RHS News

Ludmilla Jordanova, Public History Workshop, ‘A Provocation’

PHWLudmilla GR crop

Ludmilla Jordanova

Ludmilla Jordanova is Professor of History and Visual Cultures at Durham University. She is a Trustee of the Science Museum Group and chair of its collections and research committees. She is the author of History in Practice and The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice. 

She presented a paper entitled ‘A Provocation’ at the first Public History Workshop, held at the Institute of History Research on Thursday 29 October 2015.

She can be contacted at: ludmilla.jordanova@durham.ac.uk.


Jane Smiley

The term ‘public history’ is distinctly tricky by virtue of its range of meanings and the diverse reactions it elicits. Everyone is familiar with E.P. Thompson’s phrase about rescuing the working-class from the condescension of posterity in his The Making of the English Working Class, 1963. Recent weeks have seen Niall Ferguson condescend to Jane Smiley, a historical novelist, on R4’s Start the Week, and her riposte in the Guardian on 15 October 2015. For him fiction cannot be history in any meaningful sense, for her it can. For him history is research intensive, but so is her work, she protested.

Christopher Clark

Christopher Clark

Condescension is common in the face of some forms of public history, as words such as ‘populariser’ can easily suggest, and so does the assumption that writing for wider audiences is somehow diluting not just the past but the scholarship of those who do so. There are some notable exceptions, of course, the books by and reactions to Christopher Clark and Adam Tooze, for example. So it would be worth examining these instances to see what sets them apart. But in the Ferguson/Smiley case, there is an all too familiar hierarchy of historical genres.

I consider historical fiction to be a major form of public history, hence this episode is of considerable interest for our discussions today. It would take far longer than I have this morning to disentangle the disagreements, the misunderstandings and the strong feelings involved. But I take the Ferguson/Smiley encounter as a telling example of some of the difficulties that arise in talking about ‘history’ in public. Whether we ‘like’ or sympathise with one or other side is hardly the point. I happen to feel that novelists can also be historians, if in ways we want to specify, case by case, book by book as we would with any historical genre. All genres, like the works within them, invite such careful analysis.

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson

There are three issues arising from Ferguson’s condescension to Smiley that we may want to consider today. The first and perhaps most obvious is the forms of paring down that may be involved in presenting accounts of the past to non-specialists. For example, accounts may be deemed simplified if they do not include footnotes and bibliographies, since readers are relying on a persuasive narrative without having the option to assess for themselves the kinds of mediation necessarily involved. Although some novels have footnotes, on the whole general readers do not want a massive scholarly apparatus. Many non-fiction trade books have a rather light supporting structure, often at the publisher’s request. The problem becomes more acute with forms of representation where the authority behind any claims may be unclear – exhibitions some websites, TV and Film, for instance. Jane Smiley doesn’t parade the depth of her research, so it is difficult to assess it in conventional ways.

The second issue concerns the role of the imagination: ‘I have to use my imagination to make connections, to evoke feelings, to show patterns, to build a logical structure’, Smiley insisted in her Guardian piece. She continues ‘But then, my historian colleague must do the same.’ It is unclear to me precisely what Ferguson’s position is on the role of imagination in historical practice, but it is evident that most forms of public history, however we define the term, involve not only the imagination but forms of imaginative collusion, that is, audiences actively participate in some way. It is worth reflecting on such collusions, no matter what kind of history one practices, or consumes.

The third issue revolves around the language we use to analyse historical practice. In the radio programme, Smiley characterized history in terms of ‘events’, which allowed Ferguson to come right back to her with a riposte: it’s about much more than this, he claimed. But, without defining their terms, and some philosophical discussion, what are broadcasters supposed to do? Smiley was reaching for a quick way of making a point, and the term used tripped her up, I think. ‘Truth’ is another such term, and so is ‘fact’, and indeed ‘history’. Smiley has a doctorate, is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has published non-fiction works, but she is not a historiographer, as it were. And would it be appropriate to go into these matters on Radio 4 or in the Guardian? Commonsense, and often quite reductionist, meanings of such terms do inhibit public discussion, channel debate into simplistic polarities. I am not sure what the solution is here, but one conclusion might be that it is the role of public history as a field to address the difficulty.

Running through all these points, however, are questions about hierarchies, especially of knowledge. All scholars can benefit from engaging with them. My main provocation consists of just this – public history, both the field and the range of practices – history in public, crystalizes many central issues of historical practice, and hence is relevant to all historians as well as to others, and should not be seen just as a new specialism and accordingly as only for a select new group of specialists, since this can easily tip into a sense that other people/historians don’t have to bother with it.

As historians, as citizens, public history touches us directly if in a multitude of intricate ways that are difficult to disentangle. Jane Smiley suggests that we think of genres not as a hierarchy but as ‘a flower bouquet, with different colours, scents and forms…’ It is a delightful simile: social and political realities, however, demand that we are thinking all the time about the quality of knowledge and the broad implications of historical claims, topics that must also be central to public history in so far as it claims to be an academic field.

I’d like to draw your attention to what I see as an irony here. On one reading, much public history is under-conceptualised; for instance, popular history may concentrate on lists of key facts, often surprising or piquant in some way – this is common in history magazines. Such formats reinforce common beliefs about facts and dates lying at the heart of history. I am bemoaning a separation of public history from other parts of the discipline, yet at the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, we have had another field emerging over the same period – variously referred to as history and theory, historiography, or historical theory. These two more or less simultaneous changes show how easy it is for the discipline of history to fragment, and for this to happen in ways that generally affirm rather than challenge existing intellectual hierarchies, which tend to rate refined theoretical perspectives more highly than assemblages of information. It is a further irony that many historical websites – a major form of public history and frequently connected to the sophisticated field of digital history – consist of and celebrate just such assemblages.

So I thought it would be useful to put, in the most direct way possible, some of the issues that ‘public history’ raises. Some further context may provide a fuller sense of my perspectives.

History in PracticeI first became aware of the phrase ‘public history’ in the 1990s, and when preparing the first edition of History in Practice (first edition, 2000, second edition,2006), I asked all the historians I interviewed in order to get a more rounded view of the discipline, what they understood by it. Most replied that did not know what it meant. I devoted a whole chapter to the topic because I cannot see how any practicing historian can responsibly ignore the ways in which their field is alive in the world beyond educational institutions and professional associations. This is why my main point today is that public history is about history in its broadest sense and that consequently there are costs to treating it as a specialist field more about ‘popularization’ than about ‘real’ history.

The vast majority of practicing historians do now have some idea of what public history refers to, even if there are many different ways of construing it. There are posts and courses, journals and textbooks. Hence we might assume that public history has arrived. However, this is only a partial account, and I suggest that we need to adopt a more critical perspective. In part this is precisely because, as I hope I have already shown, the meanings of public history are both unclear and contested. One obvious fissure here is between those who believe that it should be generated through grass roots activity, and those for whom it should be practiced by professionals. My Ferguson/Smiley example has not addressed the grass roots question, since novelists too tend to be ‘professionals’. As it happens, I do not see any obvious professional/amateur polarity. In any case, advocating forms of public history from below and stressing the need for trained historians to be involved are not wholly incompatible positions: a crowd sourced exhibition can nonetheless be curated by a museum professional. An exhibition in the Bankfield Museum, Halifax, For King and Country, is a good example, while authoritative websites are made possible by volunteers – the Clergy of the Church of England database, for instance.

For King and Country Bankfield

Nonetheless there are important political issues here: if we think about the activities at Ruskin College, Oxford as a case in point, these are more bottom up than many of the forms of public history in the USA and Canada, where the field is considerably more professionalized. And their emphasis is certainly a considered political position.

But why should ‘public history’ be a separate, delineated field at all? Perhaps a curious question, and there are two rather different ways of thinking about it. The first follows patterns of professionalization and of the deployment of historical expertise in public life, which, in a world that places great emphasis on structured occupations, formal qualifications, and the recognition of specialized knowledge is highly likely to result in a new field, with all the paraphernalia that goes with it. With ever more pressure on jobs related to history since the Second World War, these phenomena help people build careers, while institutions and organisations assist practitioners in their interactions with pre-existing structures, such as legal systems. This pattern is so common that it would be surprising to find any field, especially if it made claims to public value, not following it. Since historians study just such shifts, it is helpful if they are aware of them in their own lives and settings.

The second route is rather different. It recognizes that ‘public history’ refers to highly diverse phenomena, and that it is these phenomena with their complex ‘public’ status that invite our attention. Such complexities require skills, insights and knowledge that are ‘specialized’. This line of thought might be developed further to stress the activities that are involved with making history public, in which we might well be participants rather than observers. Many academic historians, for example, have little idea how museums work, and this leads to frustrations on the part of museum professionals when, largely because of the Impact agenda, they are expected to conjure up exhibitions for nothing in a short period of time. The point has implications for the practice of history, certainly for forms of education, which are now building relevant forms of training in, especially at doctoral level. Arguably, making and responding to public history has become or is becoming integral to our professional lives. But, as I have already suggested, public history is also central to our lives as citizens, and perhaps we can also use our roles as consumers of ‘public’ culture more fully. Having a domain called ‘public history’, then, should help us to think through these issues as well as to practise history more energetically, openly and in more diverse forms.

Adam Tooze

Adam Tooze

It’s important to accept that there cannot be stability when it comes to what is meant by ‘public’. Its generative qualities come from its richness – it is better to embrace this rather than bemoan ambiguity. When I told a colleague that I was interested in public history, he responded, ‘I didn’t know there was any other kind’. I was initially flummoxed by the comment, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. What would ‘private’ history look like, if we take a term commonly thought to be the opposite of ‘public’? When we publish, we enter a public realm. And can there really be watertight distinctions between history by and for the public and the history produced in and for academic settings? Here again the writings of Tooze and Clark are relevant. Nonetheless the heterogeneity of what falls under at least some definitions of public history should give us pause for thought. There are many significant differences between, say, war memorials that were designed to remind future generations of the conflict in question, of those who lost their lives, and to provide a focus for survivors, and an exhibition designed to provide visitors with historical understanding of that very same war.

One possible way of tackling this is to consider the level of historical focus involved. Buildings, squares, street names and so on are largely out of focus, brought sharply in when threatened in some way, or changed in a controversial manner. A paying exhibition, by contrast, will be in focus for visitors, who have chosen to engage with it, although what they may ‘learn’ in the process is likely to be highly variable. Another way is to take what we might think of as boundary cases: costume drama, historical fiction, art exhibitions, for example. Let us take all ‘historical’ forms seriously, precisely because they help us attend to questions such as the nature of historical imagination, the representation of moral complexities in the past, and forms of identification with people, places, and processes in earlier times. All these are themes that concern scholars with a theoretical bent.

To conclude: public history in all its senses stands for the ways in which the past is mediated and for the continual need to reflect critically on those ways. Accordingly it is central to the discipline and to citizenship. It must not be condescended to. Yet to engage with it fully, it is necessary to have a certain tool kit, which brings together sympathy, knowledge, experience and reflection. As a field public history can help to assemble, refine and refresh these tools. I have argued that the ranking mentality is unhelpful, perhaps it is even pernicious. But in saying this, I am not inviting a thousand flowers to bloom; on the contrary I am suggesting we get out there and engage with the diverse practices of public history – there is much to engage with, some of it deeply worrying – the ways in which some popular history magazines sensationalise past violence is a case in point. Public history in its fullest sense enjoins us all to think and practice history more openly and thoughtfully.

Download a PDF of the paper

Go to Public History Workshop report





RHS Public History Workshop report

The RHS Public History Workshop was held in the Wolfson suite at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) on Thursday 29th October 2015. It was organized by Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor Jo Fox and Dr Alix Green in partnership with the IHR’s Public History seminar.

RHS Research and Communications officer, Dr Jane Gerson, reports:

MainAward_Logo smallThe Public History workshop is part of a new initiative to promote and recognise this developing field alongside the new biennial RHS Public History Prize. It was the first of what we hope will be an annual event to profile public history and assess its importance, impact and role in contemporary historical studies.

The RHS is excited to be supporting such an innovative approach to the work of historians, which enhances public understanding of the place of the past in today’s social, political and cultural life. But what is public history exactly and why is it important?  The workshop aimed to explore these questions from a number of perspectives as well as focusing on the work of upcoming early career researchers and postgraduates.  The programme for the day interwove keynote addresses by three well-known historians, Pam Cox, Ludmilla Jordanova and Justin Champion, with four presentations by historians starting out on their careers, Daniel Johnson, Mike Mantin, Alexander Hutton and Claire Hayward.

Lawrence Goldman

Lawrence Goldman

The event was opened by IHR Director Lawrence Goldman who paid poignant tribute to the historian of modern Jewish history, David Cesarani, whose death had just been announced. Goldman drew attention to the way Cesarani’s work intersected with pressing educational, political and cultural issues. In a personal reminiscence, especially commissioned by the RHS, Goldman writes, “In a profession that sometimes talks airily and vaguely about ‘public historians’, David Cesarani was the real thing.” One of the aims of the workshop was to dispel any ‘airy’ and ‘vague’ talk and bring a precise focus to what public history is and what it can achieve.

Pam Cox

The first keynote address was given by Pam Cox, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. She is perhaps best-known for her outstanding series for the BBC – Shopgirls: the True Story Behind the Counter and Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, both of which provide intimate insights into the daily lives of ordinary working people in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.  She gave a scintillating presentation drawing on the promotional materials produced by the BBC to trail and publicise the series, showing how skilful editing of images and speech can reach audiences unfamiliar with the traditional approaches of academic historians. She explained how her producer urged her not only to encourage her audience to ‘learn’ these histories but also to ‘feel’ them.  Initial reserve about adopting the strategies of broadcasters, which can seem at odds with the methodologies of the historical profession, gave way to excitement at the possibilities opened up by new ways of communicating the past and reaching new audiences.

Daniel Johnson (left) and Jo Fox

The theme of ‘feeling’ as well as ‘thinking’ as a means to understand history and connect with audiences recurred throughout the day. It emerged as one of the central defining features to help us understand what makes public history – or indeed what makes history public. These ideas were further explored in the next session which addressed the theme of public engagement with museums.  Daniel Johnson, a public history MA student at the University of York, talked about his involvement with the Blackpool Museum Project. This is a large-scale development, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which aims to build a museum that captures the spirit and character of Blackpool. Blackpool Council envisages the museum will be “immersive, participatory and inclusive”. Johnson has acted as a volunteer for the project, collecting oral histories and working on cultural events to promote its work. Given Blackpool’s long association with popular entertainment, his talk stressed the interactive, playful approach the museum intends to adopt to engage its audience.

Mike Mantin

Mike Mantin, research fellow at Swansea University for the Wellcome Trust project ‘Disability and Industrial Society’, also addressed approaches to engaging local audiences in their histories. Mantin was co-curator of the exhibition ‘From Pithead to Sick Bed: Disability and the South Welsh Coal industry’ which ran at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea from June to October this year. His paper focused on their attempts to link the historical material with contemporary societal issues through talks, events, podcasts, blogposts and working with local disability groups. He described this as adding “a much-needed conversation on representation, of both disability and labour history in museums.” It was also a plea for academic historians to lead this public conversation themselves.

Ludmilla Jordanova

The second keynote address by Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor of History and Visual Cultures at Durham University and author of the essential text, History in Practice, challenged habitual thinking, not just about public history, but history per se.  After all, she asked, can’t all history be described as being in some sense ‘public’? Titled ‘a provocation’, her talk probed the qualities of public history, defending its importance, for example in historical fiction as practised by the author Jane Smiley, whose recent bruising encounter with Niall Ferguson on BBC R4’s Start the Week, exposed the attitudes some established historians hold about ‘fiction’ as a pathway to historical understanding. But Jordanova also cautioned against the dangers of reductive populism as evidenced in the numerous Top 10 history ‘fact’ lists now so prevalent in some publications. Public history, she made clear, is not the same as ‘selling’ history. Read Jordanova’s  paper in full.

Alexander Hutton square

Alexander Hutton

The afternoon commenced with two thoughtful presentations on what might be termed ‘outsider’ history; that is history conducted by unorthodox practitioners about individuals and groups marginalised in society. Alexander Hutton, a post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London, proposed an alternative model to our ideas about public history.  His doctoral research revealed that well-known historians of the Industrial Revolution developed their ideas through intense interaction with non-historians associated with interest groups such as the adult education movement. For these people history was not “the passive consumption of material produced by experts” we so often assume it to be. It was rather a dynamic, interactive process between professional historians and interested publics, which suggests new ways to engage with the historiography of the Industrial Revolution, as well as other histories.

PHW Claire + Alix square

Claire Hayward (left) and Alix Green

Claire Hayward, a final year PhD student at Kingston University who is working on representations of same-sex love in public history, also looked at individuals and groups who have been omitted from conventional histories and heritage practices, in this case with respect to LGBTQ communities. While there are some high-profile figures such as Oscar Wilde, and more recently Alan Turing, who are commemorated, this masks the vast number of LGBTQ men and women who are eradicated from public memory. She also discussed the gendering of memorialisation, with the history of same-sex love between women even less acknowledged than that between men. The UK, in particular, lags behind both Europe and America in its representation of LGBTQ communities. The talk ended with ideas for the future of commemoration that could represent the existence of past, present and future acts of same-sex love and LGBTQ communities in the UK.

PHW Justin sq. 2

Justin Chamption

The workshop broke into groups to discuss how to advocate public history before Justin Champion gave the final keynote speech of the day. Champion, who is Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London, and President of the Historical Association, gave what was probably the most overtly political address of the workshop in a talk entitled ‘ “Making public, making a difference” – designing research questions with a public purpose.’ He made a powerful case for public history to return to the idea of ‘making a difference’, attacking top-down intervention by government that determined the kinds of research historians should be conducting, particularly in exercises such as the REF which assess funding on the basis of prescribed definitions of ‘impact’. He contrasted this with the more authentic, grass roots evolution of research projects by historians genuinely engaged with their communities and research topics. He made a plea to enquire into why people become historians and have more understanding as to what motivated their choice of research. Respect and latitude to allow these involvements to develop without political pressure was important to achieve the best standards of historical research as well as the highest levels of reciprocal public engagement. Champion wrapped up his talk by asking “is public history by definition a political act?” In a day of some excellent live tweeting this assertion gained the highest number of retweets!

The speech closed a fascinating and stimulating day that left many avenues still to explore.

The RHS and Public History steering committee actively welcome comments about the workshop and ideas for its future as an annual event.  Please send these to RHS Honorary Director of Communications, Jo Fox at info@royalhistsoc.org

Many thanks to the Public History steering committee: Ludmilla Jordanova, Alix Green and Jo Fox.



ECH Publishing: Submitting to a Journal

What makes a good journal article? First, it must stand on its own. It may be a version of a chapter of a PhD dissertation, but it has to be self-contained. Second, it ought to have a strong and distinctive argument. The standard way to demonstrate this is by reference to the historiography – but it’s not enough (or even, really, at all persuasive) to say that your subject has been ‘neglected’ by the historiography. Some subjects are neglected for a good reason – they’re not interesting or important. You need to show how the historiography will look different by including your paper – what arguments are called into question, what new light is cast on bigger subjects, what new subjects are being developed that command attention. Sometimes people publish articles that give the overarching argument of a PhD thesis; sometimes they pick the richest or most provocative argument (perhaps from a single chapter). Third, you ought to be able to provide convincing evidence in support of your arguments. This isn’t easy within the scope of an article – which ought probably to be 8-10,000 words; it’s a real skill to learn how to select evidence that will fit within these limits and still carry conviction. How do you decide which journal to submit to? (You must only submit the same paper to one at a time.) The best course is to ask yourself which journals have published papers in your field that you have admired, or papers with which you have disagreed and would like to engage. Go for the highest-quality journal that fits this description – the one that publishes the work you consider to be the best in your field. If your work is accepted by that journal, people like you will also recognise it as standing with the best in your field. If you don’t succeed with the first submission, try the next journal down the pecking-order. This is likely to be a more specialised journal. Before you submit your paper, check your chosen journal’s website for their advice to contributors – how to format a submission, how to send it in. It’s polite to format the paper to suit the journal’s house-style; if they have an unusual style, very different from other journals, you can format it in a generic style so that you don’t have to keep re-formatting every time you submit to a new journal. For more details on what happens after your paper has been accepted, see publishing in a journal.



‘Historians as Outsiders’, Adam I.P. Smith remembers William Brock and Michael O’Brien

Adam I.P. Smith is Honorary Secretary of the Royal Historical Society and Senior Lecturer specialising in American History at University College London (UCL).

In the last twelve months we have lost two great historians of the United States: William Brock and Michael O’Brien.* I remember them both with admiration and affection. They were men of different temperaments, backgrounds and generations, but beneath the surface were some similarities that tell us much about the practice of history at its best.

William died in November 2014 at the age of 98 having enjoyed (and enjoyed is the appropriate word) a long and distinguished career during which he made his name as one of the first generation of British scholars to write about the United States. In every decade from the 1930s to the 2000s, William published a book or an article, beginning with a study of Lord Liverpool, via a major body of work on nineteenth- and then twentieth-century American political history and ending with a brilliant study of Lord Bryce, a British observer of America of even older vintage than William.

(c) James Terence Hart Dyke; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Brock’s portrait in Selwyn College, Cambridge. (c) James Terence Hart Dyke; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When I was a graduate student at Cambridge in the 90s, William took me under his wing, sending me a note inviting me to dinner in his college (the note said: “Come to High Table at Selwyn on Wednesday. Bring a Gown. Yrs, W. R. Brock”). He seemed, and was, almost Victorian. He had been supervised by G. M. Trevelyan, he told me in his booming voice. He might as well have said he’d met Mr Gladstone, so impossibly venerable did that seem. With his large beak-like nose and his longish white hair, his tall stooping frame and his sharp blue eyes he looked as if he had walked out of a Tenniel cartoon inPunch. In his late years, he coped with deafness in a manner that I recommend we all adopt: when he couldn’t hear what you said (which was often) he just guffawed merrily as if you’d made an eruditely witty observation. He told me stories about Cambridge in the 30s when he had first come up as an undergraduate to Trinity College, about his war service (in Jamaica: he had a jolly good war), about a brief stint teaching at Eton and about life in postwar Cambridge where he returned as a fellow in 1947 and remained for the rest of his life, apart from a stint in Glasgow as the Chair of Modern History. As a historian, William was endlessly fascinated by how politics is shaped by institutions and by culture (though “culture” was not a term he tended to use). He wrote at a vigorous pace. His Glasgow colleague, Peter Parish (my own PhD supervisor) recalled that William would turn up every morning in the department office with sheafs of hand-written prose on yellow paper that he would press into the hands of the secretary to type up “in time for lunch”.

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

Michael, who died in May 2015 at the age of just 67, only a couple of months away from retirement came from a working class background in the West Country. His career began and ended, like William’s, at Cambridge. But unable to get a job in the UK when he completed his PhD in the 1970s (despite having published a pathbreaking article in theAmerican Historical Review while in only his second year as a research student), he went to the US where he taught for nearly a quarter of a century, mostly at Miami University in Ohio, before returning to Cambridge in 2002. Michael had a very dry sense of humour and a wry manner that suggested he was perpetually on the outside looking in, even when, in fact, he seemed to slot very neatly into the intellectual life of Cambridge, just as he did the wider community of intellectual historians in which he had become so influential. While William launched his scholarship with a redemption of the reputation of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister and spent much of the rest of his career studying senior American politicians, Michael’s intellectual project was to take seriously what had once been known, with a hint of irony or defensiveness as the “mind of the South.” His great two-volume work, Conjectures of Order, takes southern antebellum intellectuals seriously, reconstructing, in an amazing feat of historical imagination, how they sought to balance modernity with the slave system into which they were bound by multiple ties. Where William dealt in the language of “ideology”, partisanship and policy-making, the conceptual tools of Michael’s trade were Romanticism or historicism. No doubt perceiving William’s history as unnecessarily positivist, Michael was fascinated by the diversity and particularity of experience and understanding.

Both fierce intellects who expected a high standard of precision in the use of language, they were the product of contrasting intellectual influences. Yet, reading them both recently, and reflecting on their characters as I saw them, I am struck by how much they shared.

Most obviously they both made major interventions into their respective fields. In fact both opened up areas of scholarly research where old dogmas had long remained unchallenged. In Michael’s case the lazy assumption that the Old South had no intellectual tradition to speak of, or if it did, that it was mindless reaction; in William’s case, with his astonishing An American Crisis (1963), rejecting the canard that post-Civil War Reconstruction was a period of unmitigated disaster. Along with John Hope Franklin, William Brock laid the basis for the total reorientation of that fraught period in American history. What was once a “tragic era” became, by the time of Eric Foner’s great synthesis of 1988, an “unfinished revolution” in which the seeds of the twentieth century civil rights movement were sown.

Both Michael and William were generous to younger scholars and saw their role as intellectuals in part to nurture others and share ideas. If something was worth saying, both thought, it was worth saying well. Neither had any trace of pomposity. Confident in their own intellects, neither had the slightest desire, as so many academics so tediously do, to parade their learning on the page. They understood themselves to be engaged in a literary project when they wrote history. If the challenge of all historical writing is to show us a muddled world with clarity and precision (and perhaps wit), they both triumphed as few other historians do. They saw history as an eternally on-going conversation about how people imagine their world. Neither was under any illusion they would ever have the last word even while writing with an Olympian confidence in their own judgement.

Both used imagery to bring ideas alive. Both had a knack for describing the characters that drove their stories. No one other than Michael is likely to have described reading Francis Lieber’s letters as like “overhearing someone at the Athaneum Club” or would have written that William Gilmore Sims, “sat, like the thinking man’s Mr Pickwick, in the middle of the world he belonged to.” For William, Andrew Jackson was a man of “violent temper who had learned to control and use a rage when it suited him without letting it distort his judgement; but the temperament of a duelist remained, he would not forgive an insult and he saw his political opponents as personal enemies.” Probably no one other than William is likely to have explained in the Preface of a book, as he did in The Character of American History (1959), “the footnotes are intended to illustrate and occasionally to amuse.”

They shared a commitment to clarity in their writing and to understanding people on their own terms, including the intellectual frameworks that shaped their worlds. These things were more important, in my view, than the divergence of their subject matter or the self-consciousness of their methodology or the generational gulf that separated them.

Unlike most American historians of America who write, overtly, as citizens as well as scholars, deliberately seeking “usable pasts”, William and Michael valued their status as outsiders. (A point made about Michael in a lovely obit by Joel Isaac and Samuel James). They made no claims to superior insight because of their detachment, simply that they observed their subjects with openness, curiosity and a lack of moral judgement. They were not writing about “we”, but nor were they writing as a Victorian explorer might, about “them”.

In this, as in so many other ways, they are an example to all of us who aspire to write history. I miss them.

*This post is an extended version of remarks I made at a session remembering Brock and O’Brien at the 2015 BrANCH Conference in Cambridge. Writing this the morning after I spoke I am no doubt also channeling the thoughts and reflections of the other contributors to that session, especially John Thompson who was supervised by William and who supervised Michael. John spoke very movingly about both men, who he knew far, far better than I.


In Black History Month Ryan Hanley reconsiders his research on slavery and abolition

Ryan-Hanley-300x200Ryan Hanley won the RHS 2015 Alexander Prize for his article ‘Calvinism, Proslavery and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’, Slavery & Abolition 35:1 (2015) (published online in 2014). Dr Ryan Hanley is Salvesen Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford.

The article for which I was awarded this year’s Alexander Prize, forced me to reconsider a few things I had taken for granted as a historian of slavery and abolition. Now, during Black History Month, I’d like to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities facing historians interested in the study of black people in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain.

October is Black History Month in the UK.  As historians working in this country, this is an opportunity for us to focus especially on aspects of our shared past which had for a long time been, systematically and quite purposefully, elided from our ‘national story’.

This includes Britain’s massive financial and ideological investment in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade—not an insignificant ‘small part of our long history’ as is often (I think cynically) claimed, but an almost 300-year-long cycle of brutal exploitation, racist subjugation, and state-sanctioned murder. It had direct and catastrophic demographic consequences for parts of Africa. It undergirded a system of global capitalism that was to contribute, very significantly, to Britain’s rise to leading world-power status during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The compensation monies paid out to slave-owners were reinvested into domestic infrastructure, linking slavery in a very tangible way to much-cherished episodes of the Whiggish ‘national story’, such as the expansion of the railways during the nineteenth century. As reparationists like Verene Shepherd argue, it also indirectly led to on-going ‘poverty, illiteracy and public health crises’ in the Caribbean. Many historians—including me—would suggest that slavery is a root cause for some of the grossest manifestations of global economic disparity and domestic social inequality visible in our communities today.

RH Equiano

The portrait often supposed to depict Equiano

Yet, enormous though slavery is in the landscape of our shared history, it is not the whole story of how black and white people interacted during the same period. While historians like me, who are interested in recovering the experiences black people in Britain during the long eighteenth century, have to consider slavery and abolition at some point, we are also struck by how central a role black people played in a whole host of the other movements that (to borrow a cliché) ‘made Britain what it is today’. Nevertheless, it is telling that most of the ‘black heroes’ (in itself an unhelpful paradigm, as David Olusoga has recently pointed out) drawn from this period are primarily remembered through their crucial interventions in the abolitionist movements. For example, most of us will recognise the portrait that is often supposed to depict the famous black abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.

RHWedderburn square

Robert Wedderburn

Fewer will know about Robert Wedderburn, the radical writer and orator who played a central part in the campaign for domestic political reform during the early nineteenth century. He was almost certainly involved in the ‘Cato Street conspiracy’ to murder Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his cabinet in 1820, for which five men including William Davidson, Wedderburn’s friend and another ‘mulatto’ radical, were executed. Even those who do know about Wedderburn are still more likely to remember him for his antislavery writing than his radical activities.

RH Davidson

William Davidson

Black History Month prompts us to broaden our understanding of the contributions made by black people to British society, and thereby improve our understanding of British history more generally. For eighteenth-centuryists, this demands that we cast aside a couple of assumptions, namely:

1) That the only thing black people in eighteenth-century Britain were interested in was slavery.

2) That those black people who were interested in slavery all thought about it in exactly the same ways.

RH Sancho

Ignatius Sancho

RH Soubise

‘A Mungo Macaroni’, believed to be based on Julius Soubise

The first of these assumptions is easy to challenge. The archives are full of counterexamples. As well as Wedderburn and Davidson, we might name Ignatius Sancho, valet to the Duke and Duchess of Montagu and later an independent shopkeeper, who was the first black person in Britain who we know to have voted in a parliamentary election. Sancho was a composer and music theorist, known to his (predominately white) friends as their ‘oracle’. His posthumously published Letters demonstrate his commitment as much to literary sensibility and polite sociability as to any single political issue. (He is, incidentally, the subject of a wonderful one-man show starring Paterson Joseph, which is currently touring the US.) We might think also of his young friend, the scandalous Julius Soubise, who, if reports are to be believed, was more interested in fine clothes, fine wine and sexual conquest than intervening in the issue of slavery. These are just two well-off and well-known examples; a great many more black people participated in British movements and societies without ever accruing such a degree of celebrity. Add to these the numerous black ministers and preachers who toured the country—men like Boston King and John Jea—and the picture we are left with is one of far greater intellectual and ideological heterogeneity than is often supposed.

Challenging the second assumption can take us into some more problematic, even disturbing territory. While abolitionists like Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano played a hugely important role in British social and political history, not all black intellectuals shared their views. Some of the most troubling of these relationships with slavery were mediated by religion. The Methodist minister and former slave John Jea, for example, preached passivity and forgiveness to the enslaved, assuring them that true (i.e. spiritual) emancipation would be waiting for them in the afterlife. My article on James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, the first black author to be published in Britain, suggests that his near-lifelong involvement with Calvinism, and in particular with slave-owning British Calvinists, may help to explain why his autobiography does not challenge, and at times appears to condone, enslavement as a means of Christianising Africans. (We should note, of course, that Gronniosaw’s text was recorded by an amanuensis [scribe] and therefore may not uncomplicatedly reflect his own private views, but given the circumstances surrounding its publication it is likely that he at least publically expressed the sentiments recorded in his autobiography.) In its support of proslavery religious thought Gronniosaw’s work echoed that of Jacobus Capitein, a black Dutch Reformed minister whose academic dissertation ‘examining the question: is slavery compatible with Christian freedom, or not?’ was published in Leiden in 1742.  Moreover, a number of the highest-profile African visitors to Britain during this period, such as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and William Ansah Sessarakoo, were themselves slave traders.

RH Diallo & Sessarakoo

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (left) and William Ansah Sessarakoo (right)

Of course, this does not mean that we cannot acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of black abolitionists, which, I reiterate, were of central importance to the British campaigns against slavery. Nor should it distract us from the fact that by far the majority of proslavery argument came from self-interested white slave owners, or indeed that Europe has benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade while sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean have suffered. But there is room to acknowledge that, contrary to what some commentators like Edward Long said about them at the time, black people in eighteenth-century Britain were human beings, and were thus subject to historical contingency, cultural bias and social influence. Like their white peers, some of them were wrong about slavery.

As historians we have an obligation to take seriously what these black intellectuals said, even when it is not what we were hoping to hear. But we should also note that, in a roundabout way, even these misguided figures ultimately helped improve the lives of free and enslaved people in Britain and its colonies. They proved to a sceptical British public that black people were capable of intellectual, spiritual and moral understanding at the highest level, and in doing so debunked one of the fundamental myths used to justify slavery. While acknowledging the complexities that surround the formation and dissemination of some of these ideas, we should celebrate these hard-won achievements as fundamental to the development of our shared history—or, if you prefer, our ‘national story’.

Go to History Matters conference video about why so few black students pursue history at Higher Education level.

Go to RHS News


History Matters Conference video

On Saturday 25 April, a conference was held to discuss why there are so few history students and teachers of African and Caribbean heritage. A short video was made of the conference highlighting the key issues, which you can view here.

Some disturbing facts:

  • Last year only three Black students were admitted to train as History teacher
  • Official statistics indicate that History is the third most unpopular subject among Black undergraduates
  • During 2012/13 there were 1340 Black undergraduates studying History, 1.8% of the total
  • At present it is estimated that there are less than 10 Black PhD students studying History in the country
  • Why are so few Black students studying History?
  • Why are there so few Black teachers of History in our schools?
  • Why are there so few Black academic historians?
  • Why do some young black people view History as just a ‘white middle-class pursuit’, when history is so popular at community level?

The History Matters Conference explored these questions aiming to understand why such low numbers of Black students are engaging with History as a subject. Teachers, school and university students, as well as professional historians convened to discuss their experiences of studying history and to suggest ways forward. The objectives were to identify the reasons for this under-representation and to encourage more young black people to study history.

‘Black and ethnic minorities still have mountains to climb in Higher Education’, Times Higher Education, 5 November 2015

History Matters logo‘Only three black applicants win places to train as history teachers’, The Observer, 22 March 2014

More information



RHS Public History Workshop, Thursday 29 October

In association with the new RHS Public History Prize there will be a free Public History Workshop to be held on Thursday 29th October from 10am-5pm in the Wolfson suite at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, London.

Although it is a free event, space is limited and it is advisable to book early to secure your place. 

Register to attend the workshop

Keynote Speakers

Justin Champion, Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London, and President of the Historical Association.

Pamela Cox, Professor of Sociology, University of Essex, and presenter of the BBC series Shopgirls: the True Story Behind the Counter and Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs.

Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor of History and Visual Arts and Cultures, Durham University; Trustee of the Science Museum Group and chair of its collections and research committees; author of History in Practice and The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice. 

Workshop Programme

10.00     Lawrence Goldman to open event

10.20     Pam Cox – Public Audience History (+Q&A)

10.50     Daniel Johnson: Public Engagement and the Making of the Twenty-First Century Museum

Michael Mantin: From Pithead to Sick Bed: Disability and the South Welsh Coal Industry in the Museum


11.50     Ludmilla Jordanova: Public History – A Provocation (+Q&A)

12.20     Lunch

13.20     Alexander Hutton: Golden Age Thinking: Historians of the Industrial Revolution and their Publics

Claire Hayward: Memorialising the Past and Representing the Present in ‘homomonuments’: the commemoration of same-sex love and LGBTQ communities


14.20     Activity: Advocating Public History

15.00     Tea

15.20     Justin Champion: ‘Making public, making a difference’: designing research questions with a public purpose?

15.50     Discussion

16.30     Close

It is anticipated that the workshop will become an annual event, which every second year will also celebrate the award of one postgraduate and one undergraduate prize in public history, in conjunction with the Historical Association. 


John Sabapathy writes about his Whitfield prize-winning book ‘Officers and Accountability in Medieval England’

John Sabapathy is a Lecturer in Medieval History at UCL who works on the comparative history of Europe/Christendom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. His monograph Officers and Accountability in Medieval England, 1170-1300, a study of English officers in an European context, has been awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for 2015. Here he reflects on his reasons for writing the book, its contemporary context and what further agendas it might help open out for historians.


Exchequer of Pleas

Historians often feel a proper professional nausea at the first person singular, but some contextualization may at least justify itself by describing how the medieval concerns of my book Officers and Accountability in Medieval England resonate today, as well as suggesting some historiographical ways forward. The book’s main argument is that the late twelfth to thirteen centuries was a period in which a number of extremely creative, practical ways were developed to control the insolence of the growing number of officers within a range of English institutions. Auditing and accounting at the Exchequer, eyres outside it; inquisitions by and into prelates; elaborate writs of account for investigating the doings and conduct of seignorial bailiffs; scrutinies of wardens and fellows within colleges: all these practices were greatly elaborated, though not necessarily invented, during this period. As that implies, however, those officers were not only ‘state’ ones. Historians have thought about the development of administrative control with too great a fixation on The State and the book argues for the importance of experimentation by towns, churches, universities and on lords’ estates too. Much of it focuses on these practices, but it is also interested in medieval reflection on them and so throughout I tried to explore the tension between the prescriptiveness of formal ways of holding to account and the wider licence of giving someone responsibilities.

In documenting and exploring this there were perhaps three large things that the book tried to do: show that accountability can be sensibly thought about for pre-modern Europe; that even if sensible such ‘accountability’ was not at all straightforward; and finally that administrative or institutional history could be a lot more interesting than its ostensible reputation has sometimes implied.

Officers and AccountabilityMy thinking about what medieval accountability could secure and what it could not and how had its own history. Although – I hope – the book is not a prisoner of its present, its agendas were undeniably informed by a pre-academic professional life in the late nineties and early noughties when I worked on corporate accountability inside various think tanks with companies, NGOs, governmental departments, and large philanthropic funders. Before the financial crisis of 2007-9 an interesting moment passed in which those groups tried to work out whether it was possible to make companies more accountable and sustainable (environmentally speaking) while, perhaps, making them stronger as companies by so doing. (The conclusion today seems more pessimistic.) It was a broad church. On one side Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former head of strategy at Downing Street, was then the far less well-known founder of a small consultancy called Good Business. Elsewhere groups like the New Economics Foundation (where I worked for several years) tried to redefine what growth, progress and economics should mean.

There were various interesting tensions in such work on (modern, corporate) accountability. The tension between impulses to call for legislation to make companies more ‘accountable’ versus the desire for groups to assume voluntarily some degree of ‘responsibility’; the desire for these mechanisms to produce some sort of virtuous circle of social and economic reward for companies versus a suspicion that it could not be so; the desire to ‘marketize’ these responsible, environmental aspects of corporate performance versus evidence against the existence of viable markets within existing regulatory frameworks. And so on.

Throughout all these tensions however a deep lack of clarity seemed to run through most thinking about what on earth ‘accountability’ actually was. The clearest view came from the most critical anti-corporate groups, but they were also the crudest. Few seemed to have very good ways of recognizing how calls for (more) accountability worked, who they served, who it was they actually served and whether they had much to do with ‘accountability’ per se at all. ‘Who, whom?’, in the question attributed to Lenin, could have been more frequently asked. The complexity of what was going on was tremendous. Small, sometimes beleaguered, groups within companies tried to use arguments in favour of sustainability to strengthen themselves. Non-corporate groups used the credibility of working with such companies to leverage their wider standing with other funders and in the media. Yet any sociology of what was actually going on was pretty thin, and so the political activities more or less frustrated or frustrating. The result was that accountability was over-hyped, undernourished, and ultimately undernourishing. It was this dissatisfaction with a modern conversation about ‘accountability’ that ultimately led to my exploration of this modern mentality in relation to medieval officers.

Jinty Nelson

Jinty Nelson

Here I wanted to try and see whether one could inject a political and intellectual sensibility into administrative historiography and add in a way to the work of better historians who seemed to do that at the highest levels – Michael Clanchy, J. E. A. Jolliffe, J. C. Holt and most recently Tom Bisson, to name a few. The book itself was a very ‘London’ one. There I might invidiously single out three historians who shaped the book’s purposes fundamentally: Jinty Nelson (who had taught me), Michael Clanchy, and Susan Reynolds who I got to know at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). I had found Michael’s work on the power of administration and legal practice enormously inspiring and provocative. I had been very struck similarly by Susan’s concentration on what a colleague calls common politics, and while I thought intellectuals had an important role in this particular history they were not its sole actors. I had also been very influenced by Jinty’s idea of ‘political thinking’, and took this to be a way of thinking about issues addressed in the Cambridge Histories of Political Thought but using sources that largely did not figure in them – in this case mostly administrative. By example they also all encouraged me to avoid an insular approach to this English material. To speak in terms of London institutions, one might say the book was written with a Warburg Institute sensibility using sources of a type generally held by the IHR.

This says something about what the book sought to do and why the topic seemed important. That importance does not seem to have diminished on two counts that suggest further ways forward.

Bartolo-di-Fredi A-Papal-Saint-Saint-Gregory-the-Great-1380

Gregory the Great

First, unsurprisingly, the problematic nature of ‘accountability’ has not gone away. Most public debate talks about it in the most diffuse and unhelpful of ways. Accountability is treated as a species of, or synonym for, justice, when it is a much more limited and complicated political good. Yet, as Gregory the Great knew even Satan has his court holding demons to account for how much wrong they have helped with. What sort of a ‘good’ is Satan’s accountability? We continue, then, to need more, better readings of accountability in all sorts of different places and periods to help us understand the particular nature, potential limits, and fantasies within those forms that we have created, invoked, and presumed upon.

Second, such fuzziness about this concept and its often lazy invocation is a symptom of our wider limitations in explaining institutionalization historically and generally. In the Middle Ages an enormous range of organizations and practices structured life at all sorts of levels, from churches, to parliaments to rituals of homage. Contemporary life is arguably even more institutionally structured, although, being committed individualists, we do not like to think so. Put simply, we need better institutional histories of ourselves. There is some reason for optimism here. The book suggests that, at least in medieval historiography, a new administrative history is taking shape   – one that has learnt its interdisciplinary lessons from later twentieth century historiography and is able to think about the interplay of individuals, organizational forms and institutional practices more convincingly than before. It would be good to think that this is a way of thinking historiographically that specialists of different periods can learn from each other about. Certainly there are striking recent ‘big’ examples of early medieval, early modern and modern institutional histories. If historians can show more clearly how this interplay has both constrained and enabled humans historically then we will understand our past and ourselves better, which is all anyone can ask of historians in any case.

Go to Whitfield Prize

Go to RHS News



(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Joanne (Bailey) Begiato ‘Manly bodies in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England’

Bailey_JThe recent symposium at the University of Northampton, sponsored by the RHS, on Masculinity and the Body in England, 1500-1900 aimed  to reflect developments in the historiography of the body over the last 25 years. Here Joanne (Bailey) Begiato, Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University, presents a summary of the paper she delivered at the symposium. Her research queries our assumptions about attitudes towards the male body, showing how social attitudes have evolved over time. In the early nineteenth century, for example, the muscular male arm was commonly a cohesive symbol of manliness, but by the early twentieth century it had become for some a threatening image associated with socialism and class conflict.

The body was central to ideas about manliness in the century between the Seven Years and Crimean Wars. Scholars from several disciplines have shown how men’s bodies were presented in idealised, aesthetic forms, functioning as positive stereotypes and symbols of normative meaning and values, or as bearers of stigmatized inadequate bodies that marked them as ethnic, racial, sexual, or class outsiders.[1] My symposium paper proposed that it is helpful to explore these issues more fully in order to avoid assuming that men’s bodies were categorised in distinct ways according to social, cultural, and biological distinctions. An embodied history of masculinity reveals how the masculine form was mutable, since changing practices in war, empire, and labour, together with understandings of science, sports, and aesthetic fashions all influenced the relationship between physiques, minds, and gender identities. For the most part, representations of the idealised male body were aimed at, and formulated by, educated genteel society; yet it is striking that labouring men’s bodies often appeared in the narrative of idealised body types: especially the soldier, the sailor, the boxer, and the entrepreneurial strongman.

Scholars of labour and art tend to see such ‘heroic’ depictions of labouring men as subordinating and objectifying and hence differentiating men of this class from higher ranks. Ava Baron argues that they were made passive because, like women, they became the subject of the gaze; their muscular bodies were eroticised and therefore pacified.[2] Though handsome, heroic, and idealised, states Annie Ravenhill-Johnson, these working men were “the other.” Their depiction reassured middle- and upper-class viewers that workers were sober, industrious and, though large and muscular, not threatening, since these were representations of disciplined bodies.

Bailey, Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

As Mark Jenner and Bertrand Taithe argue, however, a Foucauldian approach can reduce accounts of bodies ‘to their representations within particular genres or discourses, and above all, disciplinary codes and prescriptive texts’. This can fetishize the body, removing it from its cultural and social contexts.[4] Indeed, it is possible to complicate the role of the working-class male body and not see it merely as a foil for elite men’s masculine identities. Certainly, the upper classes manipulated the representation of labouring men’s bodies. John Barrell shows the changeability of the imagined rural labouring male body in landscape painting in the Georgian era, shaped by elite attitudes towards social relations. Nonetheless, these working bodies could have been viewed in terms other than condescension, passivity, and subordination. Positive depictions of labouring men were widespread in songs, visual, and textual depictions, including the rural labouring man at his cottage door and the hardy patriotic Jack Tar; their manly qualities partly conveyed through their robust, stout, hard bodies. Such images sentimentalised men’s hard labour and in the process made the working-class man less intimidating and a moral exemplar for society. Yet there is more to them than this.

Bailey, Sinews_of_old_england

George Hicks, The Sinews of Old England

Read more closely, and in their different contexts, it is also evident that representations of working-class men’s bodies had multiple meanings and collective social agency. Elite men, for example, were personally inspired by the idealised hardened working male body. John Styles shows that wealthy men adopted plebeian styles of dress in the later eighteenth century, wearing modest and plain clothing which came to be seen as a distinctively English style. The fashion was a result of the culture of sensibility which evoked rural simplicity and retreat, those who chose to dress down ‘were sharing in a powerful trend towards the rural, the sporting and the plebeian.’ In the era of national crisis during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars this trend personified patriotism through the association of pugnacious plebeian masculinity with English liberty.[5] If wealthier men imitated plebeian clothing, they emulated the plebeian body too as their fascination with boxing, boxers’ bodies, and the adoption of its regimes and training suggests.[6] In the mid-nineteenth century artists and writers admired heroic working men, like George Hicks’s The Sinews of Old England, 1857, Ford Madox Brown’s richly iconographic painting ‘Work,’ or Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Labour’ in Past & Present (1843) the viewer is meant to admire the men. Yet this was not simply class-condescension or alterity. These men romanticised the male labouring body, perhaps longed to possess it themselves, but certainly saw it as informing the masculine identity of men in higher social ranks.

Bailey Manly bodies 1

Scottish Iron Moulders Union certificate, 1831

Perhaps most importantly, working-class men used these representations in the iconography they deployed to represent their friendly societies, trades unions, and political movements. For example, members of the working classes deployed the image of the handsome, working man resting at his cottage door to demonstrate through his manly, temperate behaviour, and physical strength, that they possessed the independence and respectability to demand a political voice. One particularly evocative symbol of the working man was the muscular forearm. By the twentieth century it had become, for some, a threatening image of politicised class-conflict through its association with socialism. In the first half of the nineteenth century, however, it was a symbol of positive masculinity. Originally, a strong and muscular arm did not symbolise class-specific manhood. Initially the sign of the blacksmith, the single raised muscular arm bearing a hammer was used in trade guilds’ heraldry to represent specific skilled trades.[7] It also embodied the physical characteristics of masculinity in general. For example, in an early seventeenth century poem reprinted in 1793, A Maid’s Revenge by James Shirley, the Count de Monte Nigro (described as a braggard) asked: Wherefore has | Nature given me these brawny arms, this manly bulk, | And these collossian supporters nothing but to sling | The sledge, or pitch the bar, and play.[8]

Working men themselves developed the visual iconography of muscular arms in the nineteenth century to represent working-class identity, gender and objectives. Heroic workingmen were frequently depicted on the bannerettes, banners, and certificates; large, noble figures elevated and central, rolled up shirt sleeves showing muscular forearms. Historians of the iconography of friendly societies and trades unions link this heroic style to a ‘new recognition of the times that the wealth of the nation rested on its industrial output, and the skills of its working men’.[9] However, the symbol of the working man and his muscular arm was not predominantly a result of industrialisation. It had much in common with the dignified, large, strong, and heroic working men depicted from the turn of the eighteenth century. It therefore represented manliness; a symbol of gender more broadly and only came to represent the entire working class by the late nineteenth century.[10]

Bailey Jack Crawford

Jack Crawford

There is evidence of the links between the images’ gender and class dimensions. J Havelock Wilson, founder of the sailors’ and fireman’s union (1887), explained in his autobiography that union banners often portrayed national figures of importance to the working-class movement. He recalled frequently seeing his own portrait on the various banners of the Seamen’s Union in all kinds of ‘picturesque positions’. One that he specially noted was the ‘”heroic sailor”’ Jack Crawford, the hero of the naval battle of Camperdown’ in 1797. This Sunderland-born sailor became a northern hero thanks to his brave actions and was portrayed on ceramics, and prints throughout the following century.[11] This hints at a lineage of working-class heroism, rooted in male bodily strength and evolving from a primarily gender to class identity.

We know that men’s bodies were reified as symbols, progenitors, and defenders of gender, society, and nation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, more needs to be done to complicate the resulting narrative. Although the needs of the state and nation were prominent in dictating the idealised male body, the process was dynamic rather than top-down. The labouring man’s muscular form could both inspire elite men and offer agency to working men.


[1] George L. Mosse, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity, New York: Oxford. University Press, 1996.

[2] Ava Baron, ‘Masculinity, the embodied male worker, and the historian’s gaze’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 69, 2006, 146-7

[3] Annie Ravenhill-Johnson edited by Paula James, The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, London : Anthem Press, 2013 p. 38.

[4] Mark Jenner and Bertrand Taithe, ‘The Historiographical Body’ in Roger Cooter and John Pickstone (eds), Companion to Medicine in the Twentieth Century, Routledge, London and New York, 2003, pp. 193, 194, 198.

[5]John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (Yale University Press, 2007).  pp. 192-3.

[6] Kasia Boddy, Boxing A Cultural History, Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 44-45.

[7] Kim Munson, ‘The Evolution of an Emblem: the Arm & Hammer, 2010, unpublished paper.

[8] James Shirley, The maid’s revenge. A tragedy, London, 1793.

[9] Ravenhill-Johnson, Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, pp. 28, 38, 107.

[10] Munson, Evolution of an Emblem, p. 9.

[11] John Gorman, Banner Bright: An illustrated history of the banners of the British trade union movement, 1973, p.113.


Andrew Arsan on being joint winner of the 2015 Gladstone book prize

Andrew Arsan is joint winner of the 2015 Gladstone Prize for his book Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa (Hurst, 2014). Here he reflects on the importance of the prize not just in terms of its personal significance, but also for its timely recognition of historians of the Middle East. Andrew Arsan is Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History at St John’s College, Cambridge.

Interlopers of Empire

Seamus Heaney once spoke of the essays in self-presentation at which his American students excelled – a little doubt carefully sprinkled around the edges, a grace note or two of tasteful self-deprecation, but also an ability to plot the course of one’s life like a javelin travelling true through the air. I imagine we’ve all seen pieces like this, virtuoso compositions that set out to dazzle with the rapid fire reeling-off of accomplishments, and that treat past experience with all the blithe assurance and clarity of youth, as though each event was pregnant with meaning and each moment carried within it the portent of future achievement. It’d be easy – perhaps too easy – to lapse into this autobiographical mode and to claim for my younger self desires and drives he did not possess, to insist that I’d always intended to become a historian, to take on the subjects I have, to write the book I did. Easy, too, would be the obverse course of action: to claim that all was serendipity and contingency, and that I simply came upon this particular path by accident while wandering the blind alleys and byways of early adulthood. But I’m not sure that either account would be quite satisfactory. While one is all over-determination, weighed down and rendered awkward by the teleological freight I was taught to discard as an undergraduate, the other is simply too facile in its resistance to self-examination and analysis. More importantly, both make the grievous mistake of assuming that others will share one’s own fascination with one’s past. So rather than dwelling on what led me to become a historian of Lebanon and the Lebanese diaspora, of the Middle East and its formative entanglements with the world beyond, and to write Interlopers of Empire, a work that attempts to reconstruct the intimate moments and individual trajectories of Eastern Mediterranean migrants to colonial West Africa, I’ll attempt here to articulate what it means to me to have won the Gladstone Prize.

Lucie Ryzova

Lucie Ryzova

I’m proud, it goes without saying, to have been awarded this prize – and equally proud to have shared it with Lucie Ryzova, a brilliant and profoundly innovative historian of modern Egypt whose work on the self-fashioning of the effendiyya will shape discussion of these creatures of modernity for years to come. But I regard this not as a personal achievement, but as a symptom of a broader change in our profession. It would have been difficult even a few short years ago to imagine a prize of this stature being awarded to one historian of the Middle East, let alone two. But here we are, and the fact that Lucie and I share this year’s prize is not just a sign of the judges’ perspicacity, but also a reminder of how far Middle Eastern history has come in this country. The last few years have witnessed a spate of appointments in this field, as young scholars – Lucie and her colleague Simon Jackson at Birmingham, Jacob Norris and Hilary Kalmbach at Sussex, Benjamin White at Glasgow, my colleague Helen Pfeifer at Cambridge, and others – have taken up newly formed lectureships. Attentive at once to the specific demands and particular trajectories of regional history and to the broader currents of historical debate, these scholars are as willing to set the Middle East in a broader context as they are to treat it on its own terms. All, too, share a determination to prise the region from the gloomy narratives in which it is so often encased without, however, shying away from the difficulties and complexities of the Middle Eastern past.

In their different ways, then, these scholars are producing useable histories – useable not in their crude instrumentality and their subjection to the demands of the present, but in their willingness to provide narratives that surprise and enlighten even as they discomfit, that remind us of forgotten pasts and alternative futures even as they help us to understand the region’s halting progress towards the broken present. Whatever my reasons for writing Interlopers of Empire, I’m glad that I wrote it when I did. It’s a good time to be a historian of the Middle East – and never, perhaps, have our voices been needed more.

Go to RHS News