Staff Spotlight: Felicity Hill

Blog written by Dr Felicity Hill. Dr Hill’s research is focused on social and religious history. Her forthcoming book, Excommunication in Thirteenth-Century England: Community, Politics and Publicity (Oxford University Press), examines the social, political and spiritual consequences of the medieval church’s most severe sanction. 

Dr Felicity Hill

I came to St Andrews at the start of 2019 as a lecturer in medieval history, leaving a postdoc at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Before that I was based in London and have degrees from Manchester, UCL, and University of East Anglia. I’m currently in the final stages of turning my PhD thesis into a book—fingers crossed it’ll come out next year.

The book looks at the practice of excommunication in thirteenth-century England. Excommunication was the church’s most powerful weapon, and it affected everyone from popes, kings and emperors to artisans, peasants, monks, nuns and priests. Children couldn’t be excommunicated, but they would witness announcements of excommunication sentences (which were made in vernacular languages rather than Latin). All sorts of offences could result in excommunication. Some were very serious (murder), others far less so (nicking some herbs). A considerable proportion involved injuring clerics or clerical property. Buying a baby in order to pass it off as someone else’s heir or simply being Scottish could get you excommunicated in thirteenth-century Britain.

My book is a social and political history, focusing on what it meant to be excommunicated and the consequences for people at all levels of society. Because enforcement was in the hands of the community, which was supposed to ostracise excommunicates, the effects of excommunication were by no means limited to the individual. People reacted in all sorts of ways. ‘We’d rather go to hell than give in’ is one of my favourite rejections (in a dispute about taxes). Others said that they thought their excommunications were unfair and that they were willing to take their chances with God. Most people, however, did reconcile with the church by seeking absolution sooner or later. Excommunicates were, however, angry about the publicity that accompanied excommunication – constant denunciations that painted excommunicates as ‘sons of Belial’, ‘limbs of the devil’, ‘satellites of Satan’, forcefully condemning their actions and damaging their reputations. Bad press, rather than any shunning, was the worst part. I am particularly interested how sentences were publicised: excommunication was an early form of mass communication.

While there is a lot of information about excommunicates—bishops’ registers in particular provide so much rich material about people’s lives—we have very incomplete records for some types of analysis. One of the things I am asked most often is how many people were excommunicated. It’s a question I cannot answer. Any attempt to give a sense is made difficult by the huge gulf between the assumptions of medieval historians and everyone else. Many people tend to think that excommunication must have been very serious in the Middle Ages and so have been rare, so I need to explain that it was used quite routinely and certainly wasn’t exceptional. Amongst medievalists, on the other hand, the idea that excommunication was overused and so of little interest has taken hold. This is too far: excommunication had fascinating and important effects for individuals, communities and politics.

When not teaching or working on my book, my COVID-year has involved a lot of (unplanned) DIY. It’s been a good lockdown distraction and provided a change of scenery when we’re not allowed to go anywhere (painting especially). As much as I’m pleased with my new-found skills, I am very much looking forward to returning to the pub garden this summer.

Publication Spotlight: Political Advice: Past, Present and Future

Blog written by Prof Colin Kidd and Dr Jacqueline Rose. Their new book Political Advice: Past, Present and Future is now available from Bloomsbury.

‘Could you give me some advice?’ is a question we have all asked at various times in our lives. But whom do we ask? When do we turn to a person that we feel we can trust, a friend we can confide in, somebody with experience and expertise in a particular area, or someone whose job it is to advise on such matters? Such questions are daunting. But how much more fraught for political leaders, who take decisions on crucial matters far beyond their knowledge base, is the selection of appropriate advisers.

Few would dispute the need for political advice, yet it has a remarkable propensity to cause problems. Is the leader listening to enough people? To the right people? Are they listening at all? Do they have to? Can they be made to and, if so, would this be by formally constraining them to hear advice or by changing the way in which that counsel is presented? There are certain functions that advice perennially performs—compensating for a leader’s limited knowledge, time, and (occasionally) abilities; balancing long-term objectives with crises that require immediate attention; resolving conflicts and extracting consent; providing support in the lonely and dauntingly burdensome business of governing. Yet the mechanisms for managing it have varied over time and space. Indeed, what works for one president or prime minister may be disastrous for their successor: some respond well to rigidly structured advice, others thrive in a seemingly undisciplined atmosphere in which they receive multiple pieces of conflicting counsel.

Dr Jacqueline Rose

It was with the aim of reflecting on these themes that we embarked on what became Political Advice: Past, Present and Future. Somewhat embarrassingly for a pair of historians, we can’t pinpoint its precise beginning and causes. But it may have had something to do with conversations about Joan Quigley, the Reagans’ astrologer, an adviser on auspicious dates whose role, originally revealed by a disgruntled former chief of staff, proved to be a revealing way into the politics of counsel in the late-twentieth century White House. The themes of formal vs informal advice, access and influence, and the interplay of personal trust with official constitutional structures, seemed to be ones offering excellent opportunities for dialogue across periods and disciplines.

Assembling a team of interdisciplinary contributors from academia and public life, we began with a day-long workshop in the ‘Public Life’ series at All Souls College, Oxford, settling on a date of 8 June 2017. As it turned out, we were not the only ones for whom 8 June 2017 ended up being an important day, for it was the one that the then-prime minister, Theresa May, chose as the date for a snap general election. The aftermath of that election included the high-profile removal of May’s joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Media attention to the vicissitudes of advice in the Trump White House, the advent of Dominic Cummings as a key adviser to Boris Johnson, and a steady stream of reports about projects to reform Whitehall kept political advice constantly in the news during the period in which our volume took shape.

Prof Colin Kidd

Even as we put the final touches to the introduction in early 2020, conflicts over ministerial control of special advisers and civil service reform were still making headlines. We thought we were up to date in including a mention of Sajid Javid’s resignation letter, which urged the importance of advice. It’s just as well, therefore, that we expressed ‘the characteristic historian’s caution about predicting tomorrow’s headlines’ in the acknowledgements (dated February 2020). For the volume ended up being dispatched on one of the last days before we moved to working from home. In the early weeks of lockdown, it looked like the politics of advice had vanished from view. A year later, less so. At the point of publication, the other forecast in our acknowledgements—that ‘future events will continue to generate stories about political advice’—holds true. Indeed, the still-unfolding story about who gave what advice to whom and when during the pandemic demonstrates the vital and contested role of political advice—past, present, and future.

Staff Spotlight: Felicity Loughlin

Blog written by Dr Felicity Loughlin. Dr Loughlin is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of St Andrews, where she is working on the ‘Learning & Unbelief’ strand of the After the Enlightenment project. Her research and teaching interests lie in the intellectual, cultural and religious history of Scotland and Europe, c.1650–c.1850.

I came to St Andrews as a postdoctoral Research Fellow in September 2018. I’ve spent over two happy years here as part of the After the Enlightenment project team. Before that, I was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, where I wrote my thesis on the Scottish Enlightenment’s fascination with ‘pagan’ (non-Abrahamic) religious cultures. I’m now working on transforming my thesis into my first book, The Scottish Enlightenment Confronts the Gods: Paganism & the Nature of Religion.

More generally, I’m fascinated by the history of religious belief, which has profoundly shaped how individuals view the world and their place within it. I’m especially interested in how religious thought and ideas about religion have contributed to long-term patterns of intellectual and cultural change. Joining the After Enlightenment project has allowed me to pursue these interests in the context of nineteenth-century Scotland.

The project aims to explore Scottish intellectual life, c.1789–1843, reconstructing the legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment’s debates in three fundamental areas: natural philosophy, political economy, and religion. My contribution belongs to the religion strand and focuses on unbelief. Working with a variety of colourful material (anti-infidel apologetics, freethinking newspapers, court records, catalogues of infidel bookshops, and scientific, literary, theological, and historical writings), my research seeks to answer several interlocking questions. What did unbelief mean in the early nineteenth century? How far did unbelievers continue the religious debates of the Scottish Enlightenment? In what ways did they take unbelief in new directions? And how did infidelism, and the civil and ecclesiastical responses it elicited, transform the Scottish religious landscape?

Pamphlet produced in 1824 by the Edinburgh Freethinkers’ Zetetic Society, found in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh. Credit: Felicity Loughlin

Strikingly, unbelievers are at present almost entirely absent from existing historiography on nineteenth-century Scotland. Yet from the 1820s, unbelievers of various stripes – including sceptics, deists, and atheists – acquired unprecedented visibility in Scotland’s urban communities. Freethinking societies were formed in numerous towns and cities, attracting hundreds of members from the middling and lower classes, and infidel bookshops appeared in Glasgow and Edinburgh, prompting the last blasphemy trials in Scottish history. Numerous scientific and literary works were also accused of endorsing or fomenting unbelief, including the writings of the phrenologist George Combe (1788–1858), the writer Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), and the publisher Robert Chambers (1802–71). Christian thinkers engaged actively with the perceived rise of unbelief, responding diversely with abhorrence, qualified respect, or sympathy. Strikingly, shared commitment to issues such as freedom of speech, ultimately led to tentative alliances between certain religious and non-religious groups. Debates on religion were often framed in highly emotive language, and I’ve recently become especially interested in probing the emotional as well as intellectual factors that determined changing belief positions and relations between believers and unbelievers.

Outside of work, I very much enjoy walking along the coastal and forest paths of the beautiful Fife countryside. I’m also an enthusiastic (if rather unskilled) knitter, an activity that became particularly attractive in the cold winter months. A great advantage of living in the vicinity of St Andrews is proximity to its excellent selection of cafés, and I very much look forward to partaking of their tea and cakes once again when they reopen!

Staff Spotlight: Bridget Heal

Blog written by Professor Bridget Heal. Professor Heal’s research focusses on the long-term impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on German society and culture. She has published two monographs: The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500-1648 (2014) and A Magnificent Faith: Art and Identity in Lutheran Germany (2017).

I came to St Andrews in 2002. Before that (long, long ago) I studied history and art history in Cambridge and London and had a postdoctoral research position in Cambridge. St Andrews has been home for nearly 20 years now, and I’m very grateful for the colleagues and students who make it such a fantastic place to live and work. As a historian of Germany, I try to spend as much time as possible there. I’ve lived in Nuremberg, Munich, Cologne and most recently Berlin. Much as I love St Andrews, it’s great to escape to a big city now and again. My son, Tom, was born in 2007. Because of my work he’s spent 3 years living in Berlin and has developed a strong liking for Currywurst.

A bronze statue of Martin Luther, in front of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Ad Meskens. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

My research focuses on the long-term impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on German society and culture. I’ve always been particularly interested in images, and in the ways in which historians use visual evidence. My first book, based on my PhD, drew on both visual and textual sources to investigate what happened to the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary during the Reformation era. My second explains why Lutheranism, a confession that is usually understood as being built around the spoken and printed word, made such extensive use of images. It originated in my desire to explain seeming paradoxes like the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden, a Lutheran church that deployed the visual idioms of the Catholic baroque and was compared by eighteenth-century observers to St Peter’s in Rome. If you want to know more, I wrote a blog.

Epitaph for Christian Lehmann and Euphrosyna Lehmann, born Kreusel, parish church, Scheibenberg (Saxony). Credit: Bridget Heal

I’m working now on a very different project: a religious history of the Thirty Years War (1618-48). During my research on Lutheran art I came across a wonderful set of sources written by a pastor, Christian Lehmann. He served in a small mining village in southern Saxony for 50 years from 1638-88 and witnessed the worst predations of the war and its difficult aftermath. I am using his writings and the records relating to his parish as the basis for a book that examines the role of religion in the survival and recovery of individuals and communities during Germany’s first ‘Great War’. Lehmann’s writings are excellent to work with, as he recorded all kinds of interesting things, from local gossip to ghost stories. And he had nice handwriting – something historians of early modern Germany can never take for granted.

Since lockdown, and the temporary end of research trips to Germany, my main achievement has been the acquisition of a kitten, Clio. I’m hoping that someday she’ll grow into her role as a muse of history and stop bouncing off the furniture. In the meantime, she’s made some star appearances on Teams…

February 7, 2021- Day of Solidarity with Belarus

Blog written by Dr Tomasz Kamusella. Dr Kamusella an interdisciplinary historian of modern central and eastern Europe, with a focus on language politics and nationalism.

Belarus hardly features in the western or Anglo-American mind. When I arrived at the University of St Andrews a decade ago with the remit to teach Central and Eastern European history, our library did not sport a single monograph on this country. Most St Andrews students’ hands-on knowledge of Europe ends with Germany, beyond which a blurry area of numerous states intervenes before Russia emerges in the east as a huge splash of color on their mental map. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the unprecedented eastward enlargements of the European Union (1995, 2004, 2007, 2013), has hardly corrected this Cold War myopia.

Historically speaking, today’s Belarus and Lithuania used to constitute the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In turn, this Grand Duchy was the eastern half of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. When in the late 18th century Poland-Lithuania was erased from the political map of Europe, Russia annexed four-fifths of the polity’s territory, including the Grand Duchy. In the wake of the Great War, independent Belarus emerged, but Bolshevik Russia’s war on Poland led to the partition of Belarus between those two countries in 1921. Uniquely, interwar Soviet Belarus was officially quadrilingual, with Belarusian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish as its four official languages. In 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union formed an alliance and together attacked Poland. The partition of interwar Poland led to the unification of the majority of the ethnically Belarusian lands in Soviet Belarus. In 1941, Germany’s onslaught on the Soviet Union (1941-1945) pushed Belarus into the very center of wartime genocide, wanton destruction, and multiple occupations. After World War II, due to Soviet politicking, Soviet Belarus (alongside Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union) became a founding member of the United Nations.

In 1991, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine – as the sole three Soviet republics with their own seats in the UN – decided to dissolve the Soviet Union. Independent Belarus became a vibrant democratic country. However, the exigencies of market-oriented reforms led to the 1994 election of Alexander Lukashenko (Aljaksandr Łukašenka in Belarusian) as President, on a promise to recreate a Soviet system in Belarus. All of the subsequent presidential elections (in 2001, 2006, 2010, 2015, and 2020) were neither free nor fair, in line with the Leninist-Stalinist principle that those who count the votes win the elections. In 2005, this fact earned Lukashenko’s Belarus the moniker of ‘Europe’s last dictatorship.’ Uniquely for the European states, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights.

Prior to the last presidential election in August 2020, as usual, the Lukashenko regime either refused to register or imprisoned any viable candidates. What Lukashenko did not take into account, however, was that a new post-Soviet generation of Belarusians was born, raised and educated during the last quarter of a century, a generation with access to the internet and relatively free travel to the neighboring EU states of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This generation considers themselves Europeans, and they want to live like their peers in Riga, Vilnius and Warsaw. As such, they have refused to accept the most recent, and blatantly rigged, election results in which Lukashenko claims victory. In reality he did not get more than 10 percent of the votes. The official results, unlike those in the past, have not been recognised by a single Western country. Rather, the unlikely winner by a landslide is an imprisoned candidate’s wife who ran in the election in his place, namely, 38-year-old Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja in Belarusian). After the election, the authorities intimidated her into leaving the country for Lithuania. With the Lithuanian government’s help, Tsikhanouskaya has established her Belarusian government-in-exile in Vilnius.

After the rigged election, Belarusians of all ages and walks of life have risen in spontaneous, unceasing and peaceful protests in Minsk and across the country, despite the repeated switch-offs of the internet and mobile phone networks. Every weekend crowds have been streaming in the streets or organising neighbourhood meetings and concerts. They protest under the red-white-red national tricolor, hated by the regime. The security forces have done their best to provoke the protesters into violence by unleashing indiscriminate beatings and incarcerations. Over 30,000 people have been thrown into prison, where they are beaten, raped, tortured, and starved. At least five protesters have lost their lives, and ten have suffered from shotgun wounds at the hands of the security forces.

What do the Belarusians want? Just the European norm, namely, a free and democratic country, fair elections, the rule of law, and respect for human and civil rights. But in Lukashenko’s dictatorship this is too much to ask. That is why this time Europe and the free world should listen to and help the protesters. Learn more about what you can do to help here.

Further information on the latest election in Belarus can be found here:

https://www.euronews.com/2020/08/11/belarus-election-opposition-sviatlana-tsikhanouskaya-now-safe-after-fleeing-to-lithuania

https://tsikhanouskaya.org/en/representatives/

https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/09/crackdown-peaceful-protesters-escalates-belarus

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54953599

https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/belarus-revolution-of-dignity-by-adam-michnik-and-slawomir-sierakowski-2020-08?barrier=accesspaylog

https://www.dw.com/en/belarus-police-violence-against-protesters/a-55804483

https://www.svaboda.org/a/31038312.html

https://theconversation.com/young-belarusians-are-turning-away-from-russia-and-looking-towards-europe-145562

Staff Spotlight: Huw Halstead

Blog written by Dr Huw Halstead. Dr Halstead is a Research Fellow on the ERC-funded project ‘Dictatorship as experience: a comparative history of everyday life and the ‘lived experience’ of dictatorship in Mediterranean Europe (1922-1975)’ led by Dr Kate Ferris.

­When I was an undergraduate student looking for a dissertation topic, I was asked to consider what it was in particular about history that I found engaging. I struggled for a sensible response and ultimately came out with something along these lines: ‘I guess I’m interested in the little stories in history’. At the time, I felt that my answer was a bit inadequate. But, in one way or another, the search for history’s little stories has underpinned my research ever since.

My interest in the tales people tell about their pasts has led me to spend a lot of time talking to people directly about their historical experiences. This sometimes involves formal sit-down interviews in fairly controlled settings, but at other times takes on a more anthropological and ethnographic character. I sometimes refer to this latter part of my research as ‘ethnokafenology’, which is a wonderful term coined by archaeologist Bill Alexander to describe chatting with the elderly patrons of village and neighbourhood cafés as a means of learning something about the past. These more informal and multivocal encounters often throw up information and perspectives that wouldn’t necessarily come up in the course of more formal one-to-one oral history interviews. Extending this concept to other everyday settings, I’ve variously conducted ‘interviews’, for instance, outside a nightclub, in a barbershop, and trailing a shepherd with his flock around the outskirts of a village.

I completed my PhD in History from the University of York. I wrote about the expatriated Greeks of Istanbul and Imbros, who, persecuted on the basis of their ethnic and religious identity, left their birthplaces in Turkey in the second half of the twentieth century and resettled in Greece. My focus was on how members of these communities used stories about the past—both their own recent histories and more distant historical legacies—in their everyday lives as they sought to process their displacement and to negotiate their sense of self and belonging in their new places of residence. This led to my 2019 book Greeks without Greece, published by Routledge. I’ve also worked more broadly on the Mediterranean world and former Ottoman territories, having written about how Armenians, Assyrians, Cypriots, Kurds, and Turks relate to, contest, and/or borrow from each other’s stories about their shared pasts in print and digital media.

I came to St Andrews in 2018 to work on Kate Ferris’ ERC-funded ‘Everyday Dictatorship’ project. We’re exploring what it was actually like for people to live under dictatorial regimes in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. I’m focusing particularly on everyday life under the dictatorships of Metaxas (1936-1941) and the Colonels (1967-1974) in Greece. Again, what drives my interest is the little stories that indicate how—on local levels and in intimate settings—people adopted, adapted, ignored, evaded, and/or accommodated themselves to the ideologies and diktats of dictatorial rulers. At the moment, I’m also hosting a podcast called Miniatures on which we invite guests from various fields (historians and non-historians) to discuss their research with a focus on the ‘miniature’—the local, the individual, the everyday—and what these miniature histories can in turn reveal about the big picture in history.

Like many people, I think, the global pandemic has changed how I spend my time outside work, with a lot of my normal pastimes currently inaccessible. So, inspired in part by my interviewees from this Twitter paper, I’ve been trying to use the spatial restrictions to find new ways of looking at and experiencing familiar places, for instance looking for new walking routes around my local area, or noticing interesting details with the kind of curiosity I might have if I was visiting a place for the first time. Look out for this and other stories about everyday life under pandemic on an episode of Miniatures coming soon!

Publication Spotlight: A Companion to Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome

Blog written by Dr Emily Michelson. Dr Michelson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, and her work focuses on the cultural and religious history of early modern Italy. She worked on the ‘Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome’ project (2018) with postdoctoral researcher Dr Matthew Coneys Wainwright. His research deals with late medieval and early modern Italian pilgrimage culture, travel writing and the history of the book between manuscript and print. He currently teaches at the University of Oxford and the Warburg Institute.

Dr Emily Michelson

We are really excited about A Companion to Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome, which is the product of an AHRC early-career leadership grant: Dr Emily Michelson was the grant-holder and Dr Matthew Coneys Wainwright the stellar postdoc. The papers were developed in two workshops, one held at St Andrews and the other at the British School of Rome, with other scholars joining the project later. 

The project itself is exciting because it dismantles the assumption that Papal Rome was Catholic and homogenous in the early modern period.  The essays in our volume look at all of the different religious groups and individuals that passed through or lived in Rome and the many ways they made an impact.  

Dr Matthew Coneys Wainwright

We think this is an especially important project because the city of Rome has more layers of meaning than any other place in Europe. In the period this book covers, the Eternal City had a triple function. It provided Europe’s strongest link to the classical past and was revered as the gateway to antiquity. As the capital of the powerful Papal States, it was also a major political player. Above all, Rome was the religious heart of a growing, newly global Catholicism. Roman institutions and governments put a huge amount of effort into making their city seem pure, holy, and uniform. They wanted it to seem like a perfect model of Catholic piety as they set out to evangelize the entire known world. They would probably have hated what we’ve uncovered. 

One of the things that makes the book meaningful to us is that nobody could have written it alone – it relies on too many different and specific areas of expertise.   It discusses Ethiopian humanists, Eastern Orthodox pilgrims, enslaved Muslim galley workers, Jewish and formerly-Jewish scholars, Japanese and Persian ambassadors, Portuguese conversos, and European Protestants. Another thing we’re really pleased about is the range of scholars who contributed to this work. Our authors live or work in (if we’ve counted right) seven countries on three continents; some are junior scholars and others are very senior. Their approaches are very different: some analyse images, some do close textual readings, some crunch numbers. A few of them have also included valuable primary sources for future use. They were all deeply committed to the volume and we are impressed with their work. We’re especially pleased that almost every group discussed in the volume is the subject of more than one essay. It suggests that none of us has the final word, and that there’s far more left to study. We’ve also tried to allow for blurred boundaries as much as possible. People bore more than one identity and related to their backgrounds in complex ways, just as they do today.  We hope this shows that the volume is intended to start new and lasting conversations about religious encounters in the early modern world.

Hunting Big Game: The Military Power of Louis XIV and the French Artillery and Arms Industries

Blog written by Professor Guy Rowlands. Prof Rowlands’ principal research interests lie in the history of war, in the emergence of the modern European state in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and the nature and development of international relations in the period 1598-1792.

Prof Guy Rowlands wearing a WWI French artillery uniform at the Artillery Museum in Provence.

If I can begin by sounding like Ernest Hemingway, I only hunt big game, and Louis XIV (r.1643-1715), whom I have been tracking for 28 years, is one of the biggest beasts in the historical jungle. But the thrill of the chase is far greater than the satisfaction of a kill, and of course in history nobody ever really has the last word. There’s never really an end to controversy about any given subject. Louis XIV has been pursued by myriad historians, especially in France, but also since the 1950s (in a serious fashion) in the U.K. and North America. His era is so rich in material reflecting the activities and ideas of the time it’s an almost inexhaustible seam for scholars to mine. The difficulty with such a familiar field, however, is making a difference, and after over half a century of monographs and doctorates on the reign, and in my case nearly thirty years of research on him, I am not altogether sure what difference I have made…

My starting point, from my final year as an undergraduate, was a deep scepticism about traditional French historiography—a kind of French ‘Whiggism’ that stressed the onward march of the impersonal, centralising state—and at least some cynicism about recent Anglo-American suggestions that Louis’ reign was founded upon consensus and cooperation with the elites. My interest in the armed forces of France then led me deep into the French war archives for my doctorate to examine the relationship between the king and the most senior and prestigious military officers in the second half of his personal rule, a period I have recently argued (with Julia Prest) constituted Louis XIV’s ‘third reign’ after c. 1682. After expanding the doctorate into a wider book on how the French army was transformed from a chaotic shambles in the 1650s to a much smoother and gigantic machine by the 1690s, I then found myself sucked into military finance and from there into the much wider problems of French state finances more generally in the 1690s and 1700s. While Britain remodelled its fiscal and credit machinery in the ‘financial revolution’, France—using some of the same tools—continued down a pathway of restricted taxation on the elites coupled with currency devaluation, illiquid financial instruments, and the use of military paymasters as the greatest creditors of the monarchy. This then led me onto a third book about the international bankers serving France during the War of the Spanish Succession, when vast amounts of state revenues, for eye-watering transaction costs, were sucked out of the country to fuel Louis XIV’s war efforts abroad. As Stanley Baldwin might have said in a later context, there seemed to be an awful lot of hard-faced men who looked like they had done well out of war at the end of Louis XIV’s reign.

A painting of the siege of Tournai from the 1740s showing the artillery in camp. Credit: Photo (C) Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Marc Manaï

All this adds up to a career thus far pursued in investigating what historians have come to call the ‘fiscal-military state’ in the early modern period (as opposed to the laissez-faire states of the Anglo-American world in the 1815-1914 period and the war and welfare states of the period c. 1914-89). Rarely, however, does a single book bring together equally deep treatment of both the fiscal and military halves of this model, indeed the number can really be counted on the fingers of one hand. But this is what I have now embarked on doing in a study based on 28 years of archival research that will examine the French land army’s artillery and armaments systems throughout the reign of Louis XIV. This book looks at its military structures and their relationship to the monarchy, the embryonic artillery corps and its officers, the gunpowder and weaponry contractors, the financiers dedicated to this arm, the transportation system for heavy weapons, and the logistical infrastructure. This will be the farthest plumbing of the depths yet achieved on the way the French monarchy’s military system worked, thanks to the richness of the administrative papers. As the artillery was headed by a Grand Master, this office’s documentation in the 1700s and the remaining judicial papers of the special artillery tribunal in the Paris Arsenal open a massive window onto the problems faced by contractors, sub-contractors, junior military officers, and magazine keepers in a way that is simply not available for the other three arms of the army: the cavalry, infantry, and dragoons. One of the most fascinating avenues I have been able to pursue has been an investigation of the place of horses in the artillery. These were not the sleek, fast mounts of the cavalry but the powerful, muscular beasts bred for pulling coaches and waggons. Even so, the rate of attrition on campaign was horrific, and how their teamsters and suppliers managed them promises insights not only into the place of animals in armies but also into the problems of feeding and caring for them under massive physical strain.

The duc du Maine, Grand Master of the Artillery, 1694-1736. Credit:

This book will also challenge head-on the notion that administrative progress and operational effectiveness were primarily caused by ministerial energy and exhortation, something that is still a shibboleth of French historiography. Instead, ministers’ interventions were just as likely to prove miserably and damagingly counterproductive. More guns that ministers ordered did not mean an inherently better or more orderly system. In fact, excessive efforts by ministers to control the artillery opened the door to vast levels of corruption only proved half a century later…. More mundane and steady improvements were pushed forward by the Grand Masters of the Artillery, especially the king’s favourite bastard child, the duc du Maine, in his term in office after 1694. Some senior artillery officers and a range of private contractors—some rotten to the core, others diligent and scrupulous—also had significant influence on shaping the fourth, Cinderella arm of the land army (after the cavalry, dragoons, and infantry).

This was an era described by one contemporary as ‘the virile age’ of artillery, when cannon began to be deployed in colossal numbers, yet scientific use of heavy weapons was in its infancy, and weak military discipline and education devalued the operational potential of the guns in the field. More importantly, however, the French artillery—the largest body of land-based guns in the world at this time, and one supplied by metals from as far afield as China and Japan—was let down by an infrastructure too underdeveloped for the scale of the state’s operations and strategic needs. Studying the French artillery has really brought it home to me how important the logistical geography of a state, as well as its strategic geography, is to a country’s fate in war. I hope others will also begin to investigate in a systematic way the importance of logistical geography in international relations and in state development.

Staff Spotlight: Dr Amy Blakeway

Blog written by Dr Amy Blakeway. Dr Blakeway is a lecturer in Scottish History with interests in political history broadly defined, ranging from Parliament and the Privy Council to propaganda and poetry, and in Scotland’s relations with England and France. 

I joined St Andrews in January 2019 from the University of Kent. Before that I had a postdoctoral (Junior Research) Fellowship in Cambridge, before that I was the Fulbright-Robertson Visiting Professor in Westminster College, Missouri, and before that I did my PhD (also at Cambridge). Throughout all of this I visited Scotland and St Andrews regularly for research, and I was thrilled to be able to come here permanently! 

My research focuses on sixteenth-century Scotland. My first book was on Regency in the sixteenth century, offering a revisionist account of how the Scots adjusted their political systems to adapt to successive royal minorities in the period. I am in the process of making final revisions to my second book, on the parliaments of James V, and looking forward to getting stuck into my next one, which will focus on the Anglo-Scottish wars of the 1540s. This probably makes it clear I’m a political historian, interested in power structures and the institutions through which these were mediated, but I’m also very interested in propaganda and persuasion— soft power, if you like— and how this played a central role in political life in sixteenth-century Scotland.  

Bramble the dog

Like most historians, I think the most interesting thing about me by a country mile is my work: how can ANYONE hope to beat the fat parrots, misbehaving dogs, drunk women making incisive political commentary in taverns and snappy sarcastic comments from ambassadors which make up my primary source material? However, obviously sometimes my eyes do get tired from the palaeography and I do other, less interesting, things. I don’t play sport (except the team games of ‘eat all the scones’ and ‘drink all the tea’, at which I have probably achieved an international standard), but I do enjoy walking and have recently started learning a bit about foraging (berries to put into aforementioned scones are always a bonus to a walk!), as well as gardening (though frankly this is a bit of a fail, I grew a single tomato this year, which stayed green and hard as a bullet). My companion in these ventures is Bramble, our black Labrador. We got her just before lockdown and she’s currently in her teenage rebellion phase— her recent burglaries include a thermometer, the TV remote and a whole block of cheese, all of which she ‘explored’ with her mouth, provoking various degrees of anxiety on discovery! When things get a bit safer I hope she can come to St Andrews and join me on the beach for walks with my students. She will need to curtail her penchant for petty theft first— even though I think she’s cute enough to get away with almost anything!   

Indian Women and Global Narratives of Human Rights

Blog written by Dr Rosalind Parr. Dr Parr is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews where she teaches modules on South Asian and Global History. Her first monograph, Citizens of Everywhere. Indian women, anti-colonialism and global liberalism, 1920s – 1950s, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.

Dr Rosalind Parr

In December 2018, the United Nations (UN) launched a new exhibition at its headquarters in New York to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Amongst the personalities to appear was Hansa Mehta, an anti-colonial activist and leader of the Indian women’s movement.  In the past, official UN celebrations of the UDHR maintained a fixed focus on the figure of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first Chair of the Commission of Human Rights.  The current UN narrative is somewhat more inclusive. Alongside the exhibition in New York, the UN’s digital content now name-checks a wider cast of characters drawn from Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.  Strikingly, the focus is overwhelmingly on women.

The UN’s current emphasis on the role of non-Western women in shaping its early history is no accident.  The field of gender equality is perhaps the area of UN work where the spectre of cultural imperialism looms largest.  Sensitive to the charge of imposing Euro-American values on the Global South, the organisation is on a mission to emphasise its diverse past. By highlighting the contribution made by Hansa Mehta and others to the authoring of human rights, the UN seeks to uphold an alternative, universalist imagining of gender equality. 

HM UN: Hansa Mehta on the Commission for Human Rights.

The UN’s universalist claims have long been critiqued as neo-liberal cover for latter-day Western imperialism. When viewed from this angle, its appropriation of women from the Global South as historical human rights ambassadors appears tokenistic, if not misleading. 

No doubt the UN’s celebration of Mehta’s historical role derives from a present-day universalist agenda. Yet her interactions with the UN reflect a real and long-term engagement by Indian women activists with international networks dating back several decades. Far from representing a homogenous globalism, Mehta’s work at the UN reflects a distinct strand of anti-colonial women’s activism rooted in the conditions of India.

The UN’s communications are right to identify the role played by Mehta in shaping the UDHR. However, in presenting this as part of a universal narrative, it flattens out the particular processes by which she and others came to be part of this history.  It also overlooks the specificity of Indian women’s approach to rights which evolved in the context of women’s struggles in Indian.  This included a distinct perspective that pursued women’s rights against the claims of traditional customs and orthodox religious communities.

The ‘local’ Indian context underpinned women’s international activities, which I examine in my forthcoming book, Citizens of Everywhere. Indian women, anti-colonialism and global liberalism, 1920s – 1950s. Culminating with Mehta’s contribution to the drafting of the UDHR after Indian independence, the book begins over half a century earlier. In 1895, the future poet and Indian nationalist leader, Sarojini Naidu (1889-1949) boarded a boat bound for Europe. Naidu, unusually for a woman, was sent as a teenager to complete her education in Britain.  Although she quickly abandoned her studies in favour of literary pursuits, her time in London brought her contacts that would later facilitate her international career.

As the first Indian woman President of the Indian National Congress, Naidu is credited with inspiring the generation of women who came of age in the 1920s. Hailing from a learned Bengali family, she was a link between the emerging women’s movement and long-standing Indian traditions of social reform and cultural revivalism. In practical terms, her engagement with international women’s conferences and liberal networks in America established new forms of political practice for internationally focussed Indian women. Hansa Mehta, then a student in her twenties, was present when Naidu addressed a meeting of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Geneva in 1920. 

Berlin 1929: Sarojini Naidu at the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Berlin, 1929.

Naidu’s engagement with Western feminists who were accustomed to assuming leadership over non-Western women delivered an assertive anti-colonial challenge. Such transnational dialogue between Indian women and feminist networks (see also the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, pictured) would become an important means through which nationalist grievances caught global attention.  

By the 1930s, the Indian women’s movement was more wide-ranging and better organised. A concerted nation-wide campaign against child marriage had established women’s organisations as the agenda-setters on the women’s question in India. Meanwhile, a new Indian campaign for women’s suffrage after 1931 demanded a universal adult franchise.  This was far in excess of what the colonial state was willing to offer and went beyond the gradualist demands supported by the majority of British feminists. Yet Indian women’s campaigning on the issue in Britain enabled them to establish alliances with organisations that supported their claims.  These connections would help facilitate Indian women’s subsequent interactions with the League of Nations.

In September 1933, a delegation of Indian women visited Geneva.  Its purported aim was to secure formal representation for Indian women’s organisations on the social committees of the League of Nations.  Because the India Office in London controlled such appointments, this attempt by nationalist activists to bypass the imperial machine was destined to fail. But the campaign in Geneva enabled women activists to establish their legitimacy in international circles. In 1937, the All-India Women’s Conference became the only non-Western organisation to be listed as a Correspondent Member of the League of Nations Social Section. This international recognition cleared a path for Indian women’s appointments at the UN after independence.

Women’s movements in India have long been associated with unwanted Western intrusion. Yet a well-established strand of scholarship suggests this accusation all too readily assigns the provenance of ideas about women’s rights to the West. On the one hand, gender histories have highlighted the complicity of colonialism in the creation of patriarchal structures. On the other, they have pointed to the agency of Indian women in authoring liberal discourses.[1]   

My research highlights the ways that this creative authoring of ideas impacted on global conversations about rights.  These processes did not prevent the postcolonial calibration of global inequalities that all too closely resemble the racial hierarchies of European imperialism.  Nor did they avert the deployment of human rights in the service of neo-imperialistic ventures. Nevertheless, by emphasising a specific engagement with globally-circulating ideas they challenge us to resist the easy conflation of women’s rights with the politics of Western intrusion.


[1] See, for example, Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India. The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Duke University Press, 2006).