Historical Fiction and Fictional History

You might think a lapsed medievalist like me would be enthralled by all the history currently available in Britain today, but I have to admit to very mixed feelings about it. The portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall as a much nicer man than the records suggest bothered me more than I thought it would. I know too much about More to subscribe uncritically to the idealised portrait of A Man for All Seasons, but I can’t shake off some of Geoffrey Elton’s severer comments about Cromwell, either. At what point does historical fiction cross the line into fictional history?

We are seeing something of the same with the re-interment of the bones of Richard III. I have no particular feelings about him and have recommended interested parties to read Eleanor Parker’s excellent blog post on the subject, Relics, Reburials and Richard III, but I confess to being uneasy about some of the razzmatazz surrounding events in Leicester. I suppose I like my history a little cooler, a little more serious. For me, history is ultimately about truth and understanding (which is why it is so fascinating) and I don’t really like the introduction of fake elements or fundamentally modern interpretations of what, to a historian, is perfectly intelligible within the thought-patterns of an earlier age. I wonder, for example, how many people will be praying for the repose of Richard’s soul today or have any sense of his re-interment forming part of a long Christian tradition of translatio.

When we turn to today’s Mass readings, Genesis 17.3–9 and John 8.51–9, we are brought up against the difference between truth and untruth rather abruptly. Just as Abram becomes Abraham and is initiated into an eternal covenant with God, so Jesus speaks of his identity with the Father and shocks his listeners to the core. The history of the Jewish people traces the consequences of fidelity to that Abrahamic covenant; and the history of Jesus traces the consequences of fidelity to that union between Father and Son.  Today we might think about what that means for us. By baptism we have been born into the covenant Christ sealed with his blood on the cross. We are called to live as children of truth and light. How shall we do so?



An Addition to the Three Rs

Time was when the building-blocks of education were the three ‘R’s — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. They still are, but I think the time has come to supplement them with the three ‘H’s — a sense of history, a sense of humour and a modicum of humility.

You cannot have failed to notice how many people take their idea of history from the visual media. The presentation of Thomas Cromwell as hero in the televised version of Wolf Hall may strain the credulity of some, but Mark Rylance acts so well and is so convincing that I’m sure many will have concluded that Cromwell was basically a nice man, fond of his wife and children, and cruelly ill-used by villains like Thomas More. What about the systematic re-writing of history to be found in Jihadist videos? Or the thousand and one other portrayals of historical events and processes subtly coloured to argue a case or to interpret a past world through the lens of the present (think Downton Abbey, for example)? History is not an exact science, but it requires tough thinking and careful assessment of evidence. It is also multi-disciplinary. I’m sure it would help us not merely to read but also to decide what is worth reading in the first place (apologies to Trevelyan). I therefore suggest it should be the first addition to the three ‘R’s.

My second would be humour. You have only to look at Social Media or the pages of an online newspaper to see how many people have become so literal-minded that they fail to register that not everything is said or done with the same level of seriousness. Just as a sense of history gives a feel for period and the development of ideas, so a sense of humour is a great help in interpreting the words and actions of others. I’m not sure one can teach humour, but I think it would be worth a try.

Finally, I come to humility. It is no accident that today we read the twelfth step of humility in the Rule of St Benedict and find that humility — true humility — should be our constant disposition. I think sometimes we can exaggerate our own ability to solve problems or cure ills. If we did indeed have the solution to the world’s problems, the world would be beating a path to our door, but as it manifestly isn’t, perhaps we could pause and ask ourselves do we know all the facts, have we considered all the implications of such and such a course and, perhaps most important of all, are we in a position to judge?

Regular readers will know I have written this with a smile, but also with a grain of seriousness. How we approach the world, how we interpret the words and actions of others, how we manage to convey ideas of our own, matters. Get it right and there is peace and plenty. Get it wrong and there is war and division. Education plays a key-role in determining outcomes. As technology changes the shape of traditional education for ever, it is certainly something I’d urge thinking and praying about.