RHS News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

RH Equiano

The portrait often supposed to depict Equiano

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

RHWedderburn square

Robert Wedderburn

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

RH Davidson

William Davidson

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

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

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

RH Sancho

Ignatius Sancho

RH Soubise

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

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

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

RH Diallo & Sessarakoo

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

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

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

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

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History Matters Conference video

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

Some disturbing facts:

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

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

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

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

More information



RHS Public History Workshop, Thursday 29 October

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

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

Register to attend the workshop

Keynote Speakers

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

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

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

Workshop Programme

10.00     Lawrence Goldman to open event

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

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

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


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

12.20     Lunch

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

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


14.20     Activity: Advocating Public History

15.00     Tea

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

15.50     Discussion

16.30     Close

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


John Sabapathy

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

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


Exchequer of Pleas

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

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

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

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

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

Jinty Nelson

Jinty Nelson

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

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

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

Gregory the Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bailey, Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

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

Bailey, Sinews_of_old_england

George Hicks, The Sinews of Old England

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

Bailey Manly bodies 1

Scottish Iron Moulders Union certificate, 1831

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

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

Bailey Jack Crawford

Jack Crawford

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Interlopers of Empire

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

Lucie Ryzova

Lucie Ryzova

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

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

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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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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