The Past is a Foreign Country: History and Analogy, Part II

Laura Sangha


A visual analogy of analogy.

In my previous post on History and Analogy I explored why we use the technique and the ways in analogy can be a two-edged sword (if you will). Here I want to give some examples that I have come across recently when preparing for my module on Tudor England. I didn’t have to look far for these, evidence of the ubiquity of these types of comparison. Many are taken from G.W. Bernard’s The Late Medieval English Church, the book that inspired the original post. If you have any examples of your own, please do add them in the comments below.

The short and pithy:

G.W. Bernard is unable to resist analogies, whether historical or not. How about:

Did people collect indulgences in the spirit that we collect tokens or Air Miles?[1]

Or a W.G. Hoskins comparison passed on by Brodie that is short, pithy, and controversial to say the least:

Henry VIII was ‘England’s Stalin’.[2]

The elaborate and multi-layered:

Grappling with the problem of how to perceive of early modern culture in Music and Society in Early Modern England, Christopher Marsh invites us to envisage culture as a lute, with each of it’s six strings representing:

Early modern culture made flesh.

Early modern culture made flesh.

…one of the basic socio-cultural polarities that helped individuals to understand their world and to locate themselves with it: gentle/ common, male/ female, old/ young, clerical/ lay, urban/ rural, native/ foreign. The extremes are permanently connected, and in tension, the strings form a musical staircase that allows for traffic in both directions, the sounds produced can be in harmony or might result in ugly clashes, anyone can pluck and strum as they see fit…[3]

The familiar:

If an analogy is a comparison between the familiar and unfamiliar, there is also a tendency for writers to use a concept that they know particularly well and which they would assume might therefore particularly resonate with their audience. Bernard’s comparisons of modern academic and late medieval religious institutions are a case in point, the author connects with his reader by drawing on what they have in common. In some instances, this can allow him to load his prose with a double meaning, as here:

How far were religious vocations – like those of modern academics – stultified by the piling up of administrative tasks, by the burdens of detailed administration of buildings and estates? Was there a loss, or a lack, of spiritual impetus and creative energy?[4]

The peculiarly appropriate:

In other instances, the analogy is pleasing because it is fitting, as with Alexandra Walsham’s allusion in her book on landscape:

Before we can begin to investigate the Reformation of the landscape, it is necessary to evacuate the sedimentary layers of religious association that had been deposited upon it over the course of the preceding two millennia.[5]

Religious cultures are actually slightly more complicated than these sediments.

Religious cultures are actually slightly more complicated and layered than these sediments.

The unintended:

Technically this is not an analogy, but given Bernard’s love of comparison it was hard not to read the following as a metaphor for the life of an early career academic:

…there was no necessary connection between ordination – a relatively straightforward matter – and the security of a benefice – a relatively difficult matter, since all turned on finding a suitable post. A priest might wait years before obtaining a benefice. Meanwhile he would seek employment as an assistant, as a deputy, as a chantry priest or as a chaplain in a domestic household… for which there were many opportunities… In practice they did play a considerable part in the religious life of a parish, despite lacking any formal pastoral responsibilities.[6]

Even if Bernard had not encouraged his reader to draw such parallels, current debate about the rectitude and extent of zero-hour contracts in academia reverberates through the passage.

The mundane:

Sometimes the comparison is straightforward and passes without much notice:

Of course, monasteries were organic entities, all that grows decays, and, just as in a garden, weeding and pruning deadwood were perennial tasks.[7]

The humorous:

At other times humour provides some light relief:

The tone of many Elizabethan congregations seems to have been that of a tiresome class of schoolboys.[8]

Any modern British university historian who has lived through countless administrative reorganisations, and seen the consequences of, say, the restructuring of local governments, will hesitate before pronouncing too confidently on the shortcomings of the monasteries in late medieval England.[9]

As with historical analogy, nitroglycerine should be handled with care.

As with historical analogy, nitroglycerine should be handled with care.

[On the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist:] the strength of conservative feeling at home, and the sensitivity of Protestant divisions abroad, made the issue the theological equivalent of nitro-glycerine: it had to be handled with care.[10]

And Patrick Collinson…

Patrick Collinson was renowned for his epigrammatic, witty and entertaining writing style, and the well-turned comparison was an important component of this. Jonathan reminded me of his special talent by passing on this wonderful bit of analysis:

When Picasso came to Sheffield to attend a peace rally, he sat on the platform making sketches and dropping them on the floor. Nobody picked them up. These preliminary sketches – Swallowfield and Terrington – can lie where they have fallen. Our subject is neither local government nor village republics, but the political culture of England at its centre and summit, in the age of Elizabeth I.

Here is a further selection, all drawn from the same chapter on the culture of Puritanism:

Traditionally, puritanism and culture have been seen as polar opposites, so that an essay on puritan culture might seem to merit no more space than the topic of snakes in that book on Iceland, which, according to Samuel Johnson, contained a chapter consisting of a single sentence: ‘There are no snakes to be found anywhere in the island’.

Shortly followed by:

But if man shall not live by bread alone, he must have bread, and perhaps some butter and even jam to spread on it; and it is not likely that puritans found all their needs supplied by ‘every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’.


‘it was those local teacup storms which gave substance, a cultural or counter-cultural substance, to the very concept of ‘Puritanism’.

Now, whenever you see an okapi, you will immediately think 'Puritanism'.

Now, whenever you see an okapi, you will immediately think ‘Puritanism’.

And my favourite:

That is not to say that the thing identified as ‘puritanism’ had no real or prior existence, any more than the large quadraped which Sir Harry Johnston ‘discovered’ in the Ituri rainforests in 1900 had no existence until Johnston gave it a name, ‘okapi’.[11]

And we are still only on the third page of the chapter. It seems very fitting therefore that in his obituary, John Morrill used an analogy to sum up Collinson’s lifelong interest in Puritanism:

The obsession at its heart is the role of principled disobedience within powerful institutions, a study of those committed to reform from within. And that is how Pat saw himself… He became an establishment figure who struggled to square his radical conscience with membership of establishments.

[1] G. W. Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome (London, 2012), p. 143.

[2] W.G. Hoskins, The Age of Plunder (1976), p. 232.

[3] C. Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 15-22.

[4] Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 197.

[5] A. Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2011), p. 18.

[6] Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 79.

[7] Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 190-1.

[8] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England  (London, 1971), pp. 191-2.

[9] Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 196.

[10] P. Marshall, Reformation England 1480-1642 (London, 2003), p. 65.

[11] P. Collinson, ‘Elizabethan and Jacobean Puritanism as Forms of Popular Religious Culture’ in C. Durston & J. Eales (eds), The Culture of English Puritanism 1560-1700 (Basingstoke, 1996), pp. 32-4.


6 thoughts on “The Past is a Foreign Country: History and Analogy, Part II

  1. These are interesting, and I think that the style of analogy/simile can be quite illuminating about the historian’s work more broadly: Collinson’s are learned, eclectic, and thought-provoking, Thomas’s is magisterial, funny and also perhaps a bit superior, while Bernard’s are all, for me, dubious and ahistorical.

    But Hoskins’ is egregiously offensive; Henry VIII is in no way comparable to Stalin unless you are a committed Catholic who believes that Henry’s divergence from the true faith is morally equivalent to Stalin’s direct responsibility for the death of millions. Henry was certainly not very nice, but he never as far as I know tried to starve to death the populations of entire counties for political reasons, nor did he transport huge masses of Catholics to labour camps, etc etc. So what is going on in this quote? Hoskins is clearly writing against a Froudian/Eltonian conception of Henry as the architect of (good) modernity, and he is clearly trying to shock the reader out of their preconceptions. But it would also be interesting to know what Hoskins really knew about Stalin in 1976. This is far outside my expertise, but I wonder how much of the real scale of the Ukrainian famine, the gulags, and purges were known in the UK at that time. In other words, which Stalin was Henry: the strongman who used coercion to build a modern society and global power, or the ruthless dictator whose crimes against his own people have few parallels in world history?

    • Many thanks for your comments Will, they raises yet more interesting questions. The Stalin/ Henry analogy was passed on by Brodie, so he may be able to fill us in on the context of the Hoskins’ quote and what his intentions were in making such a claim. My first thought was that this might be a reference to Henry VIII’s tendency towards indiscriminate persecution (the single day that he burned three evangelicals for heresy, and hung three papists for treason was what I had in mind), or to the 329 people that were executed on treason charges in the 1530s. But that rather lazy assumption is based entirely on my knowledge of current Reformation studies and my vague knowledge of Stalinist Russia – ‘on it’s own terms’ Hoskin’s analogy might have a completely different meaning.

      For me you certainly draw attention to the broader difficulty with historical analogies in particular here – that they are inherently unstable and their meaning will change radically over time as historiography moves on. An analogy that seems reasonable (if perhaps deliberately provocative) in one era might shock, confuse, mislead and even disgust a later generation. They could also date very quickly – we may chuckle at some of Bernard’s academic comparisons now, but how much sense will they make in a few years time? And apologies, but nitroglycerin really does seem to be relevant here – it is liable to explode in your face, and it degrades over time to even more unstable forms…

    • While I’m not in a position to comment on Hoskins or how he used the Stalin comparison in his work, I can tell you that very little would have been known about the detail of Stalin’s crimes in 1976. Western journalism had famously been split over whether the famine in Ukraine was actually happening, most controversially in the case of Walter Durenty who consistently reported that there was no famine and received a Pulitzer prize for his efforts. There would have been the testimony of Soviet migrants, although obviously this is a highly problematic sample to be drawing conclusions from, and there would have been information brought back by those who had managed to gain access to the USSR through some channel, some of whom would have been academics. The simple answer is that there is no way in 1976 that anyone in the UK, or indeed the rest of the world, would have been aware of the extent of Stalin’s actions; in fact this came as a shock to the Soviet population in 1956 with Khrushchev’s denunciation, although obviously there would have been a general awareness that neighbours, co-workers and family members were disappearing and never being heard from again.
      It would not have been until the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the opening of the archives which followed that more concrete evidence of Stalin’s rule and its impact would have been made available. What this brought though – in addition to the revelation of the sheer scale of repression and persecution – was a challenging of the ‘totalitarian’ model that had been constructed prior to this point by many scholars. Questions began to be raised about how total power could be exercised, the relationship between the metropole and the provinces, whether actions carried out in the locales was always dictated from Moscow and so on.
      In short, it would seem to me that whichever interpretation of Hoskin’s analogy you use, it is highly problematic – the criminal aspect would not have been fully known at the time of writing, and the totalitarian nature of rule is one that has been almost completely undermined by revisionist scholarship of the previous two decades.

      • Thanks, that is some really useful context – really astonishing about Durenty. I suppose Khruschev’s denunciation did mean that people would have known about the purges. This might make more sense in relation to Hoskins – Henry VIII was prone to executing close advisors (and wives) when they were no longer useful, so we are leaning towards the tyrannical, rather than architect of modernity interpretation.

  2. Two very interesting posts and replies, nicely picking out the difficulties of shifting analogies; analogies we don’t recognise might actually be less of a problem than analogies we think we recognise but have actually got wrong… I’m reminded of reading in a book (sadly I don’t remember which, as I didn’t make a note of this quotation, but it was published in the early 1990s, I think) a comment about historians reinterpreting the past to fit their own times, and joking that ‘an Oliver Cromwell of the Third Way will surely soon emerge’, or words to that effect. Given the purpose of this particular analogy, it’s nicely ironic that the writer chose a political term which seems to have gone out of fashion.

    Although it also seems – and this is based on my impressions, not actual rigorous comparison, so I would be keen to hear others’ thoughts – that historians of Collinson & co’s generation were more willing to use analogies in print than historians writing today. Have we become more cautious about figurative language?

    • Thanks – it is an interesting question. My feeling (also entirely impressionistic) is that it is more about writing style and personal preference that an unwillingness to use figurative language – Bernard’s book was published last year, after all.

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