V.G. Kiernan

V.G. Kiernan, who died in February 2009, was an emeritus professor of history at Edinburgh University and the author of The Duel in European History and Tobacco: A History.

The Unrewarded End: Memories of the CP

V.G. Kiernan, 17 September 1998

Studies of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its troubled history proliferate. An attraction for some must be that it is now safely dead and buried: there is no live bear to break out of its cage and retaliate.

Grains and Pinches

V.G. Kiernan, 9 July 1992

A ‘covenant of salt’ meant to the Hebrews an inviolable pledge, most likely because salt has served through ages as a preservative. Early Christians were taught to think of themselves as ‘the salt of the earth’. No other chemical has found its way into the common sayings of so many lands as sodium chloride has done. It has been an emblem of human relations and loyalties. A man should be ‘true to his salt’, or faithful to the superior who has provided him with a living. In Russia bread and salt, khleb-solya, has meant welcome or hospitality. Sowing of a defeated enemy’s fields with salt, to render them sterile, as at Carthage by the Romans, was a symbolic proclamation (it cannot have been more) of triumph.

Diary: Leningrad Renamed

V.G. Kiernan, 24 October 1991

Four years ago in November, when the 70th anniversary of the Revolution was being celebrated, I was in the procession moving slowly along the Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad. Placards everywhere hailed perestroika; the atmosphere, as well as I could make out, was of good-humoured hopefulness, rather than vibrant enthusiasm. In the evening a multitude gathered to watch the fireworks over the river, close to the Winter Palace. A few juvenile rowdies were in evidence, no police. It is melancholy now to learn of that city, with its heroic record, renouncing its name, and going back not even to its last, Russian name of Petrograd, but to the original German one; and of the return of the flag of the Tsars, which was flying over the Winter Palace when the workers were massacred outside it in January 1905.

Highland Hearts

V.G. Kiernan, 20 December 1990

‘Just inside the fir-dusk a hollow oblong of stones now showed, brown and damp with that stupefied or browbeaten look of an abandoned croft-house … Here was Unnimore.’ Here, too, was David Craig, groping through a wilderness in Morvern in search of a long-abandoned hamlet; his treasure-trove the remains of eight little houses, their stones covered with ‘whiskery grey lichens’. A hundred pages on, our intrepid explorer is being driven across the shingle of Hudson Bay by ‘a sturdy black-eyed woman of Highland Cree descent’, in a three-wheeler with a rifle aboard in case of polar bears, on the track of a lost settlement of folk cleared from Kildonan. His reward this time is a crumbling gravestone, with a name and a date – 1813 – still legible, probably the furthest-north relic left by any exiled Highlander.’

Evil Days

V.G. Kiernan, 10 May 1990

Lord Rosebery described Luther, with Victorian blandness, as ‘the German apostle of light and freedom’. Professor Oberman is another admirer, but a judiciously critical one, not a hagiographer. He begins by summing him up as ‘a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon’. Further on, he modifies this by saying that Luther was ‘no longer medieval, but neither had he become modern’. We may indeed see him in his later years of corpulent dogmatism as a whale washed up on the beach, stranded between two tides. He saw himself as a soldier fighting in a desperate if shadowy conflict between heaven and hell. He had no doubt, Oberman reminds us, of the reality of witchcraft, even of its power to kill by casting a spell. In the record of his table-talk, where we see or overhear Luther at his most spontaneous, he abounds in tales of sorcery as grotesque as the fables he accused Papists of swallowing, and has no doubt that witches must be burned. After his marriage he occupied the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg where he had lived as a monk – a symbol of his only partial, imperfect emancipation from the past.’

Booze and Fags

Christopher Hitchens, 12 March 1992

When the effects of drink are not extremely funny, they do have a tendency to be a bit grim. For every cheerful fallabout drunk there is a lugubrious toper or melancholy soak, draining the flask for no...

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Knowing more

Rosalind Mitchison, 14 September 1989

Victor Kiernan is here presenting essays produced over the last 45 years: the texts are only occasionally given recent additions. The topics include three essays on literature but are otherwise...

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The point of it all

Linda Colley, 1 September 1988

In 1759 the future Viscount Townshend challenged the Earl of Leicester to a duel. But Leicester refused to fight. He was, he claimed, too old and too ill; he could not hit a barn door with a...

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Eric Hobsbawm, 3 June 1982

Is it a good thing that a country, after almost forty years of accelerating decline, has nothing more satisfactory to look back upon than a victorious world war with relatively modest casualties?...

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Peter Burke, 5 March 1981

Every student and every teacher knows the importance of the ‘seminal article’, which packs into a few pages more ideas than many books. In the field of European history, one such...

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