1066 And All That

I know that I must have learnt some history at school – after all, I have an ‘O’ Level that attests to the fact that at least one set of examiners now, no doubt, history themselves, thought that to be the case.  However, when I dredge my mind to try and locate any facts which might have lodged there from that period the sorry truth is that they are few and far between.  Unquestionably, one of the reasons for this is the quality of the text books that we were studying from.  I can’t recall anything about those that I was set myself other than the size and heft of them as I carried them around with me, but I do remember the ones that I was required to teach from when I first started life as a primary teacher back in the 1970s.  They were dire.  There were four of these books, one for each of the junior classes.  I can’t say anything about those intended for Junior 2 and 3 (Years 4 and 5) because I didn’t teach those age groups, but I do have vivid memories of the volumes set for Junior 1 and 4.

The Junior 1 book started with the cave men and made its way, via the Babylonians, through to the time of the Pharaohs.  What relevance the head teacher who bought this series thought this had to my class of 36 seven year olds, most of whom had been in the country for less than a couple of years and many of whom spoke very little English is beyond me, but I was in my first year as a teacher and therefore not prepared to rock the boat and dutifully battled my way through it.

Not so by the time I came to teach Junior 4.  In a single year I was supposed to negotiate my way through British history from Richard II to the end of the Second World War.  Whistle stop tour doesn’t come into it.  And that is when I remembered where most of what I know about history had come from – either from the theatre or from my reading of fiction.  So, on the principle that what the Head didn’t actually see wouldn’t hurt him, I threw the History books out and let literature rip.

Henry V’s French campaign came to life as I stood on my desk and exhorted my class to come

Once more unto the breach dear friends

before throwing myself onto my knees to illustrate the way in which Richard II’s death had echoed down the years with Henry’s fervent prayer

Not today, O Lord,
Oh, not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown.

We learnt about Joan of Arc through the debates raised in Shaw’s St Joan and explored what it would have been like to have been a child in that time through the pages of Cynthia Harnett’s novels about the great wool families of the English West Country.  Literature had always brought history to life for me and I was determined that it would do the same for the children I was teaching.

Of course, there is always the danger with fictionalised history that somewhere along the line the facts will have been bent a little (or a lot) to fit the designs of the novelist.  I suspect that that was far more the case back in the 60s and 70s than it would be today when one of the criticisms levelled at certain historical fiction is that the research shines through too strongly.  Nevertheless, what reading historical novels did for me was raise my interest in the past and encourage me to find out more in my own time and at my own pace.  Jean Plaidy was a great favourite, which meant that I became engaged with the Plantagenet and early Tudor periods.  Later, I would discover Mary Renault and wander around the worlds of Alexander the Great and the Greece and Crete of Theseus.

But, historical fiction fell out of fashion and for years it has been difficult to find new work to offer to students to spark their interest not only in literature but also in the periods described.  So, thank goodness for the likes of Hilary Mantel, who have once more made the genre respectable.  It is again possible to dive head first simultaneously into both a first class novel and a new world.  I’ve just finished Chris Bohjalian’s latest book The Sandcastle Girls, an excellent story, but also one which opened up to me an episode in twentieth century history about which I knew absolutely nothing, the Armenian genocide of 1915.  It is an horrific tale only somewhat ameliorated by the episodes set in the present day as one of the narrators tries to find out more about her own family background.  It is horrific, but that is no reason why I should avoid it and this novel has given me access to another piece of the jigsaw that is the story of the world in which we live.

I am too far away from the primary classroom these days to know how the current crop of seven, eight, nine and ten year olds are taught about the past that has shaped them.  Given how centrally prescribed the curriculum now is, I suspect there are very few teachers spouting Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw from atop their classroom desks.  But, I hope there is some consideration given to the part that literature can play in exciting a child’s interest in an historical period in the way that it did for me.


16 thoughts on “1066 And All That

  1. I so identify with your post! I had some history lessons at school. We did mott and bailey castles, endlessly.Then a highlight – the Star Courts of Henry VIII, and then I recall drawing pictures of canons from the First World War. I left school knowing nothing whatsoever about history. Everything I’ve learned since has come from fiction, and I’ve loved learning it that way. I’m also looking forward to Wolf Hall, which I am most definitely going to get to before the year is out.

    1. Have you ever read Jan Mark’s children’s novel ‘Thunder and Lightnings’? One of the best things in it is the way it takes off the fact that children could repeatedly cover the same topic year after year. I remember when it came out the number of red faces round the staff room.

  2. I was quite excited when I read your post title as I thought you’d been reading ‘1066 and All That’, which I read when I was at school – doing ‘A’ Level History, not that it helped with that, of course, but it was a welcome change from the way we ‘studied’ history. The teacher used to dictate notes which we scribbled down as fast as we could, not taking in very much. I then had to learn it to pass the exams and very little stuck in my mind. So, it’s amazing that I loved history then and still do now.

    I must ask my grandchildren about their history lessons. I know that they all like it and think they mainly learn it through doing projects and my grandson was very interested in the Vikings last year, so much so that his parents took him to Lindisfarne and to York to learn more. I’m not so impressed though that they like the TV programmes ‘Horrible Histories’ – I think they are horrible, but they must be taking in some facts because they’ll watch repeats and still find them funny!

    As you probably know I do love historical fiction and like you I immersed myself in as many Jean Plaidy books as I could and I loved Mary Renault’s books. Back to ‘1066 and All That’ I was thinking of getting a copy to read it again – I just hope I don’t dislike it as much as ‘Horrible Histories’!

    1. Sorry, Margaret, when I began the post I meant to bring in ‘1066 and All That’ but it got away from me as I was writing. It’s a book I’ve always loved. I think I first read it when I was in my very early 20s and that phrase ‘a good thing’ has stuck with me forever. Everything The Bears and I encounter is assessed and assigned as either ‘a bad thing’ or ‘a good thing’. It was also turned into a magnificent play that was staged at the Birmingham Rep one Christmas. I can still see the Roman soldiers marching wearily across the stage singing, “we’re on the road, we’re on the road, we’re on the road that leads to Rome.”Sellers and Yeatman were geniuses.

  3. Our high school study began with the Babylonians (I think) and continued chronologically. As I didn’t continue History to ‘O’ Level, my history education ended with the Plantagenets and I’ve being trying to catch up ever since.

    How I wish you’d been my teacher Alex! My primary school history was more of an exercise in handwriting – copying from the board and filling in the blanks. All I can remember now is that we learnt about the Norman Conquest and that ‘woollen’ is spelt with double ‘L’.

    My son is in year six and has learnt (among other things) about ancient Greece and the Jarrow March. I suspect Shakespeare and Shaw have played no part in his historical education. More’s the pity.

    1. I’ve always felt, Karen that one of the problems of the National Curriculum is that it pockets learning off into nice neat section, whereas the fun of teaching when I first started was that you could let ideas flow naturally into one another with no feeling that you had to stop now and put that set of ideas away because then was history and now is literature. Still, it does seem that history is getting a better deal than it might have done in the past.

  4. You know, I don’t remember learning history in primary school at all. I think my teachers slipped it in without making a big deal of it. I remember things like making relief maps of South America on cardboard and having to do a report on one of the countries, learning about Egypt when one of my teachers was into King Tut, and Japan when another traveled there. Your history lessons must have been very exciting for the kids especially Henry V!

    1. It’s been a concern in the UK for some time that History was being neglected or just slipped in. There’s a move now, though, to make it more important again. I just hope they also make it interesting.

  5. My undergrad major was History. Loved it then, love it still. I was never a big fan of the historical novel. For me there was “fact” and then there was “fiction,” so I did a lot of non-fiction reading growing up, especially biographies, but there were a few “event based” non-fiction books that were thrilling (Mayday comes immediately to mind) or fascinating (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) or inspiring (Markings). I have since become less of a history snob lately (proud to say) and am reading and enjoying Bring Up The Bodies tremendously.

    1. I’m off to check those non-fiction suggestions out, Grad because I enjoy a good factual book, especially those that deal with the Shakespearian period. I think it’s important to appreciate the context the plays were written in. Thanks.

  6. Jean Plaidy was my favourite author for many years while in school and was such a contrast to the dry facts and figures approach to our history lessons at that time. Sharon Pennman wrote a good trilogy about an early period of Welsh history and the clash of English monarchs with the Welsh princes. Not sure what’s happened to her though – she seemed to stop after three books.

    1. I looked Sharon Penman up on Fantastic Fiction, Kheenand, because I hadn’t heard of her at all. Apparently she went on to do a series about Eleanor of Aquitaine and another set in the time of Richard the Lionheart, but there hasn’t been anything since 2008.

  7. Here in Canada, in my province at least, I’m afraid kids don’t study that much history as students do in the UK. Actually, I don’t think they even have a subject called ‘History’. They do that in the umbrella subject of ‘Social Studies’. I lament that the humanities, history and literature alike, have been ignored and downgraded in recent decades while science and tech. are being raised in their status, not just in grade schools and high schools, but in Universities too. All the more we need to share books, ideas, and literary appreciation with the next generation. I’d love to be in your class!

    1. I have very mixed feelings about ‘blending’ subjects together in that way, Arti. On the one hand I think works of literature, music and fine arts are often best understood when viewed in respect of their social and political context, but on the other it is too easy to lose important details if you’re looking in too many directions at once. It needs some very careful teaching to bring it off.

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