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Finding your History Research Topic

Finding your History research topic

Wanda Marcussen

Deciding on a History thesis topic is a daunting task, especially if you have a broad interest field. It took a long time for me to decide on what I wanted to write about, because I was afraid of leaving out periods and topics I would like to engage with later in my career. In the end, my thesis was much shaped by circumstance and the discovery of a very exciting source that captured my attention.

For my M.Phil. dissertation for Environmental History, I wrote a thesis on how coastal communities fared during the climate events and failed harvest in Norway between 1740-1743. My journey to finding my History research topic started during the fall semester of 2020 when we had a class on climate history with Dr Francis Ludlow. I had not been much in touch with the subject before and was intrigued to research more, especially about potential events affecting history and development in my home country Norway. I asked Professor Ludlow for more readings and potential events that could be suitable for an M.Phil. dissertation. I was especially fascinated by reading about the cold and difficult years in Ireland in the early 1740s known as “The Irish Famine” described by David Dickson in his book Arctic Ireland and several other scholars. I was wondering why I had never learned about this period in Norwegian history and whether something similar transpired there. Digging a little deeper in the literature, I found that Norway possibly experienced even more extreme hardship than Ireland and that Norway seems to have been the country in Europe most severely affected by a climate event caused by a volcanic eruption on the Kamchatka peninsula in 1739.

Having deciding that I wanted to research this period further for my thesis, I started to search for more sources describing the experience of living through the three extremely cold years in Norway. Quite quickly I came across a very exciting source describing Norwegian society in 1743: The reports in response to 43 questions from the Danish Chancellery. The reports contain the answers to 43 questions that the Danish Chancellery sent in the spring of 1743 to state officials from around the kingdom in order to obtain answers on a number of matters regarding the condition of the kingdom. The accounts from priests and state officials describe several topics including topography, historical landmarks, harvest, the temper of the inhabitants and demographic records.

Refining Your History Research Topic

What eventually shaped my research question was that I took the course Ocean and the Anthropocene thought by Professor Poul Holm during the second semester. The course sparked my interest in marine environmental history and my reflection on why none of the literature I had found discussed how people relied on marine resources during a failed harvest. Going back to my source, I found that there were plentiful descriptions from all over the county of bountiful fisheries and reliance on marine harvested in the exact same years as the cold climate prevented harvest on land. Professor Holm was also assigned as my supervisor, which was invaluable for my process, as he was able to guide my approach with expert knowledge of both marine environmental history and Scandinavian demographic history. I established three hypotheses which laid the foundation for my research:

• It is likely that marine resources provided food security during the failure of agricultural harvests on land in Norway in the early 1740s and that this limited the spike in death rates in coastal areas.

• Technological advance in fisheries likely occurred due to higher demands for marine foodstuff.

• Increased export and capital interests might have led to much-needed resources being sold and exported for profit instead of being available for the needing local population.

I was able to get started on the writing process quite early and was therefore able to enjoy the work without too much stress. The social restrictions still in place at the time enabled me to focus on my work at least a couple of hours every day. As such, I had enough time before the deadline to properly edit and read through several times, doing adjustments wherever needed. It took me only several weeks to cut down on my initial draft.

Some of what I found most intriguing about the research was learning and writing about places I know personally. I think it gave me a vital context to the source material and an interest in small details others might have overlooked. Due to the pandemic, I moved to my family’s coastal cabin on the Hvaler islands in southern Norway and lived there for several months while writing. My research indicated that the fisheries on these islands helped feed the inhabitants of the city of Fredrikstad during the difficult years. The experience gave my research a more personal purpose to learn more about how people fared and adapted to the climate crisis in the areas where my ancestors would have lived, and it also motivated me to meditate on how we can adapt to a similar event which would transpire today.