A musical interlude

My mother has just sent me this:

She thought I would be interested as I am a mild Ricardian, having been introduced to Josephine Tey’s The  Daughter of Time, as read  by Derek Jacobi, when I was about 14.  To be honest, Jacobi’s voice was, and still is, the primary appeal, but I do enjoy the book and I still find myself excited about the idea of history as a detective story, an investigation and uncovering of the ‘truth’.

What interested me most about the clip, however, was the fact that it is a Horrible Histories production.  Now, my two are still too young to watch the television show, although I have read some of the Horrible History books and several interviews with Terry Deary, who is depressingly rude about historians and history teachers.  But I was recently discussing the television programme with a friend whose older children apparently love it, and she herself finds it witty and amusing, so I was interested to see something of what I have been missing.

I have to admit that this clip does not allay any of my concerns about the programme as a teaching tool.  Yes, it does point out that Thomas More and Shakespeare (who based his play on More’s history) are biased sources.  But significantly it completely fails to present any sort of evidence, in however an amusing form, as to why the story we think we know about Richard is wrong.  Instead, it just asserts that he is not all the things that history has portrayed him as.

Having spent far too long commenting on undergraduate essays (and even the occasional professional monograph) about the problem of asserting rather than proving statements about the past, this worries me.  History as a discipline rests on the skill of marshalling sources to prove an argument.  Those sources may be suspect or biased.  They may appear mutually contradictory, particularly when they are personal narratives.  They are often problematic, which is why historians can carry on arguing about the same thing (Was Richard a good king or a monster? Was the First World War a futile waste of a generation or a principled defence of democracy?) generation after generation, as new evidence is uncovered or a new perspective is put forward.  Used properly historical evidence can change minds.  I have read very good arguments as to why Richard probably was a usurper who killed his nephews, based on evidence of his other actions prior their disappearance, which have moderated my earlier belief in his absolute innocence.  But if evidence does not form part of the discussion then what you get isn’t so much historical debate as something more like this:

This isn’t history so much as children squabbling in the playground.

So, I will continue to approach Horrible Histories with a certain amount of circumspection and make sure that when my children are old enough to watch it that we discuss how we know what we think we know about the past, as well as what that past actually may have been.

3 thoughts on “A musical interlude

  1. I’m really enjoying reading your entries, especially since the things you talk about are waaaay outside of my usual subjects of interest.

    One thing strikes me in this entry – what of the bias of the historian? You give two examples of historical controversies (assessment of Richard3; moral view of value of WWI from allied perspective) which are necessarily subjective assessments based on contemporary values. Is that really the sort of thing modern historians engage in?? This seems futile to this layperson: “we” can’t even decide if contemporary events, for example invasion of Afghanistan, are principled or futile. I’d personally be more interested in trying to figure out why historical actors did as they did, what they wanted to accomplish, and if they felt that they had succeeded in whatever their goals were, as well as how their contemporary allies and enemies viewed these things. Any sort of secondary source history I’ve ever read never made any attempt to make the biases of the authors clear. Maybe I read the wrong stuff? Or am I expecting too much?

    This also brings me to another question you might be able to explain to me – maybe my history textbooks were crappy, or maybe I’m a bit thick, but I never understood the Allied view towards WWI. I still can’t wrap my head around how participation was sold to the general populace, or even the causes. X has a succession problem, so of course Y invades Z, and T and U get all excited about it? I’ve got a much better understanding of the central European view. with the myriad long standing national aspirations of various groups.

  2. Wow! Some big questions there. I’ll attempt an answer, starting with your second point as it may be a bit easier to be succinct about.

    The main reason for Allied participation was a genuine fear of what German hegemony in Europe would mean. For the French, prompted by memories of 1870, and the Russians, there concerns about their national sovereignty, concerns which the Schlieffen plan show to be well-founded. For the British, the occupation of the Belgian coast by a power that was potentially threatening to their imperial interests (demonstrated by the naval race that the Kaiser was actively pursuing as a challenge to British control of the sea, not merely as a response to British ‘aggression’), was also a genuine threat to national sovereignty. Bearing in mind that Germany was an autocracy while France and Britain could lay some claim to being democracies in 1914, then the rallying cry of defending democracy, which was used, is not as far-fetched as it seems from a 21st century perspective. Gary Sheffield gives a really clear explanation of the diplomatic history in Forgotten Victory (Headline, 2002). But the main reason was a defense of the homeland from German aggression, literally in the case of Russia, France and Belgium; more imaginatively in the case of Britain. Many, many of the personal narratives of British servicemen talk about how they are fighting for their own very personal idea of ‘home’ – their family, a particular part of the countryside, even their garden in some cases. (Keith Grieves has written quite a lot about this.) This sort of emotional mobilization had a lot of precedent in Britain where the idea of England was used to motivate the imperial forces and civil service throughout the nineteenth century. Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies were as popular as the Barrack Room Ballads and Plain Tales from the Hills and just as important a representation of British motivation in engaging in military conflicts in their way.

    As for your first point, the short answer is no, it isn’t really what professional historians do, but I phrased the questions that way because they are dramatic and thus tend to capture the popular imagination more readily. In fact, what most professional historians do is look at specific aspects of a historical period (the experiences of stretcher bearers and hospital orderlies in my case) and use that to enlarge our understanding of the war as a whole. Hopefully we do so in a way that is objective and does as much justice to the reality of the experience of the historical actors who we study as possible. To quote Christine Hallet, it is not the purpose of historians to critique or admire the assumptions and attitudes of those we study. ‘The truth held by a generation stands beyond the analysis of its successors.’ But we do inevitably try to analyse what such assumptions meant and bias inevitably creeps in. As has been argued numerous times, the lions-led-by-donkeys thesis probably says more about historians of the 1960s than it does about generals and soldiers of 1914-1918.

    How does any reader of history, lay or professional, get around this? It is difficult. A decent historian will provide a context for their argument, usually in the introduction, which should help the reader perceive what their bias is likely to be. Whether this makes them more reliable or not is disputable. But as there is no way to get at an absolute truth of the past, which probably doesn’t exist anyway as every individual will have a personal witness to their own experience which will differ from others, it is probably as close as we will get.

    I hope this answers your questions. I am not a philosopher of history and it has been a long time since I have done historical theory (not since I was doing my masters, if I am honest). But the concept of historical truth is something I do try to grapple with in my work, so thank you for getting me to think about it more deeply.

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