Recent decisions to cancel a bicentennial celebration of Rural Rides by William Cobbett on grounds of historical anti-Semitism and racism have raised questions about the practice of history, local and otherwise.
The book is a classic of place writing, especially in Hampshire. It describes the horseback rides undertaken by this political journalist and former Botley farmer over a four-year period in the 1820s. There are memorable runs over many villages in Hampshire, including Hurstbourne Tarrant, nicknamed “Uphusband,” a repeated stopover to stay at Rookery Farm with local character Joseph Blount.
Nationally, the platforms, the overturning of statues, and the revival in general have raised challenges for those who research and write history. These are in addition to other inherent issues, especially the fact that every story project is a personal story. Regardless of the topic, no one will ever be able to read all the relevant published papers or articles! So even just telling the story leads to different versions of different laptops.
Judging the actions and opinions of individuals in history is even more difficult. Treating them in the context of the time is considered good practice, but there are always some who deviate so far from the norm that their behavior must be characterized as âunacceptableâ. Who could go through the actions of the cavalry at Peterloo, or the savage condemnation of Judge Jeffreys?
It is, of course, a matter of judgment which should be labeled so, and there is still a temptation for modern activists to use history for their own purposes. This is at the heart of the Cobbett controversy. Should his historic anti-Semitism – which was of an extreme nature – mean that he, and especially his Rural Rides, shouldn’t be celebrated?
According to literary critic George Woodcock: âFew people have described more evocatively, or for that matter more precisely, the beauties of that England south of the Thames to which Cobbett emotionally belonged.
Here, for example, is what he wrote about East Meon: âHere is a very beautiful valley, almost elliptical in shape, sheltered by high hills which gradually slope down; and, not far from the middle of this valley, there is a hill almost in the shape of a goblet whose foot and stem are broken and knocked down.
There’s a lot more like this: about Easton, Waltham Chase, Burghclere, Stoke Charity, Romsey, Portsdown Hill, Kings Worthy, East Stratton, as well as Winchester and many other places in the county.
Cobbett is widely touted as a champion of country life fighting against the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, particularly the world of “paper money” in the city. The 1985 Penguin Classics blurb describes him as “a remarkable Englishman – manly, outspoken, pragmatic, sometimes angry.” In modern parlance, he could be described as a “sensational journalist looking for a colorful copy”. He certainly does not spare individuals, regardless of their rank.
So, is it reasonable to avoid Rural Rides because Cobbett sometimes made anti-Semitic comments? Any reasonable response must take into account the historical context.
In another arena of wokeism, namely racism involving people of color, the argument is well advanced, although much remains to be done. An important development is a growing desire to learn more about the history of slavery. David Olugosa, professor of public history at the University of Manchester, has done a lot to improve understanding.
So far, all is well: let’s find out the evils of slavery and who practiced it in the hope that it can lead to a better understanding and much more. And rather than tearing down statues, it might be better to relabel them and maybe reposition them as well.
Unlike the battle against racism, the battle against bigotry – of which anti-Semitism is a subset – has barely begun. And yet, again, history has a huge role to play. Long-standing tensions between the Church of England, Catholicism, nonconformity, and Judaism are the subject of a vast, mostly scholarly literature, much of which has barely infiltrated public debate.
There is much to be learned about religious conflict, especially after the 1660 Restoration – topics such as the Clarendon Code and Statutory Anglican supremacy, the brutality of the Hilton Gang, the Killing Time in Scotland, and many more.
The roots of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages demonstrate other factors. The riots at the time of Richard the Lionheart coronation in 1189 and the brutal and tragic pogroms that followed across the country – particularly in York – were largely supported by knights preparing to go on a crusade to the Holy Land . Enthusiastic about the fight against Islam, they resented the wealthy Jews who attended what was a Christian ceremony.
Coming back to Cobbett, he was writing at a time when the state itself was anti-Semitic. It was 50 years before the University Tests Act of 1871 allowed non-Anglicans to study at Oxford or Cambridge. This was long before the Jewish Relief Act of 1858, which allowed non-Christian jurors to enter parliament. This allowed banker Lionel de Rothschild to take a seat for the City of London, albeit more than a decade after he was first elected!
The novelist and statesman Benjamin Disraeli, of Jewish origin, could not enter Parliament until twenty years before the law because he had converted to Anglicanism at a young age.
Although Cobbett undoubtedly expressed anti-Semitic views, he was on several occasions âantiâ almost everything. To quote Woodcock again: âHis aversions were prodigious; he hated roughly, by class, creed and race: Anglican and Unitarian pastors, bankers and brokers, Jews and Scots and especially Quakers. He hated canals and stagecoaches, tea and potatoes, and lived long enough to cast his curse on the railroads.
The sensitivity and care shown in the cancellation of Cobbett’s celebration must be respected, but the question is whether this nationally significant political reporter and many others are to be “placed” forever? Some will say yes, and others will want to denounce the rampant censorship.
Those who wish to recognize “Cobbett the Topographer”, as the Cobbett Society (www.williamcobbett.co.uk) recalls, can read Rural Rides or stroll along the Cobbett Trail, a circular path that follows the terrain as the writer experienced over the years 1805-17 when he cultivated (unsuccessfully) at Botley.
It passes the secluded church and Manor Farm, site of the original settlement, once served by the Reverend Richard Baker, who had to endure Cobbett’s abuse and jokes. He must have been happy in 1817 when the Arch-Radical was forced to flee to the United States to avoid jail for proposing parliamentary reform, which, of course, ultimately came about 15 years later.
To find out more about Hampshire visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk