What’s in a Name? Creating and Commemorating Historical Events
It is a well-known pub quiz fact that the Hundred Years’ War was not one-hundred years long. Nor was it a war, exactly, but rather a series of intermittent conflicts that raged between the House of Plantagenet and the House of Valois during the years 1337-1453. But, for some reason, the ‘Hundred-and-Sixteen Years’ War’ has never caught on.
What makes an historical event? The sociologist Philip Abrams once argued that an event is not simply ‘a happening there to be narrated’ but rather ‘a happening to which cultural significance has successfully been assigned’. In other words, events don’t just happen. They are created partly in hindsight, shaped by processes of retrospection and commemoration. It was only in the nineteenth century that the phrase ‘Hundred Years’ War’ was coined to describe the Anglo-French confrontations of 1337-1453. Modern scholarship has inherited the term from this earlier generation of historians and with it the sense that the Hundred Years’ War was a culturally significant event. By contrast, no one in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would have used this vocabulary to describe the complex and protracted conflict that was happening around them.
Perhaps this seems like an obvious point to make. In one sense, it doesn’t matter very much that the name ‘Hundred Years’ War’ is not contemporary to the time and place about which historians write and teach – or that it would be more accurate to describe the conflict as the Hundred-and-Sixteen Years’ War. The phrase is a convenient short-hand for an episode of incredible complexity. It contributes to our sense of chronology and also establishes useful, if somewhat artificial, boundaries within which we can investigate larger problems, such as the nature of power in the late medieval period or the impact of war on society and culture. By naming events, we identify the case studies with which we can explore universal and often abstract themes and issues, such as class, gender, power, or race.
But it is also true that the names we give to events say at least as much about us as they do about the events themselves. Probably the best known example is the First World War (1914-18). Until the advent of the Second World War in 1939, it was known as the Great War or, poignantly, as the ‘war to end all wars’. Now, when we commemorate the First World War, we are inevitably prompted to remember that it was not the last world war. Part of the cultural significance of this episode is drawn, therefore, from its place in the wider context and trajectory of twentieth-century conflict and struggle. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We might, however, usefully interrogate more closely the processes by which ‘happenings’ are transformed into ‘events’ and how the names we give to those events have the power to distort our understanding of the past.
My own research is about Henry VIII’s suppression of some eight-hundred religious houses in England and Wales (1536-40). History has remembered this event as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The name dates from the seventeenth century. The Dissolution thus shares with the First World War and the Hundred Years’ War the quality of being a retrospective invention. It also conceals much about what happened in the 1530s. The dissolution was not a monolithic event, but a prolonged and uncertain process. Between 1536 and 1538, Henry’s government conducted a phase of partial suppression designed to reform the ‘vicious, carnal, and abominable living’ allegedly maintained by the monks and nuns. Had Henry stopped here, we might have been talking about the ‘Reformation of the Monasteries’. At no point in this period was wholesale dissolution inevitable – for many, it was utterly inconceivable. But then a second act of parliament (1539) was issued which retroactively incorporated previous suppressions into a deliberate programme of total surrender. Thus king and government took the first step in transforming an uneven process of suppression into an historical event. Though it was an episode that, as my work argues, Henry VIII would actually rather have forgotten, he nevertheless laid the foundations for its eventual commemoration as the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’.
We are living in the midst of what are undoubtedly highly significant events, some of which have already acquired names. Since 2012, the term ‘Brexit’ has functioned as a short-hand for the United Kingdom’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union. Soon after triggering Brexit, the government published ‘The Great Repeal Bill’ – a name that speaks volumes about how some politicians would like the revocation of the 1972 European Communities Act to be remembered. But whatever happens next – as the examples of the Hundred Years’ War, the First World War, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries have taught us – it may be the names developed by subsequent generations that determine how our own times are remembered.
 Philip Abrams, Historical Sociology (Shepton Mallet, 1982), p. 191.
 Sub-entry on ‘Hundred Years War’ in “hundred, n. and adj.” OED Online (Oxford University Press, March 2017). Accessed 12 June 2017.
 Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries, 1536. Reproduced in Thomas Wright (ed.), Three Chapters of Letters Relating to the Suppression of the Monasteries (London, Camden Society, old series 26, 1843), p. 107.
 “Brexit, n.” OED Online (Oxford University Press, March 2017). Accessed 12 June 2017.
‘Battle of Crécy between the English and French in the Hundred Years’ War’, from a illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, By Jean Froissart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Battle_of_crecy_froissart.jpg
‘London Brexit pro-EU protest March 25 2017′, By Ilovetheeu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7c/London_Brexit_pro-EU_protest_March_25_2017_06.jpg