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.


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