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Studying the Renaissance at A-Level and as an Undergraduate


Just a few weeks ago, the students in my first-year survey class were deep into an extract from Niccolò Machiavelli’s famous work, The Prince. First printed in 1532, although available in manuscript much earlier than that, The Prince is a political treatise of much-reputed cynicism, since it has been seen to recommend that its princely readers be duplicitous and treacherous in their dealings with peers and subjects. More interesting to my own students, however, were its innovations: its vernacular language and humanist riffs on medieval literary forms. The Prince is, after all, a product of the Renaissance – for example, its reliance upon pre-Christian writers such as Plato and Cicero emphasise its connection to the ‘new learning’ of 15th- and 16th-century Florence.

All this may, too, be of interest to students currently studying early modern history at A-Level. Though it builds significantly upon this stage of the curriculum, of course, my first-year survey module also acts as a kind of step-up into the world of undergraduate study, echoing quite a few of the themes addressed by early modernist sixth-formers. (The great Quentin Skinner’s Very Short Introduction to Machiavelli is indispensable to students recently introduced to the period, I’d suggest.)

For instance, Machiavelli wrote his treatise to curry favour with a sort of patron. Patronage was the absolute centre of Renaissance culture – few of the seminal works of art available to us today, from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Michelangelo’s David, would have existed without the individual or group who commissioned them. Machiavelli’s situation, however, was slightly different: his work was composed in order to attract a patron, rather than at the behest of one. A diplomat for the Florentine Republic, in 1512 he was exiled by the victorious Medici, the all-powerful banking family that had been deposed by the Republic and now returned again to dominate the city. The Prince was Machiavelli’s attempt to return to favour (it didn’t work).

The context of the composition of this work emphasises that the Renaissance was not a unitary phenomenon. It was contingent and reliant upon events. That is, the Florentine Renaissance had a character quite separate to the Roman or Venetian one. Venice, for instance, had none of the changing of hands that occurred in Florence – it had been declared a republic long before this period, and continued to be one throughout it. Rome, meanwhile, was dominated by the Vatican, and the Pope’s patronage led to art more clearly Christian than the Classical references of Florence (although I can recommend Malcolm Bull’s The Mirror of the Gods to any student looking to peer a little further beneath the sometimes deceptive surface of the Renaissance’s Classical allusions). Whenever you look at a work of the Renaissance, or think about the period in the abstract, it’s worth considering context: which Italian Renaissance, and when?

Indeed, it’s worth thinking even wider, at A-Level as much as at undergraduate level: the Renaissance wasn’t a purely Italian phenomenon. Machiavelli is again a great example: The Prince came to be read across Europe, and it’s possible to argue that the monarch who most embodied many of its author’s most famous suggestions was English. Henry VIII cultivated an air of insecurity in his court, did away with former allies with little fanfare or sentimentality, and pursued his goals – whether religious supremacy or English hegemony – with not a little purpose. We’re told by Reginald Pole that Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was a devotee of Machiavelli – although since Pole was Cromwell’s great enemy, we may want to ask if there isn’t a little propagandising hidden in that remark!

The Dutch Renaissance, too, compares and contrasts usefully with the Italian. Dutch artists are now most famous for their focus on the domestic, on still lifes of food or portraits of country-folk. (That is not to say that the fantastical was not also present, as a glimpse at the work of Hieronymus Bosch will confirm to anyone!) One of the great humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, was a Dutchman, and his relationship with another of Henry VIII’s ministers, Thomas More, is almost as celebrated as his influence upon the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther. (Take a look at the relevant pages in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation for more on this.)

So even a simple scan of a single extract can reveal to the student that the Renaissance was an astonishingly complex cultural movement with a range of influences – and a whole slew of inter-connected and inter-relating networks and consequences. It is fascinating, but also diffuse, and that’s perhaps why focusing on a key work can often be a great route into the ways of thinking current during the period, and the manner in which events acted upon those mentalities. The depths a student will need to plumb around these issues will depend upon their current level; but, it occurs to me, no study of the Renaissance can get far without considering each of them to one extent or another.

So – here’s an online version of The Prince. Why not have a look, and let me know what you think!

Putting Natives back into American History

Native AmericanIn the United States, November has officially been Native American Heritage Month for nearly a quarter of a century. However, beyond the borders of the US this commemmoration struggles to generate the attention of its predecessor, Black History Month. Indeed, this difference may have something to do with the difference between the Native American and Black diasporas, but some may argue that even within the US, this month’s celebration of Native American Heritage is rarely mentioned outside Native communities or specific academic circles. One hopes that this will begin to change, as the Native American past is intertwined with American history.

For more than a century Native American history was dominated by interpretations that focused on the inherent difference and incompatibility of Natives and Europeans. It was often argued that these differences ultimately resulted in retrenchment, loss, and in some cases, extermination. Historians focused on the inevitable march westwards, as well as the language and actions of the Founding Fathers. Many of these were involved in land speculation on the frontier, Thomas Jefferson argued that driving Native Americans from the Ohio valley would “add to the Empire of Liberty an extensive and fertile country”. In additional, national acts such as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which more than doubled the size of the country, the forced removal of Indians following the act of 1830 and events such as the ‘Trail of Tears’ have conditioned Native Americans within a context of inevitable decline. In this sense, Indian retreat equalled to the rise and strengthening of American liberty. Indeed, with Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ (1893), the westward expasion and the colonization of the continent to the Pacific coast were part of the new nation’s manifest destiny, and the foundation of a new American identity. Within these histories, Native Americans had little choices and few voices in the shaping of America.

The creation of Native American Heritage Month in 1990 was representative of a long-standing attempt to correct these interpretations. President George Bush Sr.’s declaration was followed by the publication of Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991). This greatly influential work went a long way to reversing the dominant trend of interpreting the Native American experience in terms of simplistic narratives of retrenchment, conflict, loss, or dichotomies of ‘savagery’ and ‘civilization.’ White demonstrates that the relationship between colonists and Native Americans was much more varied, complex, and affected by a number of social, political and cultural factors. Indeed, whites and Natives co-existed for over three centuries, and this co-existence was certainly characterised by conflict and violence, but also accommodation and co-operation. Most importantly, White gave attention to Native American voices to demonstrate that a ‘middle ground’ existed in which mutual identities were defined and negotiated. The book went a long way in addressing the problematic representation of Native Americans as passive objects of American history. Indeed, Native Americans themselves have made several attempts to reclaim their histories by reviving important aspects of their culture, making land claims to Congress, and taking part in protests, such as those during Columbus Day.

Native American Heritage Month is therefore important for not only discovering the rich cultural heritage of many different peoples, but also to discover the important role Native Americans have had in shaping American history. Our current students will get to discuss important aspects of Native American history in semester two of the Humanities in Practice module.

Remembrance of Casualties of the Great War

Rob Taylor, a recent Masters Graduate here at Gloucestershire, maintains his own blog, but has given us permission to reproduce this post about war memorials in the county for Rembererance Sunday.


With the centenary of the Great War upon us, interest has grown exponentially in gaining a better understanding of the events of that war, and the local participants who were claimed in it. One of the best sources of information for discovering the identities of local people who were involved is the plethora of war memorials dotted across the landscape. From church, school and business Rolls of Honour and churchyard crosses, to more elaborate publicly placed monumental forms, these memorials record details of catastrophic community loss. They are also a demonstration of community pride. What I have discovered through an ongoing and now international study, is that many war memorials offer very detailed information about the names listed, ‘a conspicuous time capsule’ of information. From name, rank and serial number, other memorials note decorations won, the place and/or date of death, some noting cause of death. Other memorials list women’s names, (a debated practice at first), some record those who returned. In very few  communities known as ‘Thankful Villages’ the commemoration on the Rolls of Service list all in those  communities who participated and returned without a single loss. It is these last two group of memorials, noting those who returned, that make the direct connection for any community to the past.

One of the problems with memorials over time however, becomes upkeep and maintenance. At Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day (November 11th) citizens gather at these monuments to commemorate and give thanks to those who laid down their lives for the future generations.  They want to be able to inspect and in many cases connect themselves to the past, but in some cases the memorials have become unreadable. Additionally some iconographic symbols, thought important and recognizable at the time of construction, have become corroded and are now unidentifiable due to weathering of stone. Worse still, is the problems of vandalism or theft.

A publication by Joseph Devereux and Graham Sacker ‘Leaving All that Was Dear, Cheltenham and  The Great War’, is an in depth study of the casualties recorded on the Cheltenham Roll of Honour on the main Promenade Great War Memorial. What their book does is cross reference the Roll of Honour names to other smaller local memorials where those names are also commemorated. I used their research in combination with research discovered when undertaking my University of Gloucestershire Masters of Research dissertation, by locating smaller local memorials in need of restoration.

The work of Devereux and Sacker offered me insight into the lives of those recorded on the St. Peter’s Church war memorial on the Tewkesbury Road. I discovered one name that was not noted in Devereax and Sacker’s book, that being the very faded inscription of: ‘PAINTER G.’ (see photo below). Through exhaustive research and contact directly with Graham Sacker and others,  I was able to uncover that the casualty’s name was actually George Painter and he is in fact buried at St Mary’s Church in Fairford Gloucestershire buried with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone (see below). He was from Fairford but had lived on Waterloo Road Cheltenham, across from St Peters church. He is listed on the  St Peter’s memorial as the Fairford memorial had already been completed before George Painter’s death in February 1920.


A rather special wreath laying ceremony on Remembrance Day (Tuesday November 11th). It will take place on the Tewkesbury Road at St Peter’s Church at 10:45 AM. Interest is growing in the fact that this will be the first service to be held at the church memorial in many years. Although conservation work has not yet begun it is being more seriously considered. A large public presence will emphasise the need for conservation work  at this memorial and allow people to see the actual degree of conservation needed.

It is hoped that with the availability of government funds advertised to clean, conserve and repair (in worst cases), memorials, that borough councils can develop better working relationships with organizations such as the War Memorial Trust, amongst others to develop a more cohesive working relationship to better monitor the condition of all local memorials and that by doing this the memorials should be able to be better maintained.

I have continued to work to assist the Gloucestershire representative of the War Memorial Trust  in identifying Great War Memorials that are in need of cleaning and conservation. From my personal investigation of over 500 of the 607 memorials recorded by the United Kingdom National Inventory of War Memorials (UKNIWM), in the County of Gloucestershire I feel that my developed expertise is an asset. In fact I have located one memorial within the county which is not listed on the UKNIWM listing which suggests that there may be more.  This 608th memorial may be the basis for a publication!

Cheltenham -St Peters (9)


All Change in the USA?

There will be a lot of raking through Tuesday’s mid-term election results in America with a view to guessing the future and also making comparison’s with the past.  Already it is being suggested that the successive losses in the Senate and House of Representatives in this and the previous elections two years ago, giving the Republicans strong majorities in bother upper and lower house, are the biggest defeats suffered by any president since Truman in 1948 and 1950 as many of Obama’s critics have gleefully been quick to point out. However, in 19 out of 28 mid-terms in the twentieth century, the incumbent presidents (Republicans as well as Democrats – and including even Eisenhower and Reagan) did badly. But if the votes reflect on the president, then President Obama might very well be judged (as Truman often was)  as a failure – certainly he will be a “lame duck” president from now on, and while he will struggle to get legislation past, he has also already indicated that he may have to wield his power of veto to block Republican measures. 
History, however, may judge Obama more kindly than the voters and some of the reporters – like Truman (and Carter) he has achieved quite a lot.  His biggest success might well have been getting elected in the first place given the vitriol his name often attracted from the conservatives subsequently.  Nowhere can the term “socialist” be bandied around more carelessly than in America as it has often been with reference to Obama’s policies; nowhere can veiled (and sometimes less than veiled) racist terms be used to describe the head of state. The voters seem to have ignored the fact that Obama has produced the biggest shake-up of health care provision in the US – something first called for by Truman; he has also seen the country slowly emerge from recession and unemployment gradually fall.  The shale gas “revolution” appears to have helped this process.  
The mid-term results also produced some interesting results – and some other echoes of the past.  Tim Scott became the first black senator elected from the South since Hiram Revels from Mississippi in 1870. Like Revels Scott is a Republican (in the 1870s the Republicans were the party of Lincoln, and the Democrats were the conservatives, and southerners).  Mia Love has become the first black Republican woman elected to the House of Representatives – she is from Utah. Love is one of the more than 100 women to serve in Congress – but it looks as if there still only be 20 in the Senate.  One of the newly-elected Republican women senators is Joni Ernst, the first time Iowa has sent a woman to the upper house.  Ernst famously used her farming back ground in her bid for election, and has promised to make the politicians in Washington squeal. It will be interesting to see whether she does – and if she (like Sarah Palin before her) emerges as a presidential candidate in 2016 – because. of course, these results will have a great bearing on that election – many Democrats must now wonder if any of them would stand a chance in the present climate.  But two years is a very long time in politics, particularly in the USA where the mood can change very quickly – as Truman demonstrated in 1948!

Carrie Howse: Catch A Falling Star

catchafallingstarCongratulations to UG History PhD Carrie Howse on the publication of the second book in her planned family history trilogy. Catch a Falling Star (emp3books, 2014) picks up where The Sound of Silence (2013) left off.

The latest volume tracks the development of a ‘New Town’ in Essex, which finally destroyed the rural life of four villages that had been recorded in the Domesday Book. One of these villages, Tipmarsh, had been the family home of Carrie’s relatives for several generations. The new book examines social and cultural developments through the 1960s and takes the story up to 1970.

As such, then, in Carrie’s words, this is ‘a social history of our time’.

De-Stalinisation Reconsidered

bohn.inddMy chapter ‘Contesting Inequality: Khrushchev and the Revival of the “Woman Question”’ has recently been published in a volume on essays edited by colleagues in Germany: Thomas M. Bohn, Rayk Einax and Michel Abeβer (eds), De-Stalinisation Reconsidered: Persistence and Change in the Soviet Union. The book is the outcome of an international conference organised by the editors at the University of Gieβen in February 2012. The book sets out to examine, challenge and dissolve some of the contradictions and dichotomies posed in the study of the Soviet modernisation project under Khrushchev in particular light of his emphasis on ‘de-Stalinisation’.

My chapter draws on research I’ve conducted on the Khrushchev period in three different areas: the changes to women’s economic, social and political roles and status under Khrushchev, the impact of the revival of the women’s councils from 1957, and Soviet women’s engagement with the Women’s International Democratic Federation during this crucial period in the Cold War. I conclude that ‘whilst it is evident that the Khrushchev era can be credited with re-invigorating the “woman question” at home and abroad, it is also clear that this question was by no means resolved’.




During my recent trip to Moscow I had the chance to see the famous Soviet film Tsirk / Circus (1936) for the first time. The film is reputed to have been one of Stalin’s favourites. The director, Grigori Aleksandrov, billed the film as an ‘eccentric comedy … a real side-splitter’ and it does indeed have some comic moments, including a pastiche of Charlie Chaplin. The film propelled Lyubova Orlova even further into the limelight (and she is shot out of a canon in the film itself!), making her the first true ‘star’ of Soviet cinema.

The plot revolves around the hostility directed at American vaudeville dancer Marion Dixon (played by Orlova) because she has a black baby. In the opening scenes, set in America, she is seen being chased by a hostile crowd onto a train and then the camera turns to focus on a swaddled infant. In Moscow, she attracts the attention of the local circus director who is impressed by her circus and performance skills. Her German manager, however, has other ideas. On the brink of making a deal with the Soviet circus director, Dixon’s manager produces the black child as an attempt to shame and embarrass her in front of the circus audience. Contrary to his expectations, however, the child is lovingly passed around the audience as they all sing a lullaby.

circus1936aThe child was played by Jim Patterson, the three-year-old baby son of budding actor Lloyd Patterson, an African American immigrant to the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian theatre designer and artist Vera Aralova. Lloyd died in 1942 as a result of injuries suffered during the war-time bombing of Moscow. Jim went on to have a prestigious career with the Black Sea Fleet in the Soviet navy in the 1950s. He turned his hand to writing poetry in the 1960s and was admitted to the Union of Writers in 1967. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jim and his mother emigrated to the United States. Following the death of his mother in 2001 and now suffering some ill-health, Jim is reported to be leading a rather reclusive life in Washington. In a recent report to the Russian press, Jim noted that he had never intended to leave Russia for ever, but it looks unlikely that he will return.


This blog provides a forum for the students and staff of History at the University of Gloucestershire. Here, we’ll post news on our teaching, student experiences, research, publications, resources, events, and anything else even remotely connected to studying history at Gloucestershire.

There are also short bios of our teaching staff, along with some contact details, and a whole bunch of useful links. Enjoy, and please don’t hesitate to leave a comment!


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