A Date with History – Report


Royaume-Uni | Sciences Humaines et sociales
3 juillet 2017

On the 9th June, the French Embassy in the UK and the IFRU launched an exciting new collaboration with York Festival of Ideas. Selected UK students attended this one day conference on the history of Europe.

Bringing together leading historians from France and the UK, A Date with History, this first edition addressed historical perspectives on Europe. Seven selected UK students attended this one day conference.

To find out more about A Date with History : Did You Say Europe ?, have a look at their reports below.

Did You Say Europe ? Opening talks

Adam Rolewicz

The opening talks for A Date with History were an excellent introduction to an insightful conference. The two lectures delivered by Professors Roger Chartier and Chris Clark were a powerful examination of two case studies in European history, and how they shaped the Europe of today.

Professor Chartier focused on literary history, specifically Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and other associated works. There was a shrewd reminder that the construction of Europe was as much due to written culture and literature as it was to war, diplomacy and trade. The great literary works of the Early Modern age provoked an unprecedented sense of transnationalism and an exchange of ideas across the continent. When the first edition of Don Quixote was published in Castilian Spanish, 400 copies were printed – many of which made their way across the Atlantic to the ‘New World’.

One of Professor Chartier’s principal arguments was that Don Quixote was a European book, transformed by interpretation and adaptation beyond Spain. Derivative editions were published in Valencia, Lisbon, Brussels and Milan. It was swiftly translated into French, German, Italian and English, reflecting its transnational influence in Europe. The first copies arrived in England in 1605 and were deposited in the Bodleian Library. Its popularity in the Anglophone world soon boomed and it was the most popular English-language novel of the 18th Century. This is evidenced in how much Don Quixote influenced English drama and literature. Plays such as Cardenio served as tributes to Cervantes’ epic and entrenched the author’s sense of imagination in societies across Europe. As Early Modern Europe became increasingly interconnected through overseas expansion and the mass circulation of literature, novels such as Don Quixote came to epitomise the new era.

The construction of a European identity in Don Quixote is further developed by Cervantes’ references to Christendom and Islam, which are drawn directly from his experience as a young soldier. Cervantes was captured by Ottoman pirates and held in Algiers for five years as a slave before being ransomed. Don Quixote’s freeing of the galley slaves is a direct reference to this. Throughout history, Spain was one of the main theatres of war between Christianity – the dominant faith in Europe – and Islam, something which crystallised Spain’s position as a ‘gateway’ to Europe. As such, Don Quixote can be seen as an explorer on the very fringes of Europe itself, and a map of his travels began to be included in 19th Century editions of the book. The wanderings of Don Quixote directly mirror those of the author, who spent years traveling around the Mediterranean, but by extension this also reflects the fluidity of human migration across Europe in the Early Modern era. In conclusion, Professor Chartier argued that this showed how Europe was framed as a transnational community of spectators, writers and travellers by Cervantes, and that the blurring of borders and boundaries in Don Quixote’s travels is a deliberate technique which reinforces this European transnationalism. In this sense, Don Quixote can be seen as the first modern European novel – one which touches on issues which still spark debate in Europe today.

Professor Clark’s focus was the geopolitics of the Revolutions of 1848, which were a series of political upheavals that engulfed the whole of Europe during what had been a relatively peaceful period in the continent’s history after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Professor Clark contends that the 1848 Revolutions were a uniquely European revolution – a ‘transcontinental cascade of upheavals’. The revolutions transformed Europe permanently and reinforced this sense of transnationalism which had been forged in the modern era.

Professor Clark argued that the 1848 Revolutions have too often been viewed through the prism of individual revolutionaries such as Garibaldi and Kossuth, or indeed individual countries. The scattered and dispersed nature of the sources and the underdeveloped understanding of international relations in their historical context have resulted in a fragmented body of scholarship. The revolutions were in fact fundamental in reconstructing the balance of power in Europe and introducing new powers to the continent. Otto von Bismarck, the future architect of the German state, found his political influence significantly advanced by the 1848 crisis, as the King of Prussia became increasingly dependent on him and other like-minded conservatives. The 1848 Revolution in the German states and the subsequent Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 were crucial in the establishment of the German Empire, an event which completely transformed the course of European history.

Conversely, Professor Clark also acknowledged that the chaotic and haphazard nature of the 1848 Revolutions makes it extremely difficult to separate the revolutions from the counter-revolutions. The June Days show that divisions appeared amongst the revolutionaries, with the liberals and the radicals clashing violently. In addition, the lack of coordination beyond national boundaries suggests that the 1848 Revolutions did not necessarily have any pan-European objectives. However, he then highlighted how such a reading of events is highly simplistic. The radical and liberal revolutionaries did in fact create transnational networks where they exchanged communications and ideas, and the revolutionaries were specifically motivated by geopolitical factors. Pope Pius IX enacted liberal reforms and a constitution, fully aware of the turmoil which had seized Europe and the potential threats to the Italian peninsula. Ultimately, Professor Clark argued the period that followed 1848 was one dominated by a ‘revolution in government’. Centrist coalitions emerged all over Europe, dominated by liberals who wished to stave off the militancy of working-class socialism. The political structures of Europe were altered irreversibly, and set the scene for a century of competition and conflict.

Modern Europe has been shaped by numerous events, movements, people and cultures. However, the transnational experiences in literary and revolutionary history are without a doubt some of the most significant. The diffusion of ideas through the written word and political upheaval were critical in forging European nations and societies, as well as a sense of shared history and identity across the continent. Europeans continue to invoke these phenomena which serve as poignant reminders that our continent is bound by a common historical experience, and will continue to be bound for the foreseeable future.

What is Europe ?

Matthew Brown and Howard Chae

On 9th June, leading historians from France and the UK were invited by the French Embassy and the Institut français du Royaume-Uni to York to participate in an exciting and novel collaborative enterprise. Entitled ‘A Date with History’, this discussion panel series placed a region which occupies a central position in our collective consciousness and – especially with the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France and the upcoming Brexit negotiations – news cycle within a broader historical context. This of course necessarily entails a deeper and more focused consideration of the various issues that surround identities in Europe. Chaired by Professor Peter Mandler, from the University of Cambridge, the second panel of the event sought to answer the question : What is Europe ? Joining him were Professor Stuart Carroll, from the University of York ; Dr Jean-François Dunyach, from the Université Paris-Sorbonne ; Dr Jean-Frédéric Schaub, from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) ; and Dr Astrid Swenson, from Brunel University London. Together, they scrutinised the historical implications of what it means to be ‘European’.

Professor Stuart Carroll began with a deliberation on the comparative history of violence from the 18th century to the present in relation to the idea of ‘civilisation’, covering the institutional and sociocultural forces that have shaped patterns of violent action on both a structural and individual level. Treating violence as a historically significant category of analysis, Carroll turned to quantitative indicators of violence such as data on homicide rates to explode the myth of European ‘civilisation’ as a process whereby violence was ‘tamed’ by the emerging institutions of the state, whose imposition of external social control was apparently internalised to become a part of ‘civilised’ socialisation. Carroll maintained that new interpretive methods and frameworks that reconsider what constitutes violence are needed to move beyond these inadequate theories. And on this note, he proposed the conception of ‘society’ as an explanation of historical trends in violent action, in that it enabled the problematisation of violence as a disruptive force in the emotional field of social relations which breached the boundary between public and private.

Jean-Frédéric Schaub added to this by discussing Europe’s colonial past and how we cannot think about Europe without thinking of its past colonial atrocities including the transatlantic slave trade truly qualifying itself as a crime against humanity. Major problems occur when we cannot unpick Europe without it’s colonial past. Countries within Europe experienced similarities as well as huge differences for example population management with the case of the gypsies being a prominent example. This pushed merchants, judges and noblemen to prioritise certain social groups based on their racial heritage. In early modern times, European countries have share the experience of the repatriation of the political legitimacy much before the birth of nation states. His research focuses on the processes of change in the political structures of Western Europe in modern times, based on the cases of the Iberian countries. The starting point of the whole of the works will have been the criticism of political historiography, as it is the pioneering conduct by António Manuel Hespanha.

Interestingly, Jean-François Dunyach discussed Enlightenment (an experience in which notions attach to other macro notions) and how a cause known as Europe began to emerge in the 17th century and asked the question if Europe was a result of demise. In which one can certainly argue that it is, following the constant intra-continental wars. He also asked the question of which language enlightenment was in considering the vast amount of languages spoken on the continent. His research combines and contrasts British, European and American history as to study more about political theory in the 19th Century.

Dr Astrid Swenson followed by considering how cultural heritage fits into broader discussions about European identity. Fundamentally, the notion of heritage deals with the ways in which individuals and societies relate to the past through interaction with both the physical and abstract memory of their living culture, and so involves the movement of knowledge across time and space to fit into broader ideas about sense of belonging or place. As such, preservation of the past has the potential to function as an agent of both competition and collaboration ; as the basis for both exclusive and inclusive identities ; and, as the foundation of both national and transnational enterprises. Swenson reconciled this asymmetry by narrating the move from destructive nationalism to integration in the context of post-war preservation policies. These were institutionalised at a transnational level in the form of UNESCO and European Heritage Days, for example, to ‘Europeanise’ a previously fractured socio-political landscape and promote peaceful relations within Europe.
To return to the central question of this discussion panel – What is Europe ? – a common theme which seemed to emerge from the speeches given was the implication that Europe is more than just a physical landmass, or a collection of culturally diverse nation-states. Rather, it is an abstraction, an idea and concept, which shapes the worldview of Britons, Frenchmen, and Germans alike. Being ‘European’ denotes a state of mind and mode of thought which is quite often taken for granted in the context of today’s politics of division and resurgent nationalism. Each of the speakers featured in this panel approached the idea of Europe and its place in our collective imagination from a uniquely thought-provoking perspective. Together, their interdisciplinary and comparative viewpoints deepened our understanding, and more importantly, our appreciation of the multi-faceted entity that is Europe.

Perspectives on Franco-British Relations

Nigel Ritchie and Katherine Barrowman

Renaud Morieux (Cambridge) discussed the notion of ‘foreigners’ in eighteenth century Britain and France. There were times when states could sharpen their distinctions, such as through the creation of the Alien office in Britain in the 1790s, but for the most part ‘foreignness’ varied across the eighteenth century. Certain social groups were welcomed across borders, depending upon their usefulness to the state. For example, English smugglers were given safe conducts by French and Flemish coastal authorities since they benefitted the coastal economies. There was more freedom in the eighteenth century since the state apparatus was weaker and local officials could decide nationality. These criteria changed over time, and the decisions were not always consistent. Morieux highlighted fishermen as a key case where the language of ‘nation’ and ‘foreigner’ could be blurred. Fishing truces between the fishermen of England and France, using the language of ‘friends of all nations’, showed how economic alliances could cross state boundaries. There were times when ‘foreigner’ could mean those outside the locality, with Normandy fishermen viewing those from Brittany as foreigners even though they were both French. Sometimes, fishermen argued that outsiders did not know how to preserve the environment they were fishing in, using a discourse of sustainability to justify their attitudes. Morieux finished his discussion by considering what made a foreigner, focusing on the public discourse of identities, as well as personal interactions which blurred the meaning of ‘foreigner’ in coastal communities.

Christina de Bellaigue (Oxford) spoke on “Femmes françaises and British gentlewomen : national character in the 19th century”, in an exploration of fundamental differences in the respective experiences of womanhood. An early Cruickshank cartoon, “Le retour de Paris, or the niece presented to relations by her French governess” (1816), caricatured these differences through tangible signs of dress, language, and even choice of pet. However, while such choices might reflect relatively trivial national differences, disparities in the situation of married women posed a far more substantial example, with French women perceived as enjoying more freedom than their British counterpart. De Bellaigue attributed two inter-related factors to explain this : their respective legal status and participation in the workforce. Broadly speaking, British women, who were cut out of the family inheritance by primogeniture, lost their individual legal identity after marriage ; whereas French women, who shared the family’s partible inheritance, enjoyed a more contractual arrangement. However, as one questioner highlighted, such boundaries could be ambiguous, with newly enriched British manufacturing families commonly using partible inheritance. Even more significant was the greater cultural acceptance for French woman to earn their keep, alongside greater ease in raising credit and protecting their assets than their British counterparts. From 1800, 45% of Frenchwomen were in employment, with many continuing to work after marriage, motivated by low wages and high rents. French women of all classes could draw on a widespread industry of wet-nursing helping them to quickly return to the workforce. A major difference in cultural values was the reticence of many British ‘gentlewoman’ to either participate in or admit to profitable employment for fear of losing their social status and/or chance of a husband.

Fabrice Bensimon (Paris-Sorbonne) focused on French political exiles in nineteenth century Britain. Britain had a long tradition of welcoming refugees, from the Huguenots to the émigrés from the French Revolution. During the nineteenth century, Britain increasingly became a refuge for political migrants, particularly after 1848 when the continental backlash sent many revolutionaries to seek refuge on British shores. A strong culture of political liberty helped to create a public attitude that Britain should protect asylum seekers. Sometimes this became a point of contention, such as when France reached out to Britain following a bomb attempt on Napoleon III. The ensuring measures enacted by the British government to round up conspirators led to public uproar, with radicals exploiting the subsequent trial to reinforce the rhetoric around Britain as a safe-haven. A sense of British superiority to the ‘despotic’ regimes on the continent combined with a refusal to expel émigrés soon developed into the right for foreigners to claim asylum. While it was not the only nation to host refugees, there were several factors which made the refugee experience different in Britain. As a stronger power, Britain could resist geopolitical pressure to expel refugees more easily than countries such as Switzerland. Further, Britain had no state policy around the upkeep of émigrés, they tended to integrate into wider British society, rather than gathering into ghettos. By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain’s attitude started to change, following the emigration of large numbers of European Jews into Britain. This saw a revision in British policy in 1905, placing greater controls on immigration, which limited Britain’s role as a place of asylum.

During the panel discussion, chaired by Claire Judde de Larivière (Toulouse), the question of the usefulness of stereotypes was raised, their greatest value coming from an understanding of the context in which they are activated and the motives behind their promotion of particular cultural virtues. Morieux emphasised current focus on national representation erased many of the tensions in interactions between different nations and that reality was more complex, as his work on coastal communities had shown. While De Bellaigue and Bensimon agreed that practice was messier than perception, they argued that stereotypes could still affect interactions. This led to the question of whose perceptions were being studied, with all three speakers agreeing that many of these representations concerned the elite. De Bellaigue emphasised their role in shaping aspects of policy, such as the rejection of proposals to adopt French education practices in Britain as British and French children were perceived to be fundamentally different. Similarly, Bensimon highlighted interactions between the working classes and migrants, such as the reactions of the French workers against English workers in France during the economic problems of 1848. From the audience came the observation that there were many stereotypes at work, not just national, and that an important question was why particular stereotypes were employed at different times.

Europe : A history of migrations

Megan Crane and Alastair Brunton

The fourth and final session of the day began with a reminder by Robert Winder, author of Bloody Foreigners : The Story of Immigration to Britain, and David Bates, author of William the Conqueror, about the long durée of the history of migration in Europe. The latter emphasised the contemporary political relevance of this topic, considering the current political crisis.

Maxine Berg, an influential global historian from the University of Warwick, opened the talks with the bold statement that European industrialisation was made in China. She substantiated this claim by drawing attention to the importance of both the migration of skilled labour and local knowledge across the continent and indeed the world, as well as the movement of material goods, for industrial and agricultural improvement. For example, the British steam engine was developed using French expertise, after British sons were sent to France to complete industrial apprenticeships. Similarly, Berg highlighted that the intricate stucco work on the ceilings of great country houses in Britain was a result of Venetian knowledge. She drew interesting parallels between the cities of Lyon and Birmingham in the eighteenth century. Although the former specialised in the silk trade, and the latter in that of metal, both were centres for artisans from across the continent to come together to share knowledge and expertise.

The next speaker was Thomas Glesener, from the Université d’Aix-Marseille, who considered the topic of eastern European mendicant circulations in the Hispanic world during the Enlightenment. Glesener highlighted that this is certainly a relevant topic considering that the streets of many of our cities have once again become theatres of poverty. He argued that, in general, begging was a temporary activity rather than the permanent occupation of particular social groups ; we should, for example, study the Eastern style of begging rather than Easter beggars. He concluded by illustrating how such long-distance mobility as that undertaken by early modern European beggars was only possible due to local hospitality, rather than the overall hostility seen today.

The final speaker of the day was Claire Alexander, from the University of Manchester. As a sociologist rather than a historian, she provided a different perspective on British migration, considering the contemporary and future use of migration history, rather than solely its historical origins. Alexander’s main points were that the history of Britain is the history of migration, and that this should be reflected in how history is taught in schools. Similarly to Berg, Alexander argued that the places which have received migrants have been positively transformed, for example East London. She closed her presentation with a brief outline of her current project aiming to challenge the narrow British view of its own insular history by broadening and diversifying the national history curriculum, and encouraging young people to think about their own diverse family and community histories. She ended by summing up the overall message of the conference as a whole : rather than studying ‘our island story’ we should consider ‘our migration story’.

Following the trio of thoroughly interesting and insightful speeches, the audience were welcomed into an open discussion in which questions may be put forward to the panel. Robert Winder again reiterated the relevance and importance of the ‘history of migration’, particularly following the impending Brexit negotiations. In light of this, Winder began the discussions questioning the panel in asking how important it is to relate the migration of the past to the present ? Glesener answered by reminding us that historians can both highlight and conceal historical facts. He used the example of Islamic migration into Europe as being presented by many as unique, when in fact it is far from a modern phenomenon.

The second discussion was instigated by Jean-Frédéric Schaub, who questioned Thomas Glesener on whether his theories regarding European beggars were perhaps held anachronistically. He went on to give examples of differences between eighteenth and twentieth century Europe and the relevance this has regarding begging tendencies and responses to begging. These examples included the fact that in the eighteenth century every inch of the city was modulated by the inhabitants not by the state. His other example was the differences in contemporary feelings towards duty to give charity and also the beggars’ feelings of having the right to charity. These two examples generated a useful discussion that highlighted the problems anarchism not only in this case but also in wider historical understanding.

The final question was for Alexander, in which a member of the audience asked whether herself and the ‘Our Migration Story’ group would encourage children to not only look into their own ‘history’, but also into their fellow classmates ? Her answer was of course yes, explaining the obvious benefits of understanding not only a broader history of migration into Britain, but also their own and classmates specific migration story. Alexander then went on to summarise that their aim, as stated on the website is to present the “fullness and the riches of the contributions made, and lives lived, by Britain’s many migrant groups”.