The History Woman's Blog

Experiencing museums in times of crisis

Posted in exhibitions, History, museums, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on June 13, 2020
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The little house in Buckow where Brecht and Weigel spent their summers. 

Now that the lockdown is easing in many parts of Germany I thought it would be a good idea to visit a few museums. It was definitely nice to be out and about again  despite the ongoing pandemic, but following social distancing rules in smaller local museums was clearly not easy.

My first trip took me to the Brecht-Weigel-Haus in Buckow close to Berlin, where the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and his actress wife and long-term collaborator Helene Weigel (1900-1971) spent their summers from 1952.

The little house by the lake Schermützelsee is a beautiful and quiet place which looks ideal for writing, relaxing and meeting friends. It is very bright and cosy and surrounded by a lovely garden overlooking the lake. Alas, due to the social distancing rules, only two people were allowed into any room at a time, which did not work too well.

Especially the first room after the reception was way too small to cope with even small groups of visitors. The little room contained much of the biographical information on Brecht and Weigel as well as reproductions of original documents from the 1950s, some of them dealing with the East German uprising of 1953, which took some time to read. We could have spent at least an hour in there, but felt we had to move on quickly to let other visitors in.

The second and main room of the house, a large and airy living room was much better, partly because you could walk around and look at the furniture and pictures without colliding with anyone. But there was little information to contextualise what you were seeing. Much of the fun of the visit consisted in imagining how Brecht, Weigel and their friends were sitting on the odd collection of chairs around the big central table smoking, drinking and debating. (more…)

Writing books as an independent scholar

Posted in Academia, higher education, History by thehistorywoman on February 27, 2020
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Here’s one I prepared earlier.

It is possible. You just have to be organised. More easily said than done, I know. But many of us are doing it. Writing books as an independent scholar means that nobody pays you for the time you need to research, read, travel, dig in archives, draft and re-draft your chapters.

You are doing it in your own time and, most of all, you have to find that time. I have spent many an evening after work, an early morning before work or a weekend or holiday to make some progress on my current book.

The annoying thing is, as many of you will know, that it always take a while to get back into the writing process before you actually produce something. I usually have to re-read the last thing I’ve written to remember exactly where I left off, and I frequently get side-tracked reading around and waste an entire session I had set aside for writing only to catch up with what I was doing.

So it is important to find larger chunks of time – to start on a Friday evening when you come home and continue working with appropriate breaks until you need to go back to your day job on Monday morning.

Naturally, this kills any remaining social life you might have, and those of your friends who are not the bookish types might get tired of you and look for better things to do than wait for your excuses why you can’t go out this weekend. (more…)

How not to write women out of history

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, literature, Political Thought, Politics, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on January 17, 2020
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The Parliament of Women (1646), on which Neville based his satirical libels.

Admittedly, my headline sounds a bit dramatic. But I am serious about this. Several years ago, I reviewed two books in short succession: one, a collection of essays on Oliver Cromwell, another, a history of gender in the English Revolution. The former barely mentioned any women at all, the latter focused on gender relations during this crucial period of British history.

The two books could not have been more different from each other, and yet, they covered similar issues. This made me think more about the way in which I was treating women in my own writing on seventeenth-century English republicanism.

I had to admit to myself, that I too had written my PhD thesis on a male republican, Henry Neville (1619-94), who was a bit of a misogynist himself. (He married a much younger woman to lay hands on her estate and then largely ignored her for the rest of her short life.)

It had not even occurred to me to look for a female subject to write about, mainly because I was under the naïve impression that – with the possible exception of Lucy Hutchinson – female republicans in the seventeenth century simply did not exist. This impression, no doubt, was based on the existing literature.

Ironically, it was through Neville himself that I came to engage with women in the English Civil War and its aftermath after all. In his Parliament-of-Women satires, Neville had used the image of an all-female assembly to poke fun on the weak and useless male MPs at Westminster in the late 1640s and early 1650s. This led me to investigate the political activities of women during the period from female petitioners to prophetesses and the activist wives of Leveller leaders.

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Frontispiece of Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1669).

Likewise, Neville’s fictional Restoration travel narrative The Isle of Pines had used a particular depiction of gender relations to pose questions about the legitimacy of political patriarchalism and hereditary rule. So I got hooked on the gender theme and promised myself to pay more attention to the female figures and voices that appear like faint shadows in the documents and secondary literature.

When I was writing my forthcoming book on The English Republican Exiles in Europe during the Restoration, for instance, I realised what an important role Elizabeth Ludlow (c 1630-1702) held in the wider republican nexus.

Not only did she facilitate the flight of her regicide husband, Edmund Ludlow (1617-92), into continental exile in 1660, she also maintained a communication network that allowed the fugitive to stay in contact with important allies over many years. (more…)

A small workshop shows why I like the EU and Brexit is a bad idea

Posted in Academia, Comment, Conferences, Early Modern, higher education, History, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on October 18, 2019
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Our Translating Cultures group in the HAB’s Bibelsaal.

I have just returned from our annual workshop on Translating Cultures at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel (HAB, Germany) which is always a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues while discussing the significance of translation for the dissemination of ideas in early modern Europe. The spread of papers was amazing – from translations of the Old Testament Book of Job via the reception of William Robertson in Italy to Montesquieu in Hungarian and new conventions of botany books that created a whole new language for the description of plants. (You can catch up with the live tweets under #tcHAB2019.)

The mix of languages present at the conference was reflected in our conversations as well. While most papers were presented in English, one was presented in French, and French was also often used in discussions around the table or during break times outside of the conference room, where Italian and German could also be heard. Among the participants were an Israeli, a Hungarian, a Russian and a French national who live and work in Germany, while the event was co-organised by a Danish national living in Scotland and a German who had spent almost one third of her life in the UK and Ireland. (more…)

Life in the non-academic world – and what I miss

Posted in Academia, higher education, Journalism by thehistorywoman on June 13, 2019

Prompted by a tweet by Jennifer Polk the other day I started thinking about what I miss about working in an academic environment. Strictly speaking, she asked, ‘What aspects of non-academic employment did you have to learn/ get used to when you moved beyond the professoriate?’ – and I honestly did not have to think long.

One thing I am still finding hard four years after transitioning from a senior lectureship in History at a UK university to an editorial post at a press agency in Berlin is that I no longer have my own office. I like having people around, even though I am a rather private person, and journalism is all about team work.

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But working in an open-plan newsroom is something else. Technically speaking I no longer even have my own desk, even though I try to sit in the same place most days. We usually move around desks wherever we are needed, and people around you talk all the time – on the phone, to each other and to you – while you are trying to focus on whatever you are currently researching, writing or editing.

There is a certain buzz in the office that can be very uplifting. It makes you want to write and play your part in the big orchestra of keyboards, accompanied by a cacophony of ringtones and vocals. But it is very hard to concentrate and you cannot tell people to shut up all the time just because you are trying to focus on your work. So your multitasking skills are seriously challenged. (more…)

Historical monographs without footnotes?

Posted in Academia, Comment, History by thehistorywoman on April 28, 2019
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Yes, my own monograph also has endnotes.

I have long been irritated by the common practice of academic publishers to ban notes from the page they refer to. Many history publishers consolidate notes either at the end of a journal article or a book chapter or, even worse, relegate all notes and references to the back of a book.

There might be sound reasons for doing so, such as making the printed page look tidier or avoiding that overlong footnotes hamper the reading flow. Alas, it means you have to go backwards and forwards all the time, should you actually be interested in finding out which sources the author used or where the information presented comes from.

However, recently, I have also come across several academic monographs without any footnotes at all. These were not popular history books or text books, but actual monographs by a reputable university press, one from the 1980s and another from 2015. The former had a brief bibliographical essay in the back, the other a select bibliography. But no notes. (more…)

Royalist Republicans in the United Provinces

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Political Thought, Politics, Religion, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 16, 2018
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The cover of an excellent book.

I have just finished reading Helmer Helmers’ The Royalist Republic (CUP, 2015), which offers a profound challenge to received views of Anglo-Dutch relations during the seventeenth century, in particular the idea ‘still influential among non-specialists – that Dutch republicanism somehow separated Dutch political culture from the kingdoms surrounding it.’ (262)

In his book, Helmers explores the shared literary culture of what he calls the ‘Anglo-Scoto-Dutch public sphere’ during the English Civil War and Interregnum period to show the extent to which early modern English works were read in the United Provinces, while English readers were also familiar with the literary output of the Dutch republic. (24)

This republic meanwhile, according to Helmers, was less straightforwardly republican than is commonly assumed. In fact, he points out that during and after the conflict between Charles I and his Parliament, a considerable part of the Dutch population could be considered as royalists both for political and religious reasons.

However, Helmers dismisses as simplistic Steve Pincus’ equation of the Stuart with the Orangist cause. He shows ‘a structural asymmetry between the political and the religious Anglo-Dutch identities’ and argues that we have to differentiate further to understand the full extent of support for the English monarchy across the Channel. (9)

In terms of religion, ‘Dutch Contra-Remonstrants, Scottish Covenanters, and English Presbyterians cooperated in a propaganda campaign in the Dutch Republic aimed at representing the First Civil War as a battle against “Arminians” who were jeopardising the entire Reformation.’ Prominent Remonstrants, including Hugo Grotius, meanwhile, were ‘defenders of episcopacy and the Church of England.’ (8)

In political terms, Dutch Contra-Remonstrants might have gravitated towards the Prince of Orange in the domestic sphere, but supported the English Parliament during the First Civil War. (9) ‘When these Reformed came round to the Stuart/Orange point of view during the Second Civil War, their support of the restoration of Charles II was difficult to reconcile with their religious views.’ (10) (more…)

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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