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The Magical Source: Light-bulb Moments in Historical Research

University of Birmingham

University of Warwick

May 9, 2 -4 pm (online, register here)


It is easy these days to allow the process of research to feel mechanical. We write grant applications and prospectuses that, while orienting us as we head into a jungle of sources, can also narrow our path through it. When we stumble across something unexpected, we often either ignore it or make a note to think about it later. Deadlines and output pressures can lead us to interpret only the sources that confirm our initial hypotheses.

Yet, stepping back and allowing an unexpected source to alter the shape of our projects can often enrich them. Learning how to be open to the ‘magical’ source and adjust our questions in light of it can heighten the sense of discovery in the final product and make for a more interesting read.

In this session, four historians will discuss ‘light-bulb’ moments in research, when they encountered sources that either altered or significantly deepened their projects, adding layers of complexity that were not anticipated at the outset. They will discuss how they came across these sources and the new lines of inquiry they opened up.

The online session is open to all postgraduate and postdoctoral students of History at the University of Warwick and University of Birmingham. Please click here to register to receive the e-invitation. Copies of the relevant sources, or excerpts of them, will be made available on this website in advance in order to invite participants to consider what is surprising or interesting about them. Each historian will discuss their encounter with the source for ten minutes, followed by fifteen to twenty minutes of open discussion.

This event is sponsored by the Early Modern and Eighteenth-century Centre at Warwick and the Eighteenth-century Centre at the University of Birmingham.



click on the title to access primary source


2:00-2:30 pm. 'Mary Toft's First ConfessionLink opens in a new window'

Karen Harvey (Birmingham) is a cultural historian of eighteenth-century

Britain with particular interests in gender, the body and material culture.

Her last book was on the case of Mary Toft and her current project

examines the body and identity in eighteenth-century British letters.


2:30-3:00 pm. 'Thomas Paine's letter to Georges Danton during the Terror Phase of the French RevolutionLink opens in a new window'

Charles Walton (Warwick) is a historian of the French Enlightenment

and Revolution. He is especially interested in the development of civil,

political and social rights. The source provided was key to

his research on the problem of freedom of expression in

the Revolution.


3:00 - 3:30 pm. 'Letter by the diplomat Thomas Robinson, Lord Grantham, to his brother in 1779'Link opens in a new window

Ben Jackson (Birmingham) is interested in the histories of gender, consumer society, and social identities in Britain c.1660–1800. He is currently working on his monograph ‘Material Men: Masculinity and Commodity Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain’ and a new project on ‘the clergyman’ and his identities in the long eighteenth century.


3:30 - 4:00 pm. 'John Locke's letter to the Quaker preacher Rebecca Collier'Link opens in a new window

Naomi Pullin (Warwick) is an early modern historian at the University of Warwick, specialising in religious and gender history in the early modern British Atlantic. She is the author of Female Friends and the Making of Transatlantic Quakerism, 1650-1750 (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and editor of Negotiating Exclusion in Early Modern England, 1550-1800 (Routledge, 2021). She is currently working on a new monograph entitled 'Sociability and Solitude in Early Modern Britain'.