Notes from the classroom: Reflecting on Foucault’s biopolitics in 2022

The twentieth-century philosopher and historian Michel Foucault has exerted an enormous influence on contemporary philosophy and countless other fields, from ethics and politics to the histories of ideas, of sexuality, and of medicine. As political scientist Brent Pickett notes, ‘a proper encounter with Foucault’s work permanently changes one’s understanding of how people are governed in modern society’ (Pickett, 2005, p. 9).

Together with two colleagues in the Department of History, Chris Millard and James Shaw, I have convened a module this semester that focuses on one of Foucault’s core concepts: biopolitics. Foucault saw biopolitics – that is, how science, technology, and medicine intersect with the powers of the state to control populations – as a defining aspect of the modern age. In other words, the emergence of a biopolitical system in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries distinguishes our modern world from the premodern societies that came before.

But is there really such a strict division between the modern and premodern worlds? Can’t we find ‘biopolitical features’, such as the taking of a census, in the deep past, too?

Our module explores this question of chronology, (re-)examining both premodern and modern societies alike through the prism of biopolitics. With each week’s seminars considering historical moments, topics, and themes over time, it’s also provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the field of medical history and how our current moment might be viewed in the future.

First, the history of medicine has traditionally taken a long view of medical developments, starting with western medicine’s classical origins (Hippocrates, Galen, etc.) and tracing subsequent advances through the ages. This teleological interpretation of medical history, however, is highly problematic, not least because it presents a carefully curated, western-centred narrative that focuses on famous figures (almost entirely white and male) and their triumphs. In this light, the history of medicine can be followed like an exercise in connect-the-dots, revealing a near constant path of progress.

Thankfully, recent generations of scholars have moved the field far beyond this simplistic storyline. Researchers today, for example, are exploring a wider range of medical practitioners, patients, and types of medical practices while integrating a diversity of sources to try to unlock previously overlooked or unheard voices from the past. Yet the field’s traditional narrative has left a lasting legacy and its effects can be seen in how we often think about medical progress. Put simply, as time goes on, medicine improves as better information, techniques, drugs, etc. replace the old.

But is this always the case? Are all past medical traditions inherently inferior to our current ones?

Edward Jenner vaccinating patients in the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras: the patients develop features of cows. Coloured etching by J. Gillray, 1802. Wellcome CollectionAttribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

To be clear, I’m certainly not advocating for a return to an age without antibiotics, germ theory, or vaccines, and I’m incredibly grateful for the achievements of modern medicine. However, I also think there’s a danger in maintaining an unbridled confidence in modern, western medicine that automatically disregards, or even actively disdains, medical traditions from earlier periods and/or different cultures.

An uncritical dismissal of premodern medicine not only seems methodologically suspect and indicative of modern biases, but it also overlooks potentially valuable medical knowledge and practices. Recent work, for example, has demonstrated that medieval medical treatments may be relevant in the fight against antibiotic resistance. Historico- and ethnopharmaceutical studies thus offer exciting opportunities for future drug discovery research – opportunities we cannot afford to ignore.

Moving beyond pharmacy, let’s consider humoral theory, a system of medicine that emerged in antiquity and generally remained popular until it was replaced by germ theory. The idea that health derives from keeping the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) in balance might sound absurd in a modern medical setting. Yet, by rejecting, if not ridiculing, this system without considering it in context, we miss its potentially helpful emphasis on balance and its integration into more holistic approaches to health.

Again, I’m not suggesting we revert back to humoralism or follow the medical advice recorded in medieval manuscripts indiscriminately. I do, however, think that studying this long history is worthwhile, whether it offers potentially practical insights or enables us to re-evaluate our current circumstances from a different perspective.

Indeed, taking a long view of medical history should, I think, provide us with both hope for the future as well as a sense of humility. There is no doubt that medicine has progressed – and at a particularly extraordinary rate in the past two centuries – and I certainly hope that we continue to make progress. There is always room for improvement.

So, what will be said about medicine of the twenty-first century in 2200? Or in 2500? How will our responses to the pandemic be judged by future generations? Or take chemotherapy: if/when cancer treatments become more effective and have less damaging side effects, will chemotherapy be seen as comparable to, say, premodern drugs that are now thought to have hurt patients more than they helped them?

Ultimately, by looking to the past, we can see that we’re not simply travelling down an unwavering path of medical progress – it’s a lot more complicated. Yet, even if the path isn’t straight, the overall trajectory is forward-moving. As we reach new horizons, however, we shouldn’t forget (or be unwilling) to look to the past and survey our new vantage points from multiple perspectives. A deeper understanding of the history of health and medicine can help us to think about our current circumstances and adapt to an ever-changing global healthscape.

Claire Burridge currently holds a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship in the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. She works on early medieval health and medicine and is particularly interested in exploring the transmission of medical knowledge during the Carolingian period. You can find out more about her research project in Sheffield, ‘Crossroads: The Evolution of Early Medieval Medicine in Global and Local Contexts’, on her project website.

Cover image: A man vaccinating a young child held by its mother, with other members of the household looking on. Oil painting by L.-L. Boilly, 1807(?). Wellcome CollectionAttribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

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European history and ‘eurocentrism’ – a conversation between Dina Gusejnova (LSE) and Charles West (Sheffield)


Over the past few weeks, Dina Gusejnova and Charles West have been discussing over email what ‘Eurocentrism’ means for historians studying and teaching European history. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

There’s lots of conversations going on at the moment about ‘eurocentrism’, and how it relates to the study and teaching of European history, both in schools and in universities (see for instance the project Why Europe, Which Europe?). I take eurocentrism to mean the conceptual privileging of Europe over the rest of the world, as if this part of the world’s history were intrinsically more important than anywhere else’s, and can serve as a universal benchmark for measuring progress.

But it’s increasingly common to hear people saying ‘eurocentric’ when they just mean ‘focusing on the geographical region of Europe’. This seems to me to be an unhelpful slippage. Studying the history of the geographical region of Europe is not in itself eurocentric. It depends how you do it. This might be a point that hardly needs to be made, but still: there are lots of good, non-eurocentric reasons to study, and ways of studying, European history.

And that’s all the more self-evident for people living in Europe. Place matters in history writing, because the world necessarily looks different depending on where one looks at it from: none of us has a God’s eye view of the world, and we need to remember our own positionality. So I see it as neither surprising nor intrinsically problematic if European history features more strongly in European countries’ school and university curricula than elsewhere, for example in India or Kenya or the United States (though of course other geographies and scales of history are and must be studied and taught in Europe too, for all kinds of important reasons: indeed I’ve contributed to this in a small way myself). I wondered what you thought about this as an historian of modern Europe?

First I’d like to say it’s really great to be able to return to a subject which, I recall, we last talked about on a work trip to India. The purpose of this trip was to foster institutional connections with universities in India, which provided a relevant context for the discussion.

Colloquially, overcoming ‘eurocentrism’ often means reducing the study of European history as such. The use of the term is often linked to demands for decolonisation, but in some sense, all historians need to think self-critically about their practice, whether they are historians of Europe or any other part of the world.

If the critique of eurocentrism has any constructive meaning for historical research and teaching, it is as a critique of a certain petrified view of modernity. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in Provincializing Europe in 2000, eurocentrism is a philosophy of history which ‘goes to the heart of the question of political modernity in non-Western societies’ by imposing a ‘“first in Europe, then elsewhere”’ mode of thinking about historical time. This mode of thinking was pernicious not only because it placed Europe at the centre, but also because it affected approaches to the non-western world, where those under its spell were prone to ‘replacing “Europe” by some locally constructed center.’ Histories of modern political economy have always been linked to the study of the moral sciences, looking at issues such as agency, complicity, and the eternal question of who benefits. Depending on the epoch of study, ‘European hegemony’ emerged through the expansion of a limited set of European powers and transnational actors, including the Catholic Church or such corporations as the Jesuits, business ventures like the East India Company, the Hanseatic League, etc.. It could also be seen as a product of the globalisation of the trade in people and commodities, the exploitation of labour and many other dimensions of the story. It is worth pointing out that Europeans were neither the sole beneficiaries of imperialism, colonialism, and associated forms of hegemony, nor were they always the main agents of this process. Like other groups of populations in the world, Europeans today are in some respects products of these processes. In fact, according to Marx, the agent of modernisation is capitalism itself – an abstract force with destructive power. Whichever story about modernity one takes on board, what matters for historians of modernity is that the very idea of Europe as a subject has been one of the by-products of modernisation, and this explains how the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ has been deployed rhetorically in the past.

At the time of Chakrabarty’s book, around the year 2000, many American historians were beginning to think of themselves as the ‘last Eurocentric generation’. Others who were working on areas outside Europe at the time still felt ‘stranded at the discipline’s periphery’. At one level, a lot has changed in the intervening twenty years when it comes to the geographical ‘provincialisation’ of Europe. The study of non-European history has been valorised more than before and uncoupled from European centres (though perhaps not enough) at European and American history departments, journals and institutions. In the early 2000s as an undergraduate in Cambridge, I witnessed this even in the physical transformation of intellectual spaces around me, as I cycled past a building where the words ‘Oriental Studies’ were quietly erased and replaced with ‘Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies’ – though of course the very assemblage of such large geographical areas in one subject group still bear the structural traces of empire. Faculties such as History and Classics may not have been visibly affected to the same degree, but in these disciplines, too, the changes of the past twenty years have been profound. Many grands récits of modern history now have a tone of greater humility when it comes to Europe’s place in the world. Such specialists in non-European history as Kenneth Pomeranz or Jürgen Osterhammel, who have both established their intellectual authority by working on China rather than Europe, have argued influentially that the ‘great divergence’ between Europe and other parts of the world in terms of wealth and growth was due to fortuitous factors such as the geographical distribution of coal; they used comparative and partly counterfactual arguments which have opened up a range of new approaches which contextualise Europe within modernisation processes in global history. In 2004, Chris Bayly, the preeminent historian of the British empire, famously announced that ‘all local, national or regional histories must, in important ways, therefore, be global histories. It is no longer really possible to write “European” or “American” history in a narrow sense’. One historian has recently described ‘area studies’, which was one domain of research where non-European histories emerged in the twentieth century, as a European-dominated ‘struggle for world knowledge’ (in a quip to Fritz Fischer’s critique of Germany in WWI, “The Struggle for World Supremacy”). In short, in the discipline of history, recent historiography has been correcting the representation of Europe in its domain in ways similar to the revisions which geographers have introduced to a Mercator map: Europe has been recontextualised, adjusted proportionally to its significance, moved out of focus, indeed, provincialized, if you like.

I find it remarkable that the critique of ‘eurocentrism’ is not only still prominent in meta-historiographical discourse twenty years after its latest emergence in history, but that the critical meaning of the term has become reduced. It now usually implies the idea of valuing European history over that of other geographical areas or populations, not, as in Chakrabrarty’s interpretation, for instance, teleological thinking as such. To name only one example, in 2020, in a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times, the historian and theorist of postcolonial political thought Adom Getachew insisted that ‘a Eurocentrism that valorized European civilization as the apex of human achievement’ has been a mainstay in academic culture, adding that elements of nineteenth-century imperialism continue to resonate in the anti-immigrant politics in the EU.

This kind of critique of eurocentrism has a three-fold direction: it is first, directed against academic and public history which has marginalised or exoticised research on geographical areas outside Europe; secondly, it is a critique of historical pedagogy and practice, which affects the ideas and self-valorisation of a much larger circle of people; finally, it is an institutional critique of inequalities in the modern world.

Generally, I think it is a welcome phenomenon that we Europeanists have to think more self-critically about our subject. But I also think that the concept of eurocentrism, if it is to be productive in critical pedagogy and research, cannot be projected outward on an imaginary discrete ‘eurocentric’ other. There is still a lot of work to be done within the historiography of Europe itself in unpacking the emergence of different ideas of Europeanness, and there is also a need for greater contextual and comparative work on a global as well as a local scale. The continent has its own Mercator-like distortions, which make some nations appear larger or more sharply than others. This is also true of urban versus rural histories, etc.

Let me give some more practical examples of the way I use critiques of eurocentrism in my teaching experience in my undergraduate course on interwar cultural history (Interwar worlds: the cultural consequences of the First World War). By contrast to the political history of the First World War, which has become more global in orientation, the historiography of interwar culture remains profoundly tied to a few familiar themes in European or North American history, such as British anti-war poetry, Weimar or Soviet culture, or the jazz age in France and the US. Between 1919 and 1935 thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Edmund Husserl acknowledged that the war had caused to think about European civilization as finite (Spengler) and have admitted that the classic teleology of Philosophy itself culminating in the creation of a ‘European humanity’ at its summit was, in the interwar period, in a profound crisis (Husserl). Yet in the work of historians, for a long time, the master narratives of such cultural transformations remained – well, not only Eurocentric, but centred around the classic European empire-nations, France, Germany, or Russia (the Soviet Union). This is nowhere more palpable than in studies of war memory, where figures like the doyen of French national historiography, Pierre Nora, loom large.

When it comes to designing research areas for students, one response to the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ might call upon historians to dismiss eurocentric studies such as Pierre Nora’s influential conception of ‘lieux de mémoire’ altogether – like the Algerian postcolonial thinker Seloua Luste Boulbina has done in an open letter to Pierre Nora. An alternative option is to reinterpret the whole idea of universalism that is inherent in French national and European history at large, and to examine it as a mode of claiming power that is available to different groups in history. This is something the Senegalese philosopher Souleyman Bachir Diagne has described as ‘horizontal’ or ‘lateral universalism’, a work in progress, with its eurocentric sting taken out. In that interwar cultural history course, I am closer to Diagne’s view of things. For instance, I tend to encourage students to use this Francophone literature to explore the memorialisation of the war in contexts such as the British Mandates in Africa and the Middle East, emphasising the circulation of memorial designs between different regime types and their different uptake in society; or they can engage with established studies of Soviet or Weimar culture and concepts such as ‘cultural revolution’ (which was itself originally taken from its Chinese context to examine Soviet history) to look at new vernacular movements or modern media in interwar Turkey, China, or Japan. In other words, I don´t think it is productive to start entirely from scratch or ‘write out’ the specific biases that have come to exist. Each research question requires thinking on one´s own feet and reinventing one´s methodological toolkit. The course is intentionally designed around an open question about the war´s cultural consequences, and any historiography is examined in a critical light and used in a modular fashion to expand our horizons.


I agree that the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ might have special implications for historians of modern Europe, as you suggest, since the concept is so tied to that of modernity. But I also think it’s something that medieval specialists need to think about too. And of course they have, for instance by expanding their geographical horizons to think about the wider world, and by collaborating with experts on other parts of that world, including scholars institutionally located in the contemporary global south. And the debates continue as to whether ‘medieval’ is a category which only applies to European history, or whether it can and should be applied elsewhere too (both options can be labelled as ‘eurocentric’, after all). These developments are positive and valuable. Yet as I suggested at the beginning, I would argue that there’s a lot that can be done (and has been done) to tackle eurocentrism within the study of ‘medieval’ Europe as well.

The teaching dimension you highlight is really important: after all, this is how we communicate the priorities and shape of the discipline we work in to the next generation. Eurocentrism is something I’ve thought about (and discussed with students) in the context of in my third-year special subject course. The course is focused on 9th-c. Francia, so on lands now divided between half a dozen modern European countries (France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Spain). In a geographical sense it’s obviously a European history course. And there was a concept of Europe in the Middle Ages too, as Klaus Oschema has recently emphasised. The Franks had an idea of Europa. However, with a few interesting exceptions, they chose not to use it as a frame of reference or context; it wasn’t very important to them. Still, its very existence is significant in all kinds of ways, not least in that it means we shouldn’t blindly impose our concept of Europe upon a period which had its own. That’s an important nuance. We need to avoid seeing the Carolingian empire as a proto-EU, as Marie-Celine Isaïa has pointed out, as if the idea of Europe is unchanging or timeless, but nor should we imagine this idea just popped into existence in the 19th century. Neither is accurate. Historicising the concept of Europe, showing how the concept has meant different things at different times, is a key step in battling eurocentrism, and this is something which medieval history courses can contribute towards.

At the same time, the history of Europe doesn’t have to be only a history of the concept. It’s legitimate also to think about the history of the geographical region we now think of as Europe. In particular I’d suggest it’s important to include perspectives from al-Andalus, and to ensure these are included in the study of Europe as a region. I’ve worked them into my teaching for this very reason – not simply for the sake of it, but because this is relevant history. Al-Andalus is often tacitly sidelined by earlier medieval historians who aren’t specialists, not least for linguistic reasons since its textual records are mostly in Arabic not Latin. Plus, it was more culturally integrated with the Islamicate world than with the Christian lands to the north, and Amira Bennison has showed that Andalusians didn’t usually think of themselves as ‘European’ (though contemporaries to the north occasionally did). But then, as I’ve just said, the same is true of the Franks. This emphatically doesn’t mean Al-Andalus isn’t part of European history, and there’s a responsibility to make that clear. If we don’t point things like this out, which we can only do by teaching European history, then old framings will be left untouched and unchallenged. And it’s interesting and important, to come to your point about not quietly removing but critically interrogating the European historiographical legacy, for students to consider why Al-Andalus, and for that matter Muslim Sicily and even Christian Byzantium, has often been tacitly excluded from histories of Europe – and how putting them back in changes the picture.


The topic of tacit exclusion highlights an important aspect of the problem we are discussing, namely, that the slogan of ‘provincializing’ Europe and terms such as ‘eurocentrism’ have been used out of context as tools for choosing what to study (or rather, what not to study any longer). This selective appropriation of terminology obscured the fact that these critiques were mostly focused on the question of how one studies phenomena, how things are contextualised and narrated. The real problem which limits historical research is the adherence to any kind of ‘centrism’ or ‘teleology’, which is often the consequence of an intuitive attempt to relate all unfamiliar phenomena to certain familiar brands of historical events, or assume that by covering the history of, say, urban environments, one has already subsumed the rural, and so on. Such systemic oversights, sometimes modelled around potted national histories of different European states, can be as damaging to a historian as it might be to a political campaigner who never leaves the remits of her home district. It is tempting to stick to path-dependent accounts of special national histories, particularly of European states, such as the history of National Socialism and the rise of the Third Reich, or Soviet History, where ‘centrism’ has led historians to explain the history of the Third Reich only by looking at Germany (thus missing, for instance, the fact that more than five of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust came from Nazi-Occupied Europe) or looking at the Russian Revolution and Civil War without paying attention to the history of, say, the fortunes of social or liberal democracy in the Muslim Caucasus.

I doubt that manifestos in themselves actually have a decisive impact on historical research. They may be nothing more than flags which blow according to the winds of change caused by other factors around them. For instance, to pick a few examples from a range of subjects in modern European history, one of the most illuminating accounts of the Russian revolution from the point of view of Russia’s non-Slavic peoples was published in 1972; it is Ronald Suny’s study of the Baku Commune. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which emphasises the common genealogies of modern extermination policies in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in colonial violence, dates back to 1951. Aby Warburg’s art historical studies of the ‘afterlife of antiquity’ and his provocative Memory Atlas, in their own day, provoked the European establishment by giving equal weighting to ancient and contemporary expressions of feeling, to European and non-European cultures, was a profound challenge to many disciplines – in the 1920s. Simon Dubnow’s Jewish histories, produced in the years between the end of the Russian empire and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact dividing eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, could be seen as examples of early subaltern studies. All this was produced years before the terms eurocentrism or such like were coined. Dubnow’s work could be seen as a way of valorising the history of a marginal people inhabiting so-called Pale of Settlement, the underdeveloped and impoverished western hinterland to which the European Jews were confined under the Russian empire and where many Jews still lived until the extermination of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust – including Dubnow himself, who was killed by a Gestapo agent in 1941. Looking at this aspect of European history, the term ‘hegemony’ hardly applies. In short, overcoming ‘centrism’ might look different for histories of modern racism or histories of modern nationalism and dictatorship, and it is certainly not something where one generation of historians can necessarily pat itself on the back for being more historically engaged. Others in the past have taken far greater existential risks in doing this kind of work.


I think this ‘centrism’ of various kinds is a problem in medieval history too. There’s a rich tradition of social, and Marxist, historiography, but I wonder how many medieval European survey courses explicitly make space for the peasantry, who formed the overwhelming majority of the population, and whose production structured the economy, and thus funded all the more glamorous things? Of course there is the added problem that it’s the centres which are not only best documented, but most accessible to students too through translation of the narrative sources, which tend to privilege rulers and elites (with the great exception of Icelandic saga evidence). Thankfully the ‘special national histories’ is less of a problem for the early medievalist these days, though nationalists do often turn to the distant past for the most deeply-rooted authentication of their projects (and I fear we may see more of this in an English context).

But these sorts of problems aren’t pedagogically insuperable, and historians of Europe have some experience in engaging with them. I’d suggest that an anti-eurocentric European history pedagogy might involve explicitly demonstrating how European history can be read as undermining the triumphalist 19th– and 20th-century teleological narratives of European modernity which positioned that history as the universal benchmark, for instance by underscoring the relatively peripheral nature of the western Eurasian peninsula for most of recorded history. It might involve showing that Europe has always been entangled with the wider world, both when it seemed in a dominant position but also before and after; and crucially, that it has moreover been fundamentally shaped through that entanglement (here I think of Saba Mahmood’s brilliant critique of Charles Taylor’s account of secularism, highlighting its assumption of an ideologically hermetically sealed Europe). Those entanglements need to be understood as forming part of European history too. Take for instance monasticism, a key social movement and intellectual matrix in Europe, which was initially appropriated from an Egyptian set of ascetic practices, and whose western variant remained strongly influenced by eastern Mediterranean culture. An anti-eurocentric European history needs to have very porous boundaries, because flows over those boundaries have often been of fundamental importance. As I’ve already suggested, it might further involve demonstrating that the idea of Europe was itself historically produced, has never been simply just ‘there’, and has changed its connotations over time. As has often been pointed out, for instance, Europe was not a place or a context that mattered much to the ancient Romans. It might involve revealing and underscoring the human diversities that in different ways have always characterised Europe’s history, putting the lie to any idea of a homogenous ‘white’ European past, whilst doing justice to the processes of exclusion which have often been directed, often cruelly, at these diversities, as set out in R.I. Moore’s concept of the persecuting society, in which the centre defined itself through and against the margins. It should be stressed that Europe has always been a culturally plural region, though not always peacefully so, as you mentioned earlier. And this approach might involve using comparative approaches, partly to highlight how European history has never embodied the whole world’s history.

In all these aspects, I believe historians looking at the Middle Ages have a significant contribution to make. After all, Kathleen Davis has shown how representations of the Middle Ages were central to European conceptions of (and thus interventions in) the wider world in the nineteenth century. Rethinking the European Middle Ages critically thus destabilises eurocentric analyses from within, so to speak. Approached this way, the study of European history can perhaps not only escape the trap of eurocentrism, but contribute significantly to springing it. Eurocentrism is fundamentally a problem of historical method, not of content. But historians of Europe, including those looking at its more remote past, may nevertheless have a necessary role to play in dismantling it at source. Ignoring or downplaying European history, especially in European pedagogical contexts, might be done for the right reasons, but, in leaving older narratives intact, have all the wrong results.


So far we have spoken about ‘eurocentrism’ as a timeless concept for interrogating pedagogies, particularly those related to courses in modern and medieval European history. But I think it is worth exploring in historical perspective how and when the critique of eurocentrism itself has emerged. The term ‘eurocentrism’ dates back to a specific moment in European and global history and in some ways remains restricted by it. It actually came into circulation in France, coined by the Egyptian-French political economist Samir Amin in 1988. Related critical terminology emerged around the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and in Britain, coined by Edward Said at Columbia, Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies group at Sussex, Teodor Shanin and his studies of the sociology of the global peasantry at Sheffield, and others. One could also throw books such as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987) into this mix. These critiques of European hegemony emerged at a time of globalisation and also at the height of the Cold War, and reflect the circumstances of this dual moment. What the above-mentioned authors had in common was their critical reflection on the structures of the bipolar world order and its critical shadow, the non-aligned movement, reflected in terminology such as the ‘Third World’, coined in the early 1950s by another French intellectual, Alfred Sauvy. Their use of the term ‘eurocentric’ entailed a critique of capitalism which, however, remained distant from orthodox or Soviet Marxism. They were influenced by critical readings of Hegel, and of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which, though written in the mid-1920s, were only translated into English in the 1970s, and which focused on the concept of ‘hegemony’ and the question of subaltern subjectivity. They were also observing contemporary events such as the peasant-driven revolutions of the non-western world. Even though these authors used terms such as ‘development’ and ‘Third World’, they also felt trapped by them. Teleologies came under attack not only from scholars like Amin and Said, who sought to draw attention to the significance of non-European and especially non-Christian civilizations, but also Shanin, who engaged critically with more Eurocentric Marxist conceptions of revolution such as those offered by Eric Hobsbawm.

Forty years from the minting of ‘eurocentrism’, it is time to re-evaluate the circulation of this coin in the context of modern political economies. We have discussed how ‘eurocentrism’ is used as a critique of an ideology which justifies Europe’s dominant position within the global capitalist world system, and as such coupled with a demand to reduce the proportion of attention given to the history of Europe in the teaching of modern history. But even more problematically, the critique of ‘eurocentrism’ often goes hand in hand with the demand to reduce the history of the pre-modern world altogether. I think both dogmatic interpretations of the critique can be very damaging to the discipline.

As a modernist, I am very aware that it is historians of pre-modern periods who have pioneered a variety of methods designed to help bring to live the past lives of those not recorded in institutionalised or written histories, including intellectual history sensitive to marginal voices, oral history, discourse analysis, studies of material culture; they have examined plural ideas of development, contradictory beliefs, forgotten ideologies. There has been an expansion of valid sources for historians together with an expansion of methods to pursue questions about the past (hence the various ‘turns’ since the 1970s). Knowing how to draw on records such as inquisition protocols to tell the history of its victims comes in handy when dealing with modern histories of oppression and persecution, whether it is by the KGB, the Stasi, or Pinochet’s regime. It would be foolish to, say, diminish the place of French historiography by following a zealous attempt to remove European components because in this context. In using ‘eurocentrism’ too fanatically as a tool, one risks throwing out many methodological riches which have accumulated in this domain. The same goes for other peculiarities of European historiographies.

The 20th-century critiques of eurocentrism were not absolutely new, but rather, updated versions of a range of critical positions towards the West which themselves go back much further. They appear in the European Enlightenment, in Russian discourses of anti-westernism from the 19th century, in German mid-twentieth century anti-Westernism, in the anti-westernism of the Ottoman Muslim world, as well as in the political thought of much of South East Asia. In the two intervening centuries, this question as such has often faded from view due to a range of factors, including the rise of nationalism as well as new forms of imperialism which were coupled with the rise of racial science that justified past colonial interventions by drawing up systems of difference. In this context, in Europe itself, history became entrenched as an academic discipline at leading universities, many of which served not only universal but also national purposes – most prominently, in France, with a new, more meritocratic system of higher education promoted by Napoleon. By the mid-19th century, one answer to the original Enlightenment question regarding the cosmopolitan purposes of history writing was given by Hegel, who could be described as a liberal ideologue for the Prussian state. His answer in the Philosophy of History essentially pitted European history as the focus of universal history, because, as he saw it, it was in and through European history that the ‘world spirit’ manifested itself. It was only in the aftermath of the Second World War that the original Enlightenment preoccupation with cosmopolitan purposes returned to the agenda of public discourse, shaped not least by institutions such as UNESCO but also from within the universities. Here is where ‘eurocentrism’ came into view. It is undeniable that Europe – and I mean in the first instance, western Europe – acquired a dominant position as an object of historical enquiry not only due to the role of some European powers and groups in the political and economic history of the world but also, more narrowly, because of the historical dominance of Germany, France, Britain and the European influence on the US within the modern university system. Unsurprisingly, the critique of this hegemony first emerged in the very institutions which have been shaped by it.

What neither the Enlightenment cosmopolitans nor the present-day critical thinkers like to discuss is the complicity of the elites of colonised countries in processes of colonisation, and the sheer varieties of racism, internal colonialism and slavery within Europe itself. This is a point forcefully made by Frantz Fanon in his critique of the ‘national bourgeosie’ in his 1961 classic Wretched of the Earth.  Terms such as slavery, racism, and Orientalism, have their place within the relationship of Europeans with other Europeans as well, and I see it as one of my tasks as an historian of Europe to remind students about this. To explore this in a more multi-directional way, there is now a formidable Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire (2018), with a chapter on China ‘from Manchu to Mao’ by our Sheffield colleague Tehyun Ma, work by Joya Chatterji on decolonisation in South Asia, decolonisation in Eastern Europe by James Mark and Quinn Slobodian, my LSE colleague David Motadel on transnational aspects of Islamic movements against empire, and many others. For Eastern Europe, there is much to learn here at the level of theory and research design from historians such as Alexander Etkind and his students. I wonder how these themes of empire, imperialism, and internal colonisation play out in the context of medieval history, with the shadow of the Roman empire and its diverse legacies lingering on.

While 19th-century empires were different from preceding forms of empire, empire itself was obviously not a modern or indeed a European invention. Parts of early medieval Europe can in some ways be considered a post-imperial set of societies (though not of course Byzantium), and medieval historians have extensively studied colonisation processes within Europe. And there’s a huge and exciting body of work about ethnicity and, more recently, race in the Middle Ages, often led by medievalists of colour. This latter body of work isn’t without its critics – Vanita Seth’s recent piece in History and Theory is important here – but the point that many of the analytical tools often used to describe European involvement with the wider world have purchase on Europe itself is crucial. Treating Europe and the wider world differently from a methodological point of view can be just another, more subtle form of eurocentrism.


To wrap up: the question how historians of Europe should somehow change their practice of research and writing in the light of such critiques does not have a self-evident answer. What does it mean to provincialize Europe in historiographical practice, and in what sense does revalorizing the non-European world depend on devalorizing the idea of European civilization? As soon as you start thinking in these terms, you will find the implications of ‘eurocentrism’ as a term to be very prescriptive and the historical accounts they are based on misleadingly reductive. Many history departments in the UK have recently ‘globalised’ their modern history courses. But even here you have many possible paths for implementing such an agenda. In designing course readings and supporting students´ independent research projects, I see broadly two options. Either I simply remove or reduce readings focusing on Europe. Or I let students work through them and deal with their various imperfections and shortcomings before starting their own explorations. My sense is that students generally are susceptible to manifestos of progress, they want to land on the right side of history, and any promise of shortcuts in this direction is therefore highly appealing. I’ve already written elsewhere about a tendency lately to divide up past thinkers into ‘purely’ progressive or ‘purely’ reactionary figures, by the standards of our day, which, in my view, can only lead to a shallow and self-serving celebration of the ideas of one’s own generation. Or take another example. What should students from China learn when they study the history of European racial science and its ties to colonial governance? The easier path is to dismiss this history as a problem of the West, to embed it in a political language of anti-westernism. It is far more arduous to think of the ways in which similar processes might be, or might have been, occurring in China itself. Yet, in my view, it is the arduous path that has more potential to lead to new critical histories of modernity, precisely because it does not culminate in the certainty of what it means to be on the right side of history. Students can be selective in exposing ‘eurocentrism’, but in fact they are as unfamiliar with the geography and politics of Eastern and Southern Europe as they are with the distinction between socialist and capitalist-aligned African states during the Cold War. Pitting the study of one against the other because one is supposedly more European than the other misses the point: what is needed is contextual knowledge of modern history, the ability to pinpoint the relevance of one’s local case study in a global framework.

Another way to think about this is that genuine historical inquiry itself rarely starts from narrative. Rather, the story comes at the end. Often the questions take root when you read a text or a document from the past and enter into a dialogue with it. Take, for instance, a historical text such as Max Weber’s (unfinished) study of music as a case study of rationalisation, supposedly a linchpin of western modernity. An intellectual historian who studies this text today will rightly see it as a work of political thought on Europe and the West – but in the 1950s the text would have been contextualised as a case study in sociology as such. In this sense it would be beneficial to ‘provincialize’ Max Weber, but certainly not excise him from the canon. For all its shortcomings, it was Weber’s status and later, the canonical status of his works, which gave recognition and visibility to non-western musical systems. Moreover, one could look at Weber’s intellectual encounters with W.E.B. DuBois, for instance, in the light of which a re-examination of such a European and decidedly eurocentric text could lead to a productive investigation around the use of musical notation and oral tradition as a source of political thought. This also brings me to related concern raised by many critics of ‘eurocentrism’, which is the demand to reduce the study of canonical thinkers and approaches. Yet some canonical histories have historically been a great bridge introducing underrepresented topics and people to the academy.

I’m sure that the term ‘eurocentrism’ has produced a lot of constructive debates in the past, and the term has become a natural part of our vocabulary, but the sort of disciplinary self-criticism that is needed today should transcend a narrow use of such terminology. It could instead take into account a question that has been debated since at least the Enlightenment, and some landmark interventions by authors such as Kant and Herder (1784), namely: What does it mean [for historians of Europe] to write history with a cosmopolitan purpose? I have tried examining these sorts of questions myself in conversation with colleagues in a volume I edited, called Cosmopolitanism in Conflict.

It is all the more important given that the decades of globalisation have redistributed power geographically – not in the sense of an actual social redistribution of wealth, but in the sense of co-opting more geographical areas as sites of power. This means that the holders of financial capital or power and their locations are no longer as visibly ‘European’ as in the 1980s. Secondly, the globalisation of the university sector, particularly in Britain and the United States, has created a mixed global population of students and academics. But the financial structure particularly of British universities is such that they are only accountable to make provisions for socially inclusive teaching (i.e. support for students who cannot fund themselves) on a national level, which means that students from places such as the ‘Global South’ or what is now called the ‘Global Majority’ tend to come from much wealthier social backgrounds. The problem of the asymmetry of class in the representation of students outside Britain in my view is often being overlooked. All this has implications for the way in which historians might self-critically reflect on the future of their discipline in research and teaching.

I would like to go back to the Herderian terms of asking the question what it might mean to practise history in a cosmopolitan sense, i.e. in the interests of all humanity, but also add the dimension of social diversity to this agenda. Historical research is among other things also a process of communication. What is needed is a framework which enables scholars and researchers to form a dialogue with multiple local, national, and global communities – the opening up of universities for this kind of conversation beyond their competitive market relations and rankings. Interestingly, one of the few positives of the pandemic has been the provision of exciting opportunities for just that.

Whatever the problems of modern history are, using the term ‘eurocentrism’ to impose modes of thinking on others strikes me as an unnecessary kind of puppeteering. It is productive when used as an invitation for a conversation, but good historical research comes from thinking about things for yourself, and from open encounters with other minds, including unsavoury characters. Historical research as I see it is not particularly suited for resolving problems, it is there to involve us in them, however uncomfortable the insights.

Charles West is a Reader in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield, where he’s taught since 2008. Current research projects include a collaborative Anglo-German study of local priests in tenth-century Europe, and a general history of eleventh-century Europe, under contract with OUP. His most recent publication is on early medieval ideas of the secular

Dina Gusejnova is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International History at LSE, having previously taught Modern History at the University of Sheffield from 2015 to 2019. Her current research explores the circulation of ideas of citizenship and nationality in Europe during the Second World War, most recently, in this article on German ideas of Englishness in the context of wartime internment

Cover image: ‘Wonderful Old Radio Dial’ courtesy of James Cridland, [accessed 11 May 2021].

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More Change than Previously Thought: An Interview with Dr Linda Kirk About the Sheffield History Department

Barber House exterior

Continuing History Matter’s recent series on the history of the Sheffield History Department, Dr Linda Kirk has very kindly given up some of her time to talk through the changes that occurred within the Department throughout her time there. Linda first joined on a temporary basis in 1969-70 to fill in for Colin Lucas, having previously spent three and a half years volunteering in Africa and teaching at the University College of Rhodesia. After this initial year Colin Lucas did not return and Linda was told she need not apply to the vacant position. But after Colin’s replacement fell through, the department again turned to Linda but this time on a more permanent basis – Linda was to remain a member of the Department until her retirement in 2009.

The Department’s default position was male, with there being only ‘two and a half’ women out of a staff of thirteen and a half – Frances Armytage, who worked as a part time assistant lecturer constituted the half. The 1970’s saw an expanding department with the appointment of several ‘chirpy and self-confident Oxbridge educated people’ who had the appetites to introduce a little bit of Oxbridge into the style and manner of teaching at Sheffield.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a history degree was structured with nine papers examined over the course of a student’s second and third years. Much like today first year would not count towards the final classification of the degree. Katie Crowley’s blog does a wonderful job of explaining the different BA courses that were offered at Sheffield at this time.

The basic structure of courses did not change much throughout this period, with the syllabus getting stuck with three blocks of continuous British History: medieval, early modern and modern. It was not the case, however, of lecturers coming in and reproducing the same notes as the previous year over and over. The course names would remain constant but what was being taught within them was changing. As literature swirled and patterns rearranged themselves so did the content of lectures and reading lists along the lines of these shifts in historiography.

Alongside these three blocks of British History, students would take a special subject that would account for two papers as well as a history exam tackling general themes in history, with questions such as ‘does history matter?’ or ‘do tyrants always fall?’. This took their total up to six. There would then be two more papers on the history of political thought and another on a period of European history, with the last being an optional choice from a selection that were being taught that year.  This took students up to the total of nine papers which would complete their degree.

It was not until modularisation in the 1990s that a structure more familiar to current students began to take shape. We start to see modules such as ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’, which every single honour student taking History at Sheffield in the past 20 or so years will recognise, appearing on the syllabus.  

‘Paths’ was also the beginning of interactive and online learning in the Department. A chat room function accompanied the module where students were supposed to discuss their findings in the readings. However, this was quickly abused and degenerated into a male-led discussion on the attractiveness of their female peers. So, an end was put to that idea. An idea that stuck around a little longer was the introduction of visual material in the form of transparency projections, and then PowerPoints accompanying lectures.

Change would also occur in the ways that a history degree was assessed. Students were already completing two essays per term per course; however, the marks from these had no relation to the outcome of the degree – exam results were the only grades that mattered. The change was as a result of pressure from students, who believed if they had a bad day during the exam, it would have a disastrous impact on their degree. So, gradually, a classification that was based 100% on the exam would become 67% exam and 33% coursework, and modules that were entirely assessed on coursework such as course assignment and a dissertation would become commonplace. 

The increased weighting of essays did present an issue for the Department. Plagiarism would become an increasingly problematic issue for lecturers. With an exam, a marker could be certain that the work of the person themselves, but with essays these distinctions became blurred. What Linda found to be more disturbing was that some staff would find numerous cases in a batch of essays and some would claim to have never seen any.

In the early 1970s, students met individually with a staff member twice a term in an essay return meeting. Linda campaigned to swap these meetings for a weekly group meeting of five or so students – a rudimentary seminar. This marked a reluctant acceptance that Sheffield could not match the weekly individual essay-return supervision or tutorial offered at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the years, the group size of these seminars would grow and grow from five to six to ten. As university student numbers swelled in the 1990s and continued to grow through the 2000s, occasionally up to twenty people could be in these seminars.

This naturally presented issues. Notably, the relationship between students and staff was forced to change. In the 1970s there was an annual weekend trip to Losehill Hall in Derbyshire for second-year students and a reading party at Cumberland Lodge. This was only possible since the entire cohort of 30 to 35 single honours students could fit in a single bus. When these numbers increased to over 100 this became impossible. These trips were intended to create a ‘mateyness’ that was ‘social and interactive’, which is hard to reproduce currently apart from perhaps in the special subject seminars.     

As someone who has been heavily interested gender history, I was intrigued to hear about the ways in which the field had been covered and taught within the Department. In particular, I wanted to know the role that Joan Scott’s 1986 article ‘Gender: A useful Category of Historical Analysis’ had in shaping how women’s history was taught.[1] Women’s history has always been closely linked to feminist politics. It was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s that saw there was a lack of female representation in standard historiographical texts and sought to re-discover women’s role in the past.[2]

In her blog a year ago, Katie assumed ‘that there was no aspiration to teach women’s history’ in the Department. This is incorrect. Women’s history might not have been visible on the surface of things, but it certainly was taught at the university. Though often hidden behind course titles and overarching themes, women’s issues were being addressed. In Linda’s second year course called Ideas and Institutions of the Age of Reason, some limited focus was on women. But within the History of Political Ideas course, she offered a five week optional sub-section (usually taken by 20 to 40 students) ‘Towards a Doctrine of Women’s Rights’. This worked through Rousseau’s Emile, Diderot’s ‘Essay on Women’, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Condorcet’s, ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship’.

Linda described herself as a ‘very, very cross, active feminist’ who was trying to ‘introduce women’s history into everything she did’. Take her special subject on the French Revolution for example: one week dedicated to grain riots would focus on the particular role of women in enforcing a ‘just price’ while they were less open to legal penalties for unruly behaviour; another re-emphasised women’s role in the march to Versailles. There clearly was a strong desire to teach women’s history and what was being taught was very important to those within the Department.

As for Joan Scott’s article, Linda recognised its historiographical importance but was insistent that it was not the beginning of women’s or gender history. There had been plenty of work done on the topic and the ideas were hardly new. What the article allowed for was an establishment of a vocabulary around the pre-existing works – that of ‘gender’ and not ‘women’ or ‘sex’. This change that surprised Linda and still remains an ideological issue within gender history today. The Department followed suit, putting on a course called Gender, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain which typically put Joan Scott’s article front and centre of the reading list.

Taking a cursory glance at the History Department during the 1970s and 1980s you could make the assumption that little changed. But looking deeper it is clear that within the broader themes covered there was a significant change in what was being taught as well as the manner it was being delivered. Today the university offers a multitude of gender and women’s related course for second and third years, but it is clear that the Department has a long history of teaching women’s issues that began long before 1986.

Peter Holmes is an MA Global History student at the University of Sheffield currently working on social and economic networks in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Liverpool during the nineteenth century for his MA dissertation. This blog is based on an interview conducted with Dr Linda Kirk who was a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield from 1969 to 2009, who witnessed an expanding department as well as changes to the curriculum and teaching methods in her time with the Department. 

Cover image: A renovated Barber House, formerly home to the Sheffield History Department.

[1] J. Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91.5 (1986), pp. 1053-1075.

[2] J. Hannan, ‘Women’s History, Feminist history’, Making History (2008),, [accessed 7th April 2021].

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History at Sheffield, 1988-2004: All Change Please!

Barber House exterior

R.I. Moore’s blogs on the history of our Department, 1963-88 (part 1 and part 2) tell how expansion, the arrival of new staff, and curriculum reform transformed a ‘a small and obscure department in a provincial university’.

I arrived in the Department in 1991 as a new lecturer and found it a very welcoming and student-friendly place. Some things never change. But to this American young-man-in-a-hurry, the Department still felt very conservative.  It was led by two professors with titled chairs (the Professor of Medieval History and the Professor of Modern History), each with his (sic) own secretary. British history was still compulsory–a period each of medieval and modern history, with 1509 as the dividing point. Teaching was conducted by lectures, seminars, and first-year tutorials of no more than six students, and assessment almost entirely by unseen examinations. First class degrees were rare–none were given out in my first two years. And there were virtually no computers, though they were becoming common elsewhere.

But the ensuing years felt like continual revolution, as various external and internal pressures led to major changes in all aspects of the Department’s activities. Most important was undoubtedly the government-funded expansion which caused student numbers to double in the 1990s. Government-imposed research assessment exercises, together with dramatic increases in research funding, primarily from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (later Council), provided new resources to do research and increased the value assigned to publication. Meanwhile, broader changes in the historical profession, and in the wider culture, encouraged new approaches and more diverse topics, while computers transformed everything. 

All this was overseen by forward-looking if sometimes controversial Professor Ian Kershaw, Head of Department from 1991 to 2001 (while concurrently writing his prize-winning two-volume biography of Hitler). But change was a collective enterprise, facilitated by an expansion in the senior ranks (with several colleagues promoted to ‘personal chairs’–professorships) and a new committee structure overseeing the key areas of teaching, research, and postgraduate study. But many decisions were taken in seemingly endless Department meetings, in what might euphemistically be described as a productive culture of argument. 

The first issue to confront was the 1988 merger of the Department of Medieval and Modern History with the Departments of Ancient History and Economic and Social History. While many staff moved to other universities, the social historians stayed put, holding onto a separate honours degree in social history. Over time, as many members of the old Department came to practice various types of social history, this separate degree lost its distinctiveness, and it was finally abolished around 2000.

Academic expansion did not keep up with student numbers, leading to a big increase in the staff-student ratio. This led to changes in teaching practices (most obviously larger classes) and assessment. But it proved difficult to reduce the staff workload, as the introduction of continuous assessment meant more work which needed precise marking (sometimes double-marking). The introduction of a requirement for student essays to be ‘word processed’ (opposed by some colleagues who thought it would diminish the quality of the writing) eased some of the burden.  

Prompted both by changes in wider historical practice and the diversity of newly appointed staff (more women, people from abroad, and non-Oxbridge PhDs, but few from BAME backgrounds), the curriculum changed significantly. This was encouraged by University-imposed modularisation and semesterisation in 1994, which meant that courses running over a whole year or over the whole honours degree could no longer be offered (though the Department fudged this by keeping its core year-long special subjects and dissertation).

While the increases in bureaucracy and marking which this caused were unwelcome, the greater number of what were now called ‘modules’ encouraged curriculum innovation.  Mandatory British history was abolished, and courses on a much wider range of topics flourished. The first course which used gender as an explicit category of historical analysis was taught in 1993. A new degree in International History and Politics promoted non-European history (long largely confined to the study of the United States); the first staff taught the histories of Australia, India, and South Africa. 

Two core elements of the 1985 curriculum were revamped: ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’ (level one) replaced ‘World Civilisations’, and ‘Modern Historiography’ replaced ‘Modern Historical Thought’ (level two). The first recognised that the Department did not have the necessary expertise to teach world history (while still introducing students to a broad chronological and geographical perspective), while the second was less philosophy-oriented, focusing on innovation in post-1945 historiography.

The modular programme’s final semester proved difficult, but eventually a reflective core module, ‘Rethinking History’, filled the gap. While the post-modernist ethos of its first iteration proved unpopular with students (who did not appreciate the suggestion that all history was merely ‘representation’), a module reflecting on the purposes of history has retained its place in the final semester ever since. While the seemingly constant chopping and changing was arduous, regular attempts to improve our core modules reflected well on the Department. And with a spine of required modules across each level of the degree, the Department stood out as having a more coherent curriculum than many of its rivals.[1]

Computers transformed not only student and staff writing, but also research. The pioneering Hartlib Papers project (1987-1996), led by Mark Greengrass (with colleagues in English and the Library), based in the newly formed Humanities Research Institute (1991), transcribed and digitised the Library’s collection of the manuscripts of seventeenth-century polymath Samuel Hartlib. This was followed by an AHRB funded project to produce a definitive electronic edition of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. In the short term, Hartlib suffered from its CD-ROM delivery platform; the development of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s opened up new possibilities, both for the analysis of digital texts and public engagement.

In the early 2000s two projects, the Old Bailey Online and the Cistercians in Yorkshire, cemented the Department’s move into large scale funded projects, and made it a leading centre for Digital History. For this and many other reasons the Department performed well in the periodic research assessment exercises, attracting additional funding and further enhancing its national and international reputation. Our combination of research success with teaching excellence (also confirmed by external assessment) led the Department to conceptualise its teaching as ‘research led’. It also encouraged the Department’s expansion of its postgraduate programme, both with a stand-alone MA programme (notably the MA in American History, 1993), and in PhD research, as the Department stopped referring its best students to Cambridge and Oxford.

Throughout this period the Department was housed in a set of rather run-down buildings at the intersection of Glossop Road and Clarkehouse Road (though the main building, a former Victorian mansion, exuded an air of dilapidated grandeur). In 2001 the University bought the site of the former Jessop Hospital for Women, paving the way for the Department’s move from its increasingly unsuitable accommodation to purpose-built Jessop West in 2009.

But I will end this story in 2004, when I became Head of Department, marking a generational shift in Department leadership to the baby boomers. At this point I become too much part of the story to be the right person to tell it, so I will leave the sequel to my younger colleagues.

Bob Shoemaker is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History.  His most recent publication is ‘Sympathy for the Criminal: The Criminal Celebrity’ in Eighteenth-Century London’, Crime, History and Societies, 24:1 (2020).

Cover image: A renovated Barber House, formerly home to the Sheffield History Department.

[1] For a review of university history curricula in the late 1990s, see Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker and John Tosh, ‘Skills and the Structure of the History Curriculum’, in The Practice of University History Teaching, ed. Alan Booth and Paul Hyland (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 47-59.

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From Merrie England To The Civilized World: History At Sheffield, 1963-1988, Part 2 – Brave New World


The core of compulsory papers in English history in the Department was defended by the Professor of Modern History, Ken Haley, who retired in 1982, chiefly on the grounds that it gave the degree course a clear identity and the students a common culture and a framework for a coherent view of the past. Most of his colleagues agreed on those objectives, but they held that the traditional curriculum no longer served them, if it ever had.

Accordingly, the single honours syllabus which came into operation in 1985 was also based on three common elements: “World Civilizations, 600 – 1900”, taught throughout the second year, “Modern Historical Thought”, begun in the second year and completed in the third, and a dissertation in the third.

There was, of course, nothing new about the dissertation, advocated by syllabus reformers throughout the twentieth century, and famously the culmination and emblem of Tout’s Manchester School, but of 25 English and Welsh curricula surveyed in 1966 only Manchester and four others required one, while four more (nine by 1975) offered it as an alternative to an examination paper.

The common papers were wholly new, and nothing like either of them had been attempted anywhere else. Historians were still notoriously distrustful of all theorising about their subject, and confident that students exposed to it would, like them, be either baffled or bored, a view sustained by such courses as were occasionally offered (though never in Sheffield) on historiography understood as superseded accounts of this topic or that, or as a cloudy “philosophy of history” without visible connection to its actual practice. Neither had much in common with the serious attack on “hard questions about why historians write what they do and why past historians did it differently” that was devised and taught by Michael Bentley.[1]

In the first century of its existence academic history had concerned itself with the world beyond Europe only in the context of European imperialism (or, as it was more politely called, expansion). The regions in which it took place and their inhabitants were assumed to be, in the words of the anthropologist Eric Wolf’s devastating indictment of 1982, without History.[2] The histories of other literate civilizations were confined with their languages and literatures to area studies: Gordon Daniels of Sheffield’s Centre of Japanese Studies had offered History students an option on the recent Far East since 1963. “World History” occasionally appeared, as in Sheffield, only as in “European and World History”, usually since 1870.

In the 1960s and ‘70s this became increasingly difficult to accept, especially for a generation growing up in a world torn by conflict in Vietnam, turmoil in the Middle East and revolution in Iran. At the same time the idea that world history was something that might be undertaken by professional historians, as opposed to cranks, prophets and social theorists, was beginning to take shape, notably through the work of W. H. McNeill in the US and Geoffrey Barraclough and John Roberts in the UK. [3]

World History came to Sheffield early in 1978, in the form of an entirely unprovoked telephone call inviting me to edit a historical atlas for students to replace Ramsey Muir’s, which had been effectively alone in the field since 1911.[4] That two departmental colleagues, Mark Greengrass and Bernard Wasserstein, were willing to join me as editors made it possible to accept, and the finished product included ten contributors from six Sheffield departments.[5] Compiling the list of maps, since the publisher had stipulated only that we should begin at the beginning and continue to the present in 80 maps, forced us to form a view of world history as a whole, then a novel experience for most historians. It was the most exciting intellectual exercise I have ever engaged in (I still think it would make a wonderful first-year module), and permanently changed my historical outlook.

Though World Civilizations was the first undergraduate course in long-term world history to be offered in the UK (or as far as I know, and as distinct from “Western Civilization”, anywhere else), therefore, it was a product of its time, and of local experience. In being taught by a combination of lectures and seminars it also reflected the collective determination of the Department to strike a new path, by accepting the argument of David Luscombe, then its Head, that if something so novel were to have so central a role everyone should take some part in it. Everyone did, and for several years readiness to do so was among the advertised requirements of every appointment.

Enthusiasm for that arrangement naturally varied among the teachers, but the course was popular with students, and produced some of the best undergraduate work I ever saw. As a medievalist I was particularly struck not once to hear the drearily familiar complaint of “irrelevance” directed at its early beginning: the wide comparative context seemed to make the long chronological perspective come naturally. But, in retrospect, it was bound to be short-lived, at least in its original form. In 1985 the ordinary preconditions of teaching did not exist. There were no textbooks, and no field of established academic discourse that corresponded to either the scope or the concerns of the course, so finding suitable reading was an acute problem.

Like Henry Adams in an earlier pioneering age, we had no alternative but “frankly to act on the rule that a teacher who knew nothing of his subject should not pretend to teach his scholars what he did not know, but should join them in trying to find the best way of learning it.”[6] The course’s essentially transitional character is betrayed by its title: Eurocentrism was not easily escaped simply by the use of a plural. By the 1990s the academy was beginning to take world history seriously, and rapid advances both in published knowledge and sophistication of approaches underlined the uncomfortably Heath Robinsonish aspect of the course, while looming modularisation, managerialism and massive student numbers made reorganisation inevitable.

For the University the 1980s was a decade of austerity and reconstruction, which it entered among those most affected by the earliest cuts of the Thatcher era. It responded by accepting that it had too many small and weak departments, rejecting the easy solution of “equal misery” and building on such strengths as it had, while avoiding compulsory redundancy. In 1982 the Academic Development Committee based its recommendations to this end principally on the criteria of research income and the quality of undergraduate admissions. By these measures Medieval and Modern History came out well, unlike Ancient History and Economic History, and its position was further strengthened when – again, unlike them – it was one of Sheffield’s embarrassingly few departments to emerge with a high rating from the first Research Assessment Exercise in 1986. Hence the merging of the three departments in 1988, which, though not without its pains, created a Department of History beyond the dreams of George Richard Potter.

If you want to find out more, click here to go to Part 1.

R. I. Moore taught History at Sheffield from 1964-1993, and is now Professor Emeritus at Newcastle University. His recent publications include ‘L’hérésie dans le jeu des pouvoirs’, Cahiers de Fanjeaux 55 (2020), Le “catharisme” en questions, pp. 157-72, and ‘Treasures in Heaven: Defining the Eurasian Old Regime?’, Medieval Worlds, 6 (2017), pp. 7-19.

Cover image: University of Sheffield in April or May, 1972. Courtesy of David Dixon©, [Accessed 14 February 2021].

[1] Michael Bentley, ed., Companion to Historiography (Routledge, London, 1977), xi ff for the critique, and for the alternative ibid. 395 – 506, separately .as Modern Historiography (1999).

[2] Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley, 1982).

[3]The term “global history” came into use later, from the social sciences, and with specific reference to the processes which produced the present globalised world. For that reason I continue to prefer “world history” as more comprehensive and, implicitly, less prescriptive.

[4] J. Ramsey Muir, Atlas of Modern History, (London, 1911), and many subsequent editions. Neither the publisher nor I knew that the far larger and lavishly funded Times Historical Atlas, ed. Geoffrey Barraclough, was in preparation: when it appeared later in 1978 our scheme was complete and production well under way.

[5] R. I. Moore, ed., The Hamlyn Historical Atlas (London, 1981), various subsequent editions, most recently as Rand McNally Atlas of World History. Wasserstein left Sheffield for Brandeis in 1979.

[6]  Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, ch xx.

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From Merrie England to The Civilized World: History at Sheffield, 1963-1988, Part 1 – Expansion


The History Department that emerged in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework as one of the top three in the UK had travelled a long way in the previous half-century. When a dramatic expansion of the university system was launched by the publication of the Robbins Report on Higher Education in 1963 it was a small and obscure department in a provincial university. The Robbins Report transformed British Higher Education, and nowhere were those transformative effects more keenly felt than in Sheffield.

The world of civic (“Redbrick”) universities before Robbins is brilliantly captured by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim (1956, based most directly on Leicester and Swansea).[1] The department that Clyde Binfield and I joined in 1964 is described there with uncanny fidelity, not least because George Richard Potter, who had been its head since 1931, was one of the most plausible among several contemporary candidates for the original of Amis’s Professor Welch. He was a kindly and charming man, but no slave to innovation. One of the sixteen Single Honours students in the class to which I gave my first lectures told me that the notes she took from Potter’s lectures had turned out to be identical with her mother’s. Except occasionally in the final year Special Subject, formal lectures were the only means of teaching: gowns were worn, notes were often dictated, and it was considered subversive to allow students to interrupt with questions. Marked essays were returned through pigeon holes or baskets in lobbies, with a perfunctory assertion that the marker might be approached for further comment. Only the cosmopolitan had heard of the strange American custom of “office hours.”

Departments in the late Victorian generation of Redbricks were regarded as appendages of their Professors, many of whom (like H. W. Appleton at Sheffield) were appointed initially with responsibility for several subjects, and gradually shed subjects, and then acquired Assistants, as student numbers increased. Hence by 1963 Sheffield had Departments of Medieval and Modern History, Ancient History, Biblical History (soon to become Biblical Studies), and Economic History, the last, in the Faculty of Social Sciences, recently created for Sidney Pollard, who had previously been in the Department of Economics. Cooperation between these petty fiefdoms was minimal: all were weakened by the dissipation of sparse resources between them, and the consequent jealousies generated a mutual defensiveness which ensured that each pursued and taught its specialism in the narrowest and most conventional ways.

History was often an exception to the general rule of one Professor per Department. Even the smallest departments, of which Sheffield was one, commonly had Professors both of Medieval and of Modern History, and separate departments of Medieval History were rare. [2] This reflected the origins of History as a degree subject, first introduced at Oxford in 1850 in conjunction with Law, and from 1870 as a single school, suitable for men (sic) who “not being candidates for distinctions which require greater powers of intellect as well as application [i.e. classics], might nevertheless be usefully employed on subjects within their grasp.”[3]

The syllabus that would equip them to rule over their own estates or their country’s colonies was based accordingly, in the words of the Regius Professor of Modern History, W. H. Stubbs, on “a continuous reading of our national history” since the Anglo-Saxon conquests, examined in three compulsory papers, and another on English constitutional history to 1307.[4] To these were added a period of European history, the history of Political Ideas, and a Special Subject based on prescribed texts, not from any continentally-inspired enthusiasm for primary sources, but because in the long tradition of classics teaching “set texts” constituted a minimal guarantee of intellectual respectability. This was the English version of History as nation builder that by 1900 underpinned its centrality in education systems across the world. As Cyril Ransome, first professor of History at Leeds (and father of Arthur) put it, “if History does not teach young men to be proud of their country the less they learn of it the better.”[5]

The arrival of Potter’s successor as Professor of Medieval History, in 1965, was the turning point for Sheffield. Edward Miller had been a senior member of the Cambridge History Faculty and was one of the country’s most distinguished medievalists. His appointment immediately boosted our status in the university, where he was promptly placed on several of the main committees, and his standing and wide interests put us on the national map. His infectious warmth and cheerful ebullience made the department a pleasant place both for students, for whom he immediately initiated a regular tutorial system, and academic staff, whom he encouraged to break out of the strait-jacket of lecture-based and conventionally defined outline courses, as far as the syllabus allowed.

In 1963 the Department had a permanent academic staff of seven, of whom two had been there since 1926 and 1931 respectively, and two since just after World War II. By the early 1970s four of the seven had been replaced, and eight new posts had been filled by people in their mid-20s, so that the Department had more than doubled in staff (and much more than doubled in student numbers), and the age profile and seniority of its academic staff had been dramatically reduced. This expansion made possible – indeed, almost compelled – the appearance of new and more varied courses, but the growing generation gap also produced increasingly sharp differences about what their nature should be, and how they should be combined.

Stubb’s Oxford syllabus became the model for almost all those that followed.[6] A survey titled History at the Universities published by the Historical Association in 1966 showed that History degrees in England and Wales were still based on the continuous political History of England (sic), divided at 1485 if in two compulsory papers, or around 1307 and 1660 if (more usually) in three, and garnished with constitutional documents, with lengthy outlines of European and occasionally American history as little more than background.[7] Such courses were inevitably taught by formal lectures, and conventional in content. Sheffield in that respect was typical. The new generation of lecturers appointed in the wake of Robbins, recruited largely from Oxford and Cambridge where individual tutorials were the rule, were outraged by what was offered to their students, and everywhere pressed for small-group teaching, and for syllabus changes that would make it possible. This was one of the chief causes, and leading demands, of the widespread student unrest of the late 1960s.

Nine years later a second survey showed a dramatically different picture.[8] The weight of student demand, in defiance of pundits and policy makers, meant that History had expanded enormously everywhere, and especially in the new (“Plateglass”) universities of the 1960s, now well established. Some, like Sussex, UEA and Essex, initially offered History only in multi-disciplinary schools, of English Studies, American Studies and so on, or as an adjunct to the Social Sciences, without dedicated departments or degree courses. The stubborn preference of applicants for History in its own right eventually forced them to retreat on that, but their immediate impact forced historians everywhere to a new openness to the wider relevance of their subject matter, and the potential of broader approaches to it. Where new History departments were established they broke, deliberately and self-consciously, from the traditional curriculum and its principles: Lancaster placed social rather than political history at the core of its teaching; Warwick became the first British university to offer History degrees without medieval history; York, which had quickly established itself as one of the best departments in the country, treated English as part of European history, in selected periods rather than continuously, and placed much emphasis on team-taught courses on thematically defined topics in comparative history, such as “Aristocracy” or “Revolutions”.

The 1975 edition of History at the Universities showed how widespread the impact of these innovations had been. Almost everywhere courses on European and extra-European (especially American) history dealt with much shorter periods, and were more precisely defined, and taught through seminars, with a far greater variety of topics and of inter-disciplinary and comparative approaches. Room had been made for innovation by dismantling the Stubbsian core. Chronological breadth was still insisted on, and the whole of English history was still taught as such (and still English) in most places, but only a handful of departments now made students follow it from beginning to end in compulsory papers.

Sheffield was one of them. The age of Lucky Jim was gone. The quality of teaching, of the history taught, and of relations between staff and students, had improved immeasurably. But, as Katie Crowley commented in her blog for History Matters, “it appears that there was little development in the historical content taught at the university between 1910 and 1975.” The appearance is deceptive to the extent that new approaches often lurked behind old titles, and that more and better options were offered in the parts of the syllabus that allowed them. But new appointments had been used to fill gaps in the old curriculum, not to extend its scope or change its structure, or the principles on which it was based, which were still those of Stubbs. To the increasing frustration of the younger, and numerically greatly predominant academic staff, change of that kind had to await the 1980s.

If you want to find out about what happened next, you can read more in Part 2.

R. I. Moore taught History at Sheffield from 1964-1993, and is now Professor Emeritus at Newcastle University. His recent publications include ‘L’hérésie dans le jeu des pouvoirs’, Cahiers de Fanjeaux 55 (2020), Le “catharisme” en questions, pp. 157-72, and ‘Treasures in Heaven: Defining the Eurasian Old Regime?’, Medieval Worlds, 6 (2017), pp. 7-19.

Cover image: University of Sheffield in April or May, 1972. Courtesy of David Dixon©, [Accessed 14 February 2021].

[1] For a somewhat more sober but almost equally brilliant account, William Whyte, Redbrick (Oxford, 2015).

[2] Sheffield never had a separate department of Medieval History. Katie Crowley’s comment follows the (highly tendentious) account of the merging of Ancient History with History in the 1980s, in Helen Mather, Steel City Scholars (London, 2005), pp. 288-9. Mather gives the succession of departments correctly at 447.

[3] J. A. Cramer, inaugural 1843, quoted by C.H. Firth, Modern History in Oxford, 1841-1918 (Oxford, 1920), p. 7.

[4]  Based on William Stubbs, Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, known to generations of History students as Stubbs’ Charters.

[5] In a letter to T. F. Tout, 1893, congratulating him on the publication of his biography of Edward I in the ‘Great English Statesmen’ series (1893).

[6] Manchester under Thomas Frederick Tout was a partial exception, though much less than he would have liked: see R. I. Moore, “‘The origin of parties, the development of principles…’ Stubbs, Tout and undergraduate History”, Durham University Journal, December 1978, pp. 9-16. The Cambridge approach was rather broader, but its underlying principles were essentially the same.

[7] G. Barlow (ed.), History at the Universities (1968).

[8] S. Blows (ed.), History at the Universities, 2 ed. Historical association (1975).

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