There is an often repeated quote that is thrown around when speaking of “the past” and knowledge thereof in the kind of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for gods and kings – that those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it and, principally, repeat its mistakes. As such, there are many out there who claim to have learned the lessons of the past and are able to make suggestions about future courses of action based on them, or to prophesy the end times thanks to lessons learned from the Black Death or a basic understanding of world war two. However, as almost any historian will attest, very few two historical moments are directly applicable to one another – humans are just too variable a factor to control for. More problematic though is that the very material the historical record is based on is often far from infallible. The inherent biases of the sermon preachers, victor historians, and letter writers is well known and the requirement to read between the lines of sources is a well hashed subject. What is often less well understood is that number “facts” often lie in a similar fashion, or at the very least skew the truth through over simplification. Read more
Posts from the ‘Alex Wakelam’ Category
Catholic murderers in your area put loyal Protestants at risk, SAD! – Benjamin Harris, fake news, and the Popish Plot
Anyone with even a passing awareness of western politics over the last year will have been bombarded with the phrase “Fake News”, whether to describe genuine falsehood circulated as fact or as the rallying cry of bombastic autocrats denying the validity of news sources that disagree with them. While the phrase seems like a recent development (the Wikipedia page for fake news was only created in January 2017), the concept of disseminating falsehoods as factual recaps of events is certainly not a new one. Probably one of the most famous pre-modern examples is the Donation of Constantine, an excerpt of the Constitutum Constantini which was itself drawn up from a ninth century Frankish work entitled Peseudo-Isidorian Dectrals, also known as the False Dectrals. This forgery supposedly consists of a decree of the Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) giving the Pope control over Rome and the Western Roman Empire. Unsurprisingly, it was used by a number of Popes from the eleventh century in their attempts to enforce authority over unruly feudal lords until it was finally proved to be a forgery in the fifteenth century by humanist Lorenzo Valla. Spreading deliberate, politically motivated, fake news in the middle ages took a serious amount of effort and while false stories of a mythical nature travelled across Europe organically, it took the printing press and the continent wide paranoia that came with the Reformation to usher in the first great age of fake news. Read more
It should come as no surprise to most that the festival of Christmas, as practised by Europeans, did not come into existence at this time of year by itself. Long before the supposed birth of the Nazarene, ancient cultures celebrated a number of winter festivals. Nor is this acknowledgment necessarily a new one; in 1560 the new Church of Scotland issued its First Book of Doctrine (whose authors included John Knox), which declared that ‘the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady’ were the inventions of papists as they had no basis ‘in God’s scriptures’. Christmas was clearly an invention of the Church, but it is also clear that this invention was not without its own sources even if they were more pagan than biblical. Read more
Around two o’clock in the morning of February 15th 1732, Robert Atkinson, a sadler, returned home drunk from the alehouse. His mother Ann Atkinson, having sent the maid to bed at midnight, had sat up to wait for him so that she could lock the door behind him (the symbolic ending of the household day) and while she waited drank about a pint of gin. The drunken pair soon argued and maybe about twenty minutes later, Ann slipped under suspicious circumstances at the top of the stairs of the home she and Robert shared with their maid Mary Parrot, Robert’s apprentice John Barber, and their three lodgers: Captain Dunbar, Arthur Gold, and Gold’s younger brother. When she hit the tiles at the bottom ‘her Skull was broke … of which she instantly dy’d.’ As the trial at the Old Bailey that followed this case shows, for most people in eighteenth century cities, the idea of private personal space was little better than an illusion. Read more
In May 1906 the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lay in his sick bed. That evening an old friend arrived from town to see the aged tragedian. Entering the room he greeted the nurse with “How is Mr Ibsen today?” “Oh”, she cheerily replied, “he’s doing much better.” At this Ibsen sat up incredulous in bed declaring “Tvert imod!” (tr. On the contrary!) upon which he fell back into his pillow unconscious, dying shortly thereafter. For a writer whose characters rarely even cracked a smile, he managed to exit the world with one of the finest deathbed jokes in history. Read more
The natural course of a life leaves an unintentional trail of breadcrumbs. Generally we never think twice of what we leave in the historical record whether it be major life moments (birth, marriage, change of address) or the little things like the discarded bus ticket or receipt for coffee that gets miraculously preserved. These fingerprints on the tapestry of history are the bread and butter of historians and while they aren’t meant for the view of others we don’t really mind their publicity. But we also leave behind more private records; diaries, love letters, disastrous teenage poetry – things that we’d rather no one else see either due to their embarrassing nature or simply because they are entirely private, they should belong only to us.
Something strange happened last month for members of the Renaissance Society of America (RSA). On Wednesday the 28th October members of the 61-year-old historical society were informed that one of the major benefits of membership –subscription to the research tool – had been cancelled. The service claims to possess “images of virtually every work printed” in English between 1473 and 1700, constituting several million scanned images of microfilm supplied by more than 200 libraries worldwide. It is thus an invaluable tool for the early modernist, available through most, if not all, university libraries. However, the service doesn’t offer any individual subscriptions and the high price puts it out of the realm of the casual public library. Membership at a very reasonable £85 a year of the RSA (the only professional society that subscribes to EEBO) provides the vital access to these documents in a digital, searchable format. It must therefore have proved a blow to their members that ProQuest, who own EEBO, decided to cancel the RSA’s subscription. This was not due to lack of use but to such “heavy use of the subscription” by members that it was “reducing ProQuest’s potential revenue from library-based subscriptions”. Within 24-hours the decision had been rescinded with ProQuest describing the situation as a “confusion”.
By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam
Archives can be peculiar places. Each comes with its own personal variety of watchful archivists, identification requirements, seating regulations and occasionally (for those who’ve tried to enter the almost impenetrable fortress that is the Bodleian) oaths to swear. They sometimes seem like sacred historical spaces (Cathedral archives often literally are) where only the enlightened, the blessed, the chosen brothers and sisters of history speaking “shibboleth” may enter. They are, of course, anything but. Despite the grumbling academics trying to expel anyone but themselves from the British Library and presumably from anywhere they deem “their territory”, those documents labelled “Public Records” are, as the name suggests, publicly owned and publicly accessible. The 1958 Public Records Act even specifically requires the provision of ‘reasonable facilities … available to the public for inspecting and obtaining’ historical records.