Responding to the History Manifesto

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto was published in autumn 2014 by Cambridge University Press. Polemical and forceful, it is a ‘call to arms to historians and everyone interested in the role of history in contemporary society’. Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should think big – addressing long-term processes of historical change, insisting on the contemporary relevance of the past, and striving to engage with public debates and policy-making in the present.

The History Manifesto echoes many of the ideas set out in the first collaborative working paper published by Modern British Studies at Birmingham, and our ongoing conversations with historians in and beyond the academy. It has generated a great deal of welcome discussion about the place of history and the historian in a modern and globalized world. For these reasons we discussed the book as part of our regular reading group.

This blog sets out the immediate responses of the members of faculty and postgraduate research students who participated in that discussion. All these short responses appear unedited. In responding to The History Manifesto in this way, we hope to think seriously and critically about Guldi and Armitage’s ‘call to arms’, and to use it as a prompt for our continued efforts to make Modern British Studies at Birmingham a site of democratic citizenship in the university and beyond.


Matt Houlbrook, ‘Big histories, small minds…’

David Gange, ‘We simply don’t argue over anything, really, anymore’

Matthew Francis, ‘Historians must ask difficult questions, not merely answer them’

Andrew Jones, ‘The limits of synthesis’

Kate Smith, ‘Frequently asked questions’

Nick Funke, ‘Megalophilia and the historian’

Chris Moores, ‘Embracing the mess’

Laura Sefton, ‘History beyond election cycles: the importance of engaging with people outside of the political sphere’

Chris Hill, ‘Long-term thinking and short-term practice: the historian’s dilemma’

Simon Yarrow, ‘The parable of ends and means, or the sub-optimality of big datasets’

Silas Webb, ‘The historian and the stock market’

Matthew Hilton, ‘Whose manifesto?’

Jonathan Reinarz, ‘Widening engagement with a narrow mind’

Daisy Payling, ‘Thoughts on the History Manifesto Twitter Response’

13 thoughts on “Responding to the History Manifesto

  1. I’m enjoying these responses, though it would evidently have taken a brave person to say, at that reading group, “Well—er—I quite liked it.” One thing does strike me, however: the near-uniformity of the people writing them (going on the first ten responses). Speaking as a youngish white man from a lower-middle class northern English background, I’d fit right in.

    This isn’t a claim to any moral high ground: if the department where I work now produced a collective set of responses we’d look just as white and (mostly) male, though with more people from Scotland and fewer from English provincial cities. It’s a serious problem, and it’s particularly on my mind just now: partly because I’m writing the equality and diversity section of our ‘periodic subject review’ document, partly because I’m convening a new first-year undergrad survey course next term and am painfully aware that the impression we give our students of what a historian looks like is an older white man.

    If I raise the point here, it’s with Margot Finn’s admonition in mind, in her response to WP1, about MBS’s choice of interlocutors. Many of these responses argue that The History Manifesto is fixated on the corridors of power, where in fact historians are, as Matt argues, “talking to, and learning from, communities more expansive than the small ‘public’ envisaged by Guldi and Armitage”—and he rightly stresses the ‘learning from‘. This directly echoes the working paper’s ambitions for community engagement, and it has clear implications for the pedagogical project too. But it’s going to be hard for MBS to “enable new forms of public engagement and democratic participation” if the model of doing history it presents, precisely when it’s making a collective intervention in a (public) debate about the public role of history, is one where eight men get to speak for every two women, and the first ten people to have their say are all white.

  2. I will be launching a short research project this Weds (12th Nov) to explore how successful the open access format of The History Manifesto is in fostering engagement. I’m not interested in readers for/ against responses to the longue duree argument, more who is reading it and how many.

    While there is a version on the CUP site to annotate, I have been unsuccessful in finding it, so will be asking interesting participants to read it online using collaborative software. The software is eMargin and it lets you write on the text (like notes in the margin). I’m keen to explore people reading together, rather than people reading in isolation. Comments will not be available to the public, just the online reading group you are in.

    I’m not a historian, but a qualified librarian who is keen to research the democratisation of knowledge and widening participation through open access.

    If anyone would like to participate, please email me at
    I’ll start tweeting on Weds #openmanifesto

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