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The Professional Fallacy of Historians

Back in 2006, when I wrote Tudors, Me, and an Elusive Ghost, I explained why I chose to specialise in 16th c. history, or even more narrowly, in Tudor history:

I chose to specialise in Tudor history because I loved England, the English language and culture, and because I adored Medieval and Early Modern History, but wanted to be closer to the modern times, thus I opted to research into the 16th c. It was an absolutely amazing period of time, as far as I’m concerned. The geographical and scientific discoveries, Renaissance and Baroque, the beginnings of cartography and research into the Solar system, on the one hand, – and Reformation, the Wars of Religion, the Inquisition, and slavery, on the other. The co-existence of the opposites has made the 16th c. irresistibly attractive. I don’t think I would want to study any other time, had I been given the choice once again.

In 2009 I am to admit that there are some corrections to be made. For example, I’ve always loved France and French language, and with my interest in 18th c. and the Enlightenment I could well go and study 18th c. French history. Arguably, as far as using the Russian archives goes, this would be a better period to study. But, looking back and around, I think I am the kind of person who never (or rarely) follows the beaten track. Sometimes it makes life harder, but usually yields good results in the long run.

I remember about the English Quinquecento – I purposely use the Italian term as it better denotes the exact date – each time I look at my watch and see “15:47”. 1547 was the year when Edward VI Tudor ascended the throne at the age of 9, upon Henry VIII’s death. From what I remember, it was my supervisor in Russia who offered me “The Privy Council under Edward VI” as a possible topic. The volumes of the Privy Council papers that I needed were not available either in Moscow or in St. Petersburg. But there were other sources, and my research turned into a “personal” history of the Privy Councillors. It surveyed their background, education, and cultural activities.

Little did I know, though, that I would find myself in the midst of the debate that is, frankly, somewhat ahistorical. To put it succintly, to this day there is bickering among historians regarding the degree of political skill and involvement on the part of Edward VI. He ascended the throne when he was 9, and died at the age of 15. It is difficult for our contemporary’s mind to ascertain a degree of intellect to this age, let alone any veritable raison d’etat.

Taken in the context of studies, this is a reverse of the situation when we explain things in the narrative by the almighty Author’s intent or life. Edward VI has long been hailed “the boy-king”, so in this scenario things are explained by the influence of his tutors and uncles. The paradox is that, as with the Author, if he or she is long dead, there is no way whatsoever to “know” anything exactly about the text, be it the meaning or composition. To state that whatever Edward wrote was influenced by his uncles means to be oblivious to the fact that people of all ages can be influenced by someone. Historical studies are influenced by other studies, as a matter of fact. But there is little doubt that Edward’s manuscripts were written with his own hand, and there must be the point when this begins to matter more than his age.

What an historian must also understand is that, although a boy, Edward VI was no ordinary kid, and not only because he was the only son of a father who had seven wives of which two were beheaded. He was an heir to the throne and a king in the making, and, comparing him to other young or less capable royal heirs, Edward VI’s life at court was rather fortunate. To understand how much worse it could be, we only need to consider the fate of Edward V in 1483.

And once again, Nietzsche’s phrase comes to mind: “Lack of historical sense is the family failure of all philosophers” because they had the common failing of starting out from man as he is now”. Looks like, as far as Edward VI studies are concerned, the lack of historical sense happened to be the family failure of historians themselves. It will never cease to amaze me how many academics were oblivious to this, as they were trying to wriggle past Edward’s works, and indeed Edward himself, because they didn’t see the forest for the trees – or the king for the boy. And so they turned a blind eye to the fact that this royal youngster was miles better versed in languages and history than the Royal Highnesses of today.

It’s not all that bad, of course: there is a posthumously published study by Jennifer Loach; a mammoth book on Edward’s involvement in the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch; a provocative study by Stephen Alford that was laughed off by one established scholar. Thankfully, Prof John Guy did Alford’s study the justice:

It is bold, even radical, in its determination not to be distracted by conventional narratives of politics, and it explains extremely well how previous narratives have been constructed and why they don’t work. At the same time the book is sensitive to its competitors, and is skilfully positioned in the space between Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Tudor Church Militant and Jennifer Loach’s Edward VI (quoted from Copac).

However, the attitude seems to continue following the statement from an official review at Library Journal: “
The subject, however, is not one of universal interest, recommending this book for academic libraries with collections in the area of English history and the Reformation” (about MacCulloch’s book – JD).

Of course, there’s more to Tudor Studies than Edward VI – likewise, there’s more than Elizabeth or Reformation to Tudor Studies. But somehow mid-Tudor scholars have to keep reminding their colleagues that without Edward and Mary the English Quinquecento would perhaps be too grand – and too dull. And so, not unlike their subject, those who study Edward’s reign are sandwiched between their genuine interest in the topic and the duty of explaining why they are fascinated by something that is not of “universal interest”.

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