The man who defined Whig history

Posted by Helen Thursday, September 01, 2011 , ,

Many people know what the Whig interpretation of history is, if only in the hilariously parodic version of 1066 And All That, a book I always recommend to anyone who wants a quick summary of English history. (Here is a link to the text but, really, one needs the book in front of one because of the illustrations and because it is easier to shed tears of laughter over a book than in front of a screen.)

The man who first analyzed and defined that school of history, showing that it was not simply the right and inevitable way of looking at the subject, was Sir Herbert Butterfield, a man well known and highly regarded for most of his career, forgotten and dismissed by the "cognoscenti" after his death and one who is obviously due for a revival that may well begin with a new biography by Michael Bentley, recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.

In "The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield," Michael Bentley draws on a range of private letters and papers to sharpen our appreciation of Butterfield's actual accomplishments, particularly "The Whig Interpretation of History," the 1931 book that made his reputation by forcing historians to reconsider their discipline. Butterfield argued forcefully against the then-common practice of honing a historical narrative so that it neatly progresses, seemingly inevitably, to the enlightened present or tailoring descriptions of the past to reflect contemporary concerns.
While it seems sensible not to stick to the view of history, especially that of England and Britain, being a more or less clearly ascending line towards a sensible and progressive society, it cannot be said that the alternative teaching that has developed since the Whig theory has been abandoned, has been an improvement.

By discarding the apparent linear progression of history schools, teachers and, above all, creators of the national curriculum and examination topics, have discarded all narrative. That, in turn, has meant a loss of understanding as it is impossible to grasp what certain events might mean if the background to them is unknown; and a loss of interest for most pupils. How can one be interested in history if it consists of disconnected topics of varying interest and importance? Ironically, while Butterfield's name is all but unknown these days, Our Island Story, the pre-eminent children's book that was so ably parodied by 1066 And All That, was, on its reprinting, a huge success. As a matter of fact, it is not a very good book and its over-reliance on Shakespeare's plays for information is regrettable. But it gives what many children need: a story in an attractive format with many exciting illustrations.

The review does make one want to read the biography itself, which, clearly deals with the difficult aspects of Butterfield's life while presenting the argument for a reappraisal of his work.

1 Responses to The man who defined Whig history

  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.

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