The History Woman's Blog

Why transnational history doesn’t work quite yet

Posted in Comment, Early Modern, History by thehistorywoman on September 22, 2013
Europa regina

Europa regina

Most historians would agree that transnational history is a good thing in theory. Yet, as an article by Jeroen Duindam of Leiden University in the European History Quarterly (2010) has reminded me, many of the same historians would also agree that it doesn’t quite work in practice. There are a number of reasons for this beyond what Duindam calls ‘the strengthened need for identity and confirmation in an age of global change and insecurity’.

On a very basic level, historians find it difficult to produce work that transcends national boundaries because we simply lack the skills and time. While we would like to be specialists on more than one country and language region, access to archival sources and lack of linguistic skills might prevent us from following down that path. Besides, in order to detect parallels across regions and nation states we might need to study a broader range of issues across time as well as space, as characteristic changes (Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrialisation) might have happened earlier or later in one place than in another. (more…)

The Library Basket

Posted in Comment by thehistorywoman on August 28, 2013
The KB library basket: practical style.

The KB library basket: practical style.

The Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) in The Hague has solved all my problems – with the library basket! The coveted item looks like any old shopping basket you get in Tesco’s or in Boots, and it holds everything you might need inside a library reading room: a laptop, a purse/wallet, a notepad, pencils, a memory stick, tissues, a mobile phone (switched off), and even your own books, if necessary. No more balancing of 100 items on top of a laptop, no more worrying that the clear plastic bag might break if you put your computer in, and no more piles of rubbish for library staff to clear away at the end of a day. So it’s even environmentally friendly. I propose we introduce them in all the libraries across the UK, or in all libraries everywhere. Well done, KB!


Selling French books in Enlightenment Germany*

Posted in Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Reviews by thehistorywoman on July 21, 2013

Books_without_bordersJeffrey Freedman’s engaging Books without borders in Enlightenment Europe (2012) looks at the French book trade in the German-speaking territories during a pivotal period in the European history of ideas. This French book trade did not just cater for a small elite of princes and courtiers, it was absorbed by a variety of well-educated German speakers from scholars to doctors and lawyers and a variety of other professionals and thus played an important role in spreading and popularising the Enlightenment. By the 1770s, the French segment accounted for some ten per cent of all books sold on the German market.

Among the works sold by the German agents of French-language printers and booksellers were also many unlicensed and prohibited books. But thanks to the political fragmentation and the many administrative quirks of the German lands, censorship laws were virtually unenforceable, so that heterodox and libertine works could reach their readers relatively easily. The ban of a work often only served to make it more popular and more desirable to ‘procure the forbidden pleasure’ (118) as no one less than the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked recalling the burning of a French book in his native Frankfurt.

Following in Darnton’s footsteps

Books without borders feels in many ways like a sequel to Robert Darnton’s seminal Business of Enlightenment (1979), not just because Freedman draws on the same depository of sources of the Swiss Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), which here represents ‘a slice of the French book trade in Germany’ (11) but also because he, like Darnton (who was his PhD supervisor at Princeton), offers the reader a carefully researched and well-informed book history intermixed with numerous little personal stories of the STN’s correspondents in the German lands, zooming in and out of the bigger picture.

Some of these personal stories are quite detailed, and readers might be inclined to skim read them. But this would mean to miss the colourful picture Freedman paints of the lives, successes and struggles of eighteenth-century printers and their agents. Occasionally, we even get a rare glimpse of their political inclinations and the convictions that might have driven the latter to get involved in the business of books.

Censorship and self-censorship

There is, for instance, the ‘native Parisian and Freemason’ François Mettra, who had his shop in Münz, near Cologne, and moonlighted as a ‘radical journalist’ (63); or Charles Fontaine in Mannheim, the semi-educated ‘son of a fisherman’ who is unlikely to ‘have read many of the books in his own bookshop’ (75); and finally Johann Conrad Deinet in Frankfurt, who ended up as the Empire’s book commissioner (or chief censor) despite having had various run-ins with the authorities himself for dealing in prohibited books. But as Freedman points out, ‘it would be a mistake to assume that in the eighteenth century, censors and booksellers were always on opposite sides of the ideological barricades and that if booksellers obeyed the law, it was only because they feared the consequences of transgressing it.’ (110) Many exercised a certain amount of self-censorship too, selling prohibited material, but drawing the line, say, at ‘atheism and pornography’. (110) (more…)

Beating the queue and staying warm at the British Library

Posted in Academia, Education, History by thehistorywoman on July 18, 2013
The morning queue at the British Library, London.

The morning queue at the British Library, London
(courtesy of Rachel Weil).

Recently, an American friend of mine posted this picture of the morning queue a the British Library on Facebook. It seems to say a lot about an unashamed nerdiness (or rare regard for learning) in this country as well as about the British love for queuing. Having grown up in Germany, I usually find myself at the front of that queue no later than 9.15am reading The Guardian, waiting for the doors to open at 9.30am. Beating the BLQ is the beach towel equivalent in the world of scholarship. The British Library is my Mallorca, my Lanzarote.

Naturally, I’ve already put all the things I might need in the Reading Room in a clear plastic bag, so I can head straight down to the lockers, stow away my coat, handbag and laptop case and secure a place on the beach of learning. No minute of my valuable research time will be wasted!

The coolest place to be

In the summer months, the British Library is the coolest place to be. Literally. While other people were moaning about the heat last Saturday, I found myself freezing in the air-conditioned Rare Books Room despite wearing my denim jacket and an extra pair of leggings with my light summer dress. Presumably they need to keep the room at a certain temperature to help with the preservation of the valuable printed material held here. But it’s almost normal for us nerds to come home with the obligatory British Library summer cold.

The best advice I can give my research students before heading down to the BL is therefore not to remember to take all their documents, bank statements and electricity bills to obtain a library card. It is this: take a cardigan!


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Creating and Preserving the Digital Republic of Letters

Earlier this week I attended the excellent Durham conference on ‘Intellectual Networks in the Long Seventeenth Century’. With a theme like this it seemed inevitable for participants to talk about the early modern Republic of Letters and to draw parallels between early modern and modern networks around the (known) world. So I had the honour of chairing an exciting panel themed ‘Electrifying Intellectual Networks’ featuring ‘Three Case Studies in the Digital Republic of Letters’.

Professor Antony McKenna presented the critical electronic edition of the correspondence of the French philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) he is working on with colleagues at the University Jean Monnet at St Etienne in France. With this online database ‘we can accomplish the traditional tasks of a critical edition more quickly and efficiently’, including ‘indexing, annotation, and so on’, says McKenna.

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle

Researchers can simply click on a highlighted name in any given letter to be taken directly to an entry with more information about the individual mentioned and a list of further links to letters authored by or featuring the person in question. There is also an extensive critical apparatus on the correspondence as well as plenty of visual material and more.

More than a gadget

But McKenna is eager to point out that the electronic Correspondance de Pierre Bayle ‘is not simply a fashionable gadget or another free-standing online edition, but in combination with other tools could be a key resource for the study of the social history of ideas.’

One of these ‘other tools’ is the brand new ePistolarium launched by Dr Charles van den Heuvel and his team at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands in The Hague only three weeks ago. This resource helps ‘to analyse the circulation and appropriation of knowledge produced by Dutch scholars’, explains van den Heuvel. (more…)

An Academic Summer

Posted in Academia by thehistorywoman on June 18, 2013

summerMy student neighbours have departed for the summer – stereo, guitar and all. There won’t be any more parties out on the roof of the add-on kitchen, no more banging of doors at 5am, no more cigarette stubs in my back yard. The whole street is getting eerily quiet, the queues in my local Tesco’s shorter, the university gym deserted. The classrooms at the university are taken over by summer courses, and disoriented looking Chinese students have replaced the cocky Geordies.

But what are we academics doing, now that the exam board is over, and the notes on last year’s teaching filed away?

When I tell people what I do for a living I usually get some puzzled faces, some commiserations for having to deal with obstinate youngsters, and finally a slightly jealous or snide remark about the wonderfully long holidays I have over the summer. The teachers among you will know this one. Several months without teaching, an entire summer to myself. What could I possibly be doing with all that time? Little do they know what really happens over an academic summer, teaching prep for next term aside. (more…)

The Queen and Magna Carta

Posted in Comment, History, News by thehistorywoman on June 15, 2013

I’ve just been writing a lecture on ‘Transatlantic ideas of liberty’ for an Erasmus exchange with Potsdam University in a week’s time. Going through the ideals and principles of seventeenth-century English republicans which would later come to influence the American colonists in the War of Independence and inspire the US constitution, such as political and religious liberty, accountability of office-holders and the rule of law, it struck me once again how quaint and anachronistic the British monarchy appears today as many people in this country celebrate the Queen’s official birthday with the usual pomp and circumstance.

The Queen is not just the head of state, she is also the secular head of the established churches of England and Scotland, she still opens Parliament, she signs Acts of Parliament into Law, and the House of Lords is still a colourful mix of non-representative members. I’m not sure what my republicans would have made of that.

I’m not advocating regicide, but surely the House of Lords should long have been replaced by a fully elected Upper House or Senate. I can just imagine seventeenth-century republican pamphleteers poking fun on the Lords involved in the latest ‘cash-for-access’ affair. They would have denounced the corruption of privilege and the decline of virtue.

At the same time as the Queen’s official birthday, both the British and the Americans are also celebrating the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. This document, in which King John acknowledged to his rebelling barons that the monarch was subject to the law and endorsed principles such as Habeas Corpus and trial by jury, should mean so much more than people in fancy uniforms parading around London.

But then, if Britain didn’t have its Queen, who would confer honours on the Blackadder team?


Library badges of honour

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on May 26, 2013
Unflattering mug shots are now part of most library cards.

Unflattering mug shots are now part of most library cards.

I collect library cards like badges of honour. I’ve got some I’ve had for a long time – from the British Library, the Bodleian and an out-of-date one from Cambridge University Library. Of course, I also have a CARN (County Archives Research Network) ticket and one for the National Archives.

More recently, I have also acquired some foreign ones from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, the Archivio di Stato in Florence and the Archivio Segreto and the Biblioteca Apostolica in the Vatican. It’s like collecting stamps, just sadder – and the picture, if there is one – is always of me.

In the age of digital photography this means I have also acquired a collection of unflattering mug shots of myself, though some of them have admittedly been taken in nice locations.

Most recently, I’ve been to Rome and the Vatican to see if my republican exiles left any traces in the eternal city in the 1660s and in particular in the records of the Roman cardinals, whom Henry Neville (1619-94) learnt to flatter and Algernon Sidney (1623-83) appears to have been on first-name terms with. (more…)

‘The World is Our House': A Midsummer’s Symposium of Jesuit Culture and Music, 1540-1700

Posted in Conferences, Early Modern, History, literature, Religion, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on May 12, 2013

Swansea University and Hereford Cathedral are holding a Midsummer symposium on international Jesuit culture, 1540–1700. The event on 21 June celebrates the re-evaluation of the Cwm Jesuit Library, housed at Hereford Cathedral since 1679.

The library is the largest surviving seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary library in Britain. Scholars are currently analysing the library as part of a joint project between Swansea University and Hereford Cathedral, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The study day aims to place the library in its larger international context by exploring the rich and fascinating world of seventeenth-century Jesuit culture.

The symposium is to feature six speakers and an exhibition of early Jesuit books and music as well as other rare material, including the Hereford Mappa Mundi. There will also be an evening concert of early Jesuit music.

An agenda for the day as well as a booking form can be downloaded from the conference web page

For queries, please contact the organisers, either via the conference web page, emailing, or by calling 01432 374225/6.

Foreign Languages and the Historian

Posted in Academia, Comment, History by thehistorywoman on May 4, 2013

If you don’t have any foreign languages as a historian you’re stuffed. This is not just true for those of us who decide to undertake research on a foreign country or do any sort of comparative or transnational study. My own work on a seventeenth-century English republican thinker took on its very own dynamics when I found out he had been on his Grand Tour as a young man in the 1640s as well as spending considerable time in exile in Italy after the Restoration and continued a regular correspondence with his Italian friends and acquaintances throughout his life.

Luckily, I had done some basic Italian at school and found Italian friends and colleagues who helped me with some essential translations when I was doing my PhD. I still continue lessons now with an archaeologist friend of mine, who is not only a native speaker but also knows her way around the archives. I’m eternally grateful that people like her exist, because historical research needs support from able linguists.

Yet, our research culture is not equipped for language learning. With many universities closing down their language departments over a lack of student demand, the few people still interested in learning a foreign language have to go elsewhere for support, and it is by no means clear who is going to pay for the extra expense of private tutors, grammar books and dictionaries or even an intensive course abroad. (more…)


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