History was one of the subjects I quite enjoyed at school. I wasn’t so keen on the ancient history we started off with, but I found later history interesting. I also liked the fact that the History teacher often chose me to read from the text book while the English teacher never did. I was disappointed when I couldn’t continue History to O-level because of timetable conflicts.
How much of my three years of History do I remember now? Not a lot. Certainly not the lists of dates I memorised then. But there are some facts I remember learning – like the invention of the printing press by William Caxton, for instance. In fact all the people and places we learned about were either British or involved in wars against Britain. I didn’t really question why this was. I sort of assumed that only Britain mattered in the world.
Anyway, I was British and it was good to know how important Britain was, especially while the news was often about the colonies that Britain was losing.
In some ways I felt the history we learned belonged to me while in others I didn’t. Jews were never mentioned in that history. The only time I heard about Jews of the past at school was in an English lesson when we started studying The Merchant of Venice. The teacher said, “I know that a lot of you are Jewish and there has been some criticism of the portrayal of the Jew in this play. You have to remember that there were no Jews in England at the time it was written because they’d been expelled, so Shakespeare didn’t actually know any Jews.”
“Hmm,” I thought. “Why weren’t we told about that expulsion in History lessons?”
Then I found a book at home called The History of the Jews in England, and I actually read it just out of interest, because I identified with the people mentioned in it more than I did with the kings and queens and everyone else in my school text books.
I digress. Where was I? The printing press and the trigger for this post. It was a BBC Radio 4 series called Germany: Memories of a Nation. In one of the episodes I learned something that surprised me: the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. William Caxton visited Gutenberg in Mainz and introduced Gutenberg’s invention to the English.
Why didn’t we learn this at school? Why was British history the only history? Why were deeds of note by foreigners transferred to British people?
I wonder if this has changed since I was at school.