The History Woman's Blog

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill at the V&A

Posted in Art, Eighteenth Century, Reviews by thehistorywoman on March 9, 2010

The little blue-enamelled toothpick case left quite an impression. Not because it was so remarkably beautiful, but because it seemed so random, useless even – in a good way. Many of the items currently on display in the V&A’s exhibition on Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill are of that quality, and that’s their attraction. There are little boxes and caskets, finely painted china, vases, a C16th cardinal’s hat, a rosewood cabinet full of miniatures, and a wooden cravat Walpole apparently wore for a party at his home.

Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s summer villa by the Thames at Twickenham where all these items come from, was in itself more than a little bid odd. Designed as ‘a little gothic castle’ it revived the style of the Middle Ages and allegedly inspired the first Gothic novel, Walpole’s very dark and improbable Castle of Otranto. A number of items in the collection either directly or indirectly relate to that novel, such as John Carter’s painting of ‘The Entry of Frederick into the Castle of Otranto’, displaying a scene from the end of the book, or the Gothic lantern that was intended to contribute to the general mood of “gloomth” Walpole was so fond of. (more…)

CFP: Durham C17th Conference – Ideals and Values

Posted in CFP, Conferences, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on February 3, 2010

Durham University

Centre for Seventeenth-Century Studies

Elvet Riverside, New Elvet, Durham, DH1 3JT, England.

Director:   Professor Richard Maber

Tel: 0191-334 3431      Fax: 0191-334 3421      e-mail:



19-22 JULY 2010


Proposals are invited for the thirteenth Conference of the Durham Centre for Seventeenth-Century Studies, which will focus on the general theme:

Ideals and Values

It is expected that this theme will be approached from a very wide range of disciplinary and methodological perspectives; contributions which span national and disciplinary boundaries are, as always, particularly welcome.  Papers should be of 20 minutes’ reading time.  Each session will have ample time for discussion.  Offers to chair sessions are welcomed from participants who are not reading papers.

Proposals for papers should be of approx. 100-200 words, and should be sent to Prof. Richard Maber (email: as soon as possible, but no later than 26 February 2010. Proposals for themed panels are also welcomed.

The conference will take place in the magnificent setting of Durham Castle, from Monday 19 to Thursday 22 July.  Residential delegates will depart after lunch on 22 July; it will also be possible to book overnight accommodation for nights before and after the conference if required.

The fun of deceiving your readers – and being found out

Posted in Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, literature by thehistorywoman on January 30, 2010

It must have been so much fun being a C17th wit hanging around your favourite tavern or coffee-house thinking up tall stories, scribbling them down and waiting to see how your readers reacted. Would they really believe that shepherds had found the remains of Moses his Tombe (1657) on Mount Nebo, or that Dutch sailors had discovered a new island in the Pacific Ocean – shortly after the Anglo-Dutch war – that was populated by various tribes of savage English people? Some would, others would not. The questioning, the incredulity, the surprise and the discovery of the hoax was all part of the fun of ’shamming’. In particular for opposition authors after the Restoration, it was also a way of expressing political and religious dissent without falling foul of the government censors.

However, it would be naïve to believe that the public just took these stories at face value. Early modern readers were ’sceptical readers’, who knew well how to question the texts they were being offered and who had as much fun discovering hoaxes as their authors had writing them. ‘(T)he complexity of readers’ responses should not be underestimated’ (p. 197) is the key message of Kate Loveman’s exciting ‘investigation into deception and reading habits’ (p. 175) in early modern England. Reading Fictions, 1660-1740 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008) offers a number of case studies of literary and political deceptions in roughly chronological order, from the Interregnum, via the Popish Plot Crisis to the mid-C18th. Looking at a range of authors from the lesser known republicans Thomas Challoner and Henry Neville to celebrated satirists and canonical authors such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, Loveman analyses shams and readers’ responses, explores strategies and motives for hoaxing, grappling with the  unstable category of ‘truth’ and the relationship between political lying and the rise of the novel. (more…)

‘The Paradox of Prosperity’ – Selling books in early modern Leiden

Posted in Early Modern, Reviews by thehistorywoman on January 12, 2010

The booksellers of early modern Leiden prospered despite being regulated by a guild. In fact, they petitioned for and received permission to set up a guild as late as 1652 when other trades tried to get rid of the tight constraints such an institution imposed (p. 14). For, contrary to a widespread belief among economic historians, traditional guilds helped printers and booksellers in Leiden to adapt to a changing market and thrive. This is ‘The Paradox of Prosperity’ Laura Cruz talks about in her book on the printing scene in early modern Leiden published by Oak Knoll (2009).

The Leiden booksellers survived on an increasingly competitive market because they found a new way to make money in the trade with second-hand books. In particular, they specialised in auctioning the libraries of deceased scholars of which the local university seemed to produce a never-ending supply (p. 57). Their customers were, of course, (foreign) students out for a bargain (p. 222) but also the great and the good who wanted to furnish their libraries with scholarly works (p. 214).


Festive news

Posted in News by thehistorywoman on December 22, 2009

With Christmas approaching the news are definitely getting more festive by the minute. Just read an article in the Telegraph about a scientist who has studied the anatomy and physiology of angels and fairies and come to the surprising conclusion that they can’t fly. There’s research money put to good use here, as a fellow Twitter user commented!

More research apparently is being done on the giving of Christmas presents. The Times Higher Education Supplement on 17 December recommended a range of scholarly articles from ‘Gift selection for easy and difficult recipients’ to ‘Is it better to give than receive?’ and even  ’A guide map to the terrain of gift value’.

And as religion always tends to sell nearer to Christmas The Times put in an article for good measure claiming that cryptic signatures in the visitors’ book at the Venerable English College in Rome dating from Shakespeare’s so-called ‘lost years’ in the 1580s prove that the Bard was actually ‘a secret Catholic’.


Time to think

Posted in Education by thehistorywoman on December 3, 2009

Higher education policy has become a hot topic in the European press with the ongoing financial crisis and the Bologna reforms putting pressure on university resources, academic staff and students. While the financial crisis means that more people are going into higher education because there are fewer jobs on the market (and some return to education because they have been sacked), universities struggle to meet the needs of an increasing student population. Most governments can’t afford to raise higher education spending. Some even have to cut down, like Italy early this year or the Latvian government, which saw students taking to the streets on Tuesday to protest against spending cuts in the education sector. And standards are dropping.

There’s not enough staff to teach the ever-increasing bulk of students, there are not enough rooms, computers and books in the library. There are funding applications to be written and sponsors to be found. But there’s not enough money to go round. And nobody ever seems to have time.

Time is an important factor in academia. Scholars need time for research, time for writing, time for attending conferences, time for networking, time for teaching and preparation, and time for their students.

Students need time to choose the subject they’re interested in. They might even want to try out different subjects to make sure they get it right. Students need time to find their feet at university, time to read, write essays, revise for exams, and time to see their tutors.

Yet, time is something students and academics have less and less of. Especially since they have been burdened with the EU reforms of the Bologna process. Don’t get me wrong. I love Europe, it’s a great idea, and higher education standards have to become more comparable and compatible if we want to make the project work. And introducing the three cycles of qualification – BA, MA and PhD – across the board is a good way to achieve this, as is the introduction of a European Credit Transfer System. They help students to move from one country to another during their degree and so encourage them to study foreign languages and broaden their minds. (more…)

French Revolutionaries & English Republicans: A bridge to the Continent

Posted in Eighteenth Century, Reviews by thehistorywoman on November 8, 2009

As its subtitle announces Rachel Hammersley’s French Revolutionaries and English Republicans (Woodbridge, 2005) is a study of the Cordeliers Club in Paris between 1790-1794. It traces the Club’s radical policies and associated writings in the years following the rebellion of 1789 and its attempts to influence the National Assembly as it forged a new constitution for France.

What makes the Cordeliers so interesting for scholars of early modern English political thought, however, is their use of C17th English authors in the shaping of their political arguments. In his attempt at advocating republican structures in C18th France, the Cordeliers’ secretary Théophile Mandar, for instance, translated Marchamont Nedham’s The Excellencie of a Free State (1656) – assembled from editorials of the Commonwealth newsbook Mercurius Politicus – into French. This translation is not only remarkable for what it transmits into French, but in particular for what it changes and decides to omit.

Thus, Mandar, who was an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s republicanism, used Nedham to promote Rousseau’s ideas of liberty and popular sovereignty, making Nedham in the process much more radical and democratical than he actually was. So Mandar decides to turn Nedham’s advocacy of relative equality into a call for the ‘greatest equality among all the citizens’ (p. 73); and while Nedham clearly didn’t aim to include the rabble or the ‘confused promiscuous body of the people’ into the number of active participants in political life, Marat simply cut the respective passage from Nedham ‘thereby suggesting that he entertained no such restrictions on who was to be included among “the people,” ‘ (p. 74).

Besides Nedham, Marat also employed arguments from Algernon Sidney for his purposes, translating into French and publishing the last six chapters of Sidney’s Discourses concerning government in his own Des Insurrections of 1793.


Worden’s ‘Roundhead Reputations’: Every age writes its own history

Posted in Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on November 2, 2009

I’ve just finished reading Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations (London, 2001), which had been cautiously recommended to me as more a ‘popular history’ book than a scholarly account. Popular it might be but it does not lack any of the accurate scholarship one is used to find in Worden’s work. Roundhead Reputations tells the fascinating story of three C17th English radicals, Edmund Ludlow, Algernon Sidney and Oliver Cromwell, whose public image has undergone considerable change over the course of the last few centuries. In particular, for most of the first half of the book,Worden is concerned with the work of the ‘Whig history factory’ (p. 147) and its main editor John Toland, who ‘polited’ the writings of regicides and republicans for a post-revolutionary audience after 1689 to promote the cause of political liberty in a typically English non-offensive way. In the process, Ludlow the regicide became a defender of constitutionalism, while the plotter Sidney turned into a politically detached country gentleman.

In the first four chapters Worden pays particular attention to the editorial process of Ludlow’s Memoirs that had been published from his own manuscripts in 1698. Having been taken at face value by scholars since the C18th, the surprise find of part of the original manuscript at Warwick Castle in the 1990s revealed the true extend to which the Memoirs had been doctored. The original manuscript, entitled A Voyce from the Watch-Tower, it turned out was more of a spiritual work, full of religious references and endless digressions, the work of a true Puritan and religious enthusiast. Ludlow’s title itself, Worden explains is an allusion to the Old Testament books of Isaiah (21.5-12) and Habakkuk (2.1), ‘where prophets stand on watch towers in God’s service’ (p. 45).

However, with ‘religious enthusiasm’ and ‘Commonwealth’ becoming dirty words after 1689 the ‘true Whigs’ of the late C17th had something else in mind. Toland’s edition was so secularized that a reader of the Memoirs ‘could be forgiven for wondering whether Ludlow had religious convictions’ at all (pp. 44-5).


The discovery of a C17th logbook and the neutrality of history

Posted in Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 24, 2009

A logbook documenting the arrival of William of Orange in Ireland before the 1690 Battle of the Boyne has been found in Belfast. According to an article in the Irish Examiner, it was uncovered during recent renovation work at City Hall. The book of William’s Paymaster General Thomas Coningsby contains a “detailed record of every soldier and regiment in the 35,000-strong army that accompanied Protestant William III to Ireland to do battle with deposed Catholic English monarch King James II”, writes the Examiner’s David Young.

I’ve heard of old masters being found in elderly ladies’ spare bedrooms, of manuscript autobiographies by Civil War radicals turning up in old castles and many other stories. Yet, I was still surprised to hear about this recent find. Surely someone at Belfast City Hall must have come across it earlier?

Now call me overly suspicious, but I’ve been wondering whether they thought it wise to keep it under lock and key for the past decades to avoid upsetting the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland while religious conflict was still a big issue or whether they just had better things to do than worry about dusty documents.  (more…)

Trust the people – the British will eventually come round

Posted in Politics by thehistorywoman on October 7, 2009

So David Cameron has – yet again – promised the British people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, should they elect him prime minister next year. And it seems he would get a lot of support for a ‘No’ campaign.

Maybe I should not be too surprised about the aggressive euroscepticism of the British Conservatives in a country where you can still buy “stamps for Europe” at the Post Office, where university language departments are closing faster than car plants, and where the Continent (with a capital “C”) seems sometimes further off than the US or Australia.

But what really worries me, is this: what is Britain going to do when everybody else has agreed on European reform and the little islanders with PM Cameron no longer get invited to the parties and “Europe” decides to do its own thing without asking them?

Of course, a British ‘No’ vote in a referendum could make the whole Lisbon project fail. But it wouldn’t stop the others from working together and from resenting the British for their stubborn refusal to join in with the fun.