J D Davies

Happy New History?

First, a very Happy New Year to all! The next few months will be particularly exciting, with The Mountain of Gold being published in North America on 31 January followed by The Blast That Tears The Skies in the UK on 13 March (also the publication date of the UK trade paperback of Mountain of Gold). Meanwhile I’ll be hard at work writing ‘Quinton 4’, The Lion of Midnight, and continuing the research for Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales. I’ll be using this blog to build up to the two publication dates by providing some new insights into the plots and historical contexts of both books, and there’ll also be some exciting news about the first Quinton ‘prequel’, Ensign Royal. Watch this space, and my Twitter and Facebook accounts, for further information!

Meanwhile, I’ve recently been reading two particularly thought-provoking books, Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: A History of Half-Forgotten Europe. Both have really struck chords with me, and in my opinion, they express truths that really should be taken into account during the current (and rather fractious) debate over the place of History in the English National Curriculum. Essentially, Mortimer’s thesis is that historians are limited and often deceived by their concentration on the extant sources; that they have become obsessed with the analysis of those sources, rather than with the greater truths that lie beyond them; and that ‘primary sources’ are often just as distorted and partial as secondary ones. (I know one historian, a leading authority in his field despite having no formal training, who simply refuses to read secondary sources, stubbornly insisting on working solely from the original manuscripts alone – thereby missing all the insights and broader contexts that can be gleaned from wide reading and also entirely disregarding the vital point made by Mortimer and others that primary sources themselves mark the end of a process, i.e. they are often a reporting of an event that has taken place and are thus immediately subject to selective memory, skewed perspectives, omission, etc.)

As Mortimer writes in The Time Traveller’s Guide,

Academic historians cannot discuss the past itself; they can only discuss evidence and   the questions arising from that evidence…If Medieval England is treated as dead and buried, what one can say about it is strictly limited by the questions arising from the evidence. However, if treated as a living place, the only limits are the experience of the author and his perception of the requirements, interests and curiosity of his readers.

I’m definitely with Mortimer on this. In fact, being able to recreate a living, vibrant past is one of the liberating things about writing historical fiction after spending so many years within the constraints of academic history; it was also something I tried to do in my most recent non-fiction book, Blood of Kings: The Stuarts, The Ruthvens and The Gowrie Conspiracy, where I took a ‘virtual history’ line which argued that the threat to the life of King James Stuart at Gowrie House, Perth, on 5 August 1600, and the potential consequences of his death on that day, were far more important to British history than those of the over-hyped ‘Gunpowder Plot’ five years later.

Norman Davies, meanwhile, makes a similar and equally important point in Vanished Kingdoms, where he also argues that despite the platitudes trotted out in schools and the press, many of the books on which historians depend are often less reliable than the information available on the Internet, including the much-derided Wikipedia.

Historians and their publishers spend inordinate time and energy retailing the history of everything that they take to be powerful, prominent and impressive…Historians usually focus their attention on the past of countries that still exist…Whether consciously or not, they are seeking the roots of the present, thereby putting themselves in danger of reading history backwards….Our mental maps are thus invariably deformed. Our brains can only form a picture from the data that circulates at any given time; and the available data is created by present-day powers, by prevailing fashions and by accepted wisdom. If we continue to neglect other areas of the past, the blank spaces in our minds are reinforced, and we pile more and more knowledge into those compartments of which we are already aware. Partial knowledge becomes ever more partial, and ignorance becomes self-perpetuating.

Essentially, both writers are making the point that our view of the past is badly skewed by artificial boundaries of our own creation, and these desperately limited mindsets are all too apparent in the debate over History in schools. During my many years as a teacher, I taught hundreds of young people to distinguish the advantages and disadvantages of primary and secondary sources as this was the principal hoop through which they had to jump to achieve success at GCSE, the most utterly pointless set of examinations imposed on young people by any advanced society; yet all the while, I knew deep down that most of the ‘rules’ which students were expected to master ‘because that’s how historians work’ were either grossly over-simplified or just downright wrong. (My feelings upon the subject might have revealed themselves when I devised and taught the mnemonic BADCRAP as a way of remembering the principles of source analysis; ‘B’ stood for ‘bias’, but I forget what the other letters represented. Perhaps surprisingly, I received no complaints from students or parents with delicate sensibilities during the many years in which I used this system – but then, the exam results that BADCRAP consistently obtained probably insulated me against criticism!)

But those who advocate less emphasis on such a skills-based approach to History are in danger of falling into the trap identified by Norman Davies. Why study an overwhelming diet of British history, when the days of ‘Britain’ as we know it might be numbered if the Scots decide in favour of independence? Why the ongoing obsession with the Tudors and the Nazis, when the seventeenth century (OK, I declare an interest) and Chinese history are arguably more interesting and more ‘relevant’, that dreadful killer word which dominates the entire debate about young people’s interest, or lack of it, in History? So it seems to me that both sides of the debate on school History are trapped within indefensible ideological straitjackets – the one advocating a set of ‘skills’ which perpetuate the delusion that historians exist primarily to analyse sources, rather than to recreate a vision of the past as a living, vital place, the other advocating narratives based on the unthinking assumptions that certain countries, individuals and time periods are innately more important and worth studying than others. Come to think of it, BADCRAP seems like a pretty apposite description of the entire state of the debate.