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Volume 62 Issue 2 February 2012

For centuries King John has been regarded as the embodiment of an evil ruler. But, says Graham E. Seel, this image is largely the creation of monastic chroniclers with an axe to grind. A close examination of contemporary records reveals a more nuanced character.

As the debate continues on the causes of last summer’s English Riots, Michael Roberts examines previous attempts by reformers to address moral malaise and social breakdown.

With Italy on the brink of financial collapse and in deep political crisis, the country’s 150th anniversary has been a dramatic one. It is especially timely, then, to take stock of new research into this most contradictory and enigmatic of countries.

A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.

Robin Whitlock asks if studies of the decline of societies such as that of Easter Island can shed light on contemporary concerns.

Hitler's future companion was born in Munich on February 6th 1912.

John Herschel Glenn Jr was the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20th 1962.

Otto I was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope John XII on February 2nd 962.

Roger Hudson explains the story behind a 19th-century photograph of George Washington's mausoleum.

Fundamentalism has become the face of Islam in the West. It was not always so and need not be in the future, says Tim Stanley.

As the debate rages about how history should be taught in state schools David Cannadine discusses his recent research project.

Hugh Purcell tells how Kitty Bowler, a young American, captured the heart of Tom Wintringham, the 'English Captain' at Jarama.

Britain’s recent disputes with the European Union are part of a
long historical narrative, argues James Ellison – but it is not the whole story.

Keith Lowe on the dilemmas faced by a victorious but financially ruined Britain in its dealings with postwar Germany.

The British Battalion of the International Brigades, formed to defend the Spanish Republic against the forces of General Franco, first went into battle at Jarama in February 1937. It was the beginning of a bruising, often dispiriting campaign, as Christopher Farman explains.

Christopher Allmand examines Alain Chartier’s Le Livre des Quatre Dames, a poem written in response to the English victory at Agincourt, and asks what it can tell us about the lives of women during this chapter in the Hundred Years War.

The year 1812 was a turning point in the career of the industrialist Robert Owen. Ian Donnachie examines his Essays on a New View of Society, in which Owen first aired the ideas about popular education and workers’ welfare that would make him famous as a reformer.

Contemporary culture places a high premium on novelty. Armand D’Angour argues that we should consider the more balanced views about old and new found in classical Greece.

When the world’s population reached seven billion it prompted a great deal of nonsense to be written about Thomas Malthus. Robert J. Mayhew sets the record straight.

Richard Almond has trawled medieval and Renaissance sources for insights about ladies’ riding habits in the Middle Ages and what they reveal about a woman’s place in that society.

Like buses on a wet November night good books on Intelligence are rare – but to have three corkers like these arrive at once is a treat indeed. Intelligence is the hidden hand of history, often only revealing its real role years after the event, and this is certainly true of the trio of books under review.

Every once in a while, as a historian trawls the archives in pursuit of a choice piece of text, he or she is interrupted by a material reminder that these old sheets of paper were once part of everyday life. An artisan calculates a payment on the back of a newsbook, a scholar leaves greasy stains from his supper on the pages of a great Latin tome, an alchemist splatters quicksilver across his notebook, someone reading secretly lets the candle get too close to the midwifery manual.

So popular was the ‘haunting portal’ offered into a bygone age by Philip Davies’ bestselling Lost London, 1870-1945 that Davies has enlarged the project – literally – in Panoramas of Lost London with a large landscape shaped book containing some blown up versions of pictures already seen plus a selection of previously unseen portraits of the capital.

The Fiat 600, which first appeared on the market in 1955, was the first car, Emanuela Scarpellini writes, that was ‘symbolic of the Italian dream’. With its soft rounded lines, gleaming white bodywork, narrow metal trim and ample windows it brought the idea of the family car within the reach of far more Italians than its forerunner, the interwar Fiat ‘Topolino’. ‘The first car to be designed with everyone in mind’, it had a top speed of 60 mph and was a world away from the massive elongated vehicles that people knew from Hollywood movies.

Wilson, author of the acclaimed The Victorians, turns his panoramic gaze to the Elizabethan age with all its swashbuckling exploits, maritime prowess, political intrigue and cultural accomplishment. Weir, the popular Tudor biographer, tackles Mary Boleyn, the subject of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl and the blockbuster film adaptation, and attempts to separate fact from well-worn fiction.

This engaging book, the winner of the Longman-History Today Prize for 2011, examines the practices and cultural meanings attached to something both ubiquitous and (at least historiographically) almost invisible: the night and its attendant darkness. It proposes that in 16th- and 17th-century Europe the boundaries of the night were driven back and simultaneously the associations of darkness were enriched and transformed. The schedule of the day changed.

Describing the state of her mattress after a period of persistent rain, the 19-year-old Florence Nightingale wrote to her sister that it had become ‘the pool of Siloam’. Years later she instructed nurses on the proper way to dress by giving a four point exposition based on Jesus’ remarks in Matthew’s Gospel about how God clothes the flowers of the field.

In 1942 Lord Halifax, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, told a leading group of American scientists that it was difficult to exaggerate the importance of the chemist, the engineer and the inventor – ‘the backroom boys’ – to the British war effort. David Edgerton’s Britain’s War Machine is a paean of praise for ‘these backroom boys’ and many little known heroes emerge from his pages.

Thanks to its remarkable geography and outstanding artistic heritage the city of Venice is today one of the major global tourist destinations. But for centuries Venice was far more than a beautiful city. It was the hinge of Eurasian trade and, as Crowley reminds us, of a maritime empire that was ‘Europe’s first full-blown colonial adventure’.

By the time America won its independence in 1783 upwards of 50,000 British criminals had been banished to American shores. The Americans wanted no more and, with the old route stopped up and prisoners piling up in British jails, London had to find another dump. In 1788 the First Fleet to Australia entered Sydney Cove and a new penal colony was born. Between those dates, however, reckless, misconceived and tragic attempts were made to ship convicts off to the slave forts of West Africa.

In 1961 in excavations at the abbey of Ste Trinité in Caen the bones were recovered of a tiny woman, only four feet and two inches in height, which were identified as those of Matilda of Flanders. Her name may be unfamiliar, but that of her husband is not. He was William the Conqueror and she was the first queen of the new Norman dynasty in England.

A young woman lies dead in the water, a whirlwind of a murder mystery shattering the victim’s downbeat, humble family. Around the corpse swirls a grotesque array of dark forces of political corruption, social privilege, drugs, sex and money, some dogged police work and some craven cover-ups, and tricksy tabloid hacks snapping at the heels of louche protagonists and bit-part fantasists. If all this sounds more like the plot of the Danish sleeper TV hit The Killing than a work of dour history, it is for good reason.

In 1945 Nazi Germany achieved total defeat. In sharp contrast with what had occurred in 1918 in 1945 Germany fought, literally, to the bitter end. The Germans held out, although by early 1945 just about everyone knew that catastrophic defeat was the inevitable outcome. They did not give up even when Russian soldiers arrived in the garden of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Not even the Japanese resisted like that.