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History Reclaimed Book of the Year 2023: Speech by Lord Sumption

Lord Sumption
History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

Lord Sumption kindly served as chairman of the History Reclaimed judging committee responsi-ble for our two prizes this year: the History Reclaimed Book of the Year 2023, awarded to Pro-fessor Marion Turner, and the History Reclaimed Prize for the Promotion of History and Histori-cal Studies, awarded to Professor Nigel Biggar. We are delighted to publish below the speech Lord Sumption gave on the occasion.

Welcome to the annual award of the History Reclaimed Book of the Year Prize. The object of the prize is to recognise outstanding examples of historical writing published in the previous year. The judges are Robert Tombs, David Abulafia, Lawrence Goldman, Zewditu Gebreyohanes, and myself. The way it works is that we, the judges, choose a short-list of five books any of which we would have regarded as worthy of recognition, but the final choice is left to a vote of readers.

The criteria that we apply are simple. The books short-listed must be works of serious historical scholarship. They must be written in a style that can appeal to a wide general readership. Above all, they must be books which look at the past objectively, which seek to understand the past on its own terms, and not simply to view it in the light of a modern political or social agenda. They may well be about subjects which respond to modern-day interests and concerns, but they must not grind modern ideological axes.

Our short-list this year comprised five books. Nicholas Orme’s Tudor Children is a remarkable piece of social history, like all of this author’s works on medieval and early modern history. Martin Daunton’s The Economic Government of the World, 1933-2023 provides a compelling account of the creation of new institutions to achieve economic stability after the disaster of the inter-war period. Marion Turner’s The Wife of Bath: A Biography is an account of Chaucer’s famous pilgrim who had buried five husbands before she decided to enjoy herself in some distinctly unspiritual ways. Halik Kochanski’s Resistance is a ground-breaking work of synthesis about the contribution of resistance to Nazi rule in occupied Europe during the Second World War. And finally, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Straits is the most original, scholarly and iconoclastic life of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

The winner in the readers’ vote was Marion Turner’s The Wife of Bath.

As I said, the judges would have been happy to award the prize to any of these five books, but Marion Turner’s book is a particularly interesting choice. It is a kind of collective biography of medieval women who, like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, were not content with the subordinate role assigned to women in the Middle Ages, when they were regarded as unfit for any serious occupation other than head of state.

Now the Wife of Bath has some fruity things to say about bias in historical writing. In her tale, a man and a lion were walking along a road, debating which of the two was strongest. On their way, they came upon a monument with a painting of a man strangling a lion. The lion was asked for his opinion. He remarked that the painting was the work of a man: “If it had been painted by a lion,” he said, “you would have seen the lion strangling the man.” To which the Wife of Bath adds the pointed observation that history was invariably written by men:

“Who painted the lion, tell me who?

By God, if women had written stories,

As clerks have in their oratories,

They would have written about men

more wickedness

Than all the mark of Adam may redress.”

It is clear that Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Edward Said derived their ideas about the subjective nature of truth from the Wife of Bath. Six centuries before they put pen to paper, she was already teaching that objectivity was impossible, because we are all conditioned by our origin or our gender.

Few subjects lend themselves so well to ideological history as the history of women, who were marginalised by human societies ever since the Book of Genesis blamed all the misdeeds of men on womankind. Yet, eighty years ago, the great social historian Eileen Power showed in her short, posthumously published book Medieval Women, that one could be a radical feminist and an objective historian of women. I could say many complimentary things about Marion Turner’s book, but the most important thing to say about it is that she writes in the same tradition as her great precursor, brilliantly combining objectivity and wit, in her remarkable account of those women, great and small, who broke the mould.

This year, the judges decided that in addition to the prize for outstanding historical writing, we should from time to time award an additional prize to a person who we feel has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of history and historical studies. We have decided that we should award this prize this year to Nigel Biggar for his book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning and, more generally, for his sustained defence of objective history over a number of years.

Colonialism is not a defence of the European colonial empires. It is an attempt to show what was good about them, while acknowledging what was bad. Not everyone will agree with Nigel Biggar’s argument. But that is not the point. The book is a powerful riposte to those who engage in selection bias, a tendency which has dominated the field of imperial history for many years. It has led academic historians to take the worst things about the colonial empires and serve them up as if they were the whole, in order to satisfy a modern ideological agenda. This is a serious offence against historical objectivity and understanding. It is frequently coupled with a rejection of the whole concept of objectivity as being either impossible, vicious or a mere reflexion of cultural programming.

Nigel Biggar’s stand has carried a high personal cost. He has been subjected to a stream of abuse, much of it from fellow academics who ought to have known better. He has been no-platformed. He has been abandoned by reputable historians who agreed with him but feared for their careers if they said so out loud. He has been cancelled by a supposedly reputable publisher. So the additional prize is awarded to Professor Biggar as a tribute to him. The judges hope that his stand will be supported by the great majority of historians who believe that the history of the past is not a branch of modern politics or a weapon in current political debates.

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History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed