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Friday Tchotchke #22: The blorbo king
Amateurs in (and for) history
Following onto last week’s musings about the role of love in historical study, I have been thinking a lot about public or “pop” history and its relation to fan culture.
In general, a fannish habitus doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation with a successful career in any field, but importantly neither does it completely preclude one. It probably helps just as many people as it hinders. See Fig 1:
Enthusiasm is contagious and powerful. An unskilled enthusiast about a subject is more likely to have the wherewithal and desire to discover and then subsequently communicate information about that subject than someone with a great deal of skill but no desire. Ideally anyone aiming to conduct research for popular enjoyment and edification is both skilled and slightly insane.
Just from my perspective, the UK on the whole seems far more obsessed with history than anywhere else. I’m kind of jealous. Personalities like Ruth Goodman, Dan Snow, and Lucy Worsley have made careers out of presenting historical topics to wide audiences on television, the Horrible Histories franchise enjoys widespread nostalgic popularity among all ages, and podcasts like Greg Jenner’s You’re Dead To Me and Tom Holland’s The Rest Is History hang around the top of the charts.
It follows that the UK media has breathlessly followed and promoted the career of Philippa Langley, the Richard III groupie (affectionate) who, as part of her crusade on behalf of one of the most reviled kings in English history, spearheaded the discovery of his long-lost body below a parking lot in Leicester. The documentary about the 2013 excavation, hosted by a persistently befuddled Simon Farnaby, doesn’t shy away from the spectacle of Langley’s love for her king: weeping at his graveside; shaking as his bones are laid out, her voice breaking as she realizes Richard did have a hunchback, as his critics portrayed him and as she’d maintained he didn’t. Who is this woman, this “housewife from Edinburgh” who leapt into the public eye as that strange hybrid, an expert with a self-confessed and unapologetic agenda? Headlines referred to her “love affair” with Richard and her story was even adapted by Stephen Frears into a feature film starring Sally Hawkins.
Langley’s devotion is compelling, and she is accomplished at communicating it: her books are bestsellers and her new one, promising to exonerate Richard of the murder of the Princes in the Tower, will certainly be one too. But like any enthusiast, she also rubs plenty of people the wrong way. Her clear mission to ignore any facts that don’t align with her Ricardian ideal leaves her open to accusations of unseriousness, unprofessionalism, and that great hated pejorative, amateurishness.
In some sense Langley is a throwback; the inheritor of a great British tradition of genteel, kooky antiquarianism. The idea of the “professional historian” is only slightly older than the cultural idea of the “fan.” Like many disciplines history was professionalized in the 19th century as part of widespread modernization of the university. The amateur antiquarian who specialized in local history and culture—think the gentleman scholar protagonists in M.R. James stories, getting haunted to fuck by some old relic they simply couldn’t help but dig up—decreased in importance in the face of the academically trained historian, objective and scientific in their approach. This is the sort of stuff that historiography, the subfield of history which studies the historical writing of history itself (yeah), deals with, and is a source of endless fascination for me.
Langley and her accomplishments represent one possible (but unlikely) endpoint of allowing passion its rule, for better and for worse. I mean, come on—she got to dig up the body of her blorbo! And after that, as they say, nobody could tell her nothin’.