Philobiblon: Traditional and untraditional history

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Traditional and untraditional history

I spent yesterday at the Roehampton University Renaissance Lives Annual Conference, which was brilliant. I really liked the fact that the sessions didn't mostly consist of papers being read out, but of short off-the-cuff explanations of research, followed by wide discussion.

And the discussion, while sometimes focused on detail - with lots of excellent stuff about women's lives - was mostly about the big issues of writing about history - are biographies and biographers writing about archetypes or individual lives; can you recover historical emotions? what is autobiography/life-writing (is using this description for a tomb taking things too far?); do biographical subjects still have agency after their death? what impact will technology have on the discipline (more focus on communal rather than individual lives through the ability to analyse large amounts of data was the answer given, although I think inter-discipinarianism is more important personally) - the description of this as "thick historicism" was accurate, I thought.

But the day started with what someone later labelled "classic 19th-century old historicism", with David Starkey talking about his biography of Henry VIII. You had to give him marks as a performer, there was more than a hint of mischief-making, and it certainly woke up everyone first thing in the morning, so I guess you could say he did his job.

But I wasn't the only one bristling at the statement "all historical progress depends on sons quarrelling with their fathers", while the claim that historians "from council houses" just couldn't understand war, the aristocracy and the like certainly did raised others' blood pressure. (This was despite the fact that he later contradicted the "sons" remark by attributing the entire English Reformation to Anne Boleyn, or at least to Henry's sexual desire for her! He claimed the only "Protestants" in England before her influence were a small number - who "would have fitted into a Portakabin" - at the "fleapit" of Cambridge. Not from what I know of the London of the time ...)

But, as I said, it was entertaining.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Sharon said...

While I don't know whether he was raised in a council house, Starkey himself came from a poor working-class family of Quakers. What was that about being able to understand wars? But I decided to stop letting him press my buttons a while back. I think he does it mostly to wind people up...

Sounds like a great conference!

10/23/2005 10:51:00 pm  

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