‘this sensorious age’

7 Sep

Apart from a brief jaunt to a conference in Prague (which was lovely, thank you), the weeks since the last post went up have been spent digging away all sorts of exciting stuff for the dissertation. You’ll have to wait until that’s done to hear most of it, but I’ve just come across something mildly scandalous in some manuscript correspondence at the British Library, so I thought I might share it with you. Perfectly innocent misunderstanding or a case of the lady protesting too much? I leave it to Lady Katherine Perceval, writing to her brother, to give you her side of the story…

‘I was the other day thinking of  a paper that Mr Vowell gave me one day when we were talking about Poetry, and he tould me it was a coppy of verses which I think he said he made on some tall mistres that after she had made him belive she had good thoughts of him cast him of and married an other I think you will finde them in my Cabinett and if you doe be pleasd to burne it for I know not what construction an ennimy may make of it that knows not who it was made for I remember Lenard that Spitttfier on day saw it among my papers and she was so sausy as to ask if it were made to me thay that know the contrary as you and I do would scarce ever belive that such caution ware needfull but one can not be to wary of ons creditt in this sensorious age, tis a [whol?] sheet of paper I think in his own hand and the tytle of it if I forgett not is a Farewell to &c:’

If you fancy chasing it up for yourself, you’ll find this letter in the British Library’s Add. MS 46955 B, f. 121r.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have three more months’ dense correspondence to wade through before I flee the archives for the weekend.



A dispiriting find

26 Jul

This image caused a bit of a stir when I put it up on Twitter the other day, so I thought I might make it available here in a wild stab at posterity.

I was working in the Manuscripts Room at Cambridge’s University Library during the week, and I decided to amuse myself with a ruffle through the card catalogue, which documents the Ph.D theses approved by the university from 1921 (when a specially written work became a requirement to gain the degree) up to, give or take, 1970.

Doctoral students sometimes consult older dissertations not just because they’re of interest for our own research, but also in an attempt to get some idea of what a successful Ph.D should look like. In that spirit, it was deeply dispiriting for this Ph.D wannabe to come across the following card among the others.


Yep, that’s Wittgenstein’s Ph.D dissertation. With the snappy title of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (and the handy addition of an introduction by none other than Bertrand Russell – that’ll help with the viva), it had been published in German in 1921 and in English translation in 1922. Already famous by the time it was examined at Cambridge, the Tractatus is one of the most important works of philosophy of the twentieth century.

The dissertation was only examined in 1929 when Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge from Austria and sought a teaching position; Russell persuaded him to put the Tractatus forward and (helpfully) acted as one of his examiners. The other, G.E. Moore, reportedly a sceptic when it came to what he saw as the American fad of the Ph.D qualification (although I can’t find any good reference for this), said in his examiner’s comments that ‘I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree’.

Impressive? Certainly. Inspiring, perhaps. But all in all, hardly the kind of thing a daydreaming Ph.D student wants to come across on a sunny afternoon.

Meeting the Queen

28 Jun

The trilingual Irish primer presented to Elizabeth I.

Something special happened yesterday in Belfast. Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and a former leader of the Provisional IRA, met and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II. I’m not here to go into the significance of the occasion – the Irish Times can help you with that – but I sat up when I saw that McGuinness chose to speak to the Queen in Irish during their meeting, wishing her ‘slán agus beannacht’ – goodbye and god bless you.

This had echoes of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in the summer of last year, where she opened her speech at the ceremonial banquet in Dublin Castle by addressing the attendees as ‘A Uachtaráin agus a chairde’ – President and friends. It was a small thing but one which had a lot of significance for Irish people, myself included.

Hearing Irish used on two historic occasions made me think of one fascinating source for the history of relations between the English monarchy and the Irish people, and between the English and Irish languages. In the library of Farmleigh House in Dublin (where I used to work as a tour guide), there is a document known as Queen Elizabeth I’s Irish Primer. Probably dating from the 1560s, the preface to the primer says it was written at the Queen’s command, and in the light of her desire to spread the Reformation to the Irish people, for most of whom Irish – not English – was a first language.

You can see the Farmleigh primer in glorious technicolour at the excellent Irish Script On Screen website, where it also comes with an academic introduction giving the full background and provenance of the text. The preface addresses Elizabeth I, and argues that it will be crucial for the English to learn Irish if they are to effect real change on the island:

Among the manyfold actions (moste gratious and Vertuous Soveraigne) that beare testymonie to the worlde of your majestyes greate affection, tending to the refformation of Ireland, ther is noe one (in my opinion) that more evydent showithe the same, then the desyer your Highnes hath to understande the language of your people theare. For as speache is the speciall mean whereby all Subjectes learne obedience, and their Prynces, or Governors understande their greves & harmes; so the same beinge delyvered by an Interpretor, cann never carye that grace, or proper intellygence, which the tonge it selfe being understode expressith. This defect founde out by your Majestye, bredd that gratious desyere formorly spoken of. which beinge an acte deservinge the praise of all men, So the same made knowen unto your subjectes, no doubt would greatlye increase their love & obedyence: And for as much as it pleasyde your majestie (which I take aspetiall favor) to comaunde me to delyver your Highnes the Iryshe Caracters with instructions for reading of the language, I thought it not inconvenyent to joyne therto the originall of the nation also; to the ende your majestye knowinge from whence they came, & theire tongue deryved, might the soner attaine to the perfection thereof.

The text itself offered an Irish alphabet, and a basic vocabulary in English, Latin, and Irish. ‘Father, Mother, Brother, God, Mary, Man or Woman’; ‘A man, Woman, Earthe, Tongue, Kinge, Quene’.

The final page – pictured at the top of the post – offers a few phrases that might be used in conversation. ‘How doe you, I am well, I thancke you, Cann you speake Iryshe, Speake Latten, God save the Queene off Englande’.

We don’t know much about how or whether the primer was used, by Elizabeth herself or anyone else. In 1593, she met with Grace O’Malley, the Irish ‘pirate queen’, who came to seek the release of her son and half-brother from their imprisonment by the English governor of Connacht. O’Malley spoke no English, and Elizabeth no Irish. Perhaps, over thirty years or so, any Irish the queen could have got from the primer had gone rusty. They spoke in Latin instead.

Something pleasing – which I’ve just come across – is the fact that during the royal visit last year, the then-President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, presented Elizabeth II with a copy of the 1560s primer. Though her cúpla focail – few words of Irish – were in all likelihood written into the speech months before the visit, it’s a nice thought that a relic of a distant and very different time might have acted as an inspiration. And, as McGuinness’s ‘slán agus beannacht’ shows, after four centuries, Irish has lost none of her political and symbolic power.


For anyone interested in language and Irish history, I’d highly recommend Tony Crowley’s Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004.

‘A sandwich laced with mustard of my own.’

27 Jun

I’m in Oxford at the moment, and tonight – about to be hustled out of Blackwell’s as they closed – I picked up a copy of Jeanette Winterson‘s Oranges are Not The Only Fruit, and I’ve spent the last few hours reading it.

This is part of a longer section (buy the book! read the book!). Jeanette – the narrator – is thinking about history, and the stories we weave out of what we can know of the past.

‘And when I look at a history book and think of the imaginative effort it has taken to squeeze this oozing world between two boards and typeset, I am astonished. Perhaps the event has an unassailable truth. God saw it. God knows. But I am not God. And when someone tells me what they heard or saw, I believe them, and I believe their friend who also saw, but not in the same way, and I can put these accounts together and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own.’

Keith Thomas and the Decline of History: a few observations

23 Jun

It’s nothing new to watch a historian get a lot of mileage out of a source that might seem uninformative at first glance. Done well, it can be beautiful: a triumph of analysis, of interrogation and imagination. It’s easy, though, to go too far – to put words into someone’s mouth, or to distort what they were trying to say. As historians, we’re meant to be good at doing the first, and avoiding the second.

Have a look at this, then. It’s an article from last month’s Independent titled “Young historians ‘are damaging academia’ in their bid for stardom”. This caused a bit of a fuss when it came out: basically, Keith Thomas – eminent historian and author of the famous Religion and the Decline of Magic, among others – was quoted as commenting on this year’s Wolfson Prize entries (he was a judge). He said this:

“There is a tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to, rather than present it in a conventional academic form, immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work. The reality is that only a few of these works succeed commercially.”

Thomas reportedly went on to say that there exists a ‘parasitic’ relationship between high-flying popular historians, who let poor academics slave away in archives, doing the real work of research, before nicking it for their mass-market paperbacks.

Needless to say, a lot of people weren’t thrilled at this. A fair few of my fellow ‘young historians’ took to Twitter and Facebook to vent. Soon, though, a white knight came to our rescue. Or did he? Antony Beevor’s response appeared on the Indy website a few hours later. We hoped – or I did, anyway – to hear a rousing defence of the work being done by young historians, at a time when research funding is as scarce as the pressure to produce scholarly writing is fierce. It would have been nice to see a senior academic recognise that this year’s Ph.Ds are looking at a crowded field with fewer and fewer dependable jobs.

That wasn’t quite what we got. Antony Beevor’s article began by saying ‘Sir Keith Thomas is right’. Thanks. He was right to argue that “Governments have disastrously placed the priority and the criteria for promotion on being published rather than on being a good teacher”, but if you were looking for a vindication of the young academic with an eye on the public, you’d have to look elsewhere: here, the idea that there’s “a dash for fame among freshly-hatched PhDs” goes unchallenged.

Of course, the funny thing is that in all of this rush to get a word in about the awful mess these young historians are making, none of the commentators has yet noted the fact that Keith Thomas actually responded to the original article in Independent Letters page. Here’s part of his letter:

“Mr Milmo informed your readers in a news report that I believe that “the pressure to achieve a public profile is damaging for academia” and “risks undermining the status of academic study”. Again, that was not the implication of what I said. I merely expressed regret that some young academic historians were attempting to adapt their work to a genre for which neither it nor they were well suited, a view endorsed by Antony Beevor on the same page. I greatly welcome attempts in books, television and other media to encourage public interest in history.”

This is outrageous! Oh wait, no it isn’t. It’s a slightly more measured statement of a relatively reasonable point. Not that Tim Stanley recognised this when he riffed on Thomas’ supposed theme in this month’s History TodayDr. Stanley found a lot to agree with. “We all know of whom he [Thomas] speaks: those beautiful historians who graduate from PhD to Penguin to BBC with indecent haste.”

Actually, I don’t. Who are we talking about here? Leaving aside, for a second, the idea of ‘indecent haste’ (when I get my Ph.D I’ll have been training as a historian for nine years; when, precisely, will it be ‘decent’ for me to have the gall to seek a wider audience?), there’s another problem with the whole argument. Apparently “we all know” who Stanley and Thomas are talking about. I’m not sure I could name them, though. Can they?

This is a problem with all the comment on this issue. There is, it would seem, a spectre haunting the historical profession. But that’s all it is: neither Thomas, nor Stanley, nor Richard Evans – who mentions the whole affair in a Guardian article here – deigns to give any examples of the young historians who, in the words of Stanley’s headline, have been drawn in by “the lure of the lamplight”. I genuinely don’t know who these people are. Apparently, “While the university lecturers do all the primary research, the trade press historians lift it as secondary evidence and scoop all the cash”. This is despicable! But would it hurt – actually, wouldn’t it just be good historiographical practice – to give us an idea who’s doing it? I only ask, of course, because if you told me that there were historians with an academic background who were giving us all a bad name, my thoughts might be more likely to turn to the likes of David Starkey or Orlando Figes, rather than the young ‘uns who dared to try abseiling down the ivory tower.

This is the other problem: for Stanley, the people who write trade paperbacks in history are seeking stardom. For Thomas, some are parasites. Beevor baulks at the figure of “the hated ‘tele-don'”, while telling us that “I believe that history books which are not based on a large measure of original research by the author are a waste of time, since they do not push the boundaries of knowledge forward”. Of course – all those schoolbooks and syntheses are a bloody nuisance, aren’t they? Give me The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485 any day.

Or not. Maybe – just maybe – the new crop of historians can see a value for history outside of common room. Maybe these people – a lot of whom are just a few years ahead of doctoral students like me – would rather speak to a wider audience not because they’re out to make a quick buck, but because they want a history that is truly popular. Maybe, like me, they believe that a work of history can only have minimal value if it cannot be explained and made interesting to a wider audience than the ivory tower mafia. And maybe they’ve looked at their elders – the increasingly reactionary rantings of Starkey and Ferguson, say – and thought that it might be time for the whippersnappers to roll up their sleeves and show how they think it should be done.

Before we finish, an aside on the articles by Beevor and Stanley. Is it possible that they may have jumped the gun, been only too keen to take the Indy article at its word? Not to suggest that I’d come top of the class for journalistic practice, but at least I did get in touch with Cahal Milmo (who wrote the first article) on Twitter, to ask if he could provide a transcript – because that’s what we’re meant to do, you see. Historians, faced with a quote, usually look at the context and interrogate the source to make sure they’re not being misled. In this case, Mr. Milmo kindly told me that, as the interview had taken place over the phone, there wasn’t a transcript available. When I asked him if Thomas had used the phrase ‘are damaging academia’, he didn’t reply. I’m certainly not suggesting anything he wrote wasn’t true, but when I read the piece I assumed that the quotes were part of a considered public pronouncement by a concerned judge of the Wolfson Prize; I think it does put a different spin on the whole thing when it turns out the source was a telephone chat. Perhaps Stanley missed Keith Thomas’ correction in the Indy of the 30th of May. Perhaps, though, as a journalist, he could have asked?

These few articles that have come out of the affaire Thomas all concede, in some way, that young historians are having it tough. More doctorates, fewer jobs. Pressure to write which comes at the expense of teaching – something dismissed by Stanley with the  multiply condescending assertion that “the vast majority of students go into academia to write rather than teach: we want to be Mary Beard, not Miss Jean Brodie”. Younger academics (not that the Indy, Telegraph, or the Guardian bothered to ask any) are trying new things in the face of changing times and a changing idea of what the historian should be. We can do better than knocking them down.

Monkfish, anyone? The strange story of the Polish sea-bishop

13 Jun

An odd one, this.

Yesterday, I had a fellow early modernist over for lunch. In between weighty disputations on seventeenth-century ecclesiastical history, we fell to talking about Come Dine With Me (as you do). Mid-conversation, I might have mentioned monkfish, at which point my dining companion perked up, asking “have you heard the story about the sea-bishop?” He went on…

The ‘sea-bishop’ (or ‘bishop-fish’) is a creature described in Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (vol. IV, Zurich, 1558). Gesner reported two monsters being retrieved from the sea – one, the Wassermünch’ (water- or sea-monk) found in Norway ‘in our time’, which looked like a monk (‘ein Meerwunder einem München geleych’); the other, a ‘sea-bishop’ found in Poland in 1531, ‘episcopi habitu’. Gesner, citing Boethius, also mentioned the story of a similar creature found in the Firth of Forth, centuries before.

The Polish legend surrounding the sea-bishop is great, though I can’t find a contemporary source of it (it’s not in the edition of Gesner I’ve looked at). Supposedly, the creature was brought to the king of Poland, who exhibited it to a group of bishops. It made signs which, to the clergymen, looked like begging to be released. Perhaps in a fit of episcopal solidarity, they obliged and returned it to the sea, whereupon it disappeared beneath the waves – though not before making the sign of the cross.

We’re still not sure what these ecclesiastical sea-monsters might have been, though the 19th-century Danish zoologist and general squid expert Japetus Steenstrup was pretty sure that the sea-monk was a giant squid. He compared it to two 16th-century images and found the evidence compelling. What do you think? It seems plausible enough, but I might hold off on eating monkfish for a while, just to be sure.


Thanks for reading. If you have a moment, you should definitely click through to the Historia Animalium – some amazing images and text in Latin with some German glosses.

A twelfth-century solution?

12 Jun

It’s rare enough that we find the modern state taking inspiration from the medieval Catholic church in providing care for its citizens. Some countries – my own included – might have been rather sympathetic to the Vatican’s way of doing things until relatively recently, but even that seems to be changing today.

So I was surprised to wake up this morning and read this story in the Guardian, which reports the UN’s condemnation of the spread of ‘baby boxes’, where newborn children can be left anonymously at hospitals or – in at least one case – at a monastery.

The last I heard of a system like this was the one instituted by Pope Innocent III in Rome in or around the start of the thirteenth century. Innocent III’s pontificate was a transformational one – it saw the papacy exerting increasing control over secular politics and over monks and priests throughout Europe, but it was also a time when the pope began to gain increasing political power in and around Rome, loosing the church from its ties to secular power and exerting its own authority.

Along with architectural innovation and the gradual extension of papal influence through the territories surrounding Rome, one of Innocent’s changes was to endow the hospital of Santo Spirito, where a ‘baby box’ was to be found: it was a turntable in the outer wall of the building, allowing children to be left anonymously. Where the bodies of unwanted children had been found washed up in the Tiber, the hope was now that they could be left in the care of the church, which would name them, educate them, and set them up for life.

But that was then, and this is now. Today’s system – derived from Innocent’s Roman model – is not wholly divorced from its Catholic origins, with one Munich ‘baby box’ organised by a monastery. However, the UN report raises a number of serious concerns about the practice today – and the anonymity involved. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that what’s desperately required is “better state provision of family planning, counselling for women and support for unplanned pregnancies”. Amid all of these complexities, though, it’s strange to see a twelfth-century solution still in use to deal with a twenty-first century problem.


The title of this piece and some of its inspiration are drawn from the famous description of contraception laws in the Republic of Ireland as ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’.