Thursday, 8 March 2012

History, of Diverse Kinds

This is a slightly belated blog - having been going out to lots of events, I've been short of time to then write about them.
On Sunday I was in Bath again, for two very different history events. The first was (Sir) Simon Jenkins, talking about the entire history of England, and his new book (imaginatively titled 'A Short history of England' and the second was Faramerz Dabhoiwala, discussing his book, ''The Origins of Sex'

Simon Jenkins is a journalist and Chairman of the National Trust, and is unimpressed with the current habit of teaching history in unconnected chunks. He argues that it is necessary, in order to understand history, including current events, to understand their causes. (which seems fairly reasonable, although I am not 100% convinced that it necessary to understand the entirety of English history to achieve this in respect on a single part of it)
Simon Jenkins
Having set out his stall, Jenkins then proceeded to gallop through the whole of English History, from 410AD to 2012, in around half an hour (although to be fair there was a rather large leap from 410 to 1066).

He has a gift for picking out interesting and unobvious nuggets of information. I realised, afterwards, that only one of these was actually new to me (I hadn't appreciated that the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 was a proper, armed invasion, even of it didn't lead to a bloody civil war, at least in England. I just thought we just sent out for a mail order King.)

I was aware that Magna Carta was not a success at the time, and was then virtually forgotten until the 17th C, that Agincourt was a PR success but a practical disaster and that we ended up losing that war (Shakespeare spun it a little...)  he suggested that when you have a monarchy, what you need for political progress is a really incompetent King - the examples he gave were King John, Richard III, the Stuarts and George III. You can see his point.

It was a fascinating lecture, and his conclusion, that we're seeing a return to an elite executive - back to the old Norman pattern, which was a chilling thought to leave us on...

The second event was also about history, albeit of a different kind. Faramerz Dabhoiwala discussing his book about what he describes as the 1st Sexual Revolution - the change, in the 17th - 18th C of attitudes towards sex and sexuality - specifically, that in around 1650 attitudes were similar to those we associate with modern day extremist theocracies - extra-marital sex could, and often did, lead to severe punishment; public shaming, whipping and banishment for life from the parish, and even to execution. Dabhoiwala (in response to an audience question) siad that this applied across the social spectrum, but I did wonder whether this were true - I am sure that there were wealthy and powerful people who faced punishment after accusations os sexual impropriety, but can't help but feeling that such accusations would be awfully handy as a way of controlling political emenies, for instance, and that it may be that among the upper echelons of society we only ever hear of those who were punished, not those who were not.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala
The prevailing view, according to Dr Dabhoiwala,  was that such behaviour was a risk to society as a whole, not merely to the individuals concerned. There was also an assumption that women were naturally weaker than men, and therefore more lustful.

By the 1750s the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment extended to the sexual sphere; ideas that sex outside marriage were 'unnatural' or intrinsically wrong were challenged, and surprisingly, Dr Dabhoiwala had even found evidence of such arguments being put forward by at least one gay man.

The idea developed that there was a difference between public and private, and that private life was, well, private, and not the concern of the state.

Courtesan Kitty Fisher become, arguably, the first sexual celebrity and pin-up girl (She commissioned Joshua Reynolds to paint her portrait, for instance, and was written about extensively. We are far from having invented celebrity gossip! ), and the first 'homes' for 'fallen women' were established, with people starting to see them (up to a point) as victims in need of help rather than as criminals in need of punishment, although this appears to have been somewhat patchy, and of course there tended still to be a strong impulse to evangalize to such fallen women.

Interesting stuff. Not least for the reminder of how recently our society changed. I think I shall see about getting a copy of the book from the library. The discussion  certainly piqued my interest.

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