Review: ” Rewriting History: Royal Conspiracies in Later Medieval England”, lecture at University of Leeds Institute for Medieval Studies, 7th December 2010.
By Paul B. Sturtevant
Last evening I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Ian Mortimer, an independent writer, novelist, biographer and medieval historian. I am most familiar with him as the author of the recent “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England”, a fascinating study of fourteenth-century social history, presented in the format of a travel guide like those released by Lonely Planet, and appropriately introduced by LP Hartley’s famous quotation “The past is a foreign country— they do things differently there”. Though I enjoyed the book, I was most taken with the final chapter, which briefly and poetically touches upon issues of the public’s interaction with history, what Mortimer last night called “philosophy of history light”. In it, he discusses what we want from our history, how we go about interacting with it and what history gives us, as a people. He goes well beyond the usual paradigms of public history: “if we don’t learn from the past we are doomed to repeat it” and the recent interest in genealogical histories and histories presented via genealogy (such as the popular TV series Who Do We Think We Are?).
Mortimer’s talk yesterday revolved around an episode of his recent books: “The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March” and “Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies“, where he discussed the possibility that Edward II was not, in fact, murdered in 1327 (as was, and is, widely believed) but rather escaped and spent the remainder of his days in the care of a powerful Italian family, who may or may not have been blackmailing Edward III over this fact. Even writing this here, it seems the stuff of wild conspiracy theory. However Mortimer’s approach is invigorating, intentionally looking beyond the “mass of evidence” to instead look at the sources of information and its transmission. Who knew what when? Who could have possibly known what with accuracy? Tracing the lines of information and their transmission is an interesting tactic. A widely spread lie is still a lie.
Medieval information is hardly, if ever straightforward, and knowing even just a bit about later-medieval spies and spying tells you that skulduggery and misinformation did happen. I don’t feel qualified to critique his argument, but from the way he presented it, it seemed compelling and plausible. Unlike some attempts to revise history, it seemed not to cherry-pick its evidence based upon what he wanted it to say, that it fit into his grand narrative, but rather insisted upon soberly considering all of the evidence and examining who could have known what, when, and then drawing conclusions from this.
More interesting than this, though, was a strand which tied much of his talk together and which he discussed with me after the paper. That is, what do we want out of our histories? Can we expect any sort of objective ‘truth’ to be revealed from history anymore? In the postmodern maelstrom that the historical profession has found itself in, how can we go about searching for ‘truth’, when that very concept has become so problematic?
The age-old chestnut that Edward II was murdered by being sodomized with a red-hot poker may make good TV, but it doesn’t make for good history. Or does it? These narratives persist in the public consciousness because they have a kind of agency, of power. The renaissance playwrights (Marlowe in the case of Edward II, but Shakespeare included) of course have a lot to answer for in terms of creating ripping, if wildly inaccurate, yarns and popularizing myths. And yet at the same time, they’ve crafted historical dramas which are compelling to watch. Shakespeare was not a “professional historian”, and yet he was “doing history”, insofar as he presented compelling stories of history to a public (and a royal dynasty) eager for them. This ties very well to Mortimer’s conception of “free history”—that is, history liberated from the confines of the academy and the profession. Anyone who engages in a historical activity is “doing history”, no matter their degrees or job title. And if they are methodologically sound and thorough, there is no reason their history should be any less valid than the professional historian’s.
Mortimer’s ideas are interesting—even exciting— for historians of two types (of which I believe I am both). Firstly, those who regularly engage with the public, as this Society intends to do. Public history, the heritage industry and amateur history is generally regarded as ‘lesser than’ academic history. However there is nothing which says, so long as it is logical and methodologically sound, that it should not be considered history. And I posit, perhaps controversially, that even if it gets some things ‘wrong’, that extra-academic history can be in many ways superior to academic history: historical novels, films, and re-enactment events have the unique ability to engage with the viewer on an empathetic, emotive level which academic history either struggles to do or patently rejects. They allow people to enter into historical worlds entirely alien to their own which allows us to reflect upon where we are as a people, and to understand our forebears, rather than simply lionizing or demonizing them.
The second sort of historian who can value Mortimer’s method are those who feel caught in a wash of postmodernist thought. I feel this way often, pulled this way and that by critical theory which often argues against the basic desires of the historian: to be truth-finder and truth-teller. If all evidence is so much opinion, if there is no truth to find or tell, then what is the point of history? Mortimer argues against this way of thinking—though so much of history is opinion, and so much of it is lost, we can, and should build and refine images and narratives of history, and discover new historical truths even if we know those truths to be imperfect or as Steven Hawking states of the theories of physics (and as quoted in Medieval Intrigue) “always provisional”. Just because they are always provisional does not necessarily mean that they are less worthwhile.
I recommend to the members of the Society to read more about these ideas and how they work within the context of what we do. Many of Mortimer’s academic essays are freely available here: http://www.ianmortimer.com/essays/ — I recommend “What isn’t History?: The Nature and Enjoyment of History in the Twenty-First Century” in light of this discussion. His books are available at Amazon and probably from your local bookstore.