Past Mistakes

War Memorial in London in front of Ministry of Defence“Whatever the genuine lessons of history, policymakers constantly make opportunistic use of the past to justify their decisions. Matthew Reisz introduces a team of historians who are fighting back against the ‘Bad History’ all around us.

Like everybody else, historians disagree violently about “the lessons of history”. Some think there aren’t any. And even among those who believe that the past is clearly relevant to the present, many are scrupulous about letting other people draw their own moral lessons. Others are happy to state, and underline, what the lessons are.

Take Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (2006), which won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize. The book is a study of the satirical prints, many of them gleefully lavatorial or obscene, that poured from the presses in the late 18th century.

They eventually faded away around 1820 as “respectability” set in: in Lord Byron’s words, “the age of cant” replaced “the age of cunt”. As the author notes, it is an intriguing, perhaps significant if little-remarked fact that “no Victorian produced an image of Queen Victoria farting”.

It would be possible to tell this story in fairly neutral terms. We could enjoy the social history, the dirty pictures and Gatrell’s expert elucidation of their imagery, while left free to decide for ourselves whether the shift in sensibility he describes was a good thing, a bad thing, a mixed blessing or a matter of complete indifference to us.

But Gatrell, professor of history at the University of Essex, doesn’t go in for such neutrality. He constantly buttonholes his readers, celebrating the prints’ scenes of brawling, drunkenness and low-life pleasure, and launching broadsides against piety, puritanism and political correctness.

He makes it abundantly clear that he believes the attitude of total disrespect towards authority is something we should learn from. His subject may sound fairly obscure, but he is not going to let us forget that it has huge implications for a number of ongoing debates.

Many historians, of course, explore topics far more obviously contentious and emotionally charged than late-18th-century satire. So how far do they see themselves as directly useful, offering us insights that can help us face contemporary challenges and lead better lives?”

Read full story in the Times Higher Education.