Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Good King Stephen?

Stephen (1135-54) is one of the least well known, and least well loved, of English Kings. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle said of his reign:

Men said openly that Christ and his saints slept
Stephen shares with John the distinction of having no subsequent heir to the throne named for him. As with John, there have been attempts to argue that Stephen's bad reputation is not entirely deserved.

Stephen's reign has tended, for the past couple of hundred years, to be referred to as a time of "anarchy". This isn't a very apt description, in fact, but there was a sort of civil war for some of his reign and the legitimacy of his claim to the throne has been questioned, though more since than at the time he was alive.

I've just started reading Donald Matthew's 2002 book about Stephen. Matthew has an interesting idea about why modern historians, as well as some medieval chroniclers, were either scathing or dismissive of Stephen but I will come to that later.

Setting the scene in the first chapter, and arguing that there has been a fashion for judgement, as well as analysis, in history, something of which Matthew does not really approve, he has this to say:
The use of history for moral purposes cannot be mocked as 'old fashioned', religious wishful-thinking. It goes back further than Christianity and has not yet been abandoned. The inclination not only to understand public affairs in terms of conflicts between the good and the bad, but to believe that the wicked should and can be punished for their evil deeds, if not by divine providence, then by the dedicated efforts of the righteous themselves still prevails, not least amongst popularist politicians. The determination to be proved right is so strong that even victory in war is no longer thought sufficient to resolve any doubts. It is now routine to have the moral worthiness of the cause and the war vindicated in the law courts by securing convictions of the enemy for war crimes. In any dispute, it is assumed that human judgement can and should be employed to establish which party was in the right and which wrong. The historian is not expected to confine attention to elucidating, as precisely as possible, what happened when and why. 'History' itself is somehow supposed to weigh up the evidence and pronounce judgement.
It seems to me that Matthews is touching on a serious and unusual point. This trend to legalise history, especially recent history, is perhaps an entirely bad thing. Is it not enough for one side to win, and to understand how this came about? It reached an apogee in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the Nuremberg trials, and we seem to have been plagued by a combination of paralysis of action and the continual establishment of impotent international legal institutions ever since. It might be better to act if something bad is happening, or you are threatened, then move on without the paraphernalia of ritual moral supremacy.

This first chapter ends well:
Historians, even of Stephen, may not be able to distance themselves completely from the preoccupations of their own age, but they must also try to observe the rules of their craft and test modern ideas against what the twelfth-century evidence clearly has to say about the reign. In other words, the sources must be coaxed into telling us what they really did witness, not tortured into confirming what we would like to believe.
Geoffrey Elton gave a talk to my school Historical Society once, titled "History, the essential study". He argued that history was this because it was a "bulwark against tyranny". The study of history teaches us to question authority, both in a strict and in a more general meaning of that word. A historian must never simply believe what he or she reads, but always ask who wrote it, what preconceptions, bias and distortions they might have introduced, deliberately or inadvertently, to their writing. History is not the process of memorising received wisdom and finding new ways to recite it, but rather of returning over and over again, each new generation and each new individual, to the sources and approaching them afresh, with scepticism and clarity unclouded by interference either from the work of past scholars or by the concerns of their contemporaries.

That is not a description of history as experienced by schoolchildren today. The subjects most studied seem to be World War II, the history of slavery, the history of the settlement of the Americas, all framed in tones of unmistakable morality which it is a crime - metaphorically at the moment in Britain but literally in parts in some European countries - to question or challenge. This is unhistory, and far from being a bulwark against tyranny it is a handmaiden to it, however well intentioned the reasons for this might be.

At the centre of this is the holocaust and, slightly less so, slavery. But the sources confirm quite plainly the truth of what happened. Failing to emphasise the sources and insisting on conformity to a received narrative actually weakens the very thing it is supposed to protect. Once made uncritical, children are just as easily persuaded of the International Jewish Conspiracy as of the Shoah. Only by making them return, whatever anyone tells them, to the sources can we be secure from the mass deceit that underlies all tyrannical government.

Which brings me back to Stephen. Henry I before him, and Henry II after him, were both energetic and reforming administrators and kings, especially Henry II. They did lots of the stuff historians like. They ruled. They governed. There were reams of legal documents produced. Pipe Rolls. Councils. Brilliant.

Stephen did little of this. He ruled, was admired and was acknowledged to have been a humane decent and honourable man. That hasn't been enough for modern judgements. Matthews puts it like this:
Belief in the virtues of strong government, and even more in the duty of all governments to commit themselves to 'reform' of some kind, is unmistakably modern. Its values are purely secular, taking no account of such earlier principles about rulership as respect for the established customs of the realm, for God and for the Church. No excuses for shirking the challenge of government are acceptable. Whereas medieval writers would have acknowledged that men, as inherently sinful, constantly thwart the most noble intentions and, as imperfectable, must fail to achieve their own ambitions in this life, modern confidence that rulers can do what they want and must be judged accordingly makes Stephen look inadequate for his office. Little attention has been given to establishing how much his subjects expected or required him to rule as his uncle [Henry I] had done.
Stephen seems not to have been very New Labour.

I'm warming to Stephen.

1 comment:

Wolfie said...

Re-writing history has always been going on, I think that's fair but more recently its become a major movement. Its not only modern history but ancient history too. Some years ago I had a passion for ancient history and spent a fair amount of time travelling about Europe collecting information for my private research. What I began to notice was that certain "controversial" pieces were going missing or falling into the hands of mysterious private collectors who were not even willing to provide photographs. Academic papers were being distorted and books based on them appearing in bookshops.

History certainly isn't what it used to be.

Good post though, thanks.