Against BIP 1: The History Faculty’s perpetuation of the British exceptionalism myth

As I sauntered into my college’s library for the first time last October, armed with a few books like Worlds of Arthur and The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation, I didn’t know what was coming my way. A few weeks later, I had read an unhealthy amount about funerary evidence and could chat through the somewhat dated historiographical debates on the impact of the fall of Roman Britain in my sleep. Yet this is not the story of me becoming an early medievalist. History of the British Isles 1 (Prelims) remains the toughest, least enjoyable paper I have done. I have resented Oxford’s overemphasis on British history ever since.

What was the problem?

As has been argued elsewhere in OHR, the History Faculty’s policy of forcing single honours students to take two History of the British Isles papers (one for Prelims and one for Finals) is problematic. It privileges British undergraduates, who will likely already have encountered their fair share of stale, male, pale British history at school. Never mind 1066 and All That, BIP 1 felt like 411 and All That. Debates on What Rome Has Ever Done For Us, painfully familiar in a post-Brexit context, were largely answered by historians with ‘not much’. Right wing politicians and media outlets have spent the last decade and centuries attempting to convince people that the UK was different, special and superior to other countries. This was the uncomfortable thread running through BIP 1.

Stained glass window of Alfred the Great in St. James Cathedral, Toronto.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

From investigating English’s limited retention of Latin, in favour of the new language Old English, to a whole essay on whether Alfred the Vikings-defeater should be regarded as ‘the Great’ (the jury of historians again went for yes), it felt like I was going through a weekly exercise in self-delusion and exceptionalism-crafting on behalf of Britain. I understand that that’s what some students would love to do. Yet, I came to university hoping that, in the thousands of years, hundreds of countries and many billions of people open for study in History, I might encounter some New Things. Instead, I’ve been dragged into a character debate on this country.

Representation

One redeeming feature of the paper was my amazing tutor, who tried much harder than others have to break the Anglo-centrism of too many HBI courses. There was always reading set on Wales, Scotland and Ireland, yet painfully often this merely refuted toe-curling 1970s historiography which painted these regions as non-progressive, insular, violent or uncommunicative. Whilst new understandings of the wealth of exquisite Pictish carved stones as an integral part of the Picts’ expression and communication is a welcome step forward, it is worrying that experts in the field had dismissed such abundant evidence until very recently. It’s telling not only that the Faculty thought that the whole of early medieval Ireland could be overviewed in one lecture, but that this lecture was structured around addressing misconceptions about it.

I welcomed my tutor setting an essay question on women, despite the usual impossibility of articulating the experiences of about half of the population in a single week. He also encouraged us to integrate gender into our analysis of all topics. As a feminist who could chat about gender all day, I relished this. But I found the historiography lacking. Frequently, I text-searched articles and Panopto lectures desperately with the terms ‘women’, ‘queen’ and even ‘she’, and yielded no results. The majority of one week’s reading list on queens was by the same historian. This compounded the feeling I have about most areas of history -that whilst some are doing all the work to rethink history in a way that does justice to the diversity of actors which comprised it, a lot of traditional (often white male) scholars continue their non-inclusive political histories unabashed, safe in the knowledge that someone else is doing the diversity work.

The theme of identity ran through the paper, which centred questions of ethnicity. Although contributing to the self-important, insular British identity debate I’ve identified myself as a non-willing participant in, these questions were particularly interesting when they diverged from the ‘making of England’ story. Detecting some Western Britons’ identification with a larger Roman world, reflected through Latin on gravestones and roman units, was a welcome challenge to the usual accounts of gradual English cultural and violent imperialism chipping Welsh identity away piece by piece.

Bust of Emperor Septimius Severus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Scholarship on race was painfully absent from the mainstream historiography. The Faculty’s Black British reading list was welcome in this regard. I wish I’d had more of a chance to explore the activities of Libyan-born Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in Britain than familiar debates on Alfred burning the cakes or Offa building a Dyke. This is my issue with the HBI papers and the mass of British history papers at Oxford. Just as you begin to encounter something truly interesting and unfamiliar, you’re snapped back into the constraints of How This Relates to Britain. Whilst I’m all for detecting cultural influence, for once it would be nice to centre a different region in such detection.

Final thoughts

As you might guess, I did not pick this paper – it was my college’s answer to the chronological and geographical requirements. Whilst I learnt a lot of value about the use of non-written records and will never walk past a stone cross again without a quick mental analysis, the tired questions about ‘Britishness’ and, more accurately, ‘Englishness’ at its core did not fill me with hope during my first term of university. Sadly, I’ve not been proven very wrong about BIP 1’s focus on and approach to British history. My second History of the British Isles paper, the sea of British Further and Special Subjects, and the paucity and oversubscription of global history papers have not stemmed this concern. It’s time that the Faculty stopped forcing papers about ‘Britishness’ and ‘Englishness’ on undergraduates and started listening to what we want to study.