We begin this week with Recasting the Region: Language, Culture and Islam in Colonial Bengal by Neilesh Bose. Markus Daechsel and the author discuss an encyclopedic and important study (no. 1871, with response here).
Then we turn to Benjamin Pohl’s Dudo of St Quentin’s Historia Normannorum: History, Tradition and Memory. Elisabeth van Houts recommends an impressive debut from a medievalist of considerable talent (no. 1870).
Next up is The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution, edited by Dave Andress, as Anne Byrne praises a convenient and scholarly starting-point for many different aspects of this turbulent epoch (no. 1869).
Finally Jess Prestidge reviews an original, thoroughly researched and highly readable addition to studies of Thatcher and Thatcherism, as she takes on God and Mrs Thatcher: The Battle for Britain’s Soul by Eliza Filby (no. 1868).
On 21 November, we held two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester as part of the Being Human Festival. We did a lot of promotion of these events beforehand so we thought we should tell you how they went. An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. These particular edit-a-thons were centred on local history and you can read about how we connected our theme with the overall Being Human Festival theme of “Hidden and Revealed” here. You can also read the story of the day via social media.
My colleagues Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from Victoria County History (VCH), Jordan Landes from Senate House Library and I were all at the London event. Our Wikimedia UK accredited trainer was Edward Hands, and fellow trainer Jonathan Cardy was also there to lend a hand. The wonderful thing about Wikimedia trainers is that they are volunteers, so we are very grateful to Edward and Jonathan for coming along and teaching our attendees to edit Wikipedia. Overall, we were twenty-one people at the London event. We had a great mix of experienced Wikipedia editors and complete novices. The experienced editors were able to help the novices throughout the day.
The first half of the day was devoted to learning how to edit Wikipedia, especially how to make edits that will last—the secret is to provide references for all the additions you make to Wikipedia. Once they’d been trained, our attendees tried their hands at making some edits.
After lunch, VCH editor and training co-ordinator Adam Chapman gave attendees a quick introduction to the VCH, explaining the historical context of the project and how the volumes are organised. I followed by showing attendees how they could use British History Online (BHO) to search and read VCH, along with many other sources of local history. Since providing references is such a vital part to creating strong Wikipedia edits, we wanted our attendees to know about the rich resources that they can rely on when writing and improving Wikipedia articles, especially those resources that are freely accessible on BHO.
Here’s a list of the articles worked on just by the London attendees:
As for the Leicester event, they had ten people in total, including Pam Fisher from the Leicestershire VCH Trust, who helped us organise the Leicester branch. From the feedback we’ve received, it sounds like the Leicester event was just as much fun and just as productive as the London event. Their trainers were Doug Taylor and Roger Bamkin, who both did an excellent job. The only negative feedback we received is that the day should have been longer!
Overall, we all had a productive day, learned lots of new things and met some wonderful people. Thanks to everyone who helped with organisation, promotion and training. And thanks to all our attendees for making it such a great day.
We start with the aforementioned History of Drinking: The Scottish Pub Since 1700 by Anthony Cooke, as Callum Brown and the author discuss a well-written account of the commerce, sociability and drinking communities of the country (no. 1867, with response here).
Next up is John Van Atta’s Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819-1821. Matthew Mason recommends an outstanding one-volume introduction to the Missouri Crisis and Compromises (no. 1866).
Then we turn to The Logic of Political Conflict in Medieval Cities: Italy and the Southern Low Countries, 1370-1440 by Patrick Lantschner, as Laura Crombie praises a book which offers a new political account of the later Middle Ages (no. 1865).
Finally Thomas Colville reviews an engaging but flawed longue durée history of science, Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World: the Discovery of Modern Science (no. 1864).
We start this week with Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West by Phillipe Buc, as Cecilia Gaposchkin and the author debate an enormously ambitious book (no. 1863, with response here).
Then we have another in our occasional podcast series, with Daniel Snowman talking to Peter Burke about the latter’s career and forthcoming book, What is the History of Knowledge? (no. 1862)
Next up is Stalin’s Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov by Boris Volodarsky. Andrei Znamenski recommends an erudite and meticulously researched study (no. 1861).
Finally Josh Ehrlich believes Barbarism and Religion: Volume 6, Barbarism: Triumph in the West by J. G. A. Pocock represents as monumental an achievement as could be hoped for from any historian in any age (no. 1860).
We start this week with Michael Johnston’s Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England, as Katie Bridger and the author discuss an insightful, fascinating contribution to our understanding of the world of the gentry (no. 1859, with response here).
Then we have a great interview by Jordan Landes with Elizabeth Williams, talking about her most recent book, The Politics of Race in Britain and South Africa, which examines British support for the anti-apartheid movement among its own black communities (no. 1858).
Next is The Crisis of British Protestantism: Church Power in the Puritan Revolution, 1638–44 by Hunter Powell. James Mawdesley praises a fine work of scholarship, which will surely become essential reading for those investigating the religious politics of the British Isles at a critical moment in their histories (no. 1857).
Finally we have Lily Geismer’s Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, and Patrick Andelic believes this timely, original and richly detailed book should be required reading for all those seeking to understand the modern Democratic Party (no. 1856).
I usually get my ideas for posts about BBIH and its contents from external sources and recently received two such prompts. The Guardian ran an article on the teaching of black history where the questions, Did black immigrants come through Ellis Island? Were there black cowboys? Where did the free black men in New Amsterdam live? were asked and the author felt that black history (in an American context) was confined to slavery, the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. This article was followed by another, from a British perspective which argued for a different approach to black history.
Quite by chance a number of articles and books came to my attention, hopefully offering examples of these different approaches.
While not covering black cowboys, and certainly straying into slavery territory, the biography, The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier, introduces Ned Tarr, a blacksmith and landowner in Virginia. Tarr purchased his freedom and moved to Virginia setting up a blacksmith business and became the first black landowner west of the Blue Ridge. He married a Scottish woman, an interracial relationship that seems to have been accepted by his neighbours, and went on to found a Presbyterian congregation. However his late master’s son attempted to re-enslave him and Tarr had to defend his freedom in court.
Moving to the middle of the eighteenth century, a shift in the artistic representation of black people became perceptible in England: a theme explored in Bridging the Gap between Self and Other? Pictorial Representation of Blacks in England. The examples used are, Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho (1768), Joseph Wright of Derby’s Two Girls with a Black Servant or A Conversation of Girls (1769), Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Omai (1776), and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778). Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho shows a gentleman as well as a man of feeling, while Wright of Derby’s Two Girls with a Black Servant hints at a possible equality between the children.
While demonstrating Connected Histories to some students I happened upon the Old Bailey online entry for JOHN MARTIN “(a negro) was indicted for stealing two cloth coats…” and other clothes from “…the property of John Turnbull, in his dwelling-house, May the 18th .” 
What intrigued me was his punishment – “Transported for 7 Years to the Coast of Africa, 1. John Martin”, while others, presumably white criminals, were “-Transported for 7 years to America, 6. John Burgess, Joseph Barnsley, Ann Thomas, Thomas Winton , John White , and William Bradbury”. The intrigue is that Martin was sent to Africa and the others to America, itself in the throes of the War of Independence. How I wonder did Martin fare in Africa, a continent he may never have seen, and what would his life have been if he had been sent to the American Colonies, soon to be the USA – would he have escaped and been free or enslaved?
Taking us up to the present are a number of books and an article. “Black Migrants, White Queers and the Archive of Inclusion in Postwar London” examines the historical concurrence of West Indian migration to Britain and the increase in discourses around British homosexuality in the 1950s and 60s, using, amongst other sources, an oral history by a gay Jamaican dancer who migrated to London in 1948.
There is still time to sign up for one of our Being Human edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November.
As part of the Being Human Festival, British History Online (BHO), Senate House Library (SHL) and Victoria County History (VCH) will be leading two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November. An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. We will provide training in editing Wikipedia and no prior experience is necessary. The theme of our edit-a-thons will be local history, which will involve both editing articles about particular places, but also editing articles about the practice of local history in the UK.
The idea to have a local history Wikipedia edit-a-thon first occurred to us when we had a Wikipedia training session at the IHR way back in March. Our trainer was Edwardx (who conveniently will also be the London trainer for this coming edit-a-thon) and during our session we were amazed at how easy the process of editing and improving Wikipedia articles was after a little bit of training. Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from VCH were thinking of ways they could improve articles about various aspects of local history, and I was thinking about how to encourage more editors to consult BHO since Wikipedia encourages citing online, accessible materials where possible. Following the session, the three of us agreed that the theme of local history would an interesting one for an edit-a-thon. We envisioned local historians, Wikipedia editors, students and academics all coming together and learning from each other. The Being Human Festival, with its focus on the humanities’ ability to inspire and enrich our everyday lives, seemed like a natural fit for the event we were dreaming up. Jordan Landes, the history librarian at SHL, had organised the initial training for us and kindly offered to help facilitate the edit-a-thon. Soon we were partnering with a team in Leicester, and taking the edit-a-thon beyond our immediate vicinity and bringing it to a national scale.
We’ll admit we were slightly stumped about whether our events would relate to this year’s Being Human Festival theme, “Hidden and Revealed.” But we quickly realised that the goal of revealing is already behind the work that we do.
We believe local history should be cared for and preserved in archives, but it should not remain there. It is our communal responsibility to study history, to learn from it and to share it. With the VCH volumes, authors comb local archives and untangle the history of places in order to present those histories to the public in the form of the VCH red books. What is that if not a process of revelation? They take something that might not be hidden per se but rather, difficult to access, and reveal the history of a parish, a hundred, or a county in a clear, encyclopaedic format.
Similarly, by digitising the red books, BHO further reveals these histories by allowing VCH texts to be freely accessible from anywhere in the world. One of my responsibilities at BHO is to manage our email account, and I love receiving emails like the one from the Australian woman who found the history of the small village where her great-grandmother was born, or from the mayor who learned new things about his own town, or from the homeowners who discovered the rich history of the place where they live, or from the elderly man who is brought back to his schooldays. To all those people and many more, uncovering the history of where they come from is nothing short of a revelation.
And finally, Wikipedia—one of the most visited websites in the world—is driven by a desire to make human knowledge accessible to everyone. Wikipedia relies on source material like VCH, and BHO content is already heavily cited across the site. Wikipedia democratises the construction of knowledge by allowing articles to be edited by anyone from anywhere in the world.
So to us, the revelation of the hidden is about understanding the history of where we come from and sharing that with each other. Our goal in these events is for everyone to feel like they can participate in the creation of their own history. One thing I have learned since being at BHO is that British history is never only British; and local history is never only local. We are connected on a global level and we share a global history, which might begin with the local but it never stays there.
We start with The Text and the World: The Henryków Book, Its Authors, and their Region, 1160-1310 by Piotr S. Gorecki. Shami Ghosh and the author discuss a work which succeeds magnificently in providing a history of a European monastic institution that serves as an example of European history within a larger, overarching framework (no. 1855, with response here).
Next up is John Richard Moores’ Representations of France in English Satirical Prints 1740-1832, and James Baker finds much to recommend in this lively volume (no. 1854).
We then turn to Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World by Luke A. Nichter. Robert Ledger believes this to be an excellent study of the transatlantic relationship during this period and a fine addition to the historiography of the Nixon Presidency (no. 1853, with response here).
Finally we have a review article on the origins of the landscape of Paris by Anthony Nardini, covering Planning the Greenspaces of Nineteenth-Century Paris by Richard S. Hopkins and How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean (no. 1852).
Much of our cultural heritage owes a large debt of thanks to private collectors of manuscripts, incunabula and printed material; to those individuals who were interested in the accumulation of knowledge and the preservation of our literary history, and who saw fit to pass on their acquisitions for the foundation of libraries. One of the most well-known book collectors is Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose vast collection of manuscripts include the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Beowulf and Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which now form a vital core of the British Library collection and are listed in the Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library. Although his habit of disbanding precious manuscripts and rebinding them as he saw fit may seem an act of vandalism to us today, there is no doubt that without his legacy our book history would be far less impressive (even if the odd fire did somewhat deplete stock!).
Another famous private collector of the early modern period was Thomas Bodley (1545-1613). In the collected volume Books and and Collectors 1200-1700we can learn more about the process of acquiring precious books in the chapter Sir ThomasBodley‘s library and its acquisitions : an edition of the Nottingham benefaction of 1604, with letters from Bodley to his librarian providing clear evidence of his desperation to gain possession of new stock. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury (1559-75) was also a voracious collector of manuscripts, and MatthewParker‘s manuscripts : an Elizabethan library and its usegives a fascinating account of how he developed and interacted with his private collection.
However, while it is undeniable that the libraries of Cotton, Bodley and Archbishop Parker are invaluable, they all derive from the elite classes, born into privileged positions with disposable incomes that allowed them to amass vast collections in huge private houses. But what of those from more humbler origins? In Common Libraries in Fifteenth-Century England: An Episcopal Benediction, we learn of the earliest book collections being made freely available to the wider public. The very first civic library was Guildhall Library in London and was founded between 1423-1425, largely due to capital from the estate of Richard Whittington, (who, as we remember from childhood stories was four-times Lord Mayor of London), and was founded partly from the private collection of John Carpenter. There were also accessible libraries founded at Worcester, Bristol and possibly Norwich during the fifteenth-century. However, these libraries were all developed with a strong ecclesiastical bent, designed to inform and reform, and often run by members of the clergy. While these book collections were freely available for everyone, it is likely that it would only be the more educated citizens that made use of them, and even then the texts were carefully selected by religious authorities.
So what did ordinary people read? Was book ownership something strictly reserved for the wealthy classes and the ecclesiastical community in early modern times, or were the common people encouraged to foster reading habits? In the medieval period, manuscripts were laboriously made from parchment and painstakingly handwritten, which could take months to complete, and therefore were unlikely to be found in ordinary homes. Yet even after the birth of the printing press in the mid-15th century, books continued to be a valuable commodity, although as we can see in the article“Ovid with a Littleton” : the cost of English books in the early seventeenth century,the real cost of printed material is a complicated business, and even by the 1630s, only a handful of people owned more than a hundred books. (Although, despite literacy levels being an area difficult to judge, it is clear from A historyofBritishpublishingthat reading standards improved dramatically in this period, largely due to the growth of the book trade.)
However, we get a tantalising glimpse into how ordinary people assimilated books into their everyday lives in a fascinating article called Libraries of the “common sort”. Despite a woeful inadequacy in evidence, largely due to the ephemeral nature of cheaply printed items, through probate records we learn of certain individuals who clearly spent part of their limited income on the collection of books. Most pleasing is the forest labourer William Bane, who died in 1614, leaving in his single room his tools, a few items of furniture, writing implements and a small library of books worth 10s. Unfortunately we do not know the titles of the books, but we also learn of John Tayer, a shoemaker, whose account book from 1627 list a wide variety of titles in his ownership, including travel books, almanacs and tomes on spirituality. Accounts such as these provide a vital window into the reading habits of everyday people, who may be too often dismissed as illiterate labourers. Book ownership revealed in Norfolk probate inventoriesprovides further evidence of book ownership across the classes, with more information on the types of books held and, interestingly, where they were kept in the house.
Another area less documented is that of women’s private collections. The Library of Mrs Elizabeth Vesey 1715-91, the woman who part-founded the Bluestocking movement, provides a comprehensive list of the tracts that were integral to herself and her circle. ‘I can’t resist sending you the book’: Private Libraries, Elite Women, and Shared Reading Practices in Georgian Britainis about the library of Elizabeth Rose and her female friends, who actively sought out copies of books and formed an informal network of lending from their private libraries. Through the enthusiasm of these female readers, new ideas on female education and child rearing were able to disseminate to a wider audience. It also highlights how loaning from private libraries could strengthen relations between the privileged and less privileged.
Which brings me neatly onto the next resource,Servants’ reading : an examination of the Servants’ Library at Cragside,a rare example of a nineteenth-century library provided in a country home for the use of the servants. The surviving collection is made up of an eclectic mix of novels, periodicals and non-fiction; some, such as Charles Loudon Bloxham’s ‘Laboratory teaching, or, progressive exercises in practical chemistry’, suggesting that the servants library may have been a receptacle for books not required anywhere else. Although the library indicates no particular learning towards self-improvement, the fact that it exists at all is heartening, and though rare, was not unique. Further research on book ownership in the nineteenth-century is presented in Beyond Bibliophilia: Contextualizing Private Libraries in the Nineteenth Century, a recently published article exploring the complex relationship that develops between owners and their books.
From the resources mentioned, it seems that whether rich or poor, private collections of books have been an important part of people’s lives since the late medieval times, and although the generous legacies of wealthy gentlemen are more relevant than ever to our libraries, it is the image of the humble labourer William Bain, sitting in his sparsely furnished room and reading by candlelight after a hard day’s work, that is all the more pleasing.
As usual, all relevant material can be found in the Bibliography of British and Irish History. To find our most up-to-date resources on the subject, use the index term ‘Private libraries’ to explore further:
We then turn to Render unto the Sultan: Power, Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church in the early Ottoman Centuries by Tom Papademetriou, and Jonathan Harris tackles a book with a credible new thesis, but which contains significant methodological flaws (no 1851).
Next up is Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, all the while being Dead by Andrew Burstein. David Houpt reviews an interesting and relevant analysis of the politics of historical memory (no. 1850).
Steve Cushion then discusses two very different books on modern Cuba, as he reviews Revolutionary Cuba: A History by Luis Martínez Fernández and Leadership in the Cuban Revolution: The Unseen Story by Antoni Kapcia (no. 1849, with response here).
Finally we have Dressing the Part: Textiles as Propaganda in the Middle Ages, edited by Kate Dimitrova and Margaret Goehring. Janet Snyder believes that despite some structural drawbacks, this collection is an important publication (no. 1848).