Academic versus popular interpretations of history
A case for a using a mixed approach at historical sites
This is an essay I submitted for the module 'History in Practice,' a class as part of the English Literature and History degree I'm taking at Cardiff University.
Essay Question: Compare and contrast the use of sources and argument in academic history with the use of sources and argument in popular history. Discuss with reference to the interpretation of history at one historical site you have visited.
This essay will discuss how the motives and intended audiences of the academic, versus the popular historian, inevitably influence how the historian interprets sources and arguments associated with an historical site. Using the example of The Round Table in the Great Hall of Winchester, evidence will illustrate how the ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ approaches may at first appear at odds with each other, but remain equally valid and vital to the success of the historic site.
Popular history is a necessary device for marketing a heritage site to a wide audience, as can act as a vehicle with which interest and revenue can be driven to an historic site. Popular history works as a method of gaining public interest, because it is often how we are first introduced to history at all. With dramatic retellings and child friendly versions of the past shared in our primary education through books, movies and other media, we know that students ‘retain what they learn when the learning is associated with strong positive emotion,’ which is why an entertaining presentation of popular history can be so effective in reaching and staying with its audience. While the motives for engaging an audience in popular history can vary, in the example of school children it is clear that the more entertaining the history is, the better it will be remembered in exams and assessments they undertake.
In another example, applying modern marketing techniques to the promotion of an historical site as a tourist destination is essential to sustaining it’s success, because ‘these assets need preservation and often restoration or interpretation,’ which can be financially supported with visitors, ‘but the foundation for creating a dynamic travel experience lives on in the stories and structures of the past.’ This statement determines that the interpretation of the past at an historical site needs to be engaging and fun, in order to attract visitors at all. Evidence of promoting popular history to achieve this can be seen at Winchester’s Great Hall, where an artefact known as the Round Table is displayed.
One local up-market hotel uses the popular King Arthur myth associated with the table to promote the nearby Great Hall as a desirable wedding venue, describing it as ‘one of the finest surviving aisled halls of the 13th Century,’ and divulging that ‘the Great Hall is all that remains of Winchester Castle, along with, arguably the greatest symbol of medieval mythology, King Arthur’s Round Table.’ The continued use of the site as a wedding destination shows that incorporating the popular story of King Arthur into online marketing has indeed been a useful tool for attracting visitors and patrons to the experience the historic Great Hall.
This is different to the purpose that academic history attempts to serve. Where popular history is concerned with enriching an understanding of the past for as many people as possible at an historic site, academic historians work to resolve specific research questions or respond to findings and theories.
For example, prominent archaeologist Martin Biddle CBE introduces his book on the Winchester Round Table with a specific set of questions that formed the basis of his research ‘…what is it? Was it ever a table? When was it made? Why is it hanging on the wall? When was it painted with the famous image it now bears? And why at Winchester?’ By questioning the publicly preconceived assumptions of the artefact, some have argued that the Round Table ‘is admittedly a much later fake, obviously from the Tudor period, re-painted, as we know, early in the sixteenth century and proudly shown by the King of England to the German emperor when he came to Winchester in 1522, as the authentic King Arthur’s table.’
Taking their argument further, A.A. Barb’s research questions the potential symbology of the Round Table in Arthurian stories, suggesting that is represents the table Christ shared his last supper. By comparing the round table featured in ancient biblical manuscripts from Syria, to the likeness of the Round Table in Winchester, this assertion from Barb demonstrates the depth of research that has gone into the interpretation of historical sources and arguments within their academic work.
Plate 1 The Last Supper, from a Syrian manuscript in the British Museum.
Plate 2 The Round Table, photograph taken in Winchester Great Hall.
This scholarly approach to interpreting sources does not simply embellish and repeat popular narratives that already exist, instead it actively questions them and considers a wide range of arguments to gain deeper insight.
Unlike the popular history shared about the Round Table and the Great Hall, academic research is not intended just for the purpose of increasing engaging potential tourists or assisting the retention of knowledge for educational purposes. Instead. It is instead concerned with how new original research into the sources and arguments of an historical site can contribute to future discussion and understanding among specialists, which is ‘necessary for the field’s advancement…’
This contrast between the intent of the popular and the academic historian naturally informs how they treat the sources and arguments they assess. For example, an academic work might need to write many pages to explore in detail the ‘family wills, chancery records and contemporary letters’ related to their area of research, while a popular historical account will instead focus more on writing ‘in a novelised form – so that the reader can experience and feel the subject’s life and times,’ which requires much less depth of original research ‘since many of the topics are treading a well-worn path[…]’
We see this novelised approach to the primary sources in the interpretation of the Round shared online by Winchester’s official tourist body, which urges tourists to ‘come and the iconic Round Table of Arthurian legend that has dominated Winchester’s ancient Great Hall for centuries.’ To further appeal to public interest, the page colourfully argues that the Great Hall is ‘one of the finest surviving examples of a 13th century aisled hall’ and urges it’s potential visitors to ‘discover the history and uncover the battles, secrets and trials for terrorism and treason held here.’ This sentence broadly sweeps over themes of thrilling medieval romance stories and deliberately encourages the reader to associate the Round Table and Great Hall with the popular stories of King Arthur, without providing any evidence for this interpretation.
Having illustrated these two very different approaches to interpreting sources and arguments in reference to an historic site, it might appear that popular and academic history are destined to remain at odds with each other. Presented with the conundrum of selecting which approach the historian should take, questions naturally arise over their shortcomings. For example, if popular history is designed to appeal to the masses, will challenging but important facts need to be discarded? Or on the other hand, will the highly specific academic history of a site ostracise the public from understanding and appreciating it?
These misgivings toward popular history are warranted to an extent, with plenty of examples existing where easy-to-digest versions of history have been taken at face value despite their inaccuracy. The misconception remains that the Round Table in Winchester belonged to the legendary Saxon ‘King Arthur’ simply because of the inscription carved on its surface: ‘This is the rownde table of kynge Arthur w[ith] xxiiii of hys namyde knyttes’; the names are written round the edge, with Galahad's and Mordred's on either side of the king.’ This primary source appears to the setting of famous English epic Morte Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, who wrote that Winchester was the site of Arthur’s home Camelot and cemented this version of the Round Table’s past into popular history. Despite the fact that Mallory’s story was a work of fiction and there are strong historical arguments that dispute whether Arthur had ever existed.
The flip-side to the continuation of myths like these is that they are often the first spark to ignite the interest of an individual, who may be inspired to research and happily rectify their own and others understanding of the history they misunderstood. For example, Winchester resident Melville Portal was also inspired by his own memories of learning about the history of the Great Hall that he published a highly detailed analysis of the architecture. He states in the foreword of this work that he endeavoured to add to the established store of knowledge regarding the site, while also hoping to ‘more fully to illustrate the history of a place with which his own happiest years have been associated[…]’ Or as PHD student and popular historian Elizabeth Norton attests: ‘most academic historians will have first gained an interest in their subject in their teens through reading popular history – I know I did.’
In comparison to the concern that popular history favours inaccurate narratives, detractors of academic history are concerned that its approach to sources and arguments is too detailed and precise. Some argue that historians should make their work more accessible to the general public, who are intelligent but cannot stomach the ‘indigestible statistical tables [and] dry analytical argument’ associated with academic interpretations of history. By not seeking popularity and wide public interest, there is discussion that academic history could be at risk becoming irrelevant to future reforms and fundraising opportunities, given ‘the current concern with the "impact" made by academic, university-based disciplines means that history[…]has to demonstrate in a more formal way the value it adds to the social product.’ Despite this pressure to appeal to a wider audience, the academic approach to sources and arguments in history, as with natural sciences, remains an important method for ‘pushing back the frontiers of the knowable.’
For example, it was the academic research of archaeologist Martin Biddle that revealed the Round Table in Winchester was actually made in the 14th century, ‘possibly for Edward III, who in 1344 planned to found an ‘Order of the Round Table.’ He explained further that ‘a design was painted on it on the orders of Henry VIII in 1522; at the centre is the Tudor rose, and at the top a ‘portrait’ of Arthur modelled on Henry himself.’ These fascinating findings, underpinned by an academic approach, may never have come to light if the need to cater to the ever-fluid interest of the public had been the top priority when interpreting the history of the site.
Having demonstrated the validity of both the academic and popular approaches to history, the illusion that they are in direct competition with each other may remain. The interpretation of sources and arguments at Winchester’s Round Table and Great Hall indeed appear to demonstrate that popular history is favourable when marketing the historic site, which avoids overwhelming potential tourists with any detailed academic interpretations.
However, I would argue that in the British society of the 21st century is highly adaptable to receiving new and challenging interpretations – and likely to embrace academic interpretations of history as the foundations of fluid and ever-changing narratives within popular history. Simply searching the term ‘archaeology’ online brings thousands of national headlines forward that detail how new discoveries are regularly turning preconceived ideas of history upside down. The quantity of these articles that exist in the public domain, indicates how willing and interested the public are to re-consider the popular historical narratives that exist. Encouraging a combination of both the popular and academic approaches to the history of the Great Hall will serve both the need to attract heritage tourism, and the need to engage critical debate from academics ‘by making the work of academic historians more visible in a wider cultural and intellectual milieu’’ while also celebrating the role of popular history in the success of the historic site.
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