Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

11. ‘Closed’ systems

It is said that the great Greek engineer and scientist Archimedes was killed at the siege of Syracuse in 211BC by a drunken soldier who did not know who he was. Archimedes had been fashioning weapons to help the Syracusans defend their city against the Romans, including the manufacture of a parabolic mirror to set fire to the Roman ships. The Roman general had given orders for Archimedes’ life to be spared but the soldier, finding an old man alone in a room full of scientific instruments and measuring devices he did not understand, ignored his victim’s pleas and struck him down.

The story is one of those metaphors for the triumph of ignorance over education. Another is the execution of the French scientist Lavoisier during the French Revolution, despite his request to finish the experiment on which he was working. ‘La Republique,’ his accusers declared, ‘n’a pas besoin des savants…’ Perhaps the most symbolic act in this short catalogue of violence against intellectuals is the murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in his cathedral in 1170. Becket is still a controversial character whose transformation from worldly chancellor to martyred saint has been the subject of more than one play and an epic film. The cause he died for – the freedom of the church from lay control and in particular the right of those in holy orders to be exempt from the king’s justice – is not one that excites us today. Why should a murderer escape scot-free just because he could read a few words in Latin? Yet Becket’s death can be seen as a marker in a process by which the rough and ready world of the Anglo-Saxons was transformed into one in which thinking men and women were once again in charge. The late Jacob Bronowski called it the ‘Ascent of Man’ by which he really meant the ascent of the intellect, that capacity for framing systems and values to which we have already referred, without which society as we think of it now would be impossible. Bronowski believed that since the achievement of consciousness the human mind has also been evolving, albeit through the transmission of ideas rather than genes. Understanding Nature through Science will give us a unique opportunity to govern our own destiny as long as we can achieve the self-control to use it wisely. If you want to take an optimistic view of the future this is what you must believe.

I mention Bronowski at this point because one of the weaknesses of history from a child’s point of view is that it is a story without a moral. All too often God is ‘on the side of the big battalions’. The answer to the question ‘why do we have to learn about the past?’ ought to be ‘look what happened in the end’ but the best we can point to is the start of a new chapter. Even the defeat of the Nazis, final as it appears to be, did not result in everyone living happily ever after. However, the on-going struggle for human rights, which is actually a struggle for the rule of reason, does provide a continuing theme which allows pupils to see some direction in history and to understand what we can learn from it. This is not to pretend that mistakes cannot be made - some of them have been terrible - but it does suggest that we can learn from them and admire the example for those who stood up for what they believed was right.

Meanwhile, with Becket, we are in the ‘never-never land’ of the Middle Ages, essentially a place invented by the Victorians in reaction to the ugly effects of the Industrial Revolution. The primary school curriculum hops over the six centuries between the Vikings and Henry VIII but the Norman Conquest and Magna Carta figure in ‘Medieval Realms’ with which secondary pupils generally begin their history.

We’ve already touched on one problem associated with this era: the dominance of the Church. Hopefully, the children will already know a little about the purposes religion serves. They should also have a general idea of what Christians believe even if they are not Christians themselves. The difficulty arises from the fact that in the context of the Middle Ages the word ‘church’ almost always has a capital ‘c’. It is not just a building where the central mysteries of the Christian faith are remembered and re-enacted: it is a powerful organisation which embodies those mysteries and to considerable extent ‘owns’ them.

In medieval times all the members of this organisation, whether high or low, were set apart from ordinary people by a set of promises – vows - that governed their behaviour. They were to obey their superiors in the organisation, they were not to have families and they were not to seek riches. In some cases they were to live apart from the rest of the community in enclosed ‘houses’ or monasteries. The aim was to imitate Christ as far as possible through a life of work, study and prayer, but it was a road that some found hard to follow. Indeed, getting its members to live up to their vows was a battle which the Church had been fighting for hundreds of years before Becket’s time. It was the fact that it was being more successful in the 12th Century that gave Becket the moral authority to defend its privileges against his one-time friend Henry II. How could a sinful layman, his hands stained with blood and filth, be allowed to judge someone whose pure life demonstrated that he had been chosen by God to be one of his servants?

If by now you’re wondering how on earth you’re going to teach this to a class of twelve year olds, of different faiths or none, it might be helpful to see the question in less religious terms. Something more was at stake in the battle between Becket and Henry II which was just one episode in a battle that was taking place across Europe for control of the lands and wealth of the Church.

Let’s suppose you are a medieval king a century or so after Alfred died. Essentially you are a still a warrior, leading an armed nobility in defence of your kingdom. You may or may not be able to read and write (Alfred could; William the Conqueror couldn’t) but there are occasions when you need things written down – charters conferring property (which act as title deeds) and laws which you want to see observed throughout your kingdom so that your subjects can live at peace with one another. Sometimes you want people who can give judgements on your behalf or represent you in negotiations with other kings. If you have conquered some new territory you may want a trusted subordinate to administer it for you.

Where are you going to find such people? Answer: the Church. The same people who are praying for your soul can also provide a corps of trustworthy administrators. All they need is land to provide for their needs. And the biggest bonus? They can’t pass this land on to their children because they aren’t supposed to have any. As the Viking threat receded therefore kings across Europe began to invest heavily in the work of God, rewarding the loyalty of their clerical subjects by investing them with ever more resources. At the very least a monastery gave the king somewhere decent to stay as he travelled about his realm.

The kings who pursued this policy most vigorously were the ones who bore the revived title of Roman emperor though in fact they were kings of what we call Germany today. They were so powerful that they could depose the pope in Rome who was at least nominally the head of the whole Church in the West. But what happened if a pope decided that this was wrong: if his responsibility for men’s souls set him on a higher plane that the emperor’s responsibility for their bodies? Then all those churchmen who the emperor had so richly endowed would cease to work for him and even more important all that land that he had given to them would slip out of his hands. This is the context in which we should see Becket’s argument with Henry II about the trial of priests in the king’s courts. As Henry’s subject Becket owed him obedience; as archbishop of Canterbury and the pope’s representative he was claiming a spiritual authority superior to that of the king. In practice it came down to a clash of wills which Becket, by dying for his cause, appeared to have won.

In reality he didn’t. What emerged was a sensible compromise. The Church got its privileges including what was called ‘benefit of clergy’ (exemption from royal justice) – but its lands and the obligations that went with them remained firmly in the temporal sphere, to be granted by the king to each new bishop or archbishop when he took office. But who should choose the new bishop or archbishop? This too ended in a compromise. In theory cathedral chapters had the right of free election but in practise they elected the person the king nominated and whom the pope confirmed. Providing all parties respected the rights of the others the system worked well. Modified to take account of the royal supremacy in England it still does.

In the meantime the Church kept what it really wanted – the monopoly of truth. Here it might have thought itself unassailable: after all, what other way was there for a man or woman to get to Heaven? In Hereford Cathedral you can see what the Church’s truth amounted to. The famous Mappa Mundi is not just a map of the world, it is a statement of faith. At its top, enthroned on a rainbow, as described in the Book of Revelations, sits Christ on the Day of Judgement. To his right those who have believed (and lived their lives accordingly) are raised up to everlasting life; to his left those who have not believed (and have followed the path of sin and self-indulgence) are consigned to eternal punishment, the jaws of Hell literally opening up to receive them. This was the same scene you could see painted over the chancel arch in almost every parish church in England. Beneath Christ the world is pictured as the map’s maker – one Richard of Haldingham – pictured it in the year 1300. It is round, with the three known continents of Europe, Asia and Africa filling almost the entire surface (curiously, they are mis-labelled, with Europe in place of Africa and vice versa).

Unlike the maps most commonly seen in modern British atlases the British Isles lie out on the fringe of the world, with Scotland apparently a separate island and the north of Ireland divided from the south. For Richard of Haldingham Jerusalem was the centre of the universe, with great cities like Rome and Constantinople far more important than the capital of his own country, London. Yet he made sure that Hereford was marked on the map along with the other cathedral cities of England and Wales. What is more surprising is to find places shown that were no longer in existence at the beginning of the 14th Century, like Babylon and Troy. Further out, in the far reaches of Asia, all sorts of peculiar creatures make their appearance: for example men with just one leg and faces on their chests. These are clearly the result of travellers’ tales and such fragments of Greek and Roman literature as Richard could find in his cathedral library. His own knowledge of the world must have been fairly limited. We can assume that he had never been to Scotland or Ireland, nor did he apply a modern scholar’s scepticism to information that came to him second or third hand. What he wanted was to be comprehensive. Here is God’s creation, past, present and future: no educated Christian needed to know more.

The result is something I call a ‘closed system’ of thought. The Egyptian, Sumerian, Chinese (and doubtless the Indus Valley) cultures all possessed similar explanations for the way things appeared to be, involving gods and men in one single over-arching destiny which both accounted for the world and governed the way we should behave in it (remember the Egyptian concept of ma’at). Only educated Greeks, as we have seen, kept an open mind. In the New World, Aztecs and Incas had their own equivalents of the Mappa Mundi, making it very hard for them to deal with the invading Conquistadores who arrived, literally, like visitors from outer space.

Like Western Europe all these societies were deeply conservative in nature – doubt was a luxury they could not afford. In Western Europe however something happened that brought about a change. No visitors arrived from outer space but within a hundred years of Becket’s death the Church’s monopoly of truth was coming under serious challenge – from within. There had always been divisions in the Christian Church. In the 4th century AD argument raged over the exact nature of Christ; in the 8th there were violent clashes over the use of images. Although claiming to be the successors of St Peter to whom Christ had consigned the government of his Church the bishops of Rome were never acknowledged as such in the Eastern Roman empire. In the 13th century however, the pope’s authority was challenged by large numbers of men and women in the south of France who preferred a different version of the relationship between good and evil to that taught by the Church. Orthodox Christianity makes evil the product of God’s decision to give Man, his most special creation, free will; evil results when Man gives in to his animal nature. To these ‘heretics’ however good and evil represented two equal powers – God and the Devil – with the Devil master of this world and God’s realm restricted to the next. Thus they did not believe in the saving power of God’s grace or the Church’s role in saving human beings from themselves. This threatened both the Church’s authority and its income.

In due course the heretics in the south of France were destroyed in what has become known as the Albigensian Crusade. Yet heresy survived, surfacing again in different forms and at different times throughout the succeeding centuries, mainly as a reaction to the wealth and power of the Church establishment. In England it became known as ‘Lollardy’ and attracted noble followers. The existence of the Lollards as a kind of pre-Protestant ‘underground’ sect ensured that no future archbishop of Canterbury would follow Becket’s example in quarrelling with the reigning king. The Church needed royal power to suppress these ‘serpents’ within its bosom.

In the meantime the Mappa Mundi survived as a point of reference for all who wanted to know the Church’s answer to the three big questions: ‘how did the world begin’, ‘what happens when we die’ and ‘why do good or bad things happen?’ Within its framework of certainty knowledge could safely be acquired and wisdom be taught without incurring the dangerous risk of ‘thinking outside the box.’ Science, as we understand it, was unnecessary; every important question had already been answered. All you needed to do was to look the answers up. This was not however the preoccupation of most young men who governed kingdoms in the Middle Ages. Churchmen could spend their time reading books: they had God’s wars to fight.

As has been so often pointed out there is no inherent reason why Christians and the Muslims should fight one another. Both Christ and Muhammed sought ways of limiting conflict in their own time: both taught the importance of forgiveness and mercy. Yet the energy which the prophet’s teaching released in communities hitherto at war with one another carried the armies of Islam deep into lands that had formerly been Christian. The inherent decency with which the newly conquered peoples were treated attracted many converts and fuelled further expansion. By the time of Alfred Christendom could be seen as sandwiched between the pagan Vikings attacking it from the north and Saracen raiders increasingly penetrating its heartlands from the south.

We have seen how Alfred survived and how a stronger England emerged as a result. Those who look for a reason why Western Europe went over to the offensive in the 11th century can point to a similar strengthening in the bonds of society in France and Germany where the Viking threat was also contained and new kingdoms emerged. They point to a general recovery of confidence when the world did not end in the year 1000, which many thought would bring Christ’s second coming and a parallel improvement in the climate which brought warmer weather and better harvests for the next three hundred years – roughly the period of the crusades. During this time it is clear that the population of Western Europe expanded: some estimates put the population of England and Wales as high as five and million in the year 1300. With conditions generally peaceful, trade expanding and towns making a significant contribution to the economy for the first time since the Romans, it became both necessary and desirable to focus the wilder elements in society on some external enemy. This was certainly in the mind of Pope Urban II when he stood in a field in Claremont in the year 1097 and called upon the princes and knights of Christendom to undertake an armed pilgrimage to the east, firstly to help the Christian emperor of Byzantium whose domains were under threat from the Muslim Seljuk Turks, and secondly to free the Holy City of Jerusalem from Muslim control. In response to Urban’s words his audience of several thousand shouted Deus Vult: ‘God wills it!’ and the First Crusade was launched.

It isn’t the purpose of this book to recount historical events in detail only to fit them into some sort of pattern which can justify their inclusion in a history curriculum. There are those – Muslims and Christians - who see the medieval crusades as just one episode in an ongoing struggle between Islam and the West, forgetting that most of the wars that have taken place have been wars between regimes not faiths. Moreover, when I studied the Crusades as a special subject at university in the 1960s it was quite clear which side had the moral victory. When Christian commanders behaved well it was often through the example set by their more chivalrous opponents, a tendency which was criticised by newcomers to the Holy Land who thought their compatriots had gone ‘soft’.

Not that this helps those who have to make peace today. They would be better off forgetting history altogether, because no settlement can be based upon disputed views of the past. Negotiators have to concentrate their efforts upon what each side wants from the future. Nonetheless, the Crusades happened and they had some important consequences. They opened Western minds to the possibility of alternative ways of thinking which attracted scholars and even some rulers; in this way the hold of the ‘closed system’ represented by the Mappa Mundi was weakened. It was further weakened when, in 1497, a Spanish adventurer called Christopher Columbus persuaded his sovereigns – King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile – to let him try to break the Muslim monopoly on the trade in spices by sailing round the world to their source, the islands now known as the East Indies. As is well known he ran into America on the way, thus demonstrating that the Mappa Mundi was incomplete. However, before we follow up the disastrous effects of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ on the native inhabitants of the New World, we must return to those little islands on the edge of the map to see how the medieval inhabitants of England dealt with the problem of a bad king and how this too had far reaching consequences.