History & Classics

Illustration from The Ars Moriendi, published around 1475.

Ars Moriendi

Barbara Newman

5 November 2020

Fifteenth-century tracts instructed the imperilled soul to repent, make a good confession and detach from worldly goods, including wife and children. But the idea of dying as an art points to something even more essential: it is a work to be accomplished, not merely a fate to be endured. Dying can be done well or badly, and the only way to assure salvation is to do it well.

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The Lockhart Plot

Neal Ascherson

5 November 2020

Most​ successful conspiracies are home-cooked – designed and carried out by men and women in their own nation (that leaves aside mere assassinations or terror bombings, which are frequently . . .

Rummaging for Mummies

Christina Riggs

22 October 2020

‘To the Past we must go as a relief from To-day’s harshness,’ the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall wrote in 1923, as illustrated newspapers were bringing Tutankhamun back to life. The First . . .

Through Metternich’s Eyes

Christopher Clark

8 October 2020

In the course of a face-to-face meeting in Dresden in June 1813, Metternich, by now the Austrian foreign minister, reminded Napoleon of the appalling human cost of his wars. ‘In ordinary times,’ . . .

The Rabbit-Breeder’s Hoax

Freya Johnston

8 October 2020

‘How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed!’ the young Jane Austen exclaimed in a marginal note to Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England. Mary Toft, the notorious . . .

The Public Voice of Women

Mary Beard, 20 March 2014

Iwant to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not...

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Watch this man: Niall Ferguson’s Burden

Pankaj Mishra, 3 November 2011

He sounds like the Europeans described by V.S. Naipaul – the grandson of indentured labourers – in A Bend in the River, who ‘wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else’, but also ‘wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves’.

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Diary: Working Methods

Keith Thomas, 10 June 2010

It is possible to take too many notes; the task of sorting, filing and assimilating them can take for ever, so that nothing gets written. The awful warning is Lord Acton, whose enormous learning never resulted in the great work the world expected of him.

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‘What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!’: Springtime for Robespierre

Hilary Mantel, 30 March 2000

For a time, early last year, there was no trace of Robespierre to be found on the street where he lived in the days of his fame. The restaurant called Le Robespierre had closed its doors, and...

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The Sound of Voices Intoning Names

Thomas Laqueur, 5 June 1997

In a happier age, Immanuel Kant identified one of the problems of understanding any of the genocides which come all too easily to mind. It is the problem of the mathematical sublime. The...

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Identity Parade

Linda Colley, 25 February 1993

‘Iwill 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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Goodbye Columbus

Eric Hobsbawm, 9 July 1992

Afew weeks ago, in Mexico, I was asked to sign a protest against Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the original native populations of the American continents and islands, or rather, of their...

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Grim Eminence

Norman Stone, 10 January 1983

The historian Edward Hallett Carr died on 3 November 1982, at the age of 90. He had an oddly laconic obituary in the Times, which missed out a great deal. If he had died ten years before, his...

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War and Peace

A.J.P. Taylor, 2 October 1980

War has been throughout history the curse and inspiration of mankind. The sufferings and destruction that accompany it rival those caused by famine, plague and natural catastrophes. Yet in nearly...

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Ah, how miserable! Three New Oresteias

Emily Wilson, 8 October 2020

Misogynist tropes often involve present­ing women as interesting in precisely the ways that Aeschylus’ female characters are interesting: charming, articulate, danger­ous, deceitful, too...

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The Spanish Habsburg line expired on the death of the hermaphrodite Charles II. Ferdinand I of Austria suffered from hydrocephalus and crippling epilepsy, which prevented him from reigning effectively...

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Sheets of Fire and Leaping Flames

Thomas Jones, 24 September 2020

It must have seemed like the end of the world, and for thousands of people it was. The Younger Pliny was 17 when he witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. He described it many years later...

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The worlds, pre-internet, were so much smaller and dingier and more accidental than those of today’s feminisms. Whether or not you knew about this group or that argument depended on who you...

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How to Read Aloud

Irina Dumitrescu, 10 September 2020

It is easy to overlook how loud pre­-modern education was. Most of our evidence for more than a thousand years of teaching consists of books, and, to the modern way of thinking, books are objects used...

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He​ had two days to prepare. We’d been thinking about it for a year. Four thousand infantry had to be organised. Eight hundred cavalry. Mules, carts, munitions, medical services. A cannon....

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Abroad could be a revelation. Harry Ritchie, from Kirkcaldy, went to Majorca in 1969: ‘Being able to take your clothes off for a holiday, rather than having to put more on: that was wonderful in...

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The more we know about the Vikings, the harder it becomes to say anything certain about them. This applies in particular to the area for which we have most archaeological evidence – burial practices....

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It is the business of the historian to plunge into the deep waters of the past and to bring up vanished lives, but few lives seem to have vanished so completely, in so short a time, as that of the square-rig...

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Harry Rée wanted his British audience to understand that the French men and women who had taken part in the Resistance were not superhuman. ‘What I shall try to get across,’ he told a...

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The Succession fans and trolls who revere Machiavellian shrewdness mistake his cynicism for insensitivity to the world, when in fact it reflected precisely the opposite. His cynicism developed from an...

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Noisomeness: Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas, 16 July 2020

The men and women of the Middle Ages may have had a greater aversion to unpleasant body odours than their descendants do now. If so, this was bad luck, for they were much more likely to encounter them...

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Up a grubby set of stairs, ShangriLa was believed to exist, a perfect afternoon of vodkas in a happy land above the banality of everyday custom and talk. The Colony Room, 41a Dean Street, was actually...

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Short Cuts: In the Bunker

Thomas Jones, 2 July 2020

Elaborate and secret bunkers tend to be linked in the popular imagination (and perhaps in reality too) with evil megalomaniacs: every other Bond villain is to be found lurking in an underground lair –...

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Anyone​ who doubts that Thebes is indeed a ‘forgotten city’ hasn’t spent much time in Greek souvenir shops. In a marketplace shaped by the interests of foreign tourists, there...

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Warrior Librarians: Cultural Pillaging

Neal Ascherson, 2 July 2020

The Monuments Men were interested in stone, bronze and painted canvas; the Acquisition of Foreign Publications was hunting paper. Even so, the boundary between agencies, let alone between agencies and...

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Some streets in Charles Booth’s maps were black at one end and pink at the other; blue and pink – ‘poverty and comfort mixed’ – were fused to produce a purply brown; a blue...

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While Statues Sleep

Thomas Laqueur, 18 June 2020

It is a task of a different order to redeem a history with the dead. If we are to learn from the Germans and produce a better narrative for the United States, then we need to be clear about who constituted...

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