Posted by Matthew Hilton, P&P Publications Editor
On Thursday 27 November, I was pleased to be able to help to launch four new books in the Past and Present series. As ever, they are on a wide diversity of topics that attest to the generalist nature of the journal itself. They were Giora Sternberg’s Status Interaction during the Reign of Louis XIV, Oleg Benesch’s Inventing the Way of the Samurai, David Motadel’s edited collection, Islam and the European Empires and Manuel Barcia Paz’s West African Warfare in Bahia and Cuba.
The series began in 1976 with Cambridge University Press. The books have covered all periods and all places, as well as featuring some classics such as Hobsbawn and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. In 2009, the series was relaunched as we moved over to Oxford University Press, and P&P Board member Jo Innes became the first author to release with the new publisher with Inferior Politics: Social Problems and Social Policies in Eighteenth-Century Britain.
As a generalist journal there is a particular ethos to the articles we publish. Like all good journals, we expect them to be empirically rich, theoretically informed, and challenging to the existing historiography. But we also expect articles to be written clearly and in a manner that makes them accessible to historians of all persuasions. Past and Present was first published with the intention that a historian could sit down, open the issue at page 1 and read through all the way to the end, taking in pieces that might variously range from ancient Rome to twentieth-century Indonesia.
With the proliferation of journals and the sheer amount of material that appears in any one of our chosen areas of specialism, such an approach might seem anachronistic. Yet older and retired members of the Board still hold the editors to this ideal (presumably they have much more time on their hands as they don’t have to deal with the sheer amount of stuff that comes the way of the modern jobbing academic). And it is important that they do so. Why should an article be written that is only of interest to specialists? I think every historian wants to write a piece that eventually gets read because not only does it say something about a particular time and place, but it provokes all historians to rethink how they might approach a comparable subject, a similar theme, a general analytical or theoretical question or a type of evidence.
Not all articles in the journal live up this ideal. But many do so. And many are able to speak to bigger issues because they demonstrate an ability to move from the specific to the general with an admirable ease. Often, these specifics can be really quite peculiar, but they are no less interesting for that.
It is with these thoughts about the journal in mind that it was such a pleasure to launch the four volumes in the book series as well. For not only are they important contributions to their specialist areas, but they are also written in a way that will appeal to a broader set of issues and debates.
Giora’s is a wonderfully evocative account of how status symbols could be used to define – and in turn redefine – social identities, relations and system of power. In looking at the minutiae of letter writing, material culture and ceremonial etiquette he is able to cast light on the court of Louis XIV but in a way that so many of us concerned with these questions of the relationships between culture, society and politics will find stimulating and refreshing.
Oleg takes as his case study one of the central tropes of modern Japanese identity – bushidō – and repackages it in a history that speaks to much bigger questions about nationhood. As well as tackling his subject as an invented tradition of a specific culture, he shows the interactions between Japan and the rest of the world at the turn of the twentieth century. Thus bushidō is about western gentlemanly chivalry and increasing Japanese militarism as it is about the traditional role of the samurai.
David’s collection of essays presents an incredible range of work on a subject which we all know to be important but upon which not enough has yet has been written. Often the work involved in exploring the encounters between Islam and empire is difficult and it hasn’t provoked the same body of scholarship as on other aspects of empire. This collection will undoubtedly trigger more work on Islam, but the chapters are packaged here in a manner in which all historians with any interest in empire will do well to consider.
Manuel’s work focuses in incredible detail on aspects of west African warfare and its export through slavery across the Atlantic. There is real detective work here in picking at the limited evidential trail of strategy, weapons and intentions. But in putting it all together we arrive at an extremely important contribution to transnational history, one not focussed on the institutions, ideas and people emanating from the large capitals of the world, but through peoples whose agency and motivations are usually felt too difficult to uncover.
The book series has many more such volumes in the pipeline. As with Oleg, we hope that many of our P&P Fellows (including the four to be appointed next year) will consider publishing with us, and that they will do so on wide a variety of topics as these four. We hope, too, that the series, as with these four volumes, will continue to demonstrate the authors’ ability to make the obscure, the forgotten or the everyday speak to as broad an audience as possible.