Katie Barclay, Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self (2021)

Katie Barclay, Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self (2021)


In this article, Lucy Morgan reviews Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self by Katie Barclay, published in hardback and e-book in January 2021. This book explores the Christian concept of caritas as an expression of neighbourly love and how it was experienced by lower-order Scottish people from 1660 to 1830. Barclay uses legal depositions and correspondence to examine the emotional and bodily aspects of caritas, positing that in a loving community, marital relationships were the ideal upon which all other social relationships were based. The author goes on to discuss how children were raised into the beliefs of caritas, what happened to those who rejected caritas’s principles, and how itinerant individuals who lived outside of the normal boundaries of society still had a role within the loving community.

 Keywords: Emotion, early modern, history, community, Christianity

Biography: Lucy Morgan is a first-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She is interested in the relationship between manhood and paternity in early modern England.

Katie Barclay’s book, Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self, is the most recent instalment in Oxford University Press’s ‘Emotions in History’ series. Barclay describes caritas as an aspirational form of Christian neighbourly love, practiced by Catholics and Protestants across early modern Europe, with the purpose of creating loving communities of neighbours who supported and relied on each other. This book focuses on the lives of ‘lower-order’ Scots from 1660 to 1830, examining 2,000 cases from the Scottish Justiciary Court as well as sampling some surviving correspondence, providing a wide temporal and geographic overview of caritas throughout this period.[1] Barclay aims to understand ‘how individuals enculturated [caritas], how they performed it, negotiated it, and occasionally rejected it’ within their everyday lives, through a study of ‘behaviour, gesture, material culture practices, and ritual’.[2] Caritas, literally translating into English as ‘charity’, was a force which went beyond the Ten Commandments’ dictates to not covet your neighbour’s house or wife. Barclay positions caritas as the opposite of lust; instead of selfish, individualistic, sinful love, caritas was a selfless, ethical, moral love which encouraged individuals to connect with others.[3]

Scotland provides an excellent setting for a study of this type; during this period, it was still dominated by the village and small-town structure where close-knit communities determined the social life and economic success of an area. Barclay also notes, however, that geographic mobility of Scottish people was rapidly increasing at this time, resulting in an itinerant population who do not necessarily fit into historians’ perceptions of community living. The legal sources, mostly depositions, used by Barclay are invaluable to a study of emotions—they provide a great deal of first-person information about how lower-order people felt about the behaviour of their neighbours. The lives of lower-order people at this time blurred the boundaries between household and community—they were far more likely to live in single rooms or as multiple families to a house in comparison to their higher-order counterparts—and as a result of that forced closeness, their experience of caritas was physical as well as emotional. Caritas was expressed through virtue and grace, and therefore encompassed neighbourly love through non-action—for example, not starting a fight or not reporting bad behaviour—as well as expressions of the traditionally Catholic concept of “good works” like feeding the poor. Where cynical Protestants might interpret expressions of “good works” as selfish ploys only done to get to heaven, the emphasis on charity within caritas made “good works” acceptable within the Kirk and therefore central to the loving community.[4]

Barclay draws on a rich historiography of neighbourliness and familial love, as well as being influenced by more recent feminist philosophical works on the place of love in modern society, such as Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor’s On Kindness. Her approach rejects family nuclearisation models, instead suggesting that lower order-Scots retained extended horizontal and vertical familial-neighbourly networks throughout her study. This book broaches a gap in the field of emotional history, providing a link between individual and communal emotional experiences in the past. She employs William Reddy’s concept of the ‘emotional regime’, where certain emotions can be studied as “dominant norms” within a society, alongside Monique Scheer’s concept of ‘emotional embodiment’, where emotions are “practiced” through expression and reciprocation between individuals.[5] This reinforces the idea that loving communities were sustained through nature and culture. Barclay’s work uses what she describes as the ‘new history of emotions’ to prove that there was a “self” in the early modern period, arguing that caritas existed to relate “the self” to “the other” through individual and shared expressions of neighbourly love.[6]

The first two chapters of Barclay’s book deal with the induction into caritas and the education of children, both at home and through theological teaching. This provides an excellent entry point for readers who are also unfamiliar with the concept caritas, although these chapters could have benefitted from a further explanation of the etymology of the word. Barclay explains the meaning and translation of caritas in the introduction, but how that specific word was chosen remains uncertain throughout the text. It is most noticeable in these chapters, where Kirk and legal books are quoted extensively but none explicitly mention caritas (although charity and neighbours are mentioned often). It may be that this is due to a translation of these books from Latin into English, but a clarification of whether this term was ever used in an early modern Scottish context would have been interesting, if not beneficial, to the rest of the work. The neighbourly love advocated for by caritas was bodily and intimate, reinforced through spoken language as well as physical closeness in eating, working, and living together. As such, Barclay centres marriage and its ideals of reciprocal love and support as the foundation of caritas. This is firstly evidenced through a study of the communal celebration of marriage post-ceremony, with Barclay noting that wedding rituals retained complexity even after the introduction of banns-reading simplified the marriage sermon. Barclay then moves into an analysis of depositions relating to marriage breakdown, showing how members of the wider community were invited to provide testimony on the state of their neighbour’s marriages, indicating that all members of a loving community had a strong understanding of the role of marriage, including the ‘increase of mankind’ and the prevention of ‘uncleanness’ (sexual immorality).[7] This in turn influenced all other relationships, such as parent-child, employer-employee, and neighbour-neighbour, encouraging both moral policing but also forgiveness of moral infringements to maintain a peaceful equilibrium within the loving community. Childhood is used to examine how the uneven distribution of caritas was accepted within society. Privileging certain groups over others was acceptable, as long as any disparities reflected the ordered social hierarchy, such as the prioritisation of the education of sons over daughters. While Barclay notes that Enlightenment ideals about an ‘expectation of love’ for all children, including affectionate treatment, was present in Scotland by the eighteenth century, this is only examined in the case of parents caring for versus neglecting their own children.[8] It would be interesting if further study reversed this perspective and expanded upon the child’s place within the loving community during marriage breakdown or parental death. Similarly, future work could explore whether or not caritas played a role when adults cared for children other than their own.

The third and fourth chapters examine the reception of immoral actions under caritas; their practice, discovery, and reformation. Barclay navigates the existing historiography on the top-down or bottom-up nature of early modern discipline, drawing on Lyndal Roper’s Holy Household and Martin Ingram’s Carnal Knowledge, pointing out that while the Calvinsitic Kirk believed that all people were born with the Original Sin, for many lower order Scots, irregular marriage (marriage without an official Kirk ceremony, legal throughout the period) and premarital sex were ‘disorderly but not immoral’.[9] By pointing out that for many lower-order Scots, their home would just be a single room likely with one or more shared walls, Barclay suggests that neighbours were probably constantly aware of each other’s actions. These homes were shared and porous, and Barclay implies that there was no conception of public and private space for the people in her study. Tolerance of others therefore became a crucial part of caritas. Intermittent bad behaviour was permissible, but not prolonged threats to the social order. As such, while the keeping and telling of secrets was technically immoral, it also became a ‘central mechanism’ of caritas ‘through which peace and harmony’ was enabled.[10] Evoking Amanda Vickery’s Behind Closed Doors, Barclay describes the social rituals of making or revealing secrets as seen in legal contexts. In cases of violent altercations or elopements, the identification of overheard voices was critically important. Wordless sounds of fighting or crying were equally legally pertinent—the victim and the aggressor could be determined by who was louder or seemed more upset. Similarly, materiality as obstructing sight or sound was crucial—the act of closing doors became almost always suggestive of wrongdoing. This approach is innovative and could be adopted into other studies of the early modern home and the family, where scholars are often hampered by a lack of evidence around certain practices or behaviours. At many parts of this book, having no evidence is crucial; for example, Barclay shows that irregular marriages were often not disclosed to the community until it became necessary for a woman to prove that she was married, usually because she was visibly pregnant.[11] The “husband” might then come forward and claim such a marriage had never happened, resulting in the situation ballooning into a legal case where the caritas and the reputation of many members of the loving community would be affected.

The strongest chapter of Barclay’s book is the last, titled ‘Living Outside of Love’. Even by the end of the eighteenth century, Scotland remained mostly rural and non-industrial, meaning that vagrancy and itinerant work were still highly visible facets of communal living. Although these people did not live within the established boundaries of a local community, Barclay locates them within caritas, which gave them a place in the loving community, evidencing not only a ‘pragmatic’ approach to community but also a ‘comradery’ between those who lived on the road.[12] This chapter deftly unites the historian’s usually disparate understandings of work, vagrancy and communal living, showing how caritas encouraged communities to permit begging as a form of Christian charity, but also showing its limits and how it was possible to take advantage of the selflessness of caritas by accepting hospitality without giving back to the community. Barclay also discusses the ramifications of banishment as a punishment for extreme infringements of caritas, usually in cases murder or infanticide, indicating that deliberate exclusion from a community had significant local and personal impact. Although banishments were not usually permanent, it nevertheless indicates that loneliness and social exclusion were seen as the obvious repercussions for communal non-conformity, leading Barclay to conclude that ‘attachment to land and place was critical to the imagining of the social order’.[13]

By giving caritas a position of centrality within early modern understandings of community, Barclay is able to show how it informed a wide range of individual, often contradictory, choices. Barclay’s approach to emotional ethics allows for a more nuanced approach to bodily and emotional experiences which are lost in more prescriptive studies of law or social hierarchy. The methodology of this book could be applied to any Christian sect across Europe in the early modern period as a comparative study, and if Barclay wishes to expand on her own work, an investigation of old age’s place in caritas would be much appreciated. As much of the book deals with education and sexual immorality, children and the unmarried necessarily take the forefront for much of the work. However, Barclay intriguingly mentions that in some parts of Scotland, community elders presided over formal Kirk disciplines alongside the minister. Although Barclay states that these courts became increasingly marginal and ineffective throughout the period, age as an indicator of wisdom and community leadership could enrich further studies of caritas.

Overall, this is a strong work which breathes life into its subject matter, allowing for an examination of complex social and personal issues including domestic abuse and violence, premarital and extramarital sexuality, and the material and immaterial boundaries of society and community. Crucially, Barclay’s finding that almost all immoral and even some criminal actions could be redeemed through caritas provides a new perspective for researchers interested in society, religion, and acceptable behaviour in the early modern period.

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Barclay, K., Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self (Oxford, 2021).

Ingram, M., Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England, 1470–1600 (Cambridge, 2017).

Philips, A., and Taylor, B., On Kindness (London, 2009).

Reddy, W., The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge, 2001).

Roper, L., The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford, 1989).

Scheer, M., ‘Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a History)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion’, History and Theory 51/2 (2012), pp. 193–220.



[1] K. Barclay, Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self (Oxford, 2021), 4 and 19–21.

[2] Barclay, Caritas, p. 14, 24.

[3] Barclay, Caritas, p. 3.

[4] Barclay, Caritas, p. 3.

[5] See William Reddy The Navigation of Feeling 2001; and Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice?’

[6] Barclay, Caritas, p. 3.

[7] Barclay, Caritas, p. 39.

[8] Barclay, Caritas, p. 64.

[9] Barclay, Caritas, p. 95.

[10] Barclay, Caritas, p. 118.

[11] Barclay, Caritas, pp. 95–97.

[12] Barclay, Caritas, p. 150.

[13] Barclay, Caritas, p. 166.

Milanovic, B. Global Inequality: a New Approach for the Age of Globalisation (London, 2016)

Global Inequality: a New Approach for the Age of Globalisation (London, 2016). Milanovic, B.


Milanovic’s Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation seeks to create a new model for explaining the patterns in the growth and decline on inequality in the world, remodelling Kuznet’s hypothesis to take account of the rise of a “global plutocracy” and wage stagnation in the Western middle classes. In doing so, he has some pessimistic forecasts for the immediate future of the middle classes in the West and makes timely warnings against neglecting income and wealth inequality in favour of ‘existential inequality’.

Biography: Sam Tarran is an MA student in History at the University of Birmingham, focusing on political institutions in medieval Europe. His undergraduate degree is from Mansfield College, University of Oxford.

Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation is not a new book. Despite the fact that it was published relatively recently, it still feels necessary to recount the context in which Milanovic wrote and released it. So much has happened since that it can feel like another world, already part of ‘history’. At the time, inequality both within and between countries felt important. The Occupy movement had ended but was still in the mind’s eye. The world was just beginning to creep out of the Great Recession. The public of many countries, after nearly seven years of economic decline, wage pressure and austerity policies, were feeling restless. Many, after Occupy, public sector cuts and the (initial) electoral success of Syriza in Greece, thought it would be the political left that would make hay. It is only with hindsight that many now claim that it was historically predictable that the populist right would capitalise.

Milanovic published his book in 2016. Since then, we have had Trump, Brexit, the ‘cultural wars’ and Covid-19. The arguments over economic inequality now feel traditional and unfashionable. The book is still, therefore, underread, but despite it falling foul of current Twitter trends, it somehow feels timely. Overall, Milanovic’s analysis and argument – well-written and engaging as it is – would benefit from a deeper survey of pre-modern historical periods and the world outside the West. He also discusses potential solutions that are politically and socially impossible.  Where Milanovic is most interesting is his warning against overly focusing on ‘existential inequality’, defined as the unequal “legal treatment of different groups” based on factors such as race, disability, sexual preference and gender (p. 226). This, he argues, is unhelpful as it feeds identity politics, splitting the public into communitarian interest groups who, once their own campaigns and needs are sated, will not aid others. This inhibits the collective action needed to create real change and blocks the discussion of the “harder” questions of how to solve wealth and income inequality both domestically and globally. Reducing income inequality, he points out, also helps with gender and race equality, although he does not offer any substantive examples. If Milanovic’s point was relevant then, his pleas are urgent now. We have, somehow, forgotten about income and wealth inequality.

Milanovic seeks to analyse inequality on a global level and ‘not as a national phenomenon only, as had been done for the past century’ (p. 2). In this, he alludes to the works of Karl Marx and Adam Smith, a previous generation of political economists who sought explanatory power on a planetary scale. There were, however, other works published post-2010 on this topic. Milanovic himself cites Thomas Pikkety’s Capitalism in the Twenty First Century, published in English in 2013. There was also Jason Hickel’s The Divide: a Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions, published in 2017. The Great Recession had also spurred new academic interest in the subject from a historical perspective. Histories of Global Inequality: New Perspectives, is a collection of works (edited by Steven Jensen and Christian Christiansen) which seeks to ‘historicise Piketty’. Piketty’s work is reformist, seeking to save capitalism from within by recommending measures such as a global redistribution of wealth, effectively scaling up the tax-and-spend policies of the West. These suggestions were enthusiastically met by some at the time, but their chance of success appears difficult to envision. Witness, for example, the new ‘progressive’ President of the United States threatening sanctions on Britain and the EU for daring to implement new taxes on America’s digital giants. Milanovic is similarly bold in his recommendations, but understandably less optimistic about their success. Despite the many graphs, statistics and discussion of the Gini co-efficient, the work remains very accessible. The language is largely in plain English and the analysis, even for a layman such as this reader, is relatively easy to follow.

From the outset, he sets out themes that, post-Brexit and post-Trump, we recognise instantly: the rise of a global middle class based primarily in Asia, the income stagnation of the middle to lower-middle classes in the West, falling social mobility, and the ‘emergence of a global plutocracy’ (p. 3). Milanovic re-posits the Kuznets hypothesis – that industrialisation leads to higher and later reduced income inequality – as “waves” to take account of our secular stagnation, where periods of intense technological innovation increase inequality before political pressure and educational attainment reduces it again. The technological changes post-1980 have facilitated the rise of finance and tech billionaires who, through the newfound portability of their skills and capital, have become disconnected from their national polities. Milanovic is cold in his analysis of this group until the final chapter, when he just holds back from condemning the hypocrisy of a global top 10% that produces 50% of world carbon emissions flying in private jets to preach about climate change.

Like many economists and economic historians, Milanovic is most comfortable when discussing his model in the context of periods and countries from which we have plenty of data. His analysis therefore skews modern and towards the US and UK. He is on less firm footing when he moves into the early modern, medieval and non-Western worlds. At one point, he freely uses the term ‘capitalist’ in relation to cities in the late Middle Ages. He would have been better discussing income inequality and ‘surpluses’ in the High Middle Ages, when monasteries thrived, guilds were formed, trade increased, fens were drained, and a Latin aristocracy expanded its influence into the former European periphery.[1] Ironically, it was in the following period, in the aftermath of the Black Death, that political agitation among the middling sort began, just as the polities of Europe were starting to expand their bureaucratic reach and depth.[2] A discussion of these periods and a reconciliation of this apparent contradiction – one may expect agitation to come during the period of greater growth and inequality – to his model would have been illuminating. Instead, Milanovic largely skips straight from the fall of Rome to the ‘commercial revolution’ of sixteenth century Italy. The skipping of the medieval period and eurocentrism is a common problem in attempts at global histories, particularly those focused on inequality. The sources, unfortunately, are inconvenient. Medieval records can be patchy and incomplete. Records from outside the West present problems of language and cultural interpretation. A collaborative approach is necessary to bridge these gaps, but pressures of time and resources can make this difficult.

Milanovic, from focusing on inequality within countries, moves to inequality between countries. Here, he does not seek to explain why the West is richer than the East, which has been done elsewhere. Instead, he predicts that the fast-growing economies of the Global South, namely in Asia, will soon begin to move through the Kuznets waves in much the same way as the West. In doing so, they will face similar challenges to the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the middle classes seek enfranchisement. Further, the Citizenship Premium that we in the West currently enjoy for being born in wealthier countries is slowly being eroded as location becomes a less significant factor in one’s income potential.

So, what are Milanovic’s predictions for the future? He wisely cautions against specific forecasts in Chapter 4, pointing out that economists often extrapolate existing trends in the future without taking account of the unexpected, referencing Taleb’s Black Swans, large-scale, often unpredicted events with far-reaching consequences, such as tsunamis or political assassinations. Few writers of the 1970s, for example, predicted the Reagan-Thatcher boom and the collapse of communism. Indeed, some even predicted a convergence between the two, with the Soviet bloc liberalising slightly and the West becoming more statist. He therefore resists specific predictions but does venture some ideas. His belief that the Great Convergence will continue, no matter what happens to China’s economic growth, is hardly controversial. He shows, however, that the Convergence is largely an Asian phenomenon, which means global inequality is likely to continue to grow unless Africa also begins to converge.

He is also pessimistic about the future of Western middle classes, who he argues will continue to be squeezed by globalisation, automation, and the more debateable assertion that education has, more or less, hit its quantitative and qualitative limit. As capital and, increasingly, labour become more difficult to tax, his solution is more punitive inheritance taxes to reduce the power of “endowments” and tax policies that encourage share ownership and financial asset ownership among the lower and middle classes. He compares the systems of Taiwan and Canada to illustrate how this approach can be as effective as a traditional tax-and-spend system. In the next breath, however, he says this is pointless without increased accessibility to quality education, contradicting his own comments on education earlier on.

This, unfortunately, is the pattern of the book: some good economic analysis, followed by political assertions that are often less reinforced by evidence, then proposed solutions that are politically unpalatable. Another example is his proposal to resolve the conflict between the high numbers of migrants and the typical internal resistance to immigrations: implement discriminatory policies against migrants which make clear they do not share the privileges of ‘native’ citizens. As Milanovic himself intimates, this is unlikely to be accepted by anyone, except, ironically, the migrants themselves. In that sense, Milanovic falls into the classic economist (perhaps, even, academic) trap of proposing ‘evidence-based policy’ that ignores specific social and political contexts. His predictions for Asian societies may also be helped by a consideration of the local and non-economic forces impacting on politics and demographics in the region. To some extent, we have the benefit of hindsight here. China has continued to grow apace, but its burgeoning middle class seems as compliant and pacified as ever thanks to its continued prosperity and Xi’s increasingly aggressive nationalism. This may prevent China moving up its own Kuznets wave any time soon.

His model and his analysis would have greater power and more nuance if it were more greatly supplemented by extended historical discussion of the non-Western and non-modern worlds and the powerful forces that exist outside of economics. Nevertheless, Milanovic’s work is comprehendible, sweeping, and at times gripping. Its structure is logical and helpful. He manages to explain complex economic phenomena for a general audience without being patronising. Further, its message – that inequality will continue to exist despite globalisation, and that we ignore it at our peril – feels incredibly relevant as it struggles to cut through the noise of contemporary political fashions.

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Bartlett, R., The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (London, 1994)

Christiansen, C.O., & Jensen, S., Histories of Global Inequality: New Perspectives (London, 2019)

Hickel, J., The Divide: a Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions (London, 2017)

Piketty, T., Capital in the Twenty First Century (Paris, 2013)

Watts, J., The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500 (Cambridge, 2009)



[1] See, for example, R. Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (London, 1994)

[2] J. Watts, The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500 (Cambridge, 2009)

Jury Nullification: The Short History of a Little Understood Power

Jury Nullification: The Short History of a Little Understood Power

Richard Marshall is a PhD student in History at the University of Plymouth. His doctoral research explores the place of trial by jury in the politics, culture and society of late eighteenth-century English radicalism. He is supervised by Dr James Gregory and Dr Claire Fitzpatrick.

Keywords: Juries, Nullification, Legal History, Popular Justice, Repression, Liberties, Rights

Jury nullification (or Jury Equity) is perhaps the greatest safeguard against unjust laws or excessive punishment to exist in Britain. It is the practice whereby a jury delivers a verdict contrary to the evidence, law and judicial directions by acquitting a defendant they believe beyond a reasonable doubt guilty by the letter of the law, but on grounds of conscience think should not be punished.

This little understood power has existed since a 1670 ruling declaring that no juror could be punished for a ‘wrong’ verdict, which when coupled with the double jeopardy rule leaves the door ajar for juries to essentially override laws.

For centuries it was considered a critical element of the constitution, a check against tyrannical government and unfair laws but above all a mechanism that permitted the people to directly influence, comment upon and force reform of laws they deemed morally suspect. What’s more, it was widely understood and discussed as a normal part of the legal process. The idea a jury of ‘freeborn Englishmen’ could not deviate from a judge’s charge or the legal letter was an almost universally rejected one. Indeed, it was not uncommon for jurors to be encouraged to ignore or reject judicial guidance and actively consider not just the evidence but the interests of their community, religion, nation, and constitution.[1] When an English juror entered the jury box in the eighteenth century, he was expected to act for his country and discretion was the norm. Granted not everyone accepted the idea but none denied the existence of nullification nor the rights and powers of jurors as the ultimate arbiters of justice. Most today though will never have heard of this power. For too many in the modern legal fraternity nullification is a dirty word, with a myriad of objections raised against it.[2] Most notably, they argue it is ineffective at procuring meaningful change and encourages prejudice among jurors.

I was brought to think about the history of this murky power by the recently introduced Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the politically interested attempt to attack freedoms of protest, speech and the rights of the traveller community all at once. Regarding protest, it seeks to lower the legal test required for police to act against otherwise legitimate protest, with its most egregious element being the new offence of ‘public nuisance’. This will carry a maximum ten-year prison term and is defined as causing ‘serious harm’ to the public through ‘serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity’. Meanwhile the Bill also proposes to criminalise trespass, an effort to attack the freedoms of the traveller community opposed by the majority of policing bodies including both the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.

The backlash has been immense. Politicians, lawyers, civil rights organisations, charities and many others have spoken out against the Bill, as have many thousands in mass demonstrations across the nation. It would not be unfair to suggest that a significant minority, perhaps more, oppose the provisions of this Bill as infringements on liberty. This was the very sort of legislation radicals of the past would have hoped and indeed encouraged jurors to nullify.

But does this mean we should today? For me, the answer is an unquestionable yes. Nullification exists for just these circumstances, to frustrate legislation passed or enforced spuriously or for political reasons. And the past provides plentiful justifications and precedents for its use.

In the first instance, our national history is littered with cases where juries, in spite of evidence and judicial direction, acquitted defendants to the benefit of society. Arguably the most well-known is that of Clive Ponting, the British civil servant who leaked documents relating to the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands Conflict. His trial for allegedly breaching the Official Secrets Act was a cause célèbre and his unexpected acquittal, contrary to the judge’s direction, caused enough consternation for the Conservative government to remove the ‘Public Interest Defence’ Ponting relied on from Official Secrets legislation in 1989.

But the Ponting case is an outlier. For one, the acquittal had a basis in law thanks to the Public Interest Defence. A true act of nullification occurs where the law does not provide an adequate escape route and its provisions are thus arbitrary. The new Policing Bill promises to be such a law. To justify employing nullification against such an Act, there are a myriad of examples where jurors have acquitted in the face of such legislation. Take for instance the case which established the practice, the trial of two Quakers William Penn and William Meed in 1670.

The pair were charged under the Conventicle Act which restricted non-Anglicans to meetings of no more than five people. Meed and Penn were arrested preaching to several hundred.

Despite overwhelming evidence and threats from the judge, the jury refused to convict, believing the law to be morally wrong. The subsequent legal ruling that no juror could be punished merely for their decision still reverberates today and is even commemorated at the Old Bailey. This commemoration strikes me as almost a burlesque given the staunch opposition of the courts and Crown to jurors being permitted to understand the ramifications.

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Primary Sources

Hawles, J., The Englishman’s Right: A Dialogue between a Barrister at Law and a Juryman &c. (London, 1680).


Secondary Sources

Darbyshire, P., ‘The Lamp that Shows that Freedom Lives—Is It Worth the Candle?’ Criminal Law Review (1991), pp. 740–752.

Handler, P., ‘Forgery and the End of the “Bloody Code” in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Historical Journal, 48/3 (2005), pp. 683–702.

Harling, P., ‘The Law of Libel and the Limits of Repression, 1790–1832’, Historical Journal, 44/1 (2001), pp. 107–134.

McGowen, R., ‘From Pillory to Gallows: The Punishment of Forgery in the Age of the Financial Revolution’, Past and Present, 165 (1999), pp. 107–140.

Wharam, A., The Treason Trials, 1794 (Leicester, 1992).


[1] Guides for jurors often encouraged them to remain independent of the judge and emphasised that they represented their fellow citizens in court. A powerful and frequently reprinted example was J. Hawles, The Englishman’s Right: A Dialogue between a Barrister at Law and a Juryman &c. (London, 1680).

[2] See P. Darbyshire, ‘The Lamp that Shows that Freedom Lives—Is It Worth the Candle?’ Criminal Law Review (1991), pp. 740–752.

The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country by Tom Hazeldine

The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country by Tom Hazeldine


In this review of Tom Hazeldine’s The Northern Question, David Civil explores how Britain’s geographic cultural constructions and regional inequalities have impacted on the nation’s politics from the Industrial Revolution to Brexit. The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country, Tom Hazeldine, London, Verso Books, 2020, ISBN: 9781786634061; 290pp.; Price: £20.00.

Biography: David Civil is the MHR’s Spotlight Editor and completed his PhD in History on the concept of meritocracy in 2020. 

A Northern parliamentary seat flipping in a by-election from Labour to Conservative for the first time in its history may immediately bring to mind recent, post-Brexit political developments. We might instinctively reach for the language of ‘left-behind’ voters or highlight the significance of ‘Red Wall’ constituencies to explain this unprecedented electoral shift. And yet this by-election in Workington took place in 1976. It saw the return of 35-year-old Richard Page for a Conservative Party under the new leadership of Margaret Thatcher. In 1979 the seat would return to Labour, until the 2019 General Election when it flipped to the Conservatives as part of their assault on the so-called ‘Red Wall’. The notion of ‘Workington Man’ appeared to capture the impact of Brexit in ripping apart old loyalties and traditional voting patterns. Yet as Page’s triumph in 1976 demonstrates, these developments have a long history. The Editor of the New Left Review, Tom Hazeldine sets out to explore this history in his recent book, The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country. Post-Brexit Northern England, Hazeldine claims, has propelled itself to the ‘foreground of national attention for the first time since the socio-economic crisis of the Thatcher years’ (p. xii). By exploring the interaction between nation-state, social class and geographical region, The Northern Question hopes to ‘let some light in through several windows’ to illuminate a debate whose importance is only going to grow in the next decade and beyond (p. xiv).

Hazeldine’s historical survey begins in Chapter 2, framing the North as the ‘Badlands’ which for the most part refused to adopt the ‘intense feudalism of the Midlands and the South’ (p. 31). If the burdens of serfdom were ‘generally lighter’ in the North ‘rural benightedness – the absence of towns and literacy – was correspondingly deeper’ (p. 31). For Hazeldine, it is clear that evidence of Northern disadvantage vis-à-vis their Southern neighbour is visible even during the early modern period. Even under pre-modern conditions ‘not even a member of the royal line could scrabble together quite enough strength in the North to reign in defiance of Establishment opinion’ (p. 33). In a theme that runs throughout The Northern Question, ‘the sine qua non of governing England was to have its southern heartland on side’ (p. 33). This whistle-stop tour ends with the historical event or process which gave the North its defining characteristics in the national imagination: the Industrial Revolution. Chapter 3 traces how the forces of industrialism and revolt intersected throughout the nineteenth century as the exponential growth of the factory system was accompanied by Luddites, Chartists, and democratic reformers. Despite these upheavals, ‘the pre-industrial mould of British politics remained unbroken, with fateful consequences for the North once its commercial fortunes began to slide’ (p. 70). Drawing on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel North and South, Hazeldine claims that ‘even in the land of long chimneys’, business survival still hinged on the ‘attitude taken by the traditional landowning and monied interests of the South’ (p. 70). Chapter 4, focusing on the ‘capital-goods phase of the manufacturing revolution’, expands on these themes to demonstrate how despite the mirage of Northern prosperity, ‘Liverpool and Manchester wealth holders were second only to Londoners in their readiness to put money into foreign undertakings’. It is at this point, at the start of the twentieth-century, that Hazeldine’s ‘declinist’ thesis begins to emerge in full force: ‘For the North it was a case of so far and no further: from now on, it would have to sink or swim with its nineteenth-century coal mines, textile mills, steelworks and shipyards’ (pp. 72–73).

The repercussions of The First World War loosened Lancashire’s grip on British India, the biggest outlet for its cotton goods. In Hazeldine’s words, ‘outpaced by late-start competitors in Europe, America and the Far East, dependent on imperial privileges approaching expiry, the world’s first industrial region was about to experience the ground giving way beneath it’ (pp. 89–90). Chapter 5, entitled ‘Dereliction’, gives an indication of Hazeldine’s assessment of the British state’s response. Despite the parliamentary breakthrough of the Labour Party, the two wings of the labour movement took turns to court disaster through the timidity of its leaders in the face of the General Strike and the Great Depression. By 1934 unemployment fell back to single digits in London and the South East but in the North and Scotland remained stuck above twenty percent (p. 93, pp. 105–06). It would take the full mobilisation of national resources over the course of The Second World War to reduce the concentration of economic activity in the South East and to achieve ‘the rationalisation of Outer Britain that peacetime politics at Westminster had singularly failed to deliver’ (p. 113). Chapter 6 analyses how this rationalisation was squandered by both Labour and Conservative governments determined to keep the pound strong and British imperialism intact. Regional policy, as proclaimed by post-war governments of both stripes, came to involve ‘merely a modest stimulus to private-sector investment and job creation, aimed at indemnifying the ruling parties against accusations of neglect, should slump conditions return to the industrial towns of northern England, Scotland and Wales’ (p. 116). Instead of overhauling the Northern manufacturing base ‘before the resumption of commercial competition from continental Europe and Japan’, Hazeldine claims, Attlee was ploughing ‘limitless amounts of money’ into a ‘clandestine nuclear-weapons programme’ (p. 120, 115). This neglect, he argues, continued into the 1960s. Harold Wilson’s modernisation programme, which helped the Labour Party win the 1964 General Election, was sacrificed, Hazeldine claims, on the altar of ‘slavish monetary orthodoxy’ (p. 134). Wilson’s ‘prolonged exposure to the official mind acculturated him to the innermost impulses of the British state, instilling a reverence for the monarchy, for centralisation and for the pound sterling’ (p. 132). In Hazeldine’s terms, throughout the twentieth century the representatives of labour were just as ‘complacent as those of capital’ (p. 122).

In relative terms then the North did not ‘tread water’ during the ‘golden age of capitalism’ and during the 1970s and 1980s, Hazeldine claims, ‘it would be forced below the waterline, never to re-emerge’ (p. 136). This intensification of Northern decline is explored in Chapters 7 and 8. As growth slowed and the seemingly existential crisis of stagflation began to grip the British economy in the 1970s, mass redundancies developed on top of existing regional disparities. Unemployment provoked a profound response from the industrial working-class and the 1974 ‘Who Governs Britain?’ General Election which brought down the conservative government of Ted Heath represented a ‘remarkable victory for the industrial ranks of Outer Britain’ (p. 144). This working-class momentum was undone in Hazeldine’s account, however, by conservative Labour governments led consecutively by Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. An alternative political economy advanced by Tony Benn, the Secretary of State for Industry between 1974 and 1975, and embodied in the Kirkby Manufacturing and Engineering cooperative, was ostracised in favour of ‘sound money and an open market economy’ (pp. 145–46). For Hazeldine, the Labour government’s cowardice in the face of the forces of capital reached its apogee with the IMF crisis of 1976. This represented the moment that the financial crisis of the post-war state was ‘resolved on City terms at the cost of a lingering recession in Outer Britain’ (p. 150). In these chapters Hazeldine deploys his central argument with the greatest persuasiveness. By highlighting how social democrats like Callaghan and Dennis Healey laid the groundwork for neoliberalism, The Northern Question argues there was something inherent in the British state which meant that at regular historical intervals its default was to side with the forces of capital at the expense of the interests of labour. In this sense, by using the North as a lens, Hazeldine portrays Thatcherism more as an intensification or consolidation of pre-existing patterns of political economy rather than as a revolutionary ideology. In Hazeldine’s account Thatcherism governed from the south and ‘tightened the austerity introduced by Callaghan’s Labour’ (p. 159). Rather than portraying the period as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where alternative visions of Britain’s political economy competed for ascendancy, Hazeldine characterises the 1970s as one long march to free-market neoliberalism.[1]

While this is a contestable interpretation of the ideological shifts of the 1970s and 1980s, the fact that neoliberalism consolidated its grip over British politics in the 1990s and 2000s is less open to question. The final two chapters of The Northern Question tells the story of this consolidation and brings the narrative up to the contemporary moment where neoliberal ascendancy appears to be assailed on all sides. Hazeldine’s lens becomes a little blurred when exploring New Labour: on the one hand, he repeats familiar tropes that the Blairite Labour Party represented Thatcher’s ‘greatest achievement’ (p. 177); on the other, he highlights how deindustrialisation in the North was ‘buffered by the stimulants’ of higher public spending, which increased by over six percent a year in real terms between 1999 and 2006 (p. 180). These stimulants would quickly be withdrawn, however, following the 2008 financial crisis. The North East lost fourteen percent of its public sector workforce under the coalition while the South East shed less than three percent. Under David Cameron’s prime ministership median household wealth in London increased by fourteen percent while it fell eight percent in Yorkshire and the Humber. For Hazeldine, Brexit and the 2017 General Election were consequences of these regional disparities. Three parallel voter insurgencies left their mark on the post-2008 distemper:


a Brexit revolt that originated in opposition to Maastricht among City mavericks and Tory voters in the market-town South, but then pivoted to attract northern working-class communities left behind by the New Labour boom and reeling from Conservative-Lib Dem austerity; the left-inclined 2014 Yes campaign for Scottish independence [. . .] and a Corbynist upsurge pitting a millennial precariat against a still largely Blairite Parliamentary Labour Party (p. 197).


While Corbyn managed to hold together an electoral coalition from amongst these various insurgencies in 2017—making the Labour Party’s first Commons gains in a General Election in twenty years—this was achieved by capturing major Northern cities and obfuscation on Brexit. In the aftermath of the election the Brexit movement and the Corbynite Labour Party increasingly faced in opposite directions. The final chapter of The Northern Question entitled ‘Taking a Stand’ explores the consequences of this divergence. Considering his damning indictment of Harold Wilson’s leadership of the Labour Party, it is surprising to see Hazeldine claim that Corbyn should have stuck to the ‘Wilson model’ of ‘personal neutrality’ over Brexit. In the end Corbyn and John McDonnell, ‘pinned their economic programme to a Brexit stance indistinguishable from that of the London establishment against which a large part of the Leave vote had been directed’ (pp. 212–13). In terms of seats, the General Election of 2019 turned on a Labour collapse in the deindustrialised small towns and former pit villages of the Midlands and the North. In these ‘red wall’ regions, 750,000 Leave voters switched to the Conservatives while hundreds of thousands more stayed at home (p. 207). If it is straightforward to demonstrate that Brexit cut across traditional political loyalties and divisions, explaining why remains one of the most contested issues in contemporary Britain. Too many commentators rush to proclaim a loosely conceptualised cultural politics as the key dividing line, yet it is clearly more complicated than this. For Hazeldine, ‘Brexit handed a political weapon to a class and region that had been denied one by Labourist hegemony for so long’ (p. 220). Yet as Will Davies has recently argued, much of what is labelled ‘populism’ is ‘really a longing for some version of the state that predated neoliberal reforms’. The slogan ‘take back control’ appealed to older Brexit voters precisely because they could remember a time when the state was ‘in command of its own economy and able to deliver social security to its own citizens’, a product of the very ‘labourist hegemony’ that Hazeldine deplores.[2] Throughout The Northern Question post-war social democracy is attacked for its repeated capitulations to the forces of capital and characterised as an ideological formation that includes everyone from Dennis Healey to, staggeringly, Dominic Cummings who, Hazeldine claims, ‘wrapped the official Vote Leave campaign in social-democratic colours’ (p. 203).

While it is clearly possible to attack post-war social democracy for its failure to adequately subdue the forces of capital, the reduction of this changing, nuanced and electorally successful ideological formation to a handmaiden of capitalist power speaks to a broader problem with The Northern Question. Namely, that Hazeldine lacks a compelling explanation for why the North has been so neglected by successive governments or rulers over at least two centuries beyond the fact that the British state inherently sided with the forces of capital (a byword for ‘the South’) over those of labour (a byword for ‘the North’). Now there is of course a large amount of truth in this reasoning. British institutions proved uniquely adept at preserving the interests of landed and financial interests and co-opting dissenters to stifle unrest. While the interests of the North might have been consistently marginalised, however, they were marginalised for different reasons over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At its worst Hazeldine’s approach simply lumps social democrats and neoliberals together into a large amalgam called ‘the establishment’. By adopting Hazeldine’s perspective we learn nothing about the consequences of the profound ideological and conceptual shifts of modern British history; about the impact of the welfare state or the rise of the free market. This largely stems from Hazeldine’s ‘declinism’.[3] The Northern Question is heavily indebted to the work of the political theorist Tom Nairn. Alongside fellow New Left intellectual Perry Anderson, Nairn advanced the thesis that the British polity was uniquely conditioned by the absence of a truly bourgeois revolutionary moment.[4] Instead the aristocracy absorbed the emergent bourgeoisie from the early-nineteenth century, preserving the ancien régime and dooming any attempt at modernisation to failure.[5] There is no acknowledgement in The Northern Question, however, to the fact that this thesis has been powerfully challenged in the intervening decades.[6] Declinist critiques are bound-up with a variety of cultural assumptions about the nature of work, Britain’s place in the world and its transition to a welfare state. The latter, which played an important role in the development of Britain’s service economy, is barely mentioned by Hazeldine. In many ways, as the likes of Jim Tomlinson have argued, New Left critiques like The Northern Question end up mirroring a Thatcherite narrative of modern British history if for largely different reasons.[7]

At the start of his account, Hazeldine informs the reader that to understand the North we must ‘delve into the politics of Westminster and Whitehall, observing these proceedings from a northern perspective, to see what English history looks like when stood upon its head’ (p. 23). Later on, he is critical of recent ‘party-political musings’ which, while treating the North as a significant electoral player, tend to project southern assumptions onto the region. These musings, he claims, ‘are not the same as asking what the region itself wants’ (p. 214). Yet voices from the region are exactly what The Northern Question lacks.

The most engaging sections of the book are those where Hazeldine explores the cultural products of the region, from the ‘Angry Young Men’ of the late 1950s to the ‘feel-good musicals of the New Labour boom’ embodied in The Full Monty (p. 220, 18). By the end of The Northern Question, it is difficult to know what the North is beyond a byword for industrialism and manufacturing or to identify what makes it distinct. This partly stems from Hazeldine’s materialist approach and partly from the reductionism of the North-South binary itself as a lens. A much more fruitful approach would be to explore how this division of Britain became ingrained in the national imagination, compressing other regional or local identities. The Midlands, for example, is rarely the subject of such historical scrutiny. Where the Midlands is cited, it is usually grafted onto the North or South and rarely treated as a region in its own right. Hazeldine falls prey to a similar trap. ‘On a statistical basis’, he argues, ‘much more of the Midlands belongs on the northern side of the regional divide’ (p. 13). Hazeldine acknowledges that cities like Birmingham followed their own ‘distinct trajectory’ and has a ‘different story to tell’ than that explored in The Northern Question (p. 14). Yet he is forced to acknowledge where significant movements and processes spill over from ill-defined, contested and largely imagined regional boundaries. While it is undoubtedly true to say that the North-South divide continues to dominate discussions of regional inequality in modern Britain, there is a pressing need to explore the Midlands as a space of identity formation and political upheaval. The recently launched ‘Midlands Identities Project‘, a one-day interdisciplinary conference supported by both The MHR and the Institute of Historical Research, could therefore not be timelier.

While the North-South divide might be an unrepresentative cultural construction, it undoubtedly retains a considerable grip over the national political, economic and cultural imagination. Hazeldine concludes The Northern Question with a powerful fact: the contemporary North accounts for one-quarter of the UK’s population and parliamentary constituencies as well as one-fifth of its GDP. While these economic indicators may be trending downwards, they do so from a great height. In this sense, Hazeldine argues, ‘the problem of the North isn’t going away anytime soon’ (p. 222). The North may benefit ‘from open bidding between the major parties for support’ but it is far from clear that it will settle for what Hazeldine identifies as the ‘post-war norm’: the ‘dispending of palliatives to take the edge of structural economic change’ (p. 214). If his book fails to grapple with the contradictions and contestations inherent in Britain’s image of the North today, as well as amongst those who live there and lay claim to a Northern identity, Hazeldine’s historical survey is a timely reminder that the contours and constraints of contemporary politics are always liable to change, often in unexpected and surprising ways.

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Anderson, P., ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review, 23 (1963), pp. 26–53.

Blackburn, D., ‘Penguin Books and the Marketplace for Ideas’, in L. Black, H. Pemberton & P. Thane (Eds.), Reassessing 1970s Britain (Manchester, 2013), pp. 224–51.

Davies, W., This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (London, 2020). 

Edgerton, D., Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970 (Cambridge, 2006). 

English, R., & Kenny, M., ‘Public Intellectuals and the Question of British Decline’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 3/3 (2001), pp. 259–83.

Hall, P.A., ‘Social Learning and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain’, Comparative Politics, 5/3, (1993), pp. 275–96. 

Nairn, T., ‘The British Political Elite’, New Left Review, 23 (1963), pp. 19–25.

Tomlinson, J., ‘Thrice Denied: “Declinism” as a Recurrent Theme in British History in the Long Twentieth Century’, Twentieth Century British History, 20/2 (2009), pp. 227–51.


[1] For the 1970s as a ‘marketplace of ideas’, see: P.A. Hall, ‘Social Learning and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain’, Comparative Politics, 5/3, (1993), pp. 275–96; D. Blackburn, ‘Penguin Books and the Marketplace for Ideas’, in L. Black, H. Pemberton & P. Thane (Eds.), Reassessing 1970s Britain (Manchester, 2013), pp. 224–51.

[2] W. Davies, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (London, 2020), p. 16.

[3] For the notion of ‘declinism’ see:  J. Tomlinson, ‘Thrice Denied: “Declinism” as a Recurrent Theme in British History in the Long Twentieth Century’, Twentieth Century British History, 20/2 (2009), pp. 227–51.

[4] See for example: T. Nairn, ‘The British Political Elite’, New Left Review, 23 (1963), pp. 19–25; P. Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review, 23 (1963), pp. 26–53.

[5] For a good overview of this account, see: R. English & M. Kenny, ‘Public Intellectuals and the Question of British Decline’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 3/3 (2001), pp. 259–83.

[6] See for example: D. Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970 (Cambridge, 2006).

[7] Tomlinson, ‘Thrice Denied’, p. 235.


Early English Books Online: Mass Digitization and the Archive

Early English Books Online: Mass Digitization and the Archive


This review examines the originations and contemporary usage of the online archive Early English Books Online (EEBO). Highlighting the recent advancements in digital historiography, alongside considerations of inherent archival bias, this article demonstrates a variety of circumstances in which the scholar is encouraged to look beyond the digital archive itself. EEBO here is proposed as a resource capable of profound innovation, one of preservationist historical necessity, and a logical further extension of scholarship dating all the way back to the early twentieth century and the Short-Title Catalogue. Yet also EEBO is a resource of human construction, and therefore must be approached with the same considerations one would the physical archive, giving careful thought to the intersection of material and print culture, and the ways in which they correlate. 

Biography: Conner Wilson is a postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham studying Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and Early Modern theatre culture.

Over the course of the past two decades, the mass digitization of the archive has radically transformed the breadth of primary source material readily available to the modern scholar. Online archives such as Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), Manuscript Pamphleteering in Early Stuart England (MPESE), and the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, along with numerous others, have become inundated with modern methodological approaches to historiography, with most, if not all, Masters and PhD programs requiring some compulsory module towards navigating these resources. On one hand, this “revolution”[1] of digitization as Tim Hitchcock describes it, represents a turning point for historians, as researchers embrace the advantages of immediacy and accessibility in the information age; yet, in a field where visual, material, and print culture so often coincide, how do we determine the accuracy in which these online archival substitutions can produce the unique phenomenological experience associated with resource tangibility? Or, for instance, how do researchers overcome the implicit bias of search bar algorithms in tandem with imperfect and outdated Optical Character Recognition (OCR)? While much of what has been written about EEBO tends to exist in a binary dialectic of good vs. bad, helpful vs. unhelpful, accurate vs. inaccurate, this article will aim to circumnavigate such finite categorizations, and acknowledge both the trepidations of scholars who fear misuse, and embrace the growing computational literacy of historical fields. This reciprocal analysis, alongside a detailed historical account of the creation of the database, presents EEBO as not too dissimilar to the physical archive: proposing that, with both the digital and the material, it is ultimately the historian’s job to determine relevancy and overcome inherent bias.


EEBO’s Beginnings

The origins of EEBO can be traced all the way back to the early twentieth century. In 1918 on commission from The Bibliographical Society, scholars A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave began the monumental task of creating a unified catalogue covering all extant books, printed between 1475 and 1640, across Great Britain and North America. It was a project which would take nearly 8 years of research and require an immense amount of interlibrary cooperation, however, by 1926 Pollard and Redgrave’s work: A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475–1640, was finally ready for publication.[2]2 This Short-Title Catalogue or STC, as it is frequently abbreviated, immediately proved to be an invaluable road map for scholars in the sourcing of rare and out-of-print books. The STC covered the holdings of a myriad of libraries, provided bibliographic information on nearly 26,000 extant texts, and managed a scope of information which was unprecedented. The scholars had successfully proved that the cross unification of resources and information was possible on a massive scale, so far as researchers were willing to acknowledge that it was “dangerous work for any one to handle lazily.”[3] This cautionary caveat would come to permeate historical research well into the information age. Considering now the contemporary trepidations around EEBO, is it fitting here to include Pollard and Redgrave’s initial caution of the STC that “in so large a work based on such varied sources, probably every kind of error will be found represented.”[4] Perhaps, historians have always been cautiously self-aware of the dangers of mass bibliographic consolidation and the seductive illusion of an entirely comprehensive historical archive. Yet, despite this, the pairs’ work has unequivocally become one of the most influential and enduring enterprises towards the sourcing of Early Modern texts. Fourteen years later, with the danger of WWII fast approaching, and the advent of a new technological system, Microfilm, the American Council of Learned Societies felt the processing and photographing of Early English vulnerable texts was a project which could not be delayed, and the Short-Title Catalogue should become the bedrock from which the selection committee would work. Six million pages were prioritized for this microfilmic reproduction process with an ultimate objective of storing the facsimiles securely in America, farther from the increasingly volatile Western Front.[5] This decision to integrate the microphotographic imaging process with the STC would serve as the basis for what is now EEBO, with many of the original images captured by this commission populating the contemporary database today. It is imperative to understand that while much work has been done since the original publication of the STC (notably Donald Wing’s subsequent, yet separate, catalogue expanding the breadth of titles from 1641 to 1700)[6] and on microfilm reproductions themselves (with STC titles continuing to be photographed well into the 1990s) the digital visual make-up of EEBO began nearly 40 years before the advent of the internet; suffice it to say, the microphotographic process was not designed with considerations towards its ultimate digital transference. EEBO, as we know it now, would finally come into existence with the birth of the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) in 1999. This interlibrary effort to “create texts to a common standard suitable for search, display, navigation, and reuse” is the process on which the second half of this article will focus more specifically, as it has come to define the contemporary successes and pitfalls of the database.[7]


OCR, Comprehensive Digital Archives, and Material Culture

Perhaps the most extraordinary feat the EEBO-TCP partnership has undertaken, is its avoidance of common OCR problems, by abandoning the technology altogether. The implementation of a “double-keyed”[8] transcription system, with human editors coding from the original microfilm images, boasts a “99.995%”[9] accuracy rating per-text-entered, thereby enabling the current sophistication level offered in the simple and advanced search bar functions. While immensely expensive and labor intensive, this effort ensures a consistent accuracy which has previously proven difficult in Early Modern typeface transcriptions, yet it does, however, simultaneously shatter the illusion of an entirely comprehensive archive. As Ian Gadd notes, “EEBO does not include every copy of every edition published prior to 1701… nor even does it include a copy of every surviving edition published prior to 1701.”[10] This is an important distinction in that the textual variances between subsequent editions of Early Modern books can prove to be drastic. One need look no further than Quarto 1 and Quarto 2 of Hamlet (both available on EEBO), to detect a noticeably alternate print of the infamous, “To be, or not to be, that is the question” (Tragedy of Hamlet 23)[11] which instead reads, “To be, or not to be, I there’s the point.” (Tragicall Historie of Hamlet 15)[12] Fortunately for Shakespeare, the infamy of his work secures an archival placeholder for the various editions of his plays, however, it is near impossible to discern a similar degree of canonical entirety for the multitudes of lesser-known authors present on EEBO. If a scholar either unknowingly or willfully ignores this fact, the dangers of misrepresentation, false negatives, and false positives are relatively high. Additionally, given that EEBO is computationally manual, the quick inclusion of a subsequent textual edition is seemingly non-existent, and the notion that EEBO could be entirely comprehensive rapidly falls away simply considering the sheer labor intensity of the archive, which is tremendous. This is not to suggest either that EEBO advertises itself as a comprehensive archive (as neither did Redgrave and Pollard consider their work entirely comprehensive), but instead give caution to the scholars who may be first using the resource. One would not assume a physical library could possibly contain every text on a single subject and the same principle must be applied to the digital.

Regarding the physical tangibility of primary source material, EEBO presents both clear advantages and disadvantages. Considering the preservationist origins of the online archive, the sheer volume of scholars who now have access to the texts without having to physically handle the pages is an immense victory for the longevity of Early Modern books. The reality that pages are turned less frequently, less exposed to light, able to maintain a consistent temperature, and are simply less prone to accidental human contamination, will keep these resources accessible to those who need them for many years to come.[13] Healthy shelf life in correlation with the Early Modern book was already a precarious relationship, and the digital archive aids in keeping these texts in the hands of those most qualified to handle their longevity. On the other hand, EEBO all but abandons the material culture of the printed book, as the researcher is, of course, not actually manipulating the original artifact. Books on EEBO all appear to be roughly the same size and dimensions, which is simply not the case.[14] Furthermore, microfilm does little to aid in the capturing of handwritten notes of previous owners, thereby potentially overlooking additional valuable historiographical evidence. For example, many of the digital reproductions of seminal works now existent on the internet today, do little to account for things such as transportability or mobility of the original object. An Early Modern book capable of fitting in its owner’s pocket carries significantly different cultural weight than one which sits on the lectern of a library or lecture hall. Expanding on this work, the researcher may begin to unlock information such as the author’s contemporary popularity or their cordiality with publishing companies. A book existent in multiple different contemporaneous languages may reveal an author’s audience reach, their financial stability, or the sociological circle of which they were a member, all of which in turn can affect literary analysis.

While some of this information may be discerned from EEBO, the researcher must continue to be diligent and thorough with historiographical information beyond the text itself. This ultimately asks the important question at the intersection of material and print culture: can we consider the text of primary source material in a vacuum, or does removing the physical life of the object detract vital information which in turn can affect textual analysis? The answer to this, of course, depends on the author, the text, the book itself, the contemporary and historical associations of the material, the previous owner(s), the type of research being conducted, and a litany of other potential factors, yet still, the contemporary historian must not be swayed into ignoring the material world which exists behind the digital reproduction, as there is certainly valuable information existent there.



In 2001 John Jowett and Gabriel Egan authored one of the earliest reviews of EEBO, writing that “the potential for generating new research in early modern studies is considerable indeed… and electronic products such as EEBO… enable new forms of scholarly study which were not possible using paper and film technologies.” 16 Two decades later, this observation still holds true. EEBO has provided massive amounts of information to scholars over the years, ushering in exciting and new historical discoveries, which otherwise may have gone unrealized, overlooked, or been significantly delayed. Moreover, the access which current students now have to primary source material is unprecedented and evolving the very fabric of how academic arguments are conducted. In the midst of this exciting growth, it is vital for the researcher to remember that they must not rely solely on what is convenient. All archives, whether digital or physical, are ultimately human constructions and therefore contain certain limitations and biases both consciously and unconsciously. The above examples outlined are merely a few of the considerations scholars should take into account when conducting online research. As always, the historian shoulders the burden of accuracy, thoroughness, and overcoming bias, but when used diligently, the potentialities of EEBO are immense.

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De But, R., ‘Managing Risks: what are the agents of deterioration’, <https://artsandculture. library/PQKyBVnbqWmqLw?hl=en are-the-agents-of-deterioration-trinity-college-dublin-library/PQKyBVnbqWmqLw?hl=en>, accessed 8.4.2021.

Gadd, I., ‘The Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online’, Literature Compass, 6/3 (2009), p. 680- 692.

Gavin, M. ‘How to Think about EEBO’, Textual Cultures, 11 / ½ (2017), pp. 70-102.

Heil, J. and Samuelson, T., ‘Book History in the Early Modern OCR Project or, Bringing Balance to the Force’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13 / 4 (2013), pp. 93-94.

Hitchcock, T., ‘Confronting the Digital’, Cultural and Social History, 10/ 1 (2013), p. 9-23.

Jowett, J. and Egan, G., ‘Review of the Early English Books Online (EEBO)’, Interactive Early Modern Literary Studies (2001), pp. 1-13.

Nagle, B. ‘Introduction’, in Wing, D. (ed.), Short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America and of English books printed in other countries, 1641-1700 (New York, 1945) p. 10.

Shakespeare, W., The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, Printed by George Eld for Iohn Smethwicke, and are to be sold at his shoppe in Saint Dunstons Church yeard in Fleetstreet. Vnder the Diall, (London, 1611).

Shakespeare, W., The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, Printed [by Valentine Simmes] for N[icholas] L[ing] and Iohn Trundell, (London, 1603).

‘Text Creation Partnership’, <>, accessed 31.3. 2021.

‘The results of keying instead of OCR’, < content/results-of-keying/>, accessed 31.3.2021.


[1] T. Hitchcock, ‘Confronting the Digital’, Cultural and Social History, 10/ 1 (2013), p. 9.

[2] M. Gavin, ‘How to Think about EEBO’, Textual Cultures, 11 / ½ (2017), pp. 70-102.

[3] B. Nagle, ‘Introduction’, in D. Wing (ed.), Short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America and of English books printed in other countries, 1641-1700 (New York, 1945) p. 10.

[4] Nagle, ‘Introduction’, 10.

[5] Gavin, ‘How to Think about EEBO’, pp. 70-102.

[6] I. Gadd, “The Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online”, Literature Compass, 6/3 (2009): p. 683.

[7] ‘Text Creation Partnership’, <>, accessed 31.3. 2021.

[8] J. Heil and T. Samuelson, ‘Book History in the Early Modern OCR Project or, Bringing Balance to the Force’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13 / 4 (2013), pp. 93-94.

[9] ‘The results of keying instead of OCR’, <>, accessed 31.3.2021.

[10] I. Gadd, ‘The Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online’, Literature Compass, 6/3 (2009), p. 686. (Italics mine).

[11] W. Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, Printed by George Eld for Iohn Smethwicke, and are to be sold at his shoppe in Saint Dunstons Church yeard in Fleetstreet. Vnder the Diall, (London, 1611), p. 23.

[12] W. Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, Printed [by Valentine Simmes] for N[icholas] L[ing] and Iohn Trundell, (London, 1603), p. 15.

[13]  R. de But, ‘Managing Risks: what are the agents of deterioration’, < what-are-the-agents-of-deterioration-trinity-college-dublin-library/PQKyBVnbqWmqLw?hl=en>, accessed 8.4.2021.

[14] I. Gadd, ‘The Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online’, Literature Compass, 6/3 (2009), p. 682.

Witches and the Devil in Early Modern Visual Cultures: Constructions of the Demonic Other


Throughout the early modern period, many Europeans believed in the reality of witchcraft. Those accused of being diabolic witches were thought to have signed a pact with Satan, to worship him, attend Sabbaths, and devise ways to harm humans through maleficia. Witches functioned as an inversion of Christian society, whereby they and their actions were emphasized as being ‘other’, while simultaneously reinforcing the societal norms they revoked. This article investigates representations of devils and witches, and the visual renderings of witchcraft belief, all of which helped construct their otherness. The paper will explore depictions of witches in early modern visual cultures by examining sixteenth- and seventeenth-century fine art, engravings, and woodcuts.

Keywords: Early Modern, witchcraft, supernatural, art, visual cultures, print, gender

Author Biography

Scott Eaton is an independent scholar who is currently researching the history of tea for the social heritage project You, Me and Tea. His research interests include early modern witchcraft, religion, gender, art, and print cultures. Scott’s monograph on a seventeenth-century witch-finder John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft: text, context and afterlife was published by Routledge last year. 


Witches and the Devil in Early Modern Visual Cultures: Constructions of the Demonic Other

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Throughout the Early Modern period, an estimated 90,000 people were prosecuted for witchcraft in Europe, about 50,000 of whom were executed.[1] In many witchcraft narratives and confessions, the Devil played a major role as he was believed to form a pact with witches, giving them powers in return for their soul. At the witches’ sabbath, the Devil was purported to be the figurehead, where witches allegedly gathered to have sex with and to worship him. The intrinsic connection between belief in the Devil, heresy, magic and witches led to the construction of the diabolic witch.[2] By absorbing and developing witch-theory in Europe, art became a way of engaging with these ideas and circulating them more widely.

This article explores the depictions of witches and devils in Early Modern European visual cultures, which helped to construct an image of witches as the ‘other’, as the enemy within.

It discusses art concerning witches’ sabbaths, milk and weather magic, maleficia, the sexual threat of witches and English woodcuts which conveyed the otherness of the witch’s body and familiar spirits. The commonality of the visuals chosen are their depictions of the demonic as an inversion of society and pervasive threat to Christendom.


 Visuals of the dairy-witch and Tempestarii

A fear concerning witchcraft was the impact that magic could have on the economy and targeted individuals. Early modern Europe was mostly comprised of agrarian communities where crops, livestock and dairy were very valuable commodities – disruption to these could spell disaster for the owner. Illustrations of dairy-stealing witches emerged in woodcuts such as those accompanying the 1486 edition of Hans Vintler’s Buch der Tugend (originally written in 1411 and modelled on an early fourteenth-century tract, Tommaso’s Fiori di Virtù) and Johann Geiler’s Die Emeis (1517) (Fig. 1). These images were also depicted on wall paintings, such as those by Albertus Pictor (c.1490) in Söderby-Karl, Uppland, Sweden, or the murals in Vejlby kirke, Århus (1492), and Tuse kirke in Holbæk (c.1460), Denmark.[3] Below, the image of dairy-stealing (Fig. 1) shows the witch using axe magic to pilfer milk from the cow, into her pail – hence the emaciated cow in the background. The witch is syphoning the milk to profit, while the victim and their livestock suffer directly from the effects of the magic, and indirectly from its economic impact. Demonic elements are also visible in the image’s iconography, from the gathering storm of destruction, the smoking cauldron and the group of three female witches gathered to help enact the magic. In a fairly benign looking village scene, the image depicts fears surrounding dairy produce – namely that it can inexplicably spoil or disappear because of demonic witches’ direct meddling.

Figure 1: Witch Stealing Milk from a Neighbour’s Cow. Wellcome Collection, CC BY.

A more sinister ‘cumulative concept of witchcraft’ and demonology began to form in the 1400s, culminating at the end of the century. To many of the elite, demons were no longer considered to be external enemies that could be easily be defeated through trickery, magic or piety, but were extremely powerful supernatural agents that invaded every part of daily life.[4] Some medieval scholars believed that demons and Satan could take human and animal form, make pacts with humans, influence thoughts and emotions, have sexual intercourse with humans and even produce offspring.[5] These beliefs helped inform and create early modern art depicting the demonic and the witch as the enemy.

Part of the vast repertoire of magic attributed to witches was weather magic. In visual cultures Tempestarii were portrayed as the enemy of society by causing terrible weather which could cause damage to or devastate crops, destroy buildings and ships. Ulrich Molitor’s popular text, De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus (1489), the first illustrated witchcraft treatise, showed witches creating weather magic. In a woodcut two witches stand beside a flaming cauldron into which they cast a serpent and a rooster as sacrifices to enact the weather magic, as depicted by the clouds overhead (Fig. 4). The image was simplistic but influential in forming the iconography of witchcraft, especially for Tempestarii. Pieter Bruegel the Elder imitated these concepts and deployed them in a much more intricate manner. His engraving, St James and the Magician Hermogenes (1565) (Fig. 2) depicts a cognate scene, while including evidence of ritualistic sorcery, and crafting his demons and strange hybrids in the style of Hieronymus Bosch.[6] Bruegel’s engraving, loosely based off ‘The Golden Legend’, is loaded with demonic iconography. In the underground chamber of the image, demons are about to dismember a man, overseen by the Devil, and in the middle of the image we can see a witch reading a grimoire and shaking a sieve to divine or enact weather magic. She is aided by the other boiling cauldrons and flying witches scattered throughout the picture. Following the line of clouds, in the top right a witch riding a goat is amidst of the storm which has caused ships to sink and a church steeple to collapse, and, to the left, we see the outline of livestock being killed by the weather. The visuals clearly show demons and witches using weather magic to target and destroy individuals, even to level church buildings, representing witches as an enemy of Christendom.

Figure 2: After Pieter Bruegel the Elder, St. James and the Magician Hermogenes (1565). Public domain.

Jacques de Gheyn II’s Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath (c.1610) (Fig. 3) also uses the motif of the witch with a cauldron to produce huge plumes of smoke which texture the engraving’s background. Demons and witches abound in the engraving: at the bottom of the image three witches are gathered around a vase with a grimoire to create a potion, while the witches to the right open a cauldron, unleashing the clouds and smoke which envelope the sky. The square topped volcano that is violently erupting serves to remind viewers of the natural, destructive powers that witches command, such as their purported ability to control weather – as evidenced by the witches preparing to hurl thunderbolts from the storm clouds.[7] In the background we can see a further indication of this, as a man and his livestock are crossing a river on a raft and an outline of a city is depicted – both of these are likely to be the target of the diabolic witchery presented in the foreground. The Witches’ Sabbath is thus showing demonic forces preparing to lay siege to the Christian settlement, again locating witches as an enemy.

Figure 3: Designed by Jacques de Gheyn II, Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath (c.1610). Public domain.

In a similar vein, Jan van de Velde II’s Heks/Sorceress (1626) positions witchcraft on the outskirts of the mundane, taking place under the cover of night. The engraving shows the witch throwing a powder into the cauldron for a magic ritual (signified by the circle, grimoire and skull), the smoke and fire belching out from the force of the wind produced and melding with the rest of the engraving. In front of the sorceress are an array of strange demons, perhaps signifying sins and vices.[8] Crucially, in the bottom right of the image we can see a house either belonging to the witch or a villager, locating witchcraft in the domestic sphere and emphasising the threat on daily life that demonic witchcraft posed.[9]

Witches, demons, nudity, death, and weather magic are the familiar themes depicted in the art explored. The civilians in the background of the visuals remind viewers of the close proximity and the imminent threat of witchcraft to ordinary Christians.


Witches, power and sexuality

The concept of diabolic witchcraft gave impetus to its artistic depictions in woodcuts, engravings and paintings, visually showing the sexual threat of witchcraft, which evolved with other themes such as Tempestarii. Simplistic woodcuts in Ulrich Molitor’s De Lamiis (1489) (Fig. 4) showed key witchcraft iconography, representing it as a threat, and including themes like weather magic, witches flying on pitchforks, and a woman embracing a bestial devil. The latter positioned devils as hybrid creatures, depicting their bestiality and immorality, and as a threat to monogamy since the woman’s head covering in the image indicates that she has married.[10] Civilisation is again represented in the background, at the very top of the woodcut.

Figure 4: Ulrich Molitor, De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (1489). Public domain.

In early modern intellectual thought, women were considered ‘the weaker vessel’ and men were believed to have a divinely sanctioned rule over them. Men were to fulfil this commandment by governing women through marriage and by ruling their households, as advised in conduct books such as William Gouge’s popular Of Domesticall Duties (1622).[11] As illustrated through Molitor, Devils could prey on women luring them to adultery, disorder and witchcraft, therefore threatening to destabilise the very nucleus of social order – the household.

But women were not helpless: witches could tempt men through magic and the sexuality of their bodies, as witches were thought to be lustful and woman to have sexual capital. For example, Hans Baldung Grien’s painting The Weather Witches (1523) (Fig. 5) combines the sexual element of witches with Tempestarii to identify the naked female bodies as a source of disorder. The swelling clouds indicate the witches’ power and destruction and their windswept hair signifies the lust of the women, as does the witch’s crossed-legged stance – a visual sign of immorality. In the lower tier of the image we see a shrouded goat symbolising the Devil and sexuality, and a small demon is trapped in the flask (stopped by the fruit of original sin) held by the woman on the right.[12] As Charles Zika noted, the iconography, the strong assertive poses of these women and the eroticism of their bodies, convey the centrality of sexual desire and seduction to this image of witchcraft.[13] It shows that witchcraft was demonic in origin but also had power from the sexuality of women, which gave the ‘weaker sex’ power over men.

Figure 5: Hans Baldung Grien, The Weather Witches (1523). Public domain.

Albrecht Dürer was another artist who encoded these concepts of demonic witchcraft in art, helping solidify the sexualised witch-figure. His engraving The Four Witches (1497) (Fig. 6) makes witches more inconspicuous, locating them within society and thus more threatening. The image shows four young, naked women standing together in a room, possibly a bathhouse. At first glance it may seem unassuming but Dürer included cues for his audience to render its diabolic meaning unmistakable: a sinister aspect is added by the inclusion of the Devil emerging from the flames of hell in the bottom left of the image, and the skull and bones on the floor. The rather cryptic letters ‘O.G.H’ written in a sphere above the witches’ heads could mean ‘O Gotte hüte’(Oh God protect us [from the witches]). Additionally, the nudity of the women functioned as a contemporary cultural cipher of witchcraft as a sexual transgression. The positioning of their hands indicates sexual intimacy with each other, while the witches’ beauty, body and desirability represent a threat to the viewer, to men, and the moral and social order. In the image, the women are empowered as witches, giving them magical influence over men and nature, but the image reasserts male authority, by constructing an invisible prison positioning the witches between the demon’s gaze from behind and the male viewer’s gaze from the front. Dürer places male viewers on the precipice of discovering the clandestine witches, just as the demon appears and male authority is challenged.[14] Dürer’s chiaroscuro woodcut, Witches’ Sabbath (1510) conveys similar messages, showing the motif of a young woman astride a goat at the top of the woodcut, symbolising lust, and also parodying the male pastime of horse riding. The bottom half of the image portrays hag-like witches literally cooking up devilry, including weather magic and a demonic ritual. The sexual element so common in witchcraft iconography is primarily evidenced here through the witches’ nudity and the phallic imagery on the left of the woodcut – witches have reclaimed gender power by stealing penises and dangling them over a wooden stick – thus showing how witches threatened Christianity, gender and established order.[15]

Figure 6: Albrecht Dürer, Four Witches (1497). Public domain.

In early modernity, it was believed that diabolic witchcraft was a complete inversion of established social norms. Women would eschew God, attend Sabbaths to worship the Devil, take part in infanticide and orgies and plan direct acts of maleficia, weather magic or the bewitching of men. The actions, sexual capital and demonic allegiance of witches illustrated the debilitating effects diabolism could have on Christian society.[16] Some images in this paper showed the witches brewing malefic magic just outside of normal society, on the peripheries, while some show that the witches were the ‘other’, infiltrating society and therefore a serious threat operating from within.


Enemy Within: English Witchcraft Pamphlets

The close proximity, and threat, of witches can be shown through the visual cultures of English witchcraft pamphlets, as they described actors in localised trials. These witches were also thought to have created a pact with the devil, carried out maleficia and had familiars, all while living amongst ordinary people and subverting norms. Visually, in woodcuts this ‘enemy within’ was often portrayed as an old dishevelled woman, an evil hag with wrinkled skin, a long nose, a facial protrusion, and a cat for a pet – much like our witch stereotype. In early modern print cultures, image and text suggested that the deformed exterior of the witch’s body was a mirror for the twisted interior of the mind. In this sense, the body was rendered as a readable text that betrayed the inner thoughts and behaviours of the individual, painting her as the enemy.[17] This practice of evaluating an individual’s inner condition based on their outer appearance, stemmed from a long tradition of physiognomy, ‘the study of the features of the face, or of the form of the body generally, as being supposedly indicative of character; the art of judging character from such study’.[18] This is more tangible if we examine some witches portrayed in English witchcraft pamphlets. In 1645 Elizabeth Clarke was depicted as a one-legged elderly widow and Joan Flower, in 1619, was portrayed as an old spinster, partially disabled and ‘full of wrath’.[19] A Northampton witch was labelled as ‘monstrous and hideous’ in her appearance and, likewise, in 1613, Elizabeth Device was described as an ‘odious witch…her left eye, standing lower than the other…so strangely deformed’, who outrageously cursed ‘according to her accustomed manner’. Thomas Potts commented that for women with these attributes, their fates were often sealed in court for ‘the wrinkles of an old wives face is good evidence to a jurie against a witch’.[20]  The descriptions match the visual depictions of the alleged witches, and this may have had basis in reality, affecting the lived experience of the women: Elizabeth Clarke’s appearance and lameness were symptomatic of her dealings with devils and witchcraft, while Joan Flower’s and Elizabeth Device’s aesthetics and demeanour signified the sinfulness of their souls (Fig. 7). Their exterior appearance could be corroborative evidence of their sins and demonic pact with the Devil. Indeed, Egeon Askew questioned in 1605 that if their ‘outward face is so deformed…How much more within the breast lies there a more terrible countenance, a more cruell aspect, a more ugly spirit, and a more deformed face?’.[21] The connection between the aesthetics of a person and their mental or spiritual condition was not idiosyncratic in early modern England, but was an element of popular culture which upheld the stereotypical witch-figure as a conceptually potent enemy.

Figure 7: Anon., Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (London, 1619). Public domain.

Additional visual indications of witches’ otherness in woodcuts were their close relationships with their familiars (Fig. 8). These were personal demons who lived with the witch and enacted her harmful magic and were commonly deformed. References to these creatures were prevalent in English witchcraft literature. Taking Clarke again as an example, she confessed to having a sexual relationship with the Devil and of having familiars, which assumed the role of surrogate children. Indeed, some alleged witches specifically called their familiars their children and they took child-like forms: Elizabeth Hubbard said ‘three things came to her in the likeness of Children, which asked her whispering to deny God, Christ, and all his workes’, and Alice Wright confessed to having two familiars in the shape of boys, one of which ‘spoke to her with a great whorce voyce, as if he had been griev’d’.[22] It was believed that familiars suckled blood from supernumerary teats on the witch’s body (resembling a nipple, mole, pimple, wart or keloid) in order to renew the diabolic pact, the body thus marred by a demonic protuberance. Charlotte-Rose Millar has argued that these women conceptualised familiars as surrogate children because they wanted dependent children yet could not have any.[23] As a result, feeding demonic child-like familiars blood, rather than milk, styled the witch as an anti-mother: the dynamic was an inversion of breast feeding and a parody of English society’s ideal of the ‘good mother’ figure –  a pious woman who was a good wife, mother and manager of her nuclear family within a patriarchy-based household.[24] The witch-figure symbolised the harmful, selfish anti-mother in league with the Devil, a neighbour who was sustaining and nurturing demons within the household and local parish – a dangerous enemy within.[25]

Another conceptual layer within the demonic witch-familiar dynamic was the deformity of the animal familiar akin to the ugliness and crookedness of the stereotypical witch, both aesthetics visually signifying evil. It was posited that demonic spirits could not mirror God’s perfect creation hence their deformity, as seen through the hybridity of the animal familiars in the woodcuts of printed pamphlets. Despite this, by interacting with and attacking humans, animal-familiars were able to subvert God’s natural order. Early modernity inherited the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being, which stated that God’s law, as recorded in Genesis 1.28, gave humans control over the animal kingdom and placed animals on a lower level of creation.[26] By using animal familiars to harm humans, witches helped to directly breach God’s natural order and destabilise society. The dynamic between witches and animal familiars also signified the corruption of the witch’s soul, much like the witch’s body. Familiars fed from witches and were the conduits through which magic was enacted at the witch’s behest: these deformed creatures were therefore an extension of the witch and represented her sinful thoughts and desires, to kill and harm.[27] With the stereotypical English witch-figure, her outward appearance corresponded to the twisted interior of her mind, which was mirrored and reflected by the deformed animal familiars enacting the witch’s own thoughts and desires.

The stereotypical depiction of an aged widow or spinster who sustained familiar spirits was construed as an anti-mother figure, which sustained demons with blood outside of wedlock, instead of breastfeeding and caring for a child within a nuclear family and patriarchy-based household. A lustful woman living independently was seen as inherently disorderly; moreover, the witch was nourishing demons and causing harm to locals though magic, all while operating outside of male supervision. The witch and familiars symbolised an inverted family and natural order, and her appearance confirmed the demonic nature of the witch. The idea of witchcraft made the authorities anxious as witches operated outside of the systems which maintained social order, namely patriarchy, the household, marriage, and the Church.[28] This visual construction of the archetypical witch positioned her in opposition to traditional societal norms and ideas of aesthetics, rendering the witch as a localised icon of evil and as a cipher for numerous cultural concerns in the early modern period.

Figure 8: Matthew Hopkins, The discovery of witches (London, 1647). Public domain.



Throughout the early modern period, European visual cultures echoed contemporary concerns about witches and devils, whether in fine art or print. Witches’ relationship with the demonic, their harmful magic, and sexuality endangered established social norms. Witches’ actions and aesthetics portrayed in the selected European visuals construed them as an inversion of conventional social, moral, gender and natural order, and as a dangerous enemy threatening society. Visual constructions of witch- and devil-figures were fluid and reflected contemporary cultural concerns, and highlighted the witch’s ability to subvert and challenge various aspects of order. Above all, the threat demonic forces posed to Christendom was emphasised, witches being visually portrayed as a dangerous enemy within and as the demonic other.




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Anon., Rehearsall Both Straung and True (London, 1579)

Anon., Witches of Northamptonshire (London, 1612) 

Anon., Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (London, 1619)

Askew, E., Brotherly Reconcilement preached in Oxford (London, 1605)

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[1] This article is based on a paper given at the conference Enemies in the Early Modern World 1453-1789: Conflict, Culture and Control, University of Edinburgh, March 2021.

[2] B. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (3rd edn, Harlow, 2006), pp. 8-10; J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Philadelphia, 1997).

[3] C. Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London, 2007), pp. 42-51, 242; National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, “Vejlby Kirke, Risskov, Århus Amt” (1976), 1466, 1490, accessed April 10, 2021,; S. Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 2011), pp. 138-40, 182-3. Remarkably, Mitchell notes that there are approximately sixty churches with extant murals depicting the dairy stealing witch in northern Europe: forty in Sweden, four in Finland, sixteen in Denmark and three in northern Germany (p. 140).

[4] Levack, The Witch-Hunt, pp. 30-73; N. Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: the Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (2nd edn, London, 1993), pp. 17-34; R. Muchembled, A History of the Devil From the Middle Ages to the Present (Cornwall, 2003), pp. 9-34; also see, C. Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romances (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 59-86.

[5] Muchembled, A History of the Devil, pp. 9-34, 108-11; V. Carr, ‘The Witch’s Animal Familiar in Early Modern Southern England’ (PhD diss, University of Bristol, 2017), p. 79; J. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (London,1972), pp. 187-8.

[6] D. Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies (Edinburgh, 2018), p. 43; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 162-73.

[7] Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, pp. 58-9; C. Swan, ‘The “Preparation for the Sabbath” by Jacques De Gheyn II: The Issue of Inversion’, Print Quarterly, 16, no. 4 (1999), pp. 327-339. Linda Hults noted that de Gheyn was a Dutch ‘scientist’ and artist, and that his engravings rendered witchcraft as an ‘inversion of true science’; L. Hults, The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia, 2005), pp. 160-3; Davidson argues that de Gheyn was obviously very familiar with the literature of witchcraft, especially Reginald Scot’s publication, but that his personal beliefs about the topic remain obscure; J. Davidson, The Witch in Northern European Art, 1470-1750 (Freren, 1987), pp. 57-64.

[8] Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, p.108.

[9] For witchcraft and the domestic sphere see; L. Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London, 1994, reprinted 2005), pp. 200-27; D. Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, 1995); J. Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Early Modern Germany (Leiden, 2009), pp. 197-8, 251-4; D. Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996, reprinted 2005); F. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1500–1700 (London, 1994), pp. 169-236.

[10] Davidson, The Witch, pp. 16-7; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 17-27.

[11] J. Eales, Women in Early Modern England, 1500–1700 (London, 1998), p. 4; N. Z. Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975), pp. 126–8; A. Fraser, The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1985), pp. 1–6; J. Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1648), p. 11; R. Bernard, A Guide to Grand-Jury Men (London, 1627), pp. 87–90; James VI and I, Daemonologie (Edinburgh, 1597), p. 44; W. Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622).

[12] Hults, The Witch, pp. 98-9; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 84-5. In learned circles it was thought that witches could not influence weather themselves, but only through the aid of a demon and God’s permission – the demon in the flask reflects this idea; Davidson, The Witch, pp. 25-6.

[13] Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 84-5.

[14] Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, p. 22; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, p. 87; Davidson, The Witch, p. 18; Hults, The Witch, pp. 64-73. For an alternative reading see, M. Sullivan, ‘The Witches of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien’, Renaissance Quarterly, 53, no. 2 (2000), pp. 333-401.

[15] Davidson, The Witch, pp. 20-6; Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, pp. 30, 44; Holts, The Witch, p. 85.

[16] N. Kwan, ‘Woodcuts and Witches: Ulrich Molitor’s “De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus”, 1489–1669’, German History, 30, issue 4 (Dec. 2012), pp. 493-527,; Davidson, The Witch, pp. 14-9; Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, pp. 22, 42; S. Clark, ‘Inversion, Misrule and The Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past & Present, 87, issue 1 (May 1980), pp. 98-127,

[17] M. Mencej, Styrian Witches in European Perspective: Ethnographic Fieldwork (London, 2017), pp. 318-22; S. Eaton, ‘Witchcraft and Deformity in Early Modern English Literature’, The Seventeenth Century, 35, no. 6 (2020), 10.1080/0268117X.2020.1819394, pp. 819-20.

[18] Definition from, Oxford English Dictionary.

[19] M. Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (London, 2005), pp. 3, 41-2; S. Eaton, John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft: Text, Context and Afterlife (Routledge, 2020), Chap. 3; M. Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (London, 1647), frontispiece; Anon., Damnable Practices (London, 1619); Anon., Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (London, 1619). For additional examples see: Anon., Rehearsall Both Straung and True (London, 1579); Anon., A Detection of Damnable Driftes (London, 1579); Anon., Apprehension and Confession (London, 1589); Anon., A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery (London, 1643).

[20] T. Potts, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches (London, 1613), sig. G, M2; reprinted with notes in, J. Crossley, Potts’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster…With an Introduction and Notes by James Crossley, Esq (Manchester, 1845); Anon., Witches of Northamptonshire (London, 1612) the pamphlet’s woodcut is subtly rendered so that it appears as if the witch atop the hog has a cloven foot, thus hinting at her demonic nature.

[21] E. Askew, Brotherly reconcilement preached in Oxford (London, 1605), p. 124.

[22] Stearne, A Confirmation, pp. 26-7.

[23] C. Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England (London, 2017), pp. 119-22; also see M. Gaskill, ‘Witchcraft and Power in Early Modern England: The Case of Margaret Moore’ in, J. Kermode and G. Walker (eds), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (London, 1994), pp. 138-41; C. Koslofsky, ‘Knowing Skin in Early Modern Europe, c. 1450-1750’, History Compass, 12, issue 10 (2014), pp. 794-806,

[24] Willis, Malevolent Nurture; L. Jackson, ‘Witches, Wives and Mothers: Witchcraft Persecution and Women’s Confessions in Seventeenth-Century England’, Women’s History Review, 4, no. 1 (1995), pp. 63–84; Purkiss, The Witch in History, pp. 102–5, 130-4; A. Hughes, ‘Puritanism and gender’ in, Coffey and Lim (eds), The Cam- bridge companion to Puritanism, pp. 296–7.

[25] Willis, Malevolent Nurture; L. Jackson, ‘Witches, Wives and Mothers’, pp. 63–84; Purkiss, The Witch in History, pp. 102–5, 130-4; Roper, Oedipus and the Devil, pp. 20–6; M. Salmon, ‘The Cultural Significance of Breastfeeding and Infant Care in Early Modern England and America’, Journal of Social History, 28, no. 2 (1994), pp. 251–2; P. Crawford, ‘Attitudes Towards Menstruation’, Past & Present, 91, no. 1 (1981), pp. 47–73, especially p. 52.

[26] L. Houwen, ‘Howling Wolves and Other Beasts: Animals and Monstrosity in the Middle Ages’ in, B. Boehrer, M. Hand and B. Massumi (eds), Animals, Animality, and Literature (Cambridge, 2018), p. 43; J. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (London, 1994), pp. 77–101, 146–66; K. Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1550-1800 (London, 1984), p. 41.

[27] E. Wilby, ‘The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland’, Folklore, 111, no. 2, (Oct., 2000), pp. 283–305; Stearne, A Confirmation, especially pp. 16–33; Carr, ‘The Witch’s Animal Familiar’, pp. 34–9, 74, 79, 101; Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions, pp. 81-3.

[28] B. Rosen, Witchcraft in England, 1558–1618 (Amherst, 1991), p. 32; Willis, Malevolent Nurture, p. 244; Roper, Oedipus and the Devil, pp. 200-27; Thomas, Man and the Natural World, pp. 38-9; Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions, pp. 130-2.






Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye, The Churchill Myths (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye, The Churchill Myths (Oxford University Press, 2020).


This article reviews The Churchill Myths, co-authored by Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham, Bill Schwarz, Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London, and Richard Toye, Professor of History at the University of Exeter. The book follows the trajectory of Winston Churchill’s uses in the popular memory of the post-war period, suggesting that the legends of 1940 have remained a central element throughout, but also tracking the changing nature of elements around these stories, such as a greater attention to his personal character. Although the authors make a convincing case in many respects, it leaves some significant aspects of competing ‘Churchill myths’ and change over time underexplored. 

Key words: American politics, Brexit, British politics, Conservative Party, Cold War, film, India, memory, Second World War, Wales, Winston Churchill.

Biography: Alex Riggs is a University of Nottingham PhD History student, funded by Midlands4Cities. His research focuses on the 1970s and 1980s American left, especially their efforts to forge coalitions through electoral and grassroots politics.

A spectre is haunting Britain. The spectre of Winston Churchill. That’s the argument of Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye in The Churchill Myths. Certainly, any follower of British politics will need little convincing of Churchill’s continued relevance. As the authors point out in the book’s key rationale, Churchill has been deployed constantly in the debates around Brexit. Most prominently, Brexiteers have deployed an advocate for a ‘global Britain’ that confronted a German-dominated Europe, but Remainers too have cast him as a pro-European concerned with the implications of Britain cutting adrift from the continent.[1] Indeed, the period since the book’s finalisation propelled Churchill even further into the centre of political discourse, with the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic and global Black Lives Matter protests all prompting further discussion of his legacy.[2] Therefore, Fielding, Schwarz and Toye bring the subject necessary scholarly attention.

As they stress, the book’s subject is not Winston Churchill. It is about memory of him,

‘the many, contrary manifestations of the various Churchill legends and the common, invariant properties which make the range of individual stories recognisably instalments in a common process of codification, resulting in Churchill as myth’ (Emphasis original).[3]

This history is uncovered across three chapters. The first, ‘Brexit May 1940’, tackles Churchill’s political uses, highlighting his utility for a range of political actors in various conflicts and crises, from the Cold War to Brexit. The next, ‘The Churchill Syndrome’, goes over similar ground, again exploring the evolution of his British and American political deployments. It also introduces interesting theoretical concepts, particularly ‘reputational entrepreneurship’, whereby self-interested custodians use particular memories to build a sense of solidarity within communities by defining what they are for and against. This is linked with the concept of a ‘resonant core’ to memories that is always present, whose surroundings are constantly changing over time.[4] This represents important overlap with the ideas of the political theorist Michael Freeden, whose morphological approach to ideology similarly uncovers core concepts, but suggests significant fluctuations in the peripheral concepts that surround its centre over time.[5] Finally, ‘Persistence and Change in Churchill’s Mythic Memory’ is largely focused on dramatic depictions, highlighting the battles that Hollywood producers had with Churchill and his aides to get a biographical treatment to the big screen and his numerous depictions ever since.[6]

The authors convincingly show how the Churchill myths’ adaptability has kept them relevant through the post-war era. They highlight how the myth of an unshakable Churchill arose from early Cold War fears about Soviet expansionism. This was embraced by a diverse range of figures including liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who praised his rhetorical ability ‘to give shape and character, colour and direction and coherence to the stream of events’, something essential for democracy to survive in this context.[7] Then as fears of national decline grew in the 1960s, Churchill became a symbol of Britain’s lost might. In the context of fears around the decline of Britain’s Empire, economy and culture, conservative commentators like the historian John Lukacs portrayed his death in 1965 as the simultaneous passing of the hierarchical, traditional society that sustained its great power status.[8] Most recently, The Churchill Factor, written by perhaps Churchill’s most enthusiastic ‘reputational entrepreneur’ Boris Johnson, depicted him as an anti-establishment figure, taking a meek, out-of-touch political elite to task for their belief in the limits of national power and using his rhetorical might to restore national esteem.[9] The authors suggest that in the age of Brexit’s political deadlocks, Johnson’s narrative of a ‘man of destiny’ smashing through national malaise has become dominant over popular views of Britain’s wartime leader.[10]

In making these arguments, the authors deploy an impressive range of material. Given the abundance of Churchill films, this medium is particularly prominent, especially 2018’s The Darkest Hour. These dramatic depictions are effective in evidencing the centrality of 1940 to Churchillian memory, with this a consistent element throughout- even 1972’s Young Winston, based on Churchill’s first autobiography, My Early Life, treats events decades before the war as foreshadowing his future greatness.[11] This medium also functions effectively in showing the changes that have occurred around this myth. Richard Burton’s 1974 portrayal presented a stoic individual, but his more recent biopics  celebrate his eccentricities, presenting his tempestuousness and bouts of depression as representative of his humanity, in contrast to the distant, stuffy Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax.[12] Political opinion is also drawn upon, including interventions from figures as diverse as John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Farage, providing a good range of popular and elite discourses and showing his constant utility in the post-war period.[13]

The Churchill Myths also reveals some of the key silences in these depictions. In pinpointing the 1940 fixation of these sources, the authors highlight a contradiction in conventional attitudes- on the one hand, Churchill is the man of destiny, singlehandedly steering Britain away from defeat in 1940. Yet on the other, he appears to have been incapable of deploying these talents at any other moment, with his decades of ministerial office before and after the war rarely invoked, and practically irrelevant to the war once the United States and Soviet Union joined the conflict in 1941.[14] This means that a series of events that challenge his status as a unifying national hero, including but not limited to, his sending of troops to quell striking miners in South Wales as Home Secretary, his staunch support for imperialism, and his 1945 election defeat, are either glossed over or unexplained.[15] Even when they are mentioned, such as his pro-Empire intervention in the debate on Indian home rule in the 2002 film The Gathering Storm, they represent his honesty compared to the devious Conservative leadership, not his unrelenting imperialism.[16]

However, this point also reveals one of the book’s flaws. Although the authors are correct in highlighting 1940 as the central Churchillian myth, these silences are by no means universal. Directors may not be rushing to dramatize Churchill’s role in the Tonypandy riots, but his actions still have an important impact on memory of him in South Wales.[17] On a global scale too, the 1943 Bengal Famine has shaped Indian memory of Churchill, with the exacerbation of mass starvation by his wartime policies also fuelling a more critical history, and crucially one not centring on 1940.[18] These critiques make passing visits to the narrative, mentioned in criticisms from John McDonnell and Richard Burton, but a more detailed sense of how they fit within an analysis of the Churchill myths or why they have sprung up in particular contexts is not included.[19] Had they been, The Churchill Myths would have produced a more comprehensive analysis, one that highlights the plurality of memories implied by its title.

A closer analysis of these silences could have also brought further insights into the moments when Churchill is more obscure in political discourse. For instance, it is mentioned that John Major made little use of Churchill during his premiership and that no Churchill films were made between 1982 and 2002 and again between 2004 and 2017, yet no explanations are offered for why this was the case.[20] A more nuanced analysis of Churchill’s American deployments would have also been possible through this approach. Though the authors correctly highlight his use by all post-war American presidents, a search of Presidential public papers reveals that this has been far from equal over time. For instance, Jimmy Carter invoked Churchill thirteen times, but his successor Ronald Reagan found 125 occasions to quote the former Prime Minister.[21] Through closer examination of these deployments, a clearer understanding of why Churchill was especially useful for certain actors and less so for others could be achieved, with Reagan’s confrontational policy towards the Soviet Union making Churchill’s warnings over appeasement and post-war Soviet ambitions convenient.[22] Similarly, the defection of many Southern Democrats to the Republican Party also meant Churchillian wisdom about the merits of switching parties was applicable.[23]

 Patrick Finney’s Remembering the Road to World War Two provides a useful example of this approach. Focusing on the historiography of appeasement, Finney situates historians’ work within the various contexts they were writing in, contrasting the critical outlook of the immediate post-war years of high confidence in Britain’s great power status with the more sympathetic view of the declinist 1960s and ‘70s, where the limits on policymakers’ freedom of action were stressed.[24] Such an analysis brings important insight, and a similar approach more grounded in particular contexts would have given the book a more detailed sense of changes in this mythology over time. Moreover, given that the appeasers are ever present in stories told about Churchill, narratives that rehabilitate them by implication challenge the significance and necessity of Churchill’s intervention, addressing the content of Finney’s study would have added considerable important context.

On occasion in The Churchill Myths, such a structure is used to good effect. For instance, it takes Andrew Roberts’ biography of Churchill as an illustration of the context of internal struggles in the 1990s Conservative Party. The authors underline how Roberts highlighted Churchill’s racism not as a criticism of these attitudes, but as a critique of their inconsistency with the overly welcoming immigration policy of his 1950s premiership, a symptom of the Tory ‘wetness’ that was a concern of the party’s right in the context of John Major’s acceptance of European integration.[25] This is a perceptive analysis, and more frequent application would have added much to The Churchill Myths. This could serve as a means to ask some of the overarching questions about modern Britain, to assess whether the persistence of 1940 suggests a stagnant period, or its constant reinterpretation implies a more dynamic era. This would have also provided an opportunity to include the historiographical discussion that the book lacks, and thus put it into dialogue with this scholarship, as well as providing an opportunity to historicise these works, especially their 2000s proliferation.[26]

In summary then, The Churchill Myths provides a timely and readable intervention in contemporary debates about Churchill. In a relatively short book, the authors reveal important historical insights, showing the adaptability of Churchill over time to suit a variety of political purposes, but also the staying power of his heroic leadership in 1940 as the defining Churchill myth. Yet that brevity also leaves the reader wanting more, with issues over competing Churchill myths and its significance for broader questions in both British history and particular contexts underexplored. Fielding, Schwarz and Toye demonstrate the variety of issues that can be viewed through the lens of Churchill’s memory but leave historians with plenty of angles still to discover.

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Primary Bibliography 

Carter, N., ‘This is the moment to learn the wartime generation’s lesson’, The Times, May 8, 2020, p.5.

Limaye, Y., ‘Churchill’s legacy leaves Indians questioning his hero status’,, accessed 01/04/2021.

Walker, P., ‘Boris Johnson says removing statues is to ‘lie about our history’’,, accessed 30/03/2021.

‘Advanced Search’,, accessed 06/04/2021. 

‘Advanced Search’,, accessed 06/04/2021.

‘Has the town of Tonypandy forgiven Winston Churchill? | ITV News’,, accessed 01/04/2021. 

‘Remarks at a Campaign Rally for Senator Don Nickles in Norman, Oklahoma’,, accessed 06/04/2021.

‘Statement on United States Defence Policy’,, accessed 06/04/2021.


Secondary Bibliography

Connelly, M., We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Abingdon, 2004). 

Fielding, S., Schwarz, B., Toye, R., The Churchill Myths (Oxford, 2020).

Finney, P., Remembering the Road to World War Two: International History, National, Identity, Collective Memory (Oxford, 2011). 

Freeden, M., ‘The Morphological Analysis of Ideology’, in M. Freeden, L. Tower Sargent and M. Stears (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (Oxford, 2013), pp.115-137. 

Noakes, L. and Pattinson, J. (eds.), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War (London, 2013). 

Smith, M., Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London, 2000). 


[1] S. Fielding, B. Schwarz and R. Toye, The Churchill Myths (Oxford, 2020), pp.8-9.

[2] N. Carter, ‘This is the moment to learn the wartime generation’s lesson’, The Times, May 8, 2020, p.5; P. Walker, ‘Boris Johnson says removing statues is to ‘lie about our history’’,, accessed 30/03/2021.

[3] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, p.11.

[4] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.72-73.

[5] M. Freeden, ‘The Morphological Analysis of Ideology’, in M. Freeden, L. Tower Sargent and M. Stears (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (Oxford, 2013), pp.124-25.

[6] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.143-44.

[7] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.40-41.

[8] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.35-36.

[9] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, p.23.

[10] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.27-28.

[11] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.125,138

[12] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.139-40.

[13] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.9-10,79-80,84-85

[14] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.111-12.

[15] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.122-24.

[16] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.133-34.

[17] ‘Has the town of Tonypandy forgiven Winston Churchill? | ITV News’,, accessed 01/04/2021.

[18] Y. Limaye, ‘Churchill’s legacy leaves Indians questioning his hero status’,, accessed 01/04/2021.

[19] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.69-70,108-09.

[20] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.86,138.

[21] ‘Advanced Search’, accessed 06/04/2021; ‘Advanced Search’,, accessed 06/04/2021.

[22] ‘Statement on United States Defence Policy’,, accessed 06/04/2021.

[23] ‘Remarks at a Campaign Rally for Senator Don Nickles in Norman, Oklahoma’,, accessed 06/04/2021.

[24] P. Finney, Remembering the Road to World War Two: International History, National Identity, Collective Memory (London, 2011), pp.192-94,200-02.

[25] Fielding, Schwarz and Toye, The Churchill Myths, pp.88-89.

[26] M. Connelly, We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Abingdon, 2004); M. Smith, Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London, 2000); L. Noakes and J. Pattinson (eds.), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War (London, 2013).

F. Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale: British Military Memoirs of the Second World War (Cambridge, 2018).

F. Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale: British Military Memoirs of the Second World War (Cambridge, 2018).

Biography: William Noble is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, funded by Midlands4Cities. His research examines the relationships between popular discourses of ‘race’ and immigration, and the concept of ‘decline’ in the post-war Midlands.

What can veterans’ memoirs of the Second World War tell us about combatants’ experiences both of conflict and post-war life? This is the question that Frances Houghton seeks to answer in The Veterans’ Tale: British Military Memoirs of the Second World War. In response, Houghton convincingly demonstrates that veterans’ memoirs are valuable to historians because of their capacity to reveal  the ex-combatants’ retrospective memory and understanding of battle; despite which they have been previously unheard on a collective level within the scholarship on war, memory, and personal narratives.[1] Houghton argues the attention they have received has been in the discipline of literary criticism, for example in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale.[2] Given the voluminous literature on the war’s impact on British society, politics and culture – which has taken account of war films, public memorials and commemorations, and many other types of sources besides – in writing the first book-length historical study of Second World War veterans’ memoirs Houghton is beginning to correct this surprising omission.[3]

Drawing influence from various disciplines, including memory studies, auto/biographical studies, and histories of the emotions, Houghton investigates how veterans reinterpreted their wartime experiences in the post-war years, by examining their relationships to four main themes: landscape; weaponry; the enemy; and comradeship. Houghton’s detailed introduction establishes the book’s theoretical and methodological underpinnings.[4] In Alessandro Portelli’s famous defence of oral history, he wrote that the value of oral testimony lies not in its ‘adherence to fact’, but in ‘its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge’.[5] Houghton views veterans’ memoirs similarly, arguing that the embellishments, discrepancies, and conflicts in an individual’s memories are what make them such a rich source of evidence both about how war was experienced at the time, and how it is remembered over the subsequent years and decades.[6] In the following eight chapters, which can be roughly divided into three sections, Houghton surveys a wide range of veteran memoirs from the Army, Navy, and RAF, and from the European, North African and Atlantic theatres – comparing and contrasting the experiences of combatants in each.

Chapters 1 and 2 (the first section) survey the provenance of Second World War veteran memoirs, employing the archives of major publishing houses to examine veterans’ motives for, and the process of writing, publishing and publicly producing their war experiences in book form in post-war Britain. In Chapter 1, ‘Motive and the Veteran-Memoirist’, Houghton demonstrates how, for some veterans, factors such as post-traumatic stress disorders, post-war disillusionment, and an inability to build lasting relationships saw the war elevated to an ‘apex of memory’. Constructing memoirs could enable veterans to process their combat experiences to be able to better cope with the present. These discussions of veterans’ post-war struggles are rather brief, however, and could form the basis for a fascinating study in its own right, though Houghton’s introduction makes it clear that her focus is specifically on combat experiences.[7] However, memoirs were not only constructed for an ‘Audience of the Self’.[8] Memoirists also wrote for ‘Audiences of the Future’ – for their children, for future generations of servicemen, and/or as a general warning to the public to ‘not let it happen again’.[9] Finally, they wrote for ‘Audiences of Comrades’, both living and dead.[10]

Chapter 2 examines the process of ‘Penning and Publishing the Veterans’ Tale’, with prominent themes including: memoirists’ insistence on the reliability of their memories, despite which many went to great efforts to establish the veracity of their accounts with support from a variety of additional sources (letters, diaries, regimental records, etc.); disputes between authors and publishers, as veterans’ desires for the most authentic representation of their war experiences could clash with the publishers’ commercial incentives; and the trend for memoirists to become more candid in their accounts as censorship was eased (both of information with the 1967 amendment of the Public Records Act, and of language with the reforms of the Obscene Publications Act), and as a more ‘liberal climate’ developed from the 1960s.[11]

Chapters 3-6 (the second section analyse the ‘narrative content’ of the memoirs, and particularly their literary representations of the front line, focusing respectively on the themes of landscape, weaponry, the enemy, and comradeship.[12] Chapter 3, ‘Landscape, Nature, and Battlefields’, investigates the landscape’s role in shaping experiences of combat, and the meanings veterans projected onto these landscapes, through comparison and contrast of their experiences with the Army in North Africa, in aerial combat, and at sea.[13] In all cases, Houghton finds that landscapes were invested with distinct symbolism which allowed veterans to make sense of their battle spaces.[14] Chapter 4 similar examines veterans’ relationships with weaponry, examining the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, Battle of Britain fighter pilots, and tank crews in the 1944 Normandy Campaign, again comparing and contrasting these varied experiences.[15] For example, while the differences between the latter two are particularly striking, these accounts all reinforced the centrality of the human experience of war, rather than the story that has sometimes been told of the Second World War of machines ‘dominating’ to the ‘exclusion of the human combatant’.[16]

Chapter 5, ‘“Distance”, Killing, and the Enemy’, similarly complicates accounts of warfare which suggest that technology depersonalised killing. Houghton finds that technology could not make the dead completely anonymous, though Navy and RAF veteran-memoirists were perhaps better able to employ the ‘grey machinery of murder’ as a psychological barrier to avoid confronting any moral qualms over their actions than those who served in the Army.[17] Some of the most poignant sections of the book are those in this chapter which deal with veterans’ contacts with the enemy; their memoirs suggest that preconceived ideas of German troops as the inhuman ‘Hun’ could not be sustained after their first personal contact with them.[18] It would be interesting to contrast these veterans’ experiences with those who fought against Japan, but Houghton chooses not to consult memoirs by those who fought in Asia, as the deeply racialised conceptions of the Japanese held by the British render veterans’ depictions of combat on that front very different to those who fought in Europe.[19] Chapter 6, ‘Comradeship, Leadership, and Martial Fraternity’, investigates the claim by psychiatrists and others that the ‘small group in combat’ was the main motivation for fighting and was key to preventing psychological breakdown during combat.[20] Houghton finds that for memoirists, the personal relationships within their small group were indeed the ‘ultimate spur’ in battle, whether this small group was a platoon, the company of a ‘little ship’ or submarine, or a seven-man Lancaster bomber crew, though again there were also important differences between the various branches.[21]

Chapters 7 and 8 (the third section) explore how memoirists used their historical records for both private and public reasons, using their memoirs both for self-fashioning and for claiming agency over their wartime experiences.[22] Chapter 7, ‘Selfhood and Coming of Age’, charts how memoirists wrote of their wartime experience as a journey from ‘Youthful Innocence’ to ‘Manhood’. Houghton compares these memoirs to Bildungsroman, interrogating how veteran-memoirists understood and reconstructed their ideas of masculinity, maturity, and selfhood in relation to their war experiences.[23] The chapter investigates memoirists’ motivations for joining the conflict, finding that despite being aware of the horrors of the First World War many memoirists, influenced by the popular culture of the period, saw warfare as an enticing ‘adventure’ situation, and the soldier as a ‘quintessential figure of heroic masculinity’.[24] However, the chapter also shows that memoirists were quickly disabused of these naïve beliefs.[25] Memoirists still saw the war as crucial to their ‘growing up’, but the model of adult masculinity they ascribed to was less the ‘soldier-hero’ model identified by Graham Dawson, but instead the ‘understated, good-humoured, kindly, and self-deprecating courage of the “little man”’ identified by Sonya Rose.[26] Crucially, this latter model of masculinity, unlike the ‘soldier-hero’ model, could include civilians on the home front, offering reassurance that veterans would be able to readapt to a civilian masculinity.[27] Whilst Houghton in her introduction acknowledges the impossibility of ignoring women’s impact on masculine identities and experiences—even in such seemingly closed-off, all-male institutions as the British military—she nonetheless does not investigate how women were represented in veterans’ memoirs, as The Veterans’ Tale is essentially concerned with memoirists’ representations of frontline combat, from which women were excluded.[28]

While all eight chapters are fascinating, it in Chapter 8, ‘History, Cultural Memory, and the Veteran-Memoirist’, that the wider importance of military memoirs to the historical and cultural memory of the war becomes clear. Here, Houghton examines how three memoirists – Alex Bowlby, Miles Tripp, and Jack Broome – used their memoirs to challenge what were in their opinion unsatisfactory official, academic, and cultural representations of the war. For example, Miles Tripp’s 1969 memoir of his service as a bomb-aimer, The Eighth Passenger, was intended to rehabilitate RAF Bomber Command’s post-war reputation, which many former aircrew felt presented them as war criminals.[29] However, it was also used by historians in debates on the morality of Bomber Command’s actions, particularly the February 1945 Dresden raid, with Tripp’s claim that he attempted to drop his bombs outside the city interpreted by many as an implicit attack on Bomber Command. The chapter examines Tripp’s vehement denials of such claims, and his opposition to his memoir being used by disgraced historian David Irving (most notorious as a Holocaust denier) to support his account of the raid, which was later discredited as he vastly inflated the number of deaths by over 100,000 as part of his attempt to castigate the RAF and establish a moral equivalence between the Nazi regime’s crimes, and the killing of German civilians.[30]

Finally, the short conclusion summarises the book’s main themes, namely memoirists’ desires to depict their personal reactions to war, and the human factors comprising the experience of battle, in contrast to military historians’ more grand and dehumanised narratives. As Houghton puts it, war memoirs ‘capture the man inside the uniform, his own understanding of his physical and psychological performance in the field, and his emotional responses’ to combat. Significantly, they offer a window into the ‘experience of battle as it endures in a veteran’s mind throughout his lifetime’. Memoirists wrote for public audiences, to educate, entertain, and warn them of the folly of war, and in an attempt to claim ownership of scholarly, official, and cultural remembrance of the conflict, but they also wrote for themselves, to ‘reconstruct shattered notions of masculine self into a coherent and meaningful image’ in the post-war years.[31]

This is an impressive and important book, but there are some small points of criticism that can be made in addition to those already raised. Houghton chooses to follow a thematic structure in her chapters, in turn dividing each chapter into an examination of the distinct experiences of combatants in each branch of the armed forces. This can make it somewhat difficult to trace the experiences of any particular memoirist, or of any branch of the armed forces, though the index is helpful in this regard. Moreover, while Houghton is up-front about why some memoirs were excluded from the scope of her study, the exclusion of accounts written during the war itself is perhaps unfortunate, as to contrast accounts written then with those written in the post-war years and decades might have helped elucidate her arguments about memoirists’ changing perspectives over time.[32]

No one study cannot be expected to cover all aspects of this vast and fascinating subject, however, and it is clear that an enormous amount of research went into this book. Houghton’s bibliography lists over ninety individual memoirists, some with multiple titles and/or editions to their name, such that the total number of memoirs consulted is over a hundred.[33] This is in addition to a huge range of other primary and secondary sources, and every point made is well substantiated with multiple examples from veterans’ memoirs. The Veterans’ Tale is successful in substantiating its central claim for the importance of veterans’ memoirs as historical sources, and in providing fresh insights into veterans’ experiences of combat as they were lived and remembered throughout veterans’ lifetimes.[34] It is now left for other historians to build on Houghton’s work in furthering our understanding of British cultural memories of the Second World War. More thorough examination of the post-war lives of ‘veteran-memoirists’, and studies of those types of memoirs Houghton excludes from her account, would be particularly fascinating.

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Bourke, J., An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare (London, 1999).

Connelly, M., We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow, 2004).

Dawson, G., Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire, and the Imagining of Masculinities (London, 1994).

Fussell, P., The Great War and Modern Memory (London, 1975).

Houghton, F., The Veterans’ Tale: British Military Memoirs of the Second World War (Cambridge, 2018).

Hynes, S., The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (London, 1998).

Portelli, A., ‘What Makes Oral History Different’, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader (London, 1998), pp. 63-74.

Rose, S. O., ‘Temperate Heroes: Concepts of Masculinity in Second World War Britain’, in S. Dudink, K. Hagemann and J. Tosh (eds.), Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History (Manchester, 2004), pp. 177-95.

Wessely, S., ‘Twentieth-Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown’, Journal of Contemporary History, 41/2 (2006), pp. 269-86.



[1] F. Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale: British Military Memoirs of the Second World War (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 4-5.

[2] P. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (London, 1975); S. Hynes, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (London, 1998).

[3] See, for one example among many, M. Connelly, We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow, 2004).

[4] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 4-6.

[5] A. Portelli, ‘What Makes Oral History Different’, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader (London, 1998), pp. 68-9.

[6] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, p. 2.

[7] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 22-6.

[8] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 29-39.

[9] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 40-45.

[10] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 46-52.

[11] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 59-65.

[12] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 25-6.

[13] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 72-82, 83-92, and 93-101 respectively.

[14] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 101-2.

[15] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 105-12, 112-21, and 121-35 respectively.

[16] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 135-6.

[17] J. Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare (London, 1999), p. 6.

[18] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 161, 166-7.

[19] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, p. 22.

[20] Simon Wessely, ‘Twentieth-Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown’, Journal of Contemporary History, 41/2 (2006), p. 269.

[21] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, p. 170.

[22] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 25-6.

[23] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, p. 207.

[24] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 208-21.

[25] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 221-42.

[26] G. Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire, and the Imagining of Masculinities (London, 1994); S. O. Rose, ‘Temperate Heroes: Concepts of Masculinity in Second World War Britain’, in Stefan Dudink, Karen Hagemann and John Tosh (eds.), Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History (Manchester, 2004), pp. 177-95.

[27] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 242-3.

[28] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 22-3.

[29] The Lancaster bombers which Tripp served in had a seven-man crew; the ‘eighth passenger’ is an allusion to fear, specifically the way Tripp saw it as invariably accompanying the bomber crews on every mission.

[30] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 254-62.

[31] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 272-8.

[32] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 22-5.

[33] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, pp. 279-90.

[34] Houghton, The Veterans’ Tale, p. 2.

Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World, Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir (London, 2020)

Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World, Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir (London, 2020)

Biography: Sian Webb recently submitted her PhD thesis, ‘A Land of Five Languages: Material Culture, Communities and Identity in Northumbria, 600-867’, that was joint supervised by Chris Loveluck in Archaeology and Peter Darby in History.  She focuses on early medieval cultural history, material culture and medieval studies.

The year is 1014 and The Battle of Clontarf rages in Dublin. It is a setting which in many cases immediately sparks images of men fighting and dying for their male lords, kings, plunder and the glory of battle.  As this is happening, a man in Caithness far away on the north-eastern coast of Scotland spied twelve figures entering a weaving shed. These women were the Valkyries.  As the Irish and Norse fought in Dublin, they wove a tapestry with a thread of human entrails and loom-weights of skulls. This is how Friðriksdóttir opens her exploration of women living in the Viking world. Whilst warfare, and medieval battle in particular, is often envisioned as a strictly masculine affair in modern popular consciousness, this vignette from the thirteenth-century Njáls saga reintroduces a feminine aspect.

Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World is a rich cultural history of the lives of Viking Age women, constituting a worthy addition to the existing scholarship on this topic.  In this endeavour, the setting is apt. Women from goddesses such as Freyja and Valkyries like Sigrún, to extraordinary, albeit human, women accounted for in Icelandic sagas, such as the Viking Guðriðr Þorbjarnardóttir, are shown to be deeply complex individuals.  They all are shown to have a rich mixture of virtues and vices with the capacity to display the full range of emotions.[1] They could be honourable, brave and wise whilst also able to make mistakes and be ruthless in their anger. These women did not appear as static images nor as moral lessons set in black and white. As Friðriksdóttir brings together the threads of her study it is evident, as she states in her introduction, that these are reflections of real people and emerge from a society wherein women were essential for their work and the wisdom they possessed.

Friðriksdóttir’s monograph emerges from a shift in the scholarly appreciation of the complexity of the culture and identities of the people, both men and women, of the Viking Age (ca. 790-1066 CE). Her study is largely confined to Viking settlements in Northern Europe and the British Isles, though she does at times bring in evidence from the Baltic region.  In this monograph, she provides an overview of the evidence at hand bringing together shared attributes shaping the lives and identities of women throughout the regions of Viking settlement.  This widening appreciation of Viking culture and society began in the 1970s with the seminal work The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia by Peter Foote and David Wilson, in which the authors devoted very little space to the discussion of raiding and violence, delving instead into the rich culture and artistically constructive activities of the period.[2] Two decades later, Judith Jesch opened the discussion of the place of women in Viking society.[3] This monograph brought together a wide variety of  material sources and toponymy to bring gender studies into a scholarly tradition that had long ignored the presence and involvement of women in all aspects of life.  The study of Viking women and their potential for active involvement in raiding and warfare culture was reinvigorated in 2017 by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, et al. with their paper ‘A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics’.  The team used genome-wide sequence data to confirm the biological sex of a Viking individual in a well-furnished grave and disprove previous assumptions that the individual must have been male based on the weaponry and material culture with which it was buried. The team concluded by cautioning against basing our understanding of the past and potential of the people who lived then on generalised assumptions of cultural norms and stereotypes.

As Friðriksdóttir states, the term ‘Viking’ does not only refer to those who were chiefly interested in violence, pillaging and raiding, though these encounters did occur particularly in the earlier period of their activity. ‘Viking identities’, according to her, also encompass the mobility of the people in question. Those were groups of people actively involved in trade routes that stretched from Asia to the western fringes of Europe, in travel and in the settlement of short- and long-term colonies.[4] In these endeavours, women were more than able to take an important role, whether or not they were actively involved in raiding and warfare. As seen in the opening vignette, women were inextricably linked with spinning and weaving. Textile production opened a considerable path to social mobility, as Viking mobility relied on ships and their sails. These objects, along with the production of clothing suitable for long sea voyages in arctic seas, required years of effort that would largely be the work of professional women.[5] This mobility and the opportunity for women to engage in high-level political activity is reflected both in sagas and in presence of high-status female graves at the sites of important Viking Age power centres.[6]

In order to provide an accurate and fully developed image of Viking women, Friðriksdóttir brings together a wide variety of sources both material and textual, including runic inscriptions, the text and imagery carved on runestones, toponymy, picture stones, Viking Age art and archaeological sources alongside textual evidence provided by the sagas and from annals and other historical texts produced in Ireland and other European areas.  This approach requires a synthesis of materials from a wide variety of academic fields spanning Viking and Medieval studies and the growing appreciation of material culture in history that began in the 1990s with scholars such as Judith Jesch, and continued to gain strength through the early 2000s, with works such as the collected volumes Land, Sea and Home: Proceedings of a Conference on Viking Period Settlement, (Cardiff, July 2001) and Cædmons Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede: Six Essays.[7]  This approach continues to prove fruitful, attracting a growing number of scholars focusing on a range of topics on which textual sources are less forthcoming.[8]

Each individual type of source, from material culture and archaeology to textual vignettes, offers its own window into the study of the cultures and communities of the past. Without a wide source base, information from different fields of knowledge loses some key contextual elements, skewing our understanding of past societies and the identities that grew within them. By bringing a wider base of sources together to form an integrated approach, it is possible to work towards an understanding of how all pieces fit together. Insights gleaned from different sources can provide context and balance out the weaknesses and biases present in each individual type of source. This balance of sources is adeptly managed by Friðriksdóttir, leading to the wonderfully complex and richly layered depiction of the lives and opportunities of Viking women shown in Valkryie.

Friðriksdóttir draws the reader in by the textual vignettes provided by the sagas.  These texts draw readers into a portrayal of the world as seen by the saga authors and their audience, bringing a vibrancy of colour and life to the discussion of the past.  It is balanced by the evidence provided by the wide variety of complementary sources discussed above.  A wide range of women from the sagas help to provide evidence for the shape of life for women from varied backgrounds, from wealthy and influential women who controlled the lives of their families to young women who become trapped in awful cycles of poverty and abuse.  The depiction of Valkyries and deities from the sagas provide further insights into cultural understandings of the nature of women and their ability to be brave and strong or cowardly and deceitful.  Whilst Friðriksdóttir shows a careful and studied handling of the sagas, the book could benefit from a deeper discussion of the difficulties presented by these sources for the benefit of the reader.  These difficulties include the mixing of Christian and traditional belief systems for the saga authors and how this may tinge the text.  Another difficulty that could have been discussed is the chronological diversity of the sources.  The saga authors often wrote about things that happened centuries before their own time.  Ideology and cultures evolved and adapted to the new problems and opportunities presented by different times.  This introduced further potential for incidental misrepresentation of what would now have been a different culture from the saga author’s own contemporary reality.

The book is structured around a life cycle, delicately following the trails of women’s lives in the lands touched by Viking culture from birth through to death. Along the way, Friðriksdóttir examines how age, marital status and social rank affected their identities through material culture, burial and osteological archaeology, and sagas. She considers infancy and childhood for female offspring, discussing infanticide and the argument that female infants may have been more likely to be left to die from exposure in times of hardship, offering a balanced view on all sides of this argument. In this, she sets runic evidence that suggests a population balance skewed in favour of men alongside burial evidence and law codes that indicate the depth of love that Viking families could show for their daughters and the protections granted to children and pregnant women regardless of the infant’s sex.[9]

Chapter 2 focuses on the social world of teenage girls, discussing the cultural beliefs and family honour that shaped their lives and potentially restrained their opportunities. Yet, this period of youth and young adulthood also brought with it the potential for women to take a role in craft and trade work, to act as poets (skáldmær) or a more physically active role in violence and warfare.[10] The following chapter turns to adulthood, the lives and status of married women, and female agency and divorce. In it, the author discusses personal adornment, women’s involvement in craft-working and trade, and opportunities for travel and leadership roles.  Women were valued for their intelligence and abilities, personal attributes that could prove to be attractive qualities in a partner. Even after marriage, however, women were able to initiate a divorce if marital relations broke down.

Much of the adult life of fertile women would be spent in a cycle of pregnancy and the nursing of young children, along with miscarriages, healing from childbirth and the potential of death associated with childbirth. These concerns and the importance of motherhood form the core of Chapter 4. The chapter brings these topics to life through evidence from sagas showing the bravery of pregnant women, as well as mothers who could be wise leaders of their communities, loving supporters of their families and ruthless in their attempts to secure the future wealth and social rank of their sons and daughters.[11]

If women survived their childbearing years, they were statistically more likely to outlive their partners. Chapter 5 focuses on this shift in the life cycle with an examination of widowhood in Viking culture. In this endeavour, Friðriksdóttir looks at the actions of widows in sagas alongside the evidence of influential women available from runic inscriptions and grave goods.  Widows were able to consolidate considerable wealth as businesswomen and remain active in their communities as commissioners for the construction and upkeep of bridges and roads.[12] The transition between older belief systems and the new Christian religion brought additional opportunities for widows who displayed their new faith by commissioning stone crosses blending Christian and traditional imagery with runic inscriptions.[13]

The monograph concludes with the experience of elderly Viking Age women and their treatment in death. Viking Age burials indicate that communities held older women in positions of considerable influence and dignity.[14]  Evidence found in sagas, graves containing staffs, amulets and medicinal plants, and the iconography of women holding staffs and branches found on the Kirk Michael cross slab (123) on the Isle of Man suggest that older women could be valued as professional seeresses (völva or seiðkona) and for their role in traditional magic (seiðr).[15]

Overall, Friðriksdóttir builds a vivid image of the complex realities of life for women in Viking settlements. Women could be constrained by societal expectations, yet Viking Age culture allowed opportunities for both physical and social mobility.  Women took positions of importance in their families and communities from their youth to the end of their lives. They could be ruthless and vengeful or wise and honourable, characterised by a mixture of virtues and vices. The balance of sources provides a detailed consideration of the realities of life for Viking Age women, and the textual vignettes drawn from sagas make the work endlessly engaging for both academic readers and non-specialists interested in Viking history.

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Brink, S. and Price, N. S. (eds). The Viking World. (New York, 2008).

Cambridge, E. and Hawkes, J. (eds), Crossing Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Art, Material Culture, Language and Literature of the Early Medieval World (Philadelphia, 2017).

Frantzen, A. J. and Hines, J. (eds), Cædmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede: Six Essays (Morgantown, 2007).

Fleming, R., Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070 (London, 2011).

Foote, P. and Wilson, D., The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia. (London, 1970).

Friðriksdóttir, J. K., Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World. (London, 2020).

Gilchrist, R., Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women (New York, 1994).

Gilchrist, R., Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course (Woodbridge, 2012).

Hayeur Smith, M., The Valkyries’ Loom: The Archaeology of Cloth Production and Female Power in the North Atlantic (Florida, 2020)

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., Kjellström, A.,  Zachrisson, T., Krzewińska, M., Sobrado, V., Price, N., Günther, T., Jakobsson, M., Götherström, A. and Storå, J., ‘A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 164/ 4 (2017), pp. 853-860.

Hines, J., Lane, A. and Redknap, M. (eds). Land, Sea and Home: Proceedings of a Conference on Viking Period Settlement, at Cardiff, July 2001 (Abingdon, 2004).

Hyer, M. C., and Owen-Crocker, G. R., The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World (Exeter, 2011).

Jesch, J., The Viking Diaspora (Abingdon, 2015).

Jesch, J., Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, 1991).

Jones, S., The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present. (London, 1997).

Sørensen, M. L. S., ‘Gender, Material Culture, and Identity in the Viking Diaspora’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 5 (2009), pp. 253-269.

Wicker, N. L., ‘Christianization, Female Infanticide, and the Abundance of Female Burials at Viking Age Birka in Sweden’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 21 (2) (May 2012), pp. 245-262.


[1] J. K. Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World. (London, 2020). Pp. 10-11.

[2] P. Foote and D. Wilson. The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia. (London, 1970).

[3] J. Jesch, Women in the Viking Age. (Woodbridge, 1991).

[4] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 12.

[5] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 85.

[6] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 107-108.

[7] J. Hines, A. Lane and M. Redknap (eds). Land, Sea and Home: Proceedings of a Conference on Viking Period Settlement, Cardiff, July 2001 (Abingdon, 2004); A. J. Frantzen and J. Hines (eds). Cædmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede: Six Essays. (Morgantown, 2007);

[8] For Viking studies, material culture is invaluable.  See: N. L. Wicker, ‘Christianization, Female Infanticide, and the Abundance of Female Burials at Viking Age Birka in Sweden’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 21 (2) (May 2012), pp. 245-262; M. Hayeur Smith, The Valkyries’ Loom: The Archaeology of Cloth Production and Female Power in the North Atlantic. (Florida, 2020); M. L. S. Sørensen, ‘Gender, Material Culture, and Identity in the Viking Diaspora’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 5 (2009), pp. 253-269. This process can be seen throughout medieval studies. See: E. Cambridge and J. Hawkes (eds), Crossing Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Art, Material Culture, Language and Literature of the Early Medieval World, (Philadelphia, 2017); S. Jones. The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present (London, 1997); M. C. Hyer and G. R. Owen-Crocker. The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World (Exeter, 2011); R. Gilchrist, Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women. (New York, 1994); R. Gilchrist, Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course (Woodbridge, 2012).

[9] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 24-25, 35.

[10] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 52, 54-55, 58-59.

[11] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 118, 128-129, 142.

[12] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 162.

[13] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 162-163.

[14] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 173.

[15] Friðriksdóttir. Valkyrie. Pp. 179-180, 183.

Nordic Studies in 2021: When Vikings Raid Real Life, Our Good Intentions Get Pillaged

Nordic Studies in 2021: When Vikings Raid Real Life, Our Good Intentions Get Pillaged

Beth Rogers is a PhD student at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Iceland, studying topics of food history and medieval Icelandic culture for her thesis, “On with the Butter: The Cultural Significance of Dairy Products in Medieval Iceland.” The project is hosted by the Institute of History at the Centre for Research in the Humanities.

Beth has written more than 30 popular and academic articles, including 2 book chapters, on such varied topics as Viking dairy culture, salt in the Viking Age and medieval period, food as a motif in the Russian Primary Chronicle and the literary structure of Völsunga saga. Her other research interests include: medieval Literature (especially sagas), military history, emotions in literature, Old Norse mythology and folklore, and cultural memory.

The impact and degree of white supremacist appropriation of Nordic culture in Scandinavian Studies has been the cause of recent public interest and scholarly debate. Viking and medieval imagery was seen displayed, for example, by participants in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. But the most prominent display was during the violent attack on the United States Congress at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, when these images re-emerged, most visibly in the form of tattoos and clothing worn by Jake Angeli (real name Jacob Chansley),  the self-described ‘QAnon Shaman’. Angeli was instantly recognisable, wearing furs and horns and a face painted in red, white, and blue, while his bare chest blazed with black lines of Yggdrasil, Mjölnir, and the Valknut. News outlets leaped to provide context to this oddball stand-out among the mob of Americans angry at the outcome of the presidential election of November 2020, explaining the meaning of his tattoos for readers who had not seen them before or did not know of their associations with Norse mythology. The media attempted to clarify that Angeli was not part of the Antifa or the Black Lives Matter movements, but QAnon, a political and social conspiracy group which has gained prominence in recent months since its appearance on internet message boards in October 2017. Neither the Antifa nor the BLM movement is known for using any Nordic cultural symbols, yet in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the US Capitol, confusing claims that Angeli was actually part of the BLM movement spread quickly on social media. 

 Social media image circulated heavily in the days following the attack on the US Capitol. Origin unknown. A Google Reverse Image Search returned no information. 

Angeli’s interviews with BrieAnna J. Frank, reporter for The Arizona Republic, leave little doubt as to his right-wing ideological leanings. His frequent appearances at events carrying a sign stating, ‘Q sent me!’ further confused the issue. According to the BBC, QAnon is ‘a wide-ranging, completely unfounded theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.’

Angeli himself, currently awaiting trial in federal prison (where he has experienced problems with the lack of organic food), has expressed regret over his actions. In an interview with US news program 60 Minutes, Angeli spoke from jail – in an unsanctioned interview which resulted in a ‘scolding’ for his lawyer from a judge – and insisted that, ‘I regret entering that building. I regret entering that building with every fibre of my being’ (0:43 – 0:47). His actions ‘were not an attack on [the United States]’, Angeli insisted. Instead, 

I sang a song, and that’s a part of Shamanism. It’s about creating positive vibrations in a sacred chamber. I also stopped people from stealing and vandalising that sacred space – the Senate. I also said a prayer in that sacred chamber because it was my intention to bring divinity and to bring God back into the Senate. […] That is the one very serious regret that I have, was [sic] believing that when we were waved in by police officers, that it was acceptable. (0:39 – 0:46)

Angeli awaits trial on six counts of misconduct, including violent entry and disorderly conduct in a Capitol building, as well as demonstrating in a Capitol building.

Angeli’s appropriation of Nordic symbols is of course part of a broader Viking cultural renaissance, yet don’t let all this take away from your enjoyment of the current Viking-themed pop culture extravaganza. Vikings are fun! It’s not all white supremacy. It’s wonderful to see people deeply interested and invested in the thrills, chills, twists and turns of these larger-than-life characters on our screens, set against a backdrop of Nordic culture and history that is sometimes richly coloured and always sketched in familiar lines: struggle, sacrifice, and hope. The image of the Viking in pop culture today is so unquestioned – hairy, violent, marauding – The Guardian can’t suffer through so much as a paragraph of historical context without getting distracted by their coolness. Dr Simon Trafford, Lecturer in Medieval History and Director of Studies at the University of London explains the Viking attraction:

The parallels with what we look for in our rock stars are just too obvious. The Vikings were uproarious and anti-authoritarian, but with a warrior code that values honour and loyalty. Those are evergreen themes, promising human experiences greater than what Monday morning in the office can provide.

If you caught American Gods in either series form or its original novel (published 2001; series premiere on American cable network Starz in 2017), you know that Vikings are dull-witted, filthy murderers who would slaughter their own friends and family members in frenzied sacrifice to Óðinn then wait for the wind to return to their sails, leaving very few alive left to row the longship home. If you’re a fan of Vikings (2013-2020, with a planned spin-off series titled – what else? – Vikings: Valhalla), you know that Vikings are the rock stars of history, wearing copious amounts of leather and guyliner artfully smudged around their piercing eyes as they gaze out to sea, bursting with manly intensity. You know. But do you really? 

More problematic is when these tropes, images, and signifiers are part of darker, more nebulous, and disturbing parts of history, and how that history can be forgotten, covered up, manipulated, or even wilfully ignored in the current moment. The tropes, images and signifiers of a culture which are chosen and carried forward in time take on a life of their own, often changing their meaning drastically.

Historians and armchair enthusiasts, pagans and reenactors, artists and others who enjoy learning about Nordic culture and Scandinavian history around the world groaned in unison after the Capitol invasion, aware that the United States was bringing us another fight, so soon after the dust had settled over the last one. In Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11–12, 2017, far-right groups, including self-identified members of the alt-right, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and various right-wing militias gathered to present a unified and radical right-wing front as well as to protest the proposed removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s former Lee Park. Symbols like the óðal rune, the cross of the Knights Templar and the black eagle of St. Maurice, among others, were splashed across the screens of horrified viewers. After the initial shock over the cultural clash in Virginia, which like the attack on the Capitol brought about death and injury, those who spend their lives plumbing the mysteries of history were left to pick up the pieces and decide what to do to avoid being painted with the same Swastika.

What has been observed in social media dissemination and discussion of Nordic cultural symbols illustrates that the general public has at best an incomplete understanding of the use of Viking symbology in connection with the German nationalist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which culminated in two destructive World Wars. Markers of Nordic culture have a tendency to recur throughout history, from their origins in the Viking Age through to the twentieth century and the present day: specifically, Valhalla, Vínland, the Valknut, Mjölnir (Thor’s Hammer), Yggdrasil (The World Tree), and runic inscriptions, including rune-like magical staves such as Vegvísir and the Æishjalmur. Such iconography has been deployed almost randomly (and therefore meaninglessly) to create a connection between Viking culture and an ideology of whiteness, masculinity, and power.   

Recently, a scandal erupted in the hallowed halls of the Academy over the correct next steps to take: how to continue to do what we love as researchers and teachers, but also speak to a wider community and political developments causing direct harm? Differences in opinion led to social media chaos, accusations of doxxing, threats and scathing blog posts by the two front runners in the debate. Dorothy Kim, an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, and Rachel Fulton Brown, an Associate Professor at the University of Chicago, squared off in a nerdy, gladiatorial smackdown. As Inside Higher Ed noted, Fulton Brown agreed that white supremacists often use medieval imagery to invoke a mythical, purely white medieval Europe. However, she disagreed with Kim’s assertion that white professors needed to explicitly state anti-white supremacist positions in the classroom. For Fulton Brown, the teaching of history by itself, immersion in the concepts and understanding of changes over time, will stem the tide of white supremacist misuse and misunderstanding. Medievalists unhappy with the handling of the issues by some institutions boycotted conferences.

As the debate raged on, white supremacy continued its dark work. A mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, posted, ‘See you in Valhalla’ before killing 49 people at two mosques and injuring dozens more. Educational institutions have not, and still do not, appear to be doing enough. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups throughout the US, tracked 838 hate groups’ growth and movement across the country in 2020, brought on in part by a 55% surge in the number of US hate groups since 2017 (though down from its all-time high in 2018). Political elections have put an increasing number of  populist, nationalist, and right-wing figures in office throughout Europe, spurred by rising anti-immigration sentiment, frustration with the political status quo, concerns about globalization, and fears over the loss of national identity. The issue has become so muddled that some educational material must make clear that although a given Nordic cultural symbol, such as Thor’s hammer (Mjölnir) is a hate symbol, it is also commonly used by non-racist neo-pagans and others, and so it should be carefully judged within its context before the viewer assumes the one wearing it to be a member of a hate group. Nothing is black and white. Everything is uncertain. 

Instructors and teachers have recommitted to doing better, echoing statements like that of Natalie Van Deusen, Associate Professor at the University of Alberta. In her own classes, Van Deusen makes a deliberate effort to highlight the flourishing ethnic and cultural exchange among Nordic people of the periods she covers, mainly the late eighth to early eleventh centuries. She includes in her teaching lesser-seen and -heard viewpoints, such as their relationships with the Sámi, indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia, or trade with the East:

I strive to teach in a way that doesn’t solely focus on Norse-speaking peoples, who were by no means the only ones to occupy the Nordic region during this period, nor were they without influence from surrounding cultures. 

We have to do more, go further, explore deeper, and keep talking about this until there is no question where we stand, as individual scholars, or as people within our communities who care about accuracy (as far as it can be established), diversity (as much as the evidence supports), and education. Always education. 

Dr. Van Deusen remains more committed than ever to keeping the conversation going, saying in a recent interview, ‘I think it’s a willingness to talk when people want to talk to us about these things, and a willingness (as scholars an educators of this period) to acknowledge that this is a real issue.’ For Van Deusen, at this point

[W]e can’t not address it, and the last thing I would want is for someone to be in my class for the wrong reasons and twist my words because I didn’t explicitly say “I’m not here for validating these interpretations” – which I do now, at the beginning of each term.

This is why, through the pages of The MHR, you’ll hear more from me soon. Drawing on a range of evidence, from modern news to textual and archaeological evidence, my colleagues and I will examine the ways in which Viking culture has been and is manipulated, used, and misrepresented by those who seek to create an underlying continuity, real or imagined, stretching directly back to the people of the past known as the Vikings.

So, hold on to your butts! Like the blurry outline of a longship on the horizon, I shall return!

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Elaine Farrell, Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland: Life in the Nineteenth-Century Convict Prison, (Cambridge, 2020).

Elaine Farrell, Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland: Life in the Nineteenth-Century Convict Prison, (Cambridge, 2020) Review

Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland is a detailed resource which expands upon the existing scholarship of prison life and brings the administration of punishment in an Irish female convict prison into particular focus. Scholars have recently begun to reflect on how the implementation of nineteenth-century laws (such as the English Poor Laws) affected the wider lives of those inside an institution and this has been conducted through an analysis of the agency that imprisoned women showed in the face of increasingly punitive legislation.

Biography: Megan Yates is an ESRC PhD Student in the school of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. Her project is collaborative, working closely with the University of Nottingham and the National Archives. In her doctoral research, she focuses on the daily experiences of vagrants within the workhouses of the nineteenth century and across the Midlands.

In this heavily researched book, Elaine Farrell effectively synthesises studies around life in nineteenth-century institutions with new understandings of the selfhood, agency and life cycles that her female convicts displayed.[1] Through the lives of Irish female convicts, the author conducts a thorough examination of Irish prison life, families, friendships, relationships, and wider network acquisition. It is in these places, Grangegorman, Mountjoy Female Penitentiary, and the Cork Female Convict Depot, that Farrell explores the experiences of incarcerated women and their interwoven identities inside and outside of the prison walls.

Farrell’s case studies detailing the convictions, treatment and opinions of these women will be a great resource for multiple branches of history, both in the institutional sense of how life in an Irish convict prison worked for these females, as well as for those studying the detailed experiences and lifecycles of people in nineteenth-century institutions.

Farrell’s focus also contributes more broadly to discourse surrounding crime and punishment, particularly the evolution of western punitive practices as she explores in her introduction the administrative pathway from Grangegorman prison to Cork Female Convict Depot. Her exploration of these prison institutions to some extent accords with Foucault’s examination of prison in Discipline and Punish and his suggestion that imprisonment was part of a much bigger carceral system that, Farrell thus goes on to argue, infiltrated every aspect of the lives researched in her case studies.[2]

The incorporation of Irish women is a novel and impressive approach to the study of lived experiences and the positionality of her complicated case studies within the context of Ireland, politically, socially and culturally. The source base for this work combines both traditional and non-traditional resources as it utilises the official record of court transcripts, prison ledgers, annual reports and legislation, alongside personal testimony and inmate letters. Farrell uses a close reading analysis to unpick the rhetoric of these sources and interprets them through her vast knowledge of the Irish penal system in the mid-late Victorian era. She combines her analyses with other historical works for both Irish and British institutions and this marries her work with historiography on the Poor Laws including broad ideas about imprisonment, settlement and resistance.[3]

Farrell employs a case-study approach to her sources through sub-chapters at the beginning of each main chapter which brings the human element to the front of her discussion. This structure takes the reader on a journey, an effective approach which envelopes the somewhat disjointed and difficult excerpts of narrative with the social circumstances of these women’s lives. It makes sense, due to the volume of material in each of her themes, to break this down here. This book is structured into five chapters to correspond with its five case studies. Farrell has themed her case studies based on wider societal issues that she interleaves with the stories of multiple women. This is important because otherwise, there is the danger of losing the human aspect of these cases and reducing them to broad-brush arguments. As proven in Farrell’s previous works, she demonstrates that these women were not exceptions and in doing so, she gives voices to ordinary women who might otherwise have been forgotten.

In the first half of Women, Crime and Punishment Farrell tells us about the everyday lived experiences of women in the convict prisons of Ireland. Farrell discusses sanitation, rebellion, work, schooling, length of incarceration and uniform. The female uniforms here stand out, because as Farrell notes, there were four different types, varying in style and colour to reflect the different status of the convicts. Farrell explores the ways in which women expressed individuality by altering their uniform through removing collars, tearing hems and wearing neckerchiefs. Although the convict uniform was implemented in English prisons by the mid-Victorian era, the differentiation of uniform based on a points system was not a practice that was replicated in the British convict system.[4] Uniform was intended to de-individualize convicts and control their appearance. Farrell suggests that in the women’s prisons she studied, the uniform was a bargaining chip for good behaviour, although as she argues, this was hardly a successful penal model.[5] Farrell’s exploration of the attitudes to the uniform from the perspective of the convicts wearing it is one small example of the many new aspects of convict life she shares throughout her chapters.

In the second sub-chapter, Farrell introduces us to the Carroll family. This complicated family of petty criminals frame the rest of her chapter which explores familial bonds maintained or dissolved during their detention. This chapter has disheartening elements whereby we learn of women who were abandoned by their families once they became institutionalised. Farrell goes through a particularly poignant case of a mother who, after five years of imprisonment, was unsuccessful in regaining custody of her child. Farrell’s dip into this story is particularly captivating as she expands upon the feelings these women would have experienced, not simply being incarcerated and imprisoned, but for some, recognising a lost relationship and maternal bond.

Farrell uses thousands of prison files including letters sent back to the prison after a convict’s release. These sources are comprehensive. The high number of exemplary cases in these chapters often encourages the narrative style to switch from one convict to another very quickly. However, this is representative of the short snippets of stories she finds in the archives. Although women such as Catherine Lavelle (depicted on the cover image) were well known and had exceptionally thorough sources, others had no more than one or two mentions in the archive. Intermingling these stories shows that Farrell is not trying to follow any one convict’s prison journey; instead, she brings to life the thorny and intricate lives of many women. Thus, Farrell’s methodology and data collection are made glaringly clear. She repeats the sample size often in this chapter and it is clear that she is confident in stating how representative this evidence is of Irish female convicts’ nineteenth century prison experience.

Women were also involved in the prison system as employees and Farrell discusses in later chapters, the bonds and relationships that could be formed between prison matrons and female convicts. In contrast, Farrell also describes the stigma and criticism female prison employees faced from their male counterparts for their ‘weakness’ in trusting and perhaps liking certain inmates. In further chapters Farrell pulls at the strings of convicts’ relationships, friendship, marital or extra-marital relations as well as their enemies and fights or conflict that occurred amongst inmates. She argues that her female convicts and convicts in general, are a lens through which to recover the voices and relationships of lower-class people who were not in a workhouse, an asylum or an industrial school but often shared traits such as poverty or mental illness. It is the first time, through this book, that the voices of such people have been centre stage. Farrell uses sources from the prison staff to form a picture of what happened to these women but also writes their stories from their perspectives in order to emphasise that they were real people with real lives and real stories to tell.

Farrell’s convict testimony and multi-dimensional sources demonstrate that the prison system was a pseudo society/community. It had its own set of rules visible through work and dietary regulations, correspondence regulation, and a points-based reward system. The females in this prison were deprived of many things but were likewise able to create friendships and maintain kinship bonds, even across institutions. This, Farrell argues, is a very personal experience and depends completely upon individual circumstances. Farrell herself is therefore right to argue in her conclusion that this book is heavily ‘saturated with further evidence of women’s agency’ in penal institutions and that her study has been possible because such significant identity documents exist in the form of letters, petitions, diaries.[6] Farrell argues that convicted women are valuable to examine because their personalities came through in the documents. Sophisticated record linkage work in archives has allowed historians, such as Farrell, to recover multiple perspectives on prison life. As Farrell says, ‘these were ordinary lives captured on paper because of an extraordinary sentence’ and this concept will contribute greatly to a number of further studies into the identities of people long forgotten.[7]

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[1] For example, Rebellious Writing: Contesting Marginalisation in Edwardian Britain, ed. by Lauren Alex O’Hagan, Writing and Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century, 10 (New York: Peter Lang, 2020).

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Peregrine Books, Repr (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982).

[3] K.D.M Snell, Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity, and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp.1-245; David Moon, The Russian Peasantry 1600-1930: The World the Peasants Made. (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2014), pp.38-39.

[4] David Englander, Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Britain: From Chadwick to Booth, 1834-1914, Seminar Studies in History (London ; New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998), pp. 38–39.

[5] Paul Carter, Jeff James, and Steve King, ‘Punishing Paupers? Control, Discipline and Mental Health in the Southwell Workhouse (1836–71)’, Rural History, 30.2 (2019), p.164.

[6] Elaine Farrell, Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland: Life in the Nineteenth-Century Convict Prison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 257.

[7] Farrell, p.260.

The Female Crime: Gender, Class and Female Criminality in Victorian Representations of Poisoning


The Victorian nineteenth century was awash with crime, murder, and violence. Not least, the ‘feminine’ art of poisoning. This was a ‘clean’ method of murder that might conveniently  rid oneself of an unhappy marriage or a love rival. Whilst poisoning cases framed interesting and salacious fiction, the conception of poisoning as a woman’s crime relates to deeper stereotypes in Victorian  society. Gender and class norms  weighed heavily, and poisoning was configured as an essentially feminine crime. This article examines, via several Old Bailey cases, the factors  responsible for the supposed link between women, poisoning, and predisposed gender and class ideals. I also consider the role that the nineteenth-century press played in establishing poisoning as a woman’s crime. The history of poisoning has been little considered due to the lack of archival material on poisoning cases. This study intends to expand the study of gender and crime in nineteenth-century Victorian Britain.

Key Words: Victorian, poisoning, murder, gender, class, trials, crime

Author Biography

Alison Morton is a postgraduate student of history at the University of Lincoln, currently studying crime and punishment in nineteenth-century Britain.


The Female Crime: Gender, Class and Female Criminality in Victorian Representations of Poisoning

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In nineteenth-century Britain, poisoning was a sensationalised crime, often in the public eye. No case better highlights the embedded Victorian middle-class fear of the secret female poisoner than that of Christiana Edmunds in 1872. Edmunds poisoned boxes of chocolates and other sweets as part of a plot to target her love interest’s wife. Her case demonstrates how poisoning was represented in the press as a female crime. During her trial it was noted that crowds of well-dressed women came to sit in the gallery of the Old Bailey. They were described as ‘enthralled’ by the defendant, with audience numbers increasing at every session.[1] It was feared that these women were flocking to hear and learn how Edmunds conducted her crime, later meeting in groups to share the recipes and tactics she used.[2] It is interesting that this perspective existed. After all, the evidence is clear that poisoning, while popular with women, was not a uniquely female crime. For example, William Palmer, a doctor, was sentenced to hang after he poisoned his friend John Cook with strychnine in 1855.[3] [4] Furthermore, women also committed murder through means considered more ‘masculine’. Eliza Gibbons murdered her husband in 1857 by shooting him in the head,[5] and Jane Colbert was imprisoned for murdering her husband by throwing a knife at him and piercing his lung in retaliation to domestic abuse in 1854.[6] However, poisoning was closely linked with female murderers in the Victorian press, which, as this article will demonstrate, was particularly related to sensationalist journalism.

This article examines the factors that drove women to kill their husbands, in the context of several poisoning cases tried at the Old Bailey, London. Providing a general history of poisoning cases in Victorian England, it will examine the types of poison used; how methods of detection changed; legislative changes; and will consider the public perception of such crimes. It will argue that the gender ideologies of the period helped to define poisoning as a female crime. Using several cases of husband murder this article will discuss the media representation of such crimes; why women might have chosen poison as their preferred method; and how gender ideals and social expectations were presented in court. This paper also considers how women in turn utilised the press’ sensationalist image of the female poisoner, in retaliation against male violence.

Studying the testimony and evidence given in the trials of nineteenth-century crimes can tell us much about society in Victorian Britain.[7] This article draws on five trials from the Old Bailey online archive, dated between 1842 and 1886, all of which were for cases of mariticide by poisoning. The cases include those of Jane Bowler, who was tried in 1842. Jane was a working-class woman accused of murdering her husband, Joseph Bowler, with arsenic. She was found not guilty. Ann Merritt was a working-class woman who, in 1850, was accused of murdering her husband, James Merritt, with arsenic. She was convicted and sentenced to death. Ann always asserted that she was innocent, and even in her final statement before the magistrate she reiterated that she originally bought the arsenic for herself. She claimed to have intended to commit suicide because of her husband’s recent drunken behaviour, but she changed her mind. She believed her husband must have taken it in place of the acids and sodas he had in the morning: whether accidentally or not she did not disclose. . Finally, Adelaide Bartlett was a lower-middle-class woman who was accused of murdering her husband, Thomas Edwin Bartlett, by poisoning him with chloroform in 1886. George Dyson, the man who purchased the chloroform for her, and who was also her love interest, was acquitted before trial. Adelaide was ultimately found not guilty.[8]

Whilst these sources give an insight into what the court deemed to be relevant information, one of the main issues with the Old Bailey trial reports is that they only show the witness testimony, and nothing from the lawyers, judge, or jury in the courtroom. Defendant statements are frequently missing from the testimony. In some cases, for example where multiple doctors were questioned, the accounts are often highly repetitive in nature. It is also important to note that some words had different meanings in the nineteenth century and so need to be read from a nineteenth-century perspective. Other primary source material drawn upon in this paper includes press reports and cartoons, either directly associated with these trials or of a related nature. The press reports add context to the trial reports, and they can fill in the gaps in the testimonies by exemplifying the popular attitudes and opinions of Victorian society, particularly on the subjects of class and gender. These reports, too, should be read with caution. The views of the editor, journalist, or audience could influence reporting, as could the geographical location of the paper. However, the five case studies that are the focus of this paper only offer a snapshot of cases of women killing by poisoning. Reconstructing the context and social concerns surrounding female crime more generally is, therefore, essential in order to interrogate the network of ideologies surrounding women’s alleged use of poison in murder cases, and the sensationalism that characterised the reporting of these crimes.


Gender, class, and women’s crimes

In the nineteenth century, women were legally classed as secondary citizens and were discouraged from gaining a formal education or a career and were unable to own property or vote.[9] Despite, in reality, very many women demonstrating agency and activities well beyond the domestic realm, the middle-class ideology of ‘separate spheres’ dictated, in theory, that a woman’s place was attending to the private sphere of home and family life as ‘the angel of the house’. This worldview came to transcend class boundaries to a great extent: the industrialisation of the workforce brought gender issues to the forefront of labour disputes, as working-class men competed against lower-paid women who they sought to relegate to the home in consequence. Moreover, middle-class philanthropic practices such as that of district visiting saw middle-class women taking domestic ideology into lower-class homes. As a result, for much of the nineteenth-century, women across society were expected to conform to these gendered, domestic roles. However, this ideology of ‘separate spheres’ was a pervasive discourse that was not always reflected in lived experiences.[10] Most lower-class women, and some middle-class women, had to work to survive. These working lifestyles did not conform to popular standards of feminine behaviour, and put women into the public sphere ideologically reserved for men. We see, here, the intersection of class and gender. Although working-class, (and, in reality, some middle-class) women had to work beyond the domestic sphere, for practical reasons, their transgression of gender ideals was used to show why middle-class women and, thus, the middle classes generally, were ‘superior’, justifying their societal cultural, moral, and political authority.[11]

Cases involving a sexual aspect, such as adultery or the murder of a lover or a rival were seen as didactic, warning of the ‘dangers’ associated with out-of-control female expressions of sexuality, to individual victims but also to stable society. Not only was it considered that such women’s divergence from the feminine ideal was a factor in their crimes, but they acted as examples of just why a woman’s place was at home, under the control and supervision of a husband, father, or brother, for their own and societies benefit. Furthermore, an essential aspect of middle class discourse was their ‘superiority’ over the working classes, whose women were more likely to have to work outside of the home, again diverging from expected female norms of behaviour. Court proceedings, press coverage and public interest in women’s crimes thus reflected and reinforced norms of gender and class. Such cases also reveal the contradictory nature of such discourses, as the press and public revelled in the fantasies of exoticized sexual revelation.


Poisoning in Victorian Britain

Eliza Fenning was sentenced to death for poisoning in 1815, although none of her victims died as a result of her actions. Fenning attempted to murder her employers by poisoning their food with arsenic, after she was disciplined by the lady of the house for visiting the rooms of young male workers in the house whilst semi-dressed.[12] Fenning provided four statements of good character at her trial, and there was doubt of her guilt, yet she, nevertheless, received the death penalty and was later executed at Newgate prison. It was hoped that harsh punishments would act as a deterrent, amongst fears that cases of poisoning were on the rise. John Marshall, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, published a pamphlet in 1815 describing five cases of recovery from arsenic poisoning. In this pamphlet he detailed why he thought Fenning was guilty, claiming to have witnessed Fenning double over in pain after eating some of the dumplings she had cooked in what he believed to be an attempt to divert suspicion away from herself.[13] He followed this with a piece in The Times, describing her as ‘one of the perpetrators of this dreadfully alarming and daily increasing evil’.[14] Marshall’s accounts reflected popular concerns about the increasing number of poisoning cases and the role of women such as Fenning in this surge of cases.

During the trial of Ann Merritt, who was tried and sentenced to death in 1850 for murdering her husband, the judge remarked on ‘the strange and horrible frequency of the crime which you are charged’.[15] As public concerns over poisoning grew, press reports of these crimes increased in number, reaching almost hysterical heights by the middle of the nineteenth century.[16] The rise in sensationalist reporting, and the fear that even more cases were going unreported, drew attention from both the medical and legal professions.[17] For example, the 1851 Arsenic Regulation Act prohibited shopkeepers from selling arsenic and other poisons to people they did not know. Buyers were required to sign a register with their name and the purpose for the poison. The regulation further meant that arsenic, typically a white powder, had to be mixed with either soot or indigo. This was because arsenic has a bitter taste and mixing with food or drink seemed to be a common way to hide this bitterness and administer the poison to victims.[18] By mixing it with soot or indigo, it would stand out in food and drink, reducing the likelihood that it would go undetected. The principles of this act worked on paper; however, the act relied on shopkeepers keeping well-documented ledgers, not destroying or altering their records, or selling poison illicitly. In Christiana Edmunds’s case, for example, it was discovered that the shopkeeper who had supplied the poison had pages missing from his record book.[19] Furthermore, whilst the legislation might have restricted anonymous sales, it did not help if the chemist knew the purchaser. In the case of Ann Merritt, for example, the chemist she obtained the arsenic from had sold the poison to her before, so did not feel it necessary to ask questions as prescribed by law, again showing the discrepancies between theory and practice.[20]

Legal professionals again tried to intervene five years after the Arsenic Regulation Act was introduced. In 1856 Betsy McMullen was tried for poisoning and murdering her husband. The presiding judge argued that women should be banned from buying any potentially lethal drugs and that those selling them should      be convicted of manslaughter in the event of them being used to cause harm.[21] Banning women from purchasing poisons would, in reality, have been practically difficult as common poisons such as arsenic, chloroform, and strychnine had many domestic uses as cleaning aids or medicines. Oddly, the focus of legislation and detection in this era focused specifically on arsenic. Although widely used, many of the trials, such as some of those considered in this article, related to other poisons. This special focus on arsenic was perhaps due to its particularly vicious effects and bitter, unpleasant taste. Contemporaries also remarked upon this focus on arsenic, to the exclusion of other poisons. A letter written to Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser on 23 March 1850, signed only by ‘An Englishman’, for example, questioned why arsenic was subjected to stricter controls compared to other poisons available, many of which were subtler in nature. The writer argued that, because these other poisons were used in medicine rather than domestically, the other poisons were protected from legislation.[22] This letter was dated a year before the Arsenic Regulation Act was passed in 1851 and it is probable  that the author, like the judge in Betsy McMullen’s trial, would not have been impressed at the limited extent of this legislation.

Ironically, a case brought against a male poisoner promoted legislation to protect defendants. When William Palmer was deemed not have been afforded a fair trial in Staffordshire due to sensational and widespread newspaper representation that caused public prejudice against him, the Palmer Act of 1856 was enacted.[23] This Act enabled hearings from outside of the London area to be moved to the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, to ensure fair trials for the accused.[24] Palmer’s case also indicates the influence that sensationalist journalism had over public opinion and that high profile poisoning cases had on the British legal system in the mid nineteenth century.


New methods of detection

One of the key challenges for contemporaries was determining poison as the cause of death. Other difficulties were discovering the exact substance, who administered it, and how. Testing for arsenic poisoning was developed during the early 1800s: until then there was not a test conclusive enough to differentiate between a stomach condition or an illness and a case of poisoning. This difficulty formed a point of contention that can be seen in the extensive trial transcript of Adelaide Bartlett, which discusses, across almost sixty pages, how chloroform could have gotten into the stomach of her alleged victim without any burns in the throat or mouth.[25]

During the middle of the century much changed. The 1840s bore witness to developments in both medicine and policing which had several key effects on the detection of poisoning crimes. First, rural English communities developed police and detective forces which investigated crimes that might have otherwise been abandoned and neglected.[26] At around the same time, medical professionals focused on the problem of detection, quickly leading to the development of a more conclusive and sensitive test for arsenic poisoning, commonly known as the Marsh Test.[27] Created by chemist James Marsh in 1836, it was found specifically useful in the area of forensic toxicology.[28] The result of better testing and wider investigation was a rise in documented cases and increased media coverage. However, Ann Merrit’s case highlights the continued difficulty of proving murder involving poison, mainly as it was almost impossible to determine who administered the poison to the victim. Ann Merritt was handed a death penalty based on a statement by Dr Henry Letherby, a ‘seasoned and educated toxicologist’, resulting in uproar from the public, and medical and legal professionals alike.[29] His statement implied that the average man’s stomach takes around five hours to digest food and pass into the bowel, creating a timeline that incriminated Ann Merritt.[30] R. E. Davies, of the Royal College of Surgeons, wrote a letter to the London Daily News in which he questioned Letherby’s statement. Merritt’s husband was an alcoholic and Davies presented a theory that food digests slower in a drunken man’s stomach. He argued that because of Letherby’s statement the jury in Merrit’s trial could not entertain a theory that the victim may have taken his own life, as in the time frame given it would have been virtually impossible.[31] Merritt was eventually pardoned following the outcry. An article in the Hereford Times, on 30 March 1850, explained that ‘our readers of whatever sex or party will rejoice to [know] that the efforts which have been made to save the life of Ann Merritt have been attended with success’.[32] Communication was made between the Home Secretary and the Governor of Newgate, ‘the execution of this unhappy woman would be respited during her Majesty’s pleasure’, meaning she had been detained in an asylum after being declared insane.[33] Martin Weiner observes that in the second half of the century there was a decline in prosecutions of women for serious crimes, and a larger decline in convictions and length of prison sentences.[34] The number of women executed reduced dramatically, whilst insanity verdicts for women nearly doubled. Weiner argues that the reason for this increase is that whereas Victorian juries would consider male criminals to be ‘bad’, it was becoming easier to explain female “deviants” who committed heinous crimes as ‘mad’.[35]


Press coverage

The public interest in cases of female poisoners is demonstrated by the large crowds at the trials of both Christina Edmunds and Adelaide Bartlett. In the latter case the courtroom was so crowded that one of the main doors was completely blocked.[36] There were crowds of spectators inside and outside of the courtroom. Even the apartments surrounding the Old Bailey had a considerable number of spectators watching the building.[37] The press both reflected and fed such interest, through  sensationalist journalism which fed social and moral fears of poisoning and poisoners, suggesting a threat to society more broadly.[38]

One concern was the secretive nature of the crime. George Robb argues that known poisonings were believed to be the tip of the iceberg and that for every case that was discovered dozens probably went undiscovered.[39] It does seem that the fear of unknown cases of murder caused some disquiet among a public concerned that wives were regularly killing their husbands, without detection.[40] On 16 December 1882, The Times remarked:


‘from the numerous poisonings which have only been detected by an accident or an afterthought, the inference is only reasonable that there remains a margin of poisonings which are never detected at all.[41]’


The obsessive coverage of poisonings in Britain played a slightly contradictory role. By publishing details of poisonings, the press potentially created the very problem they claimed to be concerned about, by providing details which might facilitate further poisonings.[42]

Sensationalist imagery also painted a misleading picture of poisoning as a crime conducted under the darkness of night. This sort of media representation was at best selective, and, at worst, inaccurate because poisonings also happened during daylight. An example of such sensationalist imagery appeared on the front page of the Illustrated Police News on 8 June 1889. It depicts the case of Florence Maybrick, accused of poisoning her husband, James, a wealthy Liverpudlian cotton merchant, by switching his medicine whilst he slept in his bed next to her.[43][44] The newspaper depicts multiple scenes from the crime she was accused of, including a maid finding the fly papers which Maybrick is said to have soaked to extract the arsenic, and a scene of her in prison after her arrest.[45]

It is interesting to note that the prison scene is the only one in which she is depicted showing any form of emotion. During the crime Maybrick is depicted as passionless and rather malevolent, but once she is in jail she holds her head in her hands, perhaps inferring guilt and regret. While this could be an indication of remorse, the overall depiction suggests that she is perhaps just grieved at being caught. Either way, the images imply guilt and she was indeed found guilty.[46] A similar image appeared on the front page of Reynolds’s Miscellany on 10 July 1858. Here, a woman named Joanna is shown preparing poison near a sleeping Sir John Cleveland. She is looking over her shoulder to ensure he is still sleeping and thus not aware of her actions. Meanwhile another man, who we can only assume was Joanna’s accomplice or perhaps her lover, looks on in the background.[47] She is depicted as protected under the cover of night, while Cleveland slept ‘safely’ in his bed, unaware that someone was attempting to murder him.[48] According to Lucy Williams, these women conformed to the ‘very middle-class fears of the sneaking female poisoner’.[49] Again, such representations both reflected and reinforced public fears and opinion in this period, and ultimately led to female poisoners being compared to witches and being labelled monstrous.[50] These ideas were not unique to the nineteenth century, and there is evidence of poisoning being linked to women and the comparison to witches, as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[51] The context of nineteenth century gender and class relations provided a framework in which that connection could be made more explicit, and more threatening. This was a useful discourse for journalists during a period of substantial expansion of the popular press. As we have seen, this combination of pre-existing public prejudices, fears and concerns, and the press coverage which reflected and fed them, influenced legislative, social, and medical perspectives on poisoning throughout the nineteenth century.


Poisoning and gender

Popular perspectives on women and gender in this period drove a view that poisoning was a largely female crime. Both men and women used poison to injure, incapacitate, and kill, however the Victorian press particularly portrayed poisoning as a female crime. Portrayed as a subversive crime, requiring no physical strength, female poisoners fed societal views of women as naturally passive but potentially dangerous and insidious when influenced by their emotions, particularly of a sexual nature. Such ideas supported and reflected a discourse of stable society requiring women to be under the supervision of men.

The idea that poisoning was a secretive crime is seen in trial judgements and contemporary press reports. In the Bartlett case, for example, the judge commented that ‘poisonings were not like crimes of sudden passion. They were necessarily mysterious and hidden in their operation’.[52] But this representation was not just about the subversive nature of poisoning. The nineteenth century, as many periods in history, considered men physically stronger and more violent than women. Judith Knelman and Martin Weiner have discussed how male crime was, therefore, expected to be more violent and on the spur of the moment in comparison to female crime, which was less physical due to women’s physical weakness.[53] Press representation promulgated this distinction. For example, in both the Maybrick and Cleveland illustrations, the victims were shown to be physically incapacitated, either by illness or simply because they were asleep, whilst the poison was administered. The female poisoner thus committed her crime in a non-violent manner.

This argument that the lack of physical force required in a case of poisoning meant the act could be attributed to women has another dimension. Knelman suggests that poisoning presented a practical, but immoral and illegal, response to the oppression of women. Or, in other words, a non-physical response to the physical violence of male partners.[54] Knelman believes any hostility and violence in a relationship comes out of a man’s attempt to control the woman and the woman’s attempt to exert her own independence and agency.[55] However, unlike an overzealous beating, poisoning could not be considered an accident because there is an element of premeditation in all poisoning cases; one had to go and acquire the poison, as well as determine how to administer it. [56] It is therefore unlikely that someone killed another by poisoning in a jealous fit of rage.

Mary Hartman argues another reason for poisoning to be considered a threat in nineteenth-century Britain, is that women who killed men represented a threat to social norms of gender. She goes on to explain that if these women were also middle- or upper-class, the worry was that they would tip the scale of social class normativity, leading to potential social non-conformity.[57] In his letter to the London Daily News in 1850, R.E. Davies commented on expectations of women in this era: ‘Lately few women have humiliated their sex by the perpetration of heinous offences. The natural attributes of Women are kindness, virtue and affection’.[58]

Davies was writing in defence of Ann Merritt and argued that women did not poison as widely as the press suggested. But his perspective shows that, in this era, women were not expected to be a threat to men. Lucy Williams has considered how female crime lay outside of the normal social expectations of their gender. Women were considered caring, kind, and calm, whereas male crime fitted within the social bounds of masculinity. However, Williams explains that, for women, murder was ‘doubly deviant’, denoting a significant departure from femininity.[59] Robb argues that ‘a woman’s ideal gender role was to “love, honour and obey”’, not maim, injure and murder.[60] Unlike Weiner and Knelman, Hartman focuses on class rather than gender, stating that middle class women were literally getting away with murder.[61] One reason for this could have been that the middle classes had access to knowledge of poisons through domestic handbooks on medicine and drugs.[62] Robb expands on this argument, stating that middle-class women committing murder by poison was particularly troubling because their outward behaviours and appearance did not indicate any criminal nature. However, working-class women were almost expected to have a criminal side. Represented as ‘rough’ and ‘degenerate’, murder was just seen as another aspect of their depraved working-class lifestyle.[63] Anger and physicality were considered masculine traits and had no place in the home or around family.[64] Women were expected to dedicate themselves to the private sphere, running the home and family; while the men would go out in to the public sphere to work, earn money, and socialise. I would argue that men and women had to look and act in a certain way to remain adequately masculine or feminine. Those that did not fit into the boundaries of gender set out by Victorian society had to be ‘understood’ within a pre-existing framework of society. To challenge the idea that women were essentially passive and non-violent, or that men were just as likely as women to use poisoning to commit harm, was to challenge the very intersection of class and gender on which the middle classes predicated their social, cultural and political authority.

Due to the divisive intersection of class and gendered ideology that underpinned them, female offenders were judged  by these standards, rather than the facts of the case, by both the court and press. Often, they were also judged in medical and psychiatric terms. Female murderers of the Victorian era were almost never presented as the women they were, whether excused or vilified. Instead they were judged on their status as ‘good women’ and the ‘social rules’ they had broken.[65] Hence a woman’s reputation played a role in the court, the jury’s view of them, and how their sentence was decided.[66] Lucy Williams and Judith Knelman both agree that the masculinity or femininity of an offender was commented on by the papers and that their personal character was also a factor of judgement.[67] Robb uses the example of Mary Ann Geering in his article. Geering was described as ‘a woman of masculine and forbidding appearance’ in a Times newspaper article representing her trial.[68] It could be argued that these women’s greatest crimes were going against their prescribed social roles.

The trial transcripts of Merritt, Bartlett, and Bowler, also devote significant attention to a discussion of the character traits of both the victim and the accused. In the Bowler case, the victim was described as gloomy and disconsolate, and it was documented that he tried to kill himself on two separate occasions. A friend of Bowler’s, Henry Clarke, told the court that he had to stop Joseph jumping into the canal, for example. On the other hand, Jane Bowler was depicted as a good mother and wife, and therefore considered of good character. This may have swayed the jury and contributed to her ultimately being found innocent..[69] Although drunkenness was not discussed in the Bowler trial (it was only hinted at), alcohol abuse was a common theme in nineteenth-century trial reports. During the Merritt trial the victim was identified as a heavy drinker, a fact which grieved his wife. Francis Toulman, a surgeon and acquaintance of the Merritts, specifically commented that Ann attended to her husband judiciously, indicating that she adhered to the ideological expectations of a Victorian wife.[70] Other witnesses said that she was devoted to her husband and her grief after her husband’s death, if genuine, was described as overwhelming.[71] Whilst it did not sway the jury at the time, in contrast to the case of Jane Bowler, it had an effect on public opinion, eventually leading to Ann Merrit’s release. During her trial, Adelaide Bartlett seemed outright offended at the suggestion she could not adequately care for her husband, showing that she took her role as nurturer very seriously.[72] Of all the trials this article addresses, Bartlett’s is the lengthiest and the most unusual in terms of the character of the accused and victim. The Bartlett’s had a platonic marriage, their relationship one of brother and sister more than husband and wife. Edwin Bartlett, Adelaide’s father-in-law, insinuated at her trial that Adelaide and her husband had a sexual relationship in the beginning, noting that they shared a bed and that she had been pregnant once before which resulted in a stillborn child. While Edwin had no reason to believe the relationship was nothing short of marital normality, later in the trial he describes them as no longer having an intimate relationship.[73] The attention to detail given in the Bartlett trial to their relationship highlights the significance that the legal system, at least, attributed to this area in poisoning cases, again underlining the centrality of gender normativity to such cases.[74]

Whilst the media often focused only on the female offender, their character, personal circumstances, and physical attributes, the trials would look at both the victim and accused. Negative revelations about the personalities of the victim could help sway the court and jury in favour of the accused. Weiner believes that juries often looked with sympathy on women when their crimes were retaliatory.[75] However, Knelman discusses the case of Elizabeth Martha Brown which was given significant coverage in a broadsheet newspaper in 1856. However, there was no mention of the character of her victim, a violent and abusive husband, anywhere in the newspaper reports. In fact, she was regarded as a ‘wretched criminal’ murdering ‘poor Anthony Brown’.[76] This language also indicates that perceptions drawn upon in press reports about the victim’s character might be used by the wider public as a way to judge whether the crime could be morally explained or not, in terms of the popular ideologies surrounding gender roles. In portraying the victim as a good man, reporters consequently portrayed Elizabeth as a cruel and wretched murderer who had no reason to commit her crime. In contrast, Lisa Appignanesi refers to the case of Louise Hartley, an eighteen-year-old who attempted to murder her father. The defence condemned the victim for his ‘unfatherly behaviour’ and displayed him as being ‘vindictive and a brute’.[77] Appignanesi argues that such press coverage was influential on public opinion and, ultimately, on the jury who acquitted the accused.[78] Unlike Elizabeth, Louise’s crimes were excusable because of the ways in which the character of her victim were portrayed.

One area that garnered significant attention in both the trial and press was a woman’s sexual agency, which was considered as evidence of a deviant nature. This is shown in the trial of Florence Maybrick, whose adulterous affair with her husband’s friend was used as evidence against her in court. However, her husband’s numerous infidelities were never mentioned,  deemed irrelevant by the Victorian sexual double standard.[79] [80] Likewise, during Jane Bowler’s trial, focus was given to her interest in Jon Dunster, a lodger who lived in her house. This interest called into question her ‘loyalty’ to her husband, despite her otherwise appearing to be a ‘dutiful’ wife.[81] The Bartlett case presents sexual license, or lack of, as a motivation for the crime. Edwin, the victim, had married Adelaide on the promise of a largely platonic relationship. According to witnesses, he even went so far as to encourage Adelaide to receive male attention and Dyson, the co-conspirator, explained how Adelaide had been ‘given’ to him by her husband.[82] During the trial it emerged that Edwin had begun to change his mind about the platonic nature of his marriage.[83] The press seized on this information, with The Times creating a motive for Adelaide to administer chloroform to her husband: to prevent his sexual advances.[84]

Some women exploited the reputation that poisoning had as ‘the female crime’ to gain power over men. A salient example of this form of intimidation was women’s response to male violence in the period following the 1888 “Jack the Ripper” murders. Men would threaten to ‘whitechapel’ their wives; women, in return, threatened to ‘white powder’ their husbands.[85] A woman’s threat to poison her husband was both equivalent to, and a response to, a man’s threat of physical violence, aggression, or intimidation in a relationship.[86] Sarah Brice, for example, threatened to poison her husband after he was accused of robbery due to the bad company he kept.[87] Although these threats were not seen through, they were used as a form of intimidation against men.[88]

Another interesting example of this occurred in 1856, when Betsy McMullen was accused of murdering her husband in Bolton by putting tartarised antimony in his tea. Her supposed motive was to claim insurance money. An investigation revealed that it was common practice for women to give their drunken husbands antimony which caused vomiting and extreme physical weakness. Locally this practice was referred to as ‘quietness’.[89] The Times commented on the poisonings, stating that there were three customary evils in Bolton: that women were poisoning their husbands while they were incapacitated and drunk, that they did this without the husband’s knowledge, and that husbands became ‘wretchedly’ drunk.[90] It is interesting that the writer made the link between the evils of the husband and that of the wife, and seemed to be suggesting that the men and their actions were as culpable as the women.

Despite the salacious press and public hysteria, Martin Weiner notes some public and court sympathy towards ‘wronged women’ in this period, at least toward the end of the nineteenth century.[91] In certain cases a woman’s personal circumstances might be used in her defence or as grounds for reprieve. An example of this can be seen in the case of Charlotte Harris. Harris was convicted and sentenced to hang for deliberately poisoning her husband over a week so that she could marry her wealthy lover. However, she was later found to be pregnant.[92] Public interest in this case built, and letters were even sent to Queen Victoria pleading for her release. Her sentence was eventually commuted to transportation to the colonies and from then on no pregnant women or new mothers were hanged in Britain..[93][94]  When Ann Merritt was sentenced to death, even after the jury recommended to the court due to accounts of her good character, her case generated  public outcry.[95] The Times was clear in indicating that this sympathy was from both men and women, and that both campaigned equally. Not necessarily for Merritt’s release, but for at least a commutation her death sentence. These campaigns were successful and her sentence was reduced to incarceration in an asylum.[96]

There was, though, no guarantee of clemency. Mary Ball was hanged after being convicted of her husband’s murder by poisoning. Although the jury recommended mercy, the judge, Lord Coleridge, pressured them into withdrawing their recommendation.[97] Murders committed in the ‘heat of the moment’ were also shown limited mercy. Many were shown to be forms of self-defence or in retaliation to any wrongdoing towards them. As poisoning was predominantly premeditated, this defence was not available to these women. [98]



Cases of female poisoners offers a fascinating and instructive window through which we can view the intersection of class and gender norms in nineteenth century British society. Also, the growing influence of the popular press on public opinion and legislative change.

The very fact that female murderers existed challenged the ideals of femininity that justified supposed national and middle-class cultural, political, and moral ‘superiority’. The middle-class ‘domestic angel’ was at the heart Britain’s concept of itself as a stable and constitutional nation at home, authorised to bring such civilisational benefits to the benighted and backward peoples of their empire far away. To ‘explain’ the contradiction, poisoning was configured, by the criminal justice system, the public and the press, as an essentially female crime. Without the proper and appropriate supervision of a man, women were liable to be overcome by sexually-related emotions, become potentially dangerous to those around them and threaten the basis of stable society. Such unsupervised women could commit heinous crimes, but ones of insidious and ‘sneaky’ passivity, in line with their ‘natural’ characteristics.

Such ideas also required a very specific definition of what constituted ‘violence’, as an act requiring physical strength in the open, rather than an equally harmful act committed with malice aforethought, committed, supposedly, in the dark of night against an unresisting victim. Through such ‘understandings’ of poisoning, the public, press, and courts tried to maintain norms of gender and class. Recognising that women, middle class or otherwise, were as capable of violence as men, or that men were liable to resort to ‘passive’ crimes such as poisoning, would challenge the entire classed and gendered edifice around which society as structured.

What are also revealed are the cracks in such discourses. The recognition of male violence and abuse towards women, and the obvious contradictions between Victorian class and gender ideals and reality, are exposed in the protests and sympathy expressed towards many women; by the very public, press, and criminal justice system that judged those women by the same standards they critiqued and objected to through such sympathy. Even women’s apparent threats to poison abusive men reveals the oppression of women and their agency in resistance; an agency Victorian society did its utmost to deny. But through this study of female poisoning, we see signs that the centre would, eventually, not hold and begin to fracture under the weight of its own contradictions.



Primary Sources

Charge of Wilful Murder, Western Daily Press, 16 October 1869, p. 3.

Chester Guardian and Record, 26 June 1878, p. 8.

Chester Guardian and Record, 27 February 1878, p. 6.

Child Murder and Attempted Suicide, The Times, 28 October 1843, p. 5.

Child Poisoned by its Mother, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 16 December 1843, p. 5.

Hereford Times, 30 March 1850, p. 6.

Joanna Preparing the Poison for Sir John Cleveland, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 10 July 1868, Front Cover.

London Daily News 18 March 1850, p. 5.

Marshall John, Five Cases of Recovery of the Effects of Arsenic, (London, 1815).

Midland Circuit – Warwick, Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 4 April 1850, p. 1.

No Headline, Brighton Herald, 31 March 1849, p. 3.

No Headline, The Irishman, 6 November 1869, p. 10.

No Headline, The Times, 16 December 1882, p. 9.

No Headline, The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4

No Headline, The Times, 26 August 1856, p. 6.

Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 23 March 1850, p.?

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: William Palmer, May 1856, ref. t18560514-490,, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Eliza Fenning, April 1815, ref. t18150405-18,, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Adelaide Bartlett, George Dyson, April 1886, ref. t18860405-466,, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Ann Merritt, March 1850, ref. t18500304-599,, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Jane Bowler, October 1842, ref. t18421024-3062,, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: John Hutchings, 20 September 1847, ref. T18470920-2217,, accessed 11/04/2021.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: Benjamin Alison, 2 April 1838, ref. t18380402-1088,, accessed 11/04/2021.

The Mysterious Poisoning Case at Liverpool, The Illustrated Police News, 8 June 1889, Front Cover.

Wrongs Without Redress, Lincolnshire Chronicle, 5 April 1850, p. 7.

Gilbert Dugdale, A True Discourse of the practises of Elizabeth Caldwell (London, 1604).


Secondary Sources

Appigagnesi, L., Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness (London, 2014).

Arnot, M., ‘The Murder of Thomas Sandles: Meanings of a Mid-Nineteenth-Century Infanticide’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (Aldershot, 2002), pp. 149–167.

D’Cruze, S., Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950 (Essex, 2000).

Digby, A., ‘Victorian Values and Women in the Private Sphere’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 78, (1990), pp. 195–215.

Hartman, M., Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French & English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes, (London, 1977).

Higginbotham, A., ‘“Sin of the Age”: Infanticide and Illegitimacy in Victorian London’, (1989), pp. 319–337.

Knelman, J., Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press (London, 1998).

Morgan, S., A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century, (London, 2007).

Robb, G., ‘“Circe in Crinoline”: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England’, Journal of Family History, 22 (1997), pp. 176–190.

Stratman, L., The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder (Llandysul, 2016).

Walkowitz, J., City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London, (Chicago, 1992).

Weiner, M., Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England, (Cambridge, 2004).

Williams, L., Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England (Barnsley, 2016).


[1] L. Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness (London, 2014), p. 69.

[2] G. Robb, ‘“Circe in Crinoline”: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England’, Journal of Family History, 22 (1997), p. 178.

[3]The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: William Palmer, 14 May 1856, ref. t18560514-490, (accessed 04/02/2019).

[4] Further examples of Male poisoners can be found when searching through the trial reports of The Old Bailey Online, including Benjamin Alison who murdered his wife with Laudenum in 1838. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: Benjamin Alison, 2 April 1838, ref. t18380402-1088, accessed 11/04/2021. and John Hutchings who killed his wife with arsenic in 1847. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: John Hutchings, 20 September 1847, ref. T18470920-2217, (accessed 11/04/2021).

[5] J. Knelman, Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press (Toronto, 1998), p. 108-109.

[6] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 132.

[7] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 180.

[8]The Proceedings of the Old Bailey  5th April 1886, Adelaide Bartlett, George Dyson, ref t18860405-466, accessed 04/02/2019.

[9] A. Digby, ‘Victorian Values and Women in the Private Sphere’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 78 (1990), p. 198.

[10] S. Morgan, A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2007), pp. 1–2.

[12] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Eliza Fenning, April 1815, ref. t18150405-18,, accessed 16/03/2021.Old Bailey

[13] J. Marshall, Five Cases of Recovery of the Effects of Arsenic (London, 1815).

[14] Eliza Fenning, The Times, 27 September 1815, p. 4.

[15] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Ann Merritt, March 1850, ref. t18500304-599,, accessed 04/02/2019.

[16] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185.

[17]Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185; J. Knelman, Twisting in the Wind (London, 1998), pp. 86.

[18] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 182.

[19] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, (London, 2014), pp. 69.

[20] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[21]The Times, 26 August 1856, p. 6.

[22]Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser 23 March 1850.

[23] L. Stratman, The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder (Llandysul, 2016), pp. 181–182.

[25] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[26] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 179.

[27] Stratman, The Secret Poisoner, p. 181.

[28] Stratman, The Secret Poisoner, p. 180.

[29] London Daily News, 18 March 1850, p.5.

[30] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[31]London Daily News, 18 March 1850, p. 5.

[32] Hereford Times, 30 March 1850, p. 6

[33]Hereford Times, 30 March 1850, p. 6

[34] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 133.

[35] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 133.

[36]The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4.

[37]The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4.

[38] Stratman, The Secret Poisoner, p. 274.

[39] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185.

[40] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, p. 25.

[41]The Times, 16 December 1882. p. 9.

[42] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 182.

[43]The Mysterious Poisoning Case at Liverpool, The Illustrated Police News, 8 June 1889, Front Cover.

[44] This is the same James Maybrick, incidentally, who was the supposed writer of a faked diary, published in 1992, identifying him as Jack the Ripper. (Accessed 26/4/21).

[45]The Mysterious Poisoning Case at Liverpool, The Illustrated Police News, 8 June 1889, Front Cover.

[46] Florence Maybrick was released in 1904, after a review of her case showed that it was unsafe (her husband had been self-prescribing medicines), to significant public sympathy.

[47]Joanna Preparing the Poison for Sir John Cleveland, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 10 July 1868, Front Cover.

[48]Joanna Preparing the Poison for Sir John Cleveland, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 10 July 1868, Front Cover.

[49] L. Williams, Wayward Women (Barnsley, 2016), p. 29.

[50] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, (London, 2014), p. 25.

[51] G. Dugdale, A True Discourse of the practises of Elizabeth Caldwell (London, 1604).

[52]The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4.

[53] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 86.

[54] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 86–87.

[55] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 86.

[56] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185.

[57] Hartman. Victorian Murderesses, p. 1.

[58] London Daily News, 18 March 1850, p. 5.

[59] Williams, Wayward Women, p. 29.

[60] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 184.

[61] Hartman. Victorian Murderesses, p. 1.

[62] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 182.

[63] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 178.

[64] Williams, Wayward Women, p. 82.

[65] Hartman. Victorian Murderesses, p. 255.

[66] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 183.

[67] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 93.

[68] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 178.

[69] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: JaneBowler, October 1842, ref. t18421024-3062,, accessed 04/02/2019

[70] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[71] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[72] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[73] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[74] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[75] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 134.

[76] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 105.

[77] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, p. 114.

[78] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, p. 114.

[79] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 184.

[80] For wider context on the sexual double standard the recommended reading is Judith R. Walkowitz’s Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State

[81] Old Bailey, Jane Bowler.

[82] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[83]Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[84]Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[85] J. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, (Chicago, 1992), pp. 219–20.

[86] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 187.

[87]Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 187.

[88]Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 187.

[89] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 179.

[90] The Times, 26 August 1856, p. 6.

[91] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’, pp. 131-132.

[92] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’, p. 133.

[93] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood, p. 131.

[94]Transportation was seen as a cost effective and positive form of punishment; it removed convicted criminals from British society, and the country’s prisons or asylums but in its own right it could be a death sentence.

[95]Old Bailey , Ann Merritt.

[96] ‘Wrongs Without Redress’, Lincolnshire Chronicle, 5 April 1850, p. 7.

[97] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’, p. 131.

[98] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 131.




The Problem with Prison – From an Academic Who’s Been There

The Problem with Prison – From an Academic Who’s Been There

Gary F. Fisher is an inter-disciplinary teacher and researcher in the liberal arts tradition. He received his doctorate in Classics from the University of Nottingham in 2020 and has published research on a variety of subjects, ranging from the history of education to twentieth-century travel literature. He is currently employed by Lincoln College.

The National Records of Scotland recently released their much-delayed statistics concerning the number of drug-related deaths that occurred during the year of 2019. They revealed a continued rise to a record high, firmly cementing Scotland as the drug deaths capital of Europe. This, combined with the fact that Scotland also boasts the largest prison population per capita in Western Europe, has prompted a slew of articles proposing various types of reform. So far, so familiar. ‘Prisons in this country are a mess’ is one of the few sentiments that appears to be shared on both sides of the political aisle in the UK. It is a sentiment that you can find in both the New Statesman and The Spectator. As the Oxford History of the Prison has noted, it is a sentiment that has persisted for over two centuries, at least since the prison reformer John Howard roundly criticised the condition of eighteenth-century Britain’s criminal justice system in his 1777 The State of Prisons.

That, sadly, is where the unity ends. While Britons can collectively agree that they are not happy with the state of our prisons, we differ wildly in our proposed solutions. More than that, we cannot even agree on precisely what the problem is. On the one hand, there are those who believe prisons have become too soft, that they are limp-wristed holiday camps in which society’s foulest enter through a revolving door to be waited on hand and foot before being released all too quickly upon an unsuspecting public. On the other hand, there are those who view prisons as brutal and draconian institutions, in which cruel and oppressive restrictions on individuals’ human rights serve to entrench and reinforce criminal behaviour to no palpable social benefit. The former will question what punishment or deterrent is offered by giving potentially violent and dangerous criminals free access to entertainment resources and educational courses, luxuries that law-abiding citizens would only be able to access at personal expense. The latter will appeal to examples of ‘humane incarceration’, typically exhibited in Scandinavian countries, and cite the reduced rates of re-offending associated with a more rehabilitative approach. Representatives of these two broad camps regularly spar on the airwaves, yet these clashes rarely serve to advance the dialogue. One can watch two daytime television debates entitled ‘Are we too soft on prisoners?’, one from ten years ago and one from only last year, and see almost the exact same points and rebuttals being made, with no significant innovations in reasoning having being made in the intervening decade. Neither side will engage with, let alone be convinced by, the arguments of their opponents. In fact, it’s questionable whether they even hear each other. 

Courting one of these two sides has become something of a prerequisite for elected office in the UK. Upon his election in 2019, Boris Johnson immediately sought to placate the ‘tough on crime’ crowd by introducing reforms to expand sentence durations and prison numbers. On the other side of the debate, since her election as Scottish First Minister in 2014 Nicola Sturgeon has consistently cultivated favour amongst those who favour a progressive approach to criminal justice by introducing reforms to move the focus of Scottish criminal justice away from punishment and towards rehabilitation. This politicisation of debate has hardly helped matters and, frustrated by the fruitlessness of dialogue on the subject, one criminal defence lawyer recently penned a plea in Scottish Legal News. Iain Smith implored legislators to ‘move beyond tokenistic, meaningless terms like being “hard” or “soft” on crime’, and instead adopt a ‘smart’ approach that focuses on achieving the goal of reducing offending through solutions that occur outside the walls of a prison. As well intentioned as Smith’s plea may be, it seems unlikely to gain traction. 

Highly conscious of this fatalistic public attitude towards the prison system, I first passed through the gates of a category C men’s prison at the beginning of 2020. I should stress that I entered voluntarily, joining the staff as the manager of the prison’s library. It was not long into my career as the librarian that I found the same two broad camps that occupied public dialogue had carried through into the four walls of the prison. There were those staff who pined for the days of ‘proper prison’ and suggested that the modern officer ought to be renamed the ‘custody butler’ for the amount of waiting on their charges that they were increasingly expected to perform. Drawn against them were those who embraced the sector’s increased emphasis on supporting rather than simply securing their residents, and quietly derided those individuals they believed to be insufficiently ‘pro-prisoner’ in the execution of their duties. The incompatibility of these two schools was driven home to me when the library found itself in possession of several copies of a workout guide that could be completed in a cell with no equipment. One of my colleagues was excited by the prospect of distributing this to the men in their cells so that they could continue to exercise while the ongoing pandemic limited their yard time. The other asked ‘why would we want to help them get stronger?’ 

This was more than a simple difference in methods: it was a disagreement as to what the fundamental goal of prisons actually was. To some, their goal was to punish, and anything other than Dickensian horror would represent a betrayal of that goal. To others, their aim was to reform and support, and any interruption to their counselling sessions and wellbeing workshops constituted a frustration of that aim. No wonder these two sides are unreceptive to each other’s arguments: they’re arguing from different pages. They don’t merely disagree on what is wrong with prisons, they disagree on what a ‘correct’ prison would look like.

The reality is that the punitive and rehabilitative approaches, while not necessarily completely mutually exclusive, are at the very least highly counter-productive. It is somewhere between hard and impossible to adopt one without at the very least undermining the other. During my time in the prison library, I witnessed how these two approaches played against each other, with the prisoners caught in the middle. To illuminate this, consider a few examples. Upon being sentenced, a newly convicted offender will be transported to their holding facility in a secure transport vehicle, colloquially known as a ‘sweatbox’. Inside the sweatbox the offender is crammed into a tiny cubicle smaller than an airplane bathroom. So small is this space that taller offenders are unable to properly sit down within them, instead having to half-stand, half-sit for the duration of their indeterminately long journey from court to prison. The transport’s blacked-out windows make the prisoner invisible to the world outside and he is assigned his number and stripped of all personal effects. With this removal of identity completed, the prisoner is then assigned a counsellor and mental health support worker to help him explore the roots of his criminality and come to terms with the very personality that has just been stripped from him. 

A prisoner is encouraged to explore his faith and has regular contact with a large team of professionally-trained chaplains from a variety of religious denominations. But if he indulges too deeply in this faith he will find himself earning the attention of counter-extremism professionals who will monitor him and his reading habits closely and reprimand him or extend his sentence if they deem it appropriate. 

He is given a wide variety of learning opportunities and encouraged to attain qualifications that will hold him in good stead upon his return to the outside world. But he is also barred from accessing the greatest source of learning and information ever created: The World Wide Web. He instead has to make do with the finite materials that the already overstretched library and education services are able to provide and risk a revocation of his learning privileges should a book be returned delayed, damaged or dog-eared.

Of course, those who believe their job is to punish and those who believe their job is to rehabilitate are frustrated with each other. They are not merely pursuing different objectives, they are actively cancelling out each other’s efforts. I am not the first to have noted the incompatibility of these goals. In 2019 James Bourke, the governor of H.M.P. Winchester, was reported in The Daily Telegraph criticising the culture of ‘fantasy’ surrounding what prisons are able to achieve, and how the present attempt to achieve both punishment and rehabilitation has left both goals unfulfilled. Although conditions in prison may be a horrifying deterrent for the ‘nice, white middle-class’ people who legislate for them, Bourke claims their structure and security means they can act as a ‘place of refuge’ for those from more troubled backgrounds. Meanwhile, the idea that a five-week prison sentence is enough time to successfully rehabilitate a convicted criminal after years, if not decades, of accumulated suffering and habitual criminality is derided as a ‘fantasy’. In attempting to both deter criminal behaviour  through harsh punishment and rehabilitate convicted criminals through reformative support, prisons seem doomed to fail both goals.  

This leads back to the condition of public debate about criminal justice reform. Despite the great amounts of ink spilled and spittle launched debating the conditions of our prisons, we never seem to have actually tackled this most fundamental of issues: what do we actually want our prisons to achieve? Do we want to rehabilitate, or do we want to punish? Neither goal is palpably ridiculous, but we can’t have our cake and eat it too. As it stands, the same arguments will continue to be repeated, drug-related deaths will continue to rise, and the one thing that we’ll all be able to agree on will be that we’re not happy with the state of our prisons.

In the BBC’s recent political thriller Roadkill, the Prime Minister, played by Helen McRory, informs Hugh Laurie’s Justice Minister that,  ‘We lock people up. We’re famous for it. We like locking people up. It’s in our character’. For the foreseeable future, that seems unlikely to change. 

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British High-Seas’ Sovereignty: A ‘Fisherman’s Tale’

British High-Seas’ Sovereignty: A ‘Fisherman’s Tale’[1]

Dr David Robinson is the Editor-in-Chief of The MHR and an Honorary Post-Doctoral Fellow of the University of Nottingham. In this Spotlight article, he discusses Britain’s shifting (shifty?) presentation of history over fishing rights…

For the past five years, sovereignty has been the dominant feature of British public discourse. In particular, its gradual erosion since the UK joined the European Community in 1973. Nowhere was the apparent decline in Britain’s ability to maximise its advantages and strategic resources more apparent than in the fishing industry. The nation’s once-proud and dominant trawler fleet, the argument was advanced, was dealt an iniquitous losing hand from the bottom of the deck, by faceless sleight-of-hand Eurocrat croupiers, in the guise of the European Fisheries Policy.

Tensions arose recently when French fisherman attempted a blockade of Jersey, angry at what they saw as the late imposition of licencing requirements by Jersey, under the new UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). When British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, dispatched the Royal Navy the popular British tabloid newspaper, The Sun, responded in fine form with the headline, ‘Take Sprat! Jersey fishing: Royal Navy warships see of blockade and send 56-strong fleet of French boats packing!’

For Brexiteers, the decimation of the British fishing industry has long been a direct result of the restrictions placed on British vessels fishing their own territorial waters. At the same time, foreign incursions were encouraged and EU quotas allowed them to land far bigger catches.

Despite representing just 0.12% of the British economy, fishing was presented as a paradigmatic symbol of the European yoke. And Britain was not to be yoked, particularly by a continent that owed its freedom to the sacrifices made, twice, by the flower of British youth. Arch-Brexiteers frequently suggested parallels between two world wars and Britain’s exit from the EU. Nigel Farage, for example, was pictured in the right-wing press standing next to posters advertising Christopher Nolan’s latest movie and extolling Britain’s Remain-supporting youth ‘to go out and watch #Dunkirk’!

This was a powerful argument, as it offered an example of why Britain should leave the EU that went beyond simple economics. Broad Remain counter-arguments that focused on the loss of a few percentage points of GDP over a couple of decades were a brittle defence of EU membership, especially when British seadogs were left muzzled and tied to the pier stanchions of Grimsby and Hull, whilst Spanish and French armadas ruled the North and Irish Seas as well as our Channel waters. When the referendum cards went down, symbolic beat shambolic; the only way the Remain campaign can really be summarised. Besides, it was argued, leaving the EU would mean an economic resurgence for the British fishing industry. EU boats would be banished for good from UK territorial waters, Britain would reassert its traditional sovereignty and fish ‘a sea of opportunity’.

As it has transpired, however, negotiations with the EU have not concluded as well as British fisherman and Brexit voters had hoped. For a variety of reasons, which could be grouped under the heading ‘reality’, the British fishing industry’s hopes have foundered on the rocks of political and economic expediency, and they have taken to the media, post-Brexit, crying ‘betrayal!’.

That, however, is not the point of this article.

What is, instead, is a selective version of history, successfully deployed to persuade British voters that their future lay in the past. Or, rather, a return to a previous state of ‘sovereignty’ that never really existed. The broader lesson is that sovereign and economic interests are best served not by looking backwards to an imagined past, but by a realistic appreciation of a nations’ current tactical and geo-political strengths.

The historical irony is that the British government’s claims over sovereignty and territorial waters are the very opposite of the traditional case made by British fisherman and governments defending their interests since the nineteenth century. Central to this evolving story has been Britain’s fishing rivalry with Iceland.

In the late 1890s, the accepted limit of territorial coastal sovereignty was three miles. For reasons that went beyond fishing rights, Britain’s official position, defending its dominance of the high seas, was that the three-mile limit was ‘a principle on which we might be prepared to go to war with the strongest power in the world.’[2] So when Iceland got uppity around 1890 and banned foreign trawlers from fishing within four miles of its coast, bays, and fjords to protect dwindling fish stocks, a Royal Naval display of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ put them back in their place. This display of ‘might is right’ held until the early 1950s, by which time the Americans were mightier. When the United States asserted its right to defend its fisheries well beyond the three mile limit, Iceland followed suit and, despite strenuous British diplomatic and legal efforts, it was forced to accept Iceland’s enforcement of a four-mile exclusion zone.[3]

Iceland, however, had played the smart game. Unable to depend on naval power, it leveraged its strategically important geographical position, its membership of NATO, coupled with an oil-for-fish agreement with the Soviet Union, to persuade the broader Western powers that, excuse the pun, there were bigger fish to fry. Concerned about a potential Icelandic pivot eastward, Britain was persuaded to acquiesce.[4]

Some turned to history to vent their frustration at Britain’s inability to enforce its ‘rights’ through military means. In 1955, senior Foreign Office civil servant, Jack Ward, lamented a government reluctance to sink the Icelandic coastguard as ‘sadly lacking in the Nelson touch.’[5] The British also reminded Iceland that, ‘they had been fishing in Icelandic waters since the early fifteenth century and therefore had traditional rights to fish there.’[6] Sixty years later, such arguments from history failed to impress British negotiators when Olivier Leprêtre, the president of the northern France fisheries committee, noted that ‘fishermen have always followed the fish. At the start of the last century, my great grandfather fished in the Thames estuary.’

The 50’s skirmish was the prelude to further conflict between the two nations, dubbed the Cod Wars. In 1958, Iceland declared a twelve-mile territorial limit, from which British trawlers were to be excluded. After two years of hostilities which saw the Icelandic coastguard, British trawlers and Royal naval warships exchange boarding parties, the British backed down once again.

Emboldened by their successes, Iceland continued to extend its territorial claims. To fifty miles in 1972, and to 200 miles in 1975. This time, the threat to life was real, with several deliberate and accidental collisions between trawlers, British warships and the Icelandic coastguard. Britain even deployed the Royal Air Force in an intimidatory capacity. Good sense prevailed when attempts by Halifax aircraft to use trailing cables (communication aerials) to rip the aerials from Icelandic trawlers passing the positions of their British counterparts to the Icelandic coastguard were aborted due to the serious threat to the lives of Icelandic seamen.[7]

Once again Iceland understood their tactical strengths, leveraging broader support by threatening to leave NATO and expel the US military from their key strategic base at Keflavik. These second and third Cod Wars were, again, concluded on favourable terms to Iceland. Britain grudgingly accepted the same 200-mile territorial limit it has, more recently, vociferously defended, citing the red line of ‘taking back control’ of its ‘historically’ sovereign waters.[8]

Interestingly, like Britain recently, internal politics played a significant part in Iceland’s approach to negotiations. Whilst many in their government were minded to be less belligerent, the popular Icelandic Communist Party forced their hand by whipping up populist support for strongly opposing the British.[9] Here is one lesson: all external conflict is, to some degree, interconnected with internal politics.

In a recent ironic twist which has slipped beneath the radar, the Royal Air Force has just named one of its new Poseidon MRA1 maritime patrol aircraftSpirit of Reykjavik in honour of the role played by the Icelandic capital and its people in enabling the Allied victory during the Battle of the Atlantic.[10] You couldn’t make it up.

Perhaps we might dub recent negotiations some kind of fourth Cod War, albeit less dramatic. Who won the latest round? In terms of internal politics, the powerful bloc of ‘Vote Leave’ politicians that now control the British government, hands down. Their recourse to history, however fallacious and disingenuous (fishy?), was strongly persuasive. Of course, there were many different motivations for leaving the EU. As a good friend of mine pointed out, ‘were I to know that the UK would, economically, sink into the sea, I’d still have voted Brexit!’ Repeating that to other Leave-supporting friends has resulted in enthusiastic agreement. One has to wonder if the future of the fishing industry was really their top priority.

The problem with this interpretation is that the long-standing, structural issues facing Britain’s fishing industry lie not in EU unfairness or belligerence, but in decades of underinvestment and neglect by the British government. European fishers long ago bought up British trawler quotas as long term investments, whereas the latter, unsupported by their government, were happy to sell for a short term killing and redeploy their boats in the North Sea oil industry. The British ‘fishing industry’ is as much an international trade in quotas, controlled by foreign interests and a few wealthy British families as it is concerned with actually catching fish. This was no basis for a strong negotiating position with EU officials who were never to be influenced by the arguments about Britain’s ‘historic sovereignty’ of the seas, which have reversed over a century, however persuasive they were to English ‘patriots’.

So, the trawlermen of Hull, Grimsby and Peterhead feel betrayed with a mostly as-you-were agreement on fishing with the EU. As John Lichfield puts it, ‘conclusion…You can win a political argument with lies and myths. Governing or negotiating with them is as useful as fishing without nets.’

Still, all may not be lost. An internal DEFRA email recently noted that, to protect their fishing waters, Britain has just ‘12 vessels that need to monitor a space three times the size of the surface area of the UK.’ Iceland was successful with less. In 1958, they ‘had no navy and the Icelandic coast guard had only seven small ships with one gun each.’[11] The difference is that Iceland had a better appreciation of where its strengths lay and a genuine commitment to its fishing industry. And, despite internal political disagreements, they were able to unite around their nation’s practical interests. Britain’s perceived aggression and intractability in the Cod Wars ‘united the Icelandic nation, from Left to Right’, despite their internal political fractures.[12] It seems this is a lesson Britain has failed to learn as a similar belligerence has united a traditionally divided EU.

Domestic political victory is somewhat pyrrhic when it fails to achieve its broader economic aims and leaves many of its supporters feeling betrayed. In 1951, the Icelandic press noted that Britain appeared to think it was still ‘living in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.’[13] In many ways, it seems it still does. In any reasonable assessment, Britain stands in the first rank of nations. It is a danger to itself and a loss to the broader international community that it continually insists on looking backwards to its past to find its future.

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Primary Sources

The National Archives of the U.K.: Public Record Office, Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries, 41/674, Grey to Findlay, Oslo, 26 June 1911

The National Archives of the U.K.: Public Record Office, Foreign Office, 371/116445/NL1351/186, F.O. draft submission, Sept. 1955.

Vísir (Icelandic Daily), 5 June 1958.


Secondary Sources

Gudmundsson, G. J., ‘The Cod and the Cold War,’ Scandinavian Journal of History, 31 (2006), pp. 97-118.

Johannesson, G. T., ‘How “cod war” came: the origins of the Anglo-Icelandic fisheries dispute, 1958–61’, Historical Research, 77 ( 2004), pp. 544-74.

Kurlansky, M., Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (New York, 1997).


[1] A boastful or exaggerated claim

[2] The National Archives of the U.K.: Public Record Office, MAF 41/674, Grey to Findlay, Oslo, 26 June 1911

[3] G. T. Johannesson, ‘How “cod war” came: the origins of the Anglo-Icelandic fisheries dispute, 1958–61’, Historical Research, 77 ( 2004), pp. 544-74, pp. 545-9.

[4] Johannesson, ‘How “cod war” came’, 548-9.

[5] T.N.A.: P.R.O., FO 371/116445/NL1351/186, F.O. draft submission, Sept. 1955.

[6] G. J. Gudmundsson, ‘The Cod and the Cold War,’ Scandinavian Journal of History, 31 (2006), pp. 97-118, p. 100.

[7] My thanks to Sqn. Ldr. R. P. Robinson (retd.) for his remembrances.

[8] Gudmundsson, ‘The Cod and the Cold War’, pp. 108-10.

[9] Gudmundsson, ‘The Cod and the Cold War’, 102.

[10] Once again, I am indebted to Sqn. Ldr. R. P Robinson for drawing my attention to this point..

[11] M. Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (New York, 1997), p. 162.

[12] Johannesson, ‘How “cod war” came’, 564.

[13] Vísir (Icelandic Daily), 5 June 1958.
















Digital Archive Review: The Internet Archive

Digital Archive Review: The Internet Archive

This review is the first of a new series, intended as a learning resource, and aimed primarily at undergraduates about to embark on individual research projects and dissertations, but will also be relevant to anyone interested in the rich potential of digital archives for accessing primary sources. Here, Robert Frost discusses using the Internet Archive to access out-of-copyright books from the early nineteenth century. The Internet Archive is an indispensable resource for all those interested in modern British history, cultural history, and beyond, and one now more important than ever due to lockdown restrictions this past year


Biography: Robert Frost is an AHRC-funded doctoral student with joint Geography and History department supervision. He is interested in Georgian and early Victorian travel, exploration and field studies in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Throughout my PhD on the work of the Egyptologist and antiquary Sir Gardner Wilkinson (1797–1875), I have found the Internet Archive (IA) invaluable.[1] In this piece, I give a short introduction to the IA, recount how I have used it in my research, and cover a few of the problems that using such a digital resource inadvertently brings.

The IA started off in the mid-1990s, and is now an organisation with a number of branches: most famously, it runs the ‘Wayback machine’—an online archive of billions of website pages, as well as an ‘Open library’ which ‘loans’ new books for a limited time period. The IA also holds film and audio media. My focus here though is on a more specific part: its massive collection of out-of-copyright books, from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries (and a few from even further back), sourced in large part from major public and university libraries in the United States.

Being open-access, the IA is simple to access: no passwords are required, although there is an option to create an account to access additional features, including the lending library of more recent books (Fig. 1). The interface is also easy to use: if you know what book you want, then you only need to type the title into the search bar at the top right-hand corner of the page. If the IA holds it, then it will come up (Fig. 2). Also worthy of note is the ‘Advanced Search’ functionality: it is possible to narrow the results down to individual years, or keywords. Unlike some other online archives (including at least one subscription one which I know of), the IA allows users to export entire out-of-copyright books as PDFs, rather than simply view them, or just download a limited page range. The option is available in a panel when scrolling down the page. I have used this feature to download copies of all of Gardner Wilkinson’s books—including multi-volume works such as his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837), Modern Egypt and Thebes (1843), Dalmatia and Montenegro (1848)—amongst much else (Fig. 3).[2]

Had this resource not existed—excluding other online archives from consideration for a moment—then I would have had to buy reprinted copies of Wilkinson’s books from Cambridge University Press (at a price of £30 per volume) where available, and take photographs of books in archives for his more obscure printed works. As Wilkinson’s published books run to over 6,000 pages—by no means all of which are available as reprints—that that would be a sizeable number of photographs, which I would then have had to spend even more time organising. While noting that a lot of extremely good research was conducted in the pre-digital age, it is interesting to note what else becomes easier when you have digital copies of books immediately to hand (which you can annotate, and which are not at risk of being recalled by other library users). More cross-referencing is one possibility. So is spending more time on looking at the corresponding Wilkinson manuscript collection.

Not consulting the original copies comes at a cost, however. The most significant drawbacks to using the IA to read nineteenth and early twentieth-century books are those associated with materiality. At one level, reading a book published in the Victorian era on a screen is quite different to how it was originally read—an argument forwarded by John Berger in relation to paintings.[3] Whether this makes a significant difference or not is debatable. The closest that I would come to making any sort of complaint about a book being abstracted by the IA is that you can all too easily lose any conception of its size: was a book ‘Octavo’ size and therefore read by a large audience? Or was it an ‘elephant folio’ which would hardly ever have escaped a scholarly library? These questions need to be asked (and answered) if any attempt to put a book in its context is attempted—yet it is only one I started to think about seriously after seeing several enormous volumes of antiquarian books—which I had previously only been familiar with through the IA—in ‘hard’ copy, in a research library.

What is of far more practical significance—at any rate to my own research—is that the paratextual material—maps and images—frequently fairs less well in the copying process than the text. This issue has affected my own research on several occasions, in relation to one of Gardner Wilkinson’s books, Dalmatia and Montenegro (1848)—a travel and regional history book on the southernmost regions of the Habsburg Empire, with forays into the contested borderland with the Ottoman Empire. It was only after studying this text for a year that I realised that the original edition included a fold-out map of the eastern Adriatic and Balkan coast. This feature had not been reproduced in the copy that I had downloaded from the IA—I had to rely on another website to see this. Finding out that the original book had a map was not a surprise—the publisher, John Murray often included them in regional and travel books—but at the same time my thoughts at various points during the past year were more along the lines of ‘It’s so frustrating having to use google earth—why doesn’t this book have a map?’. The question that I should have been asking was, of course, ‘I wonder if the original had a map?’.

The story with images is better, but has some of the same problems. One problem is that some images are landscape and it takes more effort to rotate them (they need to be downloaded first) than it would do for a book—a case where John Berger’s critique really does matter: it is all too easy to simply skip over them, or be lazy or simply glance at them and move on. This is a problem that can be easily solved, given a few moments. But there are also more serious issues: some images in scans are blurred or otherwise distorted (and on a few occasions, I have even found that whole pages are missing). Usually this has not been too much of a problem, but there have been times when it has been an issue: I still recall one supervision in which myself and my supervisors disagreed as to whether a particular image of a track on the hills above the plain of Tzetinie and Lake Scutari (in Montenegro) showed a man on a donkey or not. It was hardly a major issue, but was one which would not have occurred had I been using a hard copy rather than an inadequately-copied image.

Whilst I have dwelt on some of the drawbacks involving the IA—in part because these are not often discussed—they definitely should not suggest that the IA is a resource with major problems. Even when it comes to research on materiality, there are advantages. Unlike the digitisation produced by some scanning technology—such as ECCO—the images of book pages are usually of a high standard: annotations and marginalia—now an area of major interest amongst scholars—come out well, allowing signs of reader engagement and contemporary responses to be studied.[4] On several occasions I have even come across a reader noting the full name of an author, where only initials were printed—a potentially invaluable piece of help—although one of course which depends on the copy being scanned: if copiers choose the books in best condition, with clean pages, then historians interested in this angle may not even be aware of a lost opportunity.  Especially during the last year, the choice has been, far more often than not, either to use a digital copy of a book (especially a nineteenth-century one), or make do without it altogether. Other options exist: the Hathi Trust, covers a similar time period. Early English Books Online features books from the late medieval and early modern periods. For me though, the IA has quite literally been the most important website on the internet.

Figure 1: The Internet Archive homepage.

Figure 2: Results for Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (several volumes and editions).

Figure 3: Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians—a navigable book, which is also available to download.

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Berger, J., Ways of Seeing (London, 1972)

Jackson, H. J., Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven CT, 2001)

Jackson, H. J., Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (New Haven CT, 2005)

Internet Archive. < >, accessed 21.3.2021.

Wilkinson, J. G., Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1837)

Wilkinson, J. G., Modern Egypt and Thebes (London, 1843)

Wilkinson, J. G., Dalmatia and Montenegro (London, 1848)



[1] Internet Archive. < >, accessed 21.3.2021.

[2] J. G. Wilkinson, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1837); J. G. Wilkinson, Modern Egypt and Thebes. (London, 1843); J. G. Wilkinson, Dalmatia and Montenegro (London, 1848).

[3] J. Berger, Ways of Seeing (London, 1972).

[4] H. J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven CT, 2001); H. J. Jackson, Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (New Haven CT, 2005).

The Perfect Ambassador? The Life and Career of the Early Modern French Diplomat Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux (1640–1709)


European diplomacy was born of the relations between northern Italian city-states during the Renaissance, and developed from occasional delegations to resident embassies in the early modern period. In the seventeenth century, the Kingdom of France became the protagonist of European political and military affairs, particularly under the reign of Louis XIV. This article analyses the personality, family background and professional career of Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux (1640–1709) through a range of diplomatic documents to assess the extent to which he met the expectations and diplomatic objectives set by the Sun King. I argue that although d’Avaux was a successful and appreciated Louisquatorzien ambassador, his personal views and approach to diplomatic matters did not always align with royal guidelines.

Keywords: Early Modern diplomacy, Comte d’Avaux, ambassador, Louis XIV, Kingdom of France, Dutch Republic, Peace of Nijmegen, James II, Irish expedition

Author Biography

Elvira Tamus is a PhD student in History at Sidney Sussex College / Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research focuses on Franco-Hungarian diplomatic relations in the 1520s and 1530s in the context of the Valois-Habsburg-Ottoman imperial rivalry. She obtained her BA in History and French language at the University of Leicester, and her MA in History (specialisation: Europe 1000–1800) at Leiden University. This article is a revised version of a paper written for a research seminar at Leiden.


The Perfect Ambassador? The Life and Career of the Early Modern French Diplomat Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux (1640–1709)[1]

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In the seventeenth century, the custom of establishing permanent embassies and sending resident ambassadors to represent their sovereigns in other countries became common in Europe. The key actor in European diplomacy was King Louis XIV (r.1643–1715), whose large-scale political and military endeavours made France the principal power on the continent. The diplomatic machinery that evolved under his reign had a crucial impact on the foreign policy practices of various European states. Thus, along with the status quo set by the Peace of Westphalia which ended the European wars of religion in 1648, Louis instituted the roots of modern diplomacy.

The selection criteria of Louis XIV has been widely discussed in the historiography of French diplomacy. The seventeenth and early eighteenth-century evolution of ambassadorial characteristics, tasks, and responsibilities was carried out by Dutch diplomat Abraham de Wicquefort (1606–82) and French diplomat François de Callières (1645–1717). Wicquefort wrote in his L’Ambassadeur et ses fonctions that an ambassador should possess unquestionable loyalty towards his monarch and a perfect understanding of the issues under negotiation, in order to act in accordance with the interests of his prince.[2] Callières described ambassadors’ responsibilities as representing their princes’ interests and discerning the intentions of other sovereigns. He claimed that a negotiator is first and foremost the executor, rather than the originator of diplomatic decisions which should be made only in consultation with the prince or the principal ministers.[3]  In this regard, as William Roosen has argued, Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux was an exception, since Louis relied heavily on d’Avaux’s insight into political conditions gained during his long experience in The Hague and in Sweden.[4]  Orloue N. Gisselquist has concluded that the decade of 1678–88 was a ‘critical period’ for Louis’ foreign policy.[5]  As the French ambassador in the Dutch Republic, d’Avaux frequently used bribery and propaganda (in the form of widely distributed pamphlets) to influence the many officials involved in decision-making, and to promote French interests.[6] Moreover, Gisselquist notes that the centralised nature of French diplomacy required that its ambassadors dealt only with the local issues around their residencies, and therefore, they were often provided with limited information regarding the broad horizon of French foreign affairs.[7] Due to this feature and the exceptionally long time spent in the Dutch Republic, d’Avaux occasionally misunderstood the king’s intentions. Marie-Hélène Côté highlights that the selection procedure of ambassadors included many aspects, such as their social and financial status, appearance, attitude, morals and education, along with the Louis’ personal confidence in the diplomatic candidates selected.[8]

Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux served as Louis’ ambassador and envoy in several of countries throughout his own illustrious career and the Sun King’s reign.[9] This case study, therefore, offers an opportunity to consider a detailed picture of the lives, duties, personal and professional specialties of Louisquatorzien ambassadors.

In this article, I will analyse the personal background and diplomatic career of Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, with an emphasis on his service as Louis XIV’s peace negotiator during the Franco-Dutch War; as ambassador to the Dutch Republic; and as an envoy to James II of England’s Irish expedition. These missions represented a critical period of Louis’ reign when the king was engaged in several political and military conflicts. Thus, I will consider the extent to which d’Avaux carried out his diplomatic missions in line with the brief given to him by Louis. I argue that foreign service, remote from regular contact with the French court and his monarch, influenced d’Avaux to the extent that his diplomatic interactions became increasingly independent. Through these observations, I consider the developement of the ambassadorial role in this period. I further reflect on the shifting relationship between ambassador and their monarch back home, and the impacts of this for foreign policy decision-making.


Family background, youth and early career (1640–76)

Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux was born in 1639 or 1640 into a highly prestigious intellectual family whose members had acquired their title for serving the French government in judicial, administrative and diplomatic positions –members of the Noblesse de robe.[10] His grandfather, Jean-Jacques was a knight (chevalier) and seigneur of Roissy, while his father, Jean-Antoine possessed one of the most significant mandates of justice at the Parlement of Paris as président à mortier.[11] His uncle, Claude de Mesmes, comte d’Avaux was a prominent diplomat and ambassador under cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin in Venice, Rome, Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The family’s involvement in state affairs is documented in Claude’s correspondence with his father, in which they frequently discussed French and European political news as well as the son’s career progress.[12] In the 1640s, Claude de Mesmes served at the peace negotiations in Münster which ended the Thirty Years’ War.[13] Although Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux may be a less well-known diplomat than his uncle, he was nevertheless a crucial agent of French diplomacy in the Dutch Republic for a significant period of time, in one of the most critical periods of Franco-Dutch relations. Jean-Antoine followed a traditional judicial career, becoming firstly conseiller at the parliament in 1661, and then maître de requêtes in 1667.[14] These administrative offices provided the young noble with expertise in law and government. His sufficient but not ‘too high-level’ education and remarkable background accord with Wicquefort’s argument that a prestigious family was more influential in determining a potential ambassador’s success than were schooling and professional experience.[15] Additionally, Callières believed that it was beneficial for a diplomat to have a sufficiently pleasing face to charm an audience.[16] The French duke Louis de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon mentioned the Mesmes family several times in his memoirs and described d’Avaux’s appearance and behaviour as follows: ‘C’étoit un fort bel homme et bien fait, galant aussi, et qui avoit de l’honneur, fort l’esprit du grand monde, de la grâce, de la noblesse, et beaucoup de politesse.’[17] Saint-Simon also noted that d’Avaux had never possessed the title ‘comte d’Avaux’ but nevertheless liked to be referred to as count throughout his career.[18]

Due to a period of almost continuous warfare, Louis needed an efficient, professional diplomatic service to represent his interests abroad and, occasionally, to address disputes by diplomatic means. D’Avaux met these criteria, and was given his first ambassadorial commission to the Republic of Venice between 1672 and 1673. Although this period was relatively peaceful in the series of the Ottoman-Venetian wars, d’Avaux had an important diplomatic task. He needed to reconcile the relationship between the republic and France after the Cretan War (1645–69) in which the Venetians attributed the Ottoman victory at the Siege of Candia (1648–69) to the failures of the allied French army.[19] In addition to this effort, d’Avaux also dealt with commercial affairs by acting as mediator for the acquisition of Italian artefacts by the French court.[20] In a letter from Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–83) to d’Avaux, the Minister of Finances thanked the ambassador for sending him an item of luxury clothing as well as for his remarks on Venetian traders, suggesting that d’Avaux had contributed significantly to economic agreements between France and Venice.[21]


The Treaty of Nijmegen and the ambassadorial service in The Hague (1675–88)

One of the major political aspirations of the Sun King concerned the Spanish Succession, an ongoing European-wide dilemma of the late seventeenth century. The problem originated with Charles II of Spain, who was physically and mentally disabled and childless in both of his marriages. Louis initiated the War of Devolution (1667–68) by staking his claim for the Spanish throne through his wife, the sister of Charles, Maria Theresa of Spain. The Triple Alliance of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, England and Sweden in 1668 made Louis step back from his plans and thus became, along with the Dutch embargo on French products, one of the causes of the Franco-Dutch War between 1672 and 1679.[22]

Louis launched a war of conquest for territorial and commercial benefits and triumphed over the alliance that William III, Prince of Orange, had forged with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It was in the final stage of this conflict that the young d’Avaux truly grounded his future diplomatic career through his valuable negotiating skills. In 1674, Louis was primarily concerned with dismantling any form of alliance that opposed his interests, such as the one which was soon to emerge between the Dutch Republic and England. To negotiate the best conditions for France, the Sun King needed loyal, dedicated and well-trained diplomats. In December 1675, Louis appointed three plenipotentiaries to represent his interests directly in the negotiations: Colbert de Croissy (1625–96), brother of Minister of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert; Godefroi, Comte d’Estrade (1607–86); and Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux.[23] Their main responsibility was to assure the delegates from other states of Louis’ benevolence and willingness to cooperate.[24] They relayed the King’s offers which consisted of trading benefits; the withdrawal of formerly installed restrictive duties; and the return of territories which had been occupied by French troops such as Maastricht and the Principality of Orange-Nassau. The latter concession was particularly important, since Louis had previously seized a number of European fortresses of strategic importance.[25] The mission enhanced the professional reputation of all three and proved to be an ideal entry-point into successful ambassadorial careers. From the French perspective, the treaty, which was signed by the representatives of France and the Dutch Republic on 10 August 1678, aimed to utilise and increase the political and military glory that Louis XIV had gained with his territorial captures.

The more than six years of hostility had fundamentally damaged the relations between the two states, and careful diplomatic steps were needed to reconcile them. Louis sent an ambassadeur extraordinaire to reinvigorate his relationship with the United Provinces, to extend the political, diplomatic and commercial successes which he had gained from the war and, most importantly, to uncover more about William III’s potential future military endeavours. For this, Louis chose d’Avaux as the key figure of the diplomatic rapprochement between France and the United Provinces. When the Prince of Orange challenged the Treaty of Nijmegen in August 1678 and called for resistance against France with a planned coalition with England, d’Avaux was put in charge of disentangling the issue by convincing the Dutch leadership of Louis’ trustworthiness. The king justified his appointment by stating that d’Avaux’s ‘présence donnera beaucoup plus de force aux assurances’.[26] Additionally, he instructed the diplomat to communicate with other ambassadors in The Hague and to convince them that the ratification of the remaining treaties with France would bring peace and friendship.[27] After d’Avaux’s success in resolving post-war interstate issues with Venice, Louis had confidence that d’Avaux could facilitate trust between the two sides. The latter was pleased to receive his commission in September 1678 and travelled from Nijmegen to The Hague at the end of that month.[28]

Court life was particularly expensive and Louis’ ambassadors never felt they were provided with sufficient means to maintain an appropriate degree of opulence – the Sun King’s envoys were meant to represent his superiority both materially and ceremonially. Callières similarly argued that ambassadors should possess considerable wealth, ‘afin d’être en état de soutenir les dépenses necessairement attachées a cet emploi.’[29] In 1679, d’Avaux began his commission as the new French ambassador to The Hague with an impressive ceremony to celebrate French successes gained with the Peace of Nijmegen.[30] The language of d’Avaux’s Mémoirs shows that he, as any of Louis’ ambassadors, was primarily and almost exclusively to represent the Roi Soleil personally, rather than the gouvernement and still less the peuple. The King’s name, titles and laudation were permanent elements of d’Avaux’s records, negotiations and widely circulated pamphlets.[31] One of the main benefits he had gained in the preceding years was his great circle of acquaintances and a few confidential relations. Most importantly, Colbert de Croissy, his fellow negotiator, became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1679. D’Avaux had several relatives and friends in high administrative positions at the royal court who provided him with a regular flow of information of considerable value in the following years.[32] During the negotiations, the policy of aggressive expansion that Louis had initially pursued fundamentally changed. Taking advantage of the political tension between the trading leaders and the Prince of Orange, Louis turned towards a more subtle approach by trying to create favourable conditions for the Dutch merchant elite.[33] In 1684, d’Avaux successfully negotiated with the Dutch provinces to have Louis’ proposals accepted by the States General, the legislature body of the Republic – in spite of the efforts of secrétaire général Gaspar Fagel (1634–88), a key representative of William III.[34]

A contemporary of d’Avaux, Louis-Henri de Loménie, comte de Brienne (1635–98) praised the diplomatic skills of the diplomat:

M. d’Avaux est un beau génie et fort facile; il a de grandes vues, beaucoup de pénétration et un grand usage des affaires. Il sait parfaitement les intérêts des princes de l’Europe, écrit et parle bien. Il seroit très digne d’être secrétaire d’État.[35]

D’Avaux dedicated considerable efforts to the resolution of two further issues. The first of these was the interception in the United Provinces of Huguenot refugees who had fled France after the enacting of the Edict of Fontainebleau in October 1685. With this decree, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, in which Henry IV of France had granted free exercise of religion for Calvinists in 1598. The persecution of French Protestants forced many of them to leave their home country for more religiously tolerant states, notably the Dutch Republic. The revived persecution of Protestants not only undermined the diplomatic relations of France, but caused economic harm due to the absence of a great number of Huguenots, who were diligent merchants and tradesmen.[36]  D’Avaux was trying to tempt some of these craftsmen back by offering them benefits, as long as they were willing to reconvert to Roman Catholicism. Politically, the growing number of Huguenot refugees in the Dutch Republic contributed to the deterioration of the States General’s attitude towards France, potentially frustrating d’Avaux’s plans to foster the conflict between them and William III.[37]

D’Avaux deployed espionage and bribery to gain access to the Huguenot community, with the intent that they be returned to France where they would have to abandon Protestantism. The ambassador addressed this problem with the help of a spy in Haarlem, Sieur de Tillières, who had been providing him with information about the refugees for years. This issue prompted d’Avaux to express his concerns regarding the negative impact of the persecutions. He indicated in his letters to Louis that the most effective technique to reduce the emigrations would be decreasing state aggression against the Protestants, instead of the continued policy of catching and returning them home.[38]

D’Avaux strongly encouraged Louis to cement his diplomatic relationship with the Dutch. However, William III of Orange, Stadtholder of the United Provinces approached the other Protestant maritime power, the Kingdom of England, hoping for an anti-French alliance. William had had aspirations to become the heir to the English throne since his marriage to Princess Mary in 1677, niece of the then sovereign Charles II. Mary’s father was crowned James II, King of England in 1685, but was not viewed favourably at home, due to his Catholic affiliations. His situation was threatened in June 1688, when a son was born to his second wife Mary of Modena. The birth of a Catholic prince provoked fears that through the heir, Catholicism would be restored and become the official religion.[39] D’Avaux was sufficiently confident to urge his king in the strongest terms: ‘J’avertis le Roi, pour la dixième fois, que tout ce qui se passoit de plus secret dans le Conseil du Roi d’Angleterre, étoit révélé au Prince d’Orange.’[40] Indeed, d’Avaux was proved correct when William ’invaded’ at England Protestant request in the Glorious Revolution in November 1688.[41]

Eventually, a large-scale European clash of political and economic interests developed in the guise of the Nine Years’ War (1688–97), mainly consisting of a Dutch, English (Williamite), and Holy Roman alliance against France’s ever increasing commercial and political superiority.[42] During the initial phase of the English dynastic rivalry, Louis had supported his cousin James, hoping that Catholicism, and his own influence, would be revived in England. D’Avaux dedicated considerable efforts to obtaining intelligence regarding William III’s maritime preparations. He reported on the danger he discerned in the plans of the Prince of Orange, particularly towards the English throne. To gather as much information as possible, d’Avaux followed Louis’s recommendation of establishing relations with the the republicans (members of the States party), who generally opposed the aspirations of the Stadtholder and the Orangist (pro-William) party.[43] He also found informants in the council of Amsterdam, a rich city with many republican supporters.[44] In addition, d’Avaux made use of William’s unpopular plan of increasing the size of the army against a possible French advancement in the Spanish Netherlands. D’Avaux was expected by the French administration to send alerts about every single movement of William and his Troupes, and his reports illustrate his diligence in this respect. Nonetheless, he did not hesitate to report about the States General’s decreasing sympathy towards the French cause:

Les Ministres du Roi d’Angleterre dirent que leur Maitre auroit une grosse Flotte en mer : cela servit de prétexte au Prince d’Orange pour faire un plus grand armement, car il étoit bien éloigné d’en rien craindre, puisqu’il étoit assuré que le Roi d’Angleterre n’étoit pas en état de mettre plus de sept á huit Vaisseaux. (…) Que supposé que le Prince d’Orange eut tous ces desseins, j’étois obligé de dire á Sa Majesté qu’il ne trouvat du secours dans les Etats-Generaux, que tous les fugitifs de France avoient tellement animé les Calvinistes de Hollande, qu’on n’oseroit se promettre que les Etats entrassent dans leurs véritables interets, comme ils auroient fait autrefois, si pareille occasion s’étoit présentée.[45]

From these reports, Louis learned that in addition to the followers of the prince, many supported William’s goal of promoting Protestantism and Dutch trade in England. However, the French court could not be fully aware of, or prepared for, the upcoming developments, due to William’s well-organised and cautious steps and the gradual erosion of d’Avaux’s intelligence circle. The inefficacy in providing sufficient information about William’s project can be regarded mainly as the result of the prince’s precautionary and increasing support, rather than d’Avaux’s failure as ambassador.


Irish expedition with James II (1689–90)

In early 1689, Louis appointed d’Avaux as advisor to James II of England, to help him reorganise his army in Ireland comprising both Protestants and Catholics.[46] D’Avaux’s correspondence from Ireland with Louis and Louvois, the French Secretary of State for War, provides us with a valuable insight into James II’s intentions and also into the diplomat’s endeavours and judgment of the situation during the campaign in Ireland in 1689–90. James II aimed to seize absolute control over Ireland in order to retaliate against William III, and thus to restore his royal power with a considerable social and military force behind him. However, the French king, and hence his ambassador, had a different priority in this campaign – to occupy William III’s attention and army away from the continent as much as possible.[47] Consequently, the clash of these interests was virtually inevitable.

William III was the central figure of the anti-French European coalition but his new English crown resulted in several challenges to this leadership.[48] Although d’Avaux did not arrive in Ireland in 1689 as an ambassador, he did bear a large share of the responsibility of Louis’s military success in Britain and Ireland. His extensive experience as both observer and influencer of public and political opinion facilitated his orientation in the Irish question. D’Avaux’s role in James II’s expedition in Ireland was essential as the diplomat realised the importance of William’s obstruction in the success of France and the Jacobites, and kept emphasising the interests of the French crown in the entire course of his engagement. In this expedition, James II was advised by the Irish soldier Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell; the Scottish politician John Drummond, 1st Earl of Melfort; and d’Avaux. In the course of the first month, d’Avaux perceived a promising situation regarding the acceptance of James’ expedition. Nonetheless, upon arrival, d’Avaux found himself in disagreement with James over the crucial question of the Act of Settlement – the king wanted to maintain it, while the diplomat wished to terminate it. The 1662 law had caused problems because it had provided land for Protestants by taking land from Catholics. Consequently, either its upkeep or its dissolution would have resulted in dissatisfaction with James in Ireland. The land issue between Catholics and Protestants made Louis XIV reconsider his ideas about the clash of religious denominations. The Sun King appreciated d’Avaux’s suggestions of creating a compromise, and encouraged him to keep working on the improvement of James’ support among Irishmen:

En sorte que non seulement les Irlandois Catholiques . . . puissent espérer qu’il leur fera justice, mais aussy que les Protestants… puissent estre asseurez, que la différence de leur religion ne leur fera aucun prejudice aupres de luy.[49]

Nevertheless, a parallel can be drawn with the situation in The Hague, when the ambassador was closer to the actual situation than was the court he was serving, and thus assessed the situation differently from Louis. Firstly, d’Avaux’s judgement that the deteriorating situation was due to James’ incompetence and vanity was nurtured by his own experience of the English King. Secondly, Louis’ solution to the land question did not prove to be feasible—d’Avaux found out what the king had not: namely, that the religious division in Ireland was deeper than expected, and the initial objectives of the campaign should be adjusted to this reality. One of d’Avaux’s earliest reports expressed his discontent with James II’s leadership and organisational skills:

La seule chose, Sir, qui pourra nous faire de la peine, est l’irrésolution du Roy d’Angleterre, qui change souvent d’avis, et ne se détermine pas toujours au meilleur. Il s’arrête aussy beaucoup à de petites choses où il employe toujours son temps et passe légèrement sur les plus essentielles.[50]

D’Avaux urged James to thoroughly strengthen his social support and military forces in Ireland in order to prepare for the continuation of the war with William III. The diplomat believed that this support would be gained by reconciling with the Protestants of the north, or at least by ensuring they did not view James with hostility. D’Avaux urged caution, contrary to the King’s wishes to capitalise on his early successes and continue his campaign in Scotland as soon as possible. D’Avaux was confident enough – almost daring – to voice his disagreements with the royal decisions when he judged them to be hazardous or oppositional to French interests. This attitude, however, led to significant tension with James and the Earl of Melfort, the former’s chief counselor in military matters.[51]

Moreover, d’Avaux complained about the difficulty of acquiring adequate information about James II’s supporters and opponents, telling Louis that ‘le Roy d’Angleterre n’a nulle correspondence en Angleterre, ny en Ecosse’.[52] In spite of the relatively short time he had spent in Ireland, d’Avaux was already able to effectively measure the attitude of Irish society by the beginning of April: ’Le peuple et la noblesse d’Irlande sont également persuadez que c’est icy la seule occasion qu’ils pouvoient avoir de recouvrer leur liberté…’[53] He recognised that the tension between James’ main objective and that of his subjects would have unpleasant ramifications for the enterprise. D’Avaux did not hesitate to express his concerns regarding the efficiency of the recruitment, organisation and management of soldiers as soon as he noticed the first signs of inadequacy in the middle of April 1689. The diplomat concluded that these problems would weaken James’ influence and also increase William’s chances of attacking him in Ireland.[54] News about his growing popularity in Scotland bolstered James’s confidence and determination to go on fighting there.[55] Negligence remained a general feature of James’ policy regarding the physical condition, preparedness and armament of his Irish troops throughout the entire expedition. Altogether, the delay in army reform and increasing Protestant resistance gradually decreased the opportunities of the Franco-Jacobite forces. D’Avaux informed Louis about further issues in the army, such as the inefficient use of French military aid and the lack of adequate payment which caused indiscipline among the soldiers.[56] From late spring, d’Avaux was placed in charge of the army and made efforts to install some degree of discipline, a scheme of payment and the provision of weaponry. However, these belated attempts brought limited success and only increased his personal frustration.[57]

Louis insisted on taking the lead in the Irish expedition and, through d’Avaux, on shaping the events according to his own judgement. However, James’ defeat in his conflict with the Protestants at Derry made the Sun King realise that the expedition would be delayed due to the contradiction between their intentions. Both the king and Louvois started to endorse d’Avaux’s observations and suggestions regarding the steps to be taken in early summer.[58] Over the course of the summer, d’Avaux showed disapproval towards James’ attitude, this time towards the Irish parliament which intended to facilitate trade with France and introduce an embargo on English products.[59] D’Avaux’s disillusionment with the ideals of the French-supported Irish expedition derived from James’ ignoring of most of his political and military advice, as well as the increasing tension between French and Jacobite intentions. D’Avaux’s warnings about the necessity of strengthening power in Ireland were ignored, which led to the weakening of James’ authority and social support, which gradually decreased the chances of his restoration. By the end of the summer, d’Avaux’s relationship with the English king had permanently deteriorated due to the lack of confidence and mutual agreement.[60] His reports about the situation spurred Louis to modify his policies and the French king often simply approved d’Avaux’s evaluations. Importantly, d’Avaux took Louis’ other military commitments in the continent into account when advising James.[61] By November, his position as James’ counselor became obsolete, and he was dismissed shortly thereafter.[62] D’Avaux accepted this news with opposition and contempt for his successor Antoine Nompar de Caumont, comte de Lauzun: ‘il n’est pas assez fort pour soustenir le poids des affaires dont il est chargé.’[63] D’Avaux felt fully responsible for the failure of most of his efforts to save James’ campaign. We can also presume some degree of perfectionism since he was unwilling to leave before achieving his goals. From these accounts, a conscientious, experienced and attentive diplomat emerges, one unafraid to report accurately and offer his own advice, even when it contradicted his king’s intended strategic direction. As d’Avaux observed the English king ignoring his strategic and tactical recommendations, his reports became increasingly disenchanted and resigned. After all, d’Avaux’s accurate appraisal of the political, military, social and religious circumstances in Ireland led not to the implementation of his advice, but rather to his alienation from James II.

Despite the failed Irish expedition, d’Avaux remained an honoured member of Louis XIV’s diplomatic staff. Between 1692 and 1699, d’Avaux served as France’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Sweden where his chief task was to convince Charles XI of Sweden (1660-97) to act as mediator between France and the Holy Roman Empire in the peace negotiations that concluded the Nine Years’ War.[64] In 1701, d’Avaux briefly deputised the ailing French ambassador Gabriel de Briord in The Hague, before Louis’ diplomatic relations broke with the United Provinces due to the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).[65]



Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux followed the family tradition of entering a judicial career, followed by the diplomatic profession. He met the requirements set for Louisquatorzien ambassadors by being French, Roman Catholic, noble, wealthy, middle-aged, legally trained (but not highly educated), good-looking, well-behaved, and by having an extended network of influential friends and relatives in illustrious social circles. On the other hand, he remained unmarried and did not speak many languages. Most importantly, d’Avaux was eager, inventive, dedicated and loyal to Louis XIV. The combination of these characteristics, along with the prominence of his origins, made him a perfect candidate for the highest diplomatic service.

D’Avaux was a prominent, acknowledged and a highly successful ambassador of the Louisquatorzien era. The main proof of this were the high number of places of service throughout his career; the exceptionally long period of time spent in The Hague, Europe’s major diplomatic centre; and more importantly, his active involvement in Louis XIV’s most significant diplomatic issues. D’Avaux’s correspondence from the time of his activities in the Dutch Republic – at Nijmegen and in The Hague—attested to his incessant fidelity, dedication, enthusiasm and creativity in seeking information in favour of his prince’s interests. Many of the analysed sources demonstrate that the king relied not only on the news and rumours provided by d’Avaux about the events at his residencies, but also on his personal opinion in crucial questions. It is an ongoing question as to whether Louis XIV’s diplomats followed the King’s diplomatic directions in a largely servile fashion, and the degree to which they were able to assert their own views and voice disagreements. We can argue that Louisquatorzien ambassadors represented Louis XIV in the first instance and that the King’s values, interests and ambitions hence largely defined their manoeuvres. Nevertheless, d’Avaux gained a detailed knowledge of home affairs at foreign courts while receiving only partial information from Louis XIV about his own large-scale international political endeavours. Therefore, d’Avaux’s life and career show that an experienced ambassador, who had spent much time far away from Paris and was actively involved in influencing the direction of politics at foreign courts, could develop his own approach and attitude in diplomatic questions.

D’Avaux continued to diligently represent French interests by James II’s side in Ireland with his diplomatic and martial expertise. In addition to promoting what he found best for the French crown, he also strived to help James’ cause and success against William, as long as these two goals ran parallel to each other. The main issue that d’Avaux faced during this expedition was James’ differing aspirations and unwillingness to compromise, or at least to listen to his advice. Thus, the Irish expedition can be called successful in terms of d’Avaux’s loyal dedication to serving Louis XIV, but unsuccessful in influencing James II to the extent of fulfilling French interests and restoring his power. To conclude, Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux was one of the most influential, prominent and reliable ambassadors of Louis XIV. He remained a faithful servant of his king during his career. At the same time, however, the evidence suggests that a sufficiently confident and successful diplomat could act with a fair degree of independence in matters of French foreign service.



 Manuscript and Archival Sources

Leiden University Libraries — Special Collections, Leiden (UBL): Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Mémoires de S.E. mr. le comte d’ Avaux, ambassadeur extraordinaire de sa majesté trés-Chrétienne, presenté aux États Généraux des Provinces Unies (le 28 avril 1685).

Leiden University Libraries — Special Collections, Leiden (UBL): Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de Monsieur le comte d’Avaux en Hollande depuis 1679 jusqu’en 1688, vol. 6 (Paris, 1704).

Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland — Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague (KL): Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de M. le comte d’Avaux en Irlande, 1689–90, Hogan, J. (ed.) (Dublin, 1934).

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF): Abraham de Wicquefort, L’ambassadeur et ses fonctions. Par Monsieur de Wicquefort, Marteau, P. (ed.) (Cologne, 1690,, accessed 08.12.2019.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF): Claude de Mesmes, comte d’Avaux, Correspondance inédite du Comte d’Avaux (Claude de Mesmes) avec son père Jean-Jacques de Mesmes, Sr de Roissy (1627–1642), Boppe, A. (ed.) (Paris, 1887),, accessed 12.12.2019.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF): François de Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains : de l’utilité des négociations, du choix des ambassadeurs et des envoyez, et des qualitez necessaires pour réussir dans ces emplois (Amsterdam, 1716),, accessed 08.12.2019.


Primary Sources

François Michel Le Tellier de Louvois, Letters of Louvois, Hardré, J. (ed.) (Chapel Hill, 1949).

Correspondance administrative sous le règne de Louis XIV, entre le cabinet du roi, les secrétaires d’état, le chancelier de France, Depping, G. B. (ed.) (Paris, 1855),, accessed 19.12.2019.

Gazette de France, no. 35, 20 August 1695,, accessed 18.12.2019.

Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, A memorial of His Excellency the Earl of Avaux, extraordinary ambassador from the most Christian king; delivered to the States General, concerning the false interpretation, made to be the meanings of his intercepted letter (1684). London: Given at the Hague on 28 February 1684, and reprinted in London for Walter Davis, Early English Books Online (Imgaes reproduced by courtesy of Bodleian Library),, accessed 12.12.2019.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, Clément, P. (ed.) (Paris, 1863),, accessed 12.12.2019.

Louis-Henri de Loménie, Mémoires de Louis-Henri de Loménie, comte de Brienne, dit le jeune Brienne, Bonnefon, Paul (ed.) (Paris, 1916),, accessed 16.12.2019.

Louis Moréri, Le grand dictionnaire historique ou Le mélange curieux de l’histoire sacrée et profane, vol. 7, 3rd ed., Goujet, C-P., & Drouet, É. F. (eds.) (Paris, 1759),, accessed 20.12.2019.

Louis de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon, Les grands écrivains de la France (tome XVII): Saint-Simon. Mémoires, Régnier, A. (ed.) (Paris, 1879),, accessed 16.12.2019.

Recueil des instructions données aux ambassadeurs et ministres de France depuis les traités de Westphalie jusqu’à la Révolution française. XXI–XXII: Hollande, André, L., & Bourgeois, É. (eds.) (Paris, 1922–1924).


Secondary sources

André, L., Louis XIV et l’Europe (Paris, 1950).

Chappell, C. L., ‘Through the Eyes of a Spy: Venom and Value in an Enemy’s Report on the Huguenot Emigration’, in McKee, J., & Vigne, R. (eds.), The Huguenots: France, exile & diaspora (Brighton, 2013), pp. 77–88.

Clark, G. N., The Dutch Alliance and the War Against French Trade, 1686–1697 (Manchester, 1923).

Côté, M-H., ‘What Did It Mean to be a French Diplomat in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries?’, Canadian Journal of History — Annales canadiennes d’histoire, 45 (2010), pp. 235–58.

Geyl, P., ‘Johan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1653–72’, History – New Series, 20 (1936), pp. 303–19.

Gisselquist, O. N., The French ambassador, Jean-Antoine De Mesmes, Comte D’Avaux, and French diplomacy in The Hague, 1678–1684 (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1968).

Lynn, J. A., The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714 (London, 1999).

Miller, J., James II (New Haven, 2000).

Ogg, D., Europe in the seventeenth century (London, 1960).

Roosen, W., The Ambassador’s craft: a study of the functioning of French ambassadors under Louis XIV (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, 1967).

Roosen, W., ‘The True Ambassador: Occupational and Personal Characteristics of the French Ambassador under Louis XIV’, European Studies Quarterly, 3 (1973), pp. 121–39.

Setton, K. M., Venice, Austria, and the Turks in the seventeenth century (Philadelphia, 1991).

Symcox, G. W., Louis XIV and the war in Ireland, 1689–1691: A study of his strategic thinking and decision-making (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, 1967).

Tischer, A., ‘Claude de Mesmes, Count d’Avaux (1595–1650): The Perfect Ambassador of the Early 17th Century’, International Negotiations, 13 (2008), pp. 197–209.

Van Zuylen Van Nyevelt, S., Court life in the Dutch Republic, 1638–1689 (London & New York, 1906).

Wolf, J. B., Louis XIV (New York, 1968).


Further reading

Kossmann, E. H., ‘The Dutch Republic’ in Carsten, F. L. (ed.), The New Cambridge Modern History, vol. V (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 275–300.

Wilkinson, R., Louis XIV, 2nd ed. (London & New York, 2018).

Zeller, G., ‘French Diplomacy and Foreign Policy in their European Setting’ in Carsten, The New Cambridge Modern History, pp. 198–221.



[1] I would like to thank Dr. Maurits A. Ebben (Institute for History, Leiden University) for his valuable advice in the autumn of 2019 in the course of writing the paper which served as the basis of this article. Figure on the cover page: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Jean-Antoine de Mesmes 4th son of Jean-Jacques de Mesmes (France, 1702), Wikimedia Commons, 2019,, accessed 23.12.2019. All translations are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Abraham de Wicquefort, L’ambassadeur et ses fonctions. Par Monsieur de Wicquefort, P. Marteau (ed.) (Cologne, 1690,, accessed 08.12.2019, p. 6, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF).

[3] François de Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains (Amsterdam, 1716),, accessed 08.12.2019, pp. 85–90, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF).

[4] W. Roosen, The Ambassador’s craft: a study of the functioning of French ambassadors under Louis XIV (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, 1967), p. 106.

[5] O. N. Gisselquist, The French ambassador, Jean-Antoine De Mesmes, Comte D’Avaux, and French diplomacy in The Hague, 1678–1684 (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1968), pp. 336–60.

[6] The terms ‘Dutch Republic’ and ‘United Provinces (of the Netherlands)’ are used to refer to the same territory and political unity in this article.

[7] Gisselquist, The French ambassador, pp. 361–64.

[8] M-H. Côté, ‘What Did It Mean to be a French Diplomat in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries?’, Canadian Journal of History — Annales canadiennes d’histoire, 45 (2010), pp. 235–58, 242–50.

[9] These countries include the Republic of Venice, the Dutch Republic, Ireland, and the Kingdom of Sweden.

[10] W. Roosen, ‘The True Ambassador: Occupational and Personal Characteristics of French Ambassadors under Louis XIV’, European History Quarterly, 3 (1973), pp. 121–39, 122.

[11] The présidents à mortier were the principle magistrates of the parlements, the appellate courts of the Ancien Régime. Louis Moréri, Le grand dictionnaire historique ou Le mélange curieux de l’histoire sacrée et profane, vol. 7, 3rd ed., C.-P. Goujet, & É. F. Drouet (eds.) (Paris, 1759),, accessed 20.12.2019, p. 495.

[12] Claude de Mesmes, comte d’Avaux, Correspondance inédite du Comte d’Avaux (Claude de Mesmes) avec son père Jean-Jacques de Mesmes, Sr de Roissy (1627–1642), A. Boppe (ed.) (Paris, 1887),, accessed 12.12.2019, pp. 197–99, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF).

[13] A. Tischer, ‘Claude de Mesmes, Count d’Avaux (1595–1650): The Perfect Ambassador of the Early 17th Century’, International Negotiations, 13 (2008), pp. 197–209, 203.

[14] The maîtres de requêtes were judicial counselors of the Conseil d’État (Council of State). Gazette de France, no. 35, 20 August 1695,, accessed 18.12.2019, p. 395.

[15] Wicquefort, L’ambassadeur et ses fonctions, p. 77.

[16]  ‘…il ait un noble exteriur & une figure agreable qui lui facilite les moyens de plaire.’ in Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, p. 47.

[17] Louis de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon, Les grands écrivains de la France (tome XVII): Saint-Simon. Mémoires A. Régnier (ed.) (Paris, 1879),, p. 100.

[18] ‘He was a strong handsome man and good-looking, also brave, and who had honour, strong spirit of the great world, grace, nobility, and a lot of politeness.’ Saint-Simon, Les grands écrivains de la France, p. 110.

[19] K. M. Setton, Venice, Austria, and the Turks in the seventeenth century (Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 225–27.

[20] Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, P. Clément (ed.) (Paris, 1863),, accessed 16.12.2019, pp. 660–61.

[21] Colbert, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, p. 672.

[22] P. Geyl, ‘Johan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1653–72’, History – New Series, 20 (1936), pp. 303–19, 311.

[23] Recueil des instructions données aux ambassadeurs et ministres de France depuis les traités de Westphalie jusqu’à la Révolution française. XXI–XXII: Hollande, L. André, & É. Bourgeois (eds.) (Paris, 1922–1924), pp. 344–45.

[24] John B. Wolf, Louis XIV (New York, 1968), pp. 193–211.

[25] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, pp. xxxviiil xl.

[26] ‘… presence will give much more strength to the assurances.’ André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, pp. xl–xliii.

[27] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, pp. 396–98.

[28] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, p. 382.

[29] ‘… in order to be able to support the expenses necessarily attached to this job.’ Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, p. 46.

[30] S. Van Zuylen Van Nyevelt, Court life in the Dutch Republic, 1638–1689 (London & New York, 1906), p. 292.

[31] For instance: Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Mémoires de S.E. mr. le comte d’ Avaux, ambassadeur extraordinaire de sa majesté trés-Chrétienne, presenté aux États Généraux des Provinces Unies (le 28 avril 1685), Leiden University Libraries – Special Collections, Leiden (UBL).

[32] For example, during James II of England’s Irish campaign where he worked as the king’s advisor. D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 30 August 1689 in Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de M. le comte d’Avaux en Irlande, 1689–90, J. Hogan (ed.) (Dublin, 1934), p. 428, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland – Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague (KL).

[33] Gisselquist, The French ambassador, pp. 9–10.

[34] François Michel Le Tellier de Louvois, Letters of Louvois, J. Hardré (ed.) (Chapel Hill, 1949), pp. 365–66.

[35] ‘M. d’Avaux is a nice and very easy-going genius; he has great views, a lot of understanding, and a great use of business. He knows the interests of the princes of Europe perfectly, writes and speaks well. He would be very worthy of being secretary of state.’ Louis-Henri de Loménie, Mémoires de Louis-Henri de Loménie, comte de Brienne, dit le jeune Brienne, P. Bonnefon (ed.) (Paris, 1916),, accessed 16.12.2019, pp. 261–62.

[36] D. Ogg, Europe in the seventeenth century (London, 1960), p. 293.

[37] Correspondance administrative sous le règne de Louis XIV, entre le cabinet du roi, les secrétaires d’état, le chancelier de France, G. B. Depping (ed.) (Paris, 1855),, accessed 19.12.2019, p. 406.

[38] C. L. Chappell, ‘Through the Eyes of a Spy: Venom and Value in an Enemy’s Report on the Huguenot Emigration’, in J. McKee, & R. Vigne (eds.), The Huguenots: France, exile & diaspora (Brighton, 2013), pp. 77–88, 81–84.

[39] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 20 July 1688 in Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de Monsieur le comte d’Avaux en Hollande depuis 1679 jusqu’en 1688, vol. 6 (Paris, 1704), pp. 168–69, Leiden University Libraries – Special Collections, Leiden (UBL).

[40] ‘I warn the King, for the tenth time, that everything that is going on in the greatest secrecy in the Council of the King of England has been revealed to the Prince of Orange.’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 24 June 1688 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Hollande…, p. 164.

[41] J. Miller, James II (New Haven, 2000), pp. 186–96.

[42] G. N. Clark, The Dutch Alliance and the War Against French Trade, 1686–1697 (Manchester, 1923), p. 1.

[43] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, p. 399.

[44] A memorial of His Excellency the Earl of Avaux, extraordinary ambassador from the most Christian king; delivered to the States General, concerning the false interpretation, made to be the meanings of his intercepted letter (1684). London: Given at the Hague on 28 February 1684, and reprinted in London for Walter Davis, Early English Books Online (Images reproduced by courtesy of Bodleian Library),, accessed 12.12.2019.

[45] ‘The ministers of the King of England said that their master would have a large fleet at sea: this served as an excuse for the Prince of Orange to make a greater armament, for he was far from fearing anything, since it was assured that the King of England was not in a condition to apply more than seven to eight ships. (…) That supposing that the Prince of Orange had all these designs, I was obliged to tell His Majesty that he found no help in the Estates-General, that all the fugitives from France had invigorated the Calvinists of Holland so much that one would not dare to promise that the States would join their genuine interests, as they would have done in the past, if such an opportunity had risen.’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 10 June 1688 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Hollande…, vol. 6, pp. 160–62.

[46] L. André, Louis XIV et l’Europe (Paris, 1950), pp. 256–57.

[47] J. A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714 (London, 1999), p 203.

[48] G. W. Symcox, Louis XIV and the war in Ireland, 1689–1691: A study of his strategic thinking and decision-making (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, 1967), pp. 97–98.

[49] ‘So that not only the Irish Catholics… can hope that he will do justice to them, but also that the Protestants… can be assured, that the difference of their religion will not do any harm to them by him.’ Louis XIV to d’Avaux on 12 March 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 31–32.

[50] ‘The only thing, Sir, that can hurt us, is the irresolution of the King of England, who often changes his mind, and is not always determined to the best. He also stops a lot at little things where he always takes his time and spends it lightly on the most essential [things].’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 23 March 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 23.

[51] Symcox, Louis XIV and the war in Ireland, 1689–1691: A study of his strategic thinking and decision-making, p. 106.

[52] ‘… the King of England has no correspondence in England, nor in Scotland.’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 4 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 50.

[53] ‘The people and the nobility of Ireland are also convinced that this is the only opportunity they can have to regain their freedom…’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 4 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 50.

[54] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 14 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 50–54.

[55] D’Avaux to Louvois on 16 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 77.

[56] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 6 May 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 111.

[57] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 27 May 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 183–85.

[58] Louis XIV to d’Avaux on 24 May 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 239; Louvois to d’Avaux on 13th June 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 271–72.

[59] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 6 August 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 341–42.

[60] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 14 August 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 378–79.

[61] Louis XIV to d’Avaux on 29 June 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 409–10.

[62] Louvois to d’Avaux on 11 November 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 585.

[63] ‘…. he is not strong enough to bear the weight of the matters he is in charge of.’ D’Avaux to Croissy on 22 December 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 618.

[64] Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667-1714, p. 253.

[65] Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667-1714, pp. 267-70.




Contemporary Scottish Diplomacy: Some Recent and Distant Parallels

Contemporary Scottish Diplomacy: Some Recent and Distant Parallels

The Scottish government under the SNP has frequently employed diplomacy to help secure its strategic goals. In response to this prevalence, this article explores how contemporary Scottish diplomacy compares to three other related forms of diplomacy, drawn from both the recent and the distant past, in the hope that these might pave the way for increased understanding of the Scottish government’s actions.

Keywords: Diplomacy, Paradiplomacy, International Relations, Scotland, Medieval, Modern, Brexit, Scottish Independence.

Biography: Jamie Smith is a fourth-year PhD History student at the University of Nottingham. His research explores Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Welsh diplomacy between 927 and 1154, using comparative and interdisciplinary methods.

Scots went to polls this May for the Scottish parliament election, re-electing the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which first came to power in 2007. Within the SNP manifesto was a section on ‘Scotland in the World’, outlining their foreign policy plans: increased funding for international development, the adoption of a feminist foreign policy, and closer ties to European countries. Diplomacy is nothing new for the Scottish government. On its website you will find a section on international relations, outlining ongoing policies. These include engagement strategies with numerous countries, ministerial visits, a strategic review of Scoto-Irish relations, the promotion of arctic cooperation, running offices abroad, and a commitment to a UN agreement. Yet this enthusiasm for diplomacy seemingly runs contrary to the Scottish parliament’s actual powers. When this devolved parliament was established in 1998, international relations were reserved, remaining under Westminster’s remit. The existence of contemporary Scottish diplomacy has drawn both academic and non-academic comment. Writing for the website UnHerd, for example, Henry Hill has highlighted the tension between Scottish diplomacy and Westminster’s powers. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, Scottish diplomacy is happening, and therefore we should look to debate its objectives, methods and outcomes, not just its existence. Hardly unusual, the SNP’s diplomatic actions share common features with other case studies, from both the recent and distant past. Here I highlight three such parallels, exploring diplomacy conducted by other sub-state governments, governments in exile, and medieval figures. These comparisons present innovative ways of interpreting Scottish foreign policy, which future scholars can utilise and build on, paving the way for increased understanding of present-day Scottish politics.

Diplomacy conducted by other sub-state governments and entities is one obvious, relevant comparison. The Scottish government is certainly not unique in having foreign policies. Scholars have taken an interest in the diplomacy of towns, regions and other sub-state nations, such as Wales, Macao, US states and Japanese islands, to name but a few examples.[1] Whilst there are many potential routes to explore, the theme of differentiation might prove particularly fruitful. This is where a sub-state administration pursues diplomatic actions that contrast or counter the foreign policy of the state that the sub-state sits within. For example, during the 1960s the Quebecois government was concerned that the Canadian foreign ministry was unrepresentative of French speaking people and overlooking the Francophone world. Consequently, the government of Quebec addressed this deficit, forging its own ties with French speaking countries, notably signing an agreement on education with France which they hoped would help overhaul their own education system.[2] Alternatively, in the 1980s the US government intervened in Nicaragua, supporting forces that were attempting to oust the ruling Sandinista government. To demonstrate opposition to their own government’s foreign policy and to show solidarity with Nicaragua, US cities and towns began twinning with Nicaraguan ones.[3] Today, 32 Nicaraguan municipalities are stilled twinned with a US counterpart.

The Scottish government under the SNP has pursued a similar policy in relation to the European Union (EU), following the Brexit referendum in 2016, which saw the UK collectively vote to leave the EU, but the majority of Scots vote to remain. Whilst the UK government spent the past few years negotiating the state’s exit from the supranational institution, the Scottish government has sought to strength its ties with the EU. For instance, the Scottish 2020-21 budget declares that the government’s goals include ‘ensuring Scotland remains a valued and well-connected nation, despite the UK’s decision to leave the EU’ and to ‘demonstrate our ambition for independent membership of the European Union.’ Several types of diplomatic practices complement these goals, such as meetings between members of the Scottish government and European figures. In 2018 and 2019, Scottish ministers made 80 diplomatic trips to European capitals, with Nicola Sturgeon, the current Scottish first minister, meeting with the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. They have also used the Scottish government’s international office in Brussels to network with European officials. One of the last events hosted there prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was a Burns Night VIP supper, attended by representatives from Croatia and Germany, ‘as well as MEPs and other high level EU contacts.’ Given the focus on the EU, it is perhaps no coincidence that, with a budget of £2,079,000 a year, the Brussel’s office receives more funding than any of Scotland’s other international offices. Reaching out to the EU, both through rhetoric and diplomatic actions, is intended to smooth an independent Scotland’s accession into the bloc. Whilst the EU was cool towards Scottish membership during the referendum on independence in 2014, the SNP hopes that its overtures will encourage the EU to take a more positive stance on the issue. Regardless, their diplomacy can be seen as another example of sub-state differentiation, which seeks to counter the UK government’s Brexit policy, and work to ensure that Scotland can resume its membership of the EU in the near future.

Another comparison can be made with governments in exile, and the common desire for legitimacy. As noted above, establishing international offices and meeting foreign dignitaries are two tranches of Scottish diplomacy. Including the aforementioned Brussels office, there are eight of these based around the world, often in strategically important locations such as Beijing and Washington. They operate as pseudo-embassies, advocating Scottish interests and strengthening ties with host countries. As for the summits and conferences that Scottish officials have taken part in, these have not only been with representatives of the EU and its member states. A joint heritage initiative involving the Scottish government and five global heritage sites provided Alex Salmond, at the time first minister of Scotland, with the opportunity to meet key Chinese officials and the then Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh.[4] Likewise, during a trip to North America in February 2019, Nicola Sturgeon met with UN officials as well as the governor of New Jersey.

These tactics echo those employed by governments in exile. One such example of this is the Tibetan Government in Exile, set up in northern India by the Dalai Lama in 1960, with the goal of restoring independence to Tibet following its annexation by China. Like the SNP, it has made diplomacy a central part of its policy plan, establishing pseudo-embassies in eleven cities and organising pseudo-summits between the Dalai Lama and foreign leaders.[5]

Whilst outwardly different, the SNP controlled Scottish government and the Tibetan Government in Exile have similar goals. Both groups seek to assert themselves as the legitimate government of a nation that is currently controlled by another government (although even the most hard-line SNP member would struggle to make the case that Scotland’s position within the UK is exactly comparable to the Chinese occupation of Tibet). Thus, these groups appropriate the symbols of statehood. Since diplomacy is traditionally seen as under the remit of state governments, these groups increase their legitimacy by practicing it.[6] The significance of their diplomatic acts are perhaps best demonstrated by their opponents’ responses. After Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012, the Chinese government condemned the meeting, stating: ‘We ask the British side to take the Chinese side’s solemn stance seriously, stop indulging and supporting “Tibet independence” anti-China forces [sic].’ Similarly, the UK government has attempted to curtail or limit Scottish diplomacy. For example, then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt stopped the foreign office from providing consular support for Sturgeon’s trips abroad on the grounds she was using them to drum up support for independence. The overlap then between these groups, their goals, and the responses to their diplomatic actions suggest that comparisons between Scottish diplomacy and governments in exile could provide important insight.

Finally, modern Scottish diplomacy warrants comparison with examples of medieval diplomacy. Contrary to more traditional views, scholars argue that diplomacy in the modern world is no longer the sole preserve of the state. Rather, globalisation has caused diplomacy to fragment, with numerous non-state entities forging their own foreign policies. This includes the sub-state governments and governments in exile mentioned above, as well as supranational institutions, such as the EU, and both legitimate and illicit NGOs, such as multinational corporations and terrorist networks. In line with this, scholars such as John Watkins and Jakub Grygiel have called for comparisons between the increasingly “post-state” diplomacy of the modern world and interactions in the pre-state period.[7] Medieval diplomacy was similarly multifaceted, not solely restricted to kings, but involving popes, bishops, magnates, heirs, claimants and exiles, amongst many others.

Whilst there are many possible comparisons, medieval earls are perhaps the most relevant to the modern Scottish government, and particularly the strategy of counterbalancing. Earls were the medieval equivalent of sub-state governments, ruling over territory but subordinate to another sovereign power, in their case a king rather than a state. One such example, who is discussed in my thesis, is Earl Ælfgar of Mercia, a prominent magnate during King Edward the Confessor of England’s reign (1042-66). This was a period of instability within England, involving both intra-noble division, and disputes between the magnates and the king. In 1055, Ælfgar, who at the time was earl of East Anglia, was outlawed by the English court. In response, he went to King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Wales, and together they led a joint attack on Hereford. The English court caved into this military pressure, and reinstated Ælfgar as an earl.[8] K. L. Maund suggests Ælfgar had already reached out to Gruffydd prior to 1055.[9] Whether the alliance had been prearranged or not, Ælfgar certainly built on it, marrying his daughter to Gruffydd, an event usually dated to c. 1057.[10] This seemingly put him in a good position. When Ælfgar, now earl of Mercia, was outlawed once more in 1058, we are told he was later reinstated, thanks again to Gruffydd’s military backing.[11]

During a period of intra-England disunity, Earl Ælfgar tied himself to a neighbouring king, securing a military ally and safe haven, to counterbalance the domestic division he faced. The Scottish approach to the EU follows a similar rationale. Independence would politically and economically divide Scotland from the rest of the UK, with the potential for a decline in trade being a major cause for concern. The SNP’s solution is EU membership. Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture, responds to concerns about independent Scotland’s trade by pointing to the Republic of Ireland: ‘Through membership of the EU, independent Ireland has dramatically reduced its trade dependence on the UK, diversifying into Europe and in the process its national income per head has overtaken the UK.’ The aforementioned Scottish diplomacy with EU leaders aims to secure Scotland’s future membership of the EU, and thus another market that will counterbalance losing access to the UK one. The main difference between this and Ælfgar’s diplomacy is that he was forced to seek foreign help due to intra-English disputes, whilst the SNP wants a self-imposed division with the UK, which they will need to counterbalance.

Evidently, whether we like it or not, Scottish diplomacy is a prominent feature of the contemporary international landscape. Consequently, I have highlighted here three relevant comparisons which could improve our understanding of it: the diplomacy of other sub-state governments, governments in exile, and medieval individuals, such as earls. Other modern sub-state governments, such as the Quebecois government, are perhaps the most applicable to the Scottish government given their similar constitutional positions. Although, all three approaches could prove useful for scholars of politics and international relations over the next few years. Having been re-elected, Nicola Sturgeon plans to call another independence referendum once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, meaning that Scottish diplomacy will likely remain an important subject of analysis, both during a future referendum campaign and in the early days of an independent Scotland.

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Primary Sources

‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, in English Historical Documents: c. 1042-1189, ed. by D.C. Douglas and G.W. Greenaway (London, 1953), pp. 107-203.

Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, ed. and trans. by M. Chibnall, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1969-80).

Secondary Sources

Clarke, A., ‘Digital Heritage Diplomacy and the Scottish Ten Initiative’, Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory and Criticism, 13 (2016), pp. 51-64.

Criekemans, D., ‘Regional Sub-State Diplomacy from a Comparative Perspective: Quebec, Scotland, Bavaria, Catalonia, Wallonia and Flanders,’ The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 5 (2010), pp. 37-54.

Grygiel, J., ‘The Primacy of Premodern History’, Security Studies, 22 (2013), pp. 1-32.

Jakubec, P., ‘Together and Alone in Allied London: Czechoslovak, Norwegian and Polish Governments-in-Exile, 1940-1945’, The International History Review, 42 (2020), pp. 465-84.

Maund, K. L., ‘The Welsh Alliances of Earl Ælfgar of Mercia and his Family in the Mid-Eleventh Century’, in R.A. Brown (ed.) Anglo-Norman Studies XI(Woodbridge, 1988), pp. 181-90.

McConnell, F., Moreau, T., & Dittmer, J, ‘Mimicking State Diplomacy: The Legitimizing Strategy of Unofficial Diplomacies,’ Geoforum, 43 (2012), pp. 804-14.

Paquin, S., ‘Identity Paradiplomacy in Québec,’ Québec Studies, 66 (2018), pp. 3-26.

Tavares, R., Paradiplomacy: Cities and States as Global Players (Oxford, 2016).

Watkins, J., ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History of Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 38 (2008), pp. 1-14.

Williams, A., ‘Ælfgar, earl of Mercia’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004.



[1] D. Criekemans, ‘Regional Sub-State Diplomacy from a Comparative Perspective: Quebec, Scotland, Bavaria, Catalonia, Wallonia and Flanders’, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 5 (2010), pp. 37-54.

[2] S. Paquin, ‘Identity Paradiplomacy in Québec’, Québec Studies, 66 (2018), pp. 19-21.

[3] R. Tavares, Paradiplomacy: Cities and States as Global Players (Oxford, 2016), pp. 234-35.

[4] A. Clarke, ‘Digital Heritage Diplomacy and the Scottish Ten Initiative’, Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory and Criticism, 13 (2016),  p. 56.

[5] F. McConnell, T. Moreau and J. Dittmer, ‘Mimicking State Diplomacy: The Legitimizing Strategy of Unofficial Diplomacies’, Geoforum, 43 (2012), pp. 806-08.

[6] P. Jakubec, ‘Together and Alone in Allied London: Czechoslovak, Norwegian and Polish Governments-in-Exile, 1940-1945’, The International History Review, 42 (2020), pp. 468.

[7] J. Grygiel, ‘The Primacy of Premodern History’, Security Studies, 22 (2013), p. 2; J. Watkins, ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History of Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 38 (2008), p. 5.

[8] ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (Henceforth ‘ASC’), in English Historical Documents: c. 1042-1189, ed. by D. C. Douglas and G. W. Greenaway (London, 1953) (Henceforth EHD II), pp. 132-34.

[9] K. L. Maund, ‘The Welsh Alliances of Earl Ælfgar of Mercia and his Family in the Mid-Eleventh Century’, in R. Allen Brown (ed.) Anglo-Norman Studies XI (Woodbridge, 1988), p. 185.

[10] Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, ed. and trans. by M. Chibnall, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1969-80), 2, pp. 138-39: A. Williams, ‘Ælfgar, earl of Mercia’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004: Accessed 13 April 2021.

[11] ‘ASC’, EHD II, p. 136.

Election Day and Britain’s Existential Crisis

Election Day and Britain’s Existential Crisis

In this Spotlight article for Election Day in the UK, David Robinson discusses how the past forty years of Britain’s economic and social history have led to a divided nation and a present day existential crisis, which no main political party seems willing to discuss.

Across the UK, local elections are being held today, May 6th. The electorate can be forgiven if they hadn’t noticed. There has been little in the way of campaigning. This was, perhaps, to be expected. The opposition parties may have felt somewhat encumbered by a perceived duty not to interrupt the ongoing vaccine roll-out, whilst the lack of oppositional challenge suits the incumbent Conservatives, so why say anything when saying nothing may well preserve the status quo?

Yet, there is so much that remains unresolved from the politics of the past few years. The rise of European populism, the election of Donald Trump, and Brexit are understood to have been more than electoral choices in the normal sense. They were also expressions of anger and frustration by swathes of people who feel a lack of dignity in insecure and unfulfilling work that leaves them economically disadvantaged, left out of mainstream society, and looked down upon by university-educated, home-owning ‘elites’ with emotionally satisfying and financially rewarding careers. As I will argue, even had they campaigned hard, there is little that any of the main parties would have said that would have gone any way to addressing these problems.

Was it not ever thus? The ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’? Well, yes, but the less advantaged have, traditionally, at least had some political representation. Today, many feel that it is not they who have deserted the parties they have traditionally supported, but the latter who have deserted them in moving towards a form of identity politics and attempting to appeal more to the ‘liberal elite’ than the traditional ‘working class’.

Alongside this, the workplace has fundamentally changed. Over forty years, workers have had to exchange occupations that might not have paid as well as others but were secure. These were jobs which came with a justified sense of dignity, a sense that one was contributing meaningfully to society in comparison to the menial, insecure and poorly paid work in warehouses and call centres. In contemporary Britain, there is a sense in which half the population are the working poor, engaged in administrating, collating, and delivering consumer goods to the other half. The result is the anger and vitriol that has split the UK and other democracies and has come as a shock and surprise to those who had not even realised the extent of this disaffection.

The Brexit vote and Trump’s Presidential campaign fully understood and leveraged these feelings. Rather than the conventional political strategy of trying to unite the electorate behind a set of ideas, the cracks in society were deliberately and crudely crowbarred open more widely, encouraging the view that the nation was divided into two, diametrically opposed halves. This strategy, combined with the anger and hopelessness of so many, is nothing short of an existential threat to society and democracy. While the existential nature of this threat may have been subsumed beneath the emergency of the pandemic, it remains ready to remerge in full force as restrictions are lifted and the gap between the haves and the have-nots becomes visible once more.

But how did we get to this position of disaffection and division? What are the political forces and ideological concepts which brought us here?

In the late 1970s, there was a fundamental shift in ideas about how economies ought to function. More than a decade of stagnant growth, labour conflicts, and high unemployment opened the door to a set of ideas, long-held by some but rejected up to that point by governments of all stripes. Since the inter-war years, economists such as Friedrich Hayek and, later, Milton Friedman, had argued for less central decision-making and planning by governments, in favour of ‘the market’. The mechanisms of supply and demand, and competition between profit-motivated companies would, they argued, provide what people wanted far more efficiently than traditional government planning and control.

Furthermore, the idea of governments and civil servants working for the ‘public good’ was rejected. Instead, it was maintained, such public offices were used by their occupants to build their own careers and operate in their own self-interest.

All this would be swept away. By liberalising money markets, companies and entrepreneurs would have easier access to capital with which to supply a wider range of goods and services that society demanded and from which they would be free to choose.

The role of governments and central banks was now…to do nothing! The market was a more efficient arbiter of what society wanted than government bureaucracy and would provide higher quality at a lower cost.

This idea has been, over the past forty years or so, extended from consumer goods and services to public services traditionally provided through taxation by government. Whether it be the products of the steel industry, or care for the elderly the market would now provide, not government.

Such radicalism was initially implemented by the centre-right governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but its full flowering, arguably, came under the centre-left governments of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Gerhard Schroeder. Importantly, the challenges we face as a result of such ideologies are not simple left-right debates. They have become ubiquitous across the political spectrum.

Have such policies worked? They have not. It is impossible to argue that there is now more equal access to high quality public services, health care, education, or care for the vulnerable. Access to high quality services such as these is largely dependent on income. Even organisations such as the IMF, at the heart of driving such policies for the last five decades, agree that these ideas have been ‘oversold’.

The recently retired Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has pointed out the more subtle problem. There has been a separation of ‘moral sentiment’ from economics. We no longer debate what is ‘right’, there is no political discussion of what we think ought to be provided in society, regardless of increased costs, or the wider ‘value’ of something, beyond its economic value; the value of everything has become the price of everything. If the market has not provided something, then it cannot be provided.

Once again, this is not a left-right debate. Prior to this turn to the market in the late-1970s, the importance of debating ethical questions as part of economic decision making was seen as a fundamental part of political action across the ideological divide and going back to the eighteenth century. Over the last few decades, however, governments of different political persuasions have justified inequalities and their own lack of action in remedying them, by resorting to the argument that the market is the arbiter and expression of democratic choice. That nothing can be done in the face of the free market.

More generally, the turn towards market outcomes over the past four decades has determined that ‘success’, one’s status and reward, is mainly measured by economic outputs. It is argued that those who earn the highest incomes are those who have demonstrated the talent and hard work to best satisfy the demands of the market and it is right, therefore, that larger and larger economic rewards and  prestige are concentrated in their hands. The corollary is that those who have less, have proven themselves less able and hard working to have satisfied the same demands, are, thus, equally deserving of their lower economic and social status.

It has become ubiquitous for political leaders to claim they have, or at least are striving to, implement a ‘meritocracy’, a society in which one’s position, what might broadly be termed one’s ‘success’, is due to a combination of one’s hard work and ability; in short, one’s merit.[1]

Whilst  leaders acknowledge that differences of class, gender, birth, race and so forth have and continue to present barriers to a level playing field on which all can compete, and ‘compete’ is relevant here, there is a general acceptance of a vision of the future in which such barriers continue to be dismantled. Once accomplished, it is argued, a ‘just’ society would finally be realised, in which one’s place in society is what one ‘deserves’. Certainly, such a society, politicians maintain, would be far ‘fairer’ than, say, an aristocracy or a class-bound society in which benefits are handed down from one generation to the next.

Indeed, so ‘common sense’ seems this argument, that it is hard to find many across the political spectrum, or indeed members of the public, that would disagree with its prima facia conclusions.

And yet, there is a dark side to this argument. We have become so used to the idea of ‘competition’ in society, for jobs, income, prestige and so on, that we have accepted the inevitable idea of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, with all its accompanying,  morally freighted baggage. To be a winner is a ‘good thing’. But to be a ‘loser’ is to have one’s efforts consigned to some kind of social dustbin in which one has ‘failed’. If you have not achieved what you wanted to, that’s your fault, the result of some kind of combination of a lack of ability and effort.

Of course, in a meritocracy, it might be argued that such conclusions are harsh, but fair. If one has ‘won’, one deserves the laurels. If you have not, well, it’s a tough world out there. Next time, work harder, be smarter. And teach the lesson to your children.

If one’s failure is due to the lack of a level playing field, the fact that public school pupils with parents who have connections in the professional world have a far better chance than those from a council estate, well, that only shows how important it is to remove such barriers and push headlong towards a true equality of opportunity.[2]

Again, so common sense does this seem, it is hard, on the surface, to argue against it. There will always be inequality to some degree. Let it be justified on the basis of hard work and ability, the merits of the individual.

But is this really the case? Are ability and effort really, entirely, self-earned merits? If I decide to encourage and extol the virtues of ‘achievement’ in my young children, good marks at school, self-sacrifice, hard work, a pathway towards higher education and a high-income and ‘prestigious’ career, are they not more likely to achieve these goals than children who are less so facilitated and encouraged? It would seem a positive outcome is, in fact, largely a combination of pre-disposed genetics and the environment in which they have, arbitrarily, found themselves.

Equally, my daughter may find herself with fame, fortune, and prestige as a top professional footballer. But, again, this is only because she happens to live in a society that extolls the virtues of playing football well. Had she happened to have found herself by accident of birth in the thirteenth century, her ability to curl a ball accurately with the outside of either foot, whether by genetic predisposition or the effects of her environment, would have stood for little. Even the hard work she puts in to develop these skills is, to a significant extent, a factor of an environment that encourages such effort; one in which not all children are lucky  to find themselves, regardless of their intrinsic ‘talent’.

To a significant extent therefore, meritocratic success is the result of unearned genetics, environment, and a set of skills, either naturally acquired, or encouraged and taught, that happen to be desirable and rewarded by society at a particular point in time. One might say, a morally arbitrary accident of birth.

Even worse, those who ‘fail’ to achieve ‘success’ are told this is the position they deserve. Had they, in a meritocracy, worked harder and been smarter, they would have done better.  It was not always thus. Prior to the turn towards market outcomes as the designator of ‘success’, labour that may not have accrued substantial economic rewards was still considered as valuable and as contributing to the common good. Coal miners and steel workers knew that barriers of class and arbitrary birth hindered their progression towards higher income professions, but they also knew this was not their fault or due to their own lack of worth and merit. The dignity inherent in their labour, their contribution and value to society, was apparent and they rightly proclaimed it thus. And they were supported in this belief by representative political and labour organisations.

For unrepresented workers today, whose traditional jobs have been overtaken by technology, and who find themselves valued by the market in terms of insecure, minimum wage, zero hours contracts, such dignity and self-respect is harder to assert.

It is this combination of the turn to market outcomes as the arbiter of all value, and an apparent ‘meritocracy’ in which one’s position, for good or ill, is what one ‘deserves’, which is the cause of the anger and resentment in society. This has been exacerbated by the lack of political representation for people who are told the cause of their disaffection is actually their own lack of hard work and ability.

Importantly, these market-governed judgements are completely uninterested in questions of ‘right or wrong’.

Milton Friedman, for example, one of the Nobel Prize-winning architects of free market ideology accepts that the market should conform to the ‘basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom’ (my emphasis).

The question is, of course, how do we decide what is classed as an ‘ethical custom’? Surely, the basis of this is through political discourse and debate. But the intertwined ideologies of the market and meritocracy are like the air we breathe; invisible and so accepted as facts of everyday life that they require no debate.

The answer to the anger and division in society is not a question of ‘policies’. It is one of understanding how we got to this place and the structural ideologies that paved the way. Fundamentally, there is a need for robust public and political debate about the society we want. Only then can we decide on the policies that will get us there.

The public’s views on public ownership, inequality, and higher taxes, particularly for the top 1% of earners, show that the UK is, broadly, ready for reform and change. Perhaps it’s time to be angry, but together rather than factionally. It’s certainly well past time to engage politically and demand that what we want as a society should not be solely determined by ‘the market’, but by discussion.

Depressingly, this is not a debate that will intrude on today’s elections.

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[1] In the following sections, I draw heavily on M. J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good? (London, 2020). Other works on a similar theme include: D. Goodhart, Head, Heart, Hand: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century (London, 2020); J. Littler, Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power, and Myths of Mobility (Abingdon, 2018); M. A. P. Bovens & A. C. Wille, Diploma Democracy: The Rise of Political Meritocracy (Oxford, 2017).

[2] What is interesting is how elite children use meritocratic language to obscure their origins. LSE’s new study shows how our fetishisation of meritocracy makes privileged people frame their lives as an uphill struggle:( However, as Friedman and Laurison point out, ‘People from working-class origins do sometimes make it into elite jobs, but it is rare; only about 10% of people from working-class backgrounds (3.3% of people overall) traverse the steepest upward mobility path…Origins, in other words, remain strongly associated with destinations in contemporary Britain.’: (S. Friedman & D. Laurison, The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged (Bristol, 2020),p. 13.)














What is ‘trans history’, anyway?: Historiographical theory and practice in a flourishing field


This article provides an overview of theory and practice in current trans historical scholarship. It delineates key historiographical discussions and examines their implications for one of the most controversial and long-standing questions in the field: when does trans history begin? It is argued that there are three prominent schools of thought in contemporary trans history — the Feinberg school, which views trans history as extending into antiquity; the medical school, which views it as beginning in the mid-nineteenth or early-twentieth century with the coining of ‘trans’ medical terminology; and the intersectional school, which shifts emphasis away from the question of when trans ‘began’ and towards a discussion of its social, cultural, and political entanglements alongside other forms of identity and oppression.

Keywords: Trans history, trans historiography; transgender, transsexual, LGBT+.

A note on names and pronouns: This article uses each author’s preferred name at the time of writing. Some books and articles examined here were originally published under a different first name. The gender-neutral pronouns they/them and ze/hir are used where applicable.

Author Biography

Rebecca Hickman is a PhD History student at the University of Nottingham, funded by Midlands4Cities. Her research examines the role of ‘recognition’ in the British trans rights movement

What is ‘trans history’, anyway?: Historiographical theory and practice in a flourishing field

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Since the first institutional shoots of what is now called ‘transgender studies’ emerged in the late-twentieth century, commentators have perennially called it an ‘emerging’ field. However, as Regina Kunzel argued in the first volume of the journal Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ) in 2014, trans scholarship, with its own journal, several archival institutions, and a number of edited collections, is now better described as ‘vibrant, diverse, and flourishing’.[1] In addition to the general overviews provided by the two Transgender Studies Reader volumes,[2] more targeted edited volumes like Debates in Transgender, Queer, and Feminist Theory (2010), Transfeminist Perspectives in an beyond Transgender and Gender Studies (2012), and Trans Studies: The Challenge to Hetero/Homo Normativities (2016), have seen trans scholarship — secure in its foundations — subdivide itself into specialist lines of inquiry. The maturation in the previous decade of trans of colour critique, one of the most intellectually progenitive elements in contemporary trans studies, has been punctuated by a 2011 volume of Feminist Studies titled ‘Race and Transgender Studies’ and a 2017 volume of TSQ titled the ‘Issue of Blackness’. There are still significant limitations, however — not least of which is the field’s geographic truncation. Of the various national and regional subsections, North American trans studies is, by some margin, the most institutionally developed, with a dominant share of the field’s major monographs, edited volumes, journals, archival institutions, and research/teaching positions.[3]

Trans history has undergone much the same developmental trajectory as the broader field. Some of the leading theorists in trans studies have been historians, while many of the seminal texts of trans scholarship are histories by discipline or at least carry historically-oriented arguments.[4] The centrality of history to this new academic ecosystem is attributable in part to the pressing question of where trans phenomena ‘came from’. Put simply, dispelling myths that trans is a ‘fad’ remains key to its historicisation. In addition to its political and cultural timeliness, trans history’s rise has also been aided by concurrent developments in trans archiving: most significantly, the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, Canada, the largest trans archive in the world, was founded in 2007, while the Digital Transgender Archive, a valuable and accessible resource with global reach, was launched in 2016. In the United Kingdom there are numerous institutions with archives partly or entirely relating to trans history, including the Museum of Transology, the Queer Beyond London Project, the Hall-Carpenter Archives, and the Bishopsgate Institute, as well as records kept by former or current activists. Trans-related files are also gradually becoming available at the National Archives, Kew, and oral history collections are growing in size and number.[5] Given this growth in catalogued source material, efforts to codify a trans archival praxis have emerged to consider pressing methodological and ethical issues like the inclusion of pre-trans forms of gender-nonconformity under the label ‘trans’,[6] and the handling of material that relates to living and marginalised people/communities.[7] Trans historians beginning their research career today have the luxury of entering a field with an evolved praxis and an exponentially growing list of canonical texts.

The field has matured to such an extent that there are now recognisably distinct schools of thought within it. I will examine three of the most prominent schools here — which I will call the Feinberg school (after the pioneering American trans activist and historian, Leslie Feinberg), the medical school, and the intersectional school — and will argue that each group’s view of trans history ultimately stems from a fundamental disagreement about when the trans past actually begins (or, alternatively, whether there is any theoretical value in trying to pin down a precise trans ‘beginning’). Scholars from the Feinberg school envision a long chronology, believing trans identity and practice to be as old as humanity itself. Conversely, those in the medical school typically place trans history’s beginnings quite recently: either in the 1950s, when ‘sex-change’ stories became media sensations; or otherwise in the mid-nineteenth century, when the actual phraseology of transvestism and transsexuality was coined. Intersectional trans histories, though often focusing on the 1800s and 1900s, tend to shift emphasis away from the question of when trans history begins towards the question of why trans took over as the dominant mode of understanding gender-nonconformity.

Each answer is tied up with other fundamental questions, like the supposed ‘causes’ of trans, and each carries heavy political implications. For instance, if trans is ‘caused’ by inexpungible biological factors (a notion, it must be noted, that is rejected or problematised in many trans discourses[8]) or otherwise infused into the human condition, it follows that it is likely older than recorded history. Thinkers of the Feinberg school use the ‘fact’ of trans antiquity as the foundation stone for their campaign for respect and rights. Those who see trans as regressive or inimical to women’s ‘sex-based rights’,[9] on the other hand, have argued that it is a new invention and that, having arisen from nothing, it can return to nothing with enough social and political pressure. Many of the theories discussed below are thus responses to immediate political contingencies. Indeed, from the beginning, the very existence of trans history has itself been a point of contention. Bombarded by condescension and erasure, early pioneers in the field were continually required to justify their own professional existence.



Trans history had to overcome numerous theoretical and practical barriers in its early years. Emerging after at least three decades of gay and queer historical inquiry, for example, trans history had to contend with the fact that many potentially ‘trans’ historical figures had already been co-opted as lesbian or gay. This led some trans people to feel that ‘their history was being taken away’, particularly where trans men were concerned.[10] Nan Alamilla Boyd observed that lesbian and trans communities ‘share a common but sometimes hostile relationship to overlapping historical geographies’, resulting in tempestuous discussions over whether certain individuals were butch lesbians or trans men.[11] Both claims could be seen as ahistorical in the sense that they impose contemporary concepts on figures who existed in different intellectual and discursive ecosystems from our own, assuming the existence of a transhistorical, underlying truth behind sex and gender that, as French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault argued in the context of hermaphroditism, has not always been regarded as ontologically necessary.[12] In that regard, neither can be characterised as ‘correct’, but nor should either be disregarded entirely. Lesbian and trans scholars draw different significances from historical gender-nonconformity because they are attempting to shed light on distinct aspects of the ‘relationships of power’[13] perpetuated via sexuality, sex, and gender. Trans scholars simply had the practical misfortune of coming second to the historical co-option game.

Even more fundamentally, various influential authors around the turn of the twenty-first century cast doubt on the historicity of trans and emphasised instead its futurity. For better or worse, trans temporality was widely seen as quintessentially futuristic, having revolutionised our relationship with nature, medical technology, and time in a ‘postmodern’ world.[14] Every trans life seemed to remove another brick from cultural and biological shibboleths once held inviolable.[15] This perception came to a head in the 1980s and 1990s, when the concurrent rise of home computers and the Internet made the growing visibility of trans people seem like part of a broader post-structural ontological crisis in the digital age[16] — a ‘punk hyper-modernity’, as Paul B. Preciado dubbed it.[17]

As befitting the era of existentialist science fiction films like Bladerunner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), some commentators borrowed sci-fi terminology to describe this disturbance in the order of things. Donna Haraway, a defining late-twentieth century feminist, argued that trans medical procedures were part of a new ‘cyborg’ humanity, heralding a ‘post-gender world’ where the organic and the artificial comingled.[18] This was the final frontier of post-structuralism; a Rubicon; a brave new world where ‘no amount of trying’ could ever revive the perceived simplicity of the past.[19] For some, like prolific trans historian Susan Stryker, ‘posthuman’ epistemology brought exciting new possibilities.[20] For others, including ‘trans-exclusionary’ feminists like Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer, trans identity represented an existential new threat to women’s rights — an attempt by the patriarchy to undermine the political coherence of womanhood so as to undo the progress of feminism.[21] Either way, as literary critic Rita Felski recognised, there was a tendency for trans and non-trans commentators alike to see the birth of trans temporality as a rupture in history. Felski notes that, as the third millennium approached,

gender emerge[d] as a privileged symbolic field for the articulation of diverse fashionings of history and time within postmodern thought. Thus the destabilization of the male/female divide is seen to bring with it a waning of temporality, teleology, and grand narrative; the end of sex echoes and affirms the end of history.

Accordingly, Felski writes, the transgender subject is portrayed as ‘either apocalyptic or redemptive metaphor’.[22]

Swept away by the intoxicating futurity of the new millennium, few cisgender[23] scholars stopped to wonder if there was a longer trans story to tell. In this discursive context, the contention that trans has a history at all was revolutionary. Indeed, proving the existence of a trans past became a key method for justifying trans people’s right to live as they see fit in the present. This is why early historical works by trans authors read more like political manifestos than Rankean scholarly texts. Faced by the erasure of trans existence from mainstream consciousness, social disenfranchisement, and often physical violence, several trans authors responded with a simple, powerful message: trans people have always existed, and we therefore deserve rights. This argument has been extant for over half a century. As early as 1969, trans man Reed Erickson wrote that ‘transsexualism has been a human problem since the most ancient times’[24] — but it acquired new momentum with the publication of Missouri-born Jewish trans activist Leslie Feinberg’s book, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, in 1996. Having grown up wondering if gender-nonconforming people have historical precedent, Feinberg began hir journey of discovery in the 1970s after seeing statuettes of Two-Spirit people at the Museum of the American Indian in New York. Ze discovered that, in ‘far-flung cultures all over the world’,[25] from ancient Greece and Egypt to pre-colonial India, Africa, and America to medieval France and industrial Wales, there have been individuals who existed outside of the modern man/woman binary. Transgender Warriors co-opts many of these historical subjects as essentially proto-trans — embodying the fundamental characteristics of trans as we know it, but, in Feinberg’s Marxist view, lacking the impetus to politically organise as a distinct community before ‘patriarchal class divisions’ had fully taken hold.[26] The belief that trans is a recent techno-capitalist invention is therefore turned on its head. By arguing that ‘transgender predates oppression’ by thousands of years, and that ‘ancient communal societies held transgendered people in high esteem’,[27] Feinberg lays claim to the legitimisation of antiquity for an otherwise embattled and marginalised community.

Feinberg’s work was understandably popular. ‘Trans people have always existed’ is a simple, rhetorically impactful, and easily replicated contention. Even as criticism of this mode of trans historicisation mounted in the late-2000s and 2010s, drawing attention to the historical contingency of trans temporality and the problems inherent in applying modern labels to fundamentally different times and cultures, popular and academic authors alike continued to cling to Feinberg’s methodology. German-American poet and filmmaker Max Wolf Valerio, in his 2006 memoir, argued that people like him ‘have always existed, in every era, on every continent’.[28] And in 2013, anthropologist-archaeologist Mary Weismantel published an impassioned plea for a ‘transgender archaeology’ that would perform ‘a queer rampage through prehistory’. This was presented as an exercise in reclamation, since, Weismantel argues, prior archaeologists lacked the analytical tools to understand gender-liminality or extra-binary existences and therefore failed to do justice to gendered temporalities alien to the modern Western binary. ‘It is as if the premodern past had to wait for transgender scholarship to arrive’, she wrote.[29] That trans has always existed in one form or another is therefore axiomatic.

As discussed at greater lengths below, the dictum of trans antiquity remains a powerful force in trans scholarship to this day. It does not, however, hold a monopoly over trans historical imaginations. It has long competed with the medicine-centric narrative that places the beginnings of trans history somewhere between 1850-1950 — the period when medical professionals, particularly sexologists, coined the terminology of trans and popularised the notion that trans was a pathological or intersex condition that could be treated with a specific set of therapeutic, endocrinological, and surgical procedures. This narrative largely takes from Foucault’s conceptualisation of the early days of Western medicine, when an ‘immense will to knowledge’, as he put it, brought new epistemological categories into being so as to give order and coherence to the world.[30] Medicine-centric narratives argue that the origins of trans history proper can be traced directly to this milieu.


Many of the foundational texts of trans studies — texts that pre-date the field and provided the theoretical building blocks from which it was built — concern themselves with the role of medical knowledge in the conditions of modernity. Most obviously, Foucault’s work on ‘biopower’, which refers to the means by which the state gains ‘access even to the body’ to regulate the behaviour of its citizens,[31] and ‘epistemes’,[32] the epistemological systems that define how we catalogue the world around us and conceptualise (im)possibilities, is often regarded as elementary to subsequent trans analysis.[33] Foucault pays particular attention to the justification and perpetuation of invasive state regulation via medical authority in contemporary society, a subject of immediate concern for trans writers. Another oft-cited work is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990), from which trans scholars take the lesson that the modern ‘incommensurable’ categories of sex came about through medical science’s ‘discursive creation of difference’ in the nineteenth century, and that they ‘are not the necessary, natural consequence of corporeal difference’.[34] It was against the cultural backdrop of this medico-scientific episteme that sexologists like the German pioneers Magnus Hirschfeld and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs discussed theories to explain deviations from binary sex. Modern trans designation was coined at this time and gained in popularity throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Just as pioneering lesbian and gay historians placed great emphasis on the modern medical origins of labels like ‘homosexual’,[35] many trans historians have understandably taken this period as their starting point. Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (1980), is an influential example of medicine-focused trans history, looking at the pathologised category ‘transsexual’ and the emergence of gender ‘reassignment’ procedures in the United States in the twentieth century.[36] There have also been historical studies looking at the development of medical ideas in Britain. Clare Tebbutt, in particular, submitted a doctoral thesis to the University of Manchester in 2015 titled ‘Medical and Popular Understandings of Sex Changeability in 1930s Britain’, which shows how the growth of endocrinology shifted both professional and popular beliefs about the fluidity of sex and created the conceptual space for ‘trans’ to exist. Adrian Kane-Galbraith, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, is examining the entanglement of bureaucratic and medical practices in British gender transition between the Second World War and the 1970s.

Howard Chiang could be seen as the current standard-bearer of the medical school. His recent book, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (2018), narrates the replacement, in early-twentieth century China, of an episteme mediated by traditional Chinese medicine with one mediated by modern gender-dimorphic Western medicine. Chiang argues that the way the Chinese word xing came to be equivalated with the Western biomedical notion of sex ‘reflects a broader underlying transformation in its epistemological designation of human nature: from the rock-solid essence of things into a mutable ontological referent’.[37] He coins the term ‘epistemic modernity’ to describe this new worldview.[38] It was under the auspices of epistemic modernity that eunuchs, integral to the courtly culture of Imperial China, came to be regarded as symptoms of a national backwardness, a disease, in the Republican and Communist eras. By the mid-twentieth century, Chiang argues, Western notions of ‘transsexuality’ had replaced eunuchs as the dominant mode of understanding gender-liminal people, handing doctors the ‘alleged authority [to] unlock the secret of sexual identity’.[39]

While After Eunuchs offers valuable insights into how the ‘modern’ Western biomedical episteme interacted with non-Western epistemes, it is lacking in key areas which point to the general shortcomings of the medical school of trans history, with its focus on trans temporality’s dependence on the conditions of modernity that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, despite the book’s attentiveness to epistemic specificity, there is a surprising laxity in Chiang’s use of terminology. In one paragraph he refers to the same individual as ‘transgender’, a ‘cross-dresser’, and a ‘transvestite’, with no indication as to how these terms should be differentiated. Additionally, some of the book’s more innovative points are underdeveloped. For instance, Chiang insists on the agency of eunuchs in their own ‘social and cultural reproduction’ through the finding and raising of new eunuchs and through passing down their customs,[40] subverting the view that physical castration automatically discounts reproduction. However, he does not carry this point forward to insist on the agency of trans people in mid-century to mediate the contours of their own identities. Instead, Chiang gives primacy to medicine and the state, creating the impression that trans existence was impossible outside the walls of the clinic.

To be clear, scholars of trans medical history do not argue that trans as it now exists is purely a medical phenomenon, still less that all gender-nonconformity is only explicable through a medical lens. Chiang, for instance, specifically warns against ‘the assumption that the nature of the historical relationship of sex to science was fundamentally fixed so that an undisguised view of xing (as sex) was merely waiting to be acquired’.[41] Rather, the medical school argues that trans phraseology and phenomenology itself arose from the specific sexological milieu of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and cannot be separated entirely from this historical contingency. The problem is that, in privileging medical discourses, the agency of trans people themselves is often obscured. Their nonconformity seems to derive entirely from their interactions with medicine, rather than being dialogically formulated, negotiated, and affirmed and only later being identified and diagnosed with reference to medical concepts. It was partly in response to this shortcoming that another strand of trans historiography gathered pace in the 2000s and 2010s. This school largely took its inspiration from postmodern intersectional feminist thought and places trans within a much wider nexus of interlocking identity forms and oppressions, principally race and racism.



Intersectional and trans of colour trans history had a long incubation. One key aspect of its worldview can be traced directly to the postmodern feminist theorising of Judith Butler in the 1990s. Her book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), is used as the basis for viewing gender as ‘performative’ and therefore malleable, rather than biologically infused. Almost immediately upon publication, as literary critic Jay Prosser observed, Gender Trouble (GT) ran away from Butler. Despite the fact that GT barely mentions trans people and is more concerned with drag, it still ‘transformed transgender into a queer icon, in the process becoming something of an icon of the new queer theory itself’.[42] In order to fulfil this role, the original ‘underwent a certain overreading, playful exaggeration, [and] mischievous adding of emphasis’.[43] Readers latched onto buried sentences about gender being a ‘stylized repetition of acts’,[44] and paid little attention to Butler’s post-GT interventions, in which she warned against seeing gender as a free-for-all.[45] Nevertheless, the atomised version of GT took deep hold in trans studies, as demonstrated by Susan Stryker’s reading of performativity in her introduction to the first Transgender Studies Reader (2006):

To say that gender is a performative act is to say that it does not need a material referent to be meaningful […] is not subject to falsification or verification, and is accomplished by “doing” something rather than “being” something. A woman, performatively speaking, is one who says she is. […] The biologically sexed body guarantees nothing; […] it has no deterministic relationship to performative gender.[46]

Belief in the performativity of gender became a necessary precursor to later critiques of the Feinberg and medical schools of trans history. If trans is neither a distinct set of practices and characteristics that can be traced into antiquity, nor a biologically or neurologically intrinsic trait, but rather something that is performed, socially reproduced, and perpetuated in relation to changing cultural norms, then the issue of its social utility as a category of otherness becomes more important than its ‘causes’. Giving primacy to social analysis, in turn, prompts questions about how trans interacts with other categories of identity and oppression, like race, disability, class, and sexuality — in a word, its intersectionality.

Often traced back to the Combahee River Collective Statement in Boston, 1977,[47] and codified in an article by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989,[48] intersectional feminism resists totalising narratives that collapse complex human experiences of oppression into a unidimensional narrative, and advocates instead an analysis of the ways that different oppressions interact to create unique experiences. Intersectionality is widely associated with ‘third wave’ feminism, a loosely-defined signifier that came of age in the 1990s in response to the second wave’s much-critiqued analytical limitations in relation to race and class.[49] British sociologist Shelley Budgeon conceptualises the third wave as promoting individual ‘empowerment’ within an individualist ‘culture of the self that endorses self-invention, autonomy and personal responsibility’.[50] Intersectionality distils this belief in the heterogeneity of human experience into a focussed analysis of how differing experiences are shaped through the interaction of various strands of privilege and oppression. It is also closely associated with Black feminism and feminism of colour.

Even before intersectionality’s formal integration into mainstream feminist theory, recognition of the overlapping nature of oppressions was, by necessity, central to Black British feminist analysis.[51] It is fitting, then, that intersectionality was primarily introduced to trans historiography via trans of colour critique. As Ellison, Green, Richardson, and Snorton put it in their 2017 TSQ article ‘We Got Issues: Towards a Black Trans*/Studies’, Black trans theory provides impetus to investigate ‘repressed genealogies that might come into view through a more sustained engagement with blackness’. It questions, among other things, teleologies of ‘progress’ and ‘solidarity’ that push trans of colour history aside while erasing the cultural contexts in which other forms of gender liminality exist(ed). Stryker and Currah argue in their introduction to the TSQ issue ‘Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary’ that ‘transgender — grounded as it is in conceptual underpinnings that assume a sex/gender distinction as well as an analytic segregation of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression […] [is] simply foreign to most places and times’.[52] Trans of colour critique refuses to perpetuate the erasure of these histories in favour of Western whiteness.

Transgender Day of Remembrance, founded in 1999 as an annual memorial of lives lost to anti-trans violence, has proved to be an instructive focal point of scholarly attention. Sociologist Jin Haritaworn coined the term ‘trans necropolitics’ to describe the process by which trans murder victims are martyred and turned into utilities for the mainstream trans political movement. Haritaworn and C. Riley Snorton point out that ‘trans women of color act as resources—both literally and metaphorically—for the articulation and visibility of a more privileged transgender subject’. This process is ‘cannibalistic’, since it is only ‘in their death that they suddenly come to matter’.[53] Sarah Lamble has commented similarly upon the inappropriateness of white trans people ‘taking the voice of the other as our own’. In doing so, Lamble writes, ‘we colonize the bodies of the dead’.[54] This colonisation also entails the appropriation of significant events in trans of colour history as deracialised ‘gay’, ‘queer’, or ‘trans’ events — most notably the Stonewall Riots in New York, 1969. First colonised as a white gay riot, over time it was overtaken by another myth, as Jessi Gan explains, ‘that all transgender people were most oppressed and most resistant at Stonewall (and still are today)’. This myth could be ‘circulated and consumed [in] the service of a liberal multicultural logic of recognition’ that privileges white transness. It was only when an historian interviewed the Puerto Rican-Venezuelan drag queen and trans activist Sylvia Rivera in the early 1990s that the integral role of gender-nonconforming people of colour at Stonewall became widely known.[55]

Various scholars have also called into question the Feinberg school’s perennial use of ‘other cultures’ as historical proof that transgender people have always existed. As Native American studies scholar Deborah A. Miranda has explained, the Western hegemonic culture from which ‘transgender’ emerged is the very same culture which committed ‘gendercide’ against gender-nonconforming people during colonisation.[56] Those identity forms that survived are now subject to efforts by the trans umbrella to claim their history as its own. Thus, as Nael Bhanji has elaborated, trans identity ‘carries its own imperialist baggage’, which manifests in Western-centric scholarship on ‘other cultures’ as ‘a veritable buffet of exotic (trans) sexuality’ wherein ‘a rotating chain of marginality tends to be pitted against an unstated, white, Western norm’.[57]

By drawing attention to the oppressions and marginalisations fused into and perpetuated through trans temporalities, trans of colour critique fundamentally altered trans studies in the 2010s. Intersectional trans history synthesised elements from the Feinberg and medical methods, arguing that while identities, ways of life, and practices outside the Western gender binary have always existed, it is the specific political, social, and medical circumstances of the last two hundred years that have enabled them, on an ontological level, to be grouped together as ‘trans’. In this new iteration of trans history, the key objective is not to claim all historical gender-nonconformity as trans by default, nor to trace all forms of gender-nonconformity back to a common medical discursive modality, but to ask how and why trans took over as the dominant mode of understanding non-normative gender, and to identify what impact this had upon the dialogical possibilities of gendered expression.

Jules Gill-Peterson’s ground-breaking book, Histories of the Transgender Child (2018), is an influential and passionately argued example of the intersectional/trans of colour approach. Gill-Peterson’s analysis of trans children’s interactions with gender identity clinics in the United States dating back to the Interwar Years demonstrates, firstly, that children often developed their own autonomous sense of who they were long before hearing about trans medical theory, and secondly, that once they were under medical supervision their minds and bodies resisted efforts to make them fit one of the two available gender categories. This suggests that, while gender-nonconforming children do not typically get to choose the diagnostic words that are applied to them, they do play an independent role in defining what those words mean socially, subverting medical definitions with self-made forms of expression.[58] They themselves are not ‘made trans’, so to speak, by medical diagnosis or intervention, but their identities are rendered intelligible to broader society as trans. Trans terminology, once popularised and placed in the hands of the diagnosed, left the sole control of medical doctors and came to be infused with new meanings and possibilities, as can be seen in the heated debates over the definitions of ‘transvestite’, ‘transgender’, and ‘transsexual’ in the pages of Transvestia, an international magazine by and for trans people that circulated from the 1960s to the 1980s.[59] This process resembles the ‘looping effect’ theorised by Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking, whose work on ‘human kinds’ stresses the dialogical back-and-forth through which feedback from the diagnosed ultimately affects the discursive contours of the diagnosis itself.[60]

C. Riley Snorton authored another seminal text in this vein. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (2017) delves further into the construction of ‘trans’ as its own distinct category of identity, drawing particular attention to the role that racist caricatures of Black people played in delineating what a ‘normal’ male or female body looked like (i.e., conforming to a particular white vision of anatomical congruity, purity, and good health), which in turn made trans ‘conceivable’ as an exception to the rule. Starting with the use of Black chattel slaves in the experiments of early gynaecology in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with the erasure of anti-Black violence by the mainstream trans rights movement in the present, Snorton narrates how Black flesh served as the ‘malleable matter’ from which modern white notions of normative and non-normative gender are crafted.[61] Trans cannot, therefore, be understood in isolation from broader histories of systemic racism in Western medicine and society.

These theories have profound implications for trans history as a subject. Because ‘trans’ as we know it is epistemologically dependent on the conditions of modernity, claiming that trans people per se have always existed is fundamentally fallacious. To reiterate: liminal, transgressive, and nonconforming modes of identification and expression have always existed. Trans identity, specifically, has not. Intersectional trans history thus does away with a certain level of chronological and thematic precision and replaces it with a more sophisticated analysis of the cultural and social entanglements of trans. In the syntax of Foucault, the quest for historical origin, which ‘assumes the existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession’, and which, as a result of this assumption, ‘neglect[s] as inaccessible the vicissitudes of history’, is dropped in favour of an appraisal of the ‘genealogy of values, morality, asceticism, and knowledge’.[62] The question of when, precisely, trans history should begin — so keenly debated between the Feinberg and medical schools— is consequently and deliberately left open-ended by the intersectional school.

So, too, is the thematic remit of trans studies. As early as 2006, Susan Stryker, whose work bears the distinct mark of intersectional feminism, urged trans scholars to be ambitious, and not to limit themselves to researching people and phenomena specifically identified as ‘trans’:

[T]ransgender studies is concerned with anything that disrupts, denaturalizes, rearticulates, and makes visible the normative linkages we generally assume to exist between the biological specificity of the sexually differentiated human body, the social roles and statutes that a particular form of body is expected to occupy, the subjectively experienced relationship between a gendered sense of self and social expectations of gender-role performance, and the cultural mechanisms that work to sustain or thwart specific configurations of gendered personhood.[63]

While undoubtedly vibrant, enterprising, and pioneering, however, intersectional trans history has not replaced, but rather stands alongside, the other schools. In fact, the Feinberg model experienced something of a resurgence around the turn of the 2020s.



If the medical and intersectional schools both seek to deconstruct the belief that ‘trans has always existed’, the previous few years showed the notion’s capacity for endurance. This neo-Feinbergian moment encompasses both wholesale restatements of Feinberg’s original thesis and attempts to amalgamate it with current scholarly trends, expressed in both popular and academic contexts. Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Trans Liberation (2020), by trade unionist and trans activist Laura Miles, falls into the former, less critical category. It is a primarily political text that draws on Feinberg’s Marxist view of trans oppression, particularly hir argument that systemic, institutionalised transphobia is an invention of modern capitalism.[64] Intersectionality and other intellectual traditions that might disrupt this narrative are dismissed by Miles as insufficiently sensitive to the class origins of oppression. Another prominent non-academic text, Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows (2018), edited by veteran British trans campaigner Christine Burns, displays more awareness of the Feinberg line’s limitations. Burns warns readers:

Labelling figures from antiquity with modern terms such as “transgender” is a dangerous thing. People living hundreds of years ago couldn’t have ‘identified’ with such a term because it didn’t exist. We rely on the co-evolution of identities and the word available to describe them in order to provide the script for how to interpret our feelings and possibilities – the things we can be and embrace. What we can look for, however, are behaviours identified by ancient documents and life in ways that apparently departed from a simple binary man-woman model of life. Those exist throughout recorded history and across cultures.[65]

Though prefaced with this qualification, what follows in Trans Britain is a fairly orthodox recounting of trans antiquity, employing pre-trans figures like the gender-transgressive French spy, the Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), in service to its narrative of trans people’s ‘journey from the shadows’.[66]

Historian Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History (2020), which is dedicated to Feinberg, attempts a similar if more theoretically complex modification of hir approach. Rather than looking for historical examples of trans identity as we know it, Manion focusses on the transing of gender as an activity or process. They particularly build on Clare Sears’s dictum that studies of cross-dressing should move ‘away from the recognizable cross-dressing figure to multiple forms of cross-dressing practices’.[67] Manion argues that deemphasising the search for specifically trans identity forms avoids some of the pitfalls of the traditional argument for trans antiquity. ‘To say someone “transed” or was “transing” gender’, they write, ‘signifies a process or practice without claiming to understand what it meant to that person or asserting any kind of fixed identity on them’.[68] This entails a ‘trans reading’ of historical subjects (in this case ‘female husbands’) without ‘foreclosing’ on their mode of self-identification,[69] thus opening ‘a window into our [the trans community’s] collective past’ while not laying claim to historical actors as ‘trans’ per se.[70] The implication is that transing, rather than trans identity itself, has always existed, and this is indeed a more defensible claim. There have always been those who cross, complicate, subvert, and sit astride the categorical boundaries extant in their communities. Most of them did not understand their selfhood as do modern trans people, but this is beside the point. What matters in this modified Feinbergian approach is that the feelings, practices, concepts, movements, images, and imaginaries of the modern trans community have precedent.

Another author, Barry Reay, has proposed a different solution to the Feinberg problem. Given his pointed rejection of the idea that trans people have always existed and his insistence that trans history essentially began in the 1950s,[71] it may seem incongruous to include Reay’s Trans America: A Counter-History (2020) in a section about a Feinbergian revival. However, Trans America deviates less from theories of trans antiquity than the author himself implies. Rather than label millennia-old gender-nonconforming and gender-liminal phenomena as trans history, Reay categorises them as trans pre-history, arguing that gender-nonconforming temporalities extant before the rise of trans phraseology should be seen as ‘prefigurements of transgender: trans before trans’.[72] In effect, this is an effort to square a circle — to claim a long precedent for trans people (and therefore invoke the legitimisation of antiquity) while not participating in the fallacy of trans anachronism. It is not clear, however, what the shift from ‘trans history’ to ‘trans prehistory’ achieves on a theoretical level. The end result — the placement of all forms of gender-nonconformity and gender-liminality within a narrative that leads eventually to modern transgender — is the same. Trans pre-history might even be more problematic in some respects, since, firstly, it risks portraying ‘trans before trans’ identities and expressions as merely primitive foreshadowings of an inevitable trans endpoint (a ‘monotonous finality’, as Foucault put it[73]), and secondly, it conjures notions of a foggy past about which nothing substantial is known. Indeed, such a hard separation between ‘history’ from ‘pre-history’ potentially lowers the burden of proof for scholars seeking to link trans with pre-trans temporalities by removing the need to demonstrate an actual continuity of concepts, practices, or traditions.

It seems unlikely, then, that Reay’s model shows the best way forward. Manion’s emphasis on ‘transing’ as an historically omnipresent phenomenon is more promising, and, with its awareness of the historical contingency of trans identity (as emphasised by the medical school) and its refusal to co-opt pre-modern and non-Western gender systems as belonging to trans temporality per se (in keeping with the intersectional school), could potentially catalyse a moment of synthesis in trans historiography. Such a synthesis is long overdue, and would undoubtedly open new research trajectories should an ambitious theorist be willing to attempt it.



Whatever their theoretical and ideological stripes, fresh trans historians today can rest assured that, at the very least, they will spend far less time than their predecessors justifying the very necessity of trans historical inquiry. Though there continue to be impassioned disagreements about what it encompasses, there can no longer be any reasonable doubt that trans history exists. Whether thousands of years old, hundreds of years old, or merely tens of years old, it has been clearly established that trans is not a contemporary invention, as so many turn-of-the-century writers thought, but an ever-mutating nexus of phenomena, some of which are very old. Indeed, contrary to the popular obsession with trans-postmodernist-cyborg futurity, one of the most pressing questions now is not whether trans has a history, but whether it has a future. Leading theorists fully expect that trans, with all its entanglements in oppressive histories and invasive medical authority, will sooner or later be ‘eclipsed by new imaginaries that might not even call themselves transgender at all’.[74]

Is it possible to make educated guesses about what these new imaginaries might look like? Some authors have conducted thought experiments, positing fresh terminology not in the expectation that others will necessarily adopt it, but rather as a call for readers to think outside the box. Paul Preciado, for example, suggested a list of possible names for Internet-age queer movements that speak to the irreverence and impermanence of our ‘punk hyper-modernity’: ‘Postporno, Free Fuckware, Bodypunk, Opengender, Fuckyourfather, PenetratedState, TotalDrugs, PornTerror, Analinflaction, [or] TechnoPriapismoUniversal United’.[75] Radical liberation for gender-nonconforming people has also been integrated into broader intersectional feminist, xenofeminist, posthuman, and antihumanist future imaginaries that seek to strip gender of its ‘extraordinary explanatory power’,[76] thus embracing ‘unintelligibility’ and removing the need for formalised trans identity to exist as an exception to normative strictures.[77] To an extent, however, predictions are unnecessary. The process of formulating extra-trans and post-trans identities is already underway. Words like genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, and non-binary have been in mainstream circulation for over a decade, providing modes of self-understanding and self-representation beyond the more established trans narratives.[78] For some, these terms are merely a precursor to the total ‘deconstruction of gender’, one feature of which would be an end to the social expectation that one should make oneself sexually intelligible to others by accumulating identifying adjectives.[79] In that imaginary, all gender-nonconforming identities, and indeed gender itself, will eventually fall into disuse.

Accurate or not, this glimpse into the yet-to-be might, ironically, represent the most important lesson a passing observer can take from trans history. We and our tools of self-expression are historically contingent. The identity forms that make sense to us will not necessarily make sense to others in a few centuries, a few decades, or even a few years. Just as there was a pre-trans, so too must there be a post-trans, and, in this sense, trans history has fully anticipated its own obsolescence. It is a matter of when, not if.



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Twist, J., Vincent, B., Barker, M., and Gupta, K. (eds.), ‘Introduction’ to Non-binary lives: an anthology of intersecting identities (London, 2020).

Valentine, D., Imagining transgender: an ethnography of a category (Durham, NC, 2007).

Valerio, M. W., The testosterone files: my hormonal and social transformation from female to male (New York, 2006).

Whittle, S., ‘Guest editorial’, Journal of Gender Studies, 7 (1998), pp. 269–72. DOI: 10.1080/09589236.1998.9960720.

———The transgender debate: the crisis surrounding gender identity (Reading, 2000).

Women’s Human Rights Campaign, ‘Declaration on women’s sex-based rights’, <>, accessed 10.04.2021.


[1] R. Kunzel, ‘The flourishing of transgender studies’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 285-6.

[2] S. Stryker and S. Whittle (eds.), The transgender studies reader (London, 2006); S. Stryker and A. Z. Aizura (eds.), The transgender studies reader 2 (London, 2013).

[3] Most existing trans historiographies are consequently America-centric. See, for instance, G. Beemyn, ‘A presence in the past: a transgender historiography’, Journal of Women’s History, 25 (2013), pp. 113-21.

[4] D. Valentine’s Imagining transgender: an ethnography of a category (Durham, NC, 2007), is a good example of this latter category. Another example is literary critic E. Heaney’s The new woman: literary modernism, queer theory, and the trans feminine allegory (Evanston, 2017).

[5] E. H. Brown, ‘Trans/feminist oral history: current projects’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2 (2015), pp. 666-72.

[6] R. Edwards, ‘”This is not a girl”: a trans* archival reading’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2 (2015), pp. 650-65.

[7] M. Crandall and S. W. Schwartz, ‘Moving transgender histories: Sean Dorsey’s trans archival practice’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2 (2015), pp. 565-77.

[8] S. Stone, ‘The “empire” strikes back: a posttranssexual manifesto’, in K. Straub and J. Epstein (eds.) Body guards: the cultural politics of gender ambiguity (New York, 1991); J. Serano, Whipping girl: a transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity (Berkeley, 2007), pp. 95-160.

[9] Women’s Human Rights Campaign, ‘Declaration on women’s sex-based rights’, <>, accessed 10.04.2021.

[10] S. Whittle, The transgender debate: the crisis surrounding gender identity (Reading, 2000), p. 15.

[11] N. A. Boyd, ‘Bodies in motion: lesbian and transsexual histories’, in Transgender studies reader, pp.422-3.

[12] M. Foucault, ‘Introduction’ to Herculine Barbin (New York, 1980), p. vii.

[13] J. Scott, ‘Gender: a useful category of historical analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91 (1986), p. 1067.

[14] J. Sares, ‘Postmodernism’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 158–61.

[15]S. S. Montefiore in The Daily Telegraph, ‘Sex change teacher is living proof of technological advance’, 12 January 2001.

[16] S. Stryker, Transgender history: the roots of today’s revolution (revised edition) (New York, 2017), p. 44.

[17] P. B. Preciado, ‘The pharmaco-pornographic regime: sex, gender, and subjectivity in the age of punk capitalism’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 269.

[18] D. Haraway, Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature (London, 1991).

[19] S. Whittle, ‘Guest editorial’, Journal of Gender Studies, 7 (1998), pp. 269–72.

[20] S. Stryker, ‘My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: performing transgender rage’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1 (1994), pp. 237-54.

[21] J. G. Raymond, The transsexual empire: the making of the she-male (London, 1979); G. Greer, The whole woman (London, 1999).

[22] R. Felski, ‘Fin de siècle, Fin du sexe: transsexuality, postmodernism, and the death of history’, in Transgender studies reader, p. 566.

[23] Defined by Oxford Languages as ‘denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.’

[24] R. Erickson, ‘Foreword’, in R. Green and J. Money (eds.), Transsexualism and sex reassignment (Baltimore, 1969), p. xi.

[25] L. Feinberg, Transgender warriors: making history from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston, 1996), p. 44.

[26] Ibid., pp. 49-53.

[27] L. Feinberg, Transgender liberation: a movement whose time has come (New York, 1992), pp. 5-6.

[28] M. W. Valerio, The testosterone files: my hormonal and social transformation from female to male (New York, 2006), p. 2.

[29] M. Weismantel, ‘Towards a transgender archaeology: a queer rampage through prehistory’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 321.

[30] M. Foucault, The history of sexuality, volume 1: an introduction (London, 1978), p 55.

[31] Ibid., p. 140.

[32] M. Foucault, The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (London, 1989).

[33] S. Dea, Beyond the binary: thinking about sex and gender (Ontario, 2016), p. 14.

[34] T. Laqueur, Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p.198 and 243.

[35] M. McIntosh, ‘The homosexual role’, Social Problems, 161(1968), pp. 182–92.

[36] J. Meyerowitz, How sex changed: a history of transsexuality in the United States (Cambridge, MA, 1980).

[37] H. Chiang, After eunuchs: science, medicine, and the transformation of sex in modern China (New York, 2018), p. 13.

[38] Ibid., p. 135.

[39] Ibid., p. 263.

[40] Ibid., p. 50.

[41] Ibid., p. 13.

[42] J. Prosser, ‘Judith Butler: queer feminism, transgender, and the transubstantiation of sex’, in Transgender studies reader, p. 259.

[43] Ibid., p. 260.

[44] J. Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (London, 1990), p. 191.

[45] In particular, see the emphasis on the ‘citationality’ of sex in J. Butler, Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of sex (London, 1995).

[46] S. Stryker, ‘(De)subjugated knowledges: an introduction to transgender studies’, in Transgender studies reader, p. 10.

[47] Reproduced in B. Smith (ed.), Home girls: a black feminist anthology (New York, 1983), pp. 264–74.

[48] K. Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), pp. 139-167.

[49] K. Mahoney, ‘Historicising the “third wave”: narratives of contemporary feminism’, Women’s History Review, 25 (2016), pp. 1006-13.

[50] S. Budgeon, Third wave feminism and the politics of gender in late modernity (Basingstoke, 2011), p. 284.

[51] B. Bryan, S. Dadzie, and S. Scafe, Heart of the race: black women’s lives in Britain (London, 1985); H. S. Mirza (ed.), Black British feminism: a reader (London, 1997).

[52] S. Stryker and P. Currah, ‘General editors’ introduction’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 303-4.

[53] C. R. Snorton and J. Haritaworn, ‘Trans necropolitics: a transnational reflection on violence, death, and the trans of color afterlife’, in Transgender studies reader 2, pp. 71-4.

[54] S. Lamble, ‘Retelling racialized violence, remaking white innocence: the politics of interlocking oppressions in Transgender Day of Remembrance’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 40.

[55] J. Gan, ‘”Still at the back of the bus”: Sylvia Rivera’s struggle’, in Transgender studies reader 2, pp. 292-3.

[56] D. A. Miranda, ‘Extermination of the joyas: gendercide in Spanish California’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16 (2010), pp. 253-84.

[57] N. Bhanji ‘Trans/scriptions: homing desires (trans)sexual citizenship and racialized bodies’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 513.

[58] J. Gill-Peterson, Histories of the transgender child (Minneapolis, 2018), p. 94–5.

[59] R. Hill, ‘Before transgender: Transvestia’s spectrum of gender variance, 1960-1980’, in Transgender studies reader 2, pp. 364-79.

[60] I. Hacking, ‘The looping effects of human kinds’, in D. Sperber, D. Premack, and A. J. Premack (eds.), Causal cognition: A multi-disciplinary debate (Oxford, 1995), pp. 351-83; I. Hacking, Historical ontology (Cambridge, MA, 2002), pp. 99-114.

[61] C. R. Snorton, Black on both sides: a racial history of trans identity (Minneapolis, 2017), p. 135.

[62] M. Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, genealogy, history’, in D. F. Bouchard (ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews (Ithaca, 1977), pp. 142-4.

[63] Stryker, ‘(De)subjugated knowledges’, p. 3.

[64] L. Miles, Transgender resistance: socialism and the fight for trans liberation (London, 2020), pp. 18-32.

[65] C. Burns (ed.), Trans Britain: our journey from the shadows (London, 2018), p. 8.

[66] Ibid., pp. 9-11.

[67] C. Sears, Arresting dress: cross-dressing, law, and fascination in nineteenth-century San Francisco (Durham, NC, 2014), p. 9.

[68] J. Manion, Female husbands: a trans history (Cambridge, 2020), p. 11.

[69] Ibid., p. 265.

[70] Ibid., p. 264.

[71] B. Reay, Trans America: a counter-history (Cambridge, 2020), p. 2, 57.

[72] Ibid., p. 16, 55.

[73] Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, genealogy, history’, p. 76.

[74] S. Stryker and A. Z. Aizura, ‘Introduction: transgender studies 2.0’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 10.

[75] Preciado, ‘Pharmaco-pornographic regime’, p. 275.

[76] H. Hester, Xenofeminism (Cambridge, 2018), p. 49. See also L. Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist manifesto: a politics for alienation (London, 2018).

[77] A. Escalante, ‘Gender nihilism: an anti-manifesto’, 2016, <>, accessed 13.04.2021. For examples of the incorporation of trans into intersectional feminist agendas, see: R. Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race (London, 2017), p. 181; L. Olufemi, Feminism, interrupted: disrupting power (London, 2020), p. 6.

[78] J. Twist, B. Vincent, M. Barker, and K. Gupta (eds.), ‘Introduction’ to Non-binary lives: an anthology of intersecting identities (London, 2020), pp. 19-20.

[79] LJ, ‘Who needs gender?’, in Non-binary lives, pp. 63-9.


Value and Values

Value and Values

Dr David Civil is a Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham. His PhD research explored the concept of meritocracy in post-war Britain’s intellectual politics.

Since their inauguration in 1948, the BBC Reith Lectures have provided historians with an annual window into the intellectual preoccupations of the post-war world. From the impact of quantum and atomic theory in 1953 with Robert Oppenheimer’s Science and Common Understanding to questions of racial, gender and national identity in 2016 with Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Mistaken Identities. A potential Reith lecturer, searching for a topic to explain the contemporary moment would be spoilt for choice: the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, rampant economic inequality and social injustice, the rise of populism, big tech, the existential challenge to democracy etc. The list, it seems, is endless. On the surface then, the selection of Mark Carney, the Canadian central banker and former Governor of the Bank of England, feels like an odd choice. Carney has sat at the apex of a financial system assailed on all sides and held responsible, by a wide variety of politicians, commentators as well as large swathes of the public, for creating or exacerbating many of the problems listed above. The title of his series however, ‘How We Get What We Value’, unites the vast majority of these crises and, in doing so, like all good Reith Lectures, touches on one of the fundamental issues of the post-Cold War age.

At the heart of Carney’s thesis is the idea that financial value has trumped human values as developed nations morph from market economies into societies where the market rules. The free market, Carney claims, has become the organising framework not just for economies, but for broader human relations as its reach extends further into civic spaces and family life. Across a variety of sectors ‘citizens’ have been replaced by ‘service users’, with perilous consequences for our civic sphere. Whether manifested in concerns about the outsourcing of public services to private providers or the growing privatisation of public spaces, the so-called ‘invisible hand’ has come to exercise a visible and forceful grip.

Within these market societies the idea of subjective value is now hegemonic. Whereas in the past thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Karl Marx and Adam Smith felt the value of a product derived from how that product was produced, neo-classicist economists in the early twentieth century shifted the axis of value theory away from labour and towards the consumer. A product or service was no longer deemed valuable because of the costs that had gone into making or providing it, instead value was to be decided by whether individual consumers were willing to pay for it. Value was no longer thought to lie in the sweat of the labourer but in the eye of the beholder. In many ways this was a democratic shift: value was to accrue to those who could satisfy millions of individual preferences as reflected in the free market place.

It was not, however, without consequences and Carney identifies a number of risks associated with this rise of subjective value. For example, individuals are not always the rational decision-makers assumed by neo-classicist economic theory and often value the present more than the future. This ‘tragedy of the horizon’ has made solving issues like climate change more difficult. The catastrophic costs of a global issue like the climate crisis are felt beyond the traditional time horizons of most actors – imposing a cost on future generations that the current generation have no direct incentive to fix. As Carney has noted elsewhere, the ‘horizon for monetary policy extends out to two or three years.’ For ‘financial stability it is a bit longer, but typically only to the outer boundaries of the credit cycle – about a decade.’ In others words, once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late. More worryingly, Carney claims, is the ‘drift from moral to market sentiments.’ This ‘flattening of values’ corrodes those which have tended to exist outside of the market (e.g. civic virtues) and in the process has undercut the social foundations upon which any economic activity fundamentally relies. In short, anything not priced, not deemed financially valuable, in our society is not valued. Nowhere is this fact more starkly visible than in the essential work of the care sector where, because the value of care is difficult to measure, pay remains low and conditions poor. Care workers, therefore, remain the victim of a damaging tautological spiral: because their labour has been historically undervalued they are not paid a lot and because they are not paid a lot their labour is not seen as valuable.

The message and the messenger of the 2020 Reith Lectures is emblematic of the growing intellectual consensus in favour of a ‘social reset’. Whether embodied in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rather vague slogan of ‘Build Back Better’, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Great Reset’ or the progressive Left’s ‘Green New Deal’, the desire for a fundamental reappraisal of the global economy is shared, admittedly to differing degrees and to varying ends, across the ideological spectrum. While Carney’s lectures serve as a symbol of this particular conjuncture, his concerns are nothing new. The idea of a parasitic free market is a common theme of communist and socialist texts, while the more Carney-like warnings are found in a variety of liberal and social democratic positions. Even more surprising, perhaps, is to find traces of Carney’s thesis amongst some of the neoliberal thinkers whose intellectual output in the early-to-mid twentieth century did so much to economically and philosophically support the rise of the market in the 1980s.

For example, Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist, philosopher and author of the influential tract The Road to Serfdom, argued in 1960 that

A society in which it was generally presumed that a high income was proof of merit and a low income of the lack of it, in which it was universally believed that position and remuneration corresponded to merit, in which there was no other road to success than the approval of one’s conduct by the majority of one’s fellows, would probably be much more unbearable to the unsuccessful ones than one in which it was frankly recognised that there was no necessary connection between merit and success.[1]

For Hayek, in any free society income should reflect the value of an individual’s goods and services and have nothing to do with merit, virtue or the moral importance of their contribution. In a similar vein Frank Knight, the American anti-New Deal economist and later Hayek’s teacher, argued in the early 1920s that an individual’s income or market value should not be associated with their social contribution.[2] Serving demand in the market is simply a matter of satisfying the wide range of tastes and desires people happen to have at that particular moment in time. The ethical significance of satisfying them, however, depends on their moral worth.

Evaluating this worth involves making contested moral judgements which go beyond the discipline of economics. The philosopher Michael Sandel illuminates this distinction by considering the character of Walter White, the teacher, father and drug-dealing kingpin of the Emmy-award winning drama Breaking Bad. Most viewers would agree that White’s contribution as a teacher far exceeds that of his contribution as a drug dealer. ‘Even if meth were legal’, Sandel argues, ‘a talented chemist might still make more money producing meth than teaching students.’ But this does not mean that a ‘meth dealer’s contribution is more valuable than a teacher’s.’[3] In a similar vein, few would have argued that Captain Sir Tom Moore’s fundraising efforts, reaching £33 million in total, would have represented less of a contribution had he only met his initial target of £1000. In this sense the value of his effort was recognised in the civic or moral character of his actions rather than because of their monetary value.

Context is important here. Hayek, for example, had little influence in 1960, the start of a decade where technocratic desires to rationally plan economic activity reached fever pitch and the free market remained a marginalised concept. Hayek’s primary concern in distinguishing between merit and value was to secure the legitimacy of free market inequalities. This legitimacy, he claimed, would be tarnished if those at the top were not only rich but also considered morally superior. As Carney’s lecture makes clear, however, these warnings went unheeded as price and value increasingly became conflated. Those individuals with high incomes also came to possess greater status, power and, perhaps most damagingly, moral superiority. It does not therefore require much of an intellectual leap to consider how Hayek’s concerns have played out in the last decade of political destabilisation. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, however, it is clear that these market generated inequalities are suffering a legitimation crisis. In this sense Carney’s intervention has fired the starting pistol on what Mariana Mazzucato has described as a great contested debate about value.[4]

It is clear that this debate can not be overly reliant on the discipline of economics, a discipline where the moral questions highlighted by Knight have been subsumed beneath technical exercises in applied rationality. The market appealed to politicians and policymakers precisely because it eschewed these contested judgements, pushing questions of ‘who gets what?’ onto an abstract, impersonal force. There was no longer a contested debate about the morally right or wrong course of action but a mechanistic discussion about the economic costs or benefits of a particular policy choice. In its place the debate will be heated. As David Robinson has outlined in this journal, in its worst form it will descend into an irrelevant culture war. Yet it appears that a tentative consensus is forming as those across the political spectrum recognise that key workers deserve pay, status and conditions beyond those assigned by the market.

A great debate about values entails radical consequences for the shape of higher education in Britain, a sector which has too often, in the words of David Manning, disengaged ‘from the virtues of scholarship to perform research for market value.’ This is particularly true of disciplines like the Humanities where value is difficult to measure and demonstrate. Shifting away from crude metrics, however, should not, be used as an opportunity to completely dismantle mechanisms designed to deliver accountability and ensure fairness. Instead it represents an opportunity for all of us in the Humanities to illuminate the issues, challenge long-standing assumptions and help to construct a new social contract which places human, rather than merely financial, values firmly at the centre.

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Hayek, F. A.,The Constitution of Liberty (London, 1960).

Knight, F. H.,  The Ethics of Competition (New Brunswick, NJ., [1923] 1997).

Mazzucato, M., The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (London, 2017).

Sandel, M. J., The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (London, 2020).



[1] F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London, 1960), p. 98.

[2] F.H. Knight, The Ethics of Competition (New Brunswick, NJ., [1923] 1997), p. 46.

[3] M.J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (London, 2020), pp. 138-39.

[4] M. Mazzucato, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (London, 2017)