Interview with Emma Yeo, Durham University

Emma is a post-doctoral researcher from the University of Durham who is presenting tonight for MEMSA’s final seminar series of term on ‘Living through crisis in North East England during the reign of Elizabeth I and James I’. We caught up with Emma about her research and future plans below:

Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from?

I’m from Gateshead, so very close to Durham! When I did my family tree I found my family has been in the North East for hundred years, so perhaps some of the ordinary people I am studying are my distant ancestors…

What brought you to your current university, and where do you plan on going next?

Local history is fascinating to me and I knew that I wanted to study local history for my PhD. I studied at Durham for my undergraduate degree and I was really excited by the thought of being back in the place which has so many great memories for me, as well as fantastic archival resources and supportive supervisors.

What is your favourite thing about the early modern period?

My favourite thing has to be the amazing volume of information available about the lives of ordinary people. Because of the advent of parish registers, you can trace many people across their entire lives and bring that information together with other sources such as court records to give an insight into their lives that isn’t possible so easily for earlier periods. 

What does your research focus on?

My research takes the concept of a seventeenth century General Crisis as it’s jumping off point. Proponents of a General Crisis concept argue for a period of widespread crisis in both politics and socio-economic life across Europe or even the world during the seventeenth century. This is often placed in a global context but thinking about these ideas within a smaller case study is also a really valuable exercise.

I am looking at the demographic history of North East England from approximately 1580 to the outbreak of the Marseilles Plague (1720) to examine the role of mortality crises in the history of the region. This involves compiling data for baptisms, marriages and deaths for over fifty parishes across this timescale and then digging deeper into the places that have interesting stories to tell about particular crises.

What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?

I’ll focus on the question of what constitutes a crisis. There’s a lot of debate in terms of mortality crises about what counts as a crisis in absolute numerical terms but there’s also the human side to bear in mind: how do people react during times of hardship? 

There’s three moments of potential crisis which I’ll be focusing on for my presentation and I’m really excited to discuss how a synthesis of large-scale statistical analysis and consideration of narrative sources can bring these crises to life. 

We’ll start with a catastrophic fire in Darlington in the 1580s and we’ll end with the brutal winters of the 1610s, which feels fitting given our recent weather…

 Do you have a favourite early modern text or artwork?

I have a favourite map. I was recently at the British Library exhibit on Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, which I really recommend if you have the chance to see it. I was wandering through the gallery and came across Burghley’s map of County Durham from the time of the Northern Rebellion in the sixteenth century. It’s got a good amount of detail and is so neat and pretty. I’d definitely hang a copy on my wall! 

My favourite early modern texts are Thomas Chaytor’s diary, which gives an insight into the life of a member of the Durham gentry in the early seventeenth century, and the later seventeenth century chronicle of Jacob Bee. Bee’s journal is interesting for lots of reasons, but my favourite has to be the original version of a ghost sighting in Durham Marketplace which you might recognise from Halloween tours… 

Who is your favourite historical figure from the early modern period, and why?

I’m going to cheat and give two answers, if that’s okay. The early modern historical heavyweight who I find most interesting is Edward VI. There’s something really fascinating about the boy-king whose final decision to attempt to disinherit his sisters could have led to a very different history of England if Lady Jane Grey had succeeded in holding the throne. The cold emotional stance of his diary is also something that draws me in, I would love to know what he was actually thinking about the historical events he describes.

In terms of my research, my favourite person is a woman called Mary from Saint Oswald’s parish in Durham. I completed a family reconstitution study of Saint Oswald’s and came to uncover a lot of details about Mary’s life. She started her life as the daughter of a singing-man in Durham Cathedral and ended it penniless and cared for by friends, but there’s something very resilient about the choices she made that allowed her to survive some tricky situations.

I’m hopeful that in the course of my research I might happen upon further hints about her life as I look through court records.

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