Penelope J. Corfield

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All People are Living Histories: Which is Why History Matters - A Conversation-Piece for those who ask 'Why Study History?'

The title of this lecture is self-explanatory.

Please note that this text is also available on the Making History website of London University's Institute of Historical Research. See too Interview with Penelope Corfield by Danny Millum (Aug. 2008), which appears on the same Making History website.

History Viewed Long
This essay urges a return to including long-span (diachronic) History into the teaching syllabus at both secondary and tertiary level. History taught in fragments lacks its full meaning, if there is no long-term framework within which detailed studies can be located and debated.

Please note that this text is also available on the Making History website of London University's Institute of Historical Research. See too Interview with Penelope Corfield by Danny Millum (Aug. 2008), which appears on the same Making History website.
Teaching History's Big Pictures: Including Continuity as well as Change

This essay considers why there has been a flight from looking at History over the long term, and advocates new ways of teaching students about History's three dimensions, including deep continuities, gradual changes and revolutionary upheavals over time.

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How Historiology defines History

This is the text of a book review, which analyses four new books on Approaches to History as an academic subject - a field which is becoming known as 'Historiology' in contrast to the better-known term 'Historiography', which refers to the study of past historians' writings.

"We are all One in the Eyes of the Lord": Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion

This historiographical essay draws upon personal memories of discussions with the eminent Marxist historian Christopher Hill to reassesses his philosophy of history. His fundamental belief was in the equality of all humans, derived from his personal response to his Methodist upbringing. As a student at Oxford in the early 1930s, he transmuted his egalitarianism into a life-long commitment to Marxism and to studying History 'from below', as a means of understanding oppression and people's struggles for liberation. Hence his commitment was to a humanist and liberal rather than a Stalinist Marxism, while, over time, the specifically Marxist elements and terminology in his analysis notably faded.

This item can be paired with 1985 Interview with Christopher Hill by Penelope J. Corfield, available via London University's Institute of Historical Research. Also relevant for those interested in Historians and Marxism is the matching 1992 Interview with E.P. Thompson by Penelope J. Corfield, also available via London University's Institute of Historical Research.
History and the Challenge of Gender History

This essay provides a critical assessment of debates within and about gender history. The hype that claimed that women's history would subvert the discipline of history and introduce a new 'herstory' was wildly overdone. But women's history has indeed enriched the subject and has, importantly, mutated into a broader gender history, which offers scope for the history of men/masculinity as well as of women/femininity. It is an inclusive development which is fostering a holistic history. And these innovations can be welcomed, without entailing an intellectual appeal to a supposedly warm 'female' intuition, or depending upon a postmodernist onslaught upon an allegedly dying 'male' rationality.

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Dorothy Thompson's Contribution to the Thompsonian Project

Dorothy Thompson and her husband E.P. Thompson were celebrated as historians on the political Left. They shared a joint intellectual project to write an updated Marxist history which incorporated individual experiences and avoided abstract theory. This short essay assesses Dorothy Thompson's contribution to this life-long Thompsonian project, with its pitfalls as well as possibilities.


Penelope Corfield here expands her critique of the traditional stages of western history, including the late addition of Postmodernity. She finds all these concepts so fuzzy and overladen with contradictory meanings that they should be abandoned. A more effective vocabulary is needed to evoke the overlapping of historical continuities and change. And the post-'Post' moment seems like a good time to start.

Climate Reds: Responding to Climate Change with Relative Optimism

Talking of 'big history', nothing comes as big as the predicted problems consequent upon climate change. This essay argues, against the ultra-pessimists, that the history of eventual international cooperation on a range of tricky issues gives reasonable grounds for optimism that humans will rally to take measures in response. But solutions will only work if individuals as well as governments play their part.
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Historians and the Return to the Diachronic

This essay, first published in 2010, reconsiders an important theme for historical studies. In-depth analysis of short periods of micro-history is surely valuable. Yet micro-history means little without understanding the long-term frameworks of macro-history. Old models of inevitable progress or eternal class struggles are no longer convincing. Nor can theories of unremitting chaos or pure accident explain linked developments through time. For a new approach, Read more:
Cities in time

This essay, published as the final chapter in Peter Clark (ed.), Oxford Handbook to Cities in World History (2013), assesses the role that urban development has played in major theories of world history, and analyses the elements of continuity, slow change and dramatic upheaval that are contributing to global urbanisation - one of humanity's greatest achievements, 'pulsing with creative organisation and disorganisation - and alive'. Read more:
History and the Temporal Turn: Returning to Causes, Effects and Diachronic Trends

This essay welcomes the current return to long-term history, known as the Temporal Turn. Various implications follow. Historical periodisation is being reconsidered, to jettison outdated and rigid divisions. And attention is rightly returning to long-term causes, effects, and trends - not forgetting deep continuities. Read more:

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Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity

This essay examines the twists and turns of twentieth-century attitudes to long-term history, after Einstein's dethronement of absolute Time. Micro-history and in-depth analysis became prominent. In the 1990s, there was even a brief 'postmodernist' moment of anti-history. But long-term studies are now back on the map. Adieu to Time nihilism and atemporality. Back to history in an integral Space-Time (or Time-Space). Read more:

From Hat Honour to the Handshake: Changing Styles of Communication in the Eighteenth Century

How did styles of meeting and greeting change in eighteenth-century Europe? There was a long-term trend away from traditional elaborate ceremonial, and towards a more casual, but still polite, interpersonal style. The broad context was the shift from a rural to an urban and commercialising world. But styles of meeting and greeting demonstrated changes within changes, with not only the weakening of the old hat honour but also the advent of the new egalitarian handshake. Read more in English. Read more in French translation.
Naming the Age: Modernity? Civilisation? Enlightenment? and Other Frameworks – Deep Continuities, Trends and Turning Points

How do historians name the long eighteenth century in Europe, which runs from circa 1700 to the 1830s? 'Transition to modernity'? Too vague, given that there are many rival definitions of 'modernity' and claims for its birthdate. 'Age of Enlightenment'? Too one-sided. 'The Civilising Process'? Far too flattering for the era that saw the mass commercialisation of the ancient trade in enslaved peoples. But there are other alternatives which blend change/continuities. Read more in English. Read more in French translation.
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E.P. Thompson, The Historian: An Appreciation

A heterodox figure and a polymath, the historian E.P. Thompson drew upon varied intellectual roots which he welded into his distinctive vision of cultural Marxism. This essay analyses those roots as Thompson's deep love of English literature; his argumentative relationship with the evolving corpus of Marxist thought; and his heritage of secularised religious dissent. Read more:

F.J. Fisher (1908-88) And The Dialectic Of Economic History

This essay is a slightly abridged and updated text of my appreciation of the LSE historian F.J. (Jack) Fisher, first published in 1990. An intellectually brilliant and witty man, Fisher was a leading economic historian, who helped to propel the subject into its high noon in the postwar years. He fused insights from economics, sociology, and critical philosophy to recast interpretations of sixteenth-century England not as a period of rampant capitalist growth but as an era of persistent underdevelopment. In his later years, Fisher was saddened when changing intellectual and cultural trends led to economic history losing its previously great research allure, with the 1960s/1970s rise of urban, social, gender and later cultural history instead. Those developments muted the long-term diffusion of Fisher's work. Yet he remains a beacon of critical historical engagement, not least for his readiness to challenge all cases of sloppy logic and loose generalisations. Read more:
Christopher Hill: The Marxist Historian as I knew him

This essay draws upon family and personal memories to remember the Marxist historian Christopher Hill. As is apparent, the approach is one of deep personal affection, without necessarily agreeing on all intellectual and political points. Read more:

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Christopher Hill: Methodism And Marxism

This short account assesses the impact upon the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, made by his family upbringing within York Methodism, and particularly by the radical sermons of an egalitarian circuit preacher, T.S. Gregory. Read more:

Christopher Hill: Marxist History and Balliol College

Christopher Hill and Balliol College, Oxford. This short account reviews from a family perspective the Marxist historian Christopher Hill's election as Master of Balliol College, a role he undertook from 1965-78. Read more:

Christopher Hill’s Intellectual Trajectory: From Biblical Protestantism to Humanist Marxism

This essay reprises the intellectual trajectory of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, from Methodism to Marxism, and from orthodox Marxism to a looser Marxist humanism. Some of the content overlaps with the already uploaded essay CorfieldPdf5 Christopher Hill, 'We are All One in the Eyes of the Lord'. Nonetheless, it is uploaded here as a companion piece, because it contains a range of additional commentary, including a critique of Hill's 1986 claim about the material origin of words. Read more: