The senses of history

History is textural (as opposed to textual), something I was reminded of while reading a recent blog post from the always articulate and evocative Matt Houlbrook. It reminded me of another post, this one by Will Pooley, which similarly thinks about history in terms of the tactile. The interactions of history become as much about touch as intellectual comprehension.

This post, then, forms my own contribution to this mini-genre of historical thought, inspired by the coincidence that, on the same train journey where I read Matt’s blog, I also read the recent seminar paper that Edmund King gave at the Senate House on ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’. I wasn’t able to attend the seminar, but the wonders of modern technology (well, a combination of Twitter and email) meant that I was able to read the text the following day.

Among a variety of fascinating sources quoted, one stood out in relation to this question of the textures of history, from a letter from 2nd Lt. Sanders Lewis to his fiancee:

‘So my letters smell like a tobacco store. I am glad … I have been able to give you at last some real taste of the sort of place we live in. Here out of the line the officers’ mess is one wood huts heated by two stoves. There is a long table … and on it candles flicker a shadowy light over the hut at night. A few men are writing letters at one end, two parties are playing bridge at the other … and everywhere med are smoking so that with the shadows flicked on the walls by the candle flames, and the slow columns of pipe and cigarette smoke hanging over our heads, everyone looks dim at ten yards interval.’ [1]

In this quotation, Lewis evokes three of the five senses – smell, sight and touch – to try to describe his experiences to Margaret. As King notes, ‘Describing the material contexts of writing becomes a way of bridging the sensory and temporal divides between writer and recipient.

Lewis was by no means alone in doing this, nor were the senses of hearing and taste to be forgotten. Descriptions of sound were a deeply significant element of men’s letters home in their attempts to describe their experiences to their families. [2] Taste was similarly central to the emotional power of the food parcel from home, as discussed by Rachel Duffett. [3] The senses, all five of them, then, were vitally important to the ways in which the First World War was communicated as an experience at the time.

But what struck me is that, if such evocation of sensory experience acts as a bridge between writer and recipient, it also has the power to act as a bridge between the writer and other readers, in this case the historian who has accessed the letter through an archive. As with the original reader, the descriptions in men’s letters have the potential to show us what we have not experienced ourselves, to share with us a world we do not know.

At the same time, while verbal descriptions remain potentially powerful, other sensory aspects of these manuscripts and objects have been lost. 100 years on, I doubt the smell of tobacco still clings to Lewis’s manuscript. Metaphorical evocations also start to fail. Does the comparison of a bombardment to coal being tipped down a cellar have any meaning for the historian who has never heard either? What does plum and apple jam or Machonocie stew taste like?

Attempts have been made to recreate historic materials which evoke the senses. Rowntree’s experiments with an original 1914 recipe for chocolate had mixed results, while museuological experiments with evoking the sensory nature of the trenches have attracted as much criticism as praise. [4] More successfully, my colleague Iona McCleery’s You Are What You Ate project has been recreating historic recipes as part of a long-term educational project introducing the history of food to audiences throughout West Yorkshire. Films such as The Battle of the Somme allow us to see, if not the battle itself, then the view offered to British civilians of that battle in 1916. Early recordings bring the voices and music of the war years back to life. But as historians we can only access these senses critically and from a distance. Ingredients change with farming practices, the medium deteriorates, introducing visual and aural flaws, the scent of tobacco clinging to a piece of paper fades over time, the paper itself crumbles at the reader’s touch.

History is a sensory discipline and one that is becoming more so as material histories and histories of the body increase their reach and impact. The weight of a wood and canvass stretcher loaded with three sodden blankets and the dead weight of a wounded man is vitally important to my understanding of my historical subjects, even if I have never tried to lift one myself. But, as with all disciplinary developments, this one throws up its own complications and contradictions, giving the practice as much texture and richness as the as the sources themselves. I don’t think historians would have it any other way.

[1]Saunders Lewis to Margaret Gilcriest, 6th February, 1917, quoted in Edmund King, ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’, paper given to the Paper, Pen and Ink 2: Manuscript Cultures in the Age of Print Research Seminar, London, 18th May, 2015.

[2] Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 30-31.

[3] Rachel Duffett, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, 199-205.

[4] Richard Espley, ‘”How much of an ‘experience’ do way the public to receive?”: Trench reconstructions and popular images of the Great War’ in Jessica Meyer (ed), British Popular Culture and the First World War, Leiden: Brill, 2008, 325-349.


While I am on here, this seems a good opportunity to remind everyone that the next Legacies of War seminar will take place next week when Dr Pierre Purseigle (Warwick) will discuss French patriotism in the First World War. Please note, this is a rescheduling of Dr Purseigle’s talk which had to be postponed from earlier in the year.
Pierre Purseigle

The things we do not talk about

Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front for the past couple of months. This has been for a few reasons.

a) I have been preparing for the end of my current project (which officially finished last week) by doing rather a lot of other writing – conference papers for the imminent summer conference season, a book proposal, detailed chapter outlines, even some things that some day may actually start to look like chapters of the book I want to complete this summer.
b) I have been preparing for the beginning of the next project, which should start in September, by finalising a number of administrative details including, most time-consumingly it turns out, organising an ethical review of the project and responding to several ethical queries raised by the body funding the work. Because the basis of the project involves documentation relating to the medical histories of ex-servicemen from the First World War, this has turned out to be more complicated than anticipated, as I will come back to in a minute.
c) Three members of my close family are suffering from illnesses which have involved a significant commitment of temporal and emotional resources from me, including multiple trips to the US. The severity of these conditions ranges from the life-threatening to the debilitating but all have been life-altering, both for the sufferers and for those of in their immediate family who, along with a variety of medical professionals, are seeking to care for them.

Now, you may have noticed that I am being rather vague about the specific details of the illnesses that have become such a central part of my life recently. This is deliberate. I have spoken in more detail about what is happening with various friends and colleagues who may be able to identify some or all of the family members I am referring to. Even then, outside my family and one or two very close friends whose support in maintaining my own equilibrium has been invaluable to me, I have not confided the precise details of diagnosis, treatment or prognosis.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, these medical details are not mine to share. They are, by all accepted ethical standards, the information of the patients. They have chosen to share this information with me (thankfully, as this has allowed me to offer what support I can to people I love very much and who are important to me), but have not necessarily chosen to share it more widely. It is not my right to share it in ways that they might not wish me to, however much the information shapes my own life. Indeed, on at least one occasion I have been asked specifically not to discuss the situation in detail with people outside the immediate family.

But, even if I had the explicit permission of the primary individual to share this information, there are other important considerations I need to take into account before discussing these illnesses. Because the sufferer and I are not the only ones involved. Coping with these conditions has, in all three cases, involved important interconnected networks which include, from my perspective, my husband, my parents, my siblings, my dad’s wife and her daughters, my children and my in-laws. All of us within these networks have our own emotional relationship with the illnesses and those suffering from them (as well as a variety of other additional stresses in our live – new jobs, house moves, professional concerns, etc.) Not all of us might be comfortable with a public discussion of the details of the medical matters that are shaping all our lives so profoundly.

Which brings me back to those ethical questions that I have been attempting to answer over the past six weeks. I was asked, among other things, to confirm that the information I will be collecting and analysing for the project is in the public domain and does not contravene any data protection laws. As it happens, the information is all publicly available and, because the subjects whose data is being scrutinized are dead, data protection laws do not apply. However, I was also asked to consider whether I was likely to reveal information (specifically medical details) that might be considered sensitive to those who are living. And here the issue of confidentiality arises. Because while the data involved may not be that relating to any living person, there is the possibility that the stories the data has to tell – about medical conditions and the care provided and received for these conditions – might be considered sensitive by surviving family members. Information about the nature of a wound or illness might be exposed which challenges the family stories told about a relative. Details of care might reflect new light on the behaviour of surviving family members. Embarrassing details about the effects of wartime injuries might emerge. As I haven’t yet done the research, I don’t know if such information will emerge; even if it does, I cannot predict whether any individual family or family member might be negatively affected by the information if they ever become aware of my research. Ethically I cannot ignore the possibility and must consider what contingencies I must put in place to ideally prevent and, in the worst case, remedy, any such effect.

The result has been a number of long and very fruitful conversations, in person, on the phone and via email, with a variety of archivists, data protection officers and researchers working in related ethical fields. The ultimate conclusion is that I will keep the sensitivity of the information I am dealing with in mind as I undertake and eventually publish my research. I will pseudonomise sources, although this will have to be balanced by the necessity of maintaining appropriate conventions of citation for my field. And I will continue discussing, with peer reviewers, with colleagues, with archive and university officials, the appropriate course to take in the specific contexts that may (or may not) arise.

There is, it turns out, no simple concrete answer to this sort of ethical question, and nor should there be. But I think it is helpful for me to acknowledge that, throughout this process my sensitivities and consequent decisions will be shaped, in part, by my awareness of my own willingness to share my family’s medical history in public. If I am unwilling to discuss certain details of my own family’s situation, including both the patients and carers, in public, how much can I ask of the families of the men I am researching? The answer is, at the moment, I don’t know, although I suspect it will change over time. However, I can say that my personal experience has re-emphasised for me the importance of the project I will be undertaking. Because to fully understand medical care-giving, whether historically or today, we must acknowledge and understand the role, and consequent sensitivities, of the family.