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The Historian As Time Traveller

October 7, 2008

By Mortimer, Ian

Ian Mortimer, who has been an archivist and a poet before becoming a medieval historian and biographer, describes why a blend of empathy and evidence is the key to getting the most out of history. I was about ten years of age, standing alone in the ruined hall of Grosmont Castle in South Wales. The wand rustled the leaves of the nearby trees as I looked up at the empty space where Maud, mother of the great Duke of Lancaster (who was born in this castle), had sat in the early fourteenth century. I pictured the decoration on the walls, the table on the dais, the tablecloth, the dishes with rich sauces, the salt, and the servants bustling over the dinner. I imagined Lady Lancaster’s expression in the weeks after the birth, coming unsteadily into the hall from her solar chamber, smiling, receiving visitors and messengers. In my mind’s ear I heard her speaking to the chaplain seated beside her during a meal, and her conversation with her husband, Henry, Lord Lancaster, after his return from a hunting trip. Then I looked at the guidebook. On the page, these people were as dead as the stones of the ruined castle.

That day in the late 1970s I began to realize that my vision of the past was a little different from other people’s. It seemed that the dead were treated as if they were just so many exotic species, pinned out and labelled like butterflies in a museum case. The flaxen-haired Harold II was a shortlived tragic specimen; the Richard II a brilliantly coloured, equally short-lived one. The iridescent Elizabeth I was doomed to extinction due to her reluctance to marry.

It was not that this was all wrong; it just somehow seemed to be flat. Two-dimensional. There was no point in there being a dead Elizabeth I or a dead Richard II. It was their lives I needed to see, if I was to have any chance of understanding why they did what they did. There was little or no value in seeing a ruined hall as a pile of stone; I needed to see it as a living space. I wanted to know the answer to questions such as: how did people greet each other in the past? What did they do if they were ill? How did they cope with the deaths of so many loved ones?

As I grew up, the propensity to treat the dead as lifeless increasingly seemed to me to be a distortion of past reality. The historical Henry V – refracted through Shakespeare’s hero-worship – was treated as if he had been a political and military genius from birth, with every success of his father’s reign was due to him and every failure due to his father. Perhaps the most disturbing distortion was the way historians in the early twentieth century spoke about the ‘therapeutic’ effects of the Black Death. The illness may well have had a catalytic effect on society – and marked the beginnings of a shift to a free-market economy and democratic parliament. But what about the traumatic effect on the people of seeing nearly half their children, their neighbours and their friends die miserably? To say this terrible fate was in any way ‘therapeutic’ was a wilful disengagement from reality. It was also based on the assumption that government by political parties is somehow ‘healthier’ than feudalism. Even if it is, who in their right mind could sensibly refer to the suffering of millions of people as therapeutic? It was not a view to which I wished to subscribe.

Over the years, that day at Grosmont has often come to mind. Through it I have gradually come to terms with my frustration with traditional history. I can see now that, while history is ‘the study of the past’ in the public sphere, in its more specific educational and academic dimensions it is the study of evidence. The two are not the same: one is a matter of human understanding; the other is a scholarly process. Knowing the difference, I have begun to harness the tension between the two in what I hope is a constructive manner, using each as a corrective to the other. The human understanding element is necessary to correct the tedious excesses of scholarship; and scholarship is necessary to impose boundaries on the speculation inherent in any direct consideration of the human past.

Most people want to know ‘what the past was like’, or they want to know ‘what actually happened’. So it is inevitable that the academic reluctance to answer these questions except in an oblique way, using unemotive and undramatic language, alienates a great many potential readers and pushes them towards historical fiction. In this respect, traditional scholarship has lost out on the popular front. It has lost out intellectually, too. Since the early 1970s postmodernism and critical theory have attacked the authority of historians and undermined their claims to be able to say anything true about the past. According to the most ardent postmodernists, the practice of history is an academic ritual: a personal selection of subjective inferences drawn from a small sample of artificially constructed facts, purveyed to the public in a form subject to the historian’s own prejudices, and no more meaningful than historical fiction.

Although postmodernism has proved useful in challenging certain historical assumptions, it has done little or nothing to facilitate the closing of the gap between historical scholarship and the public. Indeed, it could be said to have made it wider by criticizing the authority of the historian without regard to why that authority exists in the first place. Historians have authority to write about the past because society as a whole is curious about it. If people want to know ‘what the past was like’, then historians have a public responsibility which gives meaning to their work. Such a response not only answers the challenge of postmodernism but also the unarticulated criticism of the popular reader, who feels alienated by academia and driven to read historical fiction. Historians may justify what they do, both intellectually and socially, through re-engaging with public interests and rediscovering the balance between history as the direct study of the past (through human understanding) and the study of the evidence.

This is the philosophical platform on which I have based my books. With regard to my sequence of historical biographies, it is necessary for me to try to understand the living people at the heart of the unfolding story. I do not believe I have any special right to sit in judgement on Edward III or Henry IV – any more than I recognize the right of someone in the distant future to sit in judgement on me – but I can try to understand them in the context of late medieval English society. This requires a conscious sympathy for them as living, developing individuals. Without a close-up, sympathetic view of the challenges they faced at each stage of their lives, how can one begin to consider the Tightness or wrongness of their actions? And what purpose would my judgement serve anyway? The purpose of history is to reveal human nature and behaviour, not to attempt to judge it.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is the logical extension of this philosophy into social history. I started with the most fundamental historical question – ‘what was life like?’ – and tried to answer it in a way which is both informed by scholarship and balanced by human understanding. A whole host of secondary questions followed. If you really could visit fourteenth-century England, where might you stay? What might you wear? What might you eat? What sicknesses might you suffer and how might contemporary physicians treat them? This Virtual time travel’ is instructive. Merely asking certain questions draws attention to themes which have not previously been explored. For example, if the median age in twenty-first-century Britain is thirty-eight, and in medieval England it was twenty-one, does this help to explain why medieval society was so much more violent than our own? Indeed, are we really all ‘basically the same/ as so many light-entertainment TV shows blithely state?

The ultimate value of this approach is a glimpse of history’s deeper meanings. It allows us to juxtapose our own culture with another, and to compare English society across the centuries. The hope is that a view over seven hundred years will be thought- provoking and perhaps even inspiring. This is not because of a wish to celebrate the virtues of ‘progress’, which are not always clear- cut; nor is it a nostalgic look at a way of life which was often ‘nasty, brutish and short”. But it is an attempt to show how Mankind can change and how we ourselves can be the agents of that change. History has many philosopher’s stones, but a view of how we ourselves have developed over 700 years must surely be one of the most desirable.

“historians have a public responsibility which gives meaning to their work”

Ian Mortimer has written biographies of Sir Roger Mortimer, Edward III and Henry IV. His latest book The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is published this month by Bodley Head, price Pounds 20.

Copyright History Today Ltd. Oct 2008

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