Tuesday, 12 March 2013

History Depends On Who Writes It

In his blog, Raedwald today mentions the issue of History, what it is and might be taught to the young, which in turn relates to what we might regard as the necessary history of the Atlantic Isles.  In particular, he mentions the matter of Blair and others placing the Sheffield Knife Grinders strike ahead of Agincourt.

With a spouse who numbers Sheffield metal workers in her immediate ancestry, one has to be careful here, not least because it is possible that Sheffield metal might have been in use at Agincourt, in the hands of some of my family as well as a contingent from Yorkshire..

The Grinders in question are part of the story of the development of the Labour movement in the late 19th Century.  But this in turn is being selective because to pick out them and that movement in itself has a bias.  There was a lot going on around that time and it is all very complicated.

As this blog has mentioned already, possibly several times, one feature of our social history that has disappeared is the extent, power and influence of the Temperance Movement, which in turn had a substantial working class element in its leadership.  Another such change was the gradual Great Agricultural Depression which had a wide range of effects.

Other developments in this period which contributed hugely to what became the Atlantic Isles were in technology, science and medicine.  Some have a passing mention, for example telegraphy, but not others.  One is the invention of the condensing steam engine which meant a leap forward in the use and applications of steam power, notably in shipping and in the railways.

The basic problem is that History so often involves a reduction and simplification, sometimes with an agenda, sometimes told as a tale to suit either the audience or who is telling the tale.  Agincourt was not simply brave little England bashing France, it was an exploratory expedition designed to test French capabilities.

King Henry V was not just trying to create an identity for England, he was attempting to restore the long lost Angevin Empire of King Henry II with its vast territories in what is now France.  Had King Henry V lived a good deal longer he might have achieved this. 

Also, had the English not declined into the civil Wars of The Roses and managed to hold on both to the territories and to an effective alliance with Burgundy we might never have had the powerful and highly ambitious France of the 16th Century and later. 

The lesson of Agincourt is not just that a well organised small force can achieve a great deal, but that our notions of nationality can be subject to radical change in a short time.  Sometimes we do not see the other lessons of historical events because we either do not understand them or do not see the evidence.

One activity lately has been to make use of the vast archive material newly available online in subscription web sites.  Things that might never have been found, even with long and difficult research can just turn up leaving one astonished.  A feature of this is to connect people in unexpected ways which shed a different light on much of what went on in the past.

Hunting, or for that matter riding horses has never been a part of my life nor following hunts or even going to the races.  An example of what can happen is that I begin to wonder when looked at is how the British elite of the late 19th and early 20th Century functioned.  One way might be that you need to see who hunted with which pack, when and where and the culture of horse racing. 

This may seem unlikely but it is no more so than knife grinders in Sheffield sparking off associations of workers.  What reception would anybody get from suggesting that it might be useful if children in schools were taught the history of fox hunting, racing and the careers of the most notable huntsmen of the period?

See “Bay Middleton” in Wikipedia and there were others like him.


  1. The problem with teaching history to children is that it is too complex and vast a subject.

    It their interest can be awakened by showing them how history is teeming with fascinating characters, that would be a step forward.

    On that basis, Sheffield knife-grinders probably wouldn't qualify. Henry V probably would.

  2. Most of history is too far back to comprehend,.Especially as it is usual;ly the history of the charismatic or of the toffs or both.
    The Ag labourers - many in number- but dull in interest. are never written about