RHS News

Dr Jennifer Evans, ‘Shameful Secrets? Men’s sexual health in the long seventeenth century’

The 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, as well as provide an opportunity for early and mid-career historians to show-case their latest research. Here Dr Jennifer Evans, Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire and author of Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, presents a summary of the paper she delivered at the symposium. Her research throws light on the little-known history of male sexual health and raises challenging questions about the gendering of shame.

JenEvans Wellcome 1In A True and Succinct Account of the Venereal Disease (1706) John Marten exclaimed that ‘most Men blush to own [the venereal disease], because it carries with it Disgrace, and seems to reproach them with Frailty and Irregularities’.[1] Yet other diseases of the ‘privities’ did not cause shame. Matthew Purmannus noted that ‘in the year of 1687 [Baron Von Horst ] shewed me a great Box full of Angular, Oval and Round Stones which came from him in Six Weeks Time, the largest whereof was about the bigness of a great Pea’.[2] The pain and disordered urination of bladder stones, despite being caused by excessive consumption of food and drink and the association of incontinence with the female leaky body, did not cause men embarrassment. These disorders were at two ends of a spectrum of bodily shame.

Medical texts across the seventeenth century implicitly and explicitly suggested that the male body was inclined to be perfect. Men’s bodies, for example, were thought to be hotter than women’s, to possess more blood, to possess the most potent and important reproductive material, to be stronger and to house more rational minds. The body also supported certain elements of manhood; for adolescents and young men, the ability to demonstrate courage, sexual virility and strength; for adults, the ability to produce, provide for, and protect a family. It might be expected therefore that damage to part of the body that was distinctly male would raise concerns about the manly body’s ability to fail.

JenEvans Wellcome 2Medical writers occasionally suggested that men might be hampered in ability to claim manly status by a disease, and that by extension this could have been embarrassing or have evoked shame. John Muys 1686 treatise on surgery included the story of a bold young virgin who vilified her bridegroom on their wedding night when his hernia was revealed by the presence of a truss.[3]  She complained that ‘such a distempered Body [could not] satisfie a Maid in the flower of her Age’ and exclaimed that she would rather die than live with her new spouse.[4] Muys noted that the husband had to ‘prove’ himself ‘a Man sufficient’ by impregnating her with twins. This man’s hernia had thus allowed his wife to complain and scold, inverting the gender hierarchy of the household. The bridegroom’s manliness was placed in a precarious position by his bodily disorder and had to be visibly displayed to attain his due position as head of the household.

Lisa Smith has shown that medical writers in England and France displayed similar apprehensions about male bodily leakage caused by haemorrhoidal bleeding, incontinence and uncontrolled shedding of seminal matter because they undermined self-control.[5]  These concerns meant that some diseases that damaged a man’s genitalia, urinary tract or reproductive and sexual capacities could be degrading. Yet more commonly medical writers employed language that created a normalising narrative, that reassured men that bodies afflicted in such ways would be largely unaffected, and thus implicitly suggested that their ability to attain and retain manliness would not be diminished. They noted that patients suffering from a range of disorders were ‘perfectly’ or completely cured.[6] In part this reflected practitioners’ desires to attract new patients by emphasising the efficacy of their cures. Nonetheless, this may have cultivated a medical milieu in which men were encouraged to think of these disorders as minor, not warranting excessive concern, embarrassment or shame.

JenEvans Wellcome 3a

It is clear though that, despite the general tone of medical texts, men with diseases of this nature sometimes hid their shameful secrets from family, friends and others. Physicians and surgeons aided patients in this endeavour by obfuscating names and personal details in published and manuscript case notes and observations, thereby providing anonymity for the embarrassed. Samantha Sandassie has argued that seventeenth-century observations did not commonly provide patient details.[7] Yet in cases of sexual and genitourinary ill health it is apparent that medical writers could use this trope to the advantage of their patients. James Cook’s The Marrow of Chirurgery Much Enlarged included the case study of ‘One now alive, and therefore not to be named’ in a chapter outlining hydroceles (watery hernias in the scrotum).[8]  Likewise in his Severall Chirurgical Treatises Richard Wiseman repeatedly described patients by their age or life stage, rather than by name: ‘A Young Man’, ‘A young fellow’, ‘’A Gentleman of about Thirty years of age’, ‘one of about thirty six years old’.[9]

Anonymity though, was not granted to all patients and afflictions. Cook, who obscured the name of a man with a watery hernia, openly described a ‘Mr. Bradly, aged 84, whose Scrotum was livid’ and afflicted with a tumour. Although it is possible that Mr Bradly was no longer alive, so removing the concern about his reputation, the observation did not end with any suggestion that the patient had not survived. John Hall’s treatise likewise, named several patients troubled with bloody urine including M. Flod and Mr Thomas Underhill, while William Clavel was described as being troubled with a virulent gonorrhoea. Yet a patient afflicted with a flux of semen and night pollutions – i.e. a lack of control over seminal emission- was described only as Mr. P.[10] Similar patterns can also be seen in manuscript texts. Nicholas Gaynsford, apprentice to Dr George Willet in Groombridge, Sussex, clearly identified Samuel Curde and Samuel Rogers who had swollen scrotums, but obscured the name of ‘A Certain man having his Testicles Inflammed’.[11] This would suggest that disorders directly affecting the testicles or seminal matter were more liable to cause shame than others.

Patients’ names may have been obscured for any number of reasons. Yet the adoption of this topos by surgeons and physicians suggests that despite encouraging men to be open about their disorders and, importantly, to seek appropriate medical help for these conditions, they were aware that men could and did find a range of problems embarrassing and could and did help them hide their shameful secrets.


[1] John Marten, A True and Succinct Account of the Venereal Disease (London, 1706), 123.
[2] Mattheus Gothofredus Purmannus, Chirurgia Curiosa: Or, The Newest and most Curious Observations and Operations in the Whole Art of Chirurgery (London, 1706), p. 146.
[3] John Muys, A Rational Practice of Chirurgery: Or, Chyrurgical Observations Resolved according to the solid fundamentals of True philosophy (London, 1686), p.156.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lisa Wynne Smith, ‘The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth Century England and France’, Gender & History, 23/1 (2011), 26-46.
[6] For example, Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, Medicinal Councels, Or Advices: Written Originally in French, by Dr. Theodor Turquet de Mayerne … Put out in Latine at Geneva by Theoph. Bonetus, M.D. Englished by Tho. Sherley, M.D. Physican in Ordinary to his present Majesty (London, 1677), p. 62; Mattheus Gothofredus Purmannus, Chirurgia Curiosa: Or, The Newest and most Curious Observations and Operations in the Whole Art of Chirurgery …. To which is Added Natura Morborum Medicatrix: Or, Nature Cures Diseases (London, 1706), p.151; John Moyle, Chyrurgic Memois: Being an Account of many Extraordinary Cures which Occurred in the Series of the Author’s Practice, espectialy at Sea, when imploy’d in the Governments Service … (London, 1708), p.  74, 101.
[7] Samantha Sandassie, ‘Evidence-based medicine? Patient case studies in English surgical treaties, 1600-1700, Medical Humanities, 34/1 (2008).
[8] James Cooke, Mellificium Chirurgiæ: Or, The Marrow of Chirurgery Much Enlarged (London, 1676), p.510.
[9] Richard Wiseman, Severall Chirurgical Treatises (London, 1686), p88, 158, 6, 23, (irregular pagination following page 498).
[10] John Hall, Select Observations on English Bodies: Or, Cures both Empericall and Historical (translated by James Cooke) (London, 1657), p.102, 144, 159, 182
[11] Welcome Library, MS 6919, Nicholas Gaynsford His Boke, Sig. 12v, 17r.


Teaching History in Higher Education conference, 8-9 September

A recent analysis of ‘history teaching at its best’ in universities (Booth, 2014) has presented us with a clear picture of the issues we face as historians and an indication of some of the ways in which our discipline can engage, in broad terms, with the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). There are many challenges. How can we best enhance and support both the student and staff experience using research-informed teaching? How can we use pedagogic research, theory and innovations in order to engage learners, at all levels? How can we make sense of and manage change in higher education without sacrificing academic quality and identity? How can we teach not only our discipline, but also across, into and within others? How do we support students through critical transition points and intellectual thresholds?

In addressing these questions and others, this conference will explore theory and practices in teaching, learning and assessment in critical areas such as public history education; the use of digital and other new technologies; the relationship between school and university history; pedagogic theory, practice and the student experience; ethical dimensions and the teaching of ‘controversial’ subjects; learning outside the classroom; employability and work-based learning; policy, policy-makers and strategy. Papers, workshops and round table discussions will provide opportunities to disseminate and showcase evidence-informed practise from the higher education sector, facilitate discussion and debate and provide networking opportunities for participants.

Keynote Speakers

Dr Mike Maddison (former OFSTED National Lead for History) will give a keynote address on “Developments in Schools History”

Professor Maggie Andrews (University of Worcester) will give a keynote address on “Politics, Problems and Possibilities: why teaching must really matter for historians”

This event is sponsored by The Royal Historical Society, Institute of Historical Research, History UK and The Historical Association

For more information about how to register for the conference go to RHS Events.

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History in the News: Eirini Karamouzi, Greece’s European identity in crisis

karamouzi LS

Eirini Karamouzi

Eirini Karamouzi is a Lecturer of Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield and A.G.Leventis Fellow at SEESOX, St Antony’s College, Oxford. She is the author of Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979. The Second Enlargement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Alexis Tsipras

Alexis Tsipras

In the aftermath of the January 2015 elections that saw him become Greece’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras penned an article in the Financial Times encouraging his European partners to ‘end austerity so as not to let fear kill democracy… Austerity is not part of the European treaties; democracy and the principle of popular sovereignty are’. Unsurprisingly, this struck a chord with people at home and those beyond Greece’s borders that have been scrutinizing the EU’s democratic credentials and its legitimacy. It is not just the recent debt crisis that has ignited such soul searching within European circles: the historical changes of the last 20 years that have rocked the boat and purpose of European integration. The benefits of earlier decades of economic integration have been overtaken by austerity with record levels of unemployment among the youth. The achievements of a century of social democracy have been dismantled. The memories of the Second World War and the post-war ideological threat of West vs East have long faded out of people’s minds. In this climate, the inter-relationship of Europe and democracy is changing.

Greek coup 1967

Military coup in Greece, 1967

Democracy was not always a dominant feature of European political discourse. The preamble of the Treaties of Rome that created the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor of the EU, made general references to ‘liberty’ and article 237 states that any European nation ‘may apply to become a member of the Community’, but nowhere in the original Treaties did the six founding member states make democracy a prerequisite for membership or even quote it as one of the fundamental values underpinning the movement towards ‘closer union’. Paradoxically, the debate on the role of democracy within the political identity of the European Community was ignited over Greece first in 1967 and then again in 1975.

Giscard d'estaing 1981

Giscard d’Estaing and Konstantinos Karamanlis, Athens, 1981

A military coup in Greece in 1967, the first associate member of the EEC and the perceived cradle of democracy, rekindled the debate on the Community’s stance on democratic matters. The EEC, in contrast to the perceived indifference of NATO and the USA, used its diplomatic and economic weight to undermine the legitimacy of the military dictatorship and insist on democratic credentials. In 1975, the then Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, who oversaw Greece’s transition to democracy, applied for EEC membership as a long-lasting measure to ensure the country’s nascent democratic institutions, guaranteeing its geopolitical security and domestic prosperity. The members of the EEC, notwithstanding their misgivings over the economic and structural difficulties of enlarging the Community, gave the green light to Greece for geopolitical reasons and granted entry in 1981. Admitting Greece as an EEC member infused a new sense of utility to enlargement while adding to Europe’s collective weight on the world stage. Forty years later, it is perhaps hard to recapture how genuine and dangerous instability in Greece seemed, how close Greece came to war with Turkey, and deep was the fear of spreading instability to neighbouring Spain, Portugal and Italy.


Greece joins the euro, 2001

Greek enlargement positioned European integration as a crucial element in southern Europe’s transition to democracy and became a reference point for subsequent enlargements in Eastern Europe. The strategy of linking European integration with democracy and national security proved successful, among other things, as it capitalized on the emerging identification of Europe with liberal democratic values and prosperity in the eyes of the Greek people. Following a similar line of thinking to that pursued by Karamanlis in the 1970s, reformist politician Kostas Simitis, Greece’s prime minister in 1996, strongly advocated and pursued Greece’s accession to the Economic Monetary Union and the adoption of the Euro by 2001 as a means of positioning the country at the very core of the EU. Without having a blueprint of how this would be achieved and lacking genuine public debate, the anchoring of Greece to these European institutions was pursued under the premise that it would bring modernization, liberalization of the economy, and a reformist agenda at home.

This was not the first or the last time since the inception of the Greek state that the political and intellectual elites turned to Europe. Greece had a tradition of participation in numerous alliances throughout its modern history because of its small size, economic underdevelopment, internal political divisions, and unstable geopolitical position. Such alliances enabled Greece to strengthen its national security and advance its economic development. Often, however, such reliance on external allies subjected Greece’s national domestic politics and policies to foreign influence and allowed several political elites to view these alliances, including EEC/EU/Euro membership, either as a panacea that would cure all the country’s problems, from economic modernization to external security, or as a plague to be blamed for the country’s ills.  Greece’s European choice has always embodied such contradictions between, on the one hand, what Nikiforos Diamantouros has called the ‘the culture of the underdog’, beset with feelings of exploitation at the hand of the West, and, on the other, the relentless quest for modernity and reform. Both positions, however, have always been accompanied by a nationalistic and polarizing discourse on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Since the institutionalization of Greece’s European relationship in 1981, this contradiction has been disguised by a broadly positive balance sheet with the functioning of a genuine democratic system featuring as one of the major assets.


Greece votes Oxi (No) in referendum on 5 July 2015

Over the last five years, however, the Greek society has been fed a very heavy diet of austerity policies, spiralling towards disaster with no clear prospect of a happy ending. Instead of an honest explanation for their endured hardships, Greeks have witnessed a seemingly endless stream of accusations, as the contemporary press and European political elites engaged in an often myopic blame game over the origins of the crisis and how to get out of it. Even within Greece, pundits and policy-makers are deeply divided over the origins of the crisis with some focusing on the macro causes of the Greek predicament and thus heavily criticizing the practices of the old PASOK-ND political establishment with its overstuffed public sector and institutionalization of clientelism. Others point to the European leadership’s short-sightedness, lack of vision, political incompetence and obsession with one size fits all- remedies that lead to the pauperization of Greek society and are ultimately politically toxic for Greece, as evidenced by the successive elections that have taken place since 2009, with the apogee being the controversial and – what turned out to be- counterproductive referendum of 5 July.

Tspiras and Merkel

Alexis Tsipras with Angela Merkel

Since February, SYRIZA has explicably taken the brunt of the blame for the ongoing game of chicken of its government, failure to deliver its electoral promises, and loss of any trustworthiness with its European partners in endless months of stalled talks where bluster and threats took centre stage. SYRIZA won the elections with the promise of reversing austerity but maintaining the county’s place at the heart of European integration, and thus within the Euro. It was only in the last dramatic week of closed banks and capital controls and after a record 17 hours long Euro summit meeting that Tsipras, staring into the abyss of the catastrophic scenario of a return to the drachma, acknowledged the futility of the electoral promises and decided half-heartedly to sign up to a much harsher deal than the one rejected by the Greek people in the referendum, but one that keeps Greece within the Euro. With the third rescue package in the offing, widespread scepticism surrounding its capacity to restore the country to good health and the Europeans failing to comprehend the political limits to the austerity a government can impose on its people, no-one can guarantee what the future holds for Greece and its relationship to Europe, a country caught again in a battle between defiance and yearning for modernity, with both a claim to a democratic mandate at its heart.

Further Reading

Eirini Karamouzi, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979. The Second Enlargement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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Peter Mandler elected as Fellow of the British Academy

Peter-Mandler-LS smallRHS President, Peter Mandler, has just been elected as a Fellow of the British Academy.  We offer him our warm congratulations.  Peter is Professor of Modern Cultural History, University of Cambridge; Bailey Lecturer in History, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His specialisms are Modern British history, especially cultural, intellectual and social; the histories of the humanities and social sciences in comparative perspective. The University of Cambridge History faculty wrote:

This is in recognition of both Peter’s rich and diverse scholarship in the cultural, intellectual and social history of Britain and America and also his prodigious service to the historical profession, most recently as President of the Royal Historical Society.”

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RHS Symposium: Masculinity and the Body in Britain, 1500-1900

On 18 June the University of Northampton ran a 1-day symposium on the history of masculinity in Britain. Dr Tim Reinke-Williams, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton, reports:

The aim of this symposium, generously sponsored by the RHS, was to reflect on developments in the historiography of the body over the last 25 years, as well as allow a chance for early and mid-career historians to show-case their latest research.  2015 was a particularly significant moment to attempt to do this since it marked the anniversary of three landmark publications on the body and masculinity: Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Gender and the Body from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1990); Anthony Fletcher’s Gender, Sex and Subordination in England, 1500-1800 (Yale University Press, 1995); and a special edition of  the Journal of British Studies, co-edited by Alexandra Shepard and Karen Harvey, in which the contributors responded to the question ‘what have historians done with masculinity?’

JenEvans Wellcome 2The symposium was structured chronologically with the first two papers focusing on the early modern period (c.1580-c.1770). Jennifer Evans (Hertfordshire) offered a detailed analysis, based on her examination of medical treatises and doctors’ casebooks, of the types of medical conditions which men were (and were not) comfortable discussing with their physicians, focusing in particular on urinary and sexual problems. Tawny Paul (Northumbria) approached the topic from the perspective of an economic historian, using evidence drawn from cases of debt litigation brought before Edinburgh courts to outline how the bodies of debtors were used as collateral for goods exchanged on credit through the processes of distraint and imprisonment.

The next panel moved into the Georgian era (1714-1837). Des Newell (Oxford Brookes) drew on evidence from overseas’ diarists visiting England, as well as trial reports, to discuss the significance of disrobement in plebeian honour fights, showing that such actions signalled the intention to fight, but also served practical purposes, such as allowing the combatants greater freedom of movement. Matthew McCormack (Northampton) examined the issue of masculinity and height, using satirical images alongside medical, political and conduct treatises to outline how height carried positive connotations in terms of social class, athleticism and health, but also might signify negative traits such as awkwardness, ambition, militarism and even castration.

Bailey, Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

The second half of the symposium began with a lavishly illustrated keynote lecture by Joanne Bailey (Oxford Brookes) which focused on masculinity, emotions and material culture across the decades from 1756 to 1856, charting the development of an eighteenth-century ideal of the male body as graceful and dexterous, to a nineteenth-century model in which size, hardness and muscularity were valorised. These shifts occurred due to changing practices in war, empire, and labour, but also due to new understandings of science, sports, and aesthetic fashions.

The final panel focused on the late Victorian period and early twentieth century (c.1880-1916). Victoria Bates (Bristol) discussed how Victorian definitions of adolescence differed from those of the 21st century, but also how such understandings were debated during the Victorian era.  Medical discussions of male sexual maturity were linked to ideas about the gendered individual passing through boyhood into ‘early’ and ‘full’ manhood. Michael Brown (Roehampton) drew together the histories of science and warfare, focusing on the anxieties which arose around the impact of the development of new weaponry in the decades prior to the First World War, and how advances in military technology led to the bayonet being fetishized as a gendered weapon.

The symposium concluded with a panel discussion involving all the speakers, which began with some comments by Karen Harvey (Sheffield), who drew attention to how historians of masculinity have been revisiting their topic at regular intervals over the last quarter of a century.  Karen highlighted several themes which offered the basis for a lively subsequent discussion: men’s possession of their own bodies, and the notion of ideal types; the relationship between representations and practices of masculinity; the experience of embodiment; and ideas about continuity and change across time. Speakers commented on how their work had been influenced by recent developments in the histories of emotions and material culture, and the resurgence of the history of class as well as the need to use gender as a point of comparison in order to write women into histories of masculinity were topics which were commented upon too.

Overall, the symposium demonstrated that the historians working on masculinity and the body are able to approach the topic via the histories of medicine, economics, violence, and warfare.  Most practitioners would define themselves as social or cultural historians, and the relationship between the two can sometimes be fraught, but many of the participants also acknowledged the need to consider the topic from a political perspective, and to integrate the findings of scholars working in other disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology and medical humanities. It is to be hoped that there will be opportunities to maintain and continue these discussions in future.


Joanne Bailey, ‘Manly bodies in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England’

Dr Jennifer Evans, ‘Shameful Secrets? Men’s sexual and genitourinary health in the long seventeenth century’

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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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