‘Après Moi, Le Déluge’ [1]: Redressing the Wartime and Postwar Mythologization of Operation Chastise in Britain

‘Germany started a foul war, and we’ve got to show them we can be as foul and a lot more foul.’

Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s blunt reflection on the culmination of Operation ‘Chastise’ – better known as the ‘Dambusters’ raid – perfectly encapsulates its most sparkling achievement: reinvigorating Britain’s fighting spirit as the tide of war began to turn. Undertaken in the tense early hours between 16-17 May 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, based at R.A.F. Scampton in Lincolnshire, cracked open the Möhne and Eder dams located within Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley (Ruhrgebiet) in North-Rhine Westphalia. This ‘disaster in the West’, as Adolf Hitler put it, unleashed 336 million tonnes of water from both dams onto the communities below.  Reconstructing the two major reservoirs required the diversion of 20,000 Organization Todt labourers away from building the Atlantic wall – a German coastal defence system closing off occupied Europe from the Allies – and halted the production of electricity within the Waffenschmiede des Reiches (‘armoury of the Reich’) for two weeks.  This constituted a considerable militaristic victory for the weary British, but more importantly shook the Nazi leadership to its core and substantially boosted Britain’s home-front morale.


Fig 1: Zerstörte Möhnetalsperre: The Möhne dam and surrounding areas lie in ruins after being destroyed by 617 Squadron, 17 May 1943 (Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons)

Its protagonists were quickly immortalised in the wartime press and became firmly stitched into the fabric of British mythology. The story of 617 Squadron’s astounding low-flying prowess, combined with Sir Barnes Wallis’ ingenious Upkeep mine (‘bouncing bomb’), proved exceptionally popular when the nation harped back to its wartime identity during the Cold War. An emergence of gripping personal histories recounting the raid – such as Gibson’s posthumous autobiography Enemy Coast Ahead (1946) and Paul Brickhill’s lively narrative account The Dam Busters (1951) – particularly captured the post-war public’s imagination. The Times even described the latter’s work as having ‘endowed a single air raid with a mythological status it has never lost’ in his obituary.  Brickhill’s best-selling account soon inspired Michael Anderson’s cinematic portrayal of the operation in The Dam Busters (1955). Purporting to recount the raid ‘as it happened’, the historical inaccuracies peppered throughout the classic film do not appear to have diminished its continued popularity among the British public.  Its iconic ‘Dambusters March’ has featured in everything from Proms in the Park to the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, and the media hype which surrounds Peter Jackson’s recent pledge to re-make the 1955 film illustrates our country’s enduring fascination with the Dambusters.

The main historiographical debate on the raid revolves around its genuine impact on the Nazi war machine. Intriguingly, its most vocal critics have often been men of airpower. One of the R.A.F.’s official historians, Noble Frankland – a former Navigator with 50 Squadron during the war – described its results as having been ‘neither of ‘fundamental importance nor even seriously damaging’.  His reasoning pointed to the delay in customising the earmarked Lancasters with Wallis’ Upkeep technology; the restriction of the force to twenty bombers; and, most crucially, the disregarding of the Ministry of Economic Warfare (M.E.W.)’s advice to prioritise the Sorpe dam over the Eder.  Wing Commander Tim Webster suggested that wartime propaganda ‘may have led to overstatement of [the raid’s] success’, and the retired U.S. Air Force colonel Doug Dildy deemed the loss of 53 men to have been ‘prohibitively high’.  The nation’s immediate perceptions of the raid, however, are often rooted within the work of military enthusiasts and popular TV historians. Dan Snow has claimed that the failure of ‘Chastise’ to stop German war production indefinitely was its only drawback, whilst James Holland asserted that critiquing the significance of ‘Chastise’ is ‘absolute nonsense of the first order’.

Nevertheless, a lack of academic moderation has arguably elicited several historiographical issues to be addressed. Firstly, ‘Chastise’ historians rarely engage with the arguments of their colleagues. Holland, for instance, simply claimed that there have been ‘only two significant works on the Dams Raid in the past thirty years’ without specifying them.   Secondly, the raid’s cultural history remains barely discussed: from satirical cartoons to humorous adverts, many fascinating post-war sources documenting how the mythology of the raid was established have been underutilized. The raid’s social repercussions are also often forgotten, with historians having overlooked the immense distress of the families of missing or killed Dambusters caused by post-war rumours that the Nazis had murdered them.  Thirdly, the neglection of German historiography has meant the disagreement of certain German historians on how many drowned in the resulting Flutblitz (flash flood) has gone undiscussed: 1,579 according to Ralf Blank, 1,069 (and 225 missing) for Helmuth Euler, and 1,300 dead for Jörg Friedrich.  Rarely do British historians note that the German newspapers which claimed that ‘Jews [were] behind the attacks on the dams’ –another opportunity for Joseph Goebbels to justify ‘taking [the] Jews into custody’ – stemmed from an English newspaper’s false claim that a German-Jewish engineer was behind the raid.

Yet even German historians have critiqued the less palatable aspects of ‘Chastise’ whilst retaining admiration for- as even Friedrich, a highly vocal critic of Allied bombing, has claimed – ‘the most brilliant operation ever executed by an air force’.  So, what has prevented their British counterparts from doing the same thing? My research does not venture too far into the long-standing debate regarding the raid’s militaristic value. The continued national fondness towards the operation is testimony to its success in boosting British morale, whilst the fact that Albert Speer’s post-raid report ‘made a deep impression on the Führer’ illustrates that ‘Chastise’ lived up to its name.  Rather, it aims to determine whether the wartime and post-war mythology of Operation Chastise has hindered the objectivity and research interests of its British historians. Jonathan Falconer, for instance, noted that Brickhill’s narrative history instilled ‘a passion for the exploits of Guy Gibson and his dam busters’ within him and many other boys of his generation.  Yet it appears that focussing solely on its operation minutia has simplified the complex – and often tragic – repercussions of this legendary raid. I wish to ask, as a proud “Bomber County” native myself, whether it is time to set our selective memory straight.

Victoria Taylor

MRes History student, University of Hull.

For any questions or feedback, you can find me on Twitter at @SpitfireFilly or e-mail me at v.e.taylor@2013.hull.ac.uk.

[1] ‘Après Moi, Le Déluge’ (‘After Me, The Flood’) was chosen by King George VI to be 617 Squadron’s official motto after a Royal visit to R.A.F. Scampton on 27 May 1943.



Annual FACE Postgraduate Conference, ‘Identity and Hybridity’, Hull History Centre, Thursday 1st June 2017

All are welcome to the Annual FACE Postgraduate Conference on Thursday 1st June, timetable below! Please email hullhistorypostgrad@outlook.com if you wish to attend.

FACE Conference Poster


9am Arrivals with Tea and Coffee

9.20am Welcome – Edd Mair

9.25am PANEL 1 – WHAT IS IDENTITY? Chair: Alice Whiteoak

  • 9.30am Speaker 1 Anthony Okpanachi, “Identity in an Objectivity Based Ethical Context”
  • 9.50am Speaker 2 Silvana Matassini, “Narratology of Identity”
  • 10.10am Q&A

10.20am BREAK

10.30am PANEL 2 – GENDER, SEXUALITY AND HEALTH Chair: Dr Rachel Williams

  • 10.35am Speaker 1 Kath Beal, “Lost Identities”
  • 10.55am Speaker 2 Gordon Tait, “The Poet as Cultural Androgyne: Joseph Skipsey meets Dante Gabriel Rossetti”
  • 11.15am Speaker 3 Darren Woodward, “A Critical Analysis of the Community Experience of Child Sex Offenders”
  • 11.35am Speaker 4 Amee Gill, “Invisible Bodies: Barriers to Gynaecological Health Services Among Queer People”
  • 11.55am Q&A

12.30pm LUNCH


  • 2.05pm Speaker 1 Maaike Zoelman, “The Hunger for Identity Formation”
  • 2.25pm Speaker 2 Sandie Mills, “Animating the ‘Other’: Dolls and Doubles in Henry Selick’s Coraline
  • 2.45pm Speaker 3 Gul Dag, “Fractured Identities and Constructed Beings in William Gibson’s Neuromancer
  • 3.05pm Q&A

3.15pm BREAK

3.30pm PANEL 4 – IDENTITY, PAST AND PRESENT Chair: George Borrinaga

  • 3.35pm Speaker 1 Peter Allen, “To Re-Assess the Evidence for the Continuity of the Indigenous Population of Early Medieval Lincolnshire, AD 400 – AD 650”
  • 3.55pm Speaker 2 Michael Reeve, “Policing D.O.R.A. on the North East Coast: Public Safety, Civil Defence and Social Control During the First World War”
  • 4.15pm Speaker 3 Chris Cook, “Narratives of National Identity: Banal Nationalism, Brexit and the English”
  • 4.35pm Q&A

4.45pm Closing Remarks – Charlotte Garside


Playing the Numbers Game

Maths has never been my strong point. Since leaving school, and beyond the basics required to get by in life, I have done everything possible to avoid the subject and its baffling world of logarithms, algebra and the dreaded trigonometry (the mere mention of the terms sine, cosine and tangent still brings me out in a cold sweat). So it may seem strange then that the methodology I adopted for my history PhD thesis required me to play the numbers game once again.

One of the key objectives of my research was to evaluate perceptions of, and reactions to, crime and criminality in Hull and East Yorkshire during the interwar period. My primary resource was the local newspapers produced throughout this period, specifically the Hull Daily Mail. My plan was to carry out a detailed content analysis of articles, features, editorials, comment pieces and letters to the editor in these newspapers. But the period under analysis was 21 years long and featured approximately 6,500 editions. As is often the case with media content analyses, the solution was to select a sample from the whole – but the sample, of course, needs to be as ‘representative’ as possible. And this was where the fun (and sleepless nights) started.

As anyone who has tackled sampling in research knows, there is no shortage of techniques out there. You can use simple random sampling, stratified sampling, convenience sampling, cluster sampling etc. etc. But it is your source material, as well as your research objectives, that will determine which is the most appropriate technique to use. After extensive research into all the options, I came across a methodology called ‘constructed week sampling’ that had been tested and used successfully in the content analysis of newspapers and a range of weekly and monthly publications. For this technique you need to identify all Mondays in the population and select one randomly, followed by all Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays etc. until a full week has been ‘constructed’, ensuring that every day of the week (Monday to Saturday in the case of the Hull Daily Mail as no Sunday edition was produced) has been selected equally and no bias has been attributed to a specific day.

Building on earlier investigations into similar sampling techniques, such as those by Davis and Turner (1951), Stempel (1952), and Jones and Carter (1959), Riffe et al. carried out research into the efficacy of this type of stratified sampling – both in terms of optimum sample size for reliability, and efficiencies for time and resource limitations – and tested against simple random sampling methodologies.[1] They discovered that constructed week sampling was more efficient than either random sampling or consecutive day sampling (which starts at a given point and includes each day of the week but may fail to sample across the whole period under investigation).[2] Riffe et al. concluded that using constructed week sampling in newspaper content analysis can provide reliable estimates of the population mean – i.e. the sample would be reflective of the whole, and significantly more reflective than simple random sampling.[3] Furthermore, their study found that one constructed week was as efficient as four in an examination of six months of editions of a daily newspaper (exceeding basic probability theory expectations), the significance of which is immeasurable to the researcher with limited time and resources.[4]

Of course, I had to test this for myself. For the purposes of consistency, January was selected for the test month, and the years, which were at regular intervals throughout the whole period, were chosen to reflect and capture changes in newspaper size across the years. The number of incidences of crime were counted and the mean calculated for each of the four months and for the population as a whole. In total, 106 editions of the Hull Daily Mail were analysed for the sample. To test both the effectiveness and efficiency of the constructed week sampling technique, 20 samples of a 6-day (one week), 12-day (two weeks), and 18-day (three weeks) were selected. The days were chosen by assigning each a number and then using an online random number generator to select each corresponding day. The mean for each sample was then calculated. So far, so good.

Then things got a little tricky, as I was confronted with formulae, calculations and statistical terminology that sent me into a spin (and brought back all those terrible memories of confusing maths lessons). The Riffe et al. study had used a 95% confidence interval to calculate the efficiency of constructed week sampling. This meant that the results were within two standard errors of the mean population (the internet helped with the explanation). So I constructed my test to try to do the same. Where the population mean was 14.1, the population standard deviation stood at 4.88, and calculations were made for the standard error ranges (again, the internet was a lifesaver here, and so too was an academic in the Mathematics department). It took hours of reading and re-reading to grasp the essential elements of these calculations. The findings, however, did make the hard work worthwhile.

The test sample results echoed those by Riffe et al., with all three constructed week samples (6-day, 12-day, and 18-day) meeting the 95% confidence interval, making them a suitable sampling technique for a content analysis of the Hull Daily Mail. Moreover, the three constructed week samples also fell within one standard error of the mean, well above the 68% predicated by the Central Limits Theorem for random samples.[5] Again, following the examples of Riffe et al., it is safe to conclude that as little as a 6-day constructed week would provide a reliable representative sample for four months of the Hull Daily Mail. Extrapolating these findings means that three constructed weeks would cover each of the 21 years under investigation. In the end, 378 editions of the Hull Daily Mail were analysed for crime-related content, which proved to be a challenging but ultimately achievable figure. A larger sample size for the quantitative (and subsequent qualitative) analysis would have required additional time and resources and, as the test findings reveal, may not have yielded a more representative or reliable sample.

It was a hard slog to get to the final results, and it will no doubt take years for the psychological scars to heal, but the exercise did prove useful. In my case, stepping out of my comfort zone and confronting my fears of mathematics should yield better results for my overall research. It may also prove valuable to other researchers who are about to tackle sampling techniques and have a similar phobia of numbers.

Just don’t ask me to do it again…

Ashley Borrett

[1] D. Riffe et al., ‘The effectiveness of random, consecutive day and constructed week sampling in newspaper content analysis’. Journalism Quarterly, 70, 1 (Spring 1993), 133–139: F. J. Davis & L. W. Turner, ‘Sample efficiency in quantitative newspaper content analysis’. Public Opinion Quarterly, 15, 4 (Winter 1951), 762–763; G. H. Stempel, ‘Sample size for classifying subject matter in dailies’. Journalism Quarterly, 29, 3 (Summer 1952), 333­–334; R. L. Jones & R. E. Carter, ‘Some procedures for estimating “news hole” in content analysis’, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 23, 3 (Autumn 1959), 399–403.

[2] Riffe et al., ‘The effectiveness of random, consecutive day and constructed week sampling’, 139.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid, 138.

Annual FACE Postgraduate Conference – UPDATE!

We’ve been informed that the PG conference clashes with ‘The Modern Researcher’ workshop which is mandatory for first year PhD students.

In light of this we’ve had to change the date to June 1st, and the CFP deadline has been extended to the 10th of May in light of this.

Hope you can all still make it!

(The original post will be amended accordingly).

CFP: Annual FACE Postgraduate Conference “Identity and Hybridity”

Call for Papers for the Annual FACE Postgraduate Conference, “Identity and Hybridity”, Hull History Centre, Thursday 1st June 2017


We are delighted to announce the first annual Postgraduate Conference of the new School of Histories, Cultures and Languages which will take place at Hull History Centre. This year’s conference aims to bring together early career researchers and PhD students within FACE to discuss new concepts of hybrid identities and challenge established theories on social identity and collective memory. Approaches the conference looks to cover are not limited to but include:

  • Identity and Mobility
  • Hybrid Identities
  • Loss and Gaining of Identity
  • Geography of Identity
  • Individual vs. Group Identity
  • Narratology of Identity
  • Gender Identity

Participants are asked to submit proposals for talks (20 min PhD level and 10 min MA level), roundtable discussions, and poster presentations. Abstracts should be no longer than 250 words and should include your name, subject group, year of study, contact details as well as a short introduction about your research interests. PGTS credits can be claimed for participation.

Please submit all abstracts by 10th May 2017. (PLEASE NOTE THE CHANGE OF DATE.)

Please let us know if you are attending the conference, in any capacity, via email by 10th May 2017 at hullhistorypostgrad@outlook.com

Hope to see you there!

The History Postgraduate Committee Conference Organisers: Charlotte Garside, Edward Mair, Samuel North and Juliane Schlag

Following the Arrows: Discovering the English Archer in Medieval Communities during the Hundred Years War

In 1337, the Hundred Years War began. A conflict that would plunge England and France into a war that would last for over a hundred years and radically change the nature of these two Medieval societies. In the beginning, this rivalry of these two monarchies culminated in the Battle of Crecy in 1346 – a battle in which it saw victory pass to the English. France, the great military power of Medieval Europe, was beaten and humbled by a much smaller English Army – an army with a less prestigious military history and yet, on the battlefield in Picardy this smaller and technically weaker force beat the flower of the French Army and raised the military prowess of England significantly. The secret to the English success was the English longbowman: an English Archer armed with a six foot long bow stave, with a draw weight within the region of 100 to 170lbs that could fire up to ten arrows in a minute, accurately, up to 200 yards. Though documentary figures vary, conservative estimates suggest that the English utilised 7000 longbowmen at Crecy which was enough to defeat a French army at least twice as large as the English force. With further victories at Neville’s Cross in 1347 against the Scots and Poitier in 1356 against the French again, the longbowmen dominated the battlefield and brought the English archer to a mythical status.

Elliot's blog post

Archery practice depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, 1325. (Wikimedia Commons).

Yet despite the longbowman’s importance to the English Army, information regarding who these archers were, where they came from and the lives they had before, during and after war is remarkably vague. This is not to say that it is impossible and non-existent. Research by Matthew Strickland, Robert Hardy and Richard Wadge has managed to paint a picture of the type of person an English archer was and the sort of society they lived in. There is also the question of the ‘professional soldier’: research conducted by Andrew Ayton and others indicate that during the Hundred Years War, there was a Medieval Military Revolution in which the Medieval English Army transitioned from a conscripted Commission of Arrays force into a ‘professional’ army whereby the men who fought in it were serving and fighting as a professional occupation. This is exemplified by the rise and prominence of the Mounted Archer and his incorporation into the English Army at this time. This rise in ‘professionalism’ also coincides with the changing social status and reputation of the Medieval Archer as his military importance in English Armies became more apparent – this indicates that not only was the English Archer important to military affairs but that the increase in reputation indicates an increase in wealth as English nobles and commanders were willing to pay for the very best. This is supported by the taxation records. However, there are gaps in this research. Information regarding English archers are primarily drawn from the documentary record in the form of legal proceedings, decrees, rolls, tax records and chronicle and literary record. This is all highly useful but also limited. During the Hundred Years War, the tax records – the main source for accessing wealth during the Medieval period and the main indicator utilised by military historians for accessing the rise of the professional soldier – are scant and in poor condition. For the latter part of the period, the records are more complete and it is from this that historians, like Gary Baker, have been able to assess the increased wealth and social status of the English Archer as well as identifying individual archers. It is, then, argued that an assessment of the rise of the professional soldier for the earlier period is too difficult a subject to hypothesise. However, this may not be the case. It is possible that the archaeological record can reveal what the taxation records do not.

Strictly speaking, an increase in personal wealth – from an increase in pay to serve as a soldier as well as accumulated wealth on campaign from chevauchees, looting and pillaging from battlefields – would have an impact on life back home in England. After a campaign season was over and after garrisons were placed to defend new acquisitions, the army would be discharged and return to the communities they came from. Though there is documentary evidence to suggest that not every retinue and soldier did this when a campaign was over, there still would have been a proportion of archers and men-at-arm that would return home to continue the lives they had before. The question is: what would an archer do with his money? From studying the social backgrounds and military behaviour of archers and soldiers from across history, the conclusion can be drawn that no matter the time period, soldiers act and respond the same way regardless. An example would be a comparison of the Siege of Caen in 1346 and the Siege of Badajoz in 1812 – first-hand accounts for both sieges show the soldiers in both sieges performing the same way: in a wild manner, looting, raping and causing chaos. The same can be said for their recruitment into the army and how they perform during battle. It could be concluded that soldiers would have spent money in the same way ergo, money would have been spent on food and drink but money could have potentially been spent on their homesteads. From this, is it possible to show an increase in wealth and social status in the archaeology of medieval peasantry homes and can they be directly linked to longbowmen who served in the English Army during the Hundred Years War? Essentially, can archers be identified based on what physically remains? In correlation with this, an examination of the archaeology of churches may prove useful. During the medieval period, it was common practice to donate to the church in order to save your soul in the afterlife. To which end, extensions and renovations were usually paid for by those who could afford it. From this, is there any evidence of churches undergoing renovations in the fourteenth century and can they be linked to a wealthy archer endorser?

A main feature of this research will be investigating medieval villages and communities and using them as an archaeological case study to find any evidence of medieval archers. A prime case study will be Wharram Percy: a thoroughly excavated medieval site that shows evidence of social and economic change during the fourteenth century, but also has evidence for archery in the form of arrowheads. By investigating this site and its potential connection with archers, it is hoped that these methods can be transferred to the researching of other medieval sites in order to find more evidence that will enable more conclusive answers to these questions.

Elliot Brindle

Historical Trajectories in Academia and Heritage: A Careers Workshop for PG Researchers in History

The Hull History Postgraduate Committee is delighted to announce the second Careers Workshop for Post-Graduate Researchers in History organised in collaboration with the Careers Service at The University of Hull.

This free one day workshop welcomes all post-graduate students from the History Subject Group, both MA and PhD level, interested in hearing more about how to get ahead in the professional world of History after university.

This workshop shall cover crucial areas to consider in doing a PhD in History and when applying for jobs both inside and outside of Higher Education, including:

  • How to Apply for a PhD
    PhD Life: Final Year and Viva
    Post-Doctoral Research and Management
    Alternative Careers for Historians in Heritage and Higher Education


Please email hullhistorypostgrad@outlook.com to book a place or for queries.

Hope to see you there!

Careers Workshop 2017 Poster


09.45: Welcome  

– George Borrinaga, Job Opportunities Representative, History Postgraduate Committee

10.00: Final PhD Year and Post-Doctoral Project Management 

PhD Writing Phase and Post-Viva Reflections  

– Susannah Hopson, PhD Candidate

Balancing Research and Administration in a Post-Doctoral Project  

– Dr Yvonne Inall, Post-Doctoral Research Associate and Project Administrator, Remember Me: The Changing Face of Memorialisation Project

11.00:  Research Pursuits at the Post-Doctoral Level 

Making your research interests fit into collaborative projects  

– Dr Jennifer Aston, Research Associate, Gender, Place and Memory Project

12.00:  Lunch Break (Refreshments will be made available inside the room) 

13.00:  Alternative Careers for Historians 

Working in the Heritage Sector

– Helen Keighley, PhD Candidate/English Heritage

Working in Higher Education Management

– Dr Jacob Zobkiw

14.00:  PhD Applications and Research Consortiums 

CV, Personal Statements, and Cover Letters

– Emily Peach, Careers Adviser, Careers & Employability Service

Academic Coordination and PhD Applications for NECAH

– Dr Martin Wilcox, Lecturer in History and Academic Coordinator, North of England Consortium for Arts and Humanities: http://www.necah.ac.uk/

15.00: Closing Comments  

– Charlotte Garside, President, History Postgraduate Committee

Reading for Pleasure during a History PhD

Studying for a PhD in history requires a lot of reading. This statement will surprise no-one, least of all those of us who languish in the dungeons of the doctoral enterprise, buried under an ever-growing pile of secondary literature. We are required to read an enormous volume of material in the course of primary source research and historiographical reconnaissance. And rightly so. The problem is that this work is open-ended. It can just take over, and before you know it you are reading around your subject for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and the chance of reading for pleasure seems a distant memory. If I possessed one, I would wager a small fortune on every history PhD student being a fan of reading in the wider sense of reading for pleasure, if only the opportunity would present itself. Academic reading and less serious reading are cousins, albeit cousins from a disjointed family. Most people invested in the former are doubtless fans of the latter. The chance to read non-academic books is, however, limited by the strictures and expectations of modern-day doctoral life. Walking the corridors of the Larkin Building, or venturing into the post-grad room in the library, leads to various encounters with research students whose standout characteristics are blank staring eyes and expressions of dull, numb panic. ‘There is SO much to do!!!!’

So reading for pleasure is, or so I have found, one of first things to fall before the rising tide of research, manuscripts and historiography, along with cooking and sport. It seems a waste a time, or a guilty pleasure. Surely, if I am reading, I should be reading about the minutiae of local law-enforcement in the middle ages, or the latest tiresome debate over a loosely-related topic in an academic journal? This problem has, I think, grown exponentially in the last few decades, if only because of the increasing number of academics and early career researchers and the increasing ‘outputs’ required of them. The sheer volume of historiography has grown at an enormous rate, and we should read everything germane to our topic. Faced with such pressures, weekends and evenings become a space not for picking up the latest novel of choice, as I would have done when I was at school if no better call on my time offered itself, but for catching up with all the articles and monographs I haven’t been able to read yet. I will give an example which will resonate with many: in my first year of doctoral research, after spending nine hours at the library looking at manuscripts online, I got back to my room and found myself reading G.R. Elton’s The Tudor Revolution in Government, because I convinced myself that that is what I ought to be doing. As those who have encountered Elton’s formidable volume will know, it is not bedtime reading. As a work of academic history: marvellous, provocative, profoundly influential. As a piece of evening reading: ill-advised.

It was not always thus. Before the later decades of the twentieth-century, I believe that lighter academic pressures combined with the relative paucity of published studies to allow far more time to pursue pleasurable reading. It is extremely hard to conceive J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, spending decades drafting and re-drafting The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings whilst holding full-time academic posts at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford in this day and age. But he managed it.[1] Similarly, the great medievalist K.B. McFarlane (d. 1966) found time for reading books other than those which revealed the working of later medieval society to his penetrating mind. McFarlane’s history library can be seen still in Magdalen College, Oxford. It is majestic, an awe-inspiring collection enlivened by his savage marginal annotations. McFarlane worked as hard on his history as anyone can be expected too. It contributed to his frequent bouts of ill-health and probably to his early death.[2] His English library, however, was just as large and just as impressive, and in his letters he discusses works of literature as well as works of history.

We can learn something from this. If McFarlane of all people found time to read for pleasure, then so should we. And it is not simply a question of relaxation, although that is extremely important and a worthy end in itself. Reading fiction or whatever can help with prose, with style, with inspiration. Modern academic books are saturated with information, weighed down with footnotes, burdened with the crushing pressure of meeting academic standards. This has to be the case. But they are not fun to read, on the whole. Their purpose almost invariably nullifies the possibility of writing a page-turner. One way to try to combat this, thus perhaps preventing the reader’s mind from collapsing in on itself at the thought of 250 more pages of closely argued converted doctoral-thesis, is to read books which do have wonderful prose. This provides both a break and a subconscious lesson. My second fictional small fortune will go on the wager that the writers of wonderfully written history books read a lot of non-academic books too. Good writers read good writers. Maurice Keen’s Chivalry, for example, is an academic book of tremendous importance that is written in such an engaging style that it cannot have been created purely from a mind whose sole focus had been to read as much academic history as possible for the last four years, until his funding ran out. For myself, I have made a concerted effort in the last few months to read things outside of the academic history. I am currently reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, which recalls his travels through Europe (mostly on foot) as a young man. Passages like the following, on walking through a snowstorm to an inn on the Danube, abound:

‘In cold weather like this,’ said the innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, ‘I recommend Himbeergeist.’ I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost – this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it homoeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns – or so it seemed after a second glass – like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the utmost fimbria. Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes: Kümmel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh for a thimble full of the cold north!’


Enjoyment of such a passage is, of course, a question of taste but the point is that reading books like that make me want to write, in a way that very few academic books can match. Generally, reading is about relaxation and about inspiration. Both are integral to writing a satisfying thesis. That is why we should try and carve out a small part of our weeks to read books for fun. On this small matter, we should feel justified in re-winding the clock and putting aside the stacks of journals, databases, drafts and plans for a good book, if only for a few minutes. Both we and our work could reap the benefits.

Matt Raven

PhD Candidate at the University of Hull: ‘The Earls of Edward III, 1330-60’

[1] Indeed, to judge from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter (London, 1981), I am inclined to conclude that more time was spent on the world of Middle Earth than on Gawain and the Green Knight or any of his other academic ventures.

[2] See Letters to Friends, 1940-66 by K.B. McFarlane (Magdalen College, 1997) for an intimate portrayal.

Dress Codes: What to Wear in Academia

As the inaugural session of the Student Led Seminar Series, it was decided that we should kick things off with a discussion on a general topic that affected and was relevant to everyone within the postgraduate community. The question of what to wear at conferences, and other formal academic events, has been a constant worry for many of those hoping to enter the professional world of academia. Along with the now out-dated stereotypes of the unkempt professor, ‘Dress Code’ became an obvious first point of discussion for our seminar series.

Before the discussion, Juliane Schlag circulated some articles that would serve well to stimulate discussion as well as provide some background reading (see links below).

“Dressing for Academia” by “Tenure, she wrote”

“Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels- and no flowing hair allowed”, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou

 Whilst Juliane had provided this recommended reading, which was interesting in itself, many in attendance had gone out of their way to locate additional reading that was both written by a male academic and aimed towards a male readership. This naturally led to the opening conversation of our session – the issue of gender. There was much discussion as to why there were more posts to be found online considering the issue of what women should wear in academia than considering the dress codes for men. One might observe that women tend to be critiqued more severely, more frequently, and more blatantly than their male colleagues, creating greater anxiety for women around this particular issue resulting in more posts about it.
Female academics are writing about appropriate dress codes in academia for a variety of reasons. Articles, blogs, and subsequent comments range from anger that their dress should be questioned and analysed in the first place to helpful, good-willed advice for what to wear at different academic events. The sheer volume of and diversity across the writing on female academic dress codes mirror the minefield that is professional female dressing – there is so much to think about.

Male academics, it must be said, seem to have a far easier time of things as far as dress codes are concerned. We spent some time discussing the significance of the tie – when and where a tie is appropriate, the origins of male formal and professional dress, and what the tie, as an item of dress, is even really about. A discussion surrounding the phallic symbolism of the tie (literally, a strip of fabric pointing towards the most obvious sign of masculinity and virility) led to us reaching out on Twitter to try to find some answers …





This online interaction really added to our overall discussion, and demonstrated the power of a supportive, virtual community. It also confirmed what we, as a seminar group, had been considering – modern day men can wear ties to indicate formality, professionalism and superiority. Other than that, the standard of academic male dress code is basically, certainly comparatively, simple and easy to understand.

Further points of conversation continued to develop, for instance, whether or not working in comfortable clothes was a good idea – when at home working, is it jeans or pyjamas? But what our discussion ended up circling was a question that stood out in particular of one of the articles we read in particular – why do we even care what other people are wearing? It has no impact on the quality or integrity of academic research, and how is it any of our business anyway?

In truth, this question is a lot more difficult to answer than one may initially think. A very strong part of me wants to believe that everyone has the right to wear whatever they like and feel comfortable in at any and every event; academia is not like other professions. Women are not expected to wear a pencil skirt and heels. We have all been to conferences where a speaker dressed in suit and tie is followed by a speaker in a t-shirt and flip-flops. There is no ‘uniform’ – which, I suppose, is why everyone is so confused about what is actually appropriate. Yet, there are rules. Unspoken, unexplained, and occasionally ignored rules that dictate how we react to another person in the professional world.

Ultimately, however, academia is a profession that depends on the expression of personal opinion. One’s dress sense is very much an extension of this, and in an environment of intellectualism that thrives upon creative thought and communication, it seems somewhat counterproductive to impose upon academics what they should or should not wear. We concluded that a professional space that brought flip-flops and heels together in one space was, on balance, a very good thing indeed.

Charlotte Garside & Edward Mair