‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ – Medieval popes and the concept of papal infallibility

By Professor Rebecca Rist.


Pope Pius IX, who in 1854 decreed the doctrine of papal infallibility in Ineffabilis Deus. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

My research focuses on the history of religious culture and the medieval papacy, and especially the relationship between popes and specific social and religious minority groups, such as Jews (in my recent book, Popes and Jews, 1095-1291), and heretics (in my current research, which you can learn about here).

One of the key tenets of papal authority is the concept of papal infallibility: that the popes, due to the authority they have been granted by God, cannot err in their solemn pronouncements. I was one of three experts – along with Professor Tim O’Loughlin and Dr Miles Pattenden – invited onto BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time to speak to host Melvyn Bragg about the development of this concept.

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Posted in Comment, European History, In the Media, Medieval History, News, Research | Tagged , , , , ,

Midnight Mass, the Stone Roses, and ‘cuddling boys’: Recollections of Christmastime and New Year’s Eve in teenage girls’ diaries, 1970-1998


Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

by Amy Gower, PhD student.

Christmas evokes a sense of nostalgia in many of us, as a holiday wrapped up in tradition, family, and the home. Through my research into the diaries of teenage girls from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, I have stumbled across many years’ worth of Christmas reflections from teenagers across the country. Most of their diaries were kept between the ages of 13 and 18, charting their growth from awkward pre-teens to young adults about to leave the security of their familial homes. Christmas and New Year’s entries allow us to glimpse the experiences of a few families in this era, and reveal how girls navigated their familial expectations and busy social lives.

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Posted in Christmas Special, modern history, News, Research, Students Page | Tagged , , , , , ,

‘A mixture of minds which cannot unite’: John Milton and no-fault divorce

by Dr Rachel Foxley


Portrait of John Milton from Paradise Lost (1667), British Library, Public Domain.

The government’s current consultation (closing on 10 December) about making ‘no fault’ divorce quicker and easier might have drawn a robust contribution from the famous seventeenth-century poet and polemicist John Milton, if he were alive today. From 1643 to 1645, in the midst of the English Civil War, Milton published a series of works urgently pleading for the introduction of divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. The nature of marriage was evidently an abiding concern for him, as the complex relationship between Adam and Eve is also at the core of his masterpiece Paradise Lost, first published in 1667.

The case which has inspired the current debate about divorce reform is that of Tini Owens, whose husband is refusing a divorce even though the couple are separated. Since she was unable to prove unreasonable behaviour on his part, she will have to wait until they have been separated for five years for the divorce to go through. Even when both parties do agree to divorce, under the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act they have to wait for two years if they want to avoid attributing fault to either partner. Tini Owens’ plight has given ammunition to those arguing for a less damaging and acrimonious way for marriages to end.

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Posted in British History, Early Modern History, gender history, Intellectual History, News, Research | Tagged , , , ,

Magic, Medicine, Miracles: How Reading Abbey Helped to Invent Halloween

by Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers

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By Bill Nicholls, CC BY-SA 2.0. From Wikimedia Commons.

On Saturday 27 October, I had the privilege of giving a public lecture for the Friends of Reading Abbey, in the presence of the Mayor of Reading, Councillor Debs Edwards. The event took place in St James’ Church, sited amongst the ruins of the medieval abbey.

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By Ron Baxter, from Corpus of Romanesque Scuplture.

The lecture explored the relationships between medicine, magic, and miracles in medieval culture, using examples from surviving books and records from Reading Abbey. For my grand finale, I suggested that the abbey played an important role in spreading the Feast of All Souls in England, and in creating the later-medieval ‘season’ of Hallowmass (leading towards Halloween). It was exciting to talk about all this while standing beside an elaborately carved stone, which was probably part of the abbey church itself.

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Posted in Comment, Medical History, Medieval History, News, Research | Tagged , , , , , , ,

History and Theatre: Working with Reading Between the Lines

by Professor Lindy Grant

HENRY II A5 Flyer Front

The poster for Henry II. © Reading Between the Lines.

Monday 8th October was the opening night of Henry II, the last in a cycle of three new plays about Reading Abbey and the dynasty who founded it, each focusing on a key historical figure: King Henry I, his daughter the Empress Matilda, and his grandson Henry II. The plays were commissioned from playwright Beth Flintoff, and produced by the enterprising Reading-based theatre company, Reading Between the Lines, with support from the Arts Council. The plays have been hugely successful, playing to packed and enthusiastic houses and receiving excellent reviews. The second play, Matilda the Empress, was voted one of the top new plays in Britain in 2017 in The Guardian’s annual poll.

I have been involved as historical advisor since the start of the cycle. I’ve provided contextualising notes for the programmes, talked about the historical context at public previews for the plays, done interviews about the plays on local radio, and took part in a programme for BBC Berkshire about Henry I, the founding of Reading Abbey, and the first play in the series. It has been a huge pleasure and enormous fun to work with such a brilliantly talented theatre group.

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Posted in News