Monday, January 10, 2022

The idealised past and anti-Tradition: the Brown Windsor Myth

King Alfred the Great lets the cakes burn.

A key feature of tradition is the notion of a past as in some sense normative: the past as a guide to action in present, because that past should in some sense be restored. Tim Stanley talks about this in his Whatever Happened to Tradition? 

As Stanley says, this is not nostalgia in the simple, and often pejorative sense. Critics of appeals to the past often say: but look that past you like was also characterised by Bad Things! Stanley responds by pointing out the obvious: if we agree they are bad, then obviously they are not among the aspects of the past we want to restore. We want to 'restore', if that is the right word, an idealised past. In fact, the creation and development of a shared sense of an ideal past is essential to a society's sense of what it should be like now and in the future. Idealising the past is a way of imagining the future. It is a way of developing a political programme.

Care is needed, of course. If the past you want to revive was dependent on slavery, for example (say, the past of classical paganism), you may say you don't want to revive slavery, and you may be sincere, but you'll have to explain how a culture built on cheap labour can be revived without the cheap labour. This is a genuine question, and there may be an answer to it, but it is a question which needs to be asked, and to ask these questions we need a discipline of history which is not just the curation of national myths. But we do also need the national myths.

Those who set out to debunk our national or indeed ecclesial myths, often on the basis of a very partial historical analysis, often do so because they, like those attached to the myths, are not primarily concerned with the past as the subject of scientific study, but with the past as a guide to the present. The people who try to debunk the idea that Britons were stoical in the face of the Blitz, for example, are not motivated by a love of truth. They are motivated by a hatred of the value of stoicism, as embedded in British self-understanding. 

Those who want to cut us off from the past as a source of inspiration want, in fact, to create a lot of myths themselves. This can be done in deadly earnest, and it can be done in a jocular way. It is in the latter category, apparently, that the culinary counter-ideal, the anti-hero of the kitchen, Brown Windsor Soup, comes from. After extensive research, the people at the website Foods of England have concluded that it never, or almost never, existed. It was above all a product of satirists, popularised in the 1950s by the Goon Show.

More seriously, the Protestants who wanted to detach the English from their Catholic roots invented black legends about the Catholic past, some of which became so embedded in national consciousness that they have have taken historians generations to unpick. Something similar has happened with the debate about the Church: was everything Bad in the Bad Old Days? Some people in the Church are determined to say so, and to hell with the facts. 

What we need to do is to imagine how the Church could be, practically, using the past as a guide, with an awareness of the problems. What was good should be restored. What was bad, guarded against. What we fondly imagine to have been the Good Old Days is not a delusion: it is an imaginative attempt to see how things could be in the future.

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