A Simpler Time ...

It is tempting to adopt a black-and-white view of the past, but history is complex and should be judged on its own merits.

Abbeychurch by the prolific Victorian writer Charlotte Yonge.

She was a very popular author in her day and, though little read now, she is a fascinating guide to the tastes and interests of a certain class of bright, intellectually engaged young women of the 19th century. One of those tastes is a fervent passion for history and in Abbeychurch two characters – clever, well-read girls of 16 or so – have a conversation of just the kind to catch a historian’s attention.

One is making a collection of ‘true knights’ throughout history – men who exemplify her ideal of chivalric perfection, from Alfred the Great to Philip Sidney. It is a romantic and motley collection, inspired as much by the novels of Walter Scott as by more sober works of history, but the girls discuss with real insight how far they should allow the standards of different historical periods to modify their ideal of ‘knighthood’. Is it right to include in the collection men who committed acts of cruelty which would be unacceptable in the 19th century, since the views of an earlier age were different?

These girls find their own way to a critical approach, balancing the impulse to hero worship or to condemn with an understanding of historical context and how ideas change over time. The simpler instinct, though, never goes out of fashion: the idea that history is about identifying heroes and villains, singling out individuals as prophets or enemies of ‘progress’. We see many examples of this tendency today and it is, perhaps, akin to the desire to plunder history for analogies for modern politics; recently, for instance, we have heard how analogies for Brexit can apparently be found in the Norman Conquest, the Reformation, Dunkirk and probably every historical moment you can think of. Few of these parallels ever turn out to be very enlightening and they are all too often solipsistic – they make history all about us, belying the complexities of the past to suit the arguments of the present.

This is sometimes described as a ‘morality play’ approach to history, which always seems to me a little unfair on morality plays. Of course, I see what is meant by that phrase: that such black-and-white views of history reduce real human beings to the kind of allegorical personifications found in medieval morality plays, where figures appear on stage representing abstractions of vice or virtue. In the 15th-century play Mankind, for example, the characters Mercy and Mischief (‘Wickedness’) compete for influence over Mankind, who is led astray by a number of personified temptations but ultimately saved by Mercy’s friendship.

But in a morality play these personifications are never intended to be people at all; the point of a play like Mankind is that the allegorical characters Mankind encounters are forces with which any human being might come into contact. In such plays, the struggle to avoid temptation and live well is a universal challenge and the hope they hold out is that the struggle can be won – that people torn between good and evil have the power to choose the better path.

The theology of sin and redemption underlying these plays might seem miles away from 21st-century popular discourse about history, but modern commentators who would like to divide history into simple narratives of good and bad are more dogmatic in their thinking than any morality play. At least the plays recognise that people can be a complex mixture of good and evil, rather than simply one or the other.

It may not be possible, or even desirable, to avoid making moral judgments about the past; it is difficult to be dispassionate about historical injustice or suffering. But we can at least be conscious of where moral judgment and scholarly judgment become entangled. We can attempt to understand the past, even if we cannot condone it, and to defend the principle that trying to explain why something happened is not the same as justifying it. Like Charlotte Yonge’s history-loving teenagers, we can be self-aware about the instinct to forsake complexity for easy stories and avoid turning historical figures into caricatures or stereotypes.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.