Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism

Content note: we’re talking a Queen who killed 70,000 people, and we’re talking war crimes including rape. So there are heavy subjects here.

Jingo! Not the unholy mutant cross of bingo and Jenga that sees saggy-winged aunts up and down the nation testing their manual dexterity and ability to recognise printed numbers by a series of vocalisations  – although I am definitely trademarking that shit.

No, I’m referring to the obnoxious consideration of certain concepts, events, persons, experiments, science, literature etc. through a particular nation’s lens.

I respect the right of Italy to celebrate Dante Alighieri, Garibaldi, Da Vinci and most importantly of all Francesco Totti. To use any of them, though, to make a particular point about the Italian character itself, to personify your national entity – that weird muddle of ethnic mixing, political sprawling and confused, class divided, split neighbourhood, self-sorting and frankly impossible to define thing – is never defined by or summed up in one individual or their works.

Britain, my nation, is very, very guilty of this. We’re so masturbatory about the shit we do, we have celebrations about bravely running away. That’s not to say that there weren’t feats at Dunkirk worthy of acclaim, but the way we talk about it you’d think we slapped Hitler with a haddock and stood our ground, rather than made a misplaced venture to the North of France and had to run away in the face of overwhelming, superior opposition.

We take a fat, phallic-cigar sucking, racist Tory and stick him on our bank notes because he made a few fancy speeches and, unlike his micro-moustached, uni-testicular German equivalent, he actually left the competent people to get on with the business of winning the war. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything to celebrate about Winston Churchill, just that perhaps the singling out of a person’s positive achievements, a brushing-under-the-carpet of their more unsavoury aspects, and then wrapping them in a national flag and saying “This defines us!” is possibly a little troublesome.

Jesus Herbert Christ, a millennium from now Katrina and the Waves will be etched on our currency for having won Eurovision twice in the name of this mighty Kingdom United. We love a ‘hero’.

I get it to an extent. We’re the international equivalent of drizzle. We look like we couldn’t break a paper bag and the next thing you know you’re flooded. We have definitely punched above our weight, internationally, since the consolidation of the Norman and English crowns in 1066. That is undeniable. Are, though, some of the people we lionise really worthy of being lions?

This brings me to my main topic. Boudica. Did you know that in Rome, on plaques around the ancient Eternal Capital, they don’t mention her at all? As far as I know there are no tablets, no statues, no books or writings of this heroine of Great British resistance.

If you’re British you might be a bit surprised about that. According to anyone with a University of Life qualification in the History of Eng-er-Land she was their greatest Roman enemy ever. Hannibal Barca move aside, Carthage be damned, here comes an East Anglian Queen with a rag-tag bag of British-Celtic tribal misfits mainly from the Iceni of Norfolk way and Trinovantes of Suffolk-Essex way. Forget marching elephants across the Alps, she took horses across the flatlands! Boudica is portrayed, in Britain, as an upstanding Queen fighting for the rights of her people against an invading foreign aggressor. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. I don’t know, I wasn’t there.

Famous Roman historian Tacitus certainly seems to put it that way, but most of Tactitus’ history of Britain is an emphatic puff-piece in honour of his father-in-law Agricola – who happened to be a military tribune to the then governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus. Making this enemy of his father-in-law seem more important and dangerous than she actually was – well, that was his job.

Tactitus, thankfully, perfectly illustrates the point I want to make here. You see, we like to believe history is a study of the past, trying to figure out what happened and why, trying to establish truths of situations so that we can understand ourselves and where we come from. That’s nonsense.

We obtain a lot of our historical knowledge from books, letters, documents – this is ‘historiography’. Historiography is, essentially, written history or writing about history. It is also a word used to describe the study of history, of written history or the study of why history was written. It’s a confusing word that needs its own historiography to explain why people can’t just pick what the hell it means. The unifying feature is it is documentary, it relates to what we record. When we think of recorded sources they come in all shapes and sizes and some of them are far from objective – see the aforementioned Tacitus.

So if studying documents can’t tell us the truth about history what can we do? Accept that it is messy. History is not necessarily about what happened, but what we feel about what happened, or how we interpret what happened. Myths and legends get forged from history and passed from generation to generation. A figure once a footnote in history, like Boudica, can be revived at a convenient time to be used as a unifying figure, a propaganda tool, an essential spirit. Boudica’s popularity was revived in the 16th and 19th centuries, when domineering female monarchs in Elizabeth I and Victoria respectively, chivalry and romance, were the orders of the day. You can see why Boudica’s legend spread as it did.

In the process of creating those myths, however, certain facts can be glossed over, ignored or completely washed away. Boudica, as far as we can tell by the historiography, by the actions of Romans, was denied the throne of her tribe, was possibly flogged and potentially saw her daughters raped. Her response was not to fight the power, to take on Roman armies in revenge, but to sack multiple major settlements killing an estimated 70,000 people, most of them innocent. There is nothing in the myth or historiography to suggest it but, given how much it was a known weapon of war, and how conflict seems to always be marred by it, if you don’t think thousands of innocent women were raped in revenge for the rape of a Queen and her Princesses I think you’d be naïve.

Ask yourself if harm – not death, just harm – coming to Prince William’s children is significant enough justification to indiscriminately kill tens of thousands and do that harm back a thousand-fold? I certainly don’t think so. Boudica could have exacted any horrific torture on the people who directly harmed her and I’d shrug and suggest that you reap what you sow. What about a butcher in Verulamium, just selling meat trying to scrape a living to feed his own family, who did Boudica no harm, but she murdered them all the same? She burned their shops to the ground all the same? I can’t shrug and ignore that.

Whether her rampage was justified or not is irrelevant anyway. Judging it by today’s standards is also a little redundant. Judging the use of that myth as a justification for nationalistic violence, though? I’d do that all day every day willingly, and this is what people do with history.

This, to me, is the danger of the creation of a jingoistic myth, or a politically motivated myth. Boudica is just one example I am familiar with, being British. Spartacus is another figure held up in legend, particularly by leftist political personalities. Karl Marx himself is said to be an admirer but there’s no evidence that Spartacus’ uprising was about anything other than freeing Spartacus and his buddies. There is no evidence that this was a politically motivated uprising of the proletariat, and there is certainly no evidence that Spartacus and his rebels cared for any slaves outside of their own circle.

History as a tool is not just used to understand our past. It can be used to justify our present and shape our future. We must all be wary of this and the best way to do that is to learn as many of the full facts, fictions and rumours as possible  – to know the difference between them. After all, I didn’t know Boudica – did you?

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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