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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 ...

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 ...

Diary

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 ...

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 ...

Man Is Wolf to Man

Malcolm Gaskill: C.J. Sansom, 23 January 2020

Tombland 
by C.J. Sansom.
Pan Macmillan, 866 pp., £8.99, September 2019, 978 1 4472 8451 2
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... In​ 2000 Christopher Sansom took a year off from his job as a solicitor to write a novel: it had occurred to him that the dissolution of the monasteries might make a good backdrop to a murder mystery. He finished it, sent it off and returned from holiday expecting a stack of rejections. ‘To my delight,’ he told the Guardian in 2010, ‘my email was hot with people wanting more ...

Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15

Malcolm Gaskill: Death of an Airman, 8 November 2018

... The train​ from Verona to Udine crosses a plateau of vineyards and terracotta-roofed farms backed by an indistinct range of hills. After an hour or so it stops at Mestre, allowing a glimpse of Venice across the lagoon, then retreats into the campagna. As we headed north, the hills bulked larger and darker. We got off the train at Conegliano, just north of Treviso, where we caught a bus to Tezze di Piave ...

Unnatural Rebellion

Malcolm Gaskill: ‘Witches’, 2 November 2017

The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present 
by Ronald Hutton.
Yale, 360 pp., £25, August 2017, 978 0 300 22904 2
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... The province​ of Enga in the highlands of Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest and most lawless places on earth. On 18 May 2015 ten men armed with machetes, axes and homemade guns entered the village of Fiyawena looking for a woman called Mifila, the mother of two young children. Six months earlier she and three other women had been accused of using witchcraft to cause a measles epidemic ...

The natives did a bunk

Malcolm Gaskill: The Little Ice Age, 19 July 2018

A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America 
by Sam White.
Harvard, 361 pp., £23.95, October 2017, 978 0 674 97192 9
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... When​ my editor asked for dust-jacket ideas, I said I wanted something with snow. My book was about 17th-century America, and for all the sweltering, maize-shrivelling summers, it was the winters that had stuck in my mind. I’d found the perfect image: George Henry Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church (1867), a depiction of settlers in New Plymouth trudging through their first winter ...

The dead are all around us

Hilary Mantel: Helen Duncan, 10 May 2001

Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches 
by Malcolm Gaskill.
Fourth Estate, 402 pp., £15.99, April 2001, 1 84115 109 2
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... leanings, have been enough to make the case bob back into public consciousness every few years. As Malcolm Gaskill says, ‘we inherit ancestral tales reworked by each generation to make their truth powerful rather than precise, moral rather than empirical.’ Among the majority today, reverence for Churchill survives surprisingly intact; it is a ...

Into Thin Air

Marina Warner: Science at the Séances, 3 October 2002

The Invention of Telepathy 
by Roger Luckhurst.
Oxford, 334 pp., £35, June 2002, 0 19 924962 8
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... thinking’ reverberated in fiction and its portrayal of character and perception; and Malcolm Gaskill recently tackled, with amused brio, the life and times of the last of the materialising mediums, Helen Duncan, who was imprisoned for her activities and died only in 1956.2 In this lucid and richly layered study, Luckhurst echoes Terry ...

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