I was reading David Mitchell’s new book Unruly, which is an outrageous history of the royalty of England, when I came across this passage:

A big threat to our current civilization is the persistent post-Victorian assumption of progress. This ‘Whig Interpretation of History’ has been regularly debunked ever since the term was coined by the historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931, a tough year for believers in things getting better. Still, most of us unreflectingly go along with it. You hear it in the way people rebuke each other for prejudiced remarks by saying ‘Come on, it’s the twenty-first century’, as if the passage of time inevitably brings with it ethical improvements. The pejorative word ‘dated’ shows how ingrained is our assumption that human civilization gets better over time. It probably has recently, technologically at least, but it’s not a given. Is assuming that things improve the best way of ensuring they will? I doubt it. A healthy fear of societal cataclysm may be a good technique for avoiding it.

And I realized that I’m guilty of unthinkingly going along with the assumption that we are supposed to be getting better over time.

Even though over 50 years ago in my dorm room Carl Gruber, a biology student, who was the first person who really clued me in to our current environmental problems, explicitly warned me against that kind of thinking.

Why just the other day I even used the phrase “in this day and age” and now I’m cringing at the thought of it.

In any case, that passage is not at all representative of Mitchell’s book. Here’s a sample from the section on the Anglo-Saxons:

The Anglo-Saxons stuck with the form of paganism they’d brought over from the continent, which was a nice little bunch of gods who, as a helpful mnemonic, the days of the week are named after. There’s Woden, king of the gods and god of wisdom – beardy guy with a cloak – after whom Wednesday is named. Then Thunor, their version of Thor, who you might know from the Marvel Universe. He’s god of thunder, which feels like a comparatively small brief, and the etymological root of Thursday.

Then it’s Frigg. I don’t know if the 1970s expression for wanking derives from this goddess’s name – though it seems unlikely as her portfolio includes marriage and childbirth – but the word Friday definitely does and I think we can all agree that the end of the working week is a lovely time for a jolly good frigg. The god of war, Tiw, accounts for Tuesday. Sunday and Monday are the sun and the moon and, weirdly, Saturday is named after the Roman god Saturn, which feels incongruous – a bit like having a parish church called St Mohammed’s.

Back to the mortals: whatever the actual names of those early Anglo-Saxon big shots, it seems unlikely that any of them were kings in the sense we understand the word. What probably happened is that the new settlers appropriated areas of land and then, people being reliably unpleasant, some of those settlers would start pushing others around, demanding ‘tribute’ and offering ‘protection’. Gradually, by the same method used by drug gangs to divide up LA, a system of government emerged.

Or take a look at this from his chapter on perhaps the most famous English king of them all, Henry VIII:

He’s such a famous king that almost anyone who would ever buy or read a history book in English knows the main things about him. There are six of them and they’re his wives: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. In retrospect we should have given them names. I’ve stolen that line from the great comedian Rob Brydon who says it after listing his children’s ages. It works well for our dismissive relationship with those women. Now, as then, they only seem to matter in terms of their relationship with him. We all know men like that – at least Henry had the excuse of being king.

The odd thing about Henry VIII is that we know such a lot about his feelings and desires. He lived his life in public, like a cross between Kerry Katona and Vladimir Putin. We know about his physical vanity, his lusts, his desperation to have a son, the many crises in his love life, his conflicted spirituality, his young athletic sexiness, his embarrassing weight gain and increasing physical decrepitude.

His whole chaotic, bad-tempered personal life is still being played and replayed before us. If you visit the Tower of London, you can see his various suits of armour and how they got larger as he got fatter. How embarrassing for him. He was a very proud and self-important man – the thought of millions of people over hundreds of years knowing all about his ballooning waistline, his festering leg wound and, in later life, his irascible inability to get it up would have made him shudder and shout and have someone executed. In a sense, knowing all that humiliating detail is part of posterity’s revenge.

Only part though. The rest of this book is all about how wrong Henry VIII turned out to be about everything. Nothing he tried to put in place really worked out. Power went in very different directions from those he’d planned. His impact on history was not the one he intended, though he did become very very famous.


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