MONTHLY BLOG 72, REMEMBERING CONRAD RUSSELL, HISTORIAN of STUART BRITAIN AND ‘LAST OF THE WHIGS’

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

After contributing to a panel discussion on 22 September 2016 at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, I’ve expanded my notes as follows:

When remembering my colleague Conrad Russell (1937-2004),1 the first thing that comes to mind is his utterly distinctive presence. He was an English eccentric, in full and unselfconscious bloom. In person, Conrad was tall, latterly with something of a scholar’s stoop, and always with bright, sharp eyes. But the especially memorable thing about him was his low, grave voice (‘Conrad here’, he would intone, sepulchrally, on the phone) and his slow, very precise articulation. This stately diction, combining courtesy and erudition, gave him a tremendous impact, for those who could wait to hear him out.

He once told me that his speaking manner was something that he had consciously developed, following advice given to him in his youth by his father. In fact, given his life-long wish not to be overshadowed by his famous parent, Conrad spoke very rarely about the mathematician and public intellectual Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Conrad, the only child of Russell’s third marriage, was brought up by his mother, who lived in isolation from the rest of the family. But the eminent father had once advised his young son to formulate each sentence fully in his mind, before giving voice to each thought.2 (Not an easy thing to do). The suggestion evidently appealed to something deep within Conrad, for he embraced the slow, stately style from his youth and maintained it throughout his lifetime.

One result was that a proportion of his students, initially at London University’s Bedford College (as it then was),3 were terrified by him, although another percentage found him brilliant and immensely stimulating. Only very few disliked him. Conrad was manifestly a kindly person. He didn’t seek to score points or consciously to attract attention as an eccentric. Yet his emphatic speaking style, laced with erudite references to English politics in the 1620s, and witticisms with punch-lines in Latin, could come as a shock to undergraduates. Especially as Conrad did not just speak ‘at’ people. He wanted replies to his questions, and hoped for laughter following his jests.

Because he thought carefully before speaking, he was also wont to preface his remarks with a little exclamation, ‘Em …’, to establish his intention of contributing to the conversation, always followed by a Pinteresque pause. That technique worked well enough in some contexts. However, when Conrad took up a prestigious academic post at Yale University (1979-84), a number of his American students protested that they could not understand him. And in a society with a cultural horror of silence, Conrad’s deliberative pauses were often filled by instant chatter from others, unintentionally ousting him from the discussion. A very English figure, he admitted ruefully that he was not psychologically at ease in the USA, much as he admired his colleagues and students at Yale. Hence his relief was no secret, when he returned to the University of London, holding successive chairs at University College London (1984-90) and King’s College (1990-2003). By this time, his lecturing powers were at their full height – lucid, precise, and argumentative, all at once.

And, of course, when in 1987 he inherited his peerage as 5th Earl Russell, following the death of his half-brother, Conrad found in the House of Lords his ideal audience. They absolutely loved him. He seemed to be a voice from a bygone era, adding gravitas to every debate in which he participated. Recently, I wondered how far Conrad was reproducing his father’s spoken style, as a scion of the intellectual aristocracy in the later nineteenth century. But a check via YouTube dispelled that thought.4 There were some similarities, in that both spoke clearly and with authority. Yet Bertrand Russell’s voice was more high-pitched and his style more insouciant than that of his youngest child.

The second unmistakable feature of Conrad’s personality and intellect was his literal-mindedness. He treated every passing comment with complete seriousness. As a result, he had no small talk. His lifeline to the social world was his wife Elizabeth (née Sanders), a former student and fellow historian whom he married in 1962. She shared Conrad’s intellectual interests but was also a fluent conversationalist. At parties, Elizabeth would appear in the heart of a crowd, wielding a cigarette and speaking vivaciously. Conrad meanwhile would stand close behind her, his head slightly inclined and nodding benignly. They were well matched, remaining devoted to one another.

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Fig.1 Conrad and Elizabeth Russell on the stump for Labour in Paddington South (March 1966).

My own experience of Conrad’s literal-mindedness came from an occasion when we jointly interviewed a potential candidate for an undergraduate place in the History Department at Bedford College. (That was in the 1970s, before individual interviews were replaced by generic Open Days). A flustered candidate came in late, apologising that the trains were delayed. Within moments, Conrad was engaging her in an intense discussion about the running of a nationalised rail service (as British Rail then was) and the right amounts of subsidy that it should get as a proportion of GDP. The candidate gamely rallied, and did her best. But her stricken visage silently screamed: ‘all I did was mention that the train was late’.

After a while, I asked if she’d like to talk about the historical period that she was studying for A-level. Often, interview candidates became shifty at that point. On this occasion, however, my suggestion was eagerly accepted, and the candidate discoursed at some length about the financial problems of the late Tudor monarchy. Conrad was delighted with both elements of her performance; and, as we offered her a place, commented that the young were not as uninterested in complex matters of state as they were said to be. The candidate subsequently did very well – although, alas for symmetry, she did not go on to save British Rail – but I was amused at how her apparent expertise was sparked into life purely through the intensity of Conrad’s cross-questioning.

His own interest in such topical issues was part and parcel of his life-long political commitment. At that time, he was still a member of the Labour Party, having stood (unsuccessfully) as the Labour candidate for Paddington South in 1966. But Conrad was moving across the political spectrum during the 1970s. He eventually announced his shift of allegiance to the Liberals, characteristically by writing to The Times; and later, in the Lords, he took the Liberal Democrat whip. He wanted to record his change of heart, to avoid any ambiguity; and, as a Russell, he assumed that the world would want to know.

Conrad’s literalness and love of precision were qualities that made him a paradoxical historian when interrogating written documents. On the one hand, he brought a formidable focus upon the sources, shedding prior assumptions and remaining ready to challenge old interpretations. He recast seventeenth-century political and constitutional history, as one of the intellectual leaders of what became known as ‘revisionist’ history.5 He argued that there was no evidence for an inevitable clash between crown and parliament. The breakdown in their relationship, which split the MPs into divided camps, was an outcome of chance and contingency. Those were, for him, the ruling forces of history.

On the other hand, Conrad’s super-literalism led him sometimes to overlook complexities. He did not accept that people might not mean what they said – or that they might not say what they really meant at all. If the MPs declared: ‘We fear God and honour the king’, Conrad would conclude: ‘Well, there it is. They feared God and honoured the king’. Whereas one might reply, ‘Well, perhaps they were buttering up the monarch while trying to curtail his powers? And perhaps they thought it prudent not to mention that they were prepared, if need be, to fight him – especially if they thought that was God’s will’. There are often gaps within and between both words and deeds. And long-term trends are not always expressed in people’s daily language.

In case stressing his literalism and lack of small talk makes Conrad sound unduly solemn, it’s pleasant also to record a third great quality: his good humour. He was not the sort of person who had a repertoire of rollicking jokes. And his stately demeanour meant that he was not an easy man to tease. Yet, like many people who had lonely childhoods, he enjoyed the experience of being joshed by friends, chuckling agreeably when his leg was being pulled. Common jokes among the Bedford historians were directed at Conrad’s unconventional self-catered lunches (spicy sausages with jam?) or his habit of carrying everywhere a carafe of stale, green-tinged water (soluble algae, anyone?). He was delighted, even if sometimes rather bemused, by our ribbing.

Moreover, on one celebrated occasion, Conrad turned a jest against himself into a triumph. The Head of Bedford History, Professor Mike (F.M.L.) Thompson, was at some date in the mid-1970s required to appoint a Departmental Fire & Safety Officer. It marked the start of the contemporary world of regulations for everything. Mike Thompson, with his own quixotic humour, appointed Conrad Russell to the role, amidst much laughter. Not only was he the caricature of an untidy professor, living in a chaos of books and papers, but he was, like his wife Elizabeth, an inveterate chain-smoker. In fact, there were good reasons for taking proper precautions at St John’s Lodge, the handsome Regency villa where the History Department resided, since the building lacked alternative staircases for evacuation in case of emergency. Accordingly, a fire-sling was installed in Conrad’s study, high on the top floor. Then, some months later, he instituted a rare emergency drill. At the given moment, both staff and students left the building and rushed round to the back. There we witnessed Conrad, with some athleticism,6 leap into the fire-sling. He was then winched slowly to the ground, discoursing gravely, as he descended, on his favourite topic (parliamentary politics in the 1620s) – and smoking a cigarette.

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Fig.2 Frontage of St John’s Lodge, the Regency villa in Regent’s Park,
where the Bedford College historians taught in the 1960s and 1970s.
Conrad Russell’s room was on the top floor, at the back.

Later, Conrad referred to his years in Bedford’s History Department with great affection. Our shared accommodation in St John’s Lodge, five minutes away from the rest of the College, created a special camaraderie. The 1970s in particular were an exciting and challenging period for him, when he was refining and changing not only his politics but also his interpretation of seventeenth-century history. The revisionists attracted much attention and controversy, especially among political historians. (Economic, demographic, social and urban historians tended to stick to their own separate agendas). Collectively, the revisionists rejected the stereotypes of both ‘Whig’7 and Marxist8 explanations of long-term change. Neither the ‘march of progress’ nor the inevitable class struggle would suffice to explain the intricacies of British history. But what was the alternative big picture? Chance and contingency played a significant role in the short-term twists and turns of events. Yet the outcomes did not just emerge completely at random. In the very long run, Parliament as an institution did become politically more powerful than the monarch, even though the powers of the crown did not disappear.

By the 1990s, the next generation of political historians were beginning to revise the revisionists in turn. There were also new challenges to the discipline as a whole from postmodernist theory. In private conversation, Conrad at times worried that the revisionists’ critique of their fellow historians might be taken (wrongly) as endorsing a sceptical view that history lacks any independent meaning or validity.

Meanwhile, new research fashions were also emerging. Political history was being eclipsed by an updated social history; gender history; ethnic history; cultural history; the history of sexuality; disability history; world history; and studies of the historical meanings of identity.

Within that changing context, Conrad began to give enhanced attention to his role in the Lords. His colleagues among the Liberal Democrats appreciated the lustre he brought to their cause. In 1999 he topped the poll by his fellow peers to remain in the House, when the number of hereditary peers was drastically cut by the process of constitutional reform. And, at his funeral, Conrad Russell was mourned, with sincere regret, as the ‘last of the Whigs’.

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Fig.3 Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell, speaking in the House of Lords in the early twenty-first century.

There is, however, deep irony in that accolade. In political terms, it has some truth. He was proud to come from a long line of aristocrats, of impeccable social connections and Whig/Liberal views. Listening to Conrad, one could imagine hearing the voice of his great-grandfather, Lord John Russell (1792-1878), one of the Whig architects of the 1832 Reform Act. Moreover, this important strand of aristocratic liberalism was indeed coming to an end, both sociologically and politically. On the other hand, as already noted, Conrad the historian was a scourge of both Whigs and Marxists. Somehow his view of history as lacking grand trends (say, before 1689) was hard to tally with his belief in the unfolding of parliamentary liberalism thereafter.9 At very least, the interpretative differences were challenging.

Does the ultimate contrast between Conrad Russell’s Whig/Liberal politics and his polemical anti-Whig history mean that he was a deeply troubled person? Not at all. Conrad loved his life of scholarship and politics. And he loved following arguments through to their logical outcomes, even if they left him with paradoxes. Overall, he viewed his own trajectory as centrist: as a historian, opposing the Left in the 1970s when it got too radical for him, and, as a politician, opposing the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, when they became dogmatic free-marketeers, challenging the very concept of ‘society’.

If there is such a thing as ‘nature’s lord’ to match with ‘nature’s gentleman’, then Conrad Russell was, unselfconsciously, one among their ranks. He was grand in manner yet simple in lifestyle and chivalric towards others. One of his most endearing traits was his capacity to find a ‘trace of alpha’ in even the most unpromising student. Equally, if there is such a thing as an intellectual’s intellectual, then Conrad Russell was another exemplar, although these days a chain-smoker would not be cast in the role. He was erudite and, for some critics, too much a precisian, preoccupied with minutiae. Yet he was demonstrably ready to take on big issues.

Putting all these qualities together gives us Conrad Russell, the historian and politician who was often controversial, especially in the former role, but always sincere, always intent. One of his favourite phrases, when confronted with a new fact or idea, was: ‘It gives one furiously to think’.10 And that’s what he, courteously but firmly, always did.

Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937-2004), 5th Earl Russell (1987-2004), married Elizabeth Sanders (d.2003) in 1962. Their sons, Nicholas Lyulph (d.2014) and John Francis, have in turn inherited the Russell earldom but, post Britain’s 1999 constitutional reforms, not a seat in the House of Lords.

Conrad volunteered this information, in the context of a discussion between the two of us, in the early 1970s, on the subject of parental influence upon their offspring.

Merged in 1985 to become part of Royal Holloway & Bedford New College, these days known simply as Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), located at Egham, Surrey.

Compare the BBC Interview Face-to-Face with Bertrand Russell (1959; reissued 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bZv3pSaLtY with Conrad Russell’s contribution to The Lords’ Tale, Part 18 (2009), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJ_u1WM7CYA.

The intellectual excitement of that era, among revisionist circles, was well conveyed by fellow-panellist, Linda Levy Peck (George Washington University, Washington, DC).

Talking of Conrad Russell’s athleticism, some of his former students drew attention to his love of cricket. He could not only carry his bat but he also bowled parabolic googlies which rose high into the sky, spinning wildly, before dropping down vertically onto the wicket behind the flailing batsman, often taking the wicket through sheer surprise.

The term ‘Whig’, first coined in 1678/9, referred to a political stance which had considerable but never universal support throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in support of parliamentary constraints upon the unfettered powers of monarchy, a degree of religious toleration, moderate social and political reforms, and opposition to the more pro-monarchical Tories. The ‘Whig interpretation of history’, which again was never universally supported, tended to view the unfolding of British history as the gradual and inexorable march of liberal constitutionalism, toleration, technological innovation, and socio-political reforms, together termed ‘progress’.

On which, see S. Rigby, Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction (Manchester, 1987, 1998).

This point was perceptively developed by fellow-panellist, Nicholas Tyacke (University College London).

10  Conrad showed no sign of being aware (and probably would have laughed to discover) that this phrase originated with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), ch.6.

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MONTHLY BLOG 67, WHAT NEXT? INTERROGATING HISTORICAL EVIDENCE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

First find your evidence and check for provenance; reliability; and typicality.But what next? Here are three golden rules; and three research steps.

Rule One: Approach every source with a keen mixture of critical excitement. That is, embrace new evidence whilst being prepared to understand all its flaws and omissions. At all times, you need to sustain a vigorous mental debate between your research theories/hypotheses/questions/arguments – and your critical interrogation of the sources.

Rule Two: Think of the obvious ways to use any given source … and the not-so-obvious. Historical evidence can be used for many purposes, including those for which it was not originally intended. Be prepared to improvise and to think of different ways of using material.

Rule Three: Play fair with the evidence. That is, don’t use it to show things that it doesn’t show. Don’t misquote or mangle. Don’t use quotations taken out of context. And, while taking note of what the sources don’t say (as well as what they do), don’t let the practice of ‘reading the silence’ turn into an exercise of castigating the past for not being the present – or of interpolating your own issues into historic sources. Playing fair with the evidence means playing fair with research methods too. Keep a constant check to ensure that you don’t, unintentionally, pre-build your answers into your research procedures.

Then, when focusing upon a specific source or group of sources, there are three steps to consider in sequence.

Step One: understand the source’s context. This step is really important and requires work. Evidence gains meaning in the context of time and place. There are many handy guides to the different types of sources and their contexts.2 But, if none are available, researchers should investigate for themselves.

Finding a sheet of paper inscribed with five words, ‘William, son of John Shakespeare’, would not get a researcher very far. But finding them in the parish book of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, dated 26 April 1564, provides good evidence of the baptism of the world’s most famous William Shakespeare. [The actual source contains four words in Latin, as shown in Fig.1; and a later hand marked the entry with three crosses – a rather endearing sign of research excitement but one which would rightly attract the wrath of archivists today].

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Fig. 1 Baptismal record of Gulielmus filius Johannis Shakspere [sic] on 26 April 1564 in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon – entry marked in R margin by three crosses in a later hand. There is no evidence for Shakespeare’s actual birthday, but a patriotic tradition dating back to the eighteenth century ascribes it to 23 April – St George’s Day.

Step Two: understand the source’s characteristic style (or ‘Register’, in the terminology of literary scholarship). This step entails identifying and allowing for the characteristic style of the source(s) under examination, including their strengths and weaknesses. Again, there are guides to the common characteristics of (say) different literary genres, such as autobiographies, diaries, letters. But again, where none exist, researchers should work it out for themselves.

At a very basic level, there are obvious differences in written texts between fiction and non-fiction. Poems, stories and songs are not intended to be taken literally. And within the ranks of non-fiction, there are many different types of writings, and levels of specificity. Private thoughts expressed casually, in (say) letters and diaries, do not necessarily constitute people’s final considered views. By contrast, signed and sealed legal documents may be taken as formal statements, even while the conventional legal language brings its own restrictions.

When Shakespeare bequeathed to his wife Anne Hathaway their ‘second best bed’, he was not comparing her to a summer’s day. He was leaving her a specific item of household furniture. It can be debated whether the legacy was a considered snub or a tender personal testimonial or a utilitarian disposal of family assets or a casual after-thought.3 But the terse legal language expresses absolutely nothing about motivation.

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Fig.2: Extract from p. 3 of Shakespeare’s will dated March 1616, penned by a lawyer but signed by William Shakespeare. (from original in Probate Registry, Somerset House, London). The bequest I gyve vnto my wife my second best bed with the furniture, is contained in the interpolated line of text (seventh from top), indicating that it was a late addition, made after the first draft, and hence inserted very shortly before Shakespeare’s death in April 1616.

Step 3: after assessing both context and register, it’s time to savour in full the contents of any given source or set of sources. That includes every last detail. In a written text, it’s essential to study the choice of language, as well as its content(s) and meaning(s). As my former research supervisor Jack Fisher used to say: squeeze every last drop of juice from the lemon.

Moreover, while it’s wrong to read too much cosmic meaning into every passing fragment of evidence, it’s always worth remembering that some information will turn out to be more telling than others. Keep an eye open for sources which have a significance beyond their immediate remit. (Sometimes that becomes apparent only upon later reflection, sending the researcher scurrying back to the source material for a fresh appraisal.)

The possibilities are bounded by the availability of evidence. We cannot rediscover everything about the past. So, without fresh finds, it is unlikely that researchers will ever know Shakespeare’s actual date of birth. Nonetheless, the multiplication effect of multiple sources, multiple methodologies, and endless research ideas/debates, in the context of changing perspectives over time, means that historical understanding is always expanding and always being tested. The critical assessment of bounded evidence is the launching pad for unbounded knowledge. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …’

1 This BLOG is the pair to BLOG/ 66 (June 2016) and is equally dedicated to all past students on the Core Course of Royal Holloway (London University)’s MA in Modern History: Power, Culture, Society.

2 For a super-exemplary analysis of sources and their context, see The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913 on-line, co-directed by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker: www.oldbaileyonline.org.

3 See J. Rogers, The Second Best Bed: Shakespeare’s Will in a New Light (Westport, Conn., 1993); M.S. Hedges, The Second Best Bed: In Search of Anne Hathaway (Lewes, 2000); G. Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife (2007); and BBC report www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/what-will-s-will-tells-us-about-shakespeare (2016).

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MONTHLY BLOG 65, HOW DID WOMEN FIRST MANAGE TO BREAK THE GRIP OF TRADITIONAL PATRIARCHY?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Talking of taking a long time, it took centuries for women to break the grip of traditional patriarchies. How did women manage it? In a nutshell, the historical answer was (is) that literacy was the key, education the long-term provider, and the power of persuasion by both men and women which slowly turned the key.

But let’s step back for a moment to consider why the campaign was a slow one. The answer was that it was combating profound cultural traditions. There was not one single model for the rule of men. Instead, there were countless variants of male predominance which were taken absolutely for granted. The relative subordination of women seemed to be firmly established by history, economics, family relationships, biology, theology, and state power. How to break through such a combination?

The first answer, historically, was not by attacking men. That was both bad tactics and bad ideology. It raised men’s hackles, lost support for the women’s cause, and drove a wedge between fellow-humans. Thus, while there has been (is still) much male misogyny or entrenched prejudice against women, any rival strand of female misandry or systematic hostility to men has always been much weaker as a cultural tradition. It lacks the force of affronted majesty which is still expressed in contemporary misogyny, as in anonymous comments on social media.

Certainly, for many ‘lords of creation’, who espoused traditional views, the first counter-claims on behalf of women came as a deep shock. The immediate reaction was incredulous laughter. Women who spoke out on behalf of women’s rights were caricatured as bitter, frustrated old maids. A further male response was to conjure up images of the ‘vagina dentata’ – the toothed vagina of mythology. It hinted at fear of sex and/or castration anxiety. And it certainly dashed women from any maternal pedestal: their nurturing breasts being negatived by the biting fanny.
2016-05 No1 Picasso Femme (1930)

Pablo Picasso, Femme (1930).

Accordingly, one hostile male counter-attack was to denounce feminists as no more than envious man-haters. If feminists then resisted that identification, they were pushed onto the defensive. And any denials were taken as further proof of their cunningly hidden hostility.

Historically, however, the campaigns for women’s rights were rarely presented as anti-men in intention or actuality. After all, a considerable number of men were feminists from the start, just as a certain proportion of women, as well as men, were opposed. Such complications can be seen in the suffrage campaigns in the later Victorian period. Active alongside leading suffragettes were men like George Lansbury, who in 1912 resigned as Labour MP for Bow & Bromley, to stand in a by-election on a platform of votes for women. (He lost to an opponent whose slogan was ‘No Petticoat Government’.)

Meanwhile, prominent among the opponents of the suffragettes were ladies like the educational reformer Mary Augusta Ward, who wrote novels under her married name as Mrs Humphry Ward.1 She chaired the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (1908-10), before it amalgamated with the Men’s National League. Yet Ward did at least consider that local government was not beyond the scope of female participation.

Such intricate cross-currents explain why the process of change was historically slow and uneven. Women in fact glided into public view, initially under the radar, through the mechanism of female literacy and then through women’s writings. In the late sixteenth century, English girls first began to take up their pens in some numbers. In well-to-do households, they learned from their brothers’ tutors or from their fathers. Protestant teachings particularly favoured the spread of basic literacy, so that true Christians could read and study the Bible, which had just been translated into the vernacular Indeed, as Eales notes, the wives and daughters of clergymen were amongst England’s first cohorts of literary ladies.2 Their achievements were not seen as revolutionary (except in the eyes of a few nervous conservatives). Education, it was believed, would make these women better wives and mothers, as well as better Christians. They were not campaigning for the vote. But they were exercising their God-given brainpower.
2016-05 No2 Eighteenth-century women's literacy

Young ladies in an eighteenth-century library, being instructed by a demure governess, under a bust of Sappho – a legendary symbol of female literary creativity.

As time elapsed, however, the diffusion of female literacy proved to be the thin end of a large wedge. Girls did indeed have brainpower – in some cases exceeding that of their brothers. Why therefore should they not have access to regular education? Given that the value of Reason was becoming ever more culturally and philosophically stressed, it seemed wise for society to utilise all its resources. That indeed was the punchiest argument later used by the feminist John Stuart Mill in his celebrated essay on The Subjection of Women (1869). Fully educating the female half of the population would have the effect, he explained, of ‘doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity’. Not only society collectively but also women and men individually would gain immeasurably by accessing fresh intellectual capital.3

Practical reasoning had already become appreciated at the level of the household. Throughout the eighteenth century, more and more young women were being instructed in basic literacy skills.4 These were useful as well as polite accomplishments. One anonymous text in 1739, in the name of ‘Sophia’ [the spirit of Reason], coolly drew some logical conclusions. In an urbanising and commercialising society, work was decreasingly dependent upon brute force – and increasingly reliant upon brainpower. Hence there was/is no reason why women, with the power of Reason, should not contribute alongside men. Why should there not be female lawyers, judges, doctors, scientists, University teachers, Mayors, magistrates, politicians – or even army generals and admirals?5 After all, physical strength had long ceased to be the prime qualification for military leadership. Indeed, mere force conferred no basis for either moral or political superiority. ‘Otherwise brutes would deserve pre-eminence’.6

2016-06 No3 Woman not inferior to man titlepage
There was no inevitable chain of historical progression. But, once women took up the pen, there slowly followed successive campaigns for female education, female access to the professions, female access to the franchise, female access to boardrooms, as well as (still continuing) full female participation in government, and (on the horizon) access the highest echelons of the churches and armed forces. In the very long run, the thin wedge is working. Nonetheless, it remains wise for feminists of all stripes to argue their case with sweet reason, as there are still dark fears to allay.

1 B. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (1978; 2013); J. Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian (Oxford, 1990).

2 J. Eales, ‘Female Literacy and the Social Identity of the Clergy Family in the Seventeenth Century’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 133 (2013), pp. 67-81.

3 J.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869; in Everyman edn, 1929), pp. 298-9.

4 By 1801, all women in Britain’s upper and middle classes were literate, and literacy was also spreading amongst lower-class women, especially in the growing towns.

5 Anon., Woman not Inferior to Man, by Sophia, a Person of Quality (1739), pp. 36, 38, 48.

6 Ibid., p. 51.

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MONTHLY BLOG 64, WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG TO NORMALISE THE ROLE OF WOMEN AT THE TOP IN POLITICS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Women can certainly make it to the top of the political greasy pole. Indira Gandhi (India), Margaret Thatcher (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar) are just four among several eminent examples, in very different political systems. Nonetheless, such women are still comparatively rare. Their political pre-eminence, past or present, is not ‘normal’ and taken for granted. But … why ever not? In liberal democracies it’s now a fairly long time since women got the vote and became able to stand for office. So what factors have slowed down the transition from electoral rights to political eminence?

Put like that, one fundamental answer replies that ‘these things take time’. Getting the vote is not the same as getting power. It was/is quicker and easier to change the franchise (and that took some doing) than it was/is to change the day-to-day practice of politics, which paves the way for individual participation and advancement. Over the long term, it can be argued that democracies have become relatively ‘feminised’ in the sense that issues concerning women are now routinely part of the agenda. Yet that is not the same as female participation.

Between them, women usually carry out a range of customary tasks within the household, such as childcare, dependent-adult care, home-provisioning, and housework. All of these are time-consuming and preoccupying chores, often round-the-clock. Hence, to accommodate the political participation of women, the timetables and practices of political life need to be adjusted, as does the habitual allocation of tasks within the household – and/or the delegation of some tasks to other bodies outside the household.

A very long history lies behind the assumption of an ingrained specialisation, originating in biology and sustained by cultural expectations. Women were and often still are expected to focus upon the domestic and the familial. Men take care of the ‘outside world’. A traditional phrase pronounced that: ‘Ladies have nothing to do with politics’. Such attitudes were early challenged by feminist writers. In 1834, the feisty Maria Edgeworth denounced that attitude as ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘little missy’, in her novel entitled Helen. The heroine of the story was admonished: ‘You can hardly expect, Helen, that you, as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinion on points of public importance.’1

Nonetheless, great numbers of women traditionally did and do leave such things to ‘the men’. And in Edgeworth’s novel, disappointingly, her staunchly self-denying heroine does not rise to the challenge, whether by campaigning for the female franchise or for anything as halfway radical. It was very difficult, in that era, for women to propose proto-feminist views without being satirised or pilloried; and the convention against women speaking on public platforms was almost universally upheld, by women as well as by men.2

One of the central arguments against giving the vote to women was that they were ‘virtually’ represented by their menfolk. Civic activities by husbands were taken to articulate the views of the entire household. It was specialisation in practice. Man and wife were one. She had tasks at home; he spoke for both in the wider world. On such grounds, many Victorian conservatives opposed giving the vote to women, on the grounds that such a move would give married men two votes and thus be unfair to bachelors, who were left with just one. (Spinsters, meanwhile, were supposed to be ‘virtually’ represented by their fathers).

Such views depended upon an ideal-type of ‘the household’. However, in nineteenth-century Britain (as long before), there were plenty of women who either lived alone or who lived in female-headed households. And, of course, many married couples held divergent views – or followed the lead of the wife, not the husband. (Such men were unmanly and known as ‘hen-pecked’).

Yet the ideal type was precisely that, an ideal whose power did not depend upon individual case histories. Instead, it appeared founded upon biology, tradition, culture, and, for those with committed religious views, divine will. One term for this set of attitudes is ‘patriarchy’, although this concept is not a timeless verity which stands outside history, as some argue. Yet the concept and its supporting social structures certainly had enough continuing plausibility for the idea of specialist roles and separate spheres to become convincing for many, including for those women who campaigned against the female franchise.

Eventually, however, the anti-suffragists – constituting both men and women who opposed ending the traditional male monopoly – lost the argument. At a guess, most of the female vote-deniers did in time hold their noses and exercise their new electoral rights. But such attitudes showed that ‘women’ were not and are not a single social category, speaking with one voice. They may be divided by age, wealth, social class, religion, ethnicity, politics, gender orientation, marital status, maternity or childlessness, and/or their attitudes towards feminism and to men. However, the case for women’s rights does not depend upon any need for unity or homogeneity. They participate as citizens, no more or less, sharing the range of concord and disagreements that are found within any body politic.

Today, the old arguments of the anti-suffragists are being repeated and updated by a very similar mixture of venom and ridicule on the part of the anti-feminists (both male and female), who flourish with vigour, especially on social media. They express themselves sometimes ironically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes with violent misogyny.

Detail from Thomas Rowlandson’s partly affectionate, partly brutal satire of an all-woman Bluestocking Club (1815) as an unbridled cat-fight.

The mix of backlash, uncertainty, and a confused sense of upheaval, indicates how fundamental are these long-unfolding changes in the respective roles of men and women – but also how ultimately flexible are social organisations. There are some crucial biological constants, like the fact that it is women (though not all women) who give birth to children. Yet the social arrangements for child rearing are not immutable over time. Things are not set in stone – but they don’t get transformed overnight either.

So, given that, any changes designed to help women to participate fully in political life should be matched by changes to relationships and the distribution of tasks within the household. The two ‘spheres’ are not separate, but integrally linked. If one variable is to be adapted, then the others have to adapt too. And the same applies to all areas of public and private life.
2016-04 No2 Despard and Women's Freedom League

Battersea’s Charlotte Despard, leading a march of the Women’s Freedom League (1907), campaigning for the vote with her fellow sisters, in company with a representative of the next generation, in the form of a decorously dressed young boy in the front row.

Lastly, it’s important for women to press for structural changes to help women. History needs a helping hand. And female solidarity is a good antidote to anti-feminism. At the same time, however, it’s best not to be too dogmatic about the merits of all women, simply because they are women. I’m sure that there’s no female consensus on the respective political ratings of Indira Gandhi; Margaret Thatcher; Angela Merkel; and Aung San Suu Kyi. Onwards; not always upwards; but still, yes, onwards.

1 M. Edgeworth, Helen (1834; in 1890 edn), p. 260.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Women and Public Speaking’, Monthly BLOG/47 (Nov. 2014).

3 For rival perspectives, see G. Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford, 1986); J. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester 2006); and S. Goldberg, Male Dominance: The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1979).

4 B.H. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (2013); A.M. Benjamin, A History of the Anti-Suffrage Movement in the United States, from 1895 to 1920: Women against Equality (Lewiston, 1991).

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MONTHLY BLOG 63, THE VALUE OF VOTING – AND WHY THE PRACTICE SHOULD NOT BE MOCKED

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Many more voters than previously realised cast their votes in local and national elections in eighteenth-century England. They were thereby creating – sometimes riotously and casually, but generally decorously and seriously – a culture of constitutionalism. It amounted to an emergent proto-democracy. It was not yet a full democracy, in which all adult men and women have a vote. Yet it was a culture which, importantly, chose to decide certain key disputes by casting equal votes and by then accepting the verdict of the majority.
2016-03-Election-placard1784

Satirical sketch of election placard in Westminster (1784), showing opposition candidate Charles James Fox as a wily fox with his slogan ‘the Rights of the Commons’.
Despite the brickbats and satire, Fox won.

This procedure was much safer and more rational than deciding by fighting; much more effective in winning wider consent than deciding by bribery; and much more involving for all participants than deciding by the casting of lots. Even if not all the eligible electorate actually chose to use their vote (and there were invariably some non-participants), they always had the option.

A proto-democratic culture of constitutionalism promoted public debate about the candidates and the issues, as well as a basic respect for other points of view, which might turn out to have majority support.

In the eighteenth century, the franchise was unfair and unequal, which made it a valid target for reformers. Nonetheless, in a few large constituencies with ‘open’ electorates, the number eligible to vote, via an urban freeman or rate-payer franchise, was very great. The key examples were the cities of London, Westminster, Norwich and Bristol. They had many voters (all men in this era), from a wide range of social backgrounds: from aristocrats to artisans, shopkeepers, and even some labourers. Votes were cast publicly – which meant that votes were open to challenge if the witnessing crowd doubted the eligibility of the voter – and the results were taken as registering public opinion, in the nearest the eighteenth-century constitution offered to a serious test of the views of political ‘outsiders’.

Historically, the fact that Georgian England already had a voting tradition helps to explain how the country later made the transition into full democracy so bloodlessly. Already in the eighteenth century the rudiments of the electoral process were evolving: candidate speeches; party manifestoes; electoral slogans and placards; party colours; door-to-door election canvassing; ward organisations; celebrity endorsements; shows of public support in rival demonstrations and mass meetings; close scrutiny of the voting process; declaration of the results with, upon occasion, a formal challenge and recount; and, finally, acceptance of the outcome. (The Georgian custom of chairing the successful candidate around town was not always implemented then and is today not considered obligatory).

Not only were parliamentary and civic elections contested in these large open constituencies, but during these years the practice of constitutional voting was becoming adopted in many other, different circumstances. It pointed away from the troubled civil wars of earlier times towards a calmer, safer society. Many different non-governmental institutions used the mechanism of voting, for example to determine their own membership.

For example, in numerous private clubs and societies, potential recruits had first to be nominated by one or more existing members. Then votes were cast secretly, for or against; and any candidate who was ‘blackballed’ (negatived) was declared to have lost. This practice continues in some private clubs to this day. It was (is) a particularly severe test, since the excluded candidate might have won a large majority of all votes cast. In that case, it could be accused of being anti-democratic, allowing a small group to negative the will of the majority. The moral, in all cases, is that the rules for voting are crucial in framing how each voting system works.

Other non-governmental organisations which used some version of balloting in the eighteenth century included bank management boards and charitable institutions like London’s Foundling Hospital, established in 1739. That body used voting by its Trustees to recruit new Trustees, when existing ones died or retired. Clearly, these were socially exclusive bodies. But they were upholding the convention that each vote from a valid voter has equal value and that the will of the majority should prevail.

Importantly, too, it’s known that some middling- and lower-class groups used the mechanism of voting to resolve disputes over appointments. For example, a number of Nonconformist churches chose their ministers by such means. The Congregationalists in particular valued this procedure. Potential candidates would appear before a congregation, preach a sermon, and then submit to a vote, no doubt after further behind-the-scenes canvassing and enquiries. In these ways, many people had the experience of participating equally in a collective decision to find out what the majority (including those who were not so vociferous) really wanted.

So what follows? Firstly, the culture of voting is one to be appreciated – and used. Secondly, the constitutional rules for each system of voting really matter. They should be clearly framed to allow each system to operate fairly within its remit – and the rules, once established, should not be tampered with for partisan advantage. And lastly, electors should not be summoned frivolously to the polls. That way, disillusion and apathy develop.

Look at the low turnout for elections to the European Parliament. And there’s a good reason for that. Electors know that the institution has no real power. It is not a supreme legislative or tax-raising body; and, unlike a national Parliament, no executive government is either constituted from its ranks or is scrutinised closely by it. The current arrangements do no good for either the European Union or participatory democracy. Sham elections are destructive of a genuinely civic process, which needs to be cultivated, valued, and made real – not mocked.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Short Summary: Proto-Democracy’, section 1.7, in E.M. Green, P.J. Corfield and C. Harvey, Elections in Metropolitan London, 1700-1850: Vol. 1 Arguments and Evidence (Bristol, 2013), pp. 55-67; also in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, section 1.7.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting: Standing Up to be Counted?’ BLOG no. 53 (May 2015).

3 BLOG illustration from Rowlandson’s Procession to the Hustings after a Successful Canvass (1784) in http://www.magnoliasoft.net/ms/magnoliabox/art/547698/procession-to-the-hustings-after-a-successful-canvass-no14 (detail).

4 Over time, however, the clergy’s professional qualifications tended to be emphasised over the power of congregational election: see J.W.T. Youngs, The Congregationalists: A History (New York, 1990; 1998), pp. 69-70.

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MONTHLY BLOG 62, IS THE PAST DEAD OR ALIVE? AND THE SNARES OF SUCH BINARY QUESTIONS.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Is the past dead or alive? Posing such a binary question insists upon choice; but the options constitute a false dichotomy. Nonetheless, the death of the past is often proclaimed. This BLOG examines the arguments for and against; and highlights the snares of binary thinking.

Firstly, the past, dead or alive? The ‘death of the past’ is a common, possibly reassuring notion. If you have forgotten the History dates learned at school, then don’t worry, you are in good company. Most people have. In the USA there is a sad debate entitled: ‘Is History history?’ There is at least one book entitled The Death of the Past.1 In fact, that particular study laments that people forget far too much. Nonetheless, emphatic phrases circulate in popular culture. ‘Never look back. The past is dead and buried’. ‘The bad (or good) Old Days have gone’. Something or other is irrevocably past – rendering it ‘as dead as the proverbial dodo’, which was last reliably sighted in Mauritius in 1662.2016-02 No1 Frohawk_Dodo-1905

Illus. 1: The Dodo by F.W. Frohawk,
from L.W. Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (1907).

At the same time, however, there’s a rival strand of thought, which asserts that the past is very much alive. The most famous and often quoted claim to that effect comes from William Faulkner, writing in the American Deep South in 1951, where memories and resentments from Civil War times have far from disappeared. ‘The past is never dead’, he wrote. ‘It’s not even past’. 2

Another strong statement to that effect came from Karl Marx in 1851/2. He thundered at the unpastness of the past. Revolutionary activism was constantly hampered by old thinking and old ideas: ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living’.3

Opposition to old thinking was accordingly expressed by many later Communist leaders. The ‘new’ was good and revolutionary. Antiquity was the dangerous foe. Chairman Mao’s campaign against the ‘Four Olds’ – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas – was a striking example, at the time of his intended Cultural Revolution in 1966.4 Yet the fact that various traditional aspects of Chinese life still persist today indicates the difficulty of uprooting very deeply embedded social attitudes, even when using the resources of a totalitarian state.

For historians, meanwhile, it’s best to reject over-simplified choices. Many things in the past (both material and intangible) have died or come to an end. Yet far from everything has shared the same fate. Ideas, languages, cultures, religions persist through Time, incorporating changes alongside continuities; biological traits evolve over immensely long periods; the structure of the cosmos unfolds over many billennia (an emergent neologism) within a measurable framework.

Hence there’s nothing like a rigid divide between past and present. They are separated by no more than a nano-second between NOW and the immediate nano-second before NOW, so that legacies/contributions from the past infuse every moment as it is lived.

Secondly, thinking in terms of binary alternatives: Having to choose between bad/old/dead versus good/new/alive is a classic example of binary thought. It is an approach commonly cultivated by activists, for example in revolutionary or apocalyptic religious movements. Are you with the great cause or against it? Such attitudes can be psychologically powerful in binding groups together.

Binaries can also be useful when assessing the strength and weakness of an argument or a proposed course of action. As bimanual creatures, we can consider the pros and cons, using the formula ‘on the one hand’ … ‘on the other hand’. Indeed, when making a case, it’s always helpful to understand the arguments against your own. That way, when facing a fundamental critic, you are prepared. (Binary options also provide a good way to bully a witness on oath: Come on, answer, Yes or No! When the truthful reply might be ‘Somewhat’ or ‘Maybe’.)

It’s even been argued that some human societies are intrinsically binary in their deepest thought patterns. Russian culture is one that has been historically so identified.5 Hence binary switching may have helped to familiarise the population with the country’s dramatic twentieth-century lurches from Tsarism to Communism and, later, back to a different form of oligarchic Democracy. (Do today’s Russians agree; or perhaps, agree somewhat?)

Either way, there is no doubt that binary thought, like binary notation, has its uses. But studying History requires the capacity to grapple with complexity alongside simplicity. Is the past dead or alive? The answer is both and neither. It falls within the embrace of ever-stable ever-fluid Time, which lives and dies simultaneously.

J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969; reissued Harmondsworth, 1973; Basingstoke, 2003).

W. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951), Act 1, sc. 3.

K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1851/2), in D. McClellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), p. 300.

P. Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (Cambridge, 2008); M. Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (2008).

Y.M. Lotman and B.A. Uspensky, ‘Binary Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture’, in A.D. and A.S. Nakhimovsky (eds), The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History (Ithaca, NY., 1985), pp. 30-66.

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MONTHLY BLOG 61, DOES THE STUDY OF HISTORY ‘PROGRESS’? AND HOW DOES PLURILOGUE HELP?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Does the study of History ‘progress’? That verb is cited cautiously in inverted commas, because we are all wary of over-simplified claims for historical Progress which can be deceptive, even cruelly so. But the study of History is a highly pluralistic discipline. It’s undertaken around the world by countless specialists and generalists alike. ‘History’ does not peddle its own party line. Instead, the subject rejoices in disagreements and debates. If it does ‘progress’ towards a triumphant end-point (on a journey which never stops), then it does so through pluralistic efforts and zig-zagging routes.
2016-01 No1 city on Hill C Alcuin 2005

A dulcet vision of the City Set on a Hill (2005): the ideal outcome, always sought, always elusive.

Here I argue that the study of the human past does progress, in the sense of collectively getting better sources, methodologies, agreed practices, advice handbooks, and theoretical investigations as well as smarter popularisations, text-books, and research publications – and deeper, better overall interpretations. The route, obviously, is not a step-by-step one, with each History book being better than the one before. On the contrary. I’m talking about a very long term process, between the generations, evolving since at least the eighteenth-century advent of a secular discipline of History-writing. Things, collectively, do get better.

On the way to substantiating that assertion, it’s helpful to answer two other related questions that are often raised by doubters, viz: Why do historians keep rewriting history? Why can’t they just tell it like it was and stop arguing? Two broad answers come to mind. Firstly, the debates and argument are an essential part of the process of interrogating the past. Just as History belongs to everyone, so there is no limit to the number of historical interpretations – and a good thing too. Furthermore, in every generation, there are discoveries of new sources, or new ways of using old sources, or new technologies that encourage new methodologies – let alone new questions and new approaches from new researchers (one of the major sources of change) – and, not least, the new perspectives brought about by the unfolding of History through time. Since historical research is always focused upon a moving target, then historical writing must do likewise. It is, in other words, a triumphant component of the discipline.

Even if no new evidence on a particular topic ever emerges, changing subsequent events introduce changed perspectives. For example, should Scotland leave the United Kingdom sometime soon, then interpretations of the 1707 Act of Union will change. It will no long be regarded as a brilliant compromise settlement that gained longevity and permanence – but instead as a political expedient which had a prolonged but ultimately limited shelf-life of just over 300 years (not that long in the grand scheme of things).

Yet, if historical output is always being rewritten (and, by implication, the old stuff rejected or discarded), then how can History ‘progress’? Doesn’t that mean that each generation’s writings are only good for their own day – and, after that, as dead as the fabled dodo? But, in fact, old efforts are not all discarded. Some elements may be entirely refuted or rejected or simply forgotten. Others lie fallow and then may later be revived and re-examined. But most studies remain on hand, more or less actively, in intellectual parks (traditionally known as libraries, now redoubled in websites). There they are subjects for further circulation, consultation, debate, adaptation, modification, forgetting, retrieval and, yes, at times complete oblivion – though even a forgotten work may have influenced another which remains in circulation. The pathways to knowledge are multi-circuited.

Sites of stored learning, from libraries to websites, and interactively between them

Historians don’t start by rewriting the whole subject from scratch. Instead, they build broadly upon the work of earlier generations. For that reason, as they are engaging in a discipline that focuses upon the workings of Time, historians often begin their studies with a historiographical review, analysing the past and present state of their chosen field. Even if one individual researcher is keen to embark upon polemical warfare with an influential precursor, it is rarely the case that the polemicist rejects absolutely everything written in earlier times. The framework of dates, events, chief protagonists, is (mainly) already fixed.

In effect, there is something like a continuous dialogue between the generations – except that it’s not a true dialogue, since earlier generations can’t answer back (and can’t adapt their views in the light of criticisms). So let me invent a word. There’s a plurilogue, across time and, simultaneously, between scholars from different cultures and traditions around the world.

But here’s an annoying discovery. I am not unique in my powers of linguistic invention. I’ve just googled ‘plurilogue’ to discover that it’s already the name of a recently-established international online journal, presenting reviews of philosophy and political science. In that case, I rally to claim instead that it’s a word whose time has come. Its parallel invention is an example of plurilogue in action.

Which leads me to my last point. Historians, like the practitioners of all academic disciplines, build upon work that has gone before. Even refutations or corrections constitute a form of reconstruction. An example is the collective effort and sometimes fierce debates that it has taken, over two generations, to establish reasonably reliable figures for the extent of the state-directed murders during the Holocaust.3 Similar endeavours combine to seek accurate figures for mortality in wars, or through political purges, or as a result of epidemics – often with the useful side-effect of refuting rumours, legends and propaganda claims. In terms of knowledge, that’s progress.

All the work of previous generations provides a scaffolding, which allows for new growth, development, reconfiguration, pulling down and building up. And that assessment applies not only to the work of scholars but also to the crucial input of all who work in libraries, archives, museums, art galleries, heritage associations, and everywhere that resources are preserved and curated for the use of this and future generations. Today those who are digitising historical materials are carrying out the same essential tasks in a different medium, generating wider democratic access, as well as new challenges and endless possibilities. Certainly were Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédistes living in today’s ‘Age of Wikipedia’, they would be leading the charge to put everything onto the web – and no doubt trying to enforce greater accuracy upon wikipedia.

Access to raw data alone will not, of course, make a work of history. Historians still need to grapple with their sources, with their own ideas, and with each other – as well as with their precursors. There’s a famous maxim about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Reality is not so glamorous. Historians stand on the shoulders of all who went before, giant or pygmy (reputations rise and fall retrospectively too). It’s a collective thing. Plurilogue is endlessly expanding, which makes it hard work but endlessly enthralling.

1 Most historians focus upon the human past at various points during the many generations that have existed after the advent of basic literacy. But for some purposes, the subject can focus upon the entire history of the human species, incorporating the work of biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and the misleadingly entitled ‘prehistorians’ (who study pre-literate societies), while for yet other purposes, the human past can be integrated into the history of the Earth and, indeed, the Cosmos. See e.g. D. Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, CA, 2004).

2 http://www.plurilogue.com/2011/07/welcome-to-plurilogue.html.

3 For an introduction, see >https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust_victims; and long list of secondary authorities cited there.

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MONTHLY BLOG 52, FACTS AND FACTOIDS IN HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Is it a fact or a factoid? There are lots of those impostors around. Historical films perpetrate new examples daily and the web circulates them with impartial zeal. Items of information that can be verified and cross-checked with reference to other sources count as facts. But even apparently well-established truths can turn out to be no more than factoids. That useful noun was coined in 1973 by Norman Mailer when writing about Marilyn Monroe, about whom myths and legends still gather.1
2015-4 No1 norman mailer

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) – maverick American author who experimented with creative literature, confessional writing, journalism, biography and non-fiction.

A factoid is an item of information, which has gained by frequent repetition a fact-like status, even though it is actually erroneous. It may have been spawned by an outright invention or, more subtly, grown by an accretion of myth and repetition. So factoids are like lies or untruths, but they are not necessarily circulated as knowingly false. Instead these purported facts tend to be recycled again and again as non-controversial data that ‘everyone knows’. Thus factoids convey culturally-embedded information which people would like to be true or feel ought to be true. For that reason, these phoney-facts are hard to kill. And, even when slain, they may well rise and circulate again.

Eighteenth-century English history, like most periods, has generated some notable factoids of its own. One features the so-called Calendar Riots of September 1752. They have been frequently cited by historians; and one or two experts have even supplied details of their location (for example, in Bristol). I might have mentioned them in print myself, since I used to believe in their historical reality. But I didn’t commit myself publicly. That’s just as well, since there were no riots. It’s true that there was some popular grumbling and discontent in and after September 1752, when the old, lagging Julian calendar (until then standard in England and Wales) was officially jettisoned in favour of catching up with the astronomically more accurate Gregorian calendar (already in use in Scotland and across continental Europe). The gap was eleven days.

It was later myth which turned the grumbles of 1752 into riots. In one of his election satires, Hogarth included, casually amongst the chaos, an opposition poster demanding: ‘Give us our Eleven Days’. It was an irresistible formula: belligerent but anguished. Such an attitude matched with what later generations rather snobbishly considered would be the ‘natural’ response of the uneducated masses to such calendrical reforms. Expanded into ‘Give us Back our Eleven Days!’ the phrase still has resonance: we have been robbed of our time. Moreover, once embroidered into a story of riots in the early nineteenth century, the tale gained weight and encrusted detail with continued retellings.2
2015-4 No2 Hogarth's elevendays

William Hogarth’s satirical Election Entertainment (1755) shows a captured placard against calendar reform, casually discarded underfoot.

Yet, in reality, the masses in England and Wales proved quite capable of adapting to the change, which had parliamentary authority, trading convenience, congruence with Scotland, and scientific time-measurement on its side. As part of the reform process, 1 January was adopted as the start of the official year, instead of the old choice of 26 March (the quarterly Lady Day). But, in a nod to continuity, the inauguration of the tax year was left unchanged, although updated by eleven days from 26 March to 6 April (as it still remains today). Thenceforth, England and Wales adhered without difficulty to the Gregorian calendar which, once synchronised across greater Europe, continued its long journey to becoming today’s global standard. The story is interesting enough without the addition of factoids. Instead, the significant fact is that the riotous English population did not riot upon this occasion.3

Another factoid features prominently in an oversimplified version of the history of English women before women’s liberation. It is an example which is fuelled by righteous indignation against men. Or rather, not against men individually, but against the traditional legal position of men vis à vis women. It takes the form of the bald assertion that husbands ‘owned’ their wives, under common law. According to this factoid history, married women were considered as legally on a par with domestic ‘chattels’ or household goods; they were thus the property of their husbands; in effect, legally slaves. But not so.

Certainly, the independence of a married woman was legally circumscribed. Hence the eighteenth-century joke that the only truly happy female state was to be a wealthy widow. As the cynical thief-taker Peachum explains to his daughter Polly in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728): ‘The comfortable Estate of Widow-hood, is the only Hope that keeps up a Wife’s Spirits’.4

All the same, married women were not legally defined as property, capable of being bought and sold. Instead, after marriage, the legal identity of a woman (with the exception of a Queen reigning in her own right) was merged with that of her husband. Under the common law of ‘couverture’, they were one person. It was a legal fiction, which meant that a husband could not sue or be sued by his wife (though they still had to behave lawfully to one another). The law of ‘couverture’ also meant that they shared their assets and debts, unless they had some separate pre-nuptial agreement (as a considerable number of women did). Both partners, in theory at least, gained a helpmeet and the social status that came with matrimony.
2015-4 No3 regency proposal

Regency print of The Proposal.

Needless to say, in practice there were plenty of provisos. Personalities always affected the de facto balance of power within a marriage. Friends, families and servants could keep an unofficial lookout to ward against unacceptable individual behaviour. Some women also had separate pre-nuptial financial arrangements, leaving them in charge of their own money.5  And a number of married businesswomen traded in their own right, if necessary going to the equity Court of Chancery to provide a way round the rigidities of common law. The doctrine of matrimonial unity was potent but remained a legal fiction not a universal fact.
2015-4 No4 Matrimonial scene 1849

German print showing A Matrimonial Scene (1849)

Publicly and legally, the cards always remained stacked in the husbands’ favour. To make the legal fiction work, entrenched custom dictated that it was the male who acted on behalf of the couple. Hence the tongue-in-cheek dictum attributed to many a proudly married man: ‘My wife and I are one – and I am he’.7

Given this inequity at the heart of marriage according to traditional common law, there was a very good case for the legal liberation of married women, which happened piecemeal in the course of the nineteenth century.8  But the case didn’t and doesn’t need the support of a clunking factoid. Married women were not disposable property. Their plight was compared with that of slaves by some feminist reformers. That’s more or less understandable as campaign rhetoric, even if it significantly underplays the sufferings of slaves. But the factoid should not be mistaken for fact.

Real reforms are made more difficult if the target is misrepresented. Let’s keep an eye out for pseudo-history and reject it whenever possible.9  We don’t want to fetishise ‘facts and facts alone’ since much knowledge depends upon evaluating ideas/theories/experience/analysis/assumptions/intuitions/propositions/opinions/ debates/probabilities/possibilities and all the evidence which lies between certainty and uncertainty.10  Yet, given all those complexities, we don’t need factoids muddying the water as well.

1 N. Mailer, Marilyn: A Biography (New York, 1973). The term is sometimes also used, chiefly in the USA, to refer to a trivial fact or ‘factlet’: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factoid.

2 Historian Robert Poole provides an admirable analysis in R. Poole, Time’s Alteration: Calendar Reform in Early Modern England (1998), esp. pp. 1-18, 159-78; and idem, ‘“Give Us our Eleven Days!” Calendar Reform in Eighteenth-Century England’, Past & Present, 149 (1995), pp. 95-139.

3 See variously E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowds’, in his Customs in Common (1991), pp. 185-258, and ‘The Moral Economy Reviewed’, in ibid., pp. 259-351; J. Stevenson, Popular Disturbances in England, 1700-1870 (1979); A. Randall and A. Charlesworth (eds), Markets, Market Culture and Popular Protests in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (Liverpool, 1996); R.B. Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (2004); and J. Bohstedt, The Politics of Provision: Food Riots, Moral Economy and Market Transition in England, c.1550-1850 (Aldershot, 2010).

4 J. Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Act 1, sc. 10.

5 A.L. Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (1993).

6 N. Phillips, Women in Business, 1700-1850 (Woodbridge, 2006).

7 E.O. Hellerstein, L.P. Hume and K.M. Offen (eds), Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States (Stanford, Calif., 1981), Part 2, section 33, pp. 161-6: ‘“My Wife and I are One, and I am He”: The Laws and Rituals of Marriage’.

8 M.L. Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and Law in Victorian England, 1850-95 (Princeton, 1989); A. Chernock, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism (Stanford, Calif., 2010).

9 That’s why it’s good that these days freelance websites regularly highlight inaccuracies, omissions and inventions in historical films, before new factoids gain currency.

10 For opposition to the tyranny of facts, see Dickens’s critique of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854); L. Hudson, The Cult of the Fact (1972). With thanks to Tom Barney for a good conversation on this theme at the recent West London Local History Conference.

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Image/2: Not progressive order but chaotic disorder.

MONTHLY BLOG 51, TALKING ABOUT THE SHAPE OF HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

The present ‘Temporal Turn’ in ideas and politics means reminding everyone, including all government policy-makers, that everything unfolds in historical context.1  There’s never a tabula rasa – a blank page on which to inscribe the future. The present comes from the past, and legacies from the past are all around us, let alone within us.

Well, that seems obvious enough. Yet insisting that we all have to look to history doesn’t advance things very far, especially since these days historians are (rightly) not giving out easy messages. It’s much easier to say that things are complex than to provide one-word answers.

Above all, historians collectively are not saying (as many Victorians did): be optimistic, Progress will win through. Partly that’s because it’s not clear exactly what constitutes historical improvement. When the supersonic Concorde first buzzed the skies over London, Paris, New York and Washington in the 1970s, protesters were firmly told off, with the snappy dictum: ‘You can’t stop Progress’. Yet … thirty years on, it’s Concorde that has gone; and it’s the urban protesters over aircraft noise who are slowly winning the battle to get the aviation industry to produce quieter planes. A different sort of Progress, it could be argued. But in the 1970s it was far from clear which version was going to succeed.

It’s a pertinent reminder that technology, which is often cited as the driver of historical change, does not hold all the trump cards. Innovations have to fit in with what humans collectively will accept, even though it may take time/arguments for that decision to become apparent. So, no simple Progress. At best/worst, a struggle or friction between conflicting interests. It’s what Marxists and Hegelians would call an example of dialectical contradiction in operation.
Image/1: Concorde – Was it Progress?

Image/1: Concorde – Was it Progress?
It flew elegantly – and faster than the speed of sound, in commercial service from 1976-2003.

 But it was super-noisy when heard from below; it did not cater for mass transport; and, by the end, its own operational systems were becoming technologically outdated.

Likewise, historians today don’t generally tell the world that ‘it’s all really the Class Struggle’ (though some still do). Or ‘it’s all really the hand of God’ (though some, not usually professional historians, still do). Or ‘it’s all really biological/gender or racial or national destiny’ (ditto).

Instead, the mainstream messages about long-term history are complex, which reflects reality. Indeed, there is an in-built tendency towards finding complexity in professional research: the more one looks, the more one finds. That can be helpful. When talking about some historically-derived situation, the remark ‘Ah well, it’s all very complex!’ can certainly be a good first inoculation against over-simplified nostrums.

On the other hand, historians should be able to say more than that. The art of research is not only to find complexity but also to explain it. Hence if fascinating historical studies offer intricate detail but no overview in conclusion, readers are entitled to feel frustrated.

Sad to say one erudite and fascinating study of three seventeenth-century women falls into that category. Natalie Zemon Davis’s Women on the Margins (1997)3  starts inventively with an imaginary conversation between the protagonists, who never met and knew nothing of each other. They are a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew – and they don’t want to appear in the same book together. Yet Zemon Davis overrides their (imagined) objection. For her, there is evident analytical interest in studying their very different lives in conjunction. Yet, in her conclusion, she expressly declines to locate these case-studies within any wider history of women. Why not? Who could do that better than Zemon Davis? And she won’t say, what are readers to conclude? That these micro-histories are individually fascinating but collectively meaningless?

Certainly, their stories are not uncomplicated tales of female advancement. But readers would surely welcome an assessment of the changing long-term balance between constraints and opportunities for women – a seventeenth-century dialectic which has hardly ceased in the twenty-first century.

When opening a discussion of these issues, one good exercise is to ask people to explore their own implicit assumptions. If you have to draw the shape of history as a diagram, what image would you draw? The outcome then requires discussion – and gives scope for people then to have second, maybe deeper, thoughts.

When I ask my MA students to undertake this exercise – putting pen to blank paper and letting inspiration flow – they usually respond with bafflement, plus exasperation. One of them told me crossly: ‘I just don’t think like that, Penny’. In response, I urged: ‘Try’. A small minority (these days) draw a line, sometimes pointing upwards or downwards. They may explain their choices either as an expression of faith in Progress, in a distinctly Victorian style, or of deep-grained ecological pessimism. Another minority, rather more fatalistically, declare the answer to be a circle: ‘what goes round comes round’. Such images lead to fruitful discussions of the pros and cons of linear and cyclical views of history.4

But the majority (these days) scribble a confused mass, like a tangled ball of wool, and explain their choice with comments like: ‘Oh, it’s all a mess’. ‘It’s chaos’. ‘There’s no pattern to it’. ‘It’s too complex to explain’. ‘Unexpected things happen’. ‘Contingency rules’. ‘It’s just one accident after another’.
Image/2: Not progressive order but chaotic disorder.

Image/2: Not progressive order but chaotic disorder.

The only Concorde crash, just outside Paris (July 2000), following accidental damage to the plane from debris on the runway.

Very shortly after this photo was taken, 113 people died, 109 airborne and 4 on the ground.

If testimonies were needed to confirm the current absence of agreed Grand Narratives, recounting the long-term course of history, then these responses would provide it. And they lead to good discussions, once these answers are further explored. Sometimes, the advocates of chaotic randomness are very firm in their views. Their arguments may verge upon the notorious Time-heresy, that Time itself lacks all continuity and that each one moment (however brief) is sundered from the following moment.5  At that point, I usually reply: ‘Well if that’s the case, I won’t bother to mark your essays carefully. I’ll throw them into the air and those settling at the top of the heap will get top marks, and those at the bottom will be failed.’ To a man and woman, the students chorus: ‘But, Penny, that’s unfair’. So there is enough through-time coherence and order in the world to encourage people to expect a just assessment of their earlier efforts at some subsequent date.

In fact, those who see history as messy chaos don’t usually mean that there are absolutely no continuities or holding systems which operate through Time. But they do mean that things are so messy that they cannot be reduced to simplicity (except insofar as stating that ‘It’s all chaos’ is in itself a simple answer).

So we are back to encouraging historians, and all others interested in the long term, not just to report but to explain the complications. These are likely to feature an ever-changing mix not only of different forms of change and competing trends, but also deep continuities. As physicist Stephen Hawking predicted, approvingly in 2000: ‘The next [twenty-first] century will be the century of complexity’.6  For historians, the old simplicities of linear or cyclical history may have been outgrown. Yet the Temporal Turn commands us not only to engage in the study of the past (which stretches up to the present moment) but also to explain to the wider world its underlying logic. It’s a big challenge.

1 On the Temporal Turn, see P.J. Corfield, ‘What on Earth is the Temporal Turn and Why is it happening Now?’ BLOG/ 49 (Jan. 2015) and idem, ‘What does the Temporal Turn mean in Practice – for Historians and Non-Historians Alike? BLOG/ 50 (Feb. 2015).

2 Following its first flight in 1969, the supersonic Concorde was used in commercial service from 1976 to 2003: see references in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concorde

3 N. Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).

4 For an indication of the many possibilities, see E. Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (Chicago, 2003); and for linear and cyclical histories, see P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 49-56, 80-8.

5 See, for example, a publication with an aptly fin-de-millennium title, J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in our Understanding of the Universe (1999).

6 S.W. Hawking, ‘“Unified Theory” is Getting Closer, Hawking Predicts’, interview in San Jose Mercury News (23 Jan. 2000), p. 29A, quoted in A. Sengupta (ed.), Chaos, Nonlinearity, Complexity: The Dynamical Paradigm of Nature (Berlin, 2006), p. vii. See also M. Gell-Mann, Adventures in the Simple and the Complex: The Quark and the Jaguar (New York, 1994).

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MONTHLY BLOG 50, WHAT DOES THE ‘TEMPORAL TURN’ MEAN IN PRACTICE – FOR HISTORIANS AND NON-HISTORIANS ALIKE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

The senior American policy-maker, who claimed in 2004 that: ‘When we act, we create our own reality’, proved to be dangerously wrong – in Iraq as elsewhere across the world. Instead, it is history which provides the past and present reality. Hence the need to understand everything in its full historical context. That’s what the Temporal Turn2  really means: a turn to Time, whose effects are studied by historians, alongside the practitioners of many other long-span subjects, like archaeologists, astrophysicists, biologists, climatologists, geologists, or zoologists.

Paying fresh attention to Time calls for greater changes in the mind-set of non-historians than it does for historians. For us, it’s axiomatic that History deals with the very long term. But for other disciplines, it means making a fresh effort to ‘think long’. To reflect that the current parameters of your discipline may not remain the same for ever. To become aware of change and historical context, as an integral component, not just an add-on extra. But also to be aware of deep continuities, which may not be amenable to policies of instant reformation. Thus the Temporal Turn will encourage an intellectual shift in many disciplines across the board in the Arts, Social Sciences and Sciences, just as the Linguistic (or structural) Turn, as announced by Richard Rorty in 1967,3  affected philosophy (his prime target) as well as anthropology, social studies, theology, ethics, literary studies, and even, to an extent, history.4

Historians are debating quite what the Temporal Turn means for them too. Crusading zeal on behalf of the discipline, as expressed in the recent History Manifesto, makes for good copy and rousing appeals. Thus Jo Guldi and David Armitage end their polemical tract with a Marxist echo: ‘Historians of the world unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late’.5  Yet some of the early responses from fellow historians are unexcited. In effect, they are saying that public history has already arrived: ‘We do this already’. In particular, Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler criticise The History Manifesto for being wrong both in its descriptions and its prescriptions: ‘Historians aren’t soldiers, they don’t fight on a single front, and … they certainly don’t need to be led in one direction’.6 Cohen and Mandler specifically dislike Guldi and Armitage’s hopes that public policy debates can be resolved, or at very least enlightened, by using ‘big data’, derived from massive long-span historical databases. Instead, they stress creative diversity within the discipline.

Who is right in this disagreement? In one sense, Cohen and Mandler are sure to be correct, in that historians can’t be told what to do and how to do it. Their subject is already hugely diversified; and, unlike many academic subjects, it overlaps with a huge semi- and non-academic world of freelance historians and do-it-yourself amateurs. This massive collective project, which has been developed over centuries, is not for speedy turning.
2015-2 No 1 Clio_Goddess of History c1770

Clio, Goddess of History, c1770:

in Portland stone roundel (32in diameter), from Plas Llangoedmor, Cardigan, Wales.

Source: http://www.ausbcomp.com/~bbott/wortman/Clio_Goddess-of-History.htm.

On the other hand, The History Manifesto is importantly right in its general message, even if not necessarily in its specific preferences. It is one sign among many of the intellectual shift towards long-term analysis and away from short-termism. Urgent contemporary issues – like the search for long-term economic growth, or the challenge of resisting/coping with climate change – have long-term roots and demand a long-span historical perspective in response. Historians should be primed and ready to contribute. Indeed, more. Where necessary, historians themselves should be recasting the debates and the big questions.

That contribution can be done on the strength of insights and analysis from micro-history as well as from macro-history. The Temporal Turn does not mean that everyone must study millennia. There are virtues in short-term probes and in long-span narratives – and in the many way-stations in between. The length of periods studied should be dictated only by the research questions in play, as mediated by the source materials available.

Nonetheless, historians of all stripes should be ready to explain or at least to speculate on the bigger picture(s) revealed by their research. When asked something sweeping, it’s not enough to reply: ‘I’m sorry. It’s not my period’. Who other than historians are better placed to comment on historical trends? And there are plenty of ways in which attention to the diachronic can be strengthened in current History research and teaching – of which more in a future BLOG.
2015-2 No 2 Shou Lao Chinese god of longevity

Chinese figurine of Shou Lao or ‘Old Longevity’, representing the power of Time.

Since he carries the scroll which records everyone’s date of death, his good favour is auspicious.

Source: www.daodoctor.com.

Immediately, three longitudinal insights from History are worth highlighting. (1) Covert change: there are aspects of behaviour, which people often consider to be permanently part of the human condition, which may not really be so. (2) Covert continuity: there are big crises and upheavals in history, which people often think of as ‘changing everything’, but which don’t necessarily do so. And, as a result, (3) change over time is much more than a simple binary process. People often entertain very schematic ideas of the past. Before a certain date, everyone did X, whereas after that time, no-one did. In fact, there are multiple turning points, not always in synchronisation.

Long-term change can be insidious and gradual as well as turbulent and rapid. It is halted by continuity and yet hastened by revolutions. History is interestingly complex – but not inexplicable. Ask the historians; and, historians, tell the world.

1 Attributed to Karl Rove, George Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff (2004-7). See M. Danner, ‘Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth and Power’, in A. Szántó (ed.), What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (New York, 2007), p. 17.

2 See PJC, ‘What on Earth is the Temporal Turn and Why is it Happening Now?’ Monthly BLOG/49 (Jan. 2015), for which see http://www.penelopejcorfield.com.Monthly-Blogs.

3 R. Rorty (ed.), The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago, 1967).

4 G.M. Spiegel, Practising History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn (New York, 2005).

5 J. Guldi and D. Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge, 2014), p. 126.

6 D. Cohen and P. Mandler, ‘The History Manifesto: A Critique’ for American Historical Review, at http://www.deborahacohen.com/profile/?q=content/critique-history-manifesto, opening paragraph

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