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Author Archives: dannymillum


New reviews: Ireland, Soviet Union, US egalitarians and C14 magic

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kennedyWe start this week with Liam Kennedy’s Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? Penelope Corfield and the author discuss a manifesto to Irish pluralism, which should be required reading for all historians of Ireland (no. 2067, with response here).

Next up is The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR by Chris Miller. Isaac Scarborough enjoys (with caveats) a work which betters our knowledge and understanding of the politics behind the Soviet economic collapse (no. 2066).

Then we turn to Sean Wilentz’s Politicians & the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics, as Christopher Childers assesses a mixed bag of essays in an age of political fracture (no. 2065).

Finally we have Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk. Benedek Lang reviews an unusual book, the chronicle of an intellectual trip (no. 2064).

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Announcement from Professor Lawrence Goldman

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‘I intend to stand down as Director of the Institute of Historical Research from 1 May 2017 and will take up the role of Professor of History in the IHR to allow me to concentrate on the Disraeli Letters Project, which I have been successful in attracting to the IHR, and on other research in the Victorian period. I will also pursue grant and funding opportunities’.

The University will now begin a search for Professor Goldman’s successor as Director. From 1 May 2017, Professor Philip Murphy, Deputy Dean of the School of Advanced Study, will carry out the duties of the Director.

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From Wapitis to Vampires: Indian Air Force aircraft and the politics of decolonisation 1933-1950

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This post has kindly been written for us by Aashique Iqbal, Royal Historical Society Marshall Fellow, IHR

The first aeroplane flown by the first squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF), on its formation in 1933, was the Westland Wapiti. The Wapiti, nicknamed the ‘What-a-pity’, by British pilots, was far from the cutting edge flying machine of its time. Air gunners had to be tied to their seats with a ‘monkey chain’ to be kept in place in the two seater biplane. The Wapiti often needed to be manhandled by teams of men into flying position and threw up great plumes of dust with its rotors. IAF Wapitis did not always come equipped with radios, meaning that pilots sometimes had to carry caged messenger pigeons with them in order to send important communications to ground stations. As the official history of the IAF would later note the force was ‘swaddled in the castaway garments of the the Royal Air Force ‘.[1] By 1950, however, the situation had undergone a sea change. The IAF operated a series of sophisticated aircraft comparable with its British counterpart including De Havilland Vampire fighter jets, Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers and Douglas DC-3 Dakota transport aircraft.

Westland Wapiti Bi-plane, Indian Air Force Museum, New Delhi.

Understanding the rapid technological modernisation of the Indian Air Force in the period between 1933 and 1950 involves understanding the politics that underpinned and enabled it. In 1933 India was very much a central part of the British Empire whereas by 1950 the country had emerged as an independent republic. A case study involving a selection of aircraft of the Indian Air Force is revealing of the ways in which technological modernisation is a deeply political act. As David Edgerton has argued it is useful to think of technology as ‘things in use’ since things are owned and their ownership is often revealing of the roots of social power.[2] In the instance of colonial India the slow process of transition from British rule to independence had concrete consequences for the IAF, especially in determining what aircraft the force would fly.

The Indian Air Force was established in 1932, primarily as a concession to Indian political opinion, which had been demanding greater Indian control of the colonial military as a means of reducing the high costs of employing British personnel and of setting India on the path to self-government. The IAF was kept small, equipped with outdated aircraft like the Wapiti and confined to air policing operations against the tribes of the North West Frontier province. This state of affairs persisted into the Second World War when efforts by the colonial Government of India (GoI) to acquire new aircraft were stymied by His Majesty’s Government (HMG). New Delhi’s planned wartime expansion of the IAF had to be shelved since London was unwilling to release critical dollar reserves necessary to import new aircraft for the IAF from the United States.[3] While the IAF was able to acquire a few new aircraft including the Hawker Hart, the Hawker Audax, the Bristol Blenheim and the Westland Lysander these were barely sufficient to meet the needs of the growing force. The newly formed IAF volunteer reserve would continue flying Westland Wapitis well into 1942.

When war with Japan broke out in 1941 the Indian Air Force could have hardly have been less prepared. The force was still no larger than one functioning squadron, though others were being trained, and it was still remarkably ill-equipped. Against the odds, however, the IAF gave a good account of itself during the long allied retreat from Burma in 1942. Indian Air Force personnel emerged as masters of improvisation, inventing a wooden wheel for their Westland Lysander planes, which often suffered from damaged rear wheels.[4] They also managed to repurpose their ‘Lizzies’, which were meant for reconnaissance, with new bomb racks that transformed the aeroplane into a light bomber. For many IAF men the war was an opportunity to expand the force and in doing so to provide India with a military institution it would need to attain true independence. As the Squadron Leader of No 1 Squadron IAF serving in Burma, Karun Krishna ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar stated, the war offered the IAF a chance to escape its status as a ‘flying club’. Whatever reservations IAF men might have about fighting to protect the British Empire could be saved for after the war when Indians had their own air force.[5] When Majumdar’s squadron was ordered to scout Japanese positions it went beyond the call of duty to use its improvised Lysander aircraft to launch light bombing raids on Japanese forces as far away as Thailand from its base in Northern Burma. The raids, often led by Majumdar in person, had little effect in turning the tide of a conflict that decisively favoured the Japanese, but they showcased both the IAF’s expertise in improvisation and its wartime gallantry.[6]

The IAF was expanded and rapidly modernised by the Government of India following the string of defeats in 1942. Eight squadrons formed during the war would be equipped with Hawker Hurricane aircraft.[7] While the Hurricane was not the fastest or most sophisticated aircraft available it was considerably more advanced than anything the IAF had thus far flown. Perhaps most well-known for its role as a fighter aircraft in the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane was used by the IAF on the Burma front primarily for tactical reconnaissance. Hurricane aircraft would take the majority of the 16,000 photographic prints taken by the IAF during the war, serving as the eyes of the Allies in Burma. Since the Hurricane was inferior to the Japanese Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa fighter plane, the IAF had to perform reconnaissance while remaining unseen.[8] IAF personnel used tactics pioneered in air policing operations on India’s North West frontier, flying low and slow to avoid detection by the fast high flying Japanese fighters. While technological inferiority prevented Hurricanes from engaging Japanese aircraft they were encouraged to strafe ground troops. The IAF wreaked havoc on Japanese supply lines, attacking any targets of opportunity. Japanese troops quickly learned to take shelter in the thick Burmese jungle from IAF planes but their supply lines remained vulnerable. IAF Hurricanes strafed cattle trains, boats and, on several instances, elephants bearing Japanese supplies.[9]

iaf-ground-crew-with-lysander

Ground crew with Lysander aircraft c 1942. Photo Courtesy: J.R. Nanda.

The fact that the IAF was not equipped with a plane suited for air-to-air combat was a consequence of its low position in the hierarchy of allied air forces. IAF needs were second to those of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in a theatre that was itself of relatively low importance for the British air planners. The premier fighter of the period, the Supermarine Spitfire, was not provided for the IAF until 1944, well after Allied air superiority had been acquired on the Burma front. Even when IAF squadrons received Spitfires there is some evidence to suggest that they were tasked away from zones where air combat might potentially occur. This was likely aimed at preventing Indians from gaining combat experience in the war and also reflected the widely-held notion that Indians were second-rate aviators. IAF Squadron No. 8, the first Indian squadron to be equipped with Spitfires was, for instance, tasked with defending the city of Calcutta, which had not been attacked by Japanese aircraft for over eight months.[10] The lack of Spitfire aircraft for much of the war and the tasking of the IAF meant that the IAF saw very little air-to-air combat during the war, with only one confirmed enemy kill in a dogfight in the entire conflict.[11] Nevertheless, the IAF was highly successful in utilising the Spitfire for bombing operations in the last two years of the war. The IAF’s reputation for accurate light bombing was further burnished with the adoption of the American Vultee Vengeance bomber, a plane infamous for the crashes occasioned by its high speeds. Assigned to the IAF partially because of its unpopularity with RAF personnel, the Vengeance came to serve as a highly precise means of delivering light bombardments thanks to a dive-bombing technique pioneered by IAF personnel in keeping with their penchant for improvising with the often problematic aircraft with which they were equipped.[12]

The extraordinary success of the IAF in the Second World War was recognised by the granting of the prefix ‘Royal’ by the King Emperor to the service on 12 March 1945. Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) Hurricanes had the distinction of escorting Major General Numata of the Imperial Japanese Army to the surrender ceremony at Rangoon later that year. At the end of the war the IAF could boast 1 Distinguished Service Order, 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 1 bar to Distinguished Flying Cross, 3 Air Force Crosses, 2 Orders of the British Empire, 7 Members of the British Empire, 5 British Empire Medals, 45 Mentions in Dispatches and 285 Jangi Inams.[13] It had expanded from a single squadron force of 16 officers and 269 airmen in 1939 to a nine squadron force that, in July 1945, included 1,638 officers and 26,900 Other Ranks.[14] The small force had sustained substantial casualties during the war, with 688 killed, 367 wounded and 3 captured.[15]

Perhaps the most important aircraft inducted by the RIAF in the 1940s would not be adopted during the war. The American Douglas DC-3 Dakota would only come into service on 1 December 1945 as part of the newly-raised No 12 Transport Squadron. The Dakota would play a key role in the two events that defined the passing of British rule in South Asia; partition and the Kashmir war of 1947. The Imperial defense of South Asia from the Japanese had been successful but costly. Colonial military control of the subcontinent was eroded by the passing of military technologies such as aviation from British to Indian hands and some form of Indian independence became inevitable after the war. Independence in 1947 was accompanied by the violent partition of British India into the independent dominions of India and Pakistan. As it became increasingly apparent that the creation of the two states would require the rapid movement of Muslim officials to Pakistan and non-Muslim officials to India, RIAF Dakotas were pressed into service. The interiors of the planes were stripped of seats and carpets to enable more passengers to board them. Thousands of government officials, along with their families, were moved to the dominions in which they were desperately required in order to expedite the formation of independent states. Even as the partition crisis was winding down, the two newly-created dominions of India and Pakistan went to war with each other over the disputed semi-autonomous state of Kashmir. As tribesmen backed by Pakistan poured into Kashmir in late October 1947, hoping to capture the state and hand India a fait accompli with the onset of winter, RIAF Dakotas were mobilised to fly in Indian troops to defend the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar. The war between the two new dominions would see the use of Dakota aircraft on both sides to move troops and supplies over Kashmir’s mountainous terrain. Again displaying the spirit of improvisation that had characterised it during the Second World War, the RIAF also used Dakotas for bombing operations by rolling bombs outside the planes’ open hatches.[16] Though the conflict ended in a stalemate it is clear that without the Dakota Indian forces would have been unable to occupy as much of Kashmir as they were eventually able to. Indeed it is possible that without the Dakota India may have been forced to concede most of Kashmir to Pakistan. The Kashmir dispute has served as the most significant source of hostility between India and Pakistan ever since 1947 and the Dakota enabled India to launch, sustain and eventually escalate military involvement in the region.

India’s main combat aircraft in the Kashmir conflict was the Hawker Tempest. The Tempest had come to replace the fabled Spitfire in the RIAF’s arsenal, reflecting the rapid development of aviation technology in the decade. As with the Second World War, the conditions of the Kashmir conflict ensured that there was little dogfighting over Kashmir. Consequently, RIAF Tempests were able to draw on institutional skills pioneered on the North West Frontier and honed during the Second World War in the conflict. RIAF Tempests were used extensively in light bombardment and tactical reconnaissance to interdict enemy lines of supply.[17] Their presence on the Kashmir front also served to deter the Royal Pakistan Air Force from using its aircraft to openly aid Pakistani forces, though covert operations were undertaken.

A major lacuna for India during the Kashmir conflict was the lack of heavy bombers. The British commander of the RIAF in independent India, Air Marshal Thomas Elmhirst, had suggested that India import Lancaster bombers from the United Kingdom, which continued to remain the prime supplier of aircraft to India. RIAF personnel led by Group Captain Harjinder Singh had a different idea.[18] Following the Second World War the RAF had been forced to dispose of a number of Consolidated B-24 Liberators in India which it had received from the United States under the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement. Liberators were sent to Kanpur, where they were damaged by RAF personnel in a variety of ways. Trucks and bulldozers were run into the aircraft, damaging their fuselages. Cockpits were smashed by dropping aircraft from cranes on which they were raised and engines were filled with sand, rendering them unusable. However, the RIAF, which had for years relied on salvage and repair operations to keep its equipment-starved squadrons operating, was able to repair the Liberators. Some 42 Liberators were flown from Kanpur to Bangalore by Jamshed Kaikobad ‘Jimmy’ Mistry, a Hindustan Aircraft Limited test pilot with no previous experience flying four-engine aircraft.[19] At the Hindustan Aircraft Limited factory at Bangalore aircraft were once more made air-worthy using spare parts cannibalized from other Liberators at Chakeri. Three Indian squadrons – No 5, No 6 and No 16 – would eventually be equipped with Liberator bombers. The RIAF became the last air force in the world to fly the Liberator which it only retired in 1967. In a testament to the excellent engineering skills of the IAF, the Royal Air Museum would ask for and receive a Liberator aircraft for display at its museum. The Liberator, which was flown in 1974 from India to the United Kingdom, is still on display.[20]

Foreign exchange saved by not importing Lancasters was spent instead on pushing India into the jet age with the purchase of licenses to build De Havilland Vampire fighter bomber jet aircraft. This was part of a broader attempt by the newly-independent Indian state to eventually indigenise aircraft production, which it saw as being central to the maintenance of Indian sovereignty. Over 410 Vampires would serve in the Indian Air Force over the next three decades, including night fighting and training variants.[21] The first of these was inducted into service with No 7 squadron in 1949. Only a decade earlier the Indian Air Force had been a tiny force flying Westland Wapiti aircraft.

The induction of Vampire jet planes built in India on license into the Indian Air Force in 1949 not only signaled the beginning of the jet age but reflected the vast political changes that had swept the continent in the preceding decade. Initially denied modern aircraft, the IAF had been modernised largely as a response to the exigencies of the Second World War. This modernisation in turn had the effect of loosening colonial military control, contributing ultimately to the decision to terminate British rule in the subcontinent. Aircraft inducted into the force after the war played a critical role in shaping modern South Asia, not least by drawing present day Indian borders in Kashmir. The RIAF was able throughout the period to excel in often adverse circumstances through improvisation of both aviation technology and flying techniques, eventually clawing its way into the jet age by bringing into existence entire bomber squadrons from scrap. In the decades after 1950 the IAF would continue to expand, eventually becoming the fourth largest air force in the world. The history of its aircraft in its first two decades serves as an example of the ways in which poorer countries engage with high technology. It is also revealing of the manner in which technological modernisation is deeply implicated in politics.

[1] B. Prasad, History of the Indian Air Force 1933-45, (New Delhi, 1961), p xix.

[2] D. Edgerton, The Shock of the Old, (London, 2008), p 212.

[3] B. Prasad, Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation 1939-45, (New Delhi, 1956), p 142.

[4] S. Sapru, Combat Lore, (New Delhi, 2014), p 153.

[5] M.Edwards, Spitfire Singh, (New Delhi, 2016), p 146.

[6] R. Chinna, The Eagle Strikes, (New Delhi, 2006), p 61.

[7] V. Seth, The Flying Machines, (New Delhi, 2000), p 21.

[8] R. Chinna, The Eagle Strikes, (New Delhi, 2006), p 113.

[9] See for instance: Ministry of Defence (MoD), 601/9616/H, Operations Record Book No 1 Squadron.

[10] MoD, 601/9621/H, ORB No. 8 Squadron, 3 March 1945.

[11] B. Prasad, History of the Indian Air Force 1933-45, (New Delhi, 1961), p 177.

[12] J.J. Halley, The Squadrons of the Royal Air Force and Commonwealth, (Tonbridge, 1988). p 523.

[13] R. Chinna, The Eagle Strikes, (New Delhi, 2006), p 236.

[14] B. Prasad, Expansion of Armed Forces and Defence Organisation, (New Delhi, 1956), p 153.

[15] TNA, AIR 23/3426, History of the Royal Indian Air Force.

[16] R.K. Pal, Sentinels of the Sky, (New Delhi, 1999), p 26.

[17] B. Kumar, An Incredible war, ( New Delhi, 2007), p 53.

[18] M.Edwards, Spitfire Singh, (New Delhi, 2016), p 321.

[19] http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Aircraft/History/927-B24.html, accessed 10.1.2017.

[20] http://warbirds.in/ovb24/227-consolidated-b24-liberator.html accessed 10.1.2017.

[21] V. Seth, The Flying Machines, (New Delhi, 2000), p 39.

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New reviews: Lincoln, Enlightenment lawyers, sleep and abbots

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healeWe start this week with Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union by Daniel Crofts. Phillip Magness and the author discuss a book which carefully grounds Lincoln’s presidency in evidence (no. 2063, with response here).

Then we turn to Karen Baston’s Charles Areskine’s Library: Lawyers and their Books at the Dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment, as Alexander Murdoch praises a profoundly scholarly study that reflects on the impact of Enlightenment culture (no. 2062).

Next up is Sleep in Early Modern England by Sasha Handley. Olivia Weisser reviews a valuable book that shows how something as routine as sleep can open a window onto the physical, spiritual, and emotional lives of the past (no. 2061).

Finally , we have Martin Heale’s The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England. Katherine Harvey admires the broad scope, deep learning, and provocative conclusions of this ambitious book (no. 2060).

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New reviews: C of E historians, East German memory, Irish biography and medieval Ravenna

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stubbs

William Stubbs, English historian and Anglican bishop.

We commence this issue with a review of James Kirby’s Historians and the Church of England. Alexander Hutton and the author discuss a rewarding, diligent, and empathetic excursion into a lost world of Victorian intellectual history (no. 2059, with response here).

Next up is Amnesiopolis: Modernity, Space and Memory in East Germany by Eli Rubin, and Jörg Arnold believes Eli Rubin has written a wonderfully inspiring study which will be of great interest to social and cultural historians of the GDR (no. 2058).

Then we turn to Padraig Lenihan’s The Last Cavalier: Richard Talbot (1631-91). John Cronin belatedly reviews a book which succeeds in giving us a more rounded and nuanced understanding of its subject (no. 2057).

Finally we have Ravenna: its role in earlier medieval change and exchange, edited by Janet Nelson and Judith Herrin, which Ross Balzaretti praises as a collection that challenges the myth of Ravenna’s early medieval decline and does so in great style (no. 2056).

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New reviews: Civil War moderates, pre-industrial local history, disability and Algeria

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everett350x350

Edward ‘laugh a minute’ Everett

First up this week we have Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett by Matthew Mason. Daniel Crofts and the author discuss a timely biography depicting a persistent moderate who deplored North-South sectional polarization (no. 2055, with response here).

Then we turn to The Grass Roots of English History: Local Societies before the Industrial Revolution by David Hey, as Richard Hoyle reviews a very personal vision of what local history might be, the outcome of a lifetime’s reading, thinking, teaching and writing (no. 2054).

Next up is Jameel Hampton’s Disability and the Welfare State in Britain. Chloe Trainor praises a valuable contribution both to the historiography of the welfare state, and disabled people more generally (no. 2053).

Finally we turn to Sung-Eun Choi’s Decolonization and the French of Algeria: Bringing the Settler Colony Home. Kelsey Suggitt believes students and established scholars alike will find this a useful resource, particularly in terms of studying decolonization (no. 2052).

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New reviews: Civil War, Mass Observation, Indian railways and parliamentary papers

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lincolndouglasWe start this week with The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil war and the Remaking of the American Middle Border by Christopher Phillips. Robert Cook and the author discuss a book which is essential reading for anyone interested in the American Civil War and its unforeseen consequences (no. 2051, with response here).

Next up is James Hinton’s Seven Lives from Mass Observation, which David Kilgannon believes will serve as an exemplary model for future historians of social history, Mass Observation and the latter half of 20th-century Britain (no. 2050).

Then we turn to Tracks of Change: Railways and Everyday Life in Colonial India by Ritika Prasad, and Aparajita Mukhopadhyay praises a book which deserves a wide audience and is a valuable addition to social historiography of Indian railways (no. 2049).

Finally, the IHR’s very own Kate Wilcox  reviews Pro-quest’s UK Parliamentary Papers: House of Commons, which she recommends as being an immensely powerful and wide-ranging tool for research (no. 2048).

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New reviews: online manuscripts, slave relations, WW1 and Mughal secretaries

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gerwarthWe start this week with a review of a digital resource from Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute, Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000-1500, with Hannah Lilley and the editors debating a useful starting point for researchers of medieval textual culture (no. 2047, with response here).

Next up is Sergio A. Lussana’s My Brother Slaves: Friendship, Masculinity, and Resistance in the Antebellum South. Craig Friend and the author discuss a new book on the development of enslaved manhood and homosocial relationships (no. 2046, with response here).

Then we turn to The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 by Robert Gerwarth. Alex Burkhardt enjoys an unusually engrossing history book which invites us to rethink our assumptions about the First World War (no. 2045).

Finally Samyak Ghosh praises a well-written revisionist analysis of a literary archive, as he tackles Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary by Rajeev Kinra (no. 2044)

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Reviews in History – 20th Anniversary Special (part 3)

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accountingThis week sees our final batch of anniversary reviews, starting with Craig Muldrew’s seminal The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England. Jonathan Healey praises a brilliant and thought-provoking book, which should profoundly influence the way we feel about early modern England and its economy (no. 2043).

Next up is Crossing the Bay of Bengal by Sunil Amrith, as Madhumita Mazumdar explores the enduring significance of this masterful rendition of a difficult story with its messy edges and elusive trails (no. 2042).

Then we turn to Antoine Lilti’s The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Elena Russo and the author disagree strongly over this ambitious book, originally published in French in 2005 (no. 2041, with response here).

Finally Anjana Singh revisits a seminal book which encompasses 600 years of global history, After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405 by John Darwin (no. 2040).

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The Thought that Counts

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wiedemannThis post has kindly been written for us by Benedict G. E. Wiedemann MA (UCL), Thornley Fellow, IHR.

‘A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer’

Seneca the Younger

When is a gift not a gift? Simple. When either the giver, receiver – or even an observer – says it isn’t. They might not say so at the time of course. Imagine I gave you my old sofa. I want to get rid of it and you very kindly take it off my hands, many thanks for that, glad to see the back of it. But then – perhaps six months, perhaps a year later – I want it back. My new sofa hasn’t worked out (it gives me nasty back pains) or maybe I’m moving and my big new sofa won’t fit. So I get in touch: ‘I’m afraid I’m going to need that sofa I lent you back’. Circumstances have changed – I want the sofa again – and so how I choose to define our earlier transaction has changed too. Less facetiously, the idea of ‘contested constructions’ – points at which two parties have conflicting interpretations of what has passed between them – is vitally important to Medieval political history.

When objects pass between two people, or two groups, how we define those objects can determine the relationship between those groups. If we say that someone paid tribute then there’s a clear indication of political subservience. Rent? Well that’s an indication that the recipient has some sort of power over the payer’s land or home. Gifts? Well there’s a bit more equality there. We all know that gifts can be a way to show hierarchy (in, for example, the relative costs of gifts) but not in the same way as tribute. What we and others call these transactions – and not everyone will call them the same thing – will influence how we speak of and consider the relationship between these persons and groups.

But what about other transactions? What about tax. Can tax also be a gift? Most of us would say no: it’s not as if we have any say in whether we pay tax or not. But that wasn’t always the case. In the Middle Ages, the language of gifts was often used when describing how permission to levy a tax was granted by the people to the king. When Henry III of England needed a tax to defend the county of Poitou in 1218. His letter ordering the sheriffs to collect it explained that ‘all the magnates and faithful men of our kingdom have conceded – by their grace – a gift to be made to us’. This ‘gift’ had previously been agreed between the royal administration and a council held at Worcester. We can reasonably assume that this tax – as many taxes are – was the result of hard negotiation. It seems probable that many of the people who had to pay it – and didn’t want to – would not call it a gift but an exaction, or even theft. But it was presented as a freely-given gift from the people to the king.

Defining transactions as ‘gifts’ can therefore confer legitimacy on forced exactions. It can also flatten out any suggestion that an exchange was dishonourable. Even fantasy creatures can show such manipulative skills: at the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins gives the Elvenking a necklace of pearls in return for the king’s food which the Hobbit had eaten earlier in the book. By giving the king a gift, Bilbo repays the king for the food. But turning back a few pages we read that Bilbo had stolen the food. Considering his fellows had – at the time – been prisoners of the Elvenking, the Hobbit had surely had no intention of giving recompense for the food originally. Circumstances had changed: the Hobbits, elves, dwarfs and so on were now united and so it behoved Bilbo to present his theft as one act in a reciprocal exchange.

Such contested constructions aren’t limited to giving and receiving either. Ceremonies and rituals are fertile ground for spectators and participants to read different meanings. Philippe Buc has emphasised how the same Medieval ritual could be presented either as cementing the power of a ruler or showing his unfitness to rule, depending on whether the chronicler describing the ritual thought he was a suitable king or not. That isn’t a solely literary observation either. When King Alexander III of Scotland performed homage to Henry III of England in 1278, the English chancery implied that the homage was for all Scotland – suggesting Scotland was subservient to England – while the Scots said that it was merely for the lands which Alexander held in England, and hence showed nothing about Scotland’s status vis-à-vis England. How the ritual was interpreted affected the political relationship of these two polities, and both sides had different interpretations.

What separates this from the bread-and-butter ‘he said, she said’ of historical analysis (or criminal detection) is the agreement on the actual event: both sides took it as read that King Alexander III had performed homage, but the circumstances – the terms – of the event were debated. Equally what is interesting about contests of interpretation is less who is ‘right’, but why different people want to put forward different constructions.

But – obviously – not all interpretations are equally plausible. Indeed, in order for a particular interpretation of an event to gain traction it has to be reasonable to those hearing it. In 1139 King Roger II of Sicily needed Pope Innocent II to confirm his royal title. It had earlier been confirmed by Innocent’s rival pope, Anacletus II, but Anacletus’ party had been defeated so Roger needed the winning pope’s approval. Considering Roger’s support for his enemies, Innocent was not disposed to look kindly on him. In fact they went to war. This was a poor choice on Innocent’s part. The pope was captured and Roger forced Innocent to recognize Roger’s title. The chroniclers did not all record the following events in the same way.

Falcone of Benevento explained that Innocent did confirm Roger’s kingship, after ‘the king […] sent envoys to Pope Innocent […] begging him more humbly than one would have thought possible to grant him the hand of peace and concord’. Then Roger ‘and his sons the duke and prince came into the pope’s presence, flung themselves at his feet and begged for mercy, and bowed to his authority’. The author of Pope Innocent’s biography – who was a cardinal – simply skated over the whole event, however. No mention was made of the events of 1139 at all. Presumably the biographer did not see any way to make Innocent’s humiliation – being captured by Roger and forced to accede to his demands – less. Even if he had done what Falcone had done, and emphasised how humble Roger was, it still wouldn’t alter the fact that Roger had beaten Innocent and captured him. The biographer could not simply deny this had happened, or put forward a radically different interpretation with no basis in fact, because no reader would take it seriously. So he chose to remain silent.

Historical accounts of ceremonies, transactions and rituals reflect the concerns and aims of the author. Sometimes this might be the same as what the original participants thought, but often it isn’t. By looking at conflicting interpretations of rituals and gifts, it is possible not only to observe common features, but to see differences. These differences are – quite simply – what mattered to the people who wrote, and constructed, and observed these events and exchanges. Their conflicting interpretations tell us what was important.

Further Reading:

  • Buc, ‘Ritual and interpretation: the early medieval case’, Early Medieval Europe 9 (2000), pp. 183-210.
  • Algazi, ‘Introduction: doing things with gifts’, in G. Algazi, V. Groebner, B. Jussen, eds., Negotiating the Gift: Pre-Modern Figurations of Exchange (Göttingen, 2003), pp. 9-27.
  • Weiler, ‘Knighting, homage and the meaning of ritual: The kings of England and their neighbours in the thirteenth century’, Viator 37 (2006), pp. 275-99.

 

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