English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable

English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable by Lacey Baldwin Smith. Academy Chicago Publishers, 2006, 275 pages, $17.95


No people have engendered quite so much acclaim or earned so much censure as the English: extolled as the Athenians of modern times, yet hammered for their self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. But their history has been a spectacular one. Spiced with dozens of hilarious cartoons from Punch and other publications, English History will be a welcome and amusing tour of a land that has always fascinated Americans -- Anglophiles and Anglophobes alike.


Lacey Baldwin Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at Northwestern University and author of a number of histories and biographies, including Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty and Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World, among others. He lives with his wife, Jean, in Illinois and Vermont. They have two daughters.


I phoned Mr. Smith at his home while Chicago was experiencing a tempest of thunder, rain, hail, and sleet. "What drew you to history?"

"I only went to college for two years before the Second World War started. I wanted to go into law, into politics, and into government. I then spent three years in the military -- most of that time out in India. By the time I got back it was perfectly clear what I wanted to do and that was to become a historian.

"My father was an art historian at Princeton. Early rebellion made it impossible for me to think of becoming anything like a historian, but by the time the war was over I had changed my mind."

"Why English history?"

"English history was something of an accident. Back in those days you went to graduate school in history. You didn't go to graduate school in American history or English history or Chinese history. I was simply trained as a historian to cover any field.

"I was going to do my doctoral dissertation with Gordon Craig in German history, focusing on Austro-Hungarian foreign policy between 1900 and 1914. I started in on that, and my German was pretty good in those days, but then I discovered I couldn't complete the dissertation unless I learned Hungarian. I don't know whether you know anything about Hungarian or not, but it is the worst language on earth to learn because it's related to nothing at all. I tried to learn Hungarian, but after two weeks I decided life was too short, so I gave it up.

"Again, back in those days you were not in any way limited, so I went to my second favorite professor who happened to be in Renaissance and Reformation and English history, and I did a doctoral dissertation under his guidance.

"I learned very little of English history in graduate school. The first time I was hired was at MIT. I taught a course in the Humanities Department on European culture. It consisted of four sections: Periclean Athens, France of the High Middle Ages, Tudor England, and the age of Louis XIV. I was hired not only to teach the undergraduates the section on Tudor England, but also to teach all of these philosophers, music professors, and others because they were the ones teaching this course. It was taught by the entire Humanities Department. So that was when I really learned about Tudor England.

"That got me interested in Henry VIII, and that's where my major focus has been ever since."

"Your writing feels so comfortable in the telling of history."

"That's because I've been doing it for the benefit of undergraduates for a long, long time. I was able to write the present book because I taught the entire English history survey course at Northwestern for nearly 30 years."

"Tell me what you mean when you say that, 'History is not what happened in the past, but what today is worth remembering about the past.'"

"That is absolute heresy. If I said that to the History Department, I'd be run out of town on a rail. It is, nevertheless, true -- though professional historians will never admit it. We are interested in the past always in relationship to the present.

"There are schools of history, mostly connected with post-modern literature, which maintain that there is no such thing as history. It's all a figment of the modern imagination. Their belief is that as we read these documents, we read ourselves back into them.

"There are, basically, two schools of historical thinking. There are the 'lumpers' and then there are those who deal with the minutiae of history. The great lumpers of history (and Karl Marx, I guess, is the greatest example) see history as a continuous theme and flow, wherein everything is interconnected with everything else. That thinking is out of fashion at the moment. Now we deal with the particular. As a consequence, it's very difficult for modern historians to perceive the forest for the trees.

"The number of history students has dropped because modern-day historians don't like to give survey courses. They like to give courses on their own little bailiwick. Undergraduates aren't interested in that. They're turning to majors in psychology or political science or in sociology. Sociologists still tend to be lumpers. They see the broad picture."

I comment to Mr. Smith that it feels, today, as if we have developed a National Enquirer view of history.

"That's true. The more scandals there are, the more interest there is. So long as they are important to the theme and they dramatize the theme, they do become a necessary part of history."

"My National Enquirer mind wants to know if the story of the demise of Edward II is true."

"You mean the story of the funnel and the red hot poker stuck up his anus? All I can say to you is that story is well documented. That doesn't mean it's necessarily true, but the story itself goes back to the 13th and 14th centuries. We don't know if it actually happened, but it is as well documented as most other stories in English history. It makes considerable sense, though. His body had to be displayed, and it had to be displayed in a way to make it look as if he died a natural death."

"Whose reign remains the most intriguing to you?"

"Without a doubt, it's Henry VIII. But that's because I know more about Henry VIII. I wrote a book on him entitled The Mask of Royalty. It was a psychological study of the man in terms of the standards of his own age, without imposing 20th-century psychology back on him.

"I spent a lot of time, for instance, on the concept of honor that pervades the culture of the period. I also focused on the importance of war at the time. Warfare throughout the medieval period was part of the culture in which you displayed your honor and courage and loyalty. It goes back to old Anglo-Saxon times and those heroic tales of Beowulf, where you displayed your true mettle. It's a warriors' code that lasted all the way down through the 16th Century. Henry VIII felt his wars were of the greatest importance."

"The relationship of king to subject has fluctuated through the ages. What do you think future generations will come to know about the present queen and her reign?"

"Elizabeth is not going to be terribly memorable except for the fact that she reigned for so long. Very little happened during her reign, excepting the decline of the empire."

"And that begs the obvious next question. Can the monarchy survive much longer?"

"Like the Dutch monarchy, the Norwegian monarchy, and the Swedish monarchy, the English monarchy is very useful. As the kings and queens of England have lost political power, they have gained stature as being kind of necessary to the political system.

"Our political system combines the head of state with the head of the political party. This causes a lot of trouble. Bush becomes both a symbol for the United States and, at the same time, he is the political power of the state. In France they have a president that is divided from the premier. In Italy they have the same thing. In England they have a queen that stands above politics, who sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil. That may be the saving grace of the monarchy. It has a thousand years of history and tradition standing behind it and at the same time is a very useful institution.

"You do hear every once in awhile that it's a very expensive institution and that perhaps it isn't worth it. There are questions, from time to time, about why they maintain this archaic system. The fact is, it attracts an immense number of tourists, and that is very important to the economy of Great Britain. We wouldn't have Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards, we wouldn't have the queen's official birthday, and we wouldn't have all the drama of the past. And that is terribly important, particularly now that Great Britain has dropped to a second-rate power. The one thing the queen has is a perfectly marvelous history, and it's very useful to them, and they are well aware of this."

"Contrary to evidence one might see in current political events, do you think we learn from history, or learn well from history?"

"I'm not sure we learn from history, but, my goodness...Take for instance what's happening in old Yugoslavia, in what is today Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. The importance of history there is terrifying, because they remember the atrocities of a thousand years ago.

"The same thing is true in Iraq, which is still essentially a tribal society. They remember...and remember the need for vengeance for atrocities that took place five or ten generations back. Historic memory is a terribly important thing.

"Whether we learn from it, I don't know. That all depends on whether you're an optimist or a pessimist."

"For a man who has been retired for a number of years, you sound very busy."

"I had time on my hands, being retired. I didn't have to prove anything. I wasn't bucking for promotion or trying to get tenure, so I could afford to write a book that had nothing to do with tenure or promotion. It's history as entertainment.

"When I was teaching English history in the survey course, I always wanted, but could never find, a short history of England. I'm one of the culprits myself. I have written a four-volume history of England -- well, I wrote one of the volumes and was general editor for the other three. All told, you're talking about 1300 or 1400 pages. It's simply too much reading.

"I was forever being asked to recommend a short history of England in preparation for going over there for the first time. If you read this book, you'll discover it is aimed at the tourist. The location of monuments and that sort of thing are all in there. In fact, one of the early titles that I played around with was something like All You Need to Know about English History while Flying between O'Hare and Heathrow. It can be read in a period of six or seven hours.

"The final reason I got interested in the book was that it just so happened that my parents collected and bound copies of Punch magazine. I inherited about 40 volumes, covering a vast amount of the 20th Century. This is where I got the idea of using Punch illustrations rather than portraits of elder statesmen and pictures of cathedrals. I thought that cartoons that showed off the idiocies of English history would be a marvelous plus."

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