At last week’s International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, I attended the annual Pseudo Society session, a humorous presentation of papers crafted to resemble the other academic presentations at the conference, but on topics like “Njal’s Flat Pack: The Historical Evidence for Ikea,” in which the presenter linked the strong Nordic heritage of the famous store using runestones and knotted snakes. The final paper attempted to show that England’s King John (John the first, and the only) was, contrary to every Robin Hood film, actually a great king.
This is only the most recent, and most light-hearted attempt to reclaim a figure from the past on behalf of a more enlightened time. King Richard III, whose grave was recently discovered, allowing him to be received into the bosom of the nation with the proper respect due to a king, already had his own society, dedicated to greater understanding of this maligned and pivotal figure, and an interesting museum in one of the towers of the city wall in York, where displays about the history of that turbulent time suggest that Richard is innocent of slaying his nephews, the infamous Princes in the Tower.
However, the New York Times recently included an article about an even more unlikely rehabilitation, that of Ivan the Terrible. Now, you’d think that just the appellation, “The Terrible” suggests a problematic ruler. Ivan is, in fact, known for his ruthless slaughter and conquest during his reign (although he does hold a place near to my heart for in 1555 commissioning my favorite building, the iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow).
Why this obsession with revising contemporary attitudes toward long-dead monarchs? I think there are two main reasons. The first, and perhaps the most obvious in the case of Ivan, is national pride or reputation. Imagine the most famous monarch associated with your nation being referred to as “the Terrible.” It’s a stain on the national scorecard. The second most famous, Tsar Nicholas, was killed along with his entire family in a revolution which, in the national narrative, had to look good, so Nicholas must be resigned to the ash bin. But Ivan, a powerful figure in his own right, could be resurrected and used as a rallying symbol for a new era of national pride. And if the nation in question may be harboring new imperial tendencies, then the image may come in handy. In Mongolia, Chingghis Khan is a national hero, less because they have a current desire to conquer the world, than because the image of the great conqueror reminds them that their ancestors were very successful in doing so. For a small democratic nation caught between two giants, a symbol of their national courage and independence is vital.
The other reason for rehabilitating history’s villains is the historian or academic’s fascination with unknown or unconsidered perspectives, the idea that assumptions and prior conclusions should periodically be re-examined in light of new ideas. Hence, we should not passively accept history’s judgement of a leader because, at the time that history was written, it might have been controlled or manipulated by the agendas of the time (The NYT article above contains some quotes to this effect). Since we prefer to submit to only our own agenda, a review of the evidence seems to be in order. The liberal generosity to accept all points of view as valid has lead to re-tellings of Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel and of The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. These characters were the heroes of their own story, and it can be informative to figure out what that narrative might be.
We like to root for the underdog, to come out in support of the downtrodden, even if they have been trod down by their critics over the course of centuries, they may, in fact, in the famous words of Jessica Rabbit, not be bad, they’re just drawn that way.