Socialism and the Vampire: Comrades, Capitalists and Bloodsuckers

by Dr Dan Renshaw

In May 1897 Constable and Co published a limited print run of a new novel by a London-based Irish theatre manager and occasional author named Bram Stoker.  Stoker had enjoyed moderate critical recognition with a series of overly-sentimental pot-boilers and ghoulish short stories over the course of the 1890s; there was nothing initially to indicate that this new effort would be any more successful.  This new title was odd, and exotic, Dracula, with an equally unusual subtitle – The Undead.

Early reviews were mixed but generally positive.  One made the bold claim that ‘It is splendid… No book since Mrs Shelley’s Frankenstein or indeed any other at all has come near yours in originality or terror – Poe is nowhere.’ The critic, it must be noted, was somewhat biased … she was Bram Stoker’s mother, Charlotte![1]


1. First edition cover (imitation) to Bram Stoker's Dracula via Wikimedia
First edition cover (imitation) to Bram Stoker’s Dracula via Wikimedia


There was nothing to indicate in 1897, or indeed by Stoker’s death in 1912, that Dracula was an exceptional work, or very different from the other texts constituting the body of literary late-gothic popular fiction, some good, some gruesome, and some banal. Yet Dracula has become a dominant modern myth, the cloaked vampire count perhaps the icon of twentieth century popular culture.[2]

On the 120th anniversary of Dracula’s publication popular fascination, fuelled by countless cinematic adaptations, had not abated.  The raw sexuality of the story (which by all accounts Stoker seemed to be unware of) continues to dominate perceptions and interpretations of the text. [3]  But Dracula has also been read as: a religious parable; an exercise in Freudian psychology; a condemnation of or argument in support of female empowerment; and a warning of the consequences of Eastern European immigration.[4]  Perhaps it is this ambiguity that explains the continued success of the novel.  Dracula, and the vampire myth more generally, has also been read as a narrative on class relations and the struggle between capitalism and labour.  It is this context that we shall examine below, with sharpened stake and cloves of garlic ready at hand, should they be needed.

Vampire fiction as class allegory predates Dracula.  The means by which vampires feed not only has sexual and Freudian subtexts, but is also a powerful representation of a classically exploitative relationship – one body drawing strength whilst the other weakens – and Marxist writers were not slow in appropriating this imagery.  Crucially, the vampire is also aristocratic, unlike, for example, the lumpen-proletariat Frankenstein Monster.[5]  Early vampires in Balkan folklore may have been re-animated peasants, but by the time the vampire novel emerged in the early-nineteenth century the classic undead was very much from the noblesse.[6]  John Polidori, in The Vampyre (1819), made his bloodsucker a member of the British nobility (in fact based upon Lord Byron).  Carmilla, in Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal 1872 novella of the same name, is also an aristocrat.  In addition, whilst Carmilla has an exploitative if romantic relationship with the heroine of the novel, Laura, who is also upper class, for day-to-day (or night-to-night) sustenance she feeds on local peasant girls – victims whom she at one point dismisses as worthless and expendable.[7]  In Good Lady Ducayne, written by Mary E. Braddon a year before Dracula, an incredibly aged and wealthy lady is sustained by transfusions of blood from various lower-class companions.[8] The motif of aristocratic exploitation in vampire fiction therefore long predated Dracula’s depredations of the local Transylvanian peasantry (and then their urban counterparts in London). When the socialist writers of the mid- to late- nineteenth century cast around for a powerful and instantly recognisable symbol of economic exploitation, they did not have far to look.


2. Illustration by David Henry Friston to accompany Carmilla (1872) via Wikimedia
Illustration by David Henry Friston to accompany Carmilla (1872) via Wikimedia


Christopher Frayling, in a masterful essay on the evolution of the nineteenth-century vampire story, concludes by discussing how Karl Marx – who relaxed after a hard day in the British Museum by reading French ghost stories – used the language of the vampire in Das Kapital.  ‘Capital is dead labour’, he wrote, ‘that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ He referred to ‘the were-wolf’s hunger for surplus labour’, and to the fact that ‘the prolongation of the working day quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.’[9]

Years after the completion of Das Kapital, the American socialist and writer Jack London, when searching for suitable language to describe strike-breakers in industrial disputes, fell back on the following imagery: ‘After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab.’  The symbolism crossed over from prose to art.  In the engraving Capitalist Vampire by Walter Crane, produced in 1885 for the Social Democratic Federation, a huge bat, representing ‘capitalism’, ‘religious hypocrisy’ and ‘party politics’ feeds on a prostrate worker, whilst socialism emerges in the distance to do battle with the vampire, just like the end of any good horror story.

Is Dracula itself a socialist text?  It is doubtful.  Stoker himself was the archetypal late-nineteenth century bourgeois capitalist, and socially conservative.  If the Count is an aristocrat, so is Lord Godalming, one of the heroes of the story, and all the rest of Stoker’s brave protagonists come from the professional middle classes.  At one point Mina Harker sings the praises of money and the power for good that capital has, and by the end of the novel the social order disrupted by Dracula’s predations is restored.[10]  The working class barely feature in the novel, and those that do are essentially joke characters.  Yet it is a narrative about exploitation, and the use and abuse of power, as much as a supernatural tale.

In the twentieth century elements of the left have viewed Dracula and the horror story generally, in particular in its cinematic manifestations, with suspicion.  The first (unauthorised) film adaption of the story, the German Nosferatu (1922), was condemned by the German Communist Party journal Leipziger Volkszeitunger as ‘wrapping the worker… in a supernatural fog through which he can no longer see concrete reality.’[11]  In other words the vampire film was a frivolous distraction for a proletariat that should be concentrating instead on revolution.


3. Perhaps the most iconic scene from Nosferatu (1922) via Wikimedia

Perhaps the most iconic scene from Nosferatu (1922) via Wikimedia


Incidentally, it was a political refugee from European turbulence who would, more than any other person, popularise the image of the vampire in the twentieth century.  This was Bela Lugosi, actor and socialist, who fled his native Hungary following the failure of an attempted communist revolution and eventually found his way to Hollywood, and silver screen immortality, as ‘Dracula’ in 1931.


4. Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931) via Wikimedia

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931) via Wikimedia


More than thirty years after Nosferatu, Nina Hibbin of the Daily Worker had nothing good to say about the 1958 Hammer adaptation of the novel: ‘This film disgusts the mind and repels the senses.’[12] For the Daily Worker, Dracula represented ‘trash’ Hollywood culture imported into Britain a symbol of free market capitalist cultural hegemony from the other side of the Atlantic.  Although, in truth, Hammer was a British company, the film was financed by Universal Studios.  For the journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the vampiric capitalist threat came from California, not Transylvania.

Yet Dracula, and the vampire myth, have both persisted, and continue to be adapted in various mediums in the early twenty-first century. The imagery of the vampire has been utilised by the political left, and condemned by it, but the people’s flag and the vampire’s diet both continue to be the deepest red.


5. Poster advertising Dracula (1958) via Wikimedia

Poster advertising Dracula (1958) via Wikimedia



[1] Clive Leatherdale, Dracula: The Novel and the Legend (Desert Island Books, Brighton), 1993, p.69.

[2] David J. Skal, Hollywood Gothic (Faber and Faber, Inc., New York), 2004, Introduction.

[3] Peter Haining (ed.), The Dracula Scrapbook (New English Library, London), 1976, p.147.

[4] Sue Chaplin, Gothic Literature (York Press, London), 2011, p.122.

[5] David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (Plexus Publishing Limited, London), 1994, p.159.

[6] Christopher Frayling, Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (Faber and Faber Limited, London), 1991, Introduction.

[7] JT Sheridan Le Fanu, ‘Carmilla’ in In a Glass Darkly (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 1993, p.266.

[8] Mary E. Braddon, ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ in Richard Dalby (ed.), Dracula’s Brood (Harper, London), 2016, pp.183-209.

[9] Frayling, Vampyres, p.84.

[10] Leatherdale, Dracula: The Novel and the Legend, chapter thirteen.

[11] Skal, Hollywood Gothic, p.88.

[12] Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, The Hammer Story (Titan Books, London), 2007, p.31.

Posted in British History, Cultural History, European History, Intellectual History | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

You are invited to the launch of the Monroe Group

The newly established Monroe Group is an interdisciplinary research network for the study of politics in the Americas.

The network is designed to encourage dialogue between scholars in the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences working on all aspects of politics in the American continent. It has been developed in response to recent expansion of staff and student recruitment working in the field of US and Latin American politics at the University of Reading.

The Monroe Group will be home to existing UoR researchers and PhD students working in this area and will facilitate new collaborative projects, research grants applications and teaching development across all disciplines. In particular:

  •  US foreign policy
  • Climate Change Diplomacy
  • Gender, Diversity and Inclusion
  • Representations, Rhetoric and Media
  • Policy

You can discover more about this new research network via their blog and thier Twitter page.

New Monroe Group blog site

Check out what the Monroe Group are up to via their blog.

The Monroe Group’s will be officially inaugerated on 2nd May by the Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, who will launch the new research network and introduce the keynote speaker, Professor Andrew Rudalevige (Bowdoin College).  This will be followed by the one-day conference ‘Trump’s First 100 Days‘ (conference programme below).  Registration for the conference can be made via the University of Reading’s events pages.

The conference is followed by the workshop ‘Engaging with Politics in the Americas‘ 27th June.

This is a half-day, multidisciplinary event for UoR-based staff already working on politics in the Americas related topics, or those who are interested in developing new research in this area (or just learning more).  All academic disciplines are welcome and you don’t need prior experience of politics in the Americas research to participate.

The objectives for the afternoon are for participants to:

  • Learn more about the themes of the Monroe Group, and how they interlink.
  • Get to know one-another, what our research interests are, and how they potentially relate to the Monroe Group.
  • Start to think about major politics in the Americas research questions, and how these might be developed into project ideas/proposals.

As part of the workshop, we would like to invite participants to make short, 5-10 minute presentations about an area of their research related to politics in the Americas.

If you would like to do this, please contact Dr Mara Oliva (, Dr Mark Shanahan ( and Dr Madeleine Davies ( with a provisional title for your presentation.

What is  more, the Monroe Group already have plans in place for at least one event per term!  Events already scheduled for the next acadmeic year are:

  • Autumn term 2017 – High Commission of Barbados (led by Department of Politics and International Relations)
  • Spring term 2018 –   Gender, Diversity & Inclusion (led by Department of English)
  • Summer term 2018 – Climate Change Diplomacy – (led by the Department of History)


Conference Programme - Final with flag 1

Conference Programme - Final with flag 2

Posted in American History, Events, International History, US Election 2016 (blog posts) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Registration now open for ‘Trump’s First 100 Days’ 2nd May, 2017

We are pleased to announce that registration is now open for the forthcoming conference ‘Trump’s First 100 Days’, 2nd May 2017.

A copy of the conference programme is available below.  Registrations should be made via the University of Reading’s Conferences and Events pages.

Conference Programme - with flag 1

Conference Programme - with flag 2

Posted in American History, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Co-living: Utopia 2.0?

by Dr Andy Willimott [1]

Utopia 2.0, 1

Eight months on from its opening, in May 2016, the London-based co-living enterprise known as The Collective Old Oak is still going strong. The residential concept, situated between North Acton and Wilesden Junction, now boasts 546 residents. The project has piqued the interest of locals and the media alike. Aimed predominantly at a generation of millennials locked into the notoriously prohibitive and uninspiring rental market, The Collective seeks to change the way people live in urban centres. Residents pay rent on small private bedrooms, but gain access to a range of spaces and facilities, including kitchens, dining rooms, and lounges. There is also a communal library, cinema, sports bar, restaurant, games room, laundrette, gym, spa, and rooftop terrace, as well as regular community events. As much as anything, residents are offered a “fulfilling lifestyle” and a sense of community.

Co-living is a trend that emerged in America during the opening decade of the 21st century, starting in the “hacker mansions” of San Francisco, offering affordable accommodation to young techies drawn to the area by the various app startups taking root there. By 2013, attempts were made to formalize and expand the provision of co-living. Tom Currier dropped out of Stanford to establish a real estate startup called Campus, which purchased San Francisco property, equipped them with hot tubs and other shared facilities designed to promote a fun, but more affordable lifestyle, and then sold co-living “memberships.” Before long, co-living ventures spread to New York and other cosmopolitan centres. Campus eventually ran up too much debt and folded in 2015, but others have picked up where it left off.

The organization behind The Collective was conceived in 2010, in the LSE Library, by Reza Merchant, a student who thought it was possible to provide something other than the low quality, overpriced accommodation suffered by many young people in London. Initially providing serviced accommodation with some shared facilities on a relatively small scale, Reza made the jump to full-blown co-living provider in 2015. The Collective is now the largest complex of its type in the world. And there are plans to build more.

So is this a new utopia? Utopia 2.0 for the millennial generation, where shared spaces, Facebook groups, and synced event calendars offer a new sense of community?

Utopia 2.0, 2a


The Games Room, The Collective Old Oak. Used with permission.[2]


Certainly, co-living providers have appropriated the language of radical utopia. Residences are referred to as “the collective” or “the commune”; they provide an “intentional way of living,” a rational “design to life,” and they accent the formation of new types of “community.” This language emerged out of the visionary projects of the early utopian socialists, Henri Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and Charles Fourier, each of whom sought to design vanguard communities that would harmonise human relations at the start of the nineteenth century. And as recent scholarly insights into utopia have revealed, we should not assume that utopian projects were divorced from realitythat “utopia” is just a pejorative term, signifying the unrealistic. Where the socialist utopias of the nineteenth century arose in response to the challenges of the nascent modern world, so co-living for millennials has emerged against a backdrop of expensive housing, crony landlords, and an impenetrable housing market.

The cooperative communities Owen established in New Lanark and New Harmony represented an attempt to mitigate the hardships of early capitalism and laissez-faire economics. Community and capitalism were harmonised, as residents formed a jointly owned venture that supported and provided for members. And while the communities themselves did not become a template for wider society, Owen’s vision of jointly owned enterprises gave rise to the hugely significant cooperative movement. As Vincent Geoghegan has noted, “the very greatest of the philosophers of the past […] used utopianism to puncture the complacency of their contemporaries.” Maybe the latest trend for co-living will help to solve the challenges of urban housing in the twenty-first century. Co-living providers are expressly targeting a generation of young professionals who want to experience city life, but feel aggrieved at the prohibitive reality of places like London and San Francisco. Those promoting co-living also cite growing concerns about a “loneliness epidemic,” as the modern world continues to limit our social interaction. Co-living promises community and shared experiences with like-minded people.

Utopia 2.0, 2


Robert Owen’s plans for New Harmony. Public Domain by ArtMechanic via Wikimedia Commons


But, lest it need stating, the latest trend for co-living lacks the holistic vision of “the very greatest of […] philosophers.” Co-living borrows from a long tradition of collective designs for life, from the Owenite communities and Fourier phalanxes of the early nineteenth century, to the urban communes and constructivist housing that emerged out of the Russian Revolution, and on to the hippie groups of the 1960s. But in its current incarnation, co-living is devoid of ideology. It’s postmodern: it is, in part, a response to the problems of a modern world, but it doesn’t share modernity’s conviction that the world can be perfected. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to avoid the arrogance of some utopian thinkers; the idea that progress can be made by ripping apart the past and starting afresh prevented men such as Owen from realising the shortfalls of their visions. Yet, given the genuine challenges co-living promises to tackle, a broader perspective, and input from the municipal or government level surely wouldn’t go amiss.

And we should be aware of some potential pitfalls. One clear limitation to co-living is that there is no collective ownership or viable long-term provision. It doesn’t solve the housing problem more broadly; it offers a temporary solution for young professionals who want to enjoy urban life and partake in, as New Yorker columnist Lizzie Widdicome put it, an “extended adolescence.” And, with this, there is the danger that transient young people will tend to occupy The Collective and other such co-living ventures. This has prompted concern over the wider impact that co-living residences might have on pre-existing communities.

Will co-living prompt a different attitude or approach to housing? Will housing “experience” really become a commodity, as the latest co-living startups suggest? Time will tell.


[1] This blog is accredited to OUPblog, and ‘Co-living: Utopia 2.0?’ was first published there on 4th March 2017.  Our gratitude to them for allowing us to republish the blog piece here.
[2] Featured image credit: The Collective Old Oak, London. Used with permission.
Posted in Cultural History, International History, News | Tagged , , , ,

So that was International Women’s Day…

by Dr Jacqui Turner

So yesterday was International Women’s Day and women were everywhere – literally we were all over the place, in the media, online, on TV and crowded around both front benches in the House of Commons as, in yesterday’s budget, the Chancellor announced a further £5 million for projects to celebrate the centenary of the partial franchise in 1918:

It is important that we not only celebrate next year’s Centenary but also that we educate young people about its significance. It was the decisive step in the political emancipation of women in this country and this money will go to projects to mark its significance and remind us all just how important it was.





Yes, it was, and yes, it is. My initial reaction, of course, is that this should be done in schools every year and beyond a few weeks on the GCSE History curriculum.   So maybe we do need that £5 million from Mr Hammond, which was  allocated alongside £20 million to tackle domestic violence and abuse and £5 million for ‘returnships’ to support people returning to work after long breaks.

The positioning of women around the front benches on significant days or when key legislation is being announced is a long-standing tradition –very few ever find themselves there by seniority, some maybe, but they are often window dressing.  And why do they need to be there at all?  Are we harking back to the days of our first female MP, Nancy Astor, who would ‘disrupt proceedings’ with claims that she knew best on issues relating to women because she was a woman?  She may have done, but it is the very old feminist debate – equal rights versus inherent suitability based on gender difference (whilst acknowledging that the gender debate is much wider today).

The history of women in parliamentary politics is much broader than the centenary of the partial franchise, it also concerns those women sitting in the chamber of the House of Commons. I am a historian and as such I cannot help but look back, it is in my DNA and I research the work of female MPs in the 1920s.  Who, you may ask?  Exactly my point, can you name any? I am also inclined to point out that the partial franchise in 1918 was not the only monumental piece of legislation relating to women and political power passed in 1918. While we joyously prepare to spend the Chancellor’s £5million to celebrate the centenary of the partial franchise, a very small, seemingly innocuous piece of legislation that is of equal importance also passed through Parliament that year. Sandwiched between two major pieces of legislation The Representation of the People Act 1918 and the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919 came 26 words that changed British democracy forever. The Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) 1918 enabled women over the age of 21 to stand for election to Parliament and changed our democracy forever. It simply stated that

“A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the House of Commons.”


IWD 2a


That was it. No more and no less. It was ushered in quietly, three weeks later and arguably it was timed to avoid women reasonably organizing a campaign to stand in any great numbers at the 1918 General Election. It was also something of a contradiction when taken alongside the Representation of the People Act – some women over the age of 30 and with property qualification gained the vote but any woman over 21 could stand for parliament and sit as an MP.  Jennie Lee MP, elected to Parliament at the age of 24 in 1929, sat in the chamber but still could not vote as the 1928 Equal Franchise Bill had not passed into law.




In her 1926 pamphlet ‘What the Vote has Done’, Millicent Fawcett (National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship) championed the importance of the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act amongst other legislation passed in the early 1920s.


Millicent Fawcett, What the Vote has Done, 1926 (Nancy Astor Papers MS1416/1/1/262)


Fawcett described the performance of women in elections as a result of the passing of the act that “renders it possible for a constituency to choose a woman as its representative in the House of Commons”.  Few did and even fewer women succeeded when they stood. Despite Fawcett’s pride in the success of women in the successive general elections throughout the 1920s they were few in number. Fawcett argues that those women who failed to get elected “merely shared the fate of their respective Parties.” However, the continued presence of women in the House was a reminder of the wider female electorate and the need for progressive legislation.

And so back to the £5 million windfall for the centenary. Thank you very much Chancellor but the partial franchise was arguably not the only important piece of feminist legislation in 1918.

If you would like to find out more about the centenary, the continuing magnificent job done by the Vote100 project in Parliament can be found at:

For more on early female MPs also see:


Female MP’s 1944 on the terrace of the House of Commons to celebrate Nancy Astor’s uninterrupted 25th anniversary as MP for Plymouth Sutton.


Here at the University of Reading we are also looking forward to continuing the work on women in Parliament with the vote100 project but we are also looking forward to launching the centenary of Nancy Astor taking her seat in Parliament in 2019 – watch this space for more information relating to Astor100 coming soon.



The Nancy Astor Papers can be found at:
Posted in British History, Cultural History, In the Media, Intellectual History, International History, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

International Womens’ Day: An Interview with Rebecca Rist

International Womens Day - Interview with R Rist 1This month is Womens’ History Month and today, 8th March, is International Womens’ Day.

So we’ve taken the opportunity to talk to Dr Rebecca Rist, one of the few young female academics working on the medieval papacy, and find out more about her research.






What are your research and teaching specialisations?

I am a Medievalist, specialising in European History in the High and Late Middle Ages. My research and teaching interests include the history of the papacy, crusading, heresy, Jewish-Christian relations, the medieval Church, religious belief and political ideas.


What made you choose this area?

So many reasons! An inspiring history teacher at school; a gap year in the Middle East; my Catholic upbringing; my Jewish grandfather; my original training as a Classicist which gave me proficiency in Latin and Greek; the fact that young female academics working on the medieval papacy – the ultimate place of spiritual and political male power – are few and far between…


Was there a moment when you realised that you had become a successful academic?

Yes, when my first book The Papacy and Crusading in Europe, 1198-1245 (London: Continuum, 2009) was awarded the University of Reading Early Career RETF Prize for Best Research Output (2010).


What is an exciting development currently in your area?

At the moment I am particularly interested in examining the medieval papacy’s treatment of heretics and religious dissidents in the High and Late Middle Ages. Medieval heresy is a very popular subject area but there has not been much written recently from a specifically papal perspective – looking at how different popes treated different heretical groups and how they decided who to include and exclude from the Church. This new research follows on from my recent book Popes and Jews, 1095-1291 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) which examined papal polices towards Jews and Jewish perceptions of the papacy in the High Middle Ages.


What advice would you have for prospective students wanting to become involved in this area?

Choose an inspiring Ph.D. supervisor who works in your area of interest and be prepared to work very hard! Also, try to read as broadly as you possibly can in the field of medieval history – don’t specialise too early before you really have a grasp of the context in which your research area fits.


What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Travelling; creative writing (I am currently writing a children’s book); playing the violin; singing in my local choir.


Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

My former Cambridge Ph.D. supervisor, Jonathan Riley-Smith who was Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Cambridge, and my parents – I owe them so much – they taught me how to think critically and to question everything.

International Womens Day - Interview with R Rist 2

Posted in European History, Medieval History, News | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

‘Hidden Figures’ Film Review

by Philippa Sale [1]


There was some confusion at the Academy Awards this weekend when ‘La La Land’ was incorrectly announced as the winner of the Best Picture Oscar, the real winner being ‘Moonlight’.  Away from this embarrassing mix-up another Best Picture nomination has been released into UK cinemas and that film is the absolutely phenomenal ‘Hidden Figures’. It is directed by Theodore Melfi and is based upon the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The tale of ‘Hidden Figures’ focuses on three African-American women who helped to win the space race for America. The three women’s incredible stories are intertwined with each other in this true story. Each of the three women in question broke countless social boundaries in order to pursue their dreams. These women’s names were Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson, played by Octavia Spencer (who absolutely deserves the Best Supporting Actress nomination that she got for this film, by the way), Janelle Monáe and Taraji P. Henson respectively.

Left to right (bottom row): Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan

I cannot believe that before I found out that this film was in development that I had never heard of these awesome women before. Each of them had contributed to the achievement of winning the space race more than I ever could have realised. All three women worked at so-called ‘computers’, mathematicians that calculated for NASA. Mary Jackson won a court case in order to attend a segregated school and take the classes she needed to become the first black female engineer, Dorothy Vaughan helped to programme the NASA supercomputers by learning about FORTRAN programming and Katherine Goble Johnson calculated trajectories for space flight at the highest level of the space task force.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, centre) determinedly leads the women – referred to as ‘colored computers’ at the time – in the film to the supercomputers

The stories told in this film were absolutely incredible. The amount of prejudice, both racial and gender-based, that these women came up against was so large and there is a particularly poignant scene in the film where Katherine, as the only black woman working in the space task force, lets out her frustrations about having to run across the NASA campus to the bathroom because segregation decrees that she cannot use the bathroom in the building where she works. Katherine Goble Johnson’s story is the most central in this film and her story is one that should have been told a long time ago. Henson, Monáe and Spencer really carry this film and give such outstanding performances. I also liked Kevin Costner in this film. I thought he did a great job in his role, but I found Jim Parsons rather underwhelming as head engineer Paul Stafford, even though talking about science is something you’d think that he would be good at considering that he is paid $1 million per episode for a show about science outside this film. Maybe it’s just me.

Henson’s Katherine Goble Johnson does some calculations for her colleagues

I loved this film. You can tell that the people that made this film poured their heart and soul into this film and it strikes a chord in you emotionally watching these women climb their way up, closer and closer to the recognition that they deserve for their contributions to space travel. It’s a very likable film, with an excellent soundtrack to compliment it by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams and stellar performances throughout the cast. ‘Hidden Figures’ is moving, feel-good and empowering, and I’d recommend making the trip to the cinema to experience it yourself.

Rating: 4.5/5


[1] You can read more film reviews by Philippa her blog, ‘Movie Reviews with Philippa
Posted in American History, Comment, Cultural History, In the Media, Intellectual History, International History, News, Students Page | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Visiting Berlin: Our Part 2 Study Trip

by Ellie Chaston and Georgia Allistone

The study trip abroad module was a new module this year, offered to Part 2 History and European Studies students. We were lucky enough to spend week 6 of the autumn term in Berlin, where we explored Germany’s urban and national identity through its remaining historical material and visual culture. We got to see Berlin’s main tourist attractions like the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the National Art Gallery as well as many significant memorials commemorating events that took place within and in relation to Germany from the Romantic era (c.1800-1850) up to the Cold War (1947-1991).

This trip was not just a valuable educational experience, and a great way to meet people on our course, but a chance to delve deep into Berlin’s history. Having Paul Davies, Donna Yamani and Patrick Major teaching us meant that we could really understand Berlin and its physical history through their expert knowledge of the points of interest we were shown. The depth of research and knowledge the lecturers had on the city and its museums led to small crowds outside our trip clan gathering to hear what they had to say – it really was a unique learning experience!


Group photo in front of the Victory Column

Georgia’s highlights

I truly loved every aspect of the trip, even the short nights’ sleeps and long days of walking. Visiting Berlin in this way meant we could understand how it has evolved into its being in the present day. For example, all the current parliamentary buildings are glass-paned all the way through, to represent a new age of transparency and democracy within Germany after its controversial and testing past.

My favourite part of the trip was visiting the Jewish museum and memorial, mainly because its impact on the viewer is very subjective, depending on how much one knows and can contextualise it. It is known as the Eisenmann memorial, named after the architect who designed it called Peter Eisenmann; an American man with Jewish parents. The memorial is comprised of 2711 columns that vary in height, but are all 2.8 metres long and 0.5 metres wide. The memorial opened in 2005 and was initially unlabelled. The space around the monument was also not clearly defined as Eisenmann wanted people to connect with the monument in whatever way they felt was right. He was more interested in the embodied experience the monument caused within the individual. Instead of creating a monument that directly represented the Jews like some of the Soviet memorials around the city, Eisenmann created something personal and subjective to its spectator, making it an untraditional memorial. I was personally very moved by my experience at the Eisenmann memorial. I felt very confined and trapped, weak and insignificant compared to the towering concrete blocks. Within the memorial, you had to walk in single file and the unlevelled flooring and varying height of the blocks was enough to make you feel unsteady. It was nice afterwards to walk back onto the street, and once again become part of the German public. The memorial attempts to materialise and in turn begin to make an individual understand how Jewish people would have felt in concentration and death camps. Walking back onto a level pavement, without boundaries is meant to represent that Germans can connect with their nation’s past without the burden of guilt. The vast scope of the memorial and the amount left to one’s subjective experience of it is what made it the most valuable and memorable part of the trip for me.

berlin-trip-2   berlin-trip-3

The Eisenmann Memorial

Ellie’s highlights

One particularly moving place we visited was the Jewish Museum. It was designed in 2001 by a Jewish architect, Daniel Libeskind, as both a memorial and a museum dedicated to the experiences of Jewish people during and after the Holocaust. The building was designed to attempt to emulate some of the experiences Jewish people would have had during this time. Perhaps the most emotive part was the room at the end of the ‘axis of holocaust’. It is impossible to adequately describe the experience, except to say that in that room you are as close as possible to understanding the realities of the Jewish experiences of the Holocaust. The architect designed the whole building to be an experience, an attempt to make people understand the horrific realities of the Jewish experience, and to set it into German culture and identity. Needless to say, we certainly felt its impact!


Outside view of the Jewish Museum

One part of the trip I personally enjoyed was the day trip I took to Potsdam. Our group was rather small on that day, as many others had chosen to visit Sachsenhausen, but it was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. After a brief stop at another extremely moving Jewish memorial, Track 17, we made our way to Sanssouci, a ‘lusthaus’ built by Frederick the Great. The building itself was absolutely stunning, both inside and out, as were the surrounding gardens, filled with beautiful statues, a fountain, and even a tea house. Everything about it was extremely lavish and eccentric, and we felt that summed up its patron perfectly! Wandering around the gardens also provided many excellent photograph opportunities, as you can see!


Molly and Charlotte in a water feature in the Sanssouci grounds

Overall experience

Overall, it is safe to say that we all had a brilliant time. The trip provided us with the ability to immerse ourselves deeply into German culture. We visited a number of galleries, museums, and memorials in Berlin, and these were all made even more interesting with our professors there to give us a detailed understanding of what we were looking at, something we wouldn’t have had if we were visiting simply as tourists. Our days were well structured, allowing us to visit a number of notable sites, while our evenings were left free, giving us the freedom to explore Berlin for ourselves. By the end of the trip, we found ourselves with a far greater appreciation of Berlin, and a deeper understanding of the complex layers of history it contains. I have no doubt that many of us will go back there in the future – a week is simply not enough time to explore such a wonderful city as Berlin!

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History: handle with care

by Dr Richard Blakemore

One of the first assignments given to Reading history undergraduates is to write a précis, or summary, of one chapter from a selection of well-known books by eminent historians on the theory and purpose of the discipline.  Marking this exercise last term led me back to writings and arguments that were familiar, but which I had not read for some time.  It made me think about some of the underlying principles that ‘jobbing’ historians don’t reflect on all that often while occupied with the brass tacks of teaching and research. I have just started lecturing at Reading this year, and a similar assignment is also the first thing I can remember doing from my own undergraduate days, so it seemed like a good moment to pause and reflect. Here are some things from three of the texts that caught my eye.1



E.H. Carr, What is History?

E. H. Carr certainly wasn’t my favourite historical theorist when I first encountered him as an undergraduate, and I can’t say I like his writing that much more now. He is obviously erudite and experienced, and has been hugely influential, but I feel there is a certain smug tone to this book: too many unexplained allusions, too much assumed agreement, and a sense that Carr was quite often trying to be provocative for the sake of it. For the chapter ‘The historian and his facts’, apart from the objectionable assumption that a historian must be a ‘he’, I take issue with Carr’s suggestion that facts only become legitimately ‘historical’ once they have been noticed by several historians, ‘appearing first in the footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books’.2  In a discipline which places so much emphasis on working with primary sources, how can we accept that a fact only becomes significant once it is common knowledge?  Discovering previously unknown things is one of the greatest joys of research.  More seriously, this seems to suggest that it is historians, not their sources, who dictate the ‘facts’ of history, unmooring us from any sense of respect for, or integrity in, the past we study.

I doubt this is really what Carr was driving at (although it is a position taken by several postmodern writers since Carr’s day), so perhaps it is a matter of bad phrasing.  The general premise of this particular chapter is actually that historians must steer a course between total faith in objective ‘facts’, on the one hand, and the belief that history is factless and freeform interpretation on the other.  Despite the way Carr sometimes expresses it, I think few scholars would dispute this conclusion.  Carr’s attention to the vagaries by which information about the past has survived and been transmitted, and to the limitations inherent in the perspectives thus preserved, is also something I appreciate in my own work. So too is the suggestion that ‘reading and writing go on simultaneously’, something it took me a while to learn.3  Finally, it is hard to better the direct simplicity of Carr’s concluding sentence: history is ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past’.4



Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans opens his chapter ‘On Causation’ by considering another of Carr’s ideas, that historians must seek out, and rank in importance, the causes behind events.  Evans notes Carr’s opinion that broad trends are more important than chance factors, but then proposes counterfactual history as a better approach to evaluate the role of chance: if a specific ‘accident’ had not occurred, would the course of the past have been different?  I have more sympathy with Evans here, especially because, like many historians, I am interested in the question of individual agency.  A study only of large, impersonal factors would leave little room for that.

Evans then turns his attention to various postmodern criticisms of the idea of causation and indeed of the very existence of sequential time, which is essential to any argument about historical causes.  I will not rehearse these in detail, although it is worth mentioning Evans’s shrewd point that the idea of the ‘postmodern’ itself assumes a sequence, whatever its adherents might say.5  After showing how historians have used different approaches to narrative and periodization, Evans encourages scholars to ‘raid the many and various genres of historical writing which have been developed over the past couple of centuries, to enrich our own historical practice today’.6  I wholeheartedly agree, but why not also consider the many and various ways in which people, throughout the past and across the world, have thought about time?  This might be just as diverse and revelatory.


Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History

The most popular choice for my students was Margaret MacMillan’s piece, which is not a theoretical discussion like the others, but rather a summary of why she thinks the study of history and scholarly accuracy are important to us today.  Firstly, she looks at some recent examples, like American foreign policy following 9/11, to show how learning the lessons of the past can help us to interpret, and influence, the present – and how failing to do so can be disastrous.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, she argues that studying history encourages habits of scepticism, humility, and self-reflection.  This means we should be suspicious of sweeping and potentially misleading claims about the past (MacMillan warns us to ‘always handle history with care’), but it is also true on a personal level.7  Learning to understand the past shows us how much society, and people’s attitudes about it, have changed – often considerably, and sometimes in a short space of time. We should be prepared to examine our own attitudes more critically, to consider alternatives, and to question authority and received wisdom.

MacMillan’s arguments are strikingly relevant given recent political trends, perhaps best summed up by Oxford Dictionaries’ choice of ‘post-truth’ as their word of the year for 2016, and by the recent appearance of the worrisome phrase ‘alternative facts’ (for which, read ‘lies’).  In these circumstances, we are fortunate to have so eloquent an advocate as MacMillan on hand.  Yet the concerns of the three texts are intimately linked.  The lessons we learn by studying history are not just examples that we might emulate or avoid, but also ways of thinking and understanding which we can use in our own time.  We need to adopt flexible and careful approaches to understanding history, as Carr and Evans suggest, so that we can continue and improve our dialogue with the past. It seems to me that we need that dialogue, and the thoughtfulness it produces, now more than ever.



[1] The students in my seminar submitted synopses of chapter 1 of E. H. Carr, What is History? (Cambridge, 1961); chapter 5 of Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997); and the conclusion from Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History (London, 2009).
[2] Carr, What is history?, p.10.
[3] Ibid., p.33.
[4] Ibid., p.35.
[5] Evans, In Defence, pp.141-2.
[6] Ibid., p.156.
[7] MacMillan, Uses and Abuses, p.170.


Posted in Comment, Intellectual History | Tagged , , , , ,

LBGT History Month 2017: Oscar Wilde vlog

by Jodie Larkin and Nikki Rai

In accordance with LGBT+ history month, this vlog explores Oscar Wilde’s infamous stay in Reading Gaol (later HM Reading Prison). During the late nineteenth century, Wilde was at the height of success: hit wit, style and sharp writings propelled him into the heights of both Dublin and London society. However his infamous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Boise, would ultimately lead Wilde to imprisonment. The brutal Victorian system, isolation and Reading Gaol itself changed Wilde. This video explores inside the prison in which Wilde spent part of his bleak sentence and the prisons relationship to the town that marked the latter half of Wilde’s life. Through a variety of artist exhibitions, including contributions from Nan Goldin, Steve McQueen and many others, the prison’s history is brought alive with an open and defiant honesty.

This vlog was made for our Discovering Archives and Collection module 2016-2017.  With special thanks to the Berkshire Records Office, Reading Jail and University of Reading Special Collections. The vlog is best listened to through earphones!

Posted in British History, Comment, In the Media, OUR VIDEOS, Students Page | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CFP: President Trump’s First 100 Days

Please see below for details of the upcoming conference from the Reading Interdisciplinary Research Netwrok for the Study of Political History and Politics in the Americas:


Posted in American History, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Long Read. Impressions of a Modern Pilgrim: Walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela

by Dr Rebecca Rist

Whan that Averylle with his shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote, …
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrymages
When in April the sweet showers fall,
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all…
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
Chaucer, ‘The Prologue’, The Canterbury Tales

It was not an April, but a September early morning, when the good pilgrims of Reading assembled at the shrine of St James in St. James Catholic Church near the abbey ruins where we are still looking for the body of Henry I which one day will make our town as famous as Leicester.  Unlike Chaucer’s pilgrims we were not off to Canterbury, but Santiago de Compostela.  Also, unlike our medieval predecessors, a coach stood ready outside the Church to take us to Stanstead airport.  Yet, doubtless as for many a pilgrim before us, the parish priest led us in prayer as we lit a candle before a modern shrine to a medieval saint.


St James the Greater in the Codex Calixtinus, via Wikimedia


According to legend St James, the apostle and brother of St John, came to Spain to preach Christianity, but having returned to Jerusalem became one of the first Apostles to be beheaded by King Herod for his faith.  After his death James’s followers put his body into a rudderless boat which was carried by angels to the coast of north-western Spain where he was laid to rest.  Eight hundred years later his tomb was rediscovered and his relics authenticated.  The Catholic Church has always fostered devotion to relics of holy people as a way of coming close to God.  So began the tradition of pilgrimage to Compostela – which from the ninth century onwards increasingly rivalled the pilgrim sites of Rome and Jerusalem.

I was not exactly longing to go on pilgrimage.  But throughout the month of August I had packed and re-packed my newly-bought rucksack in preparation.  Its contents came courtesy of Cotswald Outdoor – the mountaineering shop whose staff I was delighted to discover knew more about the ins and outs of the Camino than many a medievalist.  Waterproof trousers, water bottle, sun glasses, head torch, blister packs, sun cream, ‘dry sacks’…, modern frivolous paraphernalia which would have puzzled and bemused, but no doubt also delighted, the medieval pilgrim.  Rain, sun and rough paths do not change much over the centuries.  My weight limit was 10kg but after a year of brain-work, not leg-work, I cautiously limited myself to 7kg.

I was curious to experience a modern take on medieval piety.  My knowledge of the Camino was derived from The Way starring Martin Sheen.  But like any medievalist worth their salt I had also read The Pilgrim’s Guide, that twelfth-century account of the different pilgrim routes through France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela so carefully recorded in the Codex Calixtinus.  ‘The French Way’ was my route of choice and I knew a little of what was in store:

Galicia is well-wooded, with rivers, meadows and orchards, and the deepest clearest springs, but with few towns, farmsteads or wheat fields…  The Galicians are more like us French people than other Spanish savages, but nevertheless they can be hot-tempered and litigious…

My first trip to Galicia.  My first trip to Spain.  In the summer of 2016 delighting in Spanish culture seemed an appropriate reposte – a nod to Europe’s Catholic culture from a soon-to-be-brexited Brit.  They say the past is a foreign country, but in our increasingly uncertain and barbaric world the medieval often seems closer to the realities of modern life than the illusion of post-Enlightenment certainties.  With a historian’s joy for the past I tied a cockle shell to my rucksack and embraced the continuity of lay devotion in a world of secular change.

My travelling companions were kindly but rather odd.  They included two Lithuanian ladies one of whom I can only describe as a Lithuanian-style Wife of Bath.  Yet by far the most bizarre aspect of the pilgrimage was our first destination.  Our Ryanair plane from Stanstead flew directly to Santiago de Compostela!  Would not our medieval forebears – delighted to find that they could travel as if carried by angels – have taken the sensible option – hopped off the flight and made their way directly from airport to Cathedral to pay homage to St James?   Instead we were herded into a mini-bus which drove us through the pouring rain to our starting point – Sarria -71.6 miles or 115.2km from Santiago.  As we sped along the motorway – the entire route we would have to walk – we peered nervously out at fellow pilgrims whose throngs we would soon be joining.  Booted, caped and staffed they fended their way through driving rain.  That would be us tomorrow.  For the medieval pilgrim pilgrimage was a special kind of penance.  We were glimpsing our purgatory in advance.

Once at Sarria we walked.  From Sarria to Portomarin; Portomarin to Palas de Rei; Palas de Rei to Arzúa; Arzúa to Rúa; Rúa to Santiago de Compostela.  Five days of walking – yet a tiny fraction of ‘The French Way’.  One rather literal-minded companion saw our heavy rucksacks as a metaphor for life – our past sins weighing us down.  But I preferred another idea – that each step, each breath is a reminder that – Deo gratias – we are alive and kicking. Sometimes it was wet; sometimes dry.  The Galician countryside was strangely familiar – farmhouses looming in the early morning mist, barking dogs, cows that needed milking – trade the latter for sheep and I could have been in Wales.  We passed through villages and towns; the pretty little village of Casanova remains in the memory.  I had no problem with blisters, but after the first day of walking my pinched feet required bigger walking shoes.  These I bought the first night in Portomarin and from then on I had no further trouble – physical or mental. Perfect material for a medieval preacher?

The early morning starts were a trial.  One day our group of four fell out – that night when we reported our disagreements to a priest he warned us that it was traditional that half way through the Camino Evil would try to knock us off course.  We must remain firm in the face of adversity and not let the Devil in.  Sure enough the next day was a continuing chapter of accidents and misunderstandings.  Yet on the whole we remained cheerful. The words of the sixteenth-century Protestant John Bunyan’s, ‘To be a pilgrim’ which I had learnt long ago at a Catholic convent school, were never far from my thoughts:

Who so beset him round, with dismal stories.
Do but themselves confound, his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might,
though he with giants fight,
he will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

71.6 miles or 115.2km.  Not far, but far enough with a rucksack to carry.  Mist and damp; sunshine and sparkle.  The clicking of the cockle shell against my rucksack a constant reminder of my pilgrim status.  ‘Buen Camino!’ we called enthusiastically but, alas, rather clichédly whenever we met a fellow pilgrim.  Some had started at Léon, others as far back as Pamplona.  We met sojourners from all over the world – Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders… walked with them a little while…and then lost them again over the brow of a hill.  Yet there is no way you can get lost on the Camino.  Everywhere there are signposts adorned with yellow arrows and cockle shells to tell you how many kilometres you must complete each hour, each day.  At every eating place or hostelry they gave us milky coffee in long glasses and stamped our pilgrim passports.

Galicia need its pilgrims – despite European subsidies it remains a poor part of Spain.  Yet not many I encountered walking the Camino were ‘religious’.  Many were fat – if not obese – walking slowly, encumbered with over-sized mackintoshes and grandiose – if otiose – walking poles; youths, hoping to discover the meaning of life but in reality merely procrastinating, putting off the inevitabilities of the 9-5 working week that awaited their return; the middle-aged, retelling life experiences banal to all but the teller; retirees – those who had realised life was running out and were desperately trying to find immortality in walking.  A young Dutch man didn’t want to arrive at Compostela because then his Camino would be over and he would have to decide what to do with the rest of his life.  A stoic Japanese lady of almost seventy walked fast and walked alone – a connoisseur of misty heights in her native land for whom the Camino must have seemed a doddle.

Every afternoon when we arrived at our destination, tired and thirsty, there was Mass at the local church.  I was impressed by the Spaniards – especially their priests, but not at all keen on Spanish art – so unlike Italian.  The doll-like Spanish Madonnas I found not a little disconcerting, if not macabre.  We prayed aloud for our intentions – for me there was a nephew with Downs Syndrome…and another seeking a religious vocation…  Sometimes the priest had himself been on the Camino that day, surrounded by a throng of enthusiastic Spanish school children.  Our evenings were easy – Spanish wine and hospitality: tapas, Sangria, Galician soup.  No dormitories for us – we cheated – preferring higher-class pensions.

The last day walking in to Santiago seemed the longest.  I stopped to snack and light a candle in the little church at Monte do Gozo where countless pilgrims before me have caught their first glimpse of the city of St James.  In the town I bought trinkets – postcards, rosaries, mini statues of the saint, paperweights in the shape of bejewelled bulls, as keenly as any medieval pilgrim ever acquired her relics.  At the Cathedral pilgrim office I stoutly stated that my reason for pilgrimage was ‘religious’ rather than ‘for the health’ or even ‘spiritual’ and was awarded my certificate of completion from a Dutch scribe named Peter who had come to Spain, been smitten by a señorita, stayed, and now inscribed for me:

…omnibus et singulis  praesentes inspecturis, notum facit:  Rebeccam Rist hoc sacratissimum templum, perfecto Itinere sive pedibus sive equitando post postrema centum milia metrorum, birota vero post ducenta, pietatis causa, devote visitasse.

At High Mass in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela I voiced my quota of ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ as like many a pilgrim before me I witnessed the outsized swinging thurible in action.  Compostela’s bishop presided, as severe and handsomely gloomy as any Spanish inquisitor you might imagine.  Three times I approached the tomb of St James and hugged his statue with appropriate fervour; the climax of my Camino


The west front of the Basílica de Santiago, Compostela, via Wikimedia
Inside the Basílica de Santiago, Compostela, via Wikimedia


What did I make of my pilgrimage?  Intense is probably the best way to describe it.  I found that I was much physically fitter than I had expected – which was nice to know after years as an archive rat. Mentally and spiritually I returned in a much better state than before I left.  At Compostela we met with compatriots who had completed ‘The English Way’.  We returned to Britain.  At Stanstead airport fresh emails pinging into my mobile announced to me that my much-loved former Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Jonathan Riley Smith, of crusader fame, had died the day I had set out on Camino.  When we assembled outside St James Church for the ‘survivors’ photograph I was still in tears, but with a renewed fervour for all things medieval. A blessing from St James perhaps?

camino-4St James the Greater in the Codex Calixtinus (note the scallop shells), via Wikimedia

Dr Rebecca Rist is an Associate Professor in Medieval History in the Department of History at the University of Reading. Her research interests include medieval lay piety and devotion.

Posted in Cultural History, Medieval History, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Toads mean Trouble: Amphibious Assassins in Gerald of Wales’ The Journey through Wales

by Dr Ruth Salter

If you were asked to think of an unassuming British animal, I would hazard a guess that the first creature to come to mind would be something – small, brown, possibly squeaky – like a mouse or hedgehog.  So unassuming is the toad that I bet you’d not have even given it a second thought (if it wasn’t for the title of this post).  Yet whilst we might think of toads as little more than ‘dry frogs’ (a phrase I once heard a five year old use to describe them with some accuracy) our medieval counterparts were much more wary of these pesky polliwogs.[1]


A snail and a frog face-off in a 15th C manuscript[2]

Medieval bestiaries grouped amphibians with reptiles which, whilst now known to be incorrect, is perhaps not such a surprising association to have made considering outwards appearances.  Like many other ‘reptiles’, toads were seen to be dangerous, in fact the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179) warned in Physica that: ‘just as dangerous winds come forth with lightning and thunder and hail, [the toad] has some diabolical art in it.’[3]  Indeed, if a cat were to lick a toad or serpent then the cat would become ‘harmful and poisonous’ to people; although with seemingly little issue for the cat itself (maybe due to their nine lives!).[4]  For those that are becoming concerned over the prospect of amphibious encounters it is worth noting that Hildegard highlighted that frogs were, at least, less dangerous than toads because they were ‘cold and a bit watery’, which clearly had a detrimental effect on their powers.[5]

Discovering why toads had such a bad reputation is harder, there is little direct mention of toads in the bestiaries, nor in their forebears; and this lack of reference to toads, and reptiles in general, in Classical anthological sources has not gone unnoticed.[6]  However, whatever the cause, it is clear that toads were considered to be dangerously poisonous.


A 12th century depiction of Moses’ plague of frogs (note the seemingly maniacal grins!)[7]

But how poisonous were toads?  In the Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich one account highlights the dangers of their poison.[8] This miracle account involes Wimarc, a woman imprisoned at Gainsborough during Stephen’s reign (1135-54).  Wimarc, along with other prisoners had to endure ‘miserab[le] cold, hunger, stench and attacks of toads’ so in order to secure their freedom they decided to poison the gaoler: ‘they took a toad (of which, as I said, there were many in the prison) and mixed its poison with the drink…and invited the gaoler to drink it’.[9]  However, the suspicious gaoler was less than willing to accept a drink from his captives (funny that!) and requested they drank first.  Seeing their hesitation and fear he knew not to trust the offering and the gaoler forced them to drink instead:

Immediately the venom crept through the limbs of each, and all of them swelled up in so wonderful and horrid a manner that any man who saw them would be convinced that their skin must burst…The poison saturated them through and through and the life was brought to the doors of death.[10]

Only Wimarc survived and, having been released, she suffered for seven years from a ‘monstrous swelling’ which no doctor could cure.[11]  Turning to the saints she eventually came to St William’s tomb in Norwich Cathedral where, after a few days, she kissed the tomb and ‘vomited all that poisonous discharge on the pavement…it was horrible – no, unbearable, that there was enough of it to fill a vessel of the largest size, that the bystanders were so constrained to leave the place, and the sacrists to cleanse the spot and strew it with fragrant herbs’.[12]  Wimarc, however, now appeared completely cured from her swelling, as if she had never been poisoned and, after giving thanks, returned home.


Late 13th century French Psalter marginalia showing a stork catching a frog or toad.[13]

Another account of toad-based poisoning can be found in the Peterborough Chronicle which refers to torturers using reptiles and amphibians.[14]  Clearly toads are dangerously venomous and we must learn to be a lot more wary of them (or be prepared to undertake a journey to Norwich to the boy-martyr St William for some help).

But why, in the title, did I refer specifically to Gerald of Wales’ The Journey through Wales?[15]  Well, Gerald’s account reveals another terrifying aspect of toads: not only are they poisonous but they also have a habit of stalking their victims (not so unassuming now are they?!).

In his memoir of travelling around Wales with Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury in 1188 (to rouse would-be crusaders to take the cross for the Third Crusade) Gerald records many fanciful tales of animals, including self-castrating beavers and tricksy weasels.  However no animal comes across more terrifying than the toads of Cemais (now in Pembrokshire) who stalked, and eventually devoured, a young man from the neighbourhood:[16]

In our own days a young man who lived in this neighbourhood, who was lying ill in bed, was persecuted by a plague of toads.  It seemed as if the entire local population of toads had made an agreement to go to visit him.  Vast numbers were killed by his friends and by those looking after him, but they grew again like the heads of the Hydra.  Toads came flocking from all directions, more and more of them, until no one could count them.  In the end they young man’s friends and the other people who were trying to help were quite worn out.  They chose a tall tree, cut off all its branches and removed all its leaves.  Then they hoisted him up to the top in a bag.  He was still not safe from his venomous assailants.  The toads crawled up the tree looking for him.  They killed him and ate him right up, leaving nothing but his skeleton.[17]

No reason is given for why this unfortunate youth should have been targeted by the toads, perhaps they took a disliking to him following some unrecorded insult, or perhaps toads are just so menacing a foe that they need no rational to support their decisions.  Either way, Gerald makes it clear that toads are determined and single-minded in their decisions; when they chose to stalk they’ll do it to the death and not even trees or beheading will stand in their way.  But, on a plus side (if one can be found) these Welsh toads do not use their natural poison, although Gerald does refer to them as ‘venomous assassins’, so at least the poor chap from Cemais is spared the pain suffered by Wimarc before his demise.[18]  However, let’s be honest, neither fate is appealing and the message is clear – avoid toads at all costs!

So next time you come across a toad, you might just want to reconsider becoming acquainted, and if you do decide to go ahead and greet that assisinous amphibian be prepared for the consequences that will (undoubtedly) follow.


The Common Toad (Bufo bufo) is found across Europe.[19]

This is a revised blog post of one originally written for Ego Sum, Ego Google, 23rd August 2014.



[1] Polliwog derives from the late medieval word polwygle, meaning tadpoles (the larval stage of development in both frogs and toads.  Tadpole, itself, comes from the Middle English ‘taddepol’ ‘tadde’ (toad) and ‘pol’ (head) whist polliwog ‘polwygle’ is ‘pol’ (head) and ‘wygle’ (wiggle) – pretty simple really!
[2] Institutes of Justinian, France 15th century, Montpellier, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire. Section Médecine, H 418, fol. 23v via Discarding Images
[3] Hildegard of Bingen. Physica. trans. Throop, P. (Healing Arts Press, Rochester. 1998) Reptiles.iv
[4] Hildegard of Bingen. Physica. Animals.xxvi
[5] Hildegard of Bingen. Physica. Reptiles.v
[6] Douglas, N.  Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology. (Chapman and Hall Ltd., London. 1928) p.56 Digital Ed. Badke, D. (2003): [last accessed 11th August 2014]
[7] Pamplona Bible, Navarre 1197,Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 108, fol. 42v, via Discarding Images [last accessed 11th October 2016].
[8] Thomas of Monmouth.  The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. ed. & trans. Jessop, A. & Rhodes-James, M. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 1896) 6.xiii
[9] The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. 6.xiii
[10] The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. 6.xiii
[11] The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. 6.xiii
[12] The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. 6.xiii
[13] Bodleian MS. Douce 118 ff.134v-135r via Luna, Bodleian Library Manuscripts Online [last accessed 11th October 2016]
[14] ‘Toads: Man-Eating; Poisonous’ from In the Middle (16th February 2006) [last accessed 11th October 2016]
[15] Gerald of Wales.  The Journey through Wales in The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales. trans. Thorpe, L. (London, Penguin Books. 1978)
[16] Gerald of Wales.  The Journey through Wales 1.xii (weasels) and 2.iii (beavers), also see 1.vii (dogs), 2.iii (salmon) and 2.vii (mice)
[17] Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales. 2.ii
[18] Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales. 2.ii
[19] Image of the Comon Toad (Bufo bufo) from BBC Nature [last accessed 11th October 2016]
Posted in Medieval History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Call For Papers: ‘Complaints and Grievances, 1500-1750’, 10th-11th July 2017

We are delighted to issue a call for papers for Reading University’s biennial Early Modern Studies Conference, ‘Complaints and Grievances, 1500-1750’ (10th-11th July 2017).

There will be three strands running through the conference:

  • medical grievances
  • literary complaints
  • political/religious grievances


The keynote speaker is Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen (Leiden), talking about affliction and consolation in early modern England.

See below for further information on submitting paper proposals for the conference, and particularly the strand for medical grievances:






Posted in Early Modern History, Events, Hannah Newton. Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Republican Convention

by Dafydd Townley

It’s Convention season! This is the time of year when national delegates get together at their respective party’s convention to officially nominate their candidate for the US Presidential election. First up is the Republican Party National Convention in Cleveland where Donald Trump will be nominated as a contentious candidate. The Ohio city has spent $50 million according to sources on security, mindful of the violence that has followed rallies supporting Donald Trump. The preparations have increased significantly following the deaths caused by policeman in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the sniper attack on policemen in Dallas. Usually the Conventions are incidents that are full of energy and celebration as delegates pledge their support for the Party’s candidate. But concerns have increased significantly that the Republican Convention could turn violent. It would have to go a long way to rival the aggression and protests that took place at the most violent convention in living memory – the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.



Illinois National Guardsmen outside the Conrad Hotel.


The 1968 Democratic Convention is famous for the battle of Michigan Avenue, when Chicago city police and Illinois National Guardsmen clashed with protestors. The scenes at the Convention were yet another indication of the violent nationwide schism that had manifested itself during the 1960s over the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The anti-war groups had lost their apparent leaders in Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Both men were assassinated in the months leading up to the Convention, and the peace movement had lost its rudder. By the time of the Convention the New Left and the political Left favoured peace candidate Eugene McCarthy. The incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson, had decided not to stand for re-election as the support of his party and the public turned against him. Instead, the establishment looked to Vice President Hubert Humphrey to be their candidate. By the time of the Convention neither candidate had a majority of delegates, which led to frantic behind the scenes dealing by Lyndon Johnson the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.

When the Convention opened on August 26, 1968, the protestors had been in the city for several days and had already clashed with the heavy-handed city police. Daley had bragged that Chicago was ‘The City That Works’ and was adamant that no protests were going to ruin the Convention. However the fragmentation of the Democratic Party was unravelling before the nation. Over the four days of the Convention the supporters of Humphrey, McCarthy and Senator George McGovern of Dakota worked against each other to secure the nomination. In truth, there was little to challenge Humphrey who was Johnson’s preferred candidate, but the party was split on the issue of the future role of the US in the Vietnam War. But if it was organised chaos inside the Convention hall at the International Amphitheatre, it was pandemonium outside on the streets of municipal Chicago.

Chicago Democratic National Convention Protests
Chicago city policemen block the marching protestors on Michigan Avenue.

The protestors consisted mostly of the Yippies, the Youth International Party, and MOBE, National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The Yippies, radical left wing students, had already held their own convention and voted a real pig, Pigasus, as their candidate. When he was paraded in the city centre, Pigasus and several Yippies were arrested by the police. This had set the tone for the relationship between the police and the protestors throughout the convention. The police, aided by helicopters with searchlights and loudspeakers, drove out approximately 3000 protestors from Lincoln Park on the night of August 27, injuring about 60 and arresting 140. Meanwhile close to the Conrad Hotel in Grant Park, protestors displeased with prospect of a continuance of the war shouted ‘Dump the Hump!’ As they marched towards the Convention they found that the hotel had been surrounded by National Guardsmen, armed with bayonets. Urged by Democrats to not engage the troops, the students dispersed peacefully.



Chicago policemen engaging the protestors.


The following day was a different matter. 15000 protestors convened for a MOBE event in Grant Park and were charged by police when a protestor lowered the American flag.  The rally continued after police left and the protestors marched again towards the Conrad Hotel and the Convention. This time the Chicago police were there to meet them. As the marchers chanted ‘The whole world is watching!’ the police fired tear gas into the crowd and charged, swinging their billy-clubs with alarming precision. The brutal and horrific police violence was broadcast all over the world indicating a total breakdown in law and order. Over 175 were arrested and more than 100 were injured. The tear gas was so dense that it wafted inside the hotel reaching the thirteenth floor apartment of Humphrey. Near midnight, amid the delegates’ condemnation of the police brutality outside, Humphrey was elected as the Democratic candidate. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party in the forthcoming election it was associated with the violence and chaos of the Chicago convention. In a decade where there had been social upheaval, assassinations and street protests, the Democrats failed to portray itself as a party of law and order. As a consequence Republican candidate and former Vice President Richard Nixon, who had promised to end the war in Vietnam, won the law and order debate that surrounded the 1968 presidential election.


Yippies with their presidential Pigasus.



Chicago police arrest Pigasus.



Posted in US Election 2016 (blog posts) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marriage, Motherhood and being an MP: the Long View

by Dr Jacqui Turner

The famous Harold Wilson misquote that a week is a long time in politics was an understatement last week, half an hour was a long time in politics. On Wednesday afternoon I had a coffee with a friend and returned to a new prime minister and the frenzy that surrounded Theresa May first as a woman and second as a politician about to take up the highest office in the land.  Sadly, the political debate on the short campaign for leader of the Conservative Party and PM remained thoroughly gendered with Andrea Leadsom falling on her sword after a torrid weekend of questions about motherhood. According to Leadsom, press questioning on the matter was persistent until she gave them the sound bite that they ran with.  We know that a male politician would never have been pressed so consistently over parenting and it is unlikely that his response would necessitate his resignation from any political contest. Leadsom’s forced resignation after an alleged ‘back ops’ smear campaign highlights yet again the media obsession with gender issues when women are involved. So is this anything new?  Ask Theresa May, Andrea Leadsom, Angela Eagle or other female MPs if they have faced discrimination in the House and the answer is invariably no.  Is this then just a media issue, feeding a society still often riven with different expectations of women in power?  Is it ever enough to be a good MP or are women consistently required to be a good female MP too and therefore more liable to be tripped up over questions of marriage, motherhood and kitten heels?  Is it enough to represent your constituency and your party or are you invariably seen as a representative for all women? It is interesting how little the questions have changed or how the media have reacted since the first women took their seats in parliament almost a century ago when Nancy Astor entered Parliament as the MP for all women.

The first woman took her seat in Parliament against a maelstrom of press comment that more than equalled the media attention given to Theresa May.  Press comment was intrusive, invariably hostile and focused on her marital status and dress.  Nancy Astor was elected to parliament for Plymouth Sutton at a by-election in November 1919 replacing her husband who had previously been MP (Waldorf Astor had been parliamentary private secretary to Lloyd George and was a progressive Conservative).  She stood as a Unionist candidate though many in the party had reservations, including the Unionist Party Chairman, Sir George Younger, who felt that ‘the worst of it is, the woman is sure to get in’. She did get in and on 1 December 1919 when she stood at the bar in the House of Commons, Astor’s words as she took the oath was the first time a female voice had been heard in the Chamber. The Chamber was not full but the Manchester Guardian reported that the proceedings generated a ‘flutter of altogether pleasant excitement’ though the Times reported a ‘tremendous breach in Parliamentary tradition.’

Marriage & Motherhood 1

Astor found her position lonely with many men openly hostile and refusing to acknowledge her presence.  She avoided arousing press comment on her clothing by adopting a uniform of a dark coat and skirt, white blouse and tudor or tricorn hat. Her obituary in the Times listed one of her achievements as she ‘set the style for her feminine colleagues in years to come’.  Astor faced a culture of insidious sexism and outright resentment as she spent almost 2 years as the only woman in the House of Commons.

Women trickled into the House despite a predominantly male press and political environment. But the earliest female MP’s faced questions about their marital status, political experience and suitability to sit in the House of Commons.  Nancy Astor replaced her husband when he was elevated to the House of Lords following his father’s death.  Astor’s tenure in parliament was only ever intended to be temporary while Waldorf Astor found a means of returning to the Commons.  The second MP, elected almost 2 years later, Margaret Wintringham, was a Liberal, a widow and had also been elected to her husband’s seat. A great deal was made of Wintringham’s arrival as a ‘mother’, much to Astor’s chagrin as she announced that she was the mother of five! Did Wintringham look more motherly?  It was certainly considered a virtue.

Marriage & Motherhood 2

The women developed a strong, supportive bond. Both had been active in public life, Astor as a society hostesses and both as supporters of their husband’s political careers and as a constant presence in their husband’s campaigns. Many of the women that followed had a similar experience and came from similar family backgrounds, often representing their spouse. For much of her early career Nancy did find herself directed by Waldorf. Archival evidence shows that Waldorf drafted and heavily edited her early speeches, annotating them with speaking notes on where and when to moderate her voice.  Brian Harrison has argued that these women candidates who came from families active in public life adjusted more easily to public life as it was assumed that they were representing a man.

For early female politicians the Astor partnership appeared successful and accessible, although Astor’s entrance did not facilitate a tidal wave of Conservative female MPs.  The third female MP, Conservative Mabel Philipson (Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1923), had no experience of the political sphere. She also took her husband’s seat while he faced fraud charges; she was a music hall and comedy actress but Philipson appealed to a Conservative electorate and directly campaigned on her marital status:

“If you vote for me you will get tuppence for a penny, because you will be getting me and my husband as your representative. No other candidate can offer you as much. I belong to the tried old firm of Astor and Company.”

Her reassurances were to a wider society that did not consider women in public life the norm and she used circumstantial similarities to Astor. Sykes argued that her agenda was to epitomise, by association, the immense popularity Nancy had generated, implying that her popularity was derived from a political husband and a wealthy background. However, early female MP’s despite their conservatism (with a small c) challenged the notion of public women and signified seed change in British democracy.

By comparison Socialist and Labour women who entered Parliament in the later 1920s were married to their cause. Most were from working class backgrounds, unmarried and ideologically motivated.  At first glance, there is a vast gap between the classes, backgrounds and motivations of the MPs as all battled with society’s expectation that women should not be present in public life.

Wealthy, married women could afford staff to manage a family during their political careers; working class women had no such affordable luxury. Labour female MPs tended to be unmarried at the time of their election; the role of wife and mother would have proved a hindrance to their political careers and the cause.

Marriage & Motherhood 3

 Jennie Lee stated that ‘marriage would never be allowed to get in the way of her ambition’ as she understood that ‘careers and marriage… could not run in tandem without some change in the understanding of what being a wife meant.’  Lee was elected in 1929 and served for 41 years until 1970 when she moved up to the Lords in her own right. Despite her anti-marriage assertions and determination to not become a wife, her initial reservations were overcome when she married Aneurin Bevan, her Labour Party colleague in 1934. They agreed to remain childless in the knowledge that her career would not be compromised. Later, she allowed her career to take a back seat to that of Nye’s later in their marriage as she believed firmly that Nye’s furtherance of his career and his work was of greater importance to the cause of socialism than her own.

Of other early female MP’s Margaret Bondfield remained unmarried; Ellen Wilkinson claimed to be ‘more interested in politics that in love affairs’ as ‘mere boys’ seemed very uninteresting creatures to the solemn priestess of politics. Eleanor Rathbone focused on bringing a feminist equality to mothers and working women.  Bondfield, Wilkinson and Rathbone’s single, childless status may have been necessary in maintaining a political career but they encountered a barrage of anti-feminist public opinion due to their indecorous single status. They lacked the respectability that a husband’s presence would bring, a popular opinion upheld by some in the House and by a majority of the public who conformed to images played out in increasingly popular women’s magazines.

The debate over married women and the vote had been rife in the suffrage movement for decades before Astor took her seat in parliament.  The depiction of public female figures from early suffrage onwards was masculine When I googled Theresa May this morning the first option presented to me, sadly, was ‘Theresa May husband’.  I was also sad at the outrageous representation of Theresa May as Cruella Deville by the Scottish nationalist newspaper, The National, freely shared on social media by male and female political figures alike.

Marriage & Motherhood 4.jpg

What is The National really trying to say here? The media continues to question women’s ‘special’ feminine qualities as wives and mothers, women who do not openly exhibit these are questioned and pilloried; women who do utilise them often meet Leadsom’s fate: damned if you, damned if you don’t.

With special thanks to Shira Kilgallon


** Jacqui Turner can be heard on The Long View, BBC Radio 4 which will be broadcast on Monday discussing the Astors and the Clintons with Professor Gary Gerslte. **

Posted in British History | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Before we were the University of Reading

by Dr Ruth Salter

As many of you are probably aware, this year marks the 90th anniversary of Reading receiving its University Charter.  Reading, which was given the charter by George V in 1926, was the only institution to be awarded university status between the two world wars.  However, before there was a University of Reading there was another higher education institution, a predecessor, Reading College.

Female students make notes and sketches in the Cole Museum, 1945

Two students make notes and sketches in the Faculty of Science Museum, London Road campus, 1945

Reading College began life in the 1860s as Schools of Arts and Sciences which was based in one of the surviving buildings of Reading Abbey, the hospitium on Valpy Street.  These schools were incorporated into an extension college of Christ Church college, Oxford, in 1892.  The college remained a satellite college of Oxford University until it was granted its charter.

Victorian woman at Early Gate in 1899, Whiteknights became university property in 1947


A Victorian woman at Early Gate in 1899, Whiteknights only became university property in 1947 (courtesy of Dr Jacqui Turner’s Twitter feed!)


Even before the charter, the college had begun a process of development.  In 1904 the Palmer family, of the famous Reading-based Huntley & Palmers biscuits, had given the college and extension site on London Road.  In 1908 the Palmers also supported opened Wantage Hall, Upper Redlands Road, the oldest hall of residence in use at the University today, and a Grade II listed building.  In 1947 the University purchased Whiteknights Park, which then became the primary campus, and remains so today.

Wantage Hall, built 1908


Wantage Hall, Upper Redlands Road, opened 1908


This might sound interesting, after all, as historians, it peaks our collective interests to learn more about long-established institutions such as the University of Reading, nee Reading College. But you might be wondering what the purpose of this post is, especially as its being written by a medievalist…

Well, a few years ago while clearing through some old papers in Whiteknights House a member of the administrative staff happened to come across a very interesting item – the Reading College Student Handbook for 1907-08.  This member of staff just so happens to be my mum and so I now have in my possession some lovely photographs of selected pages of this handbook.  Not only do these images give a fascinating insight into the College that was to become our University, but also there are some wonderful adverts for local businesses from this first decade of the twentieth century.  As we come to the end of this momentous, ninetieth year as a university and prepare to celebrate this year’s graduation it seems timely to me to look back on our past.  Enjoy!

1. cover



L:  The old college, Valpy Street, was once part of Reading Abbey
R: A hand-drawn map shows the location of (the then new) London Road campus


L:  The Buttery, London Road campus
R: The Long Cloister, London Road campus


9. plan of London Road campus


The plan of Reading College’s London Road campus in 1907-08


L: One of the glasshouses, London Road campus
R: One of the college’s farms (the institution has always had strong links with agriculture and in 1912 the Research Institute of Dairying was established, it still owns a number of farms including one at Sonning)


16. first page of the college song - the song of the shield


The first page of Reading College’s ‘The Song of the Shield’



A number of advertisements for Reading-based buisnesses were also printed in the pages of the 1907-08 Student Handbook:

Posted in British History, Cultural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Language of the Migration ‘Crisis’ – Past and Present

by Dr Daniel Renshaw

On mainland Europe a status quo that has preserved peace on the continent for the last half century is beginning to fall apart.  Meanwhile, back in the United Kingdom, attitudes and policy towards long-established relationships with the outside world are undergoing a seismic shift, with demands for legislation to prevent free entry of economic migrants and political refugees into the country, fuelled by the rhetoric of a right-wing press and pressure groups.  Sound familiar?  Welcome to the Britain of 1905, where, for the first time in modern British history, legislation – the Aliens Act – is about to be passed, restricting free entry into the United Kingdom during peacetime.

Britannia refuses immigrants, 1905


Britannia refuses entrance to immigrants, 1905


Now, as then, the ways in which language is used and the loaded (and coded) terms employed are crucial in determining how the parameters for the debate surrounding the migrant ‘crisis’ are set.  A correspondent in a popular daily tabloid newspaper recently described migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean as ‘cockroaches’.[1]  In some headlines, migrants are simply referred to as ‘illegals’; the complex motivations for migration and displacement reduced to a single word. ‘Migrant’ itself is a loaded term. The language of dehumanisation has durable roots.  In the 1990s, the term ‘asylum seeker’ – a term of great antiquity and originally referring to the protection of fugitives or the oppressed by the Church – was re-fashioned by the press into one loaded with overwhelmingly negative connotations.[2] Nor is the coded racism in the speeches of politicians a new phenomenon  – see for example Margaret Thatcher’s infamous January 1978 television interview which the term ‘swamp’ was used to describe the changing ethnic makeup of Britain.[3]

To return to the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, the parallels between the depiction of ‘illegals’ in the early twenty-first century and those of Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Italian and other minorities are often striking.  Both Irish Catholic migrants and Jewish refugees were depicted in the popular press as not only an economic threat to the well-being of British society, but also a political one. Jewish and Irish immigrants were linked in reports with political violence and subversive tendencies: the Irish were associated with Fenianism on both sides of the Irish Sea, and Jewish migrants with Marxism, anarchism and syndicalism.[4]  In the build-up to the Aliens Act of 1905, the pro-restriction press stressed the need to keep out the ‘refuse of Europe’, invariably presented as dirty, syphilitic, criminal and also as budding revolutionaries.[5]  In this narrative, migrants were men and women who had ‘failed’ in Europe, and were detritus now making its way to British shores.  As ‘illegals’ are compared in the contemporary press to ‘cockroaches’, so in 1902 did Cosmo Gordon Lang, Bishop of Stepney, label the Jewish incomers from Eastern Europe as ‘locusts’.[6]

Living above the (sweat) shop in London's Covent Garden, 1871


Living above the (sweat)shop,in London’s Covent Garden, 1871


Both Irish and Jewish groups were perceived as being prepared to live in worse conditions and work longer hours for less pay then ‘native’ competitors.  In the popular literature of the mid-Victorian era, ‘Irish’ and ‘slum’ were used almost interchangeably.[7]  Italian migrants were in particular associated with organised crime, secret societies and ‘vendettas’.  Meanwhile, the small Edwardian Chinese community had a whole plethora of contemporary social ills laid at their door; this was collectively brought together in the inflammatory designation ‘the Yellow Peril’, and promoted in the sensationalist literature of Sax Rohmer and others.[8]

Over the course of the great wave of Irish migration to Britain during the nineteenth century, and then with the arrival of the Jewish diaspora following renewed pogroms from 1881 onwards, it was frequently asserted that neither group was capable of contributing to British society, that they would remain permanent outsiders excluded by virtue of ethnicity and religion from the British body politic.  Sometimes the language used to attack these new arrivals was explicitly racist or sectarian, but coded terms also had their place in the discourse.  The British Brothers’ League, for example, a far-right pressure group established in the early twentieth century to demand immigration restrictions, rarely referred to ‘Jews’ in its official literature, but always to ‘aliens’.  No-one, however, was in any doubt which section of the population was being focused on in their polemic.[9]

Retrospective nostalgia on the part of the press, and politicians, also plays a role in the way anti-migrant discourse is framed, comparing the current migrant group(s) unfavourably with previous waves of settlement.  Early nineteenth-century immigration into Britain from Catholic Ireland was positioned against the successful integration of Protestant refugees from France and Flanders in the seventeenth century. In turn, Jewish arrivals in the 1880s and 1890s were unfavourably compared with the Irish of a generation before, and by the 1960s the Jewish experience was held up as a model of successful integration when contrasted with the new arrivals from the Caribbean and South Asia.[10]

Previous waves of migration are celebrated as part of a halcyon former age, the problems accompanying them forgotten or downplayed, and the minority groups in question co-opted retrospectively into a national narrative.  At the same time the contemporary situation is framed as unprecedented, condemned as exceptional, and positioned as a ‘new’ phenomenon, shorn of its historical context.  This is not to underplay the very real problems surrounding the present ‘crisis’ and how Britain responds to the greatest movement of peoples across the world since the Second World War.  However, it is worth recognising, as we have seen, that the ways in which the British press and the government have shaped the language in which the debate is being held are not new and are not exclusive to the present situation, but that they have been recycled and repeated on numerous occasions since the 1840s if not before.


[1]  The Sun, 17 April 2016
[2] See Edward Mortimer, Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
[3] Television interview with Granada World In Action, January 27th 1978.
[4] John Newsinger, Fenianism in Mid-Victorian Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1994) and  W.J Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914 (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1975)
[5] William Evans Gordon, The Alien Immigrant (London, William Heinemann, 1903)
[6] Evans Gordon, The Alien Immigrant, p.12
[7] See Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (London: Penguin Books, 1862 (republished 1985) pp.56-57
[8] See Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia (London: Thames and Hudson, 2014)
[9] Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: The Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 (London: Heniemann Educational Books, 1972)
[10] See Tony Kushner, Remembering Refugees: Then and Now (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) for popular memories of different periods of migration, and retrospective ‘-re-writing’ of migrant narratives.
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A Bluffers Guide to the Medieval Papacy

30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

By Dr Rebecca Rist, Associate Professor in Medieval History

For some reason my students often find it difficult to remember their medieval popes. I can’t think why. So in the spirit of 1066 and All That here, in chronological order, is an aide-mémoire to my top ten medieval popes – a sort of papal Premier League.  Somehow by hook – or should I say by crook? – these luminaries managed to steer the barque of St Peter through the stormy political and religious issues of their day. All you need to do is memorise the following facts about your favourite pontiff and then be sure to drop his name into the conversation at your next dinner party. No-one else will know who he was or what he did so your erudition will be assured. Just make sure the wine you serve is Châteauneuf-du-Pape (what else?) and remember the old adage, ‘God writes straight with crooked pens’ (eventually…).

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(1) Leo IX (1049-1054) (Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg)

Highlights: led a papal army against the Normans

Lowlights: defeated by the Normans

Likes: morality; purity in the Church

Dislikes: corruption; the Normans

Hobbies: touring Europe and ranting about Reform

Be sure to mention:  Simony; Nicolaism

Take a position on (it doesn’t matter what position):  the East-West Schism

Famous for: reforming synods

30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(2) Gregory VII (1073-1085) (Hildebrand of Sovana)

Highlights: Canossa

Lowlights: died in exile at Salerno hated by just about everyone

Likes: Mathilda of Tuscany; political theatre

Dislikes:  Henry IV of Germany

Hobbies: excommunicating Henry IV; promoting papal power

Be sure to mention: the Dictatus papae; the Investiture Contest

Take a position on: papal election by acclamation; the pope as ‘Vicarius Sancti Petri’

Famous for: ‘I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile’ (epitaph on sarcophagus)

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(3) Alexander III (1159-1181) (Roland of Siena)

Highlights: length of pontificate

Lowlights:  getting chased out of Rome (continually)

Likes: bureaucracy; law

Dislikes: Frederick I Barbarossa; the Roman Republic

Hobbies: canonising saints: Edward the Confessor; Thomas Becket

Be sure to mention: anti-popes: Victor IV (Ottaviano of Monticelli); Paschal III (Guido of Crema); Calixtus III (Giovanni of Struma); Innocent III (Lando of Sezze)

Take a position on:  the authorship of the Summa Rolandi

Famous for: legal brain

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(4) Innocent III (1198-1216) (Lotario dei Conti di Segni)

Highlights: Lateran IV – the medieval equivalent of Vatican II

Lowlights: the Fourth Crusade; the Albigensian Crusade

Likes: asceticism; St Francis (eventually)

Dislikes: Cathars

Hobbies: interfering in royal elections; crusades

Be sure to mention: De miseria humanae conditionis

Take a position on: the pope as ‘Vicarius Christi’; the Sun and Moon allegory; the papal states

Famous for: telling St Francis to go and wallow with the pigs; declaring Magna Carta ‘null and void’;   ‘Lesser than God, Higher than Man’ (attributed quote about the pope’s position)

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(5) John XXI (1276-1277) (Peter Juliani)

Highlights: the Summulae Logicales  

Lowlights: killed when his papal apartment (where he studied science) collapsed

Likes: Aristotle; logic

Dislikes: Cardinal Orsini (later Pope Nicholas III)

Hobbies: science; medicine; pharmacology

Be sure to mention: the rumour he was a necromancer

Take a position on: the Holy Land

Famous for: bagging a place in Dante’s Paradiso

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(6) Boniface VIII (1294-1303) (Benedetto Caetani)

Highlights: the Jubilee Year (1300); founding La Sapienza University (Rome)

Lowlights: the ‘Agnani Slap’

Likes: papal monarchy; Giotto

Dislikes: Philip IV of France; the Colonna

Hobbies: promoting cardinals; climbing the career ladder

Be sure to mention: the Liber Sextus; ‘Unam Sanctam’

Take a position on: his predecessor the hermit-pope Celestine V

Famous for: being confined to the Eighth Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(7) Clement V (1305-1314) (Raymond Bertrand de Got)

Highlights: moved the papacy to Avignon for some peace and quiet

Lowlights: bullied by Philip IV of France to shut down the Templars

Likes: Mongols

Dislikes: Venetians; Dulcinians

Hobbies: keeping in with Philip IV

Be sure to mention: the Clementine Constitutions

Take a position on: the Avignon Exile; the Templars

Famous for: the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ (Petrarch)

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(8) John XXII (1316-1334) (Jacques Duèze)

Highlights: bureaucratic genius

Lowlights: the Beatific Vision controversy

Likes: Thomas Aquinas

Dislikes: Spirituals

Hobbies: attacking the Franciscan understanding of the poverty of Christ

Be sure to mention: his pontificate forms the backdrop to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

Take a position on: William of Ockham; Master Eckhart; Marsilius of Padua

Famous for:  the prayer ‘Anima Christi’ (modern hymn ‘Soul of my Saviour’)

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(9) Gregory XI (1370-1378) (Pierre Roger de Beaufort)

Highlights: moved the papacy back to Rome for more bread and circuses

Lowlights: the Great Schism

Likes: St Catherine of Siena

Dislikes: corrupt monastic orders; false relics; Lollards; Florence

Hobbies: condemning John Wycliffe

Be sure to mention:  the ‘War of the Eight Saints’

Take a position on: the papal succession crisis

Famous for: being the most recent French pope

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(10) Martin V (1417-1431) (Otto Colonna)

Highlights: elected by the Council of Constance; ended the Great Schism

Lowlights: died of apoplexy

Likes: Florence

Dislikes: Hussites; Ottomans

Hobbies: reconstructing Rome

Be sure to mention: the ‘Roman Renaissance’

Take a position on:  slavery and the New World

Famous for: ending the Conciliar Movement

 30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

(*Dinner Party Bonus Point) Alexander VI (1492-1503) (Roderigo Borgias)  

Highlights: the Jubilee (1500); founding the Universities of Aberdeen and Valencia

Lowlights: mysterious death of son Giovanni (duke of Gandia)

Likes: mistresses: Vanozza (Giovanna dei Cattanei); Julia Farnese; daughter: Lucretia Borgia

Dislikes: the Orsini; the Colonna

Hobbies: producing ‘nephews’; bullfighting

Be sure to mention: Girolamo Savonarola; Jeremy Irons in The Borgias (2011-2013)

Take a position on: nepotism; poison; the Banquet of Chestnuts

Famous for: ‘Who are we to trust if not our family?’ (attributed quote)

30.05.16 Bluffers Guide to the Papacy - Emblem_of_the_Papacy

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The Sex Pistols at Reading, 30 May 1976

by Prof Matthew Worley

As Sex Pistols gigs go, it was not one of the more notorious. By the late spring of 1976, the band’s reputation was just beginning to grow. Having made their debut in November 1975 at St Martin’s School of Art, performances in and around London had begun to serve notice that something was happening. ‘Punk’, at this time, remained more adjective than noun, used in Neil Spencer’s NME review of February 1976 to describe the Pistols’ stripped down rock ‘n’ roll and to make tentative alignments with the New York bands that had already made claim to the term. The Clash had yet to perform live; the infamous ‘Grundy incident’ –  when Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones swore live on Thames Television’s Today programme hosted by Bill Grundy – was months away. The only stirrings of a future ‘moral panic’ came with a fracas at the Nashville on 23 April, in which band and audience fought as the music press cameras snapped. A day later, the Sex Pistols received their first major feature (in Sounds).

Nevertheless, threads were coming together. The Sex Pistols’ appearance, mixing Johnny Rotten’s urchin attire with the provocations designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for their shop – Sex – on the King’s Road, ensured they stood out from the denim-clad long-hairs or be-suited pub rockers doing the rounds. Their sound was rough and raw, rubbing against the prevailing musical grain. More importantly, their attitude – antagonistic, irreverent – gave signal of generational change. Here was a band not playing to please the audience but to incite them.

By May 1976, therefore, what would soon become universally recognised as ‘punk rock’ was in the process of becoming. At each gig the Sex Pistols played, one or two new recruits were made, inspired to form their own bands or adopt their own style. The so-called ‘Bromley Contingent’ that later spawned Siouxsie and the Banshees was in place by early 1976, codifying what became punk’s ‘look’ and forming the core of the Pistols’ early audience. Also in February, two friends excited by Spencer’s NME review resolved to travel down from Manchester to London to see what all the fuss was about. Their names were Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish, later rechristened as Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, organisers of the Sex Pistols’ seminal gigs in Manchester (June and July 1976) and producers of one of punk’s most significant DIY moments, the Spiral Scratch EP (1977).

So where does Reading come in? On deciding to come to London, Trafford and McNeish called a friend who had previously moved down south. Richard Boon, soon-to-be Buzzcocks’ manager and custodian of the New Hormones label that released Spiral Scratch, was studying Fine Art at the University of Reading. It was he who put Trafford and McNeish up on their foray to see the Sex Pistols play in High Wycombe and Welwyn Garden City on 20 and 21 February 1976. He joined them, too, on their venture down the King’s Road to Sex. It was in Boon’s Reading digs that excited post-Pistols conversations led to Buzzcocks becoming a reality rather than a vague idea of making music for fun. It was Boon, moreover, who a week before the Sex Pistols played Manchester to stimulate punk’s spread to the North West, booked the band to play in the Reading fine art department.

27.05.16, Worley, The Sex Pistols at Reading (Richard Boon)

A ticket stub from the Sex Pistols performance at Reading, 30th May 1976

‘Back in the day’, Boon recalled, ‘the Art Department had a thing – Art Exchange – as one of the many Students Union groups that had a bit of funding. I persuaded the then AE chair, that putting on the Pistols for £50 (I think) in a painting studio as part of that year’s AE events would be memorable. It may well have been, for the 20 or so who attended. Support was one of The Kipper Kids, a performance art duo who used to work their way through a bottle of whiskey while bantering, cracking jokes, occasionally punching one another (or themselves) in the face.’

At the time, Boon was writing a dissertation on the function of art. As a result, he was aware of the Situ-references that peppered McLaren’s and Westwood’s designs (and later Jamie Reid’s graphics). The ideas that fed through the Pistols were as important – if not more important – than the music. ‘[I] first encountered the Situs’ work at Dylan’s Isle of Wight gig – a book/pamphlet stall run by a wild-eyed hippy (as tabloids may have had it). [I] bought a badly roneo’d bootleg copy of Dylan’s (then unpublished) Tarantula. Him: “Hey kid, if you dig that you might dig this” … reaches under the counter to proffer an equally badly repro’d copy of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Which I dug. Back in Leeds, producing a proto-fanzine (I guess), Bullsheet, out of the back of the Leeds Anarchist Bookshop, meant free access to another bad roneo (or Gestetner), where I found Leaving the 20th Century. I was more Vaneigemist than Debordian; my Art History dissertation was titled after his ‘The Transformation of Everyday Life’ (French title: ‘Treatise on Living in the Manner of Young People,’ I believe) and was liberally sprinkled with Situ shit, a bit of Mao, Ivan Illich, Ernst Fischer and other nonsense I was informed by at the time. My Art History tutor, Caroline Tisdall, was heavily promoting Beuys at the time and called me later: “Joseph was very taken with Vaneigem’s statement: ‘When people realise they are imprisoned, it’s not enough to change the wallpaper’.”

Not much has been revealed about the gig itself. Boon recalls cajoling the Pistols from the bar to take the stage, only for Rotten to offer a suitably acerbic greeting: ‘Art students? We’ve seen your “paintings” – is this what we pay our taxes for?’. The band’s set was yet to feature such soon-to-be-standards as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ or ‘No Future’ (‘God Save the Queen’). But those in attendance would have heard ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘No Feelings’, ‘Submission’ and ‘No Fun’. What mattered to Boon was that he had contributed – he had helped spread the virus. Less than a week later, in Manchester, the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall and the wheel turned. More bands formed, the virus moved beyond London’s surround. As for his Finals exhibition, Boon’s tutor, Tom Barrett, mentioned the gig to his external examiners and the job was done: Pass: 2.1.

27.05.16, Worley, The Sex Pistols at Reading (Richard Boon) - Sex Pistols playing Pretty Vacant, June 7th 1977

A year later: the Sex Pistols performing ‘Pretty Vacant’ on the  June 7th 1977

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Mothering Slaves

By Dr Emily West


In 2013 I was looking for a new research project and found myself increasingly interested in exploring the lives of enslaved women beyond the geographical confines of the United States. Moreover, I also wanted to bring together some of the amazing historians interested in gender and slavery more broadly. After many long discussions, a group of us ended up making a successful bid for a network grant from the AHRC-FAPESP scheme (designed to bring together researchers in the UK and Brazil) led by Professor Diana Paton (Newcastle University, and University of Edinburgh from July 2016), Professor Maria Helena Machado (University of São Paulo), and me.

We titled our network ‘Mothering Slaves’ in order to encapsulate the multiple forms of mothering by enslaved women in Atlantic slave regimes. Women acted as mothers to their own children, but also – with varying frequency – undertook mothering work of their owners’ children. These issues are important because slavery was transmitted by inheritance from the mother.  Motherhood was hence central to the institution’s development and was both a place of joy and a site of trauma for enslaved women.


The network brought together researchers working on the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean to address to issues related to motherhood under slavery, a system where women held value as both workers and reproducers. We explored themes around the intersecting forms of oppression for enslaved women, including the care of children and childlessness, attempts to control fertility, how enslaved motherhood worked similarly and differently across Atlantic slave societies which had a variety of different systems of power and authority. We also compared representations of enslaved motherhood in the arts and the best methodologies for investigating all of these issues. Our network aimed to encourage new ways of thinking about the lives of enslaved women in the Atlantic world and their central role in slavery’s development through the benefit of comparative perspectives. Importantly, too, we all wanted to bring together PhD students with more experienced researchers, so the network built in funding to allow a number of PhD students to attend all events and to pay them for organising the conferences.

Mothering Slaves 3

Mothering Slaves 4

We held three conferences as a part of our network, the first (April 2015) at Newcastle University, the second at the University of University of São Paulo in September 2015, and the final event, organised by me and R. J. Knight, at the University of Reading in April 2016.

Mothering Slaves 5

We were particularly pleased to engage at this event with the work of literary and visual artists who focused on motherhood in order to convey the horrors of slavery, in large part thanks to Professor Alison Donnell, Head of the School literature and Languages. So our conference poster used the striking artwork of Joscelyn Gardner which depicts the tropical plants enslaved women used as abortifacients  while we also heard from Andrea Stuart, author of Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (2012)  in conversation with Alison Donnell. Andrea’s best-belling and poignant book traces her family’s history from slavery in Barbados through to modern times. This important outreach event was attended by many members of local community groups in Reading, many of whom are part of the Barbadian diaspora. We were especially grateful to Staff at MERL and the University’s archives and collections for hosting this event and for hosting a display of slavery –related items we hold at the University.

Mothering Slaves 6
Dr Nicole King, English Literature, University of Reading introduces a panel on the images and representation of enslaved mothers
Mothering Slaves 7
Kimberley Wallace-Sanders on portraits of ‘mammy’ in US
Mothering Slaves 8
Emily West opens the concluding roundtable to April 2016’s Mothering Slaves conference

Our future plans for mothering slaves are twofold. First, we will to publish the best papers from the three conferences in two journal special editions   (Slavery and Abolition, and the Women’s History Review) in 2017-18. Thereafter we are all keeping our fingers crossed that a new, larger grant bid we submitted is successful and that we can continue to develop the important conversations that mothering slaves enabled us to begin and to put the lives of these women at the heart of the history of Atlantic slavery.

More information about our network can be accessed on the Mothering Slaves pages.

The conference was also live-tweeted with ‘#motheringslaves’, here are few of the top tweets:

Mothering Slaves 11

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Prof. Matthew Worely in ‘Kurt’s Lighter by Paul Kelly ft. Scott King’

Prof. Matthew Worley features in a new film with Scott King.

With regards to the film, Prof. Worely comments:

The film came about because I have long worked with the artist Scott King. Back in 1997, we began working under the banner Crash!, issuing magazines and putting on events in London. The idea was to rub against all that dreadful Cool Britannia stuff and say everything that is being celebrated is actually a load of rubbish. We were Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 21.59.24probably best-known for the Prada Meinhof  issue that critiqued how radical language and imagery was appropriated. I then busied myself with History work and Scott has become a great and well-known artist. But we still do things together when we can. This film was directed by Paul Kelly and based on an idea of Scott’s. It obviously sends up our own fascination with pop culture – but also the way in which pop, art and culture gets reduced to the level of a thing and the commercial value that is inevitably applied to it.

The film (below) can also be found on our YouTube pages, along with other videos by members of the department.

‘Kurt’s Lighter by Paul Kelly ft. Scott King’ was first published by Pop-Kultur and is also available through their website and YouTube accounts.

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Hillary’s campaign? Cranking up, but so far it’s… ‘meh’

by Mark Shanahan, Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading.

“The race for the Democratic nomination is in the home stretch, and victory is in sight!”

With those words, Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the adoring loyalists gathered to hear her victory speech at the end of a bruising New York primary. On the other side of the political fence, Donald Trump was winning all but one New York county. In a normal election year, the two front runners would be switching focus by now, putting the primaries behind them and getting set for November’s presidential election. But heck, this year has been about as far from the ‘norms’ of campaign politics as you can possibly imagine. The cleavage between the traditional Kingmakers of the GOP and the disaffected grassroots has let through the ideologue Cruz and the demagogue Trump to do battle for the hearts of conservatives, while in the liberal corner Hillary’s expected stroll to Philadelphia in July to be placed at the head of the Democrat ticket with all due pomp and ceremony has become a jagged, ragged marathon, with a grizzled Brooklynite at her heels, and sinking favourability ratings stacking up around her.

The Clinton who launched Hard Choices, a policy manifesto dressed up as a reflection on her time as Secretary of State, released in 2014, could never have thought her path to Philadelphia could ever be quite so rocky[1].  In 2014, as well as providing a masterclass in International Relations, her memoir hit all the electoral sweet spots necessary for her to connect with the Democratic voting audiences she needed to secure the nomination. Women, youth, LGBT+, economic equality, climate change. In her non-manifesto, Hillary addressed them all and sounded, well, presidential.

But with Democrats feeling the Bern all along the Primary trail from Iowa right through to this week’s bun fight in his birth city and her adopted state, Hillary hasn’t sounded quite so poised – or quite as energised as the Vermont Senator who sat in Congress as an independent. On my personal scale of one to 10, Hillary’s campaign has so far been… ‘meh’.

Bernie has exposed her Wall Street leanings, Gen Y (and even Gen X) don’t see her as sufficiently liberal. There’s the problem of Bill, and the GOP has been relentless, though so far unsuccessful, in its pursuit of her over role when US consular staff were killed in Benghazi and the ongoing issues over her use of a private email server. She’s a more than a little tainted as a candidate, and it’s showing in her polling. According to Gallup last week, Clinton’s net favourability among Democrats is +36. The poll was taken as she ramped up in New York, and shows a slip from +63 early last November[2].

Here’s a candidate who needs women to vote for her if she’s to win. She needs minorities and she needs the purple middle-grounders who will vote based on personal preference rather than party allegiance. So far, she hasn’t done as well as expected.

Hilary Clinton

Will Clinton ‘step it up’ in the comng weeks?

But maybe the tide’s turning. Looking forward to the Maryland Primary on April 26, Hillary’s polling well. Overall, she’s ahead of Bernie 58-33%. She’s polling 75% of the African American vote, leads with both male and female voters and, crucially for her, is ahead 48-43 with voters under 45 alongside her 66-27 advantage with older voters[3].

If Maryland was projected nationally, Clinton would trounce any of the GOP candidates who could be ranged against her. But of course Maryland isn’t quite the national touchstone, despite sending Democrat senators to Congress, while electing a Republican Governor at home.  But next week’s Primaries should be good for Hillary and the Bern may finally burn out. As well as a substantial lead in Maryland, Clinton leads in Pennsylvania – the week’s big prize – and Connecticut. There has been no public polling in Delaware or Rhode Island, but she’s expected to prevail there[4].

After that, it’s time for Hillary to really start looking Presidential again, to start tackling the issues rather than negative campaigning against a party rival. Getting dragged into a negative, dirty campaign plays straight into the hands of her opponent. From July to November she’ll have to look, sound and think like a President. She hasn’t quite cracked that yet.


[1] H R Clinton, Hard Choices: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster (London, 2014)
[2] F Newport, ‘Clinton’s Image among Democrats at New Low‘, Gallup, April 14, 2016, accessed April 22, 2016
[3] Public Policy Polling, April 19, 2016, accessed April 22, 2016
[4]State of the Race’, ABC News, accessed April 22, 2016
Posted in American History, US Election 2016 (blog posts) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Elephant in the Room: the Republican Party in 2016

by Dafydd Townley

The race to be the party candidates for the 2016 election has been fascinating. It has confused poll analysts, political scientists, and broken from historical trends. All of this and it is only April. As onlookers we are still in doubt as to who will finally represent the Republican and Democrat parties in the general election after the national conventions in July. The prospective election leaves many questions unanswered, not least of which is ‘What is the future of the Republican Party?’

Meltdown. Civil War. Chaos. All have applied to the Republican Party over the last three months in particular, and continue to do so. The current state of the Grand Old Party (GOP) is of a party fighting to find its identity. The leadership of the GOP is currently swallowing its pride and pledging its support to Ted Cruz, a senator who has called members of his own party liars on the senate floor. This is in opposition to a man who has managed to attract more voters to the Republican caucuses and primaries than before, and is causing panic attacks among the leadership as his possible victory in the race for the party candidacy looks likely.

What will happen if Donald Trump wins the candidacy? Will there be a realignment of the GOP similar to that after the 1976 election? After the defeat of Gerald Ford in that year’s presidential election the Republicans turned right under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, leaving the political centre ground to the Democrats. Trump has managed to garner support across the ideological spectrum despite being accused of not being conservative. While his proposed policies seem to vary from extremism to centre ground he is in opposition to the conservative, evangelical-backed Cruz. Does this suggest a move to the middle for the Republicans, a move that will reject the Barry Goldwater conservatism that the party has adopted for the last forty years?

In fairness such a reformation of the Republican Party has been on the cards since the 20110 midterm elections. The rise – and success – of the Tea Party has threatened to challenge the establishment-led Republican Party. The Tea Party’s regionalised grassroots activism worked extremely well against small-majority Democrats who supported the Affordable care Act. It worked again in the 2014 midterms as Republicans adopted the methods that Democrats had until recently made so successful. The Republican Party holds an advantage in the House, in Congress, and at state level legislatures that it has not enjoyed since 1928. Why did it fail to get Mitt Romney elected in 2012? Why does it look as though Hillary Clinton will win the 2016 election? How will it go about changing things?

Elephant broken

As ever with American politics there is no simple answer. One significant factor is the gerrymandering of district boundaries by the Republicans at state level so that they win more seats than the Democrats even with fewer votes. It’s an entirely legal move that the Democrats have been oblivious to. Just as important is that Goldwater conservatism is out of date. It seems ironic that conservatism is anachronistic but there is no real desire for the welfare state in the United States to be rolled back, even by Republicans. And that is the problem with the Republican Party – it fails to identify what it is for. It is perfectly fine to target individual politicians on policies it stands against such as the Tea Party locally did in 2010 and 2014, but it has continuously wasted opportunities to showcase what policies it supports on a national level. Compare that with the programs such as Obamacare that the Democrat presidential candidates have been able to promote.

The multiple strands of conservative need uniting behind one ideology to be truly effective in winning the race for the White House, and effective while in office. And that is where Trump stands out. Yes his idea of a wall along the Mexican border is ridiculous as is his assertion that he will make the Mexican government pay for it. Yes – again – his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is not only unconstitutional but also impossible to administer. His appeal to the conservative electorate (and beyond) is that he is proposing something. A recognisable policy that has is almost tangible and measurable. Cruz? Low taxes. Free trade. It offers nothing that the electorate don’t already enjoy under the current administration.

While Trump’s politics may not be that of the traditional GOP it is something considerably more positive than that of Cruz, and that should be revelatory to the Republican elite. The party leadership has the opportunity to implement a top-down reformation that would give the party an identity that is both positive and unifying. A national message that is both negative in tone and ethereal in nature would end with further party fragmentation and the prospect of a bottom-up reformation led by Tea Party members. Will the Party be brave enough to attempt to regain the centre from the Democrats? Only Trump and time will tell.

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The emergence of Trump and Sanders: not just a phenomenon confined to the United States?

by Darius Wainwright

President Dwight D Eisenhower once threatened to leave the Republican Party unless it reflected the progressive, centrist principles that he advocated.[i] Were he alive today, it is fair to say that current developments within the GOP would have forced the former president to act on his threat. The race to secure the Republican candidacy for the 2016 US Presidential Election has seen the populist, radical Donald Trump appear as the frontrunner. The multimillionaire New York property mogul has courted controversy throughout his campaign, notably pledging to build a wall across the US-Mexico border to stem the flow of immigrants from Central and Southern America.[ii] Despite the incendiary nature of these comments – Pope Francis used a tour of the Americas to chastise Trump for his remarks – support for the star of the US version of The Apprentice has burgeoned.[iii]

Donald Trump

Trump, now a forerunner for the Republicans

Equally, the race to secure the Democrat Party candidacy has been just as contentious. Hilary Clinton, regarded by the media as the frontrunner since announcing that she would like to run for the presidency, is facing considerable opposition to her bid to be the Democrat nominee from the leftist Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old Senator for Vermont. Tapping in to the American public’s anger over particular issues, the tactics of both politicians appear to be moderately successful. As of the 29th of March, Sanders is polling at 42.3 points compared with Clinton’s 51.3. Trump, on the other hand, is now the frontrunner to secure the GOP presidential candidacy, amassing an 11-point lead over his nearest rival, the Texan Ted Cruz.

Bernie Sanders
Sanders, considerable opposition to Clinton for the Democrats

It is important however to not look at political proceedings in the United States in isolation. Exploration of current developments in European politics suggests that progressive, centrist and mainstream parties on both sides of the Atlantic are facing similar challenges. As illustrated by a recent report from The Guardian, electoral support for parties occupying the centre of European politics has fragmented, with growing backing for movements on the left and the right of the political spectrum. In the December 2015 Spanish General Election, the populist leftist Podemos (‘We Can’) Party gain 21% of the vote, with the liberal Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’) Party polling at 14%.[iv] The electoral gains made by these two newcomers deprived the mainstream parties of the Spanish centre, the PSOE and the People’s Party, of an electoral majority.[v] The recent Slovakian parliamentary elections, similarly, saw no one party achieve an overall majority. Instead eight parties from across the political spectrum were returned to the National Council, each with more than 10 seats.[vi]

Seemingly, the reasons behind the electoral success of these radical movements are similar to the factors being attributed to Sanders and Trump’s victories in the US state primaries. Recent years have seen an exponential increase in the number of immigrants arriving in Europe, combined with a steady influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa seeking asylum.[vii] Far right parties, such as the German AfD, have exploited the significant anger amongst sections of the public towards these developments, adopting an anti-foreigner rhetoric. Such an approach saw the AfD make significant gains in the German regional elections in March this year.[viii] Left leaning parties, simultaneously, have sought to question the significant welfare and spending cuts advocated by many mainstream, centrist politicians across Europe. Utilising the Greek public’s resentment towards these austerity policies, the leftist Syriza Party won a landslide election in Greece in September 2015.[ix]

Mainstream politicians on both sides of the Atlantic must therefore find an effective means by which to either tackle or circumnavigate these radical, populist challenges to their electoral dominance. To ward off the threat of Sanders and Trump – for only divine intervention would now prevent the latter from securing the Republican nomination – it is imperative for Clinton to soothe popular resentment towards issues such as immigration and unemployment. Already she has sought to heighten her social media presence in a bid to win back youth voters and has pledged to reform the immigration system should she be elected.[x] Failure to secure the presidency – or even failing to persuade the Democrat Party to support her bid – may compel Clinton to do what President Eisenhower threatened to do all those years ago and leave politics.

Hilary Clinton
Clinton, stepping up her campaign in the face of Trump and Sanders’ success



[i] ‘Five liberal quotes from Republican politicians that will freak you out’ <; 23 February 2015.
[ii] All poll data from RealClear Politics.
[iii] ‘Pope Francis questions Donald Trump’s Christianity’ <; 18 February 2016.
[iv] ‘Why is support for Europe’s mainstream political parties on the wane?’ < d/2016/mar/29/support-europes-mainstream-political-parties-parliaments> 29 March 2016.
[v] d/2016/mar/29/support-europes-mainstream-political-parties-parliaments
[vi] d/2016/mar/29/support-europes-mainstream-political-parties-parliaments
[vii] ‘The march of Europe’s little Trumps’ <; 12 December 2015.
[viii] ‘German elections: setbacks for Merkel’s CDU as anti-refugee AfD makes big gains’ <http://ww> 14 March 2016.
[ix] ‘Greece election: Tsipras triumphant as Syriza returns to power’ < /sep/20/syriza-set-to-return-to-power-in-greek-general-election> 14 March 2016.
[x] ‘Clinton tries to get the millennials on board’ <; 18 December 2015; ‘America needs comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship’ <https://www.hillarycli> 30 March 2016.

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Happy Easter from the Department of History!

We hope everyone has a good Easter break whether your relaxing, revising or researching, and remember:

  • the University of Reading will be closed from Good Friday until Thursday 31st March
  • Summer term begins Monday 18th April
Paul Kauffman, 1902. La quete des oeufs de Paques - collecting the Easter eggs. Bibliotheque national et universitaire de Straboug NIM22686

‘La quête des œufs de Pâques’ (‘Collecting the Easter Eggs’), Paul Kauffman, 1902, postcard. Bibliotheque national et universitaire de Strasbourg NIM 22686. (with a little editing, in the form of the seasonal wishes, from us!)

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Popes & Jews, and Otherworlds: Two new Medieval Monographs

Yesterday, Thursday 17th March 2016, the Department of History and the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies (GCMS) held a book launch for two new medieval monographs from Oxford University Press (OUP).  Thanks to their authors, Dr Rebecca Rist and Dr Aisling Byrne, there is a chance to buy these new publications with a 30% discount.


Rebecca Rist, Popes & Jews, 1095-1291

Popes and Jews, 1095-1291, explores the nature and scope of the relationship between the medieval papacy and the Jewish communities of western Europe in a pivotal period of Jewish history.  In her book Dr Rist engages with recent scholarship in the field of Christian-Jewish relations and, using a wide range of Latin and Hebrew material, examines not only the papacy’s perspective but also that of European Jewish communities.  Further information about Popes and Jews can be found at OUP.
Dr Rebecca Rist is an Associate Professor in Medieval History, and a member of the GCMS.  Her research interests include the papacy, the medieval Church, the history of crusading, Jewish-Christian relations and heresy.



Aisling Byrne, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature

Dr Byrne offers a new perspective on the otherworlds of medieval literature. These fantastical realms are among the most memorable places in medieval writing, by turns beautiful and monstrous, alluring and terrifying.  Otherworlds focuses on texts from England but places this material in the broader context of literary production in medieval Britain and Ireland, and takes a fresh look at how medieval writers understood these places, and why they found them so compelling.  Further information can be found at OUP.
Dr Aisling Byrne is a Lecturer in Medieval English Literature in the Department of English Literature, and a member of the GCMS.  She has published on the transmission and translation of romance, on writers such as Gerald of Wales and Thomas Malory, and on themes such as marvels, feasting, chivalry, and territorial politics.


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Why My Research Matters – A GCMS Workshop

getting together is always good

Friday 22nd April 2016, University of Reading

The Graduate Centre of Medieval Studies (GCMS) is an interdisciplinary centre that is predominantly based in the History department.  ‘Why My Research Matters’, or to give it its full title Why My Research Matters: New Methods. New Audience. New Questions. The Importance of Medieval and Early Modern Studies in the Twenty-First Century‘, is a one-day workshop organised by postgraduate and early career researchers from the GCMS.

The conference encourages postgraduates and early career researchers working across medieval and early modern history to present their research and highlight its relevance in the 21st century.  Historic studies, but particularly those focused on pre-modern history, often have their relevance, and thus the reason for their study, challenged and this workshop offers a chance to open discussion about the importance of these studies. The day will conclude with a round-table discussion open to all speakers and attendees, and it will cover issues encountered when researching pre-modern history, and explore ways in which we can engage others outside of our research areas.  The organisers welcome any who are interested in this conference and would like to encourage wide postgraduate attendance.  Interested undergraduates are also welcome to attend.

Further details, and the initial programme for ‘Why My Research Matters’ can be found below.

GCMS representatives will also be live-tweeting via @UniRdg_GCMS and live-blogging via the GCMS Facebook page throughout the event.

Why My Research Matters Poster.jpg


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Rome 1600

Robertson, Rome 1600, 3

Professor Clare Robertson’s new book, Rome 1600. The City and the visual Arts under Clement VIII (Yale University Press 2015) produces a snapshot of the city at one of the most significant moments in its post-classical history. Rome was at this time the centre of the artistic world. The book examines the beginnings of the great Baroque city at a moment of major artistic innovation, especially in painting. This was largely due to the presence of two artists, Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and Caravaggio (1571-1610). In their different ways, both were hugely influential on the development of seventeenth-century painting throughout Europe: Annibale founded a school of artists whose work combined a fascination with the study of nature, with intense interest in the art of classical antiquity, and the work of High Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo and Raphael. Caravaggio, who was notorious for his propensity for violence, offered a different vision, distinguished above all by his tenebrism. But Rome was a very cosmopolitan society, and attracted large numbers of artists from all over Italy, and from northern Europe, including Rubens (1577-1640). In 1593, Rome’s first artistic academy was founded, the Accademia di San Luca, under the initial direction of Federico Zuccaro (1539/40-1609), which was intended to provide an artistic education for young artists who were drawn to Rome by the opportunities for patronage that the city could offer. Zuccaro was a highly successful artist, who had worked all over Europe (He even painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I), and built himself a palace, which he frescoed with several erudite, allegorical subjects.

Madonna and Child with a Serpent, 1605 (oil on canvas)
Madonna and Child with a Serpent, 1605 (oil on canvas) by Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da (1571-1610), Galleria Borghese, Rome

1600 was a Jubilee Year, which meant that thousands of pilgrims came to Rome, in the hope of indulgences (Indeed, according to some reports, Rome’s population doubled during that year). This led to immense numbers of new artistic commissions, led by Pope Clement VIII, who completed major projects at Rome’s cathedral, San Giovanni in Laterano, and also at the Basilica of St Peter’s. Clement encouraged his cardinals to restore their titular churches, and to commission new works of art. The Roman church was in 1600 at a turning point in the Counter-Reformation, the movement to restore the institution after its serious losses to Protestantism in northern Europe during the sixteenth century, and art was a powerful weapon. New religious orders, including the Jesuits and the Oratorians, were well aware of the ways in which art could be used to restore faith. At the same time, there was a new archaeological interest in the palaeo-Christian church, since that was believed to be purer in its practices.

There were also a significant number of patrons of secular art, and this period saw the beginnings of galleries lined wall to ceiling with paintings. These included the Giustiniani and Mattei families, who had huge appetites for paintings by a variety of artists. The book draws upon all these issues, based closely on contemporary written and visual sources. It is extensively illustrated.

Robertson, Rome 1600, 1
Annibale Carracci, River Landscape, c. 1593, Berlin Gemäldegalerie
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Dr Mara Oliva – a member of the newly established TEL Practitioners Forum

Dr Mara Oliva, Lecturer in Modern American History (20th century), Department of History

Congratulations to Dr Mara Oliva who has been appointed as a member of the newly established TEL Practitioners Forum (TELPF).  The Forum has been created to represent the wider community of staff within the University of Reading who are actively engaged with or leading in technology enhanced learning (TEL).  The TEL Practitioners Forum is a closed group and membership is by invite only so we are very pleased that Dr Oliva has been requested to join.

This is an important step forward in the further development of the Department of History’s Technology Enhanced Learning Strategy. In the past year, under Dr Oliva’s leadership, the Department has already pioneered e-assessment and e-marking for its Part 1 modules. Dr Oliva looks forward to working with TELPF in developing and expanding the role of technology in the Humanities.

“Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) is learning which is supported, mediated or assessed by the use of electronic media and it has a fundamental role to play in the delivery of the University’s strategic objectives. TEL concerns the use of new or established technology and/or the creation of new learning materials; it can be utilised both locally and at a distance and it can cover a wide range of activities, from the use of technology to support learning as part of a blended approach, to learning that is delivered wholly online.”
(University’s Vision for Technology Enhanced Learning, 2013)
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An Audience with Lucy Worsley

Sunday 22 May, 7.30pm

One of the UK’s most respected historians, Lucy Worsley is best known for a series of programmes for BBC2 and BBC4 covering everything from the Georgians and British homes to the history of dance and the WI. Most recently she was seen on BBC4 in January looking at Romanov Russia.

Lucy, who is also the Chief Curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, was born in Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital, grew up in Northcourt Avenue and attended the Abbey Junior School.

The chance to watch Lucy Worsley in action in front of a live audience in Reading would be a great opportunity for all those keen to make a career in the public history / heritage sector.

 Lucy Worsley

She comes to the Town Hall to mark Reading 2016’s history month in May to talk about the history of murder, in real life, including a look at Reading’s notorious murderess Amelia Dyer, and in fiction, from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie. Ever since the Ratcliffe Highway Murders caused a nation-wide panic in Regency England, the British have taken an almost ghoulish pleasure in ‘a good murder’. This fascination helped create a whole new world of entertainment, inspiring novels, plays and films, puppet shows, paintings and true-crime journalism – as well as an army of fictional detectives who still enthral us today. Her BBC4 series A Very British Murder inspired a best-selling book, which she will be signing after the talk.

Tickets £10, Concessions £8 (all tickets are inclusive of booking fee)

Tickets can be booked via Reading Arts.

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Nancy Astor: Art in Parliament

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Jacqui Turner’s work for Parliament on the installation of the Nancy Astor bust, in association with Vote100, is completed.

Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor, was elected to Parliament on 15 November 1919. She took her seat following her introduction to the House of Commons by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour on 1 December 1919.  Jacqui is responsible for a new leaflet which has been produced in partnership with Vote100, and can be accessed via Parliament’s webpages.  Additionally, Jacqui has appeared in a newly released short film, made at the Universtiy of Reading’s Special Collections, about Astor.  This film has also been published on Parliament’s webpages (should it not play below).

Look out for a full blog from Jacqui about the Nancy Astor project in the coming weeks!

In our ‘British History‘ section you can catch up with previous blog posts on women’s suffarage, and particularly Nancy Astor, which have been written by Jacqui, and her students.


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Romance the Medieval Way: St Valentine’s Day Special

by Dr Ruth Salter

St Valentine at Terni

Saint Valentine of Terni oversees the construction of the basilica at Terni. This image comes from a fourteenth-century French manuscript, now Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. 185, f.210r

St Valentine and the (possible) origins of Valentine’s Day

Two St Valentines are listed in the Roman Martyrology for February 14th: one was a martyred Roman priest who had supposedly been killed on the Flaminian Way during Claudius’ reign (AD 41-54); the other was the Bishop of Terni, who had been martyred in Rome but whose relics had been translated (returned) to Terni. It is possible, however, that these two Valentines were the same person.

What is strange though is that, when we look at the little known about Valentine, there is nothing to connect this early Christian priest to lovers and romance. This is because the connection is made not through people but through animals. February 14th came to be thought of as the day that birds paired for the Spring. The first documentation of this being Geoffrey Chaucer’s (d.1400) Parlement of Foules, which was written to celebrate the first anniversary of Richard II of England’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia (1382):

For this was on seynt Volentynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
For this was on St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

Elements of Valentine’s Day might also indicate the survival of older, pagan customs of the Roman Lupercalia festivals which took place in the middle of February. Lupercalia was one of the oldest Roman festivals; in fact its roots are possibly pre-Roman. The festival was one of purification – evil spirits were cleansed from the city, and this released health and fertility. Plutarch (d. c. AD 127) commented that:

many write that it [Lupercalia] was anciently celebrated by shepherds… At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

The Lupercalian Festival in Rome, drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer (c.1578–1610). Here the luperci (the men involved in the procession) are dressed as dogs and goats, with Cupid and personifications of fertility

That Valentine’s Day, and mid-February, should have become symbolic of romance, and more specifically fertility and mating, is not surprising. This is, after all, traditionally the period when the signs of the winter are starting to be replaced by those of spring – this year being a bit of an exception to that. Changes in flora and fauna, and the noticeable lengthening of day-light hours, are all indicative of this shift.

However, romance – and attempts to encourage romantic behaviour – was not solely the preserve of St Valentine’s Day alone. In fact during the Middle Ages there were a number of unusual methods to encourage both love and lust.


To encourage romance:

Blood: As early as the eight-century women were seen to be interested in encouraging and increasing love. In fact Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury’s (d.690) Penitential assigns penance to those women who drink men’s blood as a way to improve their relationships.

Abarquid: Abarquid is the name of a stone in the ‘lapidario’ produced in thirteenth-century Castille for the future King Alfonso X of Seville and Leon. This lapidarial text offers a potentially useful tip for any desperate men:

On the stone called Abarquid… It is found in Africa, in the sulphur mines. It is light and hard to break. And on the outside its colour is green with some yellow. It is flat in shape, and when men observe it carefully, it appears to have the form of a scorpion. If it is broken, the same scorpion shape is found inside… If a woman carries it, its power will make her so lust for a man that she will restrain herself only by a great effort of will, and it has the same effect on any female animal.

Wolves: A number of bestiaries, including the Aberdeen Bestiary (image below), provide a useful hint when it comes to romance that: ‘on the tail of this animal [the wolf] there is a tiny patch of hair which is a love-charm’. Wolves were said to be aware of this and so, when faced with capture, they would tear out this piece of fur (which would then lose its potency).

Wolf, Aberdeen Bestiary

Miniature to accompany ‘The Wolf’ in the Aberdeen Bestiary, Aberdeen University Library ms.24 f.16v

Mandrake: The most powerful of all ‘love charms’ were those made from the mandrake owing to the fact that the roots were shaped like the human body. The power of the mandrake was noted as early as the Book of Genesis and the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, and in medical works that form the Ancient Greek Hippocratic Corpus. This was enforced in Dioscorides’ Herbal in which he noted the relationship between these plants and love and sexual activity. Theophratus was the first, however, to suggest that using the root in a special ritual would lead to acquiring its power. This ritual involved using a sword of ‘virgin iron’ to draw circles around the plant, then using an ivory rod to loosen it, before finally using the sword to cut the mandrake whilst reciting special incantations about love. In later versions of this charm it was stated that all of this was to be practised at night – but the mandrake would be visible owing to the fact it would glow with an eerie light.

Mandrake, Apuleius Herbarium

Mandrakes being picked in an edition of Apuleius’ Herbarium, Lombardy c.1400, now Yale Medical Library ms.18, f.49v

To cure lust:

But what if the problem is actually too much lust? Well Hildegard of Bingen, the German abbess and mystic, suggests a number of ‘cures’ in her Physica including:

Dill… in order for a man to extinguish the pleasure and lust of the flesh which is in him, he should, in summer, take dill, and twice as much water mint, and a little more tithymal, and the root of Illyrian iris. He should put these in vinegar, and make a condiment from them, and frequently eat it with all his foods. In winter he should pulverise these and chew the powder with his foods, since at that time he cannot obtain the fresh herbs with their vital energy.


Sparrow hawk… A man or a woman who burns with lust should take a sparrow hawk and, when it is dead, remove the feathers and throw away the head and viscera. He should place the rest of its body, without water, in a new clay pot perforated with a small hole, and heat it over the fire. Under this pot he should place another new clay pot, and catch the fat that flows off. He should then crush calandria and less camphor and mix them with the fat. He should heat this again, moderately, on the fire, and make an unguent. The man should anoint his privy member and loins with it for five days. In a month the ardour of his lust will cease, with no danger to his body. The woman should anoint herself around the umbilicus, and in the opening of the belly button. Her ardour will cease within a month. When the month is finished, the person, man or woman, should oil himself – or herself, and thus have relief from lust.

 Of course, it goes without says *don’t try any of these at home* but I think it’s safe to say that either of Hildegard’s above cures would certainly dampen romance and lust!



Cited in order of appearance:
Farmer, D. H., ‘Valentine’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford University Press, 2011), via <;.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parlement of Foulys, ed. Brewer, D. S. (Manchester University Press, 1972), at ll.309-10
Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar in Fall of the Roman Republic. Six lives: Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero, trans. Warner, R. (Penguin. 1972), at The Life of Julius Caesar chp.16.
Theodore of Tarsus, Pœnitentiale Theodori in eds. Haddan, A. and Stubbs, W., Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol.3. (Clarendon Press, 1869) pp.173-213, at p.188
Lawrence-Mathers, A. and Escobar-Vargas, C., Magic and Medieval Society (Routledge, 2014) at p.114
Aberdeen University Library ms.24 []
Hildegard of Bingen, Physica in trans. Throop, P., Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing (Healing Arts Press, 1998), at pp.41-2, pp.187-8
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US Election Special: There may be trouble ahead… (3/3)

US Election main

By Dafydd Townley

When Hillary Clinton officially announced her intention to run for the White House on April 12th last year, she was immediately proclaimed as the favourite to be the 45th President of the United States. Through a YouTube video she stated ‘Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion.’ The New York Times stated that her announcement ‘began what could be one of the least contested races, without an incumbent, for the Democratic presidential nomination in recent history.’[1] Such was the confidence in Clinton winning not only the candidacy but also the presidency. Such confidence though is being undermined by the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Clinton 2

In July of last year Clinton stood at 58% in the polls for the Democratic candidacy with a lead of 42% over her rivals. In the race for the White House she polled an average of 49% compared to Mark Rubio’s 37.5%. The latest data suggests that despite still polling at 51.2% her lead has been whittled down to a mere 13% over Bernie Sanders. In addition her lead over Rubio has flip-flopped and he now leads by 2.2%. Furthermore her lead over Donald Trump – who was not amongst the polls at the time of announcement – has diminished from 19.6% in July last year to just 2.5%.[2] Where has it all gone wrong for Hillary? There are a number of factors that affected public opinion.

Both Sanders and Trump are seen as being something different to the status quo. Despite Biden’s recent swipe on Twitter at Sanders by declaring that the United States does not need socialism, public opinion is low when concerned with both the Executive and Legislative branches of government. In a recent Gallup poll 47% of US citizens disapprove of Obama’s performance as president, and 80% feel that Congress is not effective.[3] Clinton’s declaration in the latest Democratic debate that she wanted to protect and build on Obama’s Affordable Healthcare legacy should be seen as an attempt to win over the coalition that Obama built to gain office. However, in doing so Clinton has aligned herself with an administration that is believed to be underperforming. Sanders, further left in the political spectrum than Clinton, is seen by non-Democrats as independent of Obama. Furthermore, to left wing Democrats Sanders’ egalitarian policies are seen as closer to Obama’s promises on the 2008 election trail than those of Clinton’s.

Clinton 3

The same consequences are caused by the ascension of Trump. His firebrand tactics have alienated candidacy rivals and depicted himself as an outsider to Washington circles. His criticism of Obama and Clinton, Congress, and the inability of a Republican Congress to get things done with a Democratic president, has been favourably met with the US electorate. He has managed to portray Clinton’s policies as a continuation of Obama’s, and therefore firmly associated Clinton with the Obama administration. Crucially then, Clinton’s support has deteriorated because she has failed to identify with the public as being unconnected to Obama.

It also appears that where there’s a Clinton there’s some form of political controversy. Bill Clinton’s second term was dogged by the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings. The combination of scandal and a Republican dominated Congress led to his final term being ultimately a confrontational lame-duck presidency. Hillary is threatening to be no different. Since before her announcement she has been plagued by issues regarding security breaches through personal emails while Secretary of State. At her time of her announcement to run for the White House campaign manager John D Podesta assured potential donors that the issue would fade away.[4] Such optimism has been misplaced. At the time of writing – nine months after Podesta’s reassurance – the issue has still yet to be settled causing Clinton embarrassment. This, combined with the House investigation into the Benghazi attack, has meant that Clinton has unwittingly provided ammunition for her rivals.

Clinton 1

What next for Hillary? In all likelihood she will claim the first victory in the race for the Democratic candidacy at the Iowa Caucus on February 1st. However the winning margin will not be in the region of the 30% lead that she had in November. In stark contrast to that advantage the latest poll by CNN suggests that Sanders has an 8% lead among Iowan Democrats.[5] A small victory for Clinton will not be enough to give her campaign momentum, but may be enough to burst the Sanders bubble. She is unlikely to win the New Hampshire primary eight days later where Sanders has a strong advantage. By then the additional emails from the State Department should also have been released for scrutiny which could further harm her campaign; until the legality of her actions is finalised it is impossible to tell.

What the Clinton campaign can take some comfort from is that her endorsements by Democrats in office are at a record high compared to other non-incumbent Democrat candidates from the last thirty years. Studies have shown that endorsements have been the greatest influence on state primaries and caucuses.[6] Hillary’s lead is extremely large and Sanders will not be able to convince the part elites to change their support. Consequentially the next month ahead may be rocky for Clinton, but by the road to the White House will be considerably smoother by Super Tuesday on March 1st.

[1] Amy Chozick, ‘Hillary Clinton Announces 2016 Presidential Bid’, The New York Times, April 12, 2015

[2] All poll data from RealClear Politics

[3] Poll data from (Obama rating is from Jan 11-17 2016, Congress data is dated as Jan 610 2016)

[4] Amy Chozick, ‘Hillary Clinton Announces 2016 Presidential Bid’,

[5] CNN/ORC Poll, January 15-20th, 2016

[6] Aaron Bycoffe, ‘The Endorsement Primary’, FiveThirtyEight


This was originally published on Dafydd’s own blog and has been republished here with his permission .
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Reminder: Seminar in Global History, 10th February 2016

This is a reminder of the up-coming Seminar in Global History which will take place on Wednesday, 10th February 2016.

Dr Miles Larmer (University of Oxford) will be speaking on ‘Localising Africa’s Cold War: The Katangese Gendarmes and Conflict in Central Africa, 1960-1978’.

Miles’ research focuses on political and social change in southern-central Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, and the interaction between local social movements, nationalist parties and global forces in shaping post-colonial Africa.  His current research project is a study of the Katangese gendarmes as a way of understanding the social and political history of Central-Southern Africa’s ‘forty-years war’ from 1961 to 1999. This encompasses research on a series of intertwined local, national and transnational conflicts in Zambia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Full event detials can be found on the poster below:

Seminar in Global History 10.02.16 Flyer

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Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720: About the Research Project

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Hannah Newton has been awarded Wellcome Trust funding for her new research project ‘Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720’.  Below Hannah tells us more about this exciting project and what it entails:



Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720

by Hannah Newton

The Wellcome project is an investigation of what it was like to be ill, or to witness the illness of others, in early modern England. To do this, I’m taking a new, sensory approach, asking how were the five were senses affected by disease and treatment, and what were the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the sick chamber?

The importance of the senses during illness began to emerge in my first book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England: I noticed that for parents, the greatest source of grief was not so much the death of the child, but rather, seeing and hearing the child suffer. The example that sticks in my mind is the clergyman Isaac Archer, who wrote during the illness of his baby daughter Mary, ‘Oh what griefe was it to mee to heare it groane, to see it’s sprightly eyes turne to mee for helpe in vain!’ It gradually dawned on me that for family members, the five senses were the only way that they can experience the illness of another person – they couldn’t share with it physically, but they can witness it with their eyes, ears, and other sensory organs.

Intro pic 1


‘The Sense of Smell’, 1651; by P. Boone; Wellcome Library, London. A man vomits, while those around him hold their noses.


The senses were also a major part of the patient’s experience of illness, as I started to notice in my second project, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England. One of the major signs of recovery was the joyful restoration of the patient’s sensory powers. The Yorkshire gentlewoman Alice Thornton recorded in her diary that on the 17 January 1667 her five-year-old son Robin, sick of smallpox, ‘began to see againe’, and by the next day ‘his sight clearly recovered’. Illness affected the patient’s senses in numerous ways – it could dull them, heighten them, or produce what early modern doctors called ‘depraved’ sensations, such as tinnitus, flashing lights, and itching. Besides these individual sensory symptoms, I think it’s possible that the more general, indefinable feeling of illness – which today might be called ‘malaise’ – may have been a combination of all the slightly peculiar sensations that occur during illness.


Intro pic 2


‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; Städel Museum, Germany. The man’s face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion after tasting the bitter medicine.


By exploring these various sensory experiences, the overall aim of the project is to reach a closer understanding and empathy for the sick and their families, both in the past and present.

** Hannah’s book  The Sick Child in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012) is out now and can be purchased via OUP or Amazon.**


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US Election Special: The Trump Phenomenon (2/3)

US Election main

By Dafydd Townley

The founders of the US Constitution at the end of the 19th century instilled a checks and balances system to ensure that each branch was subject to the approval of the other two. The separation of powers was designed to limit each branch’s power. The president, as part of the executive branch can veto the legislative branch’s bills. However, with a two-thirds majority the legislative branch can override that veto. The Supreme Court can in turn declare laws unconstitutional. And to round the circle, the Supreme Court members are appointed by the president but have to be approved by Congress. There are other checks and balances in place. The US intelligence community for example has the oversight committees of both the House and the Senate to ensure that they work within the confines of the law. And it’s just as well: according to former CIA director Robert M Gates, ‘some awfully crazy schemes might well have been approved’ had that oversight not been in place.[1] The presidential elections are no different. It is usual that two major requirements restrain those running for the presidential candidacies: the appeasement of the candidate’s financial backers, and the support of a targeted subsection of the electorate to reach the White House.

The increase in the cost of running for office in the United States has meant that there is a greater need for financial backing, which in turn makes the financiers more influential on the proposed policies of their supported candidates. Indeed such is the need for finance to gain office that many politicians are complaining that holding office is less about politics and more about fund-raising for the next term. Candidates who have an immense personal fortune, such as Trump and previously Ross Perot, can afford to buck the trend. They are almost solely committed to their own policies because they do not have the normal financial restrictions that candidates face. This allows Trump to announce policies and make public observations and accusations that have been previously regarded as extreme.

Trump 1

Trump’s ability to say what he likes gives the appearance of a shotgun approach to policy, but actually this is just an illustration of the second freedom he enjoys. Most party-led candidates are targeting a specific audience with their policy declarations. Not only the financiers determine the nature of their policies but also the policy’s target demographic. Republican supporters are generally pro-life, pro-business, small government, and candidates’ political statements are usually framed to keep within these boundaries. Furthermore, candidates tend to avoid making statements or suggesting policies that are not within the confines of their part’s political spectrum. Trump has moved away from modus operandi in an attempt to appeal to every voter that stands right of centre. His business acumen is attractive to the working class, his stance on immigration attractive to the far right, and he has some appeal to libertarians and Tea Party members with his opposition to big government.

Political analyst Nate Silver of fame suggests that Trump’s support in the polls may not last, and nobody analyses the poll data better than Silver. Trump’s rise, according to Silver is based on one of three theories – his attraction to the populist vote, the lack of Republican leadership, or that there is a media bubble around Trump. All of these theories suggest that Trump’s popularity is not particularly strong and could dissipate in a short space of time. The reasons that Silver suggests are relatively simple ones: that the populist vote is incorrect, that the Republican elite will manage to successfully campaign against him, and that an early loss in Iowa or New Hampshire primaries will affect his standing.[2]

There is a danger though in underestimating the momentum of the Trump campaign. That Trump would be even considered a leading contender at this stage twelve months ago was unthinkable. The Trump campaign is becoming expert at picking up popular discontent with the federal government. The latest Gallup poll into satisfaction with the federal government showed a drop of 14% to just 18%, the lowest figure since Gallup first conducted the poll in 1971.[3] Trump has constantly criticised Obama’s use of executive actions, especially those allowing undocumented mothers and children to remain in the United States.While Trump is seen by many of his supporters as the anti-government candidate the results of that poll should give the Trump campaign further hope. What may damage Trump’s standing as the libertarian candidate is his suggestion that he will also use executive orders to repeal those of Obama. Despite Trump’s assertion that he is ‘going to use them much better and they’re going to serve a much better purpose than he’s done.’[4] It may cost him supporters who wish to see a move away from the imperial presidency of this century.

The issue for the Republican elites however is the lack of a clear alternative to Trump. His ability to manage the press has not given his rivals an opportunity to regain the ground that they have lost. Trump while still not a certainty of winning the Republican candidacy could most certainly do so with a couple of early victories in the primaries. Trump’s rival for the Iowa caucus on 1st February is Canadian-born Texan Senator Ted Cruz, currently polling 27.3% to Trump’s 26.8%.[5] However if Trump has few friends among the Republican leadership, then Cruz has even fewer, and would be a disastrous choice for the GOP. If the other candidates, principally Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, fail to act swiftly, then the unfettered Trump could have an unassailable lead long before Super Tuesday on March 1st.

[1] Robert M Gates, From the Shadows, (New York: 1996) p559

[2] Nate Silver, Three Theories of Donald Trump’s Rise [accessed 11th January 2016]

[3] Joy Wilke, Americans’ Satisfaction With US Gov’t Drops To New Low  [accessed 11th January 2016])

[4] Quote from Bradford Richardson, Trump: Obama ‘led the way’ on executive orders, The Hill, January 10th 2016 [accessed 11th January 2016]

[5] Data from Real Clear Politics [accessed 12th January 2016]


This was originally published on Dafydd’s own blog and has been republished here with his permission .
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History’s Student Newsletter: vol.4, January 2016

History’s student newsletter is now online!

We will be putting up our back issues shortly, but for now here is our current issue.

4th Jan 2016 p.1

4th Jan 2016 p.2

4th Jan 2016 p.3




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CFP: ‘Social Listening’ in the past, present and future. 22nd November 2017.

‘Social Listening_ in the past, present and future - Call for Papers

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A Message for our Graduating Students

Congratulations to all of our students who will be graudating this year.  We are very proud of you and are sure that you will continue to succeed in your future careers.

With careers in mind … Kevin Thompson from the Careers Centre, Carrington Building, has this message he has asked us to relay to you:

The University Careers Centre provides significant support to you for twelve months after graduation. Whether you are looking to identify job and further study options, want to know where to find relevant job vacancies or would like some coaching to get through the recruitment process Careers are there to help. If you are staying around Reading or returning at any point you can arrange a face to face meeting in the Carrington Building. If you aren’t able to visit we can arrange a discussion via email, phone or skype. To see a Careers Consultant  to get things going just ring Careers on 0118 3788359 or email


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An Outing with the Historical Association (Reading branch), 17th June

The Reading branch of the Historical Association have asked us to share news of an upcoming outing which might be of interest.

“This is a double event that should appeal to anyone fascinated by Britain’s nineteenth, and early twentieth-century industrial might, as well as those interested in seeing some interesting church monuments, including the rarely-exhibited St John Tryptych – or anyone who would simply enjoy a historical day out with some interesting company!”

The outing will take place of 17th of June and full details can be found below:

HA Outing June 2017 p.1HA Outing June 2017 p.2

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Internship at the River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames

River &amp; Rowing Internship 1

The River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, currently have a vacancy for an intern. This would be a great opportunity for anyone considering a career in the museum and heritage sector.  To apply, see the details and link below. The closing date is Friday 5 May.


Apply with a CV and cover letter to before Friday 5th May. The leap link is here (you will need to login to view):



Company description:
The River & Rowing Museum is a leading independent museum with an award-winning education programme. The Museum has a unique permanent collection exploring the River Thames, the international sport of Rowing, the historic town of Henley on Thames, the diverse work of artist John Piper and the world famous tale of the Wind in the Willows. Put simply, our mission is to bring to life the river, rowing, history & the arts, sharing our passion with as many people as possible.
Role of the intern:
The River & Rowing Museum would like to take on an intern who has an interest in a career in museums, in particular working in education and with the public. The intern would gain skills and experience in public engagement and event delivery, an awareness of the education sector and an understanding of how to make museum collections accessible and engaging.

We have hosted interns for the last 3 years and value the fresh perspective, ideas and enthusiasm they bring to the organisation. It is of great benefit to have an intern as they contribute to the team and make possible specific projects that enhance the education programme.

The main project for the internship will be reviewing and enhancing the learning resources for schools and families available in the Museum:

  • For schools: the Museum has a small handling collection that needs auditing and upgrading.
  • For families: the Museum is committed to enhancing the experience of families and was named in 2016 as one of the top ten most family friendly museums in the UK. Family provision is under review with the aim of increasing the level and range of family activities in the galleries
Day-to-day activities:
  • Contributing to research and development of new formal learning programmes, particularly with an arts and literacy focus to support upcoming exhibitions.
  • Assisting with creation of family learning activities
  • Supporting children’s workshops and family events
  • Contributing to the Museum’s website and social media content for education
  • Analysing school visit patterns and evaluation feedback
The intern will gain an understanding of the breadth of museum learning provision, an insight into the national curriculum and an appreciation of how museums tailor their work to meet visitor needs.

This internship would suit students with Arts and Humanities focus ie Museum Studies, History, Geography, Archaeology, History of Art and/or Education.

Essential criteria:
  • Good communication skills
  • Interest in heritage and museums
  • Interest in learning outside the classroom
  • Willingness to learn new skills
  • Ability to work independently and as part of a team
  • Ability to show initiative and work flexibly
  • Highly computer literate with good attention to detail
Desirable Criteria:
  • Experience of customer service and public engagement (professional or voluntary)
  • Experience of using social media
  • Knowledge and experience of Adobe Creative Suite


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