Selective Memory: How does contemporary culture influence what we focus on from the past?

‘Memory studies is a new field, focused on how nations and groups (and historians) construct and select their memories of the past in order to celebrate (or denounce) key features, thus making a statement of their current values and beliefs. Historians have played a central role in shaping the memories of the past as their work is diffused through popular history books and school textbooks.

Some events in history are so momentous and so imbedded in the cultural framework of society that they will always have a relevance and remain ‘popular’ topics for debate. In British history over the last thousand years we might think of examples such as the Norman Invasion, the Black Death, The Reformation, The Glorious revolution, Empire etc… Although these topics are likely to be relatively well-known by most people interested in British history generally, our perspective on these events is likely to change depending on our particular cultural values and belief systems and also to be discussed and re-evaluated in relation to specific anniversaries or events which seem to share broadly similar patterns.

Online searches suggest a resurgence of interest in ‘The Black Death’ when we experienced the fear of the recent Ebola outbreak  in Africa. How are discussions about medieval pandemics influenced by current social and cultural trends related to globalisation and ethnicity for example and how might those colour our response to the C14th outbreak of Bubonic plague? Our understanding of science and medicine impact on how we view the actions of those caught up in those dreadful events even at a sub-conscious level. Our personal belief system will have a massive impact on how we view plague as a manifestation of divine will or fate or a mutated virus.

The study of history is as subjective and prone to altered interpretation as literary theory or cultural studies despite the pretence of seeking to record events with impartiality and balance which many historians continue to uphold as their core motivation.

Historiography is a fascinating area of history which tends to be ‘invisible’ in much of ‘mainstream’ history yet which underpins every book that we read, ever approach that we make to the past and yet which is not often discussed on blogs and forums or alluded to by historians in their prefaces although they may see themselves as the natural heirs of Macauley or Gibbon or following in the tradition of the Annales School etc…

How much of our individual approach to particular aspects of history or specific events and personalities derives directly from ‘memory studies?’ Are we conscious of making particular choices in what we study based on our value systems?

I would like to open this discussion up to anyone interested in looking at why they take a position or support a historical cause etc… as a bit of fun.

Do you read the Declaration of Arbroath and feel a swelling of national pride (whether you are of Scots origin or not) or see it as the statement of a group of hopeless idealists or even as a dangerous call to arms from traitors to their feudal lord who sought to de-stabilize the state?

‘For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’
From The Declaration of Arbroath 1320.

Declaration of Arbroath

Declaration of Arboath

Do you automatically see through the eyes of the ‘other’ in the historical record? Do you side with the under-dog, form an attachment to the doomed historical figure? Seek ‘justice’ for the wrongs of imperialism?

Thinking back to the way that history was taught  in school in the last generation, do you welcome the changes of approach that have been made and the way that we now view events like conquests and invasions? How much has the Peace Movement changed our view on warfare in the last century? Perhaps you feel that the counter-swing has gone too far now in favour of inclusion and applying modern concepts such as feminist thought to other ages and that this is anachronistic and ‘untrue’? I have taken part in numerous on-line discussion groups and forums where the term ‘political correctness’ has been applied to historical situations. People are often critical of applying C21st values to historical situations yet the same people sometimes use original sources and fail to weigh the bias or prejudice contained within. There is a strong case for saying that what we criticise in others may be our own greatest fault too!

Can you see that you are interested in, say, broader social movements or class and gender issues as a direct result of cultural and social trends within the C20th and C21st which have informed or challenged your views?

The influence of the Annales School of French historians has had a tremendous effect on the way we look at particular events rather than focusing on ‘great men’ and it is interesting to see how many people who post on forums like the FutureLearn courses express more of an interest in the lives of the ordinary people than in the deeds of the kings and nobles.

Advances in archaeology have enabled us, especially through tv documentaries, to get much closer to the lives of people in the past by looking at not only objects and artefacts but also sampling food remains, soil deposits and using DNA information to look at diet and health issues. This has given us unprecedented access to the past beyond blowing the doors off and looting the treasures for great collections as they did in the C18th and C19th.

One of the earliest examples of this type of archaeological impact was the discovery of the Pompeiian forms by Giuseppe Forrelli in 1863. He realised that the volcanic ash held the form of the human victim long after their decomposition so that if he made a small hole in the outer casing and filled this with plaster he could make a cast of the vacuum within the ashy shell, so detailed that we can even make out the folds of cloth on the figures. The use of plaster casts to capture the last agony of those unfortunate souls brought people face to face with the ancient world in the most dramatic and poignant of ways. They add immeasurably to Pliny’s eye witness account of the eruption or to walking though the excavated streets and ruined villas of the town itself because they provide the ‘human interest’ story. The plaster casts are the equivalent of the live footage we have come to expect from rolling news channels whenever there is a disaster or an attack around the world. There is a sense of prurience or voyeurism about looking at these images yet they haunt our imagination and pique our interest too because we are able to reach out to distant lives and make a connection.


Forensic archaeology also gives us the opportunity to reconstruct the faces of specific individuals which perhaps reflects our fascination with ‘image’ as much as the scientific capability to make realistic projections about what someone may have looked like hundreds or thousands of years ago. There is a drive towards the personal in history, in getting under the skin of the individual and an emphasis on psychological profiling which is greatly influenced by the fields of psycho-analysis and psychiatry.

In the opening statement about ‘memory history’ it used the example of nations and wider groups as well as individual historians viewing the past in a particular way for social or political reasons and of course through history this has been done both consciously and sub-consciously for propaganda purposes by successive regimes.

One example might be the cult of King Arthur which came to prominence in the late C15th in England due to a number of factors and coincided with the accession of Henry Tudor to the English throne. There were many reasons why he actively promoted interest in the Arthurian legends and he was not the first medieval monarch to seek to link their regime with this earlier and mythical ‘Golden Age’ of English history. Edward III had also made direct references and allusions to Arthurian chivalry when he formed the Order of the Knights of the Garter in the C14th and held Arthurian inspired tournaments at his court.

Henry Tudor had a shaky hereditary claim to the throne and in referring back to King Arthur he was able to link his own ‘prophetic’ rise with not only the most famous legendary hero-king of English folk lore but also to his most successful and widely esteemed Plantagenet forebear as well. Edward III’s reign was the last beacon of kingship before the slide into disaster and usurpation that started the Wars of the Roses. Henry named his first born son Arthur and insisted on his birthplace at Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex. His Welsh ancestry fitted well enough with the mystical nature of Arthur’s kingship and the bardic traditions which ran all the way back from his banner of the red dragon to the equally mythical  Cadwallader but the interest in all things Arthurian was a wider movement in society at that time.

The printing revolution meant that Mallory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’ reached a much wider audience when it was published by Caxton in 1485 and it’s eternal themes of good kingship, justice, love and betrayal, loyalty, brotherhood and the fight between good and evil would always have been popular. However, it may also be significant that it was published in the same year that saw the end of the Plantagenet line of kings, the last king to die on the field of battle and in the era of ‘bastard feudalism’. The chivalric values of the medieval age were in transition and so perhaps it also reflected wider concerns about how to govern and what codes of conduct to emulate.

Caxton was no lover of Richard III as he seemed to have strong links to his patron Sir Anthony Woodville and perhaps to have held a personal grudge against the Ricardian regime despite his earlier relationship with the House of York.

It is interesting to speculate whether Richard might not have utilized the opportunity of the publication of the Morte D’Arthur for his own propaganda purposes if he had survived Bosworth, especially given his interest in literature and chivalric romances. He might well have employed the allusions to prophecy and a new age to his own advantage in a similar way if the story worked on the popular imagination of the times.

As much as the establishment and wider society draw on history for comparisons and emphasize a specific event or personality at certain key moments, it is also true that we can see examples of the suppression of other historical facts which cast a less favourable shadow on contemporary events.

We are perhaps more open to questioning everything than ever before and more willing to argue from all perspectives but it would be interesting to discuss some examples of deliberate or sub-conscious suppression.

Are 50% of the population represented by 50% of the historical narrative in any field of history except feminist theory? It is not so much the bias towards how we view individual female figures in history but the more pervasive sense of absence that we find in wider commentary about events.

One example might be the role of women in the lead up to the Agincourt campaign. Most historians stress the exclusively ‘male’ composition of the Henry’s army and the strict regulations of his campaign which forbade women to follow the army altogether yet women were involved at every strata of society from Princess Catherine down to who actually collected the goose feathers required for the arrows being made in the Tower of London. There is Meg, the blacksmith and armourer who worked alongside her husband William to make weapons and equipment for the campaign. In a tiny aside I read recently that it was common for blacksmith’s wives to work alongside their husbands and that in medieval manuscripts it was often a woman who was called on to make the nails for the crucifixion because her husband baulked at the task.

It is usually presented that Henry and his ‘band of brothers’ went off to war leaving the country behind in the capable hands of his brother John, Duke of Bedford but the day-to-day reality was that the men were only free to take part in these expeditions because their wives and sisters and mothers kept the family business running and defended their property and livestock and reared their children with capability and talent yet without recognition or reward. We still de-value that contribution if we fail to comment on it today or to acknowledge that we might apply the same argument to the Viking raids or the Crusades as well. Men’s relative ‘liberty’ to indulge in war is a direct result of the work of women and always has been. Women regularly worked alongside their husbands, fathers and brothers in many industries and contributed directly to the economy and infrastructure of society yet few history books even comment on their vital importance.

There is a debate raging today about whether ‘women’s history’ or ‘feminist thought’ should be kept separate or integrated into the teaching of history and politics. Some argue that we must study these areas in isolation because of the general trend to sweep over women’s contributions but others demand an integrated approach. Which is more reflective of our current value system? Why should it still even be necessary to debate these points if history is supposed to be inclusive of all aspects of society?

The suppression of particular historical events, like the air-brushing of photographs by the Stalinist regime in Russia during the C20th, speaks volumes about the political motivation of the people actively engaged in the suppression but also about the level of ‘propaganda’ attached to all history. We form our opinions of the past based on sifting through all the available evidence and by weighing the arguments presented to us but what if that evidence has been tampered with or the arguments are selective to begin with? This makes us question the foundations of our knowledge and our capacity to unravel the layers and find anything true at the core.

I have deliberately left many questions unresolved because I am interested in debate and the input from others about their experiences of studying history and their understanding of ‘memory studies’ and what the implications are for our ‘take’ on history.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts….















2 Responses to “Selective Memory: How does contemporary culture influence what we focus on from the past?”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


  2. selective memory | zaramuseums Says:

    […]… […]


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