Wandering the corridors of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, it’s difficult not to feel a chill down your spine. The paint peeling from the walls, the crumbling brickwork, and the abandoned operating theatre, complete with a giant broken surgical light, all contribute to a disconcerting sense that you are on the set of a horror film. It seems, also, that this emotive environment is deliberate. Having ceased to be operational in 1971, ESP was gradually opened to the public from the mid-1980s under the philosophy that it would be ‘stabilized’, not restored, and it now attracts around 220,000 visitors each year. It takes full advantage of the setting around this time of year, with its annual, after-dark ‘Terror Behind the Walls’ interactive Halloween event, as part of which costumed actors lurk in the shadows, waiting to terrify their patrons. Indeed, the prison has even acted as a mental asylum in Hollywood films. Read more
Posts from the ‘History & current affairs’ Category
“…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
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
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
By Fred 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
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
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
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
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.
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. Similarly, the mental wellbeing of our own armed forces remains an important political issue. 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.