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historicism philosophyofhistory

Can we learn History from Films?

First I have used capitals for both History and Film. This is to mark them out as proper nouns. Can we learn or do History in Film? I think the question is far more complicated than it looks and that the conclusion will surprise you.

First I think that Film is an excellent medium for History. I am firmly in the camp that History is an Art and not a Science. Film is an artistic medium so manifesting an art in an artist medium poses fewer problems than presenting an art in a scientific medium. History as Science is like wearing a stiff collar in Church, uncomfortable, unnecessary and for someone else. That being said all art must guard against being a tool of the propagandist. Good art is didactic and welcomes comment and criticism, the propagandist brooks no contradiction.

Second, and I have experience of this, a Historian in a movie theatre must shut up and let other people enjoy the film when non-professionals are present. The problem with film is that the story must take priority over the facts and ‘authenticity’. Film is not History in the same way an essay or a journal article is History where facts and details are important. The story is the most important element and swords, bluebells or rabbits are much less important. Now where that story reflects the historical reality of events we can learn history. A story about the last hours in Hitlers bunker that draws on diaries and interviews can be a useful history compared to a relentlessly authentic medieval survey drama about the Peasants revolt putting modern Marxist thought into the mouths of 14th century peasants. If a film does not accord to the best possible knowledge of the story then we move from history into fantasy and for some narratives, and valuable stories, fantasy is the best medium.

Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Finally Film is a historical product and one which is part of our inheritance as citizens of a democracy. These are stories we choose to validate by using our time to watch and our money to buy. As active citizens in our democracy we must know where we have come from to understand why the present is as it is and for many film is how we do that. The importance lies in us choosing to watch and spend money on this because it becomes our product and not a propaganda fostered on us by the elite. Such an elite history you can find in museums and art galleries across Britain and see just how attractive they are to the public.

Photo by Maria Pop on Pexels.com

Ultimately all history is for the public and film is probably the most democratic artistic medium available in the current age. The impact of historical film can be seen particularly well in Scotland where the SNP gained a boost from the Braveheart (yes I know.) film and Scottish democracy has been supercharged. The SNP are enjoying the trade wind of popular nationalism not stirring it up which separates them from other nationalist movements. Talking of Braveheart this is an example of a fantasy film with a glancing relationship with history. Its a film which I have never watched but also one that if I did I would be very quiet and let the non-professionals just enjoy it. Do these films have value? Yes I think that they do and if they perpetuate myths, as long as they are benign myths, then I see no problem. If they are malign, the film should be cast out, but myths can be dealt with in articles and journals by professionals. Scientific and professional history needs to stay in the professional realm and let art flourish in the artistic realm and by accepting the opportunities and limitations of film we can create the conditions for valuable history that engages the active citizen to make our world a better place.

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Anglo Saxon History Romans

Poetry Van at Fargo Village for the BBC Strong Language Event

Today I went to Fargo Village to buy some books for some work I am going to start. When I got there my good friend was busy trying to buy petrol which during the current crisis (not crisis) is difficult. Whilst enjoying a cup of tea and a cake I saw this poetry van. The Poetry Van serves poems whilst you wait. I waited and waited and eventually I was “served”. The poet who wrote for me wrote a poem about the blinding of Vortigern by the Jutes after he betrayed them.

On my other post I have discussed the poem itself and have concluded that it is a very fine poem, written in fifteen minutes by a man who would normally spend days and blood over a single line. In my Jack Russell post I have not discussed the historical elements.

I think that Lewis is a very good man who dealt with an autistic obsessive very well indeed. The first thing he dealt with this morning was me telling him about the Frisken Massacre, the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britannia, the civil war between Vortigern and Ambrosias and then Vortigern getting his eyes popped out at a dinner party in vengeance for his betrayal of the Jute leaders.

He stressed that it would not be an authentic account and it would be a poetic representation of my interested in the topic. He asked me my feelings and I am sorry to say that I couldn’t think of any, as I say I am autistic and rarely feel anything. but I am good with poetic licence and a critic of stagnant “authenticity”. Frankly it is a delightful poem that with all the energy of the metaphysical poets tells the story of the coming of the English. I do not particularly care that Lewis has confused Britannia with England, brought in the Goths or has anachronistically used that name or put potatoes in a 5th century feast. I know that when I post this in some groups there will be ‘rivit counters’ who will not be able to get over such details. To such people please retweet the link with your criticism, that will be very useful.

The point that I like about the Coming of the English is that we see that history turns on the decisions of individuals and their actions good or bad. We see a peace treaty destroyed by one unnamed person spilling a drink and not saying sorry which leads to the massacre of the Friskens. We see the Jutish princes return to Jutland and then have to leave to make money and enter the service of the Tyrant Vortigern and we see Vortigern growing concerned about the rise of the Jutes and lashing out only to be betrayed and blinded in revenge.

Thankyou Lewis for my poem.

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Lock Down Project Model: Coventry

This fantastic model was created during the first lock down of 2020 by an incredibly talented Coventry resident. I saw it at Coventry Central Library but it is now on display in the Frier Gate building.

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stone age

Stone Age School visits

One of my favourite days that I run in schools is Stone Age. It does pose a number of questions such as how do I fit 2.4 years of history, remembering that humanity does predate the Stone Age. To make this understandable to children I do have to cut out a lot and focus on some very interesting but I feel unrepresentative chunks of human history.

Home Made string from brambles. My newest costume has no modern thread it is entirely home made.

When we come to the Stone Age we can divided prehistory into five time periods, these enable the children to have some framework in which they could develop their knowledge. So we have the Paelolithic, the Mesolithic, the Neolithic and the Bronze and Iron Ages. 95% of human history is in the Paelolithic and its to this age that essentials like string, clothes, storytelling, team work and picky eating were invented. If I could live anywhere in human history I would live in the tactless wastes of time that we call the Old Stone Age.

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A lovely day at a lovely school… Kingsthorne

Today I went to one of my favourite schools to do a new workshop. We did the Great Fire of London, an exciting workshop for KS1. Working with extremely young children is one of those fun things in life. They are enthusiastic, over excited and often unable to keep to the point. Whilst we were dramatically exploring 17th century London one little boy put up his hand to tell me that his nanny was in heaven.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

During the last week or so I have been researching the Great Fire of London and trying to think of ways to explain and immerse the children in the 17th century. Obviously there are many things in history that we just can not tell children about. Which is right and proper until they are adults and they ask you why you left out all the good bits when they were at school! And some things can be hidden whilst others are too wonderful not to be shared. One of our activities was making wattle and daub. We made the hurdle and then used airdrying clay to represent daub. “Of course, children, they did not really use air drying clay… they used PIG POO!”

On a serious note the Great Fire of London is one of those really terrible disasters. It was so awful at the time that the French King was moved to offer to send food and aide to London. As I read the accounts from the time I reflect that the only comparable description that I have heard is the description of the Coventry Blitz by a man who watched it from Baginton. I remember one person saying that they were in a train and saw the sky red with fire. He asked the guard what it was and the Guard replied that it was Coventry. At its height the Great Fire of London could be seen from Oxford.

London had endured fires before and it struck me that it was strange that they dealt with this one so badly. The Mayor gave no leadership and left the city on the first day, the people ran keen to protect their own property rather than deal with the fire and so many laws and ordinances had been ignored and not enforced which made this fire trap, a fire trap with fire traps inside it. The Romans knew the importance of preventing fire and forbade thatch, smithing and other fire related professions in their cities as did Charles II who repeatedly passed laws and comment on the dangerous nature of the slums of the city of London. The reasons for this are that Royal authority was suspect after the Civil Wars. The city of London had been an important Parliamentary stronghold and the magistrates were old enough to have served in the war against Charles father. It is probable that they were not going to be told what to do by this jumped up poodle keeper. It is probable that this was the reason the Mayor rejected the help of James soldiers. The idea of Royalist soldiers marching through Parliamentary London was incredibly dangerous. Second the slums of London were growing very quickly and needed cheap materials to build. There was no central planning and the medieval city expanded upwards creating tenements that met over the street and put dangerous industries in the centre of a tinderbox dry city.

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henry HenryVIII History on this day

A very special birthday

Today marks the birthday of one of the most influential men in history, influential beyond all expectations and potential.  This man was the second son in a precarious dynasty that came to power after a long and wasteful period of dynastic struggle. In this turmoil the royal families had been largely destroyed allowing this man’s father, whose family was far from legitimate, to seize the crown from under a hawthorn bush at Bosworth.  The throne was precarious, the country exhausted and certainly not a first rate power.  I am of course talking about Henry VIII.  

The second son of Henry VII was not expected to ascend to the throne and his upbringing was second rate to that of his brother, Arthur, who was groomed to be the perfect Medieval monarch.  Brought up in the household Henry was not a perfect Medieval king and this was probably for the good because during his reign Europe moved from the late Middle Ages towards the early modern period.  He was clever, romantic and believed in dangerous notions such as “love” and actually believed in his religion.   It was the idea that he should love his wife that led to his many divorces and his actual and real belief in Christianity that compelled him to want a proper divorce rather than, as the Pope suggested, he put Catherine away quietly.  To a greater or lesser extent he successfully navigated the turmoil’s of the age which included war, religious revolution and the brand new concept of inflation!  During his reign the seeds sown in his fathers reign of the decline of feudal system, the growth of the power of merchants and professionals and the decline and dissolution of the monasteries came to pass. 

Monastic lands enabled the creation of a new class of landowners, a vast influx of money to the crown and the sudden loss to society of the safety net of monastic charity.   The crown responded to this crisis with new thinking.  Thomas Cromwell brought the philosophy of the Commonwealth men to the nations problems and supplanted the monasteries with the Crown.  Many of the modern public schools and remaining Grammar schools own their existence to the Merry Monarch.  Cromwell established hospitals, schools and other benefits long before the idea of the welfare state became the core of Labours 1940s revolution.  Cromwell transformed the finances of the crown to such an extent that he believed that the Crown would not need to tax the nation for three hundred years.  The most shocking fact I know about Henry VIII is that he spent this money in ten years.   Henry VIII transformed England from a medieval backwater into a pre-modern state.  Processes set in action in this strange and passionate mans life led to the Church of England that has spread across the globe, Parliamentary democracy, the idea that the King should rule in Parliament and after a successor failed to learn this lesson and lost his life defending the Devine Right of Kings we have the modern state.  Without Henry we would not have had the American Revolution we would have had a very different world but the world that Henry set in motion started all those years ago with the birth of a second son to a unsecure monarch in a second rate nation just off the coast of Europe.

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field walking flint tools stone age

My First Stone Age Flint Find

Right so I am a professional Historian. I lecture, I write and I research but the one thing that I have never done that I’ve always wanted to do is to find a flint tool from the Stone Age. One of the topics I teach workshops on in schools is Stone Age and I have a lovely collection of tools that have been donated and bought but they were not quite the same. What is worse is that children ask me where they can find flint tools and I tell them that they can find them field walking, that there are plenty of archaeological societies they can join that will help them.

This year I decided to get serious about finding my own flint tools so I got some books, joined some Facebook groups and spoke to some experts. I decided that my best luck would be in Cornwall. First I knew some farmers so getting permission to walk their fields would not be a problem and second Cornwall does not have natural flint deposits so any flint that you find there has been bought in. Third, I had stalked… not stalked a Facebook friend who lived near my parents who had found some amazing flints and no I wasn’t green with envy.

Off I went, finishing work on the Friday and driving six hours to South West Cornwall. The next day I was walking up and down fields staring at the ground. By lunch time I was in despair. I was pretty sure I was the only person in the world who would never find a flint tool despite doing hours of research. Despite going to a flint rich environment where Stone Age people not only lived but put up monuments they could not be bothered to leave flint tools for me. Professional failure stared me in the face, I would have to retrain as an accountant.

Then there it was. A piece of flint. Not a sliver or a tool but a lump and because it was flint I picked it up and knew instantly what it was. I have another example in my collection. It was a core. Cores are the flint that is left after you make a blade. I rubbed the dirt off the sides and saw the distinctive shape of the microliths that had been knapped off it sometime in the Mesolithic Stone Age. Sometime between 15,000 years ago and 5,000 years ago somebody had used this to create microliths. Rather than carry around a whole knife kit they had one core that they knapped when they needed a knife and threw it away when they had used it. I am a very romantic person and I felt that vertigo of time and a connection to someone who was very possibly one of my ancestors. That day I found two mircoliths and another core. I was excited to say the least and my imposter anxiety was buried in a nice deep grave.

The next day I went out again and was walking in a field just behind St Leven church. As a shuffled along in my vivo barefoot I heard a voice say, “Hello!” I turned and returned the greeting which was followed by the question, “Can I ask… what are you doing?” It was a walker and his wife. She was curious but he had clearly come to the conclusion I was a nutter. I pulled myself together, I was walking in a field staring at the ground in the hot sun wearing smart clothes and expensive boots. “Ah! yes Im a historian and I’m looking for flint…”

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This current darkness

I was moved today by the front page of the Spectator that showed the NHS as soldiers in trenches fighting a war. I was incredibly moved by one of my friends who is a radiographer who shaved off his beard so that his PPE would work and I was moved to tears by my own sense of worthlessness in this current crisis.

I am a historian with an interest in literature and philosophy. Quite useless at the best of times but in a hospital even worse that useless, a potential menace. What use is a knowledge of Paelolithic fauna or Bronze Age language in a resuscitation? None. Its like that poster of the little girl asking her father what he did in the Great War for civilisation. I know that it is shameless emotional blackmail but what am I doing for civilisation during this six months of lockdown?

I am reminded of a lecture delivered by CS Lewis during the Second World War to humanity students who were wondering if there were any point learning about Anglo-Saxons during wartime. Lewis argued that wartime and peace time were in fact the same. The only difference is that in wartime it is impossible to forget the truth that everyone dies in the end. In peace time you can forget that, you can forget that our society and culture is finite and you can forget the sheer unfairness of the universe. During wartime these truths bear down on us to the exclusion of all else.

My knowledge therefore is equally redundant during a Corona lockdown or during freedom. It is equally valid as well. Peace and war are the same and so should be my attitude to my discipline. Which leads back to my last post, what is the point of history? The point of history is to inform, entertain, educate and see the world through different eyes. To liberate the individual from the pressure of the now and take a wider perspective. My house built in the 1930s was bombed in the war, stands on a deer park owned by the Black Prince and is in striking distance of a Roman Fort built after the Boudican revolt. The purpose of history is to show a bigger and wider world and get in some of the sap that human life is built on.

When my friend shaved his beard I did the same. I now go shopping for my elderly neighbours and enjoy my daily walk around the Quint. Now I feel a bit less useless in that I can see a role for my discipline in the current darkness and I will leave you with a quote from one of my favourite Anglo-Saxon poets (credited with Beowulf by Tolkien, maybe with a smile) “..this too will pass.”

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historicism History

What is history about?

Today I have been running a history workshop in a fantastic school. During the lunch hour I spoke to the dinner ladies who told me how much they loved history. This has posed the question, what is this all about?

History is a complex intersection of a number of components. These components are the building blocks from which history is constructed. It is a mistake to think that history and the past are the same thing. The history is a reconstruction of the past from the traces that have remained.

These components are the facts. Facts are the building blocks of authoritative history. Here I would like to contrast postmodern history and pseudo history, such as conspiracies, from mainstream authoritative history. Mainstream history lives and dies by its own rules. The facts must either support the argument or bury it. In postmodern history the argument is more important than the facts and in conspiracy history the facts are of no importance whatsoever ever.

Buildings, books, archaeology and other remains from the past are, like the paper weight in 1984, messages from the past. They have messages that need to be understood and communicated. Its this role that justifies the existence of the Historian. Such people bury themselves in the past to understand it and communicate it to those who are fascinated by stories from ancient times.

But what is the history about? What is the prime mover. I know marxists who would point to class war, I know some people, even now, who believe in the zeitgeist or even some liberals who talk of progress. I am a liberal humanist and skeptical of such things. As I chatted to the dinner ladies I realised that what engaged them was exactly the same the true prime mover of history, people.

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What is the point of history?

A good friend of mine quoted someone who neither of us could remember, maybe you know and could tell me in the comments section, that history is “just one bloody thing after another” and they might well be right. At university, towards the end of my study, I came to the conclusion that a career in history wasn’t for me. And that was one of my many mistakes. In this short blog post I want to argue that the study of history is important not least for the inspiration it can provide.

Exhibit one is my cat called Cleopatra. Cleo was a rescue cat from the Cats Protection League who quite frankly told us she was lovely and dumped then ran for the door. She wasn’t and spent at least five years hating me personally. She has now gotten over this and is one of my best friends. She is currently sitting on my neck. The value of history in this case is that it enabled us to give her a name that really, really suited her superior, jumped up personality. I think also it was a way for us to communicate to other people what she was like because Cleopatra is a well known historical figure. Her attributes can easily be implied onto a little cat and we all know about her personality without having to explain.

Exhibit two is Britains most successful manufacturer which is Games Workshop. Games Workshop makes plastic toy soldiers and sells them world wide. They are a very successful business. Let us be honest anyone can make toy soldiers, but not on the scale of Games Workshop. The difference is what hobbyists call ‘fluff’ and what GW writers like to call Intellectual Property. Its successful, engaging and gripping narratives are inspired and drawn from history. The Ultramarines are very Roman, the Imperial Guard reference conflicts from the Zulu Wars through the First World War to Vietnam.

I am going to conclude here by summing up. History gives a shared knowledge with references that can be drawn upon to add depth to personal understanding between those who share that knowledge. And from that knowledge engaging and powerful narratives can be created that can help create powerful, engaging and profitable brands.