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Time and tide (and mammoths)

In July 1867 the British historian Edward Augustus Freeman was in the thick of writing his epic History of the Norman Conquest. Ever a stickler for detail, he wrote to the geologist William Boyd Dawkins asking for help establishing where exactly in Pevensey soon-to-be King Harold disembarked in 1052. Drawing on his own experience of digging the area for fossils, Dawkins explained that the sea had reached further inland in 1052 than it had both before and after that point in time. “Your postscript suggests to me the most amazing picture,” Freeman wrote back: “Harold sailed over those trees, and I found mammoth remains under them.” The resulting sketch shows three layers: on top is Harold in his boat, below it the trees of Freeman’s own day, and below these, at the lowest level, two woolly mammoths (see illustration below).

Drawing by William Boyd Dawkins in a letter to Edward Augustus Freeman. PP Freeman/Dawkins/1/15 by kind permission of Jesus College, Oxford.
Image credit: Drawing by William Boyd Dawkins in a letter to Edward Augustus Freeman. PP Freeman/Dawkins/1/15. Used with permission from Jesus College, Oxford.

Freeman’s ‘amazing picture’ is not the sort of ground section familiar to archaeologists, where the present appears at the top and one travels further back in time the lower down one progresses. Instead present is sandwiched between pasts. Freeman’s relationships with Dawkins and other natural scientists, his close attention to geography as well as his unusual conception of chronological precedence, all formed part of Freeman’s lifelong mission to establish a ‘science of history,’ one that borrowed methodologies and theories from the natural sciences without reducing mankind to so many passive atoms subservient to ‘laws.’ A reviewer and public commentator renowned for his peppery put-downs of rivals such as J. A. Froude and Charles Kingsley, Freeman had little time for what he called ‘picturesque’ history, whether that was the hero-worshipping approach of Thomas Carlyle or T. B. Macaulay’s ‘Whiggish’ focus on the development of political institutions.

Where Macaulay had proposed that all societies climb up a single ladder of civilization, Freeman saw a much more dynamic, quasi-cyclical process in which past and present, then and now mirrored and echoed each other. Freeman’s love of drawing analogies in his historical writing cause past and present to fold into and onto each other. In this grand historical pageant it can sometimes feel as if we are watching a small troupe of historical actors slipping in and out of different roles, appearing at one instant in a Saxon witenagemot, at another in a New England vestry meeting.

The greatest example of this disappearing-and-reappearing act is Freeman’s account of the Norman Conquest itself. Historians had seen this as the imposition of a feudal ‘Norman Yoke’ on sturdy Saxon shoulders. In Freeman’s hands this becomes conquest in reverse. The Saxons lose the battle (Freeman insists we refer to it, not as the Battle of Hastings, but as the Battle of Senlac), but win the war, as they strip the Normans of their ‘French polish’, exposing conqueror and conquered’s true unity, as fellow members of a great Teutonic race.

While Freeman delighted in such assimilations, it remained clear that in this process one race – the Teutonic one – is uniquely favoured with the power to assimilate other races, without itself being assimilated. Race, apparently, held the key to Britain’s future as well as her past, and Freeman’s vast output of journalism ensured that this key was regularly applied to current affairs, in obedience to Freeman’s most famous dictum, that “history is past politics, politics present history.” Freeman’s role defining the embryonic academic discipline of history left a lasting legacy, shaping (for good and ill) how Britons as well as Americans viewed their shared past. Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That (1930) shows Freeman’s model of history to have been in satirically rude health forty years after Freeman’s death in Alicante.

For us today, Freeman’s racialism is less comic, especially when dressed as ‘science.’ But there is no denying the ambition, scope and imaginative power of his historical vision, which he and his followers applied to the built environment, to constitutional theory and to party politics as well as to England’s medieval past. After Freeman, past and present would, in one sense, remain the same: interlocking with each other, with human society and with the landscape itself. But in another sense they would never be the same again.

Headline image credit: Exterior of the inner bailey of Pevensey Castle, East Sussex by Prioryman. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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