One of the things I have been doing since retiring from teaching has been to maintain my interest in academic pursuits. Continuing with reading and study is not just a way of passing time. On the contrary, I find that further and ongoing study is a way of reinvigorating my thinking, adding value to my writing, understanding to my membership of various organisations, and breadth and depth to my general conversation, as well as aiding reflection on my life and human life generally.
To aid these purpose I occasionally purchase one of the course offerings from “The Great Courses”. “Great Courses (TGC)” is a series of college-level audio and video courses produced and distributed by “The Teaching Company (TTC)”, a company based in Virginia, USA. Its teaching methods are done via mobile, tablet, connected TV appliances, CD, DVD, MP3, MPEG-4 download formats, and streaming media. Clearly, “The Great Courses” are a very contemporary approach to further learning and are highly recommendable.
The series differ from most online learning platforms in that they are produced for enrichment purposes only and offered without schedules, homework, exams, or certificates. The courses themselves are quite extensive, ranging from “The Fundamentals of Photography” to “Power over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory”; from “The Origins of Civilization” to “Mind-Bending Maths: Riddles and Paradoxes” and “How Jesus Became God”.
I am about to commence my sixth course, with another three on the shelf. You might say that I am hooked! The series of courses are not, however, without controversy or criticism.
It was whilst looking through the latest monthly edition of “The Great Courses” magazine that I came across the information on Course No.8410: “The Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest”. The information on the course stated that it will:
“Examine the remarkable thousand-year period in British history – from the withdrawal of Rome’s legions to the beginning of the Tudor dynasty – and learn how medieval Britain laid the foundation for much of what we know today.”
The course is described as a “tour de force” that purports to show (to repeat):
“…how medieval Britain laid the foundation for much of what we know today”.
“Richly detailed, these 36 lectures are essential to a complete understanding of the modern world.”
The above is all very well and reads attractively, if not enticingly. However, as a Scot by birth and a former teacher of secondary school history, I could not overlook some of the linkages being made or suggested. For example:
a) The title of the course is “Medieval England”; yet, the course description talks about “Britain” and “British”.
The two are not coterminous! There is no country that is properly called “Britain”. The latter is an epithet, just as the United States of America is referred to as “America”. Certainly, “Britain” is not another name for “England”. There is, of course, a “British” nation, but that is a relatively modern, not medieval, term and reality, and includes the four countries that comprise the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The “Great” here refers not to power but to size – the fact of being the largest island in the (geographical) British Isles and, moreover, an island encompassing the nations of Wales, Scotland and England. It is also the case that the “British Isles” includes the independent country of the Irish Republic, a nation that shares a land mass with the British nation of Northern Ireland.
b) The Romans never conquered Scotland, so how can they “withdraw” from the same? So too, Tudor rule, or that of any other English dynasty, was never extended to hegemony over Scotland – though not for want of trying!
It is true that, at various times, the forces of the kings of England managed to defeat (and were defeated by) the Scots in various battles – a number of them are quite rightly the stuff of the legends that have grown-up around them. Jurisdiction over various parts of Scotland followed. However, Scotland was never politically linked in a formal way, by force or otherwise, with England until the Act of Union in 1707 (outside the period of Course No.8410).
c) What seems never to be mentioned in information about courses such as the one under discussion is the fact of the existence of the nation known as Wales.
Though often dominated by England, the Welsh have a distinctive medieval history – a history that is rarely mentioned in courses such as the one under discussion. I am aware of this for, as a schoolboy in Wales, I was taught some of the specific history of Wales – in between the numerous lessons about the (monarchical) history of England!
Interestingly, another history course being advertised in the same “The Great Courses” magazine, “A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts” (No.8470), stays strictly with its references to England:
“Learn how England transformed itself from a medieval backwater into the first modern state in this sweeping 48-lecture course on one of the most interesting periods in history.”
Yet, there is an excellent case to be made for including a more “British” reference within this course in view of the fact that the Stuart kings were also the kings of Scotland – not to mention the inclusion of William of Orange in this course and his influence on both British and Irish history (an influence still remembered and celebrated today in non-English parts of the UK)!
I am aware, of course, that “The Teaching Company” is a USA-based franchise and that history courses such as No.8410 are being written by American historians. Observations convince me that such writers have a penchant in everyday conversation, as well as with academic works, for using the terms “British” and “English” in a coterminous manner.
Nevertheless, the nomenclature of academic historical presentation surely requires the necessary accuracy. Of course, the British are not themselves particularly adept at differentiating between geographical and historical terms such as those discussed above.
This is increasingly being witnessed with reference to British sports teams, notably those participating in the Olympic Games where the British team is now consistently and annoyingly (as well as, perhaps, somewhat arrogantly), being referred to as “Great Britain” (Team GB). I often wonder at what the people of Northern Ireland feel about this, seeing that Ulster men and women rightfully compete for the British team in such competitions, yet without the complementary inclusion of their country in the team name.
Incidentally, in stating what I have in the above, I am obviously being careful to give credit where it is due to the achievements of the English. Unless the English are quite happy to share their substantial achievements with the rest of the British nations, then it needs to be emphasised that, until the modern period, that is, the post-medieval period, of history, the achievements of medieval England are just that – English achievements.
So, in a course like No.8410 that purports to deliver historical facts, surely it is to be expected that clear historical facts are presented, even to the correct naming of countries and peoples? In this way credit can be given where it is due.