A Morality Tale: The Warburg Institute and the University of London

Aby Warburg (1866-1929)

The private researcher dreams of having the limitless resources to create the personal research library. For Aby Warburg (1866-1929) the dream was a reality. A member of the famous family of wealthy German bankers, it was not the world of finance that appealed to Warburg but rather the art of the Renaissance and the manifold ways in which the classical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome had been expressed culturally and intellectually throughout history, influencing and shaping the thought and culture of Europe and beyond. Backed by family money, he built his own impressive collection of books. Warburg’s library gradually attracted like-minded scholars, becoming the hub of a growing circle of researchers. One of these scholars, the art historian Fritz Saxl (1890-1948), was instrumental in turning an essentially private library into a fully-fledged research institute. Initially attached to the University of Hamburg, the rise to power of the Nazis led to the institute’s relocation to London in 1933.

The Warburg Institute emblem

In 1944 the Warburg Institute was incorporated into the University of London with a guarantee that the university would maintain its library and preserve its independent status as a research institute in perpetuity. As a result of this apparently far-sighted decision, the University of London has been associated with one of the world’s great centres of research on cultural and intellectual history. Many important scholars have been associated with the institute—Ernst Cassirer, Erwin Panofsky, Henri Frankfort, Ernst Gombrich, Frances Yates, D.P. Walker and Anthony Grafton to name but a few—and for serious students of the classical tradition the resources of the institute are an essential aid to research. The institute has a thriving postgraduate and postdoctoral research culture, and is particularly noted for its support of young scholars (among which I was once one). The Warburg library is characterized by its unique and brilliant classification system designed to enable interdisciplinary research across art, history, literature, philosophy, theology, and much else besides; it now holds more than 350,000 volumes, over 98% of which are on open access shelves, and among them are a large proportion of rare and otherwise hard-to-find books. In addition, the institute is home to a photographic collection of more than 400,000 images.

Realistic aspirations to be considered among the world’s leading universities would encourage, it may be supposed, the University of London to nurture and support an institute with the excellence and impressive international reputation of the Warburg. Yet for years the university has effectively been undermining the institute. In particular, it has failed to honour the original trust deed between the University and the Warburg, and it has charged exorbitant rates for library space that have left the institute running at a large deficit. Faced with threats to its very existence, it is hardly surprising that relations between the university and the institute have long been strained, nor that occasional rumours circulated about the possible return of the Warburg to Germany. Matters finally came to a head in the High Court this year as the University of London legally challenged the terms of the trust deed—and lost. The judgment of 6 November rules in effect that the university has been in breach of its obligations to the institute for many years. The university has put a brave face on this, claiming that it is ‘pleased’ with the judgment; the fact that it has sought and obtained permission to appeal against the judgment, ready it would seem to spend further huge sums of money in court rather than in constructive discussion, suggests an unusual use of the word ‘pleased’. (On the legal battle and the High Court judgment see the Guardian article from 10 August 2014, the Times Higher Education Supplement report from 6 November, the press release on the Warburg Institute website, and an essay by Charles Hope in the London Review of Books, volume 36 number 23, 4 December 2014, pp. 32-4.)

The saga is a dispiriting reflection of modern academia. Universities, colleges and many departments are increasingly run in ways that resemble the world of corporate business; senior management, as well as many heads of department, focus on budgets, assets, profit and loss. Business models and strategies rather than scholarly and intellectual culture are the new order within the university and many of its departments. The research and scholarly value of the Warburg Institute, obvious to those of us who work on cultural and intellectual history but almost impossible to quantify on the accountant’s spreadsheet, counts for little alongside the narrow but ‘measurable’ productivity and outputs so beloved of current policymakers and university management. The University of London, it would appear, regards the Warburg Institute as a potential asset, but not in ways that demonstrate an understanding and fostering of the research culture that has been, and still is, at the heart of the institute’s international reputation.

There was a time, and not that long ago, when the university was an institution that protected and valued research and scholarship; it understood that academic work could not be reduced simply to figures on a balance sheet. The change in university culture over the last two or three decades is illustrated by another story involving the University of London. In 1956 a set of the earliest folios of Shakespeare was bequeathed to the university library, with the condition that they would be housed there permanently. The value of such a bequest would have been understood not only by literary scholars, but also by university management, for its contribution to the research culture and reputation of the university. How does modern university management value this bequest? At £3-5 million and an asset to be auctioned off. Due to a public outcry from scholars, the University of London abandoned its plans to sell the folios (see the Guardian, 5 September 2013), so for now at least the folios, like the Warburg Institute, are safe—but precariously so given the mindset of modern university management.

Who would confidently place faith in the university to nurture research and scholarship in the humanities today? Aby Warburg was fortunate enough not to have to rely on institutions to support his research. It would hardly be surprising if, alongside the respect and admiration in which he is widely held by scholars, there is also a fair degree of envy.

Like a Strange Marriage

I have not always been a good friend to Gale, which is a pity since, among other things, he has written a book on the importance of friendship. Too often I have found him to be burdensome, and there is no doubt that he can be a bore. The urge to abandon and forget him has filled me many times. Yet it is like a strange marriage: for better or for worse I am dutifully bound to him for life.

We first met in a library many years ago. I’d already heard a little about him; not much, but enough to suspect that I might find him interesting. Our initial encounter confirmed my suspicion: his knowledge of philosophy, theology, history and literature was impressive and enviable, and he brought to it a clear, if unorthodox, intelligence. Above all, it was Gale’s ideas that drew me to him, not that I agreed with many of them. Some of his thinking seemed wild and bizarre, the result of a rather obsessive commitment to the philosophy of Plato and a predilection for understanding history according to the Bible. But there was never any hint of madness; rather, I considered him simply wrongheaded and misguided, but attractively so for his assured and calm conviction that he was in pursuit of the truth. Over time, it is true, my enthusiasm paled as I sensed that he embodied a wasted brilliance; intellectually I grew to realize that for all his vast erudition, he was trapped in a dead end. His ceaseless, learned harping on his favourite themes could become tiresome and frustrating, and almost pathetic: I have come to think of him as akin to Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, desiccated, pedantic and increasingly hard to like. It’s a marvel, therefore, that I have continued to find time for him—but then I have always been oddly attracted to heroic futility, and Gale’s whole life seems to be the epitome of that.

As I got to know him better I learnt that he was originally from Devon, that he had had an aborted academic career at Oxford, and that after Oxford he spent a year living in France before moving to London to write and privately tutor. It seemed he wasn’t particularly good at the latter; there were stories of certain tutorial disasters, about which Gale has consistently remained reticent. Indeed, he is not forthcoming about much of his life. I have never been able to ascertain any interest in romance or relationships, and of his sexuality I have come to the conclusion that he has consciously chosen celibacy and may very well be asexual. He dislikes alcohol and considers smoking to be loathsome, only adding to the wonder that I consider myself under an obligation of loyalty to him. It is a loyalty arising from the fact that I liked and admired him once, and, every so often, find myself liking and admiring him still.

Above all, I once vowed to stand by him, no matter how wayward his ideas, how annoying his intellectual faults, and how sparse his friendships. I met him at a critical point in my life, and without doubt I owe to him an important meaning and direction that I found at a difficult time, however much I have moved on since then. So I am still happy to give him my attention, even to raise a glass to him. And I am still resolved to make a pilgrimage to his headstone, lying somewhere deep within Bunhill Fields cemetery, on which there is the simple engraving: ‘Theophilus Gale M.A., Born 1628, Died 1678.’

Possibly my feelings are similar to those of many PhD students: we cast around to find a suitably interesting subject, frequently lighting upon some neglected figure from the past who then becomes the focus of our energies and devotions for several years. Such was my discovery of the nonconformist theologian and philosopher, Theophilus Gale, the author of several lengthy tomes hard to surpass for their scholarship or for their ultimate intellectual failure. I could never make a convincing case that he is someone really worth reading, apart from by a few dedicated specialists of certain early modern currents of thought. But nor could I ever say that he deserves to be neglected and forgotten.

I often reflect on my relationship with him: the reasons why I chose to work on him in the first place; the sense that he might have been pleased that at last, after several centuries of little more than cursory attention, someone was prepared to read the several thousand pages of his writings; and the almost mystical notion that in finding him and giving him something of life again, that this may also happen to me (or to any one of us) at some point far in the future when I am long gone and almost completely forgotten. Perhaps this explains the emotional bond I feel towards Gale: it crystallizes that need for the living to love and to cherish the significance of the past and the memory of the dead.

The Way of the Ronin

Once upon a time, provided you had the money, some knights could be hired for pay. They were the original freelancers: possessing a horse and a lance, and with no bond of loyalty to a lord, they were free. In feudal Japan the equivalent was the ronin, the masterless samurai famously depicted in Akira Kurosawa’s films Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The direct modern descendent of the knight-for-hire and ronin is the mercenary. But as I sorted out my purchase and sales ledgers yesterday evening, I romantically imagined that I too was part of this tradition. The knights and the ronin probably spent little time searching for mislaid receipts and invoices, but as free men offering their extensive skills in an open market are they not my spiritual ancestors…?

What I’ll be wearing when completing my tax return

Well, probably not. But it’s a thought worth holding onto when I have to complete my tax self-assessment form. And I am drawn to what might be termed the freelancing philosophy. At the heart of this is the idea of being bound only to oneself, of being free. Being bound to a lord (or employer as we know them these days) is an uncertain business. Some are great and will value both you and your work; others, no matter what excellent service and loyal, even self-sacrificing, commitment is given them, treat you as little more than a figure in their budgets and will terminate the bond without even so much as a farewell. Far more appealing is to work for yourself, since you will be hard pushed to find anyone who values you or your work as highly. Of course, there are still budgets to worry about, but at least you will value yourself enough to want to continue employing you.

So one reason for going freelance is to step out of the occasionally ruthless, devaluing world of working for an employer and to step into the always caring, valuing world of working for oneself. That may sound like a negative reason—surely freelancing is a viable choice not simply because the alternative is generally worse? Indeed, to become a freelancer should be seen as a wholly positive decision. In my case it was a choice that I had long been drawn towards but had lacked the confidence, or what I thought to be the right circumstances, to venture my first step along this path. Recently, however, everything seemed right to make a go of it. And now, having advanced a few paces, I’m determined to keep going—for there is so much to love about this journey.

I love the feeling that (HMRC notwithstanding) I make the rules of my work. I can try different things, explore new directions, knowing that I am answerable only to myself for my decisions. If I have an interesting idea for a project I do not need to seek the approval of an employer to start working on it. I can freely pursue leftfield ideas. I have flexibility when it comes to choosing among the opportunities which come my way, and can focus on areas that I am passionate about. I have greater control over my time, and am able to allocate it throughout my life in ways that are meaningful to me. I am responsible for my success and failure—and that’s quite a motivation for devoting energy and effort to ensure the former.

Of course, freelancing is far from easy. I’ve only just begun this new life and quickly I have realized how much there is to learn. Marketing and networking, accounting and tax returns, balancing time and money, pitching ideas and experimenting with projects, and learning (as the medieval knight must have done) about getting back on the horse again whenever you fall off. I foresee numerous challenges and uncertainties ahead—which is precisely what the knight and ronin would have relished about the quest.

Quiet in the Classroom

One of the most rewarding experiences of teaching undergraduate students is the lively, engaged seminar group. When ideas and views and vigorous discussion are flying around the classroom, when the group are interacting enthusiastically and brightly, then I sense that clear progress is being made. Conversely, few things are more dispiriting than the seminar group in which stony silence is the default mode of the students. When it is a struggle to elicit even brief comments, when before me are averted, nervous and embarrassed expressions from which issue not a word, then I begin to wonder what they are doing in the class—and, indeed, what I am doing there.

Increasingly teachers are guided by buzzwords such as interactive and active learning, student participation and group work. We are encouraged to assess students according to their abilities in these areas, and to devise tasks and learning resources to encourage them—force them even—actively to participate in the classroom. But are we right to focus so heavily on these things, such that those students who resist interaction and are reluctant to be vocal are flagged up as needing support and intervention on the grounds that they are in danger of falling short of the learning outcomes and objectives of their studies?

I started reflecting on this question as a result of an unusual teaching experience. I was convening a first-year undergraduate history module, comprising weekly lectures over two terms. Following the lecture the students divided into six seminar groups, each numbering about twenty members. I was responsible for teaching two of these groups, running back-to-back seminars. The first group ranked among the liveliest, most enjoyable classes I have ever taught. Participation levels were remarkably high: most students contributed to the weekly discussion topics, and no student sat through the entire course without speaking. Contributions were consistently engaging, interesting and lively; strong but good-natured debates were frequent.

But the uplifting feeling I had as I wrapped up this class was always clouded by the prospect of the next seminar. Week after week, no matter what I tried, the second group of students sat through the class in near total silence. Two or three of them, perhaps unable to resist the uncomfortable absence of contributions, would venture their thoughts, but even they developed a reluctance to speak. Over half the students uttered not a single word in front of the whole class at any stage of the course. Even when divided into smaller groups of three or four, in the hope that this would prompt greater interaction, it was striking how quiet they were. Like the proverbial blood from a stone, drawing out any sort of discussion seemed impossible; only the knowledge that relief from this teaching torture would, however slowly the clock advanced, eventually come.

Aside from the quiet seminar group being the least enjoyable class I have ever taught, I had understandable concerns about the students: whereas the lively group were breezing along, more than meeting expectations of student engagement and progress, the quiet bunch appeared to be advancing hardly at all. But I worried unnecessarily. For when it came to their academic progress, the quiet group collectively outperformed all the other seminar groups, exhibiting in their work a bright intelligence and enthusiastic engagement barely detectable in the classroom. In fact, they outperformed the rest of the year by some margin: although they were only one group out of six on the course, they accounted for just over half of all the First class grades. The lively group, on the other hand, returned mediocre results: no Firsts, and several notably weak performances. Moreover, the two or three most vocal members of the quiet group performed less well than those students who invariably said little or nothing during seminars.

My teaching experience qualifies, of course, only as anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless I have observed that especially vocal students very rarely performed at the highest academic level, and that many of them ended up with weak grades; in contrast, academically the highest achieving students I have taught were those who were relatively quiet in the classroom. (Note that I am not saying quiet students always do well academically, only that those who do well tend to be quiet; some of the weakest students have also been quiet.)

None of this is likely to be surprising to anyone who has read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). Although I have reservations about categorizing people according to the somewhat schematic introversion-extroversion spectrum, Cain presents a vigorous and important defence of the need to value the quiet personality—and our social and cultural failure to do so. As she notes, western culture does not make life easy for such personalities:

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. (p. 4)

In Cain’s view, introversion, which she suggests accounts for as much as half the American population, ‘is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology’. The Extrovert Ideal, its roots in works such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and the celebration of the successful salesperson as a heroic type, can be seen all around us, most obviously in the plethora of reality television programmes in which putting oneself forward, making oneself heard, embracing attention and celebrity, engaging fully in, and preferably leading, team activities are extolled as unchallenged virtues. Not to speak up, not to participate fully in the group, is regarded as a sign of weakness and a personal deficiency. That many people tend towards quiet reflection and creativity may be accepted; but increasingly there is a shrinking social and cultural place for the quiet personality.

This way of thinking has influenced how university students are taught. The quiet student is in fact no longer quiet to the tutor; instead we are prompted to hear alarm bells warning us that the student is not developing in the right way. We are urged to promote active learning and to move away from so-called passive methods—the student who listens and takes notes, reflects and thinks, reads and writes, but says little in class, is labelled a passive learner and hence in need of pedagogic approaches designed to draw him or her to a more active learning style. So tutors are encouraged to utilize more group-work assignments and assessment based on class participation (one former colleague would mark a student as present only if they contributed to the class discussion). In this respect education is simply mirroring our present cultural state of the unquestioned virtue of the active individual and the assumed deficiency of the passive individual.

One of the functions of a university education is, of course, to help students prepare for the world outside education. It is understandable and right that an attempt is made to equip students with the experience and skills necessary to survive in a society biased towards an Extrovert Ideal. At the same time universities need not mimic this society, particularly when, by doing so, they risk creating a learning environment uncomfortable to a large proportion of students. Encouraging the quiet, passive student to experiment with more active approaches is one thing; building a pedagogic approach on the premise that active is right and passive is wrong is something else. It would be better to take note of a comment made by Cain in relation to school education but relevant also to university teaching:

There’s a lot of attention in education paid to difference in learning style, and I think not enough understanding of differences of temperament and how that shapes who children are and how they learn and socialize. (‘How to Teach a Young Introvert’; Susan Cain in conversation with Kate Torgovnick May, February 2014)

When I reflect on my lively and quiet seminar groups it occurs to me that my worries were misplaced. The quiet students were, for the most part, doing fine; hopefully they benefited from the attempts to give them experience of group work and class participation, but these things could be developed over time and at a pace suitable to their personality. Above all, academically they were performing at a good level. But perhaps I should have distributed my concerns more to the lively group. They may have benefited from being steered in the direction of passive and reflective approaches, reining in a little their extrovert qualities.

In an academic discipline such as history, where the foundation of doing well lies in occupying oneself with a great deal of the essentially solitary tasks of reading, thinking and writing—generally the sort of activities extroverts find under-stimulating—a teaching approach that blindly subscribes to the mantra of active learning may be letting students down in two ways: first, by undervaluing the qualities and progress of the introvert student and overlooking how stressful they may find a focus on active learning in class and in assignments; and secondly—and ironically—by excessively encouraging in extrovert students skills and traits they already possess at the expense of helping them foster other necessary qualities that do not come easily to them.

In Memoriam ‘Wag’

Both individually and socially we engage in acts of remembrance. We commemorate and memorialize, sometimes controversially, sometimes with mistakes and distortions, but always because memory is important. For memory is the fabric out of which our identity is fashioned. We remember the past—or think we remember it—because it is the past that provides the lines and contours of the present. The more we forget, the less we know who we are; and profound amnesia invariably leads to a serious disturbance of identity. One reason why history is essential is to prevent the loss that follows from forgetting.

To study history is to be made acutely aware that the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived have left little or no trace. Only rarely, and then usually owing to astonishing chance, has anything other than the names reached us of one or two out of the millions and countless generations who worked the land, who serviced farms, villages, towns and lords, who established households and raised families—and there are millions more for whom not even a name will ever be attached in the historical record. Within such vast gaps is it possible to remember?

Charles Reginald Pearce (1911-89), ‘Wag’ to his family and friends, was my maternal grandfather. Suffolk was his county: he was born, he lived and worked, and he died there, and probably spent no more than a few days in total anywhere else. In this most rural of places, where fields and soil are the body and blood of the community, he never owned any land—but he worked it throughout his life, one of the thousands of farm workers who together secured the most fundamental needs of society.

Wag’s life would almost certainly have comprised decades of toil. For most of the twentieth century few occupations were as hard and poor as that of the farm worker. Little value was attached to agricultural workers: pay was pitiful and considerably lower than those working in industry, insecurity and exploitation were rife. Many were as good as worked to death—they ‘toppled over’ at the end of their working life, as one farm worker comments in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield (1969). George Orwell frequently noted the dreadful plight of the farm worker (see, for example, his 1931 essay on ‘Hop-picking’), and in his novel Coming Up For Air (1939) Orwell’s narrator George Bowling reminisces: ‘The farm-hands worked frightful hours for fourteen shillings a week and ended up as worn-out cripples with a five-shilling pension and an occasional half-crown from the parish.’

But of my grandfather’s personal experience I know little. I remember him fondly: he talked sparingly, but he was always warm, humorous and kind, and had an aura of contentment. He played a good game of village bowls (there were several trophies on his mantelpiece) and an intimidating game of rummy–intimidating because of his tactic of announcing at tense points in the hand that he needed only ‘one card’. Despite the enduring poverty and meagre circumstances (it was only in the late 1960s, for example, that his home first had electricity), he seemed to have been satisfied with his life: the roots that he had established in the land and his work were themselves, it seemed, more than adequate compensation for the hardships and lack of material rewards.

It was only later, however, after he had died, that I truly reflected on his life. As a child, for all my love for my mother’s family, I embodied the conventional superiority towards common rural folk. Suffolk people seemed a strange, unsophisticated, backward, amusing lot, and their rustic concern for turnips and beetroot, crop rotation and weather patterns, struck me as primitive and hardly deserving attention in comparison to the higher civilization of cars and computer games, Thatcherite economics and mortgage patterns, of the Essex that I inhabited.

In my first year at university, a few months after the death of my grandfather, I had to write an essay on eighteenth-century agriculture. An impossibly tedious topic, I thought—but somehow I needed to summon up the enthusiasm to get started on it. So I forced myself to think—to meditate even—on what the land meant, on the work that goes into it, on the vitality of this work, for without the labours of millions throughout the centuries, among whom Charles Pearce was one, nothing else would be possible. And suddenly, not only was I able to write my essay with real interest, but I also came to a deep respect for the life and work of my grandfather.

WagLast year I saw a photograph of Wag sitting on a tractor; it must have been from the 1960s, a decade which witnessed the mechanization of the agricultural economy accelerate in pace. It was a revolution: centuries, millennia even, of traditional practices were disappearing; an entire way of life and working was being obliterated within a thin slither of historical time. My grandfather was one of the last generation to have worked in the older rural economy; with him, and his rural contemporaries, would die our last connection to a social and working world that had been the bedrock of our history. George Ewart Evans introduces his oral history of a Suffolk village, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay (1956), on precisely this theme:

An attempt has been made in this book to record what is left of the old rural community as seen in the East Suffolk village of Blaxhall and district around it. For this purpose, the experience and memories of a group of old people have been set down… [T]he oral tradition is at this time of the greatest historical importance. During the past fifty or so years the life of the countryside has been revolutionized and the rate of change within this period has been greater than it has ever been in recorded history… At present, old people in this countryside are survivors from another era. They belong essentially to a culture that has extended in unbroken line since at least the early Middle Ages. They are in some respects the last repositories of this culture; and for this reason should have the respect given to any source of valuable historical information… [O]nce this knowledge is under the soil no amount of digging will ever again recover it.

Gazing at the photograph of my grandfather astride the tractor, I wanted to ask him about his life, what he felt about tractors replacing horses, his experience of the social and cultural changes of his world, and his memories of the old world. But he is gone and with him the experience and memory is lost, almost forgotten now—which is why the work of George Ewart Evans, of Ronald Blythe in Akenfield (which also preserves the memories of a Suffolk village during the same period), and memoirs such as Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959), similarly suffused with the sense of a long age in rural England drawing to a close, are so valuable. Among other things, they are memorials to a world that we have lost but without which our own world would not be.

My grandfather was not only a farm worker; he was also a husband and father. He married Rosie (1920-2005) and together they brought into the world, and brought up, Mick, my uncle, and Brenda, my mother. Wag and Rosie had four grandchildren: my cousins Jason and Caroline, my sister Anna, and me. There are great grandchildren too. Even if the life of Charles Reginald Pearce leaves little impression on the historical record, traces exist.

Wolf Hall Revisited

Wolf Hall Revisited (pdf file)

Attached to this post is a long review of Wolf Hall, both Hilary Mantel’s novel and the stage adaptation by Mike Poulton.

I’ve newolf-hall-mantelver been particularly drawn to the historical novel. But Mantel’s Wolf Hall clearly could not be ignored, not only due to the wide acclaim it received but also for the simple reason that her subject, Thomas Cromwell, is someone who figures large in the Tudor history courses I have taught. I was curious, if somewhat sceptical, whether the novel would have historical value: as an historian of sixteenth-century England, would Wolf Hall contribute in any way to my understanding of the period? Could it, as certain historical films do, approach the past in interesting ways that fall outside the traditional practices of historians? Inevitably a stage adaptation invites a view on why the original was adapted in the first place. Beyond that, similar questions can be asked about the historical merits of Poulton’s play.

My review attempts to address all these questions. Suffice to say, my responses to both novel and play were not what I had expected in advance.

The King of Sweden and I

When I tell people that I am an historian I am often met with an enthusiastic declaration of interest in history alongside a regret that this interest had once been dulled by dictation. For a long time the principal method of teaching history seems to have been to dictate long narratives of facts and events. Certainly that was my experience at secondary school in the 1980s. In a monotonously metallic voice and military manner (as befitting the Commanding Officer of the school’s Combined Cadet Force), my history teacher would, week after week, term after term, read from his script, only occasionally breaking off to invite questions from the mostly numbed class. History seemed an unchallenging subject (a good thing I thought at the time), but also painfully dreary (a bad thing). That I would, after such inauspicious beginnings, end up becoming an historian seems an unlikely tale. But then along came the king of Sweden and suddenly I got interested.

Sweden struck me at the time as a cool and appealing place. My chequered teenage knowledge of the country associated it with solid cars, metronomic tennis players, wholesome pop music, racy pornography, liberalism, egalitarianism, neutrality and pacifism–I was quite drawn to various of these things. Sweden compared extremely favourably in my mind with the Britain of Thatcher. Britain stood for militarism and social injustice; Sweden for peace and social justice. (Teenagers ought to be forgiven such simplistic thinking.) And in my limited historical understanding I somehow assumed that Sweden had long been a country of virtuous and pacific ways–it had never featured in any of the history I had done, so I presumed that, while the rest of Europe was busy ending one war then beginning another, the Swedes were quietly getting on with building a welfare state and a prosperous liberal society.

Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

So I was astonished when, in the middle of the teacher’s wearying narrative about the Thirty Years War (a remarkably violent conflict, largely in Germany–you can understand why I supposed history remained rather static), seemingly out of nowhere the Swedes, led from the front by King Gustavus Adolphus, invaded Germany. Surely they would go the way of the Danes before them, I guessed, and quickly succumb to comprehensive defeat. But no, Gustavus, the Lion of the North, won a spectacular and crushing military victory against a larger force, turned the tide of the conflict which had hitherto been going only one way, and established the foundations for Sweden to emerge from the war as one of the leading European powers with territories extending around the greater part of the Baltic. All this seemed wondrous, both because it was achieved by a country with a tiny population, and because it revealed an imperialist phase in Swedish history that I would never have previously imagined. I remained equally gripped as I learnt about the fortunes of this empire, particularly in the Great Northern War at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Danes, the Poles and the Russians combined in an effort to dismantle the Swedish empire, now ruled by the 18-year-old Charles XII. Naturally I was impressed at how this teenager defeated each of Sweden’s enemies in turn, displaying a remarkable military genius. But superior numbers generally win in the end: the Russian army under Tsar Peter the Great inflicted a crushing defeat on the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, resulting in the exile of Charles in Constantinople. Even then he attempted an audacious and valiant recovery of the Swedish position, before eventually falling in battle (probably accidentally shot by one of his own men) in 1718.

Charles XII of Sweden; mezzotint portrait by John Faber the Younger; early 18th century

I have often wondered why it was early modern Swedish history that got me hooked on the past. Most likely it was the apparent incongruity of the imperialist history of a country that had become synonymous with peace and neutrality. I also felt slightly ashamed to be so keen on this history–after all, for all my avowed liberal and socialist views, here I was drawn to, and consciously fascinated by, a clear example of imperialism and military adventure (even after I learnt how the Swedish army, consisting mostly of mercenaries, was notorious for its brutality against soldier and civilian alike). Perhaps this is a good example of what history can do: it can surprise us, not only in relation to our assumptions and expectations of the world around us, but also in relation to ourselves. It also reveals that, even when the presentation is uninspiring, the past can always touch us in arresting and exciting ways.

Poster for the 1933 film, Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Rouben Mamoulian

My fascination with early modern Swedish history continued at university (and was much indebted to the work of Michael Roberts, the leading historian of the period), but gradually my wider interests moved onto the history of ideas. I found myself focusing more on the meditations of Descartes than the martial exploits of Gustavus Adolphus. But even then Sweden added an irresistibly exciting touch to, and connection between, my interests. For Descartes, at the end of his life, became the personal philosopher of none other than Queen Christina of Sweden (the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, notorious for her later conversion to Catholicism and retirement in Rome, and glamorized in film by Greta Garbo). Accustomed to warmer climates and sleeping late, Descartes suffered under Christina’s insistence on beginning her studies at five in the morning. A year after arriving in Sweden, the great French philosopher died in Stockholm.