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Why do the British know so little about Irish history?

In the first of a new series, we ask historians one of the burning questions of the day.

Anglo-Irish relations: Henry authorises Dermot to levy forces in 1170, from J.W.E. Doyle's A Chronicle of England, BC55 to AD 1485 (1863). (Bridgeman Images)

It was not always the case

John Bew, Professor in History at King’s College London, and Paul Bew, Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast.

It was not always thus. For as long as Ireland was part of the Union of 1801, Britain played close attention to Ireland, particularly its elites. That is not to say that it always got it right. Catholic emancipation, promised at the time of the Union by William Pitt and Lord Castlereagh, was delayed until 1829, teaching Ireland the lesson that it was no use appealing to the British sense of historical justice without threatening mass agitation.

Any Book You Like

Peter Brown | Published 17 December 2018
In Robert Darnton’s hands the accounts and letters of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) become an eye-opening story of how foreign publishers smuggled forbidden and pirated books into France between 1769 and 1789. Paris firms had a stranglehold on the nation’s publishing, reinforced by state edicts suppressing ‘subversive’ works. An illicit industry satisfied the appetite of readers for all kinds of writing, sanctioned or not. Covert networks were extensive and professionally organised. From Amsterdam to Avignon, publishers not constrained by the laws of the ancien régime , let alone copyright, delivered books across France. Darnton follows the picaresque progress...Read more »
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The Best Articles of 2018

'Monstra Niliaca Parei', from Aldrovandi’s History of Monsters, 1642.

’Tis the season of reflection: this year, readers of History Today learnt (among other things) of the existence of a British church dedicated to the worship of Adolf Hitler, that the Soviet Union began to crumble in Kazakhstan, how a shipwreck opened Japan to the world and the grisly details of Ottoman succession. We’ve compiled a far-from-definitive selection of our favourite articles published this year and, as usual, they’re free to read for a festively limited time. What generosity! Don’t miss out in 2019.    

Mermaids and Mermen
Vaughn Scribner
Some of the most intelligent people in early modern Europe were convinced of the existence of merpeople.

Heads Will Roll
Gemma Masson
Getting and keeping the throne in the Ottoman Empire was no easy task. For a new sultan, the most foolproof method of securing power was to kill all other claimants.

Rhys Griffiths | Published in
Rhys Griffiths | Published 12 December 2018

Rhys Griffiths is Assistant Editor at History Today.

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Welcoming the Strangers

Strangers welcome: the initial invitation to 24 Dutch (beginning with John Powells) and, beneath them, six Walloon masters (beginning with Robert Goddarte) to settle in Norwich, 1565.‘More than a third of the city’s population now immigrants.’ Today that reads like a shock tabloid headline, but 450 years ago in Norwich, refugees were welcomed.

To outsiders, this was astonishing. The contemporary writer and historian Alexander Neville noted that Norwich was ‘a city seated daintily, most fair built she is knowne, pleasing and kind to Strangers all, Delightful to her own’. The poet Michael Drayton described Norwich as ‘That hospitable place to the industrious Dutch’.

Frank Meeres | Published 12 December 2018
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Volume 68 Issue 12 December 2018

Panettone, Italy’s Favourite Christmas Cake

Rich enough to appeal to lords and dukes, the success of panettone is down to its festive, egalitarian simplicity.

A child carrying a panettone in Milan, 20 December 1958.Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always loved Christmas stories. I can’t count how many times I have read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’. I’m also fond of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. But my favourite has to be Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s ‘La gioia e la legge’ (‘Joy and the Law’).Set in Milan in the early 1950s, this unsung classic of Italian literature is the tale of Girolamo, a downtrodden clerk at the Big-Name Production Company. All through December, he has been dreading Christmas. He is behind with the bills and, even with his bonus, he knows he won’t be able to buy his children much food – let alone presents. But he is in luck. Just before the holidays begin, his boss names him the company’s ‘most deserving employee’ and gives him a magnificent seven-kilo panettone as a reward. On his way back home, he can hardly contain his excitement. But before he can cut ‘the golden strings which some industrious Milanese artisan had tied so beautifully around the package’ that evening, his wife taps him on the shoulder.

The Life of Thomas Cromwell

Andrew Pettegree | Published 07 December 2018
Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of our greatest living historians and this is one of his finest books. One might have thought that, after A History of Christianity , a definitive study of the Reformation and a host of prize-winning books, now was the time to wind down: a victory lap round the book festivals, a little light reviewing. Instead, MacCulloch has been back in the archives, immersing himself in every scrap of documentation relevant to the career of Henry VIII’s most humble servant: the enigmatic, ruthless, but devastatingly effective Thomas Cromwell. We have heard a lot about Cromwell thanks to...Read more »
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Who's In A Family?

Changing views of illegitimate children raise both moral and economic issues.

A great hardship: mother and children, London, early  20th century.

Children born in Britain 30 years ago were among the first for whom it did not matter, legally, if their parents were married to each other. Cultures across the globe have always differentiated between legitimate and illegitimate children, defining what makes a family and who has rights as part of the community. In Britain there was a gradual acceptance of illegitimate children’s rights over the course of the 20th century, culminating in the 1987 Family Law Reform Act, which finally removed the legal distinction between illegitimate and legitimate. The demographic change alone has been profound. Before the late 20th century, the proportion of children born outside marriage in England and Wales never exceeded six per cent (although this is certainly an underestimate). In 1986, it was 21 per cent and, by 2017, half of live births took place outside marriage. According to the Office of National Statistics, cohabiting couples are now the fastest-growing family type, more than doubling to 3.3 million over the last 20 years.

Adam and Eve

The fall of man and the concept of Original Sin.

Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, converse in the foreground with their creator, God. Elsewhere in this cinematic painting by the German Renaissance artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder, we see the key events of their story, which is told in just seven verses of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In the middle, slightly to the right, God creates Eve from Adam’s spare rib. To the right, Eve is tempted by the forbidden fruit, urged on by the devil – who traditionally adopts the form of a serpent – who claims that they, too, can be gods when they discover good and evil. Despite God’s warnings of its perils as the source of knowledge and shame, they indulge their curiosity. To the left of centre, having, of their own free will,  realised the end of their paradisical innocence, they seek to cover their nakedness. Finally, in the far left of the picture, they are chased out of Paradise, their fall complete. Mankind will live forever with the consequences of their actions, justifying the importance of Christian redemption: ‘As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.’

The philosophical ideas behind the concept of Original Sin were explored in detail by St Augustine, developing the seminal thinking of St Paul, who saw Original Sin as a concept of radical equality; that no one speaks from a position of strength. All are flawed and when mankind seeks perfection, it is setting itself up, literally, for a fall.

Away with the Faeries

‘And nightly meadow-fairies, look you sing’: illustration for Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Hugh Thomson, 1910.A pamphlet circulated in 1696 that told the story of a 19-year-old domestic servant, Ann Jeffries, who, while knitting in the garden, encountered ‘six Persons of a small Stature, all clothed in green, which she call’d Fairies’. The story was written and published by Moses Pitt, a London-based printer and bookseller. Jeffries had been employed by Pitt’s family at the time of the event, which was dated to ‘the Year 1645’. The publication was in parts a personal reflection of a mysterious event that had occurred during Jeffries’ childhood. However, it is also indicative of the complex and capricious nature of fairy belief in the late 17th century, at a time when political opinion was divided between strict Christian orthodoxy and the increasing scepticism of the natural world.

Abigail Sparkes | Published 03 December 2018
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Volume 68 Issue 12 December 2018

The Best History Books 2018

From the Thirty Years War to the ancient civilisation of Iran, from Anglo-American rivalries in the desert to the persecution of indigenous peoples, historians select their favourite books of the past year.

‘Les cosaques littéraires en action’, censors remove books from the king’s library, 18th-century engraving.

Edith Hall

Biography is not usually my favourite route into history, but David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster) is an exception. Douglass is one of the most contested figures in American history. This is his first comprehensive biography for more than 30 years and makes use of substantial new source material. Blight, who knows more about his subject than anyone else alive, having edited Douglass’ own autobiographies (he published three), writes stylishly. But Douglass was a troubled figure, a true ‘prophet of freedom’, the sheer power of whose passions and intellect drove him long after achieving his own liberty to continue the struggle for civil rights. Blight brings to his study a lucid objectivity which is refreshing given the hagiographic tone of much that has been written about this man. It partners well with Sarah Kinkel’s Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy (Harvard), which brilliantly outlines the competition for power and authority across the British class system.