The History of Emotions: A Four Volume Sourcebook

KATIE BARCLAY, with FRANÇOIS SOYER, is editor of Emotions in Europe, 1517-1914 (Routledge, 2020), a four volume sourcebook. Here she talks to History about the work.

History: What was the inspiration behind this project?

Katie: I’ve been teaching History of Emotions courses for several years now and had been developing a series of resources to support students in their learning. I began with my ‘student guide’, The History of Emotions: A Student Guide to Sources and Methods (Palgrave, 2020), which is designed to support students applying history of emotions methods to historical sources and was based on the lectures that I was giving at Adelaide to my students. This was accompanied by an edited collection with Sharon Crozier-De Rosa and Peter Stearns, Sources for the History of Emotions: A Guide (Routledge, 2020), which brings together a group of scholars to explore the sources they use in their research and how they are helpful for research in the History of Emotions. Unsurprisingly, a set of primary sources to accompany these volumes also seemed like a good idea and this collection is designed to sit alongside them and to offer a ‘package’ of resources for teaching. I got together with François for this because we have different chronological and language expertise and thought that between us we could produce something useful. The four-volume sourcebook that results brings together a range of sources from Europe and its empires between 1517 and 1914, which can be used for History of Emotions research.

History: What is the main contribution that you hope these History of Emotions source volumes will make to the history of emotions?  

Figure 1. The front cover of Emotions in Europe, 1517-1914: Volume 1. Reformations 1517-1602 (2020)

Katie: The original goal had been to provide a collection of sources for students to use in the classroom, or for early research. We wanted volumes that could be used along current research (so tied into articles and books in the field) and offered sources that were otherwise hard to access (from manuscripts and archives) or were considered ‘classics’ and directed students to important works from an emotions perspective that they could explore in more depth. It was especially important to us that we offered a range of voices, not just from different languages, but from children and adults, rich and poor, different ethnicities, and to provide some access to the variety of Europe and its empires. This turned out to be quite challenging because of the limits of space, but we hope that where there are gaps that students might nonetheless be inspired to fill them. We started out to create this resource for teaching, but along the way, it became apparent that our collection allows for some new histories to emerge, both chronologically as you compare similar concepts over time, and more narrowly as they focus on particular themes and allow new connections to emerge. 

History: How did you decide which source types and themes to include? 

Katie: We designed the volumes – each deal with a different period – around the themes of self, family and community, religion, politics and law, science and philosophy, and art and culture. Our choices here reflected our sense of the field and the areas where there was developing work. Here it is noticeable that we’re both early modernists. I suspect a properly ‘modern’ historian might have identified different topics. We thought it was important that our sources complemented current research so that teachers could accompany sources with relevant readings to contextualise them or demonstrate how historians might use them. That was perhaps the easy part! Harder was picking the sources themselves. Initially we were really ambitious, but it’s surprising how quickly you fill up the space once you get started. Languages were also a concern. While François is a talented linguist and I can read in a few complementary languages to his, translating new sources is nonetheless quite time consuming. And, unfortunately, we had no budget to recruit a world of translators. For this reason, we ended up relying on translations produced by others for a lot of our work, and that shaped several of our decisions. A lot of translated work is of well-known and powerful men. As a result, we tried to complement these more traditional writings in print with original manuscripts from new voices. This was inevitably imperfect, but we aimed for a balance that offered students both key works that have underpinned our knowledge of emotions in the past with some new material that might open up different ways of thinking about the topic.

History: Did your involvement in the editorial processes take you in any unexpected directions? Have any of these sources directly impacted your own research? 

Katie: Great question! François might have different answers to this too! I am not sure this counts as unexpected, but I became very aware when pulling these sources together – partly I suspect as my own research has been so archivally based – how the ‘big narratives’ of European history are based on some classic texts – novels, religious works, scientific writings (in translation). It made me conscious not only of the importance of being widely read in the key texts of the European tradition, but how these works provide the outlines of so many of our historical narratives of progress and change. If different writings – and implicitly different people – had been given the same level of acknowledgement, our histories might be quite different. I think this is especially important to remember ‘in context’ as these works often became important over time, but in the moment of production were part of a contest of ideas. Because of this, I tried to give some texts that ‘failed’ – that never became canonical but were important in their time – and also archival sources that offered examples of how people experienced emotion in the everyday, beyond the grand narratives of the past. I especially enjoyed putting together the sections on science and philosophy because it helped me contextualise how the ideas expressed in my archival sources – letters, court records – were underpinned by ideas that were given particular authority.

Figure 2. ‘A Peasant Burial’ – Erik Werenskiold (c.1883-1885)

History: Are there any themes or source types that you weren’t able to include within this book?  

Katie: Most of them! The further we went with this project, the more imperfect it felt. A key issue that is missing is regional variation. Early modern Europe rarely shared a language let alone a national identity and yet we tried to use the modern nation state to guide our ‘spread’ of sources. But once you have a source from Ireland, Austria, Portugal and the Spanish Americas, suddenly you’ve filled a lot of space. But of course all of these nations would have seen significant regional variation in languages, ideas, and cultural norms. We made an effort to cover significant religious groups, genders and age categories, but there are numerous minority experiences that we don’t touch on. Emotions too are not all present. When selecting sources, we tried to create connections for teachers and students, so that they could compare and contrast works. But this meant we ended up with more on love than hope, and on anger than loneliness. We hope that ultimately these decisions will be productive for users, but it’s very much a start and not an end. 

Figure 3. ‘Young Man and Woman in an Inn (Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart)’ – Frans Hals (1623)

History: How would you hope to see these sources used in teaching? ​

Katie: The design of these volumes was to complement research by other scholars in the field and to allow students to create new histories of their own. I hope therefore they are used in a variety of ways – for lower-level teaching as an example of the sources than underpin works in the field; for upper level students, for more original comparisons across sources and original reflections on variety and difference, and for early researchers who might see these volumes as providing stories of their own of the past – and exclusions as part of those histories. As a good history addict, I found all these sources interesting in their own right, and I hope that teachers enjoy them too – even if just because our engagements with our predecessors is rewarding and their emotional lives make an especially rich domain in which to do this.

Katie Barclay is Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions and Associate Professor and Head of History, University of Adelaide.

Cover Image. A. Trankowski, ‘Jewish Wedding’ (c.1875 – 1900). Available in the public domain.

Figure 1. Cover of Emotions in Europe, 1517-1914: Volume 1. Reformations 1517-1602 , ed. K. Barclay and F. Soyer (2020). Image provided by the author.

Figure 2. Erik Werenskiold, ‘A Peasant Burial’ (c.1883-1885). [National Gallery, Oslo, Norway – Oil on canvas]. Available online CC BY 4.0.

Figure 3. Frans Hals, ‘Young Man and Woman in an Inn (Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart)’ [1623]. [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 79.4 cm]. Available online with CC BY 4.0.

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Britain First: The official history of the United Kingdom according to the Home Office – a critical review

Frank Trentmann

BRITAIN FIRST: The official history of the United Kingdom according to the Home Office – a critical review

Following this summer’s open letter to the Home Office, this article by Frank Trentmann offers an analysis of the official history chapter in the ‘Life in the UK’ handbook that is required reading for migrants applying for citizenship or settlement in the United Kingdom. Comparing the current (third) edition to previous versions, the article documents a pattern of rewriting the national past, especially over issues of race and Britain’s relation to Europe and the rest of the world. It shows distortion and falsification in the account of slavery, empire, Anglo-Irish relations, and Hitler and the Second World War. The essay places the rewriting of Britain’s past in the context of the Home Office’s hostile environment to migrants after 2013 and the increasingly insular view of Britain’s position in the world, with little regard to the reciprocal ties and collaboration with Europe, the United States and other international partners. The article places the official history’s difficulty of acknowledging race, antisemitism and colonial violence in a comparative context. 

Please click here to download Professor Trentmann’s full report as a PDF;

Frank Trentmann is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. His many publications include Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (London: Allen Lane/Penguin; New York: HarperCollins, 2016) and Free Trade Nation: Consumption, Civil Society and Commerce in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), which was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize.

Professor Trentmann also recently wrote in the Times Literary Supplement about this issue: Britain First: the Official History of the United Kingdom according to the Home Office” by Frank Trentmann, Times Literary Supplement, 4 September 2020, pp. 7-9

Figure 1. Selected editions of the ‘Life in the UK’ Test handbook. The image was provided by the author and should not be reproduced without permission.

Why is the HIstory of Emotions So Important?

ASHLEIGH WILSON

The History of Emotions has become a vital field of historical research within contemporary academic discussions. Able to provide insight into the emotional history of a particular event, society and culture, this thematic approach has allowed for a nuanced understanding of the past. As a current undergraduate student, I have become deeply fascinated when comprehending the past through an emotional lens. Intrigued by the expression of feelings, the practice of studying emotions serves to make the relationship between the past and the present all the more tangible. If we are defined by our emotions and our expression of self, we must understand why those from the past articulated themselves in the manner they did.

The emotionology of a specific time frame constitutes so much more than simply understanding how people labelled their emotions. It also reflects a greater cultural framework in which people once expressed their sense of self in ways deemed appropriate. An emotion, when studied as a practice, provides a framework for understanding feelings “as emerging from a bodily disposition conditioned by a social context, which always has cultural and historical specificity.”[i] Learning to comprehend the way in which an individual’s thoughts and mentalities are shaped by their environment – cultural norms, social conventions and personal relationships – all helps to enrich both the stories of the past and our understanding of human nature.

Within my own research, I felt personally drawn to ego-documents for their ability to provide an endless amount of insight into the formation of self-identity and expression in the past. Defined as a source that is “providing an account of, or revealing privileged information about the ‘self’ who produced it”[ii], ego-documents help us to understand the way in which we structure our emotions and how society can mitigate these feelings. Analysis of ego-documents therefore enhances our knowledge of subjective experiences.

I utilised ego-documents in my own dissertation research to understand how men negotiated their identity in modern warfare during World War One. Inspired by the works of Michael Roper, I used these texts to gage an insight into the psychological developments and internalised emotions of the male lived experience. Using memoirs, correspondence home and audio recordings, I was able to gain an intimate understanding of soldier experiences and in turn, their psyche. Ego-documents afforded me the opportunity to gain insight into one of the most personal, and subjective, experiences of them all – the expression and construction of self-identity. 

Figure 1. Letters from World War One.

Reading letters to loved ones, for example, provided a window into the rich and diverse emotionality of war upon both the soldier and his family. Understanding the complexity and often traumatic recollections of war caused an emotional response – even in the present. For example, personal accounts from the likes of Jack Sweeney during the summer of 1916 accounted for the trauma of trench warfare in which he “sat down in the mud and cried, I do not think I have cried like I did that night since I was a child.”[iii]. Feeling deeply moved, I was emotionally effected by the vivid imagery surrounding modern battle. Reading the intimacy of a soldier’s emotional expression felt incredibly private and personal, almost as though I was trespassing. Sometimes, it appeared as though these evocative documents were too precious and too personal for me to use and explore within my own research.

Yet, this is the purpose of ego-documents. Letters, memoirs and audio accounts all help to bridge the gap between the past and the present. Whilst this undoubtedly can have an emotional impact upon us all, it also reminds us of the importance of history. History is not another realm or a separate entity to the present. It is a continual link to us all. Ego-documents provide a personal way to facilitate insight into the lived experiences that have shaped our pasts to make our present. Reading – or listening – about someone’s experiences, how they felt, and the relationships they had with friends and family, is a grounding reminder that those from the past are not so different to us. Ego-documents make this relationship more apparent. 

As archives closed during the Coronavirus pandemic, I adapted my research to work with online ego-documents from home. Whilst this hadn’t been what I imagined, it underscored the accessibility of many relevant sources. The Imperial War Museum’s online archival catalogue – including not just visual but audio clips – was an excellent way for me to immerse myself into understanding an individual’s lived experiences. Pairing this with other accessible information, such as governmental records, posters, popular literature and songs, I was able to gage a deeper understanding of the lived male experience of war.As such, recognition of the powerful role emotions has in our lives underscores the importance of the History of Emotions as an approach. It provides a window into an individual’s mannerisms, behaviours and self-expression, but also the comprehension of wider cultural schemas. To gain an insight into the past, the History of Emotions provides one of the most vital frameworks into understanding the most universal experience of them all – the emotional.

Ashleigh Wilson recently gained a First in History from the University of Sussex, and will soon commence postgraduate study at University College London.


[i] Scheer, Monique. (2012). “Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion.” History and theory 51, no. 2 (2012): Page 193-220.

[ii] Fulbrook, Mary, and Ulinka Rublack. “In relation: the ‘Social Self’ and ego-documents.” German History 28, no. 3 (2010): Page 263-272.

[iii] Moynihan, Michael, ed. Greater Love: Letters Home 1914-1918. WH Allen (1980): Page 83.

Cover Image. British soldiers marching to the Battle of the Somme. Available in the public domain.

Figure 1. A collection of family letters written during World War 1. Available in the public domain.

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The ECR Editorial Internship

HANNAH PARKER and LAURA DOAK

History: The Journal of the Historical Association is currently looking for a new ECR Editorial Intern to maintain this site and develop the journal’s online presence. Here, Hannah Parker (intern for 2019-2020) and Laura Doak (current intern) discuss their time with History. If you are an early career historian and would like to apply for this year’s internship, you can find full details by visiting the position description page of our website. The intern will receive a £2000 stipend, generously provided by the Historical Association.

Laura: So, it seems like the pressure is now on for me to hand over all of the History website admin in as organised a way as you did for me!

Hannah: I am not sure if it was ‘organised’ as much as ‘a rambling collection of how-tos’ but I’m glad you found it helpful! It is nerve-wracking handing everything over when you’ve taken such care over it. You did a great job this year though – really glad the handover has put us in touch!

Laura: I know I still have a few months left, but this year has absolutely flown by. I have loved working so closely with the journal and I’m really glad to stay on as a member of the ECR Editorial Board. What did you enjoy about your time as History intern?

Hannah: The time really does move quickly! Building and launching the website was a real highlight – it was great to be able to make something out of nothing, and the reception was great. I really liked working with so many interesting people too, and learning more about what everyone’s been working on. I also really appreciated the balance of autonomy and support that the Journal offered – Becky Taylor (as Editor-in-Chief) and the ECR board. 

I felt a real sense of ownership over what I was able to do with the website, whilst also being able to contact any of the Board for advice or practical support. I think this is quite rare! And it’s meant that we’ve all stayed in touch quite naturally after my fellowship ended. And while the PhD and ECR experience can cause you to second-guess yourself, being part of the journal and ECR board definitely helped me build confidence in what I was doing. What about you, what did you like the most?

Laura Doak. ECR Editorial Intern, 2020-2021
Hannah Parker. ECR Editorial Intern, 2019-2020

Laura: Something I’ve really enjoyed is getting to dip into so many different areas – I’ve been able to work alongside and have great conversations with people from all over the world studying so many different places, periods, approaches… Being able to find common methodological or thematic ground with those working on subjects so different from my own has been great. It takes you back to some of the bigger questions about history as a discipline – and I think I really needed that after narrowing down so much to get my PhD thesis finished!

Hannah: Yeah that’s a great point! I really learnt a lot from everyone else’s work, which was a lot of fun, and I really liked curating the site and finding common threads between work on vastly different times and places. In the same vein, though, trying to balance the thematic and chronological arrangement of work to showcase was pretty tricky, as life means that it’s not always possible to predict when pieces come in. Which is often great, because someone will get in touch out of the blue with a fantastic idea, which was really exciting! Another thing I really enjoyed about the role was when people got in touch with the seeds of ideas, and being able to help them work it up into a full piece.

Laura: The way submission dates move about can be a bit challenging! But even that can also be nice, it’s good to be reminded that history as a discipline is something that’s ongoing, “alive” if you will; something always being written and better understood rather than something already written down and ‘final’.

Hannah: Yeah definitely. And now that you mention it, having the independence to reach out to authors and suspend deadlines once the pandemic hit was very important to me. I think also the flexibility in the schedule actually encouraged me to make new connections between the pieces being published alongside each other, and probably sparked some new ideas for me.

Laura: I know that both our tenures with the journal were also affected by Covid-19, was there anything particularly cool you wanted to do but didn’t get round to because of the knock-on chaos? But which might still be good for the next intern?

Hannah: If you’d asked me a year ago I would have said launching the podcast – so I’m really pleased and grateful that we could work together on launching that! You’ve done an excellent job getting that off the ground. I was able to work with a few historians beyond the university, such as Jonathan Waterlow, and Lucy Jane Santos, but I’d have liked to expand these connections further. I also wanted to publish more exhibition/site/new historical film reviews, but covid did make this quite tricky… Likewise, building the website’s connections beyond the UK slowed down quite a bit as we all adjusted to the conditions of the pandemic.

Laura: I’m definitely sad I couldn’t get more podcast episodes done… with people’s time strained and everyone working from dodgy home WiFi or (like me!) alongside small kids trying to do their schoolwork, it certainly got much more complicated than I anticipated!

But, I do have two more episodes coming for June and July. They’ve been well received and it was a good experiment to see what would and wouldn’t work using the journal platform. So, the podcast might be a project that the new intern might like to step it up a gear with…

History: New Books – Karin Bowie (Series 1: Episode 2) History: New Books

In this instalment of the History podcast, Dr Karin Bowie chats about her new book Public Opinion in Early Modern Scotland, c.1560-1707. Thinking about its broader impact on our understanding of the past and public political engagement, Karin talks protests, petitioning, print, and propaganda. Interview by History editorial intern Dr Laura Doak.  For more by Karin, check out this recent blog post for Cambridge University Press: 'False News? A Closer Look at Early Modern Public Opinion'. As mentioned in the podcast, listeners can also receive a 20% discount off this title by visiting http://www.cambridge.org/9781108843478 and entering the code 'POEMS2020' at the checkout.  Image credit for episode cover: The Humble Petition of Jock of Bread, Scotland (London: 1648). Public Domain.
  1. History: New Books – Karin Bowie (Series 1: Episode 2)
  2. History: New Books – James Michael Yeoman (Series 1: Episode 1)

Hannah: One thing I’d wanted to do ‘behind-the-scenes’ was a calendar of anniversaries, key dates etc, to arrange the schedule of blogs and establish some more opportunities to highlight and circulate some of the work being showcased. This takes a lot of forward-planning, though, as it’s not great to ask people to write something up for a historical anniversary without giving them a decent amount of notice. With sustained strike action and the pandemic on the heels of that, it just wasn’t something I was able to devise and execute as one person, and without breaking the strike or applying undue pressure!

Laura: Well, we’ve both been able to work on the public history themed special issue of History, which is an opportunity I didn’t expect when I started work with the journal.

Hannah: Yes! I’ve really been enjoying this, and working with the team of editors we have! It’s been really enriching to work on something new out of sheer interest, and for its own sake. I’ve really learnt a lot about the practice of history from the contributors, and I’m excited to apply this to my own work, and develop new projects informed by what I have learnt from them. Can’t wait to share this special issue!

Laura: Again, thinking more deeply and reading so many amazing pieces on public history has taken me back out of my ‘PhD thesis bubble’ to think about history as a bigger discipline – and practice – and why I loved it so much in the first place. Also getting to learn (hands on!) about the editorial process whilst thinking about all this has just been fantastic!

Hannah: Definitely. In particular the focus on public history completely  reinforced for me the ‘point’ of doing history, and encouraged me to consider how I can confront the currents of hyper-competition in academia, and centre community moving forward. And as you say, it has reinvigorated my interest in history as a result.


Hannah Parker is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. Her current research interests focus on gender, emotion, work, and selfhood, as well as letter-writing and materiality, in the early Soviet Union. She has work forthcoming on Soviet librarians’ emotions about their educational work, and on the articulation of grief in letters to Soviet power from mothers bereaved of their children.

Laura Doak completed their PhD at the University of Glasgow in 2020 with a thesis titled: ‘On Street and Scaffold: The People and Political Culture in Restoration Scotland, 1678 – 1685’. Her publications include work on public execution of female militants and the use print and performance during the 1679-1682 ‘Exclusion Crisis’. Specialising in popular political engagement and political communication, Laura’s current project considers rebel depositions. In August 2021, Laura will start work as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Scottish Privy Council Project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Twitter: @lauraidoak.

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Will Africa be included in a global history of Covid-19?

ANNA ADIMA

Over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, one would be hard-pressed to deny that future history books will record this as a global milestone in the 21st century. Every individual around the world has in some way been affected by the virus; however, mainstream – Western – media remains guilty of underreporting the pandemic in Africa. As history is already in the process of being written, the question remains – will Africa be included in a global history of Covid-19?

Figure 1. Briefing between Community Health Volunteers and staff from Trócaire partner MMM, Kenya 

It is an open secret that the field of global history is Eurocentric, with the tendency to emphasise the Global North and how it ‘drove’ world events. While historians of the field, according to the Global History Seminar Group of the European University Institute in Florence, may reject “models of core and periphery … unwittingly they replicate these models over and over again.” Adelman discusses the dominance of Anglophone history and the English language, arguing that this results in Anglospheric initiatives “to integrate the Other into a cosmopolitan narrative on [their] terms, in [their] tongues.”

A pattern of inclusion and exclusion, reflective of a Western world order, can therefore be seen within the current form of ‘global’ history. This is evident in popular histories of world events. World War I and II, for instance, both involved combat on the African continent and African soldiers fighting side by side with Europeans, but they are relegated to footnotes in history books – if mentioned at all. The Cold War is another example of historical exclusion: as an ideological battle that was fought across all continents in the latter half of the 20th century, its effects too were felt in Africa. The continent saw the power rivalry between the Eastern and Western blocs play out in a number of ways, most notably perhaps in Angola during the country’s civil war. The global nature of these historical events is belied through their whitewashing in history books and ignoring of the role of Africa and Africans. 

Arguably the only time when Africa plays a dominant role in history is in writings on slavery, in which this dark period is largely discussed in economic terms, as a link in a global supply chain that drove industrialisation that resulted in the dehumanisation and abuse of millions of Africans across both sides of the Atlantic. Aside from this, Africa generally remains a marginalised geographical space and Africans are nameless, faceless individuals lacking agency. This results in a highly selective narrative in global history, one that privileges perspectives of a certain group of people over those of others.

There is a danger that the same patterns could be replicated in writings of a global history of Covid-19. The history of the pandemic is already in the process of being created and preserved across the Global North. Different initiatives by libraries,universities and other institutions in, for example, the UKGermany or the USA, have created online archives and repositoriesthat allow individuals to upload texts and images in relation to their experiences of the pandemic. These are certainly all laudable enterprises, and will be invaluable primary sources to historians in future years. However, my concern is that in the writing of global history, these archives will be prioritised, at the expense of marginalising African experiences of the pandemic.

We can see such side-lining also taking place in mainstream Western news outlets. We consume media and news items on a daily basis that will one day be used as primary sources by historians in the future. Often, the entire continent of 54 countries is amalgamated into one, as news sites report on Covid-19 in ‘Africa’, with a predisposition to emphasise the doom and gloom the continent faces. And sometimes, Africa is ignored completely, such as in a BBC News video from July 2020 that showed how Covid-19 had changed the world in six months.

Figure 2. Victoria Nthenge, Kenyan clinical health care workers sensitise the community to Covid-19.

Such reporting is one-sided, often overlooking the nuances of the pandemic in Africa, as well as the continent’s successes. Global history’s emphasis on Eurocentric hegemony means that research in this field is often already reliant on visiting national archives around the world, which tend to reflect the past of those in power whilst marginalising individuals such as women, people of colour, people with disabilities, or members of the LGBTQI+ community. The exclusion that can be observed in history books is being replicated in mainstream media today and, in years to come these will be the inaccurate sources that will be drawn upon by historians of the pandemic to create a skewed history of a pandemic that is fundamentally global in nature. 

We have the opportunity, however, to ensure Africa’s inclusion in a global history of Covid-19. We can remember how Africans experienced, for instance, Senegal’s $1 vaccine test kit; South-South cooperation as Cuba sent over 200 doctors to South Africa to help fight the virus; or the fact that Morocco’s pandemic response has been praised as one “for other countries to emulate”.Today, largely thanks to social media, previously marginalised voices now have a platform to express themselves, even if this is only to a certain extent for many (as such communities still face discrimination and silencing on many fronts), and it is important that these are taken into account when documenting histories of Covid-19.

Figure 3. GovernmentZA, Cuban Health Specialists arriving in South Africa

This our chance as historians not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, when we begin to write historiographies of this pandemic, and to break Eurocentric traditions of recording history. In recognising the global nature of the pandemic, we may begin to combat Western-centred interpretations of Covid-19, to include Africa in the narrative. In the first instance, we can collect stories for archives in African languages, rather than in English, which in many Anglophone African countries, remains the language of the educated elite. As Drayton and Motadel rightly argue, “if we are serious about global history, more training in languages, particularly non-Western ones, in an obvious priority.” Creating sources in African languages would allow for a greater diversity of pandemic experiences to be archived.

This could be supplemented by conducting oral history interviews around Africa: in a continent where illiteracy levels remain high, oral histories in African languages would circumvent global history’s bias towards educated, urban-based figures. In order to collect these successfully, leadership by – or partnership with – African historians is required, who know the languages and understand the cultural milieu in which the research would take place. Such collaboration would entail a complete subversion of current practices, which, more often than not, involve the exploitation by the Global North scholar of their Global South colleagues, with a mere footnote acknowledging their contribution.The field of global history still “dominated by the offspring of the Euro-American white upper middle class”, also has to make room for non-white, non-Western African historians. If we want to create a global history of the pandemic that reflects the world’s diversity as we know it today, a more inclusive discursive space is required. Let us not forget those voices that will not end up in national archives, and solely remember Western experiences of this historical moment that we are living through. Covid-19 is a global pandemic that has affected all continents, including Africa, and future history books and lessons will have to reflect that.

Anna Adima is a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar at the University of York, where she is researching the history of women’s writing after independence in Uganda and Kenya. Anna is currently a visiting research student at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD is part of the Leverhulme-funded project, ‘Another World? East Africa and the Global 1960s’. She tweets @anna_adima.


Cover image. “Geographica restituta per globi trientes” by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

Figure 1. “Low Res Web Only Information and awareness is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Community Health Volunteers and some staff from Trócaire partner MMM in Kenya during briefing before going to the field. Photo : Victoria Nthenge” by Trocaire is licensed with CC BY 2.0

Figure 2. “Information and awareness is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here in Kenya, Clinical Health care workers are sensitising the community on COVID-19. Photo : Victoria Nthenge” by Trocaire is licensed with CC BY 2.0

Figure 3. “Cuban Health Specialists arriving in South Africa to curb the spread of COVID-19” by GovernmentZA is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Lacquer as Art and Medicinal Material in Early Modern England

CHENG HE

Look up the word ‘lacquer’ in an art dictionary, or on Google, and you usually find the word ‘varnish’; a sticky liquid applied to the surface of objects to form a shiny coating. The word can also refer to the objects coated with varnish themselves, which are sometimes decorated with additional materials like gold and shells to make the surface more visually pleasant, just like the image above. This Asian craftsmanship, associated especially with China and Japan, was highly praised by Europeans after they navigated to Asia at the end of the fifteenth century.[1]

My doctoral research examines lacquer in early modern England from a less conventional perspective: as a medicinal material. My initial motivation to approach lacquer in this seemingly strange way comes from the search for the etymology of lacquer. 

Figure 1. Common lac insect (Kerria lacca)

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymons of ‘lacquer’ can be traced to Middle French, Italian, Latin, and they can also be found in Arabic and Sanskrit.[2] The first, also obsolete meaning of lacquer, is ‘lac’. This term refers to the resinous material produced by certain scale insects, especially the Kerria Lacca species.[3] The insect is native in Indian subcontinent and mainland region of Southeast Asia. Its excretion would be dried after being produced on the surface of tree branches (Fig. 2). A main application was to extract red pigment from the material, which constituted another meaning of the word. Lac was also one of the raw materials for making varnish, a use that later became popular in early modern Europe.

I was surprised that lacquer’s early meanings were not about varnish. This led me to consider if it was proper to take it for granted that ‘lacquer’ in early modern period meant the exactly same thing as it does today. Furthermore, how did the meaning(s) of lacquer take shape? Was the formation of the concept a smooth and instant process?

It is easy to forget that, although artists played a crucial role in the making of lacquerware, art only constitutes part of the life of lacquer. From being raw material in its natural condition, being collected, processed, transported to being further utilised, its (or their, because there was more than one type of material identified as lacquer) life path involved various interaction with humans in different fields. Today we tend to think of lacquer as a specific type of craftsmanship, a definition that focuses on one of this material’s life paths.  However, in the late medieval and early modern periods, such a narrowed down, concrete concept was not applied to the word ‘lacquer’ or its variants in European languages. 

In many cases, the word often referred to a foreign plant whose identity and geographical origin was a mystery and under long-term discussion. The formation of the concept was also closely associated with its different uses – including medicine. Therefore, lacquer was connected to a wider material network than simply varnish and the concept of lacquer in early modern period was much broader and more flexible than it is today. 

Figure 2. The Mazarin Cabinet, Victoria & Albert Museum.

It is not hard to imagine lacquer as a medicinal ingredient when it is approached primarily as a plant. Knowledge of making lacquer into medicine can be found in medieval Latin texts that were translated from medical works written by Islamic physicians. Here, the type of plant recognised as lacquer (or lacca in Latin) was the sticky material produced by the scale insects mentioned above. To get the gum, the twigs would be boiled with water which would be purified by filtering. According to recipes, such as the one by the Iranian physician Rhazes (AD 865-925), cleansed lacca can be boiled in water together with lentils and gum tragacanth, which would be given to the patient to drink.[4] Such medicine was expected to speed up the eruption of small pox.

Lacquer was assigned with medical properties, which were derived from humoral theory. The theory was developed by ancient Greek physicians, who thought there were four types of bodily fluids in the human body, whose balance was the key to one’s health. Each fluid is either hot/cold and dry/moist. If one has sickness related to coldness or blockage in the organs, hot medicine could be taken to alleviate the coldness and obstruction. Lacquer was ‘hot’ and could be used to treat illness related to blockage such as small pox. Rhazes mentioned this in his medical writing, which was passed down to the seventeenth-century English medical works and herbals. In widely-circulated work by English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), lacquer was described as ‘hot in the second degree’, whose art and medical functions were both mentioned.[5]

The implication of the story of lacquer as medicine is that: this material was not confined to art and it was not merely a by-product of European maritime activities endowed with only a sense of otherness and exoticness. On the contrary, knowledge of lacquer was introduced into Europe as early as the medieval period, and well assimilated into European medical theory. Lacquer was closely connected with a history of science and medicine, not only because the process of making art was related to technology, but also the material itself was embedded with meanings in the system of knowledge. 

Cheng He is a second-year PhD student in the History Department at University of Warwick. Her doctoral research centres on how the concept of ‘lacquer’ took shape in early modern England, by looking at the materiality and ways of use of the material.


[1] For the technique of lacquer art and its reception in early modern Europe, see Oliver Impey and Christiaan Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer: 1580-1850 (Amsterdam: Hotei, 2005)

[2] ‘lacquer, n.’ OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2021. Consulted 20 May 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Abú Becr Mohammed ibn Zacaríyá ar-Rází (commonly called Rhazes), A Treatise on the Small-Pox and Measles, translated from the Original Arabic by William Alexander Greenhill (Birmingham, Ala.: The Classics of Medicine Library, 1987, first published 1848), p. 106.

[5] John Gerard, The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (London: Iohn Norton, 1597), pp. 1349-50.


Cover image and Figure 2: Artist Unknown, The Mazarin Chest, c.1640, wood covered in black, gold and silver lacquer, inlaid with gold, silver and shell, and with copper fittings. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 56.5cm x 100.3cm x 63.5cm. Accession number: 412:1, 2-1882. Image suggested by the author.

Figure 1: Jeffrey W. Lotz, Common lac insect (Kerria lacca), Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org. Insect Images. Available for educational use and recommended by the author.

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Saints, Beggars and Scapegoats

Why depictions of status and disability in the Early Middle Ages still matter

JUTTA LAMMINAHO

‘A lame man crawling along on his hands led a blind man to the paupers’ hostel at St Gall, where both of them stayed the night, and were both healed at the tomb.’ – Walafrid Strabo, Life of St Otmar[1]

Walafrid Strabo’s account from ninth-century Frankia is representative of most early medieval sources that describe disability. Yet it also speaks to present-day imaginings of pre-modern ailments and even current perceptions and depictions of disabled people. The Covid pandemic has brought depictions of disability into a sharp focus. Advocate Baroness Jane Cambell articulates the fear that if we don’t watch it, we will soon move from the “vulnerables” to the “expendables”.’ This trend of invisibility and dehumanisation can be traced all the way back to early medieval sources and the process can even help us to understand the way disabilities are thought of today.

According to the World Health Organisation 15% of the global population is disabled, and a similar percentage has been estimated for pre-modern societies.[2] This covers a significant cross-section of any society, yet the image of disability both in the past and the present is still largely focused on suffering and poverty or the inspirational surmount of challenge. This is why I wanted to use my research to look at the impact of social status on depictions of disability in early medieval sources: to challenge the lack of variety in images of disabled people in the past and also see how these trends continue to inform how disabilities are represented.

Understanding disability in the past

Early medieval understanding of disability was very different from current mainstream perceptions. There was no unified concept of disability as an umbrella term. Disability was not considered a medical concern and different people with different ailments were often given different legal statuses.[3] Instead, individuals’ impairments were judged in relation to their ability to fulfil their duties, their physical appearance, expectations of behaviour and (although less often than is often believed) as potential indicators of sin.

The social model of disability is fundamental for understanding and analysing these different conceptions. Separating physical impairment (for example, a deaf person not being able to hear) from social disability (in the Middle Ages congenitally deaf people had restricted legal rights), makes it possible to discuss the way such impairments were portrayed without forcing anachronistic assumptions about their social impact onto the source material.

Disability and status

In the UK, 40% of the people living in poverty have or live with someone who has a disability.[4] Poverty was also a common part of the lives and portrayal of people with impairment in the Middle Ages. Ability to work and the necessity of recovery was emphasised across Europe. Einhard, a Carolingian scholar, expressed this clearly when describing how the relics of saints Peter and Marcellinus were used to cure the impaired people that gathered near them: those ‘brought by the hands of others … returned home on their own feet’.[5]

Figure 1. Man with tresses, Topographia Hiberniae (c.1196-1223). British Library.

Outside of the elite, the most common stated occupation for impaired people was begging. Einhard also tells of a man who does not want to have his vision restored because he is too old and feeble to work, but it would not be honourable for a seeing man to beg, showing how disabilities and begging were linked.[6] But it is important to note that people with both sensory and physical impairments also worked as merchants, maidservants and porters – to name just a few examples – and most were depicted in charge of their own healing journeys.[7]

Impairment also had strong social and religious connotations. The idea that disabilities were caused by sin was not very common, but impaired people were used as community scapegoats to make moral points. This led to dehumanised depictions where the impaired people were described as ‘the dupe and the tool, of the Devil’, ‘ugly, destitute and dumb’ and even resembling ‘more closely some monster than the appearance of a man’.[8]

Yet all people outside the elite were mostly invisible in early medieval sources and at times impairments, and their miraculous cures, improved a person’s status. A blind man called Aubrey, for example, is told to have received visions from the saints, allowing him to find and help other impaired people in his community and even dictate a book for the emperor Louis the Pious.[9]

Much as for modern-day celebrities, an immaculate body was an expectation for the elite. Einhard described Pippin, the oldest son of Charlemagne who revolted against his father, as ‘fair of face but deformed by a hunchback.’[10] Pippin’s fair face marked his royal lineage, while his hunched back was intended to communicate moral crookedness and illegitimacy as a potential ruler. Aversion to impaired rulers was also used, especially in Italy and the Byzantium, to depose rulers or competing aristocrats by blinding them, which made them incapable of ever ruling. 

Some impaired rulers, such as Sigibert and Lame or Louis the Blind, had long reigns, but the prevailing prejudices against impairment led to diminished political importance for Louis, while Sigibert was murdered by his son, who had been coaxed to do so on account of his father’s impairment and age.[11]

Yet for members of the ecclesiastical elite impairments were depicted in a largely positive light. In the hagiographies of saints like Cuthbert and Æthelthryth, impairments were depicted as an opportunity to prove the strength of their faith and to atone for sins.[12] Similarly, many bishops, abbesses and monks were portrayed as strong in character and favoured by God in their endurance and recovery of disability.

Figure 2. Pilgrims, The Luttrel Psalter, British Library

Sources and visibility

Disabled people have always been a part of society, but lack of representation in the past – and present – has often left them invisible. Early Medieval art only depicted humans in an idealised way and it was only in the High and Late Middle Ages that people with disabilities found their way into visual culture, even as caricatures.[13] In literary sources miracle accounts of saints healing impairments provide vivid depictions of non-elite or ecclesiastical individuals with disabilities, but they emphasise those outside the elite or in the ecclesiastical realm, while historical narratives tell of the rulers and aristocracy. The source themselves lead to certain distortions, miracle accounts emphasise the suffering and need of those seeking help to show the power of the saint. Likewise, historical narratives tell of rulers and aristocracy and distort our understanding by focussing almost exclusively on dramatic, punitive mutilations.

Developments in gender, queer and post-colonialist histories show that representation matters and opening up the past for previously overlooked peoples can help challenge present systems of inequality. Status was an important factor in the representation of disabled people in the Early Middle Ages and the same appears true for the present. It took a nondisabled public figure like Jo Whiley to make visible the difficulties of people with learning disabilities in dealing with Covid and accessing vaccines.[14] Additionally, despite the recent push for greater diversity and representation, only about 2.5% of characters on film or TV are disabled and 95% of these are portrayed by non-disabled actors.[15] The stereotypical and harmful depictions this can lead to is heartbreakingly perfectly illustrated by films like Sia’s ‘Music’, which reproduces many of the medieval tropes for one-dimensional depictions of disability to make moral points to build up the nondisabled characters.[16]

Recognising the diversity of disability across human history enhances and completes our understanding of past and present societies – their ideas of the body, sanctity, hierarchy and health. As well as showing how these factors influence current perceptions and portrayals of disabled people across social and economic strata – and why they might need to be changed.

Jutta Lamminaho is a student at the University of Glasgow, where her dissertation research was selected for the award-winning Let’s Talk About [X] undergraduate conference scheme. Next, Jutta will continue her research into early medieval disability as a graduate student at Utrecht University.


[1] Walafrid Strabo, Life of St Otmar in Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400, (New York: Routledge, 2006) 13 p.193.

[2] Metzler, Disability, p.3

[3] Irina Metzler, A social history of disability in the middle ages: cultural considerations of physical impairment (New York: Routledge, 2013) p.4, 7 

[4]Andrea Barry et al. , ‘UK Poverty 2019/2020’, Joseph Rowantree Foundation, (2020) p.8 file:///C:/Users/Omistaja/Downloads/jrf_-_uk_poverty_2019-20_report_4.pdf

[5] Einhard, The Translation and Miracles of the Saints Marcellinus and Peter, in Paul Dutton, Carolingian Civilisation: A Reader (Cardiff: Broadview Press, 1993) II.5 p.213

[6] Ibid. IV.4 p.232

[7] Marit Ronen, ‘A Still Sound Mind: Personal Agency of Impaired People in Anglo-Saxon Care and Cure Narratives’, in Erin Connelly, Stefanie Künzel (eds) New approaches to disease, disability and medicine in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2018) p.19

[8] Gregory of Tours, The Miracles of Bishop of St Martin  in Raymond Van Dam, Saints and their miracles in late antique Gaul (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1993) II.24 p.197; Rudolph of Fulda, Life of Saint Leoba, in Paul Dutton, Carolingian Civilisation: A Reader, (Cardiff: Broadview Press, 1993) p.319; Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in Rowan Williams, Benedicta Ward, Bede’s ecclesiastical history of the English people: an introduction and selection (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p. V.2 p.150

[9] Einhard, The Translation, III.12 p.222

[10] Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, trans. David Ganz, Two Lives of Chaelmagne, (London, Penguin, 2008) XXI p.33

[11] Liudprand of Cremona, Retributions, in Paolo Squatriti, The complete works of Liudprand of Cremona, (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2007) II.41 p.93-4; Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, II.37 p.153

[12] Bede, Prose Life of Saint Cuthbert, in Bertram Colgrave, Two lives of Saint Cuthbert: a Life by an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s prose Life,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1940) pp.141-309; Ælfric, Life of Saint Æthelthryth, ed. W. W. Skeat, Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, Vol. 1 (London: Early English Text Society Publications 76 and 82, 1881-1885) pp. 432-40

[13] Patricia Skinner, Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017) p.4

[14] ‘Jo Whiley: ‘I’d give up my Covid vaccine in a heartbeat’’, BBC (16.2.2021), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56083051 [Accessed 29.4.2021]

[15] Katie Ambler, ’Disabled TV Characters Played by Disabled Actors’, Disabled Living, (28.1.2020)

https://www.disabledliving.co.uk/blog/disabled-characters-played-by-disabled-actors/ [Accessed 40.4.2020]

[16] Clem Bastow, ’ Sia’s film Music misrepresents autistic people. It could also do us damage ’ The Guardian (26.1.2021) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/jan/27/sias-film-music-misrepresents-autistic-people-it-could-also-do-us-damage [Accessed 1.5.2021]; Helen Brown, ‘Face the Music: Why Sia’s dangerous film doesn’t deserve a Golden Globe’ Independent (1.3.2021) https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/sia-music-film-autism-maddie-ziegler-b1806871.html [Accessed 1.5.2021]


Cover image and Figure 2. Pilgrims on their way to Mount St.Michel in France. The Luttrel Psalter, (British Library MS Add. 42130, fol. 104v), c. 1325-1335. Made available by British Library Images © British Library Board.

Figure 1. A man with tressels. Topographia Hiberniae (British Library Royal 13 B VIII, fol. 30v), c. 1196-1223. Made available by British Library Images © British Library Board.

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Communications and Complaints: Revisiting Nineteenth-Century Germany

JEAN-MICHEL JOHNSTON

We’ve all been there: a patchy Zoom connection, an interrupted online transaction, a YouTube video that just won’t load. We all recognise the everyday frustrations that come with the malfunctioning of the Internet, even as we celebrate ever faster broadband or cheaper mobile data allowances. Communications networks don’t always fulfil their promises, but as the recent lockdowns have shown, they have become embedded in our lives. It is, of course, our reliance on these technologies that makes us all the more sensitive to their failings, but the potential consequences of being ‘disconnected’ differ from person to person and from place to place, and they point to the deeper structures that underpin society.

In researching my book, Networks of Modernity: Germany in the Age of the Telegraph, 1830-1880, I sifted through numerous complaints and petitions sent to German state authorities during the nineteenth century, by customers dissatisfied with the most novel communications technology of their day—the electric telegraph. The exasperation expressed in some of these documents is remarkably relatable: what was the point in sending a telegram instantaneously from St Petersburg to Augsburg, if it then took 45 minutes for it to be delivered to the recipient’s home? Why did a neighbouring town possess a better connection to the national telegraph network when its local economy was almost identical?

Figure 1. ‘The true causes of our quarrels. The Press’ (1863)

Taken individually, these complaints are sporadic reminders of the potential for all technologies to fail, as well as their dependence upon human intervention. While there were many in the nineteenth century who, like Karl Marx, believed that the communications revolution heralded the ‘annihilation of space’, but to the Bavarian official who missed an appointment with the King because a telegram was delayed, that vision must have sounded fairly irrelevant. If the telegraph was indeed the ‘Victorian Internet’, its effects were just as multifaceted as its digital descendant. Yet add up the many different expressions of discontent, which the authorities received from the public during the period, and what emerges is a complex picture of how the ‘communications revolution’ was transforming Germany.

Complaints and frustrations are not always trivial, as our recent experience of shifting to a quasi-virtual world has shown. Having to work, teach, learn, and even socialise online during lockdown produced its fair share of additional stress for most, but it also revealed the deep (infra-)structural inequalities in our society. The reality of the ‘digital divide’ that separates the urban from the rural, the socio-economically privileged from the disadvantaged, even the older generations from the younger, was once again highlighted. Communications networks, in this regard, are more than a tool, they reflect and at times enhance the hidden social, economic, cultural and even political framework of our world.

A glance at any nineteenth-century telegraph map makes this plain, as not all regions, towns or villages were equally well connected to the new instant messaging service of the age. Unlike in Britain, where it was privately driven, the construction of telegraphs in Germany was carried out by the individual states that made up the region until unification in 1870/1. The ‘German’ telegraph network was therefore a web of ‘hubs’ that had been prioritised by the individual state administrations—not only their respective political centres, such as Berlin, Bremen, Frankfurt, or Munich, but also those areas identified as economically productive—the financial and industrial sectors around Augsburg, Nuremberg, or the Ruhr, for instance. Even after unification, the Kaiserreich’s telegraph network long remained remarkably decentralised.

Figure 2. ‘The Electric and International Telegraph Company’s Map of the Telegraph Lines of Europe, 1856’

None of this was lost on representatives of the regions that were neglected in the process, and many were vocal in pressing their demands for better connectivity within the German parliaments. During the 1870s, the Reichstag became the scene of a confrontation between landowners of the rural ‘hinterland’ who felt that the government’s attitude to communications favoured the financial, cosmopolitan elites eager to take part in a ‘globalising’ economy. Within cities and towns themselves, debates emerged on the location of telegraph offices, and the strata of local society that they were best serving. All of this at a time when the relative cost of sending telegrams itself excluded large sections of the population from making frequent use of the service.

Following the thread of the telegraph as it began to pervade everyday life in Germany thus gives us a clearer view of a society in transformation. The period 1830-1880 which this book explores was one of intense upheaval, during which remarkable industrial growth was coupled with a major geopolitical reconfiguration of the region. Thanks to new technologies like the telegraph, and in contrast with perhaps commonly held assumptions, German public opinion was deeply involved in this process. But this, too, was a multifaceted phenomenon. Some valued, for instance, the greater speed at which news from across the world could reach their morning paper, whilst others believed it was unduly interfering with political debates. The news agencies that emerged during these years, from Reuters to Havas and Wolffs Telegraphisches Büro were similarly both praised and denounced for their role in selecting the information that was circulated, and for their susceptibility to government influence—a susceptibility not lost on Bismarck.

This book is therefore an invitation to view Germany through a different lens, one that foregrounds both the connections and the disconnections, the process of inclusion and exclusion, that characterised the communications revolution, and that might be concealed by other metanarratives of the period. It is also, I hope, a useful reflection on the role played by technologies in society, neither as fundamental agents of historical change, nor as mere tools of human activity, but as co-constitutive of the world we live in. As such, it is perhaps a reminder that our everyday expectations and frustrations have a basis in the deeper structures that situate us in society. 

Dr Jean-Michel Johnston is a lecturer in Modern European History and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge. Their new book Networks of Modernity: Germany in the Age of the Telegraph, 1830-1880 is out now, published by Oxford University Press.


Banner image and Figure 2. ‘The Electric and International Telegraph Company’s Map of the Telegraph Lines of Europe, 1856’. Princeton University Library. Understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 1. ‘The true causes of our quarrels. The Press…’ Kladderadatsch, 15. Mar. 1863, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg. CC-BY-SA 3.0. Translated: The true causes of our quarrels. The Press; for if it did not print everything immediately, nobody would find out about it. The evil men at the Dönhofsplatz; for if they didn’t reveal that which is rotten in the state, nobody would concern themselves with it. The Telegraph; for if it didn’t spill the beans on everything straight away—that would be nice!

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Reflections on ‘The World At War’

DANIEL ADAMSON

I was recently intrigued to find a repeat of the 1973 documentary The World at War buried in the depths of Freeview television. Across 26 hour-long episodes, this series chronicled the course of the Second World War and charted the key experiences of the conflict.

Figure 1. Opening titles to The World at War (1973).

The reputation of The World at War preceded the programme: in 2000, the British Film Institute placed it amongst the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. However, it was with some apprehension that I embarked upon viewing the series. It is not uncommon for televisual output to have aged in an unfortunate manner. But within the space of a few episodes, my fears had been allayed. The documentary’s potent combination of nuance, factuality, and sensitivity left me with few doubts that the series was deserving of its vaunted position in the pantheon of British television. Even in the twenty first century, The World at War possesses significant gravity as both an educational tool and a work of entertainment. 

Background and format

The World at War was commissioned by Thames Television in 1969 and screened four years later, in an era of growing public appetite for weighty documentary output. In 1964, the BBC produced the 26-episode The Great War, whilst Kenneth Clark’s acclaimed Civilisation debuted in 1969. Despite the Herculean scope of its remit, The World at War benefited from close collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and a budget of nearly £12 million in modern currency, which made it  the most expensive British series ever produced at this time.

Narrated by the revered thespian Sir Laurence Olivier, The World at War followed a distinctive template. Archive footage and illustrative graphics were interspersed with first-hand accounts of the Second World War from nearly 400 interviewees. To a modern viewer such as myself, the impact of The World at War on contemporary documentary-making – inadvertent or not – was striking. The style of American filmmaker Ken Burns, in particular, displays clear parallels with that characteristic of The World at War. One cannot help but feel that The World at War is underpinned by a desire for true authenticity.

Figure 2. Sir Laurence Olivier narrates The World at War (1973).
A holistic outlook on the Second World War

In historical terms, The World at War draws much of its strength from its efforts to create a holistic impression of the conflict addressed. Despite being a British production, the series avoids any sense of Eurocentrism, and instead presents a genuinely international outlook. ‘Episode 6 – Banzai!: Japan (1931-1942)’, ‘Episode 8 – The Desert: North Africa (1940-1943)’, and ‘Episode 14 – It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma (1942–1944)’ provide just a few examples of how the series touches upon all four corners of the globe. As such, there is a prevention of a parochial interpretation of the conflict, which might otherwise be evidenced by the ongoing fascination of the British pubic with the Home Front and the ‘Blitz Spirit’. Moreover, The World at War does not concern itself solely with the hallmark actions of the Second World War. For a series shown in 1973, it is remarkable how the programme addresses issues which – to date – have still not received mainstream historical attention. 

‘Episode 18 – Occupation: Holland (1940-1944)’ provides a case in point. The ambiguous experiences of the Netherlands under German occupation are explored on multiple level, even though public appreciation of the competing resistance, passivity and collaboration of the Dutch people in wartime is still not necessarily widespread today. Nor does The World at War confine itself to the parameters of 1939 to 1945. ‘Episode 1 – A New Germany (1933-1939)’ provides essential background context, whilst ‘Episode 25 – Reckoning (April 1945)’ demonstrates conclusively how issues in Europe were far from resolved by the ending of formal conflict.

Figure 3. George Harding, Over The Top ( US Army Art Collection).

It is also difficult to underestimate the significance of The World at War in methodological terms. The programme functions both as a public educational tool, and as a receptacle of primary source material. The oral testimonies that form the basis of each episode build an invaluable repository of first-hand accounts of the war. In the process of creating a television series, the production team behind The World at War created a historical catalogue for posterity. 

The holistic geographical approach of The World at War is mirrored in its wide-ranging selection of interviewees. Creator Jeremy Isaacs was determined to feature input from all aspects of society, rather than just established figures. As such, each episode typically featured interviews with civilians, members of the military, and politicians alike. The series is not simply a military account, but also considers wider social, political, and cultural issues. Crucially, therefore, the viewer is therefore left with a holistic impression of the experiences – not just the events – of the Second World War. 

Certainly, The World at War is far from flawless in a modern context. Unavoidably, it is a product of its time. The programme’s graphics appear outdated to twenty-first century eyes. At times, there is a detectable sense of jingoistic narrative, with the ‘plucky’ British pitted against a mechanical foe. Equally, given the continued growth of gender history, it now appears notable that the series focuses primarily on male experiences of the conflict. 

Nevertheless, in several other ways, The World at War seems ahead of its time. The nuance and accessibility with which numerous complex topics are tackled is impressive. Particularly striking is the way in which the final installment, ‘Episode 26 – ‘Remember”, considers the distortion of memory and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), long before such conversations became mainstream. 

Episode 20 – Genocide (1941-1945)’: a landmark in Holocaust consciousness

As a Holocaust researcher, ‘Episode 20 – Genocide (1941-1945)’ was of particular interest. I was met with a surprisingly lucid interpretation of the extreme complexity of the Holocaust. In the past decade or so, evidence-based research has pointed towards the need to equip school students with an understanding that the Holocaust was not a self-contained episode. Yet, The World at War also had the awareness to point out that antisemitism had a long history, and one common to the whole of Europe, not just Germany. In 1973, ‘Genocide’ complexified the Holocaust long before it was educational de rigeur.

The World at War also stresses that individual responsibility for the Holocaust, attributed to the likes of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, is only part of the story. ‘Genocide’ touches on the tricky issue of collective responsibility, alongside murky concepts such as ‘bystanders’. The details on hand are harrowing. SS lance-corporal, Richard Boch, recalls in an interview how he witnessed pyramids of corpses in an Auschwitz gas chamber. 

Figure 4. Auschwitz, Poland.

By avoiding the sense that the Holocaust was simply inexplicable, ‘Genocide’ also performs a valuable social function. Implicitly, it encourages viewers to reflect on the conditions that might still allow a similar atrocity to occur again. 

The content of ‘Genocide’ is significant. But it is the context of the episode itself that is arguably of greatest importance. ‘Genocide’ represented a milestone in public consciousness of the Holocaust. The idea of post-war ‘silence’ regarding the Holocaust has since received challenge.[1] However, by 1973, the details of the Holocaust were still not well-known.[2]The war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 had raised the profile of the genocide, but The World at War was still amongst the first primetime television considerations of the Holocaust. The frankness with which the Holocaust is related is equally impressive, given the contemporary momentum of television censorship campaigns led by individuals such as Mary Whitehouse

The World at War was watched by an average weekly audience of ten million UK viewers. The series therefore brought historical knowledge to a large portion of the population. Andy Pearce, a leading authority of British Holocaust memory, has identified ‘Genocide’ as ‘one of the major events in the history of British Holocaust consciousness’, and noted the ground-breaking way it focussed on ‘the Jewish experience’ and employed a new ‘representational approach’.[3] James Jordan’s analysis of BBC programming between 1955 and 1978 has suggested that the Holocaust, despite being a ‘regular presence on British television’, was previously only dealt with in tangential ways.[4]

An example to others?
Figure 5. Holocaust Memorial, Hyde Park

Nearly four decades after its original transmission in 1973, The World at War remains a masterful piece of televisual work. It provides a nuanced assessment of the Second World War, and draws together a staggering range of source material: all in a time when technological resources were limited. The programme had a profound impact on public historical consciousness, and itself functions as an indispensable archive of primary evidence. Television, clearly, has long been a powerful vehicle of cultural understanding. 

The series further provides a strong argument against a teleological view of documentary-making: that ‘newer’ necessarily means ‘better’. Manifestly, accessibility need not come at the expense of intelligent output. 

In many ways, The World at War was prescient. ‘Genocide’, for example, encourages a meaningful reflection on how exactly Britain responded to the Holocaust. In 2021, the need for national self-reflection and challenging of entrenched national myths has arguably never been more pressing. Finally, special mention must go to Carl Davis’ iconic theme music. The ominous orchestration ingeniously captures the horror, dynamism, and sorrow of the Second World War itself.

Daniel Adamson is a PhD student in the Department of History at Durham University. His research centres on educational portrayals of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. He can be found on Twitter as @DanielEAdamson.


[1] Sharples, Caroline, and Olaf Jensen. Britain and the Holocaust : Remembering and Representing War and Genocide. (2013)., p.54.

[2] Lawson, Tom. Debates on the Holocaust. (Manchester University Press, 2010), p.17.

[3] Pearce, Andy. Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain. (2014)., p.30.

[4] Quoted., Pearce, Andy. Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain. (2014)., p.167.


Cover image and Figure 3. George Harding, ‘Over the Top’, (US Army Art Collection, Catalogue Number: 11.1.84). Available in the Public Domain.

Figure 1. Video still of The World at War (1973) opening titles. Available via Creative Commons License. Suggested by the author.

Figure 2. Sir Laurence Olivier narrates The World at War (1973). Available in the Public Domain.

Figure 4. Image of Auschwitz, Poland. Available in the Public Domain.

Figure 5. Unknown photographer, Holocaust Memorial Garden, Hyde Park. Available in the Public Domain.

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Analysing Jacobite Prisoner Lists with JDB45

Analogous Analysis Paralysis: The Stultifying Weltschmerz of Jacobite Prisoner Lists

DR DARREN SCOTT LAYNE

Jacobite Database Logo. Decorative.

Now nearly three centuries on from Jacobitism’s imminent threat to the British post-revolution state, the movement’s historical record is still a living entity with plenty of room for growth. To wit, the demographic characteristics of both domestic and international participation in the last Jacobite rising, the campaign that perhaps came closest to restoring a Stuart heir upon the throne of the Three Kingdoms, has only cursorily been addressed. This constituency of late-era Jacobitism has long been quantified by a series of published lists, decades ago transcribed from a limited selection of archival sources, and settled upon by many scholars as sufficiently representative.[1]  As I argued in my doctoral thesis, due to the technologies that are now available to historians and more robust access to archival collections, we are well overdue for a modern reassessment of Jacobite engagement through a comprehensive review of primary sources and a consequential revision of the way their data is codified. 

The Jacobite Database of 1745 project was created to carry out this codification of the Jacobite constituency as it stood during the last rising, as well to offer a set of research tools for the subsequent analysis of its collected data. In addition to providing granular social histories of both the martial and civilian facets of Jacobitism, the housing of numerous manipulable data sets within JDB1745 allows us to check the integrity of the transcribed data in previously published lists and to compare and contrast them for focused analysis. This would be an onerous if not nearly impossible task by hand, and even with modern methods it takes a particular, perhaps misguided, willingness to endure prolonged bouts of tedious data entry. The rewards are well worth the routine, however, as once the information is wrangled into a coherent framework, it is immediately ripe for prosopographical scrutiny.

Battle scene: The Battle of Culloden. Two armies meet on a stormy battlefield. On the left, tartan-clad highlanders weld swords. On the right, the British Army wears red coats and are armed with bayonets. Several have fallen on both sides, but it is a state soldier that takes centre-stage and is caught in the act of striking a Jacobite rebel.
Figure 1. David Morier, The Battle of Culloden (1746)

During the nine months of the last effective Jacobite challenge and for years afterward, British government ministers under George II kept an exceptionally vast amount of detailed records concerning the prosecution of suspected and accused rebels. This by itself is a clear indication that a Jacobite restoration in 1745-6 was a very real and pressing threat to Whig officials. Through the process of tracking down and registering these participants, hundreds of lists were compiled by government justices, military personnel, regional sheriffs, keepers of gaols and tolbooths, Presbyterian clergy, officers of the customs and excise, and individual landholders. All of these contributed to form a piecemeal record of just who was involved in either explosive or subversive treason against the Crown, the nature of their involvement, and their degree of guilt based upon personal depositions, eyewitness testimony, and material evidence. The raft of paperwork is enormous, and different lists contain varying amounts of biographical information, the relevance and accuracy of which was usually based upon who was processing the intelligence at the time. As prisoners and ‘still-lurking’ rebels were identified and further evidence was collected, many lists were revised or sent along the chain of prosecution to be copied and re-copied by solicitors, justices, and high-level ministers. Most of these records are fragmentary and plenty of them bear conflicting information about the selfsame persons between documents. While some prominent collections of archival prosecution papers have been partially incorporated into subsequently published lists of Jacobite prisoners (for instance, sections of the Secretary of State Papers and the Treasury Solicitor Papers at Kew, jail returns at the National Library of Scotland, and various documents at the British Library), many hundreds of resources have neither been consulted nor considered.[2]

For example, Treasury Solicitor John Sharpe received a list of 170 prisoners confined at Carlisle that notes each person’s age, trade, and stated religion. State Solicitor Philip Carteret Webb penned a brief of fifty-four captives in York who pleaded guilty at their trials; each person is described with biographical notes and witnesses named against him. William van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle, named seventy individuals against whom the government holds evidence of participating in rebellion, but who were not apprehended by November of 1746, and therefore are not included in extant rolls of prisoners. David Bruce, Advocate-General of Scotland, provided four discrete lists of rebel captives held in the tolbooth of Inverness after Culloden that identify a total of ninety-nine persons, their homes of origin, and the engagements at which they fought. David Graham of Orchill, factor to the loyalist William Graham, 2nd Duke of Montrose, furnished his laird with exacting tallies of his individual tenants, including their rent values and known level of involvement in the rising. In Aberdeen, a receipt was given to Captain Lambert of Fleming’s 36th Regiment of Foot for ninety-six prisoners accused of treason before carrying them southward for trial; Keeper of the Gaol of Aberdeen William Murdoch further listed thirty-four of these persons taken by the town guard in the days immediately following Culloden, including their places of origin, military units, and the day upon which they were captured. Briefs of 269 rebels taken at Perth were kept by the sheriff-deputies of that shire. This same bundle of ‘proofs’ was later recorded within the government’s Treasury Solicitor Papers, categorising each witness who testified by number and reference to his or her deposition. Oaths of allegiance, assurance, and abjuration were signed by both exonerated rebels and Hanoverian loyalists seeking positions of public office. Billeting books identify each household in Aberdeen that was charged with the housing and quartering of British army troops after the Jacobites were driven out. Rental books for the estates of Pearsie and Airlie note the names of each tenant residing there in 1745-6 and the payments they owed to their landlords.[3]  Collectively these examples form but a small suggestion of the sources available that can provide further biographical data and prosopographical context for the constituency of the last Jacobite rising. None of these were used in creating the few notable published muster rolls or lists of Jacobite prisoners that serve as authoritative references for modern historians. 

Figure 2. Cumberland’s List of Jacobite Prisoners.

Another of these ‘missed’ sources is found in the military papers of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, at Windsor Castle: a compiled booklet of Jacobite prisoners apprehended by the government troops under his command.[4] The 986 persons in this list were either captured or had surrendered at various points in the campaign, either before, at, or after the Battle of Culloden. The document itself is an intact snapshot of the British intelligence system’s attempt to enumerate the magnitude of the rising before stamping it out for good through a mixture of litigation and violence. Like many of these amalgamated ‘master’ lists, it is likely a transcribed compilation made up of scores of temporary registers in various stages of completion and legibility. Thankfully, the British army clerk in charge of this particular booklet had a fine hand and nearly all of the names are paired with their stated places of origin, ranks or occupations, and fighting units, if applicable. This raw information by itself provides a useful study of a significant cross-section of the Jacobite army. Dropping the entire data set into a nimble and manipulable database like Airtable, however, lets us take a much closer look at prosopographical trends that define the constituency of these captured Jacobites. 

Provisional but satisfactory examinations of this data illustrate a number of demographic points of interest: the international character of what is often considered to have been a categorically Scottish rising, and also granular evidence of the Scottish counties that produced significant Jacobite military support; the distribution and frequencies of ranks and fighting units within that army; and a limited study of the occupational spheres that provided plebeian Jacobite recruits, as well as a number of itemised careers. Of particular interest are the contextual notes written for just under 11% of the entries, which tell us, for instance, that forty of these men were imprisoned on suspicion alone, some of them not having had any material association with the rebel army.[5] Twenty-seven names bear the designation of being pressed into Jacobite service, ten cases of which allegedly occurred just two days before Culloden by George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromarty, during his eleventh-hour recruiting drive north of the Black Isle. Nine men are labeled as beggars, one of them actually having been apprehended in the act of seeking alms. Twenty-six prisoners are marked as volunteers, eight as gentlemen, and four are described as ‘boys’. At least three deserters from the British army also make an appearance.[6]

Figures 3-6. Graphics generated by prosopographical analysis.

Though Cumberland’s name book has no specific date attached to it, the data itself tells us much about the time it was drafted. The largest single unit of prisoners represented here includes the 151 soldiers attached to Cromarty’s regiment. Yet Mackenzie and his some 200 men never made it to Culloden, instead being captured nearly intact by government troops at Golspie, just south of Dunrobin Castle, on the day before the battle.[7] The number of Cromarty’s men in Cumberland’s list matches up rather well with a report from 23 April, which describes the arrival in Inverness of Mackenzie and his son, John, along with ten officers and 150 soldiers ‘taken by the Sutherland Militia’.[8] We can therefore surmise that this list was likely made in the waning days of April as tallies of prisoners were written up in the aftermath of Culloden. 

Other prisoners noted in the back pages of the document include 365 French officers and private men previously captured and held at various places in Britain, including Edinburgh, York, Tilbury, Stirling, and Perth.[9] Government clerks likewise estimate on these pages that by April 1746 as many as 4500 individuals had surrendered their arms to justices of the peace or parish ministers, according to the terms of indemnities offered to plebeian rebels by Cumberland and Field Marshall George Wade.[10] This remarkable number, which at its most optimistic would represent roughly a third of total projected Jacobite army strength through the entire campaign, is a powerful demonstration of the government’s successes in attempting to disperse martial Jacobitism through promises and policy.[11]

Figure 7. Jacobite Prisoners – Occupational Data

The fact that this particular manuscript booklet is but only one roster of prisoners obviously limits the overall impact of the study. The statistics that are charted here do not necessarily overlay cleanly upon broader assessments of the Jacobite constituency.[12] Though numerous categories of helpful data are present, many others are not. Missing from the list, for example, are the ages, estates, and confessional traditions of the captives. Likewise, it does not reveal in which prisons they were held at the time the list was compiled. There are neither stated accusations of particular rebellious acts nor the names of any witnesses who were willing to speak out against them. To follow the trail of prosecution for each of the 986 names, then, we would need to seek out other sources that can ‘fill in the blanks’ and tell us more about the people the government was so intent on cataloguing. 

In this case, perhaps the real test of how valuable this list is to the greater codification of the Jacobite constituency is how it overlaps with later published studies. Are all 986 names accounted, for instance, in Seton and Arnot’s The Prisoners of the ’45 or the 1745 Association’s popular ‘muster roll’ of the Jacobite army?[13] Definitively not. A cursory comparison between the three sources shows that at least 185 persons (18.8%) are absent from the former and 244 (24.8%) do not appear in the latter. Furthermore, 167 (17%) are not included in either of these prominent references, while 669 (67.9%) do appear in one or both but bear erroneous information or discrepancies between records in Cumberland’s name book. This demonstrates that there is still plenty to learn about the people who took part in the Forty-five, as well as what happened to them after their capture and prosecution. 

Figure 8. Jacobite Prisoners – Delineated Numbers

We can, of course, engage with more extensive studies into archival records to both verify and expand upon the data presented in Cumberland’s list. This method allows us to ‘check the work’ in published aggregates and concurrently iron out errors made by the compilers. We can link the names in this list with their self-given depositions, as well as the testimonies of eyewitnesses and any of their trial records that may appear in the archives. Duplicate persons can be identified and the common transposition of names rectified, like the many occurrences of Daniels and Davids, Henrys and Humphries, Patricks and Peters. Recruitment patterns can be established and the stadial post-Culloden diasporas traced; motivations can be more closely examined and loyalties explored, all moving toward charting clearer social and geographical patterns of both ideological and practical Jacobitism, domestically and internationally. 

This typology of historical data and its subsequent prosopographical analysis certainly does not appeal to all historians, nor does it have to. It can be stultifying and monotonous work at times, but clearly the results can bear much fruit. The methodology briefly outlined here and built into the JDB1745 project competently demonstrates what is possible with customised data architecture and the refocused initiative to re-examine and recodify the archival records of the Jacobite constituency. If this limited study of one single archival list can add many scores of hitherto uncounted persons to the historical record, the possibilities still waiting in British, European, and New World archives are nearly limitless. What we know for certain is that the usual printed studies are no longer sufficient. 

Darren Scott Layne received his PhD from the University of St Andrews and is creator and curator of the Jacobite Database of 1745, a wide-ranging prosopographical study of people who were involved in the last rising. His historical interests are focused on the protean nature of popular Jacobitism and how the movement was expressed through its plebeian adherents. He is a passionate advocate of the digital humanities, data cogency, and accessible, open research for all.


[1] D. S. Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle: The Popular Constituency of the Jacobite Rising in 1745-6’ (PhD thesis, University of St Andrews, 2016), p.179; Christopher Duffy, Fight for a Throne: The Jacobite ’45 Reconsidered (Solihull, 2015), p. 488; Murray Pittock, The Myth of the Jacobite Clans: The Jacobite Army in 1745 (Edinburgh, 2009), p. 73; Bruce Leman, The Jacobite Risings in Britain, 1689-1746 (Aberdeen, 1980), p. 271.

[2] See Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle’, pp. 20-29 for a detailed assessment of published and unpublished sources containing Jacobite prisoner data. 

[3] TNA SP 36/88/33d; 36/88/116; SP 54/34/29c; 54/32/49d; NRS GD 220/6/1662/11-13; ACA Parcel L/H/1-3; TNA TS 11/760/2361; PKA B59 30/72/2-3, 5-11; B59 33/3; NRS E 379/9-10; ACA Parcel L/P/1; DCA Wedderburn of Pearsie Papers, Box 21, Bundles 1-2. 

[4] ‘List of Rebel Prisoners Taken Before, At, and After the Battle of Culloden’ (1746), RA CP/Main Box 69 Series XI.39.22. 

[5] See Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle’, pp. 200-201, 253 for more on Jacobite prisoners indicted on suspicion. 

[6] These biographical details are likewise provisionally recorded, usually based upon the skills of the clerks and interrogators who were in charge of collecting intelligence, as well as the time they had to make up their rosters. Many of these details shift, change, or disappear in subsequent government records and should not alone be taken as hard evidence. 

[7] Duffy, Fight for a Throne, p. 401. 

[8] ‘An Authentick Account of Culloden’ (23 April 1746), NLS MS 2960 ff. 121-122. 

[9] It appears that these men were eventually placed on parole at Carlisle pending exchange as prisoners of war. By August 1746, as a list of 351 is noted in TNA SP 36/92/2 ff. 63-68, 348 are mentioned in Carlisle on 2 August, Webb to Sharpe (2 August 1746), TNA SP 36/86/1 f. 18. See also Sharpe to Newcastle (27 September 1746), TNA SP 36/88/2 ff. 103-105; TS 11/157/524. 

[10] Wade’s Declaration of Indemnity (30 October 1745), Scots Magazine (VII: 1745), pp. 537-538; Cumberland’s First Proclamation (24 February 1746), TNA SP 54/29 f. 3c; Cumberland’s Second Proclamation (1 May 1746), TNA SP 54/31 f. 31b. 

[11] Jean McCann, ’The Organisation of the Jacobite Army, 1745-1746’ (PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1963) pp. x-xi; Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle’, pp. 177-191, 202-203, 228. 

[12] For a much larger demographic study of the Jacobite constituency, see Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle’, pp. 80-121, 236-246. 

[13] Bruce Gordon Seton, and Jean Gordon Arnot, The Prisoners of the ’45 (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1928-9); Alastair Livingstone, Christian W. H. Aikman, and Betty Stuart Hart, eds., No Quarter Given: The Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army, 1745-46 (Glasgow, 2001). 


Banner Image and Figure 2. ‘List of Rebel Prisoners Taken Before, At, and After the Battle of Culloden’ (1746). RA CP/Main Box 69 Series XI.39.22. Image provided by the author.

Figure 1. David Morier, The Battle of Culloden, oil on canvas (1746). Royal Collection Trust. Available in the public domain.

Figures 3-8. Graphics (with own titles) generated by prosopographical analysis. These charts have been generously provided by the author and acknowledgement must be given if used or cited.

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Stitches of Resistance: Reclaiming the Narratives of the Enslaved Seamstresses in Martha Washington’s Purple Silk Gown

DR CYNTHIA E. CHIN

A single object was the subject of my doctoral dissertation: a heavily faded purple silk gown owned and worn by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802), the wife of ‘His Excellency’, President George Washington. One of three surviving intact dresses belonging to Washington, the garment visibly still retains her embodied presence. The gown’s underarm areas are watermarked by her perspiration, its skirt hem frayed due to the constant friction of her walking — all evidence of her corporeal form activating and inhabiting the gown. However, Washington is not the only individual embedded within the dress. The physical presence of Moll, Caroline Branham, Charlotte, Betty, and Ona Judgeenslaved seamstresses at Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation home of the Washingtons, are likewise inextricably present within this object. Evidence of their bodies, lives, and physical exertion also remain as they cleaned, mended, and remade this gown over several decades. 

The Gown: Condition and Findings

During my initial exploration of the gown, I was struck by how much of the silk textile has suffered from decades of wearing, improper storage, and display in indirect and direct sunlight.[1] Once-vivid and almost garish, the textile has faded to a light brown or blue-gray rather than the fuchsia, aubergine, and egg-yolk colours that are found preserved beneath some sections of the gown’s neckline trim, also visible on a well-preserved fragment in the collection of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.[2] Clues such as the presence of ‘ghost’ stitch holes within the garment, multiple thicknesses and colours of sewing threads, and a complete reconstruction of the skirt indicate that the gown experienced several moments of mending and refashioning in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Such periods of intense and concerted efforts to resize and restyle the gown indicate that Martha Washington wore the dress several decades after it would have fallen out of fashion, from when it was made in the late 1750s until possibly just before her death in 1802. 

Figure 1. At work in the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, December 2019.

Ultimately, my inquiry into this object, in parallel with her biography, other object histories, and archival records reveals that even when it was first constructed, the purple silk gown was a sartorial outlier in what was considered normative for elite women in early Anglo-America. This aids us in understanding Martha Washington’s personal choices and preferences, and likely motivations for her persistent and intentional preservation of this particular gown. Crucially, the intertwined biographies within this object form a material precipitate of slavery itself. Through the enslaved seamstresses’ physical, captive labor embedded within, the gown becomes a powerful example of the constant relinquishment of their agency and selfhood to ensure the safeguarding of another’s.

Re-centering the Discussion: The Enslaved Seamstresses at Mount Vernon

My continued work on this gown and its embodied political and socio-cultural ecosystems attempts to create a composite, though still very incomplete, picture of the enslaved seamstresses at Mount Vernon. Based on what can be known about the enslaved population at Mount Vernon during the Washingtons’ marriage, we are able to identify the likely individuals who would have been tasked with mending and re-fashioning. Unfortunately, their records are scant and can only provide glimpses into their lives, relationships, and skilled labor. In some cases, fragments emerge: their partners and children, the clothes and material possessions they were given, periods of sickness and childbirth, ‘behavioural’ reports from overseers, powerful moments of resistance — and, in the case of Ona Judge, self-liberation.[3]

Records indicate that Moll, Caroline Branham, Charlotte, Betty, and Ona Judge were the enslaved housemaids responsible for caring for the Washingtons’ clothing and completed sewing tasks such as making repairs and attaching trim to finished garments. Chiefly, they were charged with making clothing for the enslaved population across Mount Vernon’s five farms — nearly 577 people during George Washington’s lifetime.[4] They, and their work, were very much a part of the Washingtons’ correspondence. In a 1796 letter, George Washington described Ona Judge as ‘the perfect mistress of her needle’.[5] But the same was not said of Charlotte, whose work was considered ‘tolerable’.[6] On June 5, 1791, Washington wrote to her niece Fanny Bassett Washington: ‘I sent by Hercules some rufles for my little Boys bosom [chest] which I beg you will make Charlot hem. . .’.[7] Apparently, Washington was not pleased with the condition of the ruffles when they were returned to her. 

These were the women whose hands and bodies touched, cleaned, folded, and altered the purple silk gown, their stitches and pleating of the garment still just as evident as the shape of Martha Washington’s somatic form. 

Figure 2. Object W-3248, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Next Steps: Reproducing the Gown as a Way of ‘Seeing’

The next stage of my research continues its attempt to recenter how we approach this object and its histories. Taking what we know about these women and the types of documented self-preservation and counteraction they exerted, I will seek to discern how we can read their stitches, still present, in the contexts of their limited personal agency and resistance. One of the methods for ascertaining such knowledge is replicating the gown. Replicating or reproducing the gown as it ‘came off the dressmaker’s needle’ will allow viewers to visually track how these women changed the gown over time, making their skilled work more legible. Based on material evidence, comparing what the gown might have looked like when it was first made in the late 1750s to how it appears after significant and multiple episodes of remaking in the late eighteenth century presents a stark visual contrast. This material way of ‘seeing’ opens multiple discussions on how we have — or have not — previously understood the multiple biographies of this dress. It additionally foregrounds the labor of these captive seamstresses in an effort to move their lives towards perceptibility, acknowledgement, and dignity.

Dr Cynthia E. Chin is a material culture historian specialising in the dress and textiles of early Anglo-America and eighteenth-century Europe. She is currently a research fellow at the Washington Library. You can find her on Twitter @cynthiawriter, at cynthiachin.com, and materializingrace.com.


[1] Martha Washington’s purple silk gown (1903.009.02) is owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society (NHHS). The gown, acquired by the NHHS in 1919, is one of three known, surviving, intact Martha Washington gowns; the two others are held in the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in Mount Vernon (W-1523) and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (1987.0080).                                                                                              

[2] Object W-3248, Gift of Mrs. Osborne O. Ashworth, 1988, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This particular fragment was likely excerpted from a now-missing skirt panel, stomacher, or sleeve ruffle, as the rest of the gown survives intact.

[3] Ona (Oney) Judge served as lady’s maid to Martha Washington. Ona was the daughter of Betty, an enslaved seamstress at the Washingtons’ Mansion House Farm, and Andrew Judge, a white English tailor. During Washington’s presidency in Philadelphia, Ona escaped on 20 May 1796 by leaving the house while the Washingtons were at dinner. See T. H. Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her,” Granite (NH) Freeman, May 22, 1845, reprinted in Frank W. Miller, Portsmouth New Hampshire Weekly, June 2, 1877. For more on Ona Judge, see Erica Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. New York: 37Ink/Atria Books, 2017.

[4] See ‘Slavery at Mount Vernon’, https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/

[5] George Washington to Oliver Wolcott, 1 September 1796

[6] Charles MacIver to George Washington, 17 June 1786

[7] Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, 5 January 1791


Banner image and Figure 2. Object W-3248, Gift of Mrs. Osborne O. Ashworth, 1988, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Photo by Cynthia Chin. Provided by the author.

Figure 1. Making preparatory sketches during a study session in the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, December 2019. Photo by Cynthia Chin. Provided by the author.

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