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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.”
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.
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.
In my work I teach a variety of topics. One of the most popular is Stone Age. When I start my day off I start off with the concept of Prehistory. This introduces the idea that there was something before writing and records. From this I explain to children born this century, in fact last decade, that there was a world before mirco-waves, mobile phones and even televisions. These things that are so ubiquitous in our own lives are only very recent inventions. In my own experience essays written in my first year at university were entirely hand written, the internet was never used for research despite being lauded as the next big thing. A subject I remained skeptical about until the the first years of the next century. These things make me think, what in our ancestors worlds was so ubiquitous and fundamental that they couldn’t imagine a world without it?
When we think about the Stone Age we are considering a period of history that covers a mind boggling six million years. If your mind doesn’t boggle imagining that about of time you are not doing it right. There were people who never imagined that the ice age would end, those who made their homes in Doggerland or on the mountains that would become the isle of scilly never imagined that the seas would one day displace their descendents. There were people who never imagined that the Neaderthals would become extinct or the mega fauna they relied upon for food and shelter would vanish from the Earth.
Prehistory comes to an end, in Britain, with the invasion of the Romans. The brutal conquest and the ‘civilisation’ of the Celts brought to an end a civilisation that covered Europe from modern Wales to Greece. In a blink of an eye certainties and attitudes and traditions came to an end. The Romans themselves believed Rome to be eternal and the sacking of Rome in the 5th century was a shocking event recorded in the literature of the time.
The term Dark Age is contested by modern historians but certainly there was a loss of knowledge, security and what I think we would describe as civilisation. The Anglo-Saxons were fascinated by the Roman ruins and no diplomatic mission was complete without a tour. The fantastic poem ‘The Ruin’ speaks to this fascination. In fact I would argue that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t believe they would ever equal the Romans and that they were living in the sun set of the world, which possibly accounts for some of the melancholy in their poetry.
From the Dark Ages though the Medieval period we come to Reniassance and the Age of Reason. These are ages of discovery but they are ages of certainties as well, who would have guessed the Hapsburg Empire would have vanished in the 20th century, who would have guessed that the British Empire, in the form we most readily associate with it, would endure for less than a hundred years?
We all live in a moment of time where subjectively speaking the powers that be are the foundations of the Earth. But objectively speaking they are ghosts that appear and disappear like the sparrow in the Anglo-Saxon story. Life, the bard says, is like a lighted hall of merriment and companionship. The sparrow flies in through one window out from the dark night and into the hall for a moment before flying out again though another window and again into the dark. The only certainty I can offer you is the uncertainty of certainty.
In this image we see the Roman Army engaged in a battle (to the left). As the heavy infantry engage the Dacians the Emperor “interviews” a prisoner held before him by an auxiliary soldier. The legion was for the battle winning action whilst the role of the auxiliary was to enable them to win. Behind the emperor are the signum the standard and the cultic musicians.
What is especially exciting is the mounted catapulta in the background. Mounted on a cart this Scorpion is a dart throwing artillery weapon that could be quickly and easily moved over the battlefield supporting the role of the infantry.
The success of the Roman Army lies not only in the fantastic equipment and training of the legion but in the backup it received from the rest of the army. In modern terms this can best be described as the “warm fuzzy” feeling that the British Army tries to inspire. The idea that the individual soldier is not alone and everyone else has his back. Consider this, if you had this feeling how could you not conquer the world?