In my last blog I was concerned with asking questions about the structure of narrative in a textbook and what narrative is developed. Today's focus is, in my opinion, just as important: Any good history textbook needs to acknowledge that that narrative it offers is contested. That is to say, the book needs to inform its readers that it provides ‘a narrative’ and not ‘The Narrative’, even if this is only in passing. This is particularly important if we see the role of a knowledge-rich curriculum as delivering social justice. This point was also made during the WLFS Conference, established to look at the importance of knowledge in the curriculum. From Christine Counsell at the beginning of the day, to Robert Tombs at the end, the point was made that we need to recognise that history is ultimately a matter of debate.
When choosing textbooks, one of my first key questions is what messages they develop in the narrative, whether these are historically valid. As a sub-question to this, I am generally interested in the underlying themes or messages created and how these might be a help or a hindrance to my students.
One again, I have chosen to use Robert Peal’s ‘Knowing History’ sample chapter on Henry VIII to explore these issues further. Below I have tried to outline some of the main narrative messages from this section:
- Henry VIII was an heroic and intelligent king.
- Henry was an ambitious king who aggressively sought to expand.
- Henry signed a peace with France because he was let down by the Holy Roman Empire.
- The Scottish took advantage of Henry’s heroic campaign against France and invaded England. The Scots ended up being defeated by the Queen (an embarrassment? Implied).
- The Catholic Church was immensely powerful and corrupt.
- The papacy was controlled by greedy and corrupt nobles.
- Indulgences and relics were ways for the corrupt church to make money.
- Pilgrims were somewhat stupid and bought into this.
- Protestants were those who campaigned against Catholic greed and corruption.
- The printing press helped Protestant spread a message of simplicity.
- Protestants believed that people could have a direct relationship with God through the Bible and Catholics did not.
- Martin Luther began the Reformation by nailing his theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.
- Henry was desperate for a male heir – this was a bigger issue than his failure to defeat the French in 1525. Henry needed a divorce to get a male heir.
- Henry turned on Cardinal Wolsey because he failed to negotiate the divorce.
- Anne Boleyn gave Henry the idea to break from Rome.
- Henry did not like Protestantism but suddenly realised Luther’s ideas would give him more power in England than the Pope.
- Henry married Anne and then broke with Rome, creating the Church of England.
- The Act of Supremacy was one of the most important laws in English history.
Already you will see that some of these messages are more problematic than others. For instance, the idea that the Catholic church was very powerful during this period is fairly undisputed; the idea that it was wholly corrupt however is a very particular interpretation of the period. Then we have the parts where Peal tries to explain the motives of Henry VIII in breaking from Rome, implying that this was a deeply cynical move connected with power and wealth: another debated point. Most troubling is the implication that ordinary people (when they are mentioned) were effectively duped into superstitious practices – a line of thought generally out of kilter with recent historiography on the period. For me, the throwaway points about people’s beliefs, corrupt churches, irrational Catholicism, or the Scots being defeated by a woman, actually communicate a worrying lack of respect for the period and the people who inhabited it.
These smaller messages build into a set of broader messages, which I find equally problematic:
- That Henry VIII was a great king because he made big changes.
- That Henry VIII and a small group of nobles were instrumental in liberating the faiths of ordinary people from a corrupt church.
- That ordinary people had little or no thought about their beliefs or religion.
Of course, all history textbooks need to accept some degree of simplification. After all, they are not degree-level text. However, I think it is worth comparing the approach taken in the “Changing Minds” book from Longman (originally published in 1997 but still very much in print). The book begins its chapter on Henry VIII with the following “Some say that Henry only made the break with Rome because the Pope would not let him have a divorce…” (p.49) From the outset it is clear that the issue is contentious. Just like Peal, the Longman book goes on to outline the issue of inheritance, however it also posits a number of other viable theories for why Henry might have wanted to break with Rome. Pupils are then asked to think through why Henry made the break and, ultimately whether or not he might be considered a Protestant.
I have included a summary of messages from the Longman book below for reference:
- Many nobles were happy when Henry VIII came to the throne, but many people are often hopeful of a new start.
- Henry VIII liked to portray himself as a powerful king and used this power to change the lives of the people.
- There is a debate about why Henry broke with Rome but the fact he was not allowed a divorce was key
- Henry wanted a son due to the failure of Catherine of Aragon to produce a male heir – he was in love with AB but hoped she would provide an heir too.
- Protestants were worried about the power of the Catholic church – Henry did not like the power of the church to intervene in his personal affairs.
- Protestants said the Catholic church and its clergy were corrupt – this was supported by evidence but not true of all monks and priests.
- Protestants and Catholics held different beliefs on the role of the bible in religion.
- Henry was encouraged to break with Rome by advisers such as Cranmer and Cromwell.
- Henry’s break with Rome inadvertently made Parliament more powerful. Evidence suggests that Parliament was more interested in passing other laws.
- The Act of Supremacy broke the link with Rome and made Henry the head of the Church in England – many people accepted this but there were also some who did not. Henry punished people who disagreed.
- Henry closed down the monasteries and took their wealth with a hope of propping up the wealth of the monarchy but he wasted much of this on wars.
- The Act of Supremacy did not solve the problem of control of the church in the long term – this was due to succession crises and various Catholic plots lasting until the 1750s.
- Often in history there are unintended consequences.
Does the narrative acknowledge its contested nature?
The second major question I want to deal with in this blog is whether or not a textbook acknowledge the contested nature of its narrative and accepts that it is a narrative and not ‘The Narrative’. When looking at the 'Knowing History' series through this lens, I feel there is a lack of recognition of important disciplinary point. The chapters themselves are presented as simple, historicist accounts of past events. There is no real sense in the book that there might be any disagreement over the narrative, and students are certainly not asked to question it. In many ways, I hear echoes of the controversial declaration from Florida’s 2006 Education Bill, which stated that “history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” (Florida State Legislature, 2006).
Of course, we might argue that a good history teacher could fill these gaps, however, the book does not contain enough contextual detail for teachers to introduce the idea of a contested narrative themselves as there is no conflicting or contradictory information to work with.
To take a couple of examples: the chapter on the Elizabethan Golden Age begins by taking this term at face value: “Due to Elizabeth I’s wise decision making, England enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and stability during her reign” (p.34). At no point in the chapter is the term itself questioned, or at least contextualised. I am all for author voice, but not in isolation from the historical debates which surround contested concepts like the ‘Elizabethan Golden Age’. Equally on page 56, Peal declares that “It was clear England’s Commonwealth experiment had failed…” with no sense that this might be a contested point. This in itself creates huge issues for anyone wanting to use the books with non-specialists, or teachers with limited period knowledge who may inadvertently reinforce such points without question.
I found only two places where historians were mentioned in the first two sections of the book: one to note that Henry owned a pair of football boots; and another to say that the Vikings discovered America rather than Columbus (the closest to introducing the idea of a debate).
Now, I accept that historicism is an historical school in its own right, but the narrative here seems to rest on a somewhat outdated, Protestant-centric, historiographical view of the Reformation. The Catholic Church is referred to as a great, corrupt body, led by greedy and avaricious popes with a taste for womanising. Catholic traditions are dismissed as superstitions, and Martin Luther and John Calvin appear as the rational saviours of ordinary religion. Of course, there is much truth in the corruption of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, but the idea that the whole church was corrupt to the core is very Protestant lens through which to view events. The book gives no hint that this might be the case. Indeed, just shy of a century ago, in 1918, Edward Harvey (1918, p. 322) noted that
I hope I have managed to outline the importance of asking key questions about the nature of the historical narrative developed in textbooks. Crucially, a well-chosen narrative allows students to understand the nature of disciplinary history, whilst also learning detailed substantive content. I hope I have also presented the case for considering the quality of the historical scholarship and research in any textbook to ensure that we maintain a suitable respect for the past when teaching.
In my next blog, I intend to get beyond issues of how knowledge is presented and focus more specifically on the precise historical knowledge communicated. This is an area where recent books such as Peal’s make large claims about their superiority, so it will be interesting to see how they stack up against existing offerings. As ever, please feel free to leave comments below or via Twitter @apf102.