The Future of History

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The High Priesthood

David Starkey has appeared in the Telegraph newspaper, slamming historical novelists who - he feels - have no "authority".

Odd ... doesn't an author automatically have authority?  Isn't that what being an author means?

Anyway, why should we be bothered about what David Starkey says?  He just seems to be a bit miffed because the BBC has produced a documentary about Anne Boleyn, to which Starkey has contributed.  But so have Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory.  They might be award-winning and extremely successful novelists specialising in Tudor history (which Starkey reckons is his preserve), but Starkey doesn't rate them.

Now, there are two ways we could look at this.  Starkey had the bad grace to dismiss the work of Mantel and Gregory as "chick lit", which it isn't. So the problem might well be that David Starkey just doesn't like women very much - especially gifted and intelligent women who take their historical research seriously and sell more books than he does.

But I think there's more to it than that.  It has to do with the "High Priesthood" of historical studies.  This is a (largely) self-appointed elite which likes to pretend that it has all the answers.  If you want to know about the Tudors, Starkey's your man.  Whatever you do, don't go talking to anybody else about them (least of all a woman).

So what, we might ask, is the worst that could happen if somebody was imprudent or wayward enough to consult someone other than David Starkey?  After all, Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory have immersed themselves in the period in question, living imaginatively in Tudor times and recreating that world in painstaking detail.  What could possibly be so WRONG about picking their wonderful brains?

The answer might well be that you would glean information and opinions which have not been authorised by Mr Starkey.

David Starkey insists (in the Telegraph) that high profile historical novelists "have no authority when it comes to the handling of historical sources" and he'd rather they "stayed off my patch as a historian."  Harsh words, you might feel, and utterly unwarranted.  Not least of all because Starkey's own view of history - and the Tudor period in particular - is so relentlessly reactionary.  He is the Conservative Party's idea of a historian - imperialistic, bombastic, borderline racist and sexist, a man who actually believes that Henry VIII was our best monarch (and not an obese, syphilitic monster with some pretty alarming personality defects).

Maybe this brings us a little closer to the heart of the matter.  If David Starkey is going to succeed in hoodwinking us all into buying into his extreme right-wing approach to British history, he has to stop us hearing from such novelists as Mantel and Gregory who give us a pretty crisp idea of what the key figures of the Tudor period might have been really like.  After all, it's easy to say that Henry VIII or his daughter, Elizabeth I, were marvellous monarchs.  But once a little bit of research is carried out, and you begin to suspect that the one was mad and the other was profoundly neurotic, his simplistic "Rule, Britannia!" view of the Tudors starts to look a little bit shaky. 

Or worse - it starts to look plain WRONG.  We might begin to wonder whether the version of events which David Starkey was so eager to promote is a little (how shall we say this?) misleading.  It is an entirely one-sided view.  An extremely political view.  Not history, as such, so much as propaganda.

The past is of enormous importance.  If we don't understand the past, we cannot truly understand the present (and ourselves) and we can't really figure out what kind of trajectory we're on.  But whoever controls the present tends to control the past - and for the last thirty or forty years, the past (like the present) has been controlled by the ideological reactionaries, the neo-liberals, the right-wing fundamentalists.

What this means is that the David Starkey school of history has been given a prominence that it does not rightly deserve.  It suits the Michael Gove idea of history ("facts" ruthlessly pruned of context and regurgitated in order to produce a generation of flag-waving drones).  And it can only be sustained by the systematic exclusion of whole reams of facts, vast piles of historical evidence, which doesn't support such a biased, revisionist interpretation.

In other words, the Conservative school of history doesn't hold sources to be quite as sacrosanct as David Starkey pretends.  It is extremely selective in its use of sources.  Basically, only those sources which support its rightward-leaning stance are admitted.  Anything (nay, everything) else is ignored.

Which is why we mustn't be allowed to hear from people who aren't David Starkey - because they might not play by the rules of the reactionary and revisionist "history-as-we-want-it-to-be-not-as-it-actually-was" school of historiography.

All this is absolutely pertinent to my forthcoming publication.  Twenty-five years of research went into the writing of Who Killed William Shakespeare?  It wouldn't have taken that long - indeed, it wouldn't have needed to be written at all - if historians hadn't been so adept at hiding the evidence which doesn't suit their particular prejudices.  The image of William Shakespeare which has been sold repeatedly, over and over again, in a succession of identikit biographies, comes straight from the David Starkey school.  It is based on the most selective choice of sources. 

The greater part of the available historical information about William Shakespeare doesn't really make it into the "authorised" biography because it doesn't fit the approved portrait of Shakespeare as a talented (and thoroughly patriotic) Mr Nobody.  And so a cabal exercises supreme control over what we are allowed to know and to think about Shakespeare, because any deviation from the consensus threatens to blow the lid on what Shakespeare's life and times were really like.

David Starkey - with his sanitised, God-Save-the-Queen approach to the Tudors - comes from the same school of historical make-believe as the High Priests of Shakespeare Studies.  It is important to such people that their view is the only one available - even if it doesn't make sense!  Like the Church in the Middle Ages, it approves publications which bear no relation whatsoever to evidence-based reality while condemning anything and everything which doesn't square with its own narrow ideological view.

In that regard, David Starkey's pompous little gripe about historical novelists is entirely in keeping with a historiographical movement which has devoted huge amounts of time and energy to completely rewriting the past in order to make it fit into an idealised kind of reactionary nationalism.

Talking to other people - especially articulate and imaginative writers - about the subject can only upset the demagogues like Starkey and the Shakespeare clique.  Because you might just find yourself looking at their beloved subjects from a more sane and realistic point-of-view.

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