Roy Porter

Roy Porter, who died in 2002, was a regular, much admired and much envied contributor to the LRB: he was the author of an astonishing number of books, including London: A Social History (1994), The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (1997) and Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000).

Given their importance as an instrument of social regulation, it’s odd that the law and law enforcement were so long cold-shouldered by historians. From the time of Blackstone, legal history remained the province of lawyers, whose labours of love bore more relation to the apologetic hermeneutics of Bible scholars than to ‘historical method’. Common law was wisdom to be...

The Need for Buddies

Roy Porter, 22 June 2000

If two Englishmen were cast away on a desert island, what’s the first thing they would do? They’d set up a club. The brothers Goncourt’s celebrated quip chimes precisely with a much cherished image of the bewhiskered Victorian gent digesting the Times at the Reform or Athenaeum, before sorting out the world’s evils. But as Peter Clark, Britain’s leading urban historian, notes in a characteristically fact-packed but thoughtful study, that most English of institutions was going strong long before then.

Tissue Wars: HIV and Aids

Roy Porter, 2 March 2000

More than a thousand pages long and the fruit of a decade’s work, The River amounts to something more than the attempt to track down the source of Aids. It is, in fact, three books rolled into one. The investigation advertised by the title is, of course, of the highest significance. It was in 1981 that attention was first drawn to the condition, as evidence mounted that gays in New York and California were falling victim to illnesses like pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and Kaposi’s sarcoma, rarely seen in otherwise healthy young people. A number of theories were proposed as to its origins, some unscientific (‘the wrath of God’), and others (homosexuality or Haitians) generally discredited once the human immunodeficiency virus had been isolated.‘

Published two hundred years ago this year, An Essay on the Principle of Population made the Rev. Thomas Robert malthus into the man of the moment. Malthus’s principle – that population inevitably outruns food resources – was heralded by some as the decisive scientific refutation of the mad perfectibilist schemes of the French Revolutionaries and their English confrères like William Godwin, and damned by others as hardheartedness incarnate. Marie Antoinette had just told the poor to go and eat cake: Malthus trumped her, apparently sentencing them to death by starvation – and all on the strength of the ‘facts’. No wonder Thomas Love Peacock satirised him in Melincourt as ‘Mr Fax’, although we owe the ultimate put-down to William Cobbett: ‘I call you Parson.’’‘

It is easy to conjure up landscapes of the past peopled by holy fools, and to suppose that medieval times were full of simpleton jesters, and boy bishops leading rites of inversion and showing how all sinners were equal in God’s eyes. It is equally easy to imagine a subsequent darkening of the plain – the old Christian reverence for simplicity yielding to the carceral project of modernity, Foucault’s great confinement.’

I ain’t a child

Roy Porter, 5 September 1996

Anna Davin has risen admirably to the challenges facing the historian of working-class life in London. Dealing with the documents is daunting enough. To begin with, there are 17 volumes of Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London, published between 1889 and 1903. For all its faults it is the first survey of outcast London that can be described as social science and it remains a unique quarry of ‘statistics of poverty’, recording how much (or little) Whitechapel widows got paid for glueing a gross of matchboxes or how they fed a family of 14 on a few coppers a day. There is also the more personal testimony, essential for any historian concerned to capture ‘experience’ but hard to handle: nostalgic autobiographies like Charlie Chaplin’s and novels like Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets (1894) or Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto (1892). These and a multitude of other sources, especially school records, have been meticulously sifted by Davin. Associated from its conception with the History Workshop Journal, she is a fine oral historian; her tapes go back to the Seventies – one of her interviewees was born in 1882.’

Oh, My Aching Back

Roy Porter, 2 November 1995

From the Church Fathers, through St Ignatius Loyola and Pascal to the Marquis de Sade, the problem of pain was agonisingly debated, not least because mortification was holiness and judicial torture the authorised engine of truth. But nowadays, pain, in either its medical or its metaphysical aspects, is oddly little discussed given the ubiquitous misery it causes.

Give Pot a Chance

Roy Porter, 8 June 1995

The solution to today’s cannabis problem, this book concludes, is to legalise it ‘for all uses’ and remove it ‘entirely from the medical and criminal control systems’. The authors, respectively a professor of psychiatry and a lecturer in law at Harvard Medical School, believe legalisation is desirable for all the reasons now widely adduced in the UK, not least by some senior police officers and by last year’s Lib Dem Party Conference: that the criminalisation of cannabis is absurd given the promotion of tobacco and alcohol; that it creates black markets, police corruption and crime; that the law against it is impossible to enforce, and, manifestly lacking the endorsement of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens – there may be twelve million users in the USA – compromises respect for the law and the police. Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar’s argument, however, is that marijuana should be legalised because of its medicinal properties. Its benefits as a general ‘feel-good’ drug, preferable to certain anti depressants and tranquillisers manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry, have been widely touted by legalisation groups: Grinspoon and Bakalar seek to publicise its more specific therapeutic applications.’

Before Foucault

Roy Porter, 25 January 1990

When is a disease not a disease? No quibbling academic riddle this, but a problem increasingly pressing upon medical practice and ethics alike. So many questions crowd in. Is it valid to talk of a person being ill without a disease, or having a disease without being sick? When and how do we draw dividing-lines between conditions, disabilities and abnormalities, on the one hand, and diseases, on the other? This can be a crucial issue when it comes to final authority in deciding the fate of severely-malformed babies. If, say, Down’s Syndrome is a disease, then, arguably, it’s the doctor’s dilemma; if not, not.

Confounding Malthus

Roy Porter, 21 December 1989

Early in the 18th century, the populariser of Newton and fashionable physician George Cheyne advanced his own medical ‘inverse square law’: the health of nations varied in inverse ratio to the wealth of nations. The greater the progress this country had made – in material goods, urbanisation, leisure and civility – the greater the visitations of sickness upon her people. An entirely new name was needed for this phenomenon: the ‘English Malady’ described a chronic degenerative nervous disorder, commonly culminating in suicide. Civilisation, Cheyne contended, had always been the cradle of sickness. Egypt and Greece had often been praised for inventing medicine, but such credit was out of court. Earlier societies had had no need of doctors, for they had suffered little disease. It was sedentary cultural centres and the civilising process itself which had bred sickness.’

Body History

Roy Porter, 31 August 1989

Suddenly, everyone seems to be writing about the body, and eyebrows are being raised. ‘What sort of history is the history of the body?’ asks Peter Biller in a recent review, voicing scepticism about the genre itself: even ‘a moderate example of body history’, he concludes, ‘can principally incarnate a certain blindness towards the past.’ Do academics feel similarly hesitant about studying more cerebral things – ideas, for example? Cold-water treatment of this kind merely proves the point historians of the body are making. We have lived too long within our Platonic, Pauline and Cartesian prejudices; we value the mind (no complaint about that), but deny the flesh, so that we no longer even entertain its history.’

Mix ’n’ match

Roy Porter, 19 January 1989

The more people feel that modern medicine has let them down, or at least has failed to live up to its own exalted expectations, the more alluring the prospect of looking to China as an alternative source of medical theory and practice. After all, China offers one of the very few medical traditions which continue to hold their own in the face of the hegemony of the Western medical model. Its attractions to anyone with a mind for alternative medicine are many and powerful. It is holistic through and through, and oriented upon health no less than disease. The whole body is more than the sum of its chemistry or mechanics, and so sickness is not to be understood in terms of the pathology of isolated organs considered as cogs in a machine, but rather as the disfunction of a normally harmonious, complete living entity. Hence healing requires the care of body and mind, indeed a grasp of the sway of emotion and of the dynamic interplay of the whole person with the wider sociophysical environment.

Sex in the head

Roy Porter, 7 July 1988

How are we to read the history of sexuality? In the Introduction volume to his great multi-volume essay in critical-revisionism, Michel Foucault set out to demystify the discourse which has informed post-Victorian accounts about sex, whether therapeutic (Reich), scholarly (Bloch) or polemical (Marcuse). Such histories were traditionally cast in a progressive, Whiggish, emancipatory framework, presupposing a dialectics of drives, repression and liberation. Sex was self-evidently a good thing, nature’s path to pleasure, individual fulfilment and biological fitness. But, such vulgar Freudian histories contended, Western civilisation – indeed, civilisation per se – had chosen to repress it. Why? To some extent, from fear, ignorance and pseudo-science. To a large degree, thanks to the ‘thou shalt not-ism’ of Christianity, for which carnality was the root of all evil. Between them, pastoral theology and canon law had judged sex sinful between almost all people in almost all postures on almost all occasions. And not least, according to Marxists, sexual repression had been demanded by the labour economy of capitalism. Maximising work had entailed minimising sex; the social control of the proletariat, of women, and of children, first required their sexual control. Eros had thus been comprehensively denied. Such histories crusaded for sexual enlightenment to end this tyranny. For Sixties Marxo-Freudians, sexual revolution and political revolution would go hand in hand.’

Is there a health crisis?

Roy Porter, 19 May 1988

Are we, or are we not, in the throes of a health crisis? Read some of what is said, and it seems as though our civilisation is about to collapse in an Aids-related catastrophe, at the very moment when the National Health Service is itself suffering Government-administered euthanasia. Listen to others, and all this is made out to he so much cant, cynically orchestrated by interested parties: on the one hand, to bash the gays; on the other, to aggrandise the medical profession still further.

Esprit de Corps

Roy Porter, 21 January 1988

Can any profession be more altruistic and noble than medicine? It comes as rather a scandalous suggestion that doctors may themselves be sick. Not just overworked and exhausted, and statistically liable to alcoholism, drug-dependence and suicide: but actually deficient in their psychological make-up. This shocking possibility has recently been floated by Glin Bennet, who argues that medicine holds special attractions for those suffering from flawed personalities. In The Wound and the Doctor, Bennet claims that for many such people, medicine satisfies an immature hankering to play the big guy, basking in glory, the apparent self-sacrifices involved assuaging feelings of guilt and providing ego-defence. The heroics of the operating-theatre or the ‘fire brigade’ drama of the emergency call gratify Boy’s Own Paper cravings for adventure, and above all the authority structures of this most hierarchical of professions confer power: ‘Scalpel, nurse.’ Men who cannot cope with the give-and-take of normal human relations lord it over the patient unconscious on the operating-table. Within this psycho-pathology of medicine, anatomists and surgeons are of course the most suspicious types, the profession’s Rambos. In which other occupations is sticking a knife in someone’s back the very acme of the enterprise?

Disease and the Marketplace

Roy Porter, 26 November 1987

In mid-August 1892, Hamburg was basking in a heatwave. Workers splashed around in the River Elbe, which reached an almost unprecedented 70 °F. Then people started to go down with intestinal pains, spasms, vomiting, diarrhoea. Most of them died. The death rate climbed. At the back of their minds the city’s medical officers and doctors nursed a dark fear that it was cholera: but surely that was impossible. Having spread from India and ravaged Europe in a series of terrifying epidemics from the 1830s onwards, cholera had mercifully receded, and by 1870 was but a bogey of the bad old days. How could proud and prosperous Hamburg, with its modern system of piped water and sanitation, become the hotbed of an Asiatic disease? A cholera epidemic was unthinkable: it would entail isolation, quarantine, a trade embargo, financial ruin. The doctors talked about isolated instances of vomiting, and uttered soothing noises: why create a panic? Panic would not only produce a run on the exchange but would actually render people more susceptible to the disease – whatever it was. But the number of the cases rose from tens to hundreds, and then turned to thousands. Within six weeks, ten thousand Hamburgers had died of what nobody could any longer deny was cholera. The City had pursued its policy of silence and inactivity up to the very last moment, afraid to admit the truth, petrified of having to spend money. If its Senate had required the boiling of drinking water at an early stage, as bacteriologists recommended, thousands would have been spared. But the City was proud of its water. And in any case, its medical authorities did not believe in the bacteriological doctrine that water-borne bacilli were to blame – they didn’t even believe such bacilli existed.’

Signor Cock

Roy Porter, 25 June 1987

You only have to read the torrent of filthy abuse pouring out of this diatribe against sex and men to see that Andrea Dworkin is a sick lady. It’s one long hysterical denunciation of sexual intercourse as really bad news for women. The way she rants on is of course the give-away symptom of sexual frustration. Clearly she can’t be getting enough of it – not surprising for someone overweight and ugly like her! Either that, or she is one of the seven in ten women (evidence: Hite Report) who can’t regularly make it to orgasm with a man. Typically of such women, her frustration has turned her into a man-hater. It’s awful being a man in today’s world. It means being bombarded with androcidal aggression from women who love to hate us.’

Almighty Gould

Roy Porter, 23 April 1987

Years ago Sir John Plumb declared: ‘The past is dead.’ He didn’t add: ‘long live history.’ But try as historians will to put the past behind them, others are always resurrecting it and abusing it for their own purposes. Take the mindless mouthings of ‘Victorian values’, the ‘good’ (or the ‘bad’) old days, the Dunkirk spirit, the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald – in all such sloganising, the ghosts of the past are conjured up to clinch arguments about the present. And in no field, paradoxically, is this ancestral magic so pervasive as in science – above all, in myth-making introductions to scientific textbooks. There the ritual incantation of deities and devils – with Galileo, Newton, Darwin worshipped on the one side, and Descartes, Lamarck, Lysenko anathematised on the other – provides exemplars to imitate and moral lessons to avoid. Each science, of course, boasts its own dramatis personae for the performance of these hagiographical and exorcistic rituals. Amongst geologists, the villain-in-chief, endlessly execrated, is the Rev. Thomas Burnet. Leading the heroes home are James Hutton and Sir Charles Lyell.’

Prinney, Boney, Boot

Roy Porter, 20 March 1986

Cherished among the bastions of our ‘invisible constitution’ is the political cartoon, the people’s daily retort to ministerial humbug and opposition hypocrisy. If the pen is mightier than the sword, the sharpest pen is surely the cartoonist’s: one palpable hit from him will do more than months of routine pounding from lumbering leader-writers. This may be common knowledge. But is it true? After all, media experts of every hue – and not just those who see the press as the poodle of the powerful – have long been questioning the radical potential of mass culture. Many enjoin scepticism towards all assumptions about the ‘influence’ of print (and, by extension, ‘prints’) upon people’s minds. Others stress how the mass reproduction of images produces apathy, the anaesthesia of familiarity. Institutionalise criticism, and you draw its sting.’

A loaf here, a fish there

Roy Porter, 15 November 1984

Not the least of the debts we owe to the late Michel Foucault is that he directed our attention to the revolutions which transformed the life sciences around the dawn of the 19th century. On the one hand, traditional discourse about animals and plants, centred on such criteria as visible character and structure and geared to classification within the Great Chain of Being, was replaced by a science of form and organisation, concentrating on function and the internal subordination of parts, and directed to the problem of life itself. Or, as he put it in Les Mots et les Choses, natural history yielded to biology. The key figure here was that ‘Napoléon de l’intelligence’, Georges Cuvier. On the other hand, Foucault traced in La Naissance de la Clinique the demise of traditional theories of health and disease. These had been centred on holistic notions of the sick person’s constitution, and had been dependent upon the patient’s own expression of his symptoms. Foucault showed how these practices were replaced by a new interventionist medicine, whose entry point was the lesion, whose prize techniques were morbid anatomy and pathological physiology, and whose site was the clinic. In that reorientation, pride of place went to the Paris Hospital and the French school of medical science.

Viva la joia

Roy Porter, 22 December 1983

What would Montaigne have made of being deconstructed? Would that gentle ironist, that pricker of presumption and pedantry, have been amused, or saddened, to find himself the totem and target of post-structuralist theoretical rigour? That is his fate in the latest Yale French Studies tome. Led by the editor, Gérard Defaux, the authors flick mainstream Montaigne scholarship aside with impatient condescension. ‘The naivety and weakness of the biographical type of criticism’, we are told, is ‘naturally to be shunned’. ‘The obsession with the referent’ is ‘sterile’ yet ‘dangerously dominant’ – sterile yet diseased, for its picture of a living Montaigne, with mind and message, aims and achievements, is fetishistic, ‘purely fictional’. Thus the contributors celebrate a ritual anathema against the ‘hors-texte’. Having ‘killed the concept of author’ (vestige of ‘a bygone age’ of scholarship), all we need to keep in mind is simply ‘the abstraction Montaigne’ – as Jules Brody insists, establishing the purity of his credentials: ‘I use the proper name Montaigne … in the limited sense of the person who put the words on the page.’–

England’s Ideology

Roy Porter, 5 August 1982

If old sea-dog Thomas Coram’s mission had been to found the most English, the most 18th-century of charities, he could not have done better than launch the Foundling Hospital – which he did, its doors receiving its first infant in 1741. Till then, England – unlike other countries – had had no hospice designed for abandoned babies, though such an idea had been floated in a characteristic gesture of lay piety by Addison in the Guardian. Unlike Continental refuges for orphans and bastards, the Foundling Hospital was run neither by the state, to produce well-drilled army recruits, nor by the Church, eager to baptise young souls. Embodying the spirit of mercantile private enterprise, it was constituted on joint-stock principles, headed by a governing board which combined landed and commercial wealth with a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors, several of them Masons. In time, royalty did not blush to patronise the charity, though bishop governors were notably few, and women were absent. The Hospital was, in Ruth McClure’s words, the pioneer case of ‘incorporated associative benevolence’, with the aim, as Joseph Massie put it, that ‘Charity, Humanity, Patriotism and Economy be made to go hand in hand’. Popean, if not quite Mandevillian, in their humanitarianism, the benefactors knew that self-love and social were the same. As Thomas Coram himself computed the matter of charity towards the young, ‘a pound of malaga Raisins which costs 3d fills them with above 5 pounds worth of Love for me.’


Roy Porter, 4 March 1982

‘Cowper came to me and said: “O that I were insane always. I will never rest. Can you not make me truly insane? … You retain health and yet are as mad as any of us all – mad as a refuge from unbelief – Bacon, Newton and Locke.’ ” Thus William Blake’s memo of a ghostly visitation from William Cowper. But how aghast Cowper would have been at the words put into his mouth! Blake revelled in his own prophetic ravings, soaring free from the mind-forged manacles of the rationalist trinity into the aether of mysticism and insight. For he, like every Romantic, knew that the lunatic and the poet – not to mention the lover – were of imagination all compact – the doctrine which the Augustans, with their cartography of Bedlam and Parnassus, had darkly feared. In Cowper’s eyes – as his early writings amply show – lunacy was not the foster-mother of literature. He had learnt this at first hand: from his youth he had been a chronic depressive, suffering four extended periods of breakdown. The last bout ended with his death, and most of them involved suicide attempts. The first crisis, in 1763 – the only one which led to confinement and medical therapy – is the subject of a unique autobiographical account, printed here from a previously unpublished version. The second, in 1773, was perhaps triggered by Cowper’s inability to go through with a proposed marriage to Mrs Unwin. The third, in 1787, followed from the death of his closest male friend, her son William Unwin, and the last set in during the 1790s when Cowper, in his sixties, became increasingly overwhelmed by fears of dying. All these intervals of derangement spelt only agony and terror for Cowper, a loathing of existence, a fear of extinction. At times he accused his unfailingly loyal friends of plotting and poisoning. His own memories of these collapses speak, not of Blakean release, but of the drowning of the soul. Madness was not a song of innocence, nor did it give ‘refuge from unbelief’.

English Marxists in dispute

Roy Porter, 17 July 1980

The Englishness of English historians lies in their eclecticism. Few would admit to being unswerving Marxists, Freudians, Structuralists, Cliometricians, Namierites, or even Whigs. Most believe that blooms come best in mixed bunches. They may allow themselves some guarded asides on the psychology of chiliasm, but would reject Norman Cohn’s full-frontal psychopathology of antisemitism. They probably accept, as true for that decade, Sir Lewis Namier’s vision of the politics of the 1760s as dominated by clique and pique rather than by constitutional principle, but would hesitate about his overarching behavioural conservatism. Call this open-mindedness, pussy-footing or Vicar of Bravery, it has been saluted as part of the historian’s craft by many different figures from Karl Popper to Arthur Marwick.

Roy Porter writes: Mindless bigotry is indeed the issue. But who is the mindless bigot? The author whose book is full of statements like ‘In the world of real life … men use the penis to deliver death to women … The women are raped as adults or as children; prostituted; fucked, then murdered; murdered then fucked,’ and whose concluding sentence states that men ‘are supposed...

This book opens with a resounding question: ‘Who are we?’ The many pages that follow, highly entertaining and richly informed as they are, never directly answer this question....

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A central tenet of the current Eurosceptic case resides in the contrast between English pragmatists, blessed with an instinctive distrust of the systems concocted by philosophers, and dreamy...

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Even Immortality: Medicomania

Thomas Laqueur, 29 July 1999

No one should take comfort from the title of Roy Porter’s shaggy masterpiece of a history of medicine. ‘The Greatest Benefit to Mankind’ – the phrase is Dr Johnson’s...

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Ideally, one should be at the peak of fitness before starting to break the heads of Scots barbarians. The Emperor Severus, who undertook this necessary task in AD 208, suffered from gout. It is...

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Simply Doing It

Thomas Laqueur, 22 February 1996

The Facts of Life is symptomatic of the tensions to be found in its sources: it is an elusive book, offering vistas of liberation and oppression. In all but their barest outline the facts of life...

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Porter for Leader

Jenny Diski, 8 December 1994

Rose was my next-door-neighbour-but-one when I lived in the furthermost reaches of Camden – three steps and one foot off the pavement and I was alienated in Islington. Rose was in her...

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Identity Parade

Linda Colley, 25 February 1993

‘I will never, come hell or high water, let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe.’ John Major’s ringing assurance to last year’s Conservative Party...

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Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk, 24 September 1992

Among various worries I have about the degree subject English, the most serious is the decline (to near vanishing point in many universities) of historical language study. One accepts, of course,...

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Something an academic might experience

Michael Neve, 26 September 1991

A small news item with a large history behind it: John Sylvester, an inhabitant of Lancashire, was released last month from a life spent in mental hospitals and institutions, aged 81. He had been...

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Heroic Irrigations

E.S. Turner, 6 December 1990

In Europe the health-seeker may still go barefoot in dew-treading meadows, as enjoined by Father Kneipp, or sniff the gentle mist from rows of brine-soaked hedges, as at Bad Kreuznach, or wallow...

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Pain and Hunger

Tom Shippey, 7 December 1989

What would you do if you had toothache, in a world of pre-modern dentistry? Those of us who have suffered a weekend of it can probably imagine (in the end) getting a friend to pull the tooth out...

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Downward Mobility

Linda Colley, 4 May 1989

We live in reactionary times. One indication of this is the growing trend among both politicians and academics to prescribe what historical study should be: how it should be organised and...

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Peter Swaab, 20 April 1989

Wordsworth’s poetry has been able to animate critical writing, relevantly, from several different points of view. Narratologists have discussed the gaps in his storytelling and the...

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Andrew Scull, 29 September 1988

For nearly two centuries now, the treatment of the mad in Georgian England has been almost uniformly portrayed in the darkest hues. Nineteenth-century lunacy reformers pictured the preceding age...

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Madness and Method

Mark Philp, 3 April 1986

Traditional histories of psychiatry, and those which preface the standard medical textbooks on the subject, are good examples of Whiggish historical writing. The dark ages for madness last until...

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John Brewer, 5 August 1982

British social history, for so long in protracted adolescence, seems finally to have come of age. The work of two generations of researchers, led by such avatars as Alan Everitt, Peter Laslett,...

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Rosalind Mitchison, 21 January 1982

Witchcraft can be seen as an area of criminal law, a manifestation of religious belief or secular power, a sign of social stress, a display of sexual prejudice and fear, a temporary and...

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