The first issue of the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society was published in 1872 and opened with an article on ‘The Study of History’ by Professor Louis Raymond de Vericour. He began by questioning why ‘the paramount usefulness of history, with all its ramifications, as a branch of education has not yet met with a full recognition’. Vericour went on to discuss the state of the discipline in late nineteenth-century Britain and placed it in its wider European context. Since its foundation in 1868, the Royal Historical Society has not only promoted the discipline but has come to represent the interests of those engaged in the study of history. To mark the RHS’s 150th anniversary, this inaugural article and 15 others published in Transactions will be made freely available during 2018.
The selected articles provide a representative sample of papers that have been given to the society over the last 150 years, which are still of current interest to historians. Transactions includes articles by early career researchers, either through the publication of prize-winning essays or more recently peer-reviewed contributions based on papers given at RHS symposia. The first Alexander Prize was awarded in 1898 to F. Hermia Durham, who went on to have a distinguished career in the Civil Service; her essay on crown-trade relations under James I was published the following year. More recently, the prize was awarded to Ryan Hanley, whose article on ‘Slavery and the Birth of Working Class Racism in England, 1814–1833’ appeared in 2016. Some prize winners have gone on to give papers as Fellows of the Society and so have appeared twice in Transactions. The journal also publishes the Prothero lecture given by a distinguished historian each July, represented in this selection by Natalie Zemon Davis’ article on ‘Books as Gifts in Sixteenth-Century France’ from 1983. In addition, Transactions include the presidential lectures, which explore a particular theme or subject over the incumbent’s four year term of office.
This sample also reflects the diverse range of papers that have been given by Fellows to the Society’s meetings over the last century and a half. They provide an indication of the chronological breadth of Transactions with articles from the Dark Ages to the Twentieth Century, encompassing not only the British Isles and Europe, but also Asia and the Americas. These articles also illustrate a number of different historical approaches and perspectives. Political history is prominent and particularly the assessment of ideologies that have influenced individuals and events. These include Isaac Arnold’s personal reflections on Abraham Lincoln (1882), F.W. Buckler discussion of ‘The Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny’ (1922), J.H. Elliott’s assessment of ‘The Mental World of Hernán Cortés’ (1967) and Paul Addison’s examination of ‘The Political Beliefs of Winston Churchill’ (1980). European affairs are represented here not only by Natalie Zemon Davis but also with Geoffrey Parker’s investigation of ‘Why did the Dutch Revolt last Eighty Years?’ (1976) – it is 450th anniversary of the revolt – and J.P. Parry on ‘The Impact of Napoleon III on British Politics’ (2001).
Alongside political events and ideologies, a series of articles have presented different perspectives and approaches to British economic history. Besides Hermia Durham’s article, these have ranged from Philip Grierson’s ‘Commerce in the Dark Ages’ (1959) to F.J. Fisher, ‘The Development of London as a Centre of Conspicuous Consumption’ (1948). More recently Helen Berry’s, ‘Polite Consumption: Shopping in Eighteenth-Century England’ (2002) sought to go beyond consumption to assess how people shopped and acquired material goods in this period.
The importance of identity and representation have also been explored in several more recent essays in this selection. The development of an English national identity in the 9th century discussed in Sarah Foot’s ‘The Making of Angelcynn. English Identity before the Norman Conquest’ (1996) might be paired with the question of Britishness which is examined as part of John M. Mackenzie’s ‘Empire and National Identities: The Case of Scotland’ (1998). The cultural assumptions (and prejudices) which could shape and determine the representation of nations are the focus for Kate Lowe in her ‘“Representing” Africa: Ambassadors and Princes from Christian Africa to Renaissance Italy and Portugal’ (2007).
These articles can only provide an indication of the high-quality research that has been published in Transactions over the last 150 years. Over the course of 2018, these articles will also provide a starting point for current historians to reflect on different aspects of the discipline and the study of history. A series of blog posts will be published on the Cambridge University Press and RHS websites.