History: A Living Subject where Emotions can Run High

Posted By on August 8, 2012

Over the past few months I’ve seen lots of history themed threads on Facebook go from polite discussions to very heated arguments and accusations of bullying, and yesterday I received an email asking me to “head off” people who were seen as having emotional reactions to Henry VIII on this site. It inspired me to write this article.

Now, I believe in free speech and that everyone is entitled to their opinions. I also believe that history is a living and breathing subject because new theories are being shared all of the time, new sources are being found, sources are being interpreted in new and different ways, historical characters are being rehabilitated, sources are becoming digitised so that more and more people can view them etc.

We live in exciting times and I for one can get very emotional and passionate about a subject that means the world to me. History, in my opinion, is something to get passionate about and I wouldn’t do what I do on a daily basis if it wasn’t. Passion and emotion, however, can lead to people getting upset. It would be a boring world if we all agreed with each other but the trouble with online discussions is that people can be misunderstood or feel attacked when people get emotional and ‘militant’ in their defence of an argument. What would be fine across a table at a pub can quickly deteriorate online because you can’t see people’s faces, or know their emotions and the way that they are saying things. People often give a rather sweeping statement or a throw-away comment and then feel ‘got at’ when asked to back up their argument with sources. However, if you’re willing to say something in a public forum then you really should be willing to back up your opinion in some way or admit that it’s just a feeling you have, rather than something based on historical evidence. There’s nothing wrong with raising your hands in surrender and admitting that it’s just your own personal view and no more, better than digging yourself a hole!

Here, on The Anne Boleyn Files, I don’t have a police state. I allow all comments and only delete ones which contain expletives or that are trying to sell designer handbags or the like. If you want to say that Anne Boleyn is a witch and home-wrecking whore, then fine, but I might just ask you what you base that opinion on. If you want to say that Henry VIII is a monster then that’s fine too but again it would be great if you could explain why you feel that way. Some people find comments like “Jane Seymour deserved to die, it was karma”, or the same about Thomas Cromwell, offensive, but they are people’s views and people have the right to air them. Yes, I disagree with them and will happily debate with those making the comments, but I’m not going to moderate them and delete them. Debate is a wonderful thing, but I will step in if it goes from intelligent debate to personal attacks being flung around. We need to act like grown-ups and be respectful of others.

Sometimes, the problem is that a person airs an ‘opinion’ as if it was a ‘fact’. It could be because they’ve been led to believe that it’s a fact by historians or authors, e.g. Anne Boleyn was a murderess, Anne Boleyn miscarried a deformed foetus, George Boleyn was gay…, or because they are just too rigid in their thinking and in their sharing of the information. I always find it best to err on the side of caution and ask them why they believe it, rather than jump on them and attack them. If they stick to it and are not prepared to be reasonable, after I have stated my case, then sometimes it’s best to just walk away and bang my head on a brick wall, or more commonly my desk. If they are so rigid in their beliefs then nothing I do is going to change that.

I must admit to sometimes playing devil’s advocate. I was taught that you can argue anything as long as you are willing to back it up, so I do quite enjoy posing questions and provoking debate -sorry! I never mean offence, I just want people to think about what they believe and what they base that belief on.

A great example of good historical debate is that between Eric Ives and G W Bernard regarding Anne Boleyn’s fall. They published articles disagreeing with each other, but they did it oh so politely! They also gave reasons for rejecting the other’s theories and backed up their own. You could not accuse them of ‘bashing’ each other, simply disagreeing. Who knows what would happen if they were let loose on a thread on Facebook though?!

It’s the same with John Guy and Alison Weir. John Guy, and his wife historian Julia Fox, didn’t agree with Alison Weir’s views of Jane Boleyn and questioned her sources in a review of her book. It wasn’t nasty and if an historian or author publishes their views then they expect to have them challenged or debated, that’s the whole point of history. You state your case and then invite others to state theirs – “simples” as Aleksandr Orlov, the famous Meerkat says, and yes I did just quote a meerkat!

Academics disagree, authors disagree, people disagree… It’s the way of the world and shouldn’t we embrace these differences and have some fun with history? Yes, I think so.

What do you think?

P.S. Feel free to disagree with any/all of what I say ;)

P.P.S. Jacquie just made a great point on Facebook about how many disagreements happen because people judge historical characters by our 21st century standards. I don’t believe that we can really judge historical people because we cannot fully understand the context they lived in and we don’t know what they thought or how they felt.

Comments on
"History: A Living Subject where Emotions can Run High"

34 Responses to “History: A Living Subject where Emotions can Run High”

  1. Kristin says:

    I believe a good debate is very good for one’s mind. It exercises the muscles of our brain and forces one to see all sides. However, I believe the difficulty with an online debate is the inability to hear the tone of an argument. One cannot view the other’s expressions or hear the manner in which the argument is presented. There lies the feeling of being bullied or picked on. If the ‘rules’ of a debate are acknowledged (present all sides, address opposing arguments, and avoid personal affronts) then a debate can be enlightening and refreshing; an opportunity to learn from others.

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  2. Victoria says:

    Could you post the articles you reffered to that Eric Ives and G. W. Bernard wrote in their opinions of Anne Boleyn? I would be very interested in reading about both of their opinions.

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    Claire Reply:

    They’re in journals and you have to pay to subscribe or download them so I can’t post them here, sorry. They are in English Historical Review:
    The Fall of Anne Boleyn, G W Bernard, English Historical Review, 1991
    The Fall of Anne Boleyn Reconsidered, Eric Ives, English Historical Review, 1992
    The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Rejoinder, G W Bernard, English Historical Review (1992)
    See http://ehr.oxfordjournals.org/
    and there’s also
    Anne Boleyn on Trial Again, Eric Ives, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 62, October 2011

    I discuss some of their thoughts in my article http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/17934/anne-boleyn-a-cheat-who-deserved-death-i-dont-think-so/

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  3. Lisa Davis says:

    I have found that the comments left on this site are not that controversial. When I think of what people write on some you tube videos, this site is very tame in comparison. What I think happens is that words can mean different things to different people and may offend someone unintentionally. When my mom told me that I did something stupid, she was using that word to mean foolish. But some people think it is much more degrading. And when you consider that a lot of language depends upon verbal cues, the tone of your voice, and how easy it is for people to misunderstand word usage, I think most people do a good job at communicating their ideas on this site.

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    Melanie Reply:

    Excellent point, Lisa. There’s also the question of trans-Atlantic English. I’m American–Californian, to be exact–and in my family, “stupid” means dumb, lacking in common sense, etc., as opposed to “foolish,” which suggests more of a momentary lapse. We’re all foolish from time to time, but if someone called me stupid, I would indeed take it as an insult, especially if the word was applied directly to me, instead of to my action. (Maybe I wouldn’t mind “stupidish” as much!)

    Anyway, TABF comments tend to be opinionated but courteous, which is one reason I visit.

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    VikingMomSD Reply:

    Lisa, you make an excellent point about the verbal cues in our language. It is difficult to illustrate tone, verbal cues and body language via written text. Some where or some how we have lost the ability to use creative adjectives and adverbs in our writting.
    I am like Melanie, and I also live in California and certain phrases and words do take on different meanings in different regions of the United States. I made a mistake once in using the phrase, “that was a dumb comment ” in a peer review list. I meant it to mean, “foolish ” but my counterpart took as an insult to their integrity.
    I am seeing more additions like “INMHO ” which means “in my humble opinion ”
    Or “INMO ” for “in my opinion “. As much as I hate the emocons used they also do help illustrate tone and emotions. These added to a comment adds a bit more detail to a writer’s train of thought.
    I would also encourage writers to proof read their comments. Sometimes in a heat of a conversation ill -used words are often left unedited.
    I participate in other historical lists and blogs, some at the collegiate peer review level. Egos can be easily ruffled but showing respect, a little humility and humor can make a discussion a beautiful and fun learning experience. I am still debating with a fellow historian over the time line of coffee and if the Vikings drank it.

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  4. Janet says:

    I think you’re right Claire. If we post something that is strictly our feelings or opinion about someone or situation, it should be made clear. I think that most of the time, people don’t mean to offend, but as you say, when you can’t see the person’s face or hear the tone of their words, it’s very easy to take something the wrong way.

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  5. Maggyann says:

    I have never felt this forum in particular to be a stormy one. There are some real humdingers of arguments happing elsewhere in the virtual world haha.
    In fact I was amazed just a minute ago to get a message from someone concerned they had ‘upset’ me on a thread. I have disabused them promptly. To be honest I had forgot all about the stir it up post I had made. Discussion and debate is the whole purpose of a forum and I think the one attached to this page is an excellent example of a forum working as it should.
    I also agree that it is hard sometimes to talk about people who lived a long time ago when we quite naturally afflict them with our own modern outlook and prejudices.
    History is as you say a subject which should be fun as well as interesting.

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  6. Mary E. Winston says:

    I agree Claire. I think the trouble with email, as Janet so accurately states, is that you cannot see the person’s face or hear the tone of their voice – what you may think in your email as sounding mildly funny or sarcastic maybe taken entirely the wrong way – we have all done it. And as a student of history, I have always been taught to back up an historical statement with facts to substantiate – its important. People need to learn the truth and by doing so, they are able to contribute to a lively historical discussions which are refreshing and interesting. Its the “Oh I didn’t know that…” feeling that adds facts to that little historical card catalog we all keep in our minds. As for Henry VIII, is it true that during his reign there were over 72,000 executions? Thank you for your website, I look forward to reading it everyday! I hope what I have written helps….

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  7. Margew says:

    I agree that this is probably one of the safest sites to post an opinion. I followed some links a while back, and found threads on forums where other pages and their hosts and followers were being called fanatics, Tudor addicts, Tudor-philes, and generally described as living in a fantasy world. Some of the comments were very brutal and demeaning in their attacks and I couldn’t help but feel that they were coming from some very pompous “learned” people who were just as fanatical as those they were attacking! But as Janet commented, you can’t hear the tone of voice or see the person’s face and it’s hard to judge.
    We are all trying to learn more and put the pieces together of a puzzle we’ll never finish, so why not make it fun and interesting while we do it?

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    Joanie Reply:

    I agree with Margew. We all follow Claire because we want to learn and also share our own thoughts/knowledge with each other. It should also be fun while we are doing it.

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  8. Sherri says:

    Claire

    You are totally correct and right that people do disagree and base it on fiction and passion not fact. We also do judge and base an opinion on history on what we know of our 21st values, morals and ethics. It is hard not to because this is our time in history and we grew up with the culture of the 21st century. We do live in amazing times that gives us the ability to research, investigate and formulate our own theories and conclusions based on what information is present at the time of that information gathering.

    There are authors out there that judge Anne, Henry, Jane,KOA, Catharine Howard, Anne of Cleves and Katharine Parr as well as the many others who are part of history.

    People can present their theories and conclusions based on their research and investigation or presenting their lack of research and investigation. Many people whom I have talked judge Anne by The Tudors TV series. Many times have I enlightened them.

    We can have controversy over and over again based on what each individual deems to be truthful. New information might be found or come to light and it changes the whole truth of history. Sometimes we even find proof that some myth or legend in history that we believed just to be a fairy tale turns out to be fact and truth.

    In the end though the information, research and investigation that each of us does is still an interpretation of history. We are like lawyers going to court to present our interpretation of a law to help ourselves or our clients. In the end whoever presents the best argument as well as the facts wins the case.

    We can never know exactly the whys and wherefores because we can not know or find out the truth of the past living people because we do not have what makes their head tick or what actually motivated them or their behavior. So, I think that especially with history we the researchers, investigators, fans etc., must take what we feel is fake or fiction and develop our own hypotheses.

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  9. Mallory says:

    Actually, I find most everyone who post here quite considerate, and if they have an opinion, most back it up. I still might not agree with them, but that is fine. I enjoy the debate as you do Claire, but I am a college professor so that is in the blood;-) I have learned a few things, read some more books and had a wonderful time being online at the website.
    Frankly, I am never going to understand why Henry VIII was the way he was. There are so many theories as to why he became such a beast, but I enjoy reading those theories and learning more about the time in the process. My opinion: as the old saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and with Henry, once given the gates to the kingdom’s religion, became an absolutist. Maybe he was delusional, maybe his past injuries made him mad with pain, maybe, due to his heritage, was prone to mental illness, or maybe he was just one mean person.The past, though, can’t be changed, but we can learn from it, and maybe, in the process, learn a bit more of ourselves.

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  10. Mickey says:

    I think many people feel passionately about history because they see aspects of themselves in the historical figures they look at. The truly great historians are the ones who can take out their own feelings and truly analyze the information. For example,,,, Anne the whore / homewrecker…. if this is what you see what has happened in your life that you would jump to this conclusion? The times that these fascinating people lived in were completely different that what we have. The times in which some analysis of Tudor history (those Victorian historians instantly spring to mind) have to also be taken in context.

    What is my point? When you look at our great history, we need to look at people who were living their lives, and eking out their existence on this planet to the best of their ability. What we need to comprehend is the legacy they have left us, take the best of what they have left and hopefully not repeat any mistakes they made.

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  11. Mary Heneghan says:

    I must say, Claire, that I find the site very good in this regard. The views may differ but there is very little personal animosity shown. This is sometimes not the case on some of the social networks, where the fact that people feel anonymous seems to give them permission to let fly as they will.

    As regards trying to put historical figures into a 21st century setting, I feel that it is very difficult to understand people from the past without a good knowledge of the times in which they lived. It would be difficult enough for us to understand the ordinary, non-royal, citizens of the 16th century, never mind the ways of the court. We can find out what their contemporaries thought of them, what they said at various times, where there is evidence, or lack of it, for various entrenched ideas, but we will likely never get a clear picture. Alison Weir’s book “Henry VIII: The King and His Court” gave good background information. Have you read this Claire?

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  12. Kara says:

    I love that you wrote this Claire, it’s nice to know others feel the same way.
    IMO, I love the discussions in here because different perspectives have actually helped me learn more and learning more is always good for me personally.
    I think we all can usually agree to disagree with history due to the fact that new materials pop up or are found every day. Plus, like someone else mentioned, we didn’t actually live in those times so we really can’t say how people thought or acted on their thoughts because it was a completely different time.

    Thanks for sharing everyone :)

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  13. Damion says:

    Excellent point! Polite and open minded debate are very good ways to keep the mind sharp, learn from each other, and a good way to interact with people about something other than who won what singing reality show on television. I feel like our society has become so scared to offend any one person or group that most people seem to avoid all debate and confrontation even if in a healthy and informative way. Without questioning the past how can we learn from it to improve the future and not fall into the trap of history repeating itself? And who doesn’t love a little competition now and again?

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  14. Anyanka says:

    Just because(general) you has the freedom to speech to say/type what you like, doesn’t mean that it forces me to listen to/read it.

    Sadly, a lot of people think the First Amendment of the US Constitution means that they can say/write what they like without hinderance where-ever they are in the world and which ever country they are citizens of.

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    It says nothing about what private fora like the ABF can nor cannot do..and yet the number of times over the past 20+ years I’ve been on the internet in various forms, poster/mod/admin ..you get people proclaiming I’m abusing thier First Amendment Rights when I’m not…sighs..

    climbs off soap-box in Hyde Park Corner ..

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    Anyanka Reply:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    From Cornell University Law School..

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  15. Gemma says:

    I think it’s rather sad you are having to write an article explaining this… to adults! :o)

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    Claire Reply:

    It wasn’t really meant to be an explanation, more of a comment on what I’m seeing happening on various groups on Facebook and I am thankful that it doesn’t happen here. It is so weird how quickly some threads get out of hand!

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    Baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Claire ,Not again!!! I feel for you and know that is why I donot Face Book.. The AB Files is by far one of the best learning places to go on line,to learn and thats what this is all about. Sincerly Baroness x

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    Claire Reply:

    I just don’t get involved now on controversial threads where people start getting angry because there’s just no point, life is too short for nastiness. Thanks, Baroness, I hope you’re well x

  16. Sharon says:

    I agree with Gemma,, it is sad that you have to even write an article that tells people how to have an argument…but then again…we now have to have directions on irons…(the surface of the iron may be hot)…or coffee (our coffee is extremely hot..) what we now lack is common sense…which I think people used to have in abundance…but now seems to be lacking in many areas, debate just one of them..when a society can no longer have debate..then freedom or lack thereof is not far off…when you try to toady ( pacifiy) any one group or people because it might offend them…then you have the beginning of the end of freedom because once debate..even spirited or misunderstood debate is stifiled then freedoms tend to disappear..

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  17. kate says:

    I agree with that people say opinions as if their facts, because I believe that no historians, authors or any people actually know the truth about history, esp. about little things like if George was gay or not. that’s what i love about history because you can make your own opinion about what happened (with research as well of course!) And i really like how you post articles not just based on Anne but for authors and this as well. thank you for your great website :)

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  18. HollyDolly says:

    I think debate can indeed be a healthy thing,but it seems some people take it too far at times. I could imagine getting really upset and defending Anne to say Cromwell or someone else at court,IF I HAD LIVED IN THAT DAY AND AGE,but I don’t.
    I enjoy reading about her and the other people who in her sphere of influence,but i don’t go beserk about these people because I never got to meet them.Some I would have liked,and maybe others not, so for me because there is no family or friendly connection, I just can’t bring that level of passion to such a discussion.

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  19. MaggieR says:

    Agree with what you’ve said, Claire. It’s interesting that I feel I can state my views much more clearly online, than in person. In a face to face argument, I find myself getting “hot under the collar”, and unable to clearly express my view, especially if it’s something I feel passionately about (like Anne Boleyn).

    I do try to ask myself why I feel strongly about some things….one of the AB arguments I feel strongly about is my belief that she was born in 1507, not 1501. I *continually* wonder why I feel so strongly about this, because, if you think about it, if Anne was born in 1501, that would mean she had a few more years of life on this Earth, and isn’t that a good thing? Still….I have never read anything that has convinced me that she was born in 1501. Oh, well. Who knows? Maybe someday, I will be convinced…. :)

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  20. Bonnie Carlson says:

    Well said! I think the problem people have in online debates is they find it difficult to interpret a person’s tone. people need to respect others’ right to disagree with them. And I also agree that we can’t judge historical figures based on our own society and values. I teach English literature and am always forcing my students to immerse themselves in the culture of the times to appreciate the value of the literature.

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    Baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Bonnie,Very well said Bonnie,this is the point I was making to the people on face book.We are not here to argue ,we are here to learn, with all due repsect for those who live back in History,and the more we learn,we indeed make some type of sence out of how and why things happen. Your Student’s are very lucky to have you as there teacher,your point is spot on, immerse open mined. Kudo’s Baroness.

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  21. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Claire,Of croase evryone is intitle to opion,we are here to try to understand history not to rewrite history nor make evaluations in anger.This is not what learning about history is .I would only hope that we can all keep a open mind as to the facts ,wihich is what we really should be looking for,and not sling mud in the faces of people that have the same interest we all have,that is finding the facts and shed some light on what has happen in the corase of time.I would not be on this site if I for one found it hostile in any way thats not what this is about.This is learning for all and not bash trash,the opions of others and so with that said, look at all of your facts before you start talking trash. Thats not what these sites are for.So for all you face bookers shut up unless you can back up what ever it is your argument may be.THX Claire Baroness

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  22. Shoshana says:

    Claire, I think you did an excellent job of explaining to your fans/readers/subscribers what you expect on this site without pointing fingers or “laying down the law”! You not only gave something to think about and discuss but you also gave us what you expect from us as we make comments, ask questions, and post our theories. History can stir up emotions but as grown ups we have the responsibility to realize it is not a personal attack, everyone is entitled to their opinon, and we can make our point without nastiness and name calling. As I once said to someone who continually named called, “At your age I would hope you would have matured past the equivalent of a school yard bully standing in the sand box calling the other children do-do heads.” And we all should be more mature in our postings than to name call and be obnoxious about our historical beliefs!

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    Claire Reply:

    Thanks, Sho, the nasty threads on other sites and Facebook were driving me up the wall and I’m so grateful for the fact that people are mature and friendly here.

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    Baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Hi Claire,Just a thought,these face bookers sound more like polotics that agrue back and forth,not people who want to learn histroy.?? THX Baroness x

    [Reply]

    Claire Reply:

    A lot of them do seem very passionate about history but are also very aggressive in their opinions and just can’t see things from another perspective, it’s horrible.

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