As a trained historian, I find the historical ignorance of this generation of students appalling and scary. If you don’t know where the human race has been or what it has done, your ability to understand humanity and yourself is vastly curtailed. Worse, you disrespect tradition because you don’t even know what it is; Chesterton reminds us, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
Ignorance of history lets us assume things are new that really are old, and vice-versa. Whatever you think of Islam as a religion, as military conquest, jihad has long been with us. In the old days, British schoolchildren read “Lepanto,” Chesterton’s paean of praise to Don John of Austria, who led the sea battle that defeated the Turk in 1571. (Cervantes took part and was wounded.) One could mention the numerous conflicts between Islam and Christendom; even the Crusades, I think unfairly maligned these days, were a part of a very long struggle, lasting at least to the 17th c. Turkish siege of Vienna and beyond. For me the greatest tragedy of the Middle Ages was the fall of Constantinople, but I speak as a partisan of Christendom. (Even the Black Death does not seem as terrible as the Fall of the Eastern Empire; men must die, but the death of a culture is tragic, like the extinction of a species. No culture is immortal, only we are.) Those whose knowledge of history does not go back further than their birth can no more judge true causes and effects than a newborn can order a gin and tonic. (Very bad for the kid, though I share the late Queen Mother’s taste for the drink.)
Several late-night hosts and “Watter’s World” have gone out amongst the college-aged to ask ludicrously easy questions about this country’s past. These students, unembarrassed by the depth of their ignorance, seem as to have little or no knowledge of the major events in their own country’s history; they know even less about anything that happened before they were misbegotten. Part of this may be due to the fact that anyone not born in the age of the iPhone seems foreign to these children, and perhaps not quite human. These children have been taught that they themselves are paragons; they need not “cultivate their persons” because they are already fully formed, only unlike Athena, they spring from the forehead of Chaos, not Zeus.
The more you know about history, the more interesting it becomes. I remember plowing through Lord Norwich’s three-volume history of Byzantium; it was a fine overview, but overviews leave one exhausted. It is not until we get into the details of the stories of Justinian and Theodora that we really get fascinated. (What a pair they were! At the time of the riots in the hippodrome, Justinian thought of fleeing, but his wife refused, saying that the Imperial purple made the best shroud! They survived the riots, by the way.)
HISTORY COMES ALIVE
This is where history comes alive, when you actually get a sense of who these people were. R. G. Collingwood argued if you approach history forensically, you can recreate what happened, just as a detective can figure out “whodunnit.” This does not lead to consensus about history, though it does limit some less well-constructed conclusions. I have observed that Roman Catholic historians sometimes are less favorably disposed to Elizabeth I than are Protestant writers. The “Protestantism and Progress” view of English history held sway in the past but now is increasingly viewed with skepticism. (Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars makes a cogent argument that, despite the Reformers’ propaganda, English Catholicism was actually doing very well before Henry wanted “to change his woman.”) The more you know about Elizabeth I, the more fascinating she becomes, whether you think of her as Gloriana or Henry VIII’s heretical bastard. Rather like Abbé Sieyès, asked what he did during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, replied “I survived,” Elizabeth I could have made a similar claim. Her very survival during the reign of her half-sister was a considerable accomplishment. She may even have owed her life to her half-sister’s husband, who became her chief rival as Philip II of Spain. At the time of Wyatt’s Rebellion, many of the Spanish courtiers wanted Elizabeth thoroughly dead, fearing if she became Queen, she would revert to Protestantism. (They were right.) Philip apparently indicated that a princess should not be executed without proof, and this Elizabeth was too canny to provide. (I have seen a statement she made answering questions to the Council, and after she signed it, she scored parallel diagonal lines down the rest of the page so no one could add anything more.) There is a tendency to snigger when “the Virgin Queen” is mentioned, yet deprived of her mother for “adultery” in childhood, losing her first “suitor” (albeit already married to the Queen Dowager) in youth, and living largely in public at Court all her life, she could easily have acquired an inclination towards chastity. In any case, it is fairly easy to think she would not risk pregnancy. Elizabeth was certainly mercurial; as her “witty godson,” Sir John Harington put it, she was as temperamental as the English weather, stormy when it suited her, but it was Gloriana’s sunshine when she smiled.
History is a study of the human condition in microcosm. If literature is like an experiment – what would be a believable human response to hypothetical conditions – history is like a field study, finding out what people actually did. As glorious as American history can be, I must admit I find the Tudors more fascinating. After all, one may behave badly if one loses an American election, but making a misstep at a Tudor Court could cost you your head.