Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

10: Big questions

So far I have been advancing the argument that history – in addition to being a creative subject - is as important to society as memory is to the individual. For this reason people look to historians for more than facts: they expect explanations, even when the questions they ask may be based on little more than tradition. Nothing illustrates this better than the ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire. Why did this advanced political and social system – the world’s first ‘superpower’ – collapse into chaos in the West, leaving only a potent memory to haunt future generations? In what is perhaps the most influential history book ever written - Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – the answer is simple: it was overwhelmed by a combination of enemies from without and decadence within. The moral fibre of its ruling class was undermined by luxury and self-indulgence whilst its historic sense of mission was destroyed by the conversion of many of its citizens to a religion – Christianity – which focussed upon rewards to be expected in the next world rather than the need to defend what had been gained in this one. Unfortunately this analysis leaves many issues unconsidered, not least of them the nature of the ‘fall’ itself.

Here we have to seek a modern parallel. I have lived through the fall of the British Empire: when I was born the British still ruled India and large parts of the map remained pink until I was in my teens. The first African colony – Ghana - was granted independence in the year I entered secondary school, the last as I entered university. Did I perceive this ‘disburdening’ as a calamity? No I did not. It was a time of rising living standards in Britain and unprecedented freedom for young people. I went to university on a grant that more than paid my living expenses and I joined the teaching profession as the move to comprehensive education seemed to be ushering in a bright new age of curriculum reform and social mobility. Of course we lived under the shadow of nuclear war and I remember gazing over towards the City of London from the tower of the Shell Building where I worked during vacations, imagining the effect that even a modest hydrogen bomb would have. Yet apart from the Cuba crisis of 1962 the danger never dominated our day to day lives: there was still a bright future to which the peaceful give away of the empire seemed to be contributing.

Could some Roman citizens of the 5th Century AD have seen the shedding of imperial responsibilities in the same light? During one of Rome’s many wars against the Persians in the east a powerful fortress called Amida had been taken by the enemy. Contemplating its ruins the empire’s finance minister observed: ‘see how well our soldiers defend us, whose pay is bankrupting the state.’ If you were a tax-payer in the late Roman Empire the collapse of the imperial infra-structure could well have alleviated your burdens. Indeed a persuasive case has been made for continuity in the western provinces in spite of the barbarian ‘invasions’, with the Romanised elite maintaining their authority through the institutions of the Christian church. The protection offered by the invaders may have been cheaper and more effective than that previously provided by the over-stretched imperial army.

Let’s not pretend however that nothing of significance had happened. The empire that Marcus and his comrades had defended was a free trade area two thousand miles across with a population estimated at thirty million. In spite of local differences the same laws, the same language and the same money were in use everywhere; there was a flow of ideas that matched the free flow of goods. In Britain at least the succeeding age was very different. When the last units of the regular Roman army left our shores in about 407 AD local men had to step in and find ways of maintaining law and order and defending their property. A contemporary source calls them ‘tyrants’, who ruled without law or justice, lording it over their immediate surroundings from re-occupied hill forts like South Cadbury – possibly the real Camelot. One of them, called Vortigern (not a name but a title, meaning ‘high king’), was accused by later generations of employing mercenaries from across the North Sea to defeat his rivals. These mercenaries later joined in the fighting on their own account, taking land in lieu of payment. True, the Britons fought back under a leader called ‘Arthur’ whose exploits were remembered in those parts of the country not occupied by the invaders – mainly Wales and the South West - but within a hundred years of the legions leaving a major cultural shift had occurred whose most obvious sign is the adoption of the invaders’ language – English – by the majority of the native population. We see the results of this cultural shift in the poem most closely associated with it - Beowulf.

Before commenting on Beowulf and the mindset it represents it’s worth emphasising how fragile our grip on the past can be. The poem was probably composed around 650 AD although the only surviving copy was made in an unknown monastery around the year 1000. We owe its preservation to Archbishop Matthew Parker (died 1575) who acquired it early in the reign of Elizabeth I from someone who had been involved in the dissolution of the monastery in question during the reign of Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII. Even then the manuscript was not safe: in the next century Parker’s collection came into the hands of the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton whose library was badly damaged by fire in 1731. The Beowulf manuscript was one of those rescued but even so its edges are damaged and some lines are incomplete. We can compare this with the loss of the greater part of Greek and Roman literature through war and neglect. The pen may be mightier than the sword but time is the enemy of both.

What is it then that makes Beowulf’s world so different from that of the Roman Marcus? Firstly it is a world almost entirely without politics. There are kings it is true but there is no government in the sense that we would understand it: a king commands by virtue of his descent and reputation and he attracts men to follow him because he is brave and generous. His obligations are to provide leadership in war and protection in peace: he is feared in combat; his courage is confirmed by noble deeds; he lives a life of honour; savagery is alien to him. We are a long way from a society based upon rules and regulations, enforced by faceless men in suits quite prepared to ‘spin’ the truth for their own purposes. Yet no-one is more hostile to chaos than Beowulf, for whom honesty and loyalty are the highest virtues. It is not surprising that two major films have been made based upon his story within the last few years: he is the ancestor of Superman, Batman and all their kin.

The second feature of Beowulf’s world that is significant is its definition of evil. In the course of the poem Beowulf fights three monsters: Grendel, Grendel’s mother and - in old age - a dragon. None of the three are wicked in the sense that we would call Hitler wicked. Grendel’s assault on the hall Heorot is the result of exclusion, the anger that a sensitive creature feels at being left out in the dark because, through no fault of his own, he is too fierce and ugly to be welcome. Grendel’s mother is even more innocent of responsibility for her actions: she is merely avenging her son, as any mother would. The dragon is the guardian of a treasure which a foolish young warrior tries to steal, bringing the creature’s wrath down upon Beowulf and his people. Respectful as he is of the dragon’s right to defend its hoard Beowulf must save his country. He is a prisoner of the fate that controls us all, a fate ‘which goes as it must.’

And this is the third aspect of Beowulf’s world that distinguishes it both from that of the Romans and from our own. Time and again the poet reminds us of the transitory nature of human life. ‘Tomorrow,’ the young Beowulf is reminded, ‘you will soon die, in battle or in bed. Either fire or water, the fearsome elements, will embrace you. Or you will succumb to the sword’s flashing edge…’ In contrast to the bright blue skies of the Mediterranean Anglo-Saxon mythology has its origins in the limitless forests of northern Europe. Outside the small circles of heat and light that humans make for themselves a great and terrible darkness awaits. Although the circles will one day be extinguished life itself is not futile. On the contrary it becomes more important to live it to the full. In the end Beowulf dies without regrets, having done his duty as a king and as a man, thanking God that he has been allowed to win glory without shame. As long as the world lasts he will be remembered.

Love and death are the two most powerful themes in literature and they play an important part in many of the best known Greek and Roman legends. Beowulf is different in this respect too. Love plays almost no part in the story, except the love of a mother for a son or the love of a people for their king. In Jungian terms Beowulf is a ‘rite of passage’ fantasy in which the hero seeks opportunities to prove that he is fit to be a husband and father. Grendel’s epithets – ‘Night-stalker, Dark Shadow’ – confirm this impression. They suggest that he is more abstract and more terrifying than any human opponent. Beowulf’s real enemy is fear itself, a theme that appeals equally to children and to adults who feel vulnerable – which is all of us from time to time, both men and women. This makes the poem a splendid vehicle for a journey into the past: its elemental nature establishes the value of learning about its context. Whilst a detailed study of its setting isn’t essential, the more you learn to appreciate what it tells you about the Anglo-Saxon world, the more force the story itself will acquire. This is a rule that applies to the use of all authentic source material.

With the Saxons we are now solidly in the midst of the unit once described as ‘Invaders and Settlers’ in the 1988 History National Curriculum. Over the years this title has been discarded in favour of the more politically neutral ‘Early History of Britain.’ As we have seen, the change of name represents changes in the view of archaeologists also. It now seems to be agreed that there was no sudden break between Roman and Saxon Britain, merely the replacement of one elite by another, possibly even the adoption of new customs by the same elite. But what about the Vikings? Weren’t they genuine invaders? Children love the horned-helmeted, bushy-bearded warriors from across the sea – the Norsemen of whom their victims lived in dread. Sadly they are largely the invention of Hollywood: real Vikings are much more difficult to find. However, a search for them can introduce children both to the way myths and legends arise and the nature of the evidence that exists to prove or disprove them.

Let’s begin with the most famous Viking raid of all, the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 AD. By this time most of the area we call England is both Saxon and Christian, having been brought back into the pale of civilisation by St Augustine’s mission to the people of Kent that began in ***. Lindisfarne – Holy Island – is the location of a community of monks guarding the relics of St Cuthbert, the saint who evangelised the north. The shocked Anglo-Saxon chronicler recorded the sudden appearance of three ships of ‘heathen men’ who attacked and plundered the monastery, the first of many such attacks which eventually led the monks to re-locate to Durham.

The point is that they were heathens. When the warrior elite of Anglo-Saxon England allowed themselves to be baptised they did so in the belief that the Christian god was stronger than Woden, Tiw and Freya, the old Norse gods who gave their names to the days of the week. In their minds Christ was engaged in a fight with the devil in the same way that Beowulf fought Grendel. In a poem called the Dream of the Rood Christ is described as a young warrior who climbs upon the cross ‘brave before many, to redeem mankind.’ The attack on Lindisfarne was more that just a disaster for its community, it was a defeat for God.

Who were these heathens? The surprise they achieved seems to be due in part to the fact that their intentions only became known once they had landed on the island: they had been thought to be harmless merchants at first. Quite what led to their sudden appearance off the coasts of Britain and northern France at the end of the 8th century AD we don’t know. One explanation is an improvement of the climate in Scandinavia that produced a surplus of virile young men who had to find an outlet for their energies somewhere. A second possibility is the invention of some navigational device that allowed them to cross the open sea with greater confidence. A third possibility is that going ‘a-viking’ resembled the fashion for football hooliganism in the 1980s. The foreigners were there to be beaten up and there was a lot of fun to be had in doing it. The truth is probably a combination of all three but presenting them as alternatives makes for a good debate in the classroom.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the Viking raids is that they created the kingdom of England. The man usually credited with starting the process is Alfred the Great, king of Wessex from 871 to 899. At the outset of his reign Alfred had barely escaped with his life from a large-scale raid on his kingdom by Vikings from Denmark under the leadership of one Guthrum. His only refuge was a fortified island called Athelney in midst of marshland in Somerset. Here he had a long enough breathing space for men to come to him from across the south of England and with the resulting force he was able to beat back the invaders, eventually crushing them so completely that Guthrum became a Christian – a sure sign that he too saw the fight in religious terms. Now Alfred began constructing similar strongholds throughout his kingdom. Wherever the dreaded long-ships made an appearance there was somewhere for the people to run to. Safe behind their stockade they could defy the raiders who dared not linger because this would give the king or his local representative long enough to come to the rescue.

The problem was that the burghs needed manning and maintaining. Every able-bodied man had to take his turn, yet such was the fear of the Vikings that no-one seems to have objected. Moreover, other parts of the country clearly saw the advantages of the Alfredian system and wanted to belong to what was clearly the winning side. In a bargain that has so often brought together scattered and independent communities, they were willing to exchange freedom (and cash) for security. Although the process would take time, within fifty years of Alfred’s death the king of Wessex would become the king of all England.

Today the same bargain is expressed in the many complex ways in which the citizen interacts with the state. We pay taxes to have the benefits of the health service, police and education. We accept the limitations placed upon our individual freedoms by a system of law whose punishments we also respect. In Saxon times the whole process was much more personal. A man gave his allegiance to a lord who gave it in turn to a king who returned the favour by providing gifts of land and silver - time and again generosity is seen to be the defining characteristic of a great leader. At the bottom of the scale were the serfs. Serfs, who formed the great majority of the million or so inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England, were agricultural labourers tied to the particular village where they lived and worked. Their side of what may seem to us a very unequal bargain was peace and protection, and a degree of stability that allowed them to cope with the normal ups and downs of a life dependent on the seasons. If they also had to spend time digging ditches and manning the walls of their local burgh it was a price worth paying. Look for the same ‘quid pro quo’ wherever political power is in the making.

Meanwhile, despite the saving nature of Christ’s sacrifice, a deeper destiny continued to shape the universe. A final poem in the Exeter Book which its translator calls ‘Destiny’ enumerates the many different directions – good and bad – that a man’s life might take: ‘one will die young, bringing grief to his parents; and the wolf – grey heath-stalker – will feast on him… one will forfeit his life to the sword’s edge, drunk with wine and self-importance… one will have the talent to amuse, to liven up a feast and make his fellows laugh… another will tame the wild falcon, the hawk on his wrist… thus Almighty God decides the journey that each man follows on this middle earth… therefore let every man and woman give thanks to God for all the blessings that, in his mercy, he has bestowed.’