The History Woman's Blog

Laughing about Hitler

Posted in History, literature, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on July 22, 2014

Look-Whos-BackIs it ok to laugh about Hitler? This seems to be the one big question critics have been asking themselves about Timor Vermes’s Look Who’s Back – a novel about Adolf Hitler waking up in 21st-century Berlin seeing a confusingly modern world through a Nazi lense.

Some teenage boys playing football on a field must be the Hitler Youth training, the large number of Turks in Berlin an indicator that they did support Germany in World War II after all. But Hitler is also impressed by the clever demagogy of the German Bild newspaper with its many pictures and extra large type, regretting that ‘the zealous Goebbels’ did not have that idea first, or the Nazis would have found ‘much more enthusiasm’ for their ‘cause’ amongst the elderly population.

The sight of what they take to be a Hitler lookalike shocks many Germans in the book. Yet, none of them take him seriously. They all think he must be a method actor and comedian out to challenge and provoke the German public, testing the limits of freedom of speech. Instead of arresting him for war crimes, Hitler is thus given his own TV show, where he is allowed to do and say whatever he wants as long as he agrees that ‘the Jews are no laughing matter’. (more…)

Lies, secrets and death on the eve of the Glorious Revolution

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on July 10, 2014

The Bitter Trade 3D Front Right WebThe Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander is a historical novel set in the murky world of London’s coffee houses on the eve of the Glorious Revolution. The son of an English dissenter and a French Huguenot, its young redhead hero Calumny Spinks lives under the shadow of his father’s dark secret dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s time which takes his mother’s life and traps him in the poverty of the weaving milieu.

Yet, he is determined to escape his fate and make his way in the world in the newly emerging coffee trade, which is at times only fractionally above board. Along the way, he meets crooks and wise men and a range of strong women, who teach him a thing or two about life and love, and that hardly anyone is who they appear to be at first sight.

Torn between the scheming daughter of a wealthy coffee trader, a popish seamstress and the waitress of a coffee house, who all carry their own secrets, Calumny stumbles from one adventure to the next as he uses his wit and ability to imitate voices to climb up the social ladder.

Calumny Spinks, telling name and all, is an old-fashioned hero, his first-person narrative of the chancer in dire straits reminding the reader of the picaresque novel of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Yet, Alexander wears his history lightly. (more…)

Tracking down the regicides

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Republicanism, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on June 1, 2014

Kings_Revenge_ImageI don’t read much popular history, and that is probably a mistake. By ignoring countless works written for a mass audience I miss what attracts most people to my subject area: a good story that is actually true, or at least could be true, reconstructed from sources scattered all over the archives and joined by creative ingenuity.

With historical writing, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are frequently blurred. Academic historians tend to lay claim to objectivity by comparing countless sources and weighing up possibilities and arguments, while novelists might have invested a similar amount of time to research but openly admit that they made up the missing bits and, most importantly, the majority of the action and dialogue.

There is some consolation in the fact that for any number of bodice rippers there is probably one Wolf Hall or, an old favourite of mine, An Instance of the Fingerpost, while for any number of bad popular history books, there is one like The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History. Its authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, writers, filmmakers and journalists, have done an excellent job researching the fate of the regicides of Charles I, many of whom had to escape from the British Isles at the Restoration of the Stuarts. Some went to the colonies and others to Europe, while those who remained in the country had to keep their heads down or arrange themselves with the new authorities.

I’m not sure whether ‘manhunt’ really adequately describes the actions of the new Stuart government against the regicides, as Charles II did not in all cases explicitly sent out the bloodhounds. After all, he had promised to forgive and forget in his Declaration of Breda (1660). Most of his ‘agents’ were shady ‘volunteers’ who aimed for reward or attempted to prove their doubtful loyalty to the new regime, while orders to find and assassinate the exiles more often than not were given indirectly by those close to the King, such as his sister, the Duchess of Anjou, in France, or driven by a vengeful Parliament of angry Cavaliers.

Nevertheless, the book describes in much detail the actions of the regicides, the precariousness of their situation after the Restoration, the martyrdom of some and the constant fear of those who survived at home and abroad, knowing that an assassin might come for them any time. (more…)

Grumpy George and his family: The First Georgians at the Queen’s Gallery

Posted in Art, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Reviews by thehistorywoman on May 25, 2014
David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The first Georgians must have been a grumpy lot. At least this is the impression visitors of the exhibition The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 get. For all the publicity materials show a smiling David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel painted by William Hogarth, while none of the pictures of George I (1660-1727) currently displayed at the Queen’s Gallery were apparently friendly enough to make it onto the posters.

The oil painting of the king of Great Britain and Ireland, and elector of Hanover by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which greets viewers at the entrance of the gallery, looks rather stern and serious as if George was weighed down by his newly acquired role. The Act of Settlement (1701) had transferred the succession to the English throne to his mother, Sophia of Hanover as the next protestant in line. As she died shortly before Queen Anne, George had to uproot from his native Germany to take up his new responsibilities. Indeed he did not seem to have much to smile about.

Speaking little English and not exactly welcomed with open arms by his new subjects, he had arrived in Britain without his wife Sophia Dorothea, who had abandoned him and, as a punishment for her adultery with a Swedish count, was imprisoned in her native Celle. George I was also alienated from his eldest son, the future George II; and, of course, there was the Jacobite threat to consider.

King George I, from the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller. / Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

King George I, from the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller. / Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The exhibition shows a deceptively harmonious-looking oil painting by Pierre Mignard of the alternative royal family of the Catholic James II around 1694, by now safely exiled to France. Yet, the Jacobite threat would persist, and uprisings, such as those of 1715 and 1745 would make the new Hanoverian dynasty feel uneasy on their throne. This is also documented through the many military maps displayed in the exhibition, some of them used by George II’s younger son William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65) on his campaign in the Scottish Highlands. Nevertheless, 300 years ago this Hanoverian dynasty began an unbroken line of succession to the present monarch Queen Elizabeth II.

There are more playful elements to the exhibition that reveal happier times and interesting personalities within the royal family. For instance, there is Queen Caroline’s Wunderkammer of small treasures, containing little hardstone carvings of the Tudors, or wax and ivory carvings of various family members alongside miniature paintings and enamels by the Dresden-born artist Christian Friedrich Zincke. In fact, there are many items in the exhibition that remind the viewer of the royal family’s German origins.

Apparently, the family had a particular liking for the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, and Queen Caroline discovered a complete set of his drawings, while one of the more famous items displayed in the exhibition is the oil portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532), one of Henry VIII’s companions of his younger years.

There are also ornate items of furniture, gilded chairs and marble-topped side tables, as well as a silver dinner service, from which the family would eat English, German and French dishes. Alongside Meissen porcelain the viewer can also admire Chelsea plates with garden motives and a rather absurd-looking asparagus-shaped needle case.

Royal hobbies are reflected in the beautiful harpsichord next to a marble bust of Georg Friedrich Händel, while a number of sporting guns for game shooting reveal a taste for rather more bloody pursuits.

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The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, open until 12 October 2014.

 

English republicans on film in New Worlds

Posted in Early Modern, History, Republicanism, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on April 27, 2014

I never thought I would see Algernon Sidney on TV. Now I have – on the recent Channel 4 drama New Worlds, which looks at English radicalism during the Exclusion Crisis. He is cast as the grand old man of republicanism (Donald Sumpter, made to look much older than Sidney’s 60 years) who has survived Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration to pass on the torch of the “good old cause” to the next generation. “Let this hand be an enemy to tyrants”, says Abe Goffe (Jamie Dornan) to Ned Hawkins (Joe Dempsie), as they link theirs before the latter returns to right the wrongs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World, while the former, the fictional son of the regicide William Goffe (James Cosmo), who died across the Atlantic, is determined to set an end to the Stuart monarchy in England.

The photogenic young cast of 'New Worlds' (from left: Alice Englert, Jamie Dornan, Freya Mavor, and Joe Dempsie)

The photogenic young cast of ‘New Worlds’ (from left: Alice Englert, Jamie Dornan, Freya Mavor, and Joe Dempsie)

The words written by Sidney into the visitors’ book at the University of Copenhagen in 1659, have become the motto of the new generation. Nevermind that he originally wrote them down in Latin, “manus haec inimica tyrannis”, they now stand for the young radicals’ hatred of monarchy (and would later become the official motto of the state of Massachusetts in the USA). Yet, Sidney himself has mellowed. When Abe goes to meet him for help and advice in episode three, Sidney is no longer keen to rid the world of all kings, he wants to subject them to parliamentary rule to avoid another Civil War.

So Sidney and Goffe get involved in the Rye House Plot to kill Charles II (Jeremy Northam) and his younger brother James, Duke of York (Samuel James), as they are travelling back from the races at Newmarket to replace the King with the Duke of Monmouth (Tom Payne) as a constitutional ruler. When the plot is foiled and discovered they are arrested at Sidney’s home and taken to the Tower. The papers seized from his desk, the manuscript of his Discourses Concerning Government (published posthumously in 1698) are used in evidence against him to prove his hatred of monarchy and murderous intentions. Thus he has to die the death of a traitor in episode four, swearing off violence before he departs from this world, while Ned smuggles his writings into Boston, from where they inspire a new generation of Americans hoping for indepndence from Britain.

While most critics found the much anticipated New Worlds badly written, soulless and disappointing as the sequel to the amazingly popular Devil’s Whore by the same creators Peter Flannery and Martine Brant, I was most interested in the historiographical aspects of the four-part series. The Whig myths around the regicides seem alive and well outside the world of academic history. William Goffe is confirmed as the Angel of Hadley, who defends the English settlers from an attack by Indians before jumping to his death, while Algernon Sidney is confirmed as the mellowed republican and respectable defender of constitutional monarchy, brought to the scaffold by a cruel and unjust government.

As a historian I was also somewhat disappointed that the creators of New Worlds found it necessary to introduce two very contrived love stories, between Abe Goffe and Beth Fanshawe (Freya Mavor) in England, and between Ned Hawkins and Hope Russell (Alice Englert) in the colonies, to get their audience interested in one of the most exciting periods of English history. While I enjoyed some of the period detail and was pleased to see that there are film-makers who share my passion for the seventeenth century, I nevertheless think that the original sources tell the most exciting stories, and that someone should be bold enough to produce a historical drama without artificial enhancements and changes to the original plot. Seventeenth-century history as reality TV, a documentary filmed as drama, now that would create truly new worlds.

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Pretend less, read more

Posted in Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on March 15, 2014

nerd-glassesSince being a nerd has become cool I don’t like it any more. Big glasses are no longer the indicator of a visual impairment caused by too much reading, and pasty skin is less likely caused by long hours spent in libraries, archives or labs. It’s more likely the result of an overpriced holiday in Finland and cleverly applied make-up.

It is now socially acceptable, even hip, to be seen sitting by yourself in a murky café reading Camus. It is even more so if you’re wearing a baggy jumper you found in a charity shop, while frantically scribbling notes into your Moleskin notebook or are indeed staring into your MacBook. Not even questionable personal hygiene or unkempt hair are a safe indicator that the person next to you is a borderline genius.

On the other hand, real nerds are now heading to the gym to fight the pen pusher’s wobbly thighs and bingo wings, while buying the pretty plaid skirts and cardigans now cheaply available in American Apparel. So how am I supposed to tell them apart?

Chances are you will never know if someone is a real nerd until you have seen them walking into a glass door or actually had a conversation with them. In conversation, watch out for tell-tale signs: if the first association they make with the name ‘Churchill’ is that of a nodding dog in the back of a car, they might not be the real thing. If they can tell the difference between Thomas and Oliver Cromwell, you might be on to something. (more…)

Keeping the customer satisfied

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education by thehistorywoman on February 18, 2014

UCU_posterStrike action might be entering the hot phase later this year as the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has approved ‘a marking boycott to be implemented from 28 April if university employers still refuse to thrash out a deal over pay’.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association ‘have so far refused to engage in any meaningful talks over pay, despite six strikes since October 2013 and increasingly vociferous complaints from students about cancelled classes and missed seminars.’ So their employees are now going to strike where it hurts most, and it is the students who are going to suffer.

It is unfortunate that things had to come this far. Academic staff do not want to hurt their students. Lecturers are aware how important marks are to them, especially to final-year and postgraduate students who are going to apply for jobs and will be desperately waiting for their results. But nothing else will now make a difference.

As the UCU points out, in recent negotiations

This is untenable.

Academics are not greedy. Most of us are in the job we do because we love it. We are a bunch of geeks who enjoy research, writing and teaching. We want to share our knowledge with our students. Most of us could get much better paid work elsewhere. But we are still here because we care, and university bosses are taking advantage of that. They know we would not abandon our passion for research and teaching over a couple of quid a month. So they put the pressure on and see how far they can go. (more…)

CfP: Urban Ritual and Ceremony in Pre-Modern Europe, c.1300-c.1700

Posted in Academia, CFP, Conferences, Early Modern, History by thehistorywoman on January 13, 2014

A one-day conference to take place at Northumbria University on 29 May 2014.

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation in the study of ritual and ceremony in pre-modern European towns. Once considered a topic of only marginal interest, the study of late medieval and early modern ritual and ceremonial practices now lies at the forefront of historical investigation; indeed, many of the most innovative works of recent years have focused on these themes. The purpose of this one-day conference is to draw together urban historians of later medieval and early modern Europe who are working on any aspect of ritual and ceremony.

The development of multiple ritual and ceremonial practices in pre-modern European towns reflected the corporate nature of urban society. Such events could be cohesive or divisive, fostering unity or creating dissension. Towns were also the principal location for the royal rituals, such as coronations or baptisms, which were performed on the urban stage. While often giving the impression of immutability, urban ceremonial forms were constantly changing in response to contemporary needs.

This conference will cross the traditional late medieval/early modern divide to consider aspects of change and continuity in ritual and ceremonial forms. As well as examining the role of the participants in urban rituals, this conference also hopes to address the role of the spectators who watched the event, as all rituals and ceremonies required an audience. The conference is not restricted to one geographical area, and submissions are encouraged from scholars working on any part of Europe.

The keynote paper will be given by Dr Christian Liddy (University of Durham)

Possible topics include:

Rituals of Revolt

Guild Ceremonies

Royal or Ducal Ceremonies (entries, baptisms, coronations, etc)

Corpus Christi and other Religious Processions

Executions and Punishments

Honorable Amends and Acts of Penitence

Childbirth, Marriage and Funerals

Ritualized violence

Ceremonial Space and the Urban Environment

Recording Ritual and Ceremonial Practices

Rituals and Warfare

*

Please send abstracts for a 20- minute paper with a short CV to urbanritualandceremony@gmail.com by 18 February 2014

For further details, email Dr Neil Murphy (neil.murphy@northumbria.ac.uk)

The woman who almost became queen

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 23, 2013

Sophia MemoirsI got an early Christmas present this year when the Memoirs (1630-1680) of Sophia of Hanover landed in my pigeonhole about a week ago. They arrived unexpectedly, but my curiosity soon got the better of me, and I was not able to resist the life story of the woman who nearly became queen of England.

As the granddaughter of James I by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick, the German elector Palatine and king of Bohemia, Sophia was the next Protestant in line to the English throne when the Act of Settlement (1701) was drawn up, so the right of succession was transferred to her and her heirs. Alas, she died in 1714 only seven weeks before Queen Anne, the last Protestant monarch of the House of Stuart, and in the event the crown fell to her son George Lewis, who was to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sophia’s Memoirs, edited and translated by Sean Ward for the Toronto Series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe offer a rare glimpse this remarkable woman, who enjoyed life at the centre of the German nobility with pragmatism, wisdom and a good sense of humour. Consequently, as her editor notes – and despite a number of biographies – Sophia ‘tells the story [of her life] better herself’ (p. 26) to convey her acute observations and highly entertaining sense of mischief.

As a youth in The Hague she apparently enjoyed to play practical jokes on unsuspecting courtiers, including Mr. de Zulestein, the ‘natural child of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau’, whose head received ‘a good dousing’ from a handkerchief soaked ‘in a chamber pot’ (p. 40). Thus, through Sophia’s eyes we get a look at the humans behind seventeenth-century European politics and their struggles and mishaps beyond the limelight.

Marriage politics also play a key role in her Memoirs. Not only does Sophia let us know that she was once intended as a wife to Charles II, whom she met at The Hague during the 1650s, she also tells us of her betrothal to Duke George William of Brunswick-Lüneburg, then duke of Hanover (pp. 65ff) and her pragmatic transfer to his younger brother Ernest Augustus, when the former decided he preferred to live as a bachelor (p. 69). In Sophia’s own words, the only love she had felt ‘was for a good establishment’ and she would ‘have no difficulty trading the older brother for the younger’ (p. 75), not least because the older brother was willing to leave the Brunswick-Lüneburg possessions to her children. Love in these arrangements, it seems, followed later. As Sophia lets her readers know, ‘Resolved to love him, I was delighted to find him lovable.’ (p. 79). But not all were so fortunate. (more…)

The survey that didn’t surprise us

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on October 19, 2013

Stress-ZebraStripesSome surveys shock us, others fill us with a sense of relief that it’s not just us. The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) survey undertaken by the University and College Union (UCU) does both.

The summary of key findings  states that nearly two thirds of the 7,000 respondents said they thought the REF had ‘a detrimental impact on the sector’ and believed it created ‘unreasonable expectations of research outputs’. More than half of respondents also said they would ‘like to see the REF replaced by an alternative method.’ Among the most shocking, though not surprising, findings was that ‘67% of all respondents (and 73% of women responding) felt unable to undertake the necessary work on REF outputs without working excessive … hours.’

In UCU’s 2012 Stress at Work survey ‘over 59% of respondents in HE indicated they worked 46 or more hours a week’ (while being paid for 35), and ‘over 35% worked 51 or more hours.’ Over half of the respondents felt ‘pressured to work long hours’, with many citing the REF as contributing factor to this pressure.

I don’t need a UCU survey to tell me that. I have seen my colleagues panicking about getting that last item for their REF submission out on time, panicking about the quality of the book they had to rush out before the deadline, even though an extra month or two might have enabled them to add that extra bit of research that would have given it the edge. I have also panicked myself hoping to exchange an item I didn’t like so much by something I felt would rate more highly. I have also chided myself for spending my time editing collected essays while the University keeps telling me the two books I have been so proud of and enjoyed so much producing with my friends and colleagues won’t count much in the world of the REF. They want monographs and articles in the top journals. You know the story.

Balancing research and teaching

Another key problem cited in Section 10 of the report, which covers workload issues, was the inability to meet the demands of the REF while undertaking regular teaching duties, including lesson prep or giving feedback to students. According to the survey, the stress caused by the REF is ‘combined with the increasing administrative duties that academics face, including teaching-related administration, grant applications and the significant amount of bureaucracy related to the REF itself.’

I find myself so many times politely (or not so politely) ushering students out of my office to finish that lecture Power Point five minutes before I have to go to the next class, or putting the finishing touches to an article or a chapter before it has to go to the journal, editor or publisher. Conversely, I have also found myself taking home a piece of work because I was talking to a student and didn’t manage to finish it in the office. I hardly ever finish in the evening what I set out to do in the morning, and then I get another email from Registry that I was meant to hand in form X, Y or Z – yesterday. And have I marked…? In other words, something has to give, and in many cases – poor conscientious creatures that we are – this is our free time. (more…)

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