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Rural History 2017

Report by Dr Samantha Shave, University of Lincoln

The biennial conference of the European Rural History Organisation (EURHO), Rural History, was held from Monday 11 through to Thursday 14 September in the beautiful city of Leuven in Belgium. It was hosted in Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the first university to be established in Belgium, with a student population of over 55 thousand. There were over 400 delegates in attendance, and ten scheduled ‘sessions’, which culminated in a huge total of 65 separate panels. As the Conference Director, Leen Van Molle, noted in her welcome address, the conference strongly reflected current day issues and concerns. This was echoed in a variety of conference themes, on food production, supply and quality, on inequality, and on environmental problems within water, land and air.

I was very fortunate to be able to join the conference and attend the panel, ‘Poverty and the state: relief, reform and resistance’, which I co-organised with Amy Ridgway (University of Exeter), Dr Jonathan Healey (University of Oxford) and Dr Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck). The session was popular and received a great deal of questions and comments, all very helpful as we develop our work into published papers.
Samantha meeting a sheep at Bokrijk, photo taken by Dr Sarah Holland
Guided tour at Bokrijk, author’s own photo As well as talking about our own current research, however, the conference was an excellent opportunity to hear the latest work within and beyond our own interests and make connections with fellow academics from both Europe and beyond. I went to sessions on topics familiar to me, including rural poverty, welfare and welfare institutions, credit use and other survival strategies, but also those I only have a vague knowledge of. Panels I particularly enjoyed were ‘Transforming rural societies in Europe under the eye of the camera for farm audiences’ organized by Peter Veer (University of Amsterdam) and ‘Agricultural management in extraordinary circumstances’ organised by Dr Sarah Holland (University of Nottingham). Both brought together academics across Europe, but while the former explored the production and use of agricultural films in the 20th century, the latter examined how land and resources were managed during moments of social need from the 1700s to the mid-twentieth century.
For the first time in my decade of conference-going to date, I decided to book onto one of the three conference excursions. Two of the trips were close by, to the Stella Artois brewery and to Park Abbey, a Premonstratensian or Norbertine abbey on the edge of Leuven. I opted for a trip which took us into the Belgian countryside to Bokrijk, a huge open-air museum in the Province of Limburg. We were greeted at the museum with cups of tea, and a welcome address from the museum’s Director Liesbeth Kees. From there we embarked on a guided tour of the major buildings on its site including a farmhouse, chapel and schoolroom. The museum is very much alive. Neatly-kept orchards, people in period costumes, bleating sheep and imposing windmills all compete for your attention as you stroll the grounds. Groot Begijnhof Leuven, author’s own photo
Groot Begijnhof Leuven, author’s own photo A conference dinner was hosted on the Wednesday evening, in the Faculty Club situated in the Grand Beguinage, part of the Groot Begijnhof Leuven which designated as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2000. This is one of the largest ‘beguinages’, community for religious women, in the Low Counties, consisting of 7.5 acres, and hosting 100 houses and 300 apartments. On the last afternoon of my trip, I took the opportunity to visit the site with historical geographer Dr Briony McDonagh (University of Hull). We weaved between buildings, across cobbled paths and planted courtyards, finding plenty of spots for scenic photographs. This was a very restful end to a busy conference.
The next Rural History conference, in 2019, will take place in Paris.