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Courses / Modules / HIST2232 Treason and Plot: A History of Modern Treason

Treason and Plot: A History of Modern Treason

When you'll study it
Semester 2
CATS points
ECTS points
Level 5
Module lead
John Cornwall
Academic year

Module overview

Anne Boleyn, Louis XVI, Roger Casement, Vidkun Quisling: these are notorious figures who have been tried and executed for treason. Through the centuries ‘treason’ has always been one of the most serious crimes, as well as being a term of abuse in politics. It is a constantly topical subject as shown in the present-day: there are the violent accusations of ‘traitor’ in the recent struggle over Brexit, and in 2018 serious proposals were put forward to modernize the current British law on treason (which dates from 1351!). Despite this, the long history of treason is little known and often misinterpreted.

In this module we will explore the turbulent history of modern treason in Europe over five centuries, from the early modern era through to the present day. We will see how there was always some continuity in the meaning of treason and how regimes interpreted it. But there has also been change: for in Tudor England treason was mainly a crime against the monarch, but from the 20th century it became far more associated with espionage and the betrayal of secrets to a foreign enemy. What we can say is that treason has always been a political concept and crime, tied in some way to the urgent security of the state. Therefore it has surfaced especially in time of war or when a regime feels threatened. Yet because treason law is drawn up by the regime in power, that regime has often been able to manipulate the law to its advantage, even manufacturing ‘traitors’ in order to remove threats to itself. Treason law is therefore a flexible and dangerous tool in the hands of any regime if there are not safeguards against misuse.

A key purpose of this module is to understand when and why regimes have used treason law, how that law has been interpreted, and what results emerged from such prosecutions. Through a range of case studies, we pay due attention too to the viewpoint of the ‘traitors’ themselves, how they behaved, and how their actions might be interpreted by wider society. Both the regimes and the ‘traitors’ usually took up a moral stance: claiming that God or humanity was on their side, and in turn attacked their opponents as violent and immoral. In short, treason is always both a moral and a power struggle, and the regime is usually victorious.

While the theme of treason runs through the whole module, there is ample opportunity for you to focus attention on case studies of particular interest. Each of these is examined through primary sources, including trial material and treason laws. The result is a course which has dramatic content and personal histories, and is also challenging in terms of conceptual and theoretical engagement.

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