Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

4. Inventing ‘society’

There has been no development of greater significance in the history of the human race than the adoption of agriculture. Like the invention of metal tools it must have happened as the result of need – perhaps a change in the climate that made hunting and gathering impossible in large parts of Africa and forced its scattered population to concentrate in areas where there was still plenty of food and water available such as the Nile Valley. Like the Aborigines of Australia we can guess that these humans already knew how to make bread from the seeds of wild cereals: now another genius must have thought of planting the seeds deliberately and staying around to harvest the result. He or she would have had to defend their patch, either by force or – more likely – by negotiation. In this way the land became divided, something as unthinkable to genuine nomads as dividing up the sky. As a result I own a fraction of an acre in Torquay whilst the Prince of Wales as Duke of Cornwall owns thousands of acres. Yet his right and mine are guaranteed by mutual interest. If the position were suddenly reversed I’d expect him to respect my rights just as I respect his.

It’s not fair of course but it’s the result of another process just as far reaching as the invention of farming, namely the right of landowners to pass their property to their heirs. Let’s imagine the scene, down by the River Nile, around 8000 BC. Two early farmers are watching over their fields, made fertile by the river’s annual flood. Their wheat seeds are growing nicely, green shoots amid the brown soil. Across the river a recently-arrived nomad watches what is happening and attempts to follow suit but he doesn’t realise how important it is to tend his crops. Instead he leaves them to the mercy of passers-by who use his field as a short-cut between the river and the desert. A few weeks later the two sensible chaps have a crop to harvest whereas he has just a barren patch. What should he do? The hunting has been poor and he faces starvation. An approach to the men on the opposite bank yields little in the way of charity: only if he consents to work for them will they give him a meagre hand-out from their overflowing store. In due course their children will inherit their success whilst the nomad’s offspring will inherit his failure. Moreover, if – as is likely – the offspring of two wealthy households marry, their descendants will be wealthier still and the gap between those with property and those without will grow. Within a few generations of the land being divided there will be a land-owning elite and a much larger class of labourers – the class system has come into being.

Let us now go one step further and imagine that the winners in this unequal struggle attribute their good fortune to the gods who provide the good weather and the high Niles necessary for a bumper harvest. Will they not reward those same gods with acts of sacrifice and devotion, including the building of temples? And will they not also believe themselves specially chosen to be the leaders of their society? We must remember that in almost all pre-scientific societies the concept of luck was a very limited one. Men and women saw divine intervention as the cause of even the most trivial events. How much more would they believe in the notion of god-given success?

Such developments would be strengthened by another consequence of land ownership: the invention of war. We know that to begin with farming-based settlements were small and independent but what would happen if there were suddenly a scarcity of food? Hungry villages might combine to seize the resources of their neighbours forcing these villages to combine in turn. The victory of one alliance would prompt the emergence of others; equally important, those caught in the middle would want to join whichever side seemed to be winning. That such a process happened is beyond doubt because its results are evident in the archaeology; that it was slow, piecemeal and reversible may also be true. Yet where geography promoted good communications, as in the Nile Valley, there could only be one long term consequence – the emergence of a super community whose leader, crowned by the favour of heaven, would be its god on earth.

In Ancient Egypt the final act in this drama is marked by the so-called Narmer palette, inaugurating a three thousand year old monarchy whose symbolic attributes remained unchanged until the iconography of the pharaonic state was superseded first by Christianity, then Islam. I will have much more to say about Ancient Egypt later but at this point it may be useful to consider the nature of monarchy itself, as the form of government most frequently found in complex human societies. Its advantages are obvious: clear leadership and direction are provided; there is a single, undivided, focus for the loyalty of the community; most of the time it is clear who the next monarch is to be. This last condition is highly important: the death of its leader (or a decline in his power) represents a crisis in the life of any community, especially when that leader is the ultimate guarantor of everyone’s rights. No-one wants to see the land torn apart by rivals for the crown, hence the preference for hereditary succession, even when this is achieved by adoption (as in the case of the five ‘good’ Roman emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius).

Hereditary succession does have its drawbacks however: ever so often it throws up an heir who for one reason or another is unsuitable. History is filled with examples of countries that have put up with awful rulers rather than dethrone a legitimate heir. It is also full of examples where the need to limit the power of an incompetent monarch has resulted in constitutional developments of profound significance, for example the Magna Carta. In 1215 King John’s barons were forced to legalise their objections to his way of ruling in order to prevent his returning to bad habits as soon as they relaxed their vigilance. They didn’t intend to limit his power to govern well but they knew that John would not abide by an agreement that had been extracted from him by force so they had to elevate their opposition to a form of principle.

More than four hundred years later Magna Carta would be quoted by the opponents of another king when fear of a charge of treason obliged members of the Long Parliament to base their attack on the personal rule of Charles I on similar principles. For his part Charles considered their actions to be an infringement of his rights as king, something he could not permit without being personally dishonoured. These events illustrate another age-old difficulty with monarchy. To what extent is the ‘King’ as king different from the king as himself? It’s part of the ‘mystique’ of monarchy that the dividing line between the two is indistinct but it comes into sharp focus when the monarch’s personal desires conflict with their public duties, as was notoriously the case with Edward VIII and his planned marriage to Mrs Wallis Simpson. Stronger monarchs than Edward tended to marry who they wanted to but disaster frequently followed, as Mary Queen of Scots discovered when she married ‘yon long lad’, the worthless and venal Lord Darnley.

The key distinction is between ‘public power’ which is circumscribed and generally based on consent, and power that is conferred by divine sanction of some sort. In most countries today the head of state is a functionary like any public employee but for much of recorded history this would have been seen as an inadequate basis for the exercise of authority. In Tudor England, as in pharaonic Egypt, the monarch was much more than a chief executive: he or she was head of an ordered social hierarchy, the fount of honour and privilege, the personification of the state. To have such a cornerstone of society removable by democratic vote would have seemed the height of folly; only in Ancient Greece and for a very short period was the experiment tried. In fact attempts to buttress the power of the monarch are far more frequent in the past than attempts to control it. In the late Roman Empire, as in 17th Century France, giving the monarch absolute power seemed to be the only way of holding the state together. A close relationship with God helps to protect the monarch against challengers, ‘the divinity that doth hedge a king’ being seen as a stronger bulwark than the multitudes of untrustworthy guards.

Politics, religion and war – these then are the ultimate products of the adoption of agriculture and they have formed the context for the narratives of historians ever since. It can be argued whether the poor of the world have had a good exchange for the loss of liberty which the emergence of agrarian ‘super-communities’ involved. They have enjoyed a degree of security over the centuries, if only because the whole apparatus of ‘civilised’ life, with all its specialised systems and occupations, has depended upon their labour. However it is pointless to become indignant at the injustice of a system that has left so many lives unrecorded, especially those of women. Like the biology that underpins it society has had to go through a process of evolution to reach the point where greater equality is possible. What matters for the future is that we understand the conditions that are necessary to make a fairer world possible, one of them being a better knowledge of ourselves. It may be that perfect social justice is incompatible with perfect freedom and that the only way to have more of either is to have less of both.

Meanwhile an uncomfortable truth has to be digested. The greatest works of art and literature of the past were created in the service of elites, elites who define themselves as much by the possession of a superior culture as of superior wealth. Nowhere is this truer of Ancient Egypt. The great majority of the objects which fill European museums were produced for Egypt’s governing class of scribes and nobles: they provided the opportunity and the market for the development of specialist skills, such as those of the jeweller, the furniture-maker and the carver of statues and at their head, guaranteeing the continuance of this happy state of affairs was the king, the pharaoh, the embodiment of truth or ‘maat’.

True to the principle outlined above, it is to the environment of Egypt that we must turn if we are to understand the kind of society that developed within it. The Narmer palette shows the victory of the southern half of Egypt - where the fertile valley of the Nile is hedged in by seemingly limitless deserts – over the northern half, the delta region where the river divided into many branches. The palette itself is a glorified dish for applying eye make-up – the kind of effect seen in the much later mask of Tutankhamen – but it was clearly an object of state, made for a temple and preserved because it was deliberately buried during the floor during some later disturbance. The picture that it presents of the emergence of the state is not a particularly pleasing one. On one side the victorious ruler, whose name – Narmer - is given in hieroglyphs above his head, dashes out the brains of his fallen rival with a stone club. On the other side he goes in procession to inspect the decapitated bodies of his foes, laid out in rows with their heads between their legs. The palette represents the geographical setting for this context in a number of ways. The delta region is the one where water is abundant and papyrus plants grow in greatest profusion. It is shown by the side of its leader, held captive – literally by the nose - by a hawk symbolising the king. At the base of the other side of the palette a horned bull – also a symbol of the Narmer - gores down the walls of cities, showing that by this time fortified towns were a feature of the Egyptian landscape, such concentrations of population only being feasible where there was a surplus of produce for the town-dwellers to consume. Thus the palette is prima facie evidence for an advanced economy in which local centres of power and trade control the resources of their region, ultimately allowing one centre – the king’s city of Memphis – to control them all.

It would be quite possible to devise a board game or computer adventure which simulates the events culminating in the Narmer palette, with players aiming to take over all the whole of Egypt from an initial basis of very limited means. As in the real situation the key to success would be the forming of alliances, with conquest only being risked when the odds are favourable or the situation desperate. There would have to be reputation points as well as points for more physical assets, charisma being a vital ingredient in the armoury of any aspiring world leader. A favourable prophecy or two might help as well! The value in such a game is obvious: it makes the process of learning active in the way that has been recommended above. It also introduces an element of competition into the present, always appealing. Most of all it provides a general model that can be applied to other cultures and other civilisations, allowing learners to concentrate on the differences between them. Why, for example, did Ancient Sumeria (modern Iraq) not develop as a single, long-lasting and unified state like Egypt?

The answer, again, must lie in geography. The stability of any pre-industrial regime relies upon its ability to find natural frontiers. In Egypt these were provided by the wildernesses that isolated the country, containing its development within a defined and easily administered and defended area, with the Nile itself as the principal means of communication. In Sumeria secure boundaries were much harder to achieve. City-states in competition with one another were too equal in size and territory to achieve more temporary predominance. Moreover, as history continues to show, Sumeria was always vulnerable to outside attack. Over the last five thousand years wave after wave of invaders have left their mark there.

To return to Narmer: another feature of the palette is his size. In the procession scene he is shown as twice the height of any other participant, a visual statement of his importance that established a lasting trait in the representation of power. Equally timeless is the appearance of an official walking behind the king who carries his shoes. This individual is clearly of very great importance but his relationship to the ruler is defined by an intimate act of service – the equivalent of today’s Lord Chancellor who carries the Queen’s seal at the state opening of Parliament. It reminds us that monarchs tend to rule through their household, whether it be the freedmen of Emperor Claudius, the gentlemen of Henry VIII’s privy chamber or the eunuchs of the Forbidden City. It is only when monarchs cease to rule in person that government goes out of court.

If we can account for the rise of Ancient Egypt we still have to explain its longevity. Several hundred years of intermittent war must have preceded the Narmer palette, with each successful community developing its own customs, beliefs and modes of expression: the archaeological record is one of accelerating change. With unification the culture ceases to evolve: a high point has been reached to which succeeding generations can only aspire. What seems to have been the deciding factor is a sense of satisfaction with a system that worked. Contrary to the impression given in Hollywood epics it was co-operation on a huge scale that built the pyramids, a co-operation that had its roots in the villages where the digging of irrigation ditches had always required a communal effort. During the annual flood of the Nile this labour became available: its deployment on huge projects represents no more than an elaboration of what had been already been achieved on a smaller scale – an illustration of the principle we have already seen in nature: what is successful grows. Indeed it will go on growing until it collapses under its own weight, a principle as applicable to empires as it is to buildings.

In Egypt the collapse came about four hundred years after the completion of the greatest of the pyramids, that of Khufu at Gizeh (circa 2700 BC). After the long reign of Pepi II (2246-2152 BC) Egypt appears to have fallen apart, with no single ruler emerging for at least another century. Several reasons have been advanced for the collapse, amongst them the feebleness of an ageing king, the ambition of local princes, foreign invasion and - most topically – a shift in weather patterns that led to a succession of low Niles causing widespread famine. The importance of this last explanation is that it can set in motion the opposite of the process we have seen as responsible for state-building. Doubtless the government had contingency measures to deal with temporary shortages – the story of Joseph in the Bible is testimony to that – but a prolonged succession of poor harvests would lead to a loss of confidence in the centre and a ‘sauve qui peut’ mentality in the regions. Local administrators would cease to send their quotas to the capital, the court would no longer to have the means to function and starving city dwellers would be forced into the country to seek food. In such circumstances it would hardly be surprising if pyramid-building ceased and the general standard of artistic endeavour – where it survived – was low.

Fortunately belief in the centralised system survived its collapse and inspired a new succession of kings to revive its tradition and practices. The Egyptians called these traditions maat, personified as a goddess whose symbol was a feather, the same feather that appears in scenes of the weighing of the heart that distinguished Egyptians took with them to their graves. From the accompanying texts it is clear what maat consisted of. The deceased, whose soul stands in jeopardy of being devoured by a crocodile-headed monster if his heart is too heavy, denies that he has committed murder, adultery or theft, lied or sworn or offended the gods. In short he has behaved in the way that people living in society need to do if there is to be trust between them (see above). It may be fun to ask your learners to make up their own list of things to be included in such a negative confession. Leaving a mobile ‘phone switched on during a lecture might be one most teachers and lecturers would list...

If individuals were bound to conduct themselves in accordance with maat the obligation laid upon rulers to do so was even more profound. Like the Christian monarchs of medieval and Renaissance Europe, Egypt’s rulers had to account for their governance to a higher power, a fact most of them seem to have taken very seriously if only because their own afterlife in the company of the gods depended upon it. We only know this, of course, because of what they tell us. The Narmer Palette is not only a record of the world’s first historical event it is the world’s first written record.