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Current Research

Barry Island was one of the most cherished leisure spaces in twentieth-century south Wales, a playground of generations of working-class day-trippers.

Andy Croll’s book Barry Island: The Making of a Seaside Playground considers its rise as a seaside resort and reveals a history that is much more complex, lengthy and important than has previously been recognized. As conventionally told, the story of the Island as tourist resort begins in the 1890s when the railway arrived in Barry.

In fact, it was functioning as a watering place by the 1790s. Yet decades of tourism produced no sweeping changes. Barry remained a district of ‘bathing villages’ and hamlets, not a developed urban resort.

As such its history challenges us to rethink the category of ‘seaside resort’ and forces us re-evaluate Wales’s contribution to British coastal tourism in the ‘long nineteenth century’. It also underlines the importance of visitor agency. Powerful landowners shaped much of the Island’s development, but, ultimately, it was the working-class visitors who turned it into south Wales’s most beloved tripper resorts.

Responding in 1960 to the prospect of French nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara, the leader of postcolonial Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, forewarned of a “new nuclear imperialism”. The exploitation of foreign lands for uranium mining and the legacies of nuclear testing has ensured the ongoing relevance of Nkrumah’s words. It is the subject of USW historian Chris Hill’s work.

His research explores how the pursuit of nuclear power by Britain was enmeshed in empire. He is concerned not only with the structural connection between empire and nuclear power – the resources and sites that the British used to procure uranium or test weapons – but with imperialism as a knowledge system by which the British nuclear programme was operationalised.

British nuclear ambition therefore provides a window into imperial thinking about diplomacy, ecology and race at the end of empire.

Research on the history and social anthropology of pilgrimage by USW Professor Emerita Maddy Gray has led to the development of the Cistercian Way, a round-Wales heritage route linking Cistercian abbeys and other historical sites.

The Cistercian Way is now recognised by Welsh Government, walking groups such as the Ramblers, and walking tourism providers, having received funding from Welsh Government for way-marking and a website.

Further work is taking place to develop a ‘Welsh Camino’ which includes sections of the Cistercian Way, in collaboration with  Rediscovering Ancient Connections - The Saints, and Celtic Routes.

Both are projects of the Ireland Wales 2014-2020 European Territorial Co-operation (ETC) programme.

USW historian Chris Evans and Uppsala University’s Göran Rydén won the Best Article Prize 2019 of the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction for their article ‘”Voyage iron”: an Atlantic slave trade currency, its European origins, and West African impact’, which appeared in Past & Present in 2018.

In this blog piece they explain how they went about their research: ‘Voyage Iron: An Archival Odyssey Twenty Years in the Making'.

USW historian Chris Evans works on the relationship between Atlantic slavery and industrial development in Europe. One of his findings, first reported upon in Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660-1850 (2010), was that Welsh woollens played a major role in the slave Atlantic.

These fabrics, known as 'Welsh Plains’, were used in the procurement and maintenance of enslaved workers. Using material in British and US archives, Evans was able to demonstrate how Welsh Plains were (i) traded for captives on the Guinea coast, and (ii), more importantly, sold in large volumes to planters in the Caribbean and North America to be used for slaves’ clothing.

Chris Evans is working with a community research project, From Sheep to Sugar: Welsh Wool and Slavery, which is supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, to understand how rural spinners and weavers in mid-Wales become embroiled in Atlantic slavery.  

Dr Jonathan Durrant

This article is currently out for peer review.

In the emerging witchcraft iconography of early sixteenth-century Europe, pitchforks were quickly established as a tool of the witches’ craft. Lacking a suitable contemporary interpretational context, historians have argued that they represent weather magic or attacks on fertility more widely. This article places the pitchforks in broader contexts than witchcraft and demonology, including women’s agricultural labour, the religious and cultural iconography of hay (notably in Bosch’s Hay-wain), contemporary proverbs, traditional religious practices, and biblical exegesis. It argues that pitchforks and the hay they represent were understood by contemporaries to mark witches out as the embodiment of vanity of human action, the ultimate withered souls to be cast, as Christ said in Matthew 6, into the oven and perish.

Dr Jonathan Durrant

There are very few comparative histories of witchcraft experiences in early modern Europe and none that examines them in the regions central to both witchcraft history and witchcraft historiography. Drawing on my research on both German and English witchcraft, I have been working towards the writing of a comparative history of witchcraft experiences in these two countries. As well as my monograph on Eichstätt, published in 2007, and articles on the witch persecution in St Osyth and pitchforks in witchcraft iconography, I have presented the following two papers at conferences: ‘The Devil’s Trill: Tartini and Paganini in a Disenchanted World’ at the conference ‘Music, italianità and the nineteenth-century global imagination’, 16-17 September 2016, University of Cambridge; and ‘Melancholy, Fear and Sadness: Meditating on Evil in the Sixteenth Century’ at the conference ‘Fear and Loathing in the Earthly City – Negative Emotions in the Medieval and Early Modern Period, c.1100-1700’, 1-2 November 2018, National Museum, Copenhagen.

‘The Devil’s Trill’ looks at how the music of Tartini and Paganini was received and interpreted in a world which Max Weber described as ‘disenchanted’. It shows how German, English and French writers displaced their continued enchantment with the world after the end of the witch persecutions onto the peninsula through their conception of italianità. This conception included the romanticisation of figures such as Tartini and Paganini and the propagation of myths about the diabolical influences on them. I am currently revising this paper and expect to submit it for publication in 2021.

Melancholy is regarded as characteristic of early modern Europe, particularly among Protestant writers, to the extent that its ubiquity has been described as an epidemic. Melancholy was certainly associated by contemporaries with scholarliness, artistic talent, religious despair, demonic possession and the weakness of women, and has been discussed at length in each of these contexts. The volume of early modern discourse on melancholy suggests, however, that it expressed more than medical or psychological complaints or intellectual affectations. ‘Melancholy, Sadness and Fear’ argues that, in the turmoil of the Reformation in which the consolations of the medieval church were being questioned, reformed or rejected, melancholy and its hallmark negative emotions (fear and sadness) facilitated meditations on the existence of evil in a God-created world. Without the support of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, theologians and artists like Luther and Cranach were forced to confront human frailty in the face of temptation through the lens of their own fear and despair. In turn, melancholy became the trope which bound evil into a reformed spiritual framework, finding expression in, for example, memento mori, medical treatises and witchcraft paintings executed in places where no witchcraft trials occurred. I am currently revising this paper and expect to submit it for publication in 2021.