Brexit Forever

History suggests that Britain’s relationship with Europe may never truly be resolved.

Illustration by Ben Jones.Brexit is a historical reckoning for the United Kingdom, not least because of the country’s frequent aversion to engaging with its past. That Brexit is rooted in the evasions, divisions and contradictions of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) has played remarkably little part in the last two years of national political discourse. But the issue also reaches back deep into episodes of English history: when a political elite in London, preoccupied with European affairs, provoked domestic rebellion, as in the Peasants’ Revolt; or found itself helpless, as Henry VIII’s court was, to influence the centres of continental power. These histories show that there can be no resolution of Britain’s relationship to continental Europe, nor any escape from the problems of the British political order that the European question has long amplified; there can be only temporary respite.

Weight of the World

Lucy Inglis | Published 22 February 2019
The word ‘fat’ carries burdens of social, cultural and visual expectation, but also a historical one. Size is usually described in terms of bigger equating to better: from America, where the ‘Great Nation’ conveys both vast and peerless, to the Indian subcontinent, where ‘big people’ and ‘little people’ refer not necessarily to physical attributes but to wealth and social class. Our history with this nutrient, which, along with proteins and carbohydrates, represents one of the three basic elements of our diet, has evolved alongside agriculture, religion, culture, medicine and now the modern media, as Christopher E. Forth tells us in...Read more »
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Travels Through Time #5 – Matthew Biggs, 1905

Yunnan

For centuries plant hunters had been drawn to nature's unexplored margins in search of prize new specimens, often travelling at significant personal risk through hostile environments and contested political spaces. George Forrest's 1905 expedition was one of the most fraught of them all.

History Today | Published in
History Today | Published 20 February 2019
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Do historical objects belong in their country of origin?

Four historians consider one of the most contentious questions facing the West’s museums and galleries.

A portrait depicting the Elgin Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by museum staff, a trustee and visitors, 1819

Artefacts do not need to be ‘returned’

Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – and Why They Should Stay There (Oxford, 2016)

When, 3,000 years ago, sculptors in the Assyrian Empire chiselled into being winged, human-headed bulls for King Ashurnasirpal II, they could not have dreamt that their creations would end up centuries later in museums thousands of miles away. The five-legged, alabaster beasts were not made for brightly-lit galleries. Even if we wanted to, it would not be possible to return them to their place of origin. 

The ancient Assyria of 883 BC is very different from modern northern Iraq; fifth century BC Athens, which produced the much fought-over Parthenon Marbles, is unrecognisable compared to modern Greece. The court of Benin, which commissioned the Benin Bronzes, hardly resembles contemporary Nigeria.

On the Spot: Moudhy Al-Rashid

‘Humans change very little over time. We love, worry and hope today in much the same way as we did 5,000 years ago.’

Moudhy Al-Rashid.Why are you a historian of the ancient Near East?
To study the ancient past is to learn what connects us to the people that populate its texts and left behind its fragments, to learn what makes us human.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
Humans change very little over time. We love, worry and hope today in much the same way as we did 5,000 years ago.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia.

What book in your field should everyone read?
The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture edited by Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
It’s mythical, but the moment that Gilgamesh returned to Uruk after his journey.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Eleanor Robson, a trailblazer in our field, whose work and example remind me that the study of history extends far beyond texts and artefacts.

Bad Blood?

Stark warning: AIDS poster, UK, c.1980s.
Stark warning: AIDS poster, UK, c.1980s.

They never saw it coming. In January 1985 the Irish Haemophilia Society (IHS) carried out an HIV screening for 133 of its members. It was a precautionary measure, as a haemophiliac child had been admitted to the National Children’s Hospital with AIDS-like symptoms. Of the 133 members, 54 were found to be HIV positive. More tests were held and the infections reached 112 – a third of the society’s membership.

We know the old phrase that ‘History is written by the winners’. In some cases, this is true. But when it comes to HIV/AIDS, a story which offers no winners, the historical narrative has been shaped by the affected group that shouted loudest. In Ireland, this was the gay community, as activist organisations like Gay Health Action played a prominent role in educating the public about HIV/AIDS. This is, however, only a small fraction of a much messier narrative.

David Kilgannon | Published 14 February 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 2 February 2019

The Sons of Mars

Hiero II, the ruling general of the Greek city-state of Syracuse, led a campaign in 265 BC north towards a coastal Sicilian city, Messana, held by a group of Campanian mercenaries known as the Mamertines. The Campanians were part of a vast Oscan tribal group originally from the Apennine mountains, who had now settled in the southern Italian region of Campania.

Green and Pleasant Land

Jill Sinclair | Published 12 February 2019
No garden survives intact from the Elizabethan or early Stuart period. Changing fashions and the essentially ephemeral nature of plants and flowers have left us with only remnants and glimpses and some much later (and rather questionable) recreations. Reliable information on gardens from this period is slight and garden historians (a relatively new discipline) have tended to focus on the well-known and relatively well-documented estates of royalty and the aristocracy. Roy Strong’s The Renaissance Garden in England set the tone in the late 1970s with research that focused exclusively on lavish royal and aristocratic gardens, such as Henry VIII’s Hampton...Read more »
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The Sexuality of Slang

The Clown Cha-U-Kao, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895.

Following the Buggery Act of 1533, same-sex relationships were aggressively outlawed in the United Kingdom for over 400 years before decriminalisation in 1967. Just five years prior to that, in 1962 the Sunday Mirror had published a two page spread with the title ‘How to Spot a Possible Homo’. To persecute a person on the basis of their sexual preference had been the norm for centuries; it was the same in much of the world.

It has been argued that culture is created by the accumulation of communication pathways. Whether the highly localised codes and mannerisms that developed as a way of circumventing the political and social repression of sexuality in the 19th and early 20th centuries contained the seeds of today’s LGBTQ+ culture is debatable, but it does leave us with a fascinating cultural miscellany of slang, dress codes and even entire languages that were developed in order that members of the gay community could interact with one another safely.

Robert Greer | Published in
Robert Greer | Published 11 February 2019
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Postcards and the Russian Revolution

Pin-heads: postcard showing the Imperial government bowled over by the threat of revolution, Russian, 1905.In 1878, Russian mail workers intercepted four postcards sent from Moscow to St Petersburg. Each contained a series of short codes relaying chess moves, paired with an innocuous-sounding message. One, dated 29 October, reads: ‘Our club is growing, but the players are all bad – we haven’t yet had a single decent game.’

Across a covering note describing the postcards as suspect, an agent of the secret police has scrawled: ‘Chess!!!’ – the three exclamation marks pouring scorn on the notion that the messages might have anything to do with board games. This Imperial policeman was convinced that the king these players were manoeuvring against was in fact the tsar himself.

Chess-themed conspiracies were one of many problems to beset the authorities following the arrival of postcards in Russia. Even before they were introduced, postal officials worried they might give rise to ‘unpleasant confrontations between government servants and the public’. But little could have prepared them for the onslaught of messages that followed.

Tobie Mathew | Published 11 February 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 2 February 2019