The History Woman's Blog

The Queen and Magna Carta

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

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

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

I’m not advocating regicide, but surely the House of Lords should long have been replaced by a fully elected Upper House or Senate.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

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

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


Foreign Languages and the Historian

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

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

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

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

The homeless man in the library

Posted in Academia, Comment, News by thehistorywoman on February 27, 2013

I’m intrigued by the story of a homeless man slipping into St John’s College Library at Cambridge for several weeks. Good on him, is the only thing I can say. There are certainly worse places to while away a cold winter’s day. His assortment of supermarket bags aside, he was probably not so different from many of the other students present with his ‘vague claims of doing a doctorate on religion and a habit of dozing off’, as The Guardian describes him. The only thing I fail to understand is why he was asked to leave and where he was supposed to go instead.

But the real reason why this story jumped at me is that I have been spending the last couple of days doing research in Geneva, and when the archive closes or I feel I am done there for the day, I tend to go into the university library to do some more reading, browsing the catalogue and scanning the shelves for interesting stuff. Nobody has ever asked me what I am doing there, nor has anybody ever tried to evict me. You do not need a library card as long as you are not planning to take any books out, and the security gates make sure you don’t.

As tax payers’ money is invested in these institutions, why not make them more freely accessible to all (within reason)? A bit of free education has never done anyone any harm.