What happened? The purpose of historyPosted: January 13, 2016
I’m writing a little ebook at the moment and had cause to go back to my old blog where I found the following from 2013. I thought it might be worth re-posting.
I attended a comprehensive school in England in the late eighties and early nineties. Until the age of fourteen, I didn’t study a subject called, “history.” Instead, I studied, “humanities.” Despite efforts to obscure the history content, it was pretty clear when we were studying a history topic. We’d flit about through time, like Dr Who in his TARDIS. One week, we’d be trying to work-out the identity of Jack the Ripper. We had no concept of the social context in which the Whitechapel murders took place. The teacher kept going on about Prince Eddie; I wanted to know if Prince Eddie became King Edward (of the potatoes) but this remained unanswered – I don’t know if the teacher was sure.
The next week we would be discussing whether our views of Richard III were based upon Tudor propaganda. I remember very clearly my frustration at that time; I didn’t have any views on Richard III. First, I wanted to know who Richard III was and why he was king. Was he descended from William the Conqueror, for instance? I worked out that this must have all happened before Henry VIII and his six wives, a topic I had “done” at primary school, because the Henry that was fighting Richard III was being referred to as Henry VII. What were these, “wars of the roses,” that our teacher either supposed that we already knew about or had judged far too dull to trouble us with? Instead of answering the questions that interested me, we focused elsewhere. Henry had defeated Richard in the battle of Bosworth and conventional history records that Richard was a hunchback and that he killed the, “princes in the tower,” whoever they were, but was conventional history true? Henry was the victor so were we suffering from a view obscured by the Tudors?
Our task was to do some, “source analysis,” and think critically. One of the sources was this painting (from the National Portrait Gallery in the UK);
Another was Shakespeare’s description from the play Richard III of a man, “deform’d, unfinished.” Shakespeare, apparently, was a Tudor stooge.
How much should we therefore believe? What is the nature of history? Is there a history of the winners and a history of the losers? Are different viewpoints equally valid? This was the substance of our inquiry.
The answer to all this, of course, is, no. Truths about history are not mutable, dependent upon your perspective, as postmodernists would have us believe. We can now clearly resolve one of the key questions that my teacher posed. Richard III was deformed and we know this because they’ve found him in a car park in Leicester.