Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

14. Maggots in a jar

If the course of history can be altered by something so individual as the love of one man for one woman, the effects of that alteration can be profound for thousands if not millions of men and women. In England King Henry’s assumption of control over the Church initiated a process of what can only be called ‘asset-stripping’ during which much of the wealth that the Church had accumulated over the centuries was seized and sold off by the crown. This included some very great treasures and some splendid buildings, although the greatest losses may have occurred when the libraries of the dissolved monasteries were dispersed or destroyed. We can only guess at how much by the remnant that survived.

In the History Boys (radio version) it is once again Irwin, the young schoolmaster turned politician, who mocks the public obsession with the material losses that resulted from all this vandalism, the spiritual losses being irrelevant in the age of shopping. However, there were spiritual gains as well. It is an irony that one of the basic causes of the Reformation may have been a revival of religiosity in the period immediately preceding it, especially amongst lay people who were becoming better educated. Sir Thomas More is a good example. No-one was more enthusiastic than he about his religion than More. In his youth he thought seriously of entering the strictest of the monastic orders, the Carthusians, but although his spirit was willing his flesh was weak, so he decided to marry and become a lawyer instead. Many others followed the same path. Their minds, trained to find the weak points in any argument, soon detected the logical errors in many long established beliefs and practices (‘superstitious works of man’s own invention’).

In More’s case this went no further. His response to Luther’s challenge was to put Church unity above any other consideration. Once the Church’s authority had been challenged however it was impossible to keep the debate within orthodox limits. More himself was an enthusiastic polemicist, lambasting his theological opponents in language that would never have been used by a medieval churchman. With the invention of printing the arguments reached a much wider audience than had ever been involved before – as Henry VIII himself put it: ‘the word of God is debated in every tavern and alehouse.’ It was a development Henry himself wished he could reverse, yet in his daughter’s reign it resulted in a generation of outstanding poets and play-writes – men (and women, one assumes) free to think what would have been unthinkable in the age of their grandparents. Out of this ferment the Scientific Revolution of which we are all beneficiaries, was born.

As in so much else Shakespeare is both typical of these developments and far ahead of them. Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy asks the most fundamental questions, almost entirely outside a religious framework. Hamlet’s conclusion – that ‘conscience (consciousness) doth make cowards of us all’ – suggests a profoundly sceptical attitude towards those who claim a moral authority based upon religious texts. All that stands between us and the easy way of suicide, Hamlet suggests, is the fear of the unknown – ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourne no man returns.’ Shakespeare himself takes up no position on this - his genius is to embrace opposites in his view of human nature – but the fact that such speculations are placed within the mouth of a character in a play should not disguise from us their revolutionary character. When considered alongside Galileo’s discovery that there were indeed ‘more things in Heaven and Earth’ than had previously been visible to the naked eye, the overall effect was to undermine the hold of traditional religion on the minds of intelligent people. Within two or three two or three generations of Shakespeare scholars and academics were beginning to measure everything in the search for universal laws or patterns in nature. In doing so they established a new religion - that of the experiment. If the same situations produced the same results time after time a universal law could be announced. Such universal laws have remained the goal of scientists from that day to this but it was their practical application which had most effect on ordinary lives. Just as training in the law had sharpened minds of young men before the Reformation so training in Maths prepared them to be the engineers of the Industrial Revolution. No longer would they be held back by the fatalism typical of societies based upon closed systems of thought. Instead they would meet necessity with invention and when invention proved inadequate they would meet the challenge with fresh invention.

However, it was not inventiveness that started the ball rolling towards the industrialised world of today. During Shakespeare’s lifetime the royal physician William Harvey began research which was to prove that blood circulated around the human body, so laying the foundations of modern medicine. The medieval church had banned dissection but now it became a public spectacle (creating a nasty trade in stolen cadavers that led to the Burke & Hare murders at the beginning of the 19th Century). Progress was slow (bleeding continued as a popular form of treatment for fever for many years to come) but the range of treatments available for illness increased. As a result the death rate in British society began to fall, bringing about a slow but accelerating rise in the population of England from at least 1600 onwards. By 1700 it was about seven million, by 1800 at least ten. By 1850 it would be seventeen million The question was: would there be enough food for all the extra mouths?

In earlier periods the answer would almost certainly have been ‘no’ and the same view was put forward by the clergyman Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) in his famous Essay on the Principle of Population at the end of the 18th Century by which time the increase in population was clear for all to see. Malthus’ theory was quite straightforward: sooner or later, he said, we would eat our way to starvation and thus the population would fall back to more sustainable level. It is commonly demonstrated by the maggot experiment. Put a handful of maggots in a jar of corn and presently they breed; within a very short time there are masses of maggots and no corn; ultimately there are only dead maggots.

As we all know Malthus’s dire predictions did not come true. Instead farmers responded to what was a growing market by looking for ways to make their land produce more. This was the Agricultural Revolution which has bored generations of school children during their most hormone-rich years. A recent TV series called Victorian Farm showed how the subject could be made interesting but the key to teaching it lies in establishing why it is important. Without the problem-solving approach of those 18th Century farmers – Jethro Tull, Turnip Townsend and the like – there would have been no extra people wanting extra clothes and so no fortunes to be made in providing them. There would have been no need for machines to replace the old hand-spinning and weaving techniques; no need for factories or for great cities to house their workers; and no need for the iron to build bridges, boats and trains to transport the goods that were produced – in short, no modern world.