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…)

Uncertainty and the post-truth society

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

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…)