How to carry out a histo… an histor… a debate about history

Posted: June 26, 2010 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

In a recent discussion, a word was used that got me thinking. I needed to work out why that word bothered me so much, why it made my skin crawl and my teeth clench. In and of itself, and certainly in other contexts, it’s not a bad word. What it got me thinking about was why people use it, what does it mean and how does it fit into a wider context. It has a companion word, similar in connotation but much stronger, much more hostile, and that too I needed to think about. Let me say at the outset that I have no personal animosity towards those who have used either word in the last few months; they’re trying to make a point. The trouble is, in making this point, they often miss a bigger one.

The words in question are ‘fan’ and ‘groupie’. Before I get too much further into what I’m hoping will be an interesting analysis, I want to give some background.

Apart from hard core academic historians (who I’m not considering at all in the following), those who are interested in reading about history can arguably be divided into a number of groups. This is not hierarchical, nor does it reflect on the relative intelligence or worth of members of the different groups. It’s just an observation that, I think, has a bearing on what I’m trying to say.

The first group includes people like my mother. She reads a great deal and what she reads is varied and eclectic – she doesn’t stick to one genre, though she is loyal to some specific authors. In terms of historical fiction, she likes a recent series about ancient Rome; the Brother Caedmon books; Nigel Tranter. She’s recently read books by Posie Grame-Evans, and she’s read (and enjoyed) the first four chapters of Nevill. Most of the time she doesn’t want to know much more about the time period referenced in the books than she needs to to enjoy the reading. Also in this group I’d include those who were fond of a particular author who doesn’t confine themselves to one historical period: Jean Plaidy, Bernard Cornwall and the like.

The second group are those who devote themselves to a specific time period and devour everything that comes their way. The Tudor era is a rich example of this. (I don’t like the Tudors much. I just don’t find them particularly inspiring. However, one of my very favourite books growing up (and probably still if I can find a copy) is Meg Roper by Jean Plaidy, if I recall correctly.) Another rich source is, of course, the Wars of the Roses which is my preferred period, though I do quite like the Georges and the Stuarts.

The last group is, I think, probably the smallest. These are the people who devote themselves to one specific time period. They step out of fiction into non-fiction from time to time and often develop quite a knowledge base. And they take sides: Roundhead or Cavalier, Jacobite or Hanoverian, York or Lancaster. That’s how it happened with me. I wandered through history for a while growing up and kept finding myself coming back to the Wars. One of the first books I read was Margaret Campbell Barnes’ The King’s Bed. This was followed up by a number of fairly forgettable titles until I hit We Speak No Treason and The King’s Grey Mare. Up till then, I’d probably have considered myself partisan to Richard III, but a single sentence of Hawley Jarman change my world and my life.

Warwick rose towerlingly. His rose-dappled mantle swirled; black hair curled on his brow. Everything of him was puissant and challenging and might have said: Behold us! We of the blood royal, of Edward the Third…

I was gone, smitten, and by book’s end, head over heels in love. Who is this man? I needed to know. And I’ve spent great chunks of my life since trying to find out.  (In my defence, I was about twelve at the time.)

So, from intrigued by the character of Richard III (and his younger self), to unashamed Yorkist to Nevill partisan, I’ve spent a good many years in the Wars, latterly much more in non- than fiction. And I’m developing a sense of the shifting currents. People get rehabilitated, this gets challenged, partisanship develops and the debates begin. Most of them are challenging, interesting and sound. However I have noticed that sometimes something else is going on and it’s this that I’ve been thinking for the last couple of days (and sleepless nights).

So, finally, to my point: five signs of a debate about history that’s lost its way.

1. Infantilise your opponent’s opinion by referring to them as ‘fans’ and ‘groupies’.

You can immediately stop taking them, or anything they have to say, seriously. Clearly they haven’t formed their own opinions, haven’t read what you’ve read and certainly haven’t analysed it the way you have. Also, by doing this, you can treat them as part of a monolithic bloc. All Richard fans and all Wydeville groupies think the same way. You can stop listening to them and start making demands instead.

2. Demand explanations and justifications for all the bad things Their Hero has done.

Related to this is the whitewash/tarring dichotomy. Once you’ve established that Your Hero isn’t guilty of all the bad things they’ve been accused of, you can feel confident that they aren’t guilty of any. By the same token, once you’re satisfied that Their Hero is guilty of some of the charges, you can assume they’re guilty of all. Then you ask your opponent to explain, first assuming that they’re going to try and justify things. Or maybe put the blame onto someone else. Or suggest that the reason Your Hero got locked in the Tower because they did something to deserve it. Worse still, they might counter by bringing up the one unforgivable crime perpetrated by YH and demand that you explain. When this happens you should stay calm, there’s always a way to swing the blame back on the other side.

3. Cite a single, badly researched, fawning or at the very least outdated source as the one (and only) book that all ‘fans’ and ‘groupies’ have read. Assume that they haven’t moved on from that, haven’t read anything more recent, better written or more soundly researched. Even if they list a hundred other books, wrinkle your nose when they mention this one, wave your hand dismissively. They’ve just outed themselves: only the worst of the groupies has read that one.

4. Assume that anything you’ve read is superior, even if it’s only one book. You know more than they do, because you’re rational, just like all the other fan… aficionados of YH.

5. Talk about TH in the most insulting terms possible. Make it clear that only a fool with an underdeveloped critical faculty would fall for all that nonsense. Dismiss any positive actions or character traits. It’s not difficult. Were they known to be generous? Currying favour with the masses. Loyal? Biding their time till they could strike. How about a strong woman, fiercely protective of her children? That one’s too easy, you shouldn’t need any help there! There are a thousand ways of doing it. Your Hero, on the other hand, was a victim of circumstance, or a truly good person, or misunderstood, the target of propaganda, didn’t really want to do it but they had no choice.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to take the passion out of historical debate. The Lord knows, I have my share! I’d stand between My Heroes and the most determined of foes, nails and teeth bristling. And maybe I’m just blissfully un-self aware enough to not recognise the times when I fall into the traps. But I’d like to think I try not to. And, as I said at the start, most of the people I know try not to as well. I don’t particularly want to live in a dry objective world where everyone’s neutral. I like it that the battles are still being fought and people long dead are fiercely defended. It keeps things interesting and intellectually stimulating.

Maybe I’ll be able to sleep tonight, now that all this is out of my system.

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Comments
  1. I hope I haven’t been guilty of too many of those! I have used the word “fan” in connection with Richard III, I know, but I’ll take the pledge and avoid the term in the future.

  2. anevillfeast says:

    I’m not aware of your guilt in this matter at all, Susan. With some people I’m sure it’s quite deliberate, but with others not. Those of us who are relatively sane are riding this current anti-Richard backlash with white knuckles gripping the nearest immovable object. Others, I’m afraid, might drown.

    • Caroline says:

      I’m definitely not a Ricardian, but I’ve never used the term groupie to describe RIII’s defenders. I do think that some Ricardians tend to see things in black and white, though. They can’t entertain the possibility that RIII could be guilty of murdering his nephews because that means he’s a totally evil person. I think a few Ricardian authors, like Sharon Penman and Joan Szechtman, have actually fallen in love with him. I also totally agree with you that because I like some of RIII’s qualities as Duke, Military Leader, King, Husband and Father means that I don’t have to hate Margaret of Anjou, the Woodvilles, or Henry VII.

      • anevillfeast says:

        Thanks Caroline. I agree, probably the vast majority of people are able to carry out passionate, sometimes heated discussion, debate and argument without resorting to this kind of stuff. And there are people on both sides of this particular argument that do.

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