Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History

Two PhD students in the Department of History at KCL, Maggie Scull and Naomi Lloyd-Jones, discuss the ideas and debates that lie behind their successful Four Nations History Network.

Four Nations 2

We’re two PhD students looking not to change the world, but to reshape the debate on Modern ‘British’ History. Our own thesis research, although separated by 100 years, draws on a shared history. Yet had we not met on a statistical methodology course run by the School of Advanced Studies, our projects, however similar, might not have crossed paths. We realised that there was a need for a platform to connect researchers – be they postgraduates, early career historians or established academics. With this is mind, we created the Four Nations History Network for those working on the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. With the ‘New British History’ no longer so ‘new’, we hope to reignite the debate over how we study ‘British’ history. The network is open to anyone using ‘four nations’ or ‘British’ frameworks, and to those researching the individual nations.

Forty years ago, J.G.A. Pocock made a now famed clarion call for ‘British history’ to be revived and re-invested with a meaning allegedly stripped from it by the likes of A.J.P. Taylor.[1] He observed the lack of ‘histories of Britain’ and the dominance of what thereby effectively amounted to ‘histories of England’, in which the Welsh, Scottish and Irish appeared ‘when, and only when, their doings assume[d] power to disturb the tenor of English politics.’ He also noted the parallel practice of writing ‘histories of Wales, Scotland [and] Ireland’ as ‘separate enterprises’, thereby perpetuating the existence of ‘separate historiographical traditions.’[2]

Pocock’s mantle was most comprehensively taken up in the 1990s by a school of early modernists who, in a series of conference proceedings, emphasised the need to place given points in history into their ‘British’ context, so as to tease out a host of forgotten dimensions and establish a new, more complete narrative. Illuminating and lively though the debate generated by these studies was, by 2013 Toby Barnard could suggest that ‘the “British” approach to political history from 1485 to 1782 may have run its course.’[3] Yet the ‘British’ approach to modern history, political or otherwise, has barely hit the ground running.

The current political climate, with the simultaneous emergence of a four nations discourse and a renewed focus on the affairs of the nations within the UK, suggests alternative methodologies are required to understand the past and the present. For instance, David Cameron’s rhetoric has shifted in the months after the Scottish independence referendum. The morning after the vote, he stood outside No.10 and declared that voters had ‘kept our country of four nations together’. At his party’s 2014 conference, Cameron expressed his pride at being ‘Prime Minister of four nations in one United Kingdom’. Fast forward to the early hours of 8 May 2015, and we find Cameron again outside Downing Street, but this time pledging the Conservatives to ‘govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom.’ The party nevertheless issued a separate ‘English manifesto’ and has outlined plans for ‘English votes for English laws’, while also vowing to press ahead with the Smith Commission’s recommendations on Scottish devolution.

Four Nations 1Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, has both insisted on Scotland’s right to be heard at Westminster and called for ‘the assent of all four UK home nations before any withdrawal from the EU’.

A four nations approach is a different beast from other kinds of history, in that it is intentionally polycentric. The Four Nations History Network does not intend to be prescriptive, nor do we advocate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. In this respect, we heed David Cannadine’s warning that no one approach should be allowed to dominate.[4] Instead, our aim is to demonstrate that four nations frameworks are relevant to a range of fields, and, crucially, can be interpreted and applied in different ways. Moreover, we aim to address certain of the imbalances in the New British History. We do not seek to recount a process of state formation, alleged by some to offer merely ‘a more sophisticated version of old-fashioned anglocentric constitutional history.’[5] Four nations is not about core-periphery; it allows for and explores the complications arising from regionalism, pan-Celticism and the seeming inextricability of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’. Nor is the Network solely (high) political in its focus; we publish blogs on cultural, gender, imperial, intellectual and economic history. In some subject areas, a four nations approach is an intuitive exercise; in the case of others, we hope the Network will inspire critical engagement with such frameworks.

We hope to hold another conference as well as a roundtable discussion on the future of four nations as a framework for the study of modern ‘British’ history. So while Pocock made his ‘plea for a new subject’, we ask historians to broaden their toolkit and think about how four nations could relate to their research.


[1] See, for example, A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), v.

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, 47:4 (Dec. 1975), pp.601-621.

[3] T. Barnard, ‘Renewing the “New” British history’, unpubl. Dacre lecture, Oxford University (May 2013).

[4] D. Cannadine, ‘British History as a “new subject.” Politics, perspectives and prospects’, in A. Grant & K.J. Stringer (eds.), Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (London, 1995), p.23.

[5]K.M. Brown, ‘Seducing the Scottish Clio: Has Scottish History Anything to Fear From The New British History?’, in G. Burgess (ed.), The New British History: Founding a Modern State, 1603-1715 (London, 1999), p.242.

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon, (c. 1670)

Tom Colville, PhD candidate in the KCL History department, considers the value of satires for a historian seeking to understand early modern concepts. The particular source in question is Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon (c. 1670) which features in his thesis on “Mental Capacity in the Early Royal Society and Beyond: Intelligence and The New Science in England c.1650-1750”.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, formed in 1660, was a contentious institution. Anyone who has ever studied early modern natural philosophy, or indeed any aspect of Restoration society, will no doubt have come across one of the vitriolic pamphlets that attacked the Society in its early years. Some of the more brazen of these have been extensively discussed by historians, for example Henry Stubbe’s inflammatory Legends no Histories (1670). However, I believe one of the most interesting criticisms of the early Royal Society has largely flown under the radar.

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elephant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elepehant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon must be one of the most wonderfully simple yet beautifully conceived satires of the seventeenth century. Essentially, Butler’s poem tells the story of a group of self-congratulatory Royal Society virtuosi gathered around a telescope. These gentlemen scientists take turns to examine the moon through the looking glass and discover the regaling sight of open warfare taking place on that celestial body, with two opposing armies in the heat of battle. Most astonishingly of all, an enormous elephant emerges from one of the lines of soldiers and rampages across the surface of the moon at a blistering pace, travelling from one side to the other in a matter of seconds. Amazed at the brilliance of their own discovery the virtuosi set about writing up their findings for publication, certain in the belief that this will finally put all questions about their lack of productivity to bed at last. Leaving the telescope unattended, a simple footman decides to experience the Royal Society life-style and steals a quick look through the eye-piece; he sees the truth of the situation immediately. Some gnats and flies have found a gap in the telescope and made a home on the lens; these are the virtuosi’s warring armies. And the elephant? A mouse has got trapped and squashed against the internal glass.

‘For he had scarce apply’d his eye
To Th’ engine, but immediately
He found a mouse was gotten in
The hollow tube, and, shut between
The two glass windows in restraint,
Was swell’d into an Elephant’

For my own research into conceptions of intelligence and mental capacity in the social milieu of early modern natural philosophy this poem offers some really valuable insight. The subversive twist is really effective because there is a perceived difference in expected intelligence between the footman and the virtuosi. Let us consider the significance of the mouse in the story. The fact that the footman’s mouse discovery conquers the Royal Society Fellows’ elephant discovery represents the victory of the small over the large, the seemingly insignificant over the bloated and loud. That size difference corresponds to an idea about the size of intellectual ability between the two groups. To leave his reader in no doubt at all, Butler composed an ode to his mouse as a footnote to The Elephant in the Moon. The Royal Society, and particularly their oversized appreciation for their own mental ability, is the real elephant in the room. And ‘the Mouse, that, by mishap,/ Had made the telescope a trap’, ‘though he appears unequal match’d, I grant,/ In bulk and stature by the Elephant,/ Yet frequently has been observed in battle/ To have reduc’d the proud and haughty cattle’.

Butler’s work has prompted me to think about the value of satires as primary sources for historians. The success of satirical work rests on a shared set of ideas between the author and his/her readers. Unlike a polemic (such as Stubbe’s above mentioned work), which can forcibly impose ideas onto the minds of their readers in acts of persuasion, a satire is dependent on the reader already sharing certain conceptions with the satirist. Satires might therefore – if we are able to decipher them – be able to demonstrate core concepts and ideas which are not only important to one author but are genuinely expected to resonate with an audience.

Swift's word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[...], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Swift’s word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[…], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Moreover, the power of imagery to articulate concepts which are not neatly encapsulated by a simple phrase or term is an interesting off-shoot from examining satires closely. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that a number of references to mental capacity which I have come across in early modern satire also rely heavily upon clear images. In Butler’s case, what could be more emblematic of the misrepresentation of intellectual size than a mouse distorted into an elephant? In Gulliver’s Travels, one of the very few images is included to demonstrate the writing machine that allows a group of unlearned idiots to randomly turn wheels until intelligent words start to appear. It may well be the case that difficult-to-articulate concepts, and those with an uncertain and contested vocabulary (such as intelligence or mental capacity), are the ones which imagery-heavy satire are best suited to representing.

The Challenges of Researching in India

My research in India has been the best thing about my PhD. I initially dismissed the idea, especially as an unfunded student, all that expense and effort put me off, but during my upgrade I was encouraged to go. I couldn’t have anticipated what it is like standing in front of the buildings you’ve been writing about for years. Experiencing India has made my project betteLEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01r and not just because of the archival material I can now add.



I spent 5 weeks in India in 2013 splitting my time between Delhi and Kolkata: the latter was certainly my favourite. Returning to Kolkata in February 2015 for a short archival visit was easier than my previous trip. I gained access to the reading room in a day rather than a week. I had a clear plan for tackling as many records as the bizarre rules and haphazard opening hours would let me get my hands on. The city itself felt familiar, this is mainly due to all of the colonial architecture, but also because it is during my research trips that I have felt most connected to my project.

We all know that archives are full of challenges. How to tackle the archive as an institution and as source is something we frequently discuss as historians. India has a unique set of hurdles ranging from the political structuring and staffing of the national and state archives, the working conditions, the rapidly disintegrating records, and the illogical rules that seem to only exist in the archivist’s head. As historians we pay a lot of attention to methodology but not enough to logistics. We don’t seem to acknowledge how complicated, confusing and frustrating it can be just to get to the archive, especially for international and global historians. It can be infuriating listening to someone moan about the Bodleian when you’ve sat with rats crawling over your feet and an inexplicably angry archivist screaming at you in Bengali because you’ve had the audacity to request a file.

It is not just the differences in the archive experience at the research level that we forget to talk about, it is the reality of being an academic abroad. I’m not asking universities to hold our hands – we are after all adults – but in the social sciences it’s common practice to have some kind of training, especially if you are visiting developing countries or challenging environments. Most historians do not have to pass ethical research committees, but just because the content of the research does not present risks does not mean the research activity is without potential issues. As an institution which prides itself on global history we at King’s cannot pretend that archives exist in a vacuum.

Most of the basic advice feels pretty obvious, like budgeting an extra week in your research trip for illness or paperwork. We can all be sensible enough to ignore the funding criteria which stipulates that you get the cheapest hotel or the cheapest train ticket. Yet as a research community would it not be productive to share information and discuss best practice?

The elephant in the room of this discussion is the specificity of the female academic experience. I can only share my own experience and while I am more than aware it is not a universal one it certainly isn’t unique. I was not prepared for the constant sexual harassment in India. Most days just getting to the archive to conduct my research activity was distressing. I was shouted at, groped on public transport and followed in the street. I had to entirely change the way I dressed and behaved just to feel fractionally safer. In India my femaleness was a constant obstacle I had to overcome to just go about my business.

The moment that really sticks with me was at 4pm in the National Archives in Delhi when a fellow female researcher lightly touched my arm and said “this is when we leave”. The daily late afternoon exodus of women hurrying to get home before sunset was a reminder of how unsafe the city was and how different my archival work has to be.

My academic career will be shaped by whether or not I am prepared to face being a single female researcher abroad. I love India, and I will certainly be going back despite being aware that it will be challenging. To really successfully develop my thesis into a book I would need to go to Bangladesh which totally terrifies me, and it is a very difficult decision. Honestly, without a stronger, supportive, and more aware academic community, it would be easier for me to turn my focus towards a more British history of Empire and away from more exciting research adventures than the British Library.

Amy Kavanagh is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on District Officials, Representation and Power in Nineteenth-Century India


What Sort of History Should Historians Write?

The blog entry below is the second in a series of responses to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at KCL on the 14th of January 2015. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

After I submitted my PhD proposal I realised how it was exactly the sort of history which had recently been labelled as utterly redundant. Needless to say, this made me feel a little sad. This stark come down came in the form of Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto. For these scholars, to produce an account of the ways in which science informed the politics of the British Left between 1964 and 1979 would be about as useless as a modernist historian explaining the minutia of an Anglo-Saxon hill fort. In fact, perhaps worse. As to Guldi and Armitage histories based in a single country over a short period of time, micro-studies, are representative of everything wrong with modern day academic history. To these scholars, since micro-studies could only ever be small, insular and irrelevant, such work embodies as well as ensures the slow demise of history into an immaterial subject of no contemporary importance. So Guldi and Armitage suggest all historians (including would-be historians in training) should all ditch the particulars and work solely in terms of big data and the longue durée. Only through doing so can historians hope to be of any relevance outside of three other researchers in their field.

For many reasons, it is a relief that I do not exactly agree with the arguments laid out within the History Manifesto. Actually, I think it would be difficult for me to disagree with them more, but I’ll keep this focused. My most central objection is to how Guldi and Armitage conceive of what constitutes good history and, more specifically, I take issue with their misplaced emphasis on the utility of quantifiable knowledge within historical practice.

I agreed with something which David Edgerton put forward at the event organised on this topic. He made the excellent point that there are, of course, a plurality of historical approaches and histories. This makes Guldi and Armitage’s dogmatic stance on a single type of history seem a little odd. In fact, Edgerton went so far to say that the History Manifesto presupposes a stage theory of history which would make Stalin blush. It is clearly strange to state that a single type of history should dominate over all others. But I also think we can level a more specific critique at the type of history which Guldi and Armitage put forward as the sort which they feel should dominate historical practice.

Guldi and Armitage argued all historical work must use big data as it is only through presenting quantifiable knowledge over a long period of time can history “speak truth to power.” The first issue I have with this idea is the strange assumption that history speaks any truth whatsoever. Isn’t this the sort of thing that an undergraduate would be scolded for? Yet, throughout the criticism and discussion on the History Manifesto the problem of historical truth is not really discussed. However, this is a really important thing to talk about not only in and of itself, but because it reveals to us what I think is the real importance of history. I believe the radical potential of history rests not in any mysterious claims to objectivity, but in its very subjectivity. This is not to lead us far down the terrifying far reaches of a postmodern rabbit hole. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that through understanding how the power of history lays in its subjectivity we can produce not only better scholarship, but also ensure that our histories can play a vital part in contemporary political discourse.

I turn to international development as an important example of where historical thinking, and not the big data stuff, can help us think about very real policy issues. Michael Woolcock, Vijayendra Rao and Simon Szreter in their 2010 paper ‘How and Why Does History Matter for Development Policy’ argued that in contrast to the universalising abstractions of economists, historians can provide localized, nuanced and self-aware accounts of the impact of development policies. This is particularly useful as Woolcock, Rao and Szeter stressed how historians can appreciate, for instance, that the consequences of policies might be unexpected or that the same policy can mean different things to various groups of people. What is important here is how history has the capacity to treat human beings as human beings. This is what historians of the longue durée and big data can miss out on by conceiving of people through numbers. So history might not tell the truth, but if it doesn’t attempt to this can make it all the more useful.

So, for me, the wonder of history is not in its ability to “speak truth to power,” but in its potential to speak another language than that of power. Not one of arrogance, data and economic growth, but one of humility, scepticism and self-awareness. I believe that the central question which the History Manifesto raises is certainly not one which it intended to. It makes us think why do Guldi and Armitage suppose the link between quantifiable knowledge and relevance? I feel answering this could tell us a lot about the modern world and looking at this question historically could result in some interesting research. I think it is fair to say that, perhaps, it would produce arguments that would neither span over three-hundred years nor have their basis in numbers.

Tom Kelsey is currently a student on the Science, Technology, and Medicine in History MA at King’s College London.

‘The Mystery of Time’: Film and Science in the ‘Atomic Age’

Dr Caitjan Gainty is Lecturer in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in the History department at King’s College London. Alongside her book project on the concept of efficiency in twentieth century American medicine Dr Gainty is also working on a comparative (US/UK) history of instructional and entertainment films of childbirth and on the aesthetics of science in post World War II American life. Here she explores these themes through the films of Irwin Moon.

In 1957, The Mystery of Time introduced audiences to the fantastical instruments of the Moody Bible College’s Institute of Science. Written, produced and hosted by Irwin Moon, the film ushers the viewer into the Moody Lab, where the typical tools of laboratory science are replaced by instruments of perspectival manipulation. There, “time microscopes” and “time compressors” – time-lapse and high-speed cameras – capture and replay images too fast or slow for the naked eye. But after an arrow slowly shatters an egg, and a rose blossoms and dies in quick succession, the lesson in temporal perspective shifts to the grander scale of relativity. With the aid of a special Panavision lens, Moon seems to bend and compress space and time, relishing the challenge their interconnected elasticity poses to human perception. He clarifies that we have just witnessed a lesson in divine omniscience and omnipresence, and in his performance he hints at the immortal soul. As the camera slows in a lesson on lightspeed travel, Moon’s voice slows and distorts. “My heart would cease to beat,” he tells us, “and I wouldn’t die.”

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

The Mystery of Time was not a new venture for Moon, whose Moody Institute of Science film series explored the overlap between science and religion throughout its run. The idea of the film series was itself inspired by Moon’s “Sermons from Science”, a series of live performances put on in the 1930s and 40s at public venues across the United States. He also traveled abroad, joining the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the United Service Organization (USO) entertainment program for American troops serving overseas in World War II. Billed as the “Million Volt Preacher,” Moon put on shows that were by all accounts far more exciting than those of the Hollywood stars. For his finale, Moon darkened the stage, removed his shoes, placed thimbles on his fingers and stood on top of a transformer as the promised one million volts of electricity coursed through his body. The sparks that shot out of his outstretched hands reached up to six feet in length: a dramatic display that Moon would finally capture on film in his 1954 Facts of Faith.moons thimbles

How Moon has been remembered in the years since his evangelical film forays has been very much a matter of perspective. To some, he was an evangelist who successfully used science to save souls; to others, a filmmaker who won a significant number of science awards for his film work. For still others, he represented the vanguard of “intelligent design,” or stood mainly as the unintentional director and and star of a collection of quirky films that flirt with cult status. Moon and his films have not, however, received the scholarly attention deserving of such an important nexus between science and religion in the “atomic age.” Indeed, The Mystery of Time makes one immediately aware that Moon’s evangelical stylings were not merely a generic invocation of science in pursuit of religious ends, but rather a very particular exploration of what Moon described as the great advances of science of the atomic age. In The Mystery of Time, the theory of relativity is explicitly recognized as having made the atomic age possible while also at the same time enabling a new age of metaphysical understanding. Einstein’s theory offered not only a key to the power of the atom, but also a language that described the profundity of time, space and interconnectedness through which one might finally comprehend the existence of the divine.

But given my work on films of science and medicine more generally, The Mystery of Time and indeed nearly all of Moon’s film are interesting to me also for their reliance on cameras as tools of science. Moon’s cameras are nearly exclusively about looking, about shifting and manipulating perspective, and finding in those shifts the crucial nexus of science and religion. In their use of cameras, however, Moon’s films also recall a much earlier tradition of using still and motion picture cameras as proper scientific instruments that relied precisely on shifted perspectives to make new claims about the natural world. Phenomena too fast, too slow, too small, or too large to be appreciated by the naked eye could be captured and manipulated, played and replayed, forward and back ad infinitum (or at least until the film gave out). Placing Moon in this tradition suggests a different kind of significance for his evangelical practice and its use of scientific spaces. His films have something new to tell us about science, not just in terms of the proposed profundity that Moon himself claims for the scientific ideas he explores, but also about the more basic role of the visual and the spectacular – and aesthetics more generally – as intrinsically enmeshed in the very making of modern science.

Deciphering the Archive

I hate handwriting with a vengeance. This is not because I see no value in writing things by hand, nor do I disagree with the idea that the use of handwriting influences the way we learn things, as some neuroscientists claim. My problem is with reading it. Just as the past is a different country, Victorian handwriting is a different language. However, even contemporaries complained about the handwriting of their day. In 1861, it was observed that the increased pressure to write quickly in the Foreign Office meant that ‘despatches received from some of our Ministers abroad [were] so ill written that the originals could not be sent to her Majesty’. At the end of the decade, An Old Rugbeian wrote sympathetically to the editor of The Times, claiming that the English public school was to blame for the ‘abominable’ handwriting of the English gentleman.


As someone with a dreadful handwriting myself, I sympathise with this inability to write intelligibly, but my difficulties in reading other people’s jumbled words still makes my archival visits a bit of a hassle. The writing I come across is often leaning heavily in one direction, giving the impression that the entire page is about to capsize. Then there is the kind of handwriting that at first glance seems to be composed of random dots and dashes rather than any characters known to man. Tiny fluctuations mark the delineation between the letters, making the words seem like series of small waves, on a calm ocean, gently lapping against a shore of incomprehensibility.

While Foreign Office handwriting might be dreadful, it seems Victorian army officers wrote with utter contempt for their readers. While on a recent research trip to Edinburgh I was looking through a number of letters from one such officer. As I had only a limited amount of time to spend in the archive before I had to get back to London, and as I was anxious both to make my time there count and not to miss anything important, I was uncertain where to begin.

I suspect that all researchers, more or less openly, hope to find something through serendipitously stumbling over it in an archive. Preferably something that no one else has used before, a juicy lost letter or memorandum that will change our ideas about a particular aspect of history. The real Hitler diaries; a forgotten manuscript; or a letter from Heloise, telling Abelard to grow a pair. Though not as lucky as this, I have had archival visits where, through sheer luck, I’ve struck gold, finding something useful by accident. The discoveries we make by chance, as an aside to what we were really looking for, are often those that drive the research forward. At least, they can add flavor to the argument. But serendipitous discoveries cannot, naturally, be planned in advance.

This raises the question of how we read archival material, and what we search for when flipping through papers. I look for words or phrases that stand out and relate to what I am looking for. But since handwriting is so difficult to read at times, the things that actually make me pause and that I notice are often the sentences that I can actually decipher, whether related to what I am looking for or not. In this instance I also looked through other papers, including a letter book where the handwriting was legible and pleasurable to read. Therefore, those papers were what I ended up spending a lot of time reading. Like the proverbial drunkard, looking for his keys under a streetlight, rather than where he actually lost them.

However, while useful, the letters I read as an aside because of their intelligible handwriting were not where the important discoveries of the archival trip were found. Sometimes, annoyingly enough, the process of wading through seemingly incomprehensible handwriting is necessary. And it was in the Victorian officer’s letters that I found what I was actually looking for, in addition to some juicy, previously unused material. The serendipitous discoveries were, of course, right in front of me. All that was needed was deciphering the language they were written in.

Christian Melby is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on invasion scares between 1870 and 1914 

Who Should We Write History For?

The blog entry below is a response to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at King’s College London on the 14th of January 2015. We had a series of responses from members of the history department, including that below, which will hopefully form part of a series over the coming months. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

In the oft-quoted preface to his 1963 The Making of the English Working Class E. P Thompson described his ambition to ‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” As an undergraduate I was, as others surely were, deeply inspired by this eloquent exposition on the value of social history. In the History Manifesto Jo Guldi and David Armitage cite Thompson approvingly as an example of a politically engaged historian, somebody who ‘spoke to power’.

I am not sure the feeling of approval would be completely mutual. Guldi and Armitage see the future of history in the long-term and the wide scope. For them digital history and big data offer the techniques by which historians can shape histories for public and especially policy consumption. Yet Thompson, despite his public political engagement, had a rather different idea of how to practice history. He was reacting against a structural Marxism in which individuals were subsumed into an inhuman statistical morass. Instead he sought to reassert the agency of the individual, the working classes made their history rather than being victims of it. Thompson teased out the richness of the working class lives he examined.

This richness is also characteristic of the work of other scholars, such as Natalie Zemon Davis, whom Armitage and Guldi dismiss as ‘micro-historians’. For Guldi and Armitage cultural historians such as Davis have simply asked the wrong questions and over the wrong time scales. They have apparently not engaged with big enough issues, Guldi and Armitage’s favourite seems to be climate change, and they did not do so over the ‘long dureé’, which for Guldi and Armitage seems to be as long as the proverbial piece of string.

Yet a whole host of other social and cultural historians have engaged with political questions. Questions about gender and patriarchy, class and social status, race and racism, the holy trinity of social and cultural history, have given voice to those excluded, both in past and present, from power. These accounts are usually from closely observed readings, from fragments and details. It is this detail that offers us compelling perspectives on the complexity of the past.

My fear is that Guldi and Armitage’s dismissal of such histories and their calls for focus on ever-larger datasets obscures the complexities, the detail, and the individual from history. It is not only Guldi and Armitage’s methods but the way in which they suggest our findings should be communicated that bothers me. Their focus on the production of ‘one screen visualizations’ that sum up research for public and policy consumption seems to pander to an age in which so much of our politics and policy is captured in sound bites and images with little substance or explanation. It seems to suggest an ability to obscure as much it reveals.

The richness of the lives that Thompson, Davis and a range of social and cultural historians since have examined, also has a place in the way history, as a discipline, engages with the public. Often as not, it is the tangled tissue of individual lives and stories that some publics (a plurality largely ignored by The History Manifesto) find compelling. The BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’ is a testament to this interest. It is the publics of television, radio, museums, classrooms, readers of books and blogs that are often interested in these stories, publics that Guldi and Armitage’s book largely ignore.

Who should we write history for? I think in a sense the question is about emphasis. That we should write history that engages with a wide range of publics is not a controversial statement. The history manifesto’s issue seems to be a focus on a policy making public above all else. But, in addition to this, I would also suggest that we partly write history for the dead. This may seem slightly idealistic or clichéd. It’s also convenient because the dead can’t answer back. This is not the audience of entrepreneurs, CEOs and politicians that Guldi and Armitage have suggested as historians’ targets. Yet thinking in this way forces the historian to do justice to the complexity and richness of past experience, a complexity and richness that comes from combining the micro, macro and everything in-between. The historian has a responsibility to the dead, more particularly to those whose voices and lives emerge only from a great deal of close and careful engagement with our sources. It is the social and cultural historians that Guldi and Armitage criticize that have done so much to excavate these voices from the archive. The History Manifesto argues that historians should ‘speak truth to power’, but historians’ greatest achievements have often come from speaking to the powerless, or at least making their voices and stories heard.

Finally, a slightly more cynical point. Historians write, and publish, at least partly to earn a living. Putting to one side the fact that individuals other than academic historians write history (a point that Guldi and Armitage problematically ignore), it seems pertinent to note that academia, not just academic history, suffers from its own crisis of short termism. In a world in which the pressure is to publish early, where rising numbers of early career researchers are on ever-shorter contracts that pay for teaching but not for research, and where academics have to work within the timescale of research assessment cycles, the grand projects which Guldi and Armitage suggest seem harder to grasp. Fernand Braudel is the history manifesto’s hero. Yet the research for his mammoth work on the Mediterranean began in 1927 and he didn’t commence writing until 1939. Even with digital techniques this suggests that the future of history will also be partly determined by the institutional culture in which historians exist, which itself is undergoing fundamental, not always positive, change.

William Tullett is a PhD researcher in the History department at King’s College London working on the social and cultural history of smells and smelling in eighteenth-century England.

T.V. History, Dumbing Down?

Summer Term, Date t.b.c, 5-7pm, Strand 8th floor open space.

Speakers t.b.c

This event aims to bring together T.V producers and academic historians to discuss how history ‘on the box’ should be best approached. Does T.V. history tend to ‘dumb down’ the stories historians tell? We want to debate the issues such questions raise about the relationship between history and the public, academics and the media, and how this fits into our public understanding of the past. If current T.V. history does ‘dumb down’ then where does the blame lie? How should we approach history for television? After short responses from our panel we will engage in small group discussion before before opening up the floor to debate. Come along to listen, discuss and have your say!

Questions up for discussion include:

  • Does TV history dumb things down, and if so who is to blame?
  • Does TV history have a tendency to exclude large swathes of possible subject material, if so how and why?
  • How might TV get access to the most exciting work by historians?
  • How does TV decide what history to make? How does it decide what’s interesting, and what do people want to watch?
  • What are the economic and institutional bases of TV history?
  • What different sources of money and broadcasting might there be?

For more information contact:
Jon Wilson ( or Will Tullett (

The History of Monarchy Meets the History of Feminism

The History of Monarchy Meets the History of Feminism: Writing Royal History Outside of the Box, Dr Arianne Chernock, Boston University


Dr. Chernock is currently writing a book, provisionally titled The Right to Reign and the Rights of Women in Victorian Britain, which explores the politics of queenship over the long nineteenth century. Material from this project has been published in Victorian Studies and in the edited collection Engendering Women’s History: A Global Project (NYU Press, 2013). In her capacity as a historian of monarchy, Chernock has published numerous opinion pieces and editorials, and provides frequent commentary to a range of print, radio and television outlets.

Monday, 16 March, 4-6pm, Room S0.11