Category Archives: History

Neil Christie – ‘From Constantine to Charlemagne’ & ‘Urbes Extinctae’

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

Neil ChristieNeil Christie is a long established scholar of late antique and early medieval archaeology, with a geographic focus centred on Italy, but with a much broader field of interest – which has included heading a major archeological project centred on the urban heritage of Wallingford in south Oxfordshire (a late 9th-century burh of King Alfred the Great and a favoured royal seat from Norman times). Here he talks of two of the volumes that he has published with Ashgate in the last decade.


Sometimes it is easy to identify when the idea of a book first took root. Books can be generated direct from a PhD/DPhil thesis – in a process often surprising quick after the three or more years of building the doctoral edifice – or from a funded research project which has as its ultimate output a monograph; or a book can gather its own form from the accumulation of ideas generated by an array of articles; or your departmental appraiser or head of department will tell you firmly that you’ve a book to write for the next UK University REF exercise.

My titles have come from a variety of sources: the 2006 From Constantine to Charlemagne volume might owe a few elements to my (long unpublished and far too out of date now anyway) PhD and draws on excavations attended and visited since my doctoral days, but largely belongs to an early lecture course at the University of Leicester where I explored themes related to late Roman and early medieval Italy, tackling the archaeological and historical trajectories of cities like Rome and Brescia, questioning the fate of villas and the spread of monasteries, and looking at the impact of new powers such as the Ostrogoths and the Lombards on society and landscape. Realising that all the articles and books in Italian, French and German that I had read were largely beyond my students and seeing the relative dearth of work in English on the period became the prompt to think out the book. From Constantine to CharlemagneBut it was no stallion charging from the starting gates; rather, my beast of burden took plenty of time to graze while other tasks kept me from taking up that particular saddle. When I did take up the challenge the scale had grown – the fences to jump for my academic horse were Grand National-like in terms of researching to sufficient depth in what was and is an ever-growing field. Indeed, as is obvious from scanning through Ashgate’s rich collection of titles, the Late Antique, Byzantine and early medieval epochs are busy with scholars from architectural historians to zooarchaeologists; and Italy in particular has been an extremely active scholarly landscape for AD 500-1000 in the last couple of decades. The task then is getting around the course in fair time, to good effect, showing your rivals your horse is worthwhile, well read and fed, aware of pitfalls, and able to show some new tricks too. And – equally important – is the need to finish the course in good time and not to take too many extra laps. As many an author knows, the finishing is nearly always a bit further than anticipated after the early charge from the gates (doubling the estimate for book delivery from 2 years to 4 is often realistic!)…

From Constantine to Charlemagne is weighty, but, I hope, full and informed and a volume which serves to introduce many to the multiple and varied sources, sites, materials and debates in Italian archaeology for a crucial and challenging timespan. Issues raised in any archaeological work will always be tested by new finds – and some fascinating new excavations have indeed occurred since the book was published – but I feel that my book has helped to stimulate some of the revised debates.

The same goes for the more recent Vrbes Extinctae volume (2012, co-edited by myself and Andrea Augenti), which has received some excellent reviews. Urbes extinctaeWhat we aimed for there was to open a wider field: we can come out with some bland statements sometimes about the demise of classical towns and how archaeology offers insights into this decay, but examples are stale, and so this volume hunted out (largely) active projects and really tried to interrogate them. Each town can be seen as individual in its content, responses, and transformations in the late and post-classical period and giving these voice is crucial. Similarly, we wanted to detail ‘afterlives’ to show that populations did often persist at these sites even as their urban attributes fail; en route, however, we can observe changing attitudes by those people towards the surrounding decay. And the ways we study these places is important: while methods of investigation – open area excavation, remote-sensing, etc. – are evolving and improving, and generating vital data, such new evidence makes us ever more aware of just how much evidence has been removed and destroyed by previous excavators whose focus did not include the often fragile or jumbled post-classical strata. This book too had not straightforward birth: it emerged from a funded EU project that saw archaeologists from four institutions in four different countries (Italy, Spain, Hungary, England) excavating at an early medieval church at the former urban site of Classe near Ravenna in NE Italy; some workshops were arranged to raise questions related to Classe and the Leicester session chose to think more broadly about urban loss in antiquity. Producing a book from the event was a later idea: only a few of the papers presented at Leicester joined the volume; others were commissioned to ensure a wider geographical spread and to use examples of Roman-period loss, Islamic-period decay, sites that breathed urban life only briefly, sites hit by war, and some that just faded.

And like all good edited volumes the Vrbes Extinctae venture has opened up collaborations (actual, planned or potential), contacts and sharing of ideas which, I hope, will lead onto further explorations of Late Antiquity.


From Constantine to Charlemagne was identified by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our publishing programme. To see the full list of titles chosen by our editors visit, History Editors’ Choices.


Neville Chamberlain: A Biography – a guest post from Robert Self

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

In this guest post, Professor Robert Self, author of Neville Chamberlain: A Biography and the editor of four volumes of the Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters reflects on the motivations and objectives behind his eight-year project on this much maligned and misunderstood politician and statesman.


Neville ChamberlainFrom a purely personal perspective, the appearance of my 573 page biography of Neville Chamberlain represented a very satisfying culmination of an eight-year project which began with the publication of four volumes of Neville Chamberlain’s diary letters to his sisters, Hilda and Ida, written weekly from 1915 until shortly before his death in November 1940.

The first of these volumes was published by Ashgate in 2000 with the fourth volume covering the crucial period of Chamberlain’s premiership appearing in 2005. The full-scale biography followed in 2006. My acquaintanceship with the Chamberlain family, however, stretches back to 1975 when my doctoral research first introduced me to the riches contained in the Chamberlain family archives held at Birmingham University Library.

Having produced an edited volume of Austen Chamberlain’s diary letters to his sisters in 1996, my mind turned to the far more ambitious idea of conducting a similar exercise with those of his younger and more famous half-brother. This was always going to be a far more formidable undertaking. Neville was an extremely diligent correspondent, sending lengthy epistles to his sisters at least once a week giving extremely detailed accounts of events and the individuals involved in them. As such, it represents an almost continuous record of British high politics untouched by later efforts to sanitise or correct the historical record with the wisdom of hindsight. Moreover, because this confidential correspondence mattered so much to Chamberlain, in the intimate personal – almost confessional – confines of these letters he was truly able to be himself, sharing his secrets, unburdening himself of his emotions and displaying his strengths and weaknesses of character, his assumptions, prejudices, values and inclinations while he indulged his self-confessed ‘epistolary garrulity’.

Notwithstanding the obviously immense value of this historical record, finding a publisher prepared to give the diary letters the treatment they deserved appeared likely to be a major problem. Certainly, by any standard, this represented a formidable publishing challenge given that there are almost 1200 letters containing nearly 2,000,000 words, spanning a quarter of a century during which Chamberlain stood at the very heart of British politics. Moreover, while possible to omit some of the routine trivia, alongside the valuable political content it was essential to retain enough of his observations concerning the antics of his children and his passion for birdwatching, botany, entomology, gardening, fishing and shooting to reveal that more human side of Chamberlain’s personality which he deliberately obscured beneath a sternly austere and ostensibly humourless demeanour. In the event, I was extraordinarily fortunate to find in Ashgate a publisher who more than fulfilled my highest expectations in terms of both understanding the nature of the task and in the remarkable quality of the volumes produced. Precisely the same can be said about Ashgate’s handling of the Neville Chamberlain biography itself. For all this support and encouragement I owe a particular and very substantial debt of gratitude to Tom Gray.

A variety of factors persuaded me that a full-scale biography was the obvious final stage in my Chamberlain project. First, while editing the diary letters I had conducted extensive research in over 150 collections of private papers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as exhaustive study in countless official files at The National Archive. As much interesting new material had to be discarded when writing the relatively brief introductory chapters to each volume, the answer seemed to be a full-scale biography. By basing the biography primarily on these contemporary records, I hoped to capture Chamberlain’s own authentic voice as he explains, justifies and rationalises unfolding events and his responses to them. Like Keith Feiling some 60 years earlier, the principal intention was not to excuse or condemn Chamberlain, but rather to ‘let N.C. speak for himself’ in order to understand more clearly why he acted as he did and what he hoped to achieve during a long and dedicated career of public service to his country.

The second motivating factor was essentially historiographical. Despite the fierce controversy which still surrounds Chamberlains reputation, Keith Feiling’s biography of Chamberlain was still regarded as the best and most complete account even though it had been published 60 years earlier and by the author’s own admission it was only of a ‘provisional character’ until other archival sources became available. Since its publication in 1946, there have been astonishingly few other attempts at a single volume biography and those which did appear added little to our understanding of this most enigmatic of politicians. The intention, therefore, was to produce the first comprehensive single volume account of the life, record and achievements of a 20th century politician and statesman of the first rank using all of the archival material available to scholars.

The final motivation was more personal in that I confess to a rankling sense of injustice at many of the less balanced verdicts on Chamberlain’s record – particularly from a vociferous post- or counter-revisionist school. The position adopted in the biography could be best described as that of a qualified ‘revisionist’. On one hand, Chamberlain is undoubtedly guilty of lamentable errors of judgement compounded at times by an unrelentingly fatuous optimism – particularly after March 1938. But on the other hand, there is equally little doubt that Chamberlain quite rightly grasped that Britain was trapped in a vulnerable and reactive position at the mercy of a complex inter-related web of strategic, military, economic, financial, industrial and electoral constraints over which he had little control in the short term. As a self-proclaimed ‘realist’, Chamberlain’s consistent response to this conundrum was thus to pursue what he called ‘the double policy’ of rearmament at a pace the economy could sustain combined with the quest for better relations with the dictators by redressing legitimate grievances. Or as he described his strategy to Lord Halifax on his return from Munich ‘we must hope for the best while preparing for the worst’.

In the event, Chamberlain’s loss of the premiership in May 1940 signalled the far greater loss of his credibility and reputation. As Churchill is once supposed to have quipped, ‘Poor Neville will come badly out of history. I know, I will write that history’. As David Dutton has demonstrated in his outstanding study of Chamberlain’s evolving reputation, this proved to be a remarkably shrewd prediction because for many years Churchill’s highly-coloured version of events held the field unchallenged and unchallengeable. This caricature of the 1930s painted in a compellingly simplistic monochrome of black and white, right or wrong, good versus evil, courage in ‘standing up to Hitler’ versus craven appeasement, still continues to hold sway in popular memory, in television dramas and (more depressingly) in historical texts even to this day.

As a result, Chamberlain remained a profoundly underrated, misjudged and misunderstood figure with his many achievements in the domestic sphere too easily overshadowed by the final three years of his life. Had he died in 1937 he would have gone down in history as a great peacetime minister – a radical but realistic social reformer, a supremely talented administrator and the driving force behind many of the National Governments under-estimated successes after 1931. Above all, in perhaps the most original contribution of this biography, a detailed analysis of Chamberlain’s period as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1931 to 1937 refutes much of the pervasive mythology surrounding this neglected and most woefully misunderstood period of his entire career. Contrary to the standard indictment, as Chancellor Chamberlain was not a passive mouthpiece for the blinkered views of his Treasury officials without the political will, imaginative vision or personal courage to do more than tinker impotently until the so-called ‘natural forces of recovery’ rescued Britain from the Great Depression. On the contrary, Chamberlain actively contributed to the development of innovative Treasury thinking to the extent that he can be regarded legitimately as the founder of a species of pre-Keynesian “managed economy” in Britain between the wars – particularly as the architect of a highly innovative brand of interventionist industrial and regional policy conceived as a fundamental solution to Britain’s long-term industrial problems.

For all the achievements, Chamberlain remains all too often the subject of vitriolic attack simply because perceptions of his long and varied career have been fundamentally blighted by the ultimate failure of his policy of appeasement during the last three years of his life. As he confessed to the Commons on the outbreak of war: ‘Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’. Unfortunately for Chamberlain, contemporaries and posterity have judged him accordingly. Yet the failure of appeasement is only one explanation for the personal venom so often injected into assessments of the man and his reputation. Ultimately, at the heart of the problem lies Chamberlain’s own quite deliberate attempt throughout his life to obscure the very existence of a deeper and more complex personality lurking behind the austerely forbidding persona. As Chamberlain’s PPS during the late 1930s, Alec Douglas-Home was absolutely correct when he later observed that his political master was ‘a rare complex person, half of him hidden from the world’. For all those excluded from the closed circle of family and a few real intimates, everything about the public face he presented to the world reinforced the impression that he was a man wholly devoid of instinctive warmth, sympathy and even humanity. As Harry Snell put it, his demeanour suggested that he had been ‘weaned on a pickle’. Or as a disgruntled Birmingham constituent is supposed once to have complained, ‘if you cut the bugger in half neither part would bleed’. Again, posterity has often uncritically followed where Chamberlain’s contemporaries led, by focusing far too much on the outwardly cold, smug and supposedly arrogant persona which, in Donald Watt’s view, makes it ‘extremely difficult to like Neville Chamberlain’.

Neville Chamberlain went to his grave in November 1940 absolutely confident that history would vindicate his policy and rehabilitate his reputation. Although this was by far the greatest miscalculation of his entire public career, my biography represents an attempt to at least partially redress the balance by explaining why he acted as he did and the limited range of policy options he confronted. In this respect, it is gratifying to note the biography was generally very well received by reviewers both at home and overseas. The European response is neatly encapsulated by Professor Antoine Capet of the University of Rouen in a lengthy review published in the French journal Cercles: Revue Pluridisciplinaire du Monde Anglophone:

Readers who are already familiar with the copious texts and notes which accompanied Robert Self’s superb edition of Neville Chamberlain’s Diaries will of course expect more than an exhaustive list of facts – and indeed what we have here is a magnificently argumentative interpretation … on top of a superbly authoritative chronicle of events in Chamberlain’s life.

Capet goes on to commend the ‘superb scholarly value’ of this study before concluding with the following verdict:

Since this cannot be the ‘definitive’ Biography, as there is no such notion, one wonders what may remain to be found by future biographers and one pities them. What makes it even more valuable and difficult to improve upon is that Robert Self gives extensive extracts from the Diary Letters which he has so competently edited. … The four volumes of Diary Letters and the Biography form a magnum opus which is likely to remain the state of the art on Neville Chamberlain for many years. Anybody interested in the inter-war years will find the book a capital addition to the existing literature … There is no doubt that this is scholarly academic writing at its best.

Given the generally far more hostile response to Neville Chamberlain in North America, it is encouraging to note that reaction has been equally positive across the Atlantic. Professor Larry Witherall is typical when he notes in the Journal of Modern History (2008, 80.3) that this ‘ exhaustively researched, immensely rich and layered assessment’ offers ‘a measured yet definitive assessment of this most misunderstood British figure’ and that, as such, it is ‘ an impressive and important study’.

The reception given to the biography and Diary Letters by specialist British scholars has been equally favourable. In his review of the Chamberlain biography in History ( June 2007), Professor Andrew Thorpe noted:

Chamberlain was always going to need a very good historian to be his biographer; but, in Robert Self, he has assuredly found one. It is not the least of Self’s achievements that he covers all areas of Chamberlain’s activities convincingly, with a very clear grasp of the secondary literature allied to unusually deep and thorough empirical research on a wide range of archival sources. … Thus, he appears to be as much at home when writing on, say, banking in Birmingham as he is on housing, economic policy or late 1930s diplomacy. The product is an authoritative book that is also highly readable. Self’s portrait of Chamberlain is sympathetic, but far from uncritical. … the context in which Chamberlain was operating is always noticed, and the book never falls into the trap of many political biographies, of facing the individual so much that it lacks wider perspective.

Thorpe thus concludes with the verdict that ‘this volume will rightly stand for many years as one of the very best biographies of a twentieth-century prime minister’. Or as Dr Jeremy Smith comments, Chamberlain’s faith that he would be vindicated by history ‘has at last been rewarded with the appearance of Dr Self’s monumental, and in some ways magnificent, biography… filling a remarkably long-standing lacuna in modern British political biography’. Parliamentary History 26.2, 2007).

While it is obviously pleasing to record that such positive comments were typical of the general response, whether any of this will prompt a more general reappraisal of Chamberlain’s overall reputation remains to be seen. It is at least encouraging to note that there has been some shift in professional opinion generally. In the most extensive academic poll designed to rank 20th Century British Prime Ministers in 2004 it was significant that while political scientists placed Chamberlain in 19th place out of 20, historians ranked him in 14th place. When we turn to the views of the layman and the writers of popular novels and TV dramas, however, there is less scope for optimism. Churchill’s prediction has been fully vindicated. ‘Poor Neville’ has come badly out of history – and, alas, I fear it is likely to remain that way.


Neville Chamberlain: A Biography was identified by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our publishing programme. To see the full list of titles chosen by our editors visit, History Editors’ Choices.

Peter Burke’s Study of Popular Culture

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

In this guest post, British Historian and Professor Peter Burke provides background information and some of the key experiences that led to the writing of his ground-breaking book Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.


Burke – Popular Culture in Early 2dI began writing this book in 1973. After publishing two consecutive books on elites, I wanted to write about non-elites, about ‘the people’. At this time I was in close touch with the British movement for ‘history from below’, since thanks to my friend Raphael Samuel I had become involved in History Workshop. I was in any case an admirer of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill, though I owe my own ‘discovery’ of popular culture as a topic for research to one of the leading figures of the ‘Annales School’ who later dropped from sight, Robert Mandrou, whose Culture populaire aux XVIIe et XVIII siècles (1964) I had read soon after it came out. It inspired me to read 16th-century Italian chap-books, of which the British Library has a good collection.

I originally meant to work on Italy again, but soon realized that it did not make sense to study early modern popular culture within a national framework. A regional study was possible, or alternatively, given the migration of folktales, an international one. I was very much attracted by the idea of attempting a view of early modern Europe as a whole, from Galway to the Urals, perhaps the result of being the grandson of 4 immigrants to Britain, 2 from Ireland and two from the Russian Empire. Anyway, that was what I chose to do. It meant learning more languages, from Swedish to Provençal, but that was a pleasure. Geoffrey Dickens, whom I knew from writing for a series he edited, was Secretary to the British Academy and helped me get a grant to visit Scandinavia and tour folk museums. The direct contact with peasant material culture was eye-opening, and the move to and forth between artefacts, books and discussions with curators and folklorists was illuminating.

Although I was not conscious of this at the time, this enterprise was in many respects a result of my teaching at the University of Sussex, learning how to read texts from joint courses with colleagues in literature, volunteering to teach art history and sociology without having any formal qualifications in these subjects, and reading anthropology and folklore on my own. Among my historian colleagues, I owed much to the example of Ranajit Guha and to conversations with him, which left their mark on the text. Thanks to all these experiences, I included a chapter on cultural forms in the book (a chapter that no historian who reviewed it, as far as I know, ever mentioned). The most acute review of the book came from Carlo Ginzburg, whom I met in the 70s and who was asked by the publisher to write a preface to the Italian translation of the book (I was delighted that he singled out my comparative approach for favourable comment, while criticizing what I wrote about Lévi-Strauss). I have also had some interesting exchanges with Roger Chartier, whom like Carlo I have known since the 70s) concerning his attempt to eliminate the concept of popular culture. He rightly points out the dangers of treating any text or artefact as popular, since in the course of its career it my appeal to very different kinds of people. On the other hand, closer to social history than Roger, I began not with artefacts but social groups, asking what kind of culture the subordinate or ‘subaltern’ classes had, whether or not it was shared with other groups (it was, especially in the first half of the period treated in the book, in other words 1500-1650). I never discussed these issues with Edward Thompson, whom I knew only slightly, but when I began to read his Customs in Common (1991) I thought that his critique of people who viewed popular culture as located in the ‘thin air’ of meanings, attitudes and values was probably aimed at me, among other people.

It would of course have been possible to spend the rest of my life in the study of popular culture, and I did return to the subject in the 1980s, in essays on early modern Italy, and later, writing about Brazil. However, I also wanted to move on to other themes. Retrospectively, I see the book as the first volume of a trilogy that attempted to view Europe as a whole, the second volume being The European Renaissance (1998) and the third Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe (2004). But I must say that the study of popular culture on which I embarked in the 1970s has affected all my subsequent work, on whatever subject.


Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe was identified by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our publishing programme. To see the full list of titles chosen by our editors visit, History Editors’ Choices.

King John and the afterlife of Magna Carta

Posted by Beth Whalley, Marketing Executive

King John MisrememberedThis is a guest post from Igor Djordjevic, author of King John (Mis)Remembered.


As much as the name of King John is inextricably connected to the national celebrations and commemorations of Magna Carta across the world’s English-speaking democracies (and not always in a positive light), we need to remember that for the first four of the eight centuries of its existence not only was the document practically unknown to the vast majority of Englishmen, but that the king from whom it was wrested had a far different reputation in English cultural memory than he does today.

Magna Carta’s status as a fundamental legal document is largely the product of the efforts of a select group of seventeenth-century Common Lawyers and Parliamentarians who elevated it to paramount importance in the context of their own struggles against an uncompromising Charles I.

The Charter’s “afterlife” in popular culture as a statement of the subject’s rights and freedoms won by the force of medieval proto-liberals against a tyrannical and avaricious King John has little to do with the efforts of those Caroline lawyers, and almost nothing with the actual events of 1215. John’s “evil” character in today’s pop-culture was “created” by Michael Drayton and Anthony Munday in the 1590s after reading the fanciful account of John’s reign in the Chronicle of Dunmow republished by John Stow in 1580, and it is he who lurks in the shadows of the triumph of Magna Carta at the octocentenniary: a fictional character born at a time when neither the authors of popular genres nor their audiences seemed to be aware of Magna Carta.

Magna Carta has an important place in the history of law and constitution, but we should not lose sight of the narrow political interests of the group of rebellious barons led by Robert FitzWalter who forcefully extorted it from King John, invited a French invasion to achieve their aims, and even offered the English crown to the Dauphin Louis. If the birth of constitutional monarchy and democracy was the “end” of the implementation of Magna Carta, it was almost accidental; its writers probably would have considered it more of a “means” of curbing royal power and elevating their own than a set of rights to extend to all English subjects.

It is important to appreciate the importance of this document, but also to be aware that, like any text, it was subject to reinterpretation and recontextualization over time. We must resist the tendency to read back onto this document and the political figures involved in its inception fanciful notions about the Manichean struggle between conservative “control” and proto-liberal “resistance.”


About the Author: Igor Djordjevic is Associate Professor of English at York University, Canada. He is also the author of Holinshed’s Nation (2010).

The first title in our Universal Reform series is just published

Posted by Hattie Wilson, Senior Marketing Executive

Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic WorldsWe are delighted to announce that our new series, Universal Reform: Studies in Intellectual History, 1550-1700 has just published its first title. Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds by Brandon Marriott examines the claim by Antonio de Montezinos in 1644 that he had discovered the Lost Tribes of Israel in the jungles of South America, and how this news spread across Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Marriott reveals the importance of early-modern crises, diasporas and newsgathering networks in generating eschatological constructs and transforming them through a process of intercultural dissemination into complex new hybrid religious conceptions and identities.

The Universal Reform series, edited by Howard Hotson and Vladimír Urbánek, examines the attempts by a wide variety of Post-Reformation intellectuals to extend the reforming impulse from the spheres of church and theology to many different areas of life and thought.

Within these ambitious reforming projects, impulses originating in the Reformation mixed inextricably with projects emerging from the late-Renaissance and with the ongoing transformations of communications, education, art, literature, science, medicine, and philosophy.  Although specialised literatures exist to study these individual developments, they do not comfortably accommodate studies of how these components were sometimes brought together in the service of wider reforms. By providing a natural home for fresh research uncomfortably accommodated within Renaissance studies, Reformation studies, and the histories of science, medicine, philosophy, and education, Universal Reform pursues a more synoptic understanding of individuals, movements, and networks pursuing further and more general reform by bringing together studies rooted in all of these sub-disciplinary historiographies.

If you are interested in submitting a proposal for the Universal Reform series, please contact the publisher, Thomas Gray

Things Verbal and Things Herbal: Leah Knight’s Reading Green in Early Modern England receives the 2014 BSLS Book Prize

Posted by Beth Whalley, Marketing Executive

Reading GreenCongratulations to Leah Knight, whose book Reading Green in Early Modern England has been announced as the winner of the 2014 British Society for Literature and Science book prize.

Ranging across contexts from early modern optics and olfaction to horticulture and herbal health care, Knight’s study explores a host of human encounters with the green world: both the impressions we make upon it and those it leaves with us. Reading Green explores the physical and figurative potentials of ‘green’ as they were understood in Renaissance England, including some that foreshadow our paradoxical dependence on and sacrifice of the green world.

The BSLS prize panel was highly impressed by the style, method, adventure and innovation of the study. Knight, whose first monograph (Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England) won the prize in 2009, said:

I am of course delighted that Reading Green won the BSLS book prize. The support of my colleagues working at the nexus of literature and science means a great deal.

As to my motivation for Reading GreenAfter Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England, I had the nagging feeling of unfinished business in my exploration of the interrelations of plants and books. New angles and new evidence for their historical interplay just kept cropping up, even when I wasn’t looking.

Then again, some of my motivation in returning to the topic might be owing to my unsettled sense about the relations between the intellectual to the natural world. There’s something utopian about the paired settings of the library and the garden, but the predatory dependence of books on plants seems to stand for an insidious conflict. The chapters in Reading Green let me work through some of these complexities as they played out in early modern England, a time and place when the material and mental cultures of things verbal and things herbal were in tremendous flux. 

Malcom Barber and Keith Bate on letters from crusaders and pilgrims

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

Letters from the East presents translations of a selection of the letters sent by crusaders and pilgrims from Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. There are accounts of all the great events from the triumph of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 to the disasters of Hattin in 1187 and the loss of Acre in 1291.

In this guest blog editors Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate reflect on the letters they selected for their volume.


There are fascinating and vivid chronicles in the Ashgate series, many of which have been expertly analysed with the aims of determining the motives of the writers, the influences upon them, and the circumstances in which they were composed. We see the letters complementing these, since, even in the hands of a self-conscious author like James of Vitry, Bishop of Acre, they were subject to the more immediate pressures of life in a frontier society, whereas the chronicles were often polished and rewritten in order to demonstrate the literary accomplishments of the authors or to promote the cause of a patron. Letters from the eastAs with the chronicles we’ve tried to translate most of the letters in their entirety because we wanted to limit editorial steer as much as possible, and because future trends in analysis can’t easily be forecast. Parts of the text which might seem inconsequential today may well be the subject of study tomorrow.

Of course the act of selection is in itself an imposition not faced by the translator of a complete chronicle, but in the case of letters the quantity of material available makes this inevitable. It might be helpful to explain some of the considerations which lay behind our choices. Some letters are presented as stand-alone texts, but we have tried to group others in a variety of different ways: thus we have participants in a common enterprise like the First Crusade, the huge but ultimately fruitless effort to persuade Louis VII of France to lead a new expedition to the East in 1160s, and the collection put together by individuals such as James of Vitry. In the end, though, there’s no real consistency of approach among the writers themselves; indeed, this might be seen as part their attraction as sources. At one extreme there are pragmatic appeals for help, often in the wake of disasters; at the other, an extraordinary description of the fantasy land of Prester John, produced in Germany around 1165 as part of the imperial propaganda campaign against the papacy. Less elaborate but equally intriguing is a forged letter of 1193 purporting to be from Rashid al-Din, leader of the Syrian Assassins, emanating from the chancery of Richard I. Here, the Assassin leader assures Leopold of Austria that, despite allegations to the contrary, the king had nothing to do with the murder of Conrad of Montferrat in Acre in April the previous year. Other letters, while basically factual, may for different reasons not be quite what they seem: it’s been argued, for instance, that the two famous letters by Terricus, the Templar preceptor, apparently written in 1187 and 1188 after the battle of Hattin, are in fact compilations intended to excite a reaction in the West from which aid in the form of men, money and supplies might flow.

Particularly eye-catching are the personal touches. These men and women lived in a very different world, but their humanity still resonates. When, in 1097, Stephen of Blois described to his wife, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, the generosity of Alexius, the Byzantine emperor, one sentence reflects on what must have been a source of continual irritation between the two of them. ‘Your father, my love, gave many great presents, but he was almost nothing in comparison with this man.’ Stephen was not the only one whose thoughts turned to home. In 1120, Ansell, Cantor of the Holy Sepulchre, sent a cross made from wood taken from the True Cross to his friends at Notre Dame in Paris. In the accompanying letter, he recalled his time with them. ‘Although it is now twenty-four years since I left you and your church where I was nourished and educated, my love for you remains fervent and in my mind I still live in your church with you.’ Sometimes, though, the letters betray frustration and anger caused by the bitter experience of failure. Conrad III, King of Germany, who felt humiliated by the retreat from Damascus in 1148, believed he had been betrayed, apparently by local Franks, despite the fact that it had been ‘a unanimous decision’ to attack the city. Nor was the Muslim enemy the only hazard. In 1216, James of Vitry was on board a ship which was, accidentally, almost rammed by another vessel, causing panic among the voyagers. ‘And there arose a great cry from everybody; and there was heard crying and weeping, and people confessing their sins in both ships. Some people began jumping from one ship to the other, according to which they thought to be the stronger, while others took off their clothes and tied any silver and gold they had around their bodies in case they could swim to safety.’ In contrast, bravery, both mental and physical, is the outstanding impression left on the reader of the letter of John of Villiers, the Hospitaller Master, writing from Cyprus in late May, 1291, after Acre had disintegrated around him. He knew he had not long to live, having been ‘mortally wounded by a spear’, but had nevertheless escaped to Cyprus, ‘our heart heavy and our body in pain’.

Taken as a whole, the book is intended to provide a series of pegs on which to hang a general history of the crusade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. To that end there’s an attempt at a chronological and thematic balance, enabling newcomers to the subject to use the letters in conjunction with good concise histories of the crusades such as Bernard Hamilton’s The Crusades (Sutton Pocket Histories, 1998). Key events – the First Crusade, the defeat at Hattin in 1187, the fall of Acre in 1291 – are all covered even though (indeed because) they are well known. The letters help to explain the enduring appeal of the crusades as an undergraduate subject; there are many more which could be mined.


Letters from the East was chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our History publishing programme. View the full list of History Editors’ Choices