Making it personal: historical over-identification

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

King Richard III

Richard III enthusiast Philippa Langley with a reconstructed face of the monarch
at the Society of Antiquaries in London. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA


Historians attempt to be objective in their reading of sources, even as we admit the hopelessness of the task. We may succeed in keeping our minds open in the search for answers, but we inevitably frame our questions in response to contemporary concerns. This is what makes our work meaningful and is, in any case, unavoidable in research of any kind. But what about when it becomes personal?

At the end of my viva, I admitted to my thesis examiners that one of the historical figures that I had studied had been a favourite. When surprise was expressed, I was pleased that I had managed to avoid obvious favouritism. I had acted professionally and had successfully put my personal feelings and commitments to one side.

This need to keep a professional distance was one of the reasons why some parts of Monday night’s Channel 4 documentary about the uncovering of Richard III’s skeleton were uncomfortable viewing. In particular Philippa Langley, Secretary of the Scottish Branch of theRichard III Society, was openly emotional about the deceased monarch, and clearly partial. This was not, she was sure, the face of a tyrant.

Langley deserves credit for driving the project forward (although we might judge this differently if, like the Spitfires in Burma, the king had turned out not to be in the car park). Although her penchant for feelings, signs and symbols (the ‘R’ painted on the tarmac, the desire to drape the remains with a royal standard) were a little extreme, she is far from alone in her attitude to Richard’s memory. As the Richard III Society states, it has “been working since 1924 to secure a more balanced assessment of the king” than that coloured by Tudor propaganda.

There are “several thousand” members of the Society, and they take a high-minded view of their mission. The website quotes their patron, the current Duke of Gloucester, in saying that they share “a faith that even after all these centuries the truth is important. It is proof of our sense of civilised values that something as esoteric and fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for”.

The Channel 4 documentary showed how seriously, and how personally, many of the members identify with this. As Tim Skellett wrote in a post reflecting on the academic response to the Richard III announcement, “Richard III has become – rightly or wrongly – a symbol of truth-seeking and resistance to propaganda”. The meaning of such symbols is a fascinating topic of historical research in its own right.

Exposing injustice is a key element for generating interest and enthusiasm beyond the academy. If someone usually held in high regard (Tudor monarchs, Shakespeare) is thought responsible for the oppression of a rediscovered, wronged hero, then identification with and emotional attachment to the story can become particularly intense. This is true of the mission to rescue Richard, and in history of scienceexamples are Robert Hooke and Nikolai Tesla, seen as victims of Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison respectively.

These individuals are now championed strongly by non-academics, taking up scholarly evidence that the reputation of these individuals had been undermined by previous writers of history. It has become the business of history to question sources, find hidden stories and ask how history might be rewritten. This is, itself, the result of changing attitudes to authority. When, back in the 1830s, there was an attempt to rescue John Flamsteed’s reputation from Newton’s tyranny, political, class and religious allegiances were closely bound to a discussion about personalities and science.

If, however, the research becomes a mission there is a risk of tipping the scales too far. Just because someone’s reputation has been eclipsed by enemies, it does not follow that they were a saint. This simply replaces one set of uncritically-accepted heroes with another. Richard III becomes incapable of acts that would have been perfectly normal in his circumstances; Hooke becomes the inventor and discoverer of almost everything.

Perhaps it is the awareness of the need to resist the impulse to identify with your characters that makes professional historians less forgiving than they might otherwise be of such enthusiasm, even while we make use of it in supporting our research and preservation of heritage. And yet we are only human, and I, for example, have found myself going some way down the line toward rescuing Nevil Maskelyne’s reputation, after, in the process of reviving John Harrison’s reputation, Dava Sobel’sLongitude unfairly presented him as a villain.

I do my best to keep my judgements sound, and ask myself why it should matter that Maskelyne seems to have been, in fact, a rather nice man. After all, that favourite figure in my postgraduate research wasAugustus De Morgan – not only for his jokes and doodles, but for his constant emphasis on the historian’s necessary attempt at impartiality.

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