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Friday, 22 November 2013

Lancaster Summary

Here and here are the two most recent blogs by Derek Sayer on the Lancaster REF saga, which make for interesting and worrying reading.  I have a bit more faith in my own institution and certainly in the moral fibre of my Head of Dept. but who knows, these days...?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Moral cowardice

Even with my own views on UK journalism, I have to admit that this is a valuable comment on University managements' crackdown on protest on campus, just one symptom of the moral indigence that pervades University administration in a neo-liberal world where Universities are being turned into nothing more than for-profit corporations, where you can get a chair simply on the amount of money you can bring in - regardless of whether or not you have a sophisticated analytical thought in your head.  I will have more to say on this.  For now, let me quote Chakrabortty's concluding paragraph, which is very good:
Where universities were historically places of free expression, now they are having to sacrifice that role for the sake of the free market. For students, that comes in the form of a crackdown on dissent. Yet the twentysomethings at university now will end up running our politics, our businesses and our media. You might want these future leaders to be questioning and concerned about society. Or you might wonder whether sending in the police to arrest a woman chalking a wall is proportionate. Either way, you should be troubled.

Monday, 18 November 2013

For your Amusement (Twisting tails! - and Twisting Tales...)

Check out this blog for top-quality pseudo-historical Arthurian craziness, and a bit of an obsession with Worlds of Arthur, the point of which the blogger, a Mr Adam Ardrey, seems to miss entirely (as he similarly fails to understand any of the basic rules of how to construct a historical argument).  Mr Ardrey (who has established a reputation for pursuing academic historians of medieval Scotland with his 'interesting' ideas...) claims to have written a polite letter to me, but I have no recollection of receiving one.  I have kept all the e-mails and letters from crazies that I have received since WoA appeared because they are pretty entertaining so I don't know what happened here.

The tone is set - in a way - by the claim that
'The legendary Arthur is commonly presented as a Christian English King...' 
Hmmm... the one thing Arthur is *never* presented as is English.

But it gets much, much better:
"... in reality [says the author of this blog], he was an historical figure, a man of the old way of the druids, a Scot and a warlord. Merlin too lived in history: he was the preeminent druid of the 6th century."
There is - needless to say - absolutely no historically-acceptable evidence for any of that.  (See also, for especial amusement, the claim to know where Merlin's house was; the 'grave' of Merlin which Mr Ardrey claims to have found in fact has been excavated; it was Bronze Age...)  Elsewhere he claims to have identified and dated all twelve of Arthur's battles.  Anyone can have a guess at where Arthur's battles are, but no one will ever know.  That's why so many mutually incompatible locations have been suggested.  It's fun.  It's not history.  The one thing we can say with at least a small amount of certainty is that, with the exception of the battle of the Caledonian Forest, the author of the HB, who after all is the only early medieval person to mention 'Arthur's battles', and who may, for all we know, have made them all up anyway, thought (rightly or wrongly, if he didn't invent them, that is) that the battles were fought in the southern half of Great Britain.  Badon is the only battle in the HB's list of 'Arthur's Battles' that is definitely historical and recorded by a near-contemporary author (Gildas).  On the basis of Gildas' account it cannot be reasonably located other than in southern Britain.  Where in southern Britain, we'll never know.  I have my ideas but I'd never sell them to anyone as 'proven' or even as 'more plausible than anyone else's ideas.

But there's more: read on...
"For 1,500 years the Christian Church and its temporal partners-in-power deleted historical evidence and fabricated a legend that, literally, suited their book."
But if the evidence was deleted... ...  Maybe they got rid of his letter to me too.  This is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote Worlds and in particular the opening page, which says of pseudo-historians:
"Each author fanatically believes his version (and the author is usually a he) to be the true story, hushed up by horrid academics or by political conspiracies (usually by the English) or sometimes his rivals."
Which is possibly why the author of Finding Arthur seems to have developed such an unhealthy obsession with me (he likes to refer to me as 'Guy', though we've never met) - five of his last twelve blog posts being concerned with me.  Check out the section of the home page called 'Arthuriana and the Jesuit touch'.  Says it all.  You might reasonably suppose I was paying people to write these things to illustrate my point!  But I'm not.

Anyway, there has been a glut of attempts to 'prove' that Arthur was Scottish, of late.  Here is another, which argues (again, without a shred of evidence):
 "Arthur was born in the latter half of the 5th century. He became the commander of a rapid reaction force of British cavalry, originally created by the Romans but which had continued after their withdrawal."Arthur's career started in Strathclyde, where struggles between rival rulers had allowed the Southern Picts to occupy the Lennox. Arthur seems to have settled the succession, taken back the lost territory and probably then advanced to overrun the Pictish forward positions, forcing a peace."This was something the Romans had never achieved and it was a feat which made his reputation."He fought as a crusader and in his wake followed Christian missionaries bringing moral authority to hold the peace."
And here is a third, which also conjures up a conspiracy.
"Arthur led the Britons to the brink of victory but was cut down by treachery and betrayal. Arthurian legends have since been corrupted, leading to popular but false assumptions about the king and the belief that his grave could never be found. Drawing on a vast range of sources and new translations of early British and Gaelic poetry, Arthur explodes these myths and exposes the shocking truth. In this, the first full biography of Arthur, Simon Andrew Stirling provides a range of proofs that Artuir mac Aedain was the original King Arthur; he identifies the original Camelot, the site of Arthur's last battle and his precise burial location. For the first time ever, the role played by the early Church in Arthur's downfall and the fall of North Britain is also revealed. This includes the Church's contribution to fabricated Arthurian history, the unusual circumstances of his burial and the extraordinary history of the sacred isle on which he was buried."
All of which leads me to quote what I say in Worlds of Arthur (pp.152-3) under the sub-heading "King Arthur was Scottish":
There certainly was a historical, Scottish Arthur. He was Artuir, son of King Áedán mac Gabráin of Dalriada. We know nothing about him beyond what Adomnán’s Life of Saint Columba tells us, written almost a hundred years after Artuir’s death. The information could, however, come from an earlier Life written by Adomnán’s predecessor in the 630s or 640s, of which Adomnán includes an excerpt. Artuir, says Adomnán, was killed, alongside his brother Eochaid Find, in a battle won by his father against the Miathi. The Miathi are presumably the Maetae recorded in early Roman geographies and thus another of the groups subsumed within the Pictish confederacies reasserting their identity in the post-imperial centuries (see Chapter 11). Artuir’s death must have occurred before Áedán’s in c.608 because Columba’s prediction was that he would not succeed his father as king. Thus he was never a king in his own right, though that need not matter, given the HB’s description of Arthur. Artuir mac Áedáin might be the historical figure behind Arthurian legend but, even if he was, there is nothing else we can say about him. Attempts to do so involve joining the dots from all sorts of snippets, inconsistently cherry-picked from later (second-millennium) sources, whether later Celtic hagiography and folklore or Arthurian romance (French or otherwise), mostly with no relationship to each other, and breaking just about every rule in the book of sound historical methodology. 
As to the pagan Arthur, this (from p.153) seems relevant:
These aren’t the druids you’re looking for: the pagan King Arthur
That King Arthur was a pagan is commonly stated in novels, pseudohistory, and other New Age Arthurian material. There is no reason to suppose that any historical fifth- or sixth-century Arthur was anything other than a Christian. Two of the three first-millennium sources that mention Arthur explicitly describe him as Christian. The other, Y Gododdin, contains precious little by way of religious elements of any sort. Its Christian elements, according to Koch, are later additions. Some of Koch’s argument turns on how you understand an ambiguous phrase that might refer to communion, though. Whichever way you read it, as ‘communion’ or ‘a victor’s share’, the argument easily becomes circular. In any case, Koch rightly states that this has no necessary bearing on the poet’s religion or that of his subjects. The western Roman Empire, including Britain, had been heavily Christianized (see Chapter 11) and Gildas did not see paganism, unlike heresy, as a problem with the British rulers of his day. Even Artuir mac Áedáin is mentioned in a Christian context, being part of an army prayed for by St Columba and his monks.
That really is all that a careful historian (an actual historian, you might say) can say on those subjects.  Pottering about with Chrétien de Troyes (as if that were a reliable source in any case) and cherry-picking and relocating to Scotland everything that he says about the legendary Arthur (ignoring everywhere when he locates Arthur somewhere else) is doubtless a great laugh.  History it isn't.  Caveat emptor.  Were people not likely to lose good, hard-earned money on the misleading claims of Messrs Ardrey, Crichton and Stirling, we could see it all as harmless fun.  This was largely why I wrote Worlds of Arthur and I am delighted that the likes of Ardrey, Edwin Pace and Dan Hunt see it as a threat.  I'm even glad that Amazon is offering Worlds... as part of a 'buy them together' offer with Crichton's book!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

I ... But ... Jus ... Wha?

I don't even know where to begin with this.  Sad to see it associated with someone whose work I like.

All of which reminds me to recommend that you all have a read of Slavoj Zizek's Living in End Times, pp.88-91.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


On Remembrance Sunday, spare a thought for the living as well as the fallen, as current governments (eg UK and USA) do so little for those returning from wars, and even make them redundant.  So, as a change from the usual Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfrid Owen quotes, here's something from Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, not always associated with 11/11 but which seems to be especially relevant at the moment.

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there, right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?


Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Say, don't you remember? They called me 'Al'
It was 'Al' all the time
Why don't you remember? I'm your pal
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?

Friday, 8 November 2013

Why history *doesn't* matter: a new intro

[The piece linked to in the previous post inspired me to go back and rework the draft chapter 1 of Why History Doesn't Matter.  Here is the new opening.]

“We do not need ‘experts’ to tell us what to think any more”
- Conservative [Now UKIP] MP Douglas Carswell[1]

We don’t need no education
- Roger Waters[2]

In June 2009 the Observer ran a piece entitled ‘They’re too cool for school: meet the new history boys and girls.’[3]  Faintly ridiculously, it continued ‘[t]heory is a thing of the past for these hip [sic] young historians’.  So, it turned out in several cases, was any actual training in the discipline.  Two had left university after their first degree (which was not specified as having been in history); another was a geographer.  Four of the six were, at the time, under thirty but that had not stopped at least one from having turned out three books by then.[4] As training for the role of historian, one had been features editor at Men’s Health magazine; another had been an actress.  One at least had been a ‘researcher’ on a television programme presented by right-wing controversialist and former-historian David Starkey.  None of this lack of training or qualification, however, got in the way of the presentation of this group as ‘historians’, who were ‘leading the fight-back’ against history’s decline in popularity. 

A year or so later, the then twenty-seven-year-old William Hastings Burke published a book about Albert Goering.  Like some of the glittering young things in the Observer article, Burke had no historical education at all.  This nevertheless did not prevent his publisher (presumably with his approval) writing his profile thus:  ‘Fed up with the stuffy academic approach to history, he is part of a new generation bringing history up to speed.’[5]  Who needs any training in the historical discipline?  Evidently, to ‘bring it up to speed’ history needs people who, in almost any other academic subject, would be regarded as ‘not knowing what they were talking about’.

In November 2013, the Daily Mail printed a piece entitled ‘The history girls: meet the women building a bright future from the past’.[6]  This piece shows an interestingly gendered variation on the theme.  For here, five of the seven women featured actually did have a higher degree in history and indeed three had proper University posts.  Self-confidently riding to the rescue of an apparently failing discipline, unencumbered by any actual training or qualification, turns out unsurprisingly to be a mainly male (and – even less surprisingly – a male Oxbridge) thing.  Also unlike the earlier Observer article, this piece was written by one of the ‘historians’ featured – if they want coverage, do women have to do it themselves?  The piece also had a number of less positive features.  There was objectification, a concentration on glamour, posed photos in nice outfits and – unlike any of the male historians – mention of their marital status and the number of their children.  Dwelling on an essentialist ‘women’s history’ the piece entirely avoided the feared word ‘gender’.  This was the Daily Mail after all.  Once again, two of the rising stars, who had ‘rescued studying the past from the clutches of fusty academia and changed our view of yesteryear for ever’, had no immediately evident historical qualification.

Let us look a little closer at the types of history being written by these rising stars.  Overwhelmingly it is descriptive narrative or, above all, biography, especially of high-status women: Emma Hamilton, young Queen Victoria, Mary Tudor, queens and consorts, the Wyndham sisters, or Henry VIII, Lord Castlereagh, the Plantagenets.  Otherwise it is the salacious (Victorian prostitutes, royal concubines, lonely hearts adverts) or the gimmicky (the private lives of saints [see also the salacious]; a visitor’s guide to Tudor England).  If this represents the way history is going it is time for us all to catch a bus in the opposite direction as soon as possible.  With the exception of a couple of the more academically-qualified female scholars, their comments on historical method are, as one might expect, at best naive.  “I think writing your books with specific political aims in mind is an old-fashioned approach”, opines Claudia Renton (with no qualification higher than a BA). “It's not particularly helpful. I think if you produce a good narrative history, which convincingly creates the world you're writing about, then people will read it and draw their own conclusions.”  Kate Williams appears to have been stuck in a time-warp since about 1970 (ironically given the article’s repeated allusion to time machines and time capsules): “Women’s stories have been neglected for so long – unless they were queens. Exploring the history of women is a way of redressing that imbalance.”  Sometimes the comments are simply bizarre: “Being male or female is important to us now but we shouldn’t assume it was important to people in the past.”   On occasion, however, they are more representative, if no more sophisticated.  Susannah Lipscomb (with, unlike most of the others – especially the men – a PhD and a prize-winning journal article to her name), declares that “History tells us the story of who we are and where we’ve come from; it reassures us that we aren’t the first to walk these paths.”  It is this distressingly widely-held point of view that the present book seeks to demolish.  This is precisely why history doesn’tmatter.

[4]Five of the six were educated at Cambridge, the other at Oxford, illustrating neatly how class and cultural capital continue to function ahead of actual merit and experience in ensuring access to patronage, opportunity and resources.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Siege. The walls are crumbling

I went to Birmingham yesterday to do a bit of book (and clothes) shopping and I can exclusively reveal that in New Street Waterstones History is not classed as 'academic'. 'Academic' is on the top floor; history is on the ground floor at the back, behind military history, needless to say.

This article from the Daily Heil perhaps shows why.  This apparently is the future of the subject.  God help us all.  I did see a parallel article on 'the history boys' a while back, featuring a similar range of semi-academic half-brained toffs, making the same claim, but I was too angry to blog about that, which I guess makes me a big old sexist.  Anyway, if anyone wonders why academic history is regarded as irrelevant, here is why.  Only three of these seven saviours have proper academic jobs.  Rescuing the past from fusty academia, indeed.  Because that's all it is about - bodice-ripping yarns , 'private lives' and biographies. Christ on a bike.  I'm also kind of curious about why they consented to this kind of objectification.  And why the seven female historians who have (and I quote) 'changed our view of yesteryear for ever' (does none of them feel uncomfortable with that claim?) also happen to be seven that scrub up well for the camera.  Quite a coincidence.  We might note the pretty much complete absence of the word 'gender' from this article, but hey this is the Daily Heil.  But - hey! - this is the Daily Heil, that'll be the fascist-supporting, gay-, immigrant-, minority-bashing, Richard Littlejohn-publishing Daily Heil.  Don't these so-called historians (only five of whom really have a claim to be called such) have any integrity?  I guess in the case of the one who works for N-Chumz (clue: look for the signature N-Chumz big hair) that's a question that sort of answers itself.

Oh yes, after perusing the quite extensive history shelves of both branches of Waterstones in Birmingham town centre, I came back with four books on continental philosophy: a discipline that at least still seems capable of turning out intelligent work worth reading, about stuff that matters. Oh, and a nice coat from Zara.