Warburg alumnus, Dr Andrew Manns, has built a multifaceted career encompassing journalism, public relations, and academia. With a diverse range of experiences, including his recent role as an Associate Director at Highgate, Andrew has a keen interest in the power of narratives and their impact on society.
We caught up with Andrew to find out more about his career, his blog The Thinker's Garden, how his time studying at the Institute helped shape his research interests and what his plans for the future are.
You have held a number of positions in journalism and public relations, most recently as an Associate Director at Highgate. Could you tell us a bit more about this aspect of your career?
My doctorate, which involved a broad-ranging study of transnational European propaganda, tracked the rise and uses of extremist narratives in wartime settings. When I was writing my dissertation, a number of mind-boggling geopolitical events were underway: The 2016 US presidential election, Brexit, the Catalan independence referendum… Fake news really was the buzzword of the day.
Naturally, I saw parallels between this modern battleground and the pre-modern arena of warring pamphleteers, literary buccaneers who used carefully crafted words and narratives to sway the masses. Thus, I started taking an interest in the contemporary impact of dis/misinformation and influence operations at the geopolitical level.
In 2018, while I was finishing up my dissertation, I attended a lecture at the British Library by Mark Laity, who was then Chief of Strategic Communications (StratCom) at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). He spoke compellingly on political storytelling and its modern applications in recent events and I decided then and there that I wanted to immerse myself in that world.
From 2019 to 2021, I worked in the international issues management unit of a London-based firm. Then in 2022, I joined up with global consultancy Highgate, which is also headquartered in London on Berkeley Square. Some of Highgate’s public activities have been referenced in places like The Wall Street Journal and Le Monde.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learnt so far?
There's no blueprint for success; we must move along with the times and direct our lives accordingly. As the old Roman adage goes: Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis. Whether it comes to publishing or academia or any other career path we mustn't sit around and say: "So-and-so did this in 1983 or 2010 and now they are a superstar — so I need to do it too!" That was then, this is now. Find your own way and get on with it.
You also run the popular history blog, 'The Thinker's Garden', could you tell us a bit more about this and why you set it up?
I launched the blog in 2014. While I was conducting doctoral research, I would often find myself going down rabbit holes, coming across stories that were intriguing but had nothing to do with my research topic. So I began compiling said stories and writing — often hastily— brief articles about them. It became a hobby, and I published under different pseudonyms to divert attention away from my professional life.
The Thinker's Garden eventually became a way for me to explore and share my interests in overlooked historical mavericks, personages who devised or pursued out-of-the-way or transgressive ideas and modes of living. Writing about these figures was exciting; it allowed me to escape dreariness in the working-day world. It was also in line with the life-long learning principles that had been inculcated in me during my time at the University of Chicago.
At the same time, I started using the blog as a medium to connect with and promote the work of fellow Warburgians, artists, writers, and other scholars. Basically just cool people doing cool things. Above all, I wanted to make obscure topics accessible to a wider audience. I’ve been fortunate enough to interview dozens of fascinating people, many of whom — such as Vanessa Woolf, Ivan Cenzi, Ferdinando Buscema, Michael Parkes, and Darmon Richter — have become my friends. I also had the honour of interviewing Professor Brian Copenhaver, a historian I had admired ever since I first picked up a copy of his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. Other academics I quite enjoyed interviewing were Dr Liana Saif, Professor Cécile Fromont, and Dr Francis Young (who has, with Cambridge University Press, just published a rather interesting book entitled Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Beginnings of Britain's Supernatural Beings).
You undertook an MA and then your PhD at the Warburg. What led you to studying at the Institute?
My bachelor’s thesis at the University of Chicago was on the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino. My teachers there included people like Hanna Holborn Gray and Michael Murrin, so I was certainly aware of the Warburg and its reputation early in my undergraduate career. In the end, I was encouraged to apply by a mentor and fellow UChicago alumnus who had previously studied there in the 1970s.
What was the focus of your doctoral research?
I focused on the writings of William Prynne (1600-1669) an English lawyer, parliamentarian, and pamphleteer who was highly active during England’s Civil War and Interregnum periods. Prynne was, in many ways, the first “modern” conspiracy theorist.
In a nutshell, my dissertation investigated how Prynne developed and popularised anti-Catholic myths in order to re-shape English society according to his reactionary beliefs. He earnestly believed — and tirelessly worked to promote — the idea that a vast Catholic conspiracy led by Jesuits was secretly working to eradicate all Protestants. To do so, he re-purposed and re-interpreted scraps of writings from various sources, including the Italian magus, philosopher, and political writer Tommaso Campanella.
It sounds silly — but Prynne was serious and many believed him. He wasn’t an obscure extremist either: as I state in my dissertation, he was one of the most famous public moralists of the Caroline period, both the mouthpiece and “witch-hunter general” of Parliament. Nor was he just an armchair agitator. We’re talking about a guy who was feared and hated by many elites within the circle of King Charles I, including Archbishop William Laud. Prynne was repeatedly imprisoned and had his ears cropped (as punishment) but he still remained a dominant force in English politics.
My dissertation is, to the best of my knowledge, the first and only comprehensive study of Prynne's method of political storytelling.
How did your experience at the Institute fit into your career?
The Warburg for me was – and is – a cosmopolis; it challenged me to grow both by stimulating my intellectual curiosity and by challenging my preconceptions. The research and analytical training was really unrivalled. These are things I will always take with me — wherever I go.
What did you enjoy most about studying at the Institute?
A French writer once described the library of the German physician and spiritual writer Justinus Kerner as a place where one could "consult the annals of another world". I think the same of the Warburg library. It's an extraordinary setting that attracts extraordinary people and facilitates equally extraordinary conversations.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
With regard to propaganda and its contemporary uses, I was encouraged early on to prioritise media literacy. When you analyse and dissect narratives guardedly and with a cool head, you're hedging against the kind of manipulation that can be weaponised on a larger scale.
What are your future plans?
I left Highgate in April 2023. I’m working on several books, one one of which — a fantasy novel — I started writing in high school at the suggestion of a very inspirational English teacher. I'm also in the process of launching a cultural heritage and tourism project. This will unite my experience in media relations, my training in history, and my passion for narrative learning. I'll be able to share more details about this very soon.
Dr Andrew Manns is a cultural historian and writer. Following a brief stint as an architecture reporter — during which he had the pleasure of interviewing the Italian “philosopher-designer” Brunello Cucinelli — Dr Manns pursued work as a strategic communications adviser. He has advised and helped lead influence campaigns on behalf of a Maghrebi prime ministerial candidate, Central and East African governments, and various financiers and ministries across Europe, North America, and Asia. In 2014, he launched the The Thinker’s Garden, a blog specialising in overlooked history.