Medievalia et historia alia

The British Psychology Society research blog is reporting on an ace little piece of research about the psychological benefits of thinking about your ancestors, which I’m going to henceforth assume you’ve read. Off you go. (The original paper, referenced at the bottom, is short and also well worth reading if you have an institution log-in.) One of the reasons I liked it is because I have consciously used this “mechanism” myself – usually, it must be said, when situations of physical bravery are required, because I’m such an utter physical coward (teeth! falling over on the ice! hnnnnnnng!), and the study is concentrating on improved intellectual expectations and performance.  But still.

It’s just a preliminary study. I think there could be some two-way trade here with historically and archaeologically attested instances of ancestor worship. That is, future findings could enlarge our understanding of past societies as well as our own. And also, attested cases of historical ancestor worship could suggest directions for the follow-up research, which will attempt to isolate underlying “processes of social identity, family cohesion, self-regulation or norm activation elicited by increased ancestor salience.”

Rome immediately springs to mind as a culture engaged in formal – and quite explicitly performance-related – ancestor worship. The study’s findings of the increased perception of control and the improved promotion orientation (inclination to tackle problems) associated with ancestor salience are certainly quite handy concepts to bring to Roman history. I’m particularly struck by the finding that ancestor salience is just as marked when a subject considers fifteenth-century ancestors as when he or she considers immediate or living forbears. This rules out the possibility that it’s really the fact that individuals are relatively close in time or even known to one that produces the boost to confidence and performance. It made me think of the processions of ancestor masks, stretching into the past, that were carried at Roman funerals even under the Republic – the more venerable, the better.

We tend, I suppose, to conceive of these displays in the received terms of modern aristocracies – “blue blood”, class, noble birth and so on. But it makes perfect sense if these are the outward justifications and defences for what is essentially a beneficial psychological practice – to which everyone, apparently, has access, whether or not they knew who their ancestors actually were. The study suggests that part of the mechanism of ancestor salience is to “increase the cognitive accessibility of things [the study's subjects] learned from [their ancestors] via intergenerational socialization processes” (p2). If this really is how the mechanism works, then a longer line of death masks at a Roman funeral really would be  better – more generations, more useful knowledge.

Mind you, I think the first experiment in the study assumes one of these received terms itself. In measuring the impact of thinking about 15th century ancestors, it instructed subjects as follows (from the paper, p2):

Please imagine your ancestors in the 15th century, that is, your great-great-great-great-great-. . . grandparents. Please imagine what they did at that time, how they lived, what their profession was and how many children they had, etc. Please also imagine what your ancestors from that time would tell you today, if you were still able to meet them.

This is a pre-circumscribed thought experiment because it encourages subjects to believe that they have only one line of ancestors – a “family-sized” line, simplified exactly as aristocracies and patronymic/matronymic systems in general do, and exactly as the Romans were doing with their successive line of masks. Of course, we all have several millions of direct ancestors living in the fifteenth century even allowing for the many duplicates (reckoning on four generations per century. Anyone know the precise way of calculating the number of duplicates? I”m sure there must be one).

It would be difficult to design an experiment to tease out why this simplification down to a single “line” is apparently necessary to ancestor salience (if it is). Is it just because a family-sized unit, or succession of them, can be more comfortably accommodated by our social conditioning? Or is it something more complex and specific to do with the linear nature of an ancestral line itself. Consider this part of the researchers’ hypothesis:

when we think about [our ancestors], we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities. In other words, because we are the successors of our ancestors and thus their genetic heritage, we tend to attribute successful problem-solving of our ancestors to our own problem-solving abilities

In other words, survival is being invoked, and by implication survival of the fittest, and that leads one to conceive of ancestry in terms of series of refinements leading down to a “perfect” result in the present (well, we’re here, aren’t we?) Half the population of England died of plague in 1348-9; one big tick against “some natural plague resistance” for the rest – and that “rest” is us. One of the many occasions on which we’ve been collectively winnowed for chaff, and disease resistance is just the most obvious example. Success of the “bloodline” is what I think the researchers are really getting at here.

Separating out the impact of notional lines of ancestry from familial warmth is one nudge Rome’s example could provide to future research. Another is the double-edged sword effect of formal ancestor worship – sure, ancestors may strengthen a sense of confidence and entitlement, but they can also provide an explicit set of targets to meet, and be used as a stick with which to beat errant descendents. So is this ancestral equivalent of parental expectation also operating in modern subjects? Or is it unique to Rome and other societies whose elites consciously emulate ancestors’ activities? Perhaps it cuts both ways, and we seek or imagine parallels between our own lives and ancestral lives – I remember being pleased to discover signs that some of my Mortimer/ore ancestors were nonconformists and part of a fairly radicalised trade (brushmaking, would you believe. Stiff with early radicalism, apparently). I wonder what attributes the study’s subjects imputed to their imagined 15th century ancestors.

One last thing about Rome as compared to the present; everyone alive today in the western world could probably say with confidence that they have it easier than most of their ancestors. Technological and scientific progress virtually guarantee it. So there’s going to be an innate widespread acceptance of the notion that our ancestors survived greater difficulties than we’ll ever have to face (five minutes thinking about the First World War and suddenly that exam or dental appointment doesn’t look so bad).

That isn’t the case with Rome, is it. Of course, plenty of similar mood music seems to surround how Romans thought about ancestors – they were simpler, cleaner, more virtuous, “good honest Romans”, and so on, and this is why they overcame various odds – but their life chances were in many respects the same as those of the descendents invoking them. Indeed, that is what made Roman ancestors such effective weapons of chastisement. We don’t have the same relationship of equals with our ancestors – our life chances are unimaginably better than theirs were. It’s possible that one of the factors future research needs to isolate is whether we’re really being reminded of our ancestors’ “problem-solving abilities” and capacity to overcome odds, or whether they simply cause us to reflect on our own technological and economic good fortune. My First World War/dentist example points that up rather nicely.

So we would have to take care in applying the lessons of modern psychological research in history or archaeology. An interesting way to use this research direction, it  strikes me, would be to identify elements of historical ancestor worship that fit modern findings – and then look at what is left inexplicable. Whatever that is, it may constitute the essence of a relationship that ancient societies had with their ancestors that we can no longer access.

Over the past few months, I’ve been mildly fantasising about rescuscitating my PhD (or, more probably, burying it as a lost cause and starting again). The problems I’ve got are twofold (threefold if you count the money):

1) Last time round (2002) I wonder if I didn’t just start the PhD because I had nothing else to do. I’m sure I painted a much neater picture for myself at the time, but is that nearer the truth? I had quite openly gone through a Masters degree because I had nothing else to do, and that had turned out just fine, and it was a very good Masters in terms of being prepared for a PhD because it was research-based rather than taught. Maybe I went with the flow a bit too much. It is instructive to recall that there was a year between the Masters and the PhD, a blank year, and if I had found anything searingly exciting to occupy me in that time then it seems unlikely that I would have interrupted it to go back to university.

None of this would seem quite so much of a problem except for the fact that the pattern of my life now is very similar to what it was then. The last year has been, well, not a blank at all actually because I’ve moved cities and bought a dear little house with Mr Head of State which has a leaky roof (the house, not the Mr). But it has been a bit of a blank in terms of work owing to a troublesome little thing called the recession.

We’re not anywhere near starving without my full-time employ, and I’ve rarely been entirely without work, but that’s not really the point. As I potter about from article to report-writing, occasionally pausing to paint a wall or rip up a carpet covered in cat’s piss, I find an awful lot of spare hours, and by tradition I tend to use spare hours for two things: guilt and the internet. And the guilt, in this instance, has attached itself to all the things I am not doing, viz, Pursuing a Career. Never mind that the only Proper Careers I tried were dull and awful and caused me to run away screaming and work for myself, never mind all the other areas of my life that are going swimmingly, this is the one with the fuzz currently hanging over it, therefore this is what Mortimer focuses on.

So maybe, the structure and clear end-goal involved in a PhD is what is insinuating itself onto my wishlist, and not the PhD at all.

2) All the topics, connections or subjects I can think of that really fire my research imagination are so interdisciplinary as to be, frankly, verging on bonkers. And certainly likely to meet with short shrift from proper medievalists.

Take modern policy-making, for instance, and the ideas and suggestions politicians and think tanks come out with. Perhaps it’s because I never studied modern history in any depth that to me, the modern world is basically just the medieval world with Gay Pride and big train sets. The millions of tiny threads that connect us down the billions of seconds to late medieval England are there in front of me literally all the time. Mixed-use working and living space? Sustainable farming? “Building more effective communities”? Local decision-making? Sometimes it seems to me that the entire public polity is bent on creating the biggest re-enactment the world has ever seen.

Philip Blond has made a post-academic career out of encouraging this wave of New Medievalism, but I’m more interested in the whys. Why have we suddenly decided we want these things? Why are we so collectively nostalgic for what are, in origin, medieval tenets? Is it just a different flavour of the nostalgia that made the Conservatives’ evocation of a vanished England so popular? They were talking about an England that existed in some mythical corner of time between about 1850 and 1930. The England most talked about in white papers these days is the one that existed somewhere between about 1360 and 1500.

You see what I mean? Bonkers. How do you even begin to identify the range of sources that will illustrate and expand that? You could build an entire career on studying the Conservatives’ Victorian values business alone, so taking it as one comparative reference point in a single PhD seems a little on the ambitious side.

Or, I could marry up my medievalism with another of my bonkers little armchair interests, psychological profiling. In the nature of the beast, profiling systems like those of Myers-Briggs and Maslow were built for modern people. They describe and demarcate modern society because it was the inhabitants of modern society who provided the raw materials, lay on the couches, took the tests. By implication, their creators intended them to some degree to stand for all times and cultures, but they are likely to have thought a lot more about the different cultural dimensions than the temporal ones. If you have a habit of writing tendentious blog posts, you can use their systems to identify not only individuals but whole groups, nations or movements that appear to embody the characteristics of say, the Settler, or the NT type.

The bonkers question is, therefore, does it work on the medieval world, this whole other world in my head, whose people I do know at least slightly. We’re already swimming out into my ignorance, because I’ve done a lot of high politics and very little social history, so there’s a vast literature I need to absorb just to become better-acquainted with the medieval psyche. Would we find, on application, that everybody in the medieval era is stuck on a particular rung of the Maslovian hierarchy according to degree?

That’s what we should find. “Those who worked” would never have had their material needs fulfilled to the point where they progressed beyond Settler. “Those who fought” are surely the very personification of Prospectors with their conspicuous wealth displays, elaborate social codes and sumptuous death monuments and rituals whose purpose has (by definition) absolutely nothing to do with the dead self and everything to do with the onlooker. And those who prayed ought, if they were following their callings properly, to have been Transcenders. And yet it’s messy, isn’t it? Because some of the most famous Transcenders of the medieval period, mystics, saints and funny men sitting on the tops of poles in the desert, were also among the poorest. Whole monastic orders of Transcenders cultivated poverty – the hardcore ones to the point of malnutrition, self-flagellation, and constant exposure to disease and danger -  as a necessary condition to their being effective Transcenders. They reduced themselves to Settlerhood. That utterly flies in the face of Maslow’s hierarchy.

And of course, those monastic Transcenders did what they did in part as a reaction to the sections of the clergy who were pure Prospectors, concerned with worldly wealth and display as much as their lay counterparts. The Maslowian hierarchy is all about rising up, evolving. The harsher monastic orders were all about reducing down, paring their lives to the basics and beyond. Indeed, since the notion of progress is itself tricky to the medieval mindset, with its fixed social degrees, Judgement Day and ever-revolving Wheel of Fortune, does the application of Maslow fail altogether? Or does the very fact that kings needed to do things like pass sumptuary legislation indicate that the great unheard bulk of medieval society were very much in favour of advancing their lot in life, thank you, and all the things that we think of as characteristic of the medieval psyche were just the Tools of the Bosses. There already is a literature on that.

And after I’ve been rambling on like this for a while I start to wonder whether I’m quite in the right frame of mind for the rigours of study again. I’ve got awfully used to talking to whatever wall it is I happen to be painting.

During his appearance on Question Time on Thursday, Nick Griffin revealed that he has, in fact, read some books. These books, we are to believe, support his notion of there being a 17,000-year old “indigenous English race” surviving in the modern population of the British Isles.

Actually, I shouldn’t say “we are to believe” because I can all too readily believe that books like that have been written. And I am therefore, obviously, reminded of the pyramids.

Graham Hancock is a writer, self-trained historian and archaeologist who writes hugely successful books called things like The Fingerprints of the Gods. It’s years and years since I read one or two of them (my verdict at the time: some interesting nuggets and it’s always good  to be reminded that history is all about questions, but tediously easy to pick method apart in places, and far too convinced of a Great Mysterious Overall Picture for my untidy mind). For a quick run-down of core theory I can do no better than quote Amazon’s blurb on Fingerprints:

The author has a highly controversial view of history and his theory of a mysterious, lost civilization that brought knowledge to other people around the world, has attracted a wide audience. In this new large-format edition, Hancock responds to critics and brings readers up to date with developments in the debate. He exposes the eerie network of connections between: the Great Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt; the Andean temples of Tianhuanaco; the Mexican pyramids of the Sun and Moon; the lost continent that lies beneath Antarctica; ancient knowledge of spherical geometry and astro-navigation; the myths and legends of humanity that have remained strangely consistent across geographical and social divides; and new theories concerning the causes of the ice ages. His new evidence suggests not only the “fingerprints” of an unknown civilization that flourished during the last ice age but also horrifying conclusions about the type and extent of planetary catastrophe required to obliterate almost all traces of it. Included are the BBC transcripts to the “Horizon” TV documentary.

This “Woah! Far out!” school of history is of course not new; the ancient Greeks believed explicitly in a heroic age before their own when the gods  walked the earth. Plato’s Atlantis myth has been treated as a morality tale, as a narrative history and as an object of parody in both antiquity and the  modern post-humanist era. But it’s certainly true that, while not actually new, alternative history and alternative archaeology can legitimately sell themselves as being “a breath of fresh air”, because most people’s experience of history – schoolbound history – is pretty stultifying.

It helps crank history that history in schools is taught with such poverty of imagination, but it’s not the core reason for its popularity. The real reason crank history is so terribly attractive is this: it offers people the chance to get one up on those whom they believe to be  distant, elitist, complacent snobs, to wit, academics. It holds out the tantalising possibility that, by reading just one book, you too can become an expert – and a much better one than the experts around at the moment! It trades on the same “superiority hit” as Ufology. If you doubt this, go and read the  Amazon reviews of any Graham Hancock book. Time and again we get this sort of thing [all sic, if you take my meaning]:

you do the general public a great service by questioning the mainstream of historians views on civilisations… i for one admire people like graham hancock who arnt afraid to push the bounderies

investigates the hypothesis of a Lost Civilisation, or Atlantis, an idea detested by scholars… it asks some fundamental questions about humanity’s past that orthodox scholars fail to respond to in a convincing way.

Often controvertial, particularly to the established view of prehistory laid out by academia, Graham is unapologetic about his findings,

Do your own research, come to your own conlusions, read this book.

For those of us who have pored through the works of Zecharia Sitchin and dared to ponder questions that the scientists and religious authorities regard as sacrilegious (after all, science itself is a religion), this is especially interesting material

Hancock is not a scientist or theologian, but this may in fact serve as his greatest qualification for tackling the types of lofty problems he embraces. After all, the vast majority of scientists and theologians dismiss without consideration the sorts of “wild” ideas discussed in this book; if not for the open minds of men like Mr. Hancock, many truths that have now been established would remain jokes told by the arrogant “experts” over tea

the irony is that these books are critisised by those who havent done any research and accuse the authours of taking snippets of infomation to make the events fit their notions, unfortunetly it is the orthodox establishment that has done this.

Now that I have read this book, I understand why there is such a disinformation campaign surrounding his work. The powers-that-be simply don’t want people to learn to think along these lines. It would upset the status quo.

who is the more close minded, those who follow homogenous beliefs or those who are able to do significant, unsarpassable analytical research and stand up to the discriminating old-boy views of mass orthodox perception

If all this language sounds a bit repetitious and as if it might have been learnt by rote, it’s because it has been.  The scourge of “orthodoxy” and the “arrogance” of scholars are recurring themes in the books themselves, from what I recall. They’re very much part of the sales pitch, as this publisher’s note from Amazon makes clear:

My own interpretation is that the people who hate Hancock – as I say, mostly academics – are militant materialists who have a horror of the spiritual…

The odd thing about these purportedly high-minded militant materialists is that they are prepared to resort to dishonesty in debate, so keen are they to stamp out the spiritual element. No doubt it’s all for a higher good.

No idea what the publisher is getting at in that second paragraph. But whether or not there’s a grain of truth in that insinuation in a way makes no difference. Controversy sells, conspiracy sells, an unorthodox hero battling the establishment sells and above all, a promise that you, the little man, can best the forces that “keep you down” in life and know better than “them” if you just read this book, oh, that sells like billyo.

It’s the same with the BNP. I don’t, of course, intend any direct comparison between fans of Graham Hancock in particular and BNP supporters. But the act of accepting crank history in general is characteristic of the sort of people who can believe the BNP’s message. The BNP’s beliefs are based on crank history not just because crank history enables them to rewrite the past for political motives. The sort of people  who feel the need to join the BNP are more likely to be attracted to crank history anyway. It provides the balm their wounded souls need to feel better about stuff again. If “the establishment” says something, then it must be a cover-up for the truth! And if it weren’t for “the establishment” and their cover-ups I could probably have got that promotion…

Mind you, I should also point out about cranks that just occasionally they turn out to be total geniuses (although probably only at one thing). They hang about in jealous, sneering groups rejecting the accepted academic standards of their day because it makes them feel interesting, crying conspiracy at every turn, and concocting theories about how the Sphinx is God’s doorstop and Atlantis is buried under Milton Keynes – and that 17,000 years ago there was an indigenous race of British people that has survived intact to the present day – and suddenly one of them says something like, “Hey, you know what? I bet the earth goes round the sun! I bet it does. Of course they tell us it doesn’t, but oho, there’s a lot we don’t get told about, I reckon.”

Even a stopped clock is right twice a millennium. What’s stunning is that everyone – but everyone - who believes in a particular crank believes that it’s their crank who’s going to turn out to be the Galilean exception to the Aristotelian rule.

Yesterday, children, we discovered that Mr Michael Gove was… what? Come on, it’s on your key words board. That’s it, well done – we discovered that he was a prize tit. We looked at his idea, that the incoming Conservative government should actually seize control of the curriculum and itself write the history syllabus for all schools, and what did we do? That’s right, we compared it to the interfering managerialism of Labour.

Who can remember why Mr Gove is being contradictory? That’s right – it’s because the Conservative party often accuses the Labour government of interfering managerialism, and  is now proposing to take an interfering and managerialist approach to education itself. Excellent. We’re going to keep that thought at the back of our minds, but for the moment, we’re going to suspend disbelief.

We’re going to pretend that Mr Michael Gove can personally rewrite the history syllabus without revealing himself to be a self-contradictory prize tit, and we’re going to perform some critical appraisal on his ideas for doing it.

So, let’s get out the whiteboard pen and have a look at his proposal for a new British narrative history curriculum.

The people who make up Britain – Celts, Anglo-Saxons.

The Roman Invasion

Dark Ages


Liberty and the Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort

War of the Roses

Tudor revival

Henry VIII

Elizabeth I

English Civil War

Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights of 1688

Union of Parliaments in 1707

The Growth of Liberty in the early 18th century

Beginnings of industrial revolution

Napoleonic Wars

The Struggle for the Vote in the 19th century, including Great Reform Act, Chartists

Queen Victoria and Great Victorian scientists such as Darwin and Faraday

Growth of the mass media and the mass franchise in the Edwardian Age

Great War

Great Depression of the 1930s

World War Two, including Churchill’s role

New Elizabethan Age

SS Windrush and the New Britain

Modern history to the present

Right, who wants to kick us off with some critical analysis? Anything at all. Anything missing? Any comments on what’s there? Start wherever you like.

Yes, the fluffy elephant at the front - where are all the elephants? Yes, very good question. Elephants come from Africa and from India, and what do we know about Africa and India in relation to Britain? That’s right, fluffy elephant – much of their territory formed part of our  empire. So Mr Gove doesn’t want children to learn about the British Empire. Why might that be, do we think?

Yes, he could be stupid, or?

Yes, he could well be embarrassed, or?

Well, yes, I suppose he could be both embarrassed and stupid, or?

That’s it! I think you’ve hit on it, Startledcod. He has basically drawn his conception of a good history syllabus from that of a prep school circa 1965. Quite right. What else might that explain, do we think?

The fact that he still thinks it’s ok to call the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1066 the Dark Ages, yes, very good. Who can tell me a bit about the Dark Ages? What happened in Britain in that period? Give me some themes.

Emergence of warrior kingdoms reflecting our regional and dialectic differences down to the present day, yes.

Unification of England under Alfred, yup.

Foundation of the monasteries, beginnings of English biography and historiography and the 9th-10th century English renaissance, very good.

Ok, what else? What else can you tell me about Michael Gove’s list and how it’s similar to a prep school syllabus circa 1965?

He’s missed out America. Yes, he has, from the discovery and loss of the colonies all the way to Barack Obama. A bit of a glaring omission, and of course naturally follows on from the concept of a “British” narrative.

Nothing about the foundations and history of English law in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, good.

Nothing about European events that have impacted immediately on the history of Britain, such as the French revolution and the militarisation of imperial Germany – yes, very good. Again, it flows from the artificial concern with a “British narrative” doesn’t it. Good, anything else?

Nothing about the history of Catholicism and Protestantism in this country and how we managed to narrowly avoid a bloody religious war unlike much of the rest of the continent.

Nothing about the intertwined history of England and France and the fact that great chunks of them were actually the same kingdom for much of the post-1066 medieval period, yes, and?

Nothing about the impacts of the industrial revolution on agriculture and traditional social patterns in rural Britain, nothing about the Corn Laws and other protectionist, er, Tory policies, nothing about the abolition of slavery, nothing about enclosures, the privatisation of formerly common land to great, er, mostly Tory landowners, nothing about the history of the poor law, the growth of cities and the history of public health. Yes, that’s all very good.

Nothing about the history of ideas in any period and only a highly selective mention of (Victorian) science despite the fact that Britain was one of the world’s first seventeenth-century scientific hotbeds. Yes,  any more?

Nothing about the crusades or any other interaction with Islam. Yes, indeed. Very good there from the bitter boy of bile.

A simplistic over-reliance on monarch tick-box teaching and totemic “Alfred burned the cakes” type events which undermines any attempt to teach continuity, pattern repetition or place any period in a broader historiographical context? Hm, that’s quite advanced, I think I’ll have to set you some extra work.

Anything else? Anything else missing?

Ireland, yes. Very good, boy with the, er, beard. Again, bit of an omission since we spent so much time forcibly subduing it, ruling it as foreign oppressors and then withheld corn from it at its time of most dire need with the result that many of its people fled from starvation and ended up being, well, us. Or indeed Americans, for which see above.

The Vikings, yes. They are missing from that first item, aren’t they, as one of the peoples of Britain. Why might that be, do we think?

Because Mr Gove is a southern tosser, now look, I will not have that language in my classroom. In fact, I have an idea he’s actually from Scotland originally. No, there doesn’t seem to be much Scottish history in this history of Britain, does there, except the bits where Scotland gets tied in to England.  Ok, I’ll just put “pig-ignorant” instead. What else can you tell me about those first couple of items, by the way? What comes before them chronologically?

We don’t know? Well, that’s not quite  true, we know bits about Britain before the Romans, don’t we – through what discipline? Archaeology, that’s right. So what does the period lack, up until the arrival of the Romans? Exactly – a written record. So why has Mr Gove chosen to start his narrative of British history roughly where the written records kick in?

Because he hasn’t the faintest idea about historiographical approaches to understanding written, oral and material cultures on the same terms as each other when the evidence is so very different, and how the whole artificial business of historiography is predetermined by the fact that we are ourselves a written culture. Exactly, very good. Why doesn’t he have the faintest idea about this, and about the interaction between history and archaeology, do you suppose?

Because he’s not a historian, yes, and?

He doesn’t really know anything about historical scholarship post-1950s, yes, and?

He conceives of history as a sort of collectors’ stamp book in which you have to fill in all the little boxes with kings, queens and battles in order to “know” history, yes, very good. Anything else?

If he advocated the same sort of ante-diluvian approach to the teaching of science, there would be uproar? Yes, that’s very good, there probably would.

So what does all this tell us about his whole concept of a “proper narrative of British history”?

It’s a bit shit. Ok, I’ll allow that. Anything else? Yes, girl at the back. You’re a very tall girl, are you sure you should be in this class?

You’re a teacher? Oh, er, well what do you think?

This “new” curriculum is exactly the same as the one  created by the QCA that you teach to 11-18 year olds?

Oh. Perhaps someone should tell Mr Gove.

I used to have a tutor (to whom I owe my extensive knowledge of middle Anglo-Saxon cemeteries), who once got himself into a spot of bother as follows:

According to [Dr Maddicott], students at Oxford can get through a degree in history, without knowing anything about Magna Carta or the Glorious Revolution. Mention the Black Death and you will get a blank look. Even the Industrial Revolution seems to have passed some of them by, he says.

“What Oxford historians know when they graduate is now largely a matter of bits and pieces,” said Dr Maddicott, a fellow at Exeter College. “It cannot be assumed that they have a working knowledge of how their own country evolved.”

Thirty years ago the bright young historians coming to Oxford waded through English history from the end of Roman Britain to the mid-20th century. Now it is being suggested the place is filling up with people who might know about witchcraft among the Azande but don’t know their Hanoverians from their late Stuarts.

Irritatingly, this piece from the Oxford Mail, and a brief mention in similar terms in the Independent is all I can find. I say irritatingly because I’m sure I remember reading an interview with him that fleshed out this rather simple-sounding viewpoint a little.

I’m pretty sure I remember him using the term longue durée. His point was not that young blighters today are learning too much  o’ this nasty ethnic stuff and not enough good old Bwitish material doncherknow, although this was clearly the interpretation that suited the Oxford Mail, ever keen to have a pop at Gown.

His point was that students weren’t acquiring any sense of the grand sweep, weren’t being forced to get to grips with the long-term evolution of institutions and cultural norms, how warrior kingship gives way to various flavours of monarchy which gives way to oligarchic nationhood which gives way to, er, when are are we actually getting popular democracy? The fact that British history is the most convenient fund to draw upon for this purpose is largely incidental. What are you going to do, retrain your entire academic corpus in French history? We are where we are, literally and figuratively.

This, at any rate, is how I remember his argument. Perhaps nostalgia is making me kind. But at any rate, one thing is certain, and that is that he had earned the right to hold such a view, on account of, you know, being an Oxford don and all.

Michael Gove, on the other hand, is not an Oxford don. Michael Gove is a tit:

The Shadow Schools Sec did a passable impression of Simon Schama today with a vow to bring back narrative history to the national curriculum.

“There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements,” he said.

“Which is why the next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.”

Hat tip to Paul Waugh – who asked for more detail, and by heaven did he get it, all the way from:

The people who make up Britain – Celts, Anglo-Saxons [sic]

The Roman Invasion [no, this is still broadly correct]

The Dark Ages [sic]

…through to the enigmatic-sounding “Modern history to the  present”.

Quite apart from being an object lesson in why you should never let non-experts lay out history syllabuses because they don’t have a bloody clue what they’re talking about, this is also an object lesson in why the Tory front bench, at its heart, has no grasp whatsoever of what liberalism really means.

Because yeah, after twelve  years of authoritarian, top-down micro-management from Labour, what we really, really need is some proper authoritarian top-down, micro-management from the Tories! Except this time it’ll be better authoritarian, top-down micro-management! None of these silly Labour goals. It’ll be our silly goals instead! Froth froth!

I hate this. This is exactly what I hate about how Labour operates the education system. Buckets of bullying, nannying, pontificating, interfering, busy-bodying, self-serving, ill-informed crap, poured on the heads of the people who do it for a living. It’s a daily insult, pure and simple – I feel it, and I’m not even a teacher.  I’ll take an argument like that from John Maddicott (and let’s remember he was talking about the Oxford syllabus) but I’m damned if I’ll take its intellectually defective shadow from Michael Gove, or anyone else elected to wield power over me.

I hate his wobbly-lipped “patriotic narrative” stance as much as I hate the current frenetic insistence on teaching World War II for its moral lessons and I really hate that. My poor brother had to “do” the Nazis three times at school, just to make sure he’d got it into his head that They Wur Eevl and he should on no account try Nazism at home. Other regimes that have used the teaching of history for self-styled moral purposes include Mao’s China. And that gets taught as an example of Eevl as well. Oh, stop, stop, the irony.

Gove’s appalling little turn displays exactly the same lack of self-awareness as evinced by other Tories when they accuse (most frequently, but not exclusively) Labour of “social engineering” via government policy.  Oh, and tax breaks for marriage is what? Just a few of the lads having a lark? Nope, looks damnably like social engineering via government policy to me.

These people are all authoritarians, red and blue alike. Make no mistake. It’s been making me increasingly furious of late, because the contradictions come pouring out of one end of the Tory party as fast as they can shovel faux-liberal propaganda out of the other end. Oh, it’s all “liberal” this and “liberal” that while they’re talking about stuff they approve of. But get on to any subject on which they have an Opinion, like marriage, or how to teach history, and suddenly it’s all “Oh, yes, well, obviously when we said we were all in favour of non-interference and individual responsibility, what we really meant was we’re in favour of it after we’ve laid down the inflexible ground rules.

And it’s not like the Liberal Democrat party doesn’t have its own problems with contradictory liberalism (airbrushing, anyone?) but at least, on the score of teaching history or anything else, we can hold our heads up high. Not for the first time, I find myself thinking, thank god for David Laws:

No school should be directly accountable to ministers…The 635 pages of the nationalised curriculum should go in the shredder.

Let’s replace it with something closer to the 21 pages that seem to do the job in places like Sweden.

The other day, I re-watched one of my favourite childhood films.


I was reminded of it by this tweet from Labour blogger Sadie Smith.

Fortunately, Sadie is, of course, completely and utterly wrong. It’s wonderful – probably still the best war film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen most of them. It doesn’t have the scale of Apocalypse Now, the pathos of The Great Escape or the special effects of many modern efforts, but it has an intimacy, a suspense and a set-piece scariness which thrilled me to bits as a child.

I still feel echoes of that now, like when the Zulus crest the hill for the first time, tiny black dots against the veldt sky, to the shiver of violin strings, and the camera ranges along the hill to show more… and more… and more of them. In fact the photography throughout is just masterful. You can taste the agoraphobia and the fear – you are there, on that plain with the 24th Foot, behind a few feet of mealie bags, waiting.

bourne, hitch and allen


It stars Michael Caine in his breakthrough role, the wonderful Nigel Green whose Colour Sergeant Bourne (above left) will live in your pub quote memory for ever (“No com-edians, please.”) and the vastly under-rated James Booth as the devilishly exciting (well, I was six and he said “bloody!”) Private Henry Hook. It has a wonderful ensemble supporting cast of ordinary gentle-voiced Welshmen and Londoners with sideburns that really do look as if they’ve been shipped out from the valleys and dock wharves of nineteenth-century Britain. More marvellous yet (I only discovered this quite recently) it has the real descendant of the Zulu king of the day, Cetewayo, playing the role of his ancestor and leading his own people, in full traditional ceremonial dress, in the battle scenes.

And it has the great Jack Hawkins, roaring across the screen like a biblical allegory – which he is – in the role of the missionary Otto Witt, treating peace with the aid of his daughter, the only female speaking part in the film. The daughter Margareta, who seemed to me unimaginably beautiful then and still does, was yet another way into the film for my six-year-old self. Yes I wanted to be raffish Henry Hook, capable Sergeant Bourne, and strong, silent Lieutenant Chard, I could feel the fearful lump in the throat of Private Cole and hold my breath as I broke out of the hospital with Hook, 612 Williams, 593 Jones and 716 Jones, yards ahead of our pursuers. And I could also feel Margareta’s discomfort as she, a nineteenth-century pastor’s daughter, sat among six-foot half-naked warriors with assegais, watching a mass marriage tribal dance. Still physically vulnerable myself, I felt  every pounding of her heart as the war cries started to go up over her head.

Now, it’s not that I’ve not seen it since I was six – no bank holiday weekend in Sidney Sussex TV room was complete without a Zulu-and-Haribo session – but watching that film after a couple of years spent in the political blogosphere is a very different experience. I realised how this film would look to the gender activism mindset I was barely aware of before the blogosphere. The only woman character is afraid, sometimes ineffectual, even subject to abuse at the hands of the men. Margareta has plenty of spirit at times, but she’s also priggish and in the end is simply overcome by brute strength. All is not lost, as she ends up being the means of her father’s salvation – but still the film is chockful of more appealing characters than her.

So why was I never offended, or troubled, or otherwise culturally damaged by this? Well, I had a bit of an odd upbringing culturally. I think it can be traced to the fact that my grandfather was born in 1910 and only had my father when he was forty. So my father’s upbringing was a little bit more Boy’s Own Paper, a bit more 1930s than perhaps was normal. And mine, in turn, was in some ways more 1960s than 1980s in terms of what I watched, what I read, what we talked about. Without being, particularly, a tomboy, I loved history and adventure and escapades and scrapes and exciting stories, on the page or in celluloid, and if there wasn’t any around I’d make up my own (and wars with My Little Ponies are a bit of a stretch, I can tell you; luckily I soon acquired a small brother who appeared to come with lots of Cowboy Playmobil and Pirate Lego and that was much easier).

In other words, all my favourite role models and stories from that time were to do with men and you know what? I think it has worked. It never occurred to me to differentiate the role models  I was offered on the basis gender, and in thirty years I realise I never have.

I loved Zulu, so I aspired to be brave and honourable. I loved the Goons and Spike Milligan’s War Diaries, so I aspired to be funny.  I loved reading war stories – biographies of Douglas Bader, various POW camp escape stories, Colditz – so I aspired to be ingenious and resourceful, and battle against odds. At eight or nine I read an old Josephine Tay novel, the Daughter of Time, and my love of medieval history was born, so I aspired to go to Oxford or Cambridge to study it, and I did, I went to both. My role models had never intimated  to me that I couldn’t aspire to do anything I wanted, and I didn’t know women weren’t supposed to get firsts, so I got a first. None of the usual barriers, none of the usual doubts that women are supposed to possess ever seemed to apply to me. I had a permanent psychological get out of jail free card.

What alchemy of genetics and nurture allowed me to absorb all these male influences and strive to match them, and often succeed, without my at any point being undermined by a great wash of hormonal self-doubt? The same wash that causes so many women to demand female role models before they, or their daughters, can do anything? We are constantly being told that politics needs more female role models. What is it about me that doesn’t need specifically female role models if so many others apparently do? I wish I knew. If I did, I could bottle it and sell it. Oh, I have self-doubt like everybody else, and went through the usual teenage angst like everybody else. But there’s nothing uniquely female about any of that.

I think background and schooling had a lot to do with it. The pure statistical fact of being born in Surrey, even if not to a wealthy family, immunises you to a lot of life’s woes, sad to say, and I went to an all-girls’ state school whose teaching and management was, in retrospect, little short of magnificent. And there were role models there too – a fantastic and lovely history teacher, the elegant headmistress and wooden boards in the hall full of the names of previous gels. And all that seemed to jumble itself up with Spike Milligan and Stalag Luft III just fine.

The funny thing is that the more I read about feminism, the more I recognise its earliest progenitors as twin souls of my own – writing liberal tracts, bashing windows in, reading papers to the Royal Society, flying the English Channel and running country estates without it ever crossing their minds that they needed anyone to show them how to do it. They didn’t need female role models – they got on with being them. They didn’t need a “safe space” for their activities or their debates – the world was their space. They grew up, interestingly, in exactly the age of over-confident empire whose frontier badlands are invoked by Zulu.

So now, lucky me, when I look at the Lib Dem parliamentary party, I get so many more role models to choose from. I want to be like Chris Huhne, because he’s a right fierce and effective wossname and I reckon I could do with being a little more like that. I want to be like Vince, because honestly who doesn’t? I want to be like Nick because he’s an eternal optimist and a tryer, and quitting too soon is one of my worst failings. I want to be like Steve Webb, because he’s clever and impassioned and reminds me of some of my tutors, I want to be like Lynne Featherstone because she’s just so capable and self-assured and glamorous and reminds me of CJ Cregg in the West Wing, I want to be like David Howarth because he’s brilliant and forensic, I want to be like Norman Baker because he’s One of the Good Guys and like John Hemmings because he is the King of all the Geeks.

It seems strange to me, the idea that I can only be inspired, or confirmed, or protected in any endeavour if someone else with the same genital configuration has already done it. The whole rich panoply of human courage, and kindness, and greatness to choose from, and you cut out the half that’s been, for various historical reasons, most active for the last several millenia? What on earth is wrong with women having men as role models? People of both genders have wonderful qualities and have achieved wonderful things and they’re all there for study and emulation. Isn’t the whole luxury of living in a post-feminist world that we can do this now?

If I ever have daughters, I’ll be showing them Zulu.

Batty Great Aunt Margaret Hodgepodge suggests we use the occasion of the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession in 2009 to have a bit of a collective bellyache about being English (hat-tip W&W). Does she ever turn up to cabinet meetings in her nightie? I think we should be told. I must admit I haven’t actually finalised my own plans for celebrating the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession yet, but at the moment they involve turning thirty so I’m quite open to the idea of distractions.

I wonder why Henry VIII? On consulting my voluminous memory, I find that there are several other monarchs since 1066 whose accession anniversaries have fallen under the current government. Have they been hubristically planning to make a big thing of Henry VIII’s anniversary ever since 1997, or have other candidates been given the chop along the way, so to speak? I wonder what Batty Aunt Margaret’s researcher’s notes looked like?

John – 1199 – is a Disney character voiced by Peter Ustinov. Nickname “Lackland” would draw unwanted attention to the housing crisis.

Henry IV 1399 – deposed his predecessor, faced rebellion in Wales, set events of Wars of the Roses in train. Not inspiring.

Henry I – 1100 - hm, everyone knows medieval history is pointless and rubbish, but let’s see what Wiki says…

Upon his succession he granted the baronage a Charter of Liberties, which formed a basis for subsequent challenges to rights of kings and presaged the Magna Carta, which subjected the King to law.

The rest of Henry’s reign was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He established the biannual Exchequer to reform the treasury. He used itinerant officials to curb abuses of power at the local and regional level, garnering the praise of the people

Ha, strike him out! Last thing we need is a medieval monarch who is more liberal and competent than the Labour party.

Edward VII 1901 – playboy. Reign saw zenith of Liberal Party. Hm.

James I 1603 – united England and Scotland – don’t even GO there, the SNP will bay like prairie wolves.

Edward II 1307 – probably gay, which is good, but deposed and murdered, bad. 

Anne 1707 – died youngish after lots of miscarriages, was a bit jowly. Nah. Too close to the Bill of Rights for comfort.

Henry VIII 1509 – absolutist monarch who confiscated private property from his subjects, used fear to demonise religious minorities, constantly involved in sleazy scandal – hey, he almost makes us look good!  

The Tories meanwhile are probably holding out for 2013, which will be the six-hundredth anniversary of the accession of Henry V, victor of Agincourt, and de facto the monarch who gave the English language a royal seal of approval when he took his coronation oath in English, whatever Batty Aunt Hodge might think. Not many people know that.

For an authentically Lib Dem flavoured reign I think I’d plump for Edward III (1327-1377). Not only did he have a dark and anti-disestablishmentarian sense of humour (“I shall never again appoint a chancellor I cannot hang”), lose bets to Rose, his laundress (it’s true, it’s in the Patent Rolls), and re-mould the office of Justice of the Peace to allow more types of case to be tried locally and accessibly, but his reign oversaw the development of parliament as an institution that could answer back. In 1341, the plucky half-formed little Commons refused to grant him a tax to fund the French wars unless he listened to their grievances first, thus establishing a pattern of tit-for-tat that ultmately prevented the equivalent of the French Revolution in England. The Good Parliament of 1376 saw the first open rebellion in the Commons against the wishes of the Crown (with the tacit backing of some of the lords), and the appointment of the first Speaker.

You get exactly the same sense of the uncannily familiar in the economic and social fabric of the time. The Black Death killed possibly up to a half of the population in 1348, and killed off the new shoots again in 1361. That meant a sudden surfeit of land and no-one to work it, and the market – and the enterprising individual within it – duly got to work. People could suddenly be a little more choosy about who they worked for, how much they were paid - they got a taste of setting their own terms. Legislation attempting to deal with the situation by fixing wage rates was as much use as a pebble against a flood.  They negotiated their way out of the already archaic serfdom bonds so that by the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the peasants in question were not so much downtrodden starvelings yearning to be free of their bonds as prosperous kulaks incensed at the idea that anyone should be able to order them around. The heightened individual wealth led to the first trends of conspicuous consumption among the mass of the population (and, predictably, the first laws attempting to curb it).

The period also saw the first highly amusing almighty database-style cock-up in the history of government administration. In 1371, a tax was to be collected for prosecuting the French wars (again), and for the purpose of working out how much each parish would need to pay, the number of parishes was estimated at45,000. Actual number? 8,000. The first clumsy fledgeling attempts at progressive taxation were made, with a scale ranging from 10 marks on the Duke of Lancaster down to a groat on the baldricks. The Bible was translated into English, the first gun was fired by an English army, the first English bankers jostled for business with the old Italian banking houses, most of the Inns of Court and a flood of Oxbridge colleges were founded to train up the administrative class - lawyers, priests and government ministers.

It really is possible to see the modern nation struggling to be born in the fourteenth century, and from this side of English history, the Tudors appear as a bit of a self-absorbed, absolutist, panicky aberration with control-freakish tendencies. But it’s written by the winners and all that, so their version of the medieval era has stood. They were, really, the original spin doctors. I’m sure I don’t need to, ahem, labour this too much more…

Following the whole Fairytales of New York malarkey, I had noticed Alex Wilcock’s unlikely-sounding account of the derivation of the word “faggot”, and was forced to weigh my deep-seated concern for sound etymology against the fact that I weally, weally wuv him, especially when he is having righteous anger. Love won (doesn’t it always) but then Jonathan Calder dismantled Alex’s flight of fancy anyway, so I am free to follow up.

Merriam-Webster offers this:

Main Entry:
earlier and dialect, contemptuous word for a woman or child, probably from 1fagot
usually disparaging : a male homosexual 

And the “1fagot ” definition referred to in there is as follows:

Main Entry:
or fag·got \ˈfa-gət\
Middle English fagot, from Anglo-French
14th century
bundle : as a: a bundle of sticks b: a bundle of pieces of wrought iron to be shaped by rolling or hammering at high temperature

The date of the word’s modern usage is given here as 1914, which fits with the account given in the passage Jonathan quotes, but the meaning shows that it was a much older dialect word. Originally, it was a perjorative for women and children, presumably later extended to men considered effeminate. It is said to be ultimately derived from the Middle English term for a bundle of something, usually firewood.

That clarified things somewhat, as Jonathan’s quote seemed to suggest that the word sprang into existence in the early twentieth century which is almost never the case. That last step about the firewood seemed a little odd to me though, and I started working on an alternative derivation (one of the most fun things I have ever learnt is that dictionary etymologies are often guesswork and sometimes just wrong) based on the stem of “faggot” being the same as that in “fey”, “fairy” etc, and the “-et” sounding suffix just being the usual diminutive you get in lots of Middle English words (piglet, cygnet etc). Then it occurred to me that there are two related casual insults for old women: “baggage” and “bundle”. Are these milder disparagements the surviving siblings of the word “faggot” perhaps, both applied to older women while “faggot” was applied to younger ones and children, before it was translated across to gay men where it acquired properly nasty overtones?

There is probably much more I could extrapolate, but I see that you have to go and wash your hair.

I highly recommend the piece by Madeleine Bunting over at Comment is Free today on one of my pet subjects. Being, as I am, lazy, and also involved in protracted and difficult negotiations with a seven-foot Norwegian spruce, I find I can do no better than lift the most pertinent few paras clean out of it:

The “medieval” has become a form of cultural shorthand, and it serves many purposes. It’s not just about plotlines or a stunning aesthetic – it is also used as a pejorative term. People talk of Africa as medieval, or argue that Islam is “stuck in the middle ages”. Medieval becomes synonymous with hard, short lives, barbarism, and a brutal, arbitrary use of violence. We are both captivated and repelled by this period of our past.

Dig a bit deeper and some fascinating explanations emerge of why the medieval should still have such cultural currency. For all the huge differences between today and 12th-century Europe, there are also remarkable parallels which, arguably, bring these two societies closer together than any in the intervening period. First, we share pervasive anxiety about an apocalypse: while we fear climate change our medieval counterparts feared the end of the world. Second, we share a fear of Islam and uncertainty about how to deal with it. Should we fight it (as they subsequently did in the Crusades) or attempt to win converts? Islam’s capacity to exert such a powerful hold over its growing number of followers left 12th-century Europe baffled and insecure about its own certainties. Does that sound familiar?

Third, the emergence of a cash economy for the first time since antiquity prompted deep concern. The pursuit of profit produced inequality and contemporaries bewailed the breakdown of community and family. Finally, there was a crisis of authority in 12th-century Europe, with the church and nobility riddled with corruption and a revolution in government as it sought to expand its power into its subjects’ lives. Our corollary is a political process eviscerated by apathy and disillusionment, while the state insists on acquiring unprecedented new powers through ID cards, DNA databases and surveillance.

 I also quote, with love, the best comment, from one Lepetomane:

What did the middle ages ever do for us? Start of trial by jury, start of parliamentary government, start of a banking system, rise of universities, habeas corpus…yes, but what did the middle ages do for us….?

The cranky, shadowy world of medievalism is in uproar at the news that Melbourne University is to drop its Viking Studies Programme. As many as seven people have tutted, quite a number of post-doctoral research fellows have mentioned it in the pub, and at least one boiled egg was very messily decapitated indeed by a Reader in Anglo-Saxon Literature at a northern Russel Group university as a result of being told the news over breakfast.

Ahem, no not really. Rather ashamed of all that actually. Medievalists and Liberal Democrats have much in common. Both are perceived as niche specialists on a hiding to nothing, our very existence seems for some reason to offend the Labour party beyond sanity, while the robustness of our collective intellect and the rigour of our method is grudgingly admired by others in the know. Most of all we share a common frontier of self-deprecating humour that sometimes makes us far too accommodating of ridicule. Mainstreamers have a go at us for being irrelevant and fail to understand that their argument is as circular as time; if a lot of people say something is irrelevant, it proves nothing more than that it is irrelevant to them.

Anyone who has studied history or something similar will have experienced at some point that strange tug towards the esoteric, the unfashionable, the full-on bizarre, some hidden corner of their subject that fascinates them out of all proportion to the amount of space it occupies in the National Curriculum. It seems that at Melbourne University, the Viking Studies programme is being dropped in spite of exceptionally healthy student numbers. Somehow that vague received wisdom that medievalism is irrelevant is enough to outweigh the on-the-ground democracy of quite a lot of people being really jolly interested, thank you very much. People are on the whole efficient with their brainpower and other resources; if a significant minority think that studying medieval history is the most important thing they could be doing with their lives, then it’s fair to say that they get a lot out of it, intellectually and personally.

History is relative. No one period of history has innately more value than any other. Not a single person born during the twelfth century is any less complex, any less deserving of study and understanding than a person alive today. No common experience – be it in the form of a shared pop culture, the self-promotion of an expansionist nation state or the song of a victorious warrior band – is inherently superior to any other. You learn as much about human beings, law, society, constitutions, institutions and ideology from studying medieval history as any other sort. Any historical studies teach you to build your own skeletal way of understanding a society. After you’ve learnt to do that, you can flesh out the skeleton an infinite number of times in any way you wish. I could take the same tools I learnt studying medieval history and use them on the French Wars of Religion without a problem. I won’t because there are far more important things I could be doing with my hair, but I could. (Oh, it’s a joke, it’s a joke. Early modernists, lay down your arquebuses)

It’s because of this total mismatch between the general received wisdom and the actual real-life relevance of medieval studies to many people that I feel the Melbourne Viking Studies course leader is being a little too understanding here. She wasn’t even consulted on her subject being axed. But decency compels her to admit that the world will go on without Viking Studies. Yes, but that isn’t the point. If we really need to slim down spending on humanities in order to boost the sciences and maintain technological progress (in itself arguable) then fine, but why is it medievalism that suffers? Shearing away subjects on the grounds of chronological distance is going to result in monohistory. This will be a real loss to education and western thought and it will happen partly because medievalists, like Liberal Democrats, are just so damn reasonable.


Medieval societies essentially faced the same problems as modern ones, as this clip demonstrates

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