Last Wednesday, 4 April, the world commemorated the assassination fifty years earlier of a man widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures. Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for having played an instrumental role in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. federal government, and for doing so through an unwavering commitment to non-violence and interracial cooperation. Accordingly, the shooting of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is seen to epitomize the tumultuous year of 1968 in U.S. history, during which opposition to the Vietnam War and ongoing racial antagonism saw American society turn from peace to violence, and from consensus to division.
Posts from the ‘History & current affairs’ Category
Vladimir Putin was unsurprisingly victorious in this month’s presidential elections on the 18th of March. As with all political campaigns, candidates routinely utilise powerful self-branding images. In Putin’s case, historic forms of Russian exceptionalism were re-imagined to run on a distinct platform based on anti-Americanism, similar to his previous campaigns. Michael Bohm, in a 2013 article, suggested that Putin was determined to turn Russia into the only leading world power that can hold its own against the U.S. This anti-American branding of Russian exceptionalism alongside long held notions of Russian Orthodoxy and Holy Russia were harnessed to amass public support throughout the election. His conservative stance on gay rights and support of the Russian Orthodox church are indicative of this. Read more
The disturbing events which have recently unfolded in the small English town of Salisbury appear to belong more to the set of a Hollywood spy thriller or the pages of an Ian Fleming novel than to reality. From a historical perspective, the role of spies and informants on all sides during both the Second World War and the Cold War is well known. However, over the last twenty years, historians have increasingly come to recognise that it was during the early modern period that ‘modern’ methods and strategies of international espionage first began to develop. Stephen Alford, for example, has shone new light on Francis Walsingham’s role as Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’ – research which informed a three-part BBC series last year. Similarly, a recent article by Sebastian Sobecki has uncovered the importance of an English spy, John Peyton, in providing intelligence on Spanish diplomatic activity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the turn of the seventeenth century. Read more
Independence and interdependence: one Scot’s perspective on Anglo-Scottish relations in early-seventeenth-century London
Laura Flannigan | @LFlannigan17
Notions of Scottish devolution or independence from England and the rest of the United Kingdom have been reiterated across the last few generations, with the 2014 ‘IndyRef’ and its potential sequel only the most recent examples. Much of the discussion south of the border hangs on how Scotland could think to sustain itself outside the UK, ‘its chief exports being oil, whisky [and] tartan’, as one panel-show quipped in 2013. This often-disparaging discourse has parallels in the conversations being had about Scotland’s contribution to the original Union of the Crowns of 1603, when the Scottish King James VI naturally acceded to the throne of England.
Boris Johnson’s declaration last week that Brexit ‘can be good for carrots too’ caused a mixture of despair, mild amusement, and utter confusion. For those trying to get their heads around Britain’s Brexit-based future, this was hardly the ‘clarity’ they demanded. What few registered, however, was that Johnson had unwittingly tapped into a long history of the manipulation of this versatile vegetable for political ends. Read more
On the Monday before Lent, wrote comedic poet John Taylor in 1639, a farmer returned home to his wife ‘busily making Pancakes for him and his family’. After he criticised the quality of the fare – ‘the coursenesse of the flower, the taste of the Suite [suet- fat], the thicknesse of the Batter’ – the farmer’s wife decided to teach her husband a lesson, ‘knowing he was better experienced in the Plough, than the Panne, and to eate Pancakes better than to make them’! Telling him to wait outside with his back to the door and the plate outstretched in front of him, she promised to toss the pancake through the chimney from which it would land merrily onto his dish. Instead, in retribution for his snide comments, the wife ‘came suddenly behinde him, & with the pan and all clapt the Pancake upon his head’. With his hair ‘well basted with the fat of the Panne’, the ridiculed husband scorned his wife as ‘an arrant Shrew’ and named the day ‘Shrewes Munday’ and the next ‘Shrews Tuesday’ in her honour. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
6 February will mark one hundred years since the first women in Britain gained the right to vote in national elections. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised 40% of women in the UK and was the result of decades of campaigning by various organisations across the country. It was a key step towards women getting the vote on equal terms to men ten years later. To celebrate this milestone in women’s history, Cambridge University Library is displaying some of its collections on women’s suffrage for the first time. Read more
By Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith)
Donald Trump’s proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico is back in the news, this time as debates over how the wall is to be funded, and over the issue of immigration more broadly speaking, played a role in prompting a U.S. government shutdown. While Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, suggested that the president was changing his mind on the subject, Trump retorted in a series of tweets that ‘The Wall is the Wall’, and that without it, there could be no deal over the funding bill.
Whatever your opinion of the developments of 2017 it was undoubtedly an interesting year for history, or at least for future historians. In January an unpredictable and somewhat controversial Twitter-wielding former businessman and television personality was inaugurated as President of the USA amidst allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct. As David Runciman pointed out in a DHP post in June, investigations into Donald Trump’s conduct took a surprising turn towards twelfth-century England in a comparison between Trump and Henry II (bizarrely, it was quite a good parallel). This has also been the year of “fake news”, or at least allegations of fake news, so much so that last week Trump announced that he was going to hold a ‘Fake News Awards’ for those he regards as ‘the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media’. We shouldn’t get carried away assuming that we live in a unique age of misinformation, however, as Alex Wakelam’s March DHP post highlighted.
By Mobeen Hussain
Whilst searching in the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London, I came across a pamphlet published by the Black Women’s Action Committee in October 1970. The Black Women’s Action Committee was part of the Black Unity and Freedom Party, one of many anti-racist and black rights campaign groups founded in the 1960s and 1970s in reaction to widespread discrimination. This group highlights a longer history of women of African-Caribbean campaigning in Britain. The committee’s pamphlet was distributed outside places where ‘beauty contests’ were held. Black beauty pageants were instituted in Britain for the very purpose of conveying pride in Black identity and pride. Read more
“…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.
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.’ 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
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
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
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.
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
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.” 
People still seem to be curious about the origins of April Fools’ Day, but few clear answers have been found. 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
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. 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