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A View of History (with thanks to The Simpsons)

There's an episode of The Simpsons where clever Lisa is given an assignment to write an essay on Jebediah Springfield, founder of the town of Springfield. The town's 200th anniversary is only a week away, and all of Springfield's school children must write about Jebidiah. Most children trot out the usual story of Springfield's wise founder, but conscientious Lisa goes to the town museum to get extra information. There she meets kindly curator Hollis Hurlburt who shows her his museum's precious Jebediah exhibits. These include "his fife on which he sounded the sweet note of freedom," and also his chamber pot. While Hollis is off checking his microwaved jonny cakes, Lisa has a go at playing a tune on Jebediah's fife, but all she succeeds in doing is blowing out a rolled up sheet of paper on which Jebediah had written his secret confession:

"Firstly I did not tame the legendary buffalo. It was already tame. I merely shot it. Secondly I have not always been known as Jebediah Springfield. Until 1796 I was Hans Sprungfeld, murderous pirate, and the half wits of this town shall never learn the truth! Ha ha ha ha ha!"

 

 

 

Replica of the Stone of Destiny at Scone Palace, Scotland

History might have the friendly, avuncular image of Hollis Hurlbut, but it is often an uncomfortable subject. Countries have their national myths, which aren't the same as history. Take coronations of British monarchs for example. Lots of people turn out, commemorative mugs are purchased, children wave flags, and there is a sense of national celebration. But certain elements of the coronation ceremony would have made Hans Sprungfeld proud. The Stone of Destiny, which sits underneath the coronation chair during crowning ceremonies was the great symbol of Scotland. It was taken from Scotland in 1296 when fearsome English king Edward I invaded Scotland, massacring Berwick's entire population in the process. Edward understood the symbolism of national identity, and he made sure that all English monarchs to come would be sitting on Scotland from the moment they were crowned. Even before they are crowned, prospective monarchs of England are under the influence of that old pirate Edward I. The heir to the throne of England is known as Prince of Wales. In 1282 Edward had set about subduing Wales and bringing it under English control. He demolished Wales' equivalent of Westminster Abbey, the monastery at Aberconwy, and built Conwy Castle on the site. He then gave the title Prince of Wales to his son and heir, just to remind Wales who is really in charge. I can imagine Lisa Simpson getting up at the investiture ceremony of a modern Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle, and telling people all about it. But then before we get too down on England we should remember that Wales and Scotland have silly national myths of their own. Wales may talk of struggles against England, but Wales, inspite of present day assemblies, has never existed as a country beyond its common language. And Scotland has created many myths to make its history look more continuous than it really is. The Stone of Destiny is actually one of these myths. From the thirteenth century claims were made for an impossibly early date for the Stone's arrival in Scotland. The aim was to give Scotland a longer and more impressive history than it actually possessed (see The Invention of Scotland by Hugh Trevor Roper).

InfoBritain is a history site, and as such it's not just a list of gentle days out at National Trust properties. History is not the friendly subject of Hollis Hurlburt. Sometimes history is described as "proud": Jebediah Springfield is supposed to have said that "a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man". But as Lisa discovered, history is frequently not proud, and using history as a source of national pride or national unity is asking for trouble. Lisa tries to play a tune on the fife which Jebediah used to sound the sweet note of freedom. The secret confession that pops out blows away the myth of Jebediah, and encourages Lisa to be a free spirit and challenge the old story of the town's founding father. The committee organising the town's anniversary procession hears of Lisa's heresy and bans the Simpsons from attending. She gets an F for her essay Jebediah Springfield Super Fraud. It's all very upsetting, but Lisa dreams of George Washington pushing Jebediah off a cliff and telling her to go on.

In the end Lisa forces Hollis to admit that he knew the truth of Jebediah all along. Hollis says that in the unsanitised version of Sprigfield history Jebediah is supposed to have had his tongue bitten off by a Turk in a grog house fight, and had it replaced with a silver prosthetic tongue. Lisa's story would be proved correct if the silver tongue could be found. Hollis admits he removed the offending evidence from Jebediah's body, and agrees to help Lisa stop the town procession. But when it comes to it Lisa cannot bring herself to ruin Springfield's fun. She marches with the procession. History is not only about what happened, it's also about what was thought to have happened. Often the illusions of history are more important than the truth of it.

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