‘Life in the United Kingdom’, a Criticism: Part 2

Off to a bad start…

Having delved into the bizarre ‘Early Britain’ section of Life in the UK’s chapter entitled ‘A long and illustrious history’ (a problematic title, even if one is being kind) (see Part 1), we now move on to a section called ‘The Middle Ages’ (pp. 21-25). This title is immediately explained in the first paragraph as ‘The period after the Norman Conquest up until about 1485’ (p. 21). Here, in the very first line, we are confronted with inaccuracy. The Middle Ages/Medieval Period began much earlier, around the 5th century CE/AD (the specificity of the terminal point is also curious, but more on that later). By stating that Medieval History began with the Norman Conquest in 1066, the authors of this book have incorrectly designated about 500 years of British history, a period usually known as the Early Middle Ages, as ‘non-Medieval’. The fact that they slide this period into the ‘Early Britain’ section is made especially strange by the fact that this 500 years is when the Anglo-Saxons turn up, y’know, those people who spoke English, defined much of the territory of England, and gave the UK some of its greatest works of literature (Beowulf), art (the Lindisfarne Gospels), and scholars (like Bede, who is actually the guy who came up with the idea of an ‘English People’, uniting all the various and disparate Anglo-Saxon peoples). No, 1066 is when they say the Middle Ages begin, and this tells us something very interesting about the authors of this book.

1066, as a defining historical date, is inherently Anglo-Norman-centric. Periodisation is a difficult and complex thing, and there are many disputes about when one era begins and another starts. Now, historians usually say that the High Middles Ages (the bit after the Early Middle Ages) runs from around the year 1000 to about 1300, and Late Middle Ages terminates around 1500. Some might define the beginning of the High Middles Ages as the rise of the Capetian dynasty in France (940) or the Ottonians in Germany (936), the initiation of the First Crusade (1096), the foundation of the Kingdom of Hungary (1000), or the Schism between the Western and Eastern Christian Churches (1054) – it really depends on where you are from and what you are looking at. Here, in this government approved text, it is the violent conquest of the English by French-speaking invaders that is the defining point. But, not unlike the Romans, the Normans aren’t the ‘bad guys’, they are the ‘good guys’ of the story. Why? Because they were the nobility, and they wrote the books. If they had been defeated at Hastings in 1066, the memory of these invaders would be very different indeed. In fairness, it was a defining moment in the history of England, I am just struck by the manner in which it is treated.

And that’s just the first line of this section! I am not going to delve into such detail for the rest of the section – we would be here all night – but I will pick out some of the more puzzling and disconcerting sections.

Another quibble about terminology

This section keeps referring to the ‘English’ fighting the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. Now, while the Kings of England may have been leading and encouraging this violence, the kings themselves were not ‘English’, nor were their lords or warriors. It would not be until the 14th century, after the Hundred Years’ War, that the Norman ruling elite would begin to identify as ‘English’. Up until then they spoke French, believed they had rights to French lands and the Crown of France, and had cultural and social ties to France – so they were a lot more French than English. But we call them Anglo-Norman, Hiberno-Norman, Cambro-Norman, and Scoto-Norman to distinguish the fact that they were something other than French, but not quite English, Irish, Welsh, or Scottish. Not that this book will discuss identity politics; why would the idea of cultures integrating to form something new and interesting be of any interest to either the government or new citizens?

The slow conquest of Ireland

This book informs us that ‘At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Ireland was an independent country. The English first went to Ireland as troops to help the Irish king and remained to build their own settlements. By 1200, the English ruled an area of Ireland known as the Pale, around Dublin’ (p. 21). So, firstly, Ireland was independent, but it wasn’t a ‘country’ as we now understand the term and it didn’t have a king – it had many. What actually happened, in brief, was that an ousted king of Leinster (again, one of several kingdoms) got some help from the King of England to take his kingdom back. This began the slow process of the Norman invasion of Ireland, which involved (surprise, surprise) an awful lot of violence. Now, the way the book frames how the English established a foothold in Ireland is mundane – they were just settlers. Which they were, but to be so, they had to take lands from the Irish by violence. Indeed, the scant reference to the Pale hides the fact that English rule, at this time, was an utter failure. The Normans who invaded, and conquered much of, Ireland ‘went native’; indeed, we have a saying that ‘they became more Irish than the Irish themselves’. Everything beyond the Pale operated largely independently of the English Crown (which is where we get the phrase ‘beyond the pale’), and the Pale decreased in size until the reign of the Tudors.

The Pale is mentioned again on page 22 where it is noted that “In Ireland, the Black Death killed many in the Pale and, for a time, the area controlled by the English became smaller’. This may be a small point, but the Black Death killed people beyond the Pale too, just in case the reader forgot that people also lived in the rest of Ireland.

War ambiguous and defeat disguised

On page 21, we are told that ‘Many knights took part in the Crusades, in which European Christians fought for control of the Holy Land’. Here again, ambiguity reigns. One could easily infer that the Crusades were fought between Christians, which they were at times, but it was mostly Christian versus Muslim. Now, this obfuscation could be forgiven in light of delicate international relations and the sensitivities of communities within Britain, but I feel that such matters are better addressed with an honest eye to the past and understanding and reconciliation in the present. Hiding the truth behind obscurity helps nobody, and it will only serve to divide us.

On the same page, after a brief discussion of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, it is noted that ‘The English left France in the 1450s’. Here again, there is a sense of the mundane, that the English just decided to leave one day, just like they happened to settle in Ireland. England lost the war, plain and simple. And, before they left, they made sure to burn Joan of Arc at the stake in 1431, and then they burned the body twice again to make sure nothing remained, and then tossed the ashes into a river…

Some good points!

There is a fun little bit on page 23 about words that survived from Anglo-Saxon into modern English and French words that were borrowed. In fact, about 60% of words used in the English are from French or Latin. Words of French origin borrowed in the Medieval period are particularly focused on administration, warfare, and faith, and include: chapel, peasant, government, vassal, council, mayor, parliament, minister, vicar, dragon, army, officer, money, exchequer, and sovereignty. The core verbs of the language remain rooted in Old English, especially the irregular verbs (such as to go, be, run, see, fall, hide, and many more!).

There is also a nice nod to Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, and the early days of printing in England by William Caxton (pp. 23-24). Caxton is especially interesting as he contributed to the standardisation of the writing of English through printing, and Chaucer, aside from giving us an amazing insight into his times and some local accents (he preserves regional English in his reporting of speech), also inspired Simmons’ Hyperion and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, both SciFi classics and well worth a read.

Terminal date

This section ends with a cursory examination of the Wars of the Roses (p. 25).  It’s a wonderfully complex period in English history, so it is no wonder that only the highlights are mentioned. And it is here that we find the terminal date of what this book describes as ‘The Middle Ages’: the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Now, as I mentioned previously, the High Middle Ages are generally agreed to have ended around 1300, and the Late Middle ages lasted from then until around 1500. So, this 1485 date is close enough to the mark, and it is, again, a defining moment in English history. But we must remember that the Middles Ages ended at different times elsewhere.

And yet, this entire section makes scant reference to Wales, with only slightly more detail about Scotland, both nations which, need I remind you, also occupy the island of Britain. It is noted on p. 21 that ‘Scotland remained unconquered by the English‘, which, coupled with the fact that the paragraph begins by saying that ‘In Scotland, the English kings were less successful’, makes the state of affairs sound almost lamentable. The annexation of Wales is given a cursory reference (p. 21), which is all the more interesting considering the fact that the celebrated Tudor dynasty had its roots in Wales, not England. Additionally, the United Kingdom includes part of the island of Ireland, which is entirely neglected in this section. No mention is made of the Scottish invasion of Ireland (1315) or the resurgence of the ancient O’Neill dynasty under various new septs.

Well, that is enough for now. Next, the Tudors and Stuarts! The Reformation and Civil War! And so, so much more missing and obscured history!

2 responses to “‘Life in the United Kingdom’, a Criticism: Part 2

  1. Excellent ! The “authors” of that book remind me of the old CLIFF NOTES pamphlets we had here in the states when I attended school in the 60’s and 70’s. Books like The Canterbury Tales and Silas Marner were condensed to 20 or 30 pages. Hurried students would use them to write papers. Of course the instructors saw them from a mile away. It was hilarious! However, for its purpose this book you describe is pitiful. Great work.

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