Tag Archives: Historiography

Edwardian Tudors

I’m back teaching this semester after a productive sabbatical, although I’m a bit out of practice. Thankfully I’ve got my favorite Tudor-Stuart survey scheduled, a course that I’ve taught many, many times but always in a different way. This semester we are focusing on “disorder” in general and crime in particular and they are reading accounts of sensational crimes interspersed with the usual narrative of Reformation and Revolution. Before we get to any of that, however, I drag my students through a lot of historiographical and cultural context, because I find that they already have so many preconceived notions about this era, even those who have never really studied it, from films and television…..and Shakespeare, even though they don’t know that their “history” is Bard-derived. Yesterday we were examining how the Victorians perceived the Tudors, as you generally have to burst through Victorian interpretations to get close to anything resembling the historical truth, and we ended up with these wonderful Edwardian murals, installed in the East Corridor of the House of Commons in 1910. They are images of Tudor monarchs (for the most part), of course, but they are also Edwardian projections, chosen to represent the ideals of that time: a more popular-based sovereignty, empire, education, and the long-term consequences of the Reformation. What is so interesting is that several of the murals are not based on any documented historic event, but rather on Shakespeare’s depiction of an historical event: with their prominent situation in Parliament, they represent a multi-layered representation of the past.

Parliamentary prints first Plucking_the_Red_and_White_Roses,_by_Henry_Payne.jpgHenry Arthur Payne, The Origin of Parties. Plucking the White Rose in the Old Temple Gardens

Let’s take the first East Corridor mural as a case in point: Henry Arthur Payne’s The Origin of Parties. Plucking the White Rose in the Old Temple Gardens, which depicts a scene taken from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I in which the noble factions about to wage what would become known (much later) as the War of the Roses are choosing sides/roses. This is a pre-Raphaelite depiction of a pre-Tudor “scene”, and a bit of a stretch to consider the York and Lancaster factions as the “origin of parties”. Apparently even the artist questioned the first subtitle given to his work, but as the murals project was being overseen by the American artist Edwin Austen Abbey of the Royal Academy, who most definitely looked upon Shakespeare as his muse, the inclusion of this scene is understandable. Abbey was also responsible for the homogeneity of the East Corridor murals, as he specified the red, gold, and black color scheme which unites all six murals, as well as the uniform height and perspective of the characters portrayed.

cooper john-cabot-and-his-sons-receive-the-charter-from-henry-vii-to-sail-in-search-of-new-landsDenis William EdenJohn Cabot and his Sons Receive the Charter from Henry VII to Sail in Search of New Lands 1496

henry_vii_at_greenwichFrank Cadogan Cowper, Erasmus and Thomas More Visit the Children of Henry VII at Greenwich, 1499

katherine and henryFrank O. Salisbury, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before the Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529.

(c) Palace of Westminster; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationErnest BoardLatimer Preaching before Edward VI at St. Paul’s Cross, 1548.

mary enteringJohn Byam Liston Shaw, The Entrance of Mary I with Princess Elizabeth into London, 1553

And there you have them: representatives of Tudor history from an Edwardian perspective. The emphasis seems to be on: the story, empire, the “new learning”, and the relationship of the royal government to the people. We have an equal representation of both Protestantism and Catholicism, hinting at the secularism of the era. I’m happy to see that my favorite Tudor, Henry VII, has a larger role in this story than Henry VIII, but surprised to see such a supporting role for Elizabeth: perhaps she was too powerful an opponent of parliamentary power.

Images and more information about the murals here: https://www.parliament.uk/worksofart/collection-highlights/british-history/tudor-history.

and more context here: https://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/publications/browse/9780300163353.

edwardian sense


History by HBO

Much, most, actually all of the last week was spent in bed with the world’s worst cold, which dragged on and on and on. At first I thought fine, I need a break, I’ll just lie here and read, but I was so stuffy and sneezy and miserable that I couldn’t really concentrate on most of the books I had on hand, so I gave in and turned on the television. Hours passed by staring rather blankly at the screen, and my beloved TCM let me down by showing too many Marx Brothers movies and musicals, so I became my own programmer and ordered up a bunch of HBO movies. I know we’re in the (second) Golden Age of Television, but I really couldn’t commit to an entire series–after all, I could have died at any moment. I started with Elizabeth I (2005) which is actually a miniseries, but I have seen it before so I thought I could commit (or live through) four hours–and it always makes me feel better to see or think about Elizabeth. This particular Elizabeth is characterized by a rather plodding narrative of events during the latter half of the Virgin Queen’s reign, but Helen Mirren (of course) gives a tour-de-force performance and the production values are amazing: you don’t feel as if you are jettisoned into Tudor World as completely as with Wolf Hall and its natural light filming, but Tudor texture is definitely there. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly weary of the exclusively romantic focus: the hardest thing to govern is the heart reads the film’s tagline, but that’s not really true.

History by HBO 5

Once I left Elizabeth I, I started searching for something that was a bit more foreign to me–and that brought me to films about the twentieth century. I’ve actually watched some of HBO’s films about the very recent past (Recount, Game Change, Too Big to Fail), but I wanted to go a bit further back: the twentieth century is my least-familiar, least-favorite century, so I knew I wouldn’t grind my teeth over every little detail as with a Tudor film. I landed on a rather inanely titled film named Conspiracy (2001) which I had never heard of but which almost immediately caught my attention–and held it, rapt. Conspiracy is about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference which settled upon the Final Solution in a single afternoon, actually only 90 minutes as it was more of an announcement that a settlement. The whole movie is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action: the conversation about “evacuation” happens during a long lunch in the beautiful dining room of a suburban Berlin villa. Not just the idea, but the logistics of the Final Solution are discussed while horrible men (played by wonderful and familiar actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) are eating and drinking. A really chilling film that deserves a less generic title.

HBO History Collage 2

HBO History Collage 1

Conspiracy was so good I wanted more, but I didn’t really find anything that came close among my options: John Frankenheimer’s Path to War (2002), about LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, probably came the closest because you felt a bit of a chill (when American generals were talking, rather than German Nazis) but it still seemed like more of a “made-for-television-movie” rather than a film. Michael Gambon as Johnson was riveting, though, as most British actors playing American presidents are. Most, but not all: Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a pre-presidential FDR dealing with his diagnosis of polio in Warm Springs (2005) really pales–I suppose it has to–in comparison with his haunting characterization of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Hangman” and/or “Blonde Beast” and chair of the Wannsee Conference, in Conspiracy. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Mr. Roosevelt and grasped the empathetic development of his social conscience, just like HBO wanted me to. Still in the mood for statesmen, I finished my HBO history film series with two biopics about Winston Churchill: Winston in the wilderness in The Gathering Storm (2002, featuring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) and Winston at war in Into the Storm (2008, featuring Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer). Both were fine, with the first better than the second, which suffered from the Elizabeth I problem: we are not satisfied to focus exclusively on Winston when World War II is on in full force. By that time, even with my foggy brain, I had discerned the HBO formula for a historical film:

  1. A lavish budget: to purchase the services of the best directors and actors, and realistic sets, perfect in every little material detail.
  2. A focus on personalities. “History” is represented solely as the acts or reactions of people, with little or no attention given to larger environmental or intellectual forces, or context. This approach works best with individuals, which is why so much of HBO history is biography. Conspiracy is an exception, as multiple viewpoints are represented, and even though the context is assumed, there is an underlying subtext of SS infiltration of the entire Nazi regime which enhances the complexity of the presentation.
  3. Narrative. Given this biographical approach to history, departures from narrative can be as confusing as multiple perspectives.
  4. The more recent, the better. Because of the reluctance to engage in complexities and the personal approach, the better HBO histories are going to be focused on relatively recent topics and personalities where there is some familiarity or expectation on the part of the audience. This is why, despite all of the above, Helen Mirren, and a reliance on the BBC’s 2005 Virgin Queen series, Elizabeth I seems rather soul-less and unsatisfying.
  5. Intimacy. Ultimately, HBO wants to get us into the room where it happened. And of course, we can’t go there.

Microhistories used to be about People

The book that convinced/inspired me to be a historian was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which teased out the cosmology of a sixteenth-century northern Italian miller named Menocchio through his encounters with the Venetian Inquisition. Ginzburg’s ability to get inside the head of a sixteenth-century, semi-literate person was awe-inspiring to me when I first read this book as an undergraduate, and it still is: I regularly assign it to my own undergraduates. Ginzburg was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous pioneer, of a historical methodology called microhistory, in which the scope and scale of inquiry is so narrowed that the impact of historical events and forces is revealed through an almost-intimate perspective. Microhistories have the added benefit of giving agency–and presence– to people who might not otherwise appear in history books:  Menocchio, the peasants of a medieval Pyrenean village who also come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Emmanuel de Le Roy’s Montaillou:  the Promised Land of Error, a litigious Italian couple in Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna:  Love and Marriage in the Renaissance, a London lathe-worker in Paul Seaver’s Wallington’s World:  a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-century London, a Maine midwife working just after the American Revolution in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.

I could go on and on listing classic microhistories, but as I was putting together my syllabi for this semester one macrohistorical trend became blatantly clear to me: while the first examples of this genre were all about people, the latest (and most popular) are all about things. Rather than examining a precise place in time through the prism of one person’s life, we are now invited to partake of the history of the world from the perspective of beverages (Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses), sugar (several books, beginning with Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the place of Sugar in Modern History), salt (Mark Kurlansky, Salt: a World History), pretty much every other spice including NUTMEG (Giles Morton, Nathaniel‘s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History–actually this book focuses on the man as much as the spice), drugs (David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World), and stuff (Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects). It seems to me that consumerism is definitely defeating humanism in historical studies: we are now what we seek and eat.

World History

Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections

 


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