Friday, October 16, 2009

Henry VIII was a greenie??!

Yep, between busting up the monasteries and dispatching a few wives, Henry VIII was apparently driven by his green eco-sensibilities to create the 10,000-acre forest at Hampton Court . At least, that’s the story according to a recent lecture by the Prince of Wales. This and other such spurious uses of history get a lashing in The Telegraph, and are discussed with a good deal more depth and complexity in the Times Higher Education supplement.

Says Professor Pat Thane of the University of London:
"There is widespread abuse and misuse of history in public life, ranging from the silly to the downright dangerous. Bad history can create real problems by distorting understanding of contemporary issues when politicians and others use history as a rhetorical tool to conjure up past golden ages, appeal to founding fathers or simply to rewrite it for political ends.”
Further (as many of us know to our cost), “bad history can lead to bad policy analysis and bad policy”.

The strong connection between history and contemporary politics brings me back to the recent discussion we had here on the moral role of the historian in society (and, incidentally, should also answer all those people who ask ‘what’s the point of studying history?’). In the THE article, several highly respected historians weigh in on how to manage the delicate balance between past and present by using our knowledge of the past to help us understand the complexities of the modern world but without distorting history to serve specific political or cultural ends.

Crusades specialist Jonathan Phillips, for example,
"Is wary about drawing facile parallels with - or citing the past's lessons for - today's Middle East. Indeed, he believes that studying the period may help us understand "the sheer complexity of the region, then as now".

"It is far too simplistic to see the Crusades as a battle between Christians or the West and Muslims, since there were Christians fighting Christians, Muslims fighting Muslims, alliances across the religious divide - and the Greek Orthodox Church was always opposed to Crusading," he says.

But although they have to embrace complexity, Phillips adds, historians must also accept and be sensitive to the fact that "for much of the Muslim world, the Crusades have acquired a toxic meaning as part of a historical continuum - of Westerners invading, killing and conquering, as they were to do again in colonial times".

"Policymakers have come to realise that something serious underlay the Islamic response to George W. Bush's unthinking use of the word 'crusade'," he says.
The medievalist Miri Rubin thinks it is inevitable that past and present always interact, and therefore medievalists have an important role to play in shedding light on current issues.
"I find people have real misconceptions about issues of religious prejudice and the sometimes-related violence," Rubin explains. "People think of pre-modern Europe as a place where crowds - the mob, the unlettered - took to the streets in religious violence, especially against Jews.

"Such behaviour is invoked in our own times as 'medieval' and people who do such things - in the Balkans in the 1990s, for example - are deemed to be 'throwbacks' to another time. In this manner, they are classed as 'aberrant', and so can be bracketed and put aside.

"The truth is that, then as now, violence in the streets is inspired by key actors, who act knowingly, and who are informed and often linked up with privileged access to media. There are agents provocateurs - preachers, journalists, politicians - who endorse behaviour by those who respect their authority. So, rather than the product of 'ignorance' or 'age-old hatred', responsibility for violence ought to be identified along lines of communication and excitation."
The THE article goes on to deal with issues such as the troubled connections between a Whiggish history of ‘liberty, democracy and material progress’, colonialism, national identity, and contemporary ideas of citizenship.

As some tonic to the abuse of history, the THE notes that the History and Policy group, a partnership between the universities of Cambridge and London that "works for better public policy through an understanding of history” has started its own 'Bad History' series. Here, mercilessly exposed with relish and wit, are the grievous historical errors, oversights and deliberate distortions that are being used to justify current policy.


Janice said...

Your opening, there, gave me quite a chuckle. I will continue to ponder the exemplar of Henry VIII as a concerned environmentalist. It will take some time for that interpretation to work for me, I fear!

Bavardess said...

Prince Charles (who I find a bit flaky at the best of times) actually argued that Henry VIII "instigated the very first piece of green legislation in this country", when he "passed laws to protect forests by preventing shipbuilders from felling too many oak trees".

Oh yeah, it was all about environmental protection. Nothing at all to do with preserving the deer for the king's hunting pleasure...

Unfortunately, while that sort of historical distortion is good for a laugh, it doesn't do the environmental cause (which I generally agree with) any favours in the long run!

Digger said...

This bending of the past to fit current situations (and I use "bending" generously) also pops up in archaeology ALL THE TIME. There is a subset of archaeologists who insist that there is no connection between the past and the present (and, therefore, they should be able to do and say what they want about the dead peoples). Drives me batty.

RPS77 said...

At the risk of restating the obvious, I somehow doubt that 16th century kings and aristocrats were motivated by ideas that have much in common with modern environmentalism. Actually, I've occasionally wondered if some of the adversarial attitude toward nature shown in the history of the United States was connected to the idea that forests and other "wild" areas were connected with aristocratic privilege, and therefore hostile to democracy. There probably isn't any connection at all, but I wonder if any real historian has ever suggested this.

Digger said...

RPS77: I recently read a post online insisting that America's National Parks were never meant for everyone, but were actually a means of the super-rich to ensure they'd not have neighbors. That they'd buy/build estates, then lobby for a surrounding national park. I have no idea how accurate it is, but the argument struck me. It wasn't a history website by any means; pot-stirring more comes to mind!

Bavardess said...

Digger - I can imagine how useful archaeology could be for people who are trying to back up a particular pre-determined position, as you have *actual physical evidence* to back you up, and who can argue with that??

RPS77 - that's a very interesting question. I can definitely imagine ordinary people viewing national forests/parks as elitist follies that prevent them from earning a living. There is an interesting debate around UK National Trust properties that bubbles to the surface in the UK press on a regular basis. Basically, the National Trust talks up their large estates as symbols of enduring public good, but others (including historians of the working classes/peasantry) point out the central role the enclosure of common land (to form private estates/parks/forests) played in class politics and exploitation.

RPS77 said...

Digger: I haven't heard of that. There may be an element of truth to it for some national parks or national monuments, but I don't think that it's true in most cases.

Bavardess - In the case of the National Trust, at least their properties are now mostly open to the public, aren't they?

In parts of the western USA, I believe that the majority of all the land is part of a national park, national forest, national monument, or is controlled in some way or another by the Federal (national) government. The Federal government gets to decide who uses the land and under what terms, which leads to lots of conflicts about how much of the land can be logged/mined/developed and how much should be left alone. In areas where many of the jobs depend on logging or other industries, the local residents are sometimes very hostile to environmentalist and government regulatory agencies, who they see as elitist outsiders who threaten to destroy the local economy. This isn't always the case, but it has certainly happened quite a few times.

Your blog has a new follower, if you don't mind.

Bavardess said...

RPS77, you are most welcome here.

As to your question, I believe National Trust properties are all open to the public (although I think at least some of them have entry charges).

I'm in New Zealand, and we sometimes have similar conflicts to what you describe in the western US. People in small rural towns who used to make most of their living from logging or mining on what is now conservation estate have a very different view of how those lands should be managed than the 'bureaucrats from the Dept. of Conservation' and 'leftie environmentalists' (many of whom live in the cities).