Everyone remembers the memorable subtitle of Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That. The two “genuine dates” are of course 55BC and 1066. It was true when the book was written (1930) and today that these are the two most remembered dates in English history. Why we remember these dates rather than others is an interesting question, and one that orthodox reference works often neglect to consider.
Dates such as 55BC and 1066 represent part of English mythic history. We remember them not simply because of what happened, or even despite what happened but because of what they represent in myth. That myth might have developed over hundreds of years.
Mythic history is not neglected in academic studies. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger edited a memorable volume called The Invention of Tradition (1983). One of the essays in that volume is about the invention of the kilt, and the myth of the ancient tartan, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper wrote (but did not publish in his lifetime) a book describing what he termed three myths of Scottish history, published as The Invention of Scotland (Yale) in 2008, and reviewed by Jenny Wormald in the TLS. It is Jenny Wormald who suggests the idea for a reference title:
Myths, their nature, their survival or disappearance, their importance, are a vast, complex and fascinating subjecct. It cannot be said that it is explored here.
Wormald mentions tantalizingly one of the fundamental myths of English history, and how one myth can replace another over time: “the myth of the horrors of the Wars of the Roses and the diabolic Richard III, replaced by the beneficence of Tudor rule.”
What do the endlessly reliable Sellar and Yeatman have to say about these matters? Well, Queen Elizabeth,another great mythic monarch, is summed up as:
She also very graciously walked on Sir Walter Raleigh’s overcoat whenever he dropped it in the mud and was, in fact, in every respect a good and romantic Queen.
Why did such ideas become widespread? Partly it is because it is easy to remember good kings and bad kings – we can probably remember their five bad kings. Partly it is the Whig interpretation of history (for example, “Broody Mary’s reign was, however, a Bad Thing, since England is bound to be C. of E., so all the executions were wasted”.
Has there ever been a dictionary of historical myth? In English, there are a few rather superficial glances at historical commonplaces. For example, Simon Jenkins wrote in the BBC News Magazine ‘Agincourt, WWII and other great British “myths” ‘. His article, however, devoted only a few words to each topic, and gives the impression of being more polemical and just as opinionated as the myths it was debunking. Similarly, the Daily Mirror ran a story “Debunking the history myths your teachers might have told you”, that was similarly superficial.
More impressive is a volume in French, 1515 et les grandes dates de l’histoire de France (Seuil, 2005), under the direction of no less a historian than Alain Corbin (a man who takes myth in history pretty seriously). This is a more valuable resource. Each date is given an essay of around 1000 words, long enough to discuss the topic in more detail. Still, it’s hardly a scholarly tome.
How about the same thing in English, the key dates of English history, and/or the mythic topics that people know about? The criteria for inclusion would be that non-historians know about them, that is, they have entered the popular consciousness. And another key requirement would be not simply that the idea was debunked, but more imaginatively, as Sellars and Yeatman do at times, to provide some explanation of why such ideas might have caught on. Finally, an attempt to locate the source of the myth.
Here are a few topics to start prospective authors thinking:
- Walter Raleigh and his cloak
- Alfred and the cakes
- The Norman Yoke
- Lady Godiva
Appendix: Incidentally, I had no idea why 1515 was a key date in French history. Even after reading the article, I still wasn’t entirely convinced. In case you also didn’t know, 1515 was the date of the Battle of Marignano, when Francis I defeated the Swiss. Next time I meet someone French, I’ll see if he or she knows about it.