, converting equipment into weapons bolstered bondswomen’s violence, provided extra protection for themselves and others, and allowed them to overcome any possible physiological shortcomings due to the practical advantages of the weapon.  Therefore, it is not surprising that enslaved people, most notably women, converted this tool of enslavement into an object of resistance.


The descriptions of these women speak to a celebration and appreciation of the efficacy of women’s violence. They demonstrate how enslaved women rejected contemporary narratives of both white supremacy and inevitable masculine dominance through a resistance tactic still largely unexplored by historians of slavery. The weaponization of equipment by enslaved women forces historians to expand our understandings of those behaviours and actions we constitute as gendered. The testimony provided by the formerly enslaved clearly reveals that violence was not solely a male phenomenon, and it challenges contemporary and historical ideas around resistance, activism and identities forged in slavery. It asks us to reconceptualise the gendered boundaries we have drawn around strategies for survival. 

[1] Henry D. Jenkins, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 3

[2] Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 2

[3] Richard Crump, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[4] Lucindy Allison, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[5] Anne Clark, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 1


Erin Shearer is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @erinshearer05

Image-ining Gender: ‘medieval sisters are doin’ it for themselves’ by Charlotte Crouch

(Arch. de la Côte-d’Or, P.S 440)

Opening a box in the archives and seeing a medieval seal like this one can be breathtaking. Finding this 733 year old seal certainly brightened a particularly rainy day in Dijon last year. This seal belonged to Margaret, countess of Tonnerre in Burgundy and for a time, queen of Sicily. Seals were attached to documents to authenticate their contents. This particular seal is still attached to a charter, issued by Margaret in 1287, regulating her portion of her uncle’s inheritance. It signalled the beginning of the end of a decade-long inheritance dispute after the duke of Burgundy’s heir died, leaving behind three daughters, one of whom was Margaret.

Her seal contains many signs of her status; her crown signifies her title of Queen of Sicily before her husband’s death; the heraldic shields either side of Margaret show her familial links to the French crown and the duchy of Burgundy and her titles circling the outside of the oval seal gave her the authority to make the decisions concerning her lands in the charter. Margaret’s seal was designed to identify her individually, but also to represent her status as an aristocratic woman and heiress.

As recently as last year, the editors of a new collection on aristocratic women lamented how little the work on women like Margaret has permeated the discourse concerning the aristocracy.[1] Unlike England at the time, the French aristocracy had far more flexibility and control over their own inheritance, which opened the door for aristocratic women to make politically consequential decisions concerning their own lands. Yet women are still too often seen as exceptional when they occupied positions of authority, and still seen as ‘a cipher’ in relation to their husbands or children.[2] The charter and Margaret’s seal can be used to further show the need to nuance this narrative. The context around this charter and the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reveals the diversity of experience of aristocratic women.

There are many different layers that we must consider when researching medieval women. Hearing women’s voices can be particularly difficult considering that most of the written sources which have survived come to us through the voices of educated church men. Very few chronicles and literary sources can shed light on Margaret’s life, or indeed the lives of most medieval women. Yet when we begin to piece together different types of evidence, such as the many charters Margaret left behind, and her religious and artistic patronage, we can start to build a picture of Margaret’s own experiences.

Studying seals and how they change across women’s life cycles, for example, can be revealing.[3] By comparing Margaret’s two seals from before and after her husband’s death, we can see key differences in how she wished to be portrayed.

 Marguerite’s two seals, before and after her husband’s death[4]

Her seal during her marriage showed her wearing  expensive jewellery and clothing lined with ermine, befitting for the queen of Sicily. In her widowhood, and during her extensive programme of religious patronage, Margaret’s second seal removed such obvious displays of wealth.


The back of Margaret’s second seal, the counter-seal, contained Margaret’s family arms within a daisy; very possibly linking her name in French (Marguerite) to marguerite daisies. Her impressive religious patronage, including the foundation of an important religious hospital in her county of Tonnerre, perhaps continued to show her influence with marguerites dotted all over tiles and stained glass.[5] Some of her surviving charters were also decorated with red marguerites, suggesting that Margaret held an element of control over how she was represented, in both documents and material culture.

After her father’s death, Margaret was drawn into a decade long inheritance dispute with her two sisters, Yolande and Alice, concerning both their maternal and paternal inheritance. Yolande, as the oldest daughter, believed she was entitled to inherit all of her mother’s and father’s lands. Alice, as the youngest, believed that at least the maternal lands should be divided equally between the three sisters. Charters like the one pictured above depict the youngest sister, Alice, nominating representatives to make her case at different aristocratic courts, pleading that her sister Yolande was unfairly withholding lands. Eventually, the case was referred to the king’s court, where it was decided that the daughters would have a county from their maternal lands each, and the rest of the maternal inheritance would be split equally.

It was common for siblings to refer inheritance cases to courts and does not necessarily represent sour relations between the sisters. Their great-grandmother was reprimanded by the pope for engaging in violent action against her half-brother to defend her own inheritance but there is no evidence this sort of thing happened between the three sisters. Whilst Yolande would pursue a court case for her paternal inheritance for ten years, this charter describes Margaret declining her own share of her father’s inheritance and settling it outside of the court case. The charter marks the beginning of the end of the ten year long dispute in which all three sisters made decisions concerning their own inheritance. Yolande and Alice chose to vehemently defend their rights to their own lands, whilst Margaret appears to have taken a back seat in the negotiations; she did not send a representative for the earlier court case and decided to settle her paternal inheritance directly with her half-brother.

Out of the three sisters, Margaret does appear to have had a better relationship with her younger sister, Alice, who visited her whilst Margaret was on crusade with her husband. Indeed, without any heirs, Margaret decided to leave her own county of Tonnerre to Alice’s son.

The change in the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reflects her changing priorities across her lifetime. The charter to which this seal was attached also describes her reaction to the inheritance dispute, which was different to that of her sisters. Whether or not the sisters got the results they had been hoping for, they all acted with different motivations and from different perspectives, a long way from the ‘ciphers’ of men or ‘exceptions’ they might still be labelled as today. Whilst Margaret’s seal is exceptionally beautiful, the charter she issued and the actions of the siblings were expected and completely unexceptional.

Charlotte Crouch recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter : @CharCrouch

[1] Ed. H. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400: Moving Beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

[2] Ed. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women, p. 1-2

[3] See, for example, E. Jordan, ‘Swords, Seals and Coins: Female Rulers and Instruments of Authority in Thirteenth-Century Flanders and Hainaut’ in ed. S. Solway, Medieval Coins and Seals: Constructing Identity, Signifying Power (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015) pp. 229- 246

[4]  M. P. Lillich, The Queen of Sicily and Gothic Stained Glass in Mussy and Tonnerre (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1998) p. 33

[5] See Lillich, The Queen of Sicily, esp. p.29-37 and p. 81


Image-ining Gender – ‘the backbone of Mau Mau’: Women’s Contributions in Conflict, Kenya by Beth Rebisz

(Photograph taken by author)

On 12th September 2015, a memorial in honour of Kenya’s freedom fighters was unveiled in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. The memorial was part of an out-of-court settlement reached between the British government and a group of Kenyans who had fought through the 1950s in an armed conflict against their colonial rulers. This group is now popularly referred to as the Mau Mau. The statue, at the heart of the memorial site, depicts a man and a woman. The woman is passing the man a basket filled with what we can assume to be food from the accounts gathered of those who fought in this war. Both figures are looking away from one another. This was a method used by men and women to avoid recognising each other should they be captured and expected to identify other insurgents. In contrast to previous memorials for the conflict, and unlike many war-focused statues, this structure equally represents men and women who fought in the struggle. The statue signifies a vital feature of this conflict – ‘the backbone of the Mau Mau’, ie. Kenyan women’s contributions to the cause.[i]

The unprecedented High Court hearing in London (2011-2013) signified a huge turning point in this shared history, with Britain finally acknowledging the horrors of this period in Kenya. This group of Kenyans had sued the British government for compensation for the torture and ill-treatment they suffered between 1952-1960 in the detention camps, work camps and fortified villages that made up the colonial government’s punitive counter-insurgency infrastructure. Along with the £19.9 million of compensation paid and the forced release of the colonial records which corroborated the testimonies of the claimants, the British government commissioned a memorial to commemorate the Kenyans who had been tortured or killed during the Mau Mau insurgency.

While it has been all too common in military scholarship to centre men as agents in war, recent research has worked to re-evaluate the key roles women have played in liberation struggles. Kenya is a particularly unique case study for this. As this statue would suggest, Britain recognised women’s contributions in the conflict. They recognised very early on that Kenyan women were quite literally keeping the movement alive. This can be determined by Britain’s response to Kenyan women. Not only did they establish two detention camps – Kamiti and Gitamayu – to specifically house suspected Mau Mau women, they extended the forced resettlement of the remaining population assumed to be supporting the forest fighters. Using this villagisation process to separate the ‘fish from the water’, the British hoped to drain insurgent fighters of key resources.

The statue depicts a Kenyan woman in her role in feeding the male forest fighters. Women were perceived to be the guardians of their local communities: nurturers and mothers. In the testimonies of women who were forcibly resettled, stories are shared of the ways in which they subverted the barriers put in place to separate them from the forest fighters. Women cut the wires of the surrounding village fence to sneak out at night to leave supplies at a designated spot. Women found ways to hide food outside of the village when they were taken out during the day to complete forced labour tasks for the colonial government. For many women in the villages, they continued to risk the extreme punishments to feed their male family members on the other side of the fence.

Women did not, however, provide just a supporting role in this conflict. While the statue does not depict women in this way, women were leaders in this fight too. One example of this is Field Marshal Muthoni. Muthoni wa Kirima was a top-ranking female fighter in the insurgency. She was the only woman to gain the rank of field marshal and fought in the forest for the entire duration of the Emergency Period. Muthoni was never captured, was never detained, and emerged from the forest in 1963 when Kenya attained independence from their colonial oppressors. During her time in the forest, she worked as a spy on the lookout for opposition activity. In her reflections on the contributions women made in this conflict, she said, ‘and let me tell you, women are something of substance indeed! Women! They should be honoured!’[ii]

As we have seen through the events of the last few weeks, statues and memorials are never apolitical. As the debate continues regarding the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, a ruling to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford, and for so many more, statues rarely tell us the full story. In ways, the memorial constructed in Uhuru Park has been successful in acknowledging the all-encompassing horrors of the 1950s conflict. There are several large labels of comprehensive text that reflect this in both of Kenya’s national languages, Swahili and English. It does, however, fail to address the generational aspects of the Mau Mau and how the British responded to this. Only recently is scholarship turning to explore the roles children played in the armed struggle, and the measures with which Britain attempted to ‘rehabilitate’ these children. The statue of Robert Baden-Powell in Dorset, founder of the scout movement, has been targeted by campaigners for his ruthless military actions in Africa during the colonial period. While the scout movement is celebrated by many, it was an aspect of the British colonial government’s counter-insurgency in Kenya to reinvigorate British ‘masculinity, militarism, imperial purpose, and racial superiority’.[iii] In comparison to the Boys Scouts re-establishing respect and discipline among young boys, young girls received training in domestic science which readied them for a Christian marriage and as custodians of the community.

[i] Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, ‘Reconsidering Women’s Roles in the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, 1952-60’, in: Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds). Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Legacies (London, 2017), 160.

[ii] Interview Bethany Rebisz with Muthoni wa Kirima, Museum of British Colonialism <> Accessed 22nd June 2020.

[iii] Paul Ocobock, An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya (Ohio, 2017), 37.


Beth Rebisz is a doctoral research at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @BRebisz

Image-ining Gender: Finding ‘sanctuary’ with the US Army, by Liz Barnes

Edwin Forbes, ‘The sanctuary,’ ca. 1876, Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,  Washington DC. 


During the American Civil War (1861-1865), hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fled farms and plantations across the South to secure their freedom. Frequently, this flight was towards the camps of soldiers fighting for the US Army, the force who had been rallied to quash the rebellion of the slave south. The relationship between these enslaved refugees and the forces they camped alongside remains shrouded in romance and myth, tied to notions of a ‘liberating’ army and an enslaved population who greeted them with gratitude and joy. 

In ‘the sanctuary,’ Edwin Forbes depicted the end of one perilous journey from slavery to freedom. Working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the conflict, Forbes spent the war years travelling around camps and pickets sketching scenes of daily life, skirmishes, and battles. In this illustration, completed in 1876, Forbes reflected on the experiences of the non-combatants who he had been in contact with a decade before.

Unlike many of Forbes’ other illustrations, this scene was clearly imagined. Reflecting back on the war and its outcomes – which included the abolition of slavery – Forbes conjured an idealistic vista of the moment an enslaved family reached Army lines. Centred in Forbes’ image and imagination was the enslaved woman, mother of a young child, whose experience sighting freedom is akin to a religious awakening. Constructions of gender, informed by Forbes’ anti-slavery politics and loyalty to the cause of the Army he followed, were central to his reflections upon emancipation.

In this simple image, emotion is key. The elderly man, coming to the end of a long life characterised by the hardships of enslavement, is not the most overjoyed to see his suffering end. The young child, whose life course has just been radically altered by the actions of his elders, remains fairly unmoved upon his arrival at the gates of freedom. But the enslaved woman in Forbes’ imagination is so overwhelmed by emotion that she has fallen to her knees, raising her hands to God in thanks, in praise, deeply moved by the change in her circumstances that sighting the stars and stripes signifies. Drawing upon abolitionist narratives about the realities of enslavement for women, Forbes invites the viewer to speculate about the life this woman has escaped. Had she witnessed the sale of her children? Faced sexual abuse at the hands of her enslaver? Been coerced into a ‘marriage’ not of her choosing? Of course she would be floored by triumph, relief, and gratitude.

Strikingly absent from this illustration is the figure of a young black man, upright and strong, entering army lines ready to fight for his freedom. While Forbes was generally respectful in his depictions of black people, avoiding the racist stylistic tendencies practised by many of his peers, the limits of his progressive thinking are exposed through his failure to draw black combatants. Either through a racist paternalistic attitude towards black Americans or through a calculated attempt to endear formerly enslaved people to his white audience, Forbes rarely depicted black men in US Army uniform, armed and ready to fight the men who would see him re-enslaved. [1] Almost 200,000 black men enlisted and fought for the US Army during the Civil War; they were a very present reality of the conflict, not an obscure token force. Forbes’ choice not to depict them was deliberate and played into white anxieties about the race relations after emancipation. 

Forbes’ group of imagined African Americans are at their least threatening. They are dependents of the Army, rather than members of it. Dependency is traditionally associated with the feminine, and the group that Forbes depicted here is feminised: poorly provisioned, in need of government aid, absent a male provider and protector. For Forbes, the US Army and nation fills this void, offering shelter, safety, and ‘sanctuary’ to the incomplete family. Even at a distance, the flag seems to fulfil this promise. While war is present in the form of felled trees and scarred earth, it is also strikingly absent: there are no combatants clearly depicted here, no weapons are in sight, and the figures do not seem to be in any immediate danger. The flag points the way to safety, peace, and freedom. While the woman lifts her arms to embrace the flag it flies overhead, welcoming these new citizens into the nation under the umbrella of its protection.

The idea of the war that this image represents is a powerful one, but it is nevertheless a fiction. While their victory secured the end of slavery, the US Army was not a bastion of anti-racist or even anti-slavery thought. Enlisted men and officers both neglected the needs of black refugees and in some cases callously disregarded them. Enslaved people frequently did not find ‘sanctuary’ behind Union lines, but rather squalor, disease, and violence. Some were separated from loved ones. Many were returned to their enslavers. Women faced dire conditions, starving and suffering while also facing that horrors that countless women embroiled in conflicts have faced across history: sexual violence and exploitation. Although at her moment of deliverance she may have been overjoyed, had Forbes’ returned to his imagined woman weeks, or even days, later, he may have envisioned a radically different experience.


[1] The young black men that Forbes did depict were generally labourers rather than fighters. See, for example, ‘a mule driver’ (1863); ‘Dick, the cook’ (1863)


Liz Barnes recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @E_M_Barnes.

Image-ining Gender: ‘a good breedin’ ‘oman sho did fetch de money,’ by Aisha Djelid

On the 10th January 1859 a court in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised the sale of Betty, a twenty-five-year-old enslaved woman. Betty was a ‘breeding woman,’ meaning that slaveholders valued Betty for being young, strong, healthy and, crucially, fertile. Advertised as a family unit with her two-year-old son, Plymouth, Betty had already proven herself to be a financial asset for any future buyer. As a woman, Betty provided sexual labour which resulted in the birth of children that slaveholders exploited for profit.  

After the ban on the international slave trade in 1808, slaveholders relied on enslaved women to reproduce to contribute to the expansion and survival of slavery. Enslavers desired women that were strong, healthy, or particularly ‘good looking’ to procreate with enslaved men that were equally as strong and healthy. This was not always consensual. Slaveholders often coerced enslaved men and women into sexual intercourse – sometimes violently. Slaveholders then generated a profit from the fruits of this sexual labour by either forcing enslaved children to work or by selling them away from their loved ones. Enslavers and enslaved alike labelled these men and women, like Betty, ‘breeders.’

The inscription of ‘breeding’ next to Betty’s name in this powerful image tells us much about her life. First, having had Plymouth at around the age of twenty-three, it suggests that her enslaver may have forced her to marry relatively young (though most enslaved women married in their late teens). Whether she married someone of her choosing, or whether they even ‘married’ at all, is unclear. The absence of a male in this family unit suggests that the father of the child either lived on a separate plantation, was dead, had fled slavery, or their enslaver/the court had already sold him away. 

Secondly, this advertisement is for a court-mandated sale of enslaved people. Auctions such as this usually took place because the owners had died without their affairs in order, because they had fallen into debt, or they were liquidating their assets. The mention of ‘Under Decree in Equity’ and ‘Master in Equity’ suggests that this sale was a result of foreclosure. This court-ordered sale does tell us, however, that Betty was not sold because she was a ‘bad breeder.’ In fact, the inscription of ‘breeding’ suggests that this was Betty’s key selling point. She is the only enslaved woman in this list who is emphasised for her fertility. Furthermore, by actively writing the word ‘breeding’ next to her name, the prospective buyer tells us that a woman’s fecundity was incredibly important to them. Alternatively, this list may not have been held by a prospective buyer, but by the seller (the court). The inscriptions next to the names of the enslaved people are the key advantages – or in some cases disadvantages – of individuals: perhaps these were used by the seller so they knew what to stress to attendees. Either way, an enslaved woman’s ability to produce children was valuable to both seller and buyer.   

What we do not know from this image is how many other children Betty gave birth to. It is not clear whether Plymouth was her only child, or whether she had more children that the slaveholders had already sold away. We also do not know the relationship she had with the father of the child. However, it is clear that for potential buyers of enslaved people, Betty, and other women like her, were valued as ‘two-legged wombs’(1) – enslaved women whose primary role was to bear children for the profit of white slaveholding men and women. 


  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (McElland and Stewart, 1985), 176. Atwood describes the handmaids, who act as forced surrogate mothers, as “two-legged wombs”. 


Aisha Djelid is a doctoral researcher at Reading. You can find her on twitter @aishadjelid

Problems of Inequality: A Short Reading List

In place of promoting our own research this week, the Gender History Research Cluster is instead sharing links to accessible pieces that explore the current situation in the United States. Also linked are some articles that expose similar issues in the UK, as well as material relating to the still relevant report from the Royal Historical Society about inequality in the British History profession.




In The Washington Post, Keisha N Plain explores racist violence across US history and police involvement in that violence:


Kali Nicole Gross reflects upon the unique challenges that face black women in the United States, including disproportional experiences of violence at the hands of police:


Ibram X Kendi outlines the ‘American Nightmare,’ detailing how black Americans have been excluded from equality:




In gal-dem, Kemi Alemoru analyses the impact that viewing videos of racist violence can have, and reflects upon how we should share such harmful content:


Nesrine Malik urges ‘white allies’ to continue the fight for equality even when large protests are not dominating the news cycle:




Wail Qasim explores police violence in the UK:


In Elle, Marcia Rigg shares the story of her brother, Sean, who died in police custody in South West London in 2008. Police violence is not just a US problem:


George the Poet highlights the links between racism in the US and the UK:




History is an overwhelmingly white profession in the UK. See the October 2018 report by the Royal Historical Society:


Meliesa Ono-George, Historian at the University of Warwick, reflects on broader problems of this stark lack of diversity: