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Public Engagement

‘Early Modern Latin in London’ Walking Tours

Rebecca Menmuir, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, writes about a walking tour she co-developed with the Society for Neo-Latin Studies, supported by a Centre for Public Engagement Small Grant.

A group of adults dressed for a walking tour with comfortable shoes and layers pose next to Temple Bar after the first tour. Rebecca, a young white woman with blonde hair, stands at the front holding a flag and tour notes.

A group photo taken next to Temple Bar after the first tour.

Did you know that, from 1677 to 1830, the Monument to the Fire of London blamed furor papisticus (‘Popish frenzy’) for the outbreak of the Great Fire of 1666? Or that Early Modern Latin poetry was written about a swan’s journey from Oxford to London? What about the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers (a type of shoe with a raised sole), whose Latin motto is the punning recipiunt fœminæ sustentacula nobis (‘Women receive their support from us’)? We covered this and much more during two ‘Early Modern Latin in London’ walking tours throughout the City of London, designed by PhD students and Early Career Researchers – under the auspices of the Society for Neo-Latin Studies (SNLS) – for members of the public. 

The walking tours aimed to make the Neo-Latin of London accessible to the public, who may have walked past Latin inscriptions on buildings and monuments without knowing what they mean, or who might have been inspired by popular media like Wolf Hall to find out more about early modern figures like Thomas More in the Tower of London (a stop on our tour). It also contributed to my research as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, which in part explores how ideas of the medieval and Early Modern past are shaped, moulded, and even forged throughout history. I am the current Early Career Representative of the SNLS, and co-organised the event with Sharon van Dijk, the SNLS’ Public Engagement Representative. 

We focused on making the project a two-way form of public engagement, where both organisers and attendees would benefit and engage in conversation across the project’s development, delivery, and evaluation stages. Through the SNLS, we formed a group of PhD students and Early Career Researchers (listed below) who work on Neo-Latin and related topics to help us develop the tour. Research in Neo-Latin is scattered across various disciplines (such as English Literature, Classics, Modern Languages, and Philosophy), and so we wanted to create a project that would bring early career researchers together. Public engagement work is exceptionally worthwhile and fun, but for earlier-stage researchers it can be difficult to find the time, money, and other resources to develop a public engagement project, so this project provided a good opportunity to get a group together to share the workload. With the expertise of several researchers with different interests and areas of knowledge, members of the public benefitted from hearing about a wide range of topics on the tour, from 16th-century poetry to the memorial of the 18th-century writer and critic Samuel Johnson. 

Having gathered a working group, we devised the tour route, information for each stop, and points of interest along the way. Each member took on one or two stops, writing information to be presented during the tour and to be included in the tour booklet. We had to consider accessibility at an early stage – how long should the tour be? How physically accessible can we make it? How can we make sure it runs to time? How do we make sure participants understand the Latin? And so on. Less is definitely more in the case of a walking tour, and we trimmed down much of the material so that we wouldn’t have to rush or speedwalk. We are especially proud of the booklet that we created, which included all the Latin (transcribed and translated into modern English) as well as lots of extra information, so that participants didn’t have to make constant notes and could take something away with them. In our feedback people were particularly pleased with having it all written down! The CopyShop at Queen Mary did a fantastic job of printing the booklets quickly and at a very reasonable price – we definitely recommend them. 

After months of planning, test-walking and risk assessing the route, and advertising the tours, they ran on Saturday 3rd and 10th June. Both tours sold out in two days! Simon Smets and Alexander Gould, two members of the working group, accompanied me as tour guides and were excellent. On two gloriously sunny days (the second iteration a little too hot, and we were glad to have factored shaded and seated spots into the route) we walked from the Tower of London to St Paul’s, also going inside St Paul’s. We ended up afterwards at The Old Bell Tavern, a pub with Early Modern connections (it was the site of Wynkyn de Worde’s famous printing press around 1500), where we could rest, have a drink, and chat. We decided to run interview-style evaluations here, where we asked participants for initial reactions to the tour and how we can reach more people about their local history and especially about the Neo-Latin around us. Having this type of evaluation alongside an online form which we sent out later worked really well as we got different types of feedback. 

The feedback was all extremely positive. People enjoyed finding out that Latin was used in such a variety of contexts and enjoyed the mix of familiar names (Thomas More, or Christopher Wren) with slightly lesser-known figures (such as John Leland). Those very familiar with London were pleased to find spots they didn’t know about. The tours went exactly to time and the logistics were all positively reviewed. On the first tour, one person mentioned that they would have enjoyed us reading out more of the Latin aloud, which we did on the second tour. Reading Latin poetry about the Thames next to the river, with the waves lapping against the harbour, was particularly atmospheric! And, on reflection, the 30-45 minutes we spent inside St Paul’s was too short (you can spend many hours inside and not get bored!), so for future tours we will stick to the outside for the walking tours, and arrange other tours which are St Paul’s-only. 

The Small Grants offered by Queen Mary’s Centre for Public Engagement are generous and covered our costs to run what we considered ‘pilot’ tours, and the grants work especially well in allowing researchers to test public engagement schemes at a smaller scale – and prove that they can work – before designing them as longer-term or larger-scale projects. We will keep running the tours throughout the summer free of charge (email Rebecca if you would like to attend!), and our proposal to run the tours at London’s Open House Festival in September was recently accepted. Several spin-off events, with more complex logistics and in collaboration with partners, are in the works. There is so much in the City to be explored, especially its Latin heritage. 

These tours would not have been possible without the guidance of the SNLS, and I strongly encourage anyone interested in Neo-Latin literature (writings of the Early Modern period written in Latin) to consider becoming a member or getting involved with the Society’s activities. Later in 2023, the SNLS will run a ‘Global Neo-Latin’ academic symposium, and a public-facing event on Neo-Latin rhyming verse. To support the next generation of Neo-Latin scholars, they organise two essay competitions, one for graduate students/postdoctoral researchers, and another for undergraduate students. Many resources for teaching and research are freely available on the SNLS website, such as the Neo-Latin podcast and the Neo-Latin Anthology. 

With many thanks to those who were involved with the planning and development of the tours, especially Sharon van Dijk as co-organiser! Thanks also to Claire Barnes, Hanne Berendse, John Colley, Tomos Evans, Alexander Gould, Nicola McCabe, Iván Parga Ornelas, Helena Rutkowska, Simon Smets, and Caroline Spearing. At Queen Mary, Clare Stainthorp provided many helpful tips and points of advice. My sincere thanks to Daisy Payling and the team at the Queen Mary Centre for Public Engagement, as well as the Centre’s anonymous panel of application reviewers.  



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