|The English Channel; the edge of history?|
Historians have been prominent in the EU referendum debate, with George Osborne hosting a reception with Remain academic supporters last week. The question of the British Isles’ relations with the wider European continent is, however, a problem which has long underpinned the popular Oxford undergraduate course ‘British History, 1500-1700’, quietly and subversively. In teaching the history of Tudor England, Europe is a well-established ghost at the feast.
Teaching this paper to some of the UK’s brightest students, using books written by some of our brightest scholars, is to see how deeply ingrained the idea of a separate ‘England’ and ‘Europe’ is. Students from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds instinctively write of the Tudors and their subjects as ‘we’: ‘we had a Reformation’, ‘we invaded France’. Europeans become ‘they’. This is merely a crude echo of what history students find in many books about early modern England, which breezily sketch differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – England had a sensible, state-imposed Reformation, while those continentals had wild riots, image-breaking and wars. English witchcraft trials were calm local affairs and small scale; the Europeans (and Scots) had out-of-control paranoid panics. The English ‘we’ is civilised and law-abiding, the continental ‘they’ is slightly hysterical. This kind of seductively simple picture of the sixteenth-century is possible only if one employs a rhetorical sleight of hand – to pack the entire European landmass and its islands into one homogenous ‘they’, neatly contrasted with an English ‘us’. There was of course no single European experience of Reformation (and no Protestant Reformation at all in many places), or witch-hunts or, say, the evolution of parliaments. Tudor England might have been much like Denmark or Transylvania in certain respects, but more like France or Portugal in others. Europe was in the sixteenth century a collection of kingdoms, duchies and republics, just as it is today a collection of highly varied nation states. England was distinctive, but so was every polity in Europe. (And all those polities claim, when writing their national histories, that they were unique).
This powerful idea of a pristine historical separation between Tudor England and a chaotic Continent is of course a myth. The events which rocked the kingdom, and these islands, in the sixteenth century were not purely indigenous in origin: ideas of Reformation, state power, witchcraft, history, art and many others came primarily from abroad. The religious reformer and Polish refugee, John a Lasco, was for example a prominent Protestant in Edward VI’s London, as a major conference next month in London will recall. Books, ideas, objects, images and people crossed (and criss-crossed) the sea. This is a history of dense, ongoing connections and exchange, which is no cause for embarrassment.
This myth of a historic separation between the British Isles and an abstract place called ‘the Continent’, however historically questionable, is one which we unfortunately still perpetuate in our teaching. At Oxford, the History B.A. offers separate papers in British and ‘General’ (European) history. At post-graduate level, cutting-edge research is discussed in two separate groups – an Early Modern Britain seminar, and an Early Modern Europe/World seminar. It wasn’t true in the sixteenth century that the British Isles had a historic experience so unique that it set them totally apart from other societies in the geographical vicinity; it still wasn’t true in the twentieth century when so many of our classic Tudor England textbooks were written; and it is not true today. Britain, and England, have always been an integral part of a rich, difficult, mutually entangled European history: in the referendum, we risk breaking crucial twenty-first century alliances, on the basis of a historical myth to the contrary. The United Kingdom, with its constituent territories, is part of Western Eurasia; it can of course pretend that it is not, but to do so on June 23rd would be unwise.