Friday, 31 July 2009

Magna Carta awarded UN status

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, July 30th, the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, held by the British Library, Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral, were awarded ‘Memory of the World’ status by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Their inscription on the Memory of the World International Register was approved by the Director General of UNESCO, Mr Koichiro Matsuura, following a recommendation by the 14-member International Advisory Committee of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme.

The UNESCO Memory of the World International Register is a catalogue of documentary heritage of global significance, similar to a World Heritage Site list for documents and archives. It was created in 1997 and forms an integral part of the Memory of the World Programme, which was established in 1992 to promote the preservation and dissemination of valuable archive and library collections worldwide. Inscriptions to the International Register are made every two years.

Magna Carta is just one of the 35 documents added to the International Register this year, bringing the total number of inscriptions since 1997 to 193. Other additions, this year, include the Diaries of Anne Frank, the League of Nations Archive from 1919 to 1946, the Royal Archives of Madagascar from 1824 to 1897, the Donguibogam, an encyclopaedia of medical knowledge and treatment techniques compiled in Korea in 1613, and the Library of the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux in France inventoried by the Abbot Pierre de Virey in 1472 and which forms one of the largest medieval monastic library collections in western Christendom.

Magna Carta is often described as one of the founding documents of British liberty because it imposed, for the first time, detailed written constraints on royal authority in the fields of church rights, taxation, feudal rights and justice. It also reasserted the power of customary practice to limit unjust and arbitrary behaviour by the king. It is the fourth Memory of the World inscription from the UK, alongside the 1916 documentary and propaganda film The Battle of the Somme (inscribed in 2005), General de Gaulle’s Appeal of 18th June 1940, made in the BBC studios in London (jointly nominated with France and also inscribed in 2005), and the 13th-century Mappa Mundi held at Hereford Cathedral (inscribed in 2007).

Other documents which have previously been granted Memory of the World status include the Bayeux Tapestry and the Original Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France, the Gutenberg Bible printed in Gottingen, Germany, the pre-Colombian Codices in Mexico and the Korean Jikji, which contains the essentials of Zen Buddhism and is world’s oldest book printed using metal type.

Phil Spence, Director of Operations and Services at the British Library, described the importance of Magna Carta’s recent inscription on the International Register:

‘Magna Carta is a fundamental document in the history of our nation, and has
international significance for its definition of the rights of the individual.
The declaration that "no free man should be imprisoned without the lawful
judgment of his equals" still has great resonance 800 years after Magna Carta
was first drawn up. The two original copies of Magna Carta are among the British
Library’s most historically evocative, precious and popular treasures.’

Lord Clarke of Stone-cum-Ebony, Master of the Rolls and Chairman of the Magna Carta Trust also welcomed the UNESCO announcement:

‘There are few documents which have had the resonance of the Magna Carta, the
foundation of English law and the first recognition that the people have rights
enshrined in law and that even monarchs’ powers are limited. Following the
signing of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, virtually every country in the
world has sooner or later, embraced democracy, recognised human rights and
espoused the rule of law.’

For further information on how and why Magna Carta became a beacon of liberty in Britain and the United States, read our article The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215

Picture: copy of Magna Carta held by the British Library

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Anthony Blunt memoir available in British Library Reading Rooms

by Kathryn Hadley

Last Thursday, July 23rd, the manuscript memoir of Anthony Blunt became available for study in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the British Library. The manuscript was given to the British Library in July 1984, just over a year after Blunt’s death, by a donor who wished to remain anonymous and on the condition that the manuscript be withheld from public access for 25 years. Anthony Blunt began to write his memoir in 1979, after his public exposure as a spy.

Anthony Frederick Blunt (1907-1983) studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was named Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and oversaw the opening of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in 1961. He was Professor of History of Art at the University of London and Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art from 1947 to 1974. During the Second World War and until 1951, he worked for MI5 and was knighted in 1956 for his work.

Blunt was also a Russian spy. He joined the Communist Party at Cambridge and was initially recruited by the Russian NKVD, as a ‘talent spotter’, in 1937. Following a series of interrogations by British security forces in the 1950s, he was independently identified as a spy in 1964. He was granted immunity from prosecution and the British government agreed to keep his spying career an official secret for 15 years in return for a full confession. In the 1970s, however, he was identified as the ‘Fourth Man’ of the Cambridge Five, a group of spies including Kim Philby, Donald Duart Mclean, Guy Burgess and John Cairncross who worked for the Soviet Union during the Second World War and into the 1950s. In 1979, he was publicly named a spy by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons. He was stripped of his knighthood and was removed as an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College.

Frances Harris, the British Library’s Head of Modern Historical Manuscripts, described the manuscript:
‘The manuscript survives in two versions: a draft, partly typewritten and partly
in Blunt’s handwriting, and a typewritten fair copy of it. It begins with
Blunt’s birth in Bournemouth in 1907, and continues with an account of his life
and career until his public exposure in 1979. In the preface he states that he
had written it for the benefit of the friends who had stood by him and for those
members of the public who wanted to have his own version of events. In the
course of his own narrative he makes frequent and specific comments on the
accuracy or otherwise of earlier published accounts. Although it contains no
revelations, the memoir is important as an account of Blunt’s life and motives
in his own words and with his own emphasis, composed not under interrogation or
pressure of events, but with time to reflect and when he must have realized his
health was failing and this would be his last opportunity. It is the one central
document bearing on this long, complex and controversial episode in recent
history which has been known to exist, but has not hitherto been accessible. The
lifting of restriction on public access means that it can now be considered
alongside the many records and commentaries from other sources. The time that
has elapsed and the information that has come to light since it was written mean
that it can now receive a more considered and knowledgeable assessment than
would have previously been possible.’

Dr Klaus Fuchs was a British nuclear physicist and spy who helped the Soviet Union develop the atom bomb. In May 2003 MI5 released files on Fuchs. In our article Radioactive Leak Andrew Cook compares the MI5 files with Russian intelligence files held in Moscow.

Last chance to send in your nominations for the History Carnival!

We will be announcing the winning blog posts for August's History Carnival on August 1st.
Please send us any last nominations by the end of today using the Carnival Nomination Form
Please only nominate recent blog posts that have been published at the end of June or in July.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Tiny Enemy that Caused the Failure of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign: The Louse!

by Kathryn Hadley

According to the latest research published in a new book by the American author, Stephan Talty, Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812 failed primarily as a result of the spread of typhus amongst the ranks of the Grande Armée. The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army was published last month by the Crown Publishing Group. The author reconstructs the medical history of Napoleon's Russian campaign and concludes that its failure was in reality caused by an epidemic of typhus exanthematicus spread by lice.

Napoleon’s Grande Armée, larger than the population of Paris at the time, with over 600,000 men and 50,000 horses, embarked on its march to Russia in the spring of 1812. It invaded Russia on June 24th, 1812. Before the fighting began, however, many soldiers had already died.

New research into the causes of the demise of the Grande Armée began in 2001, following the discovery of a mass grave containing 2,000 bodies in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. Belt buckles and inscriptions of regimental numbers on the uniform buttons of the corpses revealed that the men were not victims of the KGB, nor were they Jews who had been killed during the German occupation; they were soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The analysis of DNA samples taken from the teeth of the bodies showed that they carried pathogens of typhus exanthematicus, known in Napoleon’s era as ‘war plague’, and spread by crawling parasites.

It is believed that in the first week of the campaign, 6,000 men a day fell ill. In field hospitals along the route contagious soldiers were not isolated from their reasonably healthy comrades and the disease spread rapidly following an outbreak of lice. The only remedies used at the time were bloodletting, herbs and a mixture of wine, water and a bit of lemon juice. By the time Napoleon’s army reached Moscow, his men were far too weak to conquer the city and on October 19th, 1812, Napoleon turned the Grande Armée back towards France.
The Belgian physician at the time, J.L.R. de Kerckhove, was quoted in an article published on the website of Der Spiegel:
‘The numbers of the sick grew in overwhelming numbers, and they crawled along
the road where many of them died’.

The Westphalian batallion commander Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg was also quoted in the same article in a letter to his wife:
‘Napoleon doesn't give a damn how many of his soldiers are collapsing on the

For further information on Napoleon’s Russian campaign and the responses of Russian populations, read our article Napoleon in Russia: Saviour or Anti-Christ?

Monday, 27 July 2009

Essential History: 27th July

by Derry Nairn

Here's a quick look at some historical headlines making the British press, both over the weekend and today.

Guardian: Brutalist London Housing Estate threatened with demolition
Architectural History

The JoePublic blog at the Guardian today puts forward a case for the 1970s Robin Hood housing estate in east London to be saved from demolition. The key question from the debate is a hugely relevant one - how do we decide what historical buildings are worthwhile and which aren't?

Scotsman: Women's beauty evolving; men remain Neanderthal


The Scotsman today quotes a University of Helsinki report, stating that evolution is forcing women to become more attractive, while men remain rooted to their caveman genes. Raises a smile, but also makes you think...

Iranian periods of mourning have signalled great events
Michael Purcell in the Times on the historical resonance of mourning ceremonies and martyrdom in Iranian culture. We have a related overview of recent Iranian history in the current August issue.

Confucianism enjoys a revival in China
Chinese History

Steven A Bell in the Guardian assesses recent uses of Confucianism beyond the realm of Chinese government. Academic spheres such as economics and psychology have been incresingly referring to its principles over the past decade. But did it ever go away, I wonder?

New efforts to record and protect ancient trees
The Times reports on a new campaign to protect Britain's ancient trees, described here rather nicely, as 'cathedrals of the ancient world'.

30,000 tribesmen invade Edinburgh for the Highland Games
The Independent reports on this year's Highland Games in Scotland via several interlocking historical themes: record numbers of attendees; the 250th anniversary year of Robert Burns; inverse levels of interest in Scottish tribal history in Scotland and abroad. This article on Sir Walter Scott, '1822 spin doctor supreme', offers some helpful context.

Heritage site descriptions dumbing down?

The Times reports on new efforts by English Heritage, the state body responsible for managing and promoting historic sites such as Stonehenge, to make its literature coherent to 'all intellectual levels'.

100 years since Bleriót flew the Channel

The Daily Express remembers when Louis Bleriót flew the English Channel, and marks the occasion by talking to a Swede intent on replicating the historic journey

Profile of our very own Andrew Roberts
The Observer goes all rock'n'roll over one of our most consistent and interesting contributors, Andrew Roberts. He's 'a social animal of epic proportions'. Allegedly. Check out his last piece for History Today, A Woman at Waterloo.

The Nazi-hunting Jewish Brigade of the British Army
The Times compares the exaggerated pulp history of Tarantino's new film with the real story behind Britain's postwar Nazi-hunters.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Ten Most Popular History Today Articles

by Derry Nairn

Lists being such a ubiquitous format on the web, it seems rather odd that we haven't thought of doing this before on the History Today blogs. Now the time has come. Spurred on by a suggestion from a friend at Wonders & Marvels, we have collected together the top ten most popular articles of all time on our main website.

The resultant list has some big-name entries - a Hitler, a Stalin and a King Tut for good measure - so far, so predictable. But it throws up a couple of surprises too, not least of which is at the top, Paul Doolan's history of breastfeeding. It's also difficult to see how so many of our top authors failed to pass muster, or indeed how a rather dour piece on pension reform squeezed into our all-time favourites.

So what does this tell us about our readers' habits? First and foremost, it shows they have short memories. Our archive holds over 8,000 articles from the 1980s and 1990s, and yet only one - a 1981 profile of Fidel Castro - has made the grade. The rest of the top ten all stem from the 21st century.

It also goes to show what a little viral marketing can achieve. Both the breastfeeding and telescope articles benefitted from a core group of interested and committed readers: nursing mothers in the first instance; Catalans in the second. The web team, having posted each piece to a few bulletin boards, lay back in our history hammocks with a pina colada or three, and allowed others to do the hard work. The pieces were passed on, amongst and beyond the borders of their online communities.

Finally, and most importantly, the list also has something to say about how history writing is digested in this brave new, digital world. Namely, big topics still 'rule OK'. Alongside our Hitler, Stalin, Tutankhamun and Hadrian articles, our Military History and Second World War focus pages are amongst the most popular on the homepage. A recipe, therefore, for gaining attention amongst the throng could be as simple as 'say something original on a popular subject.'

1Nursing Times

Whether or not mothers should nurse their own children has been a subject of debate from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome through all of modern European history to the present day. In late 2008, Paul Doolan reviewed the arguments that have been presented over the centuries and the way in which fashions have changed.

2A Woman at Waterloo

In January 2009 Andrew Roberts introduced the remarkable memoir of Magdalene De Lancey, wife of Wellington’s chief of staff, who accompanied her husband on a campaign that climaxed in triumph and tragedy.

3Makers of the Twentieth Century: Castro

An oldie but a goldie: back in 1981 Alfred Stepan argued that the romantic acclaim of Fidel Castro as a revolutionary guerrilla leader disregards the practical achievements and structural changes he had brought to Cuba, and distorts his world-view of revolution.

4The Great British Pension

Steven King argued that government policy on pensions in 2004 was returning to the principles and practice of the Old Poor Law.

in 2002, Paul Wingrove examined the starkly different interpretations that seek to explain the career of Joseph Stalin.

In late 2008, Nick Pelling suggested that credit for the invention should go not to the Netherlands, but much further south to Catalonia. Some eager patriots got a hold of the article, which was reprinted all over Spain, and it duly shot to the top of our best-read list.

The emperor Hadrian presided over the Roman empire at its height, defined its borders and was one of the most cultured rulers of the ancient world. Neil Faulkner revisited his legacy in November 2008 as the British Museum opened a major exhibition on his life and times.

As we prepared to ‘cover up’ on the beach in the long and wet British summer of 2008, Robert Mighall gave us a true history of sunbathing.

The sordid murder of Horst Wessel, a young Nazi storm troop leader in Berlin in early 1930, might have passed almost unnoticed. However, in the hands of the propaganda genius Joseph Goebbels, Wessel’s killing became emblematic of the Nazi struggle to ‘save’ Germany from Communism, and Wessel himself – thanks to a few lines of doggerel he had written – the leading martyr of Hitler’s movement. On the centenary of Wessel’s birth in 2007, Nigel Jones recalled a death and the black legend that sprang from it.

The infamous curse may have been fantasy, but the young Pharaoh undoubtedly gripped peoples’ imagination and changed lives. As a King Tut exhibition opened in Greenwich, Desmond Zwar looked at the career of the man who claimed to have spent seven years living in the tomb, guarding it while Howard Carter examined the contents.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

250,000 medieval soldier service records published online

by Kathryn Hadley

A searchable database containing 250,000 service records of soldiers who saw active duty in the latter phases of the Hundred Years War was published online yesterday, July 20th. The database is part of a research project about soldiers in English royal armies between 1369 and 1453 led by Dr Adrian Bell at the ICMA (International Capital Market Association), Henley Business School, University of Reading, and Professor Anne Curry from the University of Southampton. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Based on the study of historic records such as the proceedings of the Court of Chivalry, muster rolls records in the National Archives at Kew and archives at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris) researchers have created complex profiles of individual soldiers in what is now considered England’s first professional army. The database notably includes the names of many archers who served with Henry V at Agincourt, details of where individual soldiers fought and for how long, which campaigns they fought in, how much they were paid, who was ill and unable to fight, who was knighted and who advanced in rank as a result of military success.

Thomas, Lord Despencer, began his career in arms in 1385, aged twelve, for example. Thomas Gloucestre, esquire, was a soldier in the English royal army for 43 years. He fought at Agincourt, in Prussia and Jerusalem. Robert de Fishlake enlisted in 1378, aged 16. He participated in John of Gaunt’s military campaign to St Malo in 1378, the Duke of Buckingham’s expedition to Brittany in 1380 and in Richard II’s campaign to Scotland in 1385. He progressed from being an archer to eventually being called a witness, aged 46, by Sir Edward Hastings at a Court of Chivalry.

It is traditionally assumed there was no professional army in England until the early modern period. The later phase of the Hundred Years War from 1369 to 1453 was, however, one of the most highly militarised periods of the medieval era. One of the aims of the project was to determine when a professional soldiery developed and whether or not the soldiers who fought between 1369 and 1453 were part of a professional army. The study ends in 1453 with the loss of Gascony, which marked the end of intensive military activity overseas. The main campaigns of the period were to France, but there were also expeditions to Flanders, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Garrisons were also maintained within England, the Channel Islands, Wales and the marches, at Calais and in Gascony. During the 15th century stage of the war, troops were stationed in Normandy and the surrounding regions.

Officially, there existed no standing army in England at the time. Researchers therefore considered as professional soldiers those who saw repeated service or served continuously. In order to determine who those men were, it was thus necessary to compile a database of the soldiers who saw active service between 1369 and 1453 including details such as how long they served for and which campaigns they fought in.

Dr Adrian Bell described some of the sources used to complete the project:
‘The service records survive because the English Exchequer had a very modern
obsession with wanting to be sure that the Government’s money was being spent as
intended. Therefore we have the remarkable survival of indentures for
service detailing the forces to be raised; muster rolls showing this service and
naming every soldier from Duke to Archer; accounts from the captains
demonstrating how the money had been spent; and entries showing when the
Exchequer made the requested payments. It is the survival of the muster roll
evidence that allows us to begin to reconstruct the service of soldiers. This
allows us to look for repeated service in the retinues of particular captains,
and also service alongside a network of colleagues and family members. We can
see that careers in arms regularly lasted over 20 years, and soldiers served
from their teenage years to their 60s and older!’

The completed online database will be formally launched by Dr Adrian Bell and Professor Anne Curry at an international conference entitled England’s Wars, 1272-1399, at the University of Reading tomorrow, Wednesday July 22nd.

A pilot project database is available for searching at

For a selection of articles about the Hundred Years War, visit the Hundred Years War section of our Medieval Themes focus page and our military history focus page.
Also, in Why Men Fought in the 100 Years War Anthony Tuck considers the motives that led Englishmen to fight in France during the Hundred Years War.
Picture: the tomb of Sir John Cressy (1407-1445), parish church of Dodford, Northamptonshire (Prof Brian Kemp)

Monday, 20 July 2009

Exclusive Preview of our Latest Article on the Bosnian War!

by Kathryn Hadley

On Friday, I wrote an article about the burial, on July 11th, of over 300 newly identified Bosniak Muslim victims of the Srebrenica massacre. Over 200,000 people attended the ceremony at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery, which marked 14 years since the massacre on July 11th 1995.

Nick Hawton was the BBC's correspondent in Sarajevo and Belgrade from 2002 to 2008. With the trial of the former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic due to begin, he reflects on his time reporting in a region where history is still used to justify war in an article published in our latest August edition.

Our August issue will be published online later this week, but for an exclusive preview of Hawton's article read Conflicting Truths: The Bosnian War
Picture: Radovan Karadzic (right) with his military commander Ratko Mladic in Pale, Serbia in August 1993

Friday, 17 July 2009

Srebrenica victims buried

by Kathryn Hadley

Last Saturday, July 11th, 534 newly identified Bosniak Muslim victims of the Srebrenica massacre were buried at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery just outside Srebrenica. Over 20,000 people gathered for the ceremony, which marked fourteen years since the Srebrenica massacre on July 11th 1995.

In 1993, during the Bosnian War, Srebrenica was designated a United Nations ‘safe haven’. On July 11th 1995, however, despite the presence of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers, the town was attacked by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic. It is estimated that 8,000 Bosniak Muslims, mainly boys and men, were killed by Bosnian Serbs and buried in mass graves. The Srebrenica massacre has been classified as an act of genocide by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations war crimes tribunal. The Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial was built in 2003 on the site of an old warehouse which was part of a base for the Dutch peacekeeping troops.

The victims that were reburied last weekend were identified by DNA analysis. They were aged between 15 and 84. Most of the bodies were discovered in secondary graves where they were moved by Serb troops during the war in an effort to cover up any evidence of war crimes.

It is estimated that during four years of the war in Bosnia over 100,000 people lost their lives and that 20,000 Muslims were missing after the war. Since its foundation in 1996 at the initiative of President Clinton, the International Commission on Missing Persons has worked to ensure the cooperation of governments in locating and identifying those who disappeared during the armed conflict. The International Commission of Missing Persons currently has six facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and still actively works to identify the remains of the victims of the country's war.

Despite the Dayton Peace Agreement, the war continues to be fought for a considerable part of the local population in their attempts to rebuild their lives and in their quest for missing relatives. The work of the International Commission of Missing Persons is not yet over and many questions and issues of justice remain to be solved. The terms of the UN mandate, which supposedly protected the deliveries of aid, but not of people, continue to be questioned. Although Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb political leader, is currently on trial, General Ratko Mladic remains in hiding. It is believed that is in Serbia; why then has he not yet been found and brought to trial?

Like Eating A Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia by Wojciech Tochman was recently translated and published in paperback (Portobello). This deeply moving and engaging book illustrates perfectly many of these wounds that remain gaping in Bosnia today. Through a series of personal stories, Tochman takes the reader on an emotional journey through the post-war landscape in the company of survivors who are still waiting, searching and grieving for lost loved ones.

Suzanne Bardgett was involved in the Srebrenica Memorial Room project. She describes the massacre and the issues at stake in setting up a memorial to its victims in our article Remembering Srebrenica

For further information on the international community’s attitude to genocide during the past half century, read our article Never Again?

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

I Was A Beautiful Day

by Kathryn Hadley

Dan, who is originally from the village of Robhanis on the Isle of Lewis, is a veteran of the first Gulf War invalided with shellshock. Lube is a fellow inmate who befriends Dan. Anne, who works for the Ordnance Survey, is visiting Dan to ask for his assistance in completing a series of maps of Lewis. The play I Was A Beautiful Day, set in a hospital on the Scottish mainland, explores both the trauma and psychological devastation caused by war, as well as aspects of the more distant local history of the Isle of Lewis which is deeply rooted in the geography of the region.

Between 43,000 and 45,400 British forces were deployed in Iraq during the first Gulf War. Intervention by the Coalition of the Gulf War in an effort to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait began in January 1991, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2nd 1990. The coalition force included troops from 34 countries. US troops represented, however, approximately 70% of the coalition’s total of 956,600 troops. The United Kingdom sent the third largest contingent of troops and the largest number of any European nation.

As the play unravels, Dan increasingly shares his memories of the past and of his participation in the Gulf War. He killed a mother and child and is unable to forgive himself. In his mind he ‘deserve[s] [his] place in hell for what [he has] done’. It is to punish himself that he has exiled himself from his homeland on the Isle of Lewis, from the place that it is closest to his heart and from his family. To console himself, pass the time and fight his feelings of nostalgia, Dan spends his time drawing maps of Lewis to remember the history behind every feature of the landscape and every place name.

Through Dan’s maps and stories a far more remote, local and intimate history, the history of the Isle of Lewis is revealed. It is a history that is stored in the names of the places and landscape of Lewis, but which is at risk of becoming lost forever with the passing of generations. There is a story behind every name. Rubha Robhanis, for example, is a word mix of Gaelic and Norse, both words meaning headland. The two names of different origin reveal the mixed heritage of the Isle of Lewis: the Scots allegedly arrived on the island in the first century bringing the Gaelic language with them; Vikings imported Norse influences when they began to settle on the island eight centuries later.

Remembering a walk he took with his uncle around Rubha Robhanis, playwright Iain Finlay MacLeod described the importance of names as a source of local history:
‘The Vikings landed on this beach! Monks on the run! And here were their stories
set in the language of the people. A place name for each to remind us […] the
relationship between words and the places they signify. Embedded in these names
were stories. Historical-story DNA buried yet retrievable’.
I Was A Beautiful Day by Iain Finlay MacLeod opened on Sunday July 12th at the Finborough Theatre. It is the English premiere of the play, which was first performed in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in October 2005.

I Was A Beautiful Day
Sundays and Mondays, July 12th – 27th
Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London SW10 9ED

Monday, 13 July 2009

History Carnival

by Kathryn Hadley

We are hosting the next edition of History Carnival on August 1st!

History Carnivals are monthly showcases of the best blog writing about history. The carnival hosts change every month in order to provide a variety of approaches and perspectives. Bloggers nominate one or more of their favourite blog entries, which can either be their own piece or from another blog. The host can also select his or her own favourites. The host then compiles a themed list of the best blog entries which is published on his or her blog on the day of the carnival!

Please send us your nominations by July 30th using the Carnival Nomination Form
Please only nominate recent blog posts that have been published at the end of June or in July.
Results will be published on August 1st...

State Papers Online Part II goes live

by Kathryn Hadley

The first part of the State Papers Online Project was completed last November when 200 volumes of papers containing a complete collection of the Domestic State Papers from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I became available online. Last Thursday, July 9th, to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne, State Papers Online Part II was released online by Gale, part of Cengage Learning, in conjunction with The National Archives. The aim of the State Papers Online project is to create an online database of the domestic and foreign State Papers and Registers of the Privy Council from 1509 to 1714, making them accessible to academics and the general public and providing a new resource for the study of early modern Britain and Europe.

Part II of the collection includes Foreign, Scotland, Borders and Ireland papers for the 16th century as well as the Registers of the Privy Council for the whole of the Tudor period. The papers provide an insight into some of the most important international historic events and themes from 1509 to 1603, including marriage contracts, wars and treaties, trade and commerce and religion. The manuscripts notably document the French wars of religion between 1562 and 1598, the 1541 Act raising Ireland into a kingdom annexed to the Crown of England, England’s defeat of Philip II of Spain’s Grand Armada in 1588 and England’s relations with Denmark, Flanders, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Holland and Flanders, the Italian State and Rome, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Savoy and Sardinia, Sicily and Naples, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, for example. They include correspondence written and received by the ruling monarchs of the time as well as that their courtiers, administrators, judges and clergy. It is notably possible to read in Elizabeth I’s own hand, her efforts to appease the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, her views on her engagement to the Duke of Anjou and on Mary Queen of Scots’ trial and execution.

In the words of Mark Holland, Publisher at Cengage Learning:
‘With Part II, we are publishing the enormously important ‘Foreign’ section of
the State Papers: the letters between the English government and European powers
at a time when England was at the centre of international affairs, and events
here had repercussions across Europe.’

Parts III and IV contain the 17th-century State Papers Domestic and Foreign covering the reigns of the Stuarts from King James I to Queen Anne, from 1603 to 1714. They are due to be released in 2010 and 2011.

For further information, visit

Friday, 10 July 2009

Ten historically-themed bands

by Kathryn Parsons and Kathryn Hadley

History has inspired numerous artists and musicians. We have drawn up a selection of bands that have taken their names from famous historical events or personalities, from biblical times to the Cold War and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The band is named after the American Lockheed U-2 high altitude surveillance aircraft developed in the early 1950s to help monitor Soviet military capabilities and intentions. In May 1960, two weeks before the opening of a scheduled East-West summit in Paris, an American U-2 plane flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. The Four Powers Paris Summit between Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Macmillan and de Gaulle eventually collapsed on May 16th when Khrushchev left the talks following Eisenhower’s refusal to apologise for the incident.
The rock band U2 was formed in Dublin in 1976. Band members are Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen. Many of U2’s songs refer to political or historical events. ‘Bloody Sunday’, for example, is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ addresses the struggle of mothers whose children disappeared during Videla’s military dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s.

Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand was the Archduke of Austria, born on the 18th December 1863 at Graz in the Austrian Empire. He became Archduke in 1889 when his cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide. Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serb Nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, on June 28th 1914.
The Scottish rock band was formed in Glasgow in 2002. The band is composed of Alex Kapranos, Bob Hardy, Nick McCarthy and Paul Thomson.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV (1638-1715), known as the ‘Sun King’, ruled France from 1643 to 1715. His 72-year reign represents the high point of the Bourbon dynasty and of French power in Europe. Louis XIV involved France in many wars during his reign including the War of Devolution (1667-68), the third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-78), the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-97) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).
The rock band of the same name is from San Diego, California. Lead singer/guitarist Jason Hill, guitarist Brian Karscig, and drummer Mark Maigaard formed the group in April 2003 whilst living in Paris. They released their first album in November 2003.
For further information on the French king visit our French history focus page.

Jethro Tull
The band is named after the English agricultural pioneer who helped to bring about the British Agricultural Revolution. Jethro Tull was born in Basildon, Berkshire, on March 30th 1674. He is remembered as one of the early proponents of a scientific and empirical approach to agriculture. He invented the seed drill and advocated the use of horses instead of oxen. Jethro Tull died at Prosperous Farm at Hungerford on February 21st 1741.
The British rock group was formed in 1967. Current band members are Ian Anderson, the flute and voice behind the band and its leader since the band’s founding, Martin Barre, David Goodier, John O’Hara and Doane Perry. Similarly to U2, some of Jethro Tull’s songs refer to historic events. ‘Mountain Men’, for example, refers to the battle of El Alamein and to the Falklands War.

Joy Division
The English rock band, originally founded as ‘Warsaw’ in Salford in 1976, changed its name to Joy Division in late 1977. Joy Divisions were brothels in Nazi concentration camps to reward hard-working inmates. The band allegedly took their name from the Joy Division mentioned in the novella The House of Dolls by the Jewish writer Yehiel De-Nur, who spent two years as a prisoner in Auschwitz.
The band consisted of singer Ian Curtis, guitarist Bernard Summer, Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris. Ian Curtis committed suicide in May 1980. After his death the band reformed as ‘New Order’.
Robert Sommer has recently published a new book on forced sexual labour in Nazi concentration camps. I wrote an article on our blog on June 30th about his latest research.

Gang of Four
The Gang of Four was a leftist political group, which came to prominence during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and was composed of the four Chinese Communist party officials Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's last wife, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen. They were put on trial in November 1980 and charged with a variety of abuses during the Cultural Revolution, including the deaths of some 34,000 people.
The English post-punk group from Leeds was formed by the singer Jon King, guitarist Andy Gill, bass guitarist Dave Allen and the drummer Hugo Burnham. They released a first series of albums from 1977 to 1984 and then re-emerged twice in the 1990s with King and Gill.

Maximo Park
Máximo Gómez was a Cuban revolutionary born on November 18th, 1836, in the Dominican Republic. As Major General in the Ten Years’ War (1868-78), the first of three liberation wars fought that Cuba fought against Spain, Gomez commanded Spanish reserve troops. He subsequently retired from the Spanish Army, however, and joined the rebel cause. He rose to the rank of Generalisimo in the Cuban Army and fought during the Cuban War of Independence from 1895 to 1898. Gomez died in Havana in 1905.
The British band Maximo Park formed by the guitarist Duncan Lloyd in 2000. The band’s four other members are Paul Smith, Archis Tiku, Lukas Wooler and Tom English.

King Richard III (r.1483-85) was born in Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in 1452. It was also where Mary, Queen of Scots, was tried, convicted of treason and executed in February 1587. The castle gradually fell into disrepair during the later Elizabethan period and was eventually demolished in 1627.
The British folk rock group was formed in 1970 by the singer Sandy Denny. She was previously a member of the band Fairport Convention, which released a song named after the castle. Fotheringay disbanded in January 1971.

Genesis or Bereshith is the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the first of five books of the Jewish Torah. It begins with the narrative of the creation of the world and contains the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel. The word ‘genesis’ is Greek for ‘birth’ or ‘origin’ and ‘bereshith’ is the Hebrew word for ‘in the beginning’, hence the first words of the Book of Genesis; ‘In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth…’
The popular English rock band was founded in 1967. Current band members are Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. As well as taking their name from the Biblical book, Genesis’ first album was entitled ‘From Genesis to Revelation’, as a reference to the last book of the New Testament.

The Communards
The Paris Commune was a rebel government formed in Paris in 1871 in opposition to Adolf Thier’s Government of National Defence. The Paris Commune notably opposed the humiliating peace terms accepted after the Franco-Prussian War. On March 18th 1871, Parisian workers rose in rebellion and the revolutionaries formed a government which introduced a number of short-lived reforms. By May 28th, however, Government troops had crushed the rebellion. It is estimated that 38,000 people were arrested and 20,000 were killed.
The band of the same name was formed in 1985 by Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles. They were later joined by Dave Renwick. The band spilt in 1988 and Somerville began a solo career.
For further information on the Paris Commune, read our articles

Here are a few another names of bands similarly inspired by historic figures and events, which could be added to the list. Any further suggestions are very welcome!
Engelbert Humperdinck, named after the German composer, best known for his opera Hansel and Gretel. The British-American singer Arnold George Dorsey adopted the stage name Engelbert Humperdinck following a suggestion by his former roommate, the songwriter and manager Gordon Mills. He is still selling albums today at the age of 73 and will notably be on tour in the UK and in Europe this September!
The Dead Kennedys, The B-52S, Levellers, Led Zeppelin, The Beau Brummels, Siouxsie and the Banshees and China Crisis...

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The world’s oldest bible reunited online

by Kathryn Hadley

Following a four-year project, over 800 pages and fragments from the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest surviving Christian bible, have been successfully virtually reunited and are now available online at For the first time, it is possible to view high resolution digital images of all the extant pages of the fourth-century book and to research in depth the Greek text, which is fully transcribed and cross-referenced.

The digitalisation of the text is the result of a partnership between the British Library, Leipzig University Library, St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt, and the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, each of which hold different parts of the physical manuscript. The Codex Sinaiticus Project was launched in 2005 in an attempt to reunite the surviving pages of the document which have been kept in different locations for over 150 years and to encourage the publication of new research into the history of the Codex.

In the words of Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Manuscripts at the British Library:

‘The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world’s greatest written treasures… This
1600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early
Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the bible was
transmitted from generation to generation. The project has uncovered evidence
that a fourth scribe – along with the three already recognised – worked on the
text; the availability of the virtual manuscript for study by scholars around
the world creates opportunities for collaborative research that would not have
been possible just a few years ago.’

The online transcription also includes previously unseen pages of the manuscript. Professor David Parker from the University of Birmingham’s Department of Theology directed the team that worked on the electronic transcription. He explained how:

‘The transcription includes pages of the Codex which were found in a blocked-off
room at the Monastery of St Catherine in 1975, some of which were in poor
condition. This is the first time that they have been published.’

The Codex Sinaiticus was written by hand in uncial letters on vellum parchment in the mid-fourth century around the time of Constantine the Great. Although it originally contained the whole of the Old and New Testaments, half of the Old Testament has since been lost. It is believed that the Codex would have originally contained around 1,460 pages. The surviving manuscript concludes with two early Christian texts, an epistle ascribed to the Apostle Barnabas and ‘The Shepherd’ by Hermas, which were subsequently dropped from both Catholic and Protestant bibles. Codex Sinaiticus is named after the Monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Moses in Sinai built between 527 and 565 by the order of the Emperor Justinian to house the remains of the Christian martyr St Catherine.

The Codex is also particularly significant because it is believed to be one of the oldest bound books. Dr McKendrick described the Codex Sinaiticus as:

‘a landmark in the history of the book, as it is arguably the oldest large bound
book to have survived. For one volume to contain all the Christian scriptures
book manufacture had to make a great technological leap forward – an advance
comparable to the introduction of movable type or the availability of word
processing. The Codex was huge in length – originally over 1460 pages – and
large in page size, with each page measuring 16 inches tall by 14 inches wide.
Critically, it marks the definite triumph of bound codices over scrolls – a key
watershed in how the Christian bible was regarded as a sacred text.’

To celebrate the online reunification of the Codex, ‘From Parchment to Pixel: The Virtual Reunification of Codex Sinaiticus’ opened on Monday July 6th at the British Library. The exhibition presents the newly reunified Codex Sinaiticus and the associated project through a display of historic items, interactive representations of the manuscript and other relevant artefacts and events, such as historical news footage, blown up details of Codex Sinaiticus pages, and digital reconstructions of the textual development of certain pages. For the very first time, the two volumes of the Codex Sinaiticus held at the British Library will also be on display in the Treasures Gallery.

For further information on the history of the Codex Sinaiticus, read our article

From Parchment to Pixel: The Virtual Reunification of Codex Sinaiticus
Until September 7th
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
- Codex Sinaiticus detail from the Book of Psalms (British Library)
- Codex Sinaiticus open at John chapter 5 (British Library)
- Codex Sinaiticus detail showing a skeletal parchment feature on Quire 41 (British Library)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Pan-African Cultural Festival

by Kathryn Hadley

The Second Pan-African Cultural Festival officially opened in Algiers on Sunday July 5th, Algerian independence day, with a concert in the capital. 48 countries are taking part in the festival gathering over 8,000 artists and writers from all over Africa.

The festival is organised by the Organisation of African Unity and the Algerian government to mark forty years since the original festival in July 1969, which, in the aftermath of the colonial era, celebrated African art and culture in the belief that Africans had the capacity to shape their own history. Focusing on the theme of African Renaissance, this year’s events include theatre productions, film screenings, exhibitions, dance, music and a series of lectures.

From July 13th to 15th, a conference entitled ‘L’entreprise coloniale et la lutte armée de libération en Afrique’ will consider the history of liberation movements in Africa, how the struggle for independence in Algeria inspired other movements and the Algerian decision to support other struggles for independence in Africa and worldwide. Two other conferences will explore the original Pan-African Festival held in 1969 and the history of colonisation in Africa. The festival will also include a presentation and screening of two documentaries by the Algerian cineaste Lamine Merbah and the South African Suleyman Ramadan on the theme ‘Algeria and liberation movements’.

For further information on the original festival read our article by Martin Evans published in our July issue Decolonising Minds: The Pan-African Cultural Festival

Friday, 3 July 2009

Rare Photos of Colonial East Africa Online

by Kathryn Hadley

An online collection of thousands of rare photographs chronicling Europe’s colonisation of East Africa went live last week, on June 25th, on the website of the Library of Northwestern University (Illinois). The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960 includes approximately 7,610 photographs. It was assembled by the British collector Winterton over about 30 years and organised in 76 separate albums, scrapbooks or loose collections. The collection was acquired by Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies in 2002.

The photographs were mostly taken by explorers, military officers, colonial officials, settlers, missionaries, travellers and early commercial photographers and depict the breadth of African life during the colonial era. They include formal and informal portraits of Africans and their colonisers, photos of slaves and slave traders, of the British bombardment of Zanzibar in 1896, as well as images depicting the building of the east African railway and daily life in Africa. One of the oldest photographs in the collection shows a Zanzibar slave market in approximately 1860.

According to Jonathon Glassman, a Northwestern University associate professor of history and specialist in 19th- and 20th-century East Africa and comparative race and slavery the collection’s particular value lies in its unusual subject matter:
‘The most familiar photographs from this era tend to dwell on what photographers
considered East Africa’s glamorous aspects - its spectacular wildlife,
landscapes, settler life or the occasional posed portrait of an African sultan
or Maasai warrior […] What stands out about the collection is the large number
of items that document prosaic matters - matters that are precisely the most
difficult for the student of African history to get a handle on.’

It is possible to search for photographs by subject, keyword, people, place or time or to browse the entire collection in a way that simulates flipping through a photo album. In its pilot stage the collection was notably used to research the lineage of President Barack Obama. 31 photos of people and places were found including images of Kavirondo warriors in western Kenya from whom his father is believed to have descended.

The Winterton Collection is now the third Herskovits Library collection available online. The two others are a collection of 113 antique African maps dating from the 16th to the early 20th century and a collection of 590 posters reflecting the culture and politics of contemporary African nations. It is available on the website of the website of Northwestern University Library.

For further information on various aspects of African history, visit our Africa focus page.
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