What's all this then?

My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Moritz visits the British Museum

Today is the 255th anniversary of the opening of the British Museum to the public. The first few decades of tours were not without their problems, and there's a great account available on their website of the mounting discontent at delays in getting tickets and at the lack of information available to the visitors being hurried through the collections.

Twenty-three years after it opened, German writer Karl Philipp Moritz gave this account of his visit:

I have had the happiness to become acquainted with the Rev. Mr. Woide; who, though well known all over Europe to be one of the most learned men of the age, is yet, if possible, less estimable for his learning than he is for his unaffected goodness of heart.  He holds a respectable office in the museum, and was obliging enough to procure me permission to see it, luckily the day before it was shut up.  In general you must give in your name a fortnight before you can he admitted.  But after all, I am sorry to say, it was the rooms, the glass cases, the shelves, or the repository for the books in the British Museum which I saw, and not the museum itself, we were hurried on so rapidly through the apartments.  The company, who saw it when and as I did, was various, and some of all sorts; some, I believe, of the very lowest classes of the people, of both sexes; for, as it is the property of the nation, every one has the same right (I use the term of the country) to see it that another has.  I had Mr. Wendeborn’s book in my pocket, and it, at least, enabled me to take a somewhat more particular notice of some of the principal things; such as the Egyptian mummy, a head of Homer, &c.  The rest of the company, observing that I had some assistance which they had not, soon gathered round me; I pointed out to them as we went along, from Mr. Wendeborn’s German book, what there was most worth seeing here.  The gentleman who conducted us took little pains to conceal the contempt which he felt for my communications when he found out that it was only a German description of the British Museum I had got.  The rapidly passing through this vast suite of rooms, in a space of time little, if at all, exceeding an hour, with leisure just to cast one poor longing look of astonishment on all these stupendous treasures of natural curiosities, antiquities, and literature, in the contemplation of which you could with pleasure spend years, and a whole life might be employed in the study of them - quite confuses, stuns, and overpowers one.  In some branches this collection is said to be far surpassed by some others; but taken altogether, and for size, it certainly is equalled by none.  The few foreign divines who travel through England generally desire to have the Alexandrian manuscript shewn them, in order to be convinced with their own eyes whether the passage, “These are the three that bear record, &c.,” is to be found there or not.
- Travels in England in 1782

And here's a picture of by far my favourite exhibit in the museum, Hans Schlottheim's mechanical galleon.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Things I didn't know about Darwin

I've been reading The Voyage of the Beagle, the account of his travels which rightly brought Charles Darwin fame and praise as a writer as well as a naturalist. He wrote for a non-specialist readership, but it's still not exactly light reading. It has however given me a completely different view of a man whom I usually picture sitting quietly in a Victorian study, peering at fossils over his enormous white beard. All the passages below are from 1832, when the Beagle was surveying the Eastern coast of South America, and due to the way he groups his observations, the locations given aren't always related to the events. Here he is, in the fine tradition of English tourists, failing to master an important local skill:

Entry from July 26th, travelling inland from Maldonado, Uruguay
The main difficulty in using either lazo or bolas is to ride so well as to be able at full speed, and while suddenly turning about, to whirl them so steadily round the head, as to take aim: on foot any person would soon learn the art. One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush, and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and, like magic, caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured. Luckily he was an old practised animal, and knew what it meant; otherwise he would probably have kicked till he had thrown himself down. The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried out that they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.
As well as the fish-out-of-water humour, Darwin gives his readers an insight into the sheer joy of discovery.

Entry from April 19th
During the remainder of my stay at Rio, I resided in a cottage at Botofogo Bay. It was impossible to wish for anything more delightful than thus to spend some weeks in so magnificent a country. In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all.
Nature, in these climes, chooses her vocalists from more humble performers than in Europe. A small frog, of the genus Hyla, sits on a blade of grass about an inch above the surface of the water, and sends forth a pleasing chirp: when several are together they sing in harmony on different notes. I had some difficulty in catching a specimen of this frog. The genus Hyla has its toes terminated by small suckers; and I found this animal could crawl up a pane of glass, when placed absolutely perpendicular. Various cicidae and crickets, at the same time, keep up a ceaseless shrill cry, but which, softened by the distance, is not unpleasant. Every evening after dark this great concert commenced; and often have I sat listening to it, until my attention has been drawn away by some curious passing insect.
July 5th, travelling from Rio de Janeiro to Montevideo
As soon as we entered the estuary of the Plata, the weather was very unsettled. One dark night we were surrounded by numerous seals and penguins, which made such strange noises, that the officer on watch reported he could hear the cattle bellowing on shore. On a second night we witnessed a splendid scene of natural fireworks; the mast-head and yard-arm-ends shone with St. Elmo's light; and the form of the vane could almost be traced, as if it had been rubbed with phosphorus. The sea was so highly luminous, that the tracks of the penguins were marked by a fiery wake, and the darkness of the sky was momentarily illuminated by the most vivid lightning.
It isn't all pleasant reading, of course. His views on slavery are frustrating: humanity and self-awareness when describing personal interactions, but a general unwillingness to condemn the system.

April 13th, on an estate called Socego, Brazil
One morning I walked out an hour before daylight to admire the solemn stillness of the scene; at last, the silence was broken by the morning hymn, raised on high by the whole body of the blacks; and in this manner their daily work is generally begun. On such fazendas as these, I have no doubt the slaves pass happy and contented lives. On Saturday and Sunday they work for themselves, and in this fertile climate the labour of two days is sufficient to support a man and his family for the whole week.
April 14th, having travelled to "another estate on the Rio Macae"
While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.
There's a useful-looking map of the voyage here.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Would time travel make historians redundant?

This is a transcript of my first piece for the Pod Delusion podcast, back in May last year.


Right then class, settle down please.

Now, at the risk of making history unacceptably “relevant” and “accessible” to you all, I'd like to start off this session with a short creative exercise.

If you could travel back to any point in human history, to answer one question, when would you go and what would you want to find out? Personally, I'm as obsessed with the Tudors as the BBC seems to be, so I'd use it to discover what Queen Elizabeth I was really like and, in particular, ask what she thought of the possibility of using artificial insemination to produce future heirs to the throne. But I wouldn't - in fact couldn't - use it to complete my PhD in history any quicker. Not just because I work on Nazi Germany, and the risk assessment form for that trip would take months to complete.

There are many straightforward questions that we could answer with a time machine. We could find out for sure who or what killed the princes in the tower. With some very careful positioning we could establish if there really was a female Pope. We could park it on the grassy knoll and learn very little indeed about the assassination of President Kennedy. These questions are intriguing and engaging but they are not the sort of concerns that are central to academic history. Establishing “what really happened” is only a tiny part of what historical research is about. What really motivates the discipline is why things happened, and what effects this had. The gathering of facts can only take us so far in this. The real work lies in the interpretation of source material, and in writing this up as a coherent account which people can actually use.

When it comes to those really big events that every schoolchild (and all of you) should know about – the French Revolution, for example – sending a historian to observe things as they unfold would not produce a definitive, completely accurate history. One person can only do so much and what particular aspects they recorded would depend on who we sent back and what they thought was most important. The result would be just one more biased eyewitness account; more useful for learning about the historian's own mindset and priorities than those of eighteenth-century French citizens.

What really drives history are factors that can't easily be observed from the ground, and only emerge with hindsight: tensions between different groups in society, the ways that people measure success in their lives, generational conflict, the extent to which people trust authority; all of these have an impact on events, arguably more so that the “great men of history”. This, incidentally, is why I wouldn't use my turn at time travel to kill Hitler, or even send a robot assassin after his mum; you can pull down a lightning rod but it won't make the storm go away.

So maybe my future career as a historian is more under threat from time-travelling social scientists?

I'm still not worried, and not for boring, practical reasons such as the fact that time travel is, sadly, impossible. No, the final, crucial task of the historian, the task which is currently making me tear my hair out and discover new, innovative methods of procrastination, is the task of actually writing a history. Take something we have a lot of information on: the riots that took place in London in 2011. We could, from CCTV, camera phone and news footage, figure out pretty much the exact movements of everyone involved, and we could also interview them later about their motives. But how would we synthesise this mass of data into a manageable, useful account? Which parts are open to other interpretations? What's the actual story here? Does it lie in the events themselves or in people's reactions to them? What bearing might this have on future events, and what does all of this tell us about our society and how much or little we've progressed since the “olden days”? This is what the process of history research and writing is all about, and, as I've hopefully made clear, every resulting work of history has its own omissions and biases, and opens up a world of questions for the next wave of researchers.

And so class, that brings me on to your homework. If you could put together a time capsule to tell people hundreds of years from now about the London riots, what would you include? Would you go for camera footage, rolling news reports, police reports, witness accounts, or testimony from the resulting trials? Would you consider the reactions of people not directly involved to be at all relevant? Would you include newspaper opinion pieces from the weeks afterwards, or maybe from the one year anniversary? Would you go back to before August 2011 and include information on social tensions, race relations or maybe on modern consumer culture? Think through this properly and you'll have a better understanding of what's involved in the research and writing of good history than many of those responsible for the survival of the discipline.

Class dismissed.

Writing tips from Benjamin Franklin

The following strikes me as a fantastic exercise for anyone who has some time to invest in improving their writing. I certainly have trouble expressing ideas in my own words when working from a set of lengthy quotes (which is unfortunately what most of my source notes and first drafts consist of). Based on the essays I'm marking at the moment, my students also struggle with finding "their own words", and either "string together" a "series of short quotes" which "roughly express" the idea they are "aiming at", or they plump for the most academic-sounding vocabulary and wind up making no sense at all.

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I don't normally go in for autobiographies but Franklin's is a thoroughly enjoyable read, containing a lot of useful pointers for getting people to cooperate in your schemes (in case any of you wish to set up a local militia, subscription library or fire service).