'What Period Of History Do You Study?'

My honest answer to that question is: it’s complicated.  Now more than ever before.

While I’ve committed myself to studying 1850-1950 for the next 3-4 years, at the same time I’ve still got one eye on the 1640s, which I did my Master’s Dissertation on last year (specifically, the** Irish Rebellion of 1641).  The main reason for this is that I’ve been working on making a **journal article from it, so I’ve had to return to it after pretty much putting it to the back of my mind for nearly four months.  Another reason is that a couple of early modern historians have wanted to discuss it with me, which is of course really pleasing.  Besides which, I’m still interested in the early modern period - I happily go along to talks about it and just today I went to the Elizabeth I & Her People exhibition at the National **Gallery**, and having done both my BA and my MA dissertations on the period, I don’t feel like I can ever shut the door on it completely.  I just hope my career trajectory allows me to go back to it when I feel the time is right.

So why is the time not right for early modern now?  The big reason is sources.  I had the idea of the history of the only child and the academics I spoke too were really enthusiastic about it, but we agreed that only children were scarce in the early modern period, and sources about their lives even scarcer.  The only time I’ve done solidly early modern work was my third year of BA, persuaded by an early modern special subject that looked way more interesting than any of the modern modules on offer and the prospect of looking at early modern crime records for the dissertation. 

My BA title was actually Modern History, having started off with the idea that was all I planned to do (despite voluntarily taking a medieval module in the first term, which failed to win me over), then I rediscovered early modern (having been put off by two years of constant James and Charles at AS/A Level) when I took a witchcraft module in the second term.  In the two years between BA and MA, I volunteered for an oral history project, and I was fascinated by many of the stories, particularly about home and family life and women’s work lives - without this experience, I wouldn’t have been inspired to use oral history for my PhD.  At MA, all my module choices were modern and I found them all really interesting.  So I wasn’t totally averse to the idea of switching from early modern to modern.

I don’t think I could express a favourite out of the two periods - if I could, I’d be saying ‘no, no more early modern every again’ or be doing a totally different PhD.  In a utopian academic future I’d like to be led to one or the other by the ideas I have, much as happened with my PhD.  I’d like to be able to ask ‘we already know about this for the modern period, what about the early modern period?’ (or vice versa) or, like I’ve done with PhD, ‘I want to know the history of such-and-such, which period has the best sources?.  But maybe I’m being too idealistic and it’ll be whatever work opportunities arise that lead to me choosing my period of research.

I think my bi-periodality (yes, that is a word now) could make for well-informed comparative history, although I have a bit of a blind spot **when it comes to the **eighteenth century - I’d need a bit more than my piecemeal knowledge about workhouses and the Old Poor Law, gender and **separate spheres** before I could really tackle transition.  But maybe one day I’ll get to write a humungous book covering a topic from 1600-1950.  Why not dream big?

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, editor of web content, haver of PhD

Colchester, UK https://www.draliceviolett.com