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1. Celebrating Dylan Thomas’s centenary

Today, 27 October sees the centenary of the birth of the poet, Dylan Marlais Thomas. Born on Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, and brought up in the genteel district of Uplands, Thomas’s childhood was suburban and orthodox — his father an aspirational but disappointed English teacher at the local grammar school.

Swansea would remain a place for home comforts. But from the mid-1930s, Thomas began a wandering life that took in London’s Fitzrovia — and in particular its pubs, the Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf — and then (as a dysfunctionally married man) the New Forest, squalid rooms in wartime London, New Quay on Cardigan Bay, Italy, Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, and from 1950 the United States where he gained a popular student following and where he died in Manhattan, aged thirty-nine.

For all his wanderings, few of Thomas’s poems were written outside Wales. Indeed, half of the published poems for which he is known were written, in some form, while he was living at home in Swansea between 1930 and 1934. As Paul Ferris, his Oxford DNB biographer writes, “commonplace scenes and characters from childhood recur in his writing: the park that adjoins Cwmdonkin Drive; the bay and sands that were visible from the windows; a maternal aunt he visited” — the latter giving rise to one of Thomas’s best-known poems, “Fern Hill.” In literary London, and in numerous bar rooms thereafter, Thomas’s “drinking and clowning were indispensable to him, but they were only half the story; ‘I am as domestic as a slipper’ he once observed, with some truth.”

Dylan_Thomas_-_Was_there_a_time
Dylan Thomas, “Was there a time” by Biccie. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to its life of Dylan Thomas, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes entries on his wife Caitlin Thomas (1903-1994) and David Archer (1907-1971), the London publisher who brought out Thomas’s first collection Eighteen Poems — as well as a guide to Thomas’s fellow bohemians who haunted the saloons, cafes, and bookshops of inter-war Fitzrovia.

The Oxford DNB’s life of Dylan Thomas is also available as an episode in the ODNB’s biography podcast.

 

Or download the podcast directly.

Headline image credit: Swansea Panorama by Sloman. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The post Celebrating Dylan Thomas’s centenary appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. The 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth

On 27th October 1914 Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, South Wales. He is widely regarded as one the most significant Welsh writers of the 20th century.Thomas’s popular reputation has continued to grow after his death on 9th November, 1953, despite some critics describing his work as too ‘florid‘. He wrote prolifically throughout his lifetime but is arguably best known for his poetry. His poem The hand that signed the paper is taken from Jon Stallworthy’s edited collection The Oxford Book of War Poetry, and can be found below:

DYLAN THOMAS

1914–1953

The hand that signed the paper

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;

Dylan_Swansea
Statue of Dylan Thomas, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, by Tony in Devon. CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,

Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,

The finger joints are cramped with chalk;

A goose’s quill has put an end to murder

That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,

And famine grew, and locusts came;

Great is the hand that holds dominion over

Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften

The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;

Hands have no tears to flow.

                                                                                            1936

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3. The Oxford DNB at 10: biography and contemporary history

Autumn 2014 marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In a series of blog posts, academics, researchers, and editors looked at aspects of the ODNB’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. In this final post of the series, Alex May—ODNB’s editor for the very recent past— considers the Dictionary as a record of contemporary history.

When it was first published in September 2004, the Oxford DNB included biographies of people who had died (all in the ODNB are deceased) on or before 31 December 2001. In the subsequent ten years we have continued to extend the Dictionary’s coverage into the twenty-first century—with regular updates recording those who have died since 2001. Of the 4300 people whose biographies have been added to the online ODNB in this decade, 2172 died between 1 January 2001 and 31 December 2010 (our current terminus)—i.e., about 220 per year of death. While this may sound a lot, the average number of deaths per year over the same period in the UK was just short of 500,000, indicating a roughly one in 2300 chance of entering the ODNB. This does not yet approach the levels of inclusion for people who died the late nineteenth century, let alone earlier periods: someone dying in England in the first decade of the seventeenth century, for example, had a nearly three-times greater chance of being included in the ODNB than someone who died in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

‘Competition’ for spaces at the modern end of the dictionary is therefore fierce. Some subjects are certainties—prime ministers such as Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan, or Nobel prize-winning scientists such as Francis Crick or Max Perutz. There are perhaps fifty or sixty potential subjects a year about whose inclusion no-one would quibble. But there are as many as 1500 people on our lists each year, and for perhaps five or six hundred of them a very good case could be made.

This is where our advisers come in. Over the last ten years we have relied heavily on the help of some 500 people, experts and leading figures in their fields whether as scholars or practitioners, who have given unstintingly of their time and support. Advisers are enjoined to consider all the aspects of notability, including achievement, influence, fame, and notoriety. Of course, their assessments can often vary, particularly in the creative fields, but even in those it is remarkable how often they coincide.

Our advisers have also in most cases been crucial in identifying the right contributor for each new biography, whether he or she be a practitioner from the same field (we often ask politicians to write on politicians—Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan are examples of this—lawyers on lawyers, doctors on doctors, and so on), or a scholar of the particular subject area. Sadly, a number of our advisers and contributors have themselves entered the dictionary in this decade, among them the judge Tom Bingham, the politician Roy Jenkins, the journalist Tony Howard, and the historian Roy Porter.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at the Lucerne Festival. CC-BY-2.5-CH via Wikimedia Commons.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at the Lucerne Festival, by Max Albert Wyss. CC-BY-2.5-Switzerland via Wikimedia Commons.

Just as the selection of subjects is made with an eye to an imaginary reader fifty or a hundred years’ hence (will that reader need or want to find out more about that person?), so the entries themselves are written with such a reader in view. ODNB biographies are not always the last word on a subject, but they are rarely the first. Most of the ‘recently deceased’ added to the Dictionary have received one or more newspaper obituary. ODNB biographies differ from newspaper obituaries in providing more, and more reliable, biographical information, as well as being written after a period of three to four years’ reflection between death and publication of the entry—allowing information to emerge and reputations to settle. In addition, ODNB lives attempt to provide an understanding of context, and a considered assessment (implicit or explicit) of someone’s significance: in short, they aim to narrate and evaluate a person’s life in the context of the history of modern Britain and the broad sweep of a work of historical reference.

The result, over the last ten years, has been an extraordinary collection of biographies offering insights into all corners of twentieth and early twenty-first century British life, from multiple angles. The subjects themselves have ranged from the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to the godfather of punk, Malcolm McLaren; the high tory Norman St John Stevas to the IRA leader Sean MacStiofáin; the campaigner Ludovic Kennedy to the jester Jeremy Beadle; and the turkey farmer Bernard Matthews to Julia Clements, founder of the National Association of Flower Arranging Societies. By birth date they run from the founder of the Royal Ballet, Dame Ninette de Valois (born in 1898, who died in 2001), to the ‘celebrity’ Jade Goody (born in 1981, who died in 2009). Mention of the latter reminds us of Leslie Stephen’s determination to represent the whole of human life in the pages of his original, Victorian DNB. Poignantly, in light of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, among the oldest subjects included in the dictionary are three of the ‘last veterans’, Harry Patch, Henry Allingham, and Bill Stone, who, as the entry on them makes clear, reacted very differently to the notion of commemoration and their own late fame.

The work of selecting from thousands of possible subjects, coupled with the writing and evaluation of the chosen biographies, builds up a contemporary picture of modern Britain as we record those who’ve shaped the very recent past. As we begin the ODNB’s second decade this work continues: in January 2015 we’ll publish biographies of 230 people who died in 2011 and we’re currently editing and planning those covering the years 2012 and 2013, including what will be a major article on the life, work, and legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

Links between biography and contemporary history are further evident online—creating opportunities to search across the ODNB by profession or education, and so reveal personal networks, associations, and encounters that have shaped modern national life. Online it’s also possible to make connections between people active in or shaped by national events. Searching for Dunkirk, or Suez, or the industrial disputes of the 1970s brings up interesting results. Searching for the ‘Festival of Britain’ identifies the biographies of 35 men and women who died between 2001-2010: not just the architects who worked on the structures or the sculptors and artists whose work was showcased, but journalists, film-makers, the crystallographer Helen Megaw (whose diagrams of crystal structures adorned tea sets used during the Festival), and the footballer Bobby Robson, who worked on the site as a trainee electrician. Separately, these new entries shed light not only on the individuals concerned but on the times in which they lived. Collectively, they amount to a substantial and varied slice of modern British national life.

Headline image credit: Harry Patch, 2007, by Jim Ross. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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4. The Oxford DNB at 10: what we know now

Autumn 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In a series of blog posts, academics, researchers, and editors look at aspects of the ODNB’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. Here the ODNB’s publication editor, Philip Carter, considers how an ever-evolving Dictionary is being transformed by new opportunities in digital research.

When it was first published in September 2004, the Oxford DNB brought together the work of more than 10,000 humanities scholars charting the lives of nearly 55,000 historical individuals. Collectively it captured a generation’s understanding and perception of the British past and Britons’ reach worldwide. But if the Dictionary was a record of scholarship within a particular timeframe, it was also seen from the outset as a work in progress. This is most evident in the decision to include in the ODNB every person who had appeared in the original, Victorian DNB. Doing so defined the 2004 Dictionary (to quote the entry on Colin Matthew, its founding editor) as ‘a collective account of the attitudes of two centuries: the nineteenth as well as the twentieth, the one developing organically from the other.’

In the decade since 2004 this notion of the ODNB as an organic ‘work in progress’ has gone a step further. This is seen, in part, in the continued extension of biographical coverage, both of the ‘recently deceased’ and of newly documented lives from earlier periods—as discussed in other articles in this 10th anniversary series. But in addition to new content there’s also been the evolution—in the form of corrections, revisions, amplifications, and re-appraisals—of a sizeable share of the ODNB’s 55,000 existing biographies, as new scholarship comes to light.

The need to ‘keep-up’ with fresh research is not new. In 1908 the Victorian DNB was reprinted in an edition that collated the marginalia and correspondence born of several decades of reading. Thereafter, no further reprints were undertaken and later findings remained on file: information relating to the birthplace of the Quaker reformer Elizabeth Fry, for example—submitted by postcard in 1918—could not be address until the 2004 edition of the Dictionary. Such things are today unimaginable. Over the past ten years, and alongside the programme of new biographies, existing ODNB entries have been regularly updated online—with proposed amendments reviewed by the Dictionary’s academic editors in consultation with authors and reviewers. It’s worth remembering that today’s expectation of regular online updating is one that’s emerged in the lifetime of the published ODNB. Just 10 years ago, many saw online reference as a means of delivery not a new entity in its own right. The expectation that scholarly online reference could and should keep in step with new research and publications (and could be done while maintaining academic standards) is one pioneered, in part, by works like the ODNB.

One consequence is that Dictionary editors now focus on conservation (just as museum or gallery curators care for items in their collection) as well as on commissioning. In doing so we draw heavily on an ever-growing range of digitized records that have become available in the lifetime of the published Dictionary. This has been a truly remarkable development in humanities research in the past 5 to 10 years. For British history we’ve seen the digitization of (to name a few): the census returns for England and Wales (to 1911); indexes of civil registration in England and Wales (births, marriages, and deaths from 1838); Scottish parish registers from about 1500; early modern wills and probates; and 300 years’ worth of national and provincial newspapers. And this just scratches the surface.

Portrait of Lady Meux by James Abbot McNeill Whistler, 1881. Frick Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Lady Meux by James Abbot McNeill Whistler, 1881. Frick Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2004 there were many people in the ODNB for whom the biographical trail ran cold. Access to paper records alone once meant that certain individuals simply disappeared from the historical record. Of course, some lives remain puzzles. But with these newly digitized sources we’re now able to address many of the previously unknown and untraceable episodes that were scattered across the 2004 edition. A decade on we’ve added details of nearly 3000 previously unknown births, marriages, and deaths for ODNB subjects. Access to newly digitized sources also prompts more wide-ranging revisions. Take, for example, the traveller Eliza Fay (1755/6-1816), known for her Original Letters from India, whose Dictionary entry has recently doubled in length owing to new genealogical research that minutely plots a troubled personal life that led Fay to travel to India and the business ventures she maintained there.

The case of Eliza Fay reminds us that this boom in digitized resources is particularly valuable for better understanding the lives of nineteenth and twentieth-century women. As a result of multiple marriages and/or multiple name changes many such biographies are prone to obscurity. There are also many occasions when women gave false information about their age, often for professional reasons. With digital resources, and a little detective work, it’s now possible to recover these stories. One example is Valerie, Lady Meux (1852-1910), who married into one of Britain’s wealthiest brewing families. To her contemporaries, and to generations of researchers, Lady Meux appeared the epitome of high society. But recent research uncovers a very different story: that of Susie Langton, the daughter of a Devon baker who—via multiple changes of birthdate and name—worked her way into the London elite. To Susie Langton (or Lady Meux), the discovery of her true past may not have been welcome, but for modern historians it becomes a key part of her story, and a fascinating case study of late-Victorian social mobility.

A good deal of this detective work is being done from the ODNB office. But much more comes in from thousands of researchers worldwide who are also making use of digitized resources. It’s our good fortune that the ODNB online is growing up with the Who Do You Think You Are? generation—a band of genealogists from whom we’ve benefited greatly thanks to their willingness to share new information. Such discoveries obviously enhance our understanding of the ODNB’s 60,000 main subjects, but they’re similarly adding much to the Dictionary’s 300,000 ‘other’ people: the parents, children, spouses, in-laws, patrons, teachers, business partners, and lovers who also populate these biographies. Looking ahead to our second decade, we anticipate that more will be made of these hundreds of thousands of ‘extras’ in creating a richer picture of the British past—as the ODNB continues to document and add to what we know.

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5. “There is no escape.” Horace Walpole and the terrifying rise of the Gothic

This year is the 250th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, first published on Christmas Eve 1764 as a seasonal ghost story. The Castle of Otranto is often dubbed the “first Gothic novel” due to Walpole describing it as a “Gothic story,” but for him the Gothic meant very different things from what it might do today. While the Gothic was certainly associated with the supernatural, it was predominantly a theory of English progress rooted in Anglo-Saxon and medieval history — effectively the cultural wing of parliamentarian politics and Protestant theology. The genre of the “Gothic novel,” with all its dire associations of uncanny horror, would not come into being for at least another century. Instead, the writing that followed in the wake of Otranto was known as the German School, the ‘Terrorist System of Writing’, or even hobgobliana.

Reading Otranto today, however, it is almost impossible to forget what 250 years of Gothickry have bequeathed to our culture in literature, architecture, film, music, and fashion: everything from the great Gothic Revival design of the Palace of Westminster to none-more-black clothes for sale on Camden Town High Street and the eerie music of Nick Cave, Jordan Reyne, and Fields of the Nephilim.

And the cinema has been instrumental in spreading this unholy word. Despite being rooted in the history of the barbarian tribes who sacked Rome and the thousand-year epoch of the Dark Ages, the Gothic was also a state-of-the-art movement. Technology drove the Gothic dream, enabling, for instance, the towering spires and colossal naves of medieval cathedrals, or enlisting in nineteenth-century art and literature the latest scientific developments in anatomy and galvanism (Frankenstein), the circulation of the blood and infection (The Vampyre), or drug use and psychology (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

The moving image on the cinema screen therefore had an immediate and compelling appeal. The very experience of cinema was phantasmagoric — kaleidoscopic images projected in a darkened room, accompanied by often wild, expressionist music. The hallucinatory visions of Henry Fuseli and Gustave Doré arose and, like revenants, came to life.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart.
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart.

Camera tricks, special effects, fantastical scenery, and monstrous figures combined in a new visual style, most notably in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922). Murnau’s Nosferatu, the first vampire film, fed parasitically on Bram Stoker’s Dracula; it was rumored that Max Schreck, who played the nightmarish Count Orlok, was indeed a vampire himself. The horror film had arrived.

Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1920 Lobby Card
Cabinet of Dr Caligari Lobby Card (1920). Goldwyn Distributing Company. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mid-century Hollywood movie stars such as Bela Lugosi, who first played Dracula in 1931, and Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s monster in the same year, made these roles iconic. Lugosi played Dracula as a baleful East European, deliberately melodramatic; Karloff was menacing in a different way: mute, brutal, and alien. Both embodied the threat of the “other”: communist Russia, as conjured up by the cinema. Frankenstein’s monster is animated by the new cinematic energy of electricity and light, while in Dracula the Count’s life and death are endlessly replayed on the screen in an immortal and diabolical loop.

It was in Britain, however, that horror films really took the cinema-going public by the throat. Britain was made for the Gothic cinema: British film-makers such as Hammer House of Horror could draw on the nation’s rich literary heritage, its crumbling ecclesiastical remains and ruins, the dark and stormy weather, and its own homegrown movie stars such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee in particular radiated a feral sexuality, enabling Hammer Horror to mix a heady cocktail of sex and violence on the screen. It was irresistible.

The slasher movies that have dominated international cinema since Hammer through franchises such as Hellraiser and Saw are more sensationalist melodrama than Gothic, but Gothic film does thrive and continues to create profound unease in audiences: The Exorcist, the Alien films, Blade Runner, The Blair Witch Project, and more overtly literary pictures such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula are all contemporary classics — as is Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV.

And despite the hi-tech nature of film-making, the profound shift in the meaning of Gothic, and the gulf of 250 years, the pulse of The Castle of Otranto still beats in these films. The action of Otranto takes place predominantly in the dark in a suffocatingly claustrophobic castle and in secret underground passages. Inexplicable events plague the plot, and the dead — embodying the inescapable crimes of the past — haunt the characters like avenging revenants. Otranto is a novel of passion and terror, of human identity at the edge of sanity. In that sense, Horace Walpole did indeed set down the template of the Gothic. The Gothic may have mutated since 1764, it may now go under many different guises, but it is still with us today. And there is no escape.

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6. A welcome from David Cannadine, the new editor of the Oxford DNB

September 2014 marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Over the next month a series of blog posts explore aspects of the Dictionary’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. In this post, Sir David Cannadine describes his role as the new editor of the Oxford DNB.

Here at Princeton, the new academic year is very much upon us, and I shall soon begin teaching a junior seminar on ‘Winston Churchill, Anglo-America, and the “Special Relationship”’, which is always enormously enjoyable, not least because one of the essential books on the undergraduate reading list is Paul Addison’s marvellous brief biography, published by OUP, which he developed from the outstanding entry on Churchill that he wrote for the Oxford DNB. I’ve been away from the university for a year, on leave as a visiting professor at New York University, so there is a great deal of catching up to do. This month I also assume the editorial chair at the ODNB, as its fourth editor, in succession to the late-lamented Colin Matthew, to Brian Harrison, and to Lawrence Goldman.

As such, I shall be the first ODNB editor who is not resident in Britain, let alone living and working in Oxford, but this says more about our globalized and inter-connected world than it does about me. When I was contacted, several months ago, by a New York representative of OUP, asking me whether I might consider being the next editor, I gave my permanent residence in America as a compelling reason for not taking the job on. But he insisted that, far from being a disadvantage, this was in fact something of a recommendation. In following in the footsteps of my three predecessors (all, as it happens, personal friends) I am eager to do all I can to ensure that my occupancy of the editorial chair will not prove him (and OUP) to have been mistaken.

As must be true of any historian of Britain, the Oxford DNB and its predecessor have always been an essential part of my working life; and I can vividly recall the precise moment at which that relationship (rather inauspiciously) began. As a Cambridge undergraduate, I once mentioned to one of my supervisors that I greatly admired the zest, brio, and elan of J.H. Plumb’s brief life of the earl of Chatham, which I had been given a few years before as a school prize. ‘Oh’, he sniffily replied, ‘there’s no original research there; Plumb got it all from the DNB.’ Of course, I had heard of something called DNA; but what, I wondered, was this (presumably non-molecular) sequel called the DNB? Since I was clearly expected to know, I didn’t dare ask; but I soon found out, and so began a lifelong friendship.

Professor Sir David Cannadine, image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.
Professor Sir David Cannadine, image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.

During my remaining undergraduate days, as I worked away in the reading room of the Cambridge University Library, the DNB became a constant source of solace and relief: for when the weekly reading list seemed overwhelming, or the essay-writing was not going well, I furtively sought distraction by pulling a random volume of the DNB off the reference shelves. As a result, I cultivated what Leslie Stephen (founding editor of the Dictionary’s Victorian edition) called ‘the great art of skipping’ from one entry to another, and this remains one of the abiding pleasures provided by the DNB’s hard-copy successor. Once I started exploring the history of the modern British aristocracy, the DNB also became an invaluable research tool, bringing to life many a peer whose entry in Burke or Debrett was confined to the barest biographical outline.

Thus approached and appreciated, it was very easy to take the DNB for granted, and it was only when I wrote a lengthy essay on the volume covering the years 1961 to 1970, for the London Review of Books in 1981, that I first realized what an extraordinary enterprise it was and, indeed, had always been since the days when Leslie Stephen first founded it almost one hundred years before. I also came to appreciate how it had developed and evolved across the intervening decades, and I gained some understanding of its strengths—and of its weaknesses, too. So I was not altogether surprised when OUP bravely decided to redo the whole Dictionary, and the DNB was triumphantly reborn as the ODNB—first published almost exactly 10 years ago—to which I contributed the biographies on George Macaulay Trevelyan and Noel Annan.

Since 2004 the Oxford DNB has continued to expand its biographical coverage with three annual online updates, the most recent of which appeared last week. In September 2013 I wrote a collective entry on the Calthorpe family for an update exploring the history of Birmingham and the Black Country, and I am eager to remain an intermittent but enthusiastic contributor now that I am editor. As we rightly mark and celebrate the tenth anniversary of the publication of the ODNB, and its successful continuation across the intervening decade, it is clear that I take over an enterprise in good spirits and an organization (as the Americans would say) in good shape. Within the United Kingdom and, indeed, around the world, the ODNB boasts an unrivalled global audience and an outstanding array of global contributors; and I greatly look forward to keeping in touch, and to getting to know many of you better, in the months and years to come.

Headline image credit: ODNB, online. Image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.

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7. The Oxford DNB at 10: new perspectives on medieval biography

September 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Over the next month a series of blog posts explore aspects of the Dictionary’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. In this post, Henry Summerson considers how new research in medieval biography is reflected in ODNB updates.

Today’s publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s September 2014 update—marking the Dictionary’s tenth anniversary—contains a chronological bombshell. The ODNB covers the history of Britons worldwide ‘from the earliest times’, a phrase which until now has meant since the fourth century BC, as represented by Pytheas, the Marseilles merchant whose account of the British Isles is the earliest known to survive. But a new ‘biography’ of the Red Lady of Paviland—whose incomplete skeleton was discovered in 1823 in Wales, and which today resides in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History—takes us back to distant prehistory. As the earliest known site of ceremonial human burial in western Europe, Paviland expands the Dictionary’s range by over 32,000 years.

The Red Lady’s is not the only ODNB biography pieced together from unidentified human remains (Lindow Man and the Sutton Hoo burial are others), while the new update also adds the fifteenth-century ‘Worcester Pilgrim’ whose skeleton and clothing are on display at the city’s cathedral. However, the Red Lady is the only one of these ‘historical bodies’ whose subject has changed sex—the bones having been found to be those of a pre-historical man, and not (as was thought when they were discovered), of a Roman woman.

The process of re-examination and re-interpretation which led to this discovery can serve as a paradigm for the development of the DNB, from its first edition (1885-1900) to its second (2004), and its ongoing programme of online updates. In the case of the Red Lady the moving force was in its broadest sense scientific. In this ‘he’ is not unique in the Dictionary. The bones of the East Frankish queen Eadgyth (d.946), discovered in 2008 provide another example of human remains giving rise to a recent biography. But changes in analysis have more often originated in more conventional forms of historical scholarship. Since 2004 these processes have extended the ODNB’s pre-1600 coverage by 300 men and women, so bringing the Dictionary’s complement for this period to more than 7000 individuals.

In part, these new biographies are an evolution of the Dictionary as it stood in 2004 as we broaden areas of coverage in the light of current scholarship. One example is the 100 new biographies of medieval bishops that, added to the ODNB’s existing selection, now provide a comprehensive survey of every member of the English episcopacy from the Conquest to the Reformation—a project further encouraged by the publication of new sources by the Canterbury and York Society and the Early English Episcopal Acta series.

Taken together these new biographies offer opportunities to explore the medieval church, with reference to incumbents’ background and education, the place of patronage networks, or the shifting influence of royal and papal authority. That William Alnwick (d.1449), ‘a peasant born of a low family’, could become bishop of Norwich and Lincoln is, for example, indicative of the growing complexity of later medieval episcopal administration and its need for talented men. A second ODNB project (still in progress) focuses on late-medieval monasticism. Again, some notable people have come to light, including the redoubtable Elizabeth Cressener, prioress of Dartford, who opposed even Thomas Cromwell with success.

Magna Carta, courtesy of the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Magna Carta, courtesy of the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Away from religious life, recent projects to augment the Dictionary’s medieval and early modern coverage have focused on new histories of philanthropy—with men like Thomas Alleyne, a Staffordshire clergyman whose name is preserved by three schools—and of royal courts and courtly life. Hence first-time biographies of Sir George Blage, whom Henry VIII used to address as ‘my pig’, and at a lower social level, John Skut, the tailor who made clothes for most of the king’s wives: ‘while Henry’s queens came and went, John Skut remained.’

Alongside these are many included for remarkable or interesting lives which illuminate the past in sometimes unexpected ways. At the lowest social level, such lives may have been very ordinary, but precisely because they were commonplace they were seldom recorded. Where a full biography is possible, figures of this kind are of considerable interest to historians. One such is Agnes Cowper, a Southwark ‘servant and vagrant’ in the years around 1600; attempts to discover who was responsible for her maintenance shed a fascinating light on a humble and precarious life, and an experience shared by thousands of late-Tudor Londoners. Such light falls only rarely, but the survival of sources, and the readiness of scholars to investigate them, have also led to recent biographies of the Roman officers and their wives at Vindolanda, based on the famous ‘tablets’ found at Chesterholm in Northumberland; the early fourteenth-century anchorite Christina Carpenter, who provoked outrage by leaving her cell (but later returned to it), and whose story has inspired a film, a play and a novel; and trumpeter John Blanke, whose fanfares enlivened the early Tudor court and whose portrait image is the only identifiable likeness of a black person in sixteenth-century British art.

While people like Blanke are included for their distinctiveness, most ODNB subjects can be related to the wider world of their contemporaries. A significant component of the Dictionary since 2004 has been an interest in recreating medieval and early modern networks and associations; they include the sixth-century bringers of Christianity to England, the companions of William I, and the enforcers of Magna Carta. Each establishes connections between historical figures, sets the latter in context, and charts how appreciations of these networks and their participants have developed over time—from the works of early chroniclers to contemporary historians. Indeed, in several instances, notably the Round Table knights or the ‘Merrie Men’, it is this (often imaginative) interpretation and recreation of Britain’s medieval past that is to the fore.

The importance of medieval afterlives returns us to the Red Lady of Paviland. His biography presents what can be known, or plausibly surmised, about its subject, alongside the ways in which his bodily remains (and the resulting life) have been interpreted by successive generations—each perceptibly influenced by the cultural as well as scholarly outlook of the day. Next year sees the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta, a centenary which can be confidently expected to bring further medieval subjects into Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It is unlikely that the historians responsible will be unaffected by considerations of the long-term significance of the Charter. Nor, indeed, should they be—it is the interaction of past and present which does most to bring historical biography to life.

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8. Eight myths about Fair Rosamund

Most of what we hear and read about twelfth-century hottie Rosamund Clifford, aka “Fair Rosamund,” just wasn’t so. True, she was Henry II’s mistress. But that’s about it. Like so many other medieval myths, Rosamund’s legendary life and death are a later invention. Herewith, the best of (untrue) Rosamund:

Myth 1:   She went to school at, lived at, had assignations with the king at, retired to, died at, or in any way hung out at Godstow Abbey.

Sadly, Rosamund never entered Godstow until she was a fair corpse. She died around the year 1176, in the midst of her affair with the king, and was buried at Godstow, probably because her mother was already buried there. Contrary to what you will read in various places, there is no evidence that the king paid for her tomb. Her tomb was placed in the front of the high altar, and the king did show particular favor to the monastery because of it. Fifteen years later, Bishop Hugh of Lincoln made the nuns move the tomb out of the church because it was inappropriate for a “whore” to be buried there.

Myth 2:   She and Henry went drinking at the Trout. Or the Perch.

I read this about the pubs near Godstow in a student handbook when I was doing my postgraduate work at Oxford, and I wanted to believe it. So did visiting relatives. Alas, not true. See number 2 above: no hanging out at Godstow. But my visitors and I did enjoy some pleasant pints at both the aforementioned hostelries.

Myth 3:   She lived in a maze at Woodstock.

Of course this is a later embellishment, related to the next two myths. But a fairly elaborate pleasure garden does seem to have been incorporated into the royal residence at Woodstock in this period, adjacent to a room that just a generation later was known as “Rosamund’s Chamber.” So the maze story may have evolved from a real trysting place in a complex garden.

Myth 4:   The queen found her in the maze by means of a silken thread.

See previous myth. But there is, just barely, a silken thread in Rosamund’s true story. After her burial at Godstow, King Henry wanted a special relationship with her burial place, so the nunnery’s patron deeded his patronal rights in Godstow to the king. In the ceremony he used a silk cloth that was later described as “a silken thread.”

Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Myth 5:   She was murdered by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The earliest version of this story, from the fourteenth century, has Eleanor stabbing Rosamund; in Renaissance versions the queen makes Rosamund choose between stabbing and poison. Interestingly, even the Victorians made a sympathetic victim of poor Rosamund (the fornicating mistress) and turned Eleanor (the wronged wife) into a murderous monster. Needless to say, there’s no truth to the murder stories, which arose long after Rosamund died.

Myth 6:   She was the mother of Henry II’s illegitimate son Geoffrey Plantagenet, archbishop of York, and/or his illegitimate son William Longespee, earl of Salisbury.

Rosamund was too young to be Geoffrey’s mother, who was apparently a woman named Ikeni. William Longespee was the son of Ida de Tosny.

Myth 7:   Latin bell inscriptions all over England make reference to her.

These inscriptions read, “I who am struck am called Maria [or Katherine], the rose of the world.” Rosamund was a rare, possibly unique, name for a woman in twelfth-century England, but the phrases rosa munda (pure rose) and rosa mundi (rose of the world) were epithets for the Virgin Mary. It’s likely that Rosamund Clifford was named (creatively and, as it turned out, ironically) in honor of the Virgin, and that the bell inscriptions came from the same general cultural source.

Myth 8:   Roses were spread over her tomb.

No, just a silken pall and candles, as far as we know. It’s possible, however, that the Gallica rose ‘Rosa Mundi’ was named for her, as her legend grew in the later Middle Ages. Perhaps the rose, like the bells, was named for the Virgin Mary, but the name of the rose is one bit of Rosamund lore that seems plausible.

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9. The Oxford DNB at 10: new research opportunities in the humanities

September 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Over the next month a series of blog posts consider aspects of the ODNB’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. Here the literary historian, David Hill Radcliffe, considers how the ODNB online is shaping new research in the humanities.

The publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in September 2004 was a milestone in the history of scholarship, not least for crossing from print to digital publication. Prior to this moment a small army of biographers, myself among them, had worked almost entirely from paper sources, including the stately volumes of the first, Victorian ‘DNB’ and its 20th-century print supplement volumes. But the Oxford DNB of 2004 was conceived from the outset as a database and published online as web pages, not paper pages reproduced in facsimile. In doing away with the page image as a means of structuring digital information, the online ODNB made an important step which scholarly monographs and articles might do well to emulate.

Database design has seen dramatic changes since 2004—shifting from the relational model of columns and rows, to semi-structured data used with XML technologies, to the unstructured forms used for linking data across repositories. The implications of these developments for the future of the ODNB remain to be seen, but there is every reason to believe that its content will be increasingly accessed in ways other than the format of the traditional biographical essay. Essays are not going away, of course. But they will be supplemented by the arrays of tables, charts, maps, and graphs made possible by linked data. Indeed, the ODNB has been moving in this direction since 2004 with the addition of thousands of curated links between individuals (recorded in biographical essays) and the social hierarchies and networks to which they belonged (presented in thematic list and group entries)—and then on to content by or about a person held in archives, museums or galleries worldwide.

Online the ODNB offers scholars the opportunity to select, group, and parse information not just at the level of the article, but also in more detailed ways—and this is where computational matters get interesting. I currently use the ODNB online as a resource for a digital prosopography attached to a collection of documents called ‘Lord Byron and his Times’, tracking relationships among more than 12,000 Byron-contemporaries mentioned in nineteenth-century letters and memoirs; of these people a remarkable 5000 have entries in the ODNB. The traditional object of prosopography was to collect small amounts of information about large numbers of persons, using patterns to draw inferences about slenderly documented lives. But when computation is involved, a prosopography can be used with linked data to parse large amounts of information about large numbers of persons. As a result, one can attend to particularities, treating individuals as members of a group or social network without reducing them to the uniformity of a class identity. Digital prosopography thus returns us to something like the nineteenth-century liberalism that inspired Sir Leslie Stephen’s original DNB (1885-1900).

The key to finding patterns in large collections of lives and documents, the evolution of technology suggests, is to atomize the data. As a writer of biographies I would select from documentary sources, collecting the facts of a life, and translating them into the form of an ODNB essay. Creating a record in a prosopography involves a similar kind of abstraction: working from (say) an ODNB entry, I abstract facts from the prose, encoding names and titles and dates in a semi-structured XML template that can then be used to query my archive, comprising data from previous ODNB abstractions and other sources. For instance: ‘find relationships among persons who corresponded with Byron (or Harrow School classmates, or persons born in Nottinghamshire, etc.) mentioned in the Quarterly Review.’ An XML prosopography is but a step towards recasting the information as flexible, concise, and extensible semantic data.

The ODNB as an online resource. Image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.
ODNB, online. Image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.

While human readers can easily distinguish the character-string ‘Oxford’ as referring to the place, the university, or the press, this is a challenge for computation—like distinguishing ‘Byron’ the poet from ‘Byron’ the admiral. One can attack this problem by using algorithms to compare adjacent strings, or one can encode strings by hand to disambiguate them, or use a combination of both. Digital ODNB essays are good candidates for semantic analysis since their structure is predictable and they are dense with significant names of persons, places, events, and relationships that can be used for data-linking. One translates character-strings into semantic references, groups the references into relationships, and expresses the relationships in machine-readable form.

A popular model for parsing semantic data is via ‘triples’: statements in the form subject / property / object, which describe a relationship between the subject and the object: the tree / is in / the quad. It is powerful because it can describe anything, and its statements can be yoked together to create new statements. For example: ‘Lord Byron wrote Childe Harold’, and ‘John Murray published Childe Harold’ are both triples. Once the three components are translated into semantically disambiguated machine-readable URIs (Uniquely Referring Identifiers), computation can infer that ‘John Murray published Lord Byron.’

Now imagine the contents of the ODNB expressed not as 60,000 biographical essays but as several billion such statements. In fact, this is far from unthinkable, given the nature of the material and progress being made in information technology. The result is a wonderful back-to-the-future moment with Leslie Stephen’s Victorian DNB wedded to Charles Babbage’s calculating machine: the simplicity of the triple and the power of finding relations embedded within them. Will the fantasies of positivist historians finally be realized? Not likely; while computation is good at questions of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’, it is not so good at ‘why’ and ‘how’. Biographers and historians are unlikely to find themselves out of a job anytime soon. On the contrary, once works like the ODNB are rendered machine-readable and cross-query-able, scholars will find more work on their hands than they know what to do with.

So the publication of the ODNB online in September 2004 will be fondly remembered as a liminal moment when humanities scholarship crossed from paper to digital. The labour of centuries of research was carried across that important threshold, recast in a medium enabling new kinds of investigation the likes of which—ten years on—we are only beginning to contemplate.

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10. African encounters in Roman Britain

Hadrian’s Wall has been in the news again recently for all the wrong reasons. Occasional wits have pondered on its significance in the Scottish Referendum, neglecting the fact that it has never marked the Anglo-Scottish border, and was certainly not constructed to keep the Scots out. Others have mistakenly insinuated that it is closed for business, following the widely reported demise of the Hadrian’s Wall Trust. And then of course there is the Game of Thrones angle, best-selling writer George R R Martin has spoken of the Wall as an inspiration for the great wall of ice that features in his books.

Media coverage of both Hadrian’s Wall Trust’s demise and Game of Thrones’ rise has sometimes played upon and propagated the notion that the Hadrian’s Wall was manned by shivering Italian legionaries guarding the fringes civilisation – irrespective of the fact that the empire actually trusted the security of the frontier to its non-citizen soldiers, the auxilia rather than to its legionaries. The tendency to overemphasise the Italian aspect reflects confusion about what the Roman Empire and its British frontier was about. But Martin, who made no claims to be speaking as a historian when he spoke of how he took the idea of legionaries from Italy, North Africa, and Greece guarding the Wall as a source of inspiration, did at least get one thing right about the Romano-British frontier.

There were indeed Africans on the Wall during the Roman period. In fact, at times there were probably more North Africans than Italians and Greeks. While all these groups were outnumbered by north-west Europeans, who tend to get discussed more often, the North African community was substantial, and its stories warrant telling.

Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrians Wall (8751341028)
Hadrian’s Wall, by Carole Raddato. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most remarkable tale to survive is an episode in the Historia Augusta (Life of Severus 22) concerning the inspection of the Wall by the emperor Septimius Severus. The emperor, who was himself born in Libya, was confronted by a black soldier, part of the Wall garrison and a noted practical joker. According to the account the notoriously superstitious emperor saw in the soldier’s black skin and his brandishing of a wreath of Cyprus branches, an omen of death. And his mood was not further improved when the soldier shouted the macabre double entendre iam deus esto victor (now victor/conqueror, become a god). For of course properly speaking a Roman emperor should first die before being divinized. The late Nigerian classicist, Lloyd Thompson, made a powerful point about this intriguing passage in his seminal work Romans and Blacks, ‘the whole anecdote attributes to this man a disposition to make fun of the superstitious beliefs about black strangers’. In fact we might go further, and note just how much cultural knowledge and confidence this frontier soldier needed to play the joke – he needed to be aware of Roman funerary practices, superstitions, and the indeed the practice of emperor worship itself.

Why is this illuminating episode not better known? Perhaps it is because there is something deeply uncomfortable about what could be termed Britain’s first ‘racist joke’, or perhaps the problem lies with the source itself, the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta. And yet as a properly forensic reading of this part of the text by Professor Tony Birley has shown, the detail included around the encounter is utterly credible, and we can identify places alluded to in it at the western end of the Wall. So it is quite reasonable to believe that this encounter took place.

Not only this, but according to the restoration of the text preferred by Birley and myself, there is a reference to a third African in this passage. The restoration post Maurum apud vallum missum in Britannia indicates that this episode took place after Severus has granted discharge to a soldier of the Mauri (the term from which ‘Moors’ derives). And has Birley has noted, we know that there was a unit of Moors stationed at Burgh-by-Sands on the Solway at this time.

Birdoswald eastern wall
Hadrian’s Wall, by Midnightblueowl. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, Burgh is one of the least explored forts on Hadrian’s Wall, but some sense of what may one day await an extensive campaign of excavation there comes from Transylvania in Romania, where investigations at the home of another Moorish regiment of the Roman army have revealed a temple dedicated to the gods of their homelands. Perhaps too, evidence of different North African legacies would emerge. The late Vivian Swann, a leading expert in the pottery of the Wall has presented an attractive case that the appearance of new forms of ceramics indicates the introduction of North African cuisine in northern Britain in the second and third centuries AD.

What is clear is that the Mauri of Burgh-by-Sands were not the only North Africans on the Wall. We have an African legionary’s tombstone from Birdoswald, and from the East Coast the glorious funerary stela set up to commemorate Victor, a freedman (former slave) by his former master, a trooper in a Spanish cavalry regiment. Victor’s monument now stands on display in Arbeia Museum at South Shields next to the fine, and rather better known, memorial to the Catuvellunian Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates from Palmyra in Syria. Together these individuals, and the many other ethnic groups commemorated on the Wall, remind us of just how cosmopolitan the people of Roman frontier society were, and of how a society that stretched from the Solway and the Tyne to the Euphrates was held together.

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11. Scottish Women and the Vote

Scottish women are said to hold the key to independence, as they predominate in the ‘no’ camp. Men have been repeatedly estimated from poll data to be around 50:50 for and against, while those women who were sure of their intentions were 60% against.

This has been represented as an alarming gender divide, but a look at the history of women fighting for the vote in Scotland shows they have long been resolute in their positions, more concerned with what politics could do in real life than the grandstanding of political ideas, and much more internationalist than their sisters south of the border.

The Scottish route to women’s suffrage started in 1867 with the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage; similar societies were established in Manchester, London, and Dublin. Later these suffragists were joined by the suffragettes, who attracted considerable publicity for arson, vandalism, and hunger-striking in the cause, to the disdain of the constitutional campaigners who thought this sort of behaviour counter-productive. This major division in tactics has served to obscure the fundamental similarity of both campaigns as both sides were directed towards the same objective: for women to have the vote on the same basis as men, which was then on a property-owning franchise. They also both steered away from engagement in other social activities. The vote was all-important, it was a millennialist objective, which once achieved would inaugurate an era of social justice and peace. Other social activity was at best a distraction and could wait till after the advent of the franchise. For this reason English suffragists such as Millicent Fawcett were not involved in important campaigns like those against the Contagious Diseases Acts and for temperance, whatever their personal views may have been.

The Great Procession and Women's Demonstration, 1909 on Princes Street, Edinburgh. Photograph taken by James Patrick. The People's Story, Edinburgh Museums & Galleries. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Great Procession and Women’s Demonstration, 1909 on Princes Street, Edinburgh. Photograph taken by James Patrick. The People’s Story, Edinburgh Museums & Galleries. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Scottish women took another path, with a much more inclusive vision of the purpose of political activism. For them the vote was one of a number of issues on which to campaign, and temperance was another. Using the vehicle of the Scottish Christian Union, Scottish women allied with the American Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the most powerful women’s suffrage organisation in the world.

The temperance cause was part of a set of progressive measures as disparate as anti-slavery, ‘social purity’ (sexual control), universal education, and promoting enhanced domestic skills to the poor. All had women as prime movers or playing a prominent part – the so-called ‘feminine public sphere’. Scottish women embraced this ‘woman’s mission’ with a vengeance, for example eagerly seizing on the municipal vote which was granted to Scottish women in 1881, in order to favour candidates who wanted strict alcohol licensing. Other areas of activity included such practical institutions as the Glasgow Samaritan Hospital for ‘diseases of women’ and rescue homes for ‘female inebriates.’ It has been said that alcohol more than slavery or suffrage or any other single cause politicised American women. Megan Smitley in The Feminine Public Sphere (MUP, 2009) has convincingly argued that the same can be said for Scottish women.

In the United States the Women’s Christian Temperance Union saw through enfranchisements state by state, and sent out missionaries to New Zealand (which became the first nation to enfranchise women in 1893) and to Australia (which started enfranchising with South Australia in 1894). Isabel Napier, who was National Superintendent of the Suffrage Department of the Scottish Christian Union, grew up in New Zealand and retained strong links. “When Suffrage became law in New Zealand all their influence was thrown on the side of Temperance Reform,” she said, “and so you have the advanced laws that now obtain.” WCTU speakers toured Scotland from the Shetlands to the Borders, hosted by the Scottish Christian Union.

In contrast, English women considered the US temperance campaign vulgar and did not welcome WCTU speakers; they feared the ‘Americanisation’ of their field. Nor did English and Welsh temperance organisations officially support women’s suffrage (though individual members doubtless did).

The importance of this tradition of social activism for the independence debate has been that Scottish women were not moved by the same arguments as men. The ‘Braveheart tendency’ of independence at all costs as a patriotic ideal, regardless of the consequences, has had limited feminine appeal. As Lesley Riddoch wrote in The Scotsman: “Toughing out controversy and appearing to spoil for a fight may earn respect from male commentators and small armies of cyber-angry, anonymous men. Clever dick answers, snide-sounding put downs and swaggering arrogance turn off watching women as swiftly as they appear to engage watching men.” That was the level at which most of the independence campaign was fought, however, leading to a frantic late catch-up as more ‘woman friendly’ policies were rolled out.

The issues that women took most interest in were: How would either side deal with child poverty, low pay, and poor housing? What could be done about the European-wide disgrace of poor health and low life expectancy in parts of Scotland? Finally (and in a manner that would be instantly recognisable to nineteenth century prohibitionists) how to deal with the appalling levels of alcohol abuse in Scotland which are so damaging to personal health and family life?

Such practical matters of national renewal were often drowned out by masculine bluster.

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12. RestUK, international law, and the Scottish referendum

With Scotland voting on independence on 18 September 2014, the UK coalition government sought advice on the relevant law from two leading international lawyers, James Crawford and Alan Boyle. Their subsequent report has a central argument. An independent Scotland would be separatist, breaking away from the remainder of the UK. Therefore, the latter (known as restUK or rUK) would be the continuator state – enjoying all the rights and duties of the existing UK, while Scotland would be new state having none of rUK’s rights and especially no membership of any international organizations it enjoys now as part of the UK. The bargaining power of rUK as to what it might concede of the UK’s rights would be complete, e.g. with respect to a common currency. This legal opinion has created a confrontational atmosphere around the referendum vote and caused anxiety among Scottish voters about to ‘jump into the unknown’.

It is essential to unpack the distracting complexity of the expert international law professionalism of this advice. Firstly, Crawford and Boyle gloss over the actual legal circumstances of the contract of union between Scotland and England, in particular that the Union was a bargain among powers equal in the eyes of international law at that time. More specifically, the England which, with Wales, concluded the Treaty of Union is exactly the same entity standing opposite to Scotland now as then (leaving aside the North of Ireland which has the option under the Belfast Agreement of leaving the UK by referendum).

There is no international standard, in the event of a dissolution of a union, which can provide any objective criterion to determine that Scotland is the breakaway entity. In international law, recognition of new states is largely a matter of the political discretion of existing states. It depends on an international consensus, or lack of it, where political preference may or may not trump any possibly objective standard of political legitimacy, e.g. self-determination by democratic consent. The vast amount of state practice which Crawford and Boyle’s legal opinion displays is misleading insofar as there is, in fact, no definitive legal marker of guidance. This is shown by the fact that England is the continuator state because it is larger than Scotland. Legally, there has to be a continuator state. But since this obviously cannot be Scotland, it must be England. Even Scotland assumes this to be the case.

Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.
Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.

It is necessary to focus upon an international legal history of the individual states, rather than the more general international law offered by Crawford and Boyle. The Anglo-Scottish Union displays a phenomenon that Linda Colley has referred to as the composite state. This is where two or more sovereign nations agree to merge their highest governmental level institution (parliament) into a single state made up of several nations – a state-nation – but other lesser local institutions might remain. In the Europe of the 15th to the 17th century this was a common phenomenon, the most celebrated being in Scandinavia, involving Sweden, Denmark and Norway in a variety of partnerships from the Kalmar Union (1397) onwards. The logic of these partnerships was that they were always open to renegotiation. Now, this is precisely what the English generously recognize in the Edinburgh Agreement. The logic of the composite state does not cover the many cases in which a core nation forms itself into a state and then jealously guards its territorial integrity against dissident minorities, which are then regarded as separatist and destructive of national unity. It is possible that an aura of this type of scenario runs through the legal opinion of Crawford and Boyle, although they have to accept the consensual context of the advice they are being asked to give.

The real issues facing Scotland have to be confronted on a basis of equality and mutual consent in accordance with the international law established as apposite for this case. These issues are a matter of history, not merely that of the 17th-18th century, but also the evolution of the 1707 Treaty of Union (implemented through separate Acts of Union passed in the Scottish and English Parliaments) to the very recent past – especially the Thatcher years and the neo-liberal revolution in English-dominated UK politics. It has to be recognized that there are profound differences of social philosophy now between Scotland and England around the issue of neo-liberalism and the defense of community. These provide good reasons to revisit that 1707 bargain. This revisiting should be on the basis of complete equality. The sharing of common institutions of the United Kingdom, such as the currency, would have to be negotiated after reaching an agreement in which neither side – as so-called continuator state – would have a higher standing.

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13. Shamrock and Saltire: Irish Home Rule and the Scottish Referendum, 1914-2014

This is the centenary year of the enactment of the third Home Rule Bill, as well (of course) as the year of the Scottish referendum on independence. Yet the centenary conversation in Ireland and the somewhat more vigorous debate upon Scots independence, have been conducted — for the most part — quite separately.

While it would be wrong to push the analogies too far, there are some striking similarities – and some differences – between the debate on Home Rule in 1912-14, and the current debate upon Scottish independence. These similarities (and indeed distinctions) might well give food for thought to the protagonists within the Scottish ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ camps — and indeed there is evidence that both Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond have ruminated accordingly.

One critical difference between Ireland in 1914 and Scotland in 2014 is that of militancy — Ireland on the eve of the First World War being an armed camp comprising the Ulster and Irish Volunteer movements, opponents and proponents of Home Rule, as well as the British Army. The Scottish political debate has not been militarised, and there is no evidence that it will become so (the Scottish National Liberation Army, for example, has never posed a significant threat). Modern Scottish nationalism has developed as a wholly constitutional and pacific phenomenon.

Of course mainstream Scottish nationalism has only recently, through successive Holyrood elections, emerged as a majority phenomenon. But it has never had to encounter the challenge (faced by Irish nationalism a century ago) of returning a majority of elected representatives, while being lengthily resisted in London.

One aspect of the Irish experience in 1914 was that a fraught constitutional debate, heightened political expectations, and the delaying or disappointment of those expectations (with Unionist resistance and the onset of War), combined to make a highly volatile political chemistry. The hardening expectations of change across Scotland in 2014 mean that national (as well as social and economic) aspirations may need to be quickly and sensitively addressed, whatever the result of the referendum.

Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Party, inspecting members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF were founded in 1913 by the Ulster Unionist Council to resist the implementation of Home Rule. Q 81759 Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Party, inspecting members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF were founded in 1913 by the Ulster Unionist Council to resist the implementation of Home Rule. Q 81759 Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

One critical dimension of this militancy in 1914 was the trenchant support given to Ulster Unionist paramilitarism by the British Conservative leadership — this in part a symptom of the profound divisions in British and Irish politics and society precipitated by the debate over Home Rule. It is striking that both the Home Rule issue in 1914 and the referendum in 2014 have each attracted an unusually broad range of declarations of allegiance from a complex array of interest groups and individuals. In 1914 there was a high level of ‘celebrity’ endorsement and intervention over Home Rule: taking literary figures alone, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came out as a Home Ruler, while Rudyard Kipling was a strong Unionist. In 2014 Irvine Welsh has declared in favour of independence, while J.K. Rowling is against. Ian Rankin provides a case-study in the complexity (and profundity) of division: he is an agnostic on the issue, but is clear that his characters would have strong opinions. So, Inspector Rebus joins the unionists of 2014 (though the actor Ken Stott, most recent of the TV Rebuses, is reportedly in the ‘yes’ camp).

The analogies between Home Rule and the debate on Scottish independence extend much further than the ‘A’ list, however. The substantial strength and challenge of Home Rule sentiment produced striking intellectual movement before and in 1914 — just as the strength of the movement for Scots independence has produced similar movement a century later.

In 1912-14 the constitutional impasse over Home Rule in fact helped to stimulate support for (what was then called) ‘federalism’ among some of the Unionist elite, including even Edward Carson. In terms of the (nearly) equally weighted forces fighting over Scottish independence, Gordon Brown has now moved to embrace the idea of a federal United Kingdom; and he has been joined or preceded by others, including (for example) the Scottish Conservative journalist, David Torrance. Discussion of a possible English parliament was broached prominently in 1911-1914 and again in 2014. Both in 1914 and in 2014 it appears that the constitutional shape of the ever-malleable United Kingdom is once again in transition — but because unionists are now shifting no less then nationalists.

And indeed some Scots Nationalists have moved towards embracing at least some of the symbols of the British connection. John Redmond, the Home Rule leader, emphasised monarchy and empire in his vision of Irish autonomy during the Home Rule era, partly through personal conviction, and partly in terms of subverting unionist arguments. In similar vein, Alex Salmond (despite a strong tradition of republican sentiment within the SNP), has embraced the ‘union of the crowns’ as SNP strategy, and has in recent years referred deferentially to the Queen (‘of Scots’), and her central place in an independent nation.

Here, as elsewhere, Ireland’s century-old debate on Home Rule speaks to the current condition of Scotland. Indeed here, as elsewhere, Ireland’s wider experience of Union chimes with that of the Scots.

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14. The month that changed the world: Saturday, 1 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


The choice between war and peace hung in the balance on Saturday, 1 August 1914. Austria-Hungary and Russia were proceeding with full mobilization: Austria-Hungary was preparing to mobilize along the Russian frontier in Galicia; Russia was preparing to mobilize along the German frontier in Poland. On Friday evening in Paris the German ambassador had presented the French government with a question: would France remain neutral in the event of a Russo-German war? They were given 18 hours to respond – until 1 p.m. Saturday. In St Petersburg the German ambassador presented the Russian government with another demand: Russia had 12 hours – until noon Saturday – to suspend all war measures against Germany and Austria-Hungary or Germany would mobilize its forces.

But they were also extraordinarily close to peace. Russia and Austria had resumed negotiations in St Petersburg at the behest of Britain, Germany, and France. Austria had declared publicly and repeatedly that it did not intend to seize any Serbian territory and that it would respect the sovereignty and independence of the Serbian monarchy. Russia had declared that it would not object to severe measures against Serbia as long its sovereignty and independence were respected. Surely, when the two of them were agreed on the fundamental principles involved, a settlement was still within reach?

In London the cabinet met at 11 a.m. for 2 1/2 hours. The discussion was devoted exclusively to the crisis. Ministers were badly divided. Winston Churchill was the most bellicose, demanding immediate mobilization. At the other extreme were those who insisted that the government should declare it would not enter the war under any circumstances. According to the prime minister, Asquith, this was ‘the view for the moment of the bulk of the party’. Grey threatened to resign if the cabinet adopted an uncompromising policy of non-intervention.

H. H. Asquith, British Prime Minister 1908-1916. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One cabinet minister proposed a solution to their dilemma: they should put the onus on Germany. Intervention should depend on whether Germany launched a naval attack on the northern coast of France or violated the independence of Belgium. But his suggestion raised more questions: did Britain have the duty, or merely the right, to intervene if Belgian neutrality were violated? If German troops merely ‘passed through’ Belgium in order to attack France, would this constitute a violation of neutrality? The meeting was inconclusive.

In Berlin the Kaiser was approving the note to be handed to Russia later that day, if it failed to respond positively to the demand that it demobilize: ‘His Majesty the Emperor, my August Sovereign, accepts the challenge in the name of the Empire, and considers himself as being in a state of war with Russia’.

An hour after despatching this telegram another arrived in Berlin from the tsar. Nicholas said he understood that, under the circumstances, Germany was obliged to mobilize, but he asked Wilhelm to give him the same guarantee that he had given Wilhelm: ‘that these measures DO NOT mean war’ and that they would continue to negotiate ‘for the benefit of our countries and universal peace dear to our hearts’.

After meeting with the cabinet, Grey continued to believe that peace might be saved if only a little time could be gained before shooting started. He wired Berlin to suggest that mediation between Austria and Russia could now commence. While promising that Britain abstain from any act that might precipitate matters, he refused to promise that it would remain neutral.

But Grey also refused to promise any assistance to France: Germany appeared willing to agree not to attack France if France remained neutral in a war between Russia and Germany. If France was unable to take advantage of this offer ‘it was because she was bound by an alliance to which we were not parties, and of which we did not know the terms’. Although he would not rule out assisting France under any circumstances, France must make its own decision ‘without reckoning on an assistance that we were not now in a position to give’.

The French ambassador was shocked. He refused to transmit to Paris what Grey had told him, proposing instead to tell his government that the British cabinet had yet to make a decision. He complained that France had left its Atlantic coast undefended because of the naval convention with Britain in 1912 and that the British were honour-bound to assist them. His complaint fell on deaf ears. He staggered from Grey’s office into an adjoining room, close to hysteria, ‘his face white’. Immediately after the meeting he met with two influential Unionists, bitterly declaring ‘Honour! Does England know what honour is’? ‘If you stay out and we survive, we shall not move a finger to save you from being crushed by the Germans later.’

Earlier in Paris General Joffre, chief of the general staff, threatened to resign if the government refused to order mobilization. He warned that France had already fallen two days behind Germany in preparing for war. The cabinet, although divided, agreed to distribute mobilization notices that afternoon at 4 p.m. They agreed, however, to maintain the 10-kilometre buffer zone: ‘No patrol, no reconnaissance, no post, no element whatsoever, must go east of the said line. Whoever crosses it will be liable to court martial and it is only in the event of a full-scale attack that it will be possible to transgress this order’.

By 4 p.m. Russia had yet to reply to the German ultimatum that expired at noon. Falkenhayn, the minister of war, persuaded Bethmann Hollweg to go with him to see the Kaiser and ask him to promulgate the order for mobilization. At 5 p.m., at the Berlin Stadtschloss, the mobilization order sat on a table made from the timbers of Nelson’s Victory. As the Kaiser signed it, Falkenhayn declared ‘God bless Your Majesty and your arms, God protect the beloved Fatherland’.

News of the German declaration of war on Russia spread quickly throughout St Petersburg immediately following the meeting between Pourtalès and Sazonov. Vast crowds began to gather on the Nevsky Prospekt; women threw their jewels into collection bins to support the families of the reservists who had been called up. By 11.30 that night around 50,000 people surrounded the British embassy calling out ‘God save the King’, ‘Rule Britannia’, and ‘Bozhe Tsara Khranie’ [God save the Tsar].

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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15. The month that changed the world: Sunday, 2 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, has been blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


Confusion was still widespread on the morning of 2 August 1914. On Saturday Germany and France had joined Austria-Hungary and Russia in announcing their general mobilization; by 7 p.m. Germany appeared to be at war with Russia. Still, the only shots fired in anger consisted of the bombs that the Austrians continued to shower on Belgrade. Sir Edward Grey continued to hope that the German and French armies might agree on a standstill behind their frontiers while Russia and Austria proceeded to negotiate a settlement over Serbia. No one was certain what the British would do – especially not the British.

Shortly after dawn Sunday German troops crossed the frontier into the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Trains loaded with soldiers crossed the bridge at Wasserbillig and headed to the city of Luxembourg, the capital of the Grand-Duchy. By 8.30 a.m. German troops occupied the railway station in the city centre. Marie-Adélaïde, the grand duchess, protested directly to the kaiser, demanding an explanation and asking him to respect the country’s rights. The chancellor replied that Germany’s military measures should not be regarded as hostile, but only as steps to protect the railways under German management against an attack by the French; he promised full compensation for any damages suffered.

The neutrality of Luxembourg had been guaranteed by the Powers in the Treaty of London of 1867. The prime minister immediately protested the violation at Berlin, Paris, London, and Brussels. When Paul Cambon received the news in London at 7.42 a.m. he requested a meeting with Sir Edward Grey. The French ambassador brought with him a copy of the 1867 treaty – but Grey took the position that the treaty was a ‘collective instrument’, meaning that if Germany chose to violate it, Britain was released from any obligation to uphold it. Disgusted, Cambon declared that the word ‘honour’ might have ‘to be struck out of the British vocabulary’.

The cabinet was scheduled to meet at 10 Downing Street at 11 a.m. Before it convened Lloyd George held a small meeting of his own at the chancellor’s residence next door with five other members of cabinet. They were untroubled by the German invasion of Luxembourg and agreed that, as a group, they would oppose Britain’s entry into the war in Europe. They might reconsider under certain circumstances, however, ‘such as the invasion wholesale of Belgium’.

When they met the cabinet found it almost impossible to decide under what conditions Britain should intervene. Opinions ranged from opposition to intervention under any circumstances to immediate mobilization of the army in anticipation of despatching the British Expeditionary Force to France. Grey revealed his frustration with Germany and Austria-Hungary: they had chosen to play with the most vital interests of civilization and had declined the numerous attempts he had made to find a way out of the crisis. While appearing to negotiate they had continued their march ‘steadily to war’. But the views of the foreign secretary proved unacceptable to the majority of the cabinet. Asquith believed they were on the brink of a split.

After almost three hours of heated debate the cabinet finally agreed to authorize Grey to give the French a qualified assurance. The British government would not permit the Germans to make the English Channel the base for hostile operations against the French.

While the cabinet was meeting in the afternoon a great anti-war demonstration was beginning only a few hundred yards away in Trafalgar Square. Trade unions organized a series of processions, with thousands of workers marching to meet at Nelson’s column from St George’s circus, the East India Docks, Kentish Town, and Westminster Cathedral. Speeches began around 4 p.m. – by which time 10-15,000 had gathered to hear Keir Hardie and other labour leaders, socialists and peace activists. With rain pouring down, at 5 p.m. a resolution in favour of international peace and for solidarity among the workers of the world ‘to use their industrial and political power in order that the nations shall not be involved in the war’ was put to the crowd and deemed to have carried.

 Andrew Bonar Law, British leader of the opposition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Bonar Law, British leader of the opposition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

If the British cabinet was divided, so however were the people of London. When the crowd began singing ‘The Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’ they were matched by anti-socialists and pro-war demonstrators singing ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. When a red flag was hoisted, a Union Jack went up in reply. Part of the crowd broke away and marched a few hundred feet to Admiralty Arch where they listened to patriotic speeches. Several thousand marched up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, singing the national anthem and the Marseillaise. The King and the Queen appeared on the balcony to acknowledge the cheering crowd. Later that evening demonstrators gathered in front of the French embassy to show their support.

The anti-war sentiment, which was still strong among labour groups and socialist organizations in Britain, was rapidly dissipating in France. On Sunday morning the Socialist party announced its intention to defend France in the event of war. The newspaper of the syndicalist CGT declared ‘That the name of the old emperor Franz Joseph be cursed’; it denounced the kaiser ‘and the pangermanists’ as responsible for the war. In Germany three large trade unions did a deal with the government: in exchange for promising not to go on strike, the government promised not to ban them. In Russia, organized opposition to war practically disappeared.

Shortly before dinner that evening the British cabinet met once again to decide whether they were prepared to enter the war. The prime minister had received a promise from the leader of the Unionist opposition, Andrew Bonar Law, that his party would support Britain’s entry into the war. Now, if the anti-war sentiment in cabinet led to the resignation of Sir Edward Grey – and most likely of Asquith, Churchill and several others along with him – there loomed the likelihood of a coalition government being formed that would lead Britain into war anyway.

While the British cabinet were meeting in London they were unaware that the German minister at Brussels was presenting an ultimatum to the Belgian government at 7.00 p.m. The note contained in the envelope claimed that the German government had received reliable information that French forces were preparing to march through Belgian territory in order to attack Germany. Germany feared that Belgium would be unable to resist a French invasion. For the sake of Germany’s self-defence it was essential that it anticipate such an attack, which might necessitate German forces entering Belgian territory. Belgium was given until 7 a.m. the next morning – twelve hours – to respond.

Within the hour the prime minister took the German note to the king. They agreed that Belgium could not agree to the demands. The king called his council of ministers to the palace at 9 p.m. where they discussed the situation until midnight. The council agreed unanimously with the position taken by the king and the prime minister. They recessed for an hour, resuming their meeting at 1 a.m. to draft a reply.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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16. The month that changed the world: Monday, 3 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, has been blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


At 7 a.m. Monday morning the reply of the Belgian government was handed to the German minister in Brussels. The German note had made ‘a deep and painful impression’ on the government. France had given them a formal declaration that it would not violate Belgian neutrality, and, if it were to do so, ‘the Belgian army would offer the most vigorous resistance to the invader’. Belgium had always been faithful to its international obligations and had left nothing undone ‘to maintain and enforce respect’ for its neutrality. The attack on Belgian independence which Germany was now threatening ‘constitutes a flagrant violation of international law’. No strategic interest could justify this. ‘The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray at the same time their duties towards Europe.’

Belgian Prime Minister Charles de Brocqueville. By Garitan CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Belgian Prime Minister Charles de Brocqueville. By Garitan CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When the British cabinet reconvened later that morning at 11 a.m. there were now four ministers prepared to resign over the issue of British intervention. Their discussion lasted for three hours, at the end of which they agreed on the line to be taken by Sir Edward Grey when he addressed the House of Commons at 3 p.m. ‘The Cabinet was very moving. Most of us could hardly speak at all for emotion.’

Grey began his address to the House by explaining that the present crisis differed from that of Morocco in 1912. That had been a dispute which involved France primarily, to whom Britain had promised diplomatic support, and had done so publicly. The situation they faced now had originated as a dispute between Austria and Serbia – one in which France had become engaged because it was obligated by honour to do so as a result of its alliance with Russia. But this obligation did not apply to Britain. ‘We are not parties to the Franco-Russian Alliance. We do not even know the terms of that Alliance.’

But, because of their now-established friendship, the French had concentrated their fleet in the Mediterranean because they were secure in the knowledge that they need not fear for the safety of their northern and western coasts. Those coasts were now absolutely undefended. ‘My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside and see this going on practically within sight of our eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately, doing nothing!’ The government felt strongly that France was entitled to know ‘and to know at once!’ whether in the event of an attack on her coasts it could depend on British support. Thus, he had given the government’s assurance of support to the French ambassador yesterday.

There was another, more immediate consideration: what should Britain do in the event of a violation of Belgian neutrality? He warned the House that if Belgium’s independence were to go, that of Holland would follow. And what…

‘If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great Power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself’? If Britain chose to stand aside and ‘run away from those obligations of honour and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value…’

‘I do not believe for a moment, that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite to us—if that had been the result of the war—falling under the domination of a single Power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such as to have lost us all respect.’

While Grey was speaking in the House the king and queen were driving along the Mall to Buckingham Palace in an open carriage, cheered by large crowds. In Berlin the Russian ambassador was being attacked by a mob wielding sticks, while the German chancellor was sending instructions to the ambassador in Paris to inform the French government that Germany considered itself to now be ‘in a state of war’ with France. At 6 p.m. the declaration was handed in at Paris:

‘The German administrative and military authorities have established a certain number of flagrantly hostile acts committed on German territory by French military aviators. Several of these have openly violated the neutrality of Belgium by flying over the territory of that country; one has attempted to destroy buildings near Wesel; others have been seen in the district of the Eifel, one has thrown bombs on the railway near Karlsruhe and Nuremberg.’

The French president welcomed the declaration. It came as a relief, Poincaré said, given that war was by this time inevitable.

‘It is a hundred times better that we were not led to declare war ourselves, even on account of repeated violations of our frontier…. If we had been forced to declare war ourselves, the Russian alliance would have become a subject of controversy in France, national [élan?] would have been broken, and Italy may have been forced by the provisions of the Triple Alliance to take sides against us.’

When the British cabinet met again briefly in the evening they had before them the text of the German ultimatum to Belgium and the Belgian reply to it. They agreed to insist that the German government withdraw the ultimatum. After the meeting Grey told the French ambassador that if Germany refused ‘it will be war’.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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17. The month that changed the world: Tuesday, 4 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, has been blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War. This is the final installment.

By Gordon Martel


At 6 a.m. in Brussels the Belgian government was informed that German troops would be entering Belgian territory. Later that morning the German minister assured them that Germany remained ready to offer them ‘the hand of a brother’ and to negotiate a modus vivendi. But the basis for any agreement must include the opening of the fortress of Liege to the passage of German troops and a Belgian promise not to destroy railways and bridges.

At the same time the British government was protesting against Germany’s intention to violate Belgian neutrality and requesting from the Belgian government ‘an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with, and that her neutrality will be respected by Germany’.

In Berlin they had already anticipated British objections. The German ambassador in London was instructed to ‘dispel any mistrust’ by repeating, positively and formally, that Germany would not, under any pretence, annex Belgian territory. He was to impress upon Sir Edward Grey the reasons for Germany’s decision: they had ‘absolutely unimpeachable’ information that France was planning to attack through Belgium. Germany thus had no choice but to violate Belgian neutrality because it was for them a matter ‘of life or death’.

The assurance was received in London at almost the same moment that the Foreign Office received news that German troops had begun their advance into Belgium.

Two of the four cabinet ministers who had threatened to resign now changed their minds: the news that the Germans had entered Belgium and announced that they would ‘push their way through by force of arms’ had simplified matters.

Crowds outside Buckingham Palace after war was declared. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

Crowds outside Buckingham Palace after war was declared. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

At 10.30 a.m. Grey instructed the British minister in Brussels that Britain expected the Belgians to resist any German pressure to induce them to depart from their neutrality ‘by any means in their power’. The British government would support them in their resistance and was prepared to join France and Russia in immediately offering to the Belgian government ‘an alliance’ for the purpose of resisting the use of force by Germany against them, along with a guarantee to maintain Belgian independence and integrity in future years.

At 2 p.m. Grey instructed the ambassador in Berlin to repeat the request he had made last week and again this morning that the German government assure him that it would respect Belgian neutrality. A satisfactory reply was required by midnight, Central European time. If this were not received in time the ambassador was to request his passports and to tell the German government that ‘His Majesty’s Government feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a Treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves’.

Before the ambassador could present these demands, the German chancellor addressed the Reichstag, making a long, impassioned speech defending the government’s decision to go to war:

‘A terrible fate is breaking over Europe. For forty-four years, since the time we fought for and won the German Empire and our position in the world, we have lived in peace and protected the peace of Europe. During this time of peace we have become strong and powerful, arousing the envy of others. We have patiently faced the fact that, under the pretence that Germany was warlike, enmity was aroused against us in the East and the West, and chains were fashioned for us.’

A defence of German diplomacy during the crisis followed. Russia alone had failed to agree to ‘localize’ the crisis, to contain it to one that concerned only Austria and Serbia. Germany had warmly supported efforts to mediate the dispute and the Kaiser had engaged the Tsar in a personal correspondence to join him in resolving the differences between Russia and Austria. But Russia had chosen to mobilize all of her forces directed against Austria even though Austria had mobilized only against Serbia. And then Russia had chosen to mobilize all of her forces, leaving Germany with no choice but to mobilize as well.

France had evaded giving a clear answer to the question of whether it would remain neutral in the event of war between Russia and Germany. And then, in spite of promises to keep mobilized French forces 10 kilometres from the frontier with Germany ‘Aviators dropped bombs, and cavalry patrols and French infantry detachments appeared on the territory of the Empire!’

It was true that Germany’s decision to enter Belgium was a violation of international law, but there was no choice: ‘A French attack on our flank on the lower Rhine might have been disastrous’. And Germany would set right the wrong once ‘our military aims have been attained’.

‘We are fighting for the fruits of our works of peace, for the inheritance of a great past and for our future. The fifty years are not yet past during which Count Moltke said we should have to remain armed to defend the inheritance that we won in 1870. Now the great hour of trial has struck for our people. But with clear confidence we go forward to meet it. Our army is in the field, our navy is ready for battle–, and behind them stands the entire German nation– the entire German nation united to the last man.’

At almost the same moment Poincaré was addressing the French Chamber of Deputies. But indirectly, as the constitution prohibited the president from addressing the deputies directly. The minister of justice read his speech for him:

‘France has just been the object of a violent and premeditated attack, which is an insolent defiance of the law of nations. Before any declaration of war had been sent to us, even before the German Ambassador had asked for his passports, our territory has been violated.’….

‘Since the ultimatum of Austria opened a crisis which threatened the whole of Europe, France has persisted in following and in recommending on all sides a policy of prudence, wisdom, and moderation. To her there can be imputed no act, no movement, no word, which has not been peaceful and conciliatory.’….

‘In the war which is beginning, France will have Right on her side, the eternal power of which cannot with impunity be disregarded by nations any more than by individuals. She will be heroically defended by all her sons; nothing will break their sacred union before the enemy; today they are joined together as brothers in a common indignation against the aggressor, and in a common patriotic faith.’

‘Haut les coeurs et vive la France!’

At Buckingham palace at 10.45 the king had convened a meeting of the Privy Council for the purpose of authorizing the declaration of war. They waited for 11 p.m. to come, and when Big Ben struck they were at war. Meanwhile people had begun gathering outside the palace. When news began to spread throughout the crowd that war had been declared the excitement mounted; and when the king, the queen, and their eldest son appeared on the balcony ‘the cheering was terrific.’

By the end of the day five of the six Great Powers of Europe were at war, along with Serbia and Belgium. Diplomacy had failed. The tragedy had begun.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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18. The real story of allied nursing during the First World War

The anniversaries of conflicts seem to be more likely to capture the public’s attention than any other significant commemorations. When I first began researching the nurses of the First World War in 2004, I was vaguely aware of an increase in media attention: now, ten years on, as my third book leaves the press, I find myself astonished by the level of interest in the subject. The Centenary of the First World War is becoming a significant cultural event. This time, though, much of the attention is focussed on the role of women, and, in particular, of nurses. The recent publication of several nurses’ diaries has increased the public’s fascination for the subject. A number of television programmes have already been aired. Most of these trace journeys of discovery by celebrity presenters, and are, therefore, somewhat quirky – if not rather random – in their content. The BBC’s project, World War One at Home, has aired numerous stories. I have been involved in some of these – as I have, also, in local projects, such as the impressive recreation of the ‘Stamford Military Hospital’ at Dunham Massey Hall, Cheshire. Many local radio stories have brought to light the work of individuals whose extraordinary experiences and contributions would otherwise have remained hidden – women such as Kate Luard, sister-in-charge of a casualty clearing station during the Battle of Passchendaele; Margaret Maule, who nursed German prisoners-of-war in Dartford; and Elsie Knocker, a fully-trained nurse who established an aid post on the Belgian front lines. One radio story is particularly poignant: that of Clementina Addison, a British nurse, who served with the French Flag Nursing Corps – a unit of fully trained professionals working in French military field hospitals. Clementina cared for hundreds of wounded French ‘poilus’, and died of an unnamed infectious disease as a direct result of her work.

The BBC drama, The Crimson Field was just one of a number of television programmes designed to capture the interest of viewers. I was one of the historical advisers to the series. I came ‘on board’ quite late in the process, and discovered just how difficult it is to transform real, historical events into engaging drama. Most of my work took place in the safety of my own office, where I commented on scripts. But I did spend one highly memorable – and pretty terrifying – week in a field in Wiltshire working with the team producing the first two episodes. Providing ‘authentic background detail’, while, at the same time, creating atmosphere and constructing characters who are both credible and interesting is fraught with difficulty for producers and directors. Since its release this spring, The Crimson Field has become quite controversial, because whilst many people appear to have loved it, others complained vociferously about its lack of authentic detail. Of course, it is hard to reconcile the realities of history with the demands of popular drama.

Crimson Field
The Crimson Field poster, with permission from the BBC.

I give talks about the nurses of the First World War, and often people come up to me to ask about The Crimson Field. Surprisingly often, their one objection is to the fact that the hospital and the nurses were ‘just too clean’. This makes me smile. In these days of contract-cleaners and hospital-acquired infection, we have forgotten the meticulous attention to detail the nurses of the past gave to the cleanliness of their wards. The depiction of cleanliness in the drama was, in fact one of its authentic details.

One of the events I remember most clearly about my work on set with The Crimson Field is the remarkable commitment of director, David Evans, and leading actor, Hermione Norris, in recreating a scene in which Matron Grace Carter enters a ward which is in chaos because a patient has become psychotic and is attacking a padre. The matron takes a sedative injection from a nurse, checks the medication and administers the drug with impeccable professionalism – and this all happens in the space of about three minutes. I remember the intensity of the discussions about how this scene would work, and how many times it was ‘shot’ on the day of filming. But I also remember with some chagrin how, the night after filming, I realised that the injection technique had not been performed entirely correctly. I had to tell David Evans that I had watched the whole sequence six times without noticing that a mistake had been made. Some historical adviser! The entire scene had to be re-filmed. The end result, though, is an impressive piece of hospital drama. Norris looks as though she has been giving intramuscular injections all her life. I shall never forget the professionalism of the director and actors on that set – nor their patience with the absent-minded-professor who was their adviser for the week.

In a centenary year, it can be difficult to distinguish between myths and realities. We all want to know the ‘facts’ or the ‘truths’ about the First World War, but we also want to hear good stories – and it is all the better if those elide facts and enhance the drama of events – because, as human beings, we want to be entertained as well. The important thing, for me, is to fully realise what it is we are commemorating: the significance of the contributions and the enormity of the sacrifices made by our ancestors. Being honest to their memories is the only thing that really matters –the thing that makes all centenary commemoration projects worthwhile.

Image credit: Ministry of Information First World War Collection, from Imperial War Museum Archive. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

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19. Early Modern Porn Wars

One day in 1668, the English diarist Samuel Pepys went shopping for a book to give his young French-speaking wife. He saw a book he thought she might enjoy, L’École des femmes or The School of Women, “but when I came to look into it, it is the most bawdy, lewd book that ever I saw,” he wrote, “so that I was ashamed of reading in it.” Not so ashamed, however, that he didn’t return to buy it for himself three weeks later — but “in plain binding…because I resolve, as soon as I have read it, to burn it, that it may not stand in the list of books, nor among them, to disgrace them if it should be found.” The next night he stole off to his room to read it, judging it to be “a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for information sake (but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to decharger); and after I had done it, I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame.” Pepys’s coy detours into mock-Spanish or Franglais fail to conceal the orgasmic effect the lewd book had on him, and his is the earliest and most candid report we have of one reader’s bodily response to the reading of pornography. But what is “pornography”? What is its history? Was there even such a thing as “pornography” before the word was coined in the nineteenth century?

The announcement, in early 2013, of the establishment of a new academic journal to be called Porn Studies led to a minor flurry of media reports and set off, predictably, responses ranging from interest to outrage by way of derision. One group, self-titled Stop Porn Culture, circulated a petition denouncing the project, echoing the “porn wars” of the 1970s and 80s which pitted anti-censorship against anti-pornography activists. Those years saw an eruption of heated, if not always illuminating, debate over the meanings and effects of sexual representations; and if the anti-censorship side may seem to have “won” the war, in that sexual representations seem to be inescapable in the age of the internet and social media, the anti-pornography credo that such representations cause cultural, psychological, and physical harm is now so widespread as almost to be taken for granted in the mainstream press.

The brave new world of “sexting” and content-sharing apps may have fueled anxieties about the apparent sexualization of popular culture, and especially of young people, but these anxieties are anything but new; they may, in fact, be as old as culture itself. At the very least, they go back to a period when new print technologies and rising literacy rates first put sexual representations within reach of a wide popular audience in England and elsewhere in Western Europe: the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most readers did not leave diaries, but Pepys was probably typical in the mixture of shame and excitement he felt when erotic works like L’École des filles began to appear in London bookshops from the 1680s on. Yet as long as such works could only be found in the original French or Italian, British censors took little interest in them, for their readership was limited to a linguistic elite. It was only when translation made such texts available to less privileged readers — women, tradesmen, apprentices, servants — that the agents of the law came to view them as a threat to what the Attorney General, Sir Philip Yorke, in an important 1728 obscenity trial, called the “public order which is morality.” The pornographic or obscene work is one whose sexual representations violate cultural taboos and norms of decency. In doing so it may lend itself to social and political critique, as happened in France in the 1780s and 90s, when obscene texts were used to critique the corruptions of the ancien régime; but the pornographic can also be used as a vehicle of debasement and violence, notably against women — which is one historical reality behind the US porn wars of the 1970s.

Front page of L'École des femmes—engraving from the 1719 edition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Front page of L’École des femmes—engraving from the 1719 edition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Pornography’s critics in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries have had less interest in the written word than in visual media; but recurrent campaigns to ban books by such authors as Judy Blume which aim to engage candidly with younger readers on sexual concerns suggest that literature can still be a battleground, as it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Take, for example, the words of the British attorney general Dudley Ryder in the 1749 obscenity trial of Thomas Cannon’s Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d, a paean to male same-sex desire masquerading as an attack. Cannon, Ryder declared, aimed to “Debauch Poison and Infect the Minds of all the Youth of this Kingdom and to Raise Excite and Create in the Minds of all the said Youth most Shocking and Abominable Ideas and Sentiments”; and in so doing, Ryder contends, Cannon aimed to draw readers “into the Love and Practice of that unnatural detestable and odious crime of Sodomy.” Two and a half centuries ago, Ryder set the terms of our ongoing porn wars. Denouncing the recent profusion of sexual representations, he insists that such works create dangerous new desires and inspire their readers to commit sexual crimes of their own.

Then as now, attitudes towards sexuality and sexual representations were almost unbridgeably polarized. A surge in the popularity of pornographic texts was countered by increasingly severe campaigns to suppress them. Ironically, however, those very attempts to suppress could actually bring the offending work to a wider audience, by exciting their curiosity. No copies of Cannon’s “shocking and abominable” work survive in their original form; but the text has been preserved for us to read in the indictment that Ryder prepared for the trial against it. Eighty years earlier, after his encounter with L’École des femmes, Pepys guiltily burned the book, but at the same time immortalized the sensual, shameful experience of reading it. Of such contradictions is the long history of porn wars made.

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20. Royal teeth and smiles

Much of the comment on the official photographic portrait of the Queen released in April this year to celebrate her 88th birthday focussed on her celebrity photographer, David Bailey, who seemed to have ‘infiltrated’ (his word) the bosom of the establishment. Less remarked on, but equally of note, is that the very informal pose that the queen adopted showed her smiling, and not only smiling but also showing her teeth.

It is only very recently that monarchs have cracked a smile for a portrait, let alone a smile that revealed teeth. Before the modern age, monarchs embodied power – and power rarely smiles. Indeed it has often been thought to be worrying when it does. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s endlessly flashing teeth caused this powerful statesman to trigger as much suspicion as approval. The negative reaction was testimony to an unwritten law of portraiture, present until very recently in western art. According to this, an open mouth signifies plebeian status, extreme emotion, or else folly and licence, bordering on insanity. As late as the eighteenth century, an individual who liked to be depicted smiling as manifestly as Tony Blair would have risked being locked up as a lunatic.

The individual who broke this unwritten law of western portraiture was Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun whose charming smile –- at once twinklingly seductive and reassuringly maternal – was displayed at the Paris Salon in 1787. It appears on the front cover of my book, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris. The French capital had witnessed the emergence of modern dentistry over the course of the century – a subject that has been largely neglected. In addition, the city’s elites adopted the polite smile of sensibility that they had learned from the novels of Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Madame Vigée Le Brun’s smile shocked the artistic establishment and the stuffy court elite out at Versailles, who still observed tradition, but it marked the advent of white teeth as a positive attribute in western art.

queen elizabeth
Young Queen, Elizabeth II, by Lee J Haywood. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Yet if Vigée Le Brun’s example was followed by many of the most eminent artists of her day (David, Ingres, Gérard, etc), the white tooth smile took much longer to establish itself as a canonical and approved portrait gesture. The eighteenth century’s ‘Smile Revolution’ aborted after 1789. Politics under the French Revolution and the Terror were far too serious to accommodate smiles. The increasingly gendered world of separate spheres consigned the smile to the domestic environment. And for most of the nineteenth century, monarchs and men of power in the public sphere, following traditional modes of the expression of gravitas, invariably presented a smile-less face to the world.

Probably the first reigning monarch to have a portrait painted that revealed white teeth was Queen Victoria. This may seem surprising given her famous penchant for staying resolutely ‘unamused’. Yet in 1843, she commissioned the German portrait-painter Franz-Xaver Winterhalter to paint a delightfully informal study, that showed the twenty-four year-old monarch reclining on a sofa revealing her teeth in a dreamy and indeed mildly aroused smile. Yet the conditions of the portrait’s commission showed that the seemly old rules were still in place. For Victoria had commissioned the portrait as a precious personal gift for her ‘angelic’ husband, Prince Albert. What she called her ‘secret picture’ was hung in the queen’s bedroom and was not seen in public throughout her reign. Indeed, its display in an exhibition in 2009, over a century after her death, marked only its second public showing since its creation. This was three years after Rolf Harris’s 2006 portrayal of the queen with a white-tooth smile, a significant precursor to David Bailey’s photograph.

If English monarchs have thus been late-comers to the twentieth-century smile-fest, their subjects have been baring their teeth in a smile for many decades. As early as the 1930s and 1940, the practice of saying ‘cheese’ when confronted with a camera became the norm. Hollywood-style studio photography, advertising models and more relaxed forms of sociability and subjectivity have combined to produce the twentieth century’s very own Smile Revolution. So it is worth reflecting whether the reigning monarch’s early twenty-first century acceptance of the smile’s progress will mark a complete and durable revolution in royal portraiture. Seemingly only time – and the Prince of Wales – will tell.

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21. Catesby’s American Dream: religious persecution in Elizabethan England

Over the summer of 1582 a group of English Catholic gentlemen met to hammer out their plans for a colony in North America — not Roanoke Island, Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement of 1585, but Norumbega in present-day New England.

The scheme was promoted by two knights of the realm, Sir George Peckham and Sir Thomas Gerard, and it attracted several wealthy backers, including a gentleman from the midlands called Sir William Catesby. In the list of articles drafted in June 1582, Catesby agreed to be an Associate. In return for putting up £100 and ten men for the first voyage (forty for the next), he was promised a seignory of 10,000 acres and election to one of “the chief offices in government”. Special privileges would be extended to “encourage women to go on the voyage” and according to Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in London, the settlers would “live in those parts with freedom of conscience.”

Religious liberty was important for these English Catholics because they didn’t have it at home. The Mass was banned, their priests were outlawed and, since 1571, even the possession of personal devotional items, like rosaries, was considered suspect. In November 1581, Catesby was fined 1,000 marks (£666) and imprisoned in the Fleet for allegedly harboring the Jesuit missionary priest, Edmund Campion, who was executed in December.

Campion’s mission had been controversial. He had challenged the state to a public debate and he had told the English Catholics that those who had been obeying the law and attending official church services every week — perhaps crossing their fingers, or blocking their ears, or keeping their hats on, to show that they didn’t really believe in Protestantism — had been living in sin. Church papistry, as it was known pejoratively, was against the law of God. The English government responded by raising the fine for non-attendance from 12 pence to £20 a month. It was a crippling sum and it prompted Catesby and his friends to go in search of a promised land.

The American venture was undeniably risky — “wild people, wild beasts, unexperienced air, unprovided land” did not inspire investor confidence — but it had some momentum in the summer of 1582. Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s secretary of state, was behind it, but the Spanish scuppered it. Ambassador Mendoza argued that the emigration would drain “the small remnant of good blood” from the “sick body” of England. He was also concerned for Spain’s interests in the New World. The English could not be allowed a foothold in the Americas. It mattered not a jot that they were Catholic, “they would immediately have their throats cut as happened to the French.” Mendoza conveyed this threat to the would-be settlers via their priests with the further warning that “they were imperilling their consciences by engaging in an enterprise prejudicial to His Holiness” the Pope.

Revellers commemorate the failed 1605 assasination attempt against King James I each year on November 5. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Revellers commemorate the failed 1605 assasination attempt against King James I each year on November 5. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So Sir William Catesby did not sail the seas or have a role in the plantation of what — had it succeeded — would have been the first English colony in North America. He remained in England and continued to strive for a peaceful solution. “Suffer us not to be the only outcasts and refuse of the world,” he and his friends begged Elizabeth I in 1585, just before an act was passed making it a capital offense to be, or even to harbor, a seminary priest in England. Three years later, as the Spanish Armada beat menacingly towards England’s shore, Sir William and other prominent Catholics were clapped up as suspected fifth columnists. In 1593 those Catholics who refused to go to church were forbidden by law from traveling beyond five miles of their homes without a license. And so it went on until William’s death in 1598.

Seven years later, in the reign of the next monarch James I (James VI of Scotland), William’s son Robert became what we would today call a terrorist. Frustrated, angry and “beside himself with mindless fanaticism,” he contrived to blow up the king and the House of Lords at the state opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. “The nature of the disease,” he told his recruits, “required so sharp a remedy.” The plot was discovered and anti-popery became ever more entrenched in English culture. Only in 2013 was the constitution weeded of a clause that insisted that royal heirs who married Catholics were excluded from the line of succession.

Every 5 November, we English and Scottish set off our fireworks and let our children foam with marshmallow, and we enjoy “bonfire night” as a bit of harmless fun, without really thinking about why the plotters sought their “sharp remedy” or, indeed, about the tragedy of the father’s failed American Dream, a dream for religious freedom that was twisted out of all recognition by the son.

Featured image: North East America, by Abraham Ortelius 1570. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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22. Clerical celibacy

A set of related satirical poems, probably written in the early thirteenth century, described an imaginary church council of English priests reacting to the news that they must henceforth be celibate. In this fictional universe the council erupted in outrage as priest after priest stood to denounce the new papal policy. Not surprisingly, the protests of many focused on sex, with one speaker, for instance, indignantly protesting that virile English clerics should be able to sleep with women, not livestock. However, other protests were focused on family. Some speakers appealed to the desire for children, and others noted their attachment to their consorts, such as one who exclaimed: “This is a useless measure, frivolous and vain; he who does not love his companion is not sane!” The poems were created for comical effect, but a little over a century earlier English priests had in fact faced, for the first time, a nationwide, systematic attempt to enforce clerical celibacy. Undoubtedly a major part of the ensuing uproar was about sex, but in reality as in fiction it was also about family.

Rules demanding celibacy first appeared at church councils in the late Roman period but were only sporadically enforced in Western Europe through the early Middle Ages and never had more than a limited impact in what would become the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Anglo-Saxon England moralists sometimes preached against clerical marriage and both king and church occasionally issued prohibitions against it, but to little apparent effect. Indeed, one scribe erased a ban on clerical marriage from a manuscript and wrote instead, “it is right that a cleric (or priest) love a decent woman and bed her.” In the eleventh century, however, a reinvigorated papacy began a sustained drive to enforce clerical celibacy throughout Catholic Europe for clerics of the ranks of priest, deacon, or subdeacon. This effort provoked great controversy, but papal policy prevailed, and over the next couple of centuries increasingly made clerical celibacy the norm.

In England, it was Anselm, the second archbishop of Canterbury appointed after the Norman Conquest, who made the first attempt to systematically impose clerical celibacy in 1102. Anselm’s efforts created a huge challenge to the status quo, for many, perhaps most English priests were married in 1102 and the priesthood was often a hereditary profession. Indeed, Anselm and Pope Paschal II agreed not to attempt in the short term to enforce one part of the program of celibacy, the disbarment of sons of priests from the priesthood, because that would have decimated the ranks of the English clergy. Anselm, moreover, found himself trying to figure out how to allow priests to take care of their former wives, and priests who obediently separated from their wives were apparently sometimes threatened by their angry in-laws. Not surprisingly, Anselm’s efforts were deeply unpopular and faced widespread opposition.

Commentary on the Epistles of Paul, from the Gallery of Web Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Commentary on the Epistles of Paul, from the Gallery of Web Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Priests then and in subsequent generations (for Anselm’s efforts had only limited success in the short run) were often deeply attached to their families. A miracle story recorded after Thomas Becket’s death in 1170 describes a grieving priest getting confirmation from the recent martyr that his concubine, who had done good works before her death, had gone to heaven. Other miracle stories show priests and their companions lamenting the illness, misfortune, or death of a child and seeking miraculous aid. It took a long time to fully convince everyone that priestly families were ipso facto immoral. Even late in the twelfth century, the monastic writer John of Ford, in a saint’s life of the hermit Wulfric of Haselbury, could depict the family of a parish priest, Brictric, as perfectly pious, with Brictric’s wife making ecclesiastical vestments and his son and eventual successor as priest, Osbern, serving at mass as a minor cleric. John also depicted a former concubine of another priest as a saintly woman noted for her piety. Proponents of clerical celibacy had a difficult challenge not only in enforcing the rules but in convincing people that they ought to be enforced in the first place.

Inevitably, priests’ families suffered heavily from the drive for celibacy. The sons of priests lost the chance to routinely follow in their father’s professional footsteps, as most medieval men did. After priestly marriage was legally eliminated, sons and daughters both were automatically illegitimate, bringing severe legal disadvantages. However, it was the female companions of priests who suffered most. Partly this was because one of the key motives behind clerical celibacy was the belief that sexual contact with women polluted priests who then physically touched God by touching the sacrament as they performed the Eucharist. Moralists constantly preached that this was irreligious, even blasphemous, and disgusting. However, the female partners of priests also suffered because preachers constantly denigrated them as whores and used misogynistic stereotypes to try to convince priests that they should avoid taking partners. Thus preachers repeatedly attacked priests for wasting money on adorning their “whores” or for arising from having sex with their “whores” to go perform the Eucharist. It is hard to know the precise position of priests’ wives in the eleventh century but it is quite likely that most were perfectly respectable. Nonetheless, the attacks of reformers had a powerful impact. In 1137 King Stephen decided to do his part to encourage clerical celibacy, and raise money in the process, by rounding up clerical concubines and holding them in the Tower of London for ransom. Some of these were probably partners of canons of St Paul’s cathedral, who were rich and powerful men, but even so, while in the tower they were subject to physical mockery and abuse. Increasingly, it was impossible to be both the partner of a priest and a respectable member of society.

Many of the proponents of clerical celibacy were fiercely idealistic in their efforts to prevent what they saw as widespread pollution of the Eucharist, to remove the costs of families from the financial burdens of churches, to make the priesthood more distinctive from the laity, and simply to enforce church law. As the historian Christopher Brooke suggested nearly six decades ago, however, and as subsequent research has clearly demonstrated, one result of their efforts was a social revolution that resulted in broken homes and personal tragedies.

Headline image: 12th Century painters, from the Web Gallery of Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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23. The Scottish referendum: where is Cicero?

In a week’s time, the residents of Scotland (not the Scottish people: Scots resident south of the border are ineligible to vote) will decide whether or not to destroy the UK as currently constituted. The polls are on a knife edge; and Alex Salmond, the leader of the separatists, has a track record as a strong finisher. If he gets his way, the UK will lose 8% of its citizens and a third of its land mass; and Scotland, cut off, at least initially, from every international body (the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU) and every UK institution (the Bank of England, the pound sterling, the BBC, the security services), will face a bleak and uncertain future.

In the first century BC, the Roman republic was collapsing as a result of its systemic inability to curb the ambitions of powerful politicians. Everyone could see that the end was nigh; no one could predict what would follow. The conditions were ideal for the development of political oratory, and Cicero emerged as Rome’s greatest orator, determined to save his country even at the cost of his own life. During his consulship, he suppressed the conspiracy of Catiline, denouncing that man and his deluded supporters in his four Catilinarian Speeches. He pulled no punches: he did not hold back, like the supporters of the Union today, for fear of appearing too “negative”. So he informed the senate:

“A plot has been formed to ensure that, following a universal massacre, there should not be a single person left even to mourn the name of the Roman people or to lament the destruction of so great an empire.”

For Catiline’s supporters, he had nothing but contempt, telling the people:

“Reclining at their banquets, embracing their whores, heavy with wine, stuffed with food, wreathed with flowers, drenched with perfume, and worn out by promiscuous sex, they belch out their plans for the massacre of decent citizens and the burning of Rome.”

Cicero went straight for the jugular. Two decades later he denounced a more powerful adversary, Mark Antony, who was attempting with much greater forces to seize control of the state. Cicero attacked him in a series of speeches, the Philippics; but Antony did a deal with Octavian, got what he wanted, and had Cicero killed. Cicero’s words at the end of the Second Philippic were prophetic:

“I defended this country when I was a young man: I shall not desert it now that I am old. I faced down the swords of Catiline: I shall not flinch before yours. Yes, and I would willingly offer my body, if the freedom of this country could at once be secured by my death. Two things alone I long for: first, that when I die I may leave the Roman people free; and second, that each person’s fate may reflect the way he has behaved towards his country.”

Cicero denounces Catiline, from the Palazzo Madama. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Cicero denounces Catiline, from the Palazzo Madama. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Where is Cicero today when we need him? The debate on the future of Scotland, and hence of the UK, has been conducted in newspapers, in TV interviews and debates, and in social media. Anonymous internet trolls hurl abuse at celebrities who dare to express their affection for Britain. The Westminster Parliament stays silent. One MP, however, is free of the party whips, and has been touring Scotland delivering passionate, hard-hitting and unapologetically negative speeches in defence of the Union. This is George Galloway, and the speech he gave in Edinburgh on 24 June can be read and listened to here.

Like Cicero, Galloway pulls no punches. He compares the current crisis with 1940, the last time the UK faced an existential threat:

“And not one person asked in that summer and autumn of 1940 and into 1941 if the pilots who were spinning above us defending us from invasion from the barbaric horde were from Suffolk or Sutherland. We were people together on a small piece of rock with 300 years of common history.”

Referring to his political differences with the other supporters of the Union, he says, “We have come together but temporarily at a moment of national peril”, declaring:

“There will be havoc if you vote Yes in September. Havoc in Edinburgh and throughout the land and you will break the hearts of many others too.”

This preference for extreme, unambiguous statements, delivered with the greatest possible emotional force, and this recognition of the significance of the historical moment, is pure Cicero. But what is most Ciceronian in Galloway’s speech is the moral dimension. Galloway is not concerned with whether the new Scottish state would have to concentrate its spending on benefits or foreign embassies. Instead, he harks back repeatedly to the Second World War, that conflict of good against evil, contrasting it with Bannockburn, “a battle 700 years ago between two French-speaking kings with Scottish people on both sides”. And, as Cicero would, he judges an issue by the moral character of the people concerned: on the one side, Brian Souter, “the gay-baiting billionaire” and major donor of the SNP, and on the other, the children’s author J. K. Rowling, “one of our highest achieving women in the history of our entire country”, whose moderate and reasoned support for the Union has earned her hate mail from fanatical separatists. Morality runs like a thread all the way through Galloway’s speech.

How come so few women are in favour of independence? Why are Scotland’s women the most resistant of all the demographics in this contest? The reason is that women simply don’t like gambling. And everything in their project is about gambling — for your future, your pension, your children and their children’s future.

“Let it be inscribed on the forehead of every citizen what he thinks about his country”, Cicero told the senate. Next week, the future of the UK will be decided by a secret ballot. If Britain survives in a political and not merely in a geographical sense, part of the credit will be due to the Ciceronian eloquence of Mr Galloway.

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24. Why Scotland should get the government it votes for

I want an independent Scotland that is true to the ideals of egalitarianism articulated in some of the best poetry of Robert Burns. I want a pluralist, cosmopolitan Scotland accountable to its own parliament and allied to the European Union. My vote goes to Borgen, not to Braveheart. I want change.

Britain belongs to a past that is sometimes magnificent, but is a relic of empire. Scotland played its sometimes bloody part in that, but now should get out, and have the courage of its own distinctive convictions. It is ready to face up to being a small nation, and to get over its nostalgia for being part of some supposed ‘world power’. No better, no worse than many other nations, it is regaining its self-respect.

Yet the grip of the past is strong. Almost absurdly emblematic of the complicated state of 2014 Scottish politics is Bannockburn: seven hundred years ago Bannockburn, near Stirling in central Scotland, was the site of the greatest medieval Scottish victory against an English army. Today Bannockburn is part of a local government zone controlled by a Labour-Conservative political alliance eager to defeat any aspirations for Scottish independence. In the summer of 2014 Bannockburn was the site of a civilian celebration of that 1314 Scottish victory, and of a large-scale contemporary British military rally. The way the Labour and Conservative parties in Scotland are allied, sometimes uneasily, in the ‘Better Together’ or ‘No’ campaign to preserve the British Union makes Scotland a very different political arena from England where Labour is the opposition party fighting a Conservative Westminster government. England has no parliament of its own. As a result, the so-called ‘British’ Parliament, awash with its Lords, with its cabinet of privately educated millionaires, and with all its braying of privilege, spends much of its time on matters that relate to England, not Britain. This is a manifest abuse of power. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood looks – and is – very different.

Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.
Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.

Like many contemporary Scottish writers and artists, I am nourished by traditions, yet I like the idea of change and dislike the status quo, especially the political status quo. National identity is dynamic, not fixed. Democracy is about vigorous debate, about rocking the boat. Operating in an atmosphere of productive uncertainty is often good for artistic work. Writers enjoy rocking the boat, and can see that as a way of achieving a more egalitarian society. That’s why most writers and artists who have spoken out are on the ‘Yes’ side. If there is a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September 2014, it will be a clear vote for change. If there is a ‘No’ vote, it will be because of a strong innate conservatism in Scottish society – a sense of wanting to play it safe and not rock the boat. Whether Scotland’s Labour voters remain conservative in their allegiances and vote ‘No’, or can be swayed to vote ‘Yes’ because they see the possibility of a more egalitarian future — is a key question.

As we get nearer and nearer to the date of the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September, I expect there will be an audible closing of ranks on the part of the British establishment. Already in July we have had interventions from the First Sea Lord (who gave a Better Togetherish speech at the naming ceremony for an aircraft carrier), and a lot of money from major landowners and bankers has been swelling the coffers of those opposed to independence. In Glasgow it was good to read at an event with Liz Lochhead, Kathleen Jamie, Alasdair Gray, and other poets and novelists in support of independence. This is a very exciting time for Scotland, a time when relationships with all kinds of institutions are coming under intense scrutiny. Whatever happens, the country is likely to emerge stronger, and with an intensified sense of itself as a democratic place.

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25. The Scots and the Union of 1707: surly then, uncertain now

The Union of 1707 – which by uniting the English and Scottish parliaments created the new state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain – was enthusiastically sought by some Scots and grudgingly accepted by many more, even if most people would have been happier with a federal union. What until recently most historians had missed was the identification with the Union of Scottish politicians and their supporters who had suffered under the later Stuart regime. In some cases they’d been forced into exile in the Low Countries They were backers of the Revolution (of 1688-90) in Scotland, which they saw as truly glorious. They advocated union as a means of securing the gains of the Revolution (constitutional monarchy, the re-establishment of Presbyterianism and certain civil liberties) and keeping the Jacobites’ hands off the imperial crown. This was a union based on Whig principles – religious, civic and economic. It was effected, as far as Scotland was concerned, through the persistence of a number of driven individuals some of whom had advocated closer union with England in 1688-9, and were still around in 1706-7 to vote for this in the Scottish Parliament.

I take issue with the centuries-old shibboleth that in 1707 the Scots had been, in the words of Robert Burns, ‘bought and sold for English gold’, by a ‘parcel’ of roguish politicians. The Union of 1707 was not the betrayal of the Scottish nation its critics had long asserted, a measure to be overturned if Scotland was to be set back on its rightful constitutional trajectory – not as a stateless nation within the British union state but as an independent nation state.

Yet support for the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland has grown strongly since the 1970s, along with disenchantment with the British state and Westminster. Scots’ identification with Britain has fallen sharply, with most Scots now feeling more Scottish than British.

Union Jack and Scotland, by Julien Carnot. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via
Union Jack and Scotland, by Julien Carnot. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

It’s pretty clear that the Union is more vulnerable today than at any previous time since the Jacobite risings of 1714-5 and 1745-6. The props upon which it was built either no longer apply – its core purpose was to ensure that Queen Anne was succeeded by a Protestant (thereby excluding the Catholic claimant, James Edward Stuart, later the ‘Old Pretender’), or are less important. Presbyterianism, the security of which was enshrined (in theory at least) in the first of the two acts that comprised the Union agreement, has ceased to matter for most Scots. Scotland’s economy is no longer under-developed – unhindered access to the English market and to England’s Atlantic and Caribbean colonies were attractions even for Scots who were otherwise opposed to incorporation.

In short, there is a case for saying that the Union is past its ‘sell by date’. Those who are keen to maintain the United Kingdom need to come up with a vision for a Union for the 21st century – or at the very least a rationale – of the kind that inspired Scots to push for such an arrangement in 1707. Many more rallied to defend it – sometimes by risking life and limb – against the Jacobite incursions of 1715 and 1745. Until recently the main pro-Union campaign, Better Together, has been criticized for emphasizing the negative aspects of Scottish independence – ‘project fear’ – rather than the positive virtues of the Union.

Yet support for Yes Scotland – the separatists’ campaign – is (at the time of writing) apparently no higher than around 40% of the electorate, suggesting that when the referendum vote happens, on 18 September this year, a majority of Scots will vote No. Comparison with other nations in Europe that have recently struggled for and achieved independence may tell us something – not least that Scotland’s experience of union with a bigger neighbor has been somewhat less oppressive. Like being in bed not with an elephant as some allege, but a teddy bear. And that currently, notwithstanding its failings, more Scots than the nationalists hoped for still feel comfortable within the Union. It’s a habit that’s lasted for more than three centuries. As things stand, not enough people have found compelling reasons to give it up.

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