RHS News

Anthony Musson, ‘Magna Carta – the Foundation of Freedom’

Anthony MussonAnthony Musson is Professor of Legal History and Director of the Bracton Centre for Legal History Research at the University of Exeter. He is a contributor to the Magna Carta Trust’s official commemorative volume Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent (London, 2015) and has published extensively on legal history and legal culture including Medieval Law in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester, 2001) and (with C. Stebbings) Making Legal History (Cambridge, 2012).

In January 2015 the Exeter-based Express and Echo ran a story (also frontline news in the Daily Mail): Defiant hoarder vows to fight council’s clear-up order… using the Magna Carta! Threatened with a notice from the council to declutter his house, a Plymouth pensioner, Arthur Watson, claimed protection of the Great Charter on the basis that his rights had been breached since (in his words): ‘The Magna Carta states that no free man may have his possessions taken without due process and the judgement of his peers.’

Magna_charta_cum_statutis_angliae_p1This year we are celebrating the 800th Anniversary of King John’s accord with the English barons, the treaty sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 that became the ‘Charter of Liberties’. Mr Watson’s perception of the modern relevance and value of Magna Carta, however misguided in precise legal terms, not only bears witness to its continuing influence, but also its place in the ‘popular’ imagination. This is in spite of the fact that the Charter’s binding provisions lasted a mere 10 weeks before it was annulled by the Pope upon John’s application. After John’s death in October 1216 it could have remained a dead letter, but for its resurgence as a tool of royal propaganda, revised and reissued first in November 1216 and then definitively in 1225, promoting the future good governance of the young Henry III. The rolls of parliament and various statutes, ordinances and treaties of the period demonstrate how from the thirteenth century onwards Magna Carta was enshrined in the lexicon of political/constitutional debate between the king and his subjects.

While it is often perceived only as a grand constitutional document, the Great Charter was more than a brake on the king’s unreasonable financial exactions and arbitrary exercise of justice. Although it contains a curious mixture of clauses, some of which appear very obscure today, its relevance not just to the upper layer of society, the barons and knights, but to ordinary people in medieval England, can be observed in the way they strategically appealed to Magna Carta in petitions and litigation as an authoritative reason for the king to intervene and remedy their complaints. Not surprisingly, from an early stage Magna Carta played an important part in legal education. Moot questions on areas of law espoused by the Great Charter were favoured by lawyers from at least the 1340s, while readings (lectures) on individual chapters of the ‘laudable statute of Magna Carta’ by senior members (‘benchers’) of the four Inns of Court also became common fare from around the mid fifteenth century.

MC - English_Bill_of_Rights_of_1689

Declaration of Rights, 1689

Magna Carta had a strangely low profile during the controversies of the sixteenth century. Following Henry VIII’s break with Rome, it was only vaguely raised in connection with the treatment of religious houses and religious persecution during the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth. It took a central role, however, in the seventeenth-century conflict between king and Parliament, as common lawyers (notably Sir Edward Coke) and parliamentarians turned to a mythical ‘ancient constitution’, a body of laws and customs supposedly surviving from pre-Roman Britain, as a defence against both James I’s and Charles I’s assertion of the royal prerogative. Although the Great Charter itself does not specify the means of retribution against recalcitrant kings, the history books are peppered with royal depositions for which Magna Carta is cited as justification. Events in the mid seventeenth century in particular proved to have more extreme consequences than the 1215-16 rebellion with the trial and public execution of Charles I. The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, culminating in the deposition of James II, while essentially peaceful, again seemed a reprise of the rebellion against John to the extent that the settlement following William and Mary’s accession included a Declaration of Rights that was endorsed by Parliament as a new Magna Carta.

Incorporation of consent to taxation, trial by jury, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and due process under the law in the constitutional blueprints of the emergent United States of America secured for Magna Carta a lasting influence in Anglo-American law. Arguments employing these notions have been cited pragmatically across the globe in times of political crisis and paradoxically are employed both against and in support of the authority of the state (as witnessed by the American and French Revolutions). Magna Carta was also cited throughout the nineteenth century by the representatives of ‘native’ peoples determined to share in freedoms claimed by their colonial oppressors. Elements (including ‘the right to a fair trial’) are now enshrined in documents preserving personal liberties, notably the European Convention of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

magna_carta_corbis_mugThe plethora of merchandise that has accompanied the 800th Anniversary: from Magna Carta rulers, tea towels and cushions, to i-phone cases, fudge, and even mead, may cynically be capitalising on the internationally recognised values inherent in this iconic national symbol. But spreading the gospel of Magna Carta by appreciating a good commercial opportunity has deep historical roots.

Magna Carta - BeardmoreRadical lawyer Arthur Beardmore, for example, editor of The Monitor, who was arrested for seditious libel in 1762 (a period when freedom of the press came increasingly under attack) demonstrated a shrewd eye for publicity by arranging to be arrested while teaching Magna Carta to his young son. He became a popular hero and a print picturing the event circulated widely. A copy from 1765, now in the British Museum, pictures Beardmore dutifully pointing out to his son the Latin words of chapter 29 (in the 1225 version) ‘no free man shall be imprisoned…’. A caption beneath the image, appropriately taken from the Bible (Deuteronomy VI, 6-7), reads: ‘These words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart. And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.’

Magna Carta Wilkes teapotA friend of Beardmore’s, John Wilkes, editor of The North Briton and an outspoken MP, was imprisoned in the Tower of London a year later also for seditious libel, though later released under parliamentary privilege. Wilkes transformed his prosecution into a campaign against oppression, invoking the ‘genuine spirit of Magna Carta’, which he termed ‘that glorious inheritance, that distinguishing characteristic of the Englishmen’. Significantly, Wilkes realised not only were newspapers a powerful propaganda tool in his campaign, but so too was merchandising. Cunningly he produced an extensive range of prints, engravings, buttons, medals and even porcelain figurines, teapots and mugs containing slogans such as ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ and ‘No General Warrants’. A medal or token produced in 1763 to commemorate the infamous forty-fifth edition of the North Briton (attacking the power of the Crown) has a portrait of Wilkes on the obverse and Old Father Time with the words ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘No 45’ on the reverse thereby connecting his personal defence of liberty with the historical tradition of Magna Carta. The consumerism associated with ‘Magna Carta and liberty’ in the eighteenth century captured minds and purses in the nineteenth century, too, as demonstrated by a bottle modeling the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, the person responsible for passing the Great Reform Act of 1832, which in turn is labeled (on the bottle) ‘Second Magna Carta’.

MC Lord DenningTwentieth-century British judge, Lord Denning’s pronouncement that Magna Carta is ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times’ signals the extent to which it is totemized even in the modern era. Yet Magna Carta’s history, just like its text, is a legacy of paradoxes. As Mr Arthur Watson and many others before him have demonstrated, it has become an integral part of ‘popular’ (mis)understanding of the law: a symbol of the rule of law to which everyone is entitled, even though for much of its history there have been significant parts of the community (such as women and slaves) formally excluded from its benefits. Moreover, in the pubic imagination, through a coincidence of chronology and the imperceptible hand of legal and constitutional tradition, Magna Carta and jury trial are conjoined twins. Parliamentary debate about changes to the justice system or media scares about abolition of trial by jury (as occurred when the first trial without a jury of a serious fraud case took place in 2010) always provokes an outcry with Magna Carta brandished as a symbol of legal tradition and constitutional restraint.

To what real effect though? Where is the rational arm of Magna Carta when the bombs start falling or terrorists strike or in the vicinity of Guantanamo Bay? – a question increasingly being asked by ordinary people engaging with the concept of executive power in the modern world. Amid calls for a ‘Global Magna Carta’ and even a written constitution for the United Kingdom, Magna Carta’s 800th Anniversary has significantly heightened public awareness, especially amongst young people, not just of the principles and values enshrined in the Great Charter, but also of the importance of history, especially its interpretation and contextualisation. Like the character of Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, should we be worried or reassured? ‘So long as the vast population doesn’t wander about quoting the Magna Carta and the Constitution, it’s all right’. I think it has already started.

Further Reading

Nicholas Vincent, (ed.) Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215-2015, (London, 2015)

Anthony Musson, Medieval Law in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester, 2001)

A. Musson & C. Stebbings, Making Legal History (Cambridge, 2012).

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Laura Beers, ‘GE2015 – Pollsters, Pundits & Punters: a view from the morning after’



Few were surprised as David Dimbleby began his election-night coverage with the pronouncement that, according to the exit poll, the Conservatives would come out of the election as the largest party in the House. This was, after all, what the polls had predicted. That calm assurance disappeared when the actual forecasts were released seconds later. In the end, it emerged that the exit poll too had underestimated the Conservative performance and overestimated Labour, although by less than any other index. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of its release, the predictions seemed almost incredible. Politicians, pundits and pollsters were stunned, and many, indeed, refused to believe the results.

GE2015 EdM defeatTheir disbelief stemmed from the wide gap between the exit poll predictions and all previous indices of likely voter behaviour. The various polls of voter intentions had remained neck and neck until the eve of the election, with Labour actually seeing a slight bump in the run up to 7 May. Of the various statisticians who had hazarded an attempt to translate poll numbers into seat predictions, none had given the Conservatives more than 285 seats, nor foreseen Labour falling below 262. Predictions for the SNP take ranged from 56 (May2015.com) to 52 (The Guardian).  Throughout the election, the betting markets had had the Conservatives outperforming poll predictions, and, as Mike Smithson reported on politicalbetting.com, SportingIndex was trading Conservatives at a middle price of 290 on the eve of poll.  At Ladbrokes, however, the market in Conservative majorities had fallen to 285.5 on the morning on 7 May. Both betting shops were trading Labour at around 266 and the Lib Dems at 25-27, while Ladbrokes had the SNP at 50.5, and SportingIndex’s middle price for the Scottish Nationalists was 46.5.

Even before the final results came in, political commentators were pointing fingers at the pollsters, and searching for explanations for their failure to foresee the result.  Opinion polling firms certainly need to do some serious soul searching and re-evaluation of their methodology, particularly in assigning intent to self-declared undecided voters.  As of yet, however, there has been little consideration of the political betting market, and what the betting lines can tell us about the utility of the modern British betting markets as indices of voter behaviour.BBC Election resultsAs I discussed in my original post, advocates of political betting markets as accurate indices of likely voter behavior argue that such markets act to aggregate the knowledge of a representatively diverse crowd. In political spread betting, unlike in traditional sports betting, the “price” for a party is determined by the market. For the markets to arrive at the correct “prices” for each party, the men and women who bet on politics must bring sufficient unbiased information to the market to drive it in the right direction.  Yet, research into interwar historical betting markets has revealed their participants to be remarkably undiverse and biased, and their bias and lack of diversity is arguably a key explanation of their failure accurately to predict interwar election outcomes.

GE2015 Clegg defeatThe prevalence and anonymity of internet betting means that it is practically impossible to sketch a social picture of the modern betting market. However, is it possible to extrapolate anything backwards from the market results? The betting markets did not accurately foresee the election outcome, but, throughout the campaign, they correctly perceived that the opinion polls were underestimating the strength of Conservative support in the country. This suggests that market participants had some insight into opinion on the ground outside of London. On the other hand, the market participants proved no better than the polls at predicting the collapse of Lib Dem support.

GE2015 Nicola SturgeonNor did they appear to have much foreknowledge of the strength of pro-SNP sentiment in Scotland, and served as a worse indicator of voter behaviour north of Hadrian’s wall than the opinion polls. If we accept the theory that betting markets function as accurate indices when a diverse and unbiased crowd participates, today’s political betting markets do not appear to be much more representative of British society as a whole than were interwar markets. As in the interwar period, the market participants appear to have been well informed about opinion in middle England, but to have had less purchase on opinion further from the home counties. In the interwar period, the markets consistently misjudged opinion in the north of England. This time, they appeared unable to gauge shifts in Scotland and the southwest. The swing from Labour to the SNP and from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives was not anticipated by the betting markets any more than it had been by the opinion polls.

Laura Beers, ‘GE2015 – Pollsters, Pundits & Punters’ 

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Laura Beers, ‘GE2015 – Pollsters, Pundits & Punters’

Laura BeersDr Laura Beers looks at 2015 general election predictions and how they align with past efforts of pollsters, pundits and punters to predict general election results. Laura Beers is a Birmingham Fellow at the University of Birmingham.  She is the author of Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party (Harvard University Press, 2010), and has published extensively on politics and public opinion in twentieth-century Britain. 

GE2015 HUGWhich party should Britons expect to come out of the 7 May election with the largest number of seats, and, therefore, arguably, a mandate for first stab at forming a government?  Conventional wisdom suggests that, the national polls being a dead heat, the Labour party should fare better in terms of seats on 7 May than the Conservatives.  Since Labour’s emergence as a national political player in 1918, the party has secured its seats with comparative efficiency – it has held seats in smaller constituencies, won on lower turnout and beaten its rivals by smaller margins in tight contests.  So, if both Labour and the Tories win 35% of the vote, Labour should be expected to spread their vote share more economically and translate an equal number of votes into a larger number of seats.  However, the conventional wisdom may not hold to the same extent (if at all) this election, as the SNP wipe out Labour’s hold over small traditionally low-turnout seats in Scotland, and UKIP cuts down on some of the Tories’ “wasteful” mega-majorities without actually costing them seats.

Pollsters, pundits and punters now all suggest it is unlikely any party will achieve an outright majority on 7 May.  But who will walk away with a plurality of seats?  It depends on whom you ask.  The various models based on current poll data and analyses of past performance are divided over which party will come out ahead.  On 17 April Polling Observatory predicted Labour to win 278, with the Tories only garnering 269, and, on 21 April, May2015.com predicted a tiny Labour plurality of 273 with the Tories winning 271.  In contrast, this week the Guardian gave the Tories a one-seat advantage, predicting 271-270, while Election Forecast plumped for a Tory plurality of 283 to 270 for Labour, and Elections Etc gave the Tories a whopping 25 seats over Labour, predicting 288 to 263.  Ask the academics and pundits, and it appears opinion is divided.

GE2015 Farage, Salmond, CleggAsk the pollsters for their predictions, and you get a similarly mixed picture. Three weeks ahead of the election, the Independent asked the heads of several polling agencies to predict the outcome.  Most demurred, but of those who would hazard a wager, Damian Lyons Lowe of Survation gave Labour a plurality, while Rick Nye of Populus and Nick Moon of GfK plumped for the Tories to win the most votes.

HiN Coalition of ChaosIf, however, we turn to the betting markets, the picture becomes much more uniform.  The website OddsChecker reports the current odds for 23 separate betting markets, and the predicted majorities prices in 21 markets.  While the odds vary slightly by betting shop, with Corals currently selling Labour seats at 267.5, while William Hill is selling them at 272.5, every single one of these markets is predicting a Conservative plurality with the Tories outperforming Labour by more than 10 seats.  This is not a sudden swing.  The betting markets have had odds on a Conservative plurality for weeks. So, should we believe the gamblers over the pollsters?  Considering the historical evidence, the answer is, maybe.

GE2015 NHSCertain economists and political scientists have recently expressed considerable enthusiasm for political betting markets as accurate bellwethers.  According to Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Political Forecasting Unit at Nottingham Business School, “The hypothesis here is that the collective wisdom of many people is greater than the conclusions of a few. Those myriad people feed in the best information and analysis they can because their own financial rewards depend directly upon this. And it really is a case of “follow the money” because those who know the most, and are best able to process the available information, tend to bet the most.”

GE2015 2010 bettingWhen betting markets have proved more accurate than pollsters, as during the Scottish referendum campaign or at the 2005 general election, supporters have been quick to attribute their predictive success to the so-called “wisdom of the crowds.”  When, in contrast, markets have been much wider of the mark, there has been little effort to analyze the reasons for their collective failure.  On the morning of the 2010 general election, for example, the betting markets were selling Labour seats at between 216.5 and 220.5.  The actual Labour take was 257.  (While few analyses based on polling results were on target, most came closer to the actual result than the betting markets.)  This morning (23 April), Mike Smithson, the editor of the influential PoliticalBetting.com, reprinted the 2010 betting spreads over the tag line: “Betting prices are NOT a good indicator of political outcomes.”

Stock Exchange 1930sProponents of the predictive power of election markets rely on the assumption that the ‘crowd’ of men and women who bet on politics is sufficiently diverse, independent and decentralized that the aggregate information which it brings to the market offers a representative picture of the national mood.  In point of fact, we have little accurate information about who bets on modern elections.  We can, however, sketch a fairly clear picture of the group that bet on general elections in the decades between the two world wars.  The interwar political betting markets were based, not out of high street betting shops, but out of the London Stock Exchange, the Baltic and Liverpool exchanges.  There is evidence that brokers bought and sold Majorities contracts on behalf of investors around the country, and that some City clerks wagered on the market on a small scale, but the bulk of participants were almost certainly either brokers themselves, or businessmen in the south of England with some connection to the City. These men were thus an exceptionally non-diverse group. They were also not particularly independent or decentralized. The majority of traders worked in the City, and lived within commuting distance of London. While a few brokers may have been Liberals, particularly before 1931, the vast majority were Conservatives. Hardly a man in the City supported the Labour party. Nearly all got their information from the pages of The Times, the Telegraph, or other Conservative papers. Most belonged to the same set of clubs.  The vast majority were also, unsurprisingly, not very good at predicting general election outcomes.

1923-election-posterBefore the December 1923 election, for example, the betting markets were trading Conservative majorities at around 30 seats.  The actual result was a hung parliament with an effective Conservative minority of 99.  During the October 1924 campaign, Labour seats traded at around 185, even after the publication of the “Zinoviev letter”.  Labour ultimately returned 151 MPs.  And in 1929, the election which most closely resembles today’s uncertain contest, Labour seats closed at 245 on the eve of the election, with Conservatives trading around 270.  However, it was the Labour party that came away with a plurality of seats, and the mandate to form the next parliament. Most spectacularly, in 1931, the punters failed to foresee the anti-Labour landslide, and government majorities traded below 200 for most of the campaign.  In the end, the various pro-government parties returned a majority of nearly 500 seats.  The Financial Times was unsurprised by the failure of the betting markets to predict the outcome.  As the paper wrote on 10 October 1931: “The Stock Exchange, naturally, hopes that a big National Government majority will be obtained. It realizes, however, that it is too far away from some of the big centres of population in the north, and northeast, etc, to be a very good observation post of public opinion.”

PollingStationThere is little reason to suspect that the anonymous participants in the current political betting markets are as out of touch with public opinion as the representatives of the metropolitan elite who dominated the interwar markets.  However, their failure accurately to predict the 2010 election result throws doubt on the assertions of those who claim that markets are a better indicator of political trends than analyses of opinion polling.  If history has shown us anything, it is that the composition of political betting markets matters.  Given the dearth of information about today’s political punters, we’ll have to wait until 7 May to find out whether or not the confident crowd betting on a Conservative plurality truly possesses more wisdom than the equivocating pollsters and academics.

Further Reading/Listening

Laura Beers “Punting on the Thames: Electoral Betting in Interwar Britain,” Journal of Contemporary History 45, no. 2 (2010)

Listen to Polling Matters (Keiran Pedley) interview with Mike Smithson
 of PoliticalBetting.com

See Laura Beers ‘GE2015 Pollsters, Pundits & Punters: a view from the morning after’.

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Teaching History in Higher Education 2015 – new initiatives from the RHS

Arthur Burns writes:

Over the past few years, the Royal Historical Society has increasingly sought to highlight its commitment to supporting not just historical research, but the teaching of its discipline at all levels. The recent spate of activity relating to the School Curriculum from Primary to A-level has seen the RHS playing a significant role in discussions about History in the Schools, working in close alliance with colleagues at the Historical Association.   At the same time, however, we have also been supporting History teaching in the universities, for example through our involvement in the recent revision of the QAA Subject Benchmarking Document, and our work supporting early career historians both in collaboration with historylab+ and on this website.

In the past our support for history teaching in HE involved us in close collaboration with the Higher Education Academy (first with its History subject centre and then its History discipline lead), which produced valuable support materials and from 2001 to 2013 hosted a very successful annual conference on approaches to History teaching in HE, as well as more focused events for those teaching at this level for the first time.  In 2014, however, the HEA took a strategic decision to move away from subject specific support.

One consequence of this change of policy was the potential end to the annual conferences, which had been hosted at the Institute of Historical Research in 2012 and 2013. These were very successful international events, attracting some 80 delegates from four continents.  Held on the eve of the start of the academic year, those attending valued a timely opportunity to refresh their ideas about their teaching practice, and network both between sessions and at the conference meal. Topics covered included employability and work-based learning; teaching controversial subjects; Holocaust education; fieldwork; developing historical consciousness; taking students through thresholds in history; the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History and the idea of signature pedagogies; cultural diversity; gender history; analyses of texts and artefacts; public history education; interdisciplinarity; the relationship between schools and university history; regional studies of practice; history teacher-education; assessment; using historical fiction; empathy; and teaching world history.

The RHS had always taken a keen interest in these events, not least through providing keynote speakers, and also found them a valuable opportunity to work together in new ways with other key stakeholders in history, not just the HEA, but also the Historical Association and History UK. Following consultation with these other interested parties, we are therefore delighted that we have been able to agree to establish a conference modelled on the HEA events starting in 2015, with the Society acting as lead sponsor in collaboration with the IHR, History UK and the Historical Association. Responsibility for organising the conference rests with Peter D’Sena, a member of our Education Policy Committee and senior research fellow at the IHR, who in his former capacity as History Discipline Lead at the HEA was responsible for organising the conferences held at the IHR in 2012 and 2013. We hope that together we can sustain this very important forum for supporting good and innovative practice in historical pedagogy, something that is rapidly becoming more important both to individual academics and institutions given an increased focus on teaching quality and support in universities and a very rapidly changing pedagogic environment.


Mike Maddison

The conference, entitled Teaching History in Higher Education (THHE) 2015, will be held at the Institute of Historical Research on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th September 2015. One of the keynote speakers is already confirmed as Dr Mike Maddison, who recently retired from his role as National Lead for History at Ofsted and HMI, and is now a freelance educational consultant as well as a long-standing member of our Education Policy Committee; not only is Mike an excellent speaker, but he is one of the best-informed and thoughtful commentators on the rapidly changing world of the teaching of History in British schools. Around the keynotes there will be opportunities for both experienced and early career academics to present and share views and concerns about teaching and learning. A call for papers, workshops and round table discussion sessions is currently open until 17 May 2015. Further details on this and the conference more generally can be accessed here and on the IHR website.

The RHS is also supporting an associated New to Teaching event, to be held at the IHR on Monday, 7th September, aimed specifically at early career historians getting to grips with teaching in HE for the first time, timed so as to allow those attending also to attend the main conference. Further details about this event will be released early next week.

We are excited about this new opportunity for the RHS to contribute to maintaining the very high standards that characterise the teaching of our subject in the universities, and we hope that some of the fruits of these events will later appear on this website.

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History in the News: Christos Lynteris – Photographic Plagues

Christos LynterisAmidst mass media coverage of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Christos Lynteris (Cambridge) takes a look at the historical representation of plague pandemics. Christos is an anthropologist working on infectious disease epidemics in East Asia. He is the Principal Investigator of the European Research Council funded project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic, held at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

Photographic Plagues

Over the past year a steady stream of images from Ebola-stricken regions in West Africa has been pouring in through our screens and print media outlets. Photographs of the sick, the dead, and the bereaved. Photographs of anti-epidemic measures like quarantine, isolation, disinfection, and of compliance and resistance to them. The most common type of these images juxtaposes a white-overall, glove and mask clad health worker with a barefaced patient, corpse or crowd. A criss-cross between medical, disaster, forensic and ethnographic visual genres, this is but the latest example of what we may call epidemic photography.

The global dissemination of Ebola photographs makes this an opportune moment to raise questions about the representational politics of this photographic genre. It is also an opportunity to ask what this allows us to know about infectious disease. Visual and anthropological studies of epidemic photography as practiced today are a vital part of this task. Yet in order to unravel the power and knowledge of epidemic photography we also need to examine its history. This is all the more pertinent as Ebola photographs seem to be uncannily replicating images of a pandemic with an altogether different transmission pathway, which unfolded under the auspices of high colonialism: the third plague pandemic.

HIN Manchuria plague suspect

Manchuria plague suspect arrested

The third plague pandemic lasted roughly from 1855 to 1959 and marked the first time that bubonic plague reached all inhabited continents, leaving more than 12 million dead. Plague made its first major appearance in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1894, where the disease’s pathogen (today known as Yersinia pestis) was identified for the first time. It then spread first to India (1896) and then, rapidly, on a global scale. Between 1898 and 1900 alone it struck Hawaii, California, Manchuria, Australia, Madagascar, Paraguay, Portugal, Scotland, Egypt, and Japan. During its course the third plague pandemic functioned as a catalyst for major public health and urban planning reforms, colonial policies, geopolitical struggles, and medical theories and techniques. This was not simply on account of the mortality and morbidity crisis induced in different parts of the world induced by plague. Nor was it only because of its association (both mythic and real) to the great mortality of the Middle Ages, commonly known today as the Black Death. It was also because incidents of this pandemic were systematically photographed, with images from local outbreaks making newspaper headlines across the globe.

Although individual patients had been photographed before, this was the first infectious disease pandemic to be captured by the photographic lens. Between the outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong and the final phases of the third pandemic in the 1940s in Senegal, thousands of plague photographs were produced. Many of these became visual staple for the medical as well as lay press at the time, with new half-tone printing technology allowing the cheap reproduction of photographs. This was the first time the general public was exposed to photographic representations of an epidemic and its social consequences. Starting as a trickle in Hong Kong, with a dozen iconic photographs of the epidemic, this quickly developed into a visual cascade; the 1899-1900 Honolulu outbreak, during which circa 40 individuals died, left a visual trace of over 500 photographs. Becoming part of colonial, local-state and geopolitical strife in a variety of contexts, plague photography drove public understandings of epidemic crisis.

HIN Liverpool rat catchers against plague

Liverpool rat catchers against plague

What defined the development of plague photography in the course of the pandemic was a move away from standard medical photography at the time, and its focus on clinical symptoms. Instead of showing buboes, the majority of photographs focused on aspects of the disease’s epidemiology. In its effort to depict the latter, plague photography gave the opportunity to different medical and administrative agents to reason and argue about the causes of the spread of disease, and its supposed links to trade, pilgrimage, housing, and sanitation. It hence ushered issues at the heart of medical debates into a visual arena of demonstration and proof.

In a similar way that the microscope at the time was at the centre of debates about what plague was, the camera played a pivotal role in determining what plague did: how it spread, where it created reservoirs, why did it wane and how it re-emerged after longer or shorter periods of absence. By 1918 this visual regime had established a paradigm of epidemic photography that would be clearly reflected in the photographic representation of the global influenza pandemic of 1918. Whether it was about the depiction of the “breeding grounds” of disease, the representation of “unsanitary habits” of the subaltern, or imaging hygienic victory over the disease, epidemic photography moved from the individual to the social body as the site of infection and death.

HIN Sonapore plague victim cremation

Sonapore plague victim cremation

Plague photography developed in the context of emerging biopolitical visual regimes, best known to historians today in the photography of famine in British India. Unlike famine photography, however, the birth of epidemic photography marked a turn towards the representation of infection (and, in the case of pneumonic plague, contagion). It signaled a shift of focus from catastrophic events to processes leading to the events in question. And it did this by visually configuring the population not simply as a victim but also as a host or demographic infrastructure of infectious disease.

In many ways this is the same visual regime that faces us still in the twenty-first century in the form of photographs of SARS, avian flu or Ebola. A regime based on colonial paradigms of pollution and otherness, this continues to constitute forms of habitation, burial rites, modes of social conduct, and human to non-human animal relations as cultural vectors of disease. If it is pertinent to begin deconstructing the way we depict and view epidemics, this is not simply so that we may begin to see them with post-colonial eyes, but also so that we critically reconsider what can be known about infectious diseases by way of epidemic photography. The study of the history of this photographic genre raises political, ethical, aesthetic and epistemological challenges of great importance to our world of global health, emerging infectious diseases, and pandemic preparedness.


Carol A. Benedict, Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1996)

Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San
Francisco (London: Random House, 2004)

Myron J. Echenberg, Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic
Plague, 1894-1901 (New York: New York University Press, 2007)

Myron J. Echenberg, Black Death, White Medicine: Bubonic Plague and the
Politics of Public Health in Colonial Senegal, 1914-1945 (Oxford: James
Curry, 2001)

James C. Mohr, Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning
of Honolulu’s Chinatown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Carl F. Nathan, Plague Prevention and Politics in Manchuria 1910-1931
(Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1967)

Guenter B. Risse, Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012)

W. C. Summers, The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of
an Epidemic Disease (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

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All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History

A Report of the Group’s work 2008 to 2015

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History is committed to supporting the work of the Archives sector and to encouraging the study of History. The Group:

  • Takes evidence of best practice and innovation in the archives sector and in the study of history
  • Celebrates milestones and professionalism in the archives sector
  • Encourages the study of history
  • Visits archives
  • Speaks out for archives and ensures that any proposed legislation takes account of the need for transparency and availability in the UK’s archives

All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History Report 2008-2015

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RHS Report on Gender Equality and Historians in Higher Education

Press Release for International Women’s Day

The Times Higher Education highlights the findings of the RHS report “Conditions for female academics in some university history departments “smack still of the 1970s”  Read the article.

Read the report: Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education

Gender survey - graduation crop2Nicola Miller writes:

This report analyses the results, both quantitative and qualitative, of the survey many of you completed last year.  Many thanks to everyone who replied and/or attended one of the workshops we held to discuss the findings. We were delighted to receive over 700 replies, 42% from men, with a good distribution across age, career stage and area of the UK.

These results show widespread concerns  throughout the historical profession about the persistence of a range of barriers to gender equality, despite the fact that policies against discrimination have been in place for two or three decades in some (although by no means all) universities. The bias may be less visible nowadays, but it is  no less real for that.  It is salutary to note that  only 20.8% of History Professors are women, which means that we are scarcely doing any better than the City, where 19.5% of senior role are held by women.

Examples of good practice that were highlighted during discussion of the survey results showed that relatively small changes can often go a long way towards improving matters.  In that optimistic spirit, the report  offers a list of recommendations for action, targeted at Departments/Faculties, Journal Editors, Conference Organisers, Teachers/Supervisors and indeed everyone who would like to help promote greater equality  for all historians.

We hope that you will find this report a helpful stimulus for discussion and review of practices in all areas of our work.  Please distribute it and debate it as much as possible.  Raising awareness can do a lot to help in itself.

The RHS will be taking forward its work on equalities under our new Vice-President for Research Policy, Prof. Mary Vincent. Meanwhile, we would like to make our website a forum for exchange of experiences and good practice, so please send any comments and ideas about the report to Jane Gerson, Research & Communications Officer at j.gerson@royalhistsoc.org.

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Imperial War Museum library breakup

Letter from Peter Mandler to the Director-General of the IWM raising concerns about the proposed dispersal of the Imperial War Museum Library.  Similar letters have been sent to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport.

On behalf of the Royal Historical Society, which comprises over 3,000 Fellows engaged in advanced historical research, I am writing to express the historical profession’s concern over the proposed dispersal of the Museum’s Library.  As you know better than anyone, the IWM is a world-class resource for historical research into conflict in the modern world, for members of the general public who are taking an exceptional interest in this subject, not least during this centenary period of the Great War, and for the professional historians whom I represent.  You also have a world-class library and archive staff who have provided wonderful service to our members and to the public, and have rightly invested in recent years in improving the service available to all enquiring parties in your Research Room.

We all understand that the Museum, like all publicly-funded services, is under severe fiscal pressure at this moment.   But we also trust that public institutions are doing their best to protect ‘front-line services’ in this period of stringency.  The Library is surely a front-line service of this kind.  It is not merely a reference library, duplicating materials held elsewhere.  It has many rare and unique possessions, which are properly part of your irreplaceable collections.  Furthermore – and this applies more to members of the public even than to our professional members – its reference materials are themselves an integral part of your archival collections.  That is to say, it is impossible to understand the archival collections without using them in situ alongside the reference materials.  This is why books form the majority of all materials requested in your Research Room by members of the general public, and why most users of documents also use books at the same time.  While professional historians might at a pinch make several trips to different places to consult reference, book and archival materials, it is precisely members of the public who cannot easily do this, and who cannot thus make any effective use of your archival collections without the presence of a reference library.  Even so, specialist researchers too need to consult disparate materials side-by-side;  this is why major archives retain their reference libraries.  It would be a matter of great concern if the IWM chose to depart from this practice, a short-term cut that would substantially impair the utility of one of your greatest assets.

I appreciate that running a library doesn’t come cheap – it needs specialist staff itself and a decent budget to keep it current.  (Running down the collection would be not much better than dispersing it.)  But I’m sure you would never contemplate dispersing unique archival holdings, and our case is that the reference library forms an integral part of those holdings, without which they are incomplete.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Mandler

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Grace Huxford, Hidden Histories – The Korean War

Grace Huxford portraitFollowing the opening of London’s first major memorial to the Korean War in December 2014, Dr Grace Huxford (Warwick) reflects on why this conflict is sometimes described as a ‘forgotten war’. Grace is a historian of Cold War Britain and has recently completed her PhD on the life-writing of British servicemen in the Korean War. She is currently Research Fellow in Oral History at the University of Warwick.

At the end of 2014, the North Korean response to the film The Interview received a great deal of coverage in the US and British press. Accusations that the Communist state had externally hacked the electronic systems of Sony (the production company behind the film) caused many commentators to analyse the leadership cult and bellicose outlook of North Korea once again.

HiN - Korea1As policymakers discussed appropriate responses and the increase of sanctions against the  North Korean state, a tangible reminder of the impact of conflict on the peninsula was revealed in London. On 3rd December, a £1m memorial to 1,106 British servicemen who died during the Korean War (1950-1953) was unveiled on Victoria Embankment, outside the Ministry of Defence. Britain, who offered the second largest contribution of troops to the UN force in June 1950, was one of the last of the twenty-seven nations involved to open a national memorial to its Korean War dead. The war has become largely ‘forgotten’ in Britain today, despite the ongoing attention paid to the Communist state of North Korea.

The Korean War was an important moment in the post-1945 world: it was the first ‘hot’ war of the Cold War and the first police action of the new United Nations (UN). The war was also significant for Britain: increased armament spending challenged the welfare agenda of the post-war Labour government, threatening party unity; the war exhibited the weaknesses of Britain’s international position in the early Cold War; and  it saw the involvement of almost 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops in the early 1950s, many of them national service conscripts. So why has the history of the Korean War remained largely hidden?

As veterans of the Korean War have noted, few people in Britain in 1950 could find Korea on a map. Although this is perhaps an exaggeration, that summer the BBC hastily put together programmes on the Korean peninsula, explaining its location, its culture and the significance of the invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on 25 June 1950. Many British servicemen sent to support the US-led UN force were similarly confused by the aims of fighting in this distant country, writing home that they were uncertain of the ‘object’ of the war. Although Korea captivated the press during the early months of the war, attention dwindled as the war rumbled on, with no decisive outcome: historian David Kynaston has even shown how some contemporaries felt that the birth of Princess Anne in August 1950 received more popular interest than the war.

The unclear ending of the war in 1953 did little to clarify matters. As US historian Charles Young has argued, the ambiguous ending of the Korean War, following a year of indeterminable negotiations, meant that the US and its allies could not claim outright victory in the war or herald their achievements back at home. The animosity between North and South Korea today continues to make the ending of the war seem only provisional, as North Korea has threatened to cease to abide by armistice six times since the early 1990s.

However, undoubtedly one of the most significant reasons for the obscurity of the Korean War within the British national imagination is its proximity to the Second World War. Coming only five years after this global, far-reaching conflict, the Korean War was by comparison far less significant to the lives of everyday British people. Furthermore, unlike the Second World War, it served no purpose to subsequent governments. The ‘People’s War’ of 1939-1945 has been repeatedly used by politicians to stand for a whole host of ‘national values’, from stoicism to a sense of duty. In the early 1980s for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s government, with its revived sense of patriotism, used Churchillian language to inspire a sense of national identity (prompting History Workshop Journal‘s landmark study of patriotism in 1984). Even in the 1950s, the Second World War was starting to dominate national culture and identity, meaning that the Korean War was ‘forgotten’ almost as soon as it began. Neither praised as a worthy conflict (like the Second World War) or vilified as a waste of life (like the First World War or, in the US, Vietnam), the Korean War has not served a wider narrative about war and peace in the twentieth century. Because of this it remains largely hidden in national memory.

HiN - Korea 2There are a few exceptions to this. Although servicemen lament the lack of novels and films  about the Korean War, famous television series such as M*A*S*H* remain popular with British audiences. The only film made specifically about British experiences in the Korean War is ‘A Hill in Korea‘ (1956) (renamed ‘Hell in Korea’ for its US release), starring a young Michael Caine, fresh out of national service and returned from Korea himself. Both the film and the novel on which it is based reflect on the harshness of the climate and the apparent futility of conflict. References to the Korean War within British television are fleeting. Perhaps the most famous Korean War veteran on British television was the eccentric hotelier Basil Fawlty, star of the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers. However, Basil’s experiences are conclusively dismissed: in one episode he whispers to his wife Sybil, ‘I fought in the Korean War you know, I killed four men’. Sybil simply says to two passing guests: ‘He was in the Catering Corps – he used to poison them.’

Is Korea’s ‘forgotten’ status likely to change in future? It is hard to say. On 11 November 2013, Korean War veterans took a high profile role in Armistice Day commemorations in Whitehall. Prompted by the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire, veterans were invited to join the march past at the Cenotaph, the commemorative centre of ‘Remembrance Day’ events. However, the main British veterans association – the British Korea Veterans Association (BKVA) – has recently discussed disbanding following the completion of the memorial in London, based on the wish to ‘ go out with our heads held high rather than just fade away’. Whatever the outcome will be, the opening of the new memorial goes some way in acknowledging the significance of this ‘hidden’ conflict within British political and social history.

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