The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize

The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize recognises the outstanding scholarly book in a field of history other than Canadian history. 

The 2019 competition is now closed. The laureate(s) will be announced at the CHA's Annual Meeting at UBC on Tuesday, 4 June 2019.



Padraic X. Scanlan
, Freedom’s Debtors: British Antislavery in Sierra Leone in the Age of Revolution.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

padriac_scanlan.jpgPadraic X. Scanlan’s Freedom’s Debtors: British Antislavery in Sierra Leone in the Age of Revolution explores British abolitionism within the context of Sierra Leone but more than that he argues that abolitionism was connected to the imperial project of expansion and colonialism.  He provides a view of the way that histories of British slavery and emancipation looked like from the vantage point of West Africa. He presents both the slave trade and the campaign to end it as having a common root in the logic of capitalism which he defines as “a system of money and power dictating who worked where, on what terms and to whose benefit.” As such he presents the abolition of the slave trade in Sierra Leone as forging the logic of British liberty as defined by capital investment, control of labour and property ownership. Based on exhaustive research within British missionary and personal papers as well as documents in the Sierra Leone archives, this compellingly written study breaks conceptual ground and charts a new historiographical direction.  Scanlan makes connections between the logic of capitalism and its intersection with colonialism and slavery. He demonstrates how British West Africa was enmeshed with economic systems at a global level and by taking the focus away from Europe, he challenges the prevailing narratives of abolitionism and colonialism. His argues convincingly that without slavery, without colonial “outposts,” capitalism and freedom might have evolved differently.  This compelling book makes a huge contribution to our understanding of the processes which led to abolition but has wider implications for the historiography and the paradigms that inform it.

Shortlisted Books

Roisin CossarClerical Households in Late Medieval Italy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017.

John Forrester and Laura Cameron.  Freud in Cambridge.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 

Behnaz MirzaiA History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. 

Lisa M. ToddSexual Treason in Germany during the First World War.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.



Nora EJaffary, Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 


Nora Jaffary’s Reproduction and Its Discontents explores all aspects of women’s reproductive lives from virginity through contraception and conception, pregnancy, birth and obstetrics in Mexico from 1750 to 1905. Mexicans usually sought to keep these elements of life private, but Jaffary has diligently unearthed them and persuasively shows how reproduction figured into new discourses linking gender to colonialism and nationalism. Jaffary’s book thus bridges the assumed divide between the public and private lives of Mexican women from the late-colonial to early-national period. Through this particularly timely study, Jaffary shows how Mexicans’ historical relationship with these contentious topics evolved. Discrediting the notion that past Mexicans were entirely intolerant of women’s “moral failings,” she demonstrates no hardening of such positions. Building on an exhaustive archival research in a diverse body of sources, Jaffary shows how Mexicans debated over women’s bodies and personal issues such as virginity, abortion, and infanticide precisely because they were symbolic of the nation. Along the way, Jaffary’s valuable findings also document the particular knowledge and philosophies of Mexican medical specialists, professional and popular, with respect to the hymen, monstrous births, and public scandals associated with abortion and infanticide. In short, Jaffary’s exemplary and nuanced study is diligently researched, beautifully written, and exceptionally persuasive in seamlessly bringing together important themes that put women and babies at the very centre of Mexican history.

Shortlisted Books

Christian Berco  From Body to Community: Venereal Disease and Society in Baroque Spain.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Kevin Coleman,  A Camera in the Garden of Eden: The Self-Forging of a Banana Republic.  Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Lucie Laumonier,  Solitudes et solidarités en ville: Montpellier, mi XIIIe-fin XVe siècles.  Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015. 

Laurent Turcot,  Sports et Loisirs: Une histoire des origines à nos jours. Montréal: Gallimard, 2016.



Alexia M. Yates, Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-siècle Capital.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015.

alexia_yates_edited.jpgAlexia Yates’ Selling Paris is an empirically rich, highly persuasive contribution to the new historiography of capitalism that has emerged since the 1990s and especially since the financial crises of 2008-09. In giving centre-stage to the real estate market of one of the nineteenth-century’s most cosmopolitan cities, it turns a spotlight onto the general question of how "the market" is constructed and organized and how it operates and evolves in practice. Finely crafted and written in a lively, elegant style, Yates’ study is remarkable for its ingenuity in identifying pertinent source materials, the breath 
of its archival documentation, and the sustained depth of its analysis. This is a work that demonstrates how to make economic history generally and the social history of capitalism in particular relevant and compelling not only to specialist researchers but also to a broad non-specialist audience. In doing so, it accounts for both the material changes and the ideological / cultural changes that made possible the sorts of entrepreneurialism that characterized the late nineteenth-century Parisian market as real estate increasingly lost its centuries-old special status as “immobile” property and more and more became a conventionally tradable object subject to the general patterns of commerce and investment.

The author’s creative engagement with theoretical works in urban planning, economics, sociology and critical geography enriches and complements, but never overwhelms, her nuanced presentation of evidence related, among other things, to the intentions, interests and decisions of legislators, property developers and urban planners as well as to the specific ways commercialization and social processes actually worked themselves out on the ground, sometimes quite differently than expected by political and business leaders. Her account of the emergence and development of a finely niched rental market in residential accommodation, in which not only the poor but also wealthy, fashion-conscious property-owners participated as renters, is particularly fascinating. Alexia Yates’ study simultaneously addresses and is informed by the scholarship in both French and English on her subject, that is, by the scholarship of the society under examination as well as by that of her intended audience. Her work likewise contributes to broader historical conversations – currently of interest to specialists of different eras, societies and disciplinary orientations – about the social roles of real estate and the significance of opening it to commodification.

Her treatments of distinct late nineteenth-century ways of gauging real estate values and her exploration of how property values rose as a function of both provincial and foreign money coming into Paris are both enlightening in themselves and evocative for readers today, whether in the world’s wealthy societies or in the global South. Yet her treatment consistently avoids presentism and remains solidly historically focused throughout. Writing with freshness and originality about a city that has been the subject of such intensive research is a daunting task. Alexia Yates’ first book joins the ranks of those who have taken up the challenge with elan.

Shortlisted Books

Finis Dunaway, Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Joan Judge, Republican Lens: Gender, Visuality, and Experience in the Early Chinese Periodical Press.  Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015.

Susanne MKlausen, Abortion Under Apartheid: Nationalism, Sexuality, and Women’s Reproductive Rights in South Africa.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Despina Stratigakos, Hitler at Home.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.



Yanni KotsonisStates of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

yanni_cropped.jpgIn States of Obligation, Yanni Kotsonis examines the transformation of state fiscal power in Russia and the Soviet Union between 1855 and 1928. This book is about much more than taxation, however -- it is a study of the fundamental relations between the state and the individual, between economic production and political authority, between the self and the collectives of village, city, region, and empire/republic. Kotsonis argues that the replacement of the eighteenth-century poll tax system with income and excise taxes introduced not only a new method of raising revenue, but also vital instruments of state-building and a crucial nexus for creating national accounting and the modern citizen. States of Obligation constitutes a crucial intervention in imperial Russian and Soviet history, demonstrating unexpected continuities between the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, challenging received understandings of the late imperial state's reliance on agricultural taxation, and recalibrating the place of fiscality and the role of fiscal experts in the economic, political, and social shifts of the early Soviet period. Kotsonis ties his detailed examination of the processes by which imperial and Soviet authorities gathered information about people, trade, and property with similar processes in other countries, at the same time as he draws upon a broad historical and theoretical scholarship on taxation and state formation. As a result, while Kotsonis insists upon the particularities of the Russian and Soviet experiences, States of Obligation participates also in a much broader, transnational conversation about the global history of the modern state, its fiscal power, and the formation of citizenship.



Mark Salber Phillips, On Historical Distance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

mark_phillips_portrait2.jpgOn Historical Distance is at once an intellectual history and a contribution to historical theory. Its subtle exploration of a major, understudied historiographical theme ranges with consummate skill from Renaissance Italy through Britain in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras to late 20th-century North America. For each of the countries and periods he considers, the author displays deep familiarity with the specific scholarly context as well as with the relevant discursive evidence. Examining literary history, art history and historical fiction as well as historical narrative as modes of representation, the book displays a deep and truly masterful exploration of three different historical eras. Written with subtlety and grace it offers profound insight into what it means to think about and write about history. It is a book that speaks to every practitioner of our discipline.

Shortlisted Books

Timothy BrookMr Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer. Anansi, 2013.

Ian K. SteeleSetting All The Captives Free: Capture, Adjustment, and Recollection in Allegheny Country. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013. 


Podcast: Historical Research on Canada and Beyond

For the first time the winners of the two highest distinctions given annually by the Canadian Historical Association met for an exchange with the public and between each other. Jim Daschuk, author of the account of the “forced starvation” of aboriginal peoples in the Canadian plains in the 19th century, and Mark Phillips, whose book explores the many ways by which historians and their object are “distant” and close, met for a public conversation on a Saturday afternoon, November 1, 2014 at Ottawa’s City Hall.

Daschuk spoke about the long process of putting this account together, and of the many reactions it has encountered after publications, amongst First Nations and European Canadians, including the uneasy queries of those responsible for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of John A. Macdonald. Phillips spoke about the genesis of the idea of exploring the relative nature of distance in time and space, between researchers and the people they research. He read the early pages of his writings, and the concluding ones on his personal understanding of the My Lai massacre perpetrated by US soldiers during the Vietnam War, and the attempt to demonize the military officer who denounced it at the time.

The CHA would like to thank for posting a recording of the discussion on its website.



Tomaz Jardim, The Mauthausen Trial : American Military Justice in Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

The Mauthausen Trial is a masterful study of one of the many Dachau trials organized by the American military after the Second World War to address Nazi war crimes arising from the incarceration and murder of civilians. Thoroughly documented, systematically presented, and compelling to read, The Mauthausen Trial strikes 

a deft balance between exposing the intricate details of legal procedure and precedent and representing the very human motivations and reactions of prosecutors, camp survivors, and the accused. The current controversy over the constitutional validity of trial by military commission for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay only makes this book all the more timely and relevant.

Honourable Mention

Jeremy Brown, City versus Countryside in Mao’s China: Negotiating the Divide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
In City versus Countryside in Mao’s China, Jeremy Brown presents a series of meticulously researched case studies of villages and enterprises in the region southeast of Beijing to overturn the received history of the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China. Brown argues that, while Mao Zedong may have led his revolution from the countryside, he built the state and economy of the People’s Republic by subordinating agriculture to industry and protecting the cities at any cost. Brown is particularly to be commended for his success in connecting local case studies to a larger revision of China’s Communist revolution.


Brent D. Shaw, Sacred Violence. African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine. Cambridge University Press, 2011 The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize jury was astounded by Brent D. Shaw’s magisterial analysis of sectarian hatred. Though Shaw draws on documents from late antiquity, his methodology, analysis, and conclusions have broad reaching consequences for the history of hatred. Through his masterful analysis of ancient sources, Shaw reconstructs the mechanisms used by groups to delineate themselves from others, to structure their enmities, to maintain hatreds through collective memory, to ritualize violence, to control and to repress. The book transcends traditional religious history. It is as much a work of social and cultural history as it is political history. As it reconstructs colourfully and bloodily the world of early African Christians, it also considers the meaning of hatred, violence, and identity and relates them to institutionalized political structures. Sacred Violence is not only smart history, it is a beautifully written and well-structured text. From his opening line, “This is not a nice book. It begins with betrayal and ends with suicide,” Shaw captures the reader’s attention and maintains it throughout his delicate exposition. Brent D. Shaw’s Sacred Violence is truly a magnum opus, one richly deserving of the Wallace K. Ferguson prize.



Nicholas Dew. Orientalism in Louis XIV's FranceThe jury was particularly impressed with Dew’s masterful reconstruction of more distant western intellectual traditions regarding the East. Dew looks specifically at the period between 1650 and 1715. This sets him apart from most other scholars of European Orientalism who focus primarily on the age of European colonization in Egypt, the Middle East, and India. Through the study of the lives and careers of certain key French baroque scholars and diplomats, Dew reconstructs how French thinkers imported, processed, and disseminated knowledge of the East. Nicholas Dew’s book is a particularly strong example of historical scholarship, one well worthy of the Ferguson prize.



Luke Clossey. Salvation and Globalization in the Early Jesuit Missions.

The committee was most impressed with three aspects of Closey’s highly readable and engaging book. The first is the boldness of his vision. He has undertaken the first global study of the early modern Jesuit missions (from the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth centuries) by combining the insights and methods of world history with those of the history of the Catholic Reformation. The second is his innovative method of undertaking this study of the Society of Jesus’ global, salvific mission. Closey has focused on three countries rarely examined together—China, Germany and Mexico. More importantly, rather than simply compare the Jesuit experience in the three separate sites, he examines the transregional interrelationships among them. Third, he fulfills the high methodological ambitions he sets for the work with both extensive and intensive linguistic and archival work. His focus is not on the missionaries’ “other”—the target of their conversion efforts—but on the equally complex missionaries themselves. He has judiciously singled out 53 Jesuits active in at least two of the three countries that are the focus of his study and his examination of their stories adds biographical depth to the book’s global breadth.

Honourable mention

Eric Mills. The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet: How the Study of Ocean Currents Became a Science.

The book is an elegantly-written and deeply researched examination of how oceanography became the science that we know today. Several aspects of the book impressed the committee. The first is its transatlantic scope: Mills recounts events in Europe, North Africa and North America, making use of archival and published sources in several languages. The second is the book's trans-national aspect. In successive chapters devoted to different countries, Mills pays careful attention to local political, economic and scientific contexts while at the same time showing how developments in one country influenced those in another before finally converging during the 20th century in the creation of an international scientific discipline. No less noteworthy is Mills' story-telling talents: the book offers a gripping tale. All told, the Committee is extremely pleased to honour a book that makes an important contribution to several fields of study.



Timothy Brooks, Jérôme Bourgon et Gregory Blue, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2008.

At its most basic level, Death by a Thousand Cuts is the history of lingchi,an infamous form of imperial Chinese capital punishment. But the bookoffers so much more than that. It situates this unique cultural phenomenon, which Chinese authorities abolished in 1905 after nearly a millennium of use, within a complex cross-cultural dialogue. The book explores how westerners received lingchi and ascribed meaning to it in relation to how Chinese culture viewed torment and capital punishment. This makes the book valuable not only for legal historians, or historians of bodies and punishment, or for sinologists, but also for those who seek to understand historical representations of cultural alterity and their lasting significance for global dialogues. The authors draw on a rich documentary font to make their case. They resist relying entirely upon written primary sources and instead embark upon a nuanced analysis that includes illustrations from works of fiction, missionary paintings, and photographs distributed in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. The authors argue that Chinese practices of penal torment exist within longer judicial traditions, both within China and without. They acknowledge that these practices contribute to a global history of punishment but resist the temptation to see human history as progressive.  Instead, they recognize the error of cementing depravity at one end of a progressive spectrum of civilization and compassion at the other.  Their history finds evidence of both throughout. The quality of the research and methodology are evident in the book’s precise and intelligent prose, which is free of jargon and full of nuance.  All of this makes Death by a Thousand Cuts, despite its gruesome subject, a unique and delightful discovery.

Honourable Mentions

Joan Judge, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2008.
Joan Judge's important and original work helps us to understand and elucidate historical change in China at the turn of the twentieth century by looking at the role of women in the development of the nation. The author, who situates her subject within the passage to modernity, carefully examines the many intersections between China and the West since the middle of the nineteenth century. She uses her own categories, chronotypes, and the perspective offered by women's biography in official documents, private journals, polemical essays, didactic materials, and textbooks. China's contact with its history and the outside world, seen through women's education, make it possible to see a past which the protagonists sought not to erase but to transform in their efforts to overcome present-day challenges. In Judge's work, the reader finds a colourful mosaic of complex portraits: of a society, of historical change, and of women. This leads to a stimulating understanding of Chinese women's virtues, talents, and heroism. Before The Precious Raft of History others attempted a seamless global history of women, but few have set chastity, education, and maternity within so wide an ideological register. And none has so skillfully shown the heuristic value of the raft.

Liz Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, Montréal & Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008.

Aviation is generally regarded as a male-dominated world. That, in 1922, the International Commission on Air Navigation felt the need to reconsider the place of women in commercial airspace reveals as much about this reality as about the mounting pressures to change it. Liz Millward, through her exploration of the feminization of British airspace between 1922 and 1937, pushes women’s history into a new arena, one previously dominated by biographies and less ambitious histories. More importantly, her book proposes a transnational approach that offers insights into pervasive western attitudes. The author shows how the effervescent interwar years and rapid development of aviation created space for women that transformed gender and imperial relations. Millward moves away from traditionalist approaches of her subject, often based on the biographies of heroines, to offer a broader, more novel, panorama that stretches from London to Auckland. Though we have a whole body of literature that explores gender and relational physical space, the idea of gendering air is very original. While references to female protagonists like Jean Batten, in 1936 the first individual to complete a direct flight between England and New Zealand, are inevitable, a variety of primary sources allow Millward to assess the historical significance of many other less famous flyers. The author successfully examines private, commercial, imperial, and national airspace before concluding with a chapter on the representations of female pilots’ bodies.  The book’s main themes, properly situated within the context of the time, offer a fascinating look at the foundation of the new airspace as well as at the construction of newly gendered social relations. 


Bryan D. Palmer.  James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Bryan D. Palmer revisits the origins of the American revolutionary left from the experience of James P. Cannon, a Kansas native who militated alongside his socialist and wobbly comrades before the start of his life as a communist in the early 1920s. For this founding member of the Labor Party (1921), whom Palmer presents with complexity and nuance, unionism and communism took form through interethnic solidarities, struggles against employers and the State. Palmer puts the 1920s at the center of his work, when politics divided militants and their organizations. He enables us to understand that the experience of American radicals cannot be reduced to a faith in an alien cause, even during the Popular Front years. Under Palmer=s pen, biography offers a scale of analysis that allows him to focus on rich contexts and large horizons where historical realities are finely connected, thanks in particular to an impressive array of sources, a judicial use of archival material and an exemplary mastery of a historiography animated by interpretative shifts. It matters that the Canadian Historical Association rewards one of its outstanding scholars for such a strong and original work of history at a time when intelligent dialogue on the meaning of revolutionary experience has fallen prey to political opportunism and blind party allegiances. We look forward to the second volume of this biography.

Honourable Mention
Donald Harman Akenson, Some Family: the Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself, Montreal-Kingston, McGill-Queen=s University Press, 2007.

Some Family purports to be a history of the use of geneaology within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("the Mormons"). The book is certainly that: a history of how the Mormons came to regard genealogy as a necessary tool for the work of redemption and how they adopted certain genealogical principles to produce their vision of human history. Akenson=s reconstruction of this history is fortified by an impressively keen reading of Mormon sources, which scholars have heretofore utterly ignored. But Some Family is really about much more than Mormon genealogizing. It is in fact an informed and often witty exploration into the motives and methods by which societies all over the world have attempted to trace their kinship ties back into the past. Akenson=s most striking conclusion is that no attempt to reconstruct a genealogy can avoid producing historical errors. Once regarded as one of the simpler tasks of historical work, genealogy has now been recast, thanks to this remarkable study, as the technique least likely to produce historical fact. The book is additionally a pleasure to read, drawing the reader effortlessly through complex methodological tangles that, in the hands of almost any other scholar, would daunt the hardiest history enthusiast.

Laurent Turcot.  Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle.  Paris, Gallimard, 2007.

Taking a walk is a simple human activity. However, this action has also a history that Laurent Turcot examines carefully in this fascinating book centered on Paris. The stroller and the rituals of walking have developed during the 18th century in such a way as to produce both individual and collective relationships with the city and its residents. The stroller is a product of the space that surrounds him and also one of the parts that compose it. Turcot analyzes the elaboration of these relationships as social, hygienic or political practices from various and rich sources, both manuscript and printed. This well illustrated book highlights many aspects of 18th century Parisian life : the princess is kept close to the prostitute, criminals close to the police, in a story that illuminates the diversity of strolling in this period. Strolling can be civil, healthy, entertaining, diurnal or nocturnal. An original work of urban history, Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle invites us to explore the Parisian space as it was being constructed in the second half of the 18th century. It also encourages us to think about our own strolling practices that help us define our living environment.


Natalie Zemon Davis.  Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds, New York, Hill and Wang, 2006.

In Trickster Travels, Natalie Zemon Davis has produced an absorbing account of the life of an obscure Muslim diplomat, captive, and scholar. His names were 2009-06-13he was given at birth in Granada in the late 1480s; Giovanni Leone, the Christian name honouring the pope who baptized him in captivity in 1520; Yuhanna al-Asad, the Arabic version of his Italian name by which he was known to friends in Rome until his escape in 1527; and Leo Africanus, the author of the widely read The Description of Africa. Al-Wazzan deftly negotiated his identity as circumstances required it to change, and it is in this deft negotiation that Davis finds the heart of her subject. As the documentary record about al-Wazzan is almost blank, Davis draws on her extraordinary grasp of the historical literature on the early-sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, as well as on her keen ability to interpret the variety of conflicting cultural imperatives under which al-Wazzan lived, to reconstruct his life. In this book as in her earlier work, Davis listens carefully for “the silences and occasional contradictions and mysteries” in al-Wazzan’s writings. These silences, she tells us, are where we must listen to access the moral and psychological complexities of living between worlds. The book is a tour de force of historical reconstruction. It is also a profound reflection on the challenge of finding dignity and justice in the uneasy multicultural world that al-Wazzan’s age has bequeathed to the present.

Honourable Mention:

Shannon McSheffrey, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

The work of Shannon McSheffrey focuses on the city of London in the second half of the 15th century. Beyond this time and place, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture offers all readers a skilful lesson in researching and writing history. The author shows how fluid were the private and public spheres in the late Middle Ages. Far from being a simple private ceremony between a man and a woman, marriage culminated a long process that involved families, neighbours, public officials, and the Church. The author states eloquently and with style that what we now consider as part of private life was a public affair. In doing so, she shows that historians such as George Duby and Philippe Ariès in their History of the Private Life have often fallen into the anachronism trap when applying contemporary concepts to the medieval period. Further, compared to recent work establishing that London’s civic culture was becoming more secular, McSheffrey underlines the central role played by England’s religious culture at the end of the Middle Ages.

The thesis presented by the author is based on a close reading of a variety of primary sources, especially ecclesiastical records, whose usefulness is presented at the end of the book in the appendix. The endnotes are abundant and allow McSheffrey to examine closely some important historiographical issues. This important contribution should attract the attention of students and scholars alike.


Brian Cowan. The Social Life of Coffee. The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2005.

The historiography of the past twenty years has strongly emphasized, at times to excess, the very close links between public opinion and the more discriminating criticism of power in the Europe of the Enlightenment. In particular, Jürgen Habermas’s classic work makes it clear that the introduction of coffee as a new practice and as a new institution, first in England and then in the rest of Europe, is the most eloquent indication of a cultural revolution leading to “modernity.”

Brian Cowan does not repeat this now common ground of the cultural history of politics. In a brilliant and elegant exposition, the author chose rather to retrace the resistance and difficulties that interfered with the development of the coffee culture that characterizes the England of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, it wasn’t enough that trade made the consumption of coffee possible; it was also necessary that British culture be ready to accept it. The author has the courage and intelligence to reverse the traditional historiographic perspective: coffee, its usages and its functions were not the causes of the transformation experienced in England, but testimony to the changes. Curiosity, the economy and civil society are the three analytical focal points whose intersection is the foundation of Cowan’s presentation, where coffee expresses – progressively and plainly – a more mobile, richer, more “polite,” society, that is, more modern. By making use of travel literature, correspondence, medical treatises, the press and cartoons, The Social Life of Coffee demonstrates an exemplary discipline and methodology which never resorts to anecdote as an argument. Brian Cowan brings to historiography a fascinating and stimulating real lesson in cultural history.

Honourable Mention:

Heather J. Coleman. Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution 1905-1929. Bloomington and/et Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2005.

Recent advances of evangelical Protestantism among the Russian peoples of the former USSR are the latest stage in a long spiritual revolution. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, foreign missionaries (among them, British Baptist preachers) and indigenous Russian Baptist missionaries (many from the lower orders), functioning in the traditions of the Mennonites and Quakers, attracted converts and inspired emulation among ordinary Russians. Biblically based, and furthered by the personal testimony and witness of believers, the Baptist/ evangelical Christian movement attracted more supporters than any other non-Orthodox religious group. Voluntary association, democratic organisation, and egalitarian religious practice (including a rough equality between the sexes) characterised the movement. Even when Tsarist and Soviet state promises of toleration for religious dissidents remained unfulfilled and evangelical Christians became increasingly subject to persecution, the primarily peasant and urban working class Russian adherents to the Baptist faith endured. They continued to build a strong associational life which challenged the vision of society promoted by the state. As Russian Baptists experimented with ways of living their faith, their numbers grew to perhaps half a million by the 1920s, and their influence increased.

This is social/ cultural/ religious history at its finest. Using previously unavailable archival sources, Heather Coleman has not only analysed the exemplary lives of her subjects. She has also demonstrated their importance in the development of Soviet Russia. When they put their radical religious convictions into practice, Russian Baptists were social activists involved in a form of radical politics. In engaging in “the revolution of the spirit” and exciting reactions to their aspirations, Russian Baptists were instrumental in proposing a new society, creating civic culture, defining the public sphere, promoting modernization, shaping Russian identities, and offering a vision of “a shared utopia of social and economic egalitarianism”.


James Pritchard. In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670-1730. (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Between 1670 and 1730 the French developed at least fourteen colonies in the Americas--Grenada, Martinique, Marie Galante, Guadeloupe, Saint-Christophe, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, Saint-Croix, Saint-Domingue, Louisiana-Illinois, Canada, Acadia, Placentia-Île Royale, and Cayenne (Guiana). Spread over thousands of miles, with vastly different climates and populations, an empire of such size was stunning in its ambition, and impossible to administer, defend, and develop. And that is the point of this sweeping synthesis covering early occupation and settlement of the French empire in America as a whole. The early French empire in America was incoherent, frequently undefended, very sparsely settled, haphazardly governed, and generally hit-and-miss. James Pritchard focuses less on empire as the triumphant assertion of civilization, and more on empire as the unfulfilled desire of vaunting metropolitan ambition.

Dealing particularly with population, commerce, inter-ethnic relations, and imperial naval defense (or lack of it), Pritchard provides thoughtful narrative and analysis, based on massive research. His overall argument is that people made colonial societies, not governments, and that the current "genes, germs, and geography" school of imperial studies and first contact with the Americas is a fad. As late as 1730 the French empire in America was barely real, but the new identities formed by the encounter of European, Indigenous, and African people were authentic, distinct from each other, and capable of long duration. Roughly half the book follows the rarely successful efforts of France to provide military defense for the colonies. Built on extensive collation of data from often contradictory sources, Pritchard's book provides many sensible revisionist perspectives. An antidote to any persistent tendency to glorify empire, Pritchard shows that the true legacy of an almost dysfunctional French empire was the new cultures and human societies it engendered.

Honourable Mentions:

Dominique Deslandres. Croire et faire croire. Les missions françaises au XVIIe siècle (1600-1650). (Paris, Fayard, 2003)

Understanding proselytizing and the mechanics of faith is the enormous challenge that Dominique Deslandres has broached successfully in the disciplined synthesis that has been dedicated to the domestic and colonial missions of 17th-century France. Conversion missions, desired and put in place by the king and the church, were carried out on several fronts, from America to the Far East, for salvation knows no bounds. At the same time, of course, missions were working with the baptized idolators of France. In both cases, the missions sought to open the heathen, whoever they might be (Iroquois or Breton), to the Christian faith, by using every available rhetorical strategy. Missions found themselves at the complex and often paradoxical intersections of the discovery of the Other and enforced conversion, gentle and inviting words and terrifying talk of damnation, and whether in France or America, for a number of religious orders, represented the ultimate sacrifice of holy work offered to Christ.

Dominique Deslandres chose to give a lengthy explanation of the French context the theory of tridentine reform, the practice of the domestic missions before exposing the harsh Christianization of the Indians of New France, a successful methodological choice that presents a clear context for the work of this army of Christ in America. By drawing attention to the protestant missions too often neglected by traditional history, by explaining the writings of the theoreticians as well as the practitioners in the missions, by revealing with eloquence and discipline the cultural shocks experienced by the missionaries and their flocks, the author weaves in overlapping and often contradictory sources a factual framework that reveals transformations, and in which successes and defeats appear and are interpreted. Accompanied by archival records, maps and illustrations that augment the perspectives of analysis, Croire et faire croire introduces the historiography of the missions through an original discussion of the Other in a clear and rich book that is indispensable to researchers in religious and colonial history.

Robert Ventresca. From Fascism to Democracy: Culture and Politics in the Italian Election of 1948. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004)

The Italian election of 18 April 1948 was the defining moment in Italys transition from a fascist state to a democratic republic. More than 90 percent of the eligible electors cast their votes, a majority for the centre-right Christian Democrats. To many observers the results were surprising, as the Popular Front, made up of the Socialist and Communist Parties which had dominated politics since the fall of Mussolini, had expected to win. The left blamed American and Catholic Church intervention for its defeat. Almost half the electorate was disaffected by the outcome. The tradition of forming unstable centre-right governments and of voting Communist to protest the general nature of Italian politics became firmly established.

While earlier studies stress the political nature of the event, Ventresca analyses it as a cultural artifact. Using a combination of synthesis of existing works, original research, and the techniques of political, religious, diplomatic and cultural history, he has written a total history of the 1948 election. He considers the event from the top down and, more impressively, from the bottom up; he takes into account social and psychological factors not previously examined. A central chapter analyses the appeal to localized religion and to popular piety by Catholic forces and the significance of numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary to the faithful during the pre-election campaign. But in this study the election outcome and its long-term legacy are not something that happened to Italians. Rather, it was ordinary voters themselves who determined the results of the election and the nature of Italian political culture for decades to come. Italians may despise their politics, but they also live them with passion, a consideration which helps to explain the tenacity and durability of the Italian political system.


John C. Weaver, The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900. McGill-Queens University Press, 2003.

For vastness of scale and breadth of significance, it would be difficult to match this book by John C. Weaver. It is a study of the history of the appropriation and distribution of land by European settlers in the five great British settlement colonies--the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The land was seized from its aboriginal occupants, most of whom lacked the concept of private property that had been, Weaver argues, articulated earliest and most extensively in the British isles. The transfer of land ownership, the establishment of titles of private property, and the aggregation of excessively large landholdings that were turned to export agriculture, were the primary and most determinative characteristics of these settler societies and of the rich, food-exporting nations that derived from them.

The heart of the story is the effort by claimants to obtain legal title, which often required enormous effort, and which in turn brought about both settler, or white, democracy and a greatly intensified sense of property rights. This was accompanied by the decline of an aristocratic ruling class, so that private ownership became paramount in the social order. Often accompanied by violence against natives and other settlers, this great land rush formed both the law and the identity of the modern nations that ensued. In addition, there was a complete abandonment of previous notions of restraint on dreams of unlimited material possession. Based on wide research, Weaver argues that the legacy of the great land rush can be seen today in the western powers' insatiable thirst for economic growth, including newer forms of economic colonization in less developed countries, and in the further evolution of concepts of private property, including the growth in notions of intellectual property rights. It is the unique mixing of settlement patterns, land seizure, law, and cultural identity that most distinguishes this monumental work.

Honourable Mentions:

Talbot C. Imlay. Facing the Second World War. Strategy, Politics and Economics in Britain and France, 1938-1940. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Talbot C. Imlays Facing the Second World War (Oxford, 2003) is a cogent, systematic comparison of how Britain and France prepared themselves to fight World War II. Imlays contribution to the study of military preparedness is to combine a solidly archival study with the first systematic, comparative analysis of the two nations decisions, activities, and experience along three dimensions: strategic, domestic-political, and political-economic. This broad, rigorous study allows Imlay to conclude that Britain surpassed France in meeting the test of total war for two reasons. First, unlike France, where political divisions persisted from the late 1930s through 1940, the political parties in Britain ultimately came together to oppose Neville Chamberlains limited goals and to support Winston Churchills broader aims. Second, the British government actively worked with industry in meeting the war effort, whereas the French government favored a more laissez-faire approach. In addition to elucidating how the rising German threat influenced events in each nation, Imlays results, together with his careful, logical, well-documented analysis, also contribute to international relations theory in helping to qualify the criteria that favor or hinder democracies at war.

Henry Heller. Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth-century France. University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Italians enjoyed political, cultural, economic, and commercial ascendancy in sixteenth-century France. An anti-Italian reaction, which originated among humanists, was taken up by merchants, Huguenots, nobles and, in the end, by some urban Catholic populations. Hatred of resident Italians contributed to the Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre, the decisions of both Estates-General of Blois, the revolt of the Catholic League, and, finally, the success of Henri IV. That Italians were subjected to mob violence before and after the St Bartholomews Day Massacre had not previously been established. Nor was it known that Italians were numbered among the Huguenots of Lyons and that Protestant beliefs took hold in the Italian community there. A further aspect of French resentment of powerful Italians, with wide implications, was the connection in peoples minds between Italians and Jews. By providing a well-documented analysis of the Italian presence and of French anti-Italianism in the late sixteenth century, and by examining possible connections with anti-Semitism of the time, Heller has elucidated a neglected chapter of French history. He has also explained the social roots of modern French anti-Semitism and perhaps of other, recent forms of xenophobia, as well.


Elizabeth Elbourne, Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002.

This wonderfully complex book is a study of the earliest missionaries sent out by the London Missionary Society to evangelize the doomed Khoekhoe and Khoisan (or Hottentot) culture and people of Cape Colony, South Africa. Focusing on "the politics of civilization," Elbourne narrates the tribulations of the dissenter missionaries and their relations not only with the native Africans but, perhaps most importantly, with British society and culture. Indeed, the prime focus is on European intellectual currents and religion applied to South Africa. Elbourne provides serious engagement with theory on a wide variety of issues in her sweeping psychological and historical study of the complexities of this particular example of European colonialism. These reflect the equally momentous inner encounter of the missionary with the heathen in the grip of original sin and with lands inhabited by Satan. Elbourne offers a view of Christianity as a language subject to negotiation and highly politicized conflicts over meaning. It is an encounter, ultimately, of "an ironic and paradoxical Africa of the imagination with an imagined Britain."

The earliest evangelical missionaries were startlingly radical, often settling down among the natives and marrying them, all in the midst of frequent clashes between the British and the Dutch settlers and between the settlers and the aboriginal people. This was the model of the Bethelsdorp missionary settlement in which the missionaries shared the life of the Khoekhoe. By the 1830s this model was being replaced with the rise of missionary capitalism and respectability. The apogee of this Africanist evangelical radicalism came in the 1835-36 Parliamentary Select Committee on Aborigines which recommended reforms to protect the natives. It was already too late. By the 1850s "race" took the place of religion as the measure of "civilization."

Evangelicalism, rationalism, romanticism, deism--all mingle in complicated and unexpected ways in Elbourne's sophisticated interplay of the individual and society, thought and action. The research is broad and very impressive, and the prose is at times luminous. Peopled with vivid characters and complex ethical dilemmas, this book captures the combination of missionary exhilaration at the unfolding of an unknown world before their eyes and the achingly inexorable destruction of a native society.

Honourable Mentions:

Ian Dowbiggin, A Merciful End. The Euthenasia Movement in Modern America. Oxford University Press, 2003.

In his book A Merciful End Ian Dowbiggin gives a clear and evenly-balanced study of the history of euthanasia in the United States since the latter part of the nineteenth century. Drawing on sources that range from turn of the century literature to personal interviews to papers of the American Euthanasia Society, this well-documented study traces shifting attitudes towards euthanasia from the Progressive era through the 1960s and up to recent attempts to legalize assisted suicide in the 1990s, positioning the issue of mercy killing within a broad social and geographical context that ranges outside the United States, and showing the influence of similar movements in Britain and Europe on American euthanasia advocates.

Dowbiggin argues that Darwinism and nineteenth century scientific ideas blended with notions of social reform to stimulate a relatively small number of Americans to support euthanasia, or mercy killing, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such a step seemed little more than an extension of the practice of eugenics which, to some reformers, appeared to offer a solution to many of America's social ills. Then, and later, supporters also linked family planning, birth control, and abortion to the euthanasia movement. After an understandable hiatus in the 1940s and postwar period, new questions about the value of life, and the right to end it, stimulated wider public interest in the 1960s. By then, new medical breakthroughs allowed patients to live prolonged but painful lives. Thus, there was a new emphasis on the quality of life, as well as a shift from viewing euthanasia as a social reform measure to one of personal choice, reflected in the increasing number of living wills, and a growing use of the phrases "right to die" or the "right not to suffer." As Dowbiggin states, however, it is unclear exactly what the "right to die" meant, or means, and shows that there may be a dangerous elision between the "right to die" and the "duty to die," on the part of the old or chronically ill who can be seen as putting a strain on the health care system. The profound moral questions raised by these issues have divided supporters within the euthanasia movement into advocates of passive versus active euthanasia, and Dowbiggin charts these internal conflicts in the broader context of Americans' divided opinions on the issue. Written in compelling and lucid prose, A Merciful End is a masterful explanation of the way in which changing social, economic and disease-related factors have affected public interest in euthanasia, and is especially strong in its ability to raise profound questions while remaining detached from partisan views.

M.D. Driedger, Obedient Heretics. Mennonite Identities in Lutheran Hamburg and Altona During the Confessional Age. Ashgate, 2002.

The history of Anabaptism and of its two principal branches, the Mennonites and the Hutterites, is less well known than that of other Protestant denominations. Its lesser importance derives from Anabaptism's few adherents, the difficulty of properly evaluating its origins and early development, the dispersion and persecution of communities, and the absence of leading figures such as Luther and Calvin who commanded attention as much through their action as through their writings. The situation has changed, however, with the many current studies that attempt to shed light on a complex and rich movement, mainly in the Netherlands, Germany and Anglo-Saxon countries, including English Canada, whose contributions are notable.

This is the background against which we can judge the importance of Driedger's work. Driedger set out to study, from different perspectives, the history of the Mennonite community living in the region of Altona and Hamburg during the 17th and 18th centuries. These Mennonites mostly originated in the Netherlands, to which they remained linked through religion, but they also came from Dantzig, Friesland and even the Palatinate. Although few in number, they played an important economic role, while benefiting from an increasing tolerance on the part of the local authorities and the Lutheran community. They even at times participated in political life, a striking contrast to the fierce persecution that the Anabaptists would suffer in Lutheran or Calvinist countries in a later period. Although their faith prohibited the carrying of arms or commission of violence of any kind, some high-ranking merchants of Altona and Hamburg put a military presence on their trading ships, causing a controversy within the community at the end of the 17th century. On a social level, the Mennonites were not an entirely cohesive community, being composed of factions, family groups, interwoven networks of all sorts, and being subject to inevitable tensions like mixed marriages, none of which, however, prevented the community from preserving its identity until the beginning of the 19th century.

Based on original archived records, often unpublished, located in particular in Hamburg, on printed sources, and on modern works astutely used, Driedger's work is an exhaustive monograph of a rare erudition which should serve as a model for other studies of the same kind. In this exemplary portrait, Driedger acquaints us with the life of a small community, not only its daily life, but also its religious and administrative framework, its spiritual problems, its deviations like that of Dompelaars, and its relations with the Lutherans and the political authorities. It also provides a very nuanced reflection both on the concept of identity and on the paradigm of "confessionalization" among the Mennonites, which can be considered along with the studies and the discussions that this last issue has generated among Reform historians for the last decade. This remarkable work, perfectly situated with regard to the more general issue of Protestantism in northern Germany and the Netherlands, will enrich our knowledge of Anabaptism at the local level. There is no doubt that it will inspire other works of a similar nature.


David Levine, At the Dawn of Modernity: Biology, Culture, and Material Life in Europe after the Year 1000. University of California Press, 2001.

In a synthetical treatment of vast scope, Levine argues that the roots of the modern may be detected in northwestern Europe in the three centuries following the year 1000. The book traces the complex social roots of the transition away from antiquity and toward modernity before the cataclysm unleashed by the Black Death in 1348. In a work which the committee felt deserved the often-misused label magisterial, Levine studies the transformation both from below and from above. Bottom-up changes in the social order included the demographic relations that structured everyday life, marriage and family formation, the struggle for daily survival in a premodern economy unable to provide enough for the large populations, and the peasant familys adoption of multiple strategies for survival. Top-down changes included the Gregorian Reformation, which encouraged the rise of a public and aggressive Christianity, the consolidation of ruling elites and the centralizing state, and the reproduction of feudalism and its connections to social life. In general, Levine follows threads loosely clustered around the biological, cultural, and material economies at the dawn of modernity. The book is characterized by many insightful juxtapositions. The evolutionary continuity of early modernization was stopped in its tracks and redirected by the outbreak of the Black Death. The resulting massive loss of population throughout Europe created new realms of freedom for social reconstruction amid a context of luxuriant despair which brought all the established verities into question. The Black Death was thus the extermination of an old order, but it left a series of social mutations that would synthesize old characteristics into new combinations as represented by the intensified division of labor, the growth of state structures, the disintegration of feudalism, and most of all, the rise of a new definition of the Holy in the Reformation. The committee particularly commends Levine for his eloquent prose, his graceful accommodation of postmodernist sensibilities,

Latest from Twitter

Professor Position in Sub-Saharan Africa History, 15th - 20th Century

View all Tweets

Contact Us

Canadian Historical Association
1912-130 Albert Street
Ottawa, ON, K1P 5G4