History Today column: All was not feigned

In May Brighton College, an independent fee-paying school, announced its intention to make the study of history compulsory for all pupils through to 18. Whatever one’s view of the decision, the fact that it was considered unusual and innovative enough to make the national newspapers should give us – and anyone interested in the practice and pleasures of history – pause for thought.

Should it not be obvious why the past is worth studying all the way through school? And, if it is not obvious, do we make the case for our subject’s virtues with sufficient force? What, indeed, are its virtues?

For me history isn’t really about the past. It is about how we engage with the past, which isn’t quite the same thing. That is what makes it such an excellent educational tool: to read history is to be constantly aware of the struggle between certainty and doubt. Indeed ‘bad’ history – poor research, weak methodology, clumsy arguments and so on – can be just as instructive and illuminating as its counterpart, precisely because it draws attention to the processes and techniques that all historians use.

All history is selective. But where, then, is its truth? One way to answer that question is to consider the areas in which history is most unlike itself, the margins of the discipline where it clearly shades into other traditions of thought, where facts are at best unstable and often largely absent.

I am thinking in particular about the way in which English history in the early modern period was in the process of awkwardly coming to terms with how earlier writers, most notoriously Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-55), had filled their narratives with fables. It has always struck me as fascinating how the potent nation-forging narrative of Holinshed’s Chronicles could be acute enough to encourage vigorous censorship from the Privy Council and yet capacious enough in its understanding of history to include Monmouth’s pagan English kings and their descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas, through Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain.

Lear is the most famous of these, but the story of his father, which appears to have been Monmouth’s invention, is altogether more fabulous.

His name was Baldud. He began his reign in the 385th year of the world. Practised in the arts of astronomy and necromancy, he used his skills in the latter to establish both the hot springs and the settlement of what became the city of Bath. Such was his intellectual ambition and self-belief that he fashioned himself a pair of wings and leapt to his death from the tower of the temple of Apollo in the city of Troynovent, as London was styled in the Brutish mythos.

Other chroniclers embellished the tale further: that Baldud spent many years studying in Athens, bringing back a number of learned men to create a university at Stamford, for example.

It is easy to mock these stories, but are they so different to today’s fashionable counterfactuals? And what do such mythical tales, and the fact that they were once found nestling comfortably in history’s arms, tell us about what history is for?

In fact it is not difficult to discern a range of still active contemporary approaches, from the almost homiletic lesson-learning, to profound questions about identity and ancestry that our subject still inspires. And then there is the mesmerising clarity of narrative itself, the desire to order and make sense of human life which history, a fact-based discipline that requires the insights of art to flourish, is perfectly placed to do. History can seduce us, even, perhaps particularly, those narratives that, in Milton’s evocative phrase, can be ‘exploded for fictions’.Yet history also equips us with the tools to undeceive ourselves.

It is worth quoting Milton’s own justification for including mythical and quasi-mythical narratives in his history of Britain:

Ofttimes relations heretofore accounted fabulous have been after found to contain in them many footsteps and reliques of something true … All was not feigned.

Footsteps and relics: the relics of the past are countless in number. But, to paraphrase Dryden on Ben Jonson’s use of the Classics, when we try to make sense of them, we find our own footprints everywhere in their snow.

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