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Posts from the ‘History & current affairs’ Category

Should we learn from history?

By Fred Smith@Fred_E_Smith

“…all cities and all peoples are and ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions; so that it is easy, by diligent study of the past, to forsee what is likely to happen in the future” – Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, c. 1517.[1]

The idea that we can ‘learn from history’ or that ‘the future is in the past’ has a long and distinguished pedigree. Nearly three hundred years after the Italian historian Niccolò Machiavelli advocated the lessons of history, English historian Edmund Burke similarly envisaged history as ‘a great volume…unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.’[2] Both in their own eyes, and those of their contemporaries, historians such as Machiavelli and Burke were political diviners, valued by princes and rulers for the insights they could share. Read more

Proclaiming tolerance and maintaining integrity

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

Theoretically, twenty-first-century Britain is tolerant; it is a place where diverse opinions can flourish. However, when opinions come into conflict, the appropriate course of action is not always obvious. As last year’s “Gay cake” row highlighted, the line between intolerance and a principled stance can be unclear. At the same time, as the recent resignation of the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron demonstrates, those who appear willing to put aside their personal belief in the name of promoting the principle of tolerance can find their integrity under scrutiny. Read more

Is Trump the new King Henry II?

By David Runciman

The testimony of Former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee was a highly anticipated moment of political drama. There were many stand-out moments. But as a medievalist, it was particularly interesting to hear Comey and one of his interlocutors compare President Trump to King Henry II of England. So why was a medieval English king invoked in a modern American congressional hearing? And does the comparison provide any insight into what might happen next? Read more

What’s in a Name? Creating and Commemorating Historical Events

By Harriet Lyon@HarrietLyon

It is a well-known pub quiz fact that the Hundred Years’ War was not one-hundred years long. Nor was it a war, exactly, but rather a series of intermittent conflicts that raged between the House of Plantagenet and the House of Valois during the years 1337-1453. But, for some reason, the ‘Hundred-and-Sixteen Years’ War’ has never caught on.

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Snap elections: a brief historical guide

A week ago UK Prime Minister Theresa May caught almost everyone by surprise by calling an election for the beginning of June. As the dust settles and the party machines grind into action,  Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys) takes a brief look at the key facts. Read more

‘Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?’

By Rosa Hodgkin

In 1708 the Apollo Magazine printed the query, “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?”. The answer received was

“It may not improperly be derived from a memorable transaction happening between the Romans and Sabines, mentioned by Dionysius, which was thus: the Romans, about the infancy of the city, wanting wives, and finding they could not obtain the neighbouring women by their peaceable addresses, resolved to make use of a stratagem; and accordingly Romulus instituted certain games, to be performed in the beginning of April (according to the Roman Calendar), in honour of Neptune. Upon notice thereof, the bordering inhabitants, with their whole families, flocked to Rome to see this mighty celebration, where the Romans seized upon a great number of the Sabine virgins, and ravished them, which imposition we suppose may be the foundation of this foolish custom.” [1]

People still seem to be curious about the origins of April Fools’ Day, but few clear answers have been found.[2] Chaucer’s 1392 story The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is often cited as the first mention of April Fool’s Day. In the story a rooster is fooled by a fox and is almost eaten. Chaucer describes this tale as taking place: Read more

Catholic murderers in your area put loyal Protestants at risk, SAD! – Benjamin Harris, fake news, and the Popish Plot

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

Anyone with even a passing awareness of  western politics over the last year will have been bombarded with the phrase “Fake News”, whether to describe genuine falsehood circulated as fact or as the rallying cry of bombastic autocrats denying the validity of news sources that disagree with them. While the phrase seems like a recent development (the Wikipedia page for fake news was only created in January 2017), the concept of disseminating falsehoods as factual recaps of events is certainly not a new one. Probably one of the most famous pre-modern examples is the Donation of Constantine, an excerpt of the Constitutum Constantini which was itself drawn up from a ninth century Frankish work entitled Peseudo-Isidorian Dectrals, also known as the False Dectrals. This forgery supposedly consists of a decree of the Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) giving the Pope control over Rome and the Western Roman Empire. Unsurprisingly, it was used by a number of Popes from the eleventh century in their attempts to enforce authority over unruly feudal lords until it was finally proved to be a forgery in the fifteenth century by humanist Lorenzo Valla.[1] Spreading deliberate, politically motivated, fake news in the middle ages took a serious amount of effort and while false stories of a mythical nature travelled across Europe organically, it took the printing press and the continent wide paranoia that came with the Reformation to usher in the first great age of fake news. Read more

Absent leeks, lost voices? Cooking and recording in early modern Wales

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

My original intention for a blog post for St David’s Day (1 March) had been to cook and write about early modern leeks. Quite apart from being one of my favourite vegetables, the humble leek is one of the national symbols of Wales and features in a number of “traditional” Welsh recipes, including Cawl and the misleadingly-named Glamorgan “Sausages”. Unfortunately, the leeks proved surprisingly elusive. What I found in their place were some interesting hints at the dynamics of society and literacy in early modern Wales. Read more

Australia Day and the Struggle to Control a Nation’s History

by Eleanor Russell

On the 26th of January 1788 eleven ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Port Jackson, now known as Sydney Harbour, carrying the first of more than 150,000 convicts sent to the new penal colony in Australia. The experiences of these convicts, and of the naval and military personnel, administrators, and free settlers, would be transformed from history into an origin story of the Australian national character that remains the focus of Australia Day celebrations. Read more

Healing History? The Reformation 500 years on

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther (supposedly) nailed 95 criticisms of the Catholic Church to the door of a Wittenburg church. His actions, alongside those of many other ‘reformers’, helped catalyse events which would ultimately splinter Catholic Christendom into a myriad of diverse, often antagonistic, sects. Fast-forward 499 years, and there are signs that the wounds of the Reformation may, finally, be healing. Read more

In praise of history teachers

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

I learned more about the nature of the discipline of history during my PGCE and year as a Newly Qualified Teacher than I have in all of the rest of my academic study combined. It might be that I’m a poor academic historian, but rather I think it says something about the immense value of the PGCE course I undertook, and the incredible work that many history teachers across the country do every day in striving to keep our discipline alive.

Unfortunately, however, the reflective approach which characterises PGCE training is under threat. Cuts to allocations of places for university-led teacher training in favour of more “on the job”-based training programmes has resulted in even Ofsted-rated “Outstanding” university-led courses having to drastically cut their provision. It might sound sensible to base teacher training at schools – after all, that’s where they’ll have to work. But, for historians at least, the idea is not as good as it sounds. Read more

History from below: fashion, freedom, and the female form

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Attempts to shape the female form are nothing new, as current exhibitions at the V&A and York Castle Museum show. Neither is the particular concern with the posterior, demonstrated today by an increased demand for buttock implants. Such permanent “improvements” are beyond the financial reach of most people. The less wealthy (or less confident that the fashion will be a lasting one) can employ rear-enhancing items of clothing such as the Booty Pop to supplement their behinds. Modern fashion and lifestyle magazines give ample guidance to those who want a large behind with a small price tag. But what did women in the past do, and what might paying attention to these fashions suggest about our modern obsessions? Read more

‘Trojan horse’ and indoctrinating youth in eighteenth-century England

Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Two years ago ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ caused widespread alarm in the media and panic on the part of the British government. Yet the concern about religious and political influences in schools is hardly new. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, writers concerned about the enemy within targeted Protestant Dissenters. Their suggestions about who should control the education of the nation’s children, perhaps worryingly, have surprising resonance today. Read more

Electricity – public or private? Does it Matter? Is it even the right question?

by Kayt Button

ICR Byatt, an economist who went on to advise The Treasury under Margaret Thatcher and held a number of posts related to public utilities and regulation wrote in his The British Electrical Industry 1875 to 1914 “electric lighting and electric tramways became commercially feasible at a time when Parliament was experimenting with methods of public utility regulation, and when the municipal trading movement was gaining ground rapidly. By 1880 the old idea that utilities could be regulated by competition was over; the 1870 Tramways Act had inaugurated the system of granting limited-period franchises; the big towns had begun to buy up gasworks and waterworks”.[1] Read more

Heritage in Austerity Britain

By James Dowsett – @jdowsea

James in an MPhil Student in Modern British History at Cambridge. His research focusses on plebeian constitutionalism in the long eighteenth-century.

March will be the final month the Queen Street and Helmshore Mill Museums are open to the public. These beleaguered monuments, the last working examples of the Lancashire cotton spinning and weaving industry upon which Britain’s industrial revolution was built, are faced with an uncertain future. That these sites of unquestionable national significance are to be forced to close their doors is nothing other than a national shame. Local residents have established a change.org petition pleading Lancashire County Council to save both mills from imminent closure. 1st April is the date designated for their termination. However, the Queen Street and Helmshore Mill Museums are only the latest soon-to-be fatalities of an austerity agenda that places the funding position of local authority museums at an astonishingly high risk. Cuts to local government grants outlined in the 2015 spending review will undeniably result in more museum closures. The Museum Association’s 2015 cuts survey recently revealed that in response to government cuts to local authority funding, 18% of museums were forced to close, or partially close, in 2015-16.

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The Black Cantabs Project – Uncovering Cambridge University’s diverse past

By Louise Moschetta @LouiseMoschetta

As I began jotting down some ideas for this blog post in a background of clinks and clatter of a coffee shop in Cambridge, I overheard a conversation from two individuals talking at the table behind me. They were referring to what I believed to be a white, wealthy, male individual, with the statement that sums up the entire image, ‘he’s very Cambridge’.

The launch of the Black Cantabs Project last October under the auspice of Black History Month complicates what it exactly means to be Cambridge. The aim of the Black Cantabs Projects is to uncover, or recover, the university’s ‘lost students’. At its core, the project is archival – it is an organised opportunity for ‘current and former students of the University of Cambridge to write the black students of this institution back into its history’ and publish these findings online.

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Significant anniversaries in 2016: the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866?

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

2016 is to be a year of historical anniversaries: 950 years since the Battle of Hastings; 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare; 350 years since the Great Fire of London; 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. The list could go on. Marking anniversaries is a long established tradition in the UK that has been shaped our culture for better or worse. We need only look to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ vehemently anti-Catholic rhetoric in the yearly commemorations of the Gunpowder Plot to understand how anniversaries can serve to reinforce the ideologies of history’s victors. Read more

Why American politics hasn’t gone mad

By Bennett Ostdiek

As an American living in the UK, I often get asked about the presidential election, particularly my views on Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. My British and European friends cannot understand why two polar opposite figures are becoming significant in American politics at the exact same time. To this question, I always respond that Trump and Sanders are two sides of the same coin, and should be understood in relationship to each other. They are both populists’: politicians who appeal to the hopes and fears of the general population by contrasting the interests of “the people” with the interests of political and corporate elites. 

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The emotional impact of war

A perspective from the early medieval west, c.841AD

By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans

This week we remember the human cost of military conflict. We think not only of the millions killed and wounded but also about the unseen impact of war on human minds and emotions.

The psychological and emotional costs of war are far better known about and studied than they used to be. The conflicts of the last century are increasingly studied with this in mind.[1] Similarly, the mental wellbeing of our own armed forces remains an important political issue.[2] The emotional cost of war is not, however, a new consideration. Although the nature of fighting (and its cultural context) differs according to time and place, the modern and medieval soldier often had a great deal in common when it came to emotional experience.

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