The History Woman's Blog

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
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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.

Improving the Nation

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on March 26, 2016

Slack_imageIn his new book, The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack sets out to do two things: first, to trace the ‘notion of improvement’ in seventeenth-century ‘public discourse’ (vii) in England; and secondly to show how ‘the quest for improvement distinguished England from other countries.’ (1)

Slack has not set himself an easy task as he analyses the concept of improvement in its ‘intellectual and political as well as social and economic’ (14) context across an entire century. But he does so most elegantly and eloquently, and the wealth of primary sources – both printed and archival – he employs shows that this book has been many years in the making and draws on decades of research. In fact, the work stands out more for its author’s extensive knowledge of the period, the great synthesis of a large amount of scholarship and the lucidity of its analysis than for the novelty of its argument as such.

For the book is unashamedly ‘Whiggish’ as a ‘story of progress’ (263), as its author acknowledges, telling the story of England’s rise as a great nation based on the steady and ambitious improvement of agriculture, manufacture and trade, which would lay the foundations for its Empire.

The motor of this ‘gradual, piecemeal, but cumulative betterment’ (1) were a number of creative minds dedicated to the task of making England more efficient through the application of their learning in the form of new social schemes and institutions. The foundations for improvement had already been laid under Queen Elizabeth and the early Stuarts with men like William Cecil and Francis Bacon, but things really began to take off with the English Revolution and the various projects of the Hartlib Circle, which combined utopian speculation and social reform.

In fact, it was Samuel Hartlib, who introduced the very word ‘improvement’ in its current meaning into English public discourse when he translated Jan Comenius’ Pansophiae Prodromus (1639), ‘and in doing so referred for the first time in print to improvement.’ (99) (more…)

Being a refugee

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, News, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on February 14, 2016
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Woodcut illustration from The Isle of Pines (1668).

It’s weird to be writing a book about English republican exiles in the seventeenth century while thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa make their way to Europe every day. I’ve been wondering a lot what it might feel like to be a refugee and if there are experiences that might link these two very disparate groups of migrants – or indeed migrants at all times, everywhere – such as feelings of displacement, isolation or fear.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I read about the present refugee crisis is a letter Algernon Sidney wrote to his father from Italy some 350 years ago, in which he describes his exile experience as that of ‘a broken Limbe of a Ship-wracked Faction’, while also often feeling ‘naked, alone, and without Help in the open Sea.’

The shipwreck metaphor

I think it’s the maritime metaphor that gets me. Even though Sidney was for the most part travelling on horseback over land, he decided to describe his exile situation through the metaphor of shipwreck. The republican faction that he was part of had failed to maintain its power base in England and was replaced by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. It was shipwrecked and had to start all over again.

Shipwreck was a common metaphor used in England as a maritime country, part of an island surrounded by the sea. It had also been a common metaphor for the exiles of antiquity, who were part of a world of seafarers and adventurers.

Being at sea

It seems that ‘being at sea’ was one of the scariest experiences during times in which humans were much more exposed to the elements and regularly at their mercy, when every sea journey could end in death, and yet had to be undertaken for the purpose of trade, or warfare, or necessary overseas travel.

It is interesting too that Henry Neville in his exile dystopia The Isle of Pines uses the topic of shipwreck to start his narrative about the discovery of an unknown island that holds up a mirror to Restoration England. Here, shipwreck too is an end but also a new beginning and a call for the English republicans to reinvent themselves.

(more…)

Running away to the circus

Posted in Academia, History, Journalism by thehistorywoman on July 27, 2015

Beamish_editedI’ve done it. I quit my job as an academic historian. It was a full-time permanent job at a decent institution. It was a job I loved. After I sent the email, I screamed – to the bemusement of my friend Fiona, who was staying with me in Berlin for a few days. Then I went to the library and stared at my computer screen for ages. I started crying. Then I felt great relief and started thinking about the new life that was about to start. No more board meetings, no more marking, no more admin.

I would be working as a journalist again. It’s not a career choice known for its security or even respectability (not after Leveson anyway), and yet it’s something I’ve never been able to let go – all those years I’ve been spending at universities, in libraries, researching, writing, completing my PhD, teaching. I’m really going back to my roots.

Back to my roots

I was writing reports for my local newspaper before I even knew what subject I would study at university. I kept writing for various newspapers and press agencies while doing my various degrees, and I would spend university holidays in editorial offices looking for stories. Yet, I always felt I had to do something more ‘serious’. Despite the serious subject matter (there’s no shortage of important and horrifying stories to cover) journalism never felt like work. It always seemed like a bit of fun, a guilty pleasure. So somehow it didn’t qualify as actual work.

History has been like that too sometimes, especially when I’ve just been able to travel to archives and libraries and sit there for hours trailing through the material, getting absorbed into other people’s stories and other people’s lives. Writing things down, getting things published, planning new projects, trialling ideas – all that has been fun too, and I’m not planning to give it up. I might just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while – until I know where my journey is going to take me next. But more on this anon. On hearing of my uncertain future, a former tutor and now old friend of mine told me to ‘remember what Cromwell said at the end of his life, “No man goes so far as he who knows not where he is going.'” (more…)

EU referendum raises questions about voting rights and citizenship

Posted in Comment, Early Modern, History, Politics, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on May 28, 2015

The news that foreigners would not be allowed to vote in the planned EU referendum came as a bit of a shock earlier this week, if not as a major surprise. The rules are based on those for the General Elections. Besides, it seems the Tories are keen to exclude anyone from voting who might not agree with them on a possible Brexit, in particular EU migrants and younger people.

As an EU citizen I would have liked to see the UK government include us in the vote as we are most immediately affected. If Britain leaves the EU it is us who suffer most, as our movement, working rights, taxation arrangements, pensions, transfer of money and even family life might be affected. As EU citizens living in the UK are allowed to vote in EU and local elections here it would be only logical to let us have our say. But I was not holding my breath.

However, for me, this piece of news has opened another question on voting rights and citizenship and what these should be based on. To be sure, citizenship and voting rights are not the same. Even though they are not British citizens, Irish and Commonwealth citizens, including EU citizens from Malta and Cyprus, ‘over 18 who are resident in the UK’ along with Members of the House of Lords are also allowed to vote based on their special status or historic ties to Britain. On the other hand, British citizens who left the country 15 years or longer ago have lost their voting rights in the UK without automatically acquiring the franchise in their current country of residence thus leaving them completely disenfranchised.*

Defining the various historic ties and exceptions as reasons for giving (or declining) people the vote in an EU referendum is to an extent an arbitrary move. Reasons could clearly be found to extend the vote not just to all EU citizens, but to young people over the age of 16, or to people ordinarily resident in the UK. Likewise, we might wonder if voting rights should generally be based on residence or where we pay our taxes.

In some ways, this reminds me of the debates over the franchise during the English revolutionary period in the seventeenth century, when Cromwellians, republicans, Levellers and a variety of other people attempted to define what qualified an individual to vote. Each of these groups tried to find justifications for the franchise that matched their own interests.

Traditionally, only adult male property owners of freehold land worth 40 shillings or more were allowed to vote. Both Cromwellians and republicans wanted to maintain property qualifications, largely based on the ownership of land, while modifying the amount of property required. The Instrument of Government that established the Protectorate also provided for a redistribution of parliamentary seats to reflect population numbers, abolishing some of the anomalies allowing a few large landowners to select their favoured candidates. The Levellers argued for manhood suffrage disregarding wealth or income, with some even going as far as implying the possibility of votes for women.

Alas, at the moment, the tendency is towards narrowing, not extending the vote.

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*

* This law is going to change over the next couple of years. However, the changes won’t be in place in time for the EU referendum.

Historians in Britain need to ask the right questions about Europe

Posted in Academia, History, News, Politics by thehistorywoman on May 24, 2015

euFollowing the surprise result of the General Elections earlier this month historians in Britain have reopened the debate about Europe. Depending on where you stand, Britain is either part of Europe, or a strange place across the Channel you can travel to.

The Historians for Britain who have come out in favour of ‘fundamental changes (to be) made to the terms of our EU membership’ are clearly of the latter school, fearing a loss of British identity inside the European Union. In a controversial contribution to the pages of History Today magazine they have gathered historical arguments to show ‘how the United Kingdom has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours’ to show why it can’t integrate any further in the EU.

Referring to Britain’s common law, its long parliamentary history and its ancient monarchy, Historians for Britain have made the case for a ‘degree of continuity … unparalleled in continental Europe.’

A manifesto for little Britain

Their manifesto for a little Britain based on the old chestnut of British exceptionalism has been countered by the Historians for History, who insist that history should not be used for political propaganda and ‘take issue with the statement’s highly reductive distortion of the history of the United Kingdom.’

bayeaux_tapestry.jpg.pagespeed.ce.tSmoVM3SUYThey highlight that, ‘(i)n terms of ancient systems of democracy, Greece clearly has a much stronger claim than Britain’, while also drawing attention to the fact that the long-standing British monarchy was many times in foreign hands, starting with the Norman Conquest of 1066 followed by the Glorious Invasion from the Netherlands in 1688 and the take-over of the British monarchy by the Hanoverians hailing from the German lands. (more…)

A historian in journalism – one week into the job

Posted in Academia, History, Journalism, News by thehistorywoman on April 12, 2015

NewsJust over one week into my new job at the press agency I must say I absolutely love it. Working at the foreign languages desk I spend most of my day monitoring the news coming in from our correspondents all over the world via the various ‘queues’ on my computer screen and see if any translations are needed.

Most of the time the various desks, politics, panorama, sports etc, ask us to do translations for them – from English (mostly) and Spanish (rarely) into German – or we offer them stories we think might be of interest to them. We also keep an eye on the news generally, checking newspapers and websites, and sometimes we do our own stories or cover for a correspondent who is away on an assignment or on holiday.

Being paid to read the newspaper

Yes, ok, I’m being paid to read the newspaper. But that’s not the whole story. I also learn a lot. Most of the time the stories we translate need a fair amount of additional research. Some of it can be done on the Internet, some of it on various internal and external databases storing information on people, places and events. In the past week I’ve learnt among other things about the Nepalese constitution, the reasoning of the jury that convicted the Boston bomber, and a young woman who escaped Boko Haram.

It’s not just the stories themselves I enjoy. Doing the translations is fun too. The perfectionist in me always wants to find the right word, the correct idiom, the best way of putting it. Sometimes several colleagues at a time are deliberating about the best translation. With an international team of journalists and translators, including native speakers of English, Spanish and German, you learn a lot about the nuances of a language and the (subconscious) prejudices of its speakers.

You also learn a lot about things you never thought you would take an interest in – like golf. The story about Tiger Woods’ comeback was definitely the most difficult one I’ve had to translate so far, mainly because I don’t play golf myself and don’t know anything about putts, chips, birdies and the lot. Thanks to my colleague on the sports desk and various amateur golfers in the office I now know a little bit more.

A deadline is a deadline

What I really like about the job though is the speed and the almost instant reward when a story goes out. It’s even better when you find it on the web or see it printed in the paper a day later. You know that you have done something, and that you have provided a service many people will benefit from. No monograph, book chapter or academic article I’ve written will ever get the same exposure. (more…)