Tag Archive for: historians


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig.1 A swatch of weaving,
illustrating the metaphor for History as ‘Penelope’s Web’
being constantly woven and unwoven by Penelope in Greek myth.

It’s a great name, Penelope. English. Greek. And very international. Recognised everywhere. Can be used in long majestic form. Or abbreviated into Penny, Pen, or P. It’s not too commonly used. Yet it’s very far from unknown, either.

In Greek myth, the foundational Penelope is the wife of the travelling Odysseus (Ulysses). She remains at home, weaving and waiting. And rejecting the many suitors for her hand. So the name has connotations of a woman of sexy desirability, who has great patience and perseverance while sticking at her own work, allied to a good knowledge of her own mind, and a degree of cunning in eventually getting what she wants. For me, a most attractive mix.

Perhaps British wives, waiting at home for their husbands to return from the Second World War, had visions of themselves as Penelope? Certainly a considerable number of baby daughters were then given that name. For instance, in 1940 the celebrated actor Penelope Keith was born in Sutton, to the wife of a serving army officer; and in 1946 her fellow actor, the admirable Penelope Wilton, was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Whereas the name has become comparatively less common since then. The much-lauded Spanish film actor Penelope Cruz (b.1974) is a notable exception. And, of course, there are others, especially in Greece. Nonetheless, when I meet fellow Penelopes these days, there is a strong chance that we will all be post-WW2 baby boomers.

Interestingly, in Britain after the First World War, numerous baby girls were named ‘Irene’ – meaning peace. My mother (b.1919) was one of them. So it obviously seemed natural to her, after yet another grinding war, to reach for an expressive Greek name. During the fighting, she worked on the home front, deciphering captured letters for Military Intelligence, and dodging incendiary bombs on London. But her memories were chiefly of the anxiety of waiting for my father to return from active service in North Africa and Italy. So Penelope!

As a youngster, I was invariably known as Penny – and was happy enough to be teased about turning up like a ‘bad penny’; or, when I was naughty, being called ‘penny dreadful’. Such usages are broadly affectionate. And, with a long name in reserve, I never felt purely defined by the diminutive form.

Moreover, as I began to teach and then to publish, I realised the great advantage of having a public persona, which I can use alongside my private identity. These days I use Penelope daily – and some people address me only by that name. I positively enjoy it, though I would not have done when younger.

Furthermore, there is one metaphorical usage, which I do especially relish. The term ‘Penelope’s web’ refers originally to the shroud that the mythic Penelope weaves daily and unpicks secretly by night – thereby delaying a decision as to which of her suitors to choose. (They were not very bright and failed to see through her ruse, which she sustained for years). Penelope’s web can therefore simply refer to a major work which is always in progress and never done. (Ouch! Too many authors know that syndrome). Yet it is also used metaphorically for global history. That is a colossal work, which is always in progress, always being unpicked by critical historians, and then rewoven by others. As one of that tribe, I am proud to contribute to Penelope’s web.

By the way, I don’t feel any proprietorial interest over any other aspects of the mythology, though I admire both the academic deliberations1 and the contemporary retellings.2 Did Penelope secretly have sex with all 108 of the faithful suitors, giving birth to an illegitimate son Pan? (as some versions suggest). I don’t know and don’t mind one way or the other. Did Penelope look on with blood-thirsty glee when Odysseus/Ulysses returned and slaughtered all the importunate suitors and her twelve loyal handmaids as well?3 I never knew about such details as a child, so had no idea that there were moral complexities in the story (as in global history, of course). To me, Penelope was/is simply a name of serenity and potency.

But I did discover, with time, one complexity of my own. From childhood, I was trained to write my short name as ‘Pene’: literally one half of Penelope. I view ‘Penny’ as a close variant, but not actually referring to me. However, then I met some Spaniards. They were highly excited to meet a woman named ‘Penis’. For a while, I simply laughed. After all, plenty of men manage with the penile nick-names: ‘Dick’, ‘John Thomas, or ‘Johnson’, without exciting wild mirth. However, in my case the cross-gender dimension seemed to be too much. Soon I got bored with the kerfuffle, especially as my range of international contacts grew. Now I try to keep ‘Pene’ strictly for use between very old friends and family. I sign emails with the initial: P. And to the wider world, I’m very happily known as Penelope – a lovely Greek name with hidden depths.


1 See e.g. M.A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton, NJ, 1991); M. Janda, Odysseus und Penelope: Mythos und Namen (Innsbruck, 2015).

2 See esp. M. Atwood, The Penelopiad (2007).

3 Christopher Rush’s novel Penelope’s Web (Edinburgh, 2015) confronts the dramas and moral dilemmas both of her husband’s twenty-year absence and of his homecoming.

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MONTHLY BLOG 104, Is it Time to Look beyond Separate Identities to Find Personhood?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Collectively, the 15th International Congress on the Enlightenment (ICE), focusing upon Enlightenment Identities, was a huge triumph. For five days in Edinburgh in July 2019 some 2000 international participants rushed from event to event. There were not only 477 learned panel presentations and five great plenaries but also sundry conducted walks, coach tours to special venues, a grand reception, a superb concert, a pub quiz, and an evening of energetic Highland dancing. So much was happening that heads spun, and not just from the jovial Edinburgh hospitality.

By way of introduction, I began the first plenary session, with its global array of speakers, by offering some basic definitions. The grand themes of the Congress were Enlightenment and Identities: Lumières et Identités. Powerful concepts, which are both much contested. Needless to say, the Congress organisers did not insist on single definitions of these grand themes, which were chosen precisely to promote debate.

In that spirit, the Congress logo displayed two iconic figures from the eighteenth century. Both are shown as questioning, as they flank the silhouette of the classic monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to the philosopher Dugald Stewart. These two iconic figures may be considered as the Adam and Eve of the Congress, venturing out into the world to lead the collective intellectual journey.

The young woman was named Dido Belle Lindsay. She was aged 18 at the date in 1778-9, when her portrait was painted alongside her fair-skinned cousin. By heritage, Dido Belle was an illegitimate African-Caribbean-Scot. Yet she was given a resonant first name which evoked the celebrated Queen of Carthage. And by life experiences, Dido Belle Lindsay had a protected and affluent upbringing in the household of her great-uncle, an eminent London lawyer. She later married a Frenchman and lived quietly in England with her family.

Meanwhile, the man, who drew his own brooding self-portrait at the age of 40, was a German Swiss named Heinrich Füssli.3 He had travelled to Italy, where he Italianised his surname to Fuseli and then made a successful career as an artist in London. There he married an Englishwoman. Both these individuals embodied the flexibility and fluidity of eighteenth-century identities. Neither their social milieux nor their individual life-histories were static.

As educated people, the Congress’s Adam and Eve might well have encountered, in their reading and conversations, various catch-phrases like ‘It’s an Age of Light’ or ‘This Age of Reason and Science’. Specifically, too, Fuseli as a German-speaking Swiss could have read in the original Immanuel Kant’s celebrated enquiry, published in 1784, Was Ist Aufklarung? What is Enlightenment?

Moreover, Dido Belle Lindsay, the free daughter of a formerly enslaved African woman, would no doubt have appreciated the public appeal made by the leading African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. He urged that slavery had no place in an age of ‘Light, Liberty, and Science’. He was thereby invoking the sense of a new Zeitgeist and new forms of knowledge. By contrast, the slave traders had custom and practice in their support, as well as financial vested interests. But, tellingly, the slave traders did NOT justify their business by saying ‘It’s an Age of Slave-Trading’, even though that was factually true. On this issue, the abolitionists were ‘seizing the narrative’, to put the point into twenty-first-century terminology.5

Nonetheless, the Congress’s Adam and Eve would not have thought about their era as one of fixity. They both lived long enough to see the emergence of conscious anti-Enlightenment thought, from the later eighteenth century onwards. Fuseli specifically contributed to Romanticism in his art, and expressed scepticism about the claims of cold rationality. So neither figure would have been surprised to learn that the concept of Enlightenment remains contested among historians, political theorists and social philosophers.

Responses today range from appreciation and appropriation through to rejection and outright denial. Scholars analyse national and regional variations; and they debate differences between mainstream and radical Enlightenments. Meanwhile, in the later twentieth century, hostile postmodernist critics attacked appeals to rationalist reforms, which they identified as a single and oppressive ‘Enlightenment Project’.8   Yet rival sceptics denied the existence of any cohesive movement at all. Plenty to debate.

To those complexities, moreover, may be added the further complications of ‘Identities’. The terminology is warm and positive. But its impact is not simple. Viewed schematically, the rise of identity studies in the last thirty years has matched the decline of research interest into historical class, and the rise of ‘identity politics’ in the wider world.10  This fashionable approach is personal, individualistic. It rejects economic determinism. Instead, the factors that influence identity are seen as endlessly fluid and flexible. They may include gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and yes, social class; but they extend to religion, nationality, region, language, politics, culture, brainpower – and the power of physical appearances.

Certainly the Congress’s Adam and Eve would have known about identity issues, although they would not have described them in such terms. Dido Belle Lindsay lived with her great-uncle, the liberal judge William Mansfield. It was he in 1772 who heard the famous test case, when the captive African James Somersett sued for his freedom from the hold of an English ship in an English port. The case was an individual one. But the judge, when granting Somersett’s plea for liberty, pronounced publicly that the state of slavery was ‘odious’.11  Dido Belle Lindsay would surely have approved. As a result, Somersett gained the legal identity of a free man and judicial disapproval was directed at the entire system of personal enslavement. The case became a landmark in the long (and still continuing) struggle to abolish unfree personal servitude in its many different guises.

However, there are criticisms to be made of identity histories, as there are of identity politics. There is a danger that personal classifications may be interpreted too rigidly. In reality, people then and now may have multiple and overlapping identities. They may move between them as they prefer: an eighteenth-century gentleman livening in Northumbria might define himself as an Englishman when teasing a Scot from north of the border; but both might define themselves as Britons when opposing the French.

It’s also vital to recognise that identities are not always soft, liberal and inclusive. Group identities especially can become aggressive, bellicose, and coercive, formed in contra-distinction to ‘other’ groups. So identity politics may lead not to shared pluralism but to harsh conflict and polarisation. In sum, these big organising concepts may contain light – but also darkness.

Today it is surely time to look beyond the sub-divisions, not in blind denial but in awareness that there are also universals alongside diversities. In gender history, there is also a concept of personhood, beyond the rivalries of men and women.12  In terms of polymorphous human sexualities, there’s a potential for agreed boundaries of non-exploitative behaviour, beyond the rhetoric of individual sexual gratification. In the context of historical ‘racism’, there’s also significant movement towards a non-racialised understanding that all people are members of one human race.13  And, legally and politically, there is scope for a renewed endorsement of universalist human rights, as triumphantly if controversially expounded in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, applying not to one section of the globe but to all – and applying in practice as well as in theory.14

These communal issues are becoming especially highlighted in the light of the global climate emergency.15  They make a huge agenda but a very human one, to be pursued with a spirit of unity which underlies diversity: avec l’esprit de l’unité, qui sous-tend la diversité …


1 Edited text of presentation given to Edinburgh Congress Enlightenment Identities, on Monday 15 July 2019, introducing first Global Plenary. My esteemed colleagues on the panel were, in order of speaking, Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne); Sébastien Charles (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada); Tatiana Artemyeva (Herzen State University of Russia); Sutapa Dutta (Gargi College, University of Delhi, India); and Toshio Kusamitsu (University of Tokyo, Japan).

2 For Dido Belle Lindsay (1761-1804), see P. Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (2014); and an intriguing outreach film Belle (dir. A. Asante, 2018).

3 For Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), see M. Myrone (ed.), Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli Blake and the Romantic Imagination (2016).

4 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: And Other Writings, ed. V. Carretta (1995), p. 233.

5 For a huge literature, follow leads in B. Carey and others (eds), Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760-1838 (Basingstoke, 2004); and R.S. Newman, Abolitionism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018).

6 See e.g. R. Porter and M. Teich (eds), The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).

7 See e.g. J.I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001) and ensuing debates.

8 S-E. Liedman, The Postmodernist Critique of the Project of Enlightenment (Amsterdam, 1997); G. Sauer-Thompson and J. Wayne Smith, The Unreasonable Silence of the World: Universal Reason and the Wreck of the Enlightenment Project (2019).

9 G. Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (2004).

10 See e.g. critiques like W. Egginton, The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today’s College Campuses (New York, 2018).

11 For the complexities of the case, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_v_Stewart.

12 See e.g. commentary in P.J. Corfield, ‘Enlightenment Womanhood, Manhood, Sexualities and Personhood: Thematic Overview’, in L. Andries and M-A. Bernier (eds), L’Avenir des Lumières: The Future of Enlightenment (Pars, 2019), pp. 89-105; L. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept (Lewiston, 2014).

13 For the shared genetic history of humankind, see L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diaspora: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Reading, MA, 1995).

14 Consult A. Brysk, The Future of Human Rights (Cambridge, 2018).

15 See calls for more urgent responses as in D. Spratt and P. Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Victoria, Australia, 2008); and many other publications.

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)
Historians, who study the past, don’t undertake this exercise from some vantage point outside Time. They, like everyone else, live within an unfolding temporality. That’s very fundamental. Thus it’s axiomatic that historians, like their subjects of study, are all equally Time-bound.1

Nor do historians undertake the study of the past in one single moment in time. Postmodernist critics of historical studies sometimes write as though historical sources are culled once only from an archive and then adopted uncritically. The implied research process is one of plucking choice flowers and then pressing them into a scrap-book to some pre-set design.

On such grounds, critics of the discipline highlight the potential flaws in all historical studies. Sources from the past are biased, fallible and scrappy. Historians in their retrospective analysis are also biased, fallible and sometimes scrappy. And historical writings are literary creations only just short of pure fiction.2

Historians should welcome scepticism this dose of scepticism – always a useful corrective. Yet they entirely reject the proposition that trying to understand bygone eras is either impossible or worthless. Rebuttals to postmodernist scepticism have been expressed theoretically;3 and also directly, via pertinent case studies which cut through the myths and ‘fake news’ which often surround controversial events in history.4

When at work, historians should never take their myriad of source materials literally and uncritically. Evidence is constantly sought, interrogated, checked, cross-checked, compared and contrasted, as required for each particular research theme. The net is thrown widely or narrowly, again depending upon the subject. Everything is a potential source, from archival documents to art, architecture, artefacts and though the gamut to witness statements and zoological exhibits. Visual materials can be incorporated either as primary sources in their own right, or as supporting documentation. Information may be mapped and/or tabulated and/or statistically interrogated. Digitised records allow the easy selection of specific cases and/or the not-so-easy processing of mass data.

As a result, researching and writing history is a slow through-Time process – sometimes tediously so. It takes at least four years, from a standing start, to produce a big specialist, ground-breaking study of 100,000 words on a previously un-studied (or under-studied) historical topic. The exercise demands a high-level synthesis of many diverse sources, running to hundreds or even thousands. Hence the methodology is characteristically much more than a ‘reading’ of one or two key texts – although, depending upon the theme, at times a close reading of a few core documents (as in the history of political ideas) is essential too.

Mulling over meanings is an important part of the process too. History as a discipline encourages a constant thinking and rethinking, with sustained creative and intellectual input. It requires knowledge of the state of the discipline – and a close familiarity with earlier work in the chosen field of study. Best practice therefore enjoins writing, planning and revising as the project unfolds. For historical studies, ‘writing through’ is integral, rather than waiting until all the hard research graft is done and then ‘writing up’.5

The whole process is arduous and exciting, in almost equal measure. It’s constantly subject to debate and criticism from peer groups at seminars and conferences. And, crucially too, historians are invited to specify not only their own methodologies but also their own biases/assumptions/framework thoughts. This latter exercise is known as ‘self-reflexivity’. It’s often completed at the end of a project, although it’s then inserted near the start of the resultant book or essay. And that’s because writing serves to crystallise and refine (or sometimes to reject) the broad preliminary ideas, which are continually tested by the evidence.

One classic example of seriously through-Time writing comes from the classic historian Edward Gibbon. The first volume of his Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in February 1776. The sixth and final one followed in 1788. According to his autobiographical account, the gestation of his study dated from 1764. He was then sitting in the Forum at Rome, listening to Catholic monks singing vespers on Capitol Hill. The conjunction of ancient ruins and later religious commitments prompted his core theme, which controversially deplored the role of Christianity in the ending of Rome’s great empire. Hence the ‘present’ moments in which Gibbon researched, cogitated and wrote stretched over more than 20 years. When he penned the last words of the last volume, he recorded a sensation of joy. But then he was melancholic that his massive project was done.6 (Its fame and the consequent controversies last on today; and form part of the history of history).

1 For this basic point, see PJC, ‘People Sometimes Say “We Don’t Learn from the Past” – and Why that Statement is Completely Absurd’, BLOG/91 (July 2018), to which this BLOG/92 is a companion-piece.

2 See e.g. K. Jenkins, ReThinking History (1991); idem (ed.), The Postmodern History Reader (1997); C.G. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians (Harlow, 2005); A. Munslow, The Future of History (Basingstoke, 2010).

3 J. Appleby, L. Hunt and M. Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York, 1994); R. Evans, In Defence of History (1997); J. Tosh (ed.), Historians on History (Harlow, 2000); A. Brundage, Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing (Hoboken, NJ., 2017).

4 H. Shudo, The Nanking Massacre: Fact versus Fiction – A Historian’s Quest for the Truth, transl. S. Shuppan (Tokyo, 2005); Vera Schwarcz, Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (New Haven, 1998).

5 PJC, ‘Writing Through a Big Research Project, not Writing Up’, BLOG/60 (Dec.2015); PJC, ‘How I Write as a Historian’, BLOG/88 (April 2018).

6 R. Porter, Gibbon: Making History (1989); D.P. Womersley, Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and his Reputation, 1776-1815 (Oxford, 2002).

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

‘Evidence, evidence: I hate that word’, a vehement colleague in the English Department once hissed at me, when I had, all unawares, invoked the word in the course of an argument. I was surprised at his vehemence but put it down to a touch of dyspepsia, aggravated by an overdose of (then) ultra-fashionable postmodernist doubt. What on earth was he teaching his students? To disregard evidence and invent things as the passing mood dictated? To apply theory arbitrarily? No need to bother about dates, precision or details. No need to check one’s hunches against any external data or criterion of judgment. And certainly no need to analyse anything unpleasant or inconvenient or complexly difficult about the past.1

But I thought my colleague’s distaste for evidence was no more than a passing fad. (The date was sometime in the later 1990s). And indeed intellectual postmodernism, which was an assertive philosophy of doubt (a bit of a contradiction in terms, since a philosophy of doubt should be suitably doubtful), has faded even faster than the postmodernist style of architectural whimsy has been absorbed into the architectural lexicon.2

Fig. 1 The Rašin Building, Prague, known as the Dancing House, designed by V. Milunić and F. Gehry (completed 1996) – challenging classical symmetry and modernist order yet demanding absolute confidence in the conventional solidity of its building materials. Image by © Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous/Corbis

Fig. 1 The Rašin Building, Prague, known as the Dancing House, designed by V. Milunić and F. Gehry (completed 1996) – challenging classical symmetry and modernist order yet demanding absolute confidence in the conventional solidity of its building materials.
Image by © Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous/Corbis

Then, just a week ago, I was talking to a History postgraduate on the same theme. Again to my surprise, he was, if not quite as hostile, at least as hesitant about the value of evidence. Oh really? Of course, the myriad forms of evidence do not ‘speak for themselves’. They are analysed and interpreted by historians, who often disagree. But that’s the point. The debates are then reviewed and redebated, with reference again to the evidence – including, it may be, new evidence.

These arguments continue not only between historians and students, but across the generations. The stock of human knowledge is constantly being created and endlessly adjusted as it is transmitted through time. And debates are ultimately decided, not by reference to one expert authority (X says this; Y says that) but to the evidence, as collectively shared, debated, pummelled, assessed and reassessed.

So let’s argue the proposition the other way round. Let’s laud to the skies the infinite value of evidence, without which historians would just be sharing our prejudices and comparing our passing moods. But ok, let’s also clarify. What we are seeking is not just ‘evidence’ A, B or C in the cold abstract. That no more resolves anything than does the unsupported testimony of historian X, Y or Z. What we need is critically assessed evidence – and lots of it, so that different forms of evidence can be tested against each other and debated together.

For historians, anything and everything is grist to the mill. If there was a time when we studied nothing but written documents, that era has long gone. Any and every legacy from the past is potential evidence: fragments of pottery, swatches of textiles, collections of bones, DNA records, rubbish tips, ruined or surviving buildings, ground plans, all manufactured objects (whether whole or in parts), paintings from cave to canvas, photos, poems, songs, sayings, myths, fairy tales, jokes … let alone all evidence constructed or reconstructed by historians, including statistics, graphs, databases, interpretative websites … and so forth. Great. That list sounds exhausting but it’s actually exhilarating.

However, the diversity of these potential sources, and the nebulousness of some forms of evidence (jokes, fairy tales), indicate one vital accompaniment. Historians should swear not only by the sources but by a rigorous source critique. After asking: what are your sources? the next question should be: how good are your sources, for whatever purpose you intend to deploy them? (These stock questions or variants upon them, keep many an academic seminar going).

Source auditing: here are three opening questions to pose, with reference to any potential source or set of sources. Firstly: Provenance. Where does the source come from? How has it survived from its original state through to the present day? How well authenticated is it? Has it been amended or changed over time? (There are numerous technical tests that can be used to check datings and internal consistency). No wonder that historians appreciate using sources that have been collected in museums, archives or other repositories, because usually these institutions have already done the work of authenticating. But it’s always well to double-check.

Secondly: Reliability of Sources and/or Methodology. A source or group of sources may be authentic but not necessarily reliable, in the sense of being precise or accurate. Evidence from the past has no duty to be anything other than what it is. A song about ‘happy times’ is no proof that there were past happy times. Only that there was a song to that effect. But that’s fine. That tells historians something about the history of songs – a fruitful field, provided that the lyrics are not taken as written affidavits.3 All sources have their own intrinsic characteristics and special nature, including flaws, biases, and omissions. These need to be understood before the source is deployed in argument. The general rule is that: problems don’t matter too much, as long as they are fully taken into account. (Though it does depend upon the nature of the problem. Fake and forged documents are evidence for the history of fakery and forgery, not for whatever instance or event they purport to illuminate).

One example of valid material that needs to be used with due caution is the case of edited texts whose originals have disappeared, or are no longer available for consultation. That difficulty applies to quite a number of old editions of letters and diaries, which cannot now be checked. For the most part, historians have to take on trust the accuracy of the editorial work. Yet we often don’t know what, if anything, has been omitted. So it is rash to draw conclusions based upon silences in the text – since the original authors may have been quietly censored by later editors.4

When auditing sources, it also follows that a related test should also be addressed to any methodology used in processing sources: is the methodology valid and reliable? Does it augment or diminish the value of the original(s)? Indeed, is the basic evidence solid enough to bear the weight of the analytical superstructure?

Thirdly: Typicality. With every source or group of sources, it’s also helpful to pose the question as to whether it is likely to be commonplace or highly unusual? Again, it doesn’t matter which it is, as long as the historian is fully aware of the implications. Otherwise, there is a danger of generalising from something that is in fact a rarity. Assessing typicality is not always easy, especially in the case of obscure, fragmentary or fugitive sources. Yet it’s always helpful to bear this question in mind.


Overall, the greater the range and variety of sources that can be identified and assessed the better. Everything (to repeat) is grist to the mill. Sources can be compared and contrasted. Different kinds of evidence can be used in a myriad of ways. The potential within every source is thrilling. Evidence is invaluable – not to be dismissed, on the grounds that some evidence is fallible, but to be savoured with full critical engagement, as vital for knowledge. That state of affairs does include knowing what we don’t (currently) know as well as what we do. Scepticism fine. Corrosive, dismissive, and ultimately boring know-nothingism, no way!

*NB: Having found and audited sources, the following stages of source analysis will be considered in next month’s BLOG.

1 BLOG dedicated to all past students on the Core Course of Royal Holloway (London University)’s MA in Modern History: Power, Culture, Society, for fertile discussions, week in, week out.

2 For the fading of philosophical postmodernism, see various studies on After- or Post-Postmodernism, including C.K. Brooks (ed.), Beyond Postmodernism: On to the Post-Contemporary (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013); and G. Myerson, Ecology and the End of Postmodernism (Cambridge, 2001), p. 74: with prescient comment ‘it [Postmodernism] is slipping into the strange history of those futures that did not materialise’.

3 See e.g. R. Palmer, The Sound of History: Songs and Social Comment (Oxford, 1988).

4 A classic case was the excision of religious fervour from the seventeenth-century Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow by eighteenth-century editors, giving the Memoirs a secular tone which was long, but wrongly, accepted as authentic: see B. Worden, Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity (2002).

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Image/2: Not progressive order but chaotic disorder.


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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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 https://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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