Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Journey towards Fresh Perspectives: A Personal Reflection on Historical Writing-Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie

I first of all must thank Keith for the very kind invitation to contribute to his blog.  My original idea was to write a defence of the three Stuart kingdoms, essentially assessing the New British histories 20 years after the initial debate.  I realise that for many the ‘new British history’ moment has passed and historians have again retreated into their own respective national histories. I thought it may be more useful to reflect upon my own journey in researching and writing my new monograph The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663. I will reveal how my view of mid seventeenth century Britain and Ireland has evolved over the decades. Historians should not only offer a new perspective on the past but be fully open to their own deeply held views being challenged, shaped and influenced by their own experiences and new discoveries.  

Before the Three Stuart Kingdoms     

If you had met me twenty years ago I was very much a Cromwellian. In April 1999 I was in Huntingdon for the 400th anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s birth. I had been interested in Cromwell for almost a decade and had been a member of the Cromwell Association since I was a teenager. I visited the Cromwell Museum frequently, often while we were visiting my former childhood home. I had spent my formative years in East Anglia. I had seen the film Cromwell with Richard Harris and Alec Guinness at school and had an excellent teacher who encouraged me to read books on the subject.  I read Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell: Our Chief of Men when I was in the first year at senior school which fuelled my interests and Cromwellian tendencies even more.  Unsurprisingly I had a very Anglocentric view of the civil wars and Cromwell was undoubtedly the hero.  At the time, having recently moved back to Scotland from East Anglia, Cromwell was a link back to a place I deeply missed. 

My view of the conflict that engulfed Britain and Ireland during the mid-seventeenth century was firmly structured around the ‘English Civil War’.  Although I was aware of the Scottish origins of the conflict the Covenanters and the prayer book riots hardly registered on the radar! I found the rise of the New Model Army and its radical elements fascinating particularly the Levellers and the Diggers and to this day Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down is one of my favourite history books. I saw Cromwell’s rise to power as a positive event that had been essential to Britain’s transition to democracy.  I was a fully paid up member of the Whig school of history without even realising it. Towards the end of my undergraduate history degree I was contemplated doing a PhD on the Levellers or the Quakers but my perspectives on the period were changing.

Wider Horizons: The Three Stuart Kingdoms

In the sub honours year of my undergraduate degree I took the three Stuart Kingdoms course which examined seventeenth century Britain and Ireland from an integrated three kingdoms perspective.  It broadened my horizons immensely as the Stuart monarchy had to deal with ruling three very diverse but interconnected kingdoms. The ‘English civil war’ very quickly became the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.  Events in Scotland and Ireland became central to understanding the conflict and were as important as events in England.  One momentous shift in opinion came with the realisation that Westminster did not hold the monopoly on constitutional innovation with important developments taking place in Scotland and Ireland too. The Covenanters were eager to establish a Scottish Parliament which dispensed with the Royal Prerogative. In Ireland after the 1641 rebellion the Irish Confederation of Kilkenny was formed and evolved into a sophisticated form of government with a supreme council, a general assembly and various committees. The Wars of Three Kingdoms were an era of constitutional change across Britain and Ireland.  During my time on the three kingdoms course constitutional change was also taking place across Britain and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s own parliament was reinstated for the first time since 1707, Wales was given its own assembly and devolved government was restored in Northern Ireland.  These modern constitutional developments reinforced the three kingdoms approach to the Stuart monarchy.

My view of Cromwell began to change and far from being a harbinger of positive democratic change, Cromwell and the English Republic came seen as a highly dysfunctional form of government within the wider context of Stuart Britain and Ireland. This became all the more apparent when I embarked upon my PhD research in 2001 and explored the Covenanters reaction to the Cromwellian conquest of Scotland. Interestingly over the next few months within the UK newspapers debates raged over the legality of the proposed invasion of Iraq citing precedence and international law with reference to military intervention and the occupation of sovereign states.  To my surprise Archibald Johnston of Wariston, one of the leading Covenanters against the Cromwellian invasion of Scotland was using similar arguments to those opposing intervention in Iraq! Historians always write the past within the present and I doubt I would have taken Wariston’s arguments so seriously if it was not for current climate at the time.  

During the course of my research I travelled throughout Britain and Ireland and began to appreciate the diversity of these islands at first hand.  I also began to understand that nations, groups and individuals cannot simply be put into fixed categories.  Actions and beliefs are a pandoras box shaped by constantly evolving circumstances. Many labels that historians apply to religious and political groups are overlapping broad churches of common values and internal conflicts.  Throughout my book I highlight not just the common religious and political values that Presbyterians and the Covenanted interest held across the kingdoms but I also aimed to show the internal divisions.  In addition, I drew attention to the differences of opinion and the distinctive approaches Presbyterians in Scotland, England and Ireland had towards the Cromwellian government based on the particular situations they found themselves within their own localities and kingdoms.  Examining events from a new perspective forced me to view Cromwell and the English Republic with fresh eyes.  Cromwell became a ruthless and Machiavellian operator breaking all rules, precedents, laws and customs of Stuart Britain, a far cry from the man who put Westminster on the road to democracy.

Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie was a lecturer in history at the University of Aberdeen between 2014 and 2017.  Her book The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663 published by Routledge is out now. 

Friday, 18 May 2018

Why I Write? How I Write? Edited by Keith Livesey

(The collection of blog articles titled How I write is now published as an ebook on Amazon reasonably priced at $0.99)

I would like to say that the idea for this collection of articles on Why I write, How I write came to me in a blinding flash of genius but I would be lying. The idea came from two sources. The first being an article by the writer George Orwell whose essay Why I write is a brilliant example of the writer's craft.

The second belongs mostly to me. While attending a short course of creative writing at Bishopsgate Institute, the tutor encouraged us to look into why and how a writer works. After some research, it became clear that very little has been written about why and how a historian writes.

Partially inspired by the historian Marc Bloch and his Historian’s Craft this collection of essays is aimed at the student who is just starting on their historic adventure. The purpose of this free book is to save them a small amount of legwork necessary to become a historian.

The more perceptive reader will notice that the majority of contributors are female. This is not an accident. Firstly the majority of female historians, when asked to write an article, were more than happy to do so. More importantly in a field that is overwhelmingly male-dominated, it is high time the female historians had their say.

I have tried to vary the contributions. Some are from historians who are just starting out on their career others are well established. The book also contains a good mixture of professional and non-professional writers.

The articles are free to use for non-commercial purposes. If you decide to use the content, please ask permission at All articles are the property of the author.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Why I Write and How I Write Jodie Collins

Up until the age of 19 I was quite certain that I was not a writer, let alone a historian. Despite the fact I had such an interest in politics and history, I found writing an excruciating process, and I had failed history at college. I am now, 7 years later, in the beginnings of a PhD in American History in a collaborative project between the University of Sussex and the British Library, specifically analysing the political pamphlets of interwar America.

Without going into too much detail, getting to this point was not straight forward, and was owed a lot to both personal and political development. But fundamentally, as I began to understand the concept of historical materialism, history began to make much more sense to me, and in turn this not only made writing an easier process for me, but an enjoyable one. Historical materialism is concerned with analysing the fundamental forces which drive history forward.

 As Lenin put it: By examining … all ideas and all the various tendencies stem from the condition of the material forces of production, Marxism indicated the way to an all-embracing and comprehensive study of the process of the rise, development, and decline of socio-economic systems. People make their own history but what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people—i.e., what is the sum total of all these clashes in the mass of human societies? What are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all man’s historical activity? What is the law of development of these conditions? To all these Marx drew attention and indicated the way to a scientific study of history as a single process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is governed by definite laws.1

This materialistic approach forms the foundation of my writing, and helps to guide me when approaching new areas of research. Nevertheless, I’m still hardly confident in my writing abilities. This lack of confidence can sometimes get me in a trap of reading excessively in order to avoid writing, but the majority of the time it’s best to just get your thoughts down on paper, no matter how rubbish you think they are. I’m also prone to using uncertain language like ‘perhaps,’ ‘could,’ and ‘possibly’ far more than I should. This sort of language can indicate a lack of conviction in the ideas you are sharing, so when I’m finished writing I sometimes do a ‘find and replace’ to cut them out.

I feel that a central principle of my writing is to be direct and clear. This is often for my own benefit; when I find something complex or have difficulty understanding something, I spend time breaking it down to something more digestible, and something that I would feel comfortable explaining to others. This makes me feel more confident in my own knowledge and sure that what I am writing has solid foundations. I find that often, complex language can be used as a distraction to shield unsound ideas. But also, I hope that clarity in my writing will make my work more accessible to a broader audience, beyond simply circulating within an academic bubble.

In terms of the more practical techniques for writing, I usually simply write down a short structure for what I’m about to write (it doesn’t matter if this is later shifted around) which I find helps to motivate me. Often, I will organise my notes from readings thematically, so later when I’m writing on a topic I can easily find what I’m looking for. When I go over these notes, I’ll ‘strikethrough’ sections I’ve covered in my main writing, but never delete them. There’s nothing worse than losing track of that one quote that would’ve fitted perfectly. I also use Evernote to organise journal articles and other texts, which I feel I’d be lost without during this PhD.

Finally, why do I write? I’m drawn to history because it helps me to understand the conditions of the present day. And as the old saying goes, ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.’ However, I’d argue that a lot of popular history is ideologically skewed, focusing on the triumphs of great men, celebration of nationalistic tradition, and even pushing complete myths. How can we learn from history or change the future when our popular perception of the past is distorted and restricted? I write because I want to, in my own small way, contribute to challenging this dominant narrative, and in turn, enhancing how we study and share history.


Friday, 4 May 2018

Writing About Writing-Dr Alun Withey

In her post for this site, Penelope Corfield has already given an excellent set of insights into writing practices, and tips for constructing work. I thought I would take a slightly different line and reflect on my own writing journey. I’ve been writing as an academic historian for over 10 years and have so far published three books and more than 10 journal articles. More recently I’ve also begun to write for a variety of different outputs, ranging from magazines, newspapers and websites, to my own blog. Writing is at the absolute heart of what I do, and I generally write every day – even if it only a few lines. I’m currently finishing off what I hope will be the fourth book – a study of the history of facial hair.

Whatever I’m writing, I feel it’s important to think about the audience for the work. This has to do with developing, and modifying, your authorial ‘voice’. For example, writing a newspaper article of 1000 words is completely different to an academic journal article of 10,000…or a radio script of 300 words. Each has its own requirements and constraints, and each speaks to different people, and in different ways. Whilst academic history journal articles need solid grounding in existing literature, and often the ‘scaffold’ of referencing and stylistic conventions, pieces for popular publications are often much shorter, punchier, and in a ‘looser’ style.

Some academics find it hard to cross from one to the other, since writing something without referencing it goes against the grain! A colleague also once mentioned to me that they were afraid of mixing styles, and writing for a popular audience, in case it ‘polluted’ their academic writing. I actually think that the opposite is true, and that writing different things in different ways makes for a more rounded author.

I’m sometimes asked how and where to start with writing. The obvious answer is at the beginning, but in fact even that’s not always necessarily true. Whatever I’m writing, I always need a spark of inspiration – usually something I’ve come across in a primary source, or whilst reading a book or article. Often, I find that a single source can be enough to get the creative juices flowing, and it’s important to get that down on paper as soon as possible. Where it might end up in a chapter can be decided later.

When I think about how I write, though, there are certain things that I always try to do. Whatever I’m writing, for example, whether a full article or book chapter, or even a blog post, I always start by making a short list of bullet points, outlining what I think the main arguments of the piece will be. This obviously helps to map out the structure of the work. But I also find, by writing the points as prose, I can actually use them as the launch points for paragraphs or sections. Sometimes even just outlining what you want to argue can be a very good way of getting the writing to flow.

Secondly, I think it’s important to set aside specific time for writing, and to give yourself the space, and environment to do it in. For me, this means turning off social media, email and other distractions. Some people can write in noisy libraries, or with music on, but I need peace and quiet to focus on the task.

Thirdly, I am a strong believer in having a writing target for a day. I am very lucky in generally being able to write quickly, so my own target is usually 1000 words per day. It sounds a lot but is only roughly 2 sides of A4. Once that target is reached, unless it’s really flowing, I often leave it and move on to other things. This is about as close as I get to discipline in my own writing! Indeed, in several other ways my approach is perhaps unorthodox!

For example, I never write drafts. When I begin writing a chapter, I consider it the final version. Although it will naturally be shaped along the way (things are always cut and pasted!), I rarely, if ever, start over again or have different versions of the same. Some people also like to amass all their source materials before starting to write. 

The benefits of that approach are manifold. But I have always preferred to write as I research, finding inspiration from the sources that I’ve just worked on and, to a large extent, letting them dictate the shape of the argument. In that sense, although I have a broad idea or theory to begin with, it develops along the way. I’m also a great believer in ‘just’ writing, to see where it can lead. Like so many things, writing needs regular practice in order to maintain the momentum. Sometimes when I’m stuck with my academic work, I make a point of writing a blog post instead, even on a completely different subject, just to keep things ticking over. In fact, one recent blog post actually led directly to an academic article on the same subject.

In the last analysis, writing is a personal preference, and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another. That is why I’m sometimes slightly dubious about the whole ‘writing about writing’ literature, and also loathe to try and give students a prescriptive list of what they should do, beyond general tips. But writing this piece has actually been very enlightening since it’s forced me to reflect on what I do and analyze how I do it…something I’ve never really done. Sometimes the best thing to do, is just…write.


After a rather unsatisfying ten-year career with a major high street bank, I decided to take the plunge and return to study. Having begun studying for my history degree part-time with the Open University, I enrolled at the University of Glamorgan and completed my BA (Hons) there in 2005, writing my undergraduate dissertation on the medical information within a seventeenth-century commonplace book.

Having secured funding from the AHRC, I completed my MA in History at Cardiff University in 2006, and was then funded by a Wellcome Trust prize studentship to study my PhD at Swansea University, which I completed in 2009. My thesis was adapted into my first book "Physick and the Family: Health, medicine and care in Wales, c. 1600-1750", published in 2011 by Manchester University Press. 

After completing my doctorate I returned to the University of Glamorgan in 2010, as a research fellow on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project "Steel in Britain in the Age of Enlightenment", working with Professor Chris Evans. At the completion of this project, I became a lecturer in History at Swansea University, teaching a range of modules in early modern European history. His blog can be found @