Sunday, 6 October 2013

Was Alfred really Great, was Aethelred really Unready?

I have to say that I'm very attached to the very pro-Anglo-Saxon history I grew up with. I tend to side with Voltaire when he says that History is a "pack of lies we play on the dead". But if we're going to deal in lies, we may as well make it a patriotic

Yep, Mr Logic, Mr look-for-evidence, and I'm happy with a patriotic history. I'm afraid it's a reflection on how much contempt I have for the academic study of history, as compared with Mathematics and some of the sciences.

But we all still love a well-told piece of history. You can still find Michael Wood's "In search of the Dark Ages" on Youtube (why is there no DVD??) and it's an absolute treasure. This evening, my partner and I watched the sorry tale of Aethelred the Unready, and I found myself reading more about this much-maligned King.

It's interesting stuff but it was the work of a few minutes to find yet more examples of historians' woolly thinking. Around the same time as Michael Wood was making this program (and wondering out loud why on earth didn't Aethelred think of doing something other than trying to pay the Vikings off) a historian named Simon Keynes started publishing books trying to resurrect Aethelred's reputation. I came across an excerpt from a book hotly contesting Keynes' view.

The argument is a strange one. It seems that "one popular explanation advaced for Alfred's victory, and Aethelred's defeat is that the two kings faced quite different threats. This would seem a simple case of comparing the evidence for the sizes of the armies faced by both kings. But the ensuing argument in the book doesn't look at any evidence given by Keynes, but says that if we go by the sources, the armies were of similar size, if we discard the sources as untrustworthy, then we are left with "mere speculation".

At which point I start to think that someone has messed up here. Has a whole book been written using mere speculation? Or did the second author simply fail to read it? HE goes on to say

"Alfred's victory, and Aethelred's defeat cannot be explained simply by ... differences in the forces arrayed against them. Rather, we must return to the kings themselves"

And right there we've hit another piece of nonsense. Why must we return to the kings themselves? The story of Aethelred's reign is the story of appalling internecine struggle, which must have crippled any attempts to form a united front against the Vikings. Of course, Aethelred may have been a failure at keeping his various leaders on-side, but once again we're left with the phrase "mere speculation" - which seems to be the hallmark of every piece of academic history I ever study. There is endless listing of "supporting" evidence and not very cogent argument at all to explain why anyone should take this view rather than the other.

Never trust history.

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