Monday, 1 January 2018

a history lesson

History was not well taught at my school.  We spent an inordinately long time on the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and the acts of Parliament relating to women's suffrage, and as soon as I was forced to choose between history and geography I plumped for the latter.  The geography teacher was very good and I enjoyed my O level, but I managed to emerge from my schooldays with absolutely no knowledge of Medieval history beyond what I'd read at home.  This amounted to an image in an illustrated children's history of England of Matilda escaping from captivity in the snow dressed in a sheet, a fairly good impression of the workings of the wool trade and the introduction of the printing press from two stories by Cynthia Harnett, and the expulsion of the Jews from England plus the death of Eleanor of Castile and leprosy thanks to Geoffrey Trease.  And of course there was 1066 and All That.

As the Systems Administrator began to grasp the depths of my historical ignorance it is fair to say that the SA was well and truly flabbergasted that anybody who was supposed to be educated could know quite so little about the history of their own country, or anybody else's.  So began a programme of reading which has carried us through many Christmases and birthdays.  After the Tudors, Stuarts, industrial revolution, Victorians, and Georgians, we are now on to the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages are dreadful and fascinating, ripping yarns in their own right, but also horribly illuminating of how power works and how people in pursuit of power are apt to behave.  Charles Clarke as New Labour Education Secretary suggested that there was no point in studying Medieval History, or at least as it brought no social good nobody else should have to pay for those who did study it.  He was wrong.  Politics, current day international relations, or life inside a big corporation, you will find them all mirrored in or illuminated by the antics of our Medieval forebears.

My guide through four hundred years of political history in seven hundred pages is Dan Jones.  I started with The Plantagenets for my birthday, and now I'm nearly through The Wars of the Roses.  He has a very lucid, lively style, and keeps the pace moving along relentlessly by focusing almost entirely on the politics of the time.  The wood trade has scarcely had a mention, beyond the fact that London's merchants were a powerful economic force, and nor have the lives of the poor.  It was a wise decision on his part.  If he'd tried to cover economic and social history as well the books would be three times the size and sprawlingly unreadable.  I recommend them highly.

It is a lot to get to grips with all at once, when you have a dozen kings and five of them were called Henry, or else Edward, and practically all of them were married to somebody called either Eleanor or Isabella.  It turns out to be a very good way of going to sleep, trying to remember them.  Henry I came after William the Conqueror after his brother William Rufus died mysteriously in a hunting accident, and after him came Henry II, no there was Matilda first in her white sheet after William the Atheling died in the White Ship, and then came Henry II who was married to Eleanor of the Eleanors.  And was John married to the She Wolf of France or did she come later...zzzz

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