Women in Military History

KCL PhD Student Jenna Byers reflects on the gendering of military history.

I recently attended a conference celebrating the contributions of women to the study of history, both as historians and as historical subjects. In a conference attended predominantly by women, I was not surprised to be in a minority as a military historian. I was, however, surprised by a statement midway through the day, made by a member of the audience, who suggested that women tend to study cultural and social history because they are easier than economic or political history.

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it is high time that women get involved.

For those of you who are unsure as to the distinctions between these types of history, essentially, cultural and social history are about how people behaved, how they filled their homes, or educated their children, while economic and political history are about how much money the government had to spend and what they wanted to spend it on. Now, I for one would not claim that social and cultural history are easier to study, because anyone who looks at these has to be as much a detective as they are a historian, extrapolating from physical items, while economic and political historians have any number of written sources to rely on. But this wasn’t why I felt compelled to speak out at this conference.

No, I wanted to point out that, in fact, women don’t choose social and cultural history because they’re easier than other kinds of history; we often choose these things because that’s what everyone tells us we should do. Since I was in primary school, I have been interested in the Second World War and, since I was in primary school, I have had people trying to convince me not to be. Telling people later on that I intended to study War Studies led almost invariably to the question, “Why do you want to study war?” with a subtle emphasis on the word ‘you’. After all, why would a woman want to study war?

By and large, military history has been and remains the reserve of men; it has been about the battles, the glory, the heroic figures and the bonds forged on the battlefield, bonds which, it is tacitly assumed, women cannot understand because we cannot participate in this form of bonding, being banned from the front lines of conflict in most major armies. Military history is about men doing one of the most traditionally masculine things in history; fighting with other men for territory or riches or glory. And, owing to the fact that the majority of military historians are male, military history has become, in many ways, isolated from other forms of history, tucked away in a masculine man-cave in the basement of university history departments.

Rina Levinson - a pilot in the IDF

Rina Levinson – a pilot in the IDF

Men have always feared the inclusion of women on the front lines of combat, and we can see this by looking at one case study, that of the Israeli Defence Force. It might surprise some of you to learn that, up until the late 1940’s, the IDF allowed women to fight on the front lines. However, in 1948 they reversed this decision, not because the women were struggling to fulfil their role, but because the men working with those women were having trouble. The problem was that male soldiers were developing protective feelings towards their female comrades, because these women represented, for them, a home front that was safe and peaceful and far away from where they currently were. This somewhat patronising treatment of a fellow soldier only really became an issue if these female troops were wounded on the battlefield, as this led to several instances of male soldiers losing control and going on guilt-filled rampages which increased the risk of injury to themselves and to their comrades. So the IDF decided that it would be easier to pull women off the front lines than to re-educate society to believe that women might not actually need men to protect them in this way.

This societal outlook, which says that men should be shielding women from the horrors of war, extends down to those of us who choose to study conflict. I guarantee that any woman who has ever announced her intention to pursue War Studies has encountered at least one man asking, “Why does a pretty thing like you want to go and study a thing like that?” Because society still tells women that war is a dirty, awful business and we should leave it for the boys, while simultaneously telling the boys to man up and get stuck into the mess. So women don’t study war, which is a great loss for everyone.

Dr James Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) - a surgeon in the British army. Died 1865.

Dr James Barry [left] (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) – a surgeon in the British army. Died 1865.

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it is high time that women get involved. We don’t yet know what women can bring to the table, with all of our cultural and social historical experience, all we do know is that it is not 1948 anymore; there are biographies of female fighter aces from the German Reich, there are stories about Dr James Barry who lived for fifty years as a male surgeon in the British armed forces, there are all-female regiments currently fighting ISIS. We can no longer pretend that women have no place in military history, we can no longer ignore their contribution to conflicts of the past, and we can no longer allow ourselves to be surprised by the notion that a woman might be interested in studying these things.

Two Members of the Department Work with Academics and Historians at Fourah Bay College, Freetown, University of Sierra Leone

Two members of the Department of History recently worked with academics and historians at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, on projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK). Toby Green and Vincent Hiribarren attended as part of a writing workshop funded by the ASAUK and led by Dr Green, which ran from May 3-6.
The workshop was designed to help academics from Sierra Leone to develop journal articles for publication in international journals. Academics from Universities in Ghana, The Gambia, and the USA also attended, and the inaugural lecture was given by Nwando Achebe, the Jack and Margaret Sweet Endowed Professor of History at Michigan State University in the USA. 
The inaugural lecture, given by Professor Nwando Achebe of Michigan State University

The inaugural lecture, given by Professor Nwando Achebe of Michigan State University

16 Sierra Leonean academics attended the writing workshop from Fourah Bay College in Freetown and Ernest Bai Koroma University from the city of Makeni. They worked one on one with journal editors and received training in academic writing and the context of research in West Africa. Dr Green represented the journal African Economic History, while Dr Hiribarren led a workshop on digital resources for researching and writing African studies.
The ASAUK Workshop

The ASAUK Writing Workshop

The meeting was also funded as part of Dr Green’s AHRC Leadership Project “Money, Power and Political Change In Precolonial West Africa”. One of the impacts of this project is to begin the development of an online History textbook for West African senior secondary schoolchildren sitting the WASSCE exam, which is sat in Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. The meeting was a chance for historians based in Ghana, Sierra Leone and The Gambia to meet with two Nigerian historians based in the diaspora, and with Dr Green and Dr Hiribarren, to begin planning the resource.
The resource will be coded and designed by Dr Hiribarren. Writing of the chapters, editing, and coding will take place so that the resource can be launched at the next meeting of the West African Examinations Council, in Banjul in March 2018. Dr Hiribarren is including subsequent teacher training and writing workshops in the relevant countries in an ongoing AHRC funding application, which will see the project roll out across West Africa.


The City in History: Global Connections and Comparisons


Dr Jennifer Altehenger and Dr Sun Qing have organised a groundbreaking collaborative workshop which will be taking place at King’s College London next week. King’s History Department will welcome a delegation from the Department of History, Fudan University (Shanghai) on 22 and 23 May 2017 for the first joint workshop on “The City in History: global connections and comparisons”. With both King’s and Fudan situated at the heart of two of the world’s global metropolises – London and Shanghai – the city is a central theme of research and teaching at both institutions. Our staff and students explore the history of the city and history through the lens of the city from ancient to modern times, linking local and global perspectives. This workshop is a first opportunity for historians of both universities to meet and explore these common themes in our research, from public history to historical geography, political, economic, social, and cultural history, and the history of science, technology and medicine.


The Bund, Shanghai c. 1910


The rooftops of London c. 1870

The rooftops of London c. 1870

The full programme can be accessed below.

This workshop continues KCL History’s strong culture of research into, and teaching of, metropolitan history, some of which has been displayed on this blog in recent months. For example, student Charlotte Taylor wrote a fascinating review of a trip to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton as part of the module Society and Culture in Twentieth Century London. Dr Tim Livsey also described a collaborative project about a south London estate with a particularly rich history and links to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys. And in April last year, staff and students walked a grand total of 13.8 miles, taking in 26 historic sites throughout London (all for an excellent cause). The event was given a wonderful write-up for our blog by Elle Larsson (PhD candidate).

For more information on the workshop, or if you wish to join, please contact:

Dr Jennifer Altehenger: jennifer.altehenger@kcl.ac.uk

Location: S8.08 Level 8 Strand Building

When: 22nd (09:00) – 23rd (18:00) of May 2017


Full Programme:



Organisers: Dr Jennifer ALTEHENGER and Dr SUN Qing


Monday, 22.5.10:00 – 10:30  Welcome and Introductions

Prof Abigail WOODS, Prof HUANG Yang (via Skype), Prof GAO Xi


10:30 – 12:00 Professor WU Jingping 吴景平《英商银行与上海金融变迁》

British banks and the transformation of Shanghai’s finance world


Professor Richard DRAYTON

The cities of north-west Europe and the making of Europe’s empires, c. 1500-1800


Professor Arthur BURNS

Identifying the challenge of the city to religion: Changing views of ‘town’ among religious professionals in Britain, 1700-1900


Chair: Dr Bérénice GUYOT-RECHARD


12:00 – 13:00 Sandwich Lunch
13:00 – 14:30 Professor ZOU Zhenhuang 邹振环《近代上海的石库门与里弄文化》

Modern Shanghai Shikumen Building and Lane Culture


Professor YAO Dali  姚大力


The shift to modern forms in Chinese cities: the disintegration of the „housing compound“


Professor DONG Guoqiang 董国强

The Army in Xuzhou’s Factional Warfare,1967-1969


Chair: Dr Daniel MATLIN


14:30 – 15:00 Coffee & Tea 
15:00 – 16:30 Dr  ZHU Lianbi 朱联璧The London Aerated Bread Company and the Industrialization of Bread-making, 1860-1930s


Professor David EDGERTON

The Port of London in Twentieth-Century British History



The Trader-Stranger and the Modern City: Georg Simmel in Global Context


Chair: Dr Jon WILSON


Tuesday, 23.5.10:30 – 12:00 Dr Rory NAISMITH

Lundenwic to Lundenburh? The Londons of the Ninth Century


Professor ZHANG Haiying  张海英

Towards modernity: Shanghai in the early modern times



Constantinople in the 1400s: Venice on the Bosphorus


Chair: Professor Hugh BOWDEN


12:00 – 13:00  Sandwich lunch 
13:00 – 14:30 Professor GAO Xi 高晞Health Morality and Hygiene in the mid-19th Century Shanghai


Professor Abigail WOODS

Sick cows and the city: London 1865-7 (and Shanghai, 1869-71)


Chair: Dr Jennifer ALTEHENGER


14:30 – 15:00  Coffee & Tea 
15:00 – 16:30  Assoc. Professor SUN Qing 孙青To view the magic images from mirror (jingying镜影)——the early experiences of slides as urban residents



London County Council cultural and educational policy, 1918-1939



Patron Saint of Catholics and Hindus: St Antony and Diasporic devotions in East London


Chair: Dr Vincent HIRIBARREN


16:30 – 18:00  Final discussion & future plans 
18:00 – 19:00 Drinks 



The New Contemporary British History

Exciting new developments are taking place at KCL in the field of Contemporary British History. Read this blog post to find out more and click here to visit the CFP for the upcoming conference.

Historians at King’s are part of an exciting new venture in Contemporary British History, which will help to refashion Britain’s national story. King’s Contemporary British History (KCBH) is a cross-departmental and cross-Faculty research initiative, which brings together existing expertise in twentieth-century British history from across the university. It draws together the extraordinary strengths in the subject found mainly in the departments of History, War Studies, Defence Studies, Political Economy and English. King’s has around fifty scholars contemporary British history.


The centre’s goal is to develop a flexible and dynamic way of analyzing contemporary British society that will have genuine public relevance both at a policy and popular level. In this, historical argument and understanding has been, and will continue to be central. The Brexit vote was a clear example of how very particular historical images of the nation in the world were mobilised. King’s Contemporary British History will help refashion British national history by bringing together historical work of many different kinds.


King’s has a uniquely diverse wealth of existing expertise across various domains in the study of contemporary Britain. Our strengths include military history, science, technology, and medicine, heritage studies, imperial history, politics, religion, and gender studies.  KCBH will make these great strengths visible, and support and develop new research initiatives and postgraduate training in all aspects of modern and contemporary British history. KCBH works with other initiatives that connect to the public and public institutions such as History & Policy, Historians in Residence, and the Strand Group.


The study of Contemporary British History in London goes back to the 1960s, and was consolidated with the establishment of the Institute of Contemporary British History in 1985 by (Sir) Anthony Seldon and (Lord) Peter Hennessy. The Institute moved to King’s College London in 2010. King’s Contemporary British History builds on this distinguished tradition by creating a larger and more diverse enterprise.


The centre has recently been awarded funding from the ‘King’s Together’ scheme allowing us to run workshops (for King’s staff). It will hold a ‘launch’ conference in September 2017, and much else besides. Over the coming weeks we will be launching a new website, so look out for that. For now, you can follow KCBH on Twitter @KingsCBH and Facebook. We are also in the process of creating an internal mailing list to keep people abreast of our work and developments. If you would like to be added to this mailing list, or would like more information on being involved in KCBH, please email: laura.carter@kcl.ac.uk.

Athena SWAN and Gender Equality at KCL

A report from Dr Alana Harris, Lecturer in Modern British History, on KCL History Department’s determination to make vital strides towards gender equality in higher education.

On 3 February 2015, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, the Royal Historical Society issued a report on Gender Equality and Historians in Higher Education. Based on over 700 responses from women and men within the profession, and across career stages, it included a forward by Dame Jinty Nelson (Professor Emeritus of this department) who described it as an ‘urgent summons to greater institutional engagement’.


Since that time, a number of universities and networks of academics have taken up that challenge, with one of the most recent initiatives a sold-out workshop at St Hilda’s College in Oxford and subsequent plans to establish a women historians’ network and series of public engagement activities.


Meanwhile, since September 2015, staff in the Department of History have been working towards an Athena SWAN bronze award, which recognizes commitment to achieving gender equality. Applying for the award is a thorough and in-depth process. It has required us to analyse the intake, progression and achievements of our staff and students; to think about the gendered nature of our organization and culture; to assess the support we provide to women at all stages in their academic careers; and to identify ways of addressing the inequalities that exist.


This work has been performed by 15 members of the Department’s Self-Assessment Team, lead initially by Professor Abigail Woods (now Head of Department) and subsequently by myself. Ranging from PhD students to professor emeritus, we have all brought diverse experiences of life within and outside work to our discussions. We have addressed matters ranging from the content of the history curriculum (now informing review of the first year syllabus), to the sharing of staff offices, and the ways in which we support, train and listen to both staff and students.


As the first department within the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s (and amongst only a handful of history departments in Britain) to pursue an Athena SWAN award, we are justly proud of what we have achieved. At the same time, we are well aware of the work still to be done in order to fulfill our ambition of making the department a place in which everyone feels valued and able to achieve their full potential. In the wake of Brexit and the recent American election, this commitment to gender equality, diversity and inclusion feels even more important publically to affirm.


We have now submitted our application, which includes a forty page ‘action plan’ of new initiatives, reform agendas and the transformation of structures and cultures within the department. We will continue to share news about our initiatives, and opportunities for the involvement of undergraduate and postgraduate students in the consultation and implementation processes. Looking forward, alongside the implementation and consolidation of the transformative agendas identified through our self-analysis, we will now extend our efforts to other intersectional issues in striving for greater diversity and inclusion.

At Play in the Early Modern Tavern

Gabriella Infante, PhD Candidate in the Department of English at KCL, recounts an evening of education and entertainment in which the early modern tavern was brought to life as part of King’s Arts & Humanities’ Festival ‘Play’


Playing cards, ballads’ sheets, wine and beer on tables in a candlelit room welcomed the audience of ‘At Play in the Early Modern Tavern’ last 12th October at Tutu’s. As part of King’s Arts & Humanities’ Festival ‘Play’, the Centre for Early Modern Studies organised an event celebrating the several meanings of ‘play’ in the world of the early modern tavern.


Photograph taken by Callan Davies, University of Roehampton

Photograph taken by Callan Davies, University of Roehampton

On this occasion, it seemed apt to emphasise the hedonistic features of taverns, such as drinking, courting, and gambling. The three main segments of the event were aimed at celebrating carpe diem over nefarious consequences of extreme drinking, and planned to avoid cautionary tales, by providing a window on the dynamics originating in playful early modern taverns. Drinking and drinking places hold an exceptional place in the cultural identity of England, and it is the early modern age which defined socio-political differences between alehouses, taverns, and inns. Taverns became to assume specific features from the 1550s to the end of the seventeenth century – the period in which the songs, documents, and play performed for this event were produced.

Dr. Emily Butterworth, Lecturer in the French Department and co-director of CEMS, effectively introduced the audience to the diverse world of early modern habits of drinking, by also indicating the timeframe and the social implications linked to each type of drinking place. For her section of the event, students from King’s Music department Matthew O’ Keeffe, William Hester, and Alex Prately performed Jean Richafort’s Trut avant il faut boire, a chanson which describes and enacts the good fellowship of drinking, also reprised in the final section of the event, and insists on the importance of seizing the moment of enjoyment and fun in life car après que serons morts – because we will be dead after anyway.

David Tett Photography ©

David Tett Photography ©

As a song thought for three trained singers, and therefore created for, and more suitable to, a tavern or an inn, this was different from the second section of the event, planned by Professor Laura Gowing, department of History. King’s former MA students Charlotte Fletcher and Emma Harris and current PhD students Michelle Barnette and Molly Corlett re-enacted bits of defamation cases held in the records of the Consistory Court of London spanning the years 1572-1725. Famous and infamous locations across London, such as the Sun Tavern in St. Martin in the Fields or the Greyhounde Tavern in Soho Fields, were the set of rough verbal exchanges between citizens attending these places. The audience could enjoy a realistic peek into the dynamics of a promiscuous early modern alehouse, where excessive drinking and carefree pursuit of sexual pleasure combined to create dangerous, and illegal, situations.

As a break before the longest and final section of the evening, the ballad Good Ale for my Money and the song Martin said to his Man delighted the audience, particularly eager to read the lyrics and sing along, and to follow the three singers in a further invitation to drink and be merry.

David Tett Photography ©

David Tett Photography ©

The event ended with excerpts from the play The Walks of Islington and Hogsdon, with the Humours of Woodstreet Compter, by Thomas Jordan. This section was organised by Dr. Lucy Munro and me, both from the department of English, with the invaluable help of director James Wallace. First performed on the stage of the Red Bull in 1641, and then published in 1657, this comedy was also re-thought for the Restoration audience and King Charles II in the 1660s. The scenes selected presented an appealing cohort of gallants, attempting to juggle unhappy marriages, lovers, pregnant whores in taverns of Islington –background to many of their mischiefs. The play, like Laura Gowing’s section, was carefully chosen to convey topographical familiarity and to elicit participation by stressing the relevance of locations for the early modern drinking space.

The purpose of the event was to offer entertainment to a modern audience through accurate re-enactments of early modern life episodes in relation to drinking customs in England. The event managed to convey the importance of taverns as social, as well as political, places of cultural exchange, but its main aim was to explore the meanings of ‘play’ to the early modern mind. And what better way to do that, than in a place where every type of play, from cards to transvestitism, took place? Nunc est bibendum. Now is the time for drinking.

LAHP Doctoral Training Opportunity

Setting out their Stall: creating the East End Women’s Museum and researching women’s work at London’s markets


Dr Alana Harris (KCL), Dr Andrew Flinn (UCL) and Sarah Jackson and Sara Huws (East End Women’s Museum)


Responding to the perversion of local government planning processes in the establishment of the Jack the Ripper Museum in place of a promised space celebrating women’s history, feminists and community activists Sarah Jackson and Sara Huws are planning the creation of an East End Women’s Museum by 2018.


This project seeks to introduce doctoral students to the creative opportunities and challenges of public history and community heritage through exploring this unique opportunity for involvement in the establishment of a new museum and, secondly, to develop practical skills through contributing in tangible ways to the development of its permanent collection. Targeted at historians of gender and modern London, as well as those wishing to work with oral history or in archival and heritage management as well as cultural institutions, this intensely practical and outcome driven initiative will provide demonstrable methodological and employability skills as well as the opportunity to work with local volunteers and feminists activists.


Following an introduction to academic literatures and methodologies surrounding community-based archives, heritage and the practice of oral history, students will participate in a ‘pop up reminiscence project’ examining the history of market stalls in East London. They will undertake archival research on the economic, social and political dimensions of women’s work at East London markets (such as Crisp Street, Roman Road or Rathbone Market), conduct oral history interviews with East End residents who operated or shopped at these markets, and will then produce a series of outputs (encompassing blogs/microsites, poster displays and potential exhibitions) to feed these findings back to participants and residents as well as producing a lasting legacy for the intended museum.


Students in the first or second years of their doctoral programmes are eligible to participate. Applicants for one of the fifteen available places should forward their CV and a one-page covering letter outlining their interest in the project and its contribution to their career development to alana.harris@kcl.ac.uk by Friday 25 November 2016. They should also be available for a preliminary meeting on Monday 12 December 2016. Thereafter, sessions will be held fortnightly on Monday evenings during semesters two and three and fieldwork will also be required on two Saturdays in May/June 2017. Chosen participants will need to commit to the entirety of the programme.



5 Must-Reads: History of Labour

In the third installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), James Fisher, a second year PhD candidate (KCL) researching the relationship between agricultural books, knowledge and labour in early modern England, chooses 5 books that help to delineate and complicate our understanding of historical labour.

Thinking about labour can be a labour in itself. It is one of those things (concept/practice/experience/relation) that feels immediately clear, familiar and recognisable, and yet resists any attempt at simple definition (as does it’s near synonym, “work”). This makes it an especially rich topic to explore historically. The best response to its apparent naturalness and its tendency to exceed any description is to tell its various stories.

The following five books are those that I found useful in thinking about labour historically. The list is unashamedly orientated toward cultural history and the question of the meaning of labour, but limited to a largely British and European focus. I chose them for their ability to disturb our existing understandings of labour history as much as to inform them.


Carolyn Steedman, Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (Cambridge, 2009)

Steedman’s book is an exemplary effort to think as big and as small as possible about labour: to combine philosophical meditation with the minutiae of historical circumstance. The theories of John Locke are placed side by side with the way the cook chops carrots. The immediate historical value is in studying an aspect of labour largely obscured or erased from political and economic theories and histories of labour: women’s domestic service. Steedman weaves together all kinds of thinking by and about servants, in an idiosyncratic style that prods the reader to stop, question, flick back a few pages, and try to piece the puzzle together.

Women Working

Catharina Lis & Hugo Soly, Worthy Efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe (Boston, 2012)

This is the best single volume for a broad overview of historical attitudes to work in Europe and an excellent synthesis of recent research. While it weighs in at over 600 pages, the breakdown of chapters allows it to be consumed in discrete chunks, whether you’re interested in ancient Greece or early Christianity, medieval peasantries or early modern wage labour. The book circles around the question of how different societies have defined and valued work over different periods. Although it does not contribute any original primary research, the breadth of the topic and sharp analysis delivers a wealth of insights. The style is accessible, with minimal footnoting, without compromising the complexity of the matter under discussion.

Working land 

The Historical Meanings of Work, ed. Patrick Joyce (Cambridge, 1987)

This collection is mainly worth it for the introduction by Patrick Joyce, but includes essays by excellent historians such as Joan Scott. The volume captures an important moment in the historiography of labour, inspired by the cultural and linguistic turns. While it may already feel a product of its time with its enthusiasm for “discourse”, I think Joyce’s call for ‘an historical anthropology or an anthropological history of work’ has continuing relevance. His introduction sets out the theoretical issues with clarity and purpose, critiquing the predominant materialist approach (still) found in most economic and social histories.


Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (2012) [re-release of Nights of Labor (1981)]

 This is perhaps the most challenging, but potentially rewarding, book on the list. It is the product of a philosopher rather than a historian, sure to delight some and offend many. Rancière takes seriously the dreams and desires of a few locksmiths, tailors and shoemakers in mid-nineteenth-century France, dismantling the abstractions of the ‘proletariat’ and ‘class consciousness’ through a sustained attention to the material and imagined lives of individuals. Based on a study of the words of workers themselves – from newspapers, journals, letters, and poems – we are presented with the dreams and nightmares that arose from ‘the nights wrested from the normal sequence of work and sleep’. The core of the book is a forceful challenge to glib celebrations of labour and an affirmation of the full intellectual life of all workers.


The Oxford Book of Work, ed. Keith Thomas (Oxford, 1999)

My final recommendation is an anthology of literature on work: a vast collection of excerpts from Western poets, philosophers, novelists, diarists and social commentators. It was curated by Keith Thomas, perhaps the historian best suited for the task of joyfully harvesting fragments on a theme across time and space. The result is a treasure chest full of all kinds of words about work: hundreds of diverse thoughts and feelings about labour recorded over thousands of years. Obviously these quotations must be treated with care, having been violently ripped from their contexts. But each one is the end of a string to be grasped and traced home, revealing worlds of work eerily familiar yet distant from our own.


5 Must-Reads: Words and Concepts in History


In the second installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), Tom Colville, PhD Candidate (KCL), chooses 5 books that helped him get into the complex world of concepts and words in history.


In my work on early modern conceptions of mental capacity (essentially the notion that some people have stronger, better, superior minds to other people) I try to engage as closely as possible with the historiography of words and concepts in history.  This, however, is a complex and difficult field.  So, for anyone else out there working on a concepts and words in past societies, I hope that this list of 5 books I’ve found helpful will point you in useful and challenging directions.


 Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (London: Croon Helm, 1976).

Any list of key works in relation to words in history would be incomplete without Raymond Williams’ iconic work.  Keywords is far from problem free (it is heavily focussed upon political and social keywords at the expense of a great deal that cultural historians would consider key), however, it puts forward the truly valuable proposition that by looking at a certain set of significant and contested words we can gain an insight into the ideas and concepts which motivated historical actors and propelled past events.  Every historian now has their own list of keywords; as a prompt to debate Raymond Williams’ work is unparalleled in the field.


Iain Hampsher-Monk, Karin Tilmans, and Frank van Vree (eds.), History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998).

The history of words and concepts is one of those tricky fields of study (for English speaking historians) in which many vital contributions have stemmed from non-Anglophone countries.  This edited volume is a particularly useful way in to everything from Begriffsgeschichte to Sattelzeit and parole to taligheid.  There won’t be a methodological or theoretical question about concepts and words that isn’t at least considered in these 12 chapters by leading historians in the field.  If Williams’ Keywords is the light entré to the topic then History of Concepts offers the full three-courses alongside a good stein of German beer.


Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

Peter de Bolla’s exploration of the concept of ‘Universal Human Rights’ takes the opportunities of digital archives seriously, and uses keyword and proximity searches in order to make a real argument about how a concept is made and articulated.  The nature of this field of research is that within 3 or 4 years de Bolla’s methods will feel outdated, but this work will remain valuable because of its close engagement with relationship between words and concepts.  The notion of a concept having an ‘architecture’ is particularly insightful and will provide food-for-thought for anyone wanting to think critically about the fact that concepts are vague constructs, but with some fairly strict constraints.


Barbara Cassin (ed.), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

It would seem that nothing could make the relationship between words and concepts seem more brazenly complex and important, until, that is, you introduce the idea of translation.  In a sense, of course, translation is what historians of concepts do every day – they translate conceptions and meanings from a previous time period into a modern analytical framework.  However, the methodological problems are highlighted and compounded by translating between different languages.  The brain child of Barbara Cassin is surely one of the most ambitious academic projects ever attempted.  By considering the vast range of terms that remain untranslated in translations (e.g. polis and “matter of fact”), and those terms which cause the most problems to translators, Cassin’s Dictionary engages with the relationship between words and their meaning in such a way that redefines the significance of concepts.


Richard Scholar, The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: encounters with a certain something, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

This book is not a general or theoretical work on words and concepts but it has found a spot in this list because I think it intelligently encapsulates the grey area between words and concepts in history, and the value that comes from exploring that lacuna.  Scholar’s work demonstrates that historical concepts need not be clearly articulated in order to be significant.  Moreover, his interest in the ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ provides a clear example that historical actors were often acutely aware of the limitations of language when it came to expressing significant concepts.  If, therefore, we limit our analysis to keywords then, as historians, we can artificially impose clarity or definition where the unarticulated, or inexplicable, was just as important.


Sharing Hidden Histories: KCL’s History Department Monuments Marathon and Parks & Palaces Plod

Elle Larsson (PhD Candidate, KCL) walks us through the King’s History Monuments Marathon; a great day out for an even better cause.  The text and images were originally posted by Elle on ISpyHistory.

Monuments Marathon (3)

© Elle Larsson


For the past month or so you may have seen me posting links to the crowdfunding page for an event King’s History Department runs biennially – the Monuments Marathon and Parks & Palaces Plod. The ‘Marathon’ was set up in 2014 by former KCL Professor Ludmilla Jordanova in order to raise funds for the Undergraduate Hardship fund, although this years’ sponsorship was for the equivalent MA fund. The idea as pitched to us was to take to the ‘streets and parks of London to tour sites of historical interest, learning from each other’ along the way.

Hearing that, I should think it will come as no surprise to hear that when we received an email advertising the event back in April, I was immediately on board with the idea – fundraising while learning about history and walking around London – what was not to love! The plan was to walk to 26 historic sites over the distance of around 10 miles, the walk starting at King’s and featuring 4 minute ‘street talks’ from volunteers choosing to speak on sites of their choice along the route.

And that is exactly what we did last Sunday. We walked a grand total of around 13.8 miles, taking in 26 historic sites over the course of around 10 hours. I should say at this point however that 4 members of the department put in an extra tremendous effort, rising early and running an 11.5 mile route taking in the palaces of London – beginning with the Tower of London and ending with Kensington Palace, before heading back to KCL and joining the rest of us on the walk!

It was a really fantastic day – we had good weather, great company and were able to share some of the lesser known stories of London we’ve each come across during the course of our own research. A huge range of topics were covered and what struck me in particular was that even though some of these places are signified by plaques and statues, the stories are much richer than can be conveyed by those markers alone, while others simply had no markers at all.

A few things from the day have stuck out in particular. For example the origin of the legend of the ‘Black Dog’ of Newgate and how beneath Trafalgar Square there was/is a rich source of prehistoric archaeological material, including Mammoths; the fact that beneath Benjamin Franklin’s house a large number of human skeletons had been excavated, owing to the fact that another of its former residents had been a comparative anatomist, who himself died after contracting sepsis from one of his cadavers! But I think my favourite snippet has to be hearing about the mechanized waxwork of Mrs. Salmon which was booby-trapped to kick patrons as they left her establishment. Who new early nineteenth century waxworks could be mechanized?

These stand out for me but each talk was incredibly interesting and below I’ve put the entire list of places we visited and topics covered by our talks to give you an idea of the history that is out there and sites that you may have previously walked passed having never realized their significance. It was truly a case of Ispyhistory at its best and it’s safe to say that in two years’ time, when this event comes round again, my feet better be ready for a repeat performance!

  1. Lady Somerset and the Temperance Child, Victoria Embankment Gardens (Statue).
  2. Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, (Plaque).
  3. Mammoths in the Square, Trafalgar Square.
  4. The Strand Menagerie, 372 Strand, (Building).
  5. Mrs Salmon’s Waxworks, 17 Fleet Street, (Building).
  6. Picasso in London, 51 Floral Street (Plaque).
  7. The Slayer of Soho: John Snow’s Pump, 39 Broadwick Street.
  8. Banking Natural History, 32 Soho Square (Plaque).
  9. Penning the Vindication, Store Street.
  10. Fitzrovia Revolutionaries, Fitzroy Square (Statue).
  11. Camden Pan-Africanism, 22 Cranleigh Street (Plaque).
  12. South African Freedom Fighters, 13 Lyme Street (Plaque).
  13. Gandhi’s London, Tavistock Square (Statue).
  14. Emmeline Pankhurst’s House, 8 Russell Square, (Building).
  15. Literary Lights and Colonial Students, Mecklenburgh Square.
  16. Anti-Suffragism and Settlement Houses, 42 Queen Square, (Building).
  17. The Women’s Freedom League, 144 High Holborn, (Building).
  18. Meating One’s Maker, Smithfield Market.
  19. ‘The Black Dog of Newgate’, Warwick Lane.
  20. Indigenous Transnationals at St Paul’s, (Building).
  21. Rude Deeds on Rood Lane, Rood Lane, (Building).
  22. Tower Hill Memorial, Trinity Square Gardens, (Memorial).
  23. The Falklands Memorial, Trinity Square Gardens, (Memorial).
  24. Altab Ali Park, Adler Street, (Memorial).
  25. Responding to the Ripper, 14 Cannon Street Road, (Exhibition).
  26. Execution Dock, 57 Wapping Wall.

Walk part 1

Walk part 2

Walk part 3

It will come as a little surprise that after a grand total of 13.8 miles well-earned celebratory drinks and a sit down were then had at the prospect of Whitby Pub!