The History Woman's Blog

Crisis and Renewal with Aristotle and Machiavelli

Posted in Academia, Conferences, History, Political Thought, translation by thehistorywoman on October 13, 2018
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Honoré Daumier, L’Équilibre européen (1866)

I’m just on the train back from the ESHPT conference on ‘Crisis and Renewal in the History of Political Thought’ in Heidelberg and, as so often happens after an event like this, I’m both completely exhausted but also in good spirits and keen to get back to my research full of new ideas. I also notice that I enjoy those kinds of conferences more as I get older because some of the people there I have known for years and several of them by now have become good friends. What brings us together is our passion for the History of Political Thought as well as our curiosity and love for debate.

In case you are wondering, the ESHPT is the European Society for the History of Political Thought which has been around for roughly ten years now. It was founded at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence by scholars from all over Europe to facilitate communication between people established in the field and the younger ones still trying to find a place in the research community.

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‘Crisis and Renewal’ proved a productive subject in the city where Reinhardt Koselleck once wrote his dissertation, ‘Kritik und Krise’, in 1954. While ‘turning crisis into opportunity’ became somewhat of a platitude during the Financial Crisis of 2008, the conference was a reminder that the word ‘crisis’ is not just used to describe a period of intense difficulty, but also a critical moment when a decision has to be made, and this decision can turn things around.

Andrea Catanzaro from the University of Genova analysed the use of the ancient Greek krísis in Plato’s political works (primarily the Laws), where it mainly carries the meaning of choosing, deciding or resolving an issue after due consideration. A crisis can have a positive or a negative outcome. It does not have to be something inherently bad. Thus, George Gallwey from Harvard University showed how economic crisis became the basis for constitutional reform in the early United States, while Erica Benner from Berlin pointed out in her keynote that a certain amount of drama is part and parcel of a functioning democracy.

In fact, Niccolò Machiavelli, who had studied and analysed democratic or popular governments, believed that tumulti were normal and necessary, while it was discordiae that he thought one should worry about because they did harm to a polity. Benner also made the point that citizens – by their lack of action – are often complicit in crisis and that it might sometimes be worthwhile thinking about what the people could do to help the situation.

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The Neue Universität in Heidelberg

The papers and discussions dealt primarily with the past, but present-day politics were always hovering somewhere: worries about a decline of democracy in the West, the shenanigans of an unpredictable individual like Donald Trump wreaking havoc on international security, the threats of climate change or even nuclear war.

Part of the reason why past and present talk to each other at political thought conferences is that some things don’t change. There will always be conflicts about power, the distribution of resources, the relationship between religion and secular government. While it is important to read political thinkers in their own context and to relate their ideas to their own immediate environment, there is also a part of political thought that is timeless based on general observations on humankind and that can be transferred and applied to other times and other situations.

It was no accident that about half of the papers I listened to referred to Aristotle, many to Machiavelli, a few to Thomas Hobbes and James Harrington, and others to Karl Marx. They are thinkers who have shaped our world and who can still offer important insights on political life. There is no harm in looking to the past to find answers for the present.

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Translation Matters

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, Political Thought, Seventeenth Century, translation by thehistorywoman on September 7, 2018
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Some excellent books on early modern translation.

I work at the Foreign Services Desk of a news agency and I moonlight as an intellectual historian of early modern Britain. Both jobs have been fostering my obsession with translation.

Part of my day job consists in translating news stories into German – mainly from English, less frequently from Spanish, and occasionally bits and pieces from French or Italian.

During a seven-month stint of lonely night shifts in the newsroom, I even cobbled together the odd story from Dutch or Swedish sources with the help of Google Translate, various online dictionaries and a bit of common sense.

Admittedly, I’m still feeling a bit queasy about what might have happened if I had got it wrong, but I was lucky (and I wouldn’t have touched the stories had they been too complex anyway).

The titles of political office-holders alone are a major challenge because there are so many false friends. The US ‘Secretary of State’ in German is the ‘Außenminister’, the equivalent of the UK’s ‘Foreign Secretary’, while the literal translation of the concept’s individual components could be rendered as ‘Staatssekretär’, which however in Germany is used to describe an official in a government department below the rank of ‘Minister’. While the heads of German government departments are known as ‘Minister’, however, in the UK the term ‘minister’ is often used for someone equivalent to the German ‘Staatssekretär’, while the chief minister of a department is the ‘secretary’. You get me? (more…)

Translating Cultures in Early Modern Europe – What’s Next?

Posted in Academia, Conferences, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on August 4, 2018
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Myriam-Isabelle Ducroq (Paris), Thomas Munck (Glasgow) and Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin) (from left).

Sometimes a workshop is only a workshop, and sometimes it is the beginning of a whole new project. With the recent Translating Cultures event held at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany on 26 and 27 June, my co-convernor Thomas Munck and I soon had the feeling it could be the latter. We got some excellent papers on translation theories and practices, on cultural translation and tradaptation, and on the distribution and reception of printed texts in early modern Europe and beyond.

If you want to know more about individual papers, their arguments and the discussions we had around the big table in the Bibelsaal of this amazing early modern library that is the Augusta, you can read up on them here. The first is a report Thomas and I produced for the German historians’ mailing list HSozKult. The second is a blog post with some observations put together by Rachel Hammersley, who contributed an excellent paper on late C18th French translations of James Harrington.

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Some of the workshop participants on the front steps of the Herzog August Library.

Yet, while a lot was achieved on those two hot days in Lower Saxony, we also felt that a lot more still needed to be done to explore the ways in which early modern translators worked and which networks of authors, translators, editors, printers, publishers and booksellers were involved in the processes of translation, transmission and dissemination of printed texts. So we all decided to make this workshop an annual event to bring together scholars working on a range of European countries in the hope of moving the field forward together.

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Volker Bauer (third from left) giving us a guided tour of the library.

 

Plans for next year

Thanks to the HAB’s director, Peter Burschel, and co-ordinator of scholarly events, Volker Bauer, who have promised their support, we are now in the process of planning next year’s event. I hope I can tell you more about it soon.

In the meantime, feel free to contact us if you are interested in the project.

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Early Modern Political Thought and Twenty-First-Century Politics

Posted in Academia, Conferences, Early Modern, Political Thought, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on June 2, 2018

earlymodernpoliticalthoughtworkshopI love Newcastle and the Lit&Phil, and this workshop on Early Modern Political Thought and Twenty-First-Century Politics in mid-May was probably one of the most fun public history events I have yet participated in.

Rachel Hammersley managed to get together a panel of early modern historians who all had something to say about how the past might speak to the present: John Rees talked about the Putney Debates, in which the Levellers laid out their ideas for a widening of the franchise and accountable government.

Ann Hughes talked about religious toleration then and now, providing much food for thought with her comment that people were usually happy to tolerate things they did not care about. Strict protestants in the seventeenth century meanwhile were more likely to subscribe to the concept of ‘charitable hatred’ (Alexandra Walsham), trying to convince their neighbours of religious truth, as they saw it, for their own good.

Ariel Hessayon talked about the impact of environmental issues on politics and society, asking the question to what extent the Little Ice Age of the early modern period might have contributed to political insecurity and conflict.

My own presentation on two English republican exiles in Europe during the Restoration period meanwhile, aimed to draw parallels to more recent and current political exiles, such as Bertolt Brecht fleeing the Nazis, or the former president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont escaping the Spanish authorities who accuse him of rebellion and misuse of public funds. At the time this blog post was written, the decision of the authorities in Germany on whether or not to extradite Puigdemont to Spain had not been taken.

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Me, Ann Hughes, John Rees and Ariel Hessayon in front of a mural in the Ouseburn.

There is no need for me to repeat what was being said at the workshop. Both Rachel and Liam Temple have produced excellent summaries of the event, audio files and all.

I just wanted to say what an amazing evening it was debating with my colleagues and members of the audience about political participation at a venue created in the spirit of the Enlightenment and being part of that critical public that should never shut up.

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Translating Cultures – Workshop at the Duke August Library, 26/27 June

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An eighteenth-century German edition of Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government (1683)

If you are an early modernist interested in translation, print and the book trade in Europe and you can make it to Wolfenbüttel this summer, drop in on our workshop on 26 and 27 June. We are gathering at the excellent Duke August Library (HAB) once in the charge of the Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) to discuss all things related to ‘Translating Cultures: Translations, Transmission and Dissemination of Printed Texts in Europe 1640-1795’.

Key works of early modern social and political thought, such as Samuel von Pufendorf’s De jure naturae et gentium (1672), John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile (1762) were read, used and passed around by scholars and interested lay people across Europe, contributing to the spread of ideas and knowledge across countries and borders.

Yet, little is known about the translation processes and translators that enabled these texts to travel and reach their readers in their own vernacular languages. This two-day workshop therefore addresses the key role of translation in the dissemination and reception of ideas in print across Europe during the period from the mid-seventeenth century to the French Revolution.

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A German edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile (1762).

In this period, Latin lost its position as the preferred international language amongst scholars, the Republic of Letters, and educated readers. At the same time, the growth of printing in the major vernacular languages of Europe facilitated the dissemination of shared ideas and cultural identities across a more socially diverse range of readers using their native languages. The workshop will address the various processes involved in the translation, transmission and distribution of texts, while also looking at their wider cultural understanding, which involved the many ways in which the texts were acquired, read, used, passed around and received.

In order to provide a better understanding of translators as cultural agents, a particular focus will be on the selective reception and adaptation of texts to suit their new readers, employing the concept of ‘cultural translation’, as distinct from ‘straight’ or literal translation (Peter Burke, 2009).

The workshop will necessarily centre on those parts of Europe with the most lively book trades, including the British Isles, the Netherlands, France, Germany and northern Italy, but the approach will be widely comparative. Broader conceptual papers will give an insight in both theories of translations and general translation practices, and how such cultural communication may have helped to create new ideas and identities.

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The eighteenth-century building of the Bibliotheca Augusta.

Some of the works discussed are available at the library itself, and you might get a chance to look at some of them while you are there. The event is convened by Prof Thomas Munck and myself with administrative support from the excellent HAB staff and funding by the DFG, and we have invited a range of excellent scholars from all over Europe in an attempt to defy Brexit and strengthen scholarly networks across borders.

Click here for the programme.

If you are interested in coming along, please contact forschung@hab.de

On Misogyny, ancient and modern

Posted in Academia, Comment, Eighteenth Century, higher education, Journalism, Reviews by thehistorywoman on November 24, 2017

IMG_1673Mary Beard’s Women and Power is one of those books that will make you shout: “Yes, she’s so right!” – “Very well put!” – “So glad someone is saying this!” For those of you who haven’t read it yet, the book consists of two essays on ‘The public voice of women’ and ‘Women in power’ from ancient times to the present, first presented as talks for the London Review of Books Winter lecture series in 2014 and 2017. In them, the Cambridge classicist takes a historical look at the misogyny deeply ingrained in Western culture that still makes it so difficult for women to get their voices heard and rise into positions of authority.

The first recorded example in Western literature of a woman being publicly silenced by a man, Beard argues, was probably Penelope in the Odyssey being told by her son Telemachus to retire to her rooms and attend to her weaving.

For women, if they were allowed to speak publicly at all, were traditionally only allowed to speak on behalf of their families and children. Hence, Beard concludes, female ministers today are still most likely to be in charge of the Department for Education or Families, but not the Treasury.

Getting the ‘Miss Triggs treatment’

Those with an interest in the classics will enjoy the examples from ancient myth and history, while all women will most definitely relate to what Beard calls the ‘Miss Triggs treatment’. This shorthand for a moment in which a woman is wilfully ignored and belittled is based on an old Punch cartoon picturing a meeting in which the only woman has just made a point, only for the chair to say: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’

I’m sure solidarity with Miss Triggs could lead to a similar public outpouring as the Harvey Weinstein abuse affair that made thousands of women (as well as a few men) share their experiences on social media under the #metoo hashtag. Most women have probably stopped counting the number of times they’ve been talked over or shut up in meetings, they’ve been subjected to mansplainers or never been invited to the important briefing in the first place. (more…)

Meeting Jacob Boehme in Dresden

Posted in exhibitions, History, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 21, 2017
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Pieter van Gunst, Bildnis Jacob Böhme, 1686/1715, engraving, Kupferstich-Kabinett 
© SKD

I had a few days off work and went on a spontaneous trip to Dresden for some quiet writing time. Naturally, once I got there I spent more time wandering around the city and enjoying the sights in the last rays of the autumn sun than actually writing, and so I stumbled upon this little gem: an exhibition on the German mystical philosopher Jacob Boehme (1575-1624).

I was initially surprised to find a tribute to Boehme in Dresden. But, of course, he spent most of his life some 100 kilometres east of the city, first at Alt Seidenberg where he was born and at Seidenberg where he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and later in the town of Goerlitz where he set up shop in the 1590s.

The ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz

Boehme was a remarkable man. He rose from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most important German thinkers. His first and principal work, Aurora, the 1612 manuscript of which is currently on display at the Palace Chapel in Dresden set out his view of the world. According to Boehme, the unfinished tract was the product of a divine inspiration going back to around 1600 when the young shoemaker contemplated on a ray of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish which revealed to him the relationship between God and man and the mysteries of the universe. Copies of the manuscript circulated among his friends and acquaintances and finally fell into the hands of the chief pastor of Goerlitz, Gregor Richter, who confiscated the work, considered it heretical and got the local council to issue a writing ban on Boehme.

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‘ALL IN ALL. The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme’ , exhibition at the Palace Chapel in Dresden, Royal Palace. © SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Its author subsequently came to be known as the ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz. The humble shoemaker had clearly risen above his station, and the authorities tried to keep him under control. However, Boehme resumed his writing in 1618 on the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, which he considered as a sign of the dark powers of evil at work in the world, and outlined his ideas in On the Three Principles of Divine Being. He was to write another thirty-odd works before his death in 1624 dealing with a large number of subjects from readings of the Old Testament to disputes within the Protestant community.

Boheme’s work was well received at the court in Dresden

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The manuscript of Jacob Böhme’s first work, ‘Aurora’ of 1612 at the Palace Chapel in Dresden.
© SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Only one of his works, The Way to Christ (1624), was published during his lifetime. Yet, his other writings circulated in manuscript among his followers and Boehme managed to establish a considerable reputation during his lifetime and beyond. In the year of his death, he travelled to Dresden and reported in a letter that his Way to Christ was well received at the Elector of Saxony’s court. Nevertheless, the publication of his book caused controversy and he had to defend himself before the local authorities. He only walked free because he was able to prove that while he might have been the author of this work, he had not been responsible for its publication.

The current exhibition at Dresden engages both with Boehme’s life and work and with the broader context of his time. It is structured around key concepts of his writings, such as nature, darkness, creation, cosmos, rebirth, light and freedom, and it displays both manuscripts and editions of his works as well as later engagements with his thought by artists and thinkers. Alas, it is a very small exhibition. But it comes with excellent accompanying materials, including an exhibition catalogue (on which this blog post is based) and a collection of scholarly essays in English and German well worthwhile reading.

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All in All – The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme, 26 August to 19 November 2017. Palace Chapel of the Dresden Royal Palace.

Continental Breakfast

Posted in Comment, Politics, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on September 10, 2017
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What the Brits think Continental Breakfast is.

Nothing illustrates the British disdain for Europe like the concept of Continental Breakfast. I have been staying at a mid-ranking London hotel for the past week – just about expensive enough to avoid the bed bugs, but not expensive enough to get your shoes polished – where guests are divided into two classes, depending on their budget: those having English Breakfast (middle class) and those having Continental Breakfast (the rest). Naturally, no self-respecting upper-class person would ever dream of slumming it with the rest of us in a place where breakfast is served as a buffet. But I digress.

Englishbreakfast.jpgThe English Breakfast variety consists of fried bacon, sausages and eggs (boiled, fried or scrambled), hash browns, tomatoes, beans and toast (no mushrooms, alas) as well as porridge, while the Continental variety consists of a bland cereal selection, rubbery bread rolls, the likes of which have never been seen on the Continent, and toast. In an attempt at mixing things up socially, both varieties are served with tea or coffee and a sugary orange liquid offered as juice.

If the Continental breakfast is anything to go by, I am not surprised a majority (however small) of the British electorate voted to get out of the EU. Alas, the vote, like the breakfast, was based on a misconception on what Europe is like: bland, unpalatable and foreign.

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Proper Continental Breakfast.

Had the British public not been deceived by a political elite intent on indulging on the delights of an international cuisine without the rabble getting a look in, they would have known that there is much more to it: a variety of freshly baked crusty breads, pastries, jams and preserves, cold cuts and cheeses, mueslis, yoghurts, fruit and freshly squeezed orange juice galore.

None of these delights are particularly foreign either. They could and should be available on either side of the Channel, if only the British government did not spoil the fun. In the meantime it is safer for the political class to demonise everything European and make it look like all Britain is leaving behind is a rubbery bread roll.

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Democracy and Anti-Democracy in Early Modern England 1603-1689

Posted in Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on June 29, 2017
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John Milton did not like the ‘rabble’.

A historiographical consensus asserts that in the early modern period democracy was reputed to be the worst form of government. However, this scholarly trend leaves a few major questions unanswered: why was this so? How was criticism of popular government articulated? In what ways did different authors and genres depict the people and their power? Which political concerns and social prejudices informed this anti-democratic paradigm? What is the legacy of such a mindset? Were there any “democrats” avant la lettre back then?

This conference organised by Cesare Cuttica and Markku Peltonen at the University of Erfurt’s Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies on 18-19 July explores how democracy was conceived, viewed and criticised in political, theological and philosophical discourse between the start of King James VI and I’s reign (1603) and the Glorious Revolution (1688–9).

Speakers include: Rachel Hammersley, Martin Dzelzainis, Peter Lake, Camilla Boisen, Phil Withington, Rachel Foxley, John West, Hannah Dawson, Matthew Growhoski, Ted Vallance, Gaby Mahlberg and Alan Cromartie.

You can still register via e-mail by writing to diana.blanke@uni-erfurt.de by 30 June 2017.

Download the flyer here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Workshop: Early Modern Intellectual Biographies, Newcastle, 4 July

Posted in Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on April 13, 2017
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James Harrington (1611-1677)

The genre of the intellectual biography has recently come back into vogue. It has been reinvigorated by two recent developments.

First, the construction of large digitised data sets that allow published pamphlets, newspapers and government documents to be searched by name, date, and theme, making it possible to uncover new information even about the lives of very well known figures.

Secondly, the growing receptiveness of intellectual historians and literary critics to utilise methods drawn from political, social and even economic history, which has encouraged and facilitated the combination of archival research on an individual’s life with textual analysis of their works.

Substantial volumes have recently appeared on the life and work of Edmund Burke, David Hume and Karl Marx.

Richard Bourke’s Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (2015), in particular, has revolutionised the way in which that complex political thinker and actor has been viewed. With great skill Bourke integrates Burke’s life with his writings, demonstrating the intimate connection between the two and enriching our understanding of both late eighteenth-century politics and the political thought of the period in the process. (more…)