The research specialisms of Durham’s five Africanist historians lie in eastern Africa and South Africa. Our work foregrounds the everyday; it seeks to understand how power manifests itself, and is disputed, in ordinary life.
Anne Heffernan and Rachel Johnson both work on aspects of the political history of modern South Africa. Cherry Leonardi’s research on South Sudan and Uganda explores questions around borders and boundaries, and the politics of land. Jacob Wiebel’s work on Ethiopia’s Red Terror has sought to understand how and why violence happened, and he is currently developing an environmental approach to the history of the Ethiopian state. Justin Willis’s most recent research has been on the history of elections in Africa since the 1950s, with a particular focus on people’s sense of themselves as political actors.
While our research interests span a considerable period, we share a concern with contemporary history: that is, with an understanding of the past that is relevant and significant in the present. We are active in the dissemination of our research to multiple audiences, and have considerable collective experience in media work, in policy briefing and in devising and delivering continuing professional development courses that draw on our research. The seminar series and blog run by the Durham Centre for Contemporary African History provide one mechanism for reaching out to wider audiences.
Our work benefits significantly from Durham’s unique archival resources. The single most important of these is the Sudan Archive. Durham’s archives also have material on southern Africa, and the library has invested significantly in microfilm and digital collections that support our research.
Britain and Continental Europe
Durham History Department has particular strengths in medieval Europe, early modern Europe, and both modern British and modern European history. Durham historians work on a range of themes in cultural history, religious history, political history, and economic history, from the end of the Roman Empire, early medieval Europe, through the High Middle Ages, to late medieval Britain and Europe. Our geographical specialism include Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia as well as the Low Countries, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. Durham has exceptional resources for the study of medieval history, including the archives and library of the great medieval monastery at Durham, as well as world-class resources for the study of early modern and modern history.
US history is a dynamic and growing specialism, and we now have five permanent members of staff in this field: James Callanan (Cold War diplomatic history), Barbara Keys (US and international history), Jennifer Luff (modern American labour and politics), Gabriella Treglia (Native American history and the New Deal), and Kevin Waite (Civil War and Reconstruction). The group’s strength is enhanced by colleagues who work on transnational approaches, including Adrian Green (early American material culture and historical archaeology), Richard Huzzey (transatlantic abolitionism), and David Minto (Anglo-American history of sexuality).
The development of East Asian history is one of the Department’s strategic priorities. We currently have four historians in this field. Research on East Asia includes the social and cultural history of early modern China, as well as the intellectual and cultural history of modern Japan Add Chris and John’s areas of expertise
Sare Aricanli’s research is in early modern Chinese history. She is particularly interested in the history of science and medicine, human-animal care, visual and material culture, ritual, and knowledge exchange. Her current research is on the social history of early modern imperial medical figures, and the translations of their works across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Adam Bronson’s research is on the circulation of ideas and intellectual practices in modern Japan. He is now working on the history of rumours, as well as on cultural movements that relate to the ideal of a “nation of culture”. John Lee's research is in the environmental history of early modern East Asia, particularly the Korean peninsula. His current projects explore the history of state forestry in pre-industrial Korea and the environmental legacies of the Mongol Empire in eastern Eurasia.
Chris Courtney researches the environmental and social history of modern China. He specialises in the history of the city of Wuhan and its rural hinterland. Much of his previous research has focussed upon the history of disasters, including floods and fires. He is currently researching the problem of heat in modern Chinese cities.
South Asia is a newly established area of research for the Department, one that is already wide-ranging with colleagues whose expertise stretch from Java to Cairo and cover over a millennium of history.
Chris Bahl’s research focuses on the subcontinent’s links with regions and communities across the western Indian Ocean in the early modern period using Arabic texts. Mekhola Gomes studies the history of premodern South and Southeast Asia and is working on a book that traces connections between the state, family, and rule in early India through inscriptions (ca. 200–700 CE). Souvik Naha researches the formation of leisure cultures in global and transnational contexts, particularly the history of cricket in modern India. Jonathan Saha is a historian of British colonial rule in South Asia, with a particular focus on Myanmar (Burma).
The Oriental Museum at Durham holds a range of artefacts, art and archaeological photographs in its dedicated South Asia collection. It also has extensive collections for the Himalayas and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Western Asia.
Medieval History has long been an area of international excellence at Durham. With ten permanent members of staff, Durham has one of the largest concentrations of medieval historians in the UK. Our research covers the entire European medieval period, from late Antiquity and the fall of the western Roman empire to the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, from the far north of Scandinavia to the southern part of the Italian peninsula, and from the British Isles to the eastern borders of Latin Christendom. Recent expansion means that we have posts in Mediterranean and Islamicate history, and Indian history of the same periods.
We have particular strengths in the German-speaking world and in British and European history, from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries. Our areas of research concentration and collaboration include:
conversion, Christianisation, the history of the Church, Islam and the history of religion
cities and urbanisation
identity, ethnicity, and nationhood
the history of the Book and manuscript production
intellectual history and the history of science
Interdisciplinarity characterises all of our work, and the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS), situated a short walk from the History Department on Palace Green, is an important forum in which we share our research with scholars in other disciplines. We are also lucky to have on our doorstep special historical collections that are of international significance, most notably the medieval manuscript holdings in the University’s Special Collections at Palace Green Library, at Ushaw College, and in the Cathedral Library.
With over ten permanent members of staff, early modern history is a strong and dynamic area of research in the department. Our interests extend from Britain and Continental Europe (especially France, Spain, and the Italian peninsular) to Colonial America and China. Our areas of research strength are:
political cultures, including elite and popular politics, state-building, counsel, and diplomacy
social and economic history, including consumer behaviour, social mobility, family, life-cycle, and poor relief
theology and religion, including intellectual culture, the papacy, and public worship
visual culture and the built environment, including portraiture and housing
Durham is rich in early modern resources, both archival and virtual. Palace Green Library holds important manuscript and printed collections: the libraries of Lord William Howard (1563-1640) and John Cosin, Bishop of Durham (1594-1672); the Bamburgh collection (seventeenth-century controversy, natural sciences, theology, common law, and English, French and Italian literature); the Kellett collection (European medicine); collections from the Poor Clares at Aire-sur-la-Lys, Rouen and Princenhof and from the Sunderland Society of Friends (Quakers); the Whitehead Collection (Renaissance and seventeenth-century French literature). Our extensive collection of pre-1858 probate records for County Durham and Northumberland is available online. In addition, our library has access to major online databases, including State Papers Online, Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, the Burney Collection, British Newspapers, The Cecil Papers, and Early European Books.
Research in modern history at Durham extends from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. With over twenty permanent members of staff, we cover a broad geographical and thematic range. Currently, there are particular concentrations in the following areas:
Britain, especially political culture
European cultural history
Africa, including North-East and South Africa
As the department expands, we are building critical mass in East Asian and US history. Durham has two outstanding resources for modern history: the Sudan Archive and the Oriental Museum. The Sudan Archive at Palace Green Library comprises unique manuscript and printed sources on colonial Sudan. The collections of the Oriental Museum, founded in 1960, include objects from China, Japan, and Korea. Modern historians at Durham can also draw on excellent library and digital resources, which include the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, UK Cabinet Papers, the Communist Party of Great Britain Archive, the American Presidency Project, and extensive international newspaper and film collections. We collaborate closely with colleagues in the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture, the Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures, the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, and the Centre for Political Thought.
Gender and Sexuality
This research theme aims to bring together researchers concerned with histories of gender and sexuality of all kinds, and also provides a forum for discussing queer and feminist approaches to history. In practice, staff and postgraduate students at Durham pursue a wide range of topics that intersect with gender and sexuality across time periods and geographies.
Durham historians’ current research interests in gender and sexuality include:
age relations and generational change in eighteenth-century Britain
class, gender, and the family in Victorian Britain
gendered Anglo-Saxon notions of belonging in the early Middle Ages
histories of intersectional anti-Apartheid protest movements in South Africa
performances of British militarism around the Great War
representations of gender in Russian Revolutionary culture
sexual crimes in early modern France
transnational queer activism during the Cold War
women and collecting in modern Europe
The group is committed to cultivating an inclusive atmosphere for discussion, and we welcome expansion into additional areas in order to reflect the diversity and dynamism of the research theme. As well as providing a space to discuss methods and concepts as well as recently published scholarship and work in progress, the group aims to ensure that the insights of research on gender and sexuality are reflected in our curriculum and pedagogy. We also benefit from interdisciplinary connections across the university, participation in public events such as LGBT+ History Month, and hosting esteemed outside speakers. All are welcome.
The Political Cultures research theme draws together researchers who engage with the concept of politics in their work. We are interested in sharing and challenging definitions of ‘the political’, understood broadly as the exercise or contest of power.
A political culture is the means by which the basic question of politics – who gets what – is challenged or defended. Many members of the theme focus on the ways in which cultures inform political actions.
We prosper from a wide range of methodological approaches, including:
the history of political ideas, concepts and languages
prosopography and quantification
the use of visual and material sources
and anthropological and sociological theories of culture or the state
Most of all, we see our research historicising political cultures to test the agency or coercion of individuals in the context of institutions, material circumstances, and mentalités. This is a necessarily expansive subject, stretching from the politics of parliaments and courts to the politics of the marketplace or the kitchen table.
Postgraduate researchers in the department benefit from a rich and diverse community studying political cultures, as well as the exceptional collections of Durham University Special Collections and other local archives. The theme primarily hosts workshops to explore and discuss first drafts of work by members of the department.
Visual and Material Culture
This research theme aims to bring together staff and postgraduate students who are engaged in the analysis and interpretation of visual and material culture from many periods and societies. It seeks to share relevant tools and approaches for interpreting a wide range of sources – from illuminated manuscripts to digital media – and to reflect upon the different forms of attention and apprehension (visual, conceptual, tactile and experiential) required by different genres of evidence.
Our aim is to disarm some of the anxieties that some historians still feel on moving beyond the familiar study of texts through demystifying what constitutes good practice and pertinent questions. To draw on and share methods developed in a range of disciplines concerned with visual and material culture, including art history, classics, archaeology, anthropology, critical theory and psychology. And to deepen appreciation of some of the extremely rich collections of visual and material culture found both within Durham University and also within museums and institutions in the region.
The research theme provides an opportunity for periodic meetings of colleagues interested in visual and material culture. It also keeps members informed about related seminars organised through centres and institutes within the university: above all the rich programme run through the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture.
Economic and Social History
The Economic and Social History research theme brings together staff and postgraduate students with interests in economic and social history, very broadly defined. It cuts across chronological and geographical boundaries, aiming to reflect on conceptual and methodological issues that are shared by historians of different periods and places.
This group brings together staff and postgraduate students, especially those on the MA in Social and Economic History and those undertaking PhDs in relevant areas, in an informal setting to discuss current research. It also provides sessions from time to time on areas of training particularly relevant to postgraduate students, such as databases or publishing in economic and social history journals.
As the discipline becomes ever more specialised and compartmentalised, the group takes a deliberately broad definition of economic and social history in order to reflect upon the state of the field. As such, we cover a wide range of periods and places, from medieval peasants to the modern welfare state, and include research on Europe, the United States, Africa and Asia.
Current research interests include:
social structure and social mobility
poverty, welfare and living standards
material culture and consumer behaviour
slavery and the slave trade
natural disasters and environmental history
legal culture and crime
gender, age and household economics
urban mercantile culture
labour and class conflict
customary justice and land governance
banking and financial history
social memory and popular culture
The History of Science, Technology and Medicine
How does knowledge move? What happens when scientific, technical, medical, religious, and other forms of knowledge intersect? In what ways have scientists, technicians, and physicians won and wielded cultural authority? Just what have different people in different times and places meant by terms like “science”?
These are just some of the questions members of the history of science, technology, and medicine research theme address. The theme covers a wide range of eras and regions, from medieval to modern times, and from Britain, Europe, and the United States to China and Japan.
Current research engages with questions of production, use, and exchange of knowledge within a diverse set of topics and themes, such as:
The Transnational History theme brings together scholars interested in a wide variety of transcultural, international, and global aspects of historical research. Its primary purpose is to consider the practical, conceptual, and topical concerns that are brought into focus when departing from methodological nationalism. In promoting conversation and collaboration between specialists of different time periods and geographic areas, it aims also to foster an inclusive and open research environment for the sharing of ideas and written work.
The main historical interests of the group include:
diasporas, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism
borderlands, border controls, and cross-border chains and flows
migrant and indigenous histories of nations within nations
global and international aspects of nation-state formation and nationalism
the relations of empire, anti-colonialism, post-colonialism, globalisation, foreign affairs, and diplomacy to forms of domestic politics
the relations of sovereignty, citizenship, and rights to imperial, supranational, and world order
comparative, network-based, and multi-scalar analysis and narration
processes of translation
All are welcome to attend one of our regular lunchtime sessions. The particular research topics pursued by current members range from vernacular architectures of early modern British colonies to British-Soviet encounters in the cultural Cold War; from boundary disputes between South Sudan and Uganda to the exile of defeated US confederate soldiers in Fiji and Brazil; from multilingual accounts of equine care during the Qing dynasty to the spatial histories of East European memory cultures; and from sexuality’s bearing on human rights to trans-local histories of England’s northeast. We warmly encourage any interested members of staff, postgraduate researchers, and PhD students to come along.
Landscape and Environment
The Landscape and Environment research theme brings together researchers who are interested in landscapes, cityscapes and environments past and present. It seeks to explore issues pertinent to environmental history and the built environment through an application of interdisciplinary approaches and by cutting across the chronological and geographical boundaries that often define our work as researchers. Instead, we are looking to identify shared conceptual, comparative or methodological approaches and frameworks, paying particular attention to memories, meanings, identities, and values invested and discerned in historical landscapes and environments.
Current research interests of members within the research theme include:
Landscapes and memory
Environments past and present
Cityscapes, architecture, conservation practices
Histories of settlement and conflict over land
The research theme aims to bring together staff and postgraduate students to invited guest lectures as well as in regular lunchtime meetings designed to provide feedback on first drafts of members’ work or to discuss important conceptual or methodological studies that appeal across chronological or methodological boundaries.