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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

History versus history....

There is a TV show on the History Channel (I believe) with the title "Hollywood versus History," and it has the obvious theme of comparing Hollywood's rendition of history with the known historical record. After digging a little into the mysteries of the Norman Conquest and the Domesday Books, I think we might look into a show on "History versus History."

By sheer coincidence, just as I was typing away on my findings about the role of accountable governance in the rule of William the Conqueror the other night, the Discovery Channel was playing part five in the "Seven Ages of Britain" series that was originally produced and broadcast two or three years ago on the UK's Channel 4. While I haven't seen the whole series, I've caught a glimpse of it now and again on replay, but since part five was on the period from 1066 to 1350 I thought I would give it a view.

I realize that many of the details that I happen to be reading about for my research on the role of accountable governance during this period might differ somewhat from the generalizations of the show designed for general audience, but it became clear from the outset of the show that there was a fundamental difference in the historical narratives themselves.

The TV show depicts 1066 and the Battle of Hastings as a watershed event in British history marked by an invasion of Anglo-Saxon England by a ruthless alien force that plundered the landside and then imposed an authoritarian regime that wiped out a basically decent and somewhat enlightened (for its time) political order and replaced it with the worst kind of feudalism. To make matters worse, the Normans expropriated land and tore down homes throughout England as they constructed 80 new fortifications in order to both maintain and extend their suppression of the subdued Anglo-Saxon population. All this was depicted with appropriate images (houses ablaze, people being put to the sword, etc.) and supported by a narrative interspersed with interviews with leading historians and archaeologists. Pretty much good textbook history stuff.

The only problem is that the narrative is all wrong according to the history that I've been reading.

According to it, the Norman invasion in 1066 was just one event in a decades long relationship between Normandy and England, with Normans playing a major role in the court of Edward the Confessor (later sainted). It turns out that things were not quite so rosey before the invasion. For one thing, old Edward had a few problems with ruling his realm. As it happens, King Edward was raised in Normandy and had many of his Norman cousins and friends in top positions during his reign, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Most of the sources I've read note his obsession with all things Norman, and with assuring that his successor would be Norman.Another key factor is the stress historians now place on the role of the Normans in Edward's constant battle with his Anglo-Saxon rivals, the Godwins of Wessex. To appease that clan, Edward married one of the younger Godwins -- although he seems to have chosen a celibate life and so never produced an heir (perhaps intentionally, although he was several decades older than his young bride).

There is little doubt that the Duke of Normandy's claim to the throne had some credibility (although how it came about is questioned in some sources), and in fact his claim was recognized and supported by the Vatican and other powers in Europe who supported William's openly declared plan to invade. There's also evidence that William had to do a great deal of persuading to gain support for the invasion among his Norman followers who felt that the English under Harold (a Godwin in-law who claimed that Edward named him as successor on his death bed) might prove too difficult to defeat. In addition, there were concerns about how William might handle the fact that he would ascend to a royal throne in England while maintaining the lower status of a Duke in Normandy. In short, the situation was much more complicated at the time of the invasion than simply some raid by an alien barbarian force.

Having succeeded in defeating Harold at Hastings, William did reward his Norman followers by giving them lands and titles expropriated from the Godwins and their allies, and many of these new barons established themselves in new fortifications typically constructed in and around existing villages and towns (thus the need to demolish some existing homes -- a point that is regarded as evidence of the Norman barbarity in the popular historical narrative). But there is a great deal of evidence indicating that the imposition of Norman rule involved more continuity than change. Below the level of barons, many Anglon-Saxons became part of the (by then) Anglo-Norman regime -- a process made easier by the fact that the so-called alien feudalism that the Normans supposedly imposed on the defeated Anglo-Saxons was already in place throughout many of the English shires. In short, the narrative I was reading was quite different from the one found in the textbook and TV histories.

Why the difference? Very little of it can be attributed to new information or recent discoveries. Rather there has been a shift in the historical interpretation of the limited knowledge at hand. It turns out that British historians have always had a few objective facts to go on, and that much of what is proffered as the story behind the Norman Conquest involes a reading of history developed by 19th-century British historians who came at the task with a particular bias that favored a strong emphasis on the deep Anglo-Saxon roots of British traditions. These historians succeeded so well in establishing this particular narrative that it survives as the popular view of English history despite decades of scholarship that undermines its basic assumptions.

All this would seem rather trivial, except for the fact that the myths created through popular histories actually have an impact on political life today in Britain -- just as the various myths of American history helped shape contemporary American politics. And if I wanted to open a can of historical worms, I could raise the issue of how historical myths played a role in the rise, rule and obsessions of Hitler -- a topic covered quite nicely by historian Ian Kershaw in his Open University Lecture broadcast on BBC4 last evening....

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