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A History of London: 600 Years in 6 Weeks

Scold’s Bridle and Drunkard’s Cloak, ancient punishments of Newcastle (From The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, October 1885).
Scold’s Bridle and Drunkard’s Cloak, ancient punishments of Newcastle (From The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, October 1885).
Scold’s Bridle and Drunkard’s Cloak, ancient punishments of Newcastle (From The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, October 1885).

On the tail of his successful Unreal City Audio tours, and the release of his critically acclaimed book, London: A Travel Guide Through Time, Dr. Matthew Green has launched his latest venture, the History of London Course.

The six-week course covers London from 1390 to 1950. Students, tour guides, and local historians interested in learning more about this fascinating city will find this course touches on every topic imaginable: daily life, law, war, disease, culture, innovation and politics. The classes are structured more as a lecture series than a course with homework, however, a handy syllabus with a reading list of sources for follow up is given out each week at the beginning of class.

Green’s angle is not about grand narrative history, or dry, dusty textbooks, but about immersing people in local history, and the special spaces and places in London. The fall course kicked off September 20th with Medieval London circa 1390 just forty years after the Black Death ravaged most of Europe. We spoke with Dr. Green about his plans for the future of the course.

How did the idea for a History of London course come about?

I wanted to bring the history of London to life in a vivid, accessible and academically rigorous way for people who aren’t formally engaged in the study of history at an institution. I’ve been leading immersive historical tours of London since 2012 (both in live and audio format); my first book, London: A Travel Guide Through Time was published by Penguin in 2015; and I do lots of public speaking and broadcasting on the subject. So it didn’t seem like too much of a leap to translate all of that into a six-week course.

Dr. Matthew Green
Dr. Matthew Green

For the Middle Ages, why did you decide to focus on the 14th century, versus another popular period, like Viking London, or around the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066?

In short, because there’s a greater abundance of source material for the 14th century: Chaucer, falconry manuals, Guildhall records of public humiliation rituals, descriptions of jousts, guides to being an anchoress &c. Also, several of the phenomenon I was particularly interested in exploring were particularly prominent in (or around) the 14th century: anchorism, worries about fashion, tilting, the plague, and rebellion. And it also means I could, in places, extrapolate backwards from 15th century texts and images without feeling too guilty. But I agree, either Viking London or Norman London would be fascinating — though not so much source material for the dear old Vikings.

Which period do you enjoy teaching most and why?

Tough question. I think probably either early Georgian London (that’s ‘my’ period; I studied it for my PhD) or Shakespeare’s London, which is a thrilling joyride through bear pits, tobacco houses and labyrinths.

When you envisioned this course, who did you have in mind as your target audience?

Purely, simply, anyone who is interested in London’s past; how the metropolis came to be. Over the four terms so far we’ve had American expats and lifelong Londoners; blue-badge guides and television executives; barristers and barmen; local authority employees and students home from university. It’s not designed with any specific academic objective in mind – there are no exams at the end (although there is a quiz!) – but there are lengthy reading lists, which you may or may not want to read. Most of all, I want it to be accessible, evocative, thought-provoking and fun. Each week, we explore a different time period and I evoke some of the principal spaces and places in which Londoners lived, worked, dreamed and died, allowing the audience to project themselves into the past, really to visualise it. That, I think, is a more powerful way of bringing it to life than focusing on, say, the minutiae of civic administration or the grand conflicts between kings and lord mayors.

What do you hope students will take away from this series of lectures?

I’d be happy if they saw their city in a new light. Or had a clearer idea of how the megalopolis was forged. The whole thing is an epic 6-part story about how London cracked out of its medieval shell, sprawled into the suburbs, and blossomed into a ‘human awful wonder of God’, the biggest city on the planet. Like Istanbul, the streets are heavy with history with each era leaving its mark in some way. The city is an archive of transactions; a palimpsest of ideas — I’d like to teach people to read and interpret them. They’ll hopefully also have some killer anecdotes to tell their friends.

Where do you envision the course going? Are there any plans to expand to other history courses?

There’s one thing missing from the course – a week on Roman London, which is essential as it had – and continues to have – such a formative influence on later London. I’m about to start researching it and as soon as I’m done, the six-part course will become a seven-part course. I plan to run the whole course at least four times a year. We have a great venue in a beautiful red-brick church in Pimlico with state-of-the-art projectors. I am planning to convert the whole thing into an audio and visual course too, for people who are unable to attend in London. Beyond London, my next book focuses more on Britain as a whole. So I have ambitions to run a multi-part course on the history of Britain too, adopting a similar approach.

New dates for the History of London course have just been announced: classes start Tuesday, January 17, 2017. REGISTER HERE.

Follow Dr. Green on Twitter: @drmatthewgreen

Like Unreal City Audio on Facebook

Dr. Matthew Green runs several fantastic historical tours, such as the Medieval Wine Tour, Coffee House Tour, London in 7 Drinks, and Chocolate House Tour.

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