A History of Argument: Teaching Students Critical Analysis

By Andrew Struan

Writing in 1808 when in office as President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson told his grandson: ‘I never yet saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument’. Continuing this line of thought in his letter, Jefferson explained that his fellow Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, was ‘the most amiable of men in society’ because he never contradicted any others: ‘he did it rather by asking questions, as if for information, or by suggesting doubts’.

Understanding the finer details of argumentation or rhetoric is not new – it has been a topic of discussion since antiquity to the modern day – and yet it is continually one of the most difficult elements of critical thinking to teach students. The process of trying to instil within our students the ability to think critically and understand the mechanics of argumentation is one of the central features of the study of history as a subject. We look to equip our students with the abilities of evaluation and analysis, and we do that through investigation of the past.

My role at the University of Glasgow is to teach our students how to analyse, critique, research, and investigate, and then how to craft arguments befitting academic discussion and investigation. My research is on the history of political speech and ideas in the early modern period, and I’m particularly interested in the ways in which Anglophone politicians frame their language around concepts to develop and deploy their arguments.

Combining these two elements – my role and my research – into one course was a challenge that I relished. The resulting course – A History of Argumentation – is designed around two essential criteria: firstly, that the processes, mechanics, structures, and methods of argumentation must be made explicit, and clearly defined to students; and, secondly, that the historian’s focus on analysis of, and engagement with, primary sources must be the means of testing students’ skills in understanding arguments.

The course itself was developed during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the UK. The course was designed for first- and second-year undergraduates to continue to engage them with academic debate and discussion at the peak of lockdown, and to maintain student engagement with their wider academic development. I designed the course in collaboration with a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD student in the history of disease, Monica O’Brien, and we took about the process of building a broad course that would be relevant to any student – not just history students – in the broad subjects of arts, humanities, education, and social sciences.

The course was structured as follows:

  • An introductory class that covered Classical rhetoric (by looking at Aristotle’s On Rhetoric) and modern argumentation (by looking at Stephen Toulmin’s model of argument).
  • A second class looking at an early eighteenth-century text, Wholesome Advice Against the Abuse of Hot Liquors (1706), by renowned Franco-Scottish physician Daniel Duncan against the abuse of coffee and tea,
  • A third class investigating the American Declaration of Independence in 1776
  • A fourth class that looked at The Second Sex (1949) by Simone de Beauvoir
  • A fifth class discussing the Indians of All Tribes Proclamation of Alcatraz (1969)
  • A final class where students were able to bring all the themes, topics, and debates from the previous classes to the present day through an analysis of modern presidential rhetoric and Trumpian political speech.
Figure 1. Raphael, ‘The School of Athens’ (1509-11). Available under CC.

Each class was structured around a range of pre-class materials, resources, and short recordings. The class itself – always held on Zoom – was then an hour-long discussion of the topic at hand. Students from subject areas as broad as law, Scottish literature, sociology, and film and theatre studies all brought their interpretations of the sources to the class.

What had initially started as a course designed to encourage students to engage with argument in an explicit manner turned into a course that looked at the arguments of rights, liberties, and freedoms in the early modern- and modern-period. Students took to heart the importance of rhetorical structures in understanding how sources are structured and organised, and began a process of critiquing ideas through those frameworks.

A separate, student-led reading group around the history of argumentation was set up and continues to provide interested students with a forum for discussion around the role of argumentation in understanding key texts and key themes. Students in particular engaged with the Proclamation at Alcatraz – in a large part because none of them had come across the text before and found it fascinating – and with The Second Sex. Our discussions were lively debates around the concepts of liberty, freedom, and equality – and all within a broader framework of clarity of argument and expression in arguing around these topics.

In a subsequent iteration of the course, I added an additional text: Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism (1932). I wanted to forcibly challenge students to consider an argument which did not, at the time, ‘win’. In other words, I wanted students to be presented with an argument that was presented at the time on par with our other texts, but which ultimately did not dominate the political and social rhetoric after the 1940s.

Students found this an obvious challenge and asked questions of how to approach the text: ‘Can we highlight the text’s strengths?’; ‘Should we look for the ways in which the claims were proven?’; ‘Is there a way to critique this that isn’t giving it undue credit?’. Again, here, the focus on argumentation was crucial: we used the tools, structures, and methods developed in earlier classes to investigate this difficult text and to place it within a wider context. At the end of the course, over 40% of the students chose to write their essays on the Doctrine and how the ideals therein were realised in practice.

The course itself, then, adopted no particularly radical concepts in the teaching of history or of rhetoric. Instead, the course aimed to give students a range of specific structures through which to analyse the past (and present). These structures allowed students unfamiliar with many of the sources and the contemporary issues surrounding them to engage in meaningful debate and discussion. Beyond that, the course aimed to allow students to see the ways in which arguments are constructed and to then deconstruct the strengths/weaknesses within. In so doing, the students were able to see some of the mysteries of rhetorical debate, argumentation, and analysis.

John Trumbull, ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1818). Available under CC.

In a modern world where fake news dominates and the humanities come under attack from governments, giving students the tools to defend their arguments against criticism, to deploy evidence and argument, and to understand the role of the study of history is crucial to the continuation of our subject and its unique pedagogical approaches.

The course now runs for pre-entry first year students as an optional module and for current undergraduate and postgraduate taught students across the University of Glasgow.

Andrew Struan is a historian of Anglophone political language. Mixing historical and linguistic approaches to the study of the past, Andrew’s research looks at the ways in which Anglophone politicians frame concepts and ideas. Andrew works at the University of Glasgow as a senior Learning Developer; his role here involves teaching students how to conduct research, how to build rhetorical structures, and how to communicate research to multidisciplinary audiences.

Twitter: @andrewstruan

University website: https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/leads/staff/andrewstruan/

Cover Image, Donald Trump speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (2018), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(39630854045).jpg.

Figure 1, Raphael, ‘The School of Athens’ (1509-11), https://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/art_movements/italian-renaissance/italian-renaissance/school-of-athens.jpg.

Figure 2, John Trumbull, ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1818), https://blog.nyhistory.org/john-trumbull-painter-of-the-revolution/.

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‘Here terrible portents’: Famine as a Catalyst for the first Viking raids?

By Tenaya Jorgensen

As an Environmental Historian, I am keenly interested in how humans have responded to climate pressures and weather extremes in the past, and what we can learn from these responses today. One aspect of my doctoral research compares periods of violence against temperature and precipitation during the early Viking Age, c. 790-920. While the Norse are rarely mentioned in the years leading up to their first raids, it is important to investigate if and/or how the climate varied in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe prior to the earliest Viking attacks. Could the climate have played a role in kickstarting the Viking Age?

Scientists warn that more extreme weather may result in famine, and worsening climate conditions have been shown to influence production levels. In Kenya, the majority of famines are triggered by drought. Successive dry years have resulted in crop loss, reduced harvests, emaciated livestock, and human hunger and death. Even when the local population is able to produce, store, and access enough in non-drought periods, they are unable to build up a large enough buffer to cushion crop and income against the next period of drought and famine.

But, the success or failure of the crop yields relies on both exogenous and endogenous factors: external (exogenous) conditions, such as extreme weather and climate changes, cannot be considered independent of socioeconomic, internal (endogenous) conditions. Food shortages stem from a complex network of political, social, economic, and biophysical factors. For example, in 2017 the famine on the Horn of Africa was exacerbated by armed conflicts, which made distributing imported food goods throughout the population nearly impossible.

Could drought have been a catalyst for the first Viking raids?

The first Viking raid is usually attributed to the 793 attack on Lindisfarne. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a near-contemporary chronicle for the early English kingdoms, reads: “…Shortly after, in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter.”

This, of course, is not the whole entry, but the rest has often gone unremarked: “This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine. Shortly after, in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter.”

793 sounds like an extremely difficult year for the Northumbrians, no less so because of the Viking raid, but the famine needs further examination.

I wondered if any of the other Western European contemporary sources recorded this famine as well. The Frankish chronicles do record a famine at this time, though it appears to have begun several years prior. In 791, the Annales Mosellani state that a famine began in Francia. The source mentions it again in 792, and by 793 it was described as a “great famine.” [1] This famine was so severe that Adrian Verhulst suggests that it led to both the Council of Frankfurt fixing grain and bread prices in May 794, as well as to the Frankish monetary reform of  793-94, which saw the denier being linked specifically to the price of bread.[2]

But the famine may have spurred public works beyond bread-price and monetary reform. In 793, Charlemagne oversaw his fossatum magnum, a canal that linked the Rhine and the Danube rivers. Janet Nelson has argued that the canal was the product of a “series of acute harvest shocks,’ which necessitated the need to ship grain and other food-stuff from famine-free zones to famine-affected areas quickly and efficiently.[3] Such construction could be indicative of a number of famines and food-shortages, as Charlemange’s fossatum magnum was a serious governmental work.

Comparing the written sources against natural archives

Historians now have easy access to sources within the paleoclimatic sciences. Freely available online is the Old World Drought Atlas (OWDA), which uses dendrochronology to recreate hydroclimatic variability for a year-by-year assessment for much of Europe.

I first checked Western Europe and Britain for evidence of drought from 791-794, and these areas do indeed reveal a distinct lack of precipitation during the summer months of this period. This proxy data matches the contemporary chronicles, and it would appear that the Norse conducted their first raid during a time of widespread drought.

But correlation is not causation, and while there appears to have been drought in Scandinavia as well, we do not have contemporary records from the Norse to confirm that they set out due to a disruption in food supplies, or if they had even suffered from famine at all. The Norse may have had sufficient mitigation measures in place to keep food supplies stable.

What would the climate have looked like for the generation leading up to the Viking raids?

For this reason, I decided to push the study of precipitation levels back to 770, which would allow for a 25-year study of the climate of Northern and Western Europe from 770-795. In this way, I sought to confirm if precipitation levels were stable in the years leading up this drought; in particular, I was curious whether Scandinavia suffered under climate pressures that could have led to a break-down in mitigation measures.

The OWDA reveals that precipitation levels were well below average for this period. Within Scandinavia, there are only three years that rise at- or above-average precipitation levels: 771 and 780-781.

Europe and Britain also appear to suffer from below-average precipitation levels during this entire twenty-five-year period. There are periods in which precipitation levels rise above normal, but these twenty-five are marked by less-than-average rainfall during the summer months. Drought is mentioned the Royal Frankish Annals in 772, and famine is recorded in 779 in the Annales Mosellani.

Given the long periods of drought, and several noted famines, is it possible that this particularly dry period was a factor in the beginning of the Viking Age?

More research ahead 

Undoubtedly, the reasons behind these first Viking raids are varied and numerous. Yet, previous research has previously overlooked or dismissed climatic factors, perhaps in fear of falling into the trap of environmental determinism. Even within climate and environmental history, there is more to study, including temperature, a known Solar Particle Storm in 774-775, and agricultural practices of the time.

My research proposes that a generation of drought led to instability in the food supplies of Western and Northern Europe, which no doubt impacted, and were impacted by, other geopolitical factors. Ultimately, the famine of 791-794 should be considered as one of many catalysts for the earliest Viking raids.

Tenaya Jorgensen is a PhD Candidate at the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities at Trinity College Dublin, as well as a junior archaeological consultant for Rubicon Heritage Services Ltd. You can follow her on Twitter @tenayajorgensen, or her PhD project @VikingAgeMaps.

[1] Annales Mosellani (703-797), ed. J.M. Lappenberg, SS 16 (1859),  494-499.

[2] Adrian Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 118.

[3] Janet Nelson, “Charlemagne’s fossatm magnum: Another Look,” in Academica Libertas: Essais en l’honneur du professeur Javier Arce – Ensayos en honor del profesor Javer Arce, eda. D. Moreau and R. Gonzalez Salinero (Turnhout, 2020).

Cover Image. The 9th century Viking Domesday stone at Lindisfarne, now displayed in the site museum (2007). Photo by Wendy North, 19 April 2007, (https://www.flickr.com/photos/primarygeography/4223117304/in/photostream/). Available in the public domain.

Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4. The Old World Drought (OWDA) for 791-794 in Ireland, Britain, and Western and Northern Europe. Images created by post author using OWDA tool, September 2021. http://drought.memphis.edu/OWDA/HelpMap.aspx.

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Dr Karie Schultz

In recent years, the value of universities––and especially of a humanities education–– has been hotly contested. Discourse has focused on how the humanities might equip students to think critically about the contemporary problems with which they are faced. Turning our focus toward the history of universities, it is evident that these institutions have always served this purpose. Early modern universities were wealthy, powerful institutions with vast political and cultural significance.[1] My research has focused on how university education informed seventeenth-century students’ ideas about multiple religious and political conflicts in Europe. In this post, I want to suggest how examining the studies and experiences of students helps us to better understand early modern political and religious changes on a transnational scale.

The Cultural Significance of Early Modern Universities

In the seventeenth century, students entered universities at a young age, usually around 13 or 14 years old (which is inconceivable to us today!). They undertook courses in a range of subjects, including but not limited to ethics, logic, rhetoric, and metaphysics.[2] When they graduated, many became ministers, lawyers, university regents, or statesmen. In these positions, they were able to affect policy developments on a broad social basis. This was especially the case in Britain and Ireland (the main geographic focus of my research) where people witnessed unceasing conflicts, such as the civil wars of the 1640s, the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and the Acts of Union in 1707. University-educated individuals responded to these problems by transmitting the ideas that they learned about political life and theology in the universities to the wider population through sermons, books, political pamphlets, and ordinary conversations. Those in positions of political prominence also used the universities to enforce conformity. For example, the Scottish Covenanters purged the universities of those who opposed their agenda throughout the 1640s while ensuring that the curriculum trained students to support their cause.[3] Although those in political power sought to control university education, these institutions offered students multiple opportunities to challenge or strengthen their religious and political allegiances.

Figure 1. The Constitution of the Scots College (1615) provides details about the studies and instruction of students.

Student Migration and Identity Formation

Even though the universities had cultural significance at home, early modern students were also highly mobile. Students undertook part––if not all––of their university education at universities outside their native country. This was possible because Latin was the universal language. Students attended lectures and took notes in Latin, while the lengthy treatises they read on theology, politics, and other pertinent subjects were also in Latin. As a result, universities throughout Europe provided students with an education which transcended geographical borders. However, early modern universities were also confessional. This meant that the education offered adhered to the confessional affiliation of the institution. Universities in England and Scotland, for example, required students to subscribe a Protestant Confession of Faith to attend. This requirement forced Catholic students to travel overseas for their education. Catholic national colleges consequently emerged throughout continental Europe (primarily in France, Italy, Spain, and the Low Countries). At these colleges, Catholic students from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland could train to become priests or missionaries, or they could enter alternative careers upon graduating.[1]

During my recent nine-month postdoctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome, I studied the Pontifical Scots College and the Venerable English College in Rome to understand the studies and experiences of students at both institutions. English and Scottish students who studied in Rome often faced tensions between their national and confessional identities. On the one hand, students sought to preserve their national distinctiveness in the eyes of the Catholic Church hierarchy, especially following the dynastic Union of Crowns in 1603 and subsequent attempts to consolidate the English and Scots Colleges into one institution. On the other hand, they also trained alongside students of multiple nationalities to spread Catholicism globally through mission work. The need to contribute to a confessional goal which transcended geographical borders whilst maintaining their national distinctiveness resulted in many institutional conflicts with, and challenges to, the Catholic Church hierarchy throughout the seventeenth century.

Figure 2. A list of student grievances from the Scots College Rome (c.1720) reveals the importance they placed on having a Scottish
Rector to ease national tensions.

However, transnational mobility was not unique to Catholic students. Reformed students from the British Isles also attended universities in the Low Countries and the German-speaking lands, such as the University of Heidelberg and the University of Leiden. Students who migrated to Reformed universities also established confessional communities through local churches which, like those of Catholic students, transcended national borders. The experiences of students in the early modern period therefore raise multiple questions about the relationship between international mobility, education, and identity formation that are worth further exploration.

Since the beginning of September 2021, I have been pursuing such research questions further during my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of St Andrews. For the next three years, I will study the transnational and cross-confessional mobility of seventeenth-century students from Britain and Ireland to continental Europe. One of my aims is to challenge the emphasis on the printed text as the primary evidence of intellectual culture. Using lecture notes, philosophical theses, dictates, and correspondence scattered throughout archives in Europe, I hope to show how political and religious ideas were transmitted on a broader social basis outside of printed treatises. Furthermore, by examining the studies and experiences of Catholic and Reformed students together, it is possible to interrogate fundamental assumptions about the rigidity of confessional and national identities through the lens of university education. Students are therefore a crucial but often overlooked category of migrants who offer us new perspectives on how education informed international political and religious developments during the early modern period. 

Dr Karie Schultz is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History at the University of St Andrews, UK. Prior to this she held a postdoctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome. Her PhD thesis entitled “Political Thought and Protestant Intellectual Culture in the Scottish Revolution, 1637-51” was completed at Queen’s University Belfast (2020). 

All figures are the author’s own and require permission to be re-used.

[1] Liam Chambers and Thomas O’Connor, eds., College communities abroad: Education, migration and Catholicism in early modern Europe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017); Tom McInally, The Sixth Scottish University: The Scots Colleges Abroad: 1575 to 1799 (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

[1] Mordechai Feingold, ed., History of Universities, 33 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975-2020); Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, ed., A History of the University in Europe, Volume II: Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[2] Christine Shepherd, “Philosophy and Science in the Arts Curriculum of the Scottish Universities in the 17th Century,” PhD diss. (University of Edinburgh, 1974).

[3] Salvatore Cipriano, “The Engagement, the Universities and the Fracturing of the Covenanter Movement, 1647-51,” in The National Covenant in Scotland, 1638-1689, ed. Chris Langley (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2020), 146-60; Salvatore Cipriano, “Seminaries of Identity: The Universities of Scotland and Ireland in the Age of British Revolution,” PhD diss. (Fordham University, 2018); Steven J. Reid, ‘“Ane Uniformitie in Doctrine and good Order’: The Scottish Universities in the Age of the Covenant, 1638–1649,”’ History of Universities 29(2):13-41.

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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.

Men and Feminism: Gender Equality in the Nordic Countries, 1960s to Present


I’m a Finnish historian who lived in the UK for nearly a decade. When I tell my British friends and colleagues where I’m from, they often respond with an air of admiration, complimenting the relatively egalitarian principles upon which Nordic social democracy has been built. 

Certainly, this notion that the Nordic countries are forerunners in equality – particularly gender equality and women’s rights – is not without historical merit. For example, in 1906 Finland was the first country in the world to give women full suffrage, and the right for women to run for political office followed the year after. When the first Finnish parliament was assembled in 1907, 19 of the 200 members elected were women – the first female parliamentarians in the world. Leaping ahead in time, in the 21st century Sweden has become the epitome of state feminism, where most political parties support feminist principles

What gets discussed less often are the ways in which men have factored into Nordic endeavours for gender equality – both supporting and hindering feminist aspirations, depending on context. This blog post is a whirlwind introduction covering a few snapshots from 20th century Nordic history – more precisely Finnish and to a lesser extent Swedish history – when men have allied themselves with women and sought to promote a more equal society.[1]

The Nordic Sex Role Debate

In 1974 Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce parental leave. This gave fathers the right to a maximum of three months paid leave, though this right could be transferred to the mother. In the 1980s this parental leave was split into maternity and paternity leave, with a so-called ‘father quota’ being introduced in 1995. This meant that part of the parental leave was strictly reserved for fathers and could not be used by mothers. A so-called ‘use it or lose it’ policy, it was put in place to encourage fathers to actively take part in domestic care work and family life. While this legislative trajectory is not identical across the Nordic region, the Swedish narrative provides the overall pattern that other Nordic countries have followed.[2]

Figure 1. Photo of a father and son (1957-1961)

These legislative changes can be traced back to the Nordic sex role debates of the 1960s. The initial discussion surrounding sex roles – the roles men and women were expected to conform to within e.g. the workplace and at home – was initiated by Nordic sociologists, who argued that people needed to be viewed as individuals, instead of being categorised into ‘women’ and ‘men’.[3]

In 1961 the Swedish journalist Eva Moberg published her provocatively titled essay ‘Kvinnans villkorliga frigivning’ (‘The Conditional Liberation of Women’). In this essay Moberg argued that all individuals, both men and women, should have one primary role in society – that of a human being. Questions surrounding women and men’s sex roles soon spread from scholarly circles into the mainstream primarily thanks to Nordic media outlets covering the debate vigorously. By the mid-1960s the discussion became championed especially by liberal and left-wing intellectuals – both men and women. By the end of the decade, the sex role debate had traversed national borders and become a staple part of the region’s socio-political discussion. 

Inspired by Swedish media reportage, in 1966 a group of young Finnish men and women established Yhdistys 9 (Association 9), the purpose of which was to encourage the discussion of sex roles. The group able demanded concrete socio-political action, like the introduction of accessible and affordable childcare. Approximately 1/3 of the association’s members were men. 

Yhdistys 9 emphasised that men had the right to have loving and affectionate relationships with their children, as well as the responsibility to take part in domestic labour like cleaning and cooking. On 10th November 1968, which was also Finnish Father’s Day, the association published a proclamation titled ‘Mieskin on ihminen’ (‘A Man Is Also a Human’), which stated:

Men form a privileged group, they say. This claim is easy to prove as a partial truth, since men have created a dangerous world for themselves. The consequences of the masculine sex role can be seen already during boyhood in terrifying accident statistics. Boys are forced to demonstrate bravery and audacity, they are taught to idolise the ability to sustain injuries and to take risks. (…) The expectation is that he can provide for his family even when the opportunities to do so are scant. (…) Men, demand the right to be as close with your children as the mother.[4]

Later that day the proclamation was was discussed on Finnish public television. The newsreader began the programme by declaring:

Men, demand the right to a longer life expectancy. Demand the right to better health. Demand the opportunity to free yourself from the role of a standard of living providing robot. Demand the right to show your emotions even when you’re not at an ice hockey game or drunk. This and much more was contained in the proclamation delivered today, on Father’s Day, by Yhdistys 9.[5]

Though not all Finnish men were supportive of the association’s work, seeing it as overly liberal and reformist, more than half of the Finnish population followed the sex role debates as they played out in the country’s mainstream media.

The Nordic sex role debate ushered in a new model of masculinity, where men were encouraged to be active and caring fathers and husbands. Writing on the Swedish context, Roger Klinth has referred the debate’s political aspects as ‘papa politics’. Researchers Florin and Nilsson have correspondingly coined the term ‘velour daddy’, referring to how in Sweden a new ‘softer’ masculinity was visible even in how men dressed, with androgynous and unisex fashion gaining popularity from the late 1960s onward. 

The Men’s Liberation Movement

The Nordic sex role debate was a regionally distinctive chapter of post-war feminist history, during which both women and men sought to promote gender equality. From the early 1970s onward an explicitly feminist form of activism emerged, known as the women’s liberation movementInspired by women-led initiatives in North America and Europe, this social movement saw women mobilising around themes like abortion rights, bodily autonomy and equal pay. Inspired by feminist activism in other countries, Nordic women formed discussion groups, known as consciousness raising groups, where they could openly discuss their experiences, feelings and emotions. These groups tended to exclude men in favour of being women-only spaces. 

The women’s liberation movement gave birth to the men’s liberation movement, which consisted of men who supported the feminist cause. The Finnish men’s liberation group Adam existed from the mid-1970s into the early 1980s and was comprised solely of men, primarily of the partners or ex-partners of women active in the Finnish feminist movement. The origins of the small advocacy group were described by one of the group’s founding members during an oral history interview as follows: 

In 1974, the feminist movement had begun in Finland. The movement had smart women in it and I of course had fallen in love with one of them, but it didn’t last very long. And then when it began to look like we were going to break up this smart woman said to me ‘by the way, there’s a men’s group where you can learn how to deal with these problems related to our separation’. So I obediently did just that, and it became important to me, very quickly.[6]

The Adam group sought to problematize and break down the traditional roles that Finnish men had been afforded within society and in their interpersonal relationships. Its members did so by striving to discuss their emotions more openly than they were used to during consciousness raising meetings. They also practised showing their emotions physically by hugging and engaging in other forms of platonic bodily male affection.[7]

While fatherhood was only one among many masculine roles that the Adam group sought to explore, it provided a central theme throughout the group’s activities. The group organised summer camps in the Finnish countryside, where fathers could spend quality time with their children.[8]

Figure 2. Photo of a father pulling a child on a sledge (1977)

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

International news regarding sexual harassment (the #MeToo movement in 2017) and women’s physical safety and bodily autonomy (the murder of Sarah Everard in the spring of 2021) has once again sparked wide scale social debate within Finland, with men both adamantly siding and vehemently disagreeing with these global feminist social media campaigns. Most recently sexism and sexual violence within the Finnish punk rock scene came under fire, with the launch of the viral hashtag #punkstoo followed by other similar hashtags like #hippiestoo and #metaltoo. 

Both the sex role debate of the 1960s and the men’s liberation movement of the 1970s-1980s sought to problematize how men were impeded by rigid social and cultural gender roles under patriarchy, while also acknowledging the inherent privilege that being a man oftentimes afforded. Though terminology has changed over the years, there has recently been a renaissance of pro-feminist men’s activism in Finland that can be understood as building on these existing foundations and belonging to the same historical continuum. Established on International Men’s Day in 2018, Miehet Ry (Men’s Association) is a new Finnish feminist group for men, women and non-binary people, which holds intersectionality and anti-racism as its core tenets. 

While the internet is undeniably rife with misogynistic voices staunchly opposing anything even remotely associated with feminism, I have sought to illuminate the ways in which men have supported feminist causes over the past half-decade. While these examples originate from Nordic history, I see them as being universally relevant. I hope that this blog post provides you with a better understanding of history, but also food for thought. What are the tangible steps we can take towards ensuring gender equality in the future?

Dr Hannah Yoken is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History and Ethnology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Prior to this she held a Learning, Teaching and Scholarship position in History at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD thesis (Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow, 2020) focused on transnational feminist activism in the Nordic countries during the 1960s-1990s and was funded by the AHRC in doctoral training partnership with SGSAH, and the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland.

Cover image and Figure 2. Erkki Salmela, ‘Photo of a father pulling a child on a sledge’ (1977). Available in the public domain and recommended by the author.

Figure 1. Teuvo Kanerva, ‘Photo of a father and son (1957-1961). Available in the public domain and recommended by the author.

[1] For a similar overview in the UK see e.g. Lucy Delap’s article ’Men and Feminism’ on the British Library website: https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/articles/male-allies

[2] Linda Haas and Tine Rostgaard, ‘Fathers’ rights to paid parental leave in the Nordic countries: consequences for the gendered division of leave’, Community, Work & Family, 14:2 (2011), pp. 177-195.

[3] Solveig Bergman, ‘Collective Organizing and Claim Making on Child Care in Norden: Blurring the Boundaries between the Inside and the Outside’, Social Politics, vol.11 no.2 (2004), p. 222.

[4] This extract has been translated by Dr Hannah Yoken. The original Finnish-language proclamation appears in the personal essay collection Roolien murtajat: Tasa-arvokeskutelua 1960-luvulta 2000-luvulle (Helsinki: Gaudeamus, 2008), p.35.

[5] Extract translated by Dr Hannah Yoken from the original Finnish-language broadcast, available online at: https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2006/09/08/naisasiajarjesto-yhdistys-9     

[6] Oral history interview with former Adam group member. Interview conducted in Helsinki, Finland on 19th August 2014. 

[7] Pia Ingström, Lentävä feministi ja muita muistoja 70-luvulta (Keuruu: Schlidts Kustannus Oy, 2007), pp. 228-234.; Arja Turunen, ‘Synnytysloma isille?: vanhempainvapaat ja sukupuolten tasa-arvo’, What the Hela?, published on 19thFebruary 2020. 

[8] Ingström, Lentävä feministi.

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Why is the HIstory of Emotions So Important?


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


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


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


‘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


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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