Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Taylor Downing | Published 14 September 2018
Daniel Ellsberg is well known as the whistle blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Less well known is that, at the time he copied the secret documents about Vietnam, he also copied a mass of material about US nuclear policy that he similarly intended to leak, but which was eventually lost. The Doomsday Machine goes back over his time as a nuclear war consultant at the RAND Corporation, the think tank that advised the US Air Force, and his later work for the Department of Defense and the White House. The revelations are truly shocking. Official US policy...Read more »
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Canada’s First Nations

Reconciliation: a heart garden planted during the Indian Residential Schools Truth  and Reconciliation Commission,  3 June 2015. (Press Association Images/Sean Kilpatrick)

Documenting the effects of the Indian residential school system (governmental boarding schools for indigenous children), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) recently defined reconciliation as ‘establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples’. The Commission determined that this is a relationship that Canada does not presently have. The country is at an important moment in its relationship with First Nations. It is beginning to acknowledge its own colonial history and there is discussion of how reconciliation might be achieved. The context of why reconciliation is needed relates to dark aspects of Canadian history, which linger on today.

William Rees | Published 13 September 2018
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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 9 September 2018

St Edmund the Viking Saint

English resistance: miniature showing Edmund’s death, from  ‘The Lives of St Edmund and  St Fremund’, c.1450. (Bridgeman Images)A Viking army invaded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia in 869 and killed its king, Edmund. The murdered monarch would be venerated as one of the great saints of medieval England, but his cult began in Danish East Anglia and was promoted by the people who killed him.

The development of Edmund’s cult in the Danish kingdom of East Anglia (which existed between 869 and 917) undermines the stereotype of Edmund as a symbol of Anglo-Saxon resistance to Viking invaders. The enthusiasm with which the Vikings embraced the figure of Edmund suggests that his commemoration became a way of forging a common Anglo-Danish identity for the people of eastern England – an identity that would become increasingly important as Danish kings dominated England in the 11th century.

Francis Young | Published 10 September 2018
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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 9 September 2018

Beyond the Warrior Queen

Medieval women wielded spiritual and political power in subtly effective ways.

Female foundation: Minster Abbey in Thanet, Kent. (Brian Gibbs/Alamy)This year’s 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, has brought some welcome attention to the story of a powerful Anglo-Saxon woman. As a political and military leader, Æthelflæd is the kind of woman modern audiences are often surprised to find recorded in early medieval history. It would be encouraging if one effect of this anniversary were an increased awareness of the many different ways in which medieval women could be influential – in roles as culturally important, though perhaps less immediately appealing to modern sensibilities, as warrior queen.

One family of women who should be better known are celebrated in a group of texts collectively called the Kentish Royal Legend, an important source for the history of the early Anglo-Saxon church. This text deals with the history of Kent in the period when it was the richest and most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, focusing on the genealogical line of Æthelberht, the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept Christianity, and his wife Bertha.

The History of Council Housing

David Brady | Published 31 August 2018
In the 1950s, the nation gathered beside the wireless to enjoy Take It From Here , the BBC Home Service comedy about Ron Glum and his fiancée Eth, suffering an interminable engagement because they were unable to find a home of their own. In Municipal Dreams , John Boughton, who has blogged about the history of councils for years, provides an overview of the beginnings and the development of local government housing. After setting out the background, he moves briskly through a chronology of council estates. Examples include the Latchmere Estate in Battersea (opened in 1903), which was built by...Read more »
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We All Scream for Ice Cream

Sweets made of ice or snow have been with us for millennia, evolving slowly into the modern chilly treat.

The Ice Cream Seller, Austria, 1895

Who doesn’t like ice cream? According to the International Dairy Foods Association, 3.7 million tons of it are consumed in the US each year alone – an average of 23lbs per person. But, while we are only too eager to guzzle it down, we seldom pause to consider how our favourite frozen dessert came into being.

Feminist Energy vs Vehement Opposition

Lyndsey Jenkins | Published 24 August 2018
Detail from the song sheet of Ethyl Smyth’s The March of the Women, by Margaret Morris (1911). One hundred years after some women in Britain won the right to vote, we are once again experiencing an extraordinary moment of feminist energy and vehement opposition. A woman’s right to choose seems to be in reach in Ireland, yet is under increasing attack in the US. High profile campaigns on sexual harassment and equal pay are bringing together women across classes and countries, but legitimate concerns are being raised about whose voices are privileged within these movements. Women have new platforms and...Read more »
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The Case for Applied History

Can the study of the past really help us to understand the present?

Surprised! by Henri Rousseau, 1891.

In An Autobiography, published in 1939, R.G. Collingwood offered an arresting statement about the kind of insight possessed by the trained historian. The philosopher of history likened the difference between those who knew and understood history and those who did not to that between ‘the trained woodsman’ and ‘the ignorant traveller’ in a forest. While the latter marches along unaware of their surroundings, thinking ‘Nothing here but trees and grass’, the woodsman sees what lurks ahead. ‘Look’, he will say, ‘there is a tiger in that grass.’

What Collingwood meant was that, through their familiarity with people, places and ideas, historians are often equipped to see how a situation might turn out – or at least identify the key considerations that determine matters. Collingwood’s musings implied an expansive vision of the role historians might play in society. Their grasp of human behaviour, long-term economic or cultural processes and the complexities of the socio-political order of a given region of the world meant that they could be more than just a specialist in the past. By being able to spot the tiger in the grass, historians might profitably advise on contemporary and future challenges as well.

Helen the Whore and the Curse of Beauty

In the archives of Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, there is an infrequently studied medieval manuscript. Created in 1406 it is an illustrated version of Boethius’ sixth-century ad Consolation of Philosophy. The Consolation is a fusion of Christian and pagan principles written in an attempt to identify the root of happiness – and set down while the author Boethius was awaiting execution in Pavia.

Bettany Hughes | Published 14 August 2018