The emergence of school photographs in France or why your school pics are important visual documents

Cécile J. Esther Guigui, Queen Mary University of London

We all have these childhood photographs somewhere in boxes or photo albums, these school photographs that we dare not to show to our friends because we had a giant smile with braces, or the most awkward hairstyle. School photographs are common and ordinary objects of our everyday day life; they share a strict format, they spread worldwide. Yet, they are more than that and here is why. 

In this article, I explore the emergence of the school photographs in France during the Third Republic (1870-1940). By teasing out the meaning and value of school photographs, I seek to demonstrate how even the most common documents of our quotidian— in this case, the school photograph— are important historical sources for historians that offer an alternative perspective into histories of education as well as into social and cultural terrains. 

The school photograph emerged in France in the 1860s. Under the technical constraints of the medium, the group picture took on strict conventions, in which individuals had to stand straight and still. First adopted in elite and bourgeois schools, by the early twentieth century, it had resolved into a ritual in most schools including in remote areas and in the French colonies. Until today, Tourte and Petitin and David and Valois were the two major houses that specialized in this kind of group portraiture.  

School photographs were mobilized in the late nineteenth century to advertise free public schools and the values of Republican instruction. Engaged in a battle against the Church to secularize the state, Jules Ferry, the leader of the Republicans sought to implement secular public education, grounded on values of individual achievements and equality. In 1881, he instituted primary school as mandatory, free, and universal, especially allowing girls to receive a similar basic education than boys. 

School pictures should first be understood as an institutional and ideological object. As Emile Durkheim has explained school resolved into an institution thought by the state to conform individuals to collective values and norms. Along these lines, Michel Foucault has explained that schools were as much a space of control and discipline as hospitals or the workplace.  

School photographs take us into the school courtyard, where children posed in rows holding similar bodily attitudes and serious facial expressions. The rigid format of this type of image, and the ways in which the sitters are told to sit and behave, leads to the suppression of the individual for the sake of the group. By doing so, the school picture not only purports to promote the community as a whole, but also emphasizes the integration of each individual in this group, by making sure that there is cohesion and order in the picture. 

Paramount to the Republican’s was building a system which modeled an autonomous, self-guided individual and a citizen with civic duties and a national consciousness. Accordingly, school functioned as a space to build a tight community with a firm sense of solidarity and united by a sense of collective belonging to the nation as citizens. To this effect, integration of each member was key to honing to these aspirations. As we can identify these elements in the school photograph, the very format of the picture developed and perpetuated as it provided a visual space to materialize these aspirations.

While school photographs document the history of an institution, focusing on the individuals in the picture, they also record trends and allow for the identification of the socio-cultural identities of collective groups. As they attempted to homogenize differences, these images undergird similarities between individuals, such as their similar hairstyle or fashion. In this sense, they provide valuable insights into ideas of performance, body norms and gender identities of a specific group at a certain age, time and space. 

Nevertheless, school pictures are not deprived of “forms of resistance” or elements that break the conformity of the image and allow for the individuality of sitters to re-emerge. Sitters could transgress the format of the picture, by wearing something different, by smiling for example by expressing signs of affections, crossing their arms or standing very close to the person next to them. 

In fact, school pictures were also conceived for individuals and their families, they are meant to be consumed within the family sphere. Even so, the ways they are kept, stored and discussed by individuals and families also constitute valuable sources of information for historians of material culture. The photograph is not only a visual proof that an individual attended this institution and integrated this community, but it is also a valuable support for narrating stories on what happened within the school walls. Accordingly, school photographs merge into the visual life story of individuals and take part in the cultural practice of family photography. 

School photographs are lieux de mémoires that help trace ideologies, identify trends and allow for stories on school experiences to be told. Far from being transparent and common objects, this article invites you to look differently at your school photographs. 

Sources and Additional Reading:

Batchen, Geoffrey. « Vernacular photographies ». History of photography 24, no 3 (2000).

Burke, Catherine, et Helena Ribeiro de Castro. « The School Photograph: Portraiture and the Art of Assembling the Body of the Schoolchild ». History of Education 36, no 2 (1 mars 2007).

Charpentier-Boude, Christine. La photo de classe: Palimpseste contemporain de l’institution scolaire. Editions L’Harmattan, 2009.

Deloye, Yves. École et citoyenneté: l’individualisme républicain de Jules Ferry à Vichy : controverses. Paris]: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Surveiller et punir. Paris: Gallimard, 1975

Hirsch, Marianne, et Leo Spitzer. School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference. University of Washington Press, 2019.

Nora, Pierre. Les Lieux de mémoire: les France. Vol. 3. Gallimard, 1992.

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Blog Post: History Falling Upon its Own Sword: The Rupture Between History and the Speculative Philosophy of History by Naif Al Bidh

The discipline of history is at a crossroads today as it confronts an existential crisis of epic proportions. Data collected on the change in degrees awarded indicates a sharp decline in history when compared to other majors. This decline in interest is not limited to the 21st century data, as history departments seemed to be in a gradual decline since the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, the phenomenon is not unique to history alone: the philosophy of history has been facing a decline in intellectual interest since the beginning of the 20th century. ‘A writer on the philosophy of history, in Great Britain at least, must begin by justifying the very existence of his subject’ says William Walsh, perfectly reflecting the academic status of the field of study during the middle of the 20th century. The inauguration and flowering of the philosophy of history preceded the professionalization of history; correspondingly, the decline of the philosophy of history was soon followed by a drop in interest in history. An answer to why both the philosophy of history and history declined may lie in the fractured relationship between the two fields. The polarization was also apparent within the two branches of philosophy of history, namely, the speculative and critical. The failure to build a bridge between the different branches within the philosophy of history, and a platform to accommodate philosophy of history within academic history, was detrimental to the development of all of them.  

With that being said, some answers, if not illuminating insights, may be found within the 20th century works of speculative philosophy of history, such as Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. In his magnum opus, Spengler presents his work as the first attempt in predetermining the history of a culture, namely, the Wester-European-American culture, which he believed was heading towards fulfilment, or in other words, decline or death. He claimed to have successfully located patterns within history through his unique morphological method allowing him to outlining the shape of world history. Through a Nietzschean relativistic stance Spengler defined world history as ‘a drama of several mighty cultures’, each possessing a unique soul, or ‘Prime Symbol’, but essentially going through the same process of birth, growth, saturation and decay. By means of a naturalistic rigorous analogy, and through borrowing the notions of homology and analogy from comparative anatomy, Spengler allegedly discovered the proper methodology of historical research allowing him to predict the future, retrodict the past, and shed light on the present through analyzing the development of past cultures. Although he enjoyed a decade of popularity following the First World War, his work was immediately attacked by mainstream academics, deemed too metaphysical, bleak, and pessimistic, and was consequently buried.  

Spengler was not the only victim of harsh academic critics. Arnold Toynbee, the British equivalent of Spengler, provided his own theory of history that corresponded to his German counterpart’s account provoking both historians and philosophers. That said, Toynbee’s approach was far more empirical, and introduced almost twice the number of cultures mentioned within Spengler’s work. Moreover, his theory was not deterministic, and although most of the cultures mentioned within his twelve volumes collapsed, he leaves room for continuity in regards to Western culture if it manages to respond successfully to its ‘Time of Troubles’. Toynbee, unlike Spengler who preferred to work along the periphery of academia, was a distinguished academic scholar holding multiple professorship positions across England. Unfortunately, neither his prestigious positions, nor his picture appearing on the cover of Time magazine, saved him from the vehement critique of mainstream historians. Like his German counterpart, his works were gradually buried, and students were eventually discouraged from reading him.  

Spengler’s work was initially aimed at professional Western historians whose methods and conclusions, he argued, were distorted and Eurocentric. The first reason is the tripartite periodization scheme adopted by mainstream historians, namely, Ancient-Medieval-Modern. The only model that Western historians able to organize their data has already begun to fail as archaeologist continuously discover historical material that undermines the scheme. This argument, which was maintained by Spengler over a century ago, is still relevant since many contemporary historians, archaeologists and philosophers of history have reached the same conclusions today following the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, and the 20th century developments within the departments of history and archaeology that necessitated a transformation of the concept of the ‘Dark Ages’, to name a few examples. Under the Eurocentric scheme, the medieval or middle age is never described in positive terms, despite historical data proving the contrary. A perfect illustration is “the feeble treatment of Persian, Arabian and Russian history”.  The Western European conception of history essentially begins  

In the Eastern Mediterranean regions and then, with an abrupt change of scene at the migrations (an event important only to Western Europeans and exaggerated by them, an event of purely Western and not even Arabian significance), –of Western-Central Europe. 

 The Western notion of geography is another element that has shaped this Eurocentric conception of history. False geographic presumptions, such as assuming a continent of Europe, are essentially abstract notions that oblige the historian to draw a framework according to an assumed border separating Europe and Asia. Spengler argued that the word Europe ‘ought to be struck out of history’, for there is no specific European category within history. Instead, Spengler opted for an imaginative approach that appreciates the mutable nature of cultural borders, their proclivity to overlap and the consequences of cultural borders overlapping within history.  

The late Frank Ankersmit argued that periodization has an ‘aura’ of the speculative, and adding that many periodization models were originally inspired by speculative philosophies of history. For instance, the origins of the tripartite periodization model could be found in the medieval Christian millennial tradition, namely, the works of Joachim of Fiore. Moreover, the model is intrinsically progressive and it collapses as soon as the notion of progress is negated. Hence, one can argue that even the harshest critics of speculative philosophy of history possess their own implicit philosophy of history. Denying meaning within history does not imply that one does not possess a speculative philosophy of history. Spengler himself argued that history was meaningless, instead each culture possesses their own unique meaning of history. Finally, in his quest for a flawless method of historical research, Spengler underlined the limitations that undermine mainstream and traditional methods of historical research. Of these, he vehemently criticized overspecialization – a phenomenon that has, albeit unknowingly, eradicated the bridges between different departments. This grey area between the different departments could promote further knowledge within specific topics when investigating world history. The result of this overspecialization was the over-dissection of departments to an extent that there could be no middle ground between them. That is to say, no possibility of reconciliation in order to overcome specific epistemological limitations as a result of overspecialization. In order to combat these flaws within Western academic systems, Spengler called for the dismantling of walls between different departments and disciplines. This, the author argued, could only be achieved through an emphasis on interdisciplinary and holistic approaches when researching any phenomenon. Spengler agreed that overspecialization and the division of the sciences and disciplines have led to breakthroughs within many different fields but argued instead that a holistic approach could shed light on matters that were left unnoticed due to the limitations formed by overspecialization.  

Spengler argued that within the Western Eurocentric notion of history, the historians seem to have cherry-picked a specific episode of world history, that of Greco-Roman and Western European cultures, and placed it on a pedestal whilst neglecting thousands of years of non-European cultures. In effect, what the Western historians have done could be compared to the Ptolemaic model astronomical model, whereby the Western culture is given a superior, albeit false, position within the centre of world history and the rest of the cultures that make up world history are made to revolve around this centre point. Spengler ruthlessly criticized the poor treatment of sixty centuries of non-European history compared to the position of superiority given to the periods of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Speculative philosophies of history, such as Spengler and Toynbee’s works, could provide us with an alternative lens to view world history, one where no culture is given privilege over any other, and no culture is marginalized and excluded from world-history. Moreover, Ankersmit argued that rejecting the speculative philosophy of history ‘with the simple argument that we cannot predict the future’ is an argument that has no place in contemporary discourses on philosophy of history. The unique trait shared by both Spengler and Toynbee was their ability to construct a work that is continuously revived within periods of drastic change, especially when the subsequent developments seem to mirror their predictions. A potential revival of the speculative philosophy of history almost compels us to revisit the 20th century pioneers of the field in question. Moreover, the crisis facing history departments today could be resolved by addressing the limitations Spengler pointed out, namely, overspecialization, the adoption of a Eurocentric periodization scheme, and the notion of progress. However, moving beyond the Eurocentric periodization model does not only require us to build bridges between the areas of specializations within history departments, but also between the discipline of history and other disciplines, as well as history and the philosophy of history.  

References 

Benjamin Schmidt, “The History BA Since the Great Recession,” Perspectives on History, 56(9).  

Frank Ankersmit, “The Thorn of History: Unintended Consequences and Speculative Philosophy of History,” History and Theory, 2 (2021), 187-214. 

Krishan Kumar, “The Return of Civilization–and of Arnold Toynbee?,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 56(4), 815-843.  

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: Knopf, 1980). 

William Walsh, An Introduction to Philosophy of History (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1951). 

Blog Post: What can Vermont tell us about allegiance in the American Revolution? by Benjamin Anderson

Situated in the north-east of the United States of America between New York and New Hampshire, the state of Vermont (known as the New Hampshire Grants prior to its declaration of independence in 1777) is known for its isolation and tendency to be forgotten. Every state has its own history of the American Revolution, but none compare in their complexity to Vermont’s history. During the Revolution, Vermont’s settlers participated in two simultaneous revolts: one against the state of New York and the other against the British Empire. The fourteenth U.S. state is worthy of greater historical attention because it challenges our understanding of allegiance in the American Revolution, as well as the romantic image of the American Revolution as one fuelled by patriotism and ideals. In Vermont’s case, self-interest and survival transcended these motivations.  

Land lay at the heart of Vermont’s experience of the American Revolution. Poor New England farmers and commoners generally resided on the New Hampshire Grants, and their land was their pride and joy, something that they could then hand down to the next generation and ensure the family’s endurance. But this land in the New Hampshire Grants was contested land. For decades, New Hampshire and New York debated who possessed jurisdiction over it. In 1764 King George III confirmed New York’s jurisdiction but failed to validate or void the New Hampshire land grants, which ran into millions of acres and belonged to thousands of people. Tensions gradually rose between the settlers and New York authorities because the former feared ejection by the latter for not paying the expensive quit-rents it demanded.  

Under Ethan Allen’s self-proclaimed leadership, many of the settlers revolted against New York in the late 1760s and early 1770s. They initially hoped George III would either erect a new colony or annex it to New Hampshire. With the start of the Revolutionary War, however, a not so insignificant number of settlers joined the U.S.’s cause because they hoped the Continental Congress would reward their loyalty by validating their lands. Under Allen’s command, the Green Mountain Boys, an informal militia dedicated to protect the settlers’ land from encroaching New York surveyors and figures, were the central to the U.S.’s first major victory in May 1775 at Fort Ticonderoga. Furthermore, when John Burgoyne invaded the U.S. from the north and through western Vermont in 1777, scores of settlers flocked to their local militias and the Continental Army to fight him.  

Although there are stories of Vermonters joining the U.S., there are also plenty of tales of Vermonters joining or defecting to the British, as well as declaring themselves neutral and helping either side. Colonel William Marsh, a respectable Vermont figure joined the British after he heard about the deteriorating conditions of the Continental Army at Fort Ticonderoga and then its comprehensive defeat at the Battle of Hubbardton. Thomas Johnson was a Vermonter whose allegiance was questionable. A Patriot, the British then captured him and demanded he assist them on scouting missions, but he informed George Washington about Britain’s strength in the region; his capture, however, meant Vermonters regarded him with suspicion for the rest of his life. In Castleton, western Vermont, some 400 people reputedly took an oath of allegiance to George III when the British arrived, but they also insisted that they wanted only to be left in peace. When the British retreated northwards after defeat, this group were welcomed back into Vermont society, thus demonstrating the state’s willingness to act with flexibility during the Revolution.  

The Vermont government is a prime example of the state’s fluid allegiance. It was an oligarchy that revolved around Allen: his friends and family held the highest positions and he remained above the fray of politics, pulling the strings from behind the scenes. At the war’s inception, the government, like Allen, aligned itself with the U.S. and punished the Loyalists by confiscating their property and banishing them from the state. Like the settlers, they hoped the Continental Congress would recognise Vermont’s contribution to the war effort and validate their lands. Recognition, however, was not forthcoming. Far from praising the state, Congress appeared to be gearing up to decimate it from the British; meanwhile, the British loomed menacingly in the north, and rumours swirled that another invasion and Native American raids were imminent – something that terrified the Vermonters. With Britain threatening in the north and Congress in the south, Allen and the Vermont government took it upon themselves to defend the state from either side.  

From 1779 to 1781, Allen and other Vermont figures played Britain and the U.S off one another, using them both as a means to an end: the validation of their land titles. Vermont made itself more attractive to the British by extending its borders further into New York and New Hampshire (creating Greater Vermont), opened negotiations on Vermont returning to the British Empire, and agreed a truce with them; simultaneously, it reaffirmed its commitment to the U.S. by insisting it rejected Britain’s overtures. Nevertheless, Governor Thomas Chittenden warned Congress that it had a right to protect itself from any state planning to invade it. Coincidentally, it just so happened that the campaign against the Loyalists ended just as the negotiations took place, and the state even encouraged Loyalists to move there; suggesting, therefore, that the Vermont government was looking to make the state appear as appealing as possible to the British. By 1781, it seemed possible that Vermont might return to the British Empire, but the U.S. triumphed over the British, which caused the negotiations to collapse. With the U.S.’s victory, Vermont remained an independent state until it joined the Union in 1791.  

Over the centuries, Vermont’s history has suffered from generalisations. Vermont historians, obsessed with portraying Allen and the state positively, claim it was a Patriot state; Loyalist historians, however, insist it was a bulwark for Loyalism. To make such assertions is to deal with allegiances in black and white, to see it as a binary and definitive choice. Vermont demonstrates that allegiance in the American Revolution was much more fluid than previously thought; rather than at the mercy of patriotism or ideals, Vermont highlights allegiance to be something at the mercy of events.  

Blog Post: ‘Rebirth and Renewal: Interwar Fascism and the Ontology of Man’ by Arron Cockell

Fascism as a term has been stretched from pillar to post. In consequence, the accommodation of who constitutes a “fascist” and what attributes to “fascist behaviour” is bordering on being too broad for analysis. The term fascism is often applied to a collective or group that is inclined towards authoritarian behaviour, but this does not help either. Under this umbrella one could include the far-right, the xenophobic or ethnocentric nationalist, and even the religious fanatic. Today this appears to be the case, and the word fascist is thrown around with little caution. Does this generalisation detract away from our understanding of what is a fascist? Or, on the other hand, does this template in fact invite new interest in what fascism inclines and looks like?  

The difficulty in defining the fascist mould is not restricted to popular discourse, and even in scholarly circles the debate trundles on.i Without deviating too far from the content of this seminar paper, it is best to draw on just one definition of fascism. Roger Griffin’s perception of fascism lands us in a convenient location for this seminar discussion. His analysis acknowledges fascism both as an ideology and as ontological existence. In his definition, the root of fascism is a: 

 ‘Genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutation is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism’.ii  

The phenomenological nuances of fascism can be explored under this term as more weight is given to the flexibility of fascism – ‘…various permutations’ – and to the human psychological experience of fascism – ‘… palingenetic form’. For Griffin, the idea of fascism is not restricted to how it operates and how it politically emerges. Instead, with the inclusion of the human experience in his definition, there is room to explore the why. It is in this realm of why that consideration can be given to fascism in the conscience and its attachments to the concepts of rebirth and renewal.  

Palingenesis typically refers to a process of a human reincarnation and is often associated with acts of baptism. The conception of fascism as a rebirth akin to a religious anointment is revealing, but one must ask what fascism offered to the individual, or at least ask what it was releasing them from. For man, the palingenetic form of fascism may have been the panacea for the pathological residue left by the Great War (1941-1918). It could have also been the only absolute motif where the discontent masculine ego could find resonant expression. In other words, fascism can be framed as a playground for the subconscious damage in man.  

However, the composite of psychological damage within the masculine psyche did appear in its horrific entirety. Despite the lofty promises made by the fascist utopia, psychopathologies appeared in the search for eliminationism, ethnocentrism, nationhood, and the volition of the outsider. Man had to scrub himself of ills in order to find purity, yet that palingenetic rebirth could not supplant the underlying composition of trauma, addiction, death, and sexual suppression. It is these traits that characterise fascism more than the utopian mirage. Despite remedies offered in memorialisation and marriage, the incessant need for man to find his own existential meaning to the subconscious horror pushed him out to the folds of fascism.  

To understand fascism is to understand man, and in order to understand the fascist man one must be willing to dive into his ontological apparatus. Many of the studies on masculinity adhere to sociological frameworks that insist upon using the overbearing existence of a patriarchy. In this patriarchy there is a hegemony that is characterised by a masculine oppression and the willing suppression of those who do not conform to the stratifications of male behaviour. These theories are sometimes useful in highlighting how structural power can be maintained, but they are fundamentally difficult to apply to interwar fascist discourse. Firstly, a patriarchal structure is predicated upon the existence of a model where a select group of men maintain power over both women and those who do not fit the normative niche of masculinity. Moreover, the maintenance of this power structure functions on the heterogeneous approval between male members within the given organisation. Without such a mechanism of approval, there remains the potential of external interference from outside agents.  

Those who were involved with fascism in the interwar period do not slide into this category without struggle. Firstly, the majority of men who were involved in fascist ideology came to face death after a relatively short timeframe since its inception in Europe. Whether this was through involvement in war, suicide, derision, or alcoholism, the man who bought into fascist ideology had to contend with the reality of death either in themselves or with their associates. This alone undermines the validity of the idea of longevity or maintenance. Secondly, and this is pertinent in British fascism, the involvement of women at the very top of the hierarchical structures does not corroborate with the patriarchal framework often associated with fascism. The principal discussions historians need be having when regarding fascism and masculinity are the transgressions between the idea of a male palingenesis and the stark underlying pathologies.  

It is time for historians and scholars to look at masculinity with new eyes. The sociological models hitherto used offer minimal for our understanding on male existence and its embroilment with extremity. In the context of fascism, the allures of rebirth and renewal in the distinct form of palingenesis appealed to man’s psychological conflicts. In a world perceived to be full of societal dislocation, the fascist identity looked to be a plausible answer. However, man carried with him his dark disturbances. Maybe if there is an opportunity to level with this difficult topic, there could be the chance to understand masculinity, and with it a true acknowledgement of the reality of man.  

Arron Cockell is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. His current working title is: ‘The art of virility: masculinity, British fascism, and its transnational relationships’.  Arron’s research attempts to shine a stronger light on masculine atrocity, violence, and the proverbial fine line that exists between the concepts of victim and perpetrator, focusing upon the 1920s and 1930s cohorts of British fascists as case studies.

2020 conference paper – synchronic instability in anglo-american imaginative geographies of the balkans, 1875-1912

Another paper from our cancelled conference ‘Space, Place and Scale’, this time by Ross Cameron, whom we thank. This essay examines perceptions of the Balkan peninsula in western travel writing of the late-19th and the early 20th century.

Ross Cameron is an AHRC sponsored PhD researcher in Comparative Literature based at both the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde. Provisionally his thesis is titled ‘Beyond Balkanism: Anglo-American Women’s Imaginative Geographies of the Balkans, 1900-1939’. It explores how women travellers negotiated and destabilised the discourse of balkanism and their central role in recasting images of the Balkans in the Western imagination. He has previously graduated in History from the University of Dundee and University of Glasgow and can be found on Twitter at @ross_cmrn.

In 1808 the German geographer Johann August Zuene coined the term ‘Balkan Peninsula’ (Balkanhalbeiland) for the southeastern portion of the European landmass that protrudes into the Mediterranean bounded on the east and west by the Black and Adriatic Seas. The name arose from a misconception that the Balkan Mountains did not taper out but instead stretched unbroken from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Trieste. Maria Todorova argues in Imagining the Balkans that the term ‘Balkan’ mutated from a geographical designation into a potent pejorative, a euphemism for a state of political fragmentation, savage and ancient enmities and wretched poverty.  As she puts it, the region ‘induced a straightforward attitude, usually negative, but rarely nuanced’ with such attitudes coalescing in the period between the Eastern Crisis of the 1870s and the Balkan Wars into a coherent discourse which she terms ‘balkanism’.[1]

Arguing that balkanism in both its development and tropes is by no means synchronous with Edward Said’s binary orientalism, Todorova presents Western discourses on the Balkans as based upon ‘an imputed ambiguity’ reflective of the Balkan Peninsula’s geographical, cultural and political liminality. Corrupted by Orthodoxy and Islam, balkanism discursively constitutes the Balkans as Europe’s ‘incomplete-self’, a pre-Enlightenment thus inferior version of Europe’s west, through a series of hierarchical civilisational oppositions: rational/irrational, progressive/backwards, orderly/chaotic, civil/violent, masculine/hyper-masculine.[2] Despite distancing her balkanist formulation from orientalism, she asserts the discourse gains what Said calls ‘textual attitude’, whereby discourses harden over time as humans apply knowledge gained from discourse to reality creating a self-reinforcing cycle of repetitive and highly regulated tropes.[3] Her balkanism, much like Said’s hegemonic orientalism, is ‘a frozen image’ characterised by an unalterable repertoire of tropes used time and again in Western writings on the peninsula.[4]

Travel writing scholars have extensively revised Said’s original orientalist formulation with Dennis Porter, Peter Hulme, Sara Mills and Shirley Foster amongst many others demonstrating in various ways that orientalism, and colonial discourses more broadly, are highly mutable.[5] The same revisionary process has not occurred in relation to balkanism. The only significant effort in this regard has been Andrew Hammond’s study of Anglo-American travel writing on the Balkans with his understanding of balkanism remaining defined by periods of discursive hegemony separated by diachronic ruptures engendered by Serbia’s alliance with the Triple Entente in World War One and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.[6]

This paper demonstrates the heterogeneity of images of the Balkans found in Anglo-American travel writing. Travel literature, immensely popular during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a particularly rich medium for exploring cross-cultural representations for, as Irvin Schick notes in The Erotic Margin, it ‘created both the context and substance of [Western] European perceptions of the rest of the world’.[7] Similarly it provides a prism through which Western Europeans constitute their home culture in opposition to the ‘agonistic spaces of alterity’ encountered abroad.[8] In this way, balkanism does not exist in a vacuum but is interpellated by various ideological, political and cultural currents that lead travel writers to imagine the Balkans in markedly distinct ways in the period between the Eastern Crisis and the Balkans Wars. In effect, while Todorova suggests this was the period in which balkanism crystallised into a set representational form, it was actually the moment where Anglo-American images of the region proliferated into a series of diffuse constellations.

Following Todorova’s balkanist formulation, the dominant manner in which British travellers understood the Balkans as a region was important for the maintenance of friendly trade routes to the Levant and beyond.[9] Reflecting Britain’s Turkophilic imperial policy that since the Congress of Vienna propped up the decaying Ottoman Empire as a means of preserving the European balance of power and with it Britain’s imperial, industrial and commercial pre-eminence, travel writers tended to denigrate the Balkans as a means of denying Balkan peoples the possibility of self-rule. Representative is the Anglo-Irish traveller James Creagh’s work Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah (1876). He describes the ‘despotic and paternal rule’ of the Porte as preventing the region’s indigenous inhabitants from ‘tearing each other to pieces’, suggesting that Ottoman rule and its repressive policies were the only way to maintain stability in the Balkans given the innate savagery and backwardness of the indigenous peoples.[10]

This denigratory representational paradigm was not static but changed across time through the incorporation of new motifs in the first decade of the twentieth century. The erosion of the Porte’s authority, rising nationalist tensions, particularly in Macedonia, and competing Austro-Hungarian and Russian imperialisms saw travel writers foreground the region’s threat to the stability of Europe. For example, Harry De Windt in Through Savage Europe (1907) represents the Balkans as a hotbed of political intrigue, kidnappings, terrorism and assassinations ‘where you must travel with a revolver in each pocket and your life your hand’.[11]

Even Edith Durham, one of the writers more sympathetic towards Balkan cultures in this period, adopts this tone with the train from Vienna that carries her into ‘the lands where everyone is “suspect” … the whirlpool of international politics’ described as ‘rush[ing] on through the dark’ with disembodied sounds – ‘a loud yell and a scramble … a gunshot’ – marking her text with a clear sense of chaos. This passage ends with Durham playing on the region’s reputation as a threat to the safety of travellers with her and her companions drinking ‘to each other’s long life … as if we really meant it’.[12] Durham, however, was an anomaly in this period for she consistently argues that Balkan ‘chaos’ was not an innate characteristic of the region but was the result of Great Power interference in local affairs. Far more representative is De Windt who, judging the Ottoman Empire a spent force, effusively praises the ‘marvellous transformation effected by Austria’. Going on he writes, with ‘magical rapidity’ the Dual Monarchy had civilised ‘the recently barbaric provinces of Herzegovina and Bosnia’, which had been occupied by Austro-Hungary following the Treaty of Berlin and were annexed the year after his journey, suggesting that only an external imperial power could bring stability to the Balkans.[13]

Another crucial element in discourses on the Balkans was the influence of liberalism, which introduces counter-hegemonic statements in travel texts that contest Todorova’s denigratory balkanism. During the Eastern Crisis there was fierce political debate in Britain regarding the future of Ottoman held Balkan territories. Liberal politicians and commentators, spearheaded by William Gladstone, instrumentalised reports of atrocities committed by Ottoman irregulars against Christian Slavs to undermine the legitimacy of the Porte’s continued rule over a portion of Europe. They suggested that the conquest of the Balkans by the Ottoman Turks had arrested the region’s historical development and with their expulsion the Southern Slavs would gradually converge with the historical trajectory of Europe. An example of this thinking is seen in Paulina Irby’sTravels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe(1877). Far from decrying the innate savagery of the Balkans, she proposes that the ‘barbarous’ rule of the Ottomans had stunted Balkan people’s progress as few were ‘educated, not one man in a hundred knowing how to read’, commerce was left in a ‘contemptible’ condition and ‘vexatious hindrances … under the present regime’ prevented them from developing a Western entrepreneurial mentality.[14]

Arthur J. Evans, who went onto uncover Minoan civilisation at Knossos, similarly praises the ‘poetic genius’ of Balkan peoples and proposes, in terms reflective of contemporary racial discourses, that their artistic achievements were ‘a token that the race is capable of attaining to the highest pinnacles of civilisation’. In short, it was evidence that ‘the stock [was] … not all cankered’ as a result of Turkish rule, indicating that Balkan peoples, although understood as inferior to Western Europeans, could one day progress towards European civilisational standards.[15]

This position remained surprisingly durable, even as liberal political investment in the national emancipation of Balkan peoples waned following Gladstone’s 1880 election victory. However, it generally continued in a more fragmentary form with travellers choosing one Balkan nation-state to champion at the expense of others. For example, in The East End of Europe (1908) Allen Upward describes how in Greece Western industriousness was superseding the idle and Oriental habits of the Ottomans and presents the country as ‘an island of light’ against the ‘sea of war and desolation’ that was the rest of the Balkans. As the title of his travel book indicates, he also draws equivalence between the Balkans and the depraved and violent masses that inhabited Britain’s working class slums in the bourgeois imagination.[16] Similarly John Foster Fraser sees the Bulgarians as ‘undoubtedly the sturdiest, most industrious, best fitted for self-government’ amongst Balkan peoples but the peninsula is described as ‘that wild and bloodstained land’ and ‘a confused kettle of fish’, with such terms connoting essentialised savagery and chaos.[17]

The first decade of the twentieth century also saw the emergence of a new form of Balkan travel writing that developed in tandem with the expanding frontiers of tourism and offered a more positive representation of the region. This strand of travel literature is premised upon a romantic response to industrial capitalism that views home as utilitarian and abroad as somewhere different and distant from familiarity with the Balkans represented for a wealthy class of tourist seeking to escape the democratised travel experience of the Riveria and Italian cities.

These travel writers inverse the symbolic value of Balkan pre-modernity from a denigrating sign of cultural backwardness to a signifier of the region’s desirable, picturesque and timeless attractions for Western tourists. The Chicago socialite Frances Hutchinson describes Dalmatia as having ‘strange magic in the name! How remote and Asiatic it sounded’, it conjures ‘visions of mountain fastnesses and landlocked harbours, of curious buildings and primitive peoples’. In her rapturous introduction to the Balkans oriental, sublime and picturesque qualities are favourably contrasted against the refined and rationalised environments found further west in Europe that are ‘far too crowded, too dusty, too gay!’ suggesting they had been irrevocably tarnished by over-development, vulgar commercialism and the arrival of a less wealthy class of tourist.[18]

These travellers sought to stress the safety of the Balkans in order to encourage other tourists to visit. Hutchinson describes how in her journey she saw ‘but four policemen in all – ornamental rather than necessary’ indicating to her readers that the Balkans, despite its dangerous reputation, was a perfectly safe destination. Rather than undertaking actual policing, the policemen are simply ornaments whose colourful regalia enhance the picturesque quality of the Balkan scene.[19] In doing so, however, touristic travellers become imbricated in the colonial function of balkanist discourse with the safety of the Balkans attributed to benevolent Habsburg administration who, as Maude Holbach puts it, ‘brought peace and prosperity to a land’ that a few years previously had been given up to ‘bloodshed and sedition’.[20] Indeed, in a very real sense it was Austro-Hungarian administration that facilitated touristic travel for they had lain railways, macadamised roads and built hotels up to Western standards that allowed tourists to consume picturesque Balkan culture without the accompanying pre-modern inconveniences.

The form of touristic travel that developed in the Edwardian period was brought to an end with the Balkan Wars. These conflicts introduced new patterns of mobility in the Balkans as women working for Scottish Women’s Hospitals and the British Red Cross travelled to the region for philanthropic purposes writing travel texts infused with wartime Serbophilia. Indeed, Britain’s wartime alignment with Serbia engendered more profound changes in Western representations of the Balkans that unfolded during the interwar period. However, as this paper has sought to demonstrate, even before this historical conjuncture there were a number of distinct representational forms through which Anglo-American travellers represented the Balkans that undercut Todorova’s monolithic balkanist formulation. It should also be noted that certain travellers, particularly the aforementioned Edith Durham, carved out their own complex representational forms and that gender is a highly salient factor in the destablisation of the normatively masculine discourse of balkanism. These issues form the focus of my PhD research but have been left out of this brief survey as they deserve fuller treatment on their own.


[1] Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 14.

[2] Ibid, 14-20.

[3] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), 63.

[4] Maria Todorova, ‘The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention’, Slavic Review, 53:2 (1994), 460.

[5] Dennis Porter, Haunted Journeys: Desire and Transgression in European Travel Writing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An analysis of women’s travel writing and colonialism (London: Routledge, 1991); Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London: Routledge, 1992); Shirley Foster, ‘Colonialism and Gender in the East: Representations of the Harem in the Writings of Women Travellers’, The Yearbook of English Studies, 24 (2004), 6-17.

[6] Andrew Hammond, The Debated Lands: British and American Representations of the Balkans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007).

[7] Irvin Schick, The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alterist Discourse (London: Verso, 1999), 27.

[8] James Duncan and Derek Gregory (eds.), Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing (London: Routledge, 1999), 5-6.

[9] Vesna Goldsworthy points out that Britain’s only territorial possessions in the Balkans have been the Dalmatian island of Vis (1811-1814) and the Ionian islands (1809-1863). See, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (London: Yale University Press, 1998), 1.

[10] James Creagh, Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah: A Journey Through Hungary, Slavonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and Montenegro, to the North of Albania, vol. 2 (London: Samuel Tinsley, 1875), 125.

[11] Harry de Windt, Through Savage Europe (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907), 15, 201.

[12] M. Edith Durham, The Burden of the Balkans (London: Edward Arnold, 1905), 85-88.

[13] De Windt, 81.

[14] Georgina Muir MacKenzie and Paulina Irby, Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe, vol. 1 (London: Daldy, Isbister and Co., 1877), 1-2.

[15] Arthur J. Evans, Through Bosnia and Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September, 1875 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1877), 140-141.

[16] Allen Upward, The East End of Europe: The Report of an Unoffical Mission to the European Provinces of Turkey on the Eve of Revolution (London: John Murray, 1908), 5, 55-58.

[17] John Foster Fraser, Pictures From the Balkans (London: Cassel and Company Limited, 1906),3, 7, 12.

[18] Frances Kinsley Hutchinson, Motoring in the Balkans: Along the Highways of Dalmatia, Montenegro, the Herzegovina and Bosnia (Chicago: A.C. McClurg& Co., 1909), 17-19.

[19] Ibid, 166-167.

[20] Maude M. Holbach, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Some Wayside Wanderings (London: John Lane, 1910), 21-22.