The positive uses of TV as Public History

In 1994 social historian Raphael Samuel warned those associated with the academic discipline of history to not dismiss the field of “public history.” In his seminal work Theatres of Memory, Samuel urged historians to take note of how the general public enthusiastically engaged with history through heritage sites, historical novels, television and a wide array of other media, situated far away from the rigorous academic eye of universities and archives.

Almost thirty years on, his words are still pertinent. When I met my wife a few years ago I was thrilled to discover we shared a similar love of history. However I soon discovered that whilst my passion for history as a career saw me clock-watching whilst trudging through 500 word books on the notion of Southern honour in the antebellum US South, my wife’s enthusiasm for history as a hobby saw her cheerfully consuming Philippa Gregory novels on Tudor history at any opportunity she could find. Whenever she would then tell me about aspects of Mary Queen of Scots’ personality, I internally arrogantly dismissed what she claimed as “Tudor history, as written by Philippa Gregory”, rather than viewing it as an invitation to learn more about a historical character I admittedly knew nothing about.

Sam Heughan, actor who portrays Jamie Fraser in Outlander (Source: Christine Ring, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.0)

My arrogance must have been hugely frustrating but thankfully since then my sharp, academic edges have softened. When thinking of a topic to write about for this blog, this came to my mind, and it was confirmed the other night when talking to my dad. He, like my wife, has a fervent passion for history as a hobby. One of his greatest regrets is not pursuing history in Sixth Form, passing it over for the more pragmatic courses of Maths, Physics and Economics. Though I share in his lament, I do see the more positive side of his choice: not only a bigger bank balance (he became an accountant), but an opportunity to pursue history as a hobby, leading to an enthusiasm for the past that arguably rivals my own.

During our conversation he remarked that back when I first started my undergraduate degree in Comparative American Studies as a nervous 18 year old at Warwick, my knowledge of history was very narrow, limited to the topics I was interested in, but lacking the breadth of the past 4000 years of known, written and recorded history. I could not see the woods for the trees; I knew my Boston Tea Party but I couldn’t tell my Byzantines from my Ottomans.

Mehmed the Conqueror capturing Constantinople, more recently portrayed in the Netflix series Rise of Empires: Ottoman. Painting by Fausto Zonaro, sourced from Wiki commons

Over the past three years, TV history dramas have remedied this. Whilst originally dismissing some of my wife’s favourites shows like Vikings, Outlander and Versailles before I’d even watched them as either inaccurate or histories I plainly wasn’t interested in, I have not only fallen in love with these shows as TV dramas, but also with the periods of history they focus on. Of course, my academic brain doesn’t see me gobble up every historical claim as verbatim and I can regularly be found on my phone fact checking who Ragnar Lodbrok’s wives and children really were (via Wikipedia, of course). However, through watching these programmes the jigsaw of world history is slowly becoming more complete in my mind. For example, I recently learned what the Byzantine Empire actually was and how Turkey became a majority Islamic nation as a result of Mehmed the Conqueror’s siege of Constantinople, all through watching the Turkish production Rise of Empires: Ottoman on Netflix. And though Claire falling through the rocks into the middle of the Jacobean rising of the mid-18th century couldn’t possibly have happened, it did lead my wife and I to make the lengthy trip from Coventry to Culloden battlefield in 2018, where I was able to significantly broaden my knowledge of a period of Scottish/British history I would have been disinterested in if not for Outlander. And talking of foreign language productions, streaming services offer fantastic opportunities to understand how other nations represent their own histories, such as the Russian-language show Ekaterina on Amazon Prime about Catherine the Great, and the German-language Deutschland 83 and 86 on Channel 4.

Steven’s wife trying to accidentally/on-purpose fall through the stones, Outlander-style

Of course, there are problems with using TV as public history and many shows will be using history, as Michael Sewell explored in his recent blog post, for purposes in the present. If your sole source of learning history is via television, you will run into problems. However, I choose to view the positives of the explosion of historical TV dramas as a window through which one can discover other periods of history, and then choose to explore them further. And besides, who wouldn’t want to swoon over Jamie Fraser for an hour?

By Steven Bishop

Steven is researching the recent protests against statues of controversial historical figures across the world, focusing on the complex relationship between history and memory. His other historical interests include the history of the United States of America, especially the period from colonisation to the Civil War. He also have a burgeoning interest in local history and write about Colchester’s many heritage sites in Colchester United’s matchday programme.