Every year the School of Advanced Study (SAS) take part in the annual Bloomsbury Festival. I’m currently lending a hand with the social media side of things, writing blog posts about the various events in and around Senate House (University of London) and some background posts about the time when Senate House hosted the Ministry of Information. It’s got me thinking about propaganda and history-making in a different light and I’d like to share a few of those thoughts with you here, particularly in relation to my own research on sixteenth century scholars.
Matthew Parker was, of course, Archbishop of Canterbury during the first part of Elizabeth I’s reign in late sixteenth-century England. George Orwell was a writer and intellectual in the twentieth century. Other than sharing the same nationality what else did they have in common? Not much most likely. It’s obviously a silly comparison, but nevertheless they did both engage with concerns about truth, falsification and what we would call propaganda. In his novel 1984 Orwell’s protagonist Winston described the past (under torture) as contained in both memory and records. His counterpart, O’Brian countered that the state controlled the past as they had power to adjust “all records” and “all memories”. The past is lost in any existential reality and only exists in the present in whatever form the state chooses.
Of course historians debate issues of reality all the time. Does the past exist for us to tame? Can any account we make truly express what once was or does it actually only reflect the present? Is the past lost to us? George Orwell of course goes even further. He talks of the possibility that the past is entirely what we make it. It can be erased, reformed, mutilated. Not even memory is a safe guide – that too can be manipulated.
Whilst Orwell is talking about an extreme – and hopefully one that never becomes a reality – time and time again those in
power do attempt to control what we know of the past so that they can better control the present, and – indeed – the future.
Matthew Parker would never have thought so deeply about the realities of time but he did worry about the story history told. For Parker, as it was for all people in this period, the past was a series of chapters much like those contained in a novel such as 1984. Each chapter leads to the next and then to the next. It was not the story of kings necessarily – although they featured prominently – but a story of humanity’s fall, its purgatory, and it’s final resurrection in a time soon to come. Scripture told the beginning of the story, it also provided hints to its continuation and ending, human history filled in the details, the near future would provide the final pages.
But more than this, history, for Parker needed to be state-sanctioned. The Reformation had not only changed the present, but required an alteration of the past. Parker and those who worked with him, attempted to rewrite the past to fit the requirements of the present and the future.
During his time as archbishop, Parker had published various old chronicles the most well-known of which was Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora and, alongside those, a series of older religious texts written in old English and translated into the English of their own time. It was a blatant attempt to take control of history. Parker was building a scaffold of texts that suggested an alternative opinion of the past – one that suited the Elizabethan regime’s needs. For example Matthew Paris was often harsh in his treatment of papal intrusion in Britain (largely relating to interference in his own monastery). He also noted tensions with papal envoys often over the awkward issue of money and taxes. Whilst the text still required careful interpretation, it was much better at providing examples of papal greed than the better established histories of Ranulf Higden and Polydore Vergil. Thus, Matthew Paris was an historical text already closer to Protestant needs than Catholic. However, that wasn’t quite enough for Parker and his colleagues.
In a way somewhat similar to Orwell’s Winston, Parker manipulated the very words themselves. He provided glosses in his published text, he amended and changed items to better fit his beliefs and he aided John Foxe in his more fully rendered revision of English history in his Acts and Monuments. Many of the texts Parker published found their way in one form or another into Foxe’s history all of which were re-worked in small and large ways to better fit their shared viewpoint of English history. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is therefore reminiscent also of Parker’s household and collaborative network. The Ministry of Truth were engaged in pasting over historical records – changing names to better suit the present and amending statistics so that they reflected current policies. This is not that far away from what early modern scholars were doing to our very real historical records.
Let’s take another example. Although not produced by Parker or his colleagues, an earlier amended text can be found in Fabyan’s London Chronicle. This fifteenth-century work was one of the last London chronicles written by the aldermen of London rather than monks or clergy. Such a text was useful to Protestants as it offered a non-religious author that might be more trustworthy than those claiming the glorification of the Roman Church. Fabyan’s chronicle was published several times in the sixteenth-century, but not in its original form. There were simple changes, but important ones. Pope, for example, was amended to Bishop of Rome. The published Fabyan better supported the protestant viewpoint almost as if that had been its intention in the fifteenth-century. The past had been altered, through a reworking of its textual basis.
The purpose of all of this was to paint the Roman Catholic Church, including its ceremonies and customs, as foreign impositions. Britain was first turned to Christianity before Augustine brought the Roman tradition – Parker’s sources could be shown to prove this. More than this though, the Roman tradition first brought to Britain was not the same as the one of their own day. Customs and ceremonies had changed, expanded and developed over a long period of time. Parker and his colleagues saw these changes as corruptions, the Roman Catholic Church saw them as improvements, sanctioned by God himself. Parker was engaged in revealing variations between the older Roman Church and its present day customs. He was also engaged in showing that the Elizabethan religious settlement was much closer to the purer traditions given to humanity by Jesus Christ.
Like Orwell’s authoritarian Oceana, the England of the sixteenth-century were seeking to control their past – firstly in the texts themselves, but also in the memories and knowledge of the people. Such control almost reared its head again when the British government set up the Ministry of Information during the Second World War (the inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth) but it is also true that it has never quite gone away. It seems that we are in a constant struggle to not only understand our past, but also to control it, modify it to our own expectations and satisfaction.
There is much more on the subject of propaganda and state sanctioned control discussed and examined at this year’s Bloomsbury Festival. If you can be there yourself, then check out the programme on the School of Advanced Study events system. Alternatively check out the programme (available here as a pdf). If you can’t be there in person (or even if you can) do keep looking on the SAS blogs and via the Twitter hashtag #BloomsburyFest as we report on each day’s activities as and when they happen.
As a side-note, just recently Amanda Power (University of Sheffield) has posted an interesting and thought-provoking article up on the History Matters blog comparing state sanctioned surveillance today, with God-sanctioned surveillance in the medieval past. In a sense we have always accepted surveillance and control of some kind or another, as Amanda clearly argues. Part of that control has always settled on the thorny subject of the past as representative of an aspect of who we are, who we claim or choose to be, and what those in power wish us to be.