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Malcolm Gaskill: Charity Refused, 9 September 2021

... Afew weeks ago,​ a man appeared in my front garden as I was trimming the hedge. Slight in stature, in his early twenties with short dark hair, he was wearing a huge hold-all as though it were a rucksack. His unsmiling face radiated intensity as he began his spiel: name, from the North, recent discharge from the army, trying to get back on his feet ...

Staunch with Sugar

Malcolm Gaskill: Early Modern Mishaps, 7 September 2017

Accidents and Violent Death in Early Modern London, 1650-1750 
by Craig Spence.
Boydell, 273 pp., £65, November 2016, 978 1 78327 135 1
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... On 15 August​ 1737 Samuel Wood was working in a windmill on the Isle of Dogs, when a rope tied around his wrist became caught in the gear wheels. The gigantic brake-wheel pulled him into the mechanism, tearing off his right arm. Wood staggered a short distance before collapsing. Bystanders staunched the wound with sugar, which was known to have antiseptic and healing properties, while they waited for help to arrive ...

On Strike

Malcolm Gaskill, 5 April 2018

... The university strikes​ reached the end of their fourth week just before the start of the Easter break. More than a million students at 65 universities had been affected and, according to the University and College Union (UCU), the body to which the strikers belong, more than half a million teaching hours lost. The casus belli is a proposed change to the operation of the pension fund held by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which covers those (not just academics, but librarians and administrators too) who work at institutions founded before 1992, the year polytechnics became ‘new universities ...


Malcolm Gaskill: The Bussolengo Letters, 21 March 2024

... Cambridge​ in the autumn of 1989 seemed to me a lonely place. I had just taken up that loneliest of occupations, doctoral research in the humanities: three years of self-exile in libraries and archives, hard-up and haunted by doubt. My girlfriend had gone to study in Russia, and I’d never felt more isolated or adrift. Every morning I’d cycle to my college and sit in the ancient library, situated above the porters’ lodge and its adjacent pigeonholes ...

Ministry of Apparitions

Malcolm Gaskill: Magical Thinking in 1918, 4 July 2019

A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith during the First World War 
by Owen Davies.
Oxford, 284 pp., £20, October 2018, 978 0 19 879455 4
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... In​ 2001 an architect called Danny Sullivan claimed to have found cine film of an angel while rooting around in a Monmouth junk shop. This was, unsurprisingly, a hoax, as were claims that Marlon Brando had paid £350,000 for the footage. But the alleged provenance was intriguing. Sullivan invented a psychical researcher called William Doidge, who had, he said, fought with the Scots Guards at the Battle of Mons in August 1914 ...

Dining with Ivan the Terrible

Malcolm Gaskill: Seeking London’s Fortune, 8 February 2018

London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City 
by Stephen Alford.
Allen Lane, 316 pp., £20, April 2017, 978 0 241 00358 9
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... The Tudors​ knew all about the uncertainty caused by weak leadership and isolation on the world stage. After the break with Rome, complete by 1534, England stood alone. Henry VIII’s imperial claims, couched in Thomas Cromwell’s majestic legalese, were introspective, asserting the power of the monarch freed from the constraints of papal rule. The economy was beset by inflation, there were land shortages and there was growing poverty, along with anxiety about the balance of payments and the value of sterling ...


Malcolm Gaskill: Americans in 16th-Century Europe, 18 May 2023

On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe 
by Caroline Dodds Pennock.
Weidenfeld, 302 pp., £22, January, 978 1 4746 1690 4
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... an imperialist nation with no aptitude for foreign languages serves as a reminder of the force of Malcolm X’s comment on the African-American experience: ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock – the rock was landed on ...

Money, Sex, Lies, Magic

Malcolm Gaskill: Kepler’s Mother, 30 June 2016

The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother 
by Ulinka Rublack.
Oxford, 359 pp., £20, October 2015, 978 0 19 873677 6
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... In autumn​ 1937 a statue of Katharina Kepler was unveiled in Eltingen, the village near Stuttgart where she had been born three centuries earlier. Barefoot, wearing a shift, sickle in hand, she represented the ideals of rustic nobility and honest toil cherished by the Third Reich. The mayor said that Frau Kepler also stood for the determination to uphold truth in the face of persecution: accused of diabolism, she had resisted ...


Malcolm Gaskill: On Quitting Academia, 24 September 2020

... it, any of it.It used to be more interesting. In 1993, Keele still bore a resemblance to the world Malcolm Bradbury captured in The History Man (1975): lecturers taught whatever enthused them – one medievalist offered a course on the Holocaust – and the cooler professors held parties to which students were invited. There were eccentrics straight out of ...

At the House of Mr Frog

Malcolm Gaskill: Puritanism, 18 March 2021

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History 
by David D. Hall.
Princeton, 517 pp., £20, May 2021, 978 0 691 20337 9
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The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom 
by Stephen Tomkins.
Hodder, 372 pp., £12.99, February 2021, 978 1 4736 4911 8
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... in what now looks plainly like a crime against humanity. ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,’ Malcolm X said, ‘the rock was landed on us.’Even so, puritans were complex, nuanced people, whose racism and misogyny were so universal and ingrained as to make such epithets anachronistic. Understanding (rather than judging) them is easier than we might ...

You can have it for a penny

Malcolm Gaskill: ‘Agent Sonya’, 6 January 2022

Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy 
by Ben Macintyre.
Viking, 377 pp., £25, September 2021, 978 0 241 40850 6
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... In​ the summer of 1942, an Oxfordshire housewife began a series of brief encounters with a man who was not her husband. They met at a café in Birmingham and then in Banbury on the edge of the Cotswolds, where they strolled arm in arm, like lovers trying to forget the war. They had much in common: both were cultured Germans, refugees from the Nazis ...

Embittered, Impaired, Macerated

Malcolm Gaskill: Indentured Servitude, 6 October 2022

Indentured Servitude: Unfree Labour and Citizenship in the British Colonies 
by Anna Suranyi.
McGill-Queen’s, 278 pp., £26.99, July 2021, 978 0 2280 0668 8
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... In July​ 1657 William Wood, a young immigrant to Maryland, was paddling along a creek of the Patuxent River when he found a body floating in the water. Dragging the corpse to land, he discovered it was Harry Gouge, a servant of John Dandy’s, whose watermill Wood had just left. He fetched Dandy, who came with two other men. Witnesses at the inquest testified that Dandy had often beaten Gouge, who had no water in his lungs, meaning that he hadn’t drowned ...

Like Oysters in Their Shells

Malcolm Gaskill: The Death Trade, 18 August 2022

All the Living and the Dead: A Personal Investigation into the Death Trade 
by Hayley Campbell.
Raven, 268 pp., £18.99, March, 978 1 5266 0139 1
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... This is​ what happens when you die. Electricity stops flowing through your neural circuitry and consciousness shuts down as though a switch has been flicked. Blood keeps moving for a while, ebbing without the heart’s propulsion before succumbing to gravity and pooling in the lower back where it congeals. Starved of oxygen, cells are dismantled by enzymes with nothing else to do now life is at an end ...

Marquess Untrussed

Malcolm Gaskill: The Siege of Basing House, 30 March 2023

The Siege of Loyalty House: A Civil War Story 
by Jessie Childs.
Vintage, 318 pp., £12.99, May, 978 1 78470 209 0
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... In the​ cold autumn of 1643 Susan Rodway wrote to ‘my king love’, her husband Robert. A candlemaker by trade, he was away fighting for Parliament and she hadn’t heard much from him, unlike her neighbours in the London parish of St Dunstan-in-the-West who all had news from their husbands. Their daughter, Hester, was just a baby and their young son, Willie, was sick ...

Philosophical Vinegar, Marvellous Salt

Malcolm Gaskill: Alchemical Pursuits, 15 July 2021

The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 
by Jennifer M. Rampling.
Chicago, 408 pp., £28, December 2020, 978 0 226 71070 9
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... At​ 1 p.m. on 13 July 1936, bidding opened at Sotheby’s on a trunk of Isaac Newton’s notebooks and papers. They had been in the family of the earl of Portsmouth for many years: a previous earl had lent them to the University of Cambridge, where scholars judged them of little scientific importance. Partly because of this indifference, the auction was overshadowed by a sale of Impressionist art at Christie’s, and almost escaped the attention of John Maynard Keynes, a Newton enthusiast ...

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