Author: mlmccor

A pandemic in Boris Johnson’s ‘Land of Liberty’

The UK government is holding daily news conferences on the Coronavirus pandemic, and yesterday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to a question about further restrictions on the public – such as limiting public transport – like this:

We live in a land of liberty, as you know, and it’s one of the great features of our lives that we don’t tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people in this country…

It was typically romantic rhetoric from Johnson, although it was an incongruous moment in a press conference dominated by scientific analysis and practical policy announcements.




The remark stuck out for me, since it is very reminiscent of the type of rhetoric I encounter when studying Britain in the eighteenth century. As I wrote about in my new book Citizenship and Gender in Britain, political culture in this period emphasised the liberties of the freeborn Englishman, and celebrated these rights as unique and enshrined in the ancient constitution. (This political culture was exported to the American colonies and ironically inspired the revolution against British rule: since this was the founding moment of the republic, this libertarian rhetoric retains an even greater purchase in the USA today than it does here.)

This was historically interesting, then, but arguably it sheds some light on British (and indeed American) responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, in contrast with other parts of the world. While many other countries closed schools and public buildings, stopped holding public events and required citizens to remain in their homes, they looked on with bafflement as Britain appeared to carry on as usual.

As late as last weekend, Britain carried out very little testing, imposed minimal restrictions, and kept pubs and schools open. Half-hearted free market solutions, such as using Deliveroo to take meals to older people, were floated. When on Monday the government changed tack after widespread public outcry, it issued advice to avoid pubs and cinemas – but did not require them actually to close.

In general, this bespoke a reluctance to tell people what to do. Even the government scientists’ own modelling took ‘behavioural fatigue’ into account: people tire of control measures, so if you start them too early then people will start disobeying them early too.

Historically, the British state has been wary of imposing anything on its citizens that could be seen to infringe their liberty. To take an issue that I have researched, the state has historically been reluctant to impose military conscription. The wars of the eighteenth century made huge manpower demands, not least because Britain’s primary rival France could always threaten to invade. But such was the horror of conscription, that the British instead relied on voluntarist initiatives and legal fudges to get men under arms. Naval impressment and the militia ballot were conscription in all but name, but gave the impression of community service and libertarianism. The remarkable thing about these responses was their effectiveness: while Revolutionary and Napoleonic France assembled huge conscripted armies, Britain got a similar proportion of its population under arms through largely voluntarist means. And it continued to avoid full conscription until things got really desperate in 1916.

The British model of citizenship tends to place the emphasis upon the citizen’s rights, whereas in many republican traditions abroad this is outweighed by the citizen’s obligations to the state. France, Italy and Spain are near neighbours facing similar problems, but their governments have had no compunction about imposing tight infection control measures, and enforcing them with their police services. It remains to be seen whether, as the situation worsens here, the British government will act in the same way.

Perhaps they won’t need to. It was striking how the government U-turned on Monday after their weeks of inaction prompted an outcry from the public and the media. People started to change their behaviour without being told to: sporting bodies led the way here, cancelling fixtures and tournaments, and fans accepted it. I’m not going to credit the government with doing this deliberately, but the public seemed happier doing something once they had made up their own minds, rather than because they were required to.

As a coda, Brexit Britain has been wallowing in Second World War nostalgia. Expect to hear a lot more about ‘the people’s war’, as plucky citizens do their bit in a time of national emergency. We’re all in this together, apparently. Except that recent scenes of panic buying have echoes of the black-marketeering, rule-breaking and looting that took place during the rationing regime of the mid-twentieth century…

Matthew McCormack

Call for Papers: ‘Innovations in Teaching Eighteenth-Century History’

Online workshop hosted by the University of Northampton, 25 June 2020


HogarthWanstead cropped

William Hogarth, ‘The Assembly at Wanstead House’ (c. 1728-32): Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades, the eighteenth century has been a notable growth area in historical studies and related disciplines. Since its study was long neglected, historians of the period tended to work with scholars from other disciplines under the banner of ‘eighteenth-century studies’, leading to a field that is often interdisciplinary and theoretically-informed. Research areas that currently receive attention include – among many others – the histories of colonialism, material culture, emotions, sexuality and ecology. Given that the eighteenth century is often regarded as a foundational one for the modern world, much of this research has an overt contemporary relevance.

The eighteenth century is now widely taught in UK History departments, but it also presents challenges. Students will typically not have encountered it as part of their school curriculum, they may have preconceptions that are offputting, and the source material can be appear longwinded or illegible. Much of this source material is now online, so students require digital skills to evaluate it. The theoretical and interdisciplinary nature of some of the critical writings can also make it challenging to teach, especially at undergraduate level. It can therefore be a tough sell, whereas academics of the period are keen to convey that this is a fascinating and important period to study.

This day workshop will therefore reflect on how we teach the history of the long eighteenth century, focusing on pedagogical innovation and current developments in the discipline. Themes could include:

  • Teaching the digital eighteenth century
  • Decolonising the eighteenth-century curriculum
  • Mental wellbeing and neurodiversity
  • LGBT+ history in the classroom
  • Pedagogy and the environmental crisis
  • Eighteenth-century studies and postgraduate learning
  • Teaching and learning with material objects

Please send 300 word proposals for papers or workshop sessions to by 20 April 2020.

UPDATE: due to the COVID-19 situation, we have extended the deadline for proposals, and plan to hold the workshop online. Please watch this space for further details.

The event is funded by the East Midlands Centre for Learning and Teaching in History. Participation is free of charge.

The event is organised by Matthew McCormack (Northampton), Ruth Larsen (Derby) and Alice Marples (Oxford).


Star Wars: a personal history

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I wrote a blog about how Star Wars had a strong sense of history, referencing previous times and films about them. After watching the new movie The Rise of Skywalker last Friday, I have been thinking about how the series has a history in a more personal sense.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am a child of the seventies and it feels like Star Wars has been with me my whole life. I was too young when the first one came out, but it was on TV once a year in the early eighties so that was the first one I saw. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it, despite my parents’ reservations that the monsters would scare me.

Like many kids at the time, I primarily got into Star Wars through the toys, comics and other paraphernalia rather than the films themselves. The toys enabled children to come up with their own stories, which was a big part of the power of the Star Wars universe. My friends and I would pool our own modest collections in order to stage epic battles – for this reason, I mostly collected the baddies, to even the sides up.

We didn’t have a VCR at that point, so I first saw Empire Strikes Back as part of a triple-bill at the cinema when Return of the Jedi came out. My dad took some arm-twisting to take me. We missed the start of the first film, and popped out after the second for some KFC to fortify us for the third. Having previously devoured comics and novelisations, the big revelation in Empire didn’t come as a shock.

In the later eighties, Star Wars wasn’t cool. I sold nearly all of the toys at car boot sales to buy things like records. But I still enjoyed watching the films, having taped them off the telly.

In the nineties, Star Wars became cool once more. I was then a student, and spent much of my time on the Star Wars pinball machine in the JCR, trying to shoot the Death Star. The films were revived at student film nights: a friend of mine at another campus told me that people would bring torches to their smoky cinema, to use during the lightsabre battles. I remember going to see the special editions as a student. I was unimpressed with the digital ‘improvements’, but just remember the thrill of seeing these films on the massive screen of York’s Odeon rather than on TV.

The prequel trilogy started coming out when I was finishing my PhD. My similarly Star Wars-obsessed friends and I went to see The Phantom Menace full of expectation, and emerged feeling very deflated. In retrospect, this was a bit unfair. It was and is a terrible film, but it plays very young, so people who had grown up with the original trilogy were not really the target audience. The Gungans are no more childish than the Ewoks.

After the disappointment of Episode 1, I didn’t bother with the next one, until I watched it round a friend’s house on his new-fangled DVD player, which showed off the battle scene to spectacular effect. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, so I gave Revenge of the Sith the benefit of the doubt and went to see it at the cinema.

When the third trilogy came around, I had kids of my own so partly experienced it through them. They were too young to see the new films at the cinema themselves (so I went with other parents of young children, on rare nights out). Like me the children experienced the film vicariously through toys. Rather than the action figures, they mostly played Star Wars through Lego, which offers up even more opportunities for imaginative engagement with its universe. Unlike me, though, they had easy access to the films on DVD. They love Phantom Menace, despite me informing them that they are wrong.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Watching the final installment last week therefore felt rather significant. Having been with me my whole life, it felt as though a chapter of it had come to a close. The documentary short before the film, with grainy out-takes and interviews from the first film, added to the sense of nostalgia. In retrospect, my relationship with the nine films (and the two spin-offs, of which there will no doubt be more) is influenced by the points in my own life when they came out.

Star Wars is a very personal thing. Its stories are bound up with the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. It is therefore part of my own history.

Matthew McCormack

Doing research at the Royal Archives

I recently paid my first visit to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Doing research there is a wonderful experience, so I thought it would be useful to blog about it here.

I work on eighteenth-century British history and the Royal Archives is a key repository for this period, since it houses the records of George III’s court, as well as every royal family that followed. During the nineteenth century, the growing royal papers were not housed very systematically, but following the death of Queen Victoria the decision was made to archive them in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, where they remain to this day.

I was lucky enough to be awarded a fellowship by the Georgian Papers Programme, for my project on ‘Shoes and buckles at the Georgian court’. This fellowship helped me to get to the archive, since Windsor is a 3 hour trip from Northampton so required an overnight stay, and my project will require several visits.

Working at the Royal Archives requires more prior planning than most archives. Space for researchers is limited so you are advised to book well in advance, and security at the site is tight so researchers have to apply for clearance in advance. The castle is a functioning royal seat and a major tourist attraction: the archive is part of this bigger operation and has to work within these considerations.

I had never been to Windsor before and it is striking how the castle dominates the town – it is right in front of you as you leave the railway station. On arrival, I walked past the long queue of tourists and made my way to the Pass Office. I located the small door and made my way up a narrow flight of stairs to collect my visitor’s pass. (If like me, you enjoy the Hogwarts-like experience of gaining access to archives in magnificent old buildings, you are in for a treat.)

File:Round Tower, Windsor Castle, England - Nov 2006.jpg

The Round Tower, Windsor Castle (source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the gate I showed my pass for inspection and made my way through the castle grounds to the Side Door, where I was buzzed into the door at the foot of the Round Tower. At the top of another long flight of steps I was greeted by Oliver Walton, the curator and co-ordinator of the Georgian Papers Programme, who introduced me to the archive and its workings.

As with any archive, on your first visit you have to learn the archive’s rules and how to order material. There is currently no searchable catalogue for most of the papers, but there are finding aids and a card catalogue. I immediately got lucky with the card catalogue, which gave me the reference to some petitions lodged by bucklemakers in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, who were imploring the royal family to continue wearing buckles after they went out of fashion in the 1790s.

It is advisable to order material in advance of the visit, so I had requested the correspondence of Prince Frederick, Duke of York. This was fascinating material, and it was exciting to leaf through a box of letters from the likes of George III, the Duchess of Devonshire and the Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Finding references to a specific item like shoe buckles was more challenging, but I was able to cross reference from names in the card catalogue and from references in a published edition of some of the correspondence.

Photography of the sources isn’t permitted (indeed cameras and phones are not allowed in that part of the castle) so researchers take notes by hand or on a laptop. It is possible to request scans of items, however, and digital images are gradually being made available as the papers are digitised.

Which brings me back to the Georgian Papers Programme. This is a huge project which aims to digitise the Georgian court papers and make them freely available online. It also involves a range of research projects, including a growing community of Fellows who are interpreting the material and helping the digitisation project. It may be clear from this blog that the Royal Archives is not the most accessible of archives, so making the material available online will open this rich material up to many more scholars – and, crucially, will make it more easily searchable.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of consulting originals rather than digital copies, and visiting the Royal Archives is a unique an enjoyable experience. So even when all the papers are online, I would heartily recommend paying a visit.

Matthew McCormack

Horrible Histories: The Movie review

It’s the school holidays and I was looking for a way to entertain the children on a rainy morning, so we went to the local cinema to see Horrible Histories: The Movie. Since they graduated from CBeebies to CBBC, Horrible Histories has been a reliable favourite and, thanks to iPlayer and Netflix, we have watched the back catalogue exhaustively.

Much has been written about Horrible Histories as it has become an important part of the popular history landscape, especially for the young. Terry Deary started to publish books in the series in 1993, with the intention of presenting interesting facts in an entertaining way. The books ballooned in popularity and Horrible Histories became a multimedia franchise.

In 2009 the series was successfully adapted for TV by the BBC. There was a danger that the Reithian instincts of the BBC might have made the content didactic or patronising, but the programmes were more in the spirit of Monty Python than schools’ programming. The regular troupe of performers are drawn from the comedy circuit (including cult shows such as Peep Show and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) rather than children’s TV.

As such, the series has a loyal following of grownups. This grownup is a particuar fan of the Four Georges song, for obvious reasons.

The film largely retains the spirit of the TV series, and some of the cast. The big screen outing necessarily includes some celebrity turns, such as Derek Jacobi reprising his famous role as Claudius, and Kim Cattrall as his murderous wife Agrippina. Most of the cast are drawn from British TV, giving the film a Carry-On feel – along with its bum jokes, wobbly sets and ‘epic’ battle scenes featuring a few dozen people who don’t get hurt.

The modest running time whizzes by and none of the kids in the audience seemed to get bored. This was impressive, as the TV show relies on short skits that are more suited to a primary school attention span, whereas a film needs a longer narrative arc. The story is set in the time of Nero, who is struggling both with his scheming mother and a pesky bit of the Roman Empire called Britain, which is refusing to be subdued. Due to an unfortunate mix-up with some gladiator urine, a young Roman called Atti is sent to this grim outpost, where he is promptly captured by a Celt girl named Orla, who joins Boudicca’s uprising.

There is a nice gag where a Roman soldier scoffs at the idea of a British empire. And whether intentionally or not, the diverse cast is a riposte to the controversy in 2017 over a CBBC cartoon featuring a mixed-race Roman family, where rightwing commentators and internet trolls laid into historians like Mary Beard for suggesting that this was accurate for the time.

In this and other ways, the film is true to the period it is depicting. Horrible Histories has always prided itself on its accuracy, but the relentless ‘facts’ felt a bit more shoehorned-in over the course of a 90-minute narrative than they do in a short TV skit. Long-form storytelling also requires the writers to make more stuff up, and it is unclear whether children will find the factual gladiator urine more memorable than Orla’s fictional kleptomaniac grandma. The extent to which the form of historical writing impacts upon the content is a dilemma that all historians face.

Aside from this one paragraph of academic quibble, Horrible Histories: The Movie is a success on many levels. Most importantly, it is a lot of fun. I enjoyed it as much as the children did and it was great to see some of their favourite songs from the TV series getting a reprise here. Altogether now, ‘Boudicca, superstar…’

Matthew McCormack

Peterloo today

Friday marks the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, a huge crowd of 60,000 men, women and children gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to listen to radical speakers and demand parliamentary reform. At this time, only around a tenth of adult males had the vote and many new industrial centres like Manchester had no MPs at all. Radicals had for half a century demanded change to the political system, since they argued that a system that represented the minority could never govern in the interests of all.

The authorities were alarmed at the prospect of such a large demonstration of working people and called in the military. It was common practice in the days before the introduction of a professional police force to do this, but the actions of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry that day have gone down in infamy. The yeomanry were mounted volunteers, drawn from local gentlemen, so were hardly disinterested pariticipants. The cavalry charged into the crowd in an attempt to apprehend speakers on the hustings and hacked at the trapped protesters with sharpened sabres. At least fifteen people died and hundreds were wounded. The event was dubbed ‘Peterloo’, in ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo (of which one of the victims was a veteran).

The bicentenary of Peterloo is being marked in numerous ways. Last year Mike Leigh released his film Peterloo, which movingly depicted the scale of the demonstration and the horror of the attack. BBC radio is broadcasting a series of programmes about the event. There is a new graphic novel and a reenactment, not to mention countless talks, events and conference papers on the subject. Historians of the massacre such as Robert Poole and Katrina Navickas have been very busy.

Peterloo has long been a totemic event among the British left, comparable to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Battle of Cable Street. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has taken to reading part of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy at his rallies, a poem written in 1819 in response to the massacre:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!

This flurry of commemorative activity has prompted something of a backlash among the right. The Times has asked whether this was an ‘isolated outrage’ that has been given ‘an unjustified historical importance’, and did not miss the opportunity to bash the BBC for ‘filling its schedules’ with leftwing content. There is an irony here, in that The Times of 1819 was instrumental in spreading news of the massacre: it had a reporter on the spot and advocated the very reforms that the protesters were demanding. In 2019, however, the politics of Peterloo are very different, as it has become a battleground in the culture wars of Brexit and the current polarisation of politics.

Taking a step back from this, there is no doubt in my mind about the importance of Peterloo or the necessity of commemorating it. This summer I published a book entitled Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 and decided to put a picture of Peterloo on the cover. This was partly a nod to the bicentenary, but in many ways Peterloo is a pivotal point in the book. The book charts the debate that took place between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries regarding who was fit to be a citizen: who should be made a full member of the political nation and, in particular, who should be given the vote?


Chronologically, Peterloo falls around halfway between the Bill of Rights and the Equal Franchise Act, which begin and end this story. It was a key moment in the struggle for parliamentary reform: the climax of the postwar ‘mass platform’ and the last great reformist protest before the movement revived around 1830 to press for the Reform Bill. It was also a prominent moment in the history of men and women in politics, which is the key focus of the book. Women stood alongside men on the hustings and constituted around an eighth of the crowd, yet were around a third of the victims, suggesting that they were singled out for particularly brutal treatment by the soldiers.

The demonstration at St Peter’s Field was a peaceful protest demanding basic citizenship rights, and it was mown down by an establishment that sought to deny them those rights. The symbolism of the event is therefore unavoidable, however much today’s Times might wish otherwise.

Matthew McCormack

‘Turns’ in eighteenth-century British history

Matthew McCormack gave this paper at the ‘Eighteenth Century Now’ conference at University College London on 26 April 2019. This conference was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the ‘British History in the Long Eighteenth Century’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and was intended to reflect on the state of the field.

Today I am going to talk about methodological turns. In order to do this, I am going to take an autobiographical approach, reflecting on my own work in eighteenth-century studies. This may sound self-indulgent, but the journey that I have been on over the last quarter century is probably similar to many other scholars in this field.

I emerged from a History degree at York with an interest in nineteenth-century political culture. I chose to go to Manchester to do my postgraduate studies, because of the work on elections by Frank O’Gorman and James Vernon. It was Frank who turned me into an eighteenth-century historian, but it was the developments in the department in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British studies that impacted on my method as a historian.

Manchester in the 1990s was one of the few departments in Britain where postmodern ideas really took hold, and was probably the leading promoter of the linguistic turn. It was invigorating for me as a postgrad to be based in a department where history was so politicised and where methodology was taken so seriously. This very directly impacted on my work. Whereas I started out doing a fairly standard history of electoral culture, I soon switched to thinking about how the electoral citizen came to be defined. Working backwards from when this was codified in the 1832 Reform Act, I thought about how citizenship was talked about and lived, particularly in terms of masculinity.

My thesis became my 2005 book, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England. This book was an early attempt to link the histories of masculinity and politics – and this is a link that I have tried to develop ever since – but its methodology was linguistic.

After Independent Man, I tried to repeat the trick by historicising other keywords that were significant in the history of masculinity and politics, but with rather less success. In common with a lot of work on the linguistic turn, my contention that historians had used terms anachronistically was a good one, but I was less successful at proposing what they should do with them.

Part of the problem was that, by the mid-00s, I had access to ECCO and online newspapers, which quickly generated thousands of hits that I did not know what to do with. For Independent Man I had spent months poring over Hansard, so had a good sense of context and intention of my source material. Digitisation made the linguistic turn very easy, but for the same reason I wonder if it helped to kill it off. Indeed, around this time there was a reaction against the cultural turn. Many historians expressed anxiety that the focus on representations was losing sight of human experience; some argued for a re-engagement with the ethos of social history.

Instead, I found a way forward from an unexpected source: the history of war. Historians often assume that military history is methodologically conservative, but it is a very practical field, concerned with physical and material questions. Even if you are doing the cultural history of war, you can’t get away with the kind of abstractions that are acceptable in other fields.

During my PhD I had come across the debates about the militia in the eighteenth century, which used highly gendered and nationalistic language to talk about the citizen soldier, and which resulted in the Militia Act of 1757. I wrote two articles about this and moved on to other projects. But I kept coming back to the militia and in particular the question of what it was like for the men who actually served in it. It had been relatively straightforward to reconstruct the role of masculinity in the way the militia had been represented, but in order to think about masculinity in terms of experience I had to ask different questions and use very different source types. This led to a series of studies on questions such as embodiment, space and material culture. Eventually I had enough of these for a book, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England (2015). This was a typical mid-career book, produced on the installment plan.

The structure of the book reflected its gestation, with the first half on representation and the second on practice. I could justify this structure, as debates around the militia (both at the time and among its historians) revolved around ideal and reality. Whereas most historians argued that these were completely at odds, this method allowed me to show that the ideal of the masculine citizen soldier was projected onto the practice of the institution itself. That said, I was conscious at the time that it was a bit of a fudge. Separating representation and practice is artificial, and I did not use it as an opportunity to explore the relationship between them.

I only really engaged fully with the material turn since I have been working on shoes. This was partly a development of my work on military uniforms and the masculine body. It was also a consequence of being at Northampton: I had to work on shoes eventually. The national shoe and leather collections were on my doorstep, so accessing the objects (one of the practical obstacles in the way of doing material culture history) was relatively straightforward. Indeed, building up relationships with museums (which you have to do to carry out this kind of work) has been a rewarding spinoff for me.

Previously, I had struggled with material culture. I had struggled to ask the right questions of the objects, or to get any usable answers from them. But the shoe is a very eloquent object. Shoe styles are often very striking and revealing, and the materiality of the object is key to its purpose and meaning. Shoes are also very personal objects, as they mould to the foot of the wearer and therefore provide a unique source about them. They retain traces of the wearer’s body, and impacted on that body itself, in terms of its posture, movement and health. I have therefore found men’s shoes to be a hugely revealing source about masculinity. It allowed me to think about the embodiment, the national identity and the class distinction of the public man – which takes me back to politics, where I started.

In conclusion, my third book is out this summer. It’s a textbook on Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 (which is very ‘long eighteenth century’). Whereas my previous books had compartmentalised the linguistic and the material turns, this one doesn’t. Perhaps this suggests that the approaches that come under the umbrella of the ‘cultural turn’ need not be opposed to one another.

Matthew McCormack

Shoes and conferences

Last Wednesday I travelled up to Liverpool to give a paper at conference on ‘Getting Dressed in the Eighteenth Century’. My paper was on shoes, thinking about the relationship between footwear and the body. I was going to discuss the impact that the body has upon shoes: shoes stretch to the shape of the foot and so present a unique source about their wearer. I also wanted to talk about the impact that shoes have upon the body: in the eighteenth century, inspired by the new science of ‘hygiene’, various writers were exercised about the healthiness, fit and flexibility of footwear.

I have been working on shoes for a few years now, and in preparing for a paper on the topic I particularly had shoes on the mind. Checking twitter that morning I was therefore excited to see the hashtag #asecsshoes: was there a panel on shoes at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, which was also happening at that time? No, it turned out that numerous ASECS attendees were working out what shoes to take with them.

I could relate to this as I too put a lot of thought into what shoes I wear to conferences. Academic conferences (especially big ones like ASECS) involve long days, walks between venues and lots of standing around. You therefore want to be comfortable but you may also choose to shod yourself smartly if, say, you are presenting, attending a reception or (in the case of some American conferences) on the job market.

(The issue of what constitutes an ‘academic dress code’ is a political minefield that I do not want to get into here, so I will confine myself to shoes. I am also aware of the irony of a man writing about uncomfortable footwear, but please bear with me.)

Since I have been going to conferences to talk about shoes, I have put a bit more effort into what shoes I wear to them. Talking about shoes will draw attention to what is on my feet, and I don’t want to let the side down. As I live and work in Northampton – the centre of the British shoe industry – and because I am largely talking about examples from the town’s museum and its National Leather Collection, I have taken to wearing shoes made in the area when I talk about them. Shoes made in the UK are normally expensive, but as a good Northamptonian I know how to get them cheap from factory sales.

I usually only take one pair of shoes to conferences, as I can’t be bothered to lug another pair of size 12s around. So I wore a pair of brown brogue boots with thick leather soles. Fetching and practical, I thought.

I travelled up to Liverpool the day before the conference, to be there for an early start the next day. This gave me time to wander round this fantastic city – something I always try to do on conference trips. By the evening, though, I was beginning to wish I’d worn trainers. It was a hot day and Liverpool is very hilly, so the heavy boots gave me blisters. The hard leather soles were unforgiving on the city’s Georgian flagstones and cobbles.

When I gave my paper the next day about unsuitable footwear and sweaty feet, I could therefore empathise with eighteenth-century urban walkers. I should have followed the advice of the Georgian chiropodists cited in the paper, who recommended woollen socks over cotton, for preventing dampness and blistering.

It was a fantastic conference, which concluded at the Walker Gallery with a discussion about their collection of eighteenth-century costume. Many of the garments discussed during the day – including shoes, women’s pockets and men’s wigs – featured in the exhibition. The gallery have also produced a popular series of videos on ‘Getting Dressed’, showing how these garments were worn on actual bodies, rather than displayed statically like they usually are in museums.

Walking back to Lime Street station, I passed the Empire Theatre where the touring production of the hit musical Kinky Boots is currently playing. Northampton’s shoes get everywhere.

Matthew McCormack is Professor of History at the University of Northampton

Research Seminars 2018-19

Here are the History contributions to the Education and Humanities Research Seminars at the University of Northampton. All papers are at Learning Hub LH017, Waterside Campus at 6pm.

25 October: Dr Toby Purser (UoN), ‘The dog that didn’t bark: Sir John Sandys, social mobility and the community of knights and esquires in late medieval Hampshire’

8 November: Prof Andrew Williams and Fred O’Dell (Northampton General Hospital), ‘UK premature baby care 1947-1965. The Doctor Isaac “Harry” Gosset Collection’

6 December: Dr Huw Davies (King’s), ‘The British Army’s use of military knowledge, information and intelligence, 1750-1850’

17 January: Jane Crellin (formerly Foreign and Commonwealth Office), ‘”Sacred images for a secular society”: Southern icons in black and white from 1930s America’

14 February: Antony Bounds (UoN), ‘Decolonisation and Federation in the West Indes, 1945-62’

14 March: Dr Sarah Goldsmith (Leicester), ‘Re-embodying the Aristocrat: A History of the Eighteenth-Century Elite Male Body’

All welcome!

For further information please contact

Aristotle’s Masterpiece, the “banned Georgian sex manual”

As a historian who works on the eighteenth century, I am always interested when Georgian stories appear in the news. And right on cue for Valentine’s Day, various news outlets were covering the sale of a “banned Georgian sex manual” at an auction in Derbyshire.
The book in question was an edition of a book entitled Aristotle’s Masterpiece from 1720, which contains advice on sex, pregnancy and female health. It is a window on a world that had very different ideas about medicine, the body and sexual difference.
Contrary to the headlines, it was not by Aristotle, it was not banned and it was not a sex manual. We don’t know who wrote it: the title “Aristotle” was probably adopted as he was an authority on matters scientific. It was not “banned” as books in England could not be banned in that way: shops may have been nervous about stocking it in the wake of the Obscene Publications Act in the 1850s, but that was a century later. The Georgians were much more open in talking about sexual matters, and indeed the book went through dozens of editions so was widely available. It was often given as a wedding present, as it was more of a guide to obstetric health than a “sex manual” as such.
The book does indeed give advice about sex, but it is a short chapter at the end of a very long book about pregnancy. Its advice should therefore be seen in that light. For example, it recommends that couples should “cherish the body with a generous Restorative, to charm the Imagination with Musick, to drown all Cares in good Wine”. This was about having better sex, but not just as an end in itself. Rather, they believed that good sex was the key to a successful and healthy pregnancy.
This is because people in this period thought that the body was based on the four humours and was governed by fluid and heat. Conception occurred when men’s and women’s fluids mingled and transformed, and this required the “heat” signified by orgasm. So men and women both had to enjoy sex, suggesting that the Georgians believed in equality in the bedroom.
The book continues, that “when the Act is over, all is not done; for … the Husband must not presently separate himself from his Wife’s Embraces”. To us this sounds merely affectionate and considerate, but the advice is given with conception in mind: “lest the Air should suddenly strike in, and so prevent the happy issue of their Labours”. Afterwards, the woman should “compose herself to all the rest and quietness imaginable”, since they believed that the woman’s thoughts had a direct impact on the foetus, and would affect the health and appearance of the child. This was therefore a holistic understanding of the body, which understood “generation” in terms of the universe, magic and God’s creation.
This week’s tittilating reportage therefore tells us more about 2018 than 1720. The book reads more like an NCT class than the Kama Sutra. Georgians were fairly relaxed about bodily pleasure, and did not regard sexuality as a matter for anxiety, neuroses or embarrassment. Our own hangups about sex owe more to the Victorians than their predeccessors.
It was a fun story for Valentine’s Day though. And the auction house are no doubt happy, as an obscure item estimated at around £100 will now probably go for much more than that.
Matthew McCormack