Wednesday, 9 June 2010

'Public History' and Dr Johnson's travels in Europe

An interesting Tuesday afternoon at the German Historical Institute, where a distinguished panel of historians and an engaged and articulate audience discussed ‘Public History’. The German modernist and journalist Franziska Augstein welcomed the retreat from an obsession with Nazi Germany among her compatriots, though not necessarily among Brits. This was understandable, she thought, given the continuing quality of such offering as Antony Beevor’s D-Day. Indeed, admiration for the literary skills of British historians was noted throughout. Justin Champion, scholar of Hobbes and the ideas of the 17th century and an In Our Time regular, expressed concern about Niall Ferguson’s recent offer (‘a bid for a seat in the House of Lords’) to structure a new schools history curriculum. But fellow panelist, Kathleen Burk, biographer of that pioneering master of public history, AJP Taylor, was more relaxed. Britain had contributed a great deal to the world, and it should incorporate these aspects into the study of history; such attempts shouldn’t be lazily judged ‘right wing’. Peter Mandler, in a series of brilliant interjections, warned of politicians becoming too close to historians, cautiously welcoming the reduction in academic bureaucracy promised by the new coalition government. More importantly, he made the fundamental case for the study of history; that it cultivates a skeptical, questioning mentality that is aware of contingency and the possibility of other ways of being. It is otherness that is its great attraction, and public historians should recognise that.

A quick dash into the City, brought me to Dr Johnson’s house, where the Kansas-based scholar Jonathan Clark, passing through London on his way to a conference in Paris, delivered a fascinating paper on the Great Cham’s travels through Europe. Clark looked at Johnson’s encounters with Jacobite supporters as St Edmund’s theological college in Paris, on what is now the Rue St Jacques. It was the resting place of James II and his English supporters, until it was all destroyed following the French Revolution. Clark drew few conclusions about Johnson’s religious sympathies – his is very much a work in progress – but he did demonstrate the capacious and sometimes contradictory nature of Johnson’s religious tendencies. He was an Anglican and a monarchist who recognised the Hanoverians de facto and the Stuarts de jure. But he forged friendships with those of a different theological bent, a fact that Boswell was keen to hide. Clark also made a claim that the Memoirs of the Marshal Duke of Berwick, published in London in 1774 (Johnson, perhaps wisely, turned down the chance to write a preface) number among the great military autobiographies of all time. The Duke, James Fitzjames, was the son of James II by Arabella Churchill, and therefore a nephew of the first Duke of Marlborough and a cousin of King Louis XIV. Educated in France, he served under the Duke of Lorraine at the capture of Buda from the Turks and returned to England to fight on his father’s side during the Glorious Revolution, fighting at the Battle of the Boyne. Naturalised as a French subject following his father’s deposition, he became a Marshal of France in 1706. He defeated the Anglo-Portuguese army at Galanza in 1707, putting an end to Habsburg claims in Spain and returned to France, coming to Vendome’s rescue after the battle of Oudenarde in 1708. He refused to take part in the Jacobite revolt of 1715, on the grounds that he was now a French subject and his king sought peace in Europe. He was killed at Philipsburg in 1743 during the Polish War of Succession. He was in his early seventies and had lived one of the great lives of his age, one that deserves to be better known.

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