Seminar review: ‘Franciscan Women as Architects of the ‘Heavenly Courts’ in Bohemia and the Polish Duchies, c.1234–1320’ by Dr. Kirsty Day

Written by Candice Maharaj


On 31 October 2017, Dr. Kirsty Day, a teaching Fellow in Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh, conducted a seminar on her current work – Franciscan Women as Architects of the ‘Heavenly Courts’ in Bohemia and the Polish Duchies, c.1234–1320. Dr. Day’s research on this topic explores the close relationships between Franciscan nuns and the nobility of Bohemia and the Polish duchies – mainly how and why those relationships developed. The presentation also focused heavily on the practice of gift-giving by wealthy donors to an order that believed in rejecting material wealth and how this contradiction was dealt with.


    In her work Dr Day seeks to answer two key questions: how the Franciscan and royal ideals came together so productively, and why women and central European institutions are either left out of the scholarship altogether or treated as only marginal parts of the order’s history. She sought to write a history of an aspect of the order that did not start with Saint Francis. Her aim is to look at how thirteenth-century social models and the turbulent spiritual climate of the time nurtured a new form of devotional life centred on the cult of the Franciscan saints.


    Dr. Day began with a brief description of the Franciscan order. The order was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in the early-thirteenth century and dedicated to the idea of absolute poverty. The male branch of the order, the Friars Minor, was established around 1220. The female branch was founded by Saint Clare of Assisi, a devoted follower of Saint Francis. Although they adhered to the same practices and beliefs as the male Franciscans, these nuns faced a number of difficulties. Historical narratives have viewed the women as not playing an active role in the order and as merely an offshoot of the male branch. Saint Clare was forced to struggle with the Church for decades to establish a Franciscan law for women in order to realise Francis’ vision of absolute poverty while resisting the Church’s attempts to impose other laws on them which did not conform to strict Franciscan beliefs.


    In the thirteenth century, a number of Franciscan communities were established with the help of wealthy donors, usually royal women. Documents from this time show donations and gifts – usually from landed property – to the communities. It was common at this time for people with excess property to give gifts to the clergy or the poor in exchange for intercessory prayers that were believed to help the soul whilst in Purgatory. This was especially important for the members of noble and royal families as they had the most wealth and thus were most in need of salvation. The Franciscans knew the dangers facing the souls of the wealthy and acknowledged that it was necessary to accept their gifts in order to help speed up their time spent in Purgatory. Gifts also served to sustain the clergy. As they could not own any property themselves, they relied on these donations to survive. Dr. Day suggests that this ‘gift theory’ is a useful way of reconciling the issue of an ascetic order accepting gifts from the richest members of society.


    Additionally, there is evidence that donors were mindful of the oath of poverty that the nuns had undertaken. This concern was most notably demonstrated by Anna of Silesia who gave many gifts to the nuns in Wrocław. In 1259, Pope Alexander IV issued a Papal Bull which prevented the nuns from removing or selling certain ornaments since they were to be preserved in memory of the duchess. In 1263, Pope Urban IV issued a Bull specifying that the nuns were only to use certain property at a time of great need. Anna knew that if her gifts caused the nuns to violate their oaths of poverty, they would become ineffective and she would receive no spiritual benefit. However, her concern also demonstrated her knowledge of, and respect for, the nuns’ way of life and that she had built a relationship with them.


    Dr. Day went on to explore why it tended to be women, rather than men, who were involved in promoting Franciscan virtues in royal courts and how this connected to the shifting climate of the Church. In doing so, she sought to determine what was distinctive about particular heavenly courts in this time period and region. During the thirteenth century, royal courts became ‘semi-monastic’ spaces. This was in part due to a programme associated with the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which sought to establish a community of devout believers – from both the laity and the clergy – to combat the sins that threatened to destabilise society. The Council placed a lot of responsibility on the laity for their own souls. This encouraged the laity to engage more heavily in religious practices which led to the formation of the ‘heavenly courts’. These courts consisted of religious noble women and nuns and existed within – and heavily contrasted with – the ‘earthly courts’ of the men. A strong culture of penance emerged with women undertaking ascetic penances of varying levels of severity – such as starvation and ‘mortification of the flesh’ – to repent for their sins. This could have been due to the concept of holy bloodlines (relation to a religious figure adding credibility to a noble family’s holiness and right to rule), which pressured women to regulate their behaviour so as not to ‘be the rotten fruit on the family tree’ and the fact that women were seen as the ideal models of submissiveness and used as an example for how the laity should interact with the clergy.


    Dr. Day also discussed the blending of royal status and religious practice. Royal women who became nuns could not totally escape their royal identities; their role within the heavenly courts was to show that they were rejecting their wealth in favour of spirituality and submissiveness to the Church. Their royal identities allowed them to retain some level of influence – if only as prominent examples to others. Royal women also appeared to influence each other, especially when it came to penance, though it is not clear to what extent this is true as they tended to be enclosed. However, there is evidence that their family members and other female members of the court had access to them, and the women themselves visited other communities (after asking the Pope for permission). This evidence shows an infrastructure through which these women combined royal status and strict penance.


    In conclusion, Dr Day showed how the contradiction of ‘rich donor, poor order’ can be reconciled and proved the importance of Franciscan women in central European ‘heavenly courts’ and their connection to the shifting religious climates of the time. The presentation was interesting, informative and introduced me to an aspect of history that I had not previously considered, giving me the opportunity to learn something new. Overall, it was enjoyable and definitely encouraged me to look out for her work in the future.

A review of ‘The Whiskey Rebellion: Trump: One Year On’, a live podcast recording

Written by Daniel Sharp



    If you have never listened to The Whiskey Rebellion I can highly recommend it. Hosted by Dr David Silkenat and Professor Frank Cogliano of the University of Edinburgh – specialists in nineteenth and eighteenth-century American history respectively – it is a podcast which tries to put current developments in the Trump administration into historical context.

    So, on 7 November 2017, almost a year to the day Donald Trump won the presidency, they hosted a live podcast recording looking back at a year of Trump. In David Hume Tower, a small room was packed to the fullest, with some people having to stand or sit on the floor (luckily, I got a seat). David and Frank entered to rapturous applause (requested by them for a dramatic entry, of course). And so, sitting down with a tumbler of whiskey each, they started with a discussion on what events of the Trump administration have surprised them most, before moving on to a question and answer session with the audience.

     Sprinkled throughout with jokes – mostly focusing on the relevance of David and Frank’s respective eras of specialisation in the current climate – and with the genial yet informative hosting any listener to the podcast knows and loves, it was a great evening, however unsavoury the topic of discussion. As an indication of this, Frank at one point described the election event last year at Teviot as turning from a party into a wake as the realisation of who had won seeped into the minds of those present.

    Reflecting on what surprised him most Frank discussed the sheer incompetence of the administration and the apparently great degree of Russian interference in the election. Optimistically, he pointed out that the Constitution has thus far done its job – Trump has been checked on the ‘Muslim ban’ by the courts for example – though he noted that norms have been relentlessly trampled upon.  

    David noted the unprecedented fact that, while candidates usually become more ‘presidential’ upon taking office, Trump is exactly the same person we saw on the campaign trail, that is to say, vulgar and stupid. David noted with glee that nineteenth century history has come to the fore in the past year, with Trump’s fetishizing of Andrew Jackson and his apparent ignorance of who Frederick Douglass was during Black History Month; not to mention the debates over Civil War monuments, notably in Charlottesville, Virginia.

    What came across as most shocking was the unprecedented nature of the Trump regime. Almost everything he has done has been surprising or lacking in historical mirroring. Thus, as David and Frank noted, the future is opaque when it comes to this President in particular.

    A question and answer session with the audience followed, and many illuminating points were raised. To take just one here, someone asked what history lesson David and Frank would teach Trump. David said he would tell Trump about Abraham Lincoln’s open and flexible mind, whose ability to react to evidence and change his mind could benefit Trump. Ominously, Frank thought the President should know more about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s management of the debacle, as Trump, while incompetent domestically, has great power internationally, and should he handle a major crisis wrongly, many lives could be lost due to his failings.

    The full recording of the event is available as a podcast on The Whiskey Rebellion’s pages. Do listen, as lots more than I have space to go into here was discussed. It was a very interesting event, and again I recommend listening to the podcast. For now, though, I shall sign off in the style of Frank and David: with a cheers to the reader (you shall just have to imagine the clink of whiskey glasses, however).

Pondering family, community and history in Sri Lanka

Written by Mia Partridge


In December 2016, my family and I finally went on a trip that we had been planning for years. We visited Sri Lanka, the beautiful country where my father was born and spent the first years of his life. His father had moved from England to Sri Lanka to manage a tea plantation, and his mother’s family had been part of the Dutch colonial community since 1747.


Whilst in Sri Lanka, we met my father’s second cousin, who lives there with his family. We spoke to Dominic Sansoni a great deal about our mutual relations and his amazing project, the Ceylon Memory Project. This is an online photographic archive of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which consists of family albums dating from 1972. Hearing about this project, paired with my father’s nostalgia as we travelled around the country where he was born, made me question how I see myself and my ‘community’.


Considering that my family and the people in my life can be classed as my community, I was struck by the question: how do ancestors fit into this? My family, from 1747 right up until my father, have lived in Sri Lanka. Yet, I hardly know anything about the place, nor do I feel any particularly strong connection to it. Of course, I was mesmerised by the country itself, the awe-inspiring landscape and nature, the friendly and welcoming attitude of the people, the delicious food – but I did not feel any deep stirring in my soul or any feeling of belonging or of being at home. Yes, this is understandable as I had never been there before, but I cannot help but feel a little disappointed. For hundreds of years, half of my family have lived diverse and dynamic lives in Sri Lanka, and here I am, in 2017, 330 years later, and I know nothing about them or the country they called home.


Tracking family history has certainly enjoyed a recent surge of popularity since archives and records have become so readily available online. Recently, I was on a train journey and a fellow passenger gave me a lecture for half an hour about the importance of learning about one’s family history – indeed he had a good point; do we not all have a duty to learn about those to whom we owe our existence? Many people today are afraid of being forgotten after death, and although things will be very different for us because of the internet and social media, the fear of temporariness has surely always been ingrained in human nature. Perhaps this extends to my ancestors – I am sure this is why Dominic has put together his archive, before all the memories and photographs turn to dust. As humans, we are plagued with a key existential question: are we just random individuals passing through time and space? This makes us question how far our communities matter. Do they only last a generation or so? Can we be a part of them and not even know it?


Looking through the Ceylon Memory Project online, I stumbled across a few photos of relatives I had only ever heard about. As I scarily recognise some physical resemblance, I wonder in what other ways we may be similar. Perhaps my sense of humour is similar to that of my great grandfather’s? Perhaps I have the same twinkle in my eye that I can see so clearly displayed in a photo of my great grandmother taken in 1947? Surely, I have inherited aspects from countless individuals in the past. They have shaped me in ways that I cannot ever know, yet that does not belittle their significance. Equally, although at this point in my life, I do not know as much about my family history in Sri Lanka as I would like, that does not mean that it is not a huge part of who I am. It seems that I need to extend my narrow sense of community that is stuck in the present and expressed through social media – beyond what is immediately available and known to me – and instead enjoy discovering that I am part of a far bigger and more personal community that spans time and space.

Research Seminar review: Dr. Taylor Sherman’s ‘Does a democracy need elections? Jayaprakash Narayan and democratic doubt in 1950s-60s India’

Written by Carissa Chew


‘It is not only in the totalitarian countries that the ‘rape of the masses’ happens. The basic difference is that in a democracy there is a competition between the violators while there is no competition in totalitarianism.’ (Jayaprakash Narayan, ‘A Plea for the Reconstruction of the Indian Polity’, 1959).

It is this critique of Indian democracy, expressed by political activist Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) in the 1950s and 1960s, which is the subject of Dr. Taylor C. Sherman’s latest research. In her discussion of JP’s call for the abolition of democracy in India, Sherman examines more broadly the origins and development of the thoughtful and eminent – although frequently overlooked – criticism of Nehruvian parliamentary democracy that arose within five years of India’s first post-independence elections. Sherman’s study demands a revision of the historiographical consensus that Jawaharlal Nehru’s democratic regime was a success until it was compromised in the 1970s, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi.

On Monday 29 January 2018, Dr. Sherman, from LSE’s department of International History, shared her research into the debates surrounding anti-democratic thought in Nehru’s India, in a talk that was titled ‘Does a democracy need elections? Jayaprakash Narayan and democratic doubt in 1950s-60s India’. This research seminar was part of a colloquium that was organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History.

Sherman began by identifying the limitations of existing studies on Nehruvian democracy, the majority of which have deemed it a ‘success’. Scholars on the subject, in Sherman’s opinion, have been either too ‘long-term’ or too ‘short-term’ in their approach. Moreover, little attention has been paid to the question of how Indians themselves viewed democracy. In an attempt to address this gap in the historiography, Sherman presented a detailed study of political activist JP’s views, with a particular focus on his belief that elections were not a prerequisite for democracy.

Born in 1902, JP led an active but inconsistent political life until his death in 1979. In his early political career, JP identified as a Marxist and joined the Indian National Congress in 1929. He played a prominent role as an independence activist, gaining particular recognition in the Quit India campaign. Soon after independence, however, in 1948, JP joined a group of Congress Socialists who broke away from the Congress Party. This group went on to form the Praja Socialist Party, which constituted the main political opposition to Congress in the early years of independence.

In 1954, JP announced his abandonment of party politics, and instead concentrated his efforts on village work and the land-redistribution scheme known as the Bhoodan movement. This campaign, led by Vinoba Bhave, emerged in the 1950s as an attempt to combat rural poverty in India. Bhoodan activists encouraged wealthy landowning families to gift them some of their lands, which they would then redistribute to the landless poor (although with limited success).

From the late 1950s through to the 1970s, JP’s attention returned to political matters; but his time working with Bhave resulted in a change in his political stance. JP had initially supported the multi-party system and had called for a strong, but singular, opposition. By the late 1950s, however, JP had come to view parliamentary democracy as a deeply flawed system that needed replacing. JP pondered whether it was a mistake to always imagine that in a democracy there must always be a ruling party and an opposition. Until a suitable alternative could be decided, however, JP wished democracy its success and urged people to continue casting their ballots; in JP’s view, a one-party system would be a far worse tragedy for India.

In the 1970s, JP re-emerged as a prominent critic of Indira Gandhi’s regime. Sherman identifies that JP is intellectually and politically difficult to pigeonhole, remarking that his political life played out in a zigzagged path. It is the multi-part critique of democracy, which he most virulently expressed in the years 1957-61, however, upon which Sherman’s research focuses. In the next part of her talk, Sherman elucidated JP’s political trajectory.

JP’s first contention was that, because of the first-past-the-post system, parliamentary democracy did not equate to the rule of the majority. After all, in the election of 1951, although Congress only won 45 percent of the votes, it formed every single government after 1952. There was a discrepancy between the number of votes received and the number of seats won. JP proposed that people would lose faith in a system that did not reflect their views. Secondly, people did not always vote based on a rational balancing of arguments. Powerful parties, who controlled the media, manipulated elections. Thus, elections represent the interests of the forces that fund the parties – not the people. In JP’s view, therefore, Nehruvian democracy was not taking the country in the right direction. A party’s desire to gain votes inevitably led to lies and demagoguery. The third issue, therefore, was the insidious influence of caste upon the voter. All political parties played lip service to the idea that caste differences should be eradicated and exploited this motif by identifying and mapping out castes who they could win support from.

In JP’s opinion, swaraj (self-rule) meant that the people should actually be governing the country themselves, not merely voting for representatives once every five years. Furthermore, JP proposed that democracy was a foreign system that Indian people ultimately did not and could not understand, drawing upon anecdotal evidence to support this claim. In the 1951 election, when ballots were cast using the symbols of each political party, JP explains that Indians who had been encouraged to vote for the tree (Indian Socialist Party), were later spotted attempting to climb trees and cast their ballots from the treetops. In a letter to Nehru, JP concluded that the present political system had already proved a failure.

Sherman argued that JP is an important political figure because he was not merely an outlier. In fact, after the 1957 elections, there was a lot of concern among intellectuals and politicians about the quality of political leadership; the influence of caste; the function of political parties in elections; the expanding role of money and corruption; and the use of Congress dominance to override court decisions through constitutional amendments. Sherman made clear that JP did not start this debate over the ‘success’ of Indian democracy, he entered one that was already going on. There already existed widespread concerns over the motives of the men who stood for power, and questions of whether Indian people had attained a political consciousness yet. Sherman concluded that these concerns were shared by a variety of people, but JP, with his condemnation of parliamentary democracy as a failure, was the most extreme voice among them.

JP’s frequent correspondence with Nehru in this period is also a point of interest. In a letter addressed to JP, Nehru encouraged him to suggest an alternative to parliamentary democracy. In response, JP produced a pamphlet in which he envisioned a communitarian organisation that was not centred on voting. Drawing upon ancient Indian history, JP proposed that elections were alien to indigenous culture and thus counter-productive to contemporary Indian society. For JP, a primary village community would achieve social and economic order through the pooling of economic goods. He identified a need to rebuild communities and encourage social integration, and his vision ultimately rested on a belief in the individual’s willingness to swap their own self-interests for the interests of the greater good. JP believed that man needed to be put in touch with man, so that they may live together in meaningful relationships. Essentially, he envisioned a recreation of the human community.

In summary, Sherman’s research demonstrates that this period in Indian history, in which Nehru is typically viewed as the personification of a static and stable parliamentary democracy, was, in fact, a period of political experimentation. If we look at the views of Indians themselves throughout the 1950s and 1960s, we see that they were not content with the political structures they had inherited. There was an ongoing discussion regarding the suitability of the Western model of parliamentary democracy for independent India, and by recognising this, we are forced to question the orthodox narrative of Nehru’s democratic ‘success’.

Lecture review: ‘THE WEIGHT OF THE PAST AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE FRANCO-BRITISH ENTENTE, 1919-1924’ by Professor Peter Jackson

Written by Lewis Twiby


On 30 January 2018, Professor Peter Jackson of the University of Glasgow gave a lecture detailing his research on the collapse of the Franco-British Entente following the First World War, including how history became involved with this, and how this influences today’s politics. Professor Jackson began with an overview introducing the topic at hand. The last conflict between Britain and France ended in 1815 and with a few exceptions – such as the 1898 Fashoda Incident – the two states have been somewhat cordial towards each other, even fighting three major conflicts side-by-side. As early as the 1850s there were serious proposals being made to create a tunnel linking Britain to France, which culminated in the Channel Tunnel. However, France and Britain have long harboured animosity towards one another after 1815, as centuries of mutual antagonism have outweighed moments of their friendship. Charles de Gaulle commented that Britain ‘is not inclined to treat us well’, while in the 1920s, in heavily gendered language, the British Foreign Office commented that an alliance with France required ‘one hand on her collar’. Professor Jackson also highlighted this with regards to recent politics. A survey taken on both sides of the Channel in 2004 showed continued mistrust between both states, which has been recently evidenced by the harsh rhetoric used against France during the Brexit debates.

Professor Jackson went on to describe why he believes this is so, and the methodology behind his research. To summarise, politics and international relations are intrinsically linked to memory and history. History shapes memory and the present retrospectively shapes the past. Professor Jackson went on to add that expectations and anxieties about the future in turn shaped – and continue to shape – memory and history. Therefore, the Entente collapsed after long histories of antagonism – in 1920, the future French ambassador Charles Hardy commented that ‘Until a century ago France was England’s natural enemy’, and that Britain should be wary of the Entente, just two years after a major war against Germany.

Professor Jackson then aimed to show memory and history in practice and how they broke apart the Entente. After being invaded by Germany twice in less than fifty years, many French politicians feared a revived Germany. Diplomats reached out to the newly independent states in eastern and central Europe and called for a revival of the ‘Eastern barrier’ against Germany which France had used against the Habsburgs centuries prior. Others, such as Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during the War, surprisingly took up the rhetoric of the French revolutionaries to move the French borders to their ‘natural boundaries’. Foch himself said that the revolutionaries had ‘saved’ the Rhinelanders from feudalism and so were in fact of a ‘Latin character’ in an attempt to justify trying to wrest the Rhineland from Germany. However, France had recognised the importance of Britain and the United States during the War, and Georges Clemenceau had hoped for a ‘Transatlantic Community of Democratic Powers’ (something Professor Jackson argued was absent from the historiography). Here, Professor Jackson identified a parallel with Brexit. Like the British nationalist press, the French press criticised Clemenceau for resting France’s future security on the good-will of a long-term rival.

Professor Jackson then went on to explain the British aspect of the breakdown. Lloyd George would only sign on to a Transatlantic Community if the Americans did too.  This was dashed when the US Congress refused to ratify the League of Nations Charter. Meanwhile, history and memory helped to destroy the Entente with France. Britain used its history of good economic ties with Germany against French fears of German revivalism, and Professor Jackson went on to argue that German weakness created a psychological issue for British politicians. France became the possible future enemy in Europe, with the future Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Curzon, claiming that France had ‘a different national character to ours’. In 1921, a ‘Continental Air Menace Committee’ was made in fear of French air power!

Professor Jackson concluded his lecture with complimentary comments from Edinburgh’s own David Kaufman. Anglo-French historical hostilities and uncertainties over the future let the Entente die. Invaded twice by Germany, France – as it turned out rightly – feared a revanchist Germany and became disillusioned with apparent British abandonment of them. Meanwhile, British distrust of France led to accusations of France of being too narrow-minded; British statesmen argued that France only had to deal with Europe while Britain had to deal with a global empire (ignoring the fact that France too had a global empire). Professor Jackson showed how ingrained history and memory were in international relations of the 1920s, and how it lingers today over contemporary Anglo-French relations during the current Brexit discussions.