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Painted reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia

It’s that time again already. The University of Edinburgh’s Open Studies programme for 2011-12 is available and recruitig.

This year I am teaching Harlots, Harpies and Harridans, my course on infamous women. We’ll look at various women with bad reputations, such as Isabella of France and Marie Antoinette and consider why they have the reputations they do. This is always proved to be a fun class with lots of discussion and ideas, and a few laughs along the way.

In January, I’m teaching The Tudors. The course covers the end of the Wars of the Roses and goes right through to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. The Tudor monarchs and their intimates are always fascinating and they are particularly popular at the moment. The course will show my students that the truth is far more interesting than the Tudor fictions which abound at the moment.

Reading Project

As a result of working on the Cleopatra research, I’ve remembered how much I enjoyed Ancient History at uni and how much I’ve forgotten. Consequently, I’m now reading The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox. It’s had a few Amazon reviews saying it’s dull but I’m not finding it so. This may, of course, be because I am particularly interested and after some of the course books we used at uni, my standards for interesting are low. It’s a shame though as ancient history, more than any other period IMO, is crammed with fantastic stories and amazing characters.

really want to go through and refresh my knowledge of all the history I did at uni. This means the Dark Age of Greece to the 1950s. I have, therefore, made a plan to achieve this by reading all the relevant Short Oxford Histories: SOH of Europe, the British Isles, France and Italy. I’ve now got a list of 33 books. There’s a series on Germany too but I’m leaving that one for the time being- Italy on got in by virtue of it being so important for the Renaissance and thus the Early Modern period.

I was thinking of adding in another few non-SOH as I go, like the one above; Alexander the Great by the same author as I love Alexander the Great; Caesar: Life of A Colossus, maybe Antony and Cleopatra by the same author if Caesar is any good; and possibly a good biography of Augustus. However, I think that will distract more than anything so I might not put them on the “official” list.

The SOHs list:

  1. Classical Greece 500-323 BCE, Robin Osborne
  2. Roman Europe 1000BC- AD 400, Edward Bispham
  3. The Roman Era: The British Isles: 55 BC – AD 410, Peter Salway (BI)
  4. After Rome: C.400-c.800, Thomas Charles-Edwards (BI)
  5. The Early Middle Ages 400-1000 AD, Rosamond McKitterick
  6. Italy in the Early Middle Ages: 476-1000, Cristina La Rocca (It)
  7. From the Vikings to the Normans, Wendy Davies (BI)
  8. France in the Central Middle Ages 900-1200, Marcus Bull (Fr)
  9. The Central Middle Ages 950-1320, Daniel Power
  10. Italy in the Central Middle Ages, David Abulafia (It)
  11. The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries: 1066- c. 1280, Barbara Harvey (BI)
  12. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, Ralph Griffiths (BI)
  13. France in the Later Middle Ages 1200-1500, David Potter (Fr)
  14. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance: 1300-1550, John M. Najemy (It)
  15. The Sixteenth Century, Euan Cameron
  16. The Sixteenth Century: 1485-1603, Patrick Collinson (BI)
  17. Renaissance and Reformation France: 1500-1648, Mack P. Holt (Fr)
  18. Early Modern Italy: 1550-1796, John A. Marino (It)
  19. The Seventeenth Century: Europe 1598-1715, Joseph Bergin
  20. The Seventeenth Century: 1603-1688,Jenny Wormald (BI)
  21. Old Regime France 1648-1788, William Doyle (Fr)
  22. The Eighteenth Century: 1688-1815, Paul Langford (BI)
  23. The Eighteenth Century: Europe 1688-1815, T. C. W. Blanning
  24. Revolutionary France: 1788-1880, Malcolm Crook (Fr)
  25. The Nineteenth Century: Europe 1789-1914, T. C. W. Blanning
  26. Italy in the Nineteenth Century: 1796-1900, , John A. Davies (It)
  27. The Nineteenth Century: The British Isles 1815-1901, Colin Matthew (BI)
  28. Europe 1900-1945, Julian Jackson
  29. Liberal and Fascist Italy, Adrian Lyttleton
  30. The British Isles 1901-1951, Keith Robbins (BI)
  31. Modern France: 1880-2002, James McMillan (Fr)
  32. Europe Since 1945, Mary Fulbrook
  33. The British Isles Since 1945, Kathleen Burk (BI)
  34. NB: BI indicates SOH of the British Isles; Fr = SOH of France; It = SOH of Italy; otherwise SOH of Europe. Bold are titles I already own.

    I’m not an especially fast reader but factoring in the fact that I need to keep on with the research for my book, I think 18 months is a reasonably achievable target. 78 weeks means just under 2.5 weeks per SOH book, which is quite doable. The first book has been ordered and is due to arrive by 31st March so I’ll start the project on 1st April (how auspicious).
    If anyone feels generous (and it is my birthday in a few weeks), I’ve set up an Amazon Wishlist for all the titles as yet unpurchased here, with the date I’m due to start reading each title.

    Despite intending to blog about this, I somehow suspect that unlike Belle du Jour, Julie Powell et al, I will not come home at any point to find 65 messages on the answering machine from literary agents and publishers desperate to see this project made into books and films. Lack of imagination, I call it.

    I’ll blog any wicked women finds from the books and anything else that it particularly relevant or interesting as well as general things that arise from a project like this. Before I even start, there are a couple of things that spring to mind, in particular Spartan marriage practices, which I hope the first book covers.

Role Models

I often say that one of the reasons I feel so passionately about this project is that modern girls and young women lack good heroines. Cheryl Cole seems like a perfectly pleasant woman but is she really the best we can aspire to? A reality t.v. show pop start, married (though apparently not for much longer) to an unfaithful footballer. Is getting on the cover of a gossip magazine really the pinnacle of human achievement?

When I was about ten years old, I went through a phase of being rather obsessed with Joan of Arc. (Looking back, I accept I was probably something of an odd child.) I admired her bravery, her faith and her determination. I accepted, not without relief, that life was almost certainly not going to offer me the opportunity to lead an army against invading foreigners. I didn’t believe in her god but even at that age found other people’s faith fascinating (I went on to study religion, along with history, at university). I may not have exactly wanted to be like Joan of Arc, but I aspired to many of the qualities I saw in her.

Miniature of Joan of Arc, c. 1450-1500

Joan of Arc, c.1450-1500

Now I’m older and have a more nuanced view of what makes a person admirable, I see many of the infamous women I’m investigating as being brimful of the qualities I aspire to. No, these women weren’t always “good.” More often than not they refused to toe the line; frequently failed to do their wifely duties and often disregarded contemporary standards of acceptable behaviour, it’s true. Their faults, even including criminality, serve to make them more interesting people (Cheryl Cole’s conviction for common assault notwithstanding.)

Cleopatra refused to be a victim, even in defeat. Eleanor of Aquitaine sought out her own path through life, refusing to bow to other people’s demands. Anne Boleyn was offered a good opportunity, saw a way to make it great and took it, on her own terms. Catherine de’ Medicis was ruthless in the defence of her family. Anne Bonny and Mary Read both found escape from unsatisfying lives for the excitement and adventure of a life on the high seas.

I can’t help but think that those qualities are worth more than fame, wealth and great hair.