Wednesday, 10 July 2019

The beginning of history

A day or two ago, I posted about the teaching of history in schools.  Most of us have only a rudimentary and highly selective knowledge of history, albeit one coloured by our own priors.  I’m not talking here about the formal written history found in academic books, but about that general sense of ‘history’ which we collectively think we ‘know’.  There are some common themes; most of us have some vague notion about the ‘starting point’ of our own nation’s history (even if, in many ways, a ‘starting point’ is an odd concept, because every event is preceded by, and the consequence of, what happened previously).  For the US, for instance, history only really starts with the revolutionary war (in which the rebels apparently seized the airports) and the subsequent declaration of independence.  I’d suggest that many in Wales might see the start of Welsh history as being when the Romans left in 383.  That would make us not uncommon; looking at other countries more generally, the point at which a country gained its independence, or was established in its current form, is a fairly common theme.  That is the basis of many a ‘national day’.
There’s something odd about England though.  In the panoply of dates which come to mind there are always a range of famous wars and victories, of course – war and conflict seems to be one of their major themes.  But the earliest date referred to is often 1066.  It was certainly a major turning point in English history, but in contrast to most of the rest of the world, this is the year in which England was conquered, not when it became free.  It’s not that they ignore the Anglo-Saxons who went before; it’s more that they seem to see that pre-conquest period, very often, as the history of a different people, an ‘other’ of some sort.  The conquest established a new pattern of land ownership at the expense of the former owners and a new aristocracy, both of which continue to echo in the present.  A pattern of master and servant was established in which the Anglo-Saxons were most definitely the serfs.  The conquest changed the language of the court to Norman French, a language which is still used in some parliamentary procedures, and which MPs are permitted to use in speeches if they wish (unlike the pre-existing native languages of these islands).  In factual terms, it was unquestionably a conquest rather than a liberation, but history, as I’ve noted previously, is written by the victors, and the descendants of the Normans still wield a great deal of power and influence.  The passage of time has led to more of a mingling of the culture and language of the conqueror with that of the conquered, but there was never any sort of ‘liberation’.
Many years ago, a teacher in a primary school (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) told me that he’d been rebuked by his headteacher for spending too much time on Welsh history.  His defence was that they were doing the Norman Conquest; he taught the children how the Normans conquered England in a few weeks and then spent 800 years trying to subdue Wales, so inevitably he spent more time on Wales.  Whether it’s an entirely accurate description of what happened is by the by; but it illustrates the way in which the same event can be interpreted from different perspectives: an event which ‘started’ history from one perspective is seen as a long, drawn-out process from another.  This difference in perspective is one element in the demand that history should be taught from a Welsh perspective in Welsh schools.
I find myself wondering whether, in some way, this different perspective might help to explain attitudes more generally as well.  Even poorly remembered and partial (or even fake) history affects our judgement and perspective.  From my perspective, Wales, like many other countries, ‘started’ when a conquering power left, whereas England, rather unusually, ‘started’ when one arrived.  From an English perspective, it’s easy to understand how their version of the history of Wales only really ‘started’ when we became part of England.  At some sub-conscious level, perhaps those who rule us just don’t – or even can’t – understand why not everybody sees being conquered and assimilated in the same positive light as themselves.

1 comment:

Harri said...

It's worth mentioning that the view of the Norman Conquest as marking the beginning of English history has only become largely uncontested during the last two hundred years. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English radicals had a very different concept of English history ('the Norman yoke') in which the English aristocracy were presented as the descendants of foreign usurpers who had destroyed a more egalitarian Anglo-Saxon England and continued to oppress the country's native population. For whatever reason, this take on English history (in which class differences are subsumed into racial categories) largely disappeared in the nineteenth century.