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Steven Oliver

Going Underground

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2024, 19:21

☮️ 🌻 ❤️ 🎵 To help you get into the revolutionary '60s cultural scene - some text and images from a UK underground paper - the International Times (IT). I picked a copy up secondhand (wish I could say I'd been a subscriber, but I was only 3 in '68 😀) and enjoyed dipping in as I went through the 1960s unit of A113.

There was a lot of music content - most were advertisements, but John Peel had a regular column, this week he was extolling the virtues of what must have been Leonard Cohen's first album and the Doors LP 'Waiting for the Sun'.

There was quite a bit of interest in mystical mind expansion...

The personal ads were obviously an earner for the publication - there were a few messages seeking gay male contacts, but most seemed to be aimed at discovering 'adventurous' women - the one from the 'underground photographer' made my skin crawl 😬  


There were articles on students in South Africa, anti-Vietnam War protests in London and this reference to events in France...

I was interested in the following bit of drug 'health information' - it was produced by the charity Release which had been started the year before, providing information and legal support to people with drug problems - it's still going! The macrobiotic restaurant advert made me think about how much food culture has changed - and whether that's another area where 'counterculture' in part became 'mainstream'?


I became more interested in the cover art as my reading about the counterculture and links with the birth of personal computing developed. The 'spirographic' images and the distortions of the 'Vitruvian man' were 'computer generated' as part of the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA in London.


This video footage shows the curator Jasia Reichardt discussing the exhibition on the BBC 2 programme Late Night Line-Up

Finally the back page is this fantastic advert for a classic sixties 'happening'....(£3!!!)

Don't worry if, like me, you'd never heard of this event - some further research revealed that the following message had to run in the subsequent edition of IT..... ☹️

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Jan Pinfield, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2024, 16:07)
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Steven Oliver

'What is History?' by E.H.Carr

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 25 Apr 2024, 19:00

Edward Hallett Carr (1892-1982) was first a diplomat and then a historian, most notably of the Soviet Union. He has been described as left-leaning, Arthur Marwick categorises his history as 'Marxist'. 

In January-March 1961, whilst a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, he gave the G.M.Trevelyan Lecture Series of six lectures - these were subsequently published in book form as What is History? later that year. I've read the second edition, which was first published in 1987, this contains a preface that Carr had written for a second edition, and some notes that existed for a revision that was not completed. 

These notes try and summarise and reflect on some of the key points he raises in his six lectures.

1.       The Historian and his facts

Inevitably the first point has to be that historians are exclusively masculine throughout the book - a reflection no doubt of the make-up of the profession at that time and of social norms, but also Carr seems largely disinterested in any issues of gender. 

He questions what distinguishes ‘historical’ facts from everything else in the recorded past and presents the idea of 'selection' as central to the work of the historian. Carr decries what he sees as a fetishism of both facts and archives, he sees such an approach as core to 19thC history, but now outdated. He is unconvinced by what he describes as 'empirical' approaches that collate 'facts' and anticipate that history will flow from them. Carr argues that empiricism was valued above theory in the 19thC as this was a ‘comfortable’ and successful time in Western Empires, everything observed just confirmed the accepted order. When 20thC chaos starts to break out, historians were having to start thinking about bigger questions of historical philosophy.

He gives an excellent example of how selection operates using the records of Gustav Stresemann (German Foreign Minister and Chancellor). The editor who first compiled and published his records retained more which related to his 'western' diplomacy, which was seen as highly successful, and less from his 'eastern' activities - which were not. This collection was further abbreviated when translated to English. When the National Socialists came into power they destroyed much of the primary material, but fortunately copies were retained and it was possible to subsequently the establish how selection had previously operated. Carr points out the biases that would have been present if all primary records had been lost, and historian could only rely on the English translated material. He ends with the final reflection that Stresemann was his own first editor, and that the German primary records chiefly capture what he said and thought in any meetings, whilst the voices of others are less distinct. Carr argues that selection is inevitable in history.

When discussing the influence of the contemporary on views of the past Carr highlights writing by Benedetto Croce ('seeing the past through the eyes of the present') and R.G. Collingwood ('facts refracted through the mind of the recorder').

The writing and opinions of multiple 19th and 20thC historians are touched on and Carr emphasises that the reader of a history book's  ‘...first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.’

Whilst agreeing with some of Collingwood's points on the importance of contemporary influences on any historian he suggests this carries the danger of relativism i.e. ‘history is what the historian makes’. Carr believes not all explanations are as good as each other and argues against the judgement of ‘rightness’ being its suitability to any present purpose, but I wasn't convinced I got a clear idea of the basis on which he thought we should judge what made for better explanations. 

The chapter ends with a section on the iterative process of creating history, a circling round of reading and writing in which the historian moulds facts to interpretation and moulds interpretation to facts. However, for me, he fails to be clear about when this process concludes and what indicates a settled account. It concludes with the classic quote that history is ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past’. There is no doubt plenty to think about in the way in which such an abstract conversation could ever occur - and the spurious agency it gives to both 'present' and 'past'. 

2.       Society and the Individual

Carr seeks (at some length!) to establish that you can’t separate an individual from their society, ‘The cult of individualism is one of the most pervasive of modern historical myths’. He quotes Burckhardt, to suggest that individualism comes out of the Renaissance, before which people saw themselves as group members. Carr doesn’t disagree with this hypothesis, but sees this as a social process, one of ‘advancing civilization’.

Returning to his points about understanding historians, he talks about needing to understand a historian in their historical and social context, both their ‘standpoint’ and that their position is rooted in a social and historical background. 

Carr surmises that the historian ‘most conscious of his own situation is also more capable of transcending it’.

When considering the role of 'great' (or 'infamous') individuals Carr points out 'all effective movements have few leaders and a multitude of followers’ and that both are essential to their success.

Further expanding his original argument Carr says history is 'a dialogue between present and past societies.'

3.       History, science and morality

At the end of the 18thC Carr sees a desire for a ‘social science’, a science of human society to which history contributed. He quotes J.B. Bury declaring history is ‘a science, no more and no less.’

Whilst appreciating that there had been a marked reaction against this view, Carr argues that science was now (1961) getting more like history. He claims scientists have largely abandoned a search for ‘Laws’ that govern and now seek ‘how things work’. He claims that history, like science, proposes and tests hypotheses - but he is silent on how these are in fact tested in history.

The chapter largely concerns itself with debunking what Carr says are reasons given why history is not a science. There are no sources given for who or where such claims are made and I can personally see other and possibly stronger arguments.

  1. History deals with unique circumstances, science with generality
  2. History teaches no lessons
  3. History is unable to predict
  4. History is necessarily subjective, since man is observing himself
  5. History unlike science involves religion and morality

Carr's main points are:

History deals with unique circumstances, science with generality - he simply says that historians generalise all the time.

History teaches no lessons - he claims this also isn't true, the ‘function of history is to promote a profounder understanding of both past and present through the interrelation between them

History is unable to predict - suggesting that science ‘does not claim to predict what will happen in concrete circumstances' (which I think can be contested) he argues history is not fundamentally dissimilar, although accepts that the predictions may be less precise.

History is necessarily subjective, since man is observing himself - I found the argumentation complex here, Carr basically seems to argue that 'classical' distinctions between an observing subject and observed object have now broken down and new forms of philosophical thinking are required.

History unlike science involves religion and morality - Carr talks at length about morality, he argues that historians can’t make moral judgements on individuals in past, but then implies they can and should do this for events/practices etc. - I'm not clear how he justifies this distinction. He makes what seems a good point about how supposedly ‘absolute extra-historical values’ are actually rooted in history.

He suggests that those who want history not to be a science are following an outdated distinction in which: 

  • Humanities are knowledge for the ruling classes
  • Science is for the technicians who serve them

Carr believes history and science fundamentally seek similar ends: ‘to increase man’s understanding of, and mastery over, his environment

4.       Causation in history

Carr states simply that, ‘the study of history is a study of causes’ and then goes on to identify what he sees as some particular features of 'historical' causes:


  • Assign several causes to the same event
  • Establish a hierarchy of causes – looking towards ‘the cause of all causes’

Carr sees historians as simultaneously widening and attempting to simplify their explanation, ‘the historian must work through the simplification, as well as through the multiplication, of causes’ he doesn't however. to my mind. explain why the latter is necessary.

He picks up two arguments (straw men?) which he says are used to undermine discussion of causation in history:

  • Determinism in History - which he relates to, then, contemporary articles by Karl Popper and Isiah Berlin 
  • Chance or 'Cleopatra’s Nose'  (i.e. Antony loses at Actium because Cleopatra is so beautiful)

I’m not sure I agree with Carr’s take on Popper’s ‘historicism’ – but clearly this term was not well defined by Popper. Carr seems to think that Popper rejects events having 'causes' whilst I always thought Popper’s concern was with the idea of a purported set of forces that drove history to a *specific* determined end; the following quote is from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Popper page

'Historicism he identified as the belief that history develops inexorably and necessarily according to certain principles or rules towards a determinate end'

Carr’s argument is mainly that events have causes and that outcomes aren’t ever ‘free’, which he sees as Popper's contention – however he mainly argues with Berlin’s addition of the need for a recognition of individual ‘free will’ and responsibility. Carr argues that you can be a determinist and still allow for moral judgements of individuals choices.

The role of chance is something Carr accepts, but makes the argument that, as it can’t be given any meaning, it can essentially be ignored in the historian's search for ‘meaningful’ causes. 

Returning to his view that history is selection, the historian will select relevant causes and discard the irrelevant (like Cleopatra's attractiveness).

The chapter ends with what feels like another key idea for Carr, that the historian works with an ‘end in view’, that they reason towards that end with reference to personal values. I think this means he believes that the actions of the historian are purposeful, that their search for meaning is in the cause of something - presumably that something varies between individuals.

5.       History as progress

Carr wants to avoid history either trending towards theology and an ahistorical final end or a 'cynicism' in which history is entirely relative or a litter of inconsequential meanings. He says that concerns that a society is in decline may miss the fact that another society is progressing. As it says this chapter talks about 'progress', but I find some of the arguments obtuse and nebulous - evolution for example is seen as progress when I would consider it adaptation - sometimes Carr's 'progress' could simply be 'change'. 

Carr makes some complex points about a view of the future being central to an understanding of the past. I've found this set of ideas difficult to grasp, I'm unsure whether these are views of desired futures or ways of saying that the historian looks for processes that have future consequences. One route in may be to follow up on his quote from Lewis Namier which Carr references imagine the past, remember the future’ (cryptic to say the least 🙂)  I think this may mean that historical views of the past are created in response to thoughts about the future, but perhaps a reading of its origin Conflicts: studies in contemporary history (1942) will help!

Carr forms a definition of the 'objective' historian from this argument:


  • rise above the limited vision of their own situation in society and history
  • project their vision into the future to give more lasting insight into the past

Sticking with his initial coinage we get to history being 'a dialogue between events of the past and progressively emerging future ends.'

He questions whether future success is the correct criteria of historical significance, accepting that history is generally not a record of what people failed to do. However, what it was that they 'did' may become clearer over time. He suggests that if you consider the life and actions of Bismarck then across time from 1880 to (a then future) 2000 it is likely there will be an increase in the objective judgement by historians - but doesn't make it clear to me on quite what basis he makes this assessment, other than more possible implications being apparent.

Carr says historians strive for a ‘coherent relation between past and future’ which rings true and talks about how past facts and current values interact, reiterating that values have a history too.

Whilst I'm not convinced that 'objectivity' is ever given an entirely clear meaning, Carr ends by saying that the 'objective historian' is one who 'penetrates the interdependence of facts and values'.

6.       The widening horizon

In his final chapter Carr makes some (as far as I'm concerned) rather contentious claims about the direction the future will take, but there are still interesting points along the way.

‘History is a constantly moving process, with the historian moving with it.'

Carr talks about dramatic changes in the 20thC, changes in 'depth' and 'geography'. People are now ‘self-conscious’, aware of inner as well as outer influences and may now 'transform themselves' as well as the world.

He sees these times as an age when there has been an 'Expansion of Reason' – bringing new groups into the  'realm of history'. There is a deeply problematic argument here about how those apparently excluded in the past are only now coming into real, 'historical' being - presumably the poor, women, non-European people? I'm not sure this stands up to much scrutiny really.

His discussion of a 'new geography' are directed towards the East in particular and come across as quite prescient. He says in conclusion that people shouldn't be insular and argues for taking on bold fundamental challenges not engaging in the 'piecemeal social engineering' that Popper has advocated (never the most inspiring of phrases!). Carr says he worries that he encounters a fear of change – but that change is happening whatever anyone thinks - his final quote is the one attributed to Galileo  ‘and yet it moves’.


Some final thoughts:
Like many 'classics' this book is not quite as enlightening or startling as you might hope. I came away unsure if Carr had a completely coherent argument, he certainly misrepresents 'science' and I also felt he fudged some ideas around empiricism and objectivity. Perhaps this is mainly a corrective against 'let the facts speak for themselves' and an encouragement for reflexivity in historical reading and writing?

Here are a few more Carr-related links

Reviews in History (a review of What is History? by 'post-modern' historian Alun Munslow)

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 25 Apr 2024, 18:58)
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Steven Oliver

Dublin day-trip

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 3 Mar 2024, 18:08

I was lucky enough to manage a day trip to Dublin last week and packed in a fair bit of A111 and A113 😀

The following are just a few snaps from the day.

The GPO building where the Republic was proclaimed in 1916 - the museum was good (but pricey at €15) few of video installations featured historians who contributed to OU materials.

Garden of Remembrance that features in A111 and was opened in 1966

The iconography of 'celtic' weapons broken and cast into water as a mark of the end of hostilities

The Children of Lir - rising, resurrected, redeemed, reborn....

Just outside the Garden is this memorial to the formation of the Irish Volunteer Force on that spot (it was I think an ice rink then) in 1913 - in response to the earlier establishment of the UVF that is discussed in A113. 

Apparently Parnell's statue caused some controversy when it went up in 1911, I presume because he was then still a divisive figure. Really interested in what I assume are Roman 'fasces' under all the drapes, I think at this point in time they may have been used as a symbol of Republican 'unity'. It's also a classic Roman sculptural pose that we encountered in A111. 

Second sculpture by Oisín Kelly (the first was Children of Lir) - this one of James Connolly's comrade, Jim Larkin. A co-founder of the Irish Citizens Army and a staunch revolutionary socialist. 

He used the quote below in one of his speeches - it apparently harks back to the French Revolution and is generally credited to Camille Desmoulins.

From A113 the 'Liberator' Daniel O'Connell (plus obligatory seagull) gets centre stage with a monument and of course the main street (since 1924)

Kilmainham Gaol

Corridor where most of the 1916 rebels were held before execution.

The classic 'panopticon' prison design in the Victorian wing of KIlmainham Gaol. Éamon de Valera was a prisoner here and Hugh Grant danced down the steps at the finale of 'Paddington 2' (Noel Coward also celebrated the apparent achievement of the 'Italian Job' here)

A final look back into the stone-breakers yard and the spot where James Connolly was executed. It was interesting, given the reflection in A111 on contested memories, to hear that the prison wasn't initially promoted in the Free State as a 'hallowed' site - the fact it was also the place of execution of some anti-Treaty rebels made its heritage a difficult one, at least until Fianna Fáil gained power.

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'...no empire, no sect, no star...'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Friday, 2 Feb 2024, 12:25

I had a great 'hands-on' experience at a print workshop run by Thin Ice Press in York. A chance to set up a line of type and then print it!

Here's my compositor's stick, lying on the fo(u)nt ... these cases were side by side, not UPPER and lower

There were a number of fonts available, I ended up working with 24pt Caslon italic. William Caslon was originally an engraver, but moved into type design and foundry in the 1720's. He's apparently the first British famous type designer - the Caslon font was used for the first printings of the the American Declaration of Independence.

My line of type below is almost finished, but if you look carefully there's a missing comma after 'sect' - so some changes were needed. Made it very clear why a printer might decide to leave some 'typos' and identify them in an erratum, rather than have to take multiple lines of type apart and rearrange. If you look closely you can see the really thin copper spacer strips that you use to make sure the type is really packed in tightly.

This was the point where you transferred your line of type into a forme, obviously there'd have been much more to do with multiple lines of type to set up on a page.

'Locked in' to a steel forme, spaced with 'furniture' and tightened with 'quoins' and resting on an imposition stone. This was quite heavy and it was only one line of 24pt, struggling to imagine lifting one of the Gutenberg bible pages!

In these machines the paper is pressed on to the type, quite a lot of fiddling to get the pressure and the imprint right.

Someone had chosen a rather lurid green ink (supposedly 'Christmasy') 😀.

Thought I'd go with a fragment of Francis Bacon, '...no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence on human affairs...'

Apparently a 16th century estimate for production time worked on 5 minutes per line for all the stages through to the final print - my effort only took a couple of hours .... the print revolution would have been a more drawn out affair with me in charge! 😆

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Steven Oliver

'Religion for Atheists'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 16 Nov 2023, 21:08

This was (IMHO 🙂) a rather lightweight contribution to Unit 7 of A113 on post-Revolutionary experimentation in religion, but I thought I'd just capture some of the suggestions de Botton makes about aspects of religious practice and ritual that might add to a wholly secular life.

They were:


An 'Agape Restaurant' - an open door,all comers welcome venue where individuals are seated separately from any pre-existing relationships and take a meal. Whilst eating, conversation will follow a set of prescribed lines set out in a guidebook at the table - the 'Book of Agape' .... 'What do you regret?'...'Whom can you not forgive?'...'What do you fear?' - effectively forcing a deeper understanding of at least a few more of our fellow humans.

The link here is made chiefly with the Roman Catholic Mass, its foundation around the meal table and aspects of ritual that break down barriers between individuals and establish a new (if ?temporary) community. The conversation guidebook follows from aspects of the Jewish Passover ritual, where a fixed set of questions are asked by the youngest member of the family.

A quarterly Day of Atonement, where we seek out those we have harmed and apologise.

Simply a fourfold expansion of the Jewish ritual.

An annual Feast of Fools at the Agape Restaurant, where we have licence to be as irrational and sexually unfaithful as we like. In this way we acknowledge that maintaining a measured life is hard given our human drives and desires, giving vent to them may help us get through the rest of the year.

The stimulus here is the medieval Christian (?French) 'festum fatuorum' that took place on New Year's Eve when clerics were allowed to get up to all sorts of sacrilegious hijinks. 


Moral reminders on billboards and adverts and maintaining a tabletop pantheon of model moral role models.

The discussion here was around examples of religions being explicit about repeatedly reminding believers about how to live well, not expecting them to just get on with it. There were also plenty examples of requiring people to reflect on past 'heroes' and their achievements.


The ideas here were mainly linked to higher education and a new role for it in accepting a role in teaching 'how to live'. There were a range of suggestions, making lectures into sermons, changing the focus of disciplines : Departments of Relationships; Institutes of Dying, Centres for Self-Knowledge, teaching teachers oratory so ideas would stick, engage with obstructions to acting on what you know - lots of repetition, using the body as part of the experience of education and training.

An interesting aspect of de Botton's argument was about the reasons subjects like art and literature entered the realm of University study - he makes a link with a 19thC crisis in confidence that religion could effectively deliver moral development and that 'Culture' was to be the remedy. However, he claims that whilst Universities seem to suggest they will 'develop' citizens they are not at all explicit about the moral messages that could be drawn from the arts. John Wesley gets a mention for delivering sermons that linked religion very much to the concerns of everyday life. Buddhism does most of the heavy lifting on training the body as a route to learning.


We should build Temples to Tenderness - calm soothing spaces, with images of motherhood.

The reflections here were how to respond to human dependence and religion's capacity to deliver on maternal comfort and support for everyone's inner (and ever present) child. Lots of Marian imagery here, but some other religions too, Guan Yin from Buddhism.


Share the bad thoughts, doubts and fears of ourselves and others on real time displays so we can recognise our darkness is shared - and weep together

The immediate link was with the wailing wall - but with no divinity to address our concerns. The central argument is that religions accept that life is flawed, ugly and often/usually doesn't turn out right. Of course they often have other future lives on offer, but at least they do not promote an unfounded optimism about life. We should expect to be disappointed and to fail.


Project images of distant galaxies to provide a perspective on the (un)importance of individual lives within the totality of the universe.

I liked de Botton's idea that religion was a symbol of what exceeds us.


We should equip ourselves with instruction manuals on how to take life lessons from art, organise specific educational structures to the display of art - a set of 'stations of life', displays in galleries and museums should be reorganised around our moral needs.

A contrast is made between the way in which art is never without purpose or unexplained when it is displayed by religions, the 'stations of the cross' is an example of a structured contemplation of art in the Christian tradition.


We should build Temples of Perspective (giant tower to represent time, with a fine line to show human existence), Temples of Reflection where we could contemplate in solitude.

There were multiple examples of how religions use the built environment to enhance their message, there was also an image from Pugin's 'Contrasts' where he was implying that ugliness might harm our souls.


We need new, possibly corporate, institutions to promote secular values, develop brand identities, commodify atheism.

The examples here were all about the success and scale of the major religions as institutions/corporate bodies. How they have the advantage of scale, recognition and also major earning power.

Many of the salient points are made in this TED talk...

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Steven Oliver

Getting 'hands on' with Reformation printing

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 16 Nov 2023, 21:08

Another fantastic opportunity to use my SCONUL access rights and explore the archives at the University of York.

The Rare Books collection holds on long-term loan all those pre-1800 books that were part of the library of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, West Yorkshire. This Anglican religious community for men was founded in Oxford in 1892, and moved to Mirfield in 1898. The library was built up mainly by gifts from members and friends, and contains much valuable early material - including this copy of......

Auslegung der Episteln und Evangelien von Advent au bis auff Ostern, written by Martin Luther and published in the town of Magdeburg in 1533.

It has been absolutely fascinating, and also just an amazing privilege, to examine this nearly 500 year old book - a real primary source from the heart of the Lutheran Reformation!

The book is a postil, a collection of sermons by Martin Luther on each of the prescribed weekly Bible readings from the Gospels and the Epistles in the period from Advent to Easter. Further collections were made of Luther's interpretations of the readings for the rest of the year - eventually collected into what become known as his Church Postil. The term postil is derived from the Latin post illa verba textus ("after these words from Scripture")

It is a hefty tome, bound in leather - I think it is just 'blind tooled', although perhaps there is some gilt remaining in places. The covers are wooden and there are metal corners and two clasps. There is a little damage by wood worm, both to the covers and some gently nibbled pages.

It was once the property of someone called 'Hans Voyt', who has added his name to the ornate title page - which also highlights that the text has been corrected by Martin Luther and contains a 'new register' (essentially an index) - I'm guessing the ability to have a standard page length and numbering in every copy made indexing so much more straightforward in printed books - a 'new feature'.


There are lots of points to note on the page layouts and the different printed features in the book. I assume that there was a combination of metal movable type and woodblocks for the decorated capitals and illustrations. There was a side margin printed that summarised key aspects of the sermon text and woodblock pictures were spread throughout the pages. I wonder what the presence of these illustrations tells us about the intended readership - were these pictures 'entertainment', symbols of the added value embodied in a high end gift, did they have an educational objective in addition to supporting the text, was this just 'the fashion'?


I haven't found any reference anywhere yet to a specific illustrator, but I did find a small monograph in just one of the pictures shown below (John the Baptist is in prison on the left and checking out whether Jesus is 'he that should come?') I think it's probably 'HB'. There is a famous artist, Hans Brosamer, who I've found illustrated a number of publications at that time - but his 'HB' monograph looks different with the H run into B not distinct as in these letters. Something to look into further if I get the chance - but I guess most illustrators went unidentified if they weren't themselves a 'name' that might help sell the publication.


I liked the bit of 16thC cosmology shown below, with sun and moon rotating around the newly formed world - and Jesus sliding down to earth from the mouth of (a very Papal-looking!) God. (I'm struggling with the lettering that circles the world - is it perhaps 'God's Word'?)

Some great anachronistic knights accompany the three kings on Epiphany - and presumably the agents of King Herod on the way to do no good in the background (the stable has scrubbed up well too 😃)

The end of the postil confirms the printer to have been Michael Lotther. The Lott(h)ers were a multi-generational family of printers closely linked to Martin Luther and the Reformation. Luther had supported Melchior Lotther the Elder to set up as a printer in Wittenberg, and his sons Melchior (the younger) and Michael both entered the trade. Michael had moved out of Wittenberg to set up shop in Magdeburg by the time this work was being printed in 1533 - he remained close to Luther though and married into his family.

However, the book doesn't end there. In fact there is a second printed work bound together with it - another Reformation text, produced at the same time - but by a different printer and in a different city altogether.

Kirchen Ordnung. In meiner gnedigen herrn der Marggraven zu Brandenburg und eins erbern Rats der Stat Nürmberg Oberkeyt und gepieten, wie man sich bayde mit der leer und Ceremonien halten solle

These are Kirchen Ordnung, Church Orders - basically an agreed set of new 'rules' that a Lutheran church community should follow now that the old Catholic 'ordnung' had been set aside. I think in the early years of the Reformation there were a number of different regional/local formulations of church regulations, these are the set created by the Margraves of Brandenburg and the imperial city of Nuremberg.

They were printed in the city of Nuremberg in 1533 by the Gutknecht press and they helped to produce more uniform and stable approaches to worship amongst Lutheran churches both in that area and across Europe.

Whilst this part of the book has none of the fine illustration of the postil it does have quite a lot of two colour printing (I assume this was two impressions through the press) - most of this is in the description of the liturgy to distinguish the words of priest and congregation. There were also four pages of musical notation - I eventually worked out that this is plainsong to accompany the mass, 'Our Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed...' 

These are 'neumes', a way to denote choral chants before the five line staves and notes we are now used to. This style is a specifically German form - 'Gothic neumes' or Hufnagel - 'Horsenails' as they looked like the nails used to shoe horses. 

I'll have to see if I can make musical sense of it - so far I have even't worked out what the clef means! 

Given that this book is made up two separately printed texts I'm left with lots of questions about how and when these were brought together. Whilst there is a discontinuity in the printing style and the page numbering the appearance of the pages looks to have similar wear, the edges look to be discoloured to the same extent. I couldn't distinguish two 'sections' from the 'outside', so perhaps there is evidence that they have been bound together for a long time. Both texts are probably 'working documents', I can imagine how each would be of value to a Lutheran cleric - biblical exegesis and practical summaries of the new Reformed regulations and liturgy - a useful combination within one book.

One further observation might be of relevance to dating the book. Both the front and back endpapers have a faint watermark. I spent a long time trying to make it out and subsequently discovering a whole world of scholarship based around collecting and cataloguing paper watermarks. The mark is of an ox's head, with a letter 'M' below its mouth and a cross and entwined snake above. The best match I could find (and I think it is pretty much on the money) is a mark which is recorded in 'Briquet Online' having been recorded in a Copybook in Prague in 1534.


So, on the basis of the watermarks there is some evidence that the two seperate texts may have been bound together not that long after they were originally printed. The information I've found so far about paper watermarks is clear that you have to be very cautious in assuming similarity means that you can 'date' or 'locate' documents - but I think there's at least some basis for arguing that the current book may have been created sometime in the 1530's.

I've been astounded how many different strands of the A113 content came together in just this single artifact: technical aspects of printing (woodblocks/type/colour); printing and music (and the history of musical notation); the role of Martin Luther in 'expert' interpretation of God's word - not something that everyone in the 'priesthood of believers' could be trusted to do; the use of the German vernacular throughout; the challenge of bringing new regulation to control the revolutionary diversity of the new beliefs.

Examining this object was a really valuable experience and one I hope to come back to - perhaps to think more formally about a 'source analysis'.



Primary source:

Luther, M. (1533). Auslegung der Episteln und Evangelien von Advent an bis auff Ostern; anderweit corrigirt durch Martinum Luther, etc. Wittenberg: Michael Lotther. [From an original held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (https://www.york.ac.uk/borthwick/)]

To help identify the original documents:

Kirchen Ordnung. In meiner gnedigen herrn der Marggraven zu Brandenburg und eins erbern Rats der Stat Nürmberg Oberkeyt und gepieten, wie man sich bayde mit der leer und Ceremonien halten solle Nürmberg: Gutknecht,1533 [via the digitisation portal of Rhineland-Palatinate dilibri]

Auslegung der Episteln und Evangelien von Advent an bis auff Ostern; anderweit corrigirt durch Martinum Luther [via the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek]

To help identify the paper watermarks:

Briquet Online (v. 2.1 - 2021-01-23)

Background on the Lotthers:

Reformation Printers: Unsung Heroes Author(s): Richard G. Cole Source: The Sixteenth Century Journal , Autumn, 1984, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 327-339 Published by: Sixteenth Century Journal Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/2540767

Tillmanns, W. G. (1951) "The Lotthers: Forgotten Printers of the Reformation," Concordia Theological Monthly: Vol. 22, Article 23. Available at: https://scholar.csl.edu/ctm/vol22/iss1/23

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Steven Oliver

Second wave Reformation

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 16 Nov 2023, 21:09

A day trip to Geneva this summer allowed a quick visit to the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre and some 'pre-work' for A113. This was home to Jean Calvin's 'second wave' of Protestant Reformation.

The building has been reworked many times since being established in the 12th century, the austere neo-classical front is an 18th century reconfiguration. The interior is stripped down, largely, to bare stone - there is nothing between the simple wooden altar and the congregation.

Apparently the ornate wooden pulpit was one survivor of the iconoclastic purge that accompanied Genevan's adoption of a 'Reformed' religion in 1535. The importance of 'The Word' in the new version of Christianity presumably kept this from the bonfire.

I'm not quite sure what the provenance of 'Calvin's Chair' is - it's a famous object, and presumably his seat when not in the pulpit. But I don't know if it was a possession, whether it moved with him when he arrived, left and returned to Geneva - or whether it was a fixture at Saint-Pierre? It fits the bill in having a functional and rather uncomfy look. 

A link with A113, the 'Hymn Board' (or perhaps sung-Psalm board?) was one of the very few features and fittings in the church (there was another above the pulpit). A marker of one of the distinctive new features of Protestant worship.

Not a great range on offer at the 'gift shop' (surely the Godly would be doing some serious grave-rotating at the very thought!😆), but here is a role-call of Protestant notables all on the one postcard - no doubt they'd have been laying into each other hammer and tongs had they been trapped together in person!

Les hommes de la Réforme

Huss - Melanchton - Gustave Adolphe - Zwingli

Heronimus - Calvin - Luther - Wiclef

Finally an image of John Knox - who took this flavour of strict Genevan Reformation and, if anything, ramped it up for Scottish consumption. I'm really interested in what he is holding in his right hand, I assume it is some sort of writing implement - there are other writing paraphernalia on the table - but I've not seen anything like it before. It looks almost like a pair of calipers, but held upside down. Something to try and track down as the course goes on.

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Marc Bloch at Montluc

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Tuesday, 22 Aug 2023, 14:22

Marc Bloch (1886-1944)

A historian engaged in the Resistance, shot at Saint-Didier-de-Formans.

"A graduate in history, Marc Bloch was mobilized during the Great War. He then taught medieval history at the University of Strasbourg and founded with Lucian Febvre the journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale.

When war was declared, he held a chair at the Sorbonne.

A volunteer in 1939, he took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk and narrowly escaped capture. In 'Strange Defeat', published posthumously, he recounts this experience. Withdrawn to Clermont-Ferrand, he was for a time excluded from his duties because of his Jewish origins, then reinstated for 'exceptional service'.

In 1941, he went to Montpellier and took part in setting up Combat* in the region.

In 1943, he went underground and joined Franc-Tireur, then became a member of the regional board of the 'Mouvements unis de la Résistance' (MUR). He is one of the editors of 'Cahiers politiques', an underground Parisian publication.

Arrested in Lyon on March 8, 1944, he was interrogated in the headquarters of the Gestapo, then interned in the prison of Montluc. On June 16, he was taken from his cell and taken with 29 other detainees about thirty kilometers from Lyon, to Saint-Didier-de-Formans (Ain), where all were shot."

*(Combat was a large movement in the French Resistance created in the non-occupied zone of France/)

¶(Created by the merger of the three major non-communist movements in the southern zone (“Combat”, “Franc-Tireur” and “Liberation-Sud”), chaired by Jean Moulin.)


Took an hour or so out of 'holiday-mode' in Lyon to visit Montluc Prison. It was a military prison that became a holding site for members of the WWII French Resistance, Jewish people and other 'undesirables' before execution or deportation to the death camps.

Almost immediately on liberation of Lyon in late August 1944 it became a prison for German military, Gestapo and French collaborators. 

It had further incarnations as a prison for members of the Algerian independence fighters (the site of 11 executions) and then for women - it closed finally in 2009.

The commemorated and memorialised history was limited to the 'positive' stories of French resistance, though (as far as my school French could take me) accounts of individual prisoners were not sensationalised - there was material available that covered the entire history of the site.

I went out of curiosity chiefly, my son is a student of medieval history and had mentioned the story of the historian Marc Bloch - there are accounts (I don't know their validity) that Bloch spent some of his time at Montluc in teaching French history to other inmates. 

It was a somber and serious site and a real relief to walk back out through the gates.

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Steven Oliver

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Wednesday, 9 Aug 2023, 13:52


The Basilica overlooks the old town of Lyon and can be reached by one of the funicular railways. It was built between 1872 and 1896 on a location that had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary since the twelfth century. The prompt for its construction was apparently celebration of the fact that the Prussian army in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war stopped its advance before reaching Lyon, this was attributed to intercession by the Virgin Mary. This was a great place to do some A111 revision on the stories linked to Mary, the mother of Jesus and to aspects of the practices associated with her in the Catholic faith.

A major feature of the upper section of the Basilica are giant mosaics all linked to the story of the Virgin Mary. 

The Council of Ephesus (431 CE) The central question of this early Christian debate was around the human and/or divine nature of Jesus. Was Mary Christotokos (giving birth to Christ, a man), or Theotokos (giving birth to God)? 'Theotokos' won out and Mary was increasingly referred to as the Mother of God. Another bit of Marian mythology in the mosaic shows an angel (top row, two-thirds along from the left) carrying the house of her birth from Nazareth, via a few other sites, to its final resting place in Loreto, Italy - where it sits inside the Basilica della Santa Casa. 

The Battle of Lepanto (1571 CE) This is Mary in warrior-mode, leading the defeat of the Ottoman fleet at the naval battle of Lepanto off the coast of Greece. Central to her intercession in this victory were prayers said to the Rosary, which the Pope is holding up. This event was a key step in bringing the Rosary into the fold of Roman Catholic religious practice.

Proclamation of the Immaculate Conception (1854) This mosaic commemorates the point when Pope Pius IX officially declares the immaculate conception of Mary as part of the official dogma of the Roman Catholic church. Sinless in life, and now deemed to have been conceived without sin.

The lower part of the Basilica is a large crypt dedicated to St Joseph and in its own words 'welcoming Virgins from all over the world'. 

The walls are covered with ex-voto commemorations, recording both donations and answered prayers. There are multiple side chapels around the crypt occupied by copies of Virgins from key pilgrimage locations around the globe.


Our Lady of China, Our Lady of Lebanon, Our Lady of Africa


The Weeping Virgin of Gyor (Hungary), Our Lady of Good Health of Velankanni (India), Our Lady of Czestochova (Poland)


Our Lady of Fatima (Portugal), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Our Lady of Aperecida (Brazil)


Our Lady of Loretto (Italy), Our Lady of 'La Naval' (Manila)

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Pilgrims old and new in Lyon

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Tuesday, 8 Aug 2023, 17:08

 A chance to do some A111 pilgrimage revision whilst on holiday in the French city of Lyon. 

Firstly, €3 would buy you the equivalent of a pilgrim badge at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière - for that you got an image of Mary (plenty of Marian imagery and history on show in and on the building) and of the Basilica itself which was built between 1872 and 1896.

The other object was an enameled reliquary of St Thomas Becket that was displayed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. This was made in Limoges at some time around 1210 CE and comes from a church in the South of France, near Toulouse. There is a link between Thomas Becket and Lyon as the original chapel (c. 1180 CE) on the site of the current Notre-Dame de Fourvière was jointly dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Thomas. There is no evidence that Thomas visited Lyon whilst exiled in France, but two twelfth century archbishops of Lyon had known him personally, the archbishop at the time of the chapel's founding, Jean Bellesmains (a previous Treasurer at York Minster), had studied with Thomas at Canterbury and became a fervent supporter of his reputation after his martyrdom.

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The New Nature of History

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 25 Apr 2024, 19:04

My A111 tutor had highlighted Arthur Marwick as someone to think about reading - particularly ahead of future modules covering 20th century history - so I was pleased to find this second hand copy of 'The New Nature of History', which includes some pretty forcefully made points on the nature and practice of history 😀. Marwick was the foundation Professor of History at the OU and looks to have strongly shaped the nature of the teaching and course content. He died in 2006.

These are just a few notes on points I want to remember.

The book is a rewriting of an earlier text 'The Nature of History', which had been a set text on the OU History course. The revision was apparently stimulated by Marwick engaging with, and seeking to combat, post-modernist perspectives on history. 

In the preface Marwick emphasises the importance of the sub-title: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. He defines history as the production of a body of knowledge about the past, one built on evidence and where language in the past has to be understood and in the present used with precision to ensure accurate communication. He has no truck with ideas that history is an entirely subjective expression of contemporary actors, trapped within language that is laden and fraught with power.

In this diagram he tries to summarise his ideas about the relationships between historians, the past and history.

The book contains two detailed chapters on 'How the discipline of history evolved'. I've kept a list below (with subheadings that come from Marwick's chapters) that I may link/annotate as my studies go on - and also as a prompt to revisit Marwick's (often trenchant) views on key scholars and writers as I progress and encounter more of them.

Ranke: his disciples and critics  
Jules Michelet (1798-1874)
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59)
Positivism and Marxism   
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) Karl Marx (1818-1883)Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-89) 
Anglo-Saxon attitudes   
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) William Stubbs (1825-1901)Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-92)  
John Richard Green (1837-83) 
FW Maitland (1850-96) 
George Bancroft (1800-91) 
Scientific history?   
CW Langlois (1863-1929)  Charles Seignobos (1854-1942) J.B. Bury (1861-1927)
'New' history   
American 'new history'   
Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)    
Annales School    
Lucien Febvre (1878-1956)  Marc Bloch (1886-1944) [link]Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) 
C. Ernest Labrousse (1895-1988) 
Georges Lefebvre (1874-1959) 
History of ideas    
Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954)  Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) Gerhard Ritter (1888-1967)  
British labour and economic histories   
G.M. Trevelyan (1876-1962)  Arnold Toynbee (1852-83) R.H.Tawney (1880-1962)  
J.H. Clapham (1873-1946) 

Political histories    
Lewis Namier (1888-1960) [link] G.R. Elton (1921-94) A.J.P.Taylor (1906-88)  
Latter-day Marxism    
John Tosh (1945-)  E.H.Carr (1892-1982) [link]E.P.Thompson (1924-93)  
Christopher Hill (1912-2003) 
David Cannadine (1950-) 
Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)  
Eugene Genovese (1930-2012)
Herbert Gutmann (1928-85) 
Jurgen Kocka (1941-) 

Annales: 2nd and 3rd generations   
Fernand Braudel (1902-83) Georges Duby (1919-1996) Roger Chartier (1945-) 

New histories of economics, society,
science and culture 
R.W.Fogel (1926-2013)  E.A.Wrigley (1931-2022) Asa Briggs (1921-2016)  
Olwen Hufton (1938- ) 
Hayden White (1928-2018) 
Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) 
Michel Foucault (1926-1984)  Natalie Zemon Davis (1928 - ) Carlo Ginzburg (1939- ) 
Robert Darnton (1939- )    

This looks like another useful set of prompts on questions to ask of any primary source - understandably, given Marwick's role at the OU, they already seem familiar.

The Catechism

  1. Is the source authentic, is it what it purports to be?
  2. When exactly was the source produced? What is its date? How close is its date to the date of the events to which it relates, or to dates relevant to the topic being investigated? How does this particular source relate chronologically to other relevant sources?
  3. What type of source is it? A private letter? Or an official report, a public document of record, or what?
  4. How did the source come into existence in the first place, and for what purpose? What person, or group of persons, created the source? What basic attitudes, prejudices, vested interests would he, she or they be likely to have? Who was it written for or addressed to?
  5. How far is the author of the source really in a good position to provide first-hand information on the particular topic the historian is interested in? Is the writer dependent, perhaps, on hearsay?
  6. How exactly was the document understood by contemporaries? What, precisely, does it say?
  7. How does the source relate to knowledge obtained from other sources, both primary and secondary?

Finally, what Marwick describes as a 'hierarchy of explanatory factors' - he proposes this as a structure for 'explanation' in historical writing. Interestingly he quotes this framework in his book on 'The Sixties' (pp. 23-25).

1. Structural, ideological and institutional circumstances

  1. Structural (geographical, demographic, economic and technological)
  2. Ideological (what is believed and is possible to be believed, religious faiths, existing political and social philosophies)
  3. Institutions (systems of government, justice, policing, voting and education, religious organisations, working-class organisations, the family)
2. Events
3. Human agencies
4. Convergence and contingency

It will be interesting in reading 'The Sixties' to reflect on how Marwick actually uses this framework - does it structure his writing, or is it in the background shaping his overall ideas?

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Steven Oliver

A view on Benin Bronzes from Nigeria

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Wednesday, 21 June 2023, 10:29

I had been interested to come across details of a 'round-table' discussion of the return of Benin Art to Nigeria, being hosted by the Goethe-Institut (the German equivalent of the British Council) in Abuja. I'd heard about it via a Twitter link and eventually ended up watching it via a recording on a Goethe-Institut Facebook page.

A recording can be accessed here:


These are just a few summary notes of points that were discussed.

The context was the return of artefacts by the German government and debate within Nigeria about 'ownership' of objects and about where and how they might be displayed. The most recent development had been a statement from the outgoing president of Nigeria that the ownership of any returned artefacts would lie with the Oba.

There was a strong 'Benin' feel to the African panellists - the representative of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments didn't attend although a member of the regional government was in the audience. 

Some points that I found interesting:

Martin Huth (Deputy Head of Missions, German Embassy) - gave a potted history of museums and collection in Germany. From the Renaissance an increased interest in ancient art and the beginnings of art collections started with state rulers in the Holy Roman Empire. This became more widespread amongst German elites after 1848, collection became fashionable and was accompanied by a developing scientific interest in ethnology. Germany was a relative 'latecomer' to European colonialism, but as this developed it brought a boost to collection. He highlighted that in the mid 20th century Germany had both perpetrated and been the victim of cultural looting; plundering art works from Jewish people and conquered populations and then losing materials to Soviet Union and Western Allies. He brought up the term the 'nationalisation of art' to describe current desires to repatriate art that had been seen to have been stolen. Huth dated a change in culture to the late 1960's with student activism and subsequent discussions in the 1970's about it being untenable to retain artefacts like Benin Bronzes. He was keen to hear what Nigerian civic society wanted as the model for display of the art and asked whether a 'museum culture' was something that African society wanted to embrace, or was this an overly Eurocentric view?

John Asien (Nigerian Copyright Commission) - was very measured about concerns over the recent Presidential decree - he stressed that the Oba still had to work with others to ensure safe storage and display of the artefacts. He made an interesting point about ownership, highlighting that African culture stressed three parties in ownership,: ancestors, current and future generations.

Prof Ken Okoli (Academic, Art Historian) - made interesting points about the sacred nature of the objects (something stressed by a number of speakers) this was something that was largely passed over in the A111 module materials. He proposed at one point that to view the objects, once returned, people would need to perform various ritual ablutions - and that the objects would need to be purified on return given their 'desecration' in the West. Along with a number of people on the panel and the audience he gave a strong 'Bini' perspective and was clear he thought the objects should be returned to the Oba.

Prince Akeni Prosper (Heir-apparent to the Throne of Elluega I, the Ovie of Ozoro Kingdom) - gave an impressive account of his families' connection back to the 17th century civil wars in The Kingdom of Benin and the magical properties of the artefacts. Whilst the arguments around restitution were familiar, it was very interesting to hear them so eloquently put in terms of a 'traditional' community leader. 

Overall it was an interesting discussion to listen in to. Perhaps understandably, there was very little positive that speakers or audience had to say about British holders of the artworks. Many of the points that would come up on any Twitter discussion about repatriation were also voiced, concerns about the security of the objects, criticism of the national government's interest in the heritage and art communities in Nigeria, questions about how accessible the objects might be once returned. There were some interesting observations about the possibility that strong Christian and Islamic cultures acted to reduce interest in these 'idolatrous' objects and that there might be limited interest amongst younger members of the Nigerian population.

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Steven Oliver

A Yorkshire Buddha

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Friday, 23 June 2023, 16:39

A Yorkshire Buddha - this one sits in meditation on a lotus flower in the grounds of the University of York. When I took the picture there were some offerings of fruit and flowers.

I couldn't find much information about the statue, it is dated as 19th century and was donated by the family of a key benefactor to the University and a major 20th century public figure in York, John Bowes Morrell. It apparently used to sit in his front garden! I've done my study day each week for A111 in the JB Morrell library and so there is one more link with OU study.

On my first visit to the statue I'd not noticed some of the discreetly positioned items that were tucked into the corners of the Buddha's covering. The only one that I've been able to find out much about is the collection of 'coin charms' - these are found in use in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam and can apparently also be part of Confucian and Taoist religions. Such items can be left for many different reasons, to commemorate particular events/people, as prayers for support/good fortune.


The university now has large numbers of students from countries where Buddhism plays a significant part in the culture. This statue is perhaps less 'exotic' now than when it was first donated - and looks to have an established functional value at least for some students.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Steven Oliver, Friday, 23 June 2023, 17:04)
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Benin at the BM

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Tuesday, 30 May 2023, 16:27

Managed to 'negotiate' 20 minutes in the British Museum at the end of April. Fascinating both to see the Benin objects and to watch people looking at them. I'm a bit sceptical about the 'museum for the world' rhetoric - but perhaps just a little less having been reminded of what a global city London really is!

However displayed it was interesting to watch how much (and how little) attention the objects received. 

There is just so much going on in some the plaques (Ama), the detail in this one is amazing, the hairstyles, musical instruments, even the patterning in the clothes.

Details from Digital Benin

Oba supported by two attendants 

If you look closely you can make out Portuguese heads in the detail of the Oba's dress

Details from Digital Benin

An attempt to reinforce the depth of the relief casting - I'm still intrigued as to whether they were cast with sprue and channels to enable the brass to reach all the areas (a question for the future)

Ivory hip-pendant mask (Uhunmwu-Ẹkuẹ) thought to be of Queen Mother Idia

Understandable why this image is so iconic, the design alone is really striking even before you get to the historic meaning.

Details from Digital Benin

Figure of European with long hair, beard and moustache

Details from Digital Benin

Four page figures in front of palace compound

Another incredibly detailed and exciting plaque, with altar goods set out that you can see around you in the exhibits.

Details from Digital Benin

Oba with royal page holding a netted calabash rattle

Details from Digital Benin

This last plaque really intrigued me - I wasn't at all sure what to make of it - male?...female? 

Tracking down details online on the train home revealed it was thought to represent an 'Ehioba' carrying a stick/switch.

'Ehioba is leader of the Ooton guild, selected from descendants of previous rulers of Benin, who served the high priest Osuan. The bulge beneath his tunic on his chest represents the concealed jawbones of a deceased Iyase (a political opponent to the Oba).'

Details from Digital Benin

Made me think a lot about all the detailed scholarship and research that will have been conducted by Western experts to 'establish' an interpretation of this object - work that was only needed because it was stripped of all context by its initial Western looters.

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The 'New Room' in Bristol

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 23 Apr 2023, 20:34

Coming home from a holiday in Devon I had a chance to look at the Methodist 'New Room' in Bristol, which features in the 'Christianity and its material culture' chapter of A111. 

The chapel is the second building on the site dating from 1748, the first which opened in 1739 was quickly outgrown. It sits just off the main Broadmead shopping centre in the middle of Bristol, there is a courtyard in front of the building with a statue of John Wesley on horseback.

One aspect of the building's design which wasn't mentioned in the A111 materials is the small stable block that flanks the entrance to the chapel. Travelling was very much part of a Methodist preacher's life and so the building including accommodation for both humans and horses!

I like the simplicity of the building's interior - the roof lighting really does flood the room and even on quite a grey day made it seem much more open and inviting than I'd expected.

Something that links with the more recent 'crossing boundaries' A111 theme and which initially surprised me was that the only translated information in the museum was in Korean. Apparently whilst the Methodist Church shrank dramatically in membership across the UK in the 20th century it saw a big increase in South Korea following missionary efforts from the USA - sufficient to make it worth the museum's while to try and encourage donations specifically from Korean pilgrims to the site! 

This variant on non-conformist Protestant Christianity is now practiced much more commonly outside the UK than it is within it.

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Steven Oliver

From Benin to Devon

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 23 Apr 2023, 19:55

This is a bronze of the head of an Oba - thought to have been cast around 1816 or after. It was part of the loot from the 1897 destruction of the Kingdom of Benin and was gifted to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter by Ralph Locke. He, along with Alan Boisragon, was one of the two British survivors from the initial expedition to Benin and accompanied the group which subsequently sacked the city. Locke served in the consular service in Nigeria and on return to the UK became a prison governor, he was apparently governor at Exeter prison when he donated this casting. He made some other donations (I think the figure of a Portuguese soldier on page 168 of Crossing Boundaries A111 book was given to the BM by him) but sold most of his collection at auction in the 1920's - so presumably it is now all over the world in private and public collections.

There is more detail on the Digital Benin website (which is where I found out about the object in the first place)

The object is displayed as part of the 'Africa' section of a diverse ethnographic collection at RAMM, I've also included the contextual information they provide. The display text includes an image of members of the 1897 expedition and the object is described as 'plundered' - the information also makes a point of saying the object was donated to the museum. There is interesting detail about how the object would have originally displayed and of its original meanings - there was no reference to the relationship between the cast heads and carved ivory tusks, perhaps because the museum does not have anything to display. 

The image below is of a more contemporary casting that is also displayed in the gallery. This is described as a 'Lost wax casting in brass of an Oba or King of Benin on horseback. The casting was made by a Yoruba craftsman in the Benin court style for sale to a British expatriate'

It is recorded as 'purchased 1962-68', presumably this is a date range for original sale as I would have thought that RAMM would have an exact date if a museum purchase had been meant. The object is identified as produced in Owo, Southwest Nigeria. It was interesting to see a 'shiny' bronze and try to imagine what the original royal art might have looked like.

RAMM has repatriated at least one object from its collection in recent years (returned to a first nation group in Canada after a vote by the city council) I don't know if there are any active claims for return of the Oba's head bronze to Nigeria.

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Steven Oliver

A vocabulary for 'Reception Studies'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Monday, 27 Mar 2023, 07:44

Just a few notes from:

Reception studies by Lorna Hardwick. (2003) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Three different latin terms:

exempla (a lesson)

imitatio (imitation) 

aemulatio (competition)

I thought the following might be a helpful list of terms (pp.9-10):

Acculturation: assimilation into a cultural context (through nurturing or education or domestication or sometimes by force)

Adaption: a version of the source developed for a different purpose or insufficiently close to count as a translation

Analogue: a comparable aspect of source and reception

Appropriation: taking an ancient image or text and using it to sanction subsequent ideas or practices (explicitly or implicitly)

Authentic: close approximation to the supposed form and meaning of the source. At the opposite end of the spectrum from invention (i.e. a new work)

Correspondences: aspects of a new work that directly relate to a characteristic of the source

Dialogue: mutual relevance of source and receiving texts and contexts

Equivalent: fulfilling an analogous role in source and reception but not necessarily identical in form or content

Foreignization: translating or representing in such a way that difference between source and reception is emphasised

Hybrid: a fusion of material from classical and other cultures

Intervention: reworking the source to create a political, social or aesthetic critique of the receiving society

Migration: movement through time or across place; may involve dispersal and diaspora and acquisition of new characteristics

Refiguration: selecting and reworking material from a previous or contrasting tradition

Translation: literally from one language to another. Literal, close, free are words used to pin down the relationship to the source as are phrases like 'in the spirit rather than the letter'. Translation can also be used metaphorically as in 'translation to the stage' or 'translation across cultures'

Transplant: to take a text or image into another context and allow it to develop

Version: a refiguration of a source (usually literary or dramatic) which is too free and selective to rank as a translation

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Steven Oliver

To The Island

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 26 Mar 2023, 22:12

At the start of March I had the opportunity to see a touring production of 'The Island' at the studio theatre at Hull Truck, I made a few notes on the production which was by the Elysium Theatre Company. Really excellent performances by Ewen Cummins as John and Daniel Poyser as Winston. 

I've included a few production stills below to give a sense of the stage setting and design. The outline of Africa in the cracks of the cell wall with a darkened South Africa looks so obvious now on the photos but came as a real surprise when I eventually spotted it for the first time during the performance!

John (L) outlines the plot of Antigone to Winston (R)

Set design and the opening mime

Winston and John in the final moments of the play, just before they are re-shackled

There was a bit of contextualising for the play arranged around the performance - there was an audio-loop running in the background as you entered the theatre, it was made up of what sounded like apartheid era newsreel clips, these were short and seemed to present multiple perspectives i.e. some supported the policy, some did not, these were edited as though tuning into different radio stations. I've copied the programme details below and highlighted the one explicit comment made in the programme by the company on the 'meaning' of the play in the current era.

One detail that I wouldn't have picked up on at all (or at least would have thought differently about) if I'd not skimmed the A111 chapter beforehand... in scene one (page 78 of the A111 book) when John briefly pretends to be an actor 'George' playing King Creon in a production he had seen - the actor did it in what was clearly an imitation of Nelson Mandela (who I now know, courtesy of A111, played Creon in Antigone whilst on Robben Island). I thought that was such a clever way of linking together so many things about the history of the play and the history of South Africa. 

The audience was almost entirely middle-aged, which probably just represents a theatre-going age-group - but did make me wonder if it was a 'nostalgia' for causes of our youth as much as engagement with contemporary concerns or drama that had attracted people? (I don't think it was made up exclusively of OU students and tutors!) It was an exclusively white audience, one of the other things that will have changed so often as this play has been performed in different settings since 1973 and interesting at the point in the play when the 'audience' is part of the drama.

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Steven Oliver

The Brutish Museums

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Wednesday, 5 June 2024, 18:35

The book 'The Brutish Museums' by Dan Hicks is briefly mentioned in the 'Optional' materials in week 27 'The art of Benin: 1897 to present day'. Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which houses a number of objects taken from the Kingdom of Benin.

I've made a number of notes below, chiefly on points that I want to keep in mind from the book and some onward links.

Overall, I wish I could say I enjoyed the book more than I did. I'm broadly in sympathy with Hicks's view that museums and galleries need to take a more active role in repatriation of illegally looted objects in their collections. I'd also agree that they should be actively raising difficult conversations about the awful reality of the British Empire and its ongoing legacy and consider how they can engage in a process of meaningful restitution. In fact there wasn't much about any of the arguments he makes that I'd disagree with, the difficulty I had was really with the writing style. The book is a polemic, which is often invigorating and a necessary part of study - I just found the repeated 'short-cut' language of 'disaster-extraction-capitalism', 'ultraviolence', 'corporate-militarist colonialism', 'white fragility' etc. became wearing and clichéd in the end and detracted from the message for me. 

That said there are lots of points that I want to keep hold of!

An early reference was made to 'Workers investigating their own workplace' and the movement 'Dig where you stand' promoted by Sven Lindqvist. I've subsequently discovered this was a Swedish 'History from Below' movement that encouraged examination of the history of employers and companies by their workers. Hicks makes this link because as a 'museum worker' he is critically examining and exposing the history of his workplace.

Hicks takes the following as a key motto in the book: 'as the border is to the nation state so the museum is to empire' - I take this to mean that whilst borders divide humanity into so-called 'nations', museums use time to make distinctions between different types of human. 

There is a chapter on the 'Theory of Taking' - which I think really boils down to the argument that material theft should be similarly considered as has land theft in studies of colonisation. That these forms of dispossession are just as important and damaging to survivor populations.

Hicks talks about 'Necrography' - not just the 'life histories' of objects in museums, but also death histories - documenting loss - and the loss of life in particular - associated with objects.

He takes issue with:

  • cultural biography - i.e. the idea of what is added to object through reuse/passage
  • entanglement - a reciprocity of reaction between cultures which come into contact, Hicks seems to argue that this obscures the enormous asymmetry in the damage accruing from these contacts with colonisers.

The idea of necrography seems to be a response to this.

Another term coined was, 'White projection' - essentially projecting colonisers faults onto others - it was Benin's 'fault', they were the savages - even though it was the colonisers who exhibited the savagery.

Hicks makes (to my mind) a good case that the 'Punitive raid' was part of a pre-planned expansion of colonial control for profit. He also promotes the idea of 'World War Zero' for the period of colonial violence worldwide from the Berlin Conference to the start of WWI. Whilst this may have some merit in highlighting the geographic scale, the continuous (if sequential) nature and the horror of these 'Small Wars', I think it potentially underplays their asymmetry - the later WW's were much more 'equal'. However interesting to think about whether this whole period will in fact in time be seen as one of extended (chiefly European) imperial conflict.

There was lots of discussion about museums, objects and 'duration' and archaeology as being involved in 'duration'. I assume that is perhaps about 'what lasts'? Hick argues that museums, (and perhaps display in particular?) cause ongoing violence - extend the duration of the original assaults, he also sees the violence as increased over time. I did wonder if it is really possible to establish who are (and who are not?) the victims of such violence, is this a process of self-identification?

The following points were taken from a number of academics that Hicks draws on - it will be valuable to follow some of these up.

Interesting ideas on what museums do to objects from the work of Achille Mbeme in his book 'Necropolitics' he describes a process of  'mummification, statuefication and fetishization' 

The language of Aimé Césaire was 'chosification', colonisers make colonised into 'things' in his 'Discourse on Colonialism'. Another point linked with this academic was the basic 'equation (Christianity=Civilization Paganism=Savagery)

'Chronopolitics' is a term used by Johannes Fabian in 'Time and the Other' - basically putting individuals who live at the same time in different times - so people in Benin were 'living in the past' - Hicks argues that museums collude, perhaps even exist, on the back of this idea. I gather there was also a geographic component to this idea - the further away from the 'centre' communities are the further 'back in time' they are considered to be.

Finally just a few direct quotes from Hicks to think about....

'Understand artefacts[...] not as frozen moments of time, but ongoing durations' p.13

'Museums are devices for extending events across time: in this case extending, repeating and intensifying the violence' p.15


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Steven Oliver

Gothic East Yorkshire

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 23 Mar 2023, 20:52

In late February I took impetus from studying AWN Pugin's great Gothic Revival buildings in the metropolis and set off on a local pilgrimage of Victorian church architecture and design. I picked up the 'Southern Route' of the Sykes Churches Trail across the Yorkshire Wolds.

All the churches on the trail were built, rebuilt or restored by either the 4th or 5th baronet of Sledmere, both identically named, Sir Tatton Sykes. Of the two, Sir Tatton II (1816-1913) made the far greater contribution, launching a building and renovation programme of rural churches (17 in total between 1866 and 1913) that was essentially unique in the Victorian/Edwardian period.

Both baronets commissioned nationally recognised architects who specialised in the Gothic Revival style to restore or design the building and interiors of the churches. The architect JL Pearson subsequently went on to design Truro cathedral, GE Street is probably best known for the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Temple Moore also had a practice specialising in the Gothic style.

My trip took me to the following churches: St Mary, Sledmere; St Mary, Cowlam; St Michael, Garton-on-the -Wolds; Wansford Parish Church; St Elgin, Frodingham; St Mary, Kirkburn; St Nicholas, Wetwang; St Mary, Fimber; St Mary, Fridaythorpe; St Mary, Thixendale and ended at St Edith, Bishop Wilton.

The outstanding highlights were definitely the amazing painted interior at Garton-on-the-Wolds (such a surprise after the austere Norman exterior), the Norman fonts at Cowlam and Kirburn, and for all round unity of vision and design, St Edith's at Bishop Wilton. 

I've included some glimpses of the really beautiful decorative arts on show.


(St Luke painting Mary and Jesus was at Wansford; the windows showing scenes from the 'Creation' are at Thixendale and by the same company, Clayton and Bell, and to the same design as the wall paintings at Garton; Clayton and Bell are also responsible for the scenes of Jesus on Lake Galilee and feeding the five thousand at Fimber and window details of castle and flowers at Wansford)


(The knotted pattern is at Thixendale, the other tiling is from Bishop Wilton) 



(Going clockwise these ceilings are at: Thixendale; Thixendale; Bishop Wilton; Garton-on-the-Wolds)


(All these paintings are at Garton-on-the-Wolds, the architect GE Street was responsible for the design, Clayton and Bell created the paintings)

I have included an image of the bust of Sir Tatton Sykes II that can be found in each of the churches, they are quite an achievement.

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Steven Oliver

The 1916 Rising in stamps

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 28 May 2023, 20:41

I thought I'd share the stamps that the Irish An Post published in 2016 to commemorate the 1916 rising.

Having now read the A111 chapter 'Remembering and forgetting in Ireland' I think there were some really interesting choices made about what was 'remembered' (I wonder a bit about what was still 'forgotten', perhaps the impact on Unionists, the link with Germany?). The stamps came grouped into four themed sets

Leaders and Icons

An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

The leaders are grouped to represent the three organisations involved in the Rising, the IRB, the IVF and the ICA and there are a couple of the flags flown over the occupied buildings. This set is similar to the stamps published in 1966 - the seven executed signatories to the proclamation of independence.


An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

These were a very interesting set of choices, the Dublin police constable was the first person killed in the uprising by Sean Connelly who himself died in the Rising, Michael Malone was an IVF member who died in the Rising his brother William had died the year before on the Western Front, Dr Lynn and Elizabeth O'Farrell were a doctor and nurse respectively who were active Nationalists and provided medical care to the rebels, the picture of Jack Doyle and Tom McGrath is one of very few taken inside the GPO during the week

Easter Week

An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

More interesting choices...Seán Foster was among the 40 children who died in the Rising, Louisa Nolan received a medal from George V for tending to British wounded, Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane was a British officer who exposed the murder of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and four others by another British officer (there was an attempted cover-up, Fletcher-Vane was relieved of his command but had the political contacts to get the perpetrator convicted) 

The Aftermath

An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

Images of the destruction in Dublin, of poor Dubliners scavenging for fire-wood, the repression and round-ups of the public that contributed to a change in public perception and Roger Casement who was the last leader executed having been caught soon after smuggling in arms for the rebellion from Germany.

An Post credit two historians for their contributions to the development of the stamps, Fearghal McGarry and Lar Joye

I don't think many of these stamps, other than the first four, could possibly have been printed in 1966, I found them a really fascinating set now I've learned so much more about public memories!


According to Mark McCarthy in his 2012 review of 1916 remembrance (Ireland's 1916 Rising: explorations of history-making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham: Ashgate.),  'much of the substance of the 90th anniversary commemoration was about recovering lost memories of the revolutionary past. In what seemed like a public relations exercise of grandiose proportions, Easter 2006 was all about recasting the Rising in a new positive light and sanitising its legacy from all of the negative connotations associated with the actions of the Provisional IRA during the course of the Troubles.' 

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had played a key role in the negotiation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and according to McCarthy 'saw the 90th anniversary as an opportune time in which to reassert Fianna Fáil’s republican credentials and reclaim the Rising’s legacy from the Provisional IRA.' 

The first military parade since 1971 to celebrate the 1916 Rising was seen in central Dublin and the scale of celebrations exceeded anything that had occurred during the Troubles.

The commemorative stamp was a simple photograph of a recently cleaned and refurbished GPO building and to my mind is the most 'neutral' of all the stamp designs memorialising the Rising. There are no images of conflict or visual references to the rebels themselves - it certainly does look like a 'sanitised' legacy.


In 1991, the 75th anniversary of the Rising, the commemorative stamp was a combined image of the Cúchulainn statue which stands in the GPO building as a memorial to the Rising and the text of the Proclamation of Independence. The Irish text on the side of the stamp translates as 'in memory 1916'. The other image on the first day cover is a statue of Hibernia which stands above the pediment on the building.

The original statue 'The death of Cúchulainn' was made in 1911-12 by the sculptor Oliver Sheppard and chosen by Éamon de Valera in 1935 as the 20th anniversary approached to be a monument to the Rising. Though mortally wounded by his rival Lugaid, Cúchulainn has himself tied to a standing stone to face his enemies upright in death. Only when a raven lands on his shoulder do his opponents know he has died.

The 1935 memorial also includes part of 1916 Proclamation, but Allison Martin (https://www.historyireland.com/easter-rising-commemorations-in-the-early-irish-state/) makes the point that only a section is included. The failure to include the section on expectations for religious and civil liberty and equal opportunities for all its citizens may reflect a nervousness on the part of the government that the social ambitions of the rebels had not yet been achieved.

When this stamp was issued in 1991 the 'Troubles' were ongoing, the 'Birmingham Six' had been released from prison in England a fortnight earlier, regular sectarian killings occurred in the weeks surrounding the anniversary. The text that accompanied the first day cover reads as quite constrained in its description of the Rising, 'a noble but hopeless venture', 'in almost every sense, a failure.' 


The 1966 commemorative stamps could be saved in this special display leaflet, there were eight stamps in total. Seven stamps commemorate the signatories to the proclamation, each is given a brief potted history, particularly highlighting their role in the Rising. The date of execution is given for each. 

I think the stamp commemorating the Rising itself is perhaps the most interesting. The text says it 'joins symbolically the lives lost in the war of independence and the theme of Ireland marching into an era of freedom'. The stamp uses the three colours of the Irish flag and I think the sunburst is probably a reference to the Fianna in Irish mythology, the Irish text simply commemorates 'The Easter Rising'. The stamp design was by the Irish artist Edward Delaney, who is best known for his sculpture, including major memorials in Dublin to Wolfe Tone and Thomas Davis. The chapter discussed some of the 'sculpture wars' of this period, but only mentioned the 'victims' of Republicans, Delaney's Wolfe Tone sculpture was blown up by Loyalists in 1971 - but recast and replaced shortly afterwards.


This is a commemorative from 1941 and the silver jubilee year of the Rising which occurred during the 'Emergency' (aka WWII). What I found interesting was the image of fighting youth. (The Irish is the 'in the name of God and the dead generations...' from the Proclamation)

In one of the A111 chapter references by Allison Martin, https://www.historyireland.com/easter-rising-commemorations-in-the-early-irish-state/ the 1941 celebrations are discussed and how, despite being a neutral country the government opted to make a real show of the military in the commemorations.

"De Valera and his administration therefore decided to use the commemoration service in order to project an image of military strength. In reality, the Irish state was militarily and financially unprepared for war. Nevertheless, the impressive military procession had the desired effect: one reporter from the Irish Independent was left with the distinct impression that ‘the nation was prepared’."

I think this political priority really comes across in the stamp design, none of the other commemoratives (there are ones from 1941,1966, 1991, 2006 and 2016) emphasise images of 'battle' like this - a really potent image!


In 1941 a provisional set of stamps (two and three pence) were also printed and released just before Easter that year, these were standard 'definitive' stamp designs over-printed with the text 'In memory of the Rising 1916' in Irish. 

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Steven Oliver

'the materiality of cultural construction'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 23 Mar 2023, 20:29

Plastic bottle shaped in the form of Mary the mother of Jesus

"As an object moves from one person to the next, from one social setting or one culture to the next, it acquires different values and associations, negotiating differences and carrying with it veneers of significance..."

‘The materiality of cultural construction’ (2008) David Morgan. Material Religion (vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 228–9)

This is a plastic bottle in the shape of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, which I either bought pre-filled or filled with water (can't remember which) at the pilgrim site of Lourdes in the summer of 1987 and then brought home as a 'souvenir' for my parents. It is now back on my shelves as I'm clearing up my mother's flat for sale now that she has moved to residential care.

I've decided to think through some of the ideas Morgan describes as the 'social career' for this object.

This was an object I bought thirty-six years ago aged 22, I had (privately at that point) decided to become an atheist perhaps two or three years before - having been brought up a Methodist. I had travelled to Lourdes as the nearest rail station to Gavarnie in the central French Pyrenees where I had planned a short solo walking holiday. I can remember that Lourdes surprised me, I found both the commercialisation of the 'pilgrim site' and the whole scale of the Roman Catholic imagery and 'performance' of pilgrimage quite disconcerting. It is one of very few locations I've been to where religion and faith are such a fundamental aspect of a place now, informing everything from what is on sale in the shops to the names of the hotels.

I think I only stayed overnight (can't remember where - presumably camping) I saw the Grotto from outside and people collecting water from a set of taps, I wandered through a huge subterranean church. I didn't attend any services or explore any of the available 'St Bernadette' tours or activities, but I did witness a number of physically disabled young people being wheeled to the shrine - I recall that being a rather humbling experience as I'd been feeling very superior, amused by all the 'tat' on sale in the shops (mints, 3-D Jesus pictures, snow-globes etc...).

(Far from uniquely!) buying souvenirs of holidays is a tradition in our family, essentially established and maintained by my mother. We collected objects, created scrapbooks etc. and I think it is chiefly in that tradition that I initially purchased the object. It was in my price range, portable, locally appropriate and a 'conversation piece' when I got home - I think I often look for objects that I somehow feel 'embody' a place. For me, at that point, its 'meaning' was simply an example of exotic kitsch Catholicism, different from any of the religious symbolism I had grown up with - and additionally it contained the 'magic water' which I could contrast with the scientific rational beliefs that I was acquiring (I had just finished my first real research training).

The initial setting for the 'Mary bottle' will have been in a shop, presumably alongside other versions of the same object and surrounded by other pilgrim souvenirs - a sort of secular/quasi-religious space dedicated to commerce based on either faith or tourism (or both). I wish I could remember for sure whether it came pre-laden with water, or whether I filled it up at the taps - I think it was the latter, but I really can't say for certain now.

For the next thirty years of so the 'Mary bottle' lived on a shelf in my parents front room, one of a number of souvenirs and family mementos. It didn't have any particular position of importance, and would have sat alongside 'a gift from [insert]' pottery - my memory is of it being reasonably out of reach, certainly not put anywhere that implied accessibility was important. I haven't asked Mum specifically what meaning the object held for her over that time, but what came up when I mentioned it were her memories of me at around that age. Whilst the water level in the bottle is not full to the top, I've no sense from her that she made any use of it and no doubt this could just be a consequence of evaporation - or perhaps it was never completely full. It wouldn't surprise me if she had chosen to use the water however, she and my father faced a number of significant health problems, there are aspects of Mum's thinking that are quite 'magical' and whilst her non-conformist faith held little truck with 'fancy stuff' there was always an ecumenical strand to her religion.

However, I think the most likely meaning the object held over all this time was 'me' - one of a set of objects around the house that reminded my mother of her son. I realise I've left Dad out of these reflections, but 'nick-nacks' were very much Mum's domain - at most Dad would get involved in making a bespoke 'device' to support something, or perhaps in mending any breakages - I don't know for sure, but I'd guess the object had little significance for him.

Over the last five years the object has been on the bedroom window-sill of my mother's flat - she relocated to Yorkshire from Devon after several years living alone. Interestingly, the 'Mary bottle' survived what was a very significant clearance of objects at that time as she downsized to a single bedroom flat. In fact the majority of Mum's ornaments went either to charity shops or refuse, including many of the objects I might have bought. I've no sense of why this object was retained and whether that implied any change in its meaning at that point. I wonder if the fact that it was a 'religious' object made it hard to simply throw in the bin and it was kept by default (it was unlikely to be of value to Oxfam for resale!). However, I also know Mum finds it hard to accept my atheism (which we only really discussed fully about a decade or so ago) and I wonder whether it held significance for her as an object that reflected an earlier time when she thought we shared a faith - again not something I have been brave enough to ask about.

Now however Mum shows no signs that she wants the 'Mary bottle' in her new single room within a residential home. Family photos, plants and flowers are the only objects that she now regularly has around her - and seems happy with this. I know she now has more significant religious doubts than at other times in her life and whilst she had a number of faith-related objects and books these aren't things which she currently appears to want to interact with. When we talked about the bottle recently it led mainly to memories of my travels and visits home and I'm sure this was always its chief significance for her.

So it comes back to me - back to a shelf, now in my study. Right now its meanings are all wrapped up in this reflection and as a consequence the object will probably continue to hold a connection with OU study and an 'academic' consideration of religion. It is also a link back to my (relative) 'youth' and the time and place it was first bought and, of course, to my own relationship with my mother. It has no connection to any super-natural realm, nor do its contents. I will certainly keep it whilst my Mum is alive - after that I'm unsure, it's time for a review of much of the clutter that I have collected that, whilst it may trigger memories for me, will have no meaning for any of my children. I see no likelihood of my returning to a religious faith - but perhaps its association with healing may also contribute to my retaining it - a reminder that there are many different ways beyond the scientific in which health is considered.

So, this object which 'in principle' is a Christian pilgrimage souvenir containing 'holy water' imbued with a healing power has most of its current meanings entwined with family dynamics and personal memories of an earlier life of exploration and discovery now complemented by an intellectualisation of culture and the arts.

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Steven Oliver

"You will recognise how the arts and humanities are relevant to issues of ethical, social and public concern"

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 28 May 2023, 21:03

Part of the reflective exercise in week 17 was to look back at the A111 module learning outcomes we considered at the start of the course and specifically to reflect on the progress we've made in developing those skills we'd initially prioritised. The one learning outcome that I felt I'd not really reflected much on was the statement:

"You will recognise how the arts and humanities are relevant to issues of ethical, social and public concern"

So I thought I might try and structure some thoughts chapter by chapter...

An opportunity in this chapter to consider how contemporary representations of characters in media may tell us something about current preoccupations. The module considered how Cleopatra was presented in different films and TV shows and how this reflected concerns and priorities of the time. Whilst Cleopatra films aren't necessarily going to turn up on a regular basis, perhaps there's an opportunity to think about how powerful female leaders are shown in film and drama.
Mary, Mother of Jesus:
A valuable module to reflect on links between Christianity and Islam (which I know very little about), and perhaps particularly on the way in which individuals might cross some 'boundaries' between the faiths in seeking intercession via Mary. Interesting to reflect on what makes Mary an active power in some people's lives and in the way in which she always seems to be in some form of tension between an officially sanctioned role and one developed from 'below'. 

Elizabeth I:
Plenty to think about here in the way in which images of power are created and the meanings they may contain - opportunities to think about whether there are contemporary parallels. Very interesting to study this around the time of Elizabeth II's death and the imagery mobilised then. Perhaps also worth reflecting on how 'succession' is best managed in other settings - what are the pro's and con's of naming a successor? 
The aspect of this chapter that made me think about wider relevance was the part touching on ideas of 'genius' and the 'sources' of whatever this is. Also a chance to reflect on the 'gendering' of genius and how such attributes may have been (are) considered when applied to women.
Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft:
Lots to think about here in terms of her insights and philosophy on gender, development and power. Many aspects of her critique of male tyranny are sadly still of contemporary relevance. Plenty to consider about the nature of difference between the sexes, the extent to which it is real and the extent to which it 'matters'
Dickens and A Christmas Carol:
Most of my reflections on contemporary issues prompted by this chapter are here.
Van Gogh
Van Gogh:
I think this chapter, more than most, got me thinking about 'go back to the object' rather than relying on the peripheral 'knowledge' that you think you've accrued about someone/something - worth keeping in mind when considering contemporary artifacts.

Academic Integrity:
Generalisable points on 'truth' and 'opinion' and on the value of intellectual property.
Greek and Roman sculpture:
Prompts to think about what contemporary artists/public figures may have to gain from associating their work with classical icons. Touched on some of the symbols of masculinity and how these may be used today.
The Blues:
This chapter got me thinking about appropriation and so many of the issues around 'membership' and 'ownership' of different traditions. Inevitably dominated by issues of particular relevance to Black populations and of what has changed and what has not.
Writing stories
Writing Stories:
The call to 'pay attention' seemed particularly relevant - to be engaged in an ongoing process of trying to closely observe the world and to try and let that observation inform your work. 
Reading Poetry:
Because the focus was on animal poetry this chapter encouraged me to think quite a lot about relationships between humans and animals - the deep challenge of anthropomorphism and the dominance of our human-centric perception.
Plato's Laches:
Reflection on approaches to education and the extent to which 'knowledge' does require personal experience. Touched on 'Virtue Ethics' which I've heard about in medicine, but don't know enough about - something to look into. The discussion in Meno led to some reflection on the meaning of 'knowledge' and 'true opinion' in an online discussion on ChatGPT the latest open access AI platform.

Remembering and Forgetting in Ireland:
Thoughts about the importance that 'forgetting' may have in conflict resolution and the establishment of stable societies. Much of value in trying to understand contemporary challenges post-Brexit and important insights into the influences of the past on relations across the British Islands.

Christianity and its material culture:
Plenty to think about in terms of how belief systems are reflected/incorporated into objects and materials. A reminder of how important such objects can be, also how there have been waves of destruction across time, interesting to think about what contemporary iconoclasm is going to look like - will we have a revolution against selfies and curated selves?

The revival of the Gothic tradition:
One aspect of this which interested me was in the reflection of political values in buildings - the contrast between the power of basing buildings in 'the past' and perhaps of looking to other traditions - celebrating modernity or 'place' as the parliaments in Wales and Scotland look to do. What do civic buildings tell us about contemporary values?
This chapter really felt like a step up in terms of these learning outcomes on 'ethical, social and public concern' - much more of a feature across all of this book. Lots to think about regarding what 'leadership' involves and also the great difficulties that individuals and groups, who are actually not so far apart, can encounter. Found it fascinating to be casting Paul Simon as 'Antigone' when listening to him trying to justify 'ignoring' politics in making 'Graceland', instantly sympathised with 'Creon'! A big message here about compromise.
The Island:
Both awful to have lived in the time of apartheid and amazing to have outlived it. The capacity for imagination and 'play' to sustain people at the worst of times came across here to me. Such an engaged piece of drama - wonder if it will eventually become a period piece, or whether it will spawn new versions, less embedded in South African history? 
Music and protest in South Africa:
Can't forget the description of prisoners singing before execution - so moving. Did make me think about what was the music of 'conformity' - how did Afrikaans music sustain their beliefs and values - would we find similarities or radical differences?
The art of Benin: 1400 to Present Day:
Got me thinking and reading a lot about questions of post-colonial issues. These are such a core challenge in British culture at the moment, one of the main reasons for being interested in history. The considerations around repatriation of art are clearly complex, but I have no doubt that these objects should be largely returned to Africa. Thinking through this chapter has made me think about what a lot of work we still have to do as a culture to accept the damaging legacies of Empire. A big role for the arts and humanities in that work!
 Buddhism in practise:
This was perhaps the 'eye-opener' chapter for me - will be fascinating to see how the reception of Buddhism continues in the West. I learned a lot about the history and diversity of Buddhism - and the 'Very short...' booklet on Buddhist ethics was an interesting extension to what insights this could give on questions such as war and violence and reproductive ethics.
 Philosophy and compassion:
A bit baffling to work through Schopenhauer's metaphysics and the reasoning he applied to his views on compassion. I don't think I can live as a pessimist, but I think the chapter gave plenty of impetus to question unthinking optimism! Philosophical study is perhaps the most straightforward topic to think of 'applying', I was interested in the aspects of discussion around the 'burden' of compassion - do think there is something to be said for reflecting on the 'joy' that such actions can also bring.

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Steven Oliver

'...the lack of any legitimating tradition within feminism'

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Only just started this book (and may dip in and out as chiefly interested in the early phase at this point) but didn't want to lose sight of the arguments Caine raises about reasons for, as she sees it, the lack of a continuity in traditions in feminism that might be seen in other political and social movements.

'...this lack of a definite and coherent feminist tradition seems itself to be a result of the oppression and subordination of women that are the target of feminism. For women in general have lacked the resources needed to establish and transmit their ideas.' 

'Moreover, feminist writers, activists, and theorists have never had the the kind of prestige or patronage which would make later generations seek connections with them as a way of enhancing their own status or prospects.'

Caine makes the point that claiming connection to a founding father in other fields like economics '...automatically conferred legitimacy and importance on male writers [...] connection with Wollstonecraft suggested only moral laxity.' (page 6)

Caine goes on to suggest the lack of a single tradition might make feminism '...appear particularly subject to discontinuities and to breaks and constantly to be in need of revival and rescue.' resulting in opportunities and challenges. The absence of a strong central tradition can make it feel a 'starting from scratch' for every generation, 'On the other hand, the lack of an institutionally based tradition has conferred great freedom on later feminists to break with the past, [...] to formulate new theories and programmes [and also] to read and reconstruct their feminist past as they choose.'

Along with being helpful in thinking about the nature of Wollstonecraft's 'legacy' I think these may be important issues in other situations, particularly thinking about traditions relevant to other oppressed groups.

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Steven Oliver

"Creating a miniature anthology"

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2024, 20:10

The 'Reading Poetry' chapter of A111 has an online activity to select our own tiny anthology of poems from 'The Faber Book of Beasts', this was my attempt - with a few added photos.

This mini-anthology was prompted by reading one of the poems, Les Murray's 'Pigs'; a startling attempt at creating a distinct animal voice, one in which we also face square on to the process of routine animal slaughter. I decided to trawl 'The Faber Book of Beasts' for other (inevitably livestock) farming poems and explore briefly what poets may have to say about this relationship between humans and the natural world. To be included I thought that there should be at least some indication of a farm or farmer somewhere in the poem (so room for Craig Raine's 'Lamb', but not for Blake's). I found about thirteen poems in total and having decided that Heaney and Hughes could be allowed only one apiece I ended up with the following ‘collection’. A number make for quite tough reading, particularly all in one sitting - but with global livestock now outweighing wild mammals and birds by a factor of ten it feels a relationship we (particularly meat-eaters like me) should work at understanding.


1.Craig Raine, 'Pretty Baa Lamb' (pp. 208-9)

Image of sheep in field

It seems right to start off the anthology with new life. The title deliberately infantilises, using the 'dream' language we keep for our own young as we talk about the farm. However, the poet is quick to detail the mechanics of tail docking and castration and despite the vigour of the lamb's suckling reflex we know its end is already in its beginning. 'Its life a death/exact in every detail,/the lamb belongs here/ in the improbable dream/we tell each other,/day after day, before it fades.'

2.Richard Wilbur 'A Black November Turkey' (pp. 37-8)Image of turkey

The poem gives a beautifully observed portrait of the turkey in its prime, but one literally 'foreshadowed' in dark plumes 'Himself his own cortège/And puffed with the pomp of death,' It may have a 'timeless look', but the clock is running and late November will bring Thanksgiving Day.


3.Norman Maccaig 'Fetching Cows' (p. 89)Inage of cows

I love this simple account of gathering in cattle, perfect in taking me to the time and place - the swaying ABA rhyming pattern occasionally disappearing in the enjambment of stanzas three and four then sounding out again. The final metaphor is a perfect descriptor of that burdened swinging walk, 'The black cow is two native carriers/Bringing its belly home, slung from a pole.', but I struggled with those 'natives' for quite a while. I was going to have to leave it as just 'of its time' (and nothing wrong with that) but then I was struck by the thought, what could be more 'colonised', more 'enslaved' by man than nature? Suddenly a wholly different view point opened up.


4.Seamus Heaney 'Cow in Calf' (p. 62)

A real sense of 'contact' in this poem, Heaney absolutely takes me into the stall with this cow - I can feel the stinging in my hand as we try and move her on. Three stanzas of free verse, but finishing in a flourish of repetition and internal rhyme, 'The udder grows. Windbags/of bagpipes are crammed there/to drone in her lowing.' 'Windbags/bagpipes' 'her.../her.../her...' 'drone/lowing/going'. Yet again the farming cycle of birth and death is emphasised, this calf, like all the others, is part of a process.


5.Les Murray 'Pigs' (p. 206)

This reminded me of another one of Les Murray's frequently anthologised poems 'The Cows on Killing Day' (https://griffinpoetryprize.com/poem/the-cows-on-killing-day/), in particular with the 'herd-speak' of 'Us’ and ‘we'. Here, verbally and syntactically it tries to shock us in to animal eyes, both when talking of an ancestral dream-time, 'Us back in cool god-shit. We ate crisp./We nosed up good rank in the tunnelled bush.' or when brought up cold against the image of hung carcasses, '...This gone-already feeling/here in no place with our heads on upside down.' Of course, human language, however twisted, constrains it to the anthropomorphic - but it is at least exciting to even try and meet animals on their own terms. 


6. Ted Hughes 'View of a Pig' (pp.275-6)Image of pig

To end the anthology we have most definitely moved here from life to meat, the recurring words are 'dead/death' and 'weight/weigh/poundage'. 'Such weight and thick pink bulk/Set in death seemed not just dead./It was less than lifeless, further off./It was like a sack of wheat.' This was one of the less violent Hughes poems in the overall anthology, but even here when the slaughter is complete and conducted by someone else, he seems compelled to engage us in some form of assault, 'I thumped it...'. The poem invites us to imagine the living pig '...its life, din, stronghold/ Of earthly pleasure...' but also asks us to acknowledge that if we want 'lard and pork' then pity is really 'off the point.'

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