The prestige and decline of medieval history (UK edition): part 2

As I indicated in the first part of my discussion, I think medieval history still keeps quite a lot of prestige in the UK. Why then, are British medievalists not dancing around in a merry England kind of way, but instead staring gloomily into their drinks, in between writing defiant or bracing blog posts?

One obvious problem is that even if an activity is prestigious, people are not necessarily eager to do it, if it is difficult, ill-paid or both. This, however, is not a problem restricted to medieval historians. The great prestige of stylite saints in late antique Byzantium, did not, I suspect, lead to vast numbers of pillar-climbing wannabe ascetics. Most people, given a choice, will prefer easily-gotten gains.

Greater problems come from the two social groups who are anti-medieval history: those who think it is not useful, and those who think it is fuddy-duddy. Oddly, those who think history is not useful are not, on the whole, the avid Thatcherites. This is because on an individual level studying history at university is useful, in that it often leads one to well-paid positions. Top employers like history graduates; all the guff about transferable skills is actually right in this case.

Those who consider that history is not useful are usually those looking in an equally utilitarian but broader sense: that it does not bring economic advantage to UK plc as a whole or to an individual university. Unfortunately, it is people of this kind who tend to predominate in those who make decisions on funding at both the national and university level. At the national level, medievalists have also recently suffered from the prejudice certain ‘progressive’ people have against the subject, seen as irremediably old-fashioned. Such an attitude has been visible for at least 50 years: when Kingsley Amis wanted to show the futility of academic life in Lucky Jim, he made Jim Dixon write articles on medieval ship-building. It is epitomised by the comments of an Education Secretary (Charles Clarke) a few years ago about medievalists as ornamental (for which he got a deserved ticking off from Jinty Nelson).

But I think possibly more significant in the long run is the collapse of historical consciousness in British culture (more particularly English culture). I don’t mean by this that fewer people are interested in history or that they know less about it (though this may be true). I mean that there is no longer a widespread sense that everybody *ought* to know some history, particularly the history of their own country. And the common stock of historical facts that ‘everybody’ knows has similarly declined greatly. For most people, ‘1066 and All That’ (the baseline of ‘memorable’ British history) would now require substantial glosses on every page.

This cultural change is not just due to factors such as the increasingly multicultural nature of British society, or a ‘modernist’ urge to ignore the past. I would say that a more significant factor is that there is no longer a shared historical sense of what it means to be British and/or English, and as a result history (in schools and in the media) has lost this important cultural and educational role.

It is easy at this point for right-wingers to blame trendy liberal schoolteachers and historians who rejected the traditional ‘kings and battles’ form of history teaching. But speaking as someone who got the tail-end of traditional teaching during my limited study of history at school (3 years at secondary school, 1976-1979), I don’t think that is the main reason.

Instead, I’d say the main reason is something I’ve talked about before: the failure of myths of Britishness, and of the Whig narrative of history. The key pillars of this narrative (crown in parliament, reformed religion, empire, Saxon liberties, the British navy) have lost all their resonance, and whatever the right-wingers may think, their power can’t be revived. Referencing Magna Carta when you talk about civil liberties now just seems ludicrous. All that survives generally is a vague sense of Britain threatened by European tyrants, which is equally applicable to Napoleon, Hitler and the EU (with the Spanish Armada and the Normans as outliers).

Because this Whig narrative has collapsed and no-one has thought up a widely-accepted alternative, when people do learn history (either at school or on their own), it tends to be in unconnected islands of interest, and the emphasis is largely on recent history (basically, most people study Stalin and Hitler for A level).

All this is a challenge for medievalists (and indeed early modernists), which of course, in true business style, means there is also an opportunity. University medievalists have to rethink how they advertise their subject (both before people get to university, and when they get there and choose their options). Lecturers can’t now rely on people automatically assuming that the history of Parliament or the Reformation ‘matter’, or knowing much about anything pre-twentieth century. Instead those who teach those subjects have to provide a pitch as to why people should do their options rather than more familiar recent history. (And of course, if we can make our option become popular again, it automatically becomes ‘useful’ to the university administrators and government ministers: the market has spoken and how can it be wrong?)

On ‘relevance’, we are always going to be struggling against the modern historians. What this means is that medieval historians must unashamedly embrace the weird and thrilling side of their subject. Do you want to study Hitler yet again? Or do you want to find out about dog-headed men, tomb-dwelling monks, the Fall of Rome and the rise of Islam? Or why decisions in the fourth century mean there are fewer female than male students at Oxford today? It is time for medievalists to promise to reveal all in glorious technicolour illuminations.


One thought on “The prestige and decline of medieval history (UK edition): part 2

  1. History is always going to be less relevant and therefore interesting to people now, the farther back in time it gets.

    There is no such things as “Britishness”, and there never has been. I’m English but I live in Wales, and I can guarantee that if you asked most of the locals here about “Britishness” you’d get some funny looks. I don’t even know what it means to be English, so trying to extend that to the 3 conjoined countries of Britain is doomed to failure.



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