History Nerds

History Nerds is open to all able and interested young historians in Years 10-13 in the York area!

Interesting: essay competition for students launched by Schools History Project and the historian Peter Frankopan – deadline 4th May. More details on their website. The title is: “If 1066 is said to be the most important date in English history, what is the equivalent in another country?”

Next meetings…

6-8pm- Thursday 18th June- Bootham School:

Ian Milstead from York Archaeological Trust will share with us his reflections on the Dalton terrace Archaeological dig and the 60 decapitated Roman skeletons they uncovered. Ian will bring one of the skeletons they excavated and unpick the mystery that remains around these bodies. He will finish with a question and answer session which will be of particular use to those who are thinking of studying archaeology at University.

Things to chew on!

What is History? – the view of an Oxford historian! – see below under the ‘Nerds Past’ heading and it’s the meeting in October 2019 you want.

Statues! You may be aware that there is much debate around statues and what they say about society. A few years ago there was a famous campaign in Oxford called ‘Rhodes Must Fall!’ that led to fierce and complex debate. Here is another article about statues in the USA and controversy: HERE Some people are against pulling down Rhodes, but were happy to support the removal of Lee. Why do you think they held this view? Do you agree with them?

What is History? The great-granddaughter of E.H. Carr looks back at his work and how it is still relevant today The historian was prescient in warning that the value of facts depends on who wields them.

Ratline! A really interesting set of podcasts.  It’s a story of love, denial and a curious death. Philippe Sands investigates the mysterious disappearance of senior Nazi, Otto Wächter, and journeys right to the heart of the Ratline. He comes face to face with Wächter’s son, who is trying to rehabilitate his father’s reputation, while Sands attempts to unveil the true horror of his deeds.

Raising Aspirations! Follow this link to the website of a history teacher in Bristol who has provided resources to help students aspiring to study History at Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities. It offers an online course on historiography and will also be useful for A Level students about to embark on their Independent Investigation.

Medieval London Murder Map! Follow this link to research about murders in medieval London – it is pure history nerd heaven! However, try also to read https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>this @Twitter thread that provides important context.

Useful and interesting reading, watching and listening  

Here’s a nice link History of England for hoovering up some history. We have a list of other really useful websites and podcast sites here too:

Events in York   Various organisations in York put on lectures that have a historical link. These are free and a great way to demonstrate your enthusiasm for History to prospective universities. ‘Look, I went in my own time to this free lecture and then I did some thinking and…’  Here is the current programme for the University of York’s public lecture series: Programme

Future Learn courses   Choose from hundreds of free online courses from top universities and specialist organisations. Browse by category and start date, to find the right one for you…


A blog from one of the Oxford History Faculty: 10 history books I’d love to see on your UCAS form

Apply by January of Y12 for UNIQ – this is in spring and summer holidays of Year 12, and provides free travel and a week’s accommodation in Oxford. There is also UNIQ digital that provides mentoring and advice at a distance. There will be 3 residential programmes in history in 2019, hosting hopefully c. 150 students – pre-modern global encounters; order and freedom which is mostly 17-20th century Europe; and race and protest on 20th century civil rights, as well as programmes in history of art, archaeology, classics etc. http://www.uniq.ox.ac.uk/

Pathways – this is a series of ‘taster days’ for able Years 10-13. Year 12s apply as individuals, and there are travel bursaries and free accommodation, so do encourage keen and able students to apply for these. https://www.pathways.ox.ac.uk/

An extract from Cambridge University’s mail to schools about the 2016-17 application process:  “At interview, the strongest applicants demonstrated that they had chosen their degree programme at Cambridge carefully, and understood the demands of the course. They showed that they could organise their thinking well, arguing logically, responding positively to challenge, and were able to rethink or refine their initial thoughts on a question when presented with new information, or a different way of approaching it. They were also able to back up their responses with appropriate evidence, drawn from academic sources as well as personal experience. They displayed real academic curiosity about the topics discussed, and could show that they had explored their subject outside of the school curriculum (which might have been through a taster day, a self-guided project, or through on-line exploration or deeper reading into particular interests). Most importantly, they didn’t give up when presented with something not immediately familiar, but persevered, using their existing knowledge and understanding, to approach an answer.”

See also, the October 2019 meeting, below…

Nerds past

February 2020

Professor Bill Sheils shared his passion for maps and York in his fascinating explanation of the York Historical Atlas. Part of a post-war pan-European project to map the continent’s ancient cities, the York map was 40 years in the creation and Bill was a major contributer. He told us that, just as with any source, a historian must ask: who, produced this? when? for whom? and who was the funder? Using a series of maps of the city, Bill highlighted how we can use them to work out what was important to people at the time, for example, the churches and markets of the 16th century and the civic buildings of the 18th century. He explained how York changed over time and had its ups and its downs. Strangely, sudden shocks, such as the 1604 plague that killed one third of the people and the siege of 1644, left little mark on the city. Whereas, the end of the religious houses, the rise of civil society and the coming of the railways, are all examples of transformative events. About 70 history nerds were present and there were fantastic questions.

October 2019

Dr Sian Pooley from Magdalen College, Oxford University spent time helping us to understand History better. Historians love stories and trying to understand people and how they ‘tick’, even though they can no longer speak to us directly. They use the past to better understand the present; it is the only place we can go for a bank of evidence about topics such as how to make peace, how to bring about change… It is also an intellectual challenge to create and imagine, using the evidence to construct interesting and engaging narrative and to open our minds to other perspectives and ways of being.

Sian talked about the concept of bias and challenged us to think of sources as windows. We are in the house and we look at the past outside through a window. The window shapes our reality. Perhaps it’s a skylight and we can only see the kings and queens (the leaders), or the window is coloured and shaped so it distorts our view. We can certainly never see the whole of the outside (the past) through one window (one source).

Sian pointed out that only 2% of women and 10% of men in England could write in 1500. That means that only very few people left a direct message (a source) to us in writing, and most of those were men. Equal literacy among men and women did not happen until 1900 in England. To find out about other people we have to look at written records from people who were literate and what remains of their world from archaeology and artefacts.

She also told us to remember that (as L.P. Hartley said): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” She reminded us that the values and attitudes of people in the past were different from ours and we have to try to understand that in order to avoid anachronisms in our thinking.

Using lengthy texts from 1941, she helped us to read deeply for meaning and to tease out the intriguing nature of what was written (the information given, the views expressed, the choice of words made to shape tone, the focus and obsessions of the writer…) and what clues we could draw out of it about the author. The original texts were also revealing, Sian encouraged us to engage with the material nature of the actual sources. Working with sources as a set, she drew out how the understanding they give us is greater than the sum of their parts, in this case for answering the question; ‘Did the Second World War transform British society?’ Sian was very clear that the evidence we had used did not support an answer: ‘The Second World War did not have an impact on people’. However, she was also clear that the three other answers she gave us as options could be supported by evidence – they ranged from some impact to a very large impact.

Sian then revealed that what we had done was to follow the approach that Oxford uses with applicants. The written test question is always: ”What can this soure tell us about X’s understanding of the period?’ The teachers in the room were massively impressed by the depth of responses that Sian drew from the students.

Sian’s PPT and handout: WWII powerpoint Oct 2019     WWII handout Oct 2019

June 2019

Ian Dawson presented us with the question: ‘What can we learn about medieval people from the Wars of the Roses?’ Starting with an explanation of the sort of books we can read on the period and the variety of source material that has survived, Ian took us through the narrative and brought our thinking back to the people. He suggested to us that we are not that different in many ways and not better than medieval people – though we may have better socks! His talk gave very specific topic knowledge, unpicked how historians investigate the period and connected us to bigger thinking about concepts and connections to the world today.

To prepare for this some Nerds watched a famous interpretation of the time period before the Wars in the form of ‘The Hollow Crown: Henry V’.  While watching we thought about:

  • Shakespeare focuses on the theme of leadership. How is Henry portrayed as a great leader? Are the qualities that make that make Henry V a good ruler the same qualities that define a good person?
  • Many social classes and nationalities were ruled by the English Crown in 1415. How many examples can you find of these in the play? What roles do they have?
    The early 15th century was a very religious time. What is the relationship between religion and war in this play?

February 2019

We had a nerd-tastic trip to the University of York’s Borthwick Archives by the University Library. We toured the strongroom with the archivist and he explained the methods used to preserve and archive documents. Among the fasinating archives we saw were Guy Fawkes baptismal record, telegrams from Gandhi, Halifax’s papers on Hitler, the description of Henry VIII’s first night with Anne of Cleves, records of people enslaved by the Harewood estate in Barbados and a 15thC Mass book.


October 2018



Dr John Jenkins from the University of York talked to us about Thomas Becket, a medieval life. He encouraged us to work out how much we can work out about life in 12th century England from his life. He also modelled to us how much better one can understand specific events and specific actions with a vast hinterland knowledge from wide reading and thinking. Did you know, one third of people in 12th century England were part of the Roman Catholic Church and, remember, almost everyone was a believer? John made it clear that the existing source material can be used pro- or anti- Becket. He discouraged the idea of trying to prove which is true – we can’t. Instead, he traced the ebb and flow of the two perspectives across time. His PPT is here: Thomas Becket





June 2018

We started in the sunshine at Bootham with some of our narrative summaries of the History of York. What had we included? What had we missed out? Hugh Richards and Sam Minton took us on a walking tour of our city. They challenged to look more carefully and to notice how York interprets its own past. Why do we remember Jorvik, but have nothing about the poverty of Hungate in a Centre? Should we be shocked at the lack of memory of Baille Hill as the HQ of the Harrying of the North? Was it right to cancel the visitor centre at Clifford’s Tower, when there is such a terrible story to be told? All of us came away with our thoughts provoked and knowing more about our city.



January 2018

For our January meeting we read ‘The Black Death’ by John Hatcher  and considered the following questions in groups:

  • What has the author researched to be able to produce this book?
  • Where is the boundary between fact and imagination in this book?
  • How does this academic historian use his skills to write the book?
  • How does this book compare to your school history textbooks?

We then came together as a group to think about the author’s respectful attitude to the past, the balance between factual detail and the truth of human experience, and whether historians should bother with historical fiction.

We are very grateful to Jono and Dave from Oxford University for coming to challenge us to raise our game in the use of historical source material. They encouraged us to treat sources as windows and to wonder not just what’s visible through the window, but what we can learn about the glass itself. They shared some great sites with us – see lower down on this page. The wonderful ‘Dogheads’ source, more sources and everything you need to know about the Oxford University History Aptitude Test can be found HERE.

From our September 2017 meeting: ‘Sugar – from slavery to obesity!’ presentation from Prof Walvin: James Walvin presentation

Really interesting article from The Times as to why a history degree really can take you places that other degrees can’t…


Articles like this are worth reading and thinking on. Could you take an active part in a discussion about the difference and purpose of history and historical fiction?