The Practice of History

From the History Workshop Archive: Most Read and Editors’ Picks

To mark the launch of the new History Workshop website, and its rich archive of accessible history, we bring you a compilation of our most read articles of all time, and stand out articles and podcasts picked by History Workshop editors past and present. These pieces trace family, community, and diaspora histories, they illuminate objects with radical cultural and political meaning, intervene in historical concepts and debates, and make sense of current events. Some of them went viral with immediate effect, all have had long-standing resonance with our readers and editors alike.

Most Read

1. Our most read piece of all time is South Asia’s Africans: A Forgotten People. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya invites us to accompany her on her research into the hidden communities of African origin in South Asia, including an Afro-Sri Lankan community in the village of Sirambiyadiya, Sri Lanka. “I learnt about their past, from their own accounts of their history. They told me that their ancestors were slaves and soldiers who were brought from Mozambique, Madagascar, Goa and Portugal by the Europeans who dominated the Island for almost half a millennium,” she writes. Her article traces the patterns of migration and cultural roots of these Afro-Asian communities, showing us how their past shapes hopes to build new cross-continental connections today.

Sidi music troupe, Jambur, Gujarat. Photo – A. Whitehead, ‘South Asia’s Africans’.

2. Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting “Anglo-Saxon” Studies features high on the list of our most read articles. In it, Mary Rambarn-Olm discusses the recent political history of the allegedly medieval label ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ She documents the long history of misuse of the term, which gained popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but which the people of early England did not call themselves. “The Anglo-Saxon myth,” she writes, “links white people with an imagined heritage based on indigeneity to Britain. This false account of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as a nation and ‘race’ has played heavily in political discourse over the past 500 years, often reconstructed to include fictitious narratives to promote political messages of patriotism, imperialism, or racial superiority.” Published in 2019, the piece connects disciplinary debates to current social and political realities.

Gold dinar of King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757–796), bearing an Arabic inscription, reflecting the importance of the gold dinar in international trade (British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1). ‘Misnaming the Medieval’.

3. Radical Objects: The Black Fist Afro Comb – from the Radical Objects series and a perennial reader favourite. In this piece, Sally Ann-Ashton reveals the importance of radical object ‘The Black Fist Afro Comb.’ Ann-Ashton writes: “With its reference to the Black Power movement, and its historical links to the re-emergence of the popularity of the wider-toothed hair pick in the USA to serve the Afro hairstyle, the comb has become more than simply representative of an era and a political affiliation. It also symbolises Black pride and identity”.

‘The Black Fist Afro Comb’.

Editors’ Picks

Elly Robson: “White nationalism is not a marginal ideology, however; it has long been a part of the warp and weft of American society,” writes Micah Jones in White Supremacy as Daily Practice. This fantastic intervention after the storming of the US Capitol helped us to prise our eyes away from the spectacle as an exceptional aberration. Taking us back to Black people’s everyday experiences of white supremacy in the American South, she shows how the line between legal and illegal expressions of racial discrimination and violence was constantly blurred. Rather than turn to the law and the state to repress white supremacy, Jones suggests, the effort to build a more egalitarian society lies in the everyday political organising of Black communities.

Family History: The Next Generation? I love this article about family history from Sophie Scott-Brown. “Family history is a liberatory pedagogy,” it tells us. Some articles arrive fully-formed, with writing that jumps off the page and into your head. This is one of them. It is a fantastic example of an article that looks at historiography and new methods and questions, without becoming snarled up in niche debates that don’t translate beyond the subfield. The sense of energy and invitation is palpable.

NAACP Joins ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’ – 1941 by Washington Area Spark. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. ‘White Supremacy as Daily Practice’.

Rebecca Mason: History Workshop’s ‘Radical Objects’ series has always been a personal favourite of mine since joining as an editorial fellow in 2021. When teaching history during my PhD, I regularly asked students to engage with this series as it offers a unique window into the material culture of objects often overlooked in history books – such as the birth certificate and birthday card of transgender activist and actress April Ashley and the AIDS Memorial Quilt. A notable example that recently stuck with me is Charles West’s choice of radical object – an early medieval prosthetic hand. This unusual object, tentatively dated from the 11th century, was buried with a man believed to be in his forties or fifties in a cemetery in the village of Cutry in northern France. West notes that the man had suffered a double amputation, most likely as a result of judicial or state violence. Historical records from the medieval period often lack insights from the perspective of most disabled people themselves, but the prosthetic hand restores a level of dignity and compassion to the individual in question. Rather than focusing on the typical treasures and luxurious items placed in graves, objects often studied in relation to monetary value, the prosthetic hand symbolises a more precious value in demonstrating care for a disabled individual during his lifetime. Despite the hardships endured by those living during the medieval period, the prosthetic hand paints an alternative image of a society that cared for the living and the dead – what West beautifully refers to as ‘the radical act of caring for the condemned’.

Image: © DRAC Grand Est/SRA, ‘An Early Medieval Prosthetic Hand’.

Marybeth Hamilton One of the features I most value about the digital magazine is its publication of “companion pieces” – essays by authors reflecting on an article they’ve published in the most recent issue of HWJ. Readers can then, for a limited period, access the journal article outside the academic paywall.  It’s a way of making journal-length research articles accessible to a wider audience. More importantly, it’s an invitation for writers to make personal reflections on the emotional and political imperatives that fuel historical research. Of all the companion pieces we’ve run, Joe Moran’s “A Small Place” is among my favourites. In it, he reflects on his decision, in the midst of the first COVID lockdown, to write about Scattery, the island off County Clare where in 2018 he travelled to scatter his father’s ashes. It’s a deeply moving and beautifully illustrated meditation on the politics of place and migration – and also on family, childhood, loss, and grief.

The History Workshop podcast became a regular feature in 2018, and since then we’ve produced dozens of episodes. One that particularly stands out for me is History, Trauma, and Restorative Justice. Released late in 2019, it is a conversation with Katherine O’Donnell and Claire McGettrick, scholars and activists who spearhead Justice for Magdalenes Research, an organisation that campaigns for redress for the women and girls who were effectively imprisoned in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. They discuss the origins and proliferation of the laundries as an alternative carceral system with complex ties to religion and nationalism. With tremendous sensitivity and candour, they also reflect on the ethical challenges of gathering testimonies from survivors of a system that persisted in Ireland for decades as a kind of open secret, at once ubiquitous and doggedly ignored.  

‘A Small Place’, Joe Moran.

Laura Forster: In 2020 I curated a History Workshop series on Radical Friendship. It was a theme that had tantalised me for years and HW seemed a fitting place to draw together scholars and practitioners working on friendship as a radical practice, one that might be capable of upending hierarchies, building community, and producing social change. The series included pieces on friendship on the picket line, queer intimacies in early modern Britain, gangs policing, deportation, and the criminalisation of friendship, and many others besides. Editing the contributions, I was moved by these very different histories, all of them centring friendship as a way to explore the nuances of intimate human connection and the affective nature of political engagement. The contributions explored both connections in the past, and connection to the past. For many, finding friends in the past provides emotional sustenance and historic legitimacy for political struggles today. And finding past people with whom we feel kinship is a way of disrupting histories and narratives that insist on the marginalisation of certain stories: finding a friend in the past is all the more powerful when you have been told that you have no precedent, that your existence is unnatural or unwelcome. For me this process of opening up histories has always been at the heart of the History Workshop project: an insistence on history-telling as a collaborative endeavour that could not only inform activism and social justice projects, but that could be a radical project in its own right.

Rally in support of striking miners, London 1984 (Wikimedia Commons)

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