Historian 142: Out now

The magazine of the Historical Association

By Alf Wilkinson (editor), published 16th August 2019

Editorial: Hidden histories

Read The Historian 142

Anyone who attends the Lincolnshire Branch of the Historical Association will recognise the genesis of this issue in the talk I gave to the Branch entitled ‘A Tour down the By-Ways of History’ in April 2018. This featured some of the interesting characters I had come across in recent research; some of whom had changed the way I thought about certain topics in history. This set me wondering about how we see the past, and how we generalise our views to help make sense of what has gone before. Of course, all generalisations are just that, and it is easy to find examples that don’t fit into these generalisations. So what is the ‘real’ picture of the past?

When we think of medieval monks we tend to think of the Venerable Bede, spending his life writing and copying books in Jarrow, or perhaps Brother Cadfael in Shrewsbury Abbey – the apothecary, rather than the sleuth. We rarely think of Elmer of Malmesbury who, in 1005 AD, crippled himself by copying Daedalus, making wings from feathers and jumped from the tower trying to fly. Or Eustace, a Benedictine monk from northern France, who became a pirate working in the Channel, first for King John, and then switched sides to fight for the French until he was captured at sea in the Battle of Sandwich in 1217 and was beheaded. So which image of a medieval monk is more accurate?

The story of Martha Rix also reflects the ‘Hidden History’ theme. She was born a slave in Tennessee around 1817 – no one is sure exactly when. The whole family were slaves on a plantation, but her father was a preacher and some plantation owners bought his freedom so he could travel around the plantations leading services for the slaves. At the end of each service there was a collection for the minister. All this money was kept in a tin box until he managed to save the colossal sum of $2,400 to purchase the freedom of the whole family. The family moved to Liberia, in West Africa, with the help of the American Colonisation Society and set up a small farm. In Liberia, Martha became familiar with the work of the Royal Navy West Africa Squadron, trying to prevent the slave trade across the Atlantic. She developed an admiration for Queen Victoria and was determined to save up enough money to go to England to thank her for the work of the Royal Navy. She made a quilt to take as a present. Finally, in 1892 the President of Liberia was going to London and his wife invited Martha to travel with her. She met Queen Victoria and presented her with the quilt. Not your typical American slave story.

Another unusual story is that of Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish adventurer who was born in Spain around 1470. Little is known of his early life but in 1510 we find him in the New World where he was shipwrecked in 1511 on a voyage from Panama to Santo Domingo. Washed ashore on the Mexican coast near what is now Quintana Roo along with 15 other survivors, he was captured and enslaved by the local Maya tribe. He was forced to work in agriculture and kept in a wooden cage. Eventually there were only two of them left alive – himself and a young priest. Gradually he earned his freedom by fighting for the Maya, and married Zazil Ha, the daughter of the local chief. In 1519, when Cortes began the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Cortes asked the two survivors to join his expedition as translators. The priest joined Cortes, but Gonzalo opted to stay with the Maya and fight the Spanish. He was finally killed (either in 1532 or 1536, it is unclear exactly when) and was buried by the Maya at sea, where he had come from. One just does not expect a Spanish sailor/soldier to be leading the fight of the Maya against the Conquistadores!

Finally, I can’t resist the story of Hugh Cok, a medieval peasant who I think must have been the inspiration for Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses. Hugh Cok was the poorest peasant in the village of Codicote, in Hertfordshire, in 1277. But by his death in 1306 he left quite an estate to his daughter Christina. He rented a stall in the market to sell fish, much in demand because there were three meat-free days each week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, by order of the church. Other times of the year, such as Lent, were meant to be meat-free too. He was so successful over the next few years he was able to buy or rent eight separate small pieces of land. He later rented another strip of land for 10 years, and another for four. The income from these pieces of land allowed him to buy a plot and then build himself and his family a new house. In time he bought another piece of land and hedged it, so he had his own enclosed field. He leased yet more land for 12 years, and also brewed beer. We know this because he was fined in the manor court for brewing bad beer. Hugh was obviously a very enterprising individual who made some money, but his story is interesting because it shows that even if the predominant culture was the co-operative field-strip farming system widely adopted throughout the south and east of England, it was still possible for individuals to enclose land and grow for the markets in nearby towns. Coming across the story of Hugh made me radically reassess my ideas about farming in medieval England.

All the articles in this edition follow on from this idea. Mary-Ann Ochota explores the hidden history of the British landscape, and helps us decipher this as we travel around the country. Geoffrey Robinson explores a long-forgotten event in Indonesia when the Western powers surreptitiously encouraged and supported the overthrow of the communist party there. Joseph Wilkinson explores the life of John Chilembwe, a pastor who was executed in 1915 for leading a revolt aimed at achieving independence for Malawi. Tim Lomas explores the largely hidden world of ordinary people in medieval England, and uses estate documents from the Bishop of Durham to try to shed some light on their lives. Wim van Schijndel tells us about the interesting case of Moresnet, a small enclave between Belgium, Holland and Prussia that existed as a neutral state from the Congress of Vienna until the Treaty of Versailles, simply because the Great Powers could not agree what to do with it. Wim’s article arose from his participation in the recent HA ‘Age of Revolution’ project. You can find all the materials this project developed on the HA website. Even the ‘Favourite Place’ article is somewhere off the beaten track. Ghislaine Headland-Vanni visits the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan. Petra was an important city from the fourth century BC until other trade routes developed and minimised its importance before finally an earthquake in 363 AD finished it off as a major centre. Finally, our very own Martin Hoare explores that well-known touristy part of London the Elephant and Castle in our ‘Out and About’ feature.

We couldn’t have a Summer 2019 edition of The Historian without a feature on the Peterloo Massacre, in Manchester. There are a whole range of events during the bicentenary of that ‘English Uprising,’ as Robert Poole calls it, in his incisive piece in our new ‘Significant Anniversaries’ feature. Robert nicely sums up the latest research and thinking on this momentous event.

We hope you will find this selection of articles interesting. But, more importantly, we hope this edition will make you think about what we remember in history, and how our views may or may not reflect the reality of ‘history in the round.’