Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Going To Church In Medieval England

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the fourth year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2022 shortlist hereThis year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Prize.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 22nd June 2022.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Nicholas Orme’s Going To Church In Medieval England. Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His book is an ‘account of parish churches and their role in medieval communities, demonstrating the presence of religion at every point in a human life, from birth to coming of age, from marriage to death’.


When I was a history undergraduate studying both early modern religion and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious practice in Britain, I used to get horribly confused by the way English churches worked. What was the difference between a rector, a vicar and a curate? What was a glebe, a benefice or a prebend? In short, I needed this book. By exploring the history of the parish church from its earliest foundations, Orme clearly explains how the relationship between the church and its parishioners was structured, and how these older traditions survived the Reformation and the coming of Protestantism. Apart from one opening and one closing chapter, all the chapters of this book cover its full chronological span from the Anglo-Saxon period until the 1520s, focusing on themes like the staff of the church, the church building, and the liturgical day, week and year.

My favourite chapter in Going To Church In Medieval England was on ‘the congregation’. After the Religious Census of 1851, which showed that only 54% of the population of England and Wales attended any service on the day of the census, the Victorians were swept into a panic. Why had the working classes become so heathen? Orme demonstrates that, even in a period where you could be reported to a Church court for being persistently absent at church and be made to do public penance, many stayed away or attended only intermittently. Even when parishioners made it to church, they didn’t always behave well. People walked about the church, gossiped or quarrelled, or complained about the priest. Orme writes: ‘Resentment could be shown without words, as with one man who contemptuously washed his hands in the font and another who gave holy bread to his dog.’ Meanwhile, behaviours that we associate with attending a modern church service developed only gradually. Praying was done with the hands held up by the head with the palms open until the early thirteenth century, when people started to adopt the more familiar posture of joined palms by the breast. Standing up at certain points in the service only became meaningful when most worshippers were able to sit down, which was not possible in the early medieval church due to a lack of seating.

Orme writes simply and accessibly about a hugely complex historiography, and for that reason, this book works. Nevertheless, I think I’d expected something a bit different from Going To Church In Medieval England, which is ultimately a top-down, institutional history of the development of the English parish church. The title made me think it would have more to say about religious experience, which – bar the chapter on the congregation – is not the focus of this text. I was also surprised to see so little about doctrine or religious belief, a topic which I personally find fascinating. Orme hints at the development of English Catholicism across this period but largely chooses to steer clear of doctrinal arguments, which, for me, was disappointing.

I wasn’t convinced that Going to Church in Medieval England quite fulfilled the remit of the Wolfson Prize, as I’m not sure how attractive it would be to a general reader. Nevertheless, it will certainly be a useful reference text for those studying the history of the English parish church or exploring church buildings.

Be sure to check out the rest of the stops on the first week of this blog tour:


Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

Survivors Cover Art

Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

WHP 2021 Blog Tour Banner Week 1


Wolfson History Prize 2019 Blog Tour: Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair


‘Outside the precincts of minsters,’ John Blair writes in the conclusion to his magnificent new monograph, Building Anglo-Saxon England, almost everything that was built before the year 1000 carried with it no expectation that it would last. The Anglo-Saxons conceived their secular building and planning projects as the “Beowulf” poet did Herorot: “The hall towered aloft, high and wide-gabled: it awaited the upheavals of war and malicious fire.”‘ The question that this book confronts is: how can we find out how Anglo-Saxon settlements developed if their timber buildings have long disappeared? As Blair puts it: ‘this was a culture whose sophisticated artisanship and careful structuring of the built environment sat remarkably lightly in the landscape.’ As anyone who had the chance to visit the stunning British Library Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition will know, the Anglo-Saxons left behind much material evidence in the form of what Blair calls ‘small precious objects’ – the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavations and Staffordshire Hoard, and fantastic illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels – but what did their larger works look like?

Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, c.600, and an image from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c.715-720

Building Anglo-Saxon England, covering the period 600-1100, takes an innovative methodological approach to this problem (historians please note that I am writing as a general reader here, rather than with my historian hat on; as a modernist, I can’t fully assess how novel these claims are!) Blair explains that the integration of archaeological and historiographical findings allows us to draw a much more detailed picture of the settlements and buildings of Anglo-Saxon England than was possible in the past. Despite the wealth of material evidence discovered by archaeological digs since the 1980s, historians have not been able to access this ‘grey literature’ easily because most of it is unpublished and unprinted. On the other hand, archaeologists of early medieval England have taken a ‘prehistoric’ approach to this period despite the fact that textual evidence (albeit extremely patchy, and limited to certain geographical areas such as Wessex and Northumbria) does exist. Blair also emphasises the importance of drawing on other disciplines such as anthropology, geography and place-name studies in rewriting the history of Anglo-Saxon settlement.


5th century excavations. From the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog.

Blair’s conclusions are numerous, but some of his most important points are as follows. Firstly, he argues, Anglo-Saxon secular architecture was likely as sophisticated and complex as the smaller material goods that they have left behind. Regional diversity is crucial to understanding settlement patterns, especially in considering the autonomous development of Mercia, and England was influenced equally by the Frankish (Carolingian) and Scandinavian worlds after 650. However, this is not only important for architectural historians or archaeologists; work on ‘rank, lordship and estate management’ needs to take account of how much things varied from place to place, and not assume that the social structures of eastern England and the East Midlands dominated everywhere, especially before 920. This means that many popular assumptions about an homogenous feudal society made up of lords and peasants and the ‘caging of the peasantry’ by feudal law may have to be rethought, even for the later medieval period.

But while this enormous book will surely be of interest to scholars, how accessible is it to the general reader? One obvious barrier is its sheer size; I can barely lift it one-handed, certainly can’t turn pages unless I use both hands, and struggle to rest it comfortably on my lap. However, the reason it’s so big isn’t because it’s overlong but because of the huge number of maps and diagrams that Blair has somehow managed to persuade his publisher to include; far more than is normal for an historical monograph. Given the nature of the subject, these are essential. And while the book may be physically heavy, its contents are less daunting than you might imagine. Starting Building Anglo-Saxon England reminded me of sitting down with someone who knows a lot more than you about a subject you never thought you were interested in; you think the conversation is going to be boring, but actually they win you over with their sheer enthusiasm, knowledge and clarity.

I received a free copy of this book for review from Midas PR as part of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour. 

The other titles shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2019 are as follows (just look at this beast sitting on the top!) and the winner will be announced on 11th June.

books-2019-2Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour this week!


Three Things… January 2019


Earlier this month, I read Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging for my book club; it’s basically the book I wanted Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race to be. It moves beyond simplistic journalism to ask interesting and nuanced questions about race in Britain today. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is very good on her own search for belonging in Britain and in Ghana, and how this points to wider issues; the invention of new racial ‘others’, such as Muslims and Poles; the sense that a light-skinned, middle-class, mixed-race woman is somehow unthreatening in a way that Hirsch’s husband, a dark-skinned working-class black man, can never be. Highly recommended, and useful reading for my modern British history undergraduates as well.

Rachel Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted The Mars Room was also a hit, and a pleasant surprise after I struggled somewhat with her previous novel, The Flamethrowers. It’s 2002, and Romy Hall has been condemned to two consecutive life sentences – plus an extra six years – in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Darting between a range of narrators, and from first to third person, it’s Romy’s voice that holds the book together. The novel is inevitably reminiscent of Orange is the New Black, but although there are moments of black humour, it takes on the much more brutal side of life in maximum security, unlike the relatively relaxed regime of minimum-security Litchfield. Hugely disturbing, it ends on a carefully-judged moment of rebellion plus oppression.

I was less impressed by Sonia Velton’s derivative historical debut, Blackberry and Wild Rose, set among the Spitalfields community of exiled Huguenot silk weavers in the late eighteenth century, which joins the club of female-led historical fiction novels with gorgeous covers but overwritten narratives. More of my thoughts can be found on Goodreads. I’m now starting Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagoswhich follows a group of five newcomers who want to start a new life in the Nigerian city that has perhaps featured in the largest number of novels, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Holea collection of popular essays on astrophysics that I’m keen to get going on after my recent excursion into quantum mechanics.



Knowing my love of fiction set in polar regions, my dad insisted that I try Fortitude, a Sky Atlantic drama set in a fictional Arctic town in Svalbard, when I was staying with him over New Year. At first, I was hesitant, but I was won over by its careful plotting and beautiful, if sometimes grim, landscapes. The town is headlined as somewhere where ‘no-one ever dies’ and where no violent crime is ever committed, so it’s not surprising when the series kicks off with two deaths: Billy Pettigrew (Tam Dean Burn), a geologist who may or may not have been eaten by a polar bear, and Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), whose corpse is found bizarrely mutilated in his own home. Fortitude starts off on a solid crime-drama footing, as DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci) arrives from the mainland to investigate the second incident and is accordingly resented and obstructed by the local police force, especially Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer). However, it ends up in much weirder, gorier and more speculative places. Huge content warning for gore and violence on this one: I can’t watch that sort of thing, so I used the Guardian live-blog to warn me of what was up ahead when watching the first series, as the explicit scenes are intermittent enough that I didn’t miss too much. (My dad had already spoiled the central plot twist, so I didn’t really care!)


screen shot 2019-01-27 at 13.08.06

I’ve been rewriting the Fiction section of this blog to better reflect the projects I’m actually working on at the moment. You can find the update here. In short: a time-travel novel set in fourteenth-century and twenty-first century Cambridgeshire, and a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in contemporary Antarctica. In other news, my academic monograph is now virtually ready for final submission to its publisher, Manchester University Press. Hooray!

Thanks again to Paula for the Three Things idea! What have you been reading, watching and thinking this month?

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: The Butchering Art


My interest in medical history was sparked at the age of fourteen when I started studying Medicine Through Time for GCSE history (favourite school history module ever), where we romped through at least two thousand years of medical history in the course of relatively few lessons. Somewhere along the way, we learnt that Joseph Lister popularised antiseptics in medical treatment in Britain, leading to a dramatic reduction in deaths from post-operative infection, but that was about all. This book is a great, entertaining and immensely readable summary of how Lister came to accept Louis Pasteur’s controversial germ theory and how he put Pasteur’s findings into practice in hospitals across Britain, following in the footsteps of other pioneers of surgical hygiene such as Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who was eventually hounded out of his job for insisting on thorough hand washing, and died in a mental asylum.

I was a little concerned about the potential goriness of this book, but was relieved to find it less explicit than I had expected. While Fitzharris doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the excruciating detail of nineteenth-century surgery without antiseptic, and the horrors of infection in dirty and overcrowded wards, the book never feels gratuitous or titillating, and some of the very worst incidents are described as briefly as possible. Nevertheless, we are transported vividly to an utterly unfamiliar world, feeding my belief that the gulf between the early and late nineteenth century is in fact wider than the gulf between the late nineteenth and late twentieth. Life is so cheap in this period and the slightest wound can spell the end, as a number of unlucky surgeons find out for themselves.

Fitzharris is especially good at swiftly contextualising the world in which Lister lived and worked for readers who may not be especially familiar with nineteenth-century history. I currently lecture on the social and economic history of Victorian Britain, but still appreciated the way in which Fitzharris’s book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge of the history of the medical establishment, and surgery as a discipline, during this period. It’s easy for me to feel a bit impatient with popular histories of periods or subjects that I know well, but Fitzharris strikes exactly the right note, writing clearly and accessibly with no dumbing down.

This book thoroughly deserves its place on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, and I would recommend it to historians and non-historians alike.

See also Rebecca’s review, Paul’s review and Annabel’s review.

The Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2018

The shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize is out! The winner will be announced on the 30th April, and here are the six shortlisted titles:

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist

I’ve read two of the six shortlisted titles, Stay With Me and With the End In Mindand am currently reading To Be A MachineAs part of the shadow panel for the Wellcome Book Prize this year, I’ll be aiming to read the whole shortlist.

My predictions were surprisingly accurate (given my dismal record) – I guessed three out of six of the longlisted titles, Fitzharris, Wadman and O’Connell. The balance between novels, history, memoir, ‘proper science’ and ‘what it is to be human’ is much as I thought it would be.

I’m surprised to see Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me on the shortlist – I thought it was tremendously moving, but the medical theme is barely there. Similarly, I didn’t expect Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem to make it to the shortlist, having heard very little about it, but I’m keen to find out more.

I’m very disappointed not to see Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am on the shortlist, and equally disappointed to see Kathryn Mannix’s With the End In Mind, which made me very uncomfortable. But I’m thrilled to see that the two books that I was most interested in reading next have made it to the shortlist – Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine and Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race. And, even though I try to keep work separate from this blog, I’m grudgingly getting used to the idea of reading Lindsay Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art,which I suspect will teach me a lot about popular history and storytelling.

A final thought: this isn’t a criticism of this year’s longlist or shortlist, but I wonder why the prize seems to highlight so little speculative fiction or science fiction? It’s just occurred to me that this might be another interesting angle with which to consider ‘our relationship with health, medicine and illness’.

What are your thoughts on the Wellcome Prize shortlist?


Monograph Review: Contagious Communities

9780198725282The Health Committee of the Association of Municipal Corporations, a representative body for many of Britain’s towns and cities, expressed concerns about immigration to the Ministry of Health in a meeting in 1957. Immigrants, argued the deputation from the AMC, might be coming to the UK because of ‘the encouragement which a free health service could give to such people to come to this country with the object of seeking free treatment.’ In addition, public prejudice against immigrants was linked to ‘the problems they created and the demands they made on the Health Services.’ As Bivins notes: ‘Only a decade after the NHS opened, the fearful and possessive discourse of its exploitation by “medical tourists” was already emerging, hand in hand with redefinitions of British “identity” and “belonging”.’

This is not an academic journal, and I’m not going to try and replicate an academic book review of Bivins’ thought-provoking and hugely ambitious Contagious Communities here. What I’d like to do is offer some (not especially comprehensive) thoughts about what I found most important and interesting in this series of closely-researched, linked case studies, covering the period 1948-1991, that think about the NHS not through the lens of national policy and re-organisation, like many earlier histories, but by centring the shifting attitudes to migrant health, and the ways in which local, community-led pressure groups, the Ministry for Health, associations like the BMA, the media and other government departments interacted in both shaping, and quashing, concerns. Contagious Communities is clearly-organised. The first two chapters consider how official responses to TB changed both nationally and locally between 1948 and 1962. The third chapter rethinks smallpox along similar lines. The fourth chapter flips the language of analysis to consider discourses of ‘race relations’ between 1962 and 1971, arguing that ‘the language of race itself became increasingly tainted’ and that even ‘the appearance of racism’ was seen as harmful by politicians, civil servants and diplomats. However, as we shall see, this did not necessarily lead to more positive initiatives. The fifth chapter considers a disease that was environmental and easily addressed, yet embarrassingly, still prevalent in modern Britain: rickets. In contrast, the final chapter thinks about genetic diseases that were associated with ‘ethnic’ populations; sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia.

In the 1950s, TB, rickets and smallpox were all diseases that had been all-too-familiar in Britain in the not-so-distant past. However, Bivins shows how popular and official memories of these once-endemic menaces were swiftly transformed. TB became ‘an imported illness’, despite its continued incidence among the native population. While smallpox outbreaks had occurred six times between 1951-60 in Britain – as Bivins puts it, smallpox in this period was ‘both spectacular and quotidian’ – it was the 1961-62 outbreak, framed by debates over the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, that led to its reframing as ‘the killer that slipped through the net’ (Observer headline, 1962) or ‘the oriental killer’. Rickets, related to poor diet and a lack of sunshine, was relabelled as ‘Asian rickets’ due to its incidence within Asian communities, ignoring the internal diversity within this group. Evidence to associate these particular conditions strongly with immigrants was patchy, especially for TB. Bivins meticulously considers how figures on TB incidence were selectively used to support the favoured policies of the group in question. For example, a 1957 Ministry of Health survey on TB incidence in the UK presented a complicated picture: ‘Irish and Hungarian rates were among the highest, while rates from West Indian and African communities were very low… The highest rates of incidence… were found in the group from the Indian subcontinent.’ However, if Europe had been considered as a single category, rather than the Hungarians being categorised as a separate group, ‘it would have produced a significantly larger group of affected migrants.’ The Ministry of Health, seeking reasons to justify health controls for Indian and Pakistani migrants but not migrants from European countries with an equally high level of TB incidence, did not choose to present the survey results in this way.

Another important aspect of Bivins’s book, however, is the caution with which she handles the temptation to ascribe these actions to simple racism’. Racist attitudes took varied forms, and much health policy was formulated in the context of promoting community integration to improve ‘race relations’. Furthermore, in the context of the Cold War and Britain’s waning international influence, Britain’s ties with the Commonwealth were becoming increasingly important, and government officials were reluctant to do anything that might be perceived as racist and exclusionary, especially in the earlier part of the period covered by this book, when Britain actively sought to attract foreign labour to assist in post-war reconstruction. However, the language of integration did not necessarily serve the interests of migrant communities. For a start, integration was assumed to be more difficult for non-white migrants, especially younger migrants who did not arrive in family groups, who were presumed to indulge in ‘non-British’ cultural practices that were detrimental to their health. In the early 1960s, for example, the British Medical Journal invoked such stereotypes about young South Asian male migrants, claiming that their living conditions were primitive and uncivilised. This kind of attitude affected public health interventions. Rejecting fortification of foodstuffs with Vitamin D to address the rickets problem in 1993, the Principal Medical Officer in the Nutrition Section of the Ministry of Health stated that immigrants needed ‘education rather than nutrition.’ The Department also rejected screening or counselling interventions for individuals affected by sickle cell anaemia because they believed this would be stigmatising for the populations they believed were at risk; Africans and West Indians. ‘There were no consultations with any affected community,’ Bivins notes, ‘simply a uniformity of internal opinion that ‘they’ would respond poorly.’ Here, a supposed sensitivity to racial issues actually led to othering and ignorance. Similar concerns arose in relation to thalassaemia. However, when the United Kingdom Thalassaemia Society was formed by parents of affected children in 1976, it swiftly told the Department that they wanted targeted screening and genetic counselling to help reduce rates of the disease.

Finally, Bivins considers what was meant by ‘public health’ in this period. Viewed as transient minorities, migrant communities were often excluded from public health considerations, and it was suggested that they should not be given special treatment, despite their different medical needs. The Stop Rickets campaign of 1981-2 proposed a three-year project to eradicate rickets that would cost £149,000 in its first year, and £100,000 for each of the next two years. ‘After all… the recent HEC [Health Education Council] Mother and Baby Campaign had cost £600,000. This comparison provoked a frosty but revealing reply [from the Department of Health and Social Services]: the latter was entirely different as it addressed “the entire population”.’ Bivins argues that as models of intervention changed from ideas of ‘social medicine’ to an assessment of how citizens could individually manage risk, the Department ‘increasingly sought to intervene in public health problems only if “the public” in question was co-terminous with the entire British population or some nationally distributed cross-section thereof (pregnant women, for example.’ Addressing problems that were particular to migrant communities were seen as incompatible with these priorities – a stance that was justified by appeals to the need to preserve good ‘race relations’ by not treating certain groups differently from the community as a whole.

Bivins’ monograph is an important read for historians of post-war Britain, intersecting with numerous themes in existing historiography; race, gender, medicine, the NHS and the welfare state. Inevitably, it presents a series of case studies, as covering this entire period in detail would be an impossible task. However, it presents us with a new way of looking at the history of the NHS – an angle that is especially relevant given how we talk about the NHS today.

A vale of tears

61GXMNHp7iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When sentencing the killers of sixteen-year-old Becky Watts in November 2015, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, broke down in tears. This was seen as so unusual it was reported in the press, although sympathetically. The chief investigating officer defended him: ‘The judge was addressing the family and reacted in an entirely understandable way. He’s a human being and not a robot. It does not affect his integrity or the exemplary way in which he conducted the trial.’ While this statement is obviously supportive, it is clear that some explanation was perceived to be required for the judge’s tears, despite the horrendous nature of this particular case. In mid-eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century Britain, however, crying judges were not nearly as notable. As Thomas Dixon relates, one such judge, Sir James Shaw Willes, cried when hearing the case of a mother who had poisoned her baby: ‘at one time he buried his face in his note-book and shed tears and seemed almost unable to proceed with the evidence.’ The tide was turning by the 1850s, and Willes’s outbursts were criticised; earlier, ‘weeping judges were a regular feature of public justice.’

What has changed since the mid-eighteenth century to make the crying judge such an unusual figure? Although Weeping Britannia covers a remarkable range of case studies, the descriptions of these displays of emotion from the judiciary were how I first encountered Dixon’s work (he gave a fantastic paper at the Cambridge Cultural History seminar a few years ago). The idea seems so counter-intuitive from a modern perspective because we associate judges with impartiality, objectivity and reserve; qualities that we no longer associate with tears, hence the chief investigating officer’s insistence that Dingeman’s integrity was not compromised. But one of the key messages of Dixon’s book is that the ‘stiff upper lip’ was a brief, modern British phenomenon that dominated only the years 1880 to 1945, and that before (and now, after) that period, ‘masculine’ qualities such as dignity and objectivity were not compromised by a more emotional style. Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) makes a predictable appearance, but Dixon also examines earlier examples, such as the weeping of both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. More subtly, he argues that we need to unpick the cultural meaning of tears in these earlier periods, challenging our assumption that tears are always linked with emotion rather than reason; for example, in his exploration of the mid-eighteenth century philosophers who argued that tears were the supreme expression of rationality, distinguishing man from the animals. ‘A tear is an intellectual thing,’ asserted William Blake.

Weeping Britannia is very accessible to general readers because of the division of the book into relatively self-contained case studies that are easy to dip in and out of. On the whole, this is pulled off very skilfully, without compromising the integrity of the argument as a whole, with perhaps the exception of the very first chapter on Margery Kempe; this felt isolated from the central concerns of the book, and chronologically, it is also removed from even the earliest of the other case studies by more than a hundred and fifty years, the biggest leap that Dixon makes. Nevertheless, I can see that it was included as a kind of counterpoint to what is to come. Although I understand why the book was written the way it was, as an historian, I’d love to read a lengthier exploration of some of the case studies here; crying judges would be high on my list, but the chapter on wartime British cinema seemed full of relatively untapped potential as well, especially if Mass Observation’s studies were used more extensively. Nevertheless, this book is a crucial contribution to the still relatively undeveloped field of the history of the emotions, and like other offerings in that vein, its greatest usefulness is perhaps to provide a refreshing new perspective on debates that have grown rather dry.

‘Game, narrative or performance?’

9780520284920In one of the novels I’m currently working on, one of the key plotlines focuses on two sisters who create an imaginary world set in a medieval castle. They play their ‘game’, as they call it, throughout adolescence, developing a closely-knit and thoroughly-imagined cast of characters. Their ‘game’ has no rules, at least no rules that can be spoken. However, both sisters are acutely aware of when something has been said or done that violates the reality of the world in which their game is told. They’re not interested in historical accuracy, or even in strict continuity (lettuces grow in winter, monks live in a castle and most days seem to be Sundays) but they are deeply invested in the continuity of their characterisation, and the way in which it interacts with the way the castle community works. (Unsurprisingly, this plot line builds very loosely on games that my sister and I played, although sadly we never had a medieval castle!)

In Dangerous Games, philosopher Joseph P. Laycock puts forward a spirited defence of the value of imaginary role-play. The book’s ostensible focus is on religious reactions against popular RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), and the fears engendered by events such as the Columbine shootings that role-playing and video games can lead their participants to lose touch with reality. The central, controversial argument that emerges from his discussion is that imaginary worlds serve a similar purpose for humans to religions; they allow us to create meaning through world-building. Therefore, the people who have a problem with distinguishing between fantasy and reality are not those who play RPGs but the new religious right, who ignore the value of biblical stories as representative myths, and insist on interpreting them as the literal truth. I won’t engage with the detail of Laycock’s argument here, because I want to discuss another aspect of this fascinating, energetic and thought-provoking book; what makes a game productive and meaningful, rather than an idle amusement?

Laycock is clear that he sees collaborative creativity as central to game-playing, dismissing video games such as World of Warcraft as insignificant in this context, although he is at pains to stress that he doesn’t think such games are harmful. However, at times he seems to go even further. Dangerous Games talks about RPGs and ‘paracosms‘, detailed imaginary worlds, as if they are virtually interchangeable, and defines them in similar ways. Role-playing is valuable because ‘it combines imaginative play, which comes naturally to children, with complex rules and mathematical models’, while paracosms similarly ‘create a mental space from which the real world can be reflected upon and analysed.’ He is emphatic that you can gain new, real-world competencies through playing games, that these are not just pointless leisure activities, and I think anybody who had played such a game would agree. However, as most of his experience seems to have been focused on ‘traditional’ RPGs such aD&D rather than more nebulous paracosms, he occasionally seems to suggest that clear boundaries are necessary for the magic to happen: ‘While not all fantasy role-playing games have cumbersome rules, most cannot be played without an impartial referee who adjudiates the outcomes of the characters’ interactions within the imaginary world.’

While Laycock’s analysis of the importance of games is welcome and important, I don’t think that all play of this kind fits into his definitions. Imaginary games can be managed from within as well as from without. Some paracosms are meticulous in their concern with history, geography and language; some are not concerned with these things at all, which does not mean that they are like children’s games. Early in Dangerous Games, Laycock plays with the question of whether imaginary worlds are more like ‘a game, a narrative or a performance?’ but claims that this isn’t something that is helpful to think about too closely. To an extent, he’s right, because imaginary worlds clearly draw on all three of these categories, and this isn’t something that is difficult to prove. However, I think it is important to consider paracosms that are definitely not RPGs, and that perhaps teach different skills. World-building is valuable; but so are characters and their relationships, even if they have to get along in a world where it is Sunday every day.

Monograph Review: Pre-school childcare in England, 1939-2010

On Wednesday, Dpre-school-childcare-in-england-1939-2010avid Cameron pledged the further expansion of free childcare hours for three- and four-year olds via the Queen’s Speech. This indicates the increased recognition of the need for childcare in twenty-first century Britain, but his pledge can be seen as insufficient to meet either the needs of parents or the concerns of childcare providers. Angela Davis’s excellent new monograph indicates how statutory childcare provision in Britain has been continually hobbled by the idea that under-fives should be at home with their mothers, despite growing demand. Her work is especially interesting because her use of an extensive set of new oral history sources – focused on case studies of Coventry, Oxfordshire and Camden – allows her to challenge earlier assertions that developmental psychology and psychoanalysis had little impact on childcare practice. She suggests, for example, that the relative popularity of playgroups and childminders as opposed to pre-schools in the 1960s and 1970s was due to the fact that these providers fit better with psychoanalytic attachment theory and with established ideas about the role of the mother.

Five and Under (1941), one of a set of films I introduced and ran a Q&A session for at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge in March 2014, sums up the contribution of WWII to later childcare policy for me, despite being filmed long before the war was over. To a twenty-first century viewer, this documentary on wartime childcare can feel both strikingly ‘modern’ and firmly ‘old-fashioned’ at the same time. I was struck by the lack of judgement in the voice-over regarding the mothers using the childcare facilities, and the absence of any discussion, psychological or otherwise, about the impact this might have on their children. Such commentary has obviously become so familiar to us from debates about stay-at-home or working mothers that we’ve learnt to expect it. Nevertheless, the documentary prefigures the post-war nursery closures when it emphasises that the flood of women into the workplace should be seen as a temporary wartime expedient. Davis’s chapter on the Second World War explores these themes in greater detail. It suggests that the war was a turning-point for young children, echoing Michal Shapira’s claims in her recent The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War and the Making of the Democratic Self (2013). This emphasises that the histories of babyhood/early childhood and school-age childhood may have diverged at this point, if they had not done so already; Mathew Thomson’s Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement (2013) suggests that the 1950s were a more important turning-point for older children, and my own research inclines me to agree with him. The expansion of nursery provision during the war and the experience of evacuation, coupled with the psychoanalytic work of John Bowlby and Anna Freud, tended to confirm rather than question the importance of the mother-child relationship.

As my own research focuses on conceptions of childhood in primary and secondary schools in Britain (i.e. I look at children who are aged seven or older) I was especially interested to read the chapter on nursery schools, as I know much less about this age-group. My own work has indicated that the dominance of developmental psychology and its enormous influence upon child-centred educational practice shaped the educational experiences of older children and adolescents in the post-war period. However, other scholars’ research on earlier childhood has often suggested to me that it was psychoanalysis, rather than psychology, that was most significant in the shaping of policy and practice around the parenting of younger children. I wondered if this held true for nursery education as well, despite its engagement with child-centred pedagogy. Davis suggests that the ideas of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and the Plowden Report on English primary schools (1967), which was significantly influenced by his work, were the greatest influence for nursery education as well as the education of older children in this period. However, she does emphasise that psychoanalytical attachment theory complicated this picture. The Piagetian model of discovery learning within an educational setting clashes with the belief that young children needed to be at home with their mothers to form secure attachments. The tension between arguments about the benefits of early years education and the pre-eminent position of the family setting for very young children continues today in discussions about childcare.