The lexicon of popular history,
With its ridge and furrowed semantic fields and stories,
Opens doors of childhood perception,
To fields of knowledge, imagination,
Wonderment and enchantment –
But, I think, especially enchantment.
Take, for example, an Anglo-Saxon tale,
The tale of Alfred the Great and the burnt cakes:
The moral of the tale presented to me in childhood books
Was all about the humility of a king
(A king in a common kitchen, indeed!),
And the curtness of the woman in the kitchen,
When discovering that the stranger –
Preoccupied with Vikings rather than griddles –
Had ruined the cakes.
But could a different moral have been presented to my boyhood self?
Where’s the next meal going to come from?
The woman in the kitchen has so many things to do.
Cooking cakes is, in fact, a difficult and highly skilled task.
Popular histories for grown-ups carry on this approach,
Textually rather than through pictures perhaps,
But the effect is the same.
Take the phrase ‘ordinary people’, for example:
The word ‘ordinary’ is, I think, used almost as a pejorative,
Rather than as a synonym for majority;
And what synonyms do we find for ‘ordinary’?
Ordinary, as in ‘not distinctive’ …
Common, everyday, humdrum, run of the mill …
And what synonyms do we find for ‘common’?
Routine, simple, trivial, daily, plain, banal, homely, mediocre, prosaic, monotonous, stale …
The coarse, common people:
Coarse: not fine, rude, rough, unrefined, inelegant, low, lowbred, uncouth, vulgar,
As opposed to courteous, gentle, patrician, highborn, wellborn …
This is a vocabulary permeated by class, hierarchy and property
(And where did that property come from?),
And so any search for the provenance,
First cause derivation and origin
Of pure, unadulterated meaning of these words
Is a search for etymological fool’s gold,
Unless you visit ancient Rome, perhaps,
And its lexicon of class-based language,
Patrician: Good; Pleb: Bad; Vulgar: Bad.
And with conventional History’s
Fetishization of textual evidence,
Conventional History can so easily become
An endless story of kings and queens and nobles,
Heritage … Blue Plaque Heritage …
With the unlettered majority – the ordinary –
Consigned to the dustbin of history.
Now, as is fairly obvious,
I’m no expert in sociolinguistics,
Linguistic anthropology or cultural hegemony,
But at the very least, I think we might question
The assumptions and implications that lie
Beneath much of this vocabulary,
The hidden labelling that lies beneath the surface
Of our lexicon, our language, our discourse,
Of our ridge and furrowed semantic fields:
‘The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common,
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.’
And that includes language and meaning too,
Literal and figurative,
Which is why we have this watchword;
‘Beyond the Empirical,
Beyond the Documented:
Francis Haverfield in The Romanization of Britain 1912
‘The rustic poor of a county seldom affect the trend of its history.’