The History Woman's Blog

Workshop: Early Modern Intellectual Biographies, Newcastle, 4 July

Posted in Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on April 13, 2017
James_Harrington_by_Sir_Peter_Lely

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…)

The eloquent ideologists of Germany’s New Right

Posted in History, Political Thought, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on April 2, 2017

Weiß_imageThugs in combat boots they’re certainly not. The people Volker Weiss writes about are more of the nerdy variety, he told me over the phone a while back. They know their Greek and Latin, but that doesn’t necessarily make them harmless. It’s their words and their ideas we should be wary of.

Weiss is a historian of Germany’s New Right – a subject he has been working on for some fifteen years or more. However, what once used to be the niche interest of a select few scholars has suddenly become a hot topic as right-wing populists are making their voices heard across Europe and the US.

In his new book “Die Autoritäre Revolte“ (“The Authoritarian Revolt“), Weiss outlines a set of New Right ideas that can be found among the representatives of a variety of contemporary political groups and movements, including the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party.

Proponents of this rightist thought draw on the conservatism of 1920s’ Germany, while rejecting the “Third Reich” and some of the old-style nationalist ideas. Yet, Weiss cautions that the critical distance with which some contemporary New Right authors and politicians claim to approach National Socialism is not always entirely convincing. (more…)

An exile’s home: Algernon Sidney in Nérac

Posted in Early Modern, History, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on March 17, 2017

Nerac_castle2So, that’s the castle in France where the English republican Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) spent roughly five years of his exile during the Restoration period: le château de Nérac in the capital of the Pays d’Albret in the south west of the country.

The area was traditionally protestant and associated with rebellion and resistance to monarchical power. At the time Sidney lived there, between about 1672 and 1677, the castle belonged to Godefroi-Maurice da La Tour d’Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon.

The Duke’s father had fought alongside the Prince of Condé in the Fronde, the French Civil Wars of 1648 to 1653, to limit the powers of Louis XIV, and the English republican had found in Godefroi-Maurice a kindred spirit willing to offer him protection and shelter.

The building is much smaller than I expected and, located in the heart of this small town, also much less isolated than I would have thought. No wonder the locals were soon getting on Sidney’s nerves (or he on theirs for that matter). In the only known letter we have of his time there, he complains about the incompetence of the local office-holders as well as about the hunting restrictions imposed by the Duke. After all, there was not much to do for an exile trying to keep his head down than to stay in his local area and pass the time shooting things. Sidney had quite a reputation for being bad tempered and impatient, and the target of his anger, besides the local partridges, apparently were the townspeople. (more…)

The Turkeys have Voted for Christmas

Posted in Comment, News, Politics, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on February 2, 2017

turkeyAfter a large majority of British MPs voted in favour of triggering Article 50 last night, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that “history has been made”. And it’s tragic history indeed. The turkeys voted for Christmas once again – allegedly to uphold the will of the people who voted in a referendum on 23 June last year to leave the European Union, but disregarding the socio-economic consequences as well as the fact that many of those voters have come to regret their decision in the meantime.

After the Supreme Court ruling in late January, Parliament was given a chance to stop the impending disaster. And while the majority of Scottish MPs, a large number of Labour MPs, several Lib Dems and a Tory tried to do so by voting against starting the process of leaving the EU, their opposition was not enough.

Britain has finally decided it prefers isolationism over being one among 28. A country that once headed a large empire decided it simply could not be an equal to some of its poorer relations in central and eastern Europe whose migrant workers it so resents, and it certainly was not willing to play second fiddle to its neighbours France and Germany at the negotiating table.

Risking membership of the single market as well as losing the immense talent and economic contribution of EU migrants to Britain is a high price to pay for its pride. Large banks are already preparing to relocate to Frankfurt and Paris as the City of London is losing its appeal as a gateway into Europe, EU citizens in the UK are looking for jobs elsewhere as their future remains up in the air, and fewer EU students want to come to study at British universities as they fear they might no longer be welcome.

Meanwhile, Theresa May will have to go cap in hand to autocratic rulers in China and Turkey and fight to maintain a ‘special relationship’ with the US for the benefit of British trade, turning a blind eye to human rights violations as well as gross misogyny. But there are sacrifices one has to make to appear to be in charge of one’s country.

Isolationism has won over a common project to maintain peace and prosperity across Europe. Nationalism and xenophobia have won over multiculturalism. Pride has won over common sense. Only the British people have lost. But they have made history.

gma

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Love and Death in Dystopia

Posted in Dystopia, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on January 16, 2017

theheartgoeslastHow desperate do you have to be to sign up for a social experiment that promises you a comfortable life at the expense of your freedom?

Young couple Stan and Charmaine seem to have reached that point when their area in the North American Rust Belt is hit by mass unemployment, they are forced to sleep in their car, and their only regular treat is a breakfast of coffee and stale doughnuts.

Life in the twin town of Consilience/Positron promises the perfect solution for them: a job, a home, a meaningful life. The only catch is, once you’re in, you can’t ever leave.

Nevertheless, Stan and Charmaine seem to have few doubts. Or at least they are quick to ignore what niggles they might have. A nice meal at the restaurant and a pair of soft bath towels at the Harmony Hotel seem to seal the deal.

Life seems good at the beginning. Stan and Charmaine spend alternate months living together in their house in Consilience and working in the town, and the others separated from each other at Positron Prison.

And it’s the prison months that really mess with their brains. But the couple seem prepared to go to great lengths to preserve their sheltered and comfortable life, their illusion of being safe. And as they do, they cross lines they might never have touched before and test their relationship to the limits.

You can’t help but see numerous tributes to the great twentieth-century utopias/dystopias as you’re reading Margaret Atwood’s latest offering, The Heart Goes Last (2015). Consilience has something of the consumerist utopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), where the fulfilment of material needs becomes the focus of a society starved of love and real feelings, while the prison universe is more akin to life in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), where orders are given by talking heads on screens and asking questions is not encouraged. (more…)

Uncertainty and the post-truth society

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, News, Political Thought by thehistorywoman on December 18, 2016
niccolo_machiavelli_by_santi_di_tito

Niccolò Machiavelli knew about the importance of appearances.

The word ‘Brexit’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time this month, only weeks after Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the United States and ‘post-truth’ was chosen as the word of the year. All three events are to a greater or lesser extent manifestations of anger with the establishment, a distrust in experts and the frustration of the losers of globalisation in a world of increasing uncertainty.

In the middle ages, the people in Europe had religion as their certainty and the Catholic Church as their guide. Life might not have been easy for poor peasants struggling to survive, but the rules to live by were: Be good, fear God and your reward will be in heaven. The reformations of the sixteenth century changed much of that, as individuals like Martin Luther came to question the authority of the Church and its hierarchies and the onus was laid on the individual to explore the Scriptures and establish a more personal relationship with God. Calvinists’ belief in predestination could also cause uncertainty in individuals who could not detect any signs of being one of the elect in their daily lives.

The Enlightenment tried to free the people from the shackles of religion, and faith increasingly became something they could opt in or out of. Society came to look for certainty through reason and science as scholars and scientists were trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. The Industrial Revolution subsequently brought an increasing specialisation and division of labour as working processes were perfected, while the rise of the professions created the world of experts the twenty-first century has come to resent.

The people are craving security and they are increasingly finding it in self-delusion: in believing things they want to be true, be they the promises of salvation by sectarian movements, miracle weight-loss cures or fake news. (more…)

The British view of a nation that never was

Posted in History, Politics, Reviews by thehistorywoman on October 16, 2016
duerer_rhinozeros-jpg_max

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (1515). © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Kupferstichkabinett.

Dürer’s rhino, Luther’s Bible, Bismarck dressed as a blacksmith, a VW Beetle and a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp – the exhibits of the ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ show seem both somewhat random and predictable.

What I was missing most of all was a grand narrative guiding me through the exhibition, directing my view from one item to the next with that inevitable logic with which A leads to B leads to C, although, as a historian, I should really know better.

I was probably expecting the museum counterpart of the undergraduate introduction to modern German history, ‘From Bismarck to Hitler’, or, if we want to start in the early modern period, ‘From Luther to Hitler’. And this being a British exhibition originally created for a British audience about its World War II enemy, some of that was certainly there. But it seems that the collaboration between curator Barrie Cook of the British Museum, and his former boss, Neil MacGregor, also tried to avoid too much coherence and inevitability, and that was probably a good thing.

Yes, there was the Reformation with the invention of the printing press and Luther’s Bible translation, there was the Thirty Years’ War, there were references to the nationalist movements of the early nineteenth century with their romanticised depictions of the German countryside, and space dedicated to Bismarck’s German unification of 1871. Yet, none of those movements settled the national question in any sort of definite or satisfactory way. The Reformation left Germany divided into Catholic and Protestant states and any subsequent attempts at German unity were overshadowed by the question who should or should not belong to the club.

There was surprisingly little about World War I, but a broad selection of bank notes illustrating the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, while World War II was represented more through images of suffering in concentration camps or destroyed cities like Dresden rather than by the standard narrative of Hitler’s rise and fall. Post-war German history was represented by the new division of East and West, a labyrinthine model of Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station as a central border crossing and the rather unexpected wetsuit worn by an East German in his attempt to defect to the West by swimming across the Baltic Sea. You need a lot of imagination to fill the gaps. (more…)

Historians and the Fifth Estate

Posted in Academia, Comment, History, Journalism, Politics by thehistorywoman on August 6, 2016

IMG_0158Historians should get more actively involved in shaping policy, in particular foreign and defence policy. That is the gist of a recent call by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic for a Council of Historians to be established in the US.

Taking advice from historians, they suggest, could have helped President George W. Bush in 2003 to appreciate ‘the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority’. It might even have prevented Bush from choosing to topple Saddam Hussein and leaving us with a great mess in the Middle East.

Allison and Ferguson also suggest, historians could have helped Barack Obama appreciate ‘the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine’ and consequently ‘the risks of closer ties between Ukraine and Europe’, before Russia went to annex Crimea.

Applied History 

The political scientist Allison has long been involved in US policy making as an analyst, consultant and advisor, and his push for a Council of Historians is no doubt influenced or given additional urgency by a real fear that Donald Trump could win the US presidential election and embark on a wrong-headed and dangerous mission to ‘make America great again’.  Together with the British historian Ferguson, Allison co-directs the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, so, it should be added, they are promoting their own work.

Now, I’m not normally known for agreeing with Niall Ferguson or the advice he has chosen to give to the UK Education Department for that matter, but I do think the two scholars have a point. It is essential for politicians to be aware of the historical complexities of the issues they are faced with, and they need historical experts to help them respond to those issues in an appropriate way. (more…)

Political Thought in Times of Crisis, 1640-1660 – Symposium, 1-3 Dec

Sponsored by the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, Washington, US.

Execution_CharlesI_IIWas the mid-seventeenth-century crisis in Britain and Ireland essentially one aspect of a broader “global” crisis? How might scholars theorize the relationships between political thought and other verbal and non-verbal expressions of change and instability (political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental)? Extending its recent investigations of the discursive and spatial boundaries of political thinking in the early modern period, the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought will offer a distinctive symposium that demonstrates the continuing value of the study of political thought, not least in showing the relevance of early modern thought to the concerns of our own world. The symposium considers political thought as it crosses language and geo-political domains beyond Britain and Ireland. The geographical range includes the pan-European world in the culmination and aftermath of the Thirty Years War as well as such global contexts as the colonial Americas and Asia. Scholars whose work considers these issues are encouraged to apply.

Royalists_RoundheadsSpeakers and Session Leaders: The symposium will open with a forum that welcomes Geoffrey Parker (The Ohio State University), Michael Braddick (University of Sheffield), and Richard Tuck (Harvard University). On Friday and Saturday, the following speakers have been invited to frame discussions and inspire new lines of inquiry on a number of topics: Sharon Achinstein (The Johns Hopkins University), Jeffrey Collins (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), David Cressy (The Ohio State University, emeritus), Cesare Cuttica (Université Paris 8), Martin Dzelzainis (University of Leicester), Rachel Hammersley (Newcastle University), Helmer Helmers (Universiteit van Amsterdam), Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths, University of London), Ann Hughes (Keele University), Laura Lunger Knoppers (University of Notre Dame), Karen Ordahl Kupperman (New York University), Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin), Ted McCormick (Concordia University, Montreal), Nicholas McDowell (University of Exeter), David Norbrook (Merton College, Oxford), Carla Pestana (UCLA), and Joad Raymond(Queen Mary University of London)

Schedule: Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday, December 1 – 3 , 2016.

ApplySeptember 6, for admission and grants-in-aid.

For more information, please see the Folger website.

You can’t buy an education

Posted in Academia, Education, higher education, News, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on June 4, 2016

UCUAs university lecturers in the UK remain locked in a dispute with their employers over pay and working conditions in Higher Education, a survey published by private student loan company Future Finance this week revealed that less than half of students think their degree will help them get a graduate job to pay off their debts.

The issues are two sides of the same coin: the commodification of Higher Education. With home students now paying tuition fees of £9,000 per year, they rightly ask for value education in return. This involves among others high-quality teaching, well-stocked libraries, a wealth of electronic resources and specialist equipment, modern teaching and learning spaces, and decent student accommodation.

Alas, high tuition fees and the consumer culture they breed among students falsely suggests that the more you pay the more you will get in return. While this might work for cars, washing machines and smartphones, where you pay more to upgrade to a better model, it does not work for university courses. No matter how much you pay, you can’t buy an education. (more…)