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Café Culture Series: Tracing Origins: Roots and Rivers

Roots and Rivers Image


On 5th March 2014 Café Culture convened again for an evening all about origins, family trees, and sources. The event was kicked off by Jane Gilbert (UCL French) who showed us a range of medieval maps, including the Hereford mappa mundi (1300), which trace the trajectories that medieval lives took, and the complicated, overlapping stories which people considered themselves to be living out. As Jane explained, this was a time before eurocentrism: Europeans thought of themselves as migrated Asians, originally refugees from the great, destroyed city of Troy to the West. Europe once therefore had an 'oriental' identity, about which Europeans had very mixed feelings. They elaborated new languages to celebrate new identities, and their corresponding new futures; they preserved old languages to cement old alliances and rivalries.

Next up was Katherine Ibbett (UCL French), who introduced us to her work on rivers, and their importance in France’s thinking about itself and its colonial expansion in the 16th-18th centuries. Katherine is interested in how rivers like the Loire and the Seine functioned as metaphors for French nationhood, and were imagined by the French as calm and noble waterways and contrasted with images of tempestuous and peasant-like Italian rivers! Katherine shared with us the ways in which early modern genealogical thought built itself around the notion of the river, since both were obsessed with the idea of the source.

Tracing Histories- Nick Barratt

Our final speaker was genealogist and consultant for the BBC series Who do you think you are?, Nick Barratt, who proposed that modern genealogy can and should be about much more than just name collecting and building big family trees through on-line searches. Nick also wanted to challenge the idea that researching your family history is something to save for retirement. Instead, as Nick explained, it can be a tool for inspiring children to understand the world around them and encouraging dialogue between different social groups in 21st century Britain. For Nick, one of the most important uses of genealogy today is its ability to engage children with history through the discovery of their own family history.

River on tablecloth

After the talks, the audience had a chance to chat to and mingle with the speakers, and audience members responded to Katherine’s invitation to draw the rivers that they associated with their own family or origins on our tablecloths (see picture), along with some moving accounts of lives lived, events witnessed, and activities carried out along the banks of or in the waters of rivers including the Brent, Severn and Thames.

The event was organised by Debbie Martin, with assistance from Octavia Bright and Georgia Panteli, and chaired by François Guesnet.