Roy Porter

Roy Porter, who died in 2002, was a regular, much admired and much envied contributor to the LRB: he was the author of an astonishing number of books, including London: A Social History (1994), The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (1997) and Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000).

F for Felon

Roy Porter, 4 April 2002

Given their importance as an instrument of social regulation, it’s odd that the law and law enforcement were so long cold-shouldered by historians. From the time of Blackstone, legal history remained the province of lawyers, whose labours of love bore more relation to the apologetic hermeneutics of Bible scholars than to ‘historical method’. Common law was wisdom to be...

The Need for Buddies

Roy Porter, 22 June 2000

If two Englishmen were cast away on a desert island, what’s the first thing they would do? They’d set up a club. The brothers Goncourt’s celebrated quip chimes precisely with a much cherished image of the bewhiskered Victorian gent digesting the Times at the Reform or Athenaeum, before sorting out the world’s evils. But as Peter Clark, Britain’s leading urban historian, notes in a characteristically fact-packed but thoughtful study, that most English of institutions was going strong long before then.

Tissue Wars: HIV and Aids

Roy Porter, 2 March 2000

More than a thousand pages long and the fruit of a decade’s work, The River amounts to something more than the attempt to track down the source of Aids. It is, in fact, three books rolled into one. The investigation advertised by the title is, of course, of the highest significance. It was in 1981 that attention was first drawn to the condition, as evidence mounted that gays in New York and California were falling victim to illnesses like pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and Kaposi’s sarcoma, rarely seen in otherwise healthy young people. A number of theories were proposed as to its origins, some unscientific (‘the wrath of God’), and others (homosexuality or Haitians) generally discredited once the human immunodeficiency virus had been isolated.‘

Published two hundred years ago this year, An Essay on the Principle of Population made the Rev. Thomas Robert malthus into the man of the moment. Malthus’s principle – that population inevitably outruns food resources – was heralded by some as the decisive scientific refutation of the mad perfectibilist schemes of the French Revolutionaries and their English confrères like William Godwin, and damned by others as hardheartedness incarnate. Marie Antoinette had just told the poor to go and eat cake: Malthus trumped her, apparently sentencing them to death by starvation – and all on the strength of the ‘facts’. No wonder Thomas Love Peacock satirised him in Melincourt as ‘Mr Fax’, although we owe the ultimate put-down to William Cobbett: ‘I call you Parson.’’‘

It is easy to conjure up landscapes of the past peopled by holy fools, and to suppose that medieval times were full of simpleton jesters, and boy bishops leading rites of inversion and showing how all sinners were equal in God’s eyes. It is equally easy to imagine a subsequent darkening of the plain – the old Christian reverence for simplicity yielding to the carceral project of modernity, Foucault’s great confinement.’

This book opens with a resounding question: ‘Who are we?’ The many pages that follow, highly entertaining and richly informed as they are, never directly answer this question....

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A central tenet of the current Eurosceptic case resides in the contrast between English pragmatists, blessed with an instinctive distrust of the systems concocted by philosophers, and dreamy...

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Even Immortality: Medicomania

Thomas Laqueur, 29 July 1999

No one should take comfort from the title of Roy Porter’s shaggy masterpiece of a history of medicine. ‘The Greatest Benefit to Mankind’ – the phrase is Dr Johnson’s...

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Ideally, one should be at the peak of fitness before starting to break the heads of Scots barbarians. The Emperor Severus, who undertook this necessary task in AD 208, suffered from gout. It is...

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Simply Doing It

Thomas Laqueur, 22 February 1996

The Facts of Life is symptomatic of the tensions to be found in its sources: it is an elusive book, offering vistas of liberation and oppression. In all but their barest outline the facts of life...

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Porter for Leader

Jenny Diski, 8 December 1994

Rose was my next-door-neighbour-but-one when I lived in the furthermost reaches of Camden – three steps and one foot off the pavement and I was alienated in Islington. Rose was in her...

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Identity Parade

Linda Colley, 25 February 1993

‘I will never, come hell or high water, let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe.’ John Major’s ringing assurance to last year’s Conservative Party...

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Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk, 24 September 1992

Among various worries I have about the degree subject English, the most serious is the decline (to near vanishing point in many universities) of historical language study. One accepts, of course,...

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Something an academic might experience

Michael Neve, 26 September 1991

A small news item with a large history behind it: John Sylvester, an inhabitant of Lancashire, was released last month from a life spent in mental hospitals and institutions, aged 81. He had been...

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Heroic Irrigations

E.S. Turner, 6 December 1990

In Europe the health-seeker may still go barefoot in dew-treading meadows, as enjoined by Father Kneipp, or sniff the gentle mist from rows of brine-soaked hedges, as at Bad Kreuznach, or wallow...

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Pain and Hunger

Tom Shippey, 7 December 1989

What would you do if you had toothache, in a world of pre-modern dentistry? Those of us who have suffered a weekend of it can probably imagine (in the end) getting a friend to pull the tooth out...

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Downward Mobility

Linda Colley, 4 May 1989

We live in reactionary times. One indication of this is the growing trend among both politicians and academics to prescribe what historical study should be: how it should be organised and...

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Peter Swaab, 20 April 1989

Wordsworth’s poetry has been able to animate critical writing, relevantly, from several different points of view. Narratologists have discussed the gaps in his storytelling and the...

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Andrew Scull, 29 September 1988

For nearly two centuries now, the treatment of the mad in Georgian England has been almost uniformly portrayed in the darkest hues. Nineteenth-century lunacy reformers pictured the preceding age...

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Madness and Method

Mark Philp, 3 April 1986

Traditional histories of psychiatry, and those which preface the standard medical textbooks on the subject, are good examples of Whiggish historical writing. The dark ages for madness last until...

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John Brewer, 5 August 1982

British social history, for so long in protracted adolescence, seems finally to have come of age. The work of two generations of researchers, led by such avatars as Alan Everitt, Peter Laslett,...

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Rosalind Mitchison, 21 January 1982

Witchcraft can be seen as an area of criminal law, a manifestation of religious belief or secular power, a sign of social stress, a display of sexual prejudice and fear, a temporary and...

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