Masters Dissertation Prizes 2020-21

Each year the Faculty of History awards a number of prizes to celebrate the excellence of our students. Those listed below won prizes for the best dissertation within the cohort of their masters programme for the academic year 2020-21.

  • Matthew Bowen (Medieval History) - “Blood Flowed Forth and the Boy Shouted”: Jury Discretion and Nullification in the Medieval Deodand.
  • Oscar Patton (Early Modern History) - Recovering religious identities: the Gentlemen of the Elizabethan Chapel Royal, 1558-1603.
  • Haleigh Bellamy (Modern British History) - ‘Fighting for Every Inch of Space’: British Lesbian Activism in 1980s London
  • Emma Teworte (Modern European History) - “Es wäre besser, wenn man es wegmachen würde”: abortion and the Nazi past in Weinheim and Garmisch, c. 1951
  • Aoife Miralles (British and European History 1700-1850) - Popular Political song in Eighteenth-Century Liège and Lille
  • Jack Stewart (History of War) Playing at War: Exercises and Wargames in the Interwar Royal Navy
  • Lauren Spohn (Intellectual History) - Meritocracy and its Discontents: Michael Young, Utopian Socialism, and The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1958-2021
  • Dante Gaviano (MPhil Economic and Social History)The conduct of monetary policy in interwar Italy: experimenting on the three sides of the macroeconomic policy trilemma, 1919-39
  • Leander Pöhls (History of Art and Visual Culture) - Cartography without Cartographers: Aimé Laussedat and the Invention of Photogrammetry
  • Madeline White (MPhil History of Science, Medicine and Technology) - Dried worlds and paper empires: using the du Bois Herbarium as insight into early eighteenth-century English botanical collection

Medieval History

Matthew Bowen - “Blood Flowed Forth and the Boy Shouted”: Jury Discretion and Nullification in the Medieval Deodand.

My MSt dissertation explored an area of English common law that has been relatively understudied in modern historiography, the deodand. Drawing on the work of historians such as Thomas A. Green, I focused on the ways in which juries exercised their discretion and displayed their local customs through their verdicts and appraisals of deodands. By studying 722 cases of deodands from 14 eyre rolls and 4 coroners’ rolls, my dissertation contended that during the thirteenth century, the practice of the deodand was not governed by any rules, but by the discretion of juries. When later jurists tried to codify the practice of the deodand, however, they created and imposed ‘rules’ on it, based on patterns in jury decision making. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the justices who presided over cases of deodands at the eyres and gaol delivery sessions began to expect jurors to follow these ‘rules’ in their verdicts and passed knowledge of them down into the courtroom. As a result, jurors began to adapt the narratives of their verdicts and construct them through the lens of the ‘rules’.

From at least 1194 until 1846, juries in England could declare that inanimate objects or animals were responsible for the accidental deaths of human beings and appraise them as deodands. The owners of the objects were forced to either forfeit them to the king, or pay a fine amounting to their value. Thousands of cases occurred in the medieval period alone.  Despite being a common feature of English law for almost 700 years, there is no clear definition of the term, and it is not always clear why certain objects were adjudged deodands when others were not.

As a result of this lack of clarity, jurors in the medieval and early modern period wielded considerable agency when making deodand rulings. They were able to appraise the whole of an object, or just a small part. For example, at the Worcester eyre of 1275, the jurors presented that one William de Bottebrok was crushed by a cart loaded with a barrel of wine which he had been driving. In this instance, they appraised the cart, equipment, three draught animals, and the wine as deodands, and appraised them at the eye-watering total of £4 1s. On the other hand, there are cases such as Robert Taylor of Nottinghamshire in 1534, who was riding on a wagon in Willoughby in the Wolds when he fell between one of the wheels of the wagon and another part called ‘an wybred’. In this scenario, the coroner’s jury decided that only the wheel should be held responsible, and accordingly named it a deodand.

These cases highlight the extent to which deodand rulings were shaped by the jurors and their discretion.  However, when jurists such as Henry Bracton started writing legal treatises which attempted to codify and elucidate English law, the deodand presented them with an issue. How was one to codify a messy, flexible, and malleable custom which was not governed by any statutes? These jurists found the answer to this conundrum by studying the cases of deodands found in legal records such as the eyre and coroners’ rolls. Whilst researching cases, they looked for patterns and trends and declared these to be the ‘rules’ that juries were following when deciding what to appraise as a deodand. By identifying these patterns, the jurists were not documenting the ‘rules’ of the deodand, but creating them. The main ‘rule’ that jurists declared must be adhered to when appraising a deodand was omnia quae movent ad mortem sunt, or ‘what moves to the death is deodand’. Despite the assertion of later jurists that only that which moves to cause the death of a human may be a deodand, the cases from the thirteenth century abound with stationary objects being declared deodands, indicating that no such rule existed.

However, beginning in the fourteenth century, the records of cases begin to make references to juries returning verdicts that appear to be following the jurist-created ‘rules’. On the 22nd August 1336, a man named Elias was climbing the mast of a ship called the ‘Seinte Marie Cogge’ when he accidentally fell and ‘immediately died’. The coroner’s jury attributed the death:

‘solely to his drunkenness and the rope, and further, find that neither the ship nor anything belonging to it was moving or being moved except the rope, which they appraise at 10s.’

From this account, it is clear that jurors in fourteenth-century London were aware that movement was a key factor to consider when appraising an object as a deodand. That the coroner’s jury explicitly blamed Elias’ death on his ‘drunkenness’ indicates that they felt his inebriated state was a major contributing factor to his death. Due to the diligence of the coroner, it is clear that Elias was not the owner of the ship, as the names of the owners were noted down later on in the source. As a result, therefore, their decision to find that only the rope was moving, and not the whole ship or even its mast, may have been a merciful decision to prevent the men who owned the ship either having to forfeit it or pay a huge fine.

Examples such as this indicate that despite jurist created ‘rules’ being imposed on juries when appraising deodands, the jurors were able to adapt and were capable of using them to shape the evidence in order to support their intended outcome. Rather than limiting the discretion of jurors and preventing them from being able to return verdicts that reflected their own sense of justice, the ‘rules’ of the deodand changed the manner in which jurors presented their cases. Beginning in the fourteenth century, jurors emphasised the movement of an object, or part of an object, in order to minimise or maximise a deodand appraisal. Jurors were able to adapt the jurist-created rules of the deodand that were foisted no them and began to use them to their own advantage. By declaring that only part of an object was ‘moving to the death’, juries continued to present cases in a manner that fit with their desired outcomes. The practice of the deodand provides not only more evidence of the ways in which men serving on juries in medieval England were able to exercise their discretion and agency in the face of the justices, but also evidence of the ways in which medieval law was constituted as a negotiation between the two parties.

Early Modern History

Oscar Patton - Recovering religious identities: the Gentlemen of the Elizabethan Chapel Royal, 1558-1603.

Dressed in surplices and brightly coloured copes embroidered with intricate floral patterns, Tudor dynastic symbols, and images of saint-kings, the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal provided the aural – and visual – accompaniment to all Tudor royal liturgies and ceremonies of state. A body of ministers and singing-men who provided for the spiritual and liturgical needs of the sovereign and their courtiers, the Gentlemen of the Chapel were also active agents in a politically and confessionally fraught royal court.

Despite the recent increase in, and sensitivity to, the role religion and religious ritual played in Tudor court life among early modern scholars, the Chapel Royal has occupied a marginal role. It is perhaps best known as the ceremonialist ‘cuckoo in the nest’, in Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s phrase, in the otherwise liturgically austere Elizabethan Church (MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 24). With an altar-wise communion table, adorned with a silver gilt crucifix, lit candles, rich polyphonic music, velvet hangings, and the architectural embellishments of Tudor majesty in chapel windows, ceilings, and walls, it is hard to disagree.

Yet this liturgical ceremonialism, coupled with the famous Catholicism of William Byrd, has led to the Chapel Royal being described as a place for ‘stubborn Catholics’ to produce ‘beautiful music’ (The Later Reformation, 25). By a prosopographical study of the Gentlemen of Elizabeth’s Chapel, my Masters’ dissertation established instead that the Chapel Royal was staffed, for the most part, with those who explicitly espoused Protestant doctrine, or at the very least displayed conformity to the Book of Common Prayer. The existence of liturgical ceremonialism alongside Reformed (and essentially Calvinist) theological opinion, even among the staff of Elizabeth’s Chapel (the Queen herself being no Calvinist) helps shine light on important aspects of the Church of England’s theological heritage, and the dynamics of court religion.

The Gentlemen of the Elizabethan Chapel Royal

BL, Add MS 35324, f.31v.

My dissertation began with an explanation of the hierarchy and activities of the Chapel Royal, emphasising both the private intimacy of Chapel personnel operating under the direct authority of their Queen, and their public display on state events, diplomatic visits, holy days, and progresses. In treating the Gentlemen of the Chapel, a distinction was made between those identifiably Protestant, whose soteriological, liturgical, and anti-papal views were explored through their published writings, and three categories of ‘Catholic’ Gentlemen: exiles, partial conformists, and one case of a convert to orthodoxy.

In this collection of case-studies, the Gentlemen of Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal emerged as representing a panoply of acceptable Protestant theological and doctrinal opinion, despite a tiny minority (three men over 40 years) expressing Catholic views. Alongside their ‘sufficiency of voice’, Chapel Royal men also provided Elizabeth with literary defences of the Reformed English Church, and individual links with courtiers, Cathedral institutions, and parishes across England.

The primary difficulty this research faced was an imbalance of accessible evidence. The closure of archives contributed partly to this, but it is important to acknowledge the difficulty of recovering religious ‘identity’. As Michael Questier and Alexander Walsham have pointed out, it is a fluid category, made all the more difficult to uncover by the censored state of Catholicism in Elizabeth’s England. Despite this, with the aid of the superb Bodleian archivists, archivists abroad (particularly at the English College, Rome) and sources available online, a moderate wealth of information helped illuminate how the Chapel Royal was not only a place of distinct (if varied) Protestant theology, but could provide, through its Gentlemen, an important link between Court, country, and city.    

This research is currently being built on in my DPhil project, which takes a much broader approach to the administrative structure, music, liturgy, sermons, and architecture of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Chapel Royal.

Modern European History

“The Weinheim women’s hunt”, Stuttgarter Zeitung, 28.2.1951

“The Weinheim women’s hunt”, Stuttgarter Zeitung, 28.2.1951

(Source: Stadtarchiv Weinheim. Polizeiaktion, hier: Massenvernehmungen Weinheimer Frauen durch die Staatsanwaltschaft Mannheim am 15 und 16.02.1951, Zeitungsausschnitte, Rep. 15 Fach 31 Heft 85.)

Emma Teworte -“Es wäre besser, wenn man es wegmachen würde”: abortion and the Nazi past in Weinheim and Garmisch, c. 1951

In January and February 1951, hundreds of women in the southern German towns of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Weinheim were told to report to their local town halls, or even escorted there directly from their workplaces and homes. Across both towns, these women were interrogated about one common experience: they had recently miscarried a pregnancy. Or rather, this was what had been registered with the local public health offices. Both Weinheim and Garmisch had exhibited disproportionately high rates of miscarriages, and the local authorities suspected that behind these statistical outliers lurked not natural miscarriages but artificial – illegal – abortions. Doctors had registered these miscarriages with the local public health offices – as legally required by a 1935 regulation which, like several Nazi-era laws, was explicitly reinstated by several West German states after the war.

The first part of my dissertation examined how these investigations became a local and national scandal. Strikingly, it was not abortion itself that was debated. Instead, the media largely rose to the defence of the women targeted. Commentators decried how these women (“not abortionists, but mothers”) were torn from domesticity – leaving behind young children and a cold lunch for their husbands – to be “herded” through the streets and subjected to intrusive interrogations by uncompromising officials. Indeed, this exaggerated victimisation in what was called the “largest police scandal since 1945” often uncomfortably equated women’s suffering with that of the victims of Nazism. Thus, I argue that the scandal functioned as a discursive site for coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past. The image of women as victims of unjust accusations of collective guilt by an overbearing state mirrored popular narratives of citizens’ lack of power under (and thus lack of responsibility for) Nazism and grievances towards the denazification procedure. Nonetheless, the discussions also betrayed a genuine anxiety surrounding the fragility of the new constitutional order. The fact that no one – women, doctors, or police officers – had resisted the orders from superior authorities all seemed to show that citizens were still stuck in past patterns of obedience. Re-purposing the investigations to provide a lesson in engaged citizenship, activists and politicians hoped to consolidate the new republic as a democracy based on the rule of law.

Ironically, while public figures sought to embolden citizens to resist state infringements on civil liberties, they failed to recognise those who had refused to show deference towards the state: the women and men who illegally terminated unwanted pregnancies. The second part of my dissertation turned to these practices of abortion in the predominantly working-class communities targeted by the investigations. Having witnessed considerable relaxations in abortion practices in the immediate post-war period, abortion was at least tolerated in these communities, even by most doctors. Overall, the trials reveal women’s considerable emotional and sexual independence outside the realm of domesticity during the period. In circumstances where emphasising their powerlessness worked to reduce their judicial culpability, the men involved also furthered the rhetorical empowerment of women by asserting their physical, emotional, or intellectual fragility. Interestingly, the court often “bought” this narrative of female autonomy. However, in letting men off the hook more willingly than their partners, the judiciary clearly applied a double standard. With the media discourse marginalising the issue of abortion and the court placing a sacrificial expectation of motherhood on women, I argue the investigations showcase how the early Federal Republic privatised and gendered reproductive duties. Combined, the media discourse and judicial investigations demonstrate the social conservatism underlying the construction of West German national identity as a democracy based on the rule of law.

British and European History, 1700-1850

Brȗle-Maison (François Cottignies) sur la petite place de Lille face à la Bourse. 1745.

(Rémy Morel). Brȗle-Maison (François Cottignies) sur la petite place de Lille face à la Bourse. 1745. Bibliothèque Municipale de Lille, Ms. 81, p. 324.

Aoife Miralles - Popular Political song in Eighteenth-Century Liège and Lille

Eighteenth-century Liège and Lille were borderland societies. The city and prince-bishopric (or principality) of Liège was situated in the valley of the Meuse, close to the borders of the Austrian Netherlands and other territories of the Holy Roman Empire. Lille, on the other hand, was located on the modern-day Franco-Belgian border. Throughout the century, Liège and Lille were embroiled in a series of military and political conflicts. These included the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years War, as well as the Liège Revolution and the French Revolution.  

Scarcity of reception evidence has provided a barrier for many historians seeking to investigate the engagement of the wider populace in these political events. The mechanisms used in composing popular topical songs, however, lend themselves to such inquiry. Given that the success of a song depended on its public appeal, the level of political consciousness assumed by songwriters provides a measure of engagement, opinions, and attitudes of the target audience. Accessible even to the illiterate, songs could function as vehicles for the expression of subtle cultural resistance or outright political protest on the part of a wide cross-section of society, or they could be used as political propaganda, to garner political support. Cheaply printed, manuscript, or orally-transmitted topical songs were, by their nature, ephemeral. However, it was possible for me to draw upon a body of songs from the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lille, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the Archives de l'État à Liège, as well as the printed editions of Fernand Carton, and the publications of the Société liégeoise de littérature wallonne. This material reveals much about popular political culture in eighteenth-century Liège and Lille.

The textual and musical dimensions of popular political song display a great deal of continuity, both across the century and between Liège and Lille. Yet, songs celebrating peace retained a local, topical complexion, in spite of the international scale, or chronological distance of the peace being celebrated. Literary frameworks were retained, and traditions were perpetuated through the establishment of ‘schools’ of street singing influenced by local street singers, such as Mathieu Moreau (from Liège) and François Cottignies (from Lille). Trends included the use of local dialects and slang, a focus on local stock characters, the employment of familiar comedic tropes, and recurring reference to – and celebration of – symbolic elements from each locality’s past. These interpretative frameworks, used throughout the century, seem to be designed to cater and appeal specifically to the tastes and interests of local audiences. Although songs were composed for – or on the occasion of – new political events, their textual content was couched in a longstanding local cultural repertory.

In both cities, the musical repertory drawn upon was similarly consistent across the century. The tunes used for popular political songs formed part of a supranational cultural schema, in which Paris was particularly influential. Unexpectedly, channels of musical circulation between Paris and Liège seem to have been especially strong, and, contrary to the highly localised textual frameworks, genuinely ‘local’ tunes were rarely used. This reveals hitherto underappreciated avenues of cultural distribution between Paris and Liège that were perhaps fuelled by commercial exchange. More generally, continuity in the cultural practices of song between the two cities and their surroundings over a long period indicates that political changes, such as the establishment of a new monarch or prince-bishop, did not engender immediate cultural change. Content or authorship may have evolved, but the mechanisms and frameworks of traditional cultural practices, largely consistent over the past hundred years, were subject to resistance and perhaps a deliberate investment in local traditions by song consumers.

History of War

"The Naval Wargame and How it is Played,” in The Strand Magazine, Volume 27 (George Newnes Limited, 1904), 577.

"The Naval Wargame and How it is Played,” in The Strand Magazine, Volume 27 (George Newnes Limited, 1904), 577.

Jack Stewart - Playing at War: Exercises and Wargames in the Interwar Royal Navy

My dissertation focused on the role of naval exercises and wargames in the development of Royal Navy fleet tactics in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I argued that most histories of the Royal Navy have neglected the importance of wargaming and exercises, which were used to test and develop tactical doctrine. However, the importance of exercises and wargames was a two-edged sword: though they helped promote tactical innovation, an absence of real world experience with emerging technologies meant that the rules with which those systems were represented in exercises were deeply flawed and maybe have contributed to some of the Royal Navy’s most significant shortcomings in the Second World War.

Exercises and wargames have been neglected in the study of the Royal Navy’s interwar years. Most of the records of the Royal Navy’s exercises were lost during the Second World War: reports on interwar exercises and, as I argue, wargames, had been sent to the Naval College at Greenwich for analysis, where they were lost in the Blitz. This has led to a general perception, encouraged by disparaging comments made by Royal Navy officers after the War, that wargaming was not widely used by the Royal Navy. By contrast, a wealth of archival material on American Naval wargaming survived the war, and scholarly attention in the field has focused on the US Navy. Though recent scholarship has begun to push back on this established view, it is still widely held, and the British Ministry of Defence, in a guide to military wargaming published in 2017, omitted any reference to Royal Navy wargames when it described the history of the practice. My dissertation provided a synthesis of primary and secondary source material on the Royal Navy’s use of wargaming, for the first time showing that it was widespread in the Royal Navy from 1900 to the Second World War. The Royal Navy introduced naval wargaming into the curriculum at its naval colleges by at least 1913, developed new rules in 1921, and 1929, and updated those rules at least as late as 1934. Those rules imply that the Navy produced equipment for use in wargames that were distributed to individual ships. Additionally, published reports of notable Royal Navy exercises also instructed commanders to report the results of any particularly important wargames they had conducted, implying both that wargaming was used on individual ships in the Royal Navy rather than just at staff colleges, and that the Royal Navy believed those wargames had significant value in and of themselves. 

Relying on published compilations of Royal Navy exercises in the late 1920s and early 1930s, I argued that the Royal Navy used fleet exercises as a laboratory to develop tactics, in contrast to the general characterization of exercises in secondary source literature as chiefly intended to disseminate established tactics. Similar exercises were repeated multiple times in different configurations, and options explored in exercises were only later formalized in official doctrine, after which the number of exercises investigating the problem dropped off: the opposite of what records would show if exercises were used to disseminate tactics rather than invent them. Exercises played a key role in shaping tactics for night fighting, the use of aircraft carriers, and anti-submarine warfare.

If, as I have argued, exercises and even the results of wargames played a role in the development of Royal Navy tactics, they also contributed to some of the Royal Navy’s most serious failures. The Royal Navy has been consistently criticized for its poor anti-aircraft equipment and its emphasis on hunting down submarines rather than attempting to defend convoys from submarine attacks. I argued that these failures were partly influenced by poor rules in exercises and wargames. As these were new technologies, there was no wartime experience with which to ground assumptions, and consequently Royal Navy rules overstated the accuracy of anti-aircraft fire and the likelihood of destroying submarines. This meant that exercises designed to establish naval tactics lead to flawed results and encouraged false optimism.

Intellectual History

Lauren Spohn - Meritocracy and its Discontents: Michael Young, Utopian Socialism, and The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1958-2021

Is meritocracy good or bad? Does it even exist? The corporate ladder, the civil service, and the elite university take as given that people should rise as high as their talents and efforts will take them. Politicians from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to Tony Blair and Barack Obama have championed merits-based social mobility, alongside equality of opportunity, as self-evident social goods for the past half-century. In terms of gross GDP, their victory seems decisive. But in other metrics, the meritocrats might be playing a losing game.

In the United States, the number of deaths by suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism has never been higher. Income gaps and ideological divides have seldom been wider. The 2016 populist backlash on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that the people left at the bottom of the social ladder are starting to wonder if the system is worth propping up anymore. As the ladder shakes, scholars, journalists, and other critics have reappraised the system from their respective rungs. Some argue that meritocracy is the problem, others that the only thing wrong with meritocracy is that we’ve never tried it.

To bring much-needed clarity to these debates, we should return to the man who first coined the term “meritocracy” sixty years ago: the sociologist and social entrepreneur Michael Young. A lifelong, if ambivalent, affiliate of the Labour Party, Young popularized the word in his now-famous 1958 satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book, allegedly written in the year 2034, retells the “history” of how a class of intelligent elites came to rule Britain after World War II. This new social order started with educational reforms in the 1940s, which sorted children into levels of schooling based on an aptitude test they took at age eleven. The highest scorers got the best education, the best educated got the best jobs, the best jobs got the best social status, and soon, Britain’s fate was in the hands of “the five percent who know what five percent means.” Over the second half of the century, however, Young’s “aristocracy of talent” gradually reverted into the “aristocracy by birth” it was supposed to replace. How? The first-generation meritocrats passed on their advantages to their children, merits notwithstanding. “Ambitious parents,” Young’s narrator laments, “always brought to grief the best-laid schemes of egalitarian reformers.” In the year 2034, the system finally collapses under populist revolt.

In the year 2022, much of Young’s speculative fiction reads like history. But while many critics have referenced Meritocracy to explain the convulsions of the last decade, most have failed to contextualize the book in its author’s life, times, and other writings. As a result, our debates have missed a crucial point about Young’s satire: Meritocracy is less a dystopian book than a utopian one. Young does not condemn meritocracy, but rather draws on a sociological fact—parents’ love for their children—to show why a perfect meritocracy is unfeasible in the long term, short of total state control of family life. Opposite this critique, however, Young gestures toward a new social order that he believed would harmonize the demands of equality and psychology: “human-scale socialism.”

Young’s context helps clarify what he means by this idea. Young wrote Meritocracy at a time when the future of postwar Britain was up for debate. British socialism was still searching for self-definition, awash between the rising tides of consumerism in the West and collectivism in the East. Factions on the Left warred over the meaning of equality. What balance should we strike between economic output and social solidarity, one demanded by the exigencies of the Cold War, the other by a tradition of British decency?

Into these debates enters Young. First as a Labour researcher during the war, then as a sociologist in postwar East London, Young developed a distinct political program that tried to marry the ethical socialism of 19th-century reformers like William Morris and, later, R.H. Tawney with the insights of 20th-century social science. This “neighborhood socialism”—or “starry-eyed socialism”, as Young later called it—was a communitarian compromise between Keynesian centralism and revisionist socialism, Marxist proletariat revolution and Fabian technocratic gradualism. Similar to Morris, Young envisioned all people living in “human-scale” communities that rooted them in kinship networks, ranked them according to person-centered values instead of mathematical formulas, and afforded them full opportunity to develop their talents and spiritual energies, whether that meant building jet engines or growing roses. Instead of one ladder by which to distribute social esteem, Young quipped, “there would be hundreds.” The way to spring the meritocracy trap, in this view, was a large number of small communities.

Why didn’t Young’s solution to inequality become as famous as his diagnosis of the problem? Prominent Fabians and Revisionist Socialists dismissed Young as an idealist often enough that he learned to distance himself from accusations of romantic utopianism through rhetorical means—dialogues, humour, and as we see in Meritocracy, fantasy and satire. Unfortunately for us, Young is sometimes too good at literary misdirection. In keeping with his character, the narrator of Meritocracy only hints at Young’s positive political program in the few paragraphs he (begrudgingly) reserves for the populist protestors. It was only several years after the satire, in a series of lectures he delivered at Cambridge between 1961 and 1963, that Young gave a robust articulation of his theories. But without reference to these archives, we judge Young’s contributions to the meritocracy debate with an incomplete understanding of his ideas.

What, then, should we do with meritocracy? Young’s life gives part of an answer. Though his political program was never taken seriously by the policymakers on the Left, Young dedicated himself to building neighborhood socialism with bricks and mortar. Across his energetic lifetime, he founded over 60 “human-scale” organizations, from the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green to the Open University. As for scaling this utopia beyond the neighborhood, Young grew increasingly pessimistic that his communitarian via media would ever be realized in the struggle between large-scale socialism and market-based neoliberalism that dominated political debates in the last decades of his career. His fading optimism mirrors the way morally thick rhetoric—talk of community values, spiritual energies, and fraternal bonds—has receded from the public sphere, replaced by a managerial ethos that would rather maximize GDP than cultivate the common good.

It’s an irony of history that most politicians today use Young’s neologism to justify the cash-rich and value-poor democracy he invented the term to critique. But we can hope, along with Young’s dystopian heroes, that recovering a historical vision of the meritocracy still leaves open the belief that things can be different—as “starry-eyed” as those other possibilities may seem.

Economic and Social History (MPhil)

Dante Gaviano - The conduct of monetary policy in interwar Italy: experimenting on the three sides of the macroeconomic policy trilemma, 1919-39

This dissertation examines the conduct of monetary policy in interwar Italy by relying on the macroeconomic policy trilemma as its central theoretical framework. The trilemma postulates the impossibility of simultaneously achieving free capital flows, a fixed exchange rate, such as a peg to gold, and an autonomous monetary policy, free to pursue domestic objectives. By building continuous monthly indices capturing the extent of exchange rate stability (ERS), capital account openness (KAO) and monetary policy autonomy (MPA), I am able to measure at high-frequency the succession of macroeconomic policy configurations within the trilemma selected by Italian policymakers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Methodologically, constructing the three trilemma indices for interwar Italy rests upon three distinct data-building exercises. To measure exchange rate stability (ERS), a statistical technique based on the kurtosis is used to analyse the daily exchange rate of the lira. The complete corpus of interwar legislation pertaining to capital account restrictions is gathered in order to track Italian capital account openness (KAO). To gauge monetary policy autonomy (MPA), I first estimate the monetary policy reaction function of the Bank of Italy, and then manipulate it to measure the relative responsiveness to domestic vis-à-vis external constraint-related macroeconomic objectives. 

The fourth methodological contribution of this dissertation is to exploit the architecture of the trilemma to provide the first quantitative measure of the intensity of gold standard mentality, the ideational underpinning of the gold standard system. This is shown to be related to the over- or under-utilisation of the room for manoeuvre available to monetary authorities within the trilemma.

Armed with this high-frequency dataset about Italy’s location within the trilemma, a number of findings are identified. ERS maintained on average an upward trend line for the entire interwar period, with the Depression failing to lastingly alter its trajectory. KAO shows that despite alternating phases of tightening and loosening in restrictions on capital flows, between 1918 and 1933 the capital account was kept relatively open. Then, the vast set of restrictions that sharply reoriented Italian policy on regulating capital flows came in discrete stages over 1934-35, reaching a near-complete closure to capital flows from 1936. The MPA index shows that the relative weight placed by monetary policy upon the domestic macroeconomy surged after 1935, as the gold standard constraints were progressively loosened. This reversed the large fall in MPA that had occurred in late 1926, when the regime was seeking to restore the gold standard.

Finally, two episodes of persistent negative gold standard mentality prevailed in interwar Italy: in the mid-1920s, before the return to gold, and in the late 1930s, after the severing of the country’s links to gold. This similarity between the two episodes is striking because of their sharply different institutional set-ups: relative independence of the Bank of Italy and integration into the world economy in the former; autarky and totalitarian control of the fascist regime over all levers of macroeconomic policy in the latter.