Tudormania: a challenge for university history teachers

Last week, lots of my Twitter followers were busy posting links to a Guardian ‘Long Read’. Charlotte Higgins’ Tudormania: Why can’t we get over it? is a thought-provoking essay about society’s fascination with the Tudors. About to embark on a pile of Tudor-themed marking, I decided some displacement activity was in order, and read it. But it’s thanks to a combination of Tudormania and the increasingly commercial world of the university that I had that marking to do in the first place. Students are far from immune from the influence of popular history, and its relationship with their studies is something we should talk about more.

Academics spend a lot of time (though perhaps still not enough) thinking about how to help students make the transition from school to university. The Tudors obviously come in there. Until very recently, the dynasty featured prominently on the primary school history curriculum, and even now they’re optional plenty of teachers are deciding to stick with their tried-and-tested resources. They’re on the GCSE syllabus, an option at A-Level: there’s a longstanding complaint that children leave school knowing Henry, Hitler and not much in between. Although there are many other choices on the curriculum, in an exam-focused system it’s tempting to play safe. It’s tempting to play safe at university too. Anxious about exam results and the job market, students often veer back to the familiar as the end of their studies approaches. Here influences from both school and popular history kick in, hence the popularity of Tudor specialist modules and dissertations.

While most university History students in England and Wales arrive with a History A-Level, many have also learnt about the past outside school: from TV documentary and drama, in popular history books, at museums and heritage sites. Some of the history they see in those places draws on academic research: often it diverges. Tudor history is particularly difficult in this regard. As Hilary Mantel points out in the Long Read, it’s about ‘sex and violence’. It’s about personalities, passion, intrigue, adventure. But it’s frequently about all those things in a timeless sort of way, outside their historical context.

Historians are as prone as anyone else to a fascination with the salacious, so of course there are thoughtful histories of sex (and violence) in early modern Europe that try to avoid anachronism (though we all, inevitably, write in our own time). If any enterprising students are still casting around for a dissertation topic for next year, they could do worse than write a study of Tudor emotion, or of the economics of Tudor adventure. Yet for many the switch from Tudormania narrative into historical analysis isn’t easy to achieve. Hardly surprising, when so much of the popular history insistently writes our present back into their past – Elizabeth as career girl, Catherine of Aragon not as dynastic bride but as universal wronged wife. The popular histories assure us we can tell how the leading players at the Tudor court felt – but in fact,  in the absence of diaries, and when letters were often drafted by others, certainty is hard to come by. Not to mention the distance that a royal education gives from a typical emotional experience.

One of the answers is to step back and invite students to study the film and TV portrayals in their own right. There’s much to enjoy: a splendidly queer Elizabeth I, played by Quentin Crisp in Sally Potter’s take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1992). The infamous ‘slash’ Tudors fan-fic (discussed in Tudorism – see below). The postmodern Elizabeth as text, in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), a film made in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars (to give just a European context) where sectarian religious tension is very present; a film also made in the aftermath of Blair, and full of Tudor spin-doctoring. These tell stories both of the Tudor court and of their own time. They also prompt the question: how many more serious history books do that in more subtle ways? (It’s no accident, for example, that the Tudor secret service came to historical prominence during the Cold War.) If we acknowledge that that history can be as much about its writers as about its subjects, it just might make us think more about our own society – as well as about the past. And it might help students think about how we use history in the present, and why.

P. S. Just briefly, on Martin Davidson’s complaint that ‘the seventeenth century is too complex’ for TV. Yes, it’s complex, but I’m sure there are ways in. I remember one date from my secondary school education. I didn’t learn it in History (which I dropped early and came back to as an adult). No, this date was graffiti on the school toilet wall: 1690. This was Scotland in the 1980s and we had anti-Catholic historical graffiti. How’s about that for a way into seventeenth-century history? And the leading figures of the seventeenth century have no sex lives? You might try the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven. That’s a gripping, horrific courtroom drama, and it happened in 1631.

Want to read more on Tudormania? Try:

Photo: Gunnar Grimnes on Flickr. Used under a CC-BY-2.0 licence.

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One thought on “Tudormania: a challenge for university history teachers

  1. I’ve done 17th century for TV (admittedly 17th into 18th and food-based) and it was a riot. I utterly agree with you – nothing is too complicated for TV: it’s just about finding the resonant issues and using them as a way in. Plus, the 17th century is FANTASTIC.

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