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July 02, 2007

All the History You'll Ever Need to Know: W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman's 1066 and All That

Posted by Lincoln Allison

1066 and All That
by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman
illustrated by John Reynolds, Gent.
Pp. 115. Methuen, 1930

Available as a Methuen Humour Classic, 1066 and All That (Methuen, 1998), 6.99.

Sellar and Yeatman's history of England takes us from Caesar's invasion in 55 BC to the end of the Great War in 1918. It offers the reader 103 Good Things and 5 Bad Kings, but only two memorable dates (the last number reduced from four after a snap survey conducted at the Eton-Harrow match). For those who don't remember it, this is a satirical version of English history or, in other words, an exercise in schoolboy or undergraduate humour, though it is rather more genteel than the kind of humour which would have fallen into those categories in later generations.

The illustrations by John Reynolds are cartoons which complement the text very well. For example, there is (p. 110) a sketch of a wonderfully effete Oscar Wilde holding a flower with the caption,

Wrote very well, but . . . .
The actual text continues,
. . . behaved very beardsley.
The authors are keen to insist that the principal criterion by which history should be judged is memorability.

In this spirit I must report that the passage I remember best from reading this book 50 years ago concerns the English Civil War (p. 63):

With the ascension of Charles I to the throne we come at last to the Central Period of English History (not to be confused with the Middle Ages, of course), consisting in the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive). [Their emphasis]

Charles I was a Cavalier king and therefore had a small pointed beard, long flowing curls, a large, flat, flowing hat and gay attire. The roundheads, on the other hand, were clean-shaven and wore tall, conical hats, white ties and sombre garments. Under these circumstances a Civil War was inevitable.

The wisdom of this passage is enormous; it contains the most important conceptual distinction in the study of history, something far beyond the understanding of most professional historians. And it exposes the satirical point of the book, which is to reveal the nature of the received English view of history, which is (or was then) the Whig-Liberal view laced with a good dose of Romantic nationalism. Thus our ambivalence about the most dramatic event in our history. And how damned often does that which is Right turn out to be Repulsive and that which is Wrong turn out to be Wromantic?

History can therefore be judged by its ability to fall into memorable stereotypes which follow on logically from each other and its characters can properly be criticised for failing to do this, as in the later Middle Ages (p. 48):
During the Wars of the Roses the Kings became less and less memorable (sometimes even getting in the wrong order) . . .
Thus the basic joke-theme is about a particular way of organising our historical knowledge - or, rather, over-organising it. The humour is complemented and filled out by a combination of puns and plays on schoolboy ignorance. What Caesar said about the Ancient Brits is that they were (p. 2):
Weeny, Weedy and Weaky.
Wyclif was leader of the Dullards, who were given their name (p. 40):
because they were so stupid they could not do the Bible in Latin.
The Hugonaut refugees were called after their leader, Victor Hugo (p. 60) And so on. (This tradition is alive and well to judge from the more or less endless emails I have seen this year on the subject of exam gaffes.)

It isn't all that funny, most of it - I'm not particularly annoyed by puns, but I'm not all that amused by them either. It gets by like modern sketch shows because they throw the stuff at you at such a pace that a rhythm of dud-dud-dud-chortle-dud-dud-chortle makes it just about worth hanging on. One element which raises the chortle rate is the exam questions, especially the form of the imperatives used. Speaking as an examiner who has set too many hundreds of the "Discuss" form, including those "with special reference to. . " I wish I had been able to order or demand:
Discuss in latin or gothic (but not both) . . .
How angry would you be if it was suggested that. . . ?
Expostulate (chiefly) on . . .
. . . write not more than three lines on the advantages and disadvantages of the inductive historical method with special relation to ecclesiastical litigation in the earlier Lancastrian epochs.
Describe in excessive detail . . .
Refute with special reference to anything you know.
Outline joyfully . . .
Stigmatize cursorily . . .
Ruminate fearlessly on . . .
1066 ends on a strong and prophetic note:
CHAPTER LXI

A BAD THING

America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a.

Thus the end of history (and the reason for it) sixty years before Francis Fukuyama thought of it!

There was a sequel, And Now All This, with geography as its theme, but my recollection is that it had all the weaknesses of 1066 without the slivers of genius. There could, of course, be a sequel in another sense, which is that someone could write a contemporary version. Through no fault of its own 1066 is dated in at least two ways: the Whig-Liberal view is no longer a predominant orthodoxy and you can no longer rely on the existence of a readership which knows enough English history to understand the jokes. An updated version would presumably have to play on the multi-cultural, "pc", sub-marxist versions of history which are taught now and which have taken the Whig-Liberal view beyond its logical possibilities. For instance, the original reads (p. 61):
James I slobbered at the mouth and had favourites; he was thus a Bad King.
I suppose an updated version would have to say:
Although James I proved to be an inclusive monarch in relation to gay and Scottish issues and was one of the first political leaders to recognise that tobacco raises serious health and safety issues, his outlook on feminist and New Age perspectives was couched in the reactionary discourse of "witchcraft".
Too tedious to bother with, I fear.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

For those readers who think they may not know enough British history to understand the jokes in 1066 and All That - and indeed for all our readers - the Social Affairs Unit can highly recommend Jeremy Black's Short History of Britain.


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Professor in sport and leisure? And I thought I had it tough.

Posted by: snart at December 12, 2008 05:35 PM
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