Ciaran Hill, History student
Like many people I grew up reading Horrible Histories books and found them fascinating. With my parents being members of the National Trust, I spent many weekends visiting historic houses and my grandma travelled extensively often returning with a story of the history of where she’d been.
My AS-Level history classes about the European Reformation inspired me to make the leap to applying to study history at university. Not only was the topic made interesting by the enthusiasm of our teacher (shoutout to Mr. Johnston), but it was a subject which I had not encountered before despite having had huge ramifications for European society. This realisation that history was so much broader than I ever realised, and that you could study more than the usual topics of the Tudors or World Wars, made me want to study history even more.
History is incredibly relevant to today’s world. My area of interest being Medieval Europe provides an excellent example in what historian R. I. Moore has called ‘The Persecuting Society’. Medieval Europe was a society in which persecution was the norm and a process known as ‘othering’ occurred where those considered ‘other’ from the Christian society of Western Europe were persecuted, particularly members of the Jewish faith or ‘heretics’ who threatened the social order of society. The concept of ‘othering’ in a more modern example is found in the British Empire’s policy of ‘creating colonial difference’ whereby the traits and characteristics of people seen as different were over-emphasised to make them seem to be wholly different. This is not a process that has gone away and it is imperative to keep historical incidences in mind owing to the current political landscape in which many are persecuted as ‘others’ such as the Uighur population of China. What this also teaches us is that whilst people suggest that ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ the immortal words of ABBA ‘the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself’ suggest that people either do not remember or are unawares.
The study of history also important in understanding national identity. Imperial ideas that ‘Britannia rules the waves’ and that ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ have had a profound effect on the identity of the British people with the debate around Brexit showing that many in Britain still see the nation as one of great importance on the world stage. Whether this is true or not, we can see that the idea of an Empire holds some degree of nostalgia with many suggesting that Britain helped to ‘civilise’ the world by bringing railways and other infrastructure. It is only through critical analysis skills and close examination of primary and secondary sources that historians can help to bring the lost and unheard voices of the subjects of Empire back into the public sphere and to question the narratives of the past to understand just how accurate a depiction we in Britain have of our own national history and international impact.
By examining processes such as ‘othering’ and how we as a nation consider ourselves to be perceived, we can help to prevent making the same mistakes as we have in the past by recognising our actions and mapping them onto historical events. More importantly, we can question and examine events as they happen in real-time and what the historic causes, drivers and motivations of modern actions are. This is particularly important in the era of ‘fake news’ as the ability to independently reason, think critically and examine opinion presented as fact has become critically important in the continued function of modern society.