skip to content

From antiquity to the Romantic poets and beyond: History events at the Cambridge Festival

How did the Romantic poets contribute to the collective imagination that enabled slavery to thrive? How do literary responses to the social, political and cultural changes from the 1920s compare with those to events today?

How did the Romantic poets contribute to the collective imagination that enabled slavery to thrive? Who does Greek and Roman antiquity belong to? How do literary responses to the social, political and cultural changes from the 1920s compare with those to events today? How did Victorian colonial views infuse speech therapy practice, including attitudes towards stuttering?

These questions and more will feature at this year’s Cambridge Festival, which runs from 17th March to 2nd April and is one of the largest festivals of its kind in the country, featuring over 360 mostly free events.

The Festival includes several history-focused events, which will seek to shed new light on the past, from the causes and dynamics of the Christianisation of the Roman empire to the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In Romanticism and the Black Atlantic, Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi, Research Associate in the Literary and Artistic Archive at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum,  will take a new look at the Romantic poets in the light of their attitudes to slavery. While Romanticism is best known as a movement celebrating political and imaginative liberty, it also coincided with the apex of the transatlantic slave trade. Dr Nabugodi, author of the forthcoming book [2024], The Trembling Hand: Reflections of a Black Woman in the Romantic Archive, will explain how poets' relics - from Wordsworth’s tea cup to Byron’s carnival mask - can prompt wide-ranging reflection on the Romantic period’s legacy in our own time – its poetic ideals as well as its painful realities.  She will also shed new light on the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who won a prize at Jesus College for his Ode on the Slave Trade written in Ancient Greek and who while he subscribed to abolitionist ideals, had some crude and dismissive things to say about people of African descent.

She says: “I want to show how slavery affected all aspects of British life, most clearly seen in everyday luxuries such as sugar, tea and coffee. But poetry is at the heart of my work and I am especially keen to highlight how slavery and racial prejudice affected the collective imagination - not least the lethal fiction that humanity is divided into different races and that some races are better than others. You can see this at work in Coleridge's thought. While he subscribed to abolitionist ideals, he also had some crude and dismissive things to say about people of African descent.” [21st March]

In The last pagan emperor: understanding Julian the ‘Apostate’,  Dr Lea Niccolai from the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge will present a new view on Julian the ‘Apostate’, the last Roman emperor to believe in the Greek gods and a figure who has fascinated Western historians. Hated in the Middle Ages, loved by the Enlightenment, he continues to feature in contemporary fiction from Erik Ibsen and Gore Vidal to Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch (2022). But what drove Julian’s resistance against the final and perhaps most radical of the transformations of Roman power, its Christianisation and what does that tell us about the causes and dynamics of the Christianisation of the Roman empire?

For Dr Niccolai, whose monograph on Julian is forthcoming, his resistance is more in keeping with the positioning of leaders as philosophers and as a response to his predecessors, with Roman imperial institutions at the centre of a kind of culture war. 

She says: “Julian’s response obliquely reveals that, in a world where the elites were highly invested in what we label cultural capital, Christianity found its way at court not by appealing to belief or religious sentiment but by imposing itself as an authoritative system of knowledge. The Christianisation of Rome could be read, in this light, as the outcome of a long crisis of knowledge, whereby Christian emperors offered power-centred endorsement to the idea that traditional ways of explaining the world – i.e. those issued by Greek philosophers – were not sufficient anymore and needed to be replaced with a different universal theory, which only Christianity could offer.” [20th March]

And in Speech science and the British empire, Tom Parkinson, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Faculty of History, will present new research on the life and career of the English speech therapist James Hunt, founder of the notorious Anthropological Society of London, an ardent racist and author of the Manual of the Philosophy of Voice and Speech, with a record of influential work on stuttering. Parkinson will argue that his speech therapy work cannot be separated from his work as an ethnologist and is steeped in ideas about the inferiority of non-European speakers and that Victorian ideas about racial and ablest difference were mutually reinforcing phenomena that informed racial anthropology and neurological medicine as far as colonial India and have left an indelible mark on modern speech pathology.

He says: “Knowledge about the human body was created by anthropology and by speech pathology in a non-exclusive, reciprocal fashion. Theoreticians of racial supremacy like Hunt were concerned with ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ voices, and they raised what for them was the fundamental question about man’s ability to produce intelligible sounds from a distinctly colonial, medical, and anthropological angle. The problem of articulate speech was a sticking point in debates about human origins and evolution, and proponents of natural selection like Darwin read and debated with Britain’s most notable speech scientists about language and its evolutionary character.” [27th March]

Other events deal with forgotten heroes and contentious issues such as who owns the past. In  Past tense: who does Greek and Roman antiquity belong to? a panel of experts will discuss issues of ownership and belonging and make the case for the continued relevance of Greek and Roman antiquity today. The discussion takes place in the Museum of Classical Archaeology. [22nd March]


Other history-related events include:

  • Discovering Russia’s nineteenth-century women writers - Dr Anna A. Berman, Assistant Professor in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, on how women were at the centre of the Russian literary world in the nineteenth century as poets, novelists, and critics.  For example, when Alexander Pushkin, the “father of Russian literature” died in 1837, his unfinished notebook was ceremonially passed on not to Mikhail Lermontov- who attempted to take up Pushkin’s mantle - but to the female poet, Evdokiya Rostopchina. Meanwhile, the third highest paid author in the 1870s - after Tolstoy and Turgenev - was not Dostoevsky, but Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, who published her novels under the male pseudonym V. Krestovsky. By the end of the nineteenth century, women made up about fifteen percent of professional writers in Russia. They published in the same journals as men and were reviewed alongside them by the same critics (as well as writing criticism themselves).  Yet they disappeared from literary history in the twentieth century, as the Bolsheviks nationalised the works of fifty-seven writers - all men. The talk will  explore the lives and careers of Evdokiya Rostopchina, Karolina Pavlovna, Evgeniya Tur and the “Russian Brontës” - Nadezhda, Sofiya, and Praskoviya Khvoshchinskaya. Dr Berman is working on a website to be hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that will make the Khvoshchinskaya sisters’ writings accessible to all and is co-organising a conference at the University of Cambridge paired with a translation event at Pushkin House in April to raise Nadezhda’s profile. [18th March]
  • Combat Rock: Popular music and the Northern Ireland conflict -  Dr Sean Campbell from Anglia Ruskin University examines how popular musicians engaged with the Northern Ireland conflict in the period between the IRA hunger strikes (1980–81) and the British government’s ‘broadcasting ban’ (1988).  Drawing on original interviews with the musicians, as well as extensive trawling of print and audio/visual archives, Dr Campbell - who is writing a book on the subject - explores these interventions as forms of political communication.
  • Back to the 20s: literary responses to change and crisis across 100 years - a panel of writers, including Juliette Bretan, Lucy Rogers and Spandan Bandyopadhyay will discuss literary responses to analogous social, political or cultural changes from the period around the 1920s, and around the 2020s, such as the COVID pandemic and Spanish Flu; conflict and invasion in Europe; women’s rights or losses of rights; and questions about the speed of change in the world. While being aware that the two periods are very different, the panel will discuss their similarities, explore the usefulness of past ideas and examine changes in how literature has responded to moments of contemporary change and crisis. 21st March.
  • Following the money: new discoveries in eighth-century coinage - Based on new archaeometallurgical research of coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, this talk will seek to answer of the origins of the sudden surge in production and circulation of silver coins from the year 670, England’s first pennies. It will also explore what the coinage can reveal about early medieval ideas of wealth and its proper use, at a time when societies in England and its neighbours were undergoing rapid change. [18th March]
  • Emelyn Rude, editor of Eaten, a magazine on the history of food, and author of Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America's Favorite Bird, will form part of a panel of experts addressing How can we improve our food security? [27th March]


To view the full programme and book events go to the Festival website: