National Myths

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Domesday Economy: A New Approach to Anglo-Norman History by John McDonald and G.D. Snooks
    Oxford, 240 pp, £27.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 828524 8
  • Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland by R.A. Houston
    Cambridge, 352 pp, £27.50, December 1985, ISBN 0 521 26598 3
  • A History of the Highland Clearances. Vol. II: Emigration, Protest, Reasons by Eric Richards
    Croom Helm, 543 pp, £25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 7099 2259 0

These well-worn lines of Kipling’s encapsulate an enduring feature of the popular English concept of national history – its cosiness. Because of the remarkable quantity and quality of local documentary sources covering more than nine centuries, the historian of England is able to identify with them, and to throw the mantle of Victorian law-abiding domesticity over the past. There is an unspoken agreement, not so much among professional historians as among their public, to minimise serious disagreement, whether arising from political, religious or economic differences, to fail to recognise the fragility of much of the consensus, or the pressures of the state bureaucracy, when these were enabling the country to remain at peace, and to play down the seriousness of the issues when there was internal war. The only civil war to be popularly recognised as important is that between 1642 and 1646, a relatively unbloody outbreak, and much of the general interest in it is absorbed in re-staging its battles in fancy dress: much less attention is paid to the second Civil War, perhaps because the Cavalier share was less marked and the issues nastier. The Medieval periods of internal war are not re-staged, perhaps because of the sheer discomfort of full armour. Yet one of these may well have been caused by reaction to the effective and extractive bureaucracy which created Domesday Book. These unpleasant episodes do not disturb the clack of the little mills of English historiography. Only when we turn to late 19th-century labour issues is there a large enough body of committed opinion among people who know well that their great-grandfathers were workers, and who wish to see the issues of power, class and status through ancestral eyes, and also a popular desire to stress conflict. Even then, the area of conflict is usually narrow: the struggle between the male labour force and employer. The struggles of the lower middle class for financial security, or of working women for expression, are ignored. English history as received is nostalgic, harmonious and extraordinarily insular.

Insularity can very easily be explained as a by-product of the splendid documentation. Why should study be deflected abroad when there is this wealth of material at home? From the 12th century onwards it has been recognised in particular that Domesday Book is a document of remarkable thoroughness and system, a bureaucrat’s treasure. For the last ninety years or so historians have tried to evaluate its information, and to translate its brief but systematic entries into an understanding of economy and society. Early approaches were rather in the nature of lucky dips: for a general picture, methods of handling large amounts of facts and a statistical theory capable of putting them together have been necessary. The mistakes made by the lucky-dip technique of the powerful amateur J.H. Round, in whose lifetime these amenities did not exist, reinforced by the absolute certainty of his style, have biased students of history for several generations against trying to use Domesday Book for economic analysis. McDonald and Snooks have set out to apply modern technology and well-established statistical techniques to decide whether it can be so used. Working on two counties only, and assuming that the practical purpose of the extensive enterprise of its compilation was to make sure that the King would extract all that he could of geld, they show that there was a close relationship in 1086 between the resources of a manor and the values recorded in Domesday, and a similar systematic relationship between the values and the tax assessment. The statistical evidence here is strikingly consistent. In so far as the principle of a close relationship between tax and value was departed from, it was in a slackening-off for the richer manors. The authors assume that the richer manors were those held by the more powerful barons – surely a major research project is still needed to ascertain this? – and that this ‘regressive’ feature was political caution by the King, but it may have been just a manifestation of the Biblical text: ‘to him that hath shall be given.’

The achievement of this book is to reaffirm the soundness and realism of the great compilation, and so to open the field for further economic analysis. This is an appropriate gesture for the anniversary year of the survey. There are still some puzzles. ‘Meadow’ and ‘mills’ are two items which do not in any systematic way contribute to resource. On meadow – the evidence here is from the county of Essex only – the authors claim that the function of this was to sustain horses, and these were for upper-class display or for military use. If the latter, then the Crown received its return not in tax but in service. Mills are more of a problem: the authors regard them as a manifestation of industry, but more realistically, before the development of the fulling mill, they should be seen as the final stage of extraction of food. Also the mill was the place of concentrated investment by the owner of the manor. Mills did a lot more than just clack. It may be that the sheer necessity of mills led to a failure to value them, but that is not in accord with the picture we are now being given of an extremely accurate sense of value and a tough extractive state bureaucracy.

Perhaps the devotion to modern economic terminology and theory misleads the authors in their conclusion. The authors find that by their methods a demesne plough team contributed some two and a half times more to ‘net production’ than did one owned by the peasants. But it was the teams of the peasants that fed the labour force and it seems most unlikely that the peasantry would fail to make effective use of this element. Peasants working for themselves have been seen in many societies prepared to compensate by hard work for any inadequacies in their equipment. It is most likely that here we are on the edge of one of the major holes in economic thought: the failure adequately to evaluate, often even to notice, work inputs which do not involve money transactions and do not fulfil prescribed quantities. I suspect that the peasant plough team is like the modern housewife at home: a working element which is a black hole in economic computation.

McDonald and Snooks seem also to be too subservient to economic theory in their claim that the close relation of ‘value’ in manors to the arable resources means that the owners were attempting to ‘maximise their incomes’. This is certainly possible: the Normans did not invade England as a pleasure trip. But it is not what their evidence shows. The whole concept of income was, historically, slow to develop. Lawrence Stone showed many years ago that even in the late 16th century the English aristocracy was usually more concerned with cash in hand than with long-term income enhancement. Manorial lords may have been working within a strongly held system of conventions decreeing what was an appropriate level of exploitation. The authors also refer to the plough teams of the peasants as sustaining the work force at ‘subsistence level’ – an unhelpful definition. One society’s subsistence is another’s affluence. Here again strong conventions play a part. We have to accept that what was extracted by lords was what was socially acceptable.

Any history student can learn from this book how to do statistical work on Domesday, and there is even a chapter devoted to explaining statistics in terms fully comprehensible to those possessed of a little algebra. Possible themes worth investigation are laid out. But the book does not fully explore the likely effects from the two sets of definitions. One of these is the repertoire available to the clerks of 1086 who had somehow to bring under a few labels what may well have been a very varied rural economy. The political union of what counted as England then was relatively recent. The other is the initial choice of procedures used in statistical work. Both of these sets of definitions may in some measure dictate the answers that the research set out to elicit.

All the same, here is a valuable new attack on a major source. Domesday Book is moved from the status of valuable but confusing national treasure to that of the standby of the Inland Revenue. Those who try to work on modern social themes know that incomes as defined by the Inland Revenue are not the whole story of who gets what, but they are an essential part of any answer to questions about it. The picture we now have of a systematically acquisitive upper class is not new, but it is worth stressing. One day it may come to be part of popular history, and modify the ‘consensus’ image retailed by Kipling.

By contrast with the English, Scottish historical myths are less happy. They present, sometimes, the image of a god-fearing and industrious people with social institutions competent to cope with the stresses of the modern world. At other times they concentrate on old, unhappy far-off things, on wrongs and hurts exceptionally deep and always to be remembered. We have both kinds considered in the other books here, and the myths emerge from them, if not shattered, certainly altered.

The belief in exceptional levels of literacy in Scotland, achieved well in advance of most of Western Europe because of the exceptional commitment of the Scots to the principles of their Reformation, and creating a society open to aspiring boys of high ability, has obviously been very satisfying to national prejudice. The surprising thing is that the story was already established by the mid-18th century, a time when nationalism was relatively muted. The claim of exceptional commitment to the Calvinist ethic is also anachronistic, for it is in the mid-18th century that one can see, bit by bit, the unpicking of the disciplinary system demanded by that ethic. The concept of careers open to talent came later, in the mid-19th century when ‘democracy’ had ceased to be a perjorative adjective, and also when entry to the more advanced education to which upwardly mobile boys were assumed to be aspiring was being systematically restricted. The timing of opinions is a strong indication that not much factual support is needed for national self-congratulation, and now we are presented in R.A. Houston’s work with a numerical analysis which sets out to show that there was nothing very special in the level of 18th-century Scottish literacy. Houston has collected figures of those able to sign from the subscriptions to the Covenant and from legal depositions, and has compared the percentage in different social groups in Scotland with similar groupings in Northern England. If his groups are correctly matched, and this is a difficult matter of judgment, then the Scots had the edge only in the 17th century: both northern regions did better than the more economically advanced South of England. In all regions and occupation female illiteracy was high except at the gentry level, with over two-thirds of women unable to sign, and among the labouring classes almost 90 per cent.

All this knocks the idea of a labouring population in Scotland uniquely equipped with writing skills and so able to seize career advantages. It suggests that even the level of skill that did exist came from industrial backwardness: compared with Southern England, the domestic textile industry had less need for those of the ripe age of nine and upwards, and were therefore not in competition for them with schools. It does not fully deal with the cultural claims of the myth. Children took two years or more to learn to read and would come to writing skill only as a subsequent supplement. The Kirk urged parents to put their children to school to learn to read: it did not expect more.

Prestige certainly attached to writing skill, if it could be maintained, but it was reading which mattered for the conduct of family worship. The inability to follow Bible reading in church on one’s own might be a powerful social discriminator. Inability to sign one’s own name tells us very little about the exposure of the population to religious and secular literature, and it is this that matters in the myth. What Houston has done, very thoroughly, is to force the myth-holders onto narrower ground than they occupied before. But the myth is still there, and Houston has not explained why it took such a hold of national thinking.

The Scottish upper class, unusually secure in their position, protected from subversive or riotous activity by a remarkable system of institutions for social control, did not suffer from the belief common in England that access to writing would make the lower orders dangerously radical. This may partly explain its willingness to sustain the myth. But as the controls on the available literature stemming from church authority and general poverty weakened, there may have been opportunity for more subtle forms of subversion. A skill which did not depend on muscle power might give women as well as men ideas above their station. As dictatorships have discovered, literacy can be a route not only to information and opportunity, but to power.

This year is not only the anniversary of Domesday Book: it also marks the centenary of the Crofters’ Holdings Act, which, by giving security of tenure to the Highland peasantry, prevented further Clearances. Eric Richards’s book is not so much an examination of the Highland Clearances: we now have enough information to be pretty sure of the main events, though what actually happened in Kildonan in May 1814 remains clouded. As the second part of a major study of the changes, it looks at the literature surrounding events, their aftereffect and the changing economy of the Highlands.

Some of the literature about the Clearances has a strong element of myth, not so much in what it includes as in what it leaves out. There has been an unwillingness to look at the pressure produced by the rapid population growth of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, or at the fact that, since in a modern economy regions are not isolated, general economic change affects the fortunes of all parts of the British Isles. Many areas experienced economic growth after 1750; some areas retardation. To deny the reality of the problems resulting from demographic and economic forces, and to concentrate on grasping landowners, is to write fiction instead of history. Equally dishonest was the tendency of those in charge of unpleasant events to issue bland and hypocritical statements and ignore the ruthless and even violent actions which happened.

Agrarian change in the Highlands was traumatic and deeply unpopular. All peasant societies have experienced reorganisation in the last two and a half centuries, usually under pressure from above, and with very little prospect of effective resistance. These changes have resulted in larger farming units, new methods of work, migration, voluntarily or under compulsion, to towns or overseas. Enclosure in 18th-century England, the destruction of the so-called kulaks in Communist Russia, collectivisation there and elsewhere, have all been unpleasant and unpopular. The Highland Clearances have a special hold on the popular vision of history in Scotland, and little attention has been paid to the experience of other peasant societies. It is unlikely that the rural squalor and destitution into which the Highland population fell, or the hardships of travel to unknown countries, created more misery than was common in the large industrial cities during depression, yet the distress of the urban poor in the early decades of industrialisation, resulting, as did the Clearances, from the combination of economic change and invincible property rights, has never caught the public imagination in Scotland as the Clearances have.

Some part of the special feeling about the experience comes from the resentment of the Highlanders at having to leave their land. Most evicted peasants have eventually found material advantages in the new areas of settlement which have compensated for the dislocation of their lives. Often they attained better incomes or more independence. But what the Highlander wanted was the status of cultivator and the right to continue to spend at least a part of the year in his own rural community with its special oral culture. As T.C. Smout has stated, ‘Gaelic Highlanders often refused to conform to the model of Smithian man. They had their own ideology, which was that the possession of land ... was the highest good a man could desire.’ (It is a Scottish achievement to have invented political economy and also to have shown the inadequacy of its concepts.)

Many left, at least nominally, of their own free will: that is, they recognised that there was no future in staying. The emigrant communities they made in Glasgow or Toronto built up stories about the experience which are an interesting aspect of oral tradition. The migrants chose not to blame economic circumstances, or even natural disasters: it was hostile factors and unfeeling landowners who received the criticism. Misery makes a better story if it can be laid at the door of people rather than of abstract forces, and in the absence of contemporary evidence from the underdogs, for they were rarely literate, there has been a lot of room for invention or for selective recall.

What is puzzling to the modern historian is that on this topic the general public in Scotland have taken care to put the worst face forward in this story. This is not to say that the stories which sound nasty were untrue. Enough episodes give support to any unpleasant adjective. But it is the selectivity which is odd. It has nothing of the cosiness encouraged in English popular history. The Scots do not form themselves into societies to fight out issues: they wish to see themselves as both democratic and open in opportunity, and as a deeply divided society.

These three books will each one weaken the national myths they touch on. English cosiness will have to reckon with systematic exploitation of resources, land, plough teams and people. Scottish prestige will have to limit the claim for exceptional educational achievements. Highland history will have to pay homage to regional economic failure, a theme of very considerable import for much of Britain today. As Richards shows, pumping resources into a stagnant economy, as some landowners did, could not overcome the natural disadvantages of some areas. The Highland Clearances still raise special problems of interpretation. The main fall in Highland population, as Smout has recently demonstrated, took place after the Highlanders had gained security of tenure, not before. As these books indicate, when historians answer a question, they are apt to open up new ones.