Silcher Must Fall?: Lessons about Statues with Difficult Pasts

There are few more beautiful spots in Tübingen to take a stroll than the Platanenallee. Beginning at the Eberhard bridge, which crosses the Neckar at the heart of the city, you descend down onto a narrow island that divides the river, lined by the mighty and ancient plane trees from which the avenue takes its name.  Picnics are held amid these giants. Small children play hiding games behind their trunks. Down the broad avenue, elderly Tübingers wearing their best nod courteously to the revelling teenagers whose paths they cross. On the water, scholars attempt to balance their punts and take them down the river, with varying ratios of skill to enthusiasm. To your right, on the far side of the Neckar, rises the city, where the colourful medieval residential buildings that define the view are further adorned by students sat on the wall in front of them. As you make your way west, you will see the late Gothic tower of the Stiftskirche in the distance, as well as the bright yellow tower on the river in which the poet Hölderlin battled his demons. Looming above it all is the red roofed castle, whose thick walls, which once housed the local count, now defend the treasures of the university museum. Press on, and you will reach the sighing forest, where the regimented plane trees that open one to the world are replaced by their smaller, less-disciplined cousins, creating a space of solitude in the middle of the city.

But before reaching that shelter, one must meet a monster.

Photo by author

The most controversial statue in Tübingen lurks where the avenue meets the forest, commanding an open circle that draws you into his realm. Its subject is the celebrated composer and music teacher Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860). Statues and their role in the telling of history have been much in the news recently, not least in the city of my birth, so my attention was drawn to the Silcher statue. I’ve long felt that the way Germany talks about its history holds lessons for other countries with difficult pasts (that is, all of them). The complicity of ordinary Germans in the crimes of the Third Reich and the DDR are taught honestly and bravely in schools and communicated regularly in public. Nor are they separated from ordinary life. Walking down the streets of Germany, one encounters the little golden bricks (Stolpersteine), giving you the name and details of a person who once lived where you now stand and was murdered by the Nazis. Such moments, which collapse time by fixing you to the place, make it impossible to fully banish the spectre of the past.  Although other parts of German history are still more forgotten than they should be, most notably the colonial empire in Africa that led to the Herero and Nama genocide, even here efforts are being made to face up to that past. (In between my writing this piece and its publication, Tübingen has acquired an excellent set of signs organised by the local museum which inform the reader about the colonial connections of the city and university in preparation for a permanent exhibition on the subject.) Given Germany’s excellence in coping with historical memory, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the treatment of the Silcher statue.

The statue is not controversial because of its subject. As far as I can tell, Silcher was as inoffensive as the average nineteenth-century person could be. His liberal nationalist leanings led him to be sympathetic to the 1848 revolution. His passion for the German nation was primarily expressed by his work collecting and arranging traditional Volkslieder (folk music). As the head of the music school in Tübingen for most of his life, Silcher played a key role in the cultural life of the city, as well as being celebrated across the German-speaking world. His contribution to Tübingen is commemorated by a street named after him, and his grave in the city cemetery is signposted for visitors.

Rather, the controversy comes from the circumstances in which the statue was put up. You get a strong hint about this when you approach the statue from the front. The whole composition is nearly six metres tall, made of sandstone, and features a colossal sitting Silcher, making notes in a book. The monumental style of a simple twentieth century that fetishized clean lines and dynamic force is ill suited to the composer’s delicate Biedermeier face and cravat, rendering them blocky and crude.  Further clues appear as you go round the statue, where, bursting out of Silcher’s back like so many alien parasites, we encounter two soldiers in battle, one of whom has fallen to unseen enemies; another soldier locked in a farewell kiss with a woman; and, most grotesquely, a child marching with a rifle over his shoulder. The effect of the ensemble carried out by these empty-faced figures is to glorify warfare. We can accuse it of many things, but subtle it is not. Just in case we haven’t worked out what we’re looking at yet, we can consult the helpful bright pink graffiti on the base, which accurately informs us that this is a ‘Nazi Denkmal [Monument]’.

The statue was first announced on the 25th June 1939, as Tübingen celebrated the 150th anniversary of Silcher’s birth, and was completed on 11th May 1941. The design and construction followed the specifications of the local Nazi district leader. Given the circumstances, it was felt that the official opening of the statue should be delayed. No such inauguration ever took place. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Nazi-era sculpture, it was never taken down, despite multiple requests over the decades by inhabitants of Tübingen.

I think on balance this is a good thing, because keeping the statue helps to communicate a number of useful points to the people who visit it. The first is the capacity and willingness of totalitarian ideologies to claim and pervert the past and art for its own purposes. The monumental figures of soldiers point towards some of Silcher’s most famous compositions, most notably the tune to Ludwig Uhland’s ‘Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden’. Far from straightforwardly glorifying war, though, the song speaks to the loss experienced by soldiers in battle. This universal applicability has led to it being picked up by militaries from France to Chile. Under Nazi rule, Silcher’s haunting tribute to the sorrow of war was instrumentalised in order to express war’s glory. Nazi leaders used their control of the arts in the present to redefine the art of the past, and place themselves right at the heart of Tübingen’s relationship with its own history.

But this is not just a story of alien functionaries imposing a Nazi ideology upon Tübingen’s historical landscape. That would be far too straightforward. Because the second point to take from this is the enthusiastic participation by people in the Nazi project. People in Tübingen liked the Nazis. It was not hard to find a sculptor, Wilhelm Julius Frick, who could fulfil the requirements of the organisers. For the most part the sculpture was organised by local people who were Nazis. Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis had been popular in Tübingen. Although the working class of the city predominantly supported the Social Democrats or the Communists, the university was strongly right wing, and many of its students would be fast-tracked through the ranks of the SS and the Gestapo. The only Jewish professor in the university was forced out in 1931. By 1935 there were no Jewish students at the university. An Institute for Racial Studies was established in order to racially classify people. It was later renamed the Anthropological Institute. The intellectuals of Tübingen, the people who presumed to set its artistic taste and preserve its cultural tradition, were fully on board with the Nazi project. The statue of Silcher speaks to their willingness to corrupt their past for the totalitarian present.

These are good reasons to keep the statue up. But a statue alone can’t communicate that message. Figural depiction is forever ambiguous and you don’t have to be Percy Shelley to know that statues get read in many different ways by the people who see them. The medieval inhabitants of Constantinople believed the ancient statues of their city communicated omens at night. Historians writing in Ottoman Athens interpreted the ancient statues of their home as magical automata, built to act as soldiers for the wizard-philosophers on the Acropolis during their vain quest for immortality. If the statue of Silcher is going to usefully communicate anything about the Nazi past, it needs to be contextualised. Which is why today the statue is accompanied by a lengthy sign explaining its history, with photos. This sign can also be found online, here in English, and is part of a series of nineteen signs set up in 2016, distributed throughout Tübingen, addressing the city’s Nazi past. (They are well worth reading, and will communicate how easy the good people of Tübingen made researching this post for me). Hence, the visitor to the statue does not just get information while at Silcher’s feet. They are also primed and prepared for it by the very explicit signage throughout the city that provides vital context. This commitment to offering information is what allows the statue to be useful in the present, de-fanging its obvious original purpose and helping us in the present to learn its lessons.

It’s also important to note that this is the result of a continuing conversation among the people of Tübingen that has led to changes over the past eighty years, and this is potentially not the end of the conversation. Statues are intended to be permanent monuments, transmuting the fleeting and the perishable by immortalising it in stone. In practice, this is not the case. Untouched, statues decay, slowly corroding or rapidly collapsing in the face of the elements. Their preservation is a choice, and a conscious active one that demands time, money and labour. The Silcher statue commemorates someone of great artistic significance who had a deep connection to the city in which it stands. No one is harmed by the burnishing of his memory. Nor is the statue a rallying point for those who would be heir to the Nazis. Those are essential preconditions for the statue’s continued prominence. If those facts were to change, if the far-right were to start gathering where Platanenallee meets the forest of sighs, or if new information were to come to light about Silcher, then a new decision might have to be made.

I’m aware that this is not a stirring cry for one side or the other in the debate about controversial statues, but I don’t think a contribution to this debate has to be strident to be useful. Statues are part of the conversation that people and communities have with each other about their past. Above all, they need to be useful or meaningful to the people they serve in the present, even if some of that use or meaning comes from the uncomfortable truths they can tell us about our histories. Because they are part of a continuing process, no final rule or decision can be made that will neatly fit all cases or that can bind all generations to come.

Despite the need to think about all statues in their individual circumstances, I think the Silcher statue does offer a useful lesson for the handling of controversial statues. That is the importance of providing historical context. The commitment by the Tübingen Landkreis to making it really easy to understand the history of the statue, the reasons it was put up, and the explanation for its design is what transforms it from Nazi propaganda to a valuable learning moment for the present. That historical context is the most potent antidote to the poison it was meant to spread, and is an insight that I think communities across the world who are grappling with the monuments of a past both too foreign and too near all at once could benefit from.

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The New Diplomatic History and the Middle Ages

Writing Diplomatically

People have been writing the history of diplomacy for as long as they’ve been writing history. The terse Spring and Autumn annals of the Chinese state of Lu find space for embassies in their brief account of the passing of the years. Many of the most memorable set-pieces in Greek historical writing centre on diplomatic encounters, whether it is the Persian envoys demanding earth and water from the Greek states in Herodotus (Hdt. 6.48) or the dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in Thucydides (Thuc. 5.84). In the European tradition, the heyday of the writing of diplomatic history probably came in the nineteenth century. In this we can partly see the influence of Ranke on the practice of history. His dependence upon the Venetian archives, and the reports from ambassadors that they held, shaped his perspective of the past. Ranke’s theory of the Primat der Außenpolitik, the primacy of foreign policy, in which the domestic politics of a state was subordinated to the needs of its foreign relations in order to ensure its survival, also privileged diplomatic history.

In addition to the role played by Ranke, this sort of history was perceived to be useful to the state, with analysis of foreign policy offering useful lessons for the statesmen of their age and training for their successors in the future. The result was a diplomatic history that focussed on relations between European states. While some attention was paid to monarchs or to idealised ministers whose genius was to be outlined for the edification of the nation, it was a largely depersonalised history, in which countries or capital cities made decisions on the basis of a rational understanding of their material interests.

This approach is not particularly useful for writing the history of medieval diplomacy. Unlike the classical world, which can be made to fit into such a model provided you’re willing to abuse Thucydides enough (he suffers what he must), the medieval past resists the imposition of straightforward ideas of the state and rational diplomacy (as extended arguments about whether we can even talk about the medieval state demonstrate). Instead, to these observers, medieval Europe resembled a complicated mess of entities and individuals doing things that failed to conform to the sort of sound diplomatic principles that makes sense to nineteenth-century statesmen/twentieth-century military academies.

This has a number of consequences. For a start, it means that mainstream diplomatic history doesn’t normally discuss the medieval period. In the second half of the twentieth century, the study of the history of premodern diplomacy in the English-speaking world was dominated by Garrett Mattingly’s Renaissance Diplomacy (1955) and Donald Queller’s The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages (1967). They argued that diplomacy as we understand it developed in Italy in the fifteenth century, with the rise of permanent ambassadors. While this depends on a very particular definition of diplomacy that most medieval historians would reject, it remains alarmingly popular among modern historians. Also important in the narrative of the rise of ‘proper’ diplomacy was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, at which point the system of modern states which traditional diplomatic history was based on was deemed to have fully arrived. It also means that medieval historians who do study diplomacy tend to do so without reference to the ideas and methods developed by their modernist colleagues, or by people working in the wider field of International Relations.

As someone who has been thinking about medieval diplomacy for a decade, this conceptual distance has long frustrated me. This is why I’ve become increasingly interested in a new development in the study of diplomacy, the descriptively named New Diplomatic History. As with many historiographical movements, identifying its precise genesis is a murky and perhaps unhelpful business. An important moment of crystallisation took place with a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies in 2008 entitled ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History’. In his introduction to the issue, the editor of the issue, John Watkins, called for this New Diplomatic History, and his description of it is one of the canonical texts of the movement. By 2011 a network for the New Diplomatic History was established, based in Leiden. That perhaps overstates its institutionalisation as a school, and there is a much wider range of scholars who cite the New Diplomatic History without being fully attached to the Leiden circle. 

Watkins identified the beginning of the New Diplomatic History in Italian universities in the 1990s, with works such as Daniela Frigo’s Principe, Ambasciatori e “Jus Gentium”: L’amministrazione della Politica Estera nel Piemonte del Settecento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1991). Given the focus of earlier diplomatic history on the Venetian archives for their source base, and on Italy as the birthplace of modern diplomacy, Italy loomed large in the old diplomatic history. The work of Frigo and her later collaborators served to explode many of these myths, as they argued that early modern Italian diplomacy was driven by personalities rather than offices, and that those institutions that did exist were evolutions from medieval precedent.

Feeding into the development of the New Diplomatic History in the 1990s and 2000s were changes in the field of International Relations. One of these was the increasing challenge to old ideas about Westphalia, which came to a head in 1998 at the 350th anniversary of the Peace. If 1648 did not inaugurate a system of state sovereignty, then new approaches to diplomacy both before and after it were going to be required. Likewise these decades saw growing interest in non-state actors. The diplomatic importance of international bodies such as the European Union, terrorist organisations such as FARC, or major companies such as Amazon, encouraged scholars in International Relations to move away from a focus on diplomacy as a thing that happened between states.

Don’t you hate it when you show up at a peace treaty and realise someone is wearing the same outfit as you? The Ratification of the Spanish-Dutch Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648.

So, what is the New Diplomatic History?

In many ways the New Diplomatic History represents a deliberate repudiation of older diplomatic models. For a start, it rejects the state as the chief actor in diplomacy. One of the ways that manifests is by being ‘actor-centred’. Diplomacy is conducted by individuals, rather than faceless metonyms. Decisions made within governments or institutions are ultimately made by people, with their own personalities, experiences and agendas, operating within a particular political and cultural context.  Daniela Frigo’s work pointed to the importance of individuals in ways that often overrode the technical roles of the offices they held. In this way we can move away from bland and misleading statements that Germany did this, or London decided that. This ‘actor-centred’ diplomacy has also led to a new emphasis on ambassadors, their personalities, skills and motivations. Rather than being a method of delivering a letter, they become key parts of the process by which diplomacy took place.

This focus on people has gone hand-in-hand with a greater attention to the practicalities of diplomacy. How diplomats got from place to place, how they were received by and communicated with their hosts and how they remained in touch with their employers back home. This emphasis on practicality can also shift focus away from diplomats themselves, to their families, retinues and support staffs, as well as to the spies and informants who provided information, and the allies and friends who offered help or sought to use the ambassadors for their own purposes. This expands the scope of diplomatic history, embedding it in the context in which it happened and helping us understand the practicalities involved. But it also allows us to think about how people who weren’t elite men such as commoners, women and children were involved in diplomacy.

Another way this rejection of the modern European state as the primary actor in diplomacy emerges is in a greater emphasis on non-European diplomacy. By taking the politics and institutions of non-European powers seriously and on their own terms, the scope for diplomatic history has expanded considerably. Work on the Ottoman empire has pointed to the importance of community leaders, such as the heads of Christian minority groups under the millet system, in communicating with the representatives of foreign powers. European empires such as Britain worked through agents such as consuls, successful merchants based in places like Smyrna and Alexandria who combined their commercial activities and prominence among the local foreign community with diplomatic missions.

One of the important things about people like consuls and missionaries is that although they might deal with governments on behalf of a foreign polity, they also frequently did so for their own purposes, or as representatives of non-state actors such as religious groups, ethnic minorities or commercial interests. Such groups frequently wielded considerable power, and here we might want to think about the Hanseatic League negotiating with English and Russian monarchs, or the Jesuit order in the Rio Grande de Sol region bargaining with Spanish and Portuguese kings and the leaders of groups such as the Tupi. Moving away from the state allows us to see the other actors in diplomatic history, who represented groups and blocs who mattered, even if they fit untidily in more traditional historiography.

If philosophically, the New Diplomatic History is based on rejecting the model of modern European states interacting with each other, methodologically it seeks to break out of the box that traditional diplomatic history frequently placed itself in. One of ways its practitioners seek to do so is by thinking about the connections between domestic politics and foreign relations. Rather than being a separate sphere, the two blurred and fed into each other. Specialists in diplomacy need to take internal politics seriously in order to understand the motivations and restraints in which these relations were conducted.

The New Diplomatic History also embraces greater interdisciplinarity in the study of diplomacy. This point appears in the opening line of John Watkins’ call for a New Diplomatic History. Watkins’ own preferred focus is with literary studies, thinking about the impact of diplomatic careers on writers such as Petrarch, Chaucer and Montaigne, or examining the importance of literary culture in shaping diplomatic correspondence and spaces such as salons. Embracing cultural and social history more broadly has allowed other scholars to think about how diplomats participated in the lives of the spaces that hosted them, while also considering the ideas and mentalities they bore and the environments that shaped them. Likewise, scholars thinking about gender and race have offered provocative new ideas about the role of their fields in thinking about diplomacy. Of especial interest has been the role of women in acting as go-betweens, setting cultural norms and fostering environments where informal diplomacy could take place. New research on material culture has been particularly important. Diplomatic gifts have acquired a fresh importance with greater attention paid to their meaning and provenance. But the material turn has gone much further than that, paying attention to clothes worn by diplomats, their purchases and the means with which they lived their lives and the significance this had for their work.

The New Diplomatic Middle Ages?

This is all very well, but what does it actually do for us as medievalists? After all, you’ll have noticed that most of the examples I’ve used to illustrate points thus far have been early modern. This reflects the state of the field. Where medieval scholars have been involved, it has generally been specialists in the very late period. Medievalists also face unusual challenges that complicate some of the mainstays of the New Diplomatic History. Most obviously our source base is usually much, much thinner. There are also dangers involved in a naïve use of the New Diplomatic History. While much of that scholarship aims to break free of traditional models of diplomacy by looking at non-European powers, the fact remains that the Ottomans, Comanche and their like existed within the modern world, with implications for their technology and communications that shaped their diplomacy. The people and places we are interested in are distant to us in time, adding a layer of complexity. In drawing too direct a connection between medieval and non-European modern diplomacy we risk diminishing both, reducing them to a caricature of generic primitiveness and missing what is distinctive about them.

Nonetheless, I think the New Diplomatic History offers a great deal for the study of the medieval past. This is in part because their vision of what diplomacy is fits the realities of the medieval world much more closely than older interpretations. A political landscape where states were frequently weak or non-existent and where power depended greatly on individual actors, with limited separation between public and private is one that the New Diplomatic History is much better able to navigate than previous models. Ideas about the role played by non-state actors, or by diplomats who don’t look like permanent, professional ambassadors can be usefully applied to the medieval world. On a grander scale, being able to step away from a Westphalian model of sovereign states aggressively competing with each other offers alternative ways for thinking about how medieval entities related to each other, such as hegemony or collaborative world orders.  The value the New Diplomatic History places on interdisciplinarity also offers a chance to widen the source base medieval historians work with, encouraging us for example to think about the wider cultural horizons in which medieval diplomacy took place.

The New Diplomatic History can be particularly useful for providing medieval historians with a context and terminology for what we already do. As I may have mentioned, in 2019 I published an article on the camels that Charles the Bald received from the Umayyad Emir Muhammad I in 865. Writing that piece a couple of years earlier was a strange and slightly isolating experience, as I buried myself both in the logistics of sourcing and transporting the camels and in the cultural meanings that both polities had concerning camels in order to understand their significance. My subsequent encounter with the New Diplomatic History was extremely helpful for comprehending what I had been doing by instinct.

Perhaps most striking for me is that modernists in the New Diplomatic History actually seem to want to talk to medievalists. John Watkins made his call for this new approach in a Journal for medieval as well as early modern historians. I think most medievalists know the experience of being hived off from the rest of the historical profession for being too weird. Having a bunch of modern scholars who are genuinely interested in hearing what we have to say is useful as well as refreshing. In my time in Cambridge, I benefited from collaborating with modern diplomatic historians in informal sessions, teaching environments and lectures, acquiring ideas and perspectives that I have found provocative and helpful to my work. Any movement that makes it easier for us to have those conversations immediately has my sympathy.

The Invention of Power: An Uninteresting Blog Post

This may surprise some of you reading, given that it’s my main tool for publicising the blog, but I don’t go on Twitter very much anymore. This is not a decision I particularly regret. (I’ve eaten some tasty bread made of the wheat from that site, but my God there’s been a lot of chaff.) Nonetheless, I do still go back occasionally. Recently, I noticed a group of medievalists dunking on one particular book, and it annoyed me. This tetchy response wasn’t anything to do with them – I’m perpetually cranky at the moment owing to trying to get everything finished at home and also organise an international move whilst planning as much travel between the UK and Germany to spend time with my wife as possible –  but still, I did think to myself, ‘It’s not fair to make fun of a book you haven’t actually read, so I’m going to get hold of a copy and read it really sympathetically and review it for the blog and say positive upbeat things about it.’

The book was The Invention of Power: Popes, Kings and the Birth of the West by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita; and reader, the Twitter medievalists mocking it were absolutely right. This book is dreadful.

This book took up valuable time I could have spent reading about the history of Walt Disney World

Unfortunately, the precise way in which it’s bad is so basic and uninteresting that it’s almost too obvious to mention: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I could leave it there, and I’m tempted to, but I suffered through all nine chapters and by God I’m going to get some blog content out of it.

So let’s start at the beginning. What’s the book’s argument? The book argues that the exceptionalism – by which the author means both the higher relative economic performance and freer, happier societies – of Western Europe and its ‘settler colonies’ can be traced back to a series of concordats made between the pope and the various rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, England and France in the twelfth century. In accordance with the terms of these concordats, a uniform procedure for appointing bishops was put in place, whereby the Church nominated a bishop, who was then accepted or rejected by the king; in the meantime, the king would pocket the temporal revenue of the diocese. This created a series of incentives for both the popes and temporal rulers. Kings wanted secular appointees, whilst popes wanted religious appointees. If the king turns down a Church nominee, he gets more money and/or the potential for a more loyal secularly inclined bishop, but has to pay the political costs of an angry pope. Therefore, the richer a diocese, the more incentive for the kings to be pickier: in a rich bishopric, the potential gains for the kings by not accepting a papal nominee outweigh the potential risks of papal anger. By contrast, in a poor bishopric, the inverse is true, and the Church has more leverage. This creates the incentive for kings to promote economic development to create lots of rich dioceses, whilst the Church would like to retard economic development to create lots of poor dioceses. To promote economic growth, kings needed to incentivize their subjects to increase productivity. This requires making concessions to these subjects to share in the benefits of increased productivity, concessions such as parliaments and other forms of accountable governments. Thus, in areas of Europe covered by the twelfth-century concordats, we would expect to see greater economic development and more accountable institutions than in other parts of the world. This combination of economic development and accountable institutions led to the exceptional Europe and Europe Outremer of the modern world.

…Look, I’m not going to attempt to touch on all of this. As more medievalists get hold of this book, I imagine an interested reader could take to Twitter and see more and more different approaches to analysing its failure as scholarship. For the rest of this post, I’m going to consider the failure of the book as a work of the historian’s craft. Now, it’s worth noting that the author does say:

I am not a historian, let alone a medievalist or a specialist on the Concordat of Worms. Undoubtedly, readers will find here and there a wrong date or an error in some other detail of the story… [but] the big story being told here is what matters, and the big story does not depend on anecdotes or on any individual fact. Rather, it depends primarily on quantitative evidence, which I have supplemented with anecdotes to illustrate rather than evaluate the argument.

The problem is that this book’s problems don’t come from any individual error of fact, but from a complete failure of approach towards the subject. This is ‘Garbage In’: the approach the author takes to historiography, sources, and analysis inherently preclude this book from reaching any useful conclusions.

Let’s start with the historiographical garbage: Bueno de Mesquita is working with a very old-fashioned view of the medieval past. The bibliography is almost aggressively antiquated, and secondary works are deployed with very little understanding of the sources they’re based on. In a section which struck particularly close to home for me, his account of the pre-eleventh century papacy is based on Mann’s The Lives of the Popes vol. 4: The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy (1910) and a Wikipedia article. (As an aside, there’s an unnerving amount of Wikipedia in this book for what is supposed to be the product of a veteran scholar – in footnote 9 for Chapter 4, for instance, we learn that his information about episcopal careers throughout the whole period he covers comes entirely from the website.) Historical thinking on this matter has changed since World War One as we have developed better understandings of our sources – notably, in this case, that the fundamental basis for a highly negative view of the tenth-century papacy comes from polemical works trying to justify the Ottonian invasion of the 960s. Sometimes, to be sure, a distance from the orthodoxies of mainstream historical scholarship can prove advantageous; but that does require knowing what they are. This is simply repeating the orthodoxies of over a century ago. 

As this suggests, the book’s handling of evidence is also very poor. The author points towards quantitative evidence to support his conclusions – in a word, data – seemingly without realising that this data is based on sources. This is not even a case of failing to perform basic source criticism. Rather, the author systematically does not engage with medieval primary sources. This is true even at the most crucial moments for his arguments. For instance, to show that his game theory logic works, Bueno de Mesquite has to demonstrate a significant correlation after the concordats between secularly inclined bishops and rich dioceses. His data for whether bishops were secularly or religiously inclined comes – as noted above – from reading Wikipedia summaries, rather than from any kind of engagement with the sources for these bishops’ careers or elections. What this means is that he has 2,709 data points where he has no idea what the evidential basis is for that data. Regula magistri is not usually considered an acceptable kind of evidence, let alone regula anyone-can-edit-orum. Similarly, he determines whether or not dioceses were rich or poor by correlating whether or not dioceses were on trade routes and modern estimates of their potential to produce high-calorie crops. Notably missing from any of this is any discussion of medieval evidence. In fact, this particular methodology is both theoretically and empirically nonsense: first, because it assumes the bishop holds a proportionate amount of the wealth produced within the borders of his diocese; second, because it ignores property held by bishoprics outside the borders of the diocese; third and most importantly – again – because it’s untested against the actual economic histories of these bishoprics. In short, the author’s claims rely neither on primary accounts of bishops’ careers, nor on even vaguely contemporary economic data. In addition to not dealing with medieval historians (modern professionals) whilst writing this medieval history book, he has also not dealt with medieval historians (contemporary authors). What is required to prove any of these claims is a systematic, source-based analysis of episcopal elections and medieval economic history. What we have is Wikipedia. 

Probably the worst failure to think about evidence comes when he talks about art – trying to prove the changing relationship of ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’, he scoured four popular art history textbooks for images from the period in question, decided if they had a ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ subject matter, and has the gall to put the results in graphs as though it shows anything about the Middle Ages!

[edit 23/04/22: this comic came up today and seemed very appropriate. (source)]

It does produce the amusing image of Charlemagne’s court as a hotbed of ‘secularism’ – because art history textbooks have a lot of pictures of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. I also can’t prove this (because – just as in the case of secular/religious bishops and rich/poor dioceses – I can’t find a list of which data points count as what either in the book or on his website), but I did find one of the art history textbooks he used online, and based on the datapoints for the graph in question, I think he’s counting this portrait of Otto III as secular art, which is pretty funny because, y’know, it’s an illustration from a gospel book. So this book doesn’t engage with the evidence from which it is claiming to draw data and as such can only produce inherently flawed conclusions.

This brings us, finally, to the analytical garbage. Because the author does not engage with the sources for the medieval world, and because the secondary works he reads are badly out of date, his assumptions about the period are fundamentally flawed. The distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ bishops is probably the biggest pile of nonsense here. The definitions Bueno de Mesquite gives of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ bishops is as follows:

Bishops are classified as religious (i.e., aligned with the pope and church) if their job prior to becoming bishop for the first time was a religious post, such as abbot, monk, hermit, deacon, archdeacon, or priest. Bishops are classified as secular if their prior post was as an agent of the secular authorities, such as court ambassador, chancellor, tutor to a monarch or his children, and the like, or if their biographical information indicates that they were specifically linked to or were suggested as a candidate by the secular ruler over the diocese to which they were appointed.

The whole analysis here rests on the idea that a clerical career = a pro-papal stance = an anti-royal stance (and, the inverse: secular career = pro-royal = anti-papal). This chain of assumptions might look plausible if all you’re reading is The Papacy in the Days of Feudal Anarchy, but it doesn’t stand up to any kind of familiarity with the evidence. Notably, Bueno de Mesquite rarely discusses particular examples. We get a lot of abstract hypothesising (‘a king would be motivated to do such-and-such’…) without any systematic, source-based analysis of what specific people actually did. This has the useful effect of meaning that his assumptions don’t have to be tested against contemporary sources – who needs that when you have models? And this is true again and again – bad assumption after bad assumption, leading to faulty question after faulty question, all supported with worthless ‘data’ but clothed in the trappings of science to lend it an air of false authority. 

Why does this matter? Everyone who reads this book will have their own criticisms (I haven’t come close to covering all the issues – I leave the problems with the framing of the initial question, for instance, for others to deal with) and their own reason it matters, but for me it’s to do with the intellectual value of expertise. This isn’t the same thing as ‘being an historian for a living’. Good history is like good woodwork: you don’t have to be a professional to do it, but you do have to have a grasp of the tools, materials, and techniques. The problem with this book is not that it’s wrong. It’s that it’s so obviously, basically wrong, but presented by a senior academic with such a pretence of authority that its fundamentally flawed approach to the Middle Ages runs a serious risk of being influential, making it concomitantly harder to not be wrong in the future. Good history requires craftsmanship; this has no craftsmanship, and has the potential to devalue craftsmanship as a key attribute of historians.

I don’t like being this negative. This book does have good bits. There’s a really interesting discussion of ruling coalitions in Chapter 2 – turns out the senior political scientist is very good at explaining political science theories. However, if you want that, read a political science book. The Invention of Power has two grains of wheat in a warehouse of chaff. Even worse, the ways in which it’s bad are obvious and boring and mean it can’t possibly be recommended, even to point and laugh at*.

*Except the ‘art historical’ analyses. Those are so amazingly ill-thought out that it genuinely is quite funny.

Kathleen Wood-Legh and the Cambridge Refugee Committee

In the late summer of 2013, which feels an alarmingly long time ago now, I was informed that I was the joint-recipient of the Wood-Legh Prize, which is awarded each year for the dissertation submitted as part of the MPhil in Medieval History at the University of Cambridge which receives the highest mark. The little bit of money that came with the prize was greatly appreciated, as my PhD funding, courtesy of the John Osborne Research Studentship, had not quite kicked in and many of my meals were coming from the generosity of my friends. Just as important was the vote of confidence the prize represented, the little statement that I had written something that might be halfway worth reading. About the mysterious Kathleen Wood-Legh who had contributed the funds for the prize and after whom it was named, I confess I had only the vaguest notion. I knew very little about her, and did not care to find out more.

This state of affairs might not have changed had I not attended an excellent conference in the beginning of March 2020 entitled ‘Cambridge: City of Scholars, City of Refuge (1933-1945)’. Organised under the aegis of CRASSH and hosted by Trinity College, this conference was about the people who sought refuge in Cambridge from Fascist persecution. It was there that I first learned about the Cambridge Refugee Committee, an extraordinary organisation of people who in March 1938 looked at the conflagration beginning to spread across the heart of Europe and decided to save as much as they could from the flames. Affiliated with the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, the Committee sought to help scholars at risk from Fascism, particularly Jews, by helping them escape to Britain.

There were the successes. One of them was my Groß-Doktorvater (PhD supervisor of my PhD supervisor), the Austrian Walter Ullmann, not himself Jewish but a lawyer known for prosecuting violent henchmen of the far-right and refusing to pledge allegiance to the Führer following Anschluss. There were also the failures, the people who because of a lack of money, or bureaucratic goodwill, or simple awful bad luck did not make it. The Committee continued to fund and find places for scholars, dependent on a shoestring budget and the kindness of a network of helpers. They also intervened when these refugees were interned as German nationals in 1940. They didn’t know that history would commend them. They didn’t know that the evils they defied would be defeated. What they did know was that something had to be done. So they did it.

Over the course of the conference, as I learned about the Committee, I also learned that a vital figure on their Case Committee and ubiquitous to their organisation was one Kathleen Wood-Legh. I had not known. I had not asked. But the line of my CV that said ‘Wood-Legh Prize’ suddenly acquired a new significance. And it occurred to me that it was past time for me to pay a little more attention than I had previously.

What follows is an effort by me to make up for my earlier neglect of my benefactor, an attempt to answer some of the questions I should have asked back in those late summer months in 2013. In doing so I have particularly benefitted from reading Megan J. Davies and Colin M. Coates, ‘Kathleen Wood-Legh: A Canadian in Cambridge’, Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History, ed. Beverly Boutilier and Alison L. Prentice (Vancouver, 1997), 254-270. My thanks also to Alison Vinnicombe and Hazel Freestone for all their help.

I am grateful to the Lucy Cavendish College Archives for letting me use this image.

Kathleen Wood-Legh (1901-1981), BA MA (McGill); BLitt (Oxon.); PhD Litt.D (Cantab.)

Kathleen Wood-Legh knew the value of an academic prize won early. Reporting on a McGill University graduation ceremony in 1923, the Montreal Gazette made note of a ‘tall, slightly hesitant candidate, with a quiet radiance in her face’ who collected the Prize in History. The Gazette did not record her name (although as Davies and Coates observe, the report included those of all the men who also graduated at the occasion, p.255) but this was Wood-Legh. Blind since childhood, she was guided across the stage by a friend. That prize and the promise it suggested must have been a factor in prompting her family to leave her native Canada so she could continue her studies in England. In 1926 she arrived in Cambridge. It would be her home for the rest of her life.

She also knew the value of a little bit of money. At Cambridge her work on medieval social and economic history impressed G.G. Coulton, the supervisor of the PhD thesis she completed in 1932, and G.M. Trevelyan, then Regius Professor of Modern History. Despite their enthusiastic support and fulsome references (Trevelyan, ‘I think her moral and intellectual power very remarkable and well suited to teaching’, Davies and Coates, p.268), Wood-Legh was unable to secure a permanent job anywhere. Instead, she managed a precarious existence as a tutor teaching undergraduates within Cambridge’s system of one-on-one supervisions. Money was short for her until the death of an uncle in the 1960s provided her with some measure of financial stability. In these conditions she published her well-received Studies in Church Life in England under Edward III (1934) and Perpetual Chantries in Britain (1965), as well as a host of articles on related subjects.

In those years she also made the world better, in big ways and small ways. The former we have already touched upon, but in addition to working with the Cambridge Refugee Committee, Wood-Legh was also on the Cambridge Children’s Refugee Committee, finding homes for more than 2000 Central European Jewish children suffering a continent torn apart by adults. The smaller things centred upon her home at 49 Owlstone Road, where ‘Kay’, as she was known to the many friends who stopped by for afternoon tea, created a world where a little grace and a little hope for the future could be nourished. It was there, a week after he had arrived in Cambridge, that Walter Ullmann met his future wife, Elizabeth Knapp, who came for German classes.

It was also there, in the years after the war, that a series of young German women come to act as Wood-Legh’s secretary discovered a new beginning. One who arrived shortly after 1945, Brigitte Frank, later wrote to thank her for the comfort she provided ‘when you remember the inner situation of a young German girl in those days, whose really shattering experience had been the destruction of all values and a deep sense of insecurity’ (Davies and Coates, p.269). These women in their early twenties were lost in the wreckage of all the certainties they had ever known. They found a place where they could start contemplating the future again in the country of their enemy and in the house of one who had set herself against the ideology with which they had been raised. From such kindnesses are better worlds made.

That she knew the value of a community is clear. In 1950 Wood-Legh was a founder member of the “Dining Group” with her friends, the zoologist Anna McClean Bidder and the computational linguist Margaret Masterman. Brilliant and unconventional women, they were everything Cambridge in its better moments aspires to be and, at its very best moments, achieves. The university desperately needed them but was not yet aware of it. (This absence of cognisance should perhaps not be surprising given that the first women to become full members of the university did so in 1948.) Lacking a place for mature female scholars like themselves, they made one, gathering on Tuesdays for dinner and intellectual debate. They became the core of Lucy Cavendish College, established in 1965 for mature female students (as of 2021 the college is now mixed and for all ages). One of the founding fellows, Wood-Legh wrote the college constitution. She was however barred from being a trustee on account of her blindness (Davies and Coates, p.264). (The world gets better, but it does not do so all at once, but slowly, and ever at the cost of continual work).

Community was something she studied as well as something she made. In her Perpetual Chantries, based on the series of Birkbeck lectures she gave in 1955, Wood-Legh examined the medieval chantry as an institution and as a community of people bound together by rite and by memory. In her review for Speculum (42 1967, pp.768-9), Dorothy Bruce Weske celebrated Wood-Legh’s sensitivity for the experiences of her subjects, writing that ‘No one can read this book without feeling that he has lived for a while in the Middle Ages’ (p.768). Patrons endowed churches and monasteries so that masses might be sung in chantries for the benefit of the souls of the deceased. I have never been a praying man and such is the quality of my voice that I am more likely to be paid to be silent than to sing. Nor have I been the most assiduous celebrant of my benefactor. I hope nonetheless that this little canticle may stand in place for the full mass.

Human memory being what it is, we can only know a small fraction of the people in the past in whose debt we lie. For the most part we repay them by paying it on. But sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we get the opportunity to pull on a thread and bring the past towards us. Part of what historians do is follow these ties into the darkness that lies behind us, in order that we might take a brighter light into the darkness that lies before us. As I’ve tried to illustrate, Kathleen Wood-Legh touched more lives than most people do. It makes me feel small and proud to know that in the tiniest possible way, at a very great distance, I am one of them.

One final thing. The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, with whom the Cambridge Refugee Committee was affiliated, is still active as the Council for At-Risk Academics. They help academics who have had to flee oppression and danger find temporary positions and support institutions caught in the line of fire. Right now they are funding scholars exiled by the ongoing disaster in Syria, having previously run programmes in Iraq and Zimbabwe. They depend upon donations to fund their work, so if you have any spare change for an academic in need (and I’ve annoyed you enough that you’re not giving it to the Buy Sam an Elephant Fund) consider giving it to them.

The House of European History

Aaand we’re back. Some of you may well have heard the news that the European Parliament opened a new museum, dedicated to the history of capital-E Europe, and I discovered rather to my surprise that it’s about five minutes away from where I live, in Parc Léopold, where I’m accustomed to go for a walk if staring at my sofa is somehow fails to provide me with inspiration. Given this, I decided it would be a good excuse to give up on work early one day, and so a few weeks ago I went and visited; it is, pleasingly, free.

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Très belle, n’est pas?

As a museum, it’s fine. I was expecting it to be distinctly propagandistic, and certainly it has a particular viewpoint, but it’s not overwhelming; I hadn’t expected to find ‘state terror’ proposed as one of the historical experiences uniting Europe. It’s got some very fancy gizmos – you hand over your passport at the front desk, and in return they give you a highly-programmed tablet which has a variety of audio, visual and textual labels about the exhibits. With that said, there’s not a lot of interactivity: I can’t imagine children enjoying it much. It feels like it’s very much for aspiring European policy wonks.

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As the above indicates, there’s not actually a lot to say about the House itself. I recommend it if you’re in Brussels for more than a couple of days and you want to do something quiet and sober. What did interest me was how it didn’t quite justify its own existence, or rather how it didn’t quite justify Europe’s existence.

The first floor of the museum asks the question ‘what is Europe’? It fails to answer it, but the way in which it fails to answer it is interesting for this blog’s purposes. It fails, because it asks the question in historical terms. What factors of a European past unite Europeans? It proposes several different answers – Greco-Roman inheritance, democracy, Science!, experience of state terror, amongst others – but none of these encompass every EU state or exclude non-EU ones.

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Not joking about ‘state terror’

The clearest historical parallel for the modern EU – the previous historical entity which occupied close to the same space and proceeded with something approaching a reforming agenda and/or central policy making body – is of course one which no current European politician could ever point to as a precedent, because it’s the Catholic Church of Innocent III. Even if they are personally a very particular type of pious Catholic, ‘increasingly-intrusive papacy’ would be a hard sell, y’know?

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Although, who knows? It got a bit weird at points.

The problem here, I think, is that the real answer to the question ‘what is Europe’ – ‘a collection of polities bound together with duct tape and spit in pursuit of mutual advantage, driven by the seat of its pants due to the lack of any real historical precedent’ – is generally considered unpalatable. For all that a sense of pan-Europeanism has set itself up as an alternative to national identities, we’re still working off a nineteenth-century concern for the organic. The idea is that the most natural form of community is one which arises out of shared roots in the past, not connections in the present; personally, this all comes across as a bit Völkisch. This, perhaps, is where history can be useful politically without having to be Relevant in terms of concrete policy proposals*: if people can be made to recognise the contingency not only of their specific communities but of their ideas about community, some space can be cleared for the greater legitimation of different forms of social organisation better suited to the resolution of contemporary political and social issues.

My word, that was hard to phrase in a deliberately non-partisan manner…

*(“What do we want? An end to the bipartite estate! When do we want it? Before the millennium of Christ’s Crucifixion!”)