Applied in: Winter 2013
University Offers: Cambridge, Durham, Warwick, York, Sheffield
When I was younger I saw history only as a series of important characters and their decisions. Richard I’s choice, when shipwrecked in Italy in 1192, to return home overland through enemy territory, rather than seek papal assistance, led to his imprisonment. The enormous ransom fee arguably doomed the reign of his successor John from the start, leading to Magna Carta. I found it striking that one puzzlingly impetuous decision could have such an impact on the nation.
Recently, whilst reading about the fall of Rome, I encountered the alternative view of the progress of history, driven by socio-economic factors and changes in the Zeitgeist. Gibbon argued that declining civic virtue of Rome’s citizens lead to its demise, a possibility I explored and defended in my school’s prize essay competition. I don’t believe though that Gibbon’s argument necessarily diminishes the significance of the individual. Ward Perkins, in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, emphasises the importance of the barbarian invasions. Wolfram’s History of the Goths describes the sack of Rome in 410 A.D and I see King Alaric’s personal high-risk decision to lead his comparatively small tribe into Italy as a major reason for the cataclysm that followed, an argument I presented to my school history society.
Returning to the Crusades at AS level, I considered both schools of thought. In the 10th/11th centuries the actions of popes, Emperors and kings that led to each crusade are explained by character or context to varying extents. A new religious activism among the masses was a precondition for the crusades; however their launch by Urban might better be viewed less as a response to this, than as a consequence of his own reforming agenda and struggle against the Anti-Pope.
The “Bad King John Theory” is how E.H. Carr mocks the overemphasis on the individual, who for him is only significant when he is able to shape the social forces around him (e.g. Lenin). I disagree with this. In the medieval period, with power concentrated amongst a small number of aristocrats, the character of the ruler was crucial, despite the relative social stasis. Machiavelli, in The Prince, examines the responsibility that this power places on the leader. Rousseau believed the work to be a satire: Machiavelli criticizing a system which gave too much power to one imperfect man. I considered this idea for a prize essay but became more convinced by Bobbitt’s interpretation in The Garments of Court & Palace, in which he sees the prince as merely the instrument of the people in the quest to unify Italy, particularly after reading Strathern’s The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior, which makes sense of the favourable portrayal of the notorious Cesare Borgia in The Prince.
As a historian Machiavelli made use of comparative analysis: a humanist approach (in the 16th century sense). In The Prince he uses historical and classical figures to examine the nature of mankind in justifying his political theses. It was this structured, demonstrative approach that convinced me The Prince was intended earnestly. Critically, this also fitted with what I perceived to be Machiavelli’s motives as a passionate nationalist in a time of crisis. It is this combination of empathetic imagination with forensic analysis required to construct a credible solution to each problem that excites me most about history.
Outside history, my main interests include cross country running, for which I represent my school, and music. I play the clarinet and piano and in my free periods last year studied it from an academic perspective. I enjoy the aspects of character and context in the history of music: from Mozart, aged 14, defying papal edict to transcribe Allegri’s Miserere, to Orff, wracked by guilt at the success he enjoyed under the Nazis whilst his friends were persecuted, to Debussy, both an individual creative genius and a product of the French anti-German sentiment of the time.