The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth…

Back when I was in secondary school I can remember learning about the reliability of various sources that we used to learn about history. Questioning who wrote a source and why was a habit drilled into us but secondary textbook and academic sources were not really viewed with a critical eye. There was a sense that an academic work was for education and therefore had a certain reliability. As my studies have progressed, however, I have learnt to become much more aware of the inherent bias present in all attempts at writing history. This bias may be conscious or unconscious but reflects the way in which our own experiences and world views inevitably shape how we approach the subject, no matter how objective we strive to be.

Truth, although a seemingly simple concept, is in fact rather elusive. One person’s truth may differ from another’s and this raises the question of whether there can be multiple truths? If we experience events on a personal level how can this diversity of experience be compared? Is one person’s truth more important, more ‘authentic’ than another’s? The complexity of these questions and their philosophical nature is overwhelming, posing issues for academics let alone your average teenager from whom GCSE History may have been the lesser of the evils of the humanities subjects. A complete, irrefutable historical truth, appears an impossible dream, calling into question the role of historians. If we can never have a fully, objective history, then should it matter that individuals just interpret the sources as they see fit? 

Although I have argued that we can never have a perfect understanding of history, this does not mean I believe that historians should stop trying to learn more about the past. Rather my desire is that the discipline is more open about what is included in our work and why. Historians need to acknowledge their omissions so audiences are aware that they do not have the full picture. We need to admit that we do not know everything and make clear about why certain speculations are made. The majority of people’s voices are missing in the history that is retold and, whilst we can make attempts to rectify this, we can never truly represent every single figure throughout history. Greater emphasis and discussion needs to be given to the origin of our sources of information, going beyond bibliographies and references which have sufficed for many years. Historians may be viewed as an authoritative source of history but this does not mean we should not approach their work in a critical manner. Questions open up new avenues and possibilities for research, allowing us to consider new ways of thinking that may fundamentally alter how we view a subject. An inquisitive mind allows us to better understand the past and ,ultimately, through this, we can better understand ourselves.

Remember, Remember, the 5th of November…

The events of November 1605 and the failed assassination attempt of James I are common knowledge throughout Britain, with our annual Bonfire festivities helping to cement them into our memory. However the name synonymous with the event- Guy Fawkes- was only one part of a group of conspirators who organised the plot to blow up Parliament. Originally consisting of 5 members ( Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright, Thomas Percy and Fawkes himself) the group grew in size to 10. The additional members Robert Keyes, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Kit Wright were all related by blood or marriage to members of the core, initial group; this no doubtly helped to ensure loyalty. The faithfulness of the final member of the group-Thomas Bates- was also confirmed as he was Catesby’s servant and hence someone he could trust. Background information about the conspirators is relatively scant, with most of the recorded information about them relating to their involvement in the plot itself. Nevertheless, there are a few details that we can learn about each member and that is what this blog will be focusing on in relation to the core group of conspirators (with the exception of Fawkes.)

Perhaps the best person to start with is Robert Catesby who was the leader of the plot. His family were Catholics however in 1593 he married a Protestant, Catherine Leigh, and had his child baptised. Nevertheless, after his wife’s death he reverted back to a more radical form of Catholicism- suggesting that any form of earlier conversion was merely for show. Catesby began a degree at Oxford but he left before its completion in order to avoid taking the Protestant Oath of Supremacy. This oath, in effect, denounced the Catholic religion by acknowledging the monarch as the head of the church rather than the papacy. Catesby was already seen as a potential threat by the authorities prior to the Gunpowder Plot as in 1596 he was arrested as a precautionary message due to his known Catholic sympathies. Furthermore, he was involved in the 1601 Essex Rebellion. This was an attempt, led by Robert Devereux the 2nd Earl of Essex, to overthrow Elizabeth I (who was a Protestant) and her government. Devereux’s plan was unsuccessful and he was beheaded for treason, however Catesby was only fined due to his minor role. Four years later though Catesby was killed in a raid connected to his own plot to remove the government.

Thomas Wintour-whose brother Robert was also a conspirator- married Catesby’s sister Elizabeth. He had some military experience having fought in several wars, including in Flanders for the United Provinces. In 1603 he travelled to Spain in an attempt to get support from Philip III however this was not successful.

Written information about Jack Wright (also known as John) is somewhat hard to come by as it often refers to his brother (Kit, another conspirator) at the same time. This means that it can be hard to establish which information relates to which brother. Nevertheless, we are able to discover some details about his background. He came from a Catholic family; both his parents were devoted Catholics who were imprisoned in Hull Prison in York for a period due to their beliefs. Wright attended the same school school as Guy Fawkes- St. Peter’s School in York- and this is probably where these two conspirators first met. Like Catesby he was arrested as a precautionary manner when Elizabeth I was suffering from ill health for a period during her reign. Furthermore, again like Catesby, he had a minor role in the Essex Rebellion, although Wright suffered a harsher punishment- imprisonment rather than a fine.

Thomas Percy became involved in the conspiracy in part through his marriage to Martha Wright (the sister of Jack and Kit) in 1591. This marriage was also a factor in Percy’s conversion to Catholicism. He was a relative of the Earl of Northumberland who employed Percy as an agent, entrusting him with the management of the Earl’s estates. Later Percy was employed as the Constable of Anwick Castle. Percy was also a friend of Catesby, hence he had two links to other conspirators in the group. Percy’s rental of a house next to the House of Lords was also a useful asset during the formation of the infamous plot.

The information in this piece merely gives a brief glimpse into the backgrounds of a few of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, however, sadly there seems to be relatively little more information out there. What would perhaps be interesting is to see if there were any contemporary sources available that could give us more of an insight into the mindsets of the men behind one of the most famous assassination attempts in Britain, however this seems unlikely. All one as a historian can do is try to educate people about the facts behind the conspiracy and remind them that there is more to the Gunpowder Plot than just Guy Fawkes.

References

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/gunpowder_robinson_01.shtml#two

http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk

http://gunpowder-plot.org

http://spartacus-educational.com

Essex’s rebellion (1601)

 

(Re)Freshers

The new academic term is upon us and hence it is time to put my scholarly hat on and bestow upon you, the reader (if you even exist) my ramblings on the subject of student life. I am due to start my second year of an undergraduate degree in history, however I am feeling like a fresher as I have transferred universities. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the course at Warwick due to personal reasons I decided to transfer to Leicester- my second choice university when I first applied way back in 2015.

Once again I find myself with that feeling of excitement mixed with butterflies that often makes an appearance when I am faced with new situations. Nevertheless, currently, the excitement is outweighing the nerves as the modules I shall be undertaking during this year all sound really interesting. I am particularly looking forward to my heritage placement that I will be undertaking in the second semester, which I am sure you will be hearing more about in a future post.

Anyway, this has been somewhat of a ‘nothing’ post; a mini update of sorts. I hope you all have an opportunity to explore new areas of history this year, whether you are a student of not. Farewell my dear readers and venture forth into a new period of discovery.

Representing History in Books and on Screen: ‘Maus’ as a Case Study

With the success of the film ‘Dunkirk’ I was reminded of an assignment I did last year that looked at historical representations in books and films and their accuracy. Thus I have decided to upload an adapted version of the piece I did which focuses on one representation that tells the story of the Holocaust and what we can learn from it. At the end of this post I will include a few links if you are interested in finding out more about the book and its author.

Although there are numerous films and works of literature on the subject of the Holocaust, for me, one of the most interesting works that seeks to convey and narrate this tragic event is ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman. ‘Maus’ details the story of Spiegelman’s father and his experience as a Polish Jew- beginning in the late 1930s before the outbreak of World War II. We learn about the gradual segregation of Jews from society as Spiegelman’s father is forced into the ghetto and eventually is sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz. However, what is unique about this piece of work is that it is a graphic novel and thus Spiegelman intertwines visual art with the written narrative in order to present this personal story to the reader.

Even though the characters in ‘Maus’ are real Spiegelman uses animals to characterise the various different nationalities and ethnicities within the novel, for example the French are depicted as frogs, the Poles as pigs, the Germans as cats and perhaps, most crucially, the Jews are represented as mice. In terms of accuracy obviously the book does not give a realistic depiction of the appearance of these different groups, however, this characterisation is an effective way by which to attempt to accurately represent the perceptions that society had towards these groups. By depicting the Jews as mice, Spiegelman reflects the Nazi ideology of how they were seen as ‘vermin’ and a ‘racial’ group that needed to be exterminated. Furthermore, as the novel retells a Jewish account of the ordeals they suffered this suggests how this message infiltrated into their mindset as well. Jews would feel inferior as they were constantly bombarded by an ideology that demeaned them- affecting how they saw themselves.

By depicting the Jews as mice, Spiegelman also highlights their vulnerability which is particularly emphasised when one contrasts them with the German Nazis who are symbolised by cats. Here, Spiegelman plays on the idea of the predator versus prey relationship- epitomised by the cat chasing the mouse. This characterisation enables Spiegelman to show the relentless nature of the Nazis with their desire for the complete annihilation of the Jewish ‘race’ akin to a cat’s unyielding determination to kill a mouse. A cat won’t give up until it has caught the mouse and likewise Spiegelman wants to show how the Nazis would not stop in their quest to remove what they saw as an obstacle and it is this mind-set that enabled the ‘Final Solution’ to become a practical policy.

The animals chosen to represent other racial groups are significant as well as Spiegelman uses them to show the prevalence of stereotypes within society. For example, the depiction of the French as frogs is notable as the idea of the French as a nation that eats frog legs is a stereotype that still exists today. Hence Spiegelman can be seen as not only representing past views towards different nationalities but also highlighting how some of these perceptions have continued into modern day society. Furthermore, by establishing this connection between the past and the present Spiegelman attempts to explain one of the most fundamental and difficult questions underpinning the Holocaust- ‘how did society allow this to happen?’ As we today often hold preconceived notions towards various groups, in a sense one can understand how these notions can develop from mere ideas to practical actions against what comes to be perceived as a threat or problem.

Another important aspect of the book is how the narrative acknowledges and incorporates Spiegelman’s process of interviewing his father. By detailing the method behind the book’s creation ‘Maus’ can be seen as a pictorial representation of the discipline of oral history. Spiegelman’s father is telling the story to us, the reader, through his conversations with his son and thus we are getting his experiences and his perceptions of how he remembers events. This means that- as is this case with any oral history source- the reliability of the narrator can be questioned. The past that Spiegelman’s father recreates and which is then represented by Spiegelman in the novel thus has a degree of uncertainty in regards to its accuracy. Nevertheless, as the story correlates to various other sources this diminishes any of these doubts.

Furthermore, as ‘Maus’ is in a sense an oral history, one can learn about the emotional impact that the event had on Spiegelman’s father, through what he actually narrates, as well as his demeanour and attitude during the interview process as a whole. For example, at the beginning of the book we understand that Spiegelman has been wanting to tell his father’s tale for a while, however his father has been somewhat reluctant to do it. He tells his son it is ‘better you should spend your time to make drawings what will bring you some money.’ Not only does this suggest that Spiegelman’s father does not want to talk about his past, it also shows how he does not think that his story is important or interesting enough to be shared. To him his story is not one that others would want to hear. This is significant as it suggests that witnesses and participants may interpret their roles within history in a different way to historians.

Throughout the novel we can see how Spiegelman effectively uses his symbolic imagery of the animals to represent the oral history of his father and to emphasise the role that emotions and perceptions play when analysing and understanding history. This is particularly of note when one seeks to find a meaning to horrific events, such as the Holocaust which challenge the moral and ethnic guidelines of the society with live in. Spiegelman’s use of characterisations could distance the reader from the reality of the story, however, the inclusion of a photograph of his father wearing his camp uniform at the end of the book ensures that the reader is reminded
that this story is true. We cannot escape the fact that the Holocaust did happen. Therefore, ultimately, ‘Maus’ acts as a representation of the past that shows that in reality the truth is often harder to explain than fiction.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-MAUS-Art-Spiegelman/dp/0141014083v
https://www.shmoop.com/maus/

 

In Praise of the Online Course

A while ago I signed up to the Future Learn website-an online platform that provides educational courses on a wide range of subjects, in partnership with various universities. I had not been on it for quite some time,however, with my first year of university complete and summer ahead it appeared as though the perfect opportunity to return to the world of the online course had arisen. I am currently undertaking several online courses via the Future Learn site but the one that is of particular interest to me currently is the course on the 21st Century Museum created in collaboration with the University of Leicester. Not only does this course focus on an area I am particularly interested in, it is also run by the School of Museum Studies that I hope one day to attend. Thus by doing the course I feel as though I am part of an environment that I aspire to be part of my future and this is rather exciting, if I must so. The courses on the Future Learn website are free, however, often if one wants to receive a certificate of participation a fee is incurred. This can be somewhat frustrating but it is not a hindrance to one’s access to the course. As somewhat who thoroughly enjoys learning I am very grateful that sites like Future Learn exist and am very appreciative that universities offer their expertise to the broader public. Education, I believe, is something that should be available to all and thus it is important to champion and support schemes that promote this. Future Learn and other sites, such as Open Learn, are gateways to learning, and this is something that I think we must all praise. Learning is one of the most enjoyable things about life for me and hence I praise any platform that enables me to continue to develop my passion.

The Black Dog and Other Tales

Greetings, long time no write and all that jazz. I haven’t posted in a while due to the fact that a) I was preparing for uni and b) I have actually been studying at uni (contrary to my father us history scholars do have work even though we only have 10 contact hours a week.) Nevertheless my two terms (almost) of student life has shown me lots of things. Yes there are good bits- namely the library (books are my friends and they smell nice) but on the whole as a scholar I found the whole university atmosphere somewhat disappointing. Hence this post will constitute of a little moan about things that have irked me so far.

1. People walking out of lectures part way through – This is just rude. Plus the lecturers actually have degrees and doctorates whereas us lowly students only have some A levels and we must therefore bow down to their greatness and knowledge.

2. People watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians during lectures –  First things first the Kardashians are somewhat annoying and I question your taste but secondly why waste £9,000 to do something you could have just done at home?

3. When nobody talks in a seminar so you have to babble on for an hour to fill the silence – Seminars can be good but when no one else is contributing the atmosphere falls flat. There are only so many times you can rephrase your ideas.

4. Group Projects – Technically this is not limited to university but group projects are the bane of my life. I do not like them and I highly doubt I ever will. They turn me into a micro managing monster that stresses about whether everyone will do their required work.

5. When people complain they cannot understand the lecturers when they have foreign accents- This reminds me of all the complaints about the sound in SS-GB and leaves me questioning if the whole world is deaf, or perhaps I am part bat. On the other hand maybe if you stopped talking for the duration of the lecture you might be able to hear what they said.

6. The Lack of Love for ye Olde History- During a block focusing on the study of early modern history it seemed as though all of my fellow students found it boring and thus I was left to champion it by myself. This resulted me enthusiastically waving my hands and shouting during a seminar that I loved early modern history- obviously highlighting my street cred.

I could probably go on but I bet the small minority of people that do read this are already tired of my moaning. All in all, although I love studying and reading and learning more about history, at university the passion for history that I was expecting to radiate from everyone was not there. Yes, there are many keen scholars and enthusiasts but it is not the utopian dream that everyone paints the university experience to be. I want to study and I want to learn but perhaps the best days of my life will come from a different place. Either that or I will be hanging out with my black dog for life.

Adieu.

P.S. Bonus points if you get my doggy reference

There’s An EU in Museum

History and politics go hand in hand and so today I thought that I would offer my musings on the upcoming EU referendum which could become a pivotal moment in history depending on the outcome. I am very much an ‘inner’ and am starting to get rather nervous about the results as the thought of leaving makes me rather nauseous. As a historian and a lover of museums I was particularly interested in the views of the Museum Association and was delighted to find that in a poll in March 97% believed that UK museums would be better off in the EU. Museums receive EU funding, freedom of movement and the co-operation between nations makes it easier for artefacts and historians to be able to work together across Europe, whilst still enabling us to work with other global nations. I love Europe- I love the culture, I love the languages and I love travelling and I do not want us to become an isolated nation. To me Britain is merely one of my homes and I seek to live across the world, including Europe as I believe the world is my home. Personally I seek to be a migrant and I see those who settle here not as a burden but as genuine, hardworking human beings who deserve to enjoy our country as much as any national born citizen. The EU is not perfect but a united Europe is much more appealing to me…To finish my waffling I am going to end with a post that my dear beloved Granny wrote on her facebook (because she is down with the kids,) which truly moved me as it shows how generations can work together and reflects the idea that as European nations we should collaborate to create the best Europe possible.

‘In my eightieth year I will not be here to see the results of the in/out referendum, but for the sake of my grandchildren who I care about more than words can say I say remain is the obvious vote. I love you all more than words can say, and cannot leave you with a disunited Europe and the possibilties that may lead to…’

Let us not be selfish but remember as Jack Johnson says that ‘it’s always better when we’re together…’

http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/01032016-would-uk-museums-be-better-off-in-or-out-of-the-eu

http://www.museumsassociation.org/news/23022016-uk-museums-could-lose-if-uk-leaves-eu-says-ma

Beware the Barrenness of a Busy Life

‘Beware the barrenness of a busy life,’ so said Socrates.

‘Get busy living or get busy dying,’ so said Stephen King.

‘The busy have no time for tears,’ so said Lord Byron.

‘Am I really too busy to write a post,’ so said your’s truly.

Yes. I have quoted myself in the above ditty. It has been a while since I last tapped out some ramblings on my keyboard but as I have hinted above I have been somewhat busy. Last month it was my birthday and I had a plan to write this piece on International Museum’s Day since a]it was the same day as my birthday and b] museums are to me what alcohol is to students (in other words very important.) However as you can see this did not happen. Nevertheless I am determined to finally write a piece about the EU that I have been musing about for many a month seeing as the referendum will soon be upon us. In this post I am apologising to myself for not having the guts to just write whenever I have the time but I am also apologising to anybody who may read this as I had vowed to write at least one post a month. Alas. The busier my life gets, the more ideas I have but the less time I have to write them up- the dreaded catch 22 situation…Alack. Thus I am determined to get tapping away again and hopefully write something as beautiful and interesting as that which appears on my favourite blog….Ciao for now but I will be back soon. Hopefully. Or atleast I will try. Somewhat. Maybe. Who knows?

 

Jumping On The Bard Bandwagon

Seeing as this month many will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (a bit morbid if I must said-we could have celebrated the anniversary of his birth instead seeing as they were allegedly on the same day) I thought it would be rather apt to link my post to the great writer in some way. However, I soon became stumped as there is such a vast wealth of information out there about our dear Billy that it seemed impossible for me to find an original piece to write. A biography, a list of facts, analysis-the subject of Shakespeare has been studied and scrutinised for centuries: what can I, a lowly aspiring scholar, bring forth to enlighten the world about such a historic figure? All I can say is that, personally, I have a great deal of admiration for Shakespeare; his use of language is simply beautiful. Words have a fundamental role in our society; they hold an immense amount of power and as a master of the Shakespeare was able to manipulate language in such a way as to convey a whole spectrum of human emotion-fear, love, rage, despair, madness.

The ending soliloquy in ‘The Tempest’ is a piece that truly resonates with me. The message of farewell, akin to a lament, is so moving- thus making the argument that the character of Prospero is somewhat of a reflection of Shakespeare highly convincing. Perhaps it it the realism of the emotions conveyed by Shakespeare that makes his work special. For some, Shakespeare is deemed to be overrated; they do not seem to comprehend the impact that Shakespeare has had on the English language. His work makes us laugh, cry and sometimes even a bit bemused but to me he is truly worth celebrating. However it is just as important to remember that, despite the extent of Shakespeare’s influence, there are numerous other writers throughout history who, through their work, have had a profound effect on generations of readers.

Beauty Is In The Eye of The Beholder (Or Something Like That…)

‘We are all failures-at least the best of us are…’ J.M. Barrie
‘Writers are often the worst judges of what they have written…’ Stephen King
‘To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing…’ Aristotle
‘How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct…’ Benjamin Disraeli

Glancing at this post initially the topic today may not appear to be that relevant to history, however, as the quotes above show, it is in fact a subject than transpires through the ages: criticism. For me self criticism is an important area to discuss as I believe that it has a great impact on my written work (including this blog.) Frequently I have ideas about pieces that I would like to write but my inner critic often discourages me from attempting to write a piece as I worry that it will never be ‘good’ enough. Despite this I do enjoy writing which means I must persevere, even if I believe that what I write is utter codswallop! Criticism has been present throughout history; it seems to be a inevitable part of human society. Nevertheless we should not let such criticism deter us from living. As Aristotle’s quote shows criticism occurs no matter what one does and thus my blogging output must continue, even if I despise the majority of things I write. Ergo- criticism I welcome thee (somewhat.)