The Unavoidability of the Historian writing about the Present
I am presently living in the year 1461, or so I thought. I am so deeply immersed in completing a chapter of a book I am writing for Cambridge University Press, that it occupies my mind nearly all my waking hours, and infiltrates some of my dreams too. The subject-matter is not new to me, in as much as the central figure is John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester (c. 1427-1470), whom I have mentioned on more than one occasion here. One of the pages on this site provides a listing of his manuscripts, an updated version of which will act as an appendix to the chapter. However familiar the material is, I am finding myself surprised by what I am writing, in more than one way.
There is something that seems disjointed in the career of Tiptoft. He was a pilgrim and intrepid traveller, who so liked Italy that he tarried there for nigh on three years. He spent his time in cultural pursuits, commissioning and buying up books for which there is ample evidence of his own reading. He even concocted a grand idea of presenting a large quantity of manuscripts to his university of Oxford, and wrote to them from Padua suggesting it. But a cynic might suggest that there was a more pressing reason for his long sojourn in the sun, enjoying cultivated conversation and a glass (or more) of wine: it ensured he could avoid involvement in the internecine conflict that embroiled the land of his birth at that point. But return he did to England, quite quickly, indeed, after the regime-change at home and soon became a key figure in Yorkist politics. His career as Constable of England and Governor in Ireland saw him gain a reputation for summary justice which led him to be so hated that, come the Readeption and his arrest, the crowd in the London streets bayed for his blood.
These two elements of his biography – the lettered friend of humanists, and the uncompromising enemy of Lancastrians – seem mismatched. I did not set out to resolve a contradiction which, I had thought, needed no resolution: we are all changeable and our lives rarely ring a monotonous tone of consistency. But then I met for lunch Tom Penn, who is writing a book on the Yorkists in power. Our conversation encouraged me to think further about the apparent disconnect between the two Tiptofts, and the more I thought about the material I have gathered, the more I came to sense that there are, indeed, links between the two men, and between those Tiptofts and the other one, the one who receives posthumous praise from William Caxton when he printed English translations of Latin texts that he said had been made by the earl.
Tiptoft’s enemies insinuated that his time in Italy had exposed him to nasty foreign influences which he had then imported back home; the suggestion was that his time abroad had made him less English. What I have come to sense is that Tiptoft’s perception was quite the opposite: that it was only be a wholehearted engagement with others within the shared tradition of Western Christendom that one could recognise, let alone realise, the full potential of what it could mean to be English. And, at that point, I wonder about what I am actually writing…
Tiptoft’s opponents, as I have described them, sound to me so much like fifteenth-century Brexiteers, wanting to reduce and confine their identity. He, in contrast, in his cosmopolitanism would have campaigned for Remain, though whether having the man known as the Butcher of England on one’s side is an advantage is doubtful. I did not set out to use my discussion of his manuscripts to become a commentary on our nation’s present predicament. In fact, I usually make an effort to divide between my historical writing and my political commitment. I remember asking Conrad Russell, eminent historian of seventeenth-century England and active Liberal Democrat peer, whether he thought his politics informed his writing of history; his succinct response was ‘I hope not’.
So, how have these parallels forced themselves upon the page? Has there been some sort of surreptitious infusion of a Zeitgeist into my veins? That would be disturbing as I have been reared an anti-Hegelian who, when it comes to the ‘spirit of the age’, practises complete abstinence. The difficulty with the concept is that the ‘age’ is not just imperceptible to all but the ‘great man’; it simply does not exist. What I see in history are not ‘periods’ as much as a myriad of minute shifts, unsynchronised and unequal, that perpetually shake the kaleidoscope through which we spy the world. There are, though, perhaps moments when we sense a movement of the plates beneath us, making accepted certainties judder. It is said that in the US post-1963 everyone could remember where they were of the news of the assassination of JFK: some wept, some cheered, but what they shared was a sense of a changed reality — something irreversible has taken place. For us in Britain, so often dormant in self-satisfied contentment, there has been a moment. It is not that a nation’s destiny has been altered. It is true that, on the basis of a single response from a woefully small proportion of the electorate, decisions are being made behind closed doors to break links with the European Union to an extent as yet unclear (so much for taking control). But, as I have said before, the European Union has never been about a calling, it is a matter of rational choice. What has happened has brought into sharper relief how difficult it is to talk as if there was a Britain as a single united nation. This is not simply about the increased divide between Scotland and England (leaving aside the issue of Northern Ireland); the deeper impact has been to expose the fissures within our society as raw wounds onto which the acid of further rancour is being poured.
We have experienced a moment and are living through its aftershocks. Have the unsettling consequences of it shaped how I have written? I like to think not: I prefer to say that I am reading the parallels into what I have written. I certainly want that to be the most plausible explanation, and not just for professional reasons of keeping one’s impartiality. I suspect I also want the history about which I write, bloody and unsettled through those times were, to be a safe haven that cannot be touched by the increasing bitterness of our here-and-now politics. There must be some advantage to being an historian and maybe it is this: that one can retreat not just from the outside world but into another time. As things stand now, I think I might prefer to be with Tiptoft in Padua in 1461 than in England in 2016.
But, if I were there, I think I know what he would say: we have enjoyed ourselves but we have to return — it is our duty. What, though, can I do, apart from campaigning for a more fully functioning democracy than we have been shown to have right now? Is it that there is also a duty for any historian in these circumstances? The goal of impartiality is more than a noble dream, but are there occasions when it becomes a dereliction of duty? Is one consequence of this moment that the historian writing about the present is not simply unavoidable, it is essential?