Ahead of the forthcoming IHR Winter Conference: Civil Wars, the IHR Library has acquired new works documenting the on-going conflict in Syria and the wider refugee crisis it has sparked. The Syrian Civil War is now in its sixth year, prompting consideration of the term ‘civil war’ itself and whether the term still holds value for historians. The conference will therefore question the conceptualisation and language of civil discord, asking ‘do civil wars share certain features or is this a term of art that obscures the uniqueness of each historical situation?’ With this question in mind, details of two of the latest acquisitions to the IHR Library that provide unique, individual perspectives on the Syrian Civil War are outlined below.
This work details the journey of Nujeen Mustafa, a young woman born with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, as she travels from Syria to Europe as a refugee. The account describes the perils of such a journey, however these harrowing details are interspersed with Mustafa’s deeply personal observations, humour and optimism – as such the memoir lends the refugee crisis and the history of the Syrian civil war a human face. As Mustafa asserts, ‘the year 2015 was when I became a fact, a statistic, a number. Much as I like facts, we are not numbers, we are human beings and we all have stories. This is mine.’
Similarly, the memoir describes the final stages of Mustafa’s crossing to Europe in vivid detail noting, for example that, ‘the beach was not sandy as I had imagined it would be but pebbly – impossible for my wheelchair.’ In addition, Mustafa obliquely reflects on the wider refugee crisis and provides a reminder that each refugee has their own individual story. She comments, ‘I knew the sea only from National Geographic documentaries and now it was as if I was part of one… Some people swapped stories but most didn’t say much. They didn’t need to. To be leaving all you knew and had built up in your own country to make this dangerous and uncertain journey, it must be bad.’
Wolfgang Bauer’s work also documents the journey undertaken by Syrian refugees from Egypt to Europe through first-hand accounts. A journalist by trade, Bauer posed as an English teacher in order to witness the refugee crisis and report on all stages of the crossing to Europe. Thus the volume, and the series of photographs by Stanislav Krupar contained within it, highlights individual stories from both the civil war and the refugee crisis.
Bauer writes, ‘in April 2014, photographer Stanislav Krupar and I joined a group of Syrian refugees trying to get across the sea from Egypt to Italy. We put ourselves in the hands of people smugglers who have no idea that we are journalists. That’s why we get herded forward with sticks like the rest…Only Amar and his family know who we really are. He is an old friend from my time reporting on the Syrian civil war. It was desperation that drove him here; he dreams of living in Germany. He will translate and interpret for us along the way. We have grown long beards and adopted new identities. For this journey, we are English teachers Varj and Servat, two refugees from a republic in the Caucasus. We are now part of the great exodus.’
In addition to these newly acquired works, the Library also holds journal articles on the civil war, for example Salwa Ismail’s ‘The Syrian Uprising: Imagining and Performing the Nation’, in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 11, No.3, (2011). Professor Ismail will speak on ‘The Civil War in Syria‘ at the IHR’s Winter Conference. The Library also has electronic access to Human Rights Watch Report, No Room to Breathe: state repression of human rights activism in Syria, Vol. 19, (2007). However, please note that some electronic articles and resources are only available onsite from library PCs, with offsite access limited to staff and students of the IHR due to current licencing restrictions. More information on the library’s electronic holdings is available here.
The IHR Library’s collections will continue to expand as new memoirs and testimonies from the on-going Syrian conflict emerge. Whilst such contemporary materials would not normally fall within the library’s collection profile, the Library has decided to selectively acquire material due to the historical importance of the current crisis. These invaluable sources will enable historians to question not only the ‘uniqueness’ of the civil war, but also to give voice to individual narratives caught up in a conflict that shows no sign of abating.
We 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)
The Syrian Civil War is now in its 6th year. It prompts a consideration of the nature of civil wars in general and the term ‘civil war’ itself. Is it a helpful label when considering events as different as the English and French Revolutions (both of which have been called civil wars), the American Civil War of the 1860s, the Russian Civil War after the 1917 Revolution, and the events in Spain in the 1930s? Do Civil Wars share certain features or is this a term of art that obscures the uniqueness of each separate historical situation? This conference will question the conceptualisation and language of civil discord.
Professor Salwa Ismail (SOAS)
Professor David Parrott (University of Oxford)
Professor Alan Forrest (University of York)
Dr Adam Smith (UCL)
Professor Orlando Figes (Birkbeck College)
Professor Paul Preston (LSE)
For the preliminary conference programme, please click here.
Full fee: £35
Student/unwaged/retired/ IHR Friend: £25
(Includes all refreshment breaks and lunches)
Register online now
The Winter Conference 2017 will be proceeded by the IHR Historical Research Plenary Lecture (sponsored by Wiley) on the 19 January 2017 at 6pm in the Wolfson Conference Suite. Professor John Morrill (University of Cambridge) will give a talk on The English Revolution as a Civil War. This event is free to attend but registration is required. Register online nowhere.
This 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).
As the year is drawing to an end, we thought we would compile a selection of the most interesting articles and books we have come across over the course of 2016. Some of them are amusing, some of them are touching, and some of them are downright disturbing, but we think that they represent the wide range of material that we cover in the Bibliography.
(The articles have been ranked chronologically and do not represent any favouritism on the part of the editors)
1. Off to a flying start, we have ‘Human Flight in Early Medieval England: Reality, Reliability, and Mythmaking (or Science and Fiction)’ an article by James Paz inNew Medieval Literatures about Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk. Supposedly, inspired by the story of Icarus, he took to the skies with some homemade wings, launching himself from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. Incredibly, he lived to tell the tale, and after gliding for a full furlong, landed almost intact, merely suffering two broken legs. The article examines the mythology surrounding the story, examining early medieval technology and questions whether there may be some truth in the tale.
4. At number four, we have a collective volume, ‘The Senses in Early Modern England : 1558-1660’, edited by Simon Smith, Jackie Watson and Amy Kenny. The essays cover a wide range of genres such as literature, drama and art, considering each of the five senses and examining how the sensory experience enhanced reactions to cultural life. Chapter headings such as ‘Thou art like a punie-Barber (new come to the trade) thou pick’st our eares too deepe’: barbery, ear-wax and snip-snaps’ throw an interesting light on early modern art and life.
6. Our sixth article ‘Shattered Minds: Madmen on the Railways, 1860–80’ also taps into the Victorian fascination with lunacy. In theJournal of Victorian Culture, Amy Milne-Smith describes the moral panic that ensued from a number of newspaper reports that travelling on the newly constructed railways could induce insanity among men. Although fear of train crashes may have been a reasonable anxiety, there was also a concern that perfectly sane men could go mad when faced with modern, industrialized culture. Milne-Smith discusses the attitudes towards the fragility of the mental health of the Victorian male in this fascinating article.
7. A festive theme for number seven, titled ‘The Christmas Truce : Myth, Memory, and the First World War’ is a book by Terri Blom Crocker, analysing the truces between German and Allied troops in the trenches in the First World War. Rather than being unofficial and defiant affairs, Crocker provides evidence that the ceasefires were supported by senior officers, and charts how the 1914 truces have been mythologised as heart-warming tales with little regard for the actual truth.
8. ‘Antipathy to Ambivalence: Politics and Women Police in Sussex, 1915–45’ by Derek Oakensen is our choice for number eight, featured in Sussex Archaelogical Collection. The article focusses on women’s changing role in society after the suffrage movement and the upheaval of the First World War, and whether this created greater opportunities in Sussex for women wanting to join the police force. Women patrolling the streets was a serious change to the status quo, and Oakensen argues that due to the ambivalence and disjointed structure of the senior police force, women’s roles within the police force were not clearly defined until after 1945.
9. Departing from authority and moving onto a botanical theme, at number nine is ‘Deceived by Orchids: Sex, Science, Fiction and Darwin’ by Jim Endersby. Published in The British Journal for the History of Science, this interesting article discusses pseudocopulation (the biological trick plants play on male insects, pretending to be female insects to entice the male to mate, thereby enabling the spread of pollen from flower to flower), a phenomenon that earlier natural scientists such as Darwin had failed to spot, assuming that plants were passive. However, as part of to the infiltration of science into mainstream culture, writers such as Grant Allen and H.G.Wells portrayed plants in a new way, as having identities equipped with the means to pursue their own survival. It was these literary innovations in the depiction of plants which enabled early twentieth century scientists to make the conceptual leap to understand plants as active agents, and helped them further unlock their biological secrets.
This 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.
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.
Works on economic history abound within the library and it is hoped a new collection guide on the subject will indicate the range of material we have here and help readers locate specific works that may be of use to their research. The bulk of the guide comprises of an overview showcasing some of the works we have here in the library. These include some of our bibliographic resources, works on the historiography of economic history, reference works and editions of published statistics as well as a selection of items on a range of topics from banking and finance, international trade, to even whaling and the fishing industry (during the course of writing this guide I discovered that a particular strength of the library’s collections is agriculture history, especially for Britain and Ireland).
As well as the overview there are details of the University of London theses relevant to economic history we have, as well as the electronic resources you can access from within the library.
We start off this week with Thomas Munck’s The Enlightenment as Modernity: Jonathan Israel’s Interpretation Across Two Decades, as he and the author discuss 20 years of work on the Enlightenment and the origins of modern concepts of democracy, equality and freedom (no. 2039, with response here).
Next up is John Iliffe’s The African AIDS epidemic: a history. Annamarie Bindenagel Šehović returns to a book which remains a cornerstone of literature in understanding the African AIDS epidemic, providing rich contextual detail and giving voice to human experience (no. 2038).
Then we turn to Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II by John Dower. Martyn Smith revisits a richly researched, beautifully illustrated and elegantly written account of the period of the US-led occupation of Japan (no. 2037).
Finally we have Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Tom Lawson asks if this book succeeded in its author’s aim to change our understanding of the Bloodlands (no. 2036).
The Victoria County History (VCH) project has just appointed a new editor, Professor Angus Winchester from Lancaster University. Brush any ‘waxed jackets’ notions of county aside because this august body publishes historical reference works on English counties – it has a long and illustrious history of its own – and is coordinated by the Institute of Historical Research.
Part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, the VCH’s scholarly volumes are based on original research. Professor Winchester brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the mix, including his own contribution to the study of landscape history which has been to open up the hitherto little-researched history of the landscape of upland, pastoral Britain.
The VCH is an important resource for county and local historians as well as anyone researching genealogy and family history. Professor Winchester, who honed his local historian skills while an assistant editor with the VCH in Shropshire and as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool in the 1980s, will lead an initiative that has been built into a national treasure over 117 years and is without parallel. He has also been a member of the VCH National Advisory Board since 2007.
‘Having been associated with the VCH for so long, it is an honour to step into this role’, says Professor Winchester: ‘I look forward to working with colleagues in the Institute of Historical Research and with the wider local history community across the country, as the VCH moves forward in the changing world of local history research and publishing in the 21st century.’
Using his expertise in landscape history, Professor Winchester co-led a major Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, ‘Contested common land: environmental governance, law and sustainable land management c.1600-2006’. This was an interdisciplinary study, linking environmental history and environmental law, and has contributed to current policy debates on the future management of common land.
Since 2010 Professor Winchester has taken the lead in reviving work for the VCH in Cumbria, developing a volunteer-based project under the auspices of the Cumbria County History Trust. He has written and edited several books and scholarly editions including two major 17th-century works on Cumbria, and wrote the history of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society for its 150th anniversary in 2016.
He retains a strong interest in local history communities. He has served as president and chairman of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. He is also founding president of Cumbria’s Lorton and Derwentfells Local History Society and, in 2014, set up Lancaster University’s Regional Heritage Centre.
‘The Institute of Historical Research and the whole community of VCH historians and supporters is delighted that Angus Winchester will be the next Editor’, says Professor Lawrence Goldman, Director of the IHR. ‘He brings to the VCH a wealth of experience in local history, great knowledge of the VCH itself, and a formidable reputation as a historian of the medieval and early modern British landscape and environment. We all look forward to working with him.’
Notes to Editors
For all enquiries, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Institute of Historical Research was founded in 1921 and is one of nine institutes that comprise the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. The Institute’s mission is to promote the study of history and an appreciation of the importance of the past among academics and the general public. It offers a wide range of services both onsite and remotely which promote and facilitate excellence in historical research, teaching and scholarship in the UK, by means of its library, events programmes, fellowships, training and publications. It is a leading centre for the creation of digital resources for historians, and promotes the study of London history through its Centre for Metropolitan History and the Victoria County History.
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This post was written by Penelope Corfield, and originally appeared on her monthly blog.
When remembering my colleague Conrad Russell (1937-2004),1 the first thing that comes to mind is his utterly distinctive presence. He was an English eccentric, in full and unselfconscious bloom. In person, Conrad was tall, latterly with something of a scholar’s stoop, and always with bright, sharp eyes. But the especially memorable thing about him was his low, grave voice (‘Conrad here’, he would intone, sepulchrally, on the phone) and his slow, very precise articulation. This stately diction, combining courtesy and erudition, gave him a tremendous impact, for those who could wait to hear him out.
He once told me that his speaking manner was something that he had consciously developed, following advice given to him in his youth by his father. In fact, given his life-long wish not to be overshadowed by his famous parent, Conrad spoke very rarely about the mathematician and public intellectual Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Conrad, the only child of Russell’s third marriage, was brought up by his mother, who lived in isolation from the rest of the family. But the eminent father had once advised his young son to formulate each sentence fully in his mind, before giving voice to each thought.2 (Not an easy thing to do). The suggestion evidently appealed to something deep within Conrad, for he embraced the slow, stately style from his youth and maintained it throughout his lifetime.
One result was that a proportion of his students, initially at London University’s Bedford College (as it then was),3 were terrified by him, although another percentage found him brilliant and immensely stimulating. Only very few disliked him. Conrad was manifestly a kindly person. He didn’t seek to score points or consciously to attract attention as an eccentric. Yet his emphatic speaking style, laced with erudite references to English politics in the 1620s, and witticisms with punch-lines in Latin, could come as a shock to undergraduates. Especially as Conrad did not just speak ‘at’ people. He wanted replies to his questions, and hoped for laughter following his jests.
Because he thought carefully before speaking, he was also wont to preface his remarks with a little exclamation, ‘Em …’, to establish his intention of contributing to the conversation, always followed by a Pinteresque pause. That technique worked well enough in some contexts. However, when Conrad took up a prestigious academic post at Yale University (1979-84), a number of his American students protested that they could not understand him. And in a society with a cultural horror of silence, Conrad’s deliberative pauses were often filled by instant chatter from others, unintentionally ousting him from the discussion. A very English figure, he admitted ruefully that he was not psychologically at ease in the USA, much as he admired his colleagues and students at Yale. Hence his relief was no secret, when he returned to the University of London, holding successive chairs at University College London (1984-90) and King’s College (1990-2003). By this time, his lecturing powers were at their full height – lucid, precise, and argumentative, all at once.
And, of course, when in 1987 he inherited his peerage as 5th Earl Russell, following the death of his half-brother, Conrad found in the House of Lords his ideal audience. They absolutely loved him. He seemed to be a voice from a bygone era, adding gravitas to every debate in which he participated. Recently, I wondered how far Conrad was reproducing his father’s spoken style, as a scion of the intellectual aristocracy in the later nineteenth century. But a check via YouTube dispelled that thought.4 There were some similarities, in that both spoke clearly and with authority. Yet Bertrand Russell’s voice was more high-pitched and his style more insouciant than that of his youngest child.
The second unmistakable feature of Conrad’s personality and intellect was his literal-mindedness. He treated every passing comment with complete seriousness. As a result, he had no small talk. His lifeline to the social world was his wife Elizabeth (née Sanders), a former student and fellow historian whom he married in 1962. She shared Conrad’s intellectual interests but was also a fluent conversationalist. At parties, Elizabeth would appear in the heart of a crowd, wielding a cigarette and speaking vivaciously. Conrad meanwhile would stand close behind her, his head slightly inclined and nodding benignly. They were well matched, remaining devoted to one another.
Fig.1 Conrad and Elizabeth Russell on the stump for Labour in Paddington South (March 1966).
My own experience of Conrad’s literal-mindedness came from an occasion when we jointly interviewed a potential candidate for an undergraduate place in the History Department at Bedford College. (That was in the 1970s, before individual interviews were replaced by generic Open Days). A flustered candidate came in late, apologising that the trains were delayed. Within moments, Conrad was engaging her in an intense discussion about the running of a nationalised rail service (as British Rail then was) and the right amounts of subsidy that it should get as a proportion of GDP. The candidate gamely rallied, and did her best. But her stricken visage silently screamed: ‘all I did was mention that the train was late’.
After a while, I asked if she’d like to talk about the historical period that she was studying for A-level. Often, interview candidates became shifty at that point. On this occasion, however, my suggestion was eagerly accepted, and the candidate discoursed at some length about the financial problems of the late Tudor monarchy. Conrad was delighted with both elements of her performance; and, as we offered her a place, commented that the young were not as uninterested in complex matters of state as they were said to be. The candidate subsequently did very well – although, alas for symmetry, she did not go on to save British Rail – but I was amused at how her apparent expertise was sparked into life purely through the intensity of Conrad’s cross-questioning.
His own interest in such topical issues was part and parcel of his life-long political commitment. At that time, he was still a member of the Labour Party, having stood (unsuccessfully) as the Labour candidate for Paddington South in 1966. But Conrad was moving across the political spectrum during the 1970s. He eventually announced his shift of allegiance to the Liberals, characteristically by writing to The Times; and later, in the Lords, he took the Liberal Democrat whip. He wanted to record his change of heart, to avoid any ambiguity; and, as a Russell, he assumed that the world would want to know.
Conrad’s literalness and love of precision were qualities that made him a paradoxical historian when interrogating written documents. On the one hand, he brought a formidable focus upon the sources, shedding prior assumptions and remaining ready to challenge old interpretations. He recast seventeenth-century political and constitutional history, as one of the intellectual leaders of what became known as ‘revisionist’ history.5 He argued that there was no evidence for an inevitable clash between crown and parliament. The breakdown in their relationship, which split the MPs into divided camps, was an outcome of chance and contingency. Those were, for him, the ruling forces of history.
On the other hand, Conrad’s super-literalism led him sometimes to overlook complexities. He did not accept that people might not mean what they said – or that they might not say what they really meant at all. If the MPs declared: ‘We fear God and honour the king’, Conrad would conclude: ‘Well, there it is. They feared God and honoured the king’. Whereas one might reply, ‘Well, perhaps they were buttering up the monarch while trying to curtail his powers? And perhaps they thought it prudent not to mention that they were prepared, if need be, to fight him – especially if they thought that was God’s will’. There are often gaps within and between both words and deeds. And long-term trends are not always expressed in people’s daily language.
In case stressing his literalism and lack of small talk makes Conrad sound unduly solemn, it’s pleasant also to record a third great quality: his good humour. He was not the sort of person who had a repertoire of rollicking jokes. And his stately demeanour meant that he was not an easy man to tease. Yet, like many people who had lonely childhoods, he enjoyed the experience of being joshed by friends, chuckling agreeably when his leg was being pulled. Common jokes among the Bedford historians were directed at Conrad’s unconventional self-catered lunches (spicy sausages with jam?) or his habit of carrying everywhere a carafe of stale, green-tinged water (soluble algae, anyone?). He was delighted, even if sometimes rather bemused, by our ribbing.
Moreover, on one celebrated occasion, Conrad turned a jest against himself into a triumph. The Head of Bedford History, Professor Mike (F.M.L.) Thompson, was at some date in the mid-1970s required to appoint a Departmental Fire & Safety Officer. It marked the start of the contemporary world of regulations for everything. Mike Thompson, with his own quixotic humour, appointed Conrad Russell to the role, amidst much laughter. Not only was he the caricature of an untidy professor, living in a chaos of books and papers, but he was, like his wife Elizabeth, an inveterate chain-smoker. In fact, there were good reasons for taking proper precautions at St John’s Lodge, the handsome Regency villa where the History Department resided, since the building lacked alternative staircases for evacuation in case of emergency. Accordingly, a fire-sling was installed in Conrad’s study, high on the top floor. Then, some months later, he instituted a rare emergency drill. At the given moment, both staff and students left the building and rushed round to the back. There we witnessed Conrad, with some athleticism,6 leap into the fire-sling. He was then winched slowly to the ground, discoursing gravely, as he descended, on his favourite topic (parliamentary politics in the 1620s) – and smoking a cigarette.
Later, Conrad referred to his years in Bedford’s History Department with great affection. Our shared accommodation in St John’s Lodge, five minutes away from the rest of the College, created a special camaraderie. The 1970s in particular were an exciting and challenging period for him, when he was refining and changing not only his politics but also his interpretation of seventeenth-century history. The revisionists attracted much attention and controversy, especially among political historians. (Economic, demographic, social and urban historians tended to stick to their own separate agendas). Collectively, the revisionists rejected the stereotypes of both ‘Whig’7 and Marxist8 explanations of long-term change. Neither the ‘march of progress’ nor the inevitable class struggle would suffice to explain the intricacies of British history. But what was the alternative big picture? Chance and contingency played a significant role in the short-term twists and turns of events. Yet the outcomes did not just emerge completely at random. In the very long run, Parliament as an institution did become politically more powerful than the monarch, even though the powers of the crown did not disappear.
By the 1990s, the next generation of political historians were beginning to revise the revisionists in turn. There were also new challenges to the discipline as a whole from postmodernist theory. In private conversation, Conrad at times worried that the revisionists’ critique of their fellow historians might be taken (wrongly) as endorsing a sceptical view that history lacks any independent meaning or validity.
Meanwhile, new research fashions were also emerging. Political history was being eclipsed by an updated social history; gender history; ethnic history; cultural history; the history of sexuality; disability history; world history; and studies of the historical meanings of identity.
Within that changing context, Conrad began to give enhanced attention to his role in the Lords. His colleagues among the Liberal Democrats appreciated the lustre he brought to their cause. In 1999 he topped the poll by his fellow peers to remain in the House, when the number of hereditary peers was drastically cut by the process of constitutional reform. And, at his funeral, Conrad Russell was mourned, with sincere regret, as the ‘last of the Whigs’.
Fig.3 Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell, speaking in the House of Lords in the early twenty-first century.
There is, however, deep irony in that accolade. In political terms, it has some truth. He was proud to come from a long line of aristocrats, of impeccable social connections and Whig/Liberal views. Listening to Conrad, one could imagine hearing the voice of his great-grandfather, Lord John Russell (1792-1878), one of the Whig architects of the 1832 Reform Act. Moreover, this important strand of aristocratic liberalism was indeed coming to an end, both sociologically and politically. On the other hand, as already noted, Conrad the historian was a scourge of both Whigs and Marxists. Somehow his view of history as lacking grand trends (say, before 1689) was hard to tally with his belief in the unfolding of parliamentary liberalism thereafter.9 At very least, the interpretative differences were challenging.
Does the ultimate contrast between Conrad Russell’s Whig/Liberal politics and his polemical anti-Whig history mean that he was a deeply troubled person? Not at all. Conrad loved his life of scholarship and politics. And he loved following arguments through to their logical outcomes, even if they left him with paradoxes. Overall, he viewed his own trajectory as centrist: as a historian, opposing the Left in the 1970s when it got too radical for him, and, as a politician, opposing the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, when they became dogmatic free-marketeers, challenging the very concept of ‘society’.
If there is such a thing as ‘nature’s lord’ to match with ‘nature’s gentleman’, then Conrad Russell was, unselfconsciously, one among their ranks. He was grand in manner yet simple in lifestyle and chivalric towards others. One of his most endearing traits was his capacity to find a ‘trace of alpha’ in even the most unpromising student. Equally, if there is such a thing as an intellectual’s intellectual, then Conrad Russell was another exemplar, although these days a chain-smoker would not be cast in the role. He was erudite and, for some critics, too much a precisian, preoccupied with minutiae. Yet he was demonstrably ready to take on big issues.
Putting all these qualities together gives us Conrad Russell, the historian and politician who was often controversial, especially in the former role, but always sincere, always intent. One of his favourite phrases, when confronted with a new fact or idea, was: ‘It gives one furiously to think’.10 And that’s what he, courteously but firmly, always did.
1 Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937-2004), 5th Earl Russell (1987-2004), married Elizabeth Sanders (d.2003) in 1962. Their sons, Nicholas Lyulph (d.2014) and John Francis, have in turn inherited the Russell earldom but, post Britain’s 1999 constitutional reforms, not a seat in the House of Lords.
2 Conrad volunteered this information, in the context of a discussion between the two of us, in the early 1970s, on the subject of parental influence upon their offspring.
3 Merged in 1985 to become part of Royal Holloway & Bedford New College, these days known simply as Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), located at Egham, Surrey.
5 The intellectual excitement of that era, among revisionist circles, was well conveyed by fellow-panellist, Linda Levy Peck (George Washington University, Washington, DC).
6 Talking of Conrad Russell’s athleticism, some of his former students drew attention to his love of cricket. He could not only carry his bat but he also bowled parabolic googlies which rose high into the sky, spinning wildly, before dropping down vertically onto the wicket behind the flailing batsman, often taking the wicket through sheer surprise.
7 The term ‘Whig’, first coined in 1678/9, referred to a political stance which had considerable but never universal support throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in support of parliamentary constraints upon the unfettered powers of monarchy, a degree of religious toleration, moderate social and political reforms, and opposition to the more pro-monarchical Tories. The ‘Whig interpretation of history’, which again was never universally supported, tended to view the unfolding of British history as the gradual and inexorable march of liberal constitutionalism, toleration, technological innovation, and socio-political reforms, together termed ‘progress’.
8 On which, see S. Rigby, Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction (Manchester, 1987, 1998).
9 This point was perceptively developed by fellow-panellist, Nicholas Tyacke (University College London).
10 Conrad showed no sign of being aware (and probably would have laughed to discover) that this phrase originated with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), ch.6.