Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society
This summer I was elected as Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Thanks to my colleague Prof. Jonathan Morris - the coffee historian! - for his kind support in this.
About the Royal Historical Society
Prof Peter Mandler tells us that the Royal Historical Society was founded in 1868 as part of the process of professionalisation of knowledge. It brought amateur scholars together with a growing number of historians working in universities, museums and archives. By the 1890s it had taken on a public and policy role which it continues to fulfil. In 1967, nearly one hundred years after its foundation, the Society moved into permanent home in University College London (UCL). The Society encourages non-academic members and Fellows, and entry is open to anyone who can demonstrate a record of achievement in historical research, through publications and other outputs. Issues that the Society has intervened in include GDPR, Freedom of Information, public record embargo periods, research funding policy and practice, public impact and scrutiny, and school and higher education curricula. As well as its role representing history and historians and its policy work, the Royal Historical Society runs an active programme of research grants, publications and lectures.
Election of New Fellows and Members
Yesterday evening, I was announced as a new Fellow at the Society’s September lecture at UCL. 45 Fellows, over half of whom are female, 15 members and 20 Postgraduate Members (50% of whom are female) were elected to the Society in July 2019. Those of us who were present at the September lecture had their names read out, but we were not required to wave, stand up or say anything (happily!) Fellows assist the Society in its work representing history and historians, in policy, curriculum, events, publishing and funding activities.
Being at UCL prompted me to reflect on the several excellent events I have participated in there. I gave a paper at the Institute of Historical Research conference The Permissive Society and its Enemies (9-11 July 2001) convened by Dr Marcus Collins who is now a Council Member of the Royal Historical Society; I was a respondent at the 100 Hours Project End of Project Forum (20 June 2014) for which Prof Margot Finn was an advisor; and I contributed a presentation at the launch of Bruno Munari: The Lightness of Art (ed. Pierpaolo Antonello, Matilde Nardelli & Margherita Zanoletti) on the 12 June 2018. I have also visited UCL’s near neighbour, the Institute of Historical Research, several times, to hear about ongoing research and I gave a research seminar presentation for the Centre for Studies of Home Seminar Series (7th October 2015).
The September Lecture
The lecturer yesterday evening was Prof. Penny Roberts, Professor of Early Modern European History and Chair of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Warwick. She is following up her last book Peace and Authority during the French religious wars c.1560-1600 with research into truth, secrecy and clandestine networks during the same period including five months this year researching in Paris as Fellow of the Institut d’études avancées de Paris.
In many ways, the French religious wars were defined by the battle between what was true and what was false. Those on either side of the confessional divide believed that they had identified, and were sometimes even prepared to die for, the defence of the ‘true faith’. One particularly dangerous pursuit was the illicit carrying of messages; the promotion of truth through the practice of subterfuge, or deceit in the service of truth. The concealment of such activities was defensible because it allowed the ‘true religion’ to be perpetuated, to flourish and to triumph in the face of temporal power. Yet, truth was dependent on the integrity of its carrier, whether the messenger was reliable or likely to be concealing the truth. Furthermore, concealment and subterfuge could bring messengers before the courts. Through interrogation, judges sought to determine their own version of the truth, but one still shaped by the divine. Indeed, as this lecture will demonstrate, the telling of truth was ultimately required for royal justice to be seen to be done.
Roberts reviewed some key ideas about truth in general before considering the sixteenth century context particularly, and then moving to some detailed examples from her recent primary research. Starting with Simmel’s Sociology of Secrecy (1906), Roberts began with the proposition that ‘Truth is always contestable.’ Just as we have brutal truth, so we have white lies. We cannot agree on the truth in this age of alternative facts, and as historians we know that truth is just a name we give to our opinions. Roberts referred to Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Truth: A History (2001), Sisseka Bok’s Lying (1978) and Douglas Edwards’ The Metaphysics of Truth (2018) among other studies before turning to the 16th century and Montaigne’s notion that truth is what we can be brought to accept (c.1580), and Erasmus’ thoughts on ‘In Vino Veritas’. These sophisticated positions seem at odds with a view expressed in the Oxford Handbook of Truth (2018) that early modern philosophy takes truth to be unproblematic. Moving from Stefanio Tutino’s Shadows of Doubt (2014), Roberts emphasised the practice of mental reservation, or equivocation, during the early modern period. In this practice inner, mental, qualification preserved a spoken untruth from being a lie, in the service of a higher moral principle. The extent to which this process was accepted depended not so much on a distinction between ecclesiastical courts and others, but which side of the debate you were on. Calvinists condemned deceit and dissent, yet they made systematic use of falsehood. In fact the entire period has been described as an age of dissimulation. The criminal court system provided good reasons for concealing the truth. Torture was ineffective because, as Montaigne recognised, it could prompt people to lie as effectively as it could persuade them to tell the truth. A convicted man claimed his testimony was more reliable because he had nothing to lose, therefore he was claiming that he was more trustworthy because he had already been provided to be a liar.
During the question session, Royal Historical Society President Prof. Margot Finn asked about the gender of truth. Roberts has considered it but does not have answers, mainly because she hasn’t found a woman who was involved and brought before the courts. The following question was about witchcraft trials as a possible comparator. Roberts answered that the process would be similar as it would be carried out by the same courts. Another questioner wanted to know why Roberts chose this topic for her research. She answered that people ask if she is of Huguenot descent but she is not, rather she wants to get into the minds of other people, not those from her background. She is attracted to the conflict and violence of c16th France and her work has focussed on religious dissimulation and going underground and sedition. One question concerned the process of decoding sixteenth-century handwriting in French. Although it is regarded as notoriously difficult to read, Roberts finds it easy, easier in fact than sixteenth-century English sources partly because it is much like today’s French but also because she gets into a French-language mode of reading which is interrupted when she encounters documents in English. Finn pointed out that historians can read things that other people can’t because palaeography is taught at Masters level. The next question concerned authenticity, apt given the topic of Roberts’ last book. Roberts mentioned that additional details given by those under interrogation lend authenticity to their accounts. Clerks are very factual in their reporting; they don’t add indications of emotions but they do report on things said during the process of torture than can give clues to the feelings of the interrogated. The final question concerned the extent to which the material is redacted and the ways in which official versions of the court records differ from notes made at the time of the sessions. Roberts explained that records made at the time of the interrogation are extremely difficult to read but the retrospective versions are not. One different concerns the extent to which testimonials differ over time, as people are brought to court repeatedly.
The Society’s next two lectures are must-sees. In October 2019, Prof. David Olusoga OBE will give the Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture for the Public Understanding of History in co-operation with Gresham College, London on the topic ‘Human Traffic: Race and Post-War Migration Policy’ at the Museum of London (to be live-streamed here) and in November, Finn will deliver her RHS Presidential Address titled ‘Material Turns in British History: Part III’.
One of the first things I would like to do as Fellow is to meet with other Fellows and members who work in design history to discuss a response to the next Design History Society annual conference, ‘Memory Full? Reimagining the Relations between Design and History’ convened by Dr Meret Ernst and colleagues aat HGK FHNW Academy of Art and Design Basel, Switzerland in September 2020. Watch this space!
Since I wrote this post, the Royal Historical Society has published its own news item about the July intake of Fellows and Members who were introduced at the September lecture which uses the group photograph above.