Jonathan Dodd: History

Jonathan Dodd returns with his Sunday column and this week shares his view on the importance of History. As always, a great Sunday read.

Bayeux Tapestry

Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed


History is a very slippery thing. You would think that telling a story about what happened a while ago would be easy, but it isn’t. To start with, you might not have been there, so it’s not your own story. And if you were there, your story will only include the things that happened to you or that you heard about from other people. Your picture might be only a part of the whole thing.

There’s also a lot of truth in the old adage that ‘History is written by the victors’. After the Battle of Hastings King Harold was dead, the British were defeated, and the Normans set about writing a new history of our country, with them in control. Apart from what-ifs, there are no accounts of the noble resistance or the alternative reactions to the Norman Conquest. And it probably didn’t make much difference to the day-to-day lives of most people anyway.

More interesting and relevant to the concerns of the potential audience
History is dogged by legends too. There’s no evidence that Harold did receive an unwelcome arrow in the eye, but it’s such a good story that we don’t want it not to have happened. It suits us. Poor old King Richard III had endless lies made up about him, propagated by Henry VII and repeated by historians for centuries, and Richard’s reputation is only now being restored. By historians. Who’s to say it won’t be revised back?

king richard III

It’s also affected by fashion. A story becomes popular again, like the recent interest in Queen Victoria, and the story is adjusted to make it more interesting and relevant to the concerns of the potential audience. We’re coming up to the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and there’ll be a lot of manoeuvring around the events concluding with the killing of the last Czar and his family. The current regime there doesn’t want anyone thinking about revolution.

I’m not blaming God for this
We have a habit of using history as a way of reinforcing our own opinions or desires to encourage particular paths, for ourselves or our countries. This is always suspect, because it always involves cherry-picking. It’s like Christian theologians trying to use the Bible to justify some rule they’re trying to invent or impose. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that priests can’t marry or that it’s fundamentally wrong to be gay. In the same way there’s nothing in the Qur’an that says women must be subservient or wear black robes.

Richard the Lionheart

This makes me think about another adage – ‘Creating God in our own image’. There’s no better way to impose some new law on an unwilling public than to find any argument that might suggest that God wants you to do it. I seem to remember hearing about God encouraging both sides in every war that ever happened too. I’m not blaming God for this, you understand, she’s above all that. I’m talking about the misuse of history, and the Bible and Qur’an and all other religious tomes are themselves part of history.

To carve our own initials on the future
None of this means we shouldn’t continue to write and teach history. The worst thing we could do is to fall into the trap of forgetting. It’s no wonder that genealogy is so popular. We all feel ourselves part of a river of time, stretching back through the ages, long before anyone even thought of time itself as a thing, or an idea, long before even ideas themselves. Putting our finger on that stream, tracing it backwards against the current, both grounds us and gives us pleasure.

flowers at site of twin towers

We like to see history as a generally benevolent process, carrying us along towards ever-greater and easier and calmer places, and in general that’s true, as far as we can see. We forget about all those civilisations and empires that thought the same way, but are now gone, ground to dust beneath our feet. We owe it to them and to ourselves to remember as many of them as we can, partly to help us avoid the same fate, and because we would be rather sad if we were forgotten by future generations. Our religions address our mortality, and promise us some form of continuation. We also like to feel that we’ve managed to carve our own initials on the future.

Some examples to work with
What I’m really saying is that history isn’t fixed or proven, and we should avoid using it as a bludgeon or excuse to keep things the same or sweep them away. The whole point of history is that there are things we can learn about ourselves and what’s happening around us, but we have to work hard to make sense of what those things are. If we’ve forgotten our history we can’t do that, and we’ll be all the poorer for it, personally and culturally.

French_retreat_in_1812

The way we can use history best is to gather together as many examples as possible of what people in the past did when confronted by similar problems, and that gives us some examples to work with when discussing what we should do. Plainly Napoleon made mistakes while invading Russia, and presumably Hitler either ignored that history or thought he had solved the problems. Perhaps those who wish to make history, feel themselves to be so omnipotent that they can ignore the past. We’ll probably never know.

Harder to go for the sympathy vote
On a personal note, history can work really well. Someone with a history of failed relationships could, with a little help, or a lot of thought, start to define patterns, and trace the stages that result in the all too familiar outcome. This can lead to better self-knowledge, and maybe to the ability to break those habits. We’re always able to shrug our shoulders and declare that we’re just like that, of course, but it’s harder to go for the sympathy vote, if that’s the thing we’re looking for, if we know the error of our ways.

Catherine of Aragon

The same goes for countries and empires and all forms of human grouping. I believe that history shows us that self-knowledge and the willingness to look around and adapt to the ever-changing environment out there improves our chances of surviving. Even all-male golf clubs are able to realise this, although various supremacist groups find it a bit harder. Being scared of change doesn’t ever justify damaging others, and fear is the most usual reason behind such strongly-held views.

History is everyone’s, rather than just ours
We should be in the business of learning as much history as possible, so we can use it to improve our own minds and our ability to think in wider circles. Knowing history teaches us how intertwined we are, and inter-dependent, and how much history is everyone’s, rather than just ours. The whole idea of history being written by the victors is a way of saying that everything important that’s ever happened has been through war.

Yalta_Conference_(Churchill,_Roosevelt,_Stalin)

History is no more about war than it is about kings and empires, or science, or ideas, or religions, or beliefs. It’s a melange of all these things. Any history that concentrates on only one of these skews the view and ignores important elements that don’t fit. And as a species we are all-too-familiar with the casual voluntary partial-sightedness that comes from only wanting to see things in a particular way. If you look closely, the people who quote history at you are probably the people who understand it least, and it would be wonderful to be able to throw a bucket of cold history water over their heads occasionally.

We’re all in this together
The thing that worries me about this moment in time is that history is no longer seen as vital knowledge in order to be a complete person. We’ve lost our appreciation of the importance of history, it’s no longer seen as an important part of the curriculum, because it’s too easy to drop too young, and we don’t expect anyone to know anything about history anymore.

freedom versus tyranny

We need education to have culture, and we need culture because that represents the width and depth of those things that concern us. We appreciate other cultures by experiencing and sharing them, and through all that we learn that we’re all in this together. The alternative is ignorance and isolationism, misinformation and xenophobia. Some people are comfortable with that, even some of our leaders. I’m not, because it makes us weak and proud of the wrong things.

instruct the ignorant statue

And all the rest of it, as they say, is History.

If you have been, thank you for reading this.


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Opinion Piece

Sunday, 19th March, 2017 11:43am

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7 Comments

  1. We have such a rich history on the island yet nowhere to put any of it. Carisbrooke Castle is stuffed full of stuff which never goes on public show. The Records Office likewise. Wish someone on this island had some vision…. somewhere to put everything under one roof. Time to move with the times.

  2. Mark Francis


    20.Mar.2017 9:24am

    The Norman Conquest made a big difference to people’s lives. It certainly shortened them for anyone living in the Harrying of the North. Peasants who were freeholders became tenants on their own land. There were tales of resistance – Hereward the Wake, Wild Eadric % Waltheof- its just that you have not read them.
    According to Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs $ Steel” the main historical purpose of religion is to justify conquest of unbelievers $ to take their land.
    Hitler was always eager not to use the same strategies as Napoleon – which is why he attacked on 3 fronts not one. Just the wrong lessons. “Always pack your winter woollies” would have been a better one.
    Robespierre – spokes man for democracy or tyranny?

  3. What a rambling inaccurate article. For just one example, unfortunately the great difficulty for the Church is that there is specific condemnation of homosexuality in the Old Testament of the Bible; whether you believe in the Bible or not. Please get your facts right.

  4. Robert Jones


    20.Mar.2017 12:14pm

    The condemnation of homosexuality in the Old Testament occurs in Leviticus – 18.22, i.e. one verse among hundreds, in one book among many, and reads “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Unfortunately for those who regard this as Holy writ, Leviticus goes on, lengthily, to proscribe all sorts of other things, including the eating of pork and camels – and shellfish; and tells us just how many things its writer(s) thought “unclean”. So yes, it’s in the Bible – but it’s not quite true to say that Leviticus is regarded as sound theology today, or actually as theology at all: it’s a list of rites, rules, and prohibitions. I doubt that it’s any sort of problem for the church, still less a “great” one.

    There’s another entry, considerably more ambiguous as I remember, in one of the letters of St Paul, i.e. in the New Testament; I can’t find it at the moment, but I remember it being there somewhere.

    So strictly speaking, Jonathan is wrong, and Minnieb is right (on the issue of Biblical condemnation of ‘thou’, meaning men, ‘lying’ with men; but even Leviticus doesn’t condemn women lying with women, an early example of sexual discrimination…. On the question of whether the article is rambling or not, that’s a matter of opinion; ratiocinative, one might call it, rather than rambling; but that probably depends on whether one approves of it or not).

    What Jonathan might argue is that this is of interest only to Bible literalists; and that nowhere in the Gospels, on which the Christian religion is based, is there even a reference to homosexuality. So I think his basic point stands, even if the detail isn’t entirely correct.

    A final quotation from Leviticus, though, plucked at random and perhaps suggesting it’s not part of the core of any present-day religion, with the possible and very partial exception of Islam: “….Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.”

    I think we can forget about Leviticus – or at least refrain from plucking tiny bits of it from the text in order to justify bigotry, when the bulk of the text contains nothing more than the arcane rituals of a desert tribe and rules which are notable only for their weirdness.

    • mark francis


      21.Mar.2017 2:16am

      Modern “theologians” (assuming that is even a “thing”)cherry-pick the Bible by editing out all the perceived anti-social bits like trying to murder gay men, children who disrespect their parents, witches, adulterers, any tribe who the Israelites want to steal from or rape their women. Look what happened on the IOW in 686CE!
      However these bits are probably the most important. Obviously “thou shalt not kill” is complete nonsense given the innumerable times killing is positively encouraged (or even ordered). The major function of a religion – particularly a proselytising one is to legitimise believers in conquering the territory of non-believers and enslaving any survivors of subsequent genocide, whilst encouraging soldiers of “our gang” to die or risk death in the process. Also when you wipe out some bunch of Midianites or Canaanites you may take their women who have not known a man. Rape & paedophilia always popular in the church then. The schtick about brotherly love (for one’s co-religionists) is just window-dressing.
      Robert Jones is writing rank heresy here. Further he denies the central role of bigotry in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The Bible is a warrant for genocide,and to deny this is to risk “the COMFY CHAIR!!!!” (unless you live under Daesh)

      The only bit I can’t find in the Bible is where it says I have to pay for them to run state schools.

      p.s. Harold Godwinsson defeated the British not William the B*stard.

  5. Thank you all so much for your comments. I have to confess that I left that bit in despite being fairly sure there would be disagreement. I note no argument about married priests or black bedsheets.
    I based my statements on the vagueness of these verses, and the probability of variable translations.
    In my humble opinion none of the extracts seem strong enough to extrapolate the absolute will of the ultimate authority. If it was that important, surely it would be among the Commandments.
    I like to think this partially proves my point. History, including that of religions, is always a matter of interpretation.
    You’re probably right about the rambling though.

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