History Today column: How chances it they travel?

One of the many criticisms leveled at Michael Gove’s revision of the history curriculum was that is would reduce lessons to little more than the recitation and memorializing of facts, to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘the bare was of history. But the simpler a statement of fact is, the more it deceives us of its certainty – and particularly so when facts are strung together like prayer beads to form a providential narrative of national greatness, as Gove’s vision did.

The problem we have as historians is that such narratives – themselves almost indistinguishable from myths – have a tenacity that genuine history with its caveats and lacunae struggles to overcome. And in practice the seductiveness of their clarity only serves to provide the past with a more subtle oblivion than mere erasure. Once the glass is cloudy, it is impossible to clean.


English literary history, bound up as it is with ideas about both national greatness and transcendent artistic expression, seems to be particularly fertile ground for romantic and ahistorical assumptions, and nowhere more so than in discussion of Shakespeare’s theatre and the emergence of purpose-built theatres in London out of the itinerant performing culture that had preceded them. Actually, even that word ‘preceded’ is problematic. While perfectly true in itself it implies a Whiggish progression, an evolution that, in Shakespeare’s time at least, was far from evident. The purpose-built theatres existed as part of the economy of the touring players and, in fact, would not have been financially viable without them. Indeed, it was the Globe and its rivals in London that were the anomalies: theatre, as Shakespeare would have understood it, was a mobile art. And, as such, a lucrative one.

The late Barbara D Palmer, medieval and renaissance drama scholar, constructed a narrative out of the tangled Clifford family accounts at Londesborough in Yorkshire’s East Riding for Shrovetide 1598 which perfectly exemplifies the complexity and sophistication of this forgotten convergence of commerce and culture. At some point previously, the family had engaged Lord Derby’s players to entertain them and their guests over the week. The troupe, perhaps 15-strong, arrived on the Saturday and began its schedule of performances. So far, so commonplace. What is eye-opening is the apparent fact that a second troupe arrives at the house on the Monday afternoon also claiming to be Lord Derby’s players. After what one must assume was a certain amount of heated debate, they were sent away again – but not without payment. In the meantime, Palmer argues, one player had left for another engagement and another arrived from the Lord of Westmoreland’s troupe to take his place.

Evidently, a performing economy which could support a fake playing troupe alongside its authentic namesake was by no means a poor one. Nor could it have been as hazardous or haphazard a business proposition as literary scholars are still inclined to think. The common presumption remains that touring was what players did when they couldn’t perform in London, that it was a necessity, not a choice. Hence Ian Donaldson in his superb recent biography of Ben Jonson, writes, as many others have before him, ‘All of the major theatrical companies traveled regularly, especially… at times when plague forced the closure of the London playhouses’. But this presumption is based more on the idea that a theatrical base in the capital is the sine qua non of artistic life – that is, on the intensely metropolitan parochialism of our elites – than it is on what data still survives.

But history, no less than society, deals uneasily with fluidity and indeterminacy – and with mobility in general. We think in social strata. We think in fixed polities: the court, the City, the church. Gove’s reductive ‘bare was‘ approach is a simplification of a cliché; but it is an intellectual silo not so very different in kind from those we all tend to work in. The truth is that our conceptual Elizabethan England is more centralised and London-centric than Elizabeth’s ever was.

The itinerant performing culture of early modern England culture is mostly lost; its energy derived from pre-Reformation ideas of festival and performance, its currency was aural, its trade experiential. But given that, there is perhaps a case for saying that it provides an excellent metaphor for the quiddity of history, for those essential protean contradictory truths we try to construct from what scant data remains scattered through archives and libraries.

Each individual fact tells us little. But handled with sufficient delicacy, dexterity and imagination they can be shaped to force the merest of cracks in an oblivion that will, in time, entomb us all. For me, that is the strongest argument for the study of history there is.

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