British history

Shooting the Moon: Martyrdom and Sacred Kingship in the Twenty-First Century

by guest contributor Peter Walker

On the cold afternoon of January 30, 1649, King Charles I was publicly beheaded in London, condemned as a traitor by parliamentarians. Royalists, who viewed the king as head of the church, immediately began celebrating the executed King as a martyr. Three hundred and sixty eight years later, this devotional cult remains alive and well, flourishing in unexpected places. This year, the American Society of King Charles the Martyr met for a church service commemorating “Martyrdom Day” at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia, a dozen blocks from Independence Hall.

What is the appeal of a royalist devotional cult in the twenty-first-century United States? The cult of King Charles the Martyr had its beginnings in seventeenth-century conflicts between royalists and parliamentarians, and remains entangled with the political theology of sacred kingship. Politics in the United States have taken some unexpected twists recently, but—whatever else might happen—the American experiment in democracy and republicanism probably won’t end with a return to monarchy. Of course, Americans retain an appetite for royalty, as Hello! magazine attests, but Charles I is hardly a celebrity. According to Mark Kishlansky’s unfortunately-named biography, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life, he remains “the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Yet to his fans, King Charles I was and remains a Christian martyr whose spiritual importance transcends the politics of the seventeenth-century Civil War.

The frontispiece to the 'Eikon Basilke' (1649)

The frontispiece to the ‘Eikon Basilke’ (1649)

Historians tend to disagree about Charles’s reign: was he a victim, a tyrant, or simply incompetent? Whatever the case, once he was deposed he played his part as a martyr with dignity, bravery, and political acumen. On the morning of his execution, he wrote that he would greet the day as “my second wedding day; I would be as trim today as may be, for before tonight I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” He wore two shirts so that he would not shiver from the cold and appear frightened. Addressing the crowd from the scaffolding, he declared himself “the martyr of the people.” He left a spiritual autobiography titled Eikon Basilke (“The Royal Portrait”), which provided an account and justification of his conduct. Here, Charles explained that he could have saved his life if he had given into the demands of the parliamentarians and abolished the bishops of the Church of England. The historian Andrew Lacey calls the Eikon “the most successful book of the century.” Its heavily symbolic frontispiece was particularly influential, showing Charles exchanging the royal crown for a martyr’s crown. Charles himself thus provided his supporters with the material for his cult.

Charles’s martyrdom was his greatest political success. Widespread uneasiness about this national sin eased the restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660. In 1662, Charles’s martyrdom was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the Church of England.

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

The commemoration of Charles’s execution on January 30 was one of three explicitly political services enjoined by the Book of Common Prayer. On May 29, congregations observed the Restoration of Charles II, and on November 5, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The latter, directed against Catholics, has remained popular to this day. Martyrdom Day, by contrast, was politically divisive, and was denounced as idolatrous by reforming Protestants.

Following the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty at the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89, Martyrdom Day remained part of the Anglican liturgy but its divisiveness made it a political liability. The festival was popular with high churchmen such as Henry Sacheverell, who feared that the generous toleration given to Protestant Dissenters threatened the safety of both church and state. Nevertheless, the theory of sacred monarchy articulated in the January 30 service, and the close association of Charles’s cult with the exiled Stuart dynasty, clashed with the political imperatives of the new regime. By 1772, when Sir Roger Newdigate defended the Church of England’s “only canonized saint” in the House of Commons, he was met with derisive laughter. Charles’s status as a martyr proved even more divisive in the American colonies. His memory was venerated by loyalist Anglicans during the American Revolution, who found in his patient, steadfast suffering a model for their own behavior during the political crisis. For American Anglicans who supported independence, however, Martyrdom Day was an embarrassment. Following independence, the newly-formed Episcopal Church excised the service from its Book of Common Prayer. In Britain, meanwhile, it remained officially observed until 1858, when the service was removed from the Book of Common Prayer by an Act of Parliament.

Today, the cult of King Charles the Martyr is thoroughly anachronistic, doubly so for its American adherents. The festival is not officially observed in either the UK or the US, and it no longer serves the political uses to which it was put in the seventeenth century. It nevertheless retains supporters among high church Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Anglo-Catholics. The cult was revived by the Oxford Movement, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded in 1894. Part of the cult’s attraction, perhaps, lies in the nostalgic and reactionary appeal of deliberate political anachronism. This appears to have been the case for the Society’s Anglo-Irish founder, the Hon. Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent. But rather more important is its theological meaning to Anglicans who place a particularly high value on the longevity and perpetuation of the church’s institutions. As the cult’s political utility recedes, it becomes easier to see the theological concerns which have always underpinned it.

Perhaps the greatest part of the cult’s power, from its origins to the present, is not so much the sacred monarchy part as the martyrdom part. Charles provides that rare thing, a specifically Anglican martyr. The Society’s hymns celebrate “Royal Charles, who chose to die / Rather than the Faith deny.” The power of martyrdom lies in this choice: by choosing death, the martyr triumphs over the worst that the world can throw at them. Like shooting the moon in a game of cards, martyrdom turns a weak hand into a trump hand. It is the ultimate weapon of the weak, with the potential to upend structures of social and political power. This tradition is embedded in Christianity, ultimately referring to the model of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Brad Gregory showed in his classic book Salvation at Stake, martyrdom was revived during the Reformation, when the martyr’s willingness to die seemed to indicate that they died for the true faith. However, this claim was progressively undone by the undiminishing capacity of rival versions of Christianity to produce their own martyrs. While martyrdom could no longer be counted on to point the way to religious truth, it continued to demonstrate the irreducible resilience of individual religious belief, marking out the limits of the coercive power of the modern state. For all its deliberate anachronism, then, the cult of King Charles the Martyr might just be an essentially modern form of religious observance.

Peter Walker has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. His dissertation is about Anglicanism and martyrdom (among other things).

Brexit for Historians

On Friday, September 9 in the Columbia University history department, British historians Susan Pedersen and Sam Wetherell led a conversation about Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. Intended as what Wetherell referred to as an “air-clearing” for historians who still had thoughts from the summer to process, the event was attended by a range of scholars in different fields. About half the room had some connection to Britain, either through nationality or research field, but others spoke from their perspective as continental Europeans or Europeanists, as political scientists, or from other perspectives. After a brief introduction from Pedersen to the history of Britain’s relationship to the EU and the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership in the EEC, and a recap from Wetherell of events since June 23, the discussion ranged widely. Jake Purcell and Emily Rutherford felt that they had no choice but to take stock of things for the blog, and a conversation between them follows.

ER: I was looking back over my notes from the conversation, and I was surprised to realize that Susan kicked the whole thing off with some serious national British history to give some political-historical context for this summer’s referendum, because the conversation so quickly veered away from that approach! By the end, participants had raised so many questions about whether historians might best understand Brexit from a historical perspective, from a national British as opposed to a European perspective, and what kinds of lenses on British history (class? race? empire? culture? economics? politics?) might be appropriate to bring to bear. An ancient historian made the most eloquent defense of Leave voters I’ve heard thus far, and in the process invoked ancient notions of Europe and their modern reception. And of course, you’re a medievalist!

I’m a modern British historian who spent the whole summer in the UK, and who understood Brexit to be “really” about this sovereignty question that came up in the discussion, and about issues of national politics, economics, culture, the welfare state, etc. So far, given that markets seem to have stabilized for the time being, the fallout mostly seems to have taken place in the context of the parliamentary system and the national political culture that surrounds it. So I was really struck that this wasn’t actually the focus of Friday’s discussion. What did you think about how this group’s identities as historians factored into the fact that we were having this conversation? Other people present made claims for what an ancient historian or an early modernist could bring to the understanding of this political issue, but what do you think about that from your perspective as someone who isn’t a modern British historian?

JP: I’ll probably circle back to the non-British, non-modernist thing later, but two elements of the discussion struck me as particularly historianly. The first was Sam’s rather plaintive insistence that we were all there to try to get a handle on “what had happened,” and the second was Susan’s rather dense introduction to campaigns for and against British participation in a European economic system throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to removing some of the mysticism of the Brexit vote by giving it a clear context, Susan’s comments demonstrated that there were no particularly stances that different parties had to take, or lines of argument that necessarily fell to for or against. The idea that Labour had, in previous votes, been opposed to participating in EEC because it was a vote for capitalism, or that a relatively higher portion of, for example, young people voted to leave in 1975. Contingency! The discussion immediately became a project not just to figure out what arguments worked or didn’t, but why lines of reasoning were deployed or had resonance at this particular moment.

Like you say, the conversation wove through an extraordinary number of topics (I have five pages of legal pad notes, taken in a desperate attempt to keep the different strands clumped together), but do you think it’s safe to say that there was some consensus? Sam suggested that there were two dominant ways of reading the Brexit vote, one about poverty, austerity, isolationism, and the service economy, the other about a nationalist revolt against a lost idea of Britishness, and that the first of these was insufficient in explanatory power, that they had to be moved together. This assessment seemed to agree with Susan’s conclusion, that this moment we’re in is really a culture-emphasizing backlash against a politics that is only about economics. Which reminds me of another, not very historian-like aspect of the discussion, which was a genuine willingness to predict. What about this topic do you think made us willing to get over that particular aversion? Do you think the analyses that emerged gave us the right tools for that project?

ER: Mmm, I see what you’re saying about how historical reasoning crept into the conversation even when it wasn’t explicitly a conversation about how to historicize. Susan was also working in part from a recent book about Britain’s twentieth-century relationship to Europe, Continental Drift, written by a former US diplomat: so from the outset the conversation was framed as one in which history and other social-scientific methodologies for understanding contemporary politics have to work together. It reminds me of how Queen Mary University London’s Mile End Institute held a forum the morning after the referendum, featuring scholars from disciplines from public policy to law to economics, and also including a historian, Robert Saunders, whose blog has provided some of the most measured analysis of political events as they developed this summer. So I guess historians can predict, particularly if they are also drawing on other methodologies, but I’m not sure that it’s something we are innately qualified to do—particularly if we don’t work with the kind of numbers that allow a scholar to project trends in changing demographics, polling data, etc.

As to cultural versus economic arguments: it strikes me that the most interesting things the audience contributed to the discussion were cultural. I was particularly convinced by a few different speakers: one who discussed the internal workings of politics and whether it’s a “game”; another who carefully described a notion of national sovereignty (“take back control”) that can bridge class divides and appeal to people from very different groups for different reasons; and a third who asked about the working-out of loss of empire. I am not sure if all those things amount to one consensus, but they do certainly amount to one emphasis. But maybe that’s because I’m a historian of modern British elite institutions and culture myself! When I lived in Britain I became very susceptible to seeing the origins of the culture of the elite institutions that I was inhabiting in the late nineteenth century that I study; and to slipping back and forth between how a phenomenon like male homosociality worked in the late-nineteenth-century context and in the present day, the one illuminating the other. I still think some of that is true, though I’m not sure it’s the most responsible methodology when it comes to writing history. But maybe that tendency to collapse time, simultaneously inhabiting a mental universe bounded by your research and the normal outside world, is a cast of mind that historians can offer discussions like this one. I started studying Britain shortly after the 2010 general election which returned the Conservatives to power, and since then my research has helped me to understand, and to explain to other Americans, issues from the government’s education policy, to why Guardian headlines are so often ridiculous, to how Boris Johnson is the culmination of 300 years of history of elite education and its relationship to the British state (my current obsession).

But I remain struck by how so many people at the event kept pulling us out of the narrowly British, or even English, context: invoking the view from Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, America, or from a time before Great Britain. Brexit seems so irrevocably British to me, entwined with the specific context Susan and Sam began with and (I would argue) with a slightly more distant British past that accounts for those cultural phenomena and their effects on voter behavior. But is it possible that modern British history is actually the wrong framework through which to view what seems to me a peculiarly modern British event? Is there anything particularly British about Brexit at all? (This NYRB piece which links Brexit to the upcoming US election seems to think not.) Is it chauvinist to argue that there is? Why, as so many commenters pointed out, should we care about Britain at all?

JP: Yes, you’re right that it was more an agreement about what elements were critical as opposed to what the exact configuration was. Though, who knows if that’s just because of a propensity for institutional and cultural explanations among the people in that room! I like the idea that having a second frame of reference constantly in mind is part of the historian’s contribution; something like built-in “perspective.”

Trying to get out of the British-centric focus was definitely a theme! I think several people in the room would agree that “wrong” is exactly the word for using modern British history as the sole framework, not in sense of “incorrect,” but in the sense of “not quite ethical.” There seemed to be real frustrations that neither campaign discussed the effect that leaving might have on the EU, and the Remain campaign’s lack of critique somehow seemed to tie it even more closely to an all-powerful austerity bloc, at least from the perspective of some people in Southern Europe. Aside from that, even Susan did not quite think that historical context provided all of the answers. When someone asked about old colonial tensions playing out in the Irish vote, Susan pushed back against the specter of “Little England” as an explanatory element, instead pointing to demographic shifts and the massive expansion of higher education. At the same time, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying to pretend that all populism is the same, or achieves power in the same way, especially if one of the participants whom you mentioned is right and the political game happens at the institutional level, rather than at the national or European level. For all the recent interest in transnational history, it is odd to me that we never quite developed a rhetoric for talking about what similarities in, for example, anti-immigrant politics might mean. (In addition to immigration, I can’t help but feel that the caricature of Brussels as a tiny, antidemocratic bureaucracy controlling the lives of European citizens from its paperwork-lined halls corresponds to a repudiation of Administrative Law in some corners in the U.S.)

I also think that maybe there was a scale problem in the conversation. Yes, you’re probably right that modern British history is exactly the lens that will allow us to explain in important ways the mechanics of the Brexit campaign and vote, in part because British politics has a particular flavor, but the significance—why we ought to care about Britain at all—resides in part at the level of Europe. The Council for European Studies’ major conference this year is on the themes of “sustainability and transformation,” and Brexit is a key component; it is clearly understood to have transformative potential, whatever the current calm. We need lots of national and transnational histories, not just British ones, to figure out what the impact might be.

I find myself returning again and again to the lone, brave, self-professed Leave voter. He suggested that one might support Leave because the EU immigration system disadvantages people particularly from Europe or Africa, and that the idea of a bounded “Europe” remained too closely related to constructions of race and scientific racism for his comfort. I honestly cannot say whether or not this is true, but I’m way more interested in the fact that these lines of reasoning are exactly the same criticisms that usually get leveled against nationalism and the nineteenth-century construction of the state. Maybe historians (especially premodernists, I think) can help to de-naturalize the presence of particular institutions or relationships between ideologies and political positions.

ER: I can’t argue with that!

Shame, Memory, and the Politics of the Archive

by guest contributor Nicole Longpré

During a research trip to the University of Leeds in the spring of 2014, I requested access to a selection of files from the papers of former Labour MP Merlyn Rees which are held by the university library’s special collections facility. Staff at the facility were unsure what to do: it was possible that these files were included in the part of the collection that was closed to the public. They would have to check. I asked again the next day, and again the next: the staff were still uncertain, so I would not be able to view the files. At the Conservative Party Archive in Oxford, things were clearer: the Conservative Party staffer responsible for granting special access said it would not be possible to view the selection of files I had requested. They were not open to any member of the public.

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful.

Tony Kushner argues that “There persists a strong tendency to deny racism and exclusion—past and present—and therefore a need still to study its impact and importance in British society and culture, especially on the minorities concerned” (13). But it is not enough, I don’t think, just to study the impact of exclusion. Exclusion is not some miasma floating about in the air: it requires agency, and unless we acknowledge the role of human action in creating and maintaining exclusionary practices, we have only half the story. Kushner further argues that “Official proclamations from politicians of all hues from the late twentieth century onwards emphasise that ‘The UK has a long standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world’. A contrary tradition of animosity has been less easily accepted in self-mythology.” (12) And since animosity is challenging to incorporate into the national narrative, evidence of its existence is suppressed, or ignored—certainly not encouraged.

Shame does not only manifest in the closure of existing archival files; it also results in the non-existence of archives themselves. There is, at present, no archive of anti-immigrationism. No repository includes among its collection the complete papers of any single-issue anti-immigrationist group, or any individual whose primary or exclusive contribution to politics and society was their anti-immigrationist activism. All of the collections which hold anti-immigrationist materials are those of mainstream political parties, MPs, or even left-leaning groups who surveyed anti-immigrationists for the purposes of information-gathering. That is, all the documentary evidence that exists on the topic of anti-immigrationism was deposited, and collected, by someone else, or because the person who possessed or created those documents did other things which were more important—or at least more acceptable. This trend reveals certain tantalizing details that might otherwise have been lost: for instance, that the Labour Party and National Front ran a series of infiltrations of each other’s organizations in which young working-class men posed as members for the purposes of obtaining information about their opponents’ tactics. But it conceals other, equally important information. For instance, what was the nature of internal organizational debates about how, and why, to oppose immigration legislation, or discussions about which tactics were best suited to challenging the political status quo? How did anti-immigrationists think about themselves, and how did they speak to each other? It is not clear whether members of anti-immigrationist groups ever offered to deposit their papers with any repository; if they had, it is similarly uncertain whether any repository would have accepted them. In both cases, shame operates to suppress the collection of data and information that might otherwise be used to construct a compelling, and complete, vision of the past. If we think it is important to preserve the papers of the National Council of Civil Liberties, presently held at the Hull History Centre, why not those of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association?

Typically when a group of individuals have not been responsible for depositing their own papers, we assume that this is because they have been in some way disempowered or disenfranchised—that they were among the oppressed and thus not granted their own voice. Anti-immigrationists in the twentieth century, by contrast, were typically citizens of the United Kingdom who were more or less uniformly entitled to a full package of civil, political, and social rights. However, the effect, and perhaps the intent, of an official disinterest in the anti-immigrationist past is to send a clear message not only to the anti-immigrationists and their successors, but also to any members of the public who may be paying attention: as anti-immigrationists you were always marginal, never mainstream, and the record will reflect this.

Assessing the complicated legacy of white supremacy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “’Hope’ struck me as an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” Coates argues that white supremacy is likely an indelible feature of American society, and that the best remedy that can be achieved is a diminution of its impact. He means this stance not to be unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but rather to militate “against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.” Evidence of this (problematic) commitment to a positive spin on the trajectory of British history abounds in present-day commentary on the anti-immigrationist rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is routinely mocked, chastised, and condemned by members of the political establishment; yet he persists in his public statements, and it would be difficult for anyone in the UK to ignore the role he is presently playing in politics at the highest level. It would similarly have been impossible for anyone to ignore the role that anti-immigrationism played in politics in the 1960s and 1970s—and so to frame anti-immigrationism as strictly “marginal” is an inaccurate representation of the lived experience of this period.

Unearthing the unpleasant history of an anti-immigrationist past is not an easy task, or a straightforward one. But it is not a task that should be avoided for all that. The cumulative effect of a failure to deposit shameful documents, or of denying access to potentially shameful materials, is to render oneself complicit in the process of suppression. By pretending that these things did not happen, and by preventing others from telling the story of a shameful past, we are ourselves culpable. So what principles should guide our collection and preservation of historical evidence moving forward? Do we keep only that which we can be proud of? Or do we accept that there are certain things about humanity that should change, but which can only be changed if we confront them in all their gory detail, if we pay them as much attention as those events and individuals who we most admire? Indeed, should we continue to accept the social phenomena of pride and shame as the grounds upon which we do, or do not, remember the past?

Nicole Longpré recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria in Fall 2016. She researches anti-immigrationism and twentieth-century British political history.

Reading for Pleasure and Shelf-Satisfaction: The Reading Sheffield Oral History Project

by guest contributor Elizabeth Ott

Debates about the proper function of public libraries—what readers they should serve, what kinds of reading they should promote, what sorts of books should stock their shelves and (perhaps most importantly) how those books and shelves should be paid for—have dogged discussions of public libraries since their first inception. These debates have never been politically neutral, yet they have been particularly charged in recent years, as conservative economic policies have forced the closure of many libraries around the United Kingdom. In this climate, libraries, librarians, and library users are charged to articulate what value public libraries offer to offset the cost of their operation.

Often these articulations rely upon the rhetoric of moral improvement: reading becomes synonymous with education, a safe activity that guards against the dubious pleasures of modernity. The library itself is cited as a place of community-building, a neutral space of wholesome civic engagement. These lines of argument have the effect of casting public libraries in relation to a sense of time: either libraries are preserving a sense of the past, a golden moment in history when reading (usually figured as inherently superior to, say, television, the internet, etc.) was ubiquitous, or libraries are a gateway to progress, an investment in national advancement.

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

The tension between these two modes of articulating value in public libraries can be seen in a recent interview in the Guardian with writer Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s interlocutor, Toby Litt, asks a series of leading questions, such as this one: “Isn’t the future of libraries dependent on not having gatekeepers who are scary, on libraries not looking ancient, and not being about distant, old knowledge?” This question is loaded with valuations of what is good (progress, youth, the future) and what is bad (history, age, the past). It is impossible to read it without jumping to a conclusion about the kind of library he is indicating: the scary gate-keeping crone who guards ancient tomes in a derelict Carnegie building whose sagging walls speak of years of civic neglect. Gaiman is largely uninterested in engaging this discourse, and instead uses the space of the interview to explore his own personal and imaginative interaction with libraries as a young reader. Nevertheless, his metaphor of the library as “seed-corn” which ends up titling the article, contributes to a progress narrative.

In this context, the Reading Sheffield project is delightfully radical. Though in many ways the project tropes the library as a preserver of history (the main page of the website invites readers to “be transported to Sheffield’s past. To a time without Google or Apple, a time when the world went to war and then re-built itself, a time when most children left school at 14 and most women did not work outside the home”), it significantly places no value whatsoever on reading as an improving activity, instead championing reading as an activity of leisure. Against the backdrop of a largely working class readership, Reading Sheffield is “a resource for anybody seeking to explore, celebrate, or promote reading for pleasure.”

At the core of the Reading Sheffield project is series of sixty-two interviews with residents who lived in Sheffield, England during the 1940s and 1950s, conducted over a two-year period by twelve trained volunteers. These oral histories of reading are fully transcribed and available on the website, along with embedded audio files. Interview subjects recollect how they accessed the library, when they first became readers, what they read, and how their reading intersected with their daily lives. These recordings have significant historical value as a record of reader activity—an aspect of reading history that’s especially fleeting and difficult to capture—and as markers of social history. In recounting their memories of library use, each interviewee also records detailed information about the culture of post-war Britain in which they read. Archival quality audio recordings of the interviews have been deposited with the Sheffield Archives and Sheffield Hallam University, in addition to being made available online.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

Because of the average age of interview participants, the Reading Sheffield oral histories recall the privation of post-war England in the 1940s and 1950s. Readers reference the scarcity of paper, shortages of food, the sheer difficulty of visiting library branches when tram rides proved too expensive and a trip across town meant an arduous trek in both directions. The interview format prompts recollections along a defined pathway: when did you first learn to read? What were your first books?  Which library branches did you visit and how did you get there? What books did you own and what books did you borrow? This last question is one that particularly highlights the library’s function as a place of pleasure reading, as often interviewees make a distinction between the kind of practical books purchased for the home (bibles, trade manuals, school books) and the books vividly recalled from library visits: “Well the books from the library I think were all novels.”

Beyond its function as a repository of oral history, the project seeks to imaginatively engage with readers’ histories in a variety of ways—most interestingly through its Readers’ Journeys: “interpretive articles based on our readers’ interviews,” written by project team members, that may “not necessarily represent the views of the interviewees.” These articles attempt to match oral histories with the places and spaces they recollect, drawing out tangential narratives that emphasize the importance of libraries and library buildings in the social life of the community.

Sheffield, like many cities in the United Kingdom, has weathered threats of library closure. It was the site of community protests in 2014 over the planned closure of approximately 16 branch locations; these closures were only avoided through the use of volunteer labor, replacing professional and staff positions at many branches. Reading Sheffield, too, is built on the labor largely of volunteers, whose efforts to preserve community history in the face of erasure are commendable, as is their message that readers deserve a community space for shared pleasure, outside any system of utilitarian value.

Elizabeth Ott is Assistant Curator of Rare Books at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. Her doctoral work is on the history of subscription and circulating libraries in England.

Antonin Scalia’s Originalism and the Rhetoric of Judicial Office in Early Modern England

by guest contributor David Kearns

Since his death on 13 February 2016, much has been written on Antonin Scalia’s legacy as a Supreme Court justice. A significant strand within this literature has focused on Scalia’s enduring fascination—both in his judgments and in his statements outside the court—with the relationship between law and morality. Scalia famously remarked that lawyers were “not moral philosophers“; and that judges were not tasked with determining what rights should exist, but rather with what rights exist according to accurate Constitutional interpretation, a doctrine he described as “originalism.” A judge reasoning not through such interpretation but rather through the application of moral philosophy was, in Scalia’s words, a “charlatan.”

Commentators interested in this aspect of Scalia’s work have alleged that this supposed amorality was either a cover for actual immorality—his discussions of homosexuality, in one account, “reflect ugly, stubborn, unevolved beliefs”—or in fact was itself immoral. For Laurence H. Tribe, Scalia’s dedication to originalism precluded him from embracing the “just and inclusive society” that laws “should be interpreted to advance.”

This essay will focus on this latter response, and will show that Scalia’s rhetoric about the importance of accurate interpretation and application of existing law over moral concerns is a modern contribution to a judicial rhetoric that emerged in late seventeenth-century England in response to the British Civil Wars. In particular, it will explicate how Sir Matthew Hale—King’s Bench Chief Justice from 1671 to 1675—justified an amoral legal system rooted in accurate interpretation and application of past law as the only means to protect England against future civil conflict.

Hale was born in 1609, and after briefly attempting to join the priesthood, took up a career in law. He studied at Lincoln’s Inn before working as a barrister, and was appointed to judicial office under Oliver Cromwell, as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Under the restored monarchy of Charles II, Hale served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer from 1660 to 1671, and as Chief Justice of King’s Bench—the highest common law court—from 1671 to his retirement in 1675. As well as his work as a judge, Hale wrote extensively on the common law, though published little in his lifetime.

In these works, Hale articulated his understanding of the common law and the role of the judges working in it. In his History of the Common Law in England, written in the 1670s, Hale explained that the common law consisted of the lex non scripta, the laws which existed from “before Time of Memory”: a legal term referring to the period before 1189, even if such laws still existed in written form (Hale, History, 3-4). The laws that made up the lex non scripta had three different origins: customs, practices of governance that survived “from Age to Age”; statutes; and previous judicial decisions, not laws as such but precedents which could aid in interpretation (44-5). Judges were bound to dispense judgments in line with these laws and with the lex scripta, statutes made post-1189 (166).

Hale expanded on this in his manuscript Reflections by the L[o]rd. Chiefe Justice Hale on Mr. Hobbes his Dialogue of the Lawe, written roughly simultaneous to his History. Hobbes’s A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England comprised a lengthy attack on common lawyers: particularly Edward Coke, King’s Bench Chief Justice from 1613 to 1616 and one of Hale’s mentors. In the initial exchange between the Philosopher and Lawyer, Hobbes’s Lawyer claimed that, according to Coke, common law judges possessed a form of legal reason distinct from men’s natural reason. This was the “Summa Ratio“—the highest reason—an artificial form of reason constituted through “many successions of Ages,” through which it had been steadily refined by common lawyers (Hobbes, Dialogue, 9, 18).

Hobbes’s Philosopher rejected this argument, insisting instead that lawyers and judges possess no special form of reason, as “all Men… when they have applied their Reason to the Laws… may be as fit for, and capable of Judicature as Sir Edward Coke himself” (18). Judges should not rely on earlier judgments, as these were often contradictory (55). Instead, the king’s judgment, as expressed particularly in statute, should ground judicial work. Furthermore, the Philosopher asserted, the laws that constituted the common law had been made by kings—kings were “Legislator both of Statute-Law, and of Common-Law”—and it was thus the reason of these kings that guided the law (26).

Writing against this, Hale contested Hobbes’s conception of legal reason, arguing that those trained in the common law possessed a form of reason specialized to their discipline. By applying their natural “Facultie of Reason” to the law through “readeing, Study and observation,” men “habituated” their “reasonable facultie” to the law, preparing them to serve as lawyer or judge (Hale, Reflections, 287-8, 292). No natural nor royal reason could thus adequately perform the duties of a judge, which involved interpreting the breadth of existing law—the lex non scripta and lex scripta—and accurately applying it to the present case.

Hale went on to extol the virtue of this method against those who would seek to root law in moral philosophy, deploying a vocabulary very similar to that later used by Scalia. Judges attempting to adjudicate through reference to “Casuists, Schoolmen, Morall Philosophers, and Treatises touching Moralls in the Theory” are “Co[m]monly the worst Judges” (289). Moreover, the accurate application of existing law was preferable to the deployment of any personally formulated legal principle “tho’ I am better acquainted w[i]th the reasonableness of my own theory” (291). Hale acknowledged that this process of interpreting and applying past law without concern for moral questions may indeed result in “some mischief,” but that “more must Suffer by the inconvenience of an Arbitrary and uncertaine law” resulting from a resort to moral theory.

The preservation of peace over legal innovation was particularly pertinent for Hale given his context. Hale had lived through the British Civil Wars and the Interregnum period following Charles I’s execution in 1649. He had witnessed the instability and violence of this period, as well as the threats to the common law that arose in the monarchy’s absence. Hale had chaired Cromwell’s Hale Commission, charged with developing law reforms, none of which were ultimately accepted by Cromwell’s government. As Commission chair, Hale was brought into contact with an array of opponents of the common law, including those who proposed dismantling the common law in favor of a scripture-based legal system (such as Hugh Peters in his Good Work for a Good Magistrate).

Writing in his History after the Civil Wars and Interregnum, Hale described this period as characterized by “Errors, Distemppers or Iniquities,” and claimed that it was only the common law that had “wasted and wrought out those distempers” (History, 30). Hale’s certainty that the common law protected the English state and that threats to his judicial method constituted threats to the state is palpable throughout his Reflections, as he warned of the “Instability, uncertantie, and varietie” threatened by a law grounded in moral theory. Such a grounding would risk “the happiness and Peace of the Kingdome”; it was instead preferable that judges apply “a Lawe by w[hi]ch a Kingdome hath been happily governed four or five hundr[e]d yeares” (Reflections, 291). For Hale, then, the amoral process of accurately interpreting and applying past law was to be preferred to any attempt to reconcile law with moral theory, which he saw as threatening to plunge England back into a state of violence.

Hale’s theories of law have remained central to modern jurisprudence on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as being cited heavily by William Blackstone, who himself remains regularly cited in modern law (see, for example, Lord Fraser’s citation of Blackstone in the immensely influential Gillick v West Norlk and Wisbech AHA), Hale’s judgments have been cited as precedent as recently as 1991, where his 1675 conviction of John Taylor for claiming that Christ was a “whore-master” and “bastard” formed part of the basis of Salman Rushdie’s acquittal for blasphemous libel (R v Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate). This early modern English jurisprudence has also had a continuing influence on American law. This appraisal of Hale’s treatment of the law-morality relationship thus ought to give us pause in our criticism of Scalia. Whether Scalia lived up to his own challenge to accurately apply existing law, and whether such a practice continues to constitute a valid judicial method given its now-remote origins, remain questions for current legal commentators. We cannot, though, simply dismiss Scalia’s concern with the primacy of precedent as a personal moral failing, but must contend with it as a contemporary engagement with an enduring and powerfully justified tradition within the law.

David Kearns is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on English common law from 1660 to 1688, and in particular, the relationship between the common law and religious thought.

Friendship, Idealism, and Federating University Women in the Early Twentieth Century

by Emily Rutherford

Working my way through my most recent archival findings, it’s tempting to conclude that, in early-twentieth-century England, men’s visions for the future of higher education revolved entirely around conservative retrenchment, while women’s embraced exciting new progressive ideas including coeducation, curricular innovation, and education’s relation to international relations. To be sure, my sample size is small, my research as yet inconclusive; previous historians have done much to trace the transformation of liberally- and Liberally-minded academics in my period into public intellectuals who pronounced on everything from social reform and imperial policy to the League of Nations.

Still, while schoolmaster-turned-Cambridge don Oscar Browning or American art collector-turned-Oxford benefactor Edward Perry Warren were working hard to defend the distinctly cloistered, masculine culture of the Oxbridge collegiate system, women’s educational community had grander and more outward-looking aims. Their vision marked a significant departure from that of men who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, had sought to use the residential college model and a broadly classical curriculum to inculcate morality and civic duty in their students. However idealistic some of these men might have been, their visions usually turned inward. By contrast, in a 1922 speech, the London English professor Caroline Spurgeon argued that an organization connecting university-educated women from around the world might prove a more successful vehicle for “international friendship” than the League of Nations (Caroline Spurgeon Papers, Royal Holloway PP7/6/3). I want briefly to tell the story of Spurgeon and some of the friends with whom she came to hold this belief—and to suggest, perhaps, a different account of early-twentieth-century elite higher education in Britain from the perspective that the Oxbridge men’s colleges offer.

Caroline Spurgeon, the daughter of an army captain, was born in India in 1869, and later went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and King’s College London. She received a doctorate in medieval literature from the Sorbonne in 1911. Margery Fry, born into a prominent Quaker family in 1874, read mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford. Rose Sidgwick, born in 1877, was the daughter of a prominent progressive Oxford don; she attended Oxford High School for Girls and read history as an Oxford Home Student. Virginia Gildersleeve was also born in 1877, into a prominent New York family; she attended Brearley and Barnard, and did a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia. All four were “new” women: a generation who came of age in the 1890s, the first women for whom education opened doors to an independent, public life that would have been inconceivable to their mothers. They were committed to their fields of research, and to building institutions that could offer to women what university education had long offered to men—whether that meant residential colleges to rival Oxbridge and the Ivy League, or large coeducational institutions committed to offering a higher education in a wider variety of fields to anyone capable of doing the work.

Somerville College, Oxford, where Margery Fry and Rose Sidgwick met. Wikimedia Commons.

Somerville College, Oxford, where Margery Fry and Rose Sidgwick met. Wikimedia Commons.

For all this progress, most women who pursued a professional career were thereby making the choice not to marry. In her volume on women in British universities in this period, Carol Dyhouse offers the remarkable statistic that 79-85% of women academics at the turn of the century “remained lifelong spinsters” (161). Instead, women who worked in universities—like those in other professions, like social work, newly open to women—were emotionally sustained by the close friendships they formed with each other. Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry are a typical example: they met when teaching at Somerville College, Oxford early in their careers and became committed partners, moving together to Birmingham University in 1904 to start a residence hall for women there. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, speculate about whether a relationship like Fry’s and Sidgwick’s might have looked like what we would call “lesbian” today, the collection of Sidgwick’s letters and poems that Fry saved are a testament to the two women’s intimacy; ardent expressions of love from the 1900s give way to anxiety after Fry decided to join the Quaker ambulance corps on the Western Front in 1915. It’s difficult to do justice to this extraordinary collection of documents here. But through them it may be possible to tell a detailed and difficult story about the ways in which “new women” intermingled love and labor—of the kind which Seth Koven has begun to explore and which could benefit from more perspectives and forms of evidence.

As the higher education sector expanded, it became an important component of the cultural ties that intellectuals and politicians believed united the English-speaking world. As Tamson Pietsch has shown, universities were an important vector for communication across the settler empire; as early as 1902, Cecil Rhodes’s will evidences that the United States was imagined as part of this network as well. By the summer of 1918, when the end of the war was in sight and the British and American governments were both planning avidly for a new peacetime order, universities were part of their picture. The US Department of Defense invited the British Foreign Office to select a group of prominent British academics to tour US universities in a so-called “British Educational Mission,” a highly-publicized diplomatic event which would explore what higher education could contribute to a new Anglo-American alliance. The Foreign Office selected five men who were prominent in academic administration or in their research fields—and then, after these had already departed, they concluded that it was no longer appropriate for only men to participate in such an initiative. Hastily, they contacted Spurgeon and Fry, two of the more senior women then working in academia. Spurgeon, by then the first woman in Britain to achieve the rank of professor, accepted. Fry was exhausted from her wartime service and needed to care for an ailing father. She suggested that Sidgwick go in her stead.

University House, the hall for women at Birmingham that Fry and Sidgwick founded. Author photo.

University House, the hall for women at Birmingham that Fry and Sidgwick founded. Author photo.

Sidgwick and Spurgeon set sail for New York in September, 1918. They were hosted there by Virginia Gildersleeve, by now Dean of Barnard and a member of the reception committee. Barnard became their base as over the next four months they toured colleges across North America: from the Seven Sisters to the universities of Michigan and Texas, and—making a brief sojourn for the sake of imperial relations—McGill and Toronto in Canada. While their male colleagues reviewed ROTC parades, they collected information about the ways American women undergraduates lived (Sidgwick’s travel diary records her surprise that Americans were more independent and outspoken than English women students, if not as learned) and promoted the idea of scholarships to send American women to do graduate work in Britain. In her memoir, Gildersleeve recalled that she, Sidgwick, and Spurgeon were all sitting perched on trunks in a tiny New York hotel room when they conceived the idea of an International Federation of University Women (IFUW), a body that would work for international fellowship and cooperation. For Gildersleeve, that moment was also the start of a decades-long relationship with Spurgeon: in addition to working on the IFUW together, the two women bought a cottage at Alciston in Sussex, where they spent summers until Spurgeon retired to Arizona. In strikingly modern fashion, they contrived to spend sabbaticals at each other’s institutions. For Spurgeon and Gildersleeve, as for Fry and Sidgwick, their relationship was always intertwined with their common work, in medieval and early modern literature and in bringing international university women together.

Fry and Sidgwick would have no such future. In December 1918, Sidgwick was admitted to the Columbia University Hospital. She died just after Christmas, a casualty of the Spanish influenza epidemic. Gildersleeve organized the academic equivalent of a transatlantic state funeral: a High Anglican service in the chapel of the only university in the Thirteen Colonies to have been founded by royal charter, with the coffin draped in a Union Jack and pallbearers including the British ambassador and the presidents of Columbia, Yale, and NYU. Effusive eulogies were delivered on both sides of the Atlantic, and Gildersleeve later recalled that “I felt that she had died as truly in the service of her country as had the thousands of her young countrymen who had fallen on the fields of Flanders and of France” (Many a Good Crusade 130). The British Educational Mission might in retrospect seem parochial, but Sidgwick’s death makes clear just how entwined it was with large-scale questions of international diplomacy.

So too did Sidgwick’s death galvanize Spurgeon and Gildersleeve to follow through with founding the IFUW in her memory. One of the organization’s first actions was to create a scholarship for American women to study in the UK, named in memory of Sidgwick. A benefactor donated a house in Paris—a symbolic place due to being the location of the Peace Conference—to serve as an IFUW clubhouse. Annual conferences were held in cities around Europe. Papers of the IFUW Council record discussions about paths to education and careers for married women, research statements from women whose scholarships the IFUW sponsored, requests for official recognition from the League of Nations (the League declined to take action on the IFUW’s proposals). In speeches in the early ’20s promoting the IFUW to women’s groups around Britain, Spurgeon argued that international relations were not just for statesmen. They were something everyone could practice by joining organizations like the IFUW that could facilitate the formation of friendships across national borders—like, perhaps, the friendship she had found with Gildersleeve. Drawing on ideas about women’s role in politics popular in both the British and American suffrage movements (whose gains were still a novelty), she suggested that this kind of affective connection was women’s version of peacemaking, equivalent and no less important to what men pursued in Geneva. In some ways, she went a step further than seemed possible in Geneva in the early ’20s: her papers include a 1926 cutting from a German women’s magazine which celebrates her achievements alongside those of women scholars and researchers from the German-speaking countries (RHUL PP7/8/2).

Like the rest of the interwar internationalist moment, the IFUW never again enjoyed the intense burst of enthusiasm it had between about 1919 and 1926. Due to blockades, delegates were not able to make it to an IFUW conference in Copenhagen in 1939, and after the war they did not resume the habit. Like the branches of the League Secretariat absorbed into the UN, the American and British branches of the IFUW still offer scholarships—but they are dwarfed by other, higher-profile initiatives. Along with liberal internationalism, the postwar period saw the decline of women’s education as a separate enterprise to men’s, which embodied a different ethics and sense of social relations and at times a different curriculum. The Cold War Anglo-American alliance was cemented with new, coed scholarships like the Marshall and the Fulbright; that imperial holdover the Rhodes finally admitted women in 1977—around the same time as most Oxford and Cambridge men’s colleges. The conservative men who in the early twentieth century had tried to protect the distinctiveness of their own domain were no more successful than were the progressive women who sought to enrich theirs. But Gildersleeve’s, Sidgwick’s, Fry’s, and Spurgeon’s story is a way into a world we’ve lost: one of extraordinary idealism in which the idea, however zany, that friendships engendered between the women university graduates of the world could prevent another Great War, had real and urgent currency.

Gildersleeve and Spurgeon toboggan

Virginia Gildersleeve and Caroline Spurgeon sledding (n.d., probably early ’20s). Gildersleeve Papers Box 80, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University.

Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Race: Notes on an Ongoing Controversy

by guest contributor Georgios Giannakopoulos

The wave of student protests for racial tolerance and university reform in America recently crashed against the name of Woodrow Wilson. The eagerness to address Wilson’s racism prompted a discussion about his political legacy and the history of the university he came to represent. The controversy, enacted through petitions and counter-petitions, took on a symbolic dimension following demands for the renaming of a handful of institutions bearing Wilson’s name in Princeton and elsewhere in the United States.

Although some may argue that the so-called ‘Wilson controversy’ is somewhat disconnected from the very real challenges of people in color in universities today, it merits further attention. The debate brings out hitherto underappreciated connections between race, education, domestic and international politics, for Wilson’s name has come to define a moment in world history.

A handful of commentators have taken upon themselves the task of assessing Wilson’s racism. A New York Times op-ed highlighted the segregationist side of the Wilson administration and argued that, under his tenure, the White House reversed earlier policies of racial tolerance. Forgotten stories about Wilson’s treatment of Black politicians have resurfaced. Others have turned to the links between race and international/imperial politics and have insisted on de-provincializing the discussion. Finally, another thread of the debate revolves around efforts made by scholars to discern between the racial hierarchies underpinning Wilson’s vision of inter/national order and the purported benevolence of ‘Wilsonianism’. This maps onto a broader theme regarding race, liberalism and the empire.

There are three interesting points I wish to raise with respect to the debate. The first connects with the centrality of ‘race’ as an analytic category in the history of twentieth century international politics across the Anglo-American world. One may think of Robert Vitalis’ recent work on the Birth of American International Relations. Vitalis has sought to recover the neglected contribution of racism and imperialism in the the emergence of the discipline of International Relations. Another example is recent work by Duncan Bell on the hefty racial baggage of projects for Anglo-American unity in the turn of the twentieth century. Such works problematize the standard narratives of Wilson’s idealist benevolence, to which many Europeans like myself were exposed in their undergraduate years. In our diplomatic history textbooks in Greece, Wilson was synonymous to national self-determination and was portrayed as the tragic hero of an unfulfilled world order.

Yet Wilson’s fame never quite rose up to Truman’s reputation in Greece, as attested by the fascinating story of the Truman statue in Athens, which over the years have become a symbol of Anti-American sentiment. This brings me to my second point, the contentious politics of institutional memory—be it public artworks and monuments or simply naming practices. As a matter of fact, Larry Wolff recently reminded us of the relation between Wilson’s appeal as a harbinger of a new inter/national order in Eastern Europe and the politics surrounding the practice of lending his name to cities and train stations. From this perspective, the student demand to efface the name of Woodrow Wilson from the institutional memory of the university is not new. Although commentators have rightly raised suspicions about the validity and effectiveness of such claims, the fact remains that they bring about broader questions on the politics of institutional memory.

How are institutions of learning to deal with the racist baggage of their founding fathers? Moving across continents, similar concerns have recently been raised against the imprint of Cecil Rhodes’ figure in contemporary South Africa. A few months ago, Cape Town University students succeeded in removing a statue of his located prominently in the campus, while other students staged protests in Rhodes’ intellectual home, the University of Oxford. The more one reads about the #Rhodesmustfall protest movement, the more one is convinced that institutions of higher learning have a lot to do to facilitate critical reflection on their own history. Moreover, the eventual withdrawal of Rhodes’ statue from the campus brings in another dimension in the debate. Does it suffice to argue that such a move ought to be complemented with the erection of theme parks along the lines of similar developments in post-communist Europe? Although in Cape Town it might make sense to imagine a statue park of disgraced segregationists and white supremacists, many would argue that such a move would be unimaginable in the United States.

Such events—in contexts as diverse as Cape Town and Princeton—beg the question of how do we make space for polyphony and critical thinking without silencing voices or conveniently effacing aspects of embarrassing and politically charged histories? Here cultural and intellectual historians have a role to play. And this role exceeds the customary emphasis on Wilson’s culpability or the degree of his racism. In seeking ways to deal with this, I propose we turn to the field of contemporary art and, more specifically, to the so-called movement of institutional critique, as a means to make institutions, such as the modern university more responsive to the challenges of critiquing their own foundations.

The striking image of Cecil Rhode’s statue, covered in cloth, awaiting to be deported to another safer location, brought to my mind one of Hans Haacke’s widely discussed installations. The German-born artist is well known for his public artworks and his provocative attitude towards the the institutions which commission and facilitate his work.

Hans Haacke, "Und ihr habt doch gesiegt" (Et pourtant, vous étiez les vainqueurs), 1988, Graz, Autriche, via

Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt (1988, Graz, Austria; via

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, Haacke joined sixteen artists from eight countries invited to produce public artworks on the theme of ‘Guilt and Innocence in Art’, with reference to Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Haacke ventured to reconstruct a Nazi obelisk covering one of Graz’s older monuments, the “Mariensäule”. The ‘Column of the Virgin Mary’ was erected in the late seventeenth century to commemorate victory over the Turks. In 1938, the Nazis encased the column in an enormous obelisk, draped in red fabric, bearing the inscription Und Ihr Habt Doch Gesiegt (‘And You Were Victorious after All’). Haacke’s reconstruction added one crucial feature: an epigraph around the base of the obelisk listing the victims of Nazi aggression in Graz. The ambivalence of the inscription fuelled a heated debate in the public arena. A few days before the end of the festival, the reconstruction, which now stood in the square as an art piece, was firebombed causing sever damages to the engulfed Virgin statue. In the aftermath of the event, local artists and political groups protested against the act of vandalism. The press referred to the ruin of Haacke’s memorial (Manhmal) as a ‘monument of shame’ (Schandmal). Haacke’s intervention surfaced the lurking tensions with regards to thorny matters of historical memory. Crucially, Haacke’s installation was made possible only because a public institution, in this case the cultural foundation linked with the city of Graz, commissioned it.

steirischer herbst 1988 Bezugspunkte 38-88 Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt

Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt (steirischer herbst 1988 Bezugspunkte 38-88)

One may wonder, how does Haacke’s work relate to the so-called ‘Wilson controversy’, or even to the Cecil Rhodes incident? This brings me to my third point. There is something in the movement of institutional critique, and in similar artistic practices, that points to creative ways through which an institution can critically engage with its own history. The past, no matter how traumatic, is not to be effaced, neatly forgotten or even deflected. This example says much for the ways in which institutions of learning today, be it Princeton or Cape Town, or even Oxford ought to make space for the critical exploration of their own historical foundations and facilitate, if not actively promote, the uncovering of inconvenient truths.

Georgios Giannakopoulos holds a PhD in History from Queen Mary, University of London. He is Visiting Fellow at the Remarque Institute, NYU. His research revolves around ideas of nationalism, internationalism and the prehistory of area studies, with an emphasis on Anglo-American debates on South/Eastern Europe.

Why Auden Left: “September 1, 1939” and British Cultural Life

by guest contributor Spencer Lenfield

To make sense of the intellectual climate of Britain on the eve of the Second World War, one could do worse than to turn to the case of W.H. Auden. It would be less accurate to say that Auden chose to become an American citizen than that he chose not to be a British one. Politically discontented no matter where he lived, he was less irked by New York than he was by London. A trip to America to write a travel book with Christopher Isherwood grew permanent, and in 1946 he swapped nationalities for good, having identified himself as a “New Yorker” since 1939. It was there, rather than England, that he wrote the poem “September 1, 1939“—as Britain and America both realized that they would have to address, with renewed trenchancy and seriousness, the still-open question of whether to go to war with Germany over Polish sovereignty. The poem explicitly tries to make sense of its moment by interpreting the historical forces that brought it to pass, and finally arrives at a famous call to action: “We must love one another or die.” For many readers, the poem seems to distill almost perfectly the scent of what Auden later named “the age of anxiety”: fear and reluctance twinned with grit and humanity.

Except Auden himself hated the poem. He excluded it—vehemently—from nearly every edition of his collected works. Writing to the Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, he grumbled, “The reason (artistic) I left England and went to the U.S. was precisely to stop me writing poems like ‘Sept 1 1939’, the most dishonest poem I have ever written.” In particular, he hated the line “We must love one another or die,” remarking, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” Auden had a hard time living up to his own call to universal love. He did not want to have a cult, or at least not a British one, and he did not want to write the conscience of a generation into existence. He envisioned himself as an outsider, and was most comfortable when he was at a remove from others. “I left England in 1939 because the cultural life there was a family life,” he explained—not so much because the “cultural family” in question was especially warm or traditional (to the contrary, it could be cutting and delighted in breaking with propriety), but more because of a sense that the island environment was too claustrophobic for him to work.

So what about England in particular might have led Auden to set such thoughts on paper? And what made him reject them later as untrue? After all, “We must love one another or die” sounds resolutely cosmopolitan. The young, leftist Auden was hostile to nationalism of all kinds. From the vantage point of New York City, he writes:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse: (34-39)

Auden is, of course, worried about Fascism here (“the strength of Collective Man”). But he is also averse to the nationalism of liberal democracy, evident as the poem’s speaker looks upwards from 52nd Street, in the belly of Manhattan. It is in the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Manhattan that Auden senses the greatest strife—the sound of languages mingling in the thicket of the city. Auden attended a screening of the Nazi film Sieg im Poland in November of the same year: biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes, “When Poles appeared on the screen [Auden] was startled to hear a number of people in the audience scream, ‘Kill them!'” (282). But Auden later felt that his reaction against nationalism was as harmful to his work as nationalism itself. Not just in England, but also in America, he felt compelled to come up with a cant of magnanimous universalism because it spoke to the issues that presented themselves at the time—thereby taking him away, he claimed, from some deeper truth.

But how did Auden conceive of England in particular in the 1930s? He has two visions of the country: the one whose “cultural life is a family life” on one hand, and the one of cheap nationalism on the other. The problem is that the first vision defines itself in opposition to the second. Auden imagines himself and literary intellectuals as occupying a Britain apart, distinct from warmongers and imperialists; they are the hardy minority—those who are

. . . dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash[ing] out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages[.] (91-94)

The intelligentsia against the demagogues, the internationalists against the jingoists: Auden depicts cultural intellectuals as embattled heroes. Yet this image of the good few lost in the clashing of ignorant armies belies political reality: Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement lasted for years, through the Anschluss of Austria, and was hardly a minority view. Angus Calder cites the Times‘ remarks when Chamberlain returned from Munich: “No conqueror returning home from a victory on the battlefield has come home adorned with nobler laurels” (26). Auden conflates war with policy. But the end of the interwar years in Britain is not the story of an ironic few holding out against a war-hungry nationalist fervor; it was rather the effort of a majority to avert war until it was almost too late. Rearmament drives, urged by Churchill, were not taken up until late 1938. Even then, popular opposition was widespread. “A surprising number of Britons contemplated killing their families if war broke out,” Calder observes: “‘I’d sooner see kids dead than see them bombed like they are in some places,’ said one woman, thinking of Abyssinia and Spain” (22).

But if Auden’s historical reading veers wide of the facts, it is grounded in the perception that an imperial, aggressive Britain, together with the victorious parties of the Great War, had brought the revenge of an angry and resurgent Germany upon themselves, most clearly evident in the wake of the “competitive excuse”:

But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong. (40-44)

The “long weekend” of the interwar years is mocked as so much self-delusion; it never really was peace as long as German resentment echoed beneath. What is at fault is not just Britain’s hubris, but “the international wrong”—in short, the terms worked out in the Treaty of Versailles. Auden adopts the language of Jungian psychopathology in the second stanza in an attempt to explain Hitler’s rise:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find out what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. (12-22)

The reduction of a major historical problem to a schoolmarm’s maxim stings with moral clarity—a tone that Auden later hoped to avoid or transcend.

But this sense of obvious wrongdoing had been widespread among the British intellectual elite since the conclusion of the last war. Auden more or less directly echoes Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, which depicts a benevolent, clumsy Wilson outfoxed by a vengeful Clemenceau and an impassive Lloyd George, who together set the conditions for the impoverishment of postwar Germany. Keynes was a friend of Auden’s, and one of his earliest financial backers. The conclusion of the Economic Consequences would have been taken as a given by their entire circle: “In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,—by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means.” That sentence, freed from its moment, could have easily come from Auden.

It is easy to mistake the poem’s resounding moral appeal for a public clarion call for unity in Britain and America. But the target of Auden’s call is the “ironic points of light” of the cultural elite, standing in contrast to “the romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man in the street.” “We must love one another or die” is not a declaration of the state of Britain as Auden sees it; instead, it is what Britain must do, and is failing to do. The fact that, in retrospect, it appears as though Britain heeded Auden’s call—rallying together at the moment of its greatest need—makes it easy mistakenly to fashion “September 1, 1939” into a votive rather than an “ironic point of light.” This popular misreading of the poem seems like yet one more reason why Auden rejected it so vehemently: people took it to mean exactly the opposite of what he wanted it to say about the moment in which he was living and writing.

Spencer Lenfield graduated from Harvard with a concentration in modern European history and literature in 2012, and then received a second degree in Greats from Oxford in 2015. He currently works for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C.

Visual Affinities, Living History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

There are all kinds of ways in which a book’s form can intensify its content, draw its words into relationships, inscribe its title within the family trees of works written by other people in other places and times. Books from the Fellow Travelers series started in 2012 by Publication Studio have exactly that effect from the very moment you look them in the cover: they are unmistakable descendants of works published fifty years earlier by Maurice Girodias at his Olympia Press, what he called its Traveller’s Companion series.


Through visual affinities, a lineage can be built, a history can be told, through bringing books together that look alike a pattern emerges not unlike the experience of spending time browsing Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, where images of similar gestures bespeak shared values, shared experiences.

Founded in 1953 from a desk in the back of the Rue Jacob bookshop in Paris, Girodias aimed to provide English-speaking soldiers abroad a complement to the already popular ‘Black Book’ series of detective fiction. But Olympia Press would scratch a different itch. Its name, after Edouard Manet’s infamous Olympia, is as evocative as gets: the first books in the series were erotic with no respect for the boundaries between high and low culture. Girodias collaborated with a collective of young ex-pats who moved to Paris as a kind of second-wave Lost Generation coalescing around a literary magazine called Merlin. At their insistence he published Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy alongside Marquis de Sade’s La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, Apollinare’s Memoirs d’un Jeaune Don Juan, and George Bataille’s L’Histoire de l’Oeil, and Henry Miller’s Plexus. Over the years, money was so short that the Merlin collective would meet, drink, and invent smutty titles they had not yet written, sending out false catalogues to their subscribers, as John de St. Jorre describes in The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press (1984). The money made from pre-ordered books paid the authors to begin writing them.

The books of Olympia Press were not the first to use the design. Girodias adapted it in homage to his father, the publisher Jack Kahane. Kahane ran Obelisk Press and had a whole history of his own in the shoestring publishing industry, and he was no stranger to obscenity. Obelisk Press published Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness in 1933, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1934, and Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest in 1936. Girodias had rebellious literary taste coded into his genes.

Well“Fans were as fascinated by the ugly plain green covers as the addict by the white powder, however deceptive both may prove to be,” Girodias wrote about the appeal of his own series. Deceptive, too, is the view of any of these books in isolation, not only as it goes against the reality of addiction and addictive reading, but also because bringing each green book among its companions recreates a sense of the wide, wide world of effort it takes to shift values and tastes. At Olympia Press, there was a rotating cast of contributors and collaborators, men and women: Alexander Trocchi, George Bataille, Bataille’s wife Diane, Iris Owens, Marilyn Meeske. Helen and Desire, White Thighs and The Whip Angels, were all part of the literary ecosystem that made possible, intellectually and financially, works like Lolita, and Naked Lunch, now canonized, set apart.

From visual affinities, to the bonds of blood, to the realities of fighting censorship through collaboration, the efforts of publisher-printers like Kahane and Girodias can be traced back and back. But they can also be seen to gain increasing vividness — and coherence — as they are lifted from the past and taken forward. The sparse covers of Kahane’s and Girodias’s books alongside those of Publication Studios name censorship as a common enemy of publishers. In Girodias’s case, Olympia Press opposed the censorship of obscenity laws; more recently, Publication Studios rejects the censorship that lies at the heart of a market that refuses to engage fresh talent in favor of predictable moneymakers. The constraints amount to the same thing: very similar groups of authors are left out, very similar types of writing are hard to find. Each Fellow Traveler (there are eight and counting) includes a Publisher’s Forward, which addresses the problem head-on:

Patricia No and Antonia Pinter’s battle cry gives new life to Maurice Girodias’s goals with Olympia Press, it gives coherence to his impact on the publishing landscape of the 50s and 60s, an impact that would have been difficult to assess at the time given his movements between Paris and New York, the constant legal and financial struggles. “We proudly present great work that the market has not endorsed, but that we believe in,” No and Stadler write. Their approach to updating the Traveller’s Companion to the Fellow Traveler’s series distills Girodias’s literary tastes into a modern manifesto against greedy publishing. Which is incredibly generous to Girodias, since he spoke as much about profit as love of good writing, and who did not always treat his authors well. He was a ‘toad’ to Valerie Solanas, and Breanne Fahs’ biography of Solanas painstakingly describes the conditions under which he held copyright of her S.C.U.M. Manifesto that pushed Solanas’s mental health struggles to breaking point. Girodias claimed she came to his office June 3, 1968 looking for him with a gun. He was out of town, so she went and found Andy Warhol instead. It’s unclear whether Girodias made this up to sell more copies of S.C.U.M. that he published immediately after the Warhol shooting made front-page news. Either way, Solanas’s fixation and despair over her treatment was a source of stress and debilitating paranoia she spoke of until her death in 1988. Publishing on the edge implies a certain kind of living on the edge, which does not necessarily imply kindness and fair treatment. Exploitation, however, can be dropped from the history that is kept alive, it can be re-written even if it is not done so by self proclaimed victors.

With Publication Studio, the struggle against market censorship goes even deeper, beyond the cover, to the ways in which the books themselves are assembled. Stadler and No are able to produce around 50 or 60 books per day through their Print on Demand system consisting of a black and white printer, a machine that puts glue on the spines, and a perfect binder: “Every day is different. That’s part of why we stamp date of production on the spine of every book.” Stadler said in an interview. The books are bound in file folders: “[B]ecause we were broke. You can get them free.”


Book before and after the file folder binding is trimmed (author’s collection)

Moreover, the methods travel well: the original Publication Studio was set up in Portland, Oregon, but satellite publishers using similar POD technology have cropped up all over the USA, and Canada, with one of the most recent incarnation opening up across the ocean in London, run by Louisa Bailey of Luminous Books.

Where big publishing houses pay little attention to transgressive authors, and POD produces incredibly messy results, the emerging constellation of Publication Studios addresses the shortcomings of both through ethical, well-made books printed on demand that showcase novels with a transgressive or political edge, including queer authors like Shelley Marlow and STS. There is an emotionally rich collapse of space between the roles of publisher-printers of the past, who staked their livelihoods alongside their authors in the works they published, and the work of publishers who remain active interpreters of the traditions they have chosen to inherit.

Adapted from part of a lecture delivered at the launch of Shelley Marlow’s Two Augusts in a Row in a Row at the London Centre for Book Arts, 29 October 2015. Correction (11/20): The co-founder of publication studio is named Matthew Stadler, not Mark. Publication Studio’s first location in Portland, Oregon is now run by Patricia No and Antonia Pinter.

Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Thoughts on British Imperial History and Public Memory

by Emily Rutherford

Last week, I was meant to be teaching the women’s suffrage movement to my modern British history discussion section, but my students only wanted to talk about one thing: Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jamaica last week, but was dismissive of calls from prominent Jamaican politicians and public figures that Britain pay reparations to Jamaica and other West Indian nations whose people were the victims of Britain’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave trade. My students were interested in this, I suspect, because they are of a generation of American and international students who care deeply about imperial and postcolonial history, and see a greater understanding of empire (and its sins) as a key reason to study British history. If you count the US (as we should) as a former British colony, nearly everyone enrolled in the lecture course for which I TA has a heritage that is somehow implicated in the history of British empire.

Yet my students were also particularly keen to discuss the subject of slavery and Jamaica because a couple weeks ago, I enthused to them about the most successful piece of academic-history outreach to the public that I have ever seen: the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project (LBSO), a collaborative research project based at University College London and headed by Catherine Hall, along with Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, and a number of other historians. These days in the UK, research council-funded collaborative research projects are the norm, but they don’t tend to take on the life that LBSO—which has spawned not only an academic volume but also a BBC documentary and countless community- and school-based workshops—has had. I’m writing this post in large part to bring some incredible work to the attention of those who, like my students, aren’t scholars in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history. But I also think the project offers a model for how we can all think about the public-outreach applications of our work, and about its messier political ramifications.

Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.

Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.

LBSO’s signal contribution is its database. In 1833, when Parliament abolished slavery in Britain, thousands of individual slave-owners filed claims of compensation for their lost “property,” and a total of £20 million was paid out to these individuals. In order to process these claims, meticulous records were kept, with individuals’ names, addresses, occupations, and so on—and a value was placed on the body of every freed man, woman, and child as part of the compensation process. Historians always knew that these records were in Britain’s National Archives, but only with present-day advances in technology and the financial and staff resources of a collaborative project has it been possible to turn the records into a publicly-searchable, online database that yields findings astonishing and undeniable in their clarity. Compensation claims reached right across the British Isles. There are claims from lavish country houses (and, of course, from the plantations of Jamaica and Barbados) but also from widows or clergymen in more modest circumstances. A map feature reveals the extent of the geographic range—and allows you to see records of compensation claims from your own town or neighborhood. During a presentation about the project to Columbia University’s British History Seminar last week, Catherine Hall mentioned an exhibition the project leaders had put on at UCL, about the compensation claims that emanated from the university’s own neighborhood: “The Slave Owners of Bloomsbury.” The compensation records also allow historians to trace a complicated flow of money: compensation money bought its recipients land, buildings, fine art.

Anyone can type their own surname into the database. I just did, and nine individuals came up, with claims ranging from twenty pounds for one enslaved person to many thousands of pounds for 892. Without more work, I couldn’t tell you if they were my ancestors—plenty of Rutherfords aren’t related to me—but seeing my name at all is still startling. The LBSO database has featured on the popular genealogy TV program Who Do You Think You Are?, with many celebrities confronting their own ancestors’ profit from the slave trade. And—here we come to the point—arguments for reparations for Jamaica have made appeals on these kinds of personal grounds. In the database is General Sir James Duff, a first cousin six times removed of David Cameron’s, and campaigners have laid stress on this fact: it means, they argue, that he is personally implicated in one of the British Empire’s ugliest legacies.

I’m not a fan of Cameron or his party myself, but I don’t think that’s fair—and it’s not the lesson that LBSO teaches. Cameron’s particular branch of his family acquired their wealth after abolition, but more to the point, I suspect that anyone with white European ancestry would be hard-pressed to find a first cousin six times removed who wasn’t implicated in racism and imperialism in some way. As Hall explained to the Columbia seminar last week, the LBSO project doesn’t seek to lay the blame for the slave trade, and how it has been forgotten as a part of British history, at any particular individual’s door. What it shows is precisely the opposite: that quite a lot of people of white British ancestry can find their surnames in the database, and anyone can find compensation records from their own town or city, if not their very street. LBSO uses an unusually clear, empirical record drawn from a public archive to show that slavery is part of Britain’s national story.

In the state schools in California and Massachusetts that I attended, I was taught American history three times: in fifth grade, eighth grade, and eleventh grade. Each time, we began at the “beginning,” with the first European settlements in the Americas, and saw how far we could get. In eighth grade we got bogged down in the Civil War, but in eleventh grade, with the AP US History exam to sit, we made it as far as Vietnam. US public history education tells a rose-tinted, whiggish, not always accurate story about the long history of race relations, but it tells a story. It can’t just pass over, for instance, the Civil War and Reconstruction; the three-fifths compromise and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But in Britain, secondary history education is taught in thematic units without an overarching narrative or a sense of a national history: an approach with some benefits, to be sure, but it makes it easy to avoid the bad bits. Tie this to (as Hall pointed out in her presentation) a long history, dating back to 1833, of valorizing Britain’s role in abolition while forgetting its role in slavery, and you have all the elements you need for a widespread case of collective amnesia. Often, this amnesia is downright disturbing—as anyone who has watched the Last Night of the Proms, while having a sneaking suspicion that none of the spectators madly waving Union Jacks and singing “Rule Britannia” have any notion that Britain once forcibly ruled half the globe, will recognize.

LBSO is about undoing that amnesia: its historians are writing prominent individuals’ slave ownership back into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where it rarely appears; campaigning for more accurate accounts of the funds that purchased paintings in the National Gallery; working with local genealogists and historians to document the history of slavery in their own families and communities (you can read about some of these efforts on their great blog). In the process, they’ve been very careful not to tell a story that casts blame, but rather one that raises awareness. In its marshalling of facts and letting the facts speak for themselves, LBSO can’t easily be co-opted by one political perspective or another—except inasmuch as it very clearly shows anyone liable to pontificate about the golden thread of liberty running through British history from the time of Magna Carta that it was, after all, Britain who brought slavery to North America. It shows us, I think, that work which is really going to make a difference in how the national story is understood can do so as much through careful empiricism as through ideology. When I go to British history conferences, I hear countless orations about the left-wing political stakes of historians’ work. But that database—and seeing your own surname in it—speaks volumes that no speech ever can. No wonder my students are amazed by it, as am I: it’s history at its best, and it clearly demonstrates why public outreach, communication, and teaching have to be conceived of as a central part of historians’ job.