Book Review: Foundation
by Peter Ackroyd
Thomas Dunne Books, 2012
“History is about longing and belonging,” Peter Ackroyd writes at the end of his plump and typically engaging new book Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors, and it’s one of those solemn little quips that give his many books their gnomic glitter. His tough and memorable London: The Biography abounds with quirks of personality, and in Foundation – the first volume of a projected multi-volume history of England – the scope is wider than anything Ackroyd has done before.
He begins his story in deep prehistory, inevitably focusing on Stonehenge (“the largest and most protracted programme of public works in the history of England”), the first stone circles of which were erected in 2200 BC. But we have acres of ground to cover, lingering is impossible, and we’re soon reading about Boudicca’s revolt against the Romans in AD 60, recounted in the curiously flat (perhaps hurried?) prose which fills too much of this book:
Boudicca now went after [Roman military governor] Suetonius Paulinus, on the evident assumption that the time was right for a final blow against the Roman occupation. The site of the ensuing battle is not certainly known [but] whatever the location, it was drenched in blood. Suetonius Paulinus had 10,000 troops, but they were ranged against a force of 100,000. The legionaries had a forest behind them, a plain before them; the native warriors ran against them, across the plain, but many of them were struck down by a hailstorm of javelins. The Romans then began to move forward with their shields and short swords. Their discipline held them steady, and slowly Boudicca’s men were turned. General carnage ensued, with 80,000 of her forces dead by the end of the battle. Some 400 Romans were killed. It was one of the most bloody massacres on English soil.
There are good though unhelpful quips – of William Rufus we’re told: “On the battlefield he never completely failed and never wholly succeeded; but his bravado kept him going” – and the larger social and economic forces shaping events behind the scenes are given the occasional nod, although always, as in this moment about Edward III, with a reflexive, almost apologetic return to the blood-and-swash:
In the largest perspective it might be said that he was helping to break down the old European feudal order and to supplant it with the new recognition of the power of nation-states; in this period England and France became more centralized and bureaucratized. Edward III himself, however, is most unlikely to have seen it in those terms. He just wanted to preserve his honor and perhaps win some spoils. Of arms and the man, I sing.
Considering how imperative it is for a book covering 3500 years to be leanly narrated, there’s plenty of bloat in these pages, odd and repeated instances of padding-prose that ought not to be present if a man has far more story to tell than he’s got pages to tell it in. About Henry VI it’s reported, “Indeed, in the course of his long reign, lasting for almost forty years, the fortunes of the ruling houses of England went through so many bewildering vicissitudes – so many reversals and surprises, so many victories and defeats -” as though we might not guess the meaning of ‘vicissitudes’ without having the actual definition trotted out right behind it. Likewise the blustering Duke of Bedford, who denounced Joan of Arc as “a witch and an unnatural hag in the service of the devil” – yes, tough to be one without being the other.
This is a book to make medievalists despair. All the detail and nuance that four recent generations of great scholars have brought to the study of that sprawling period – all the light these great historians have shed on what used to be called the Dark Ages – is pocketed and paid out here with a brusqueness that borders on brutal. Ackroyd has built a career out of bringing history to life, and Foundation certainly does that, but in this case a certain quality of life is sacrificed for raw, TV-ready animation:
In the towns of England dirt and refuse were scattered everywhere, partly scavenged by pigs and kites. The streams running above ground were often filthy with industrial waste and excrement. The noise of bargaining, and of argument, was intense. It was busy, always busy, with the particular stridency and excitability of the medieval period in England.
The main strength of Ackroyd’s historical prose (whether it be his great histories or his equally-great historical fiction) has always been its immediacy, the often uncanny way he manages to put himself and his readers inside the very spirit of the far-distant epochs he’s covering. Despite its rapid and programmatic feel, Foundation is built on that strength, but often more questions are raised than answered by this approach, and it can sometimes leave our author with a hint of Stockholm Syndrome most unseemly in a historian. “A weak king always seems to presage, or to represent, a weak country,” he writes, seeming to believe it, “In the medieval period there is some strange alchemy between the state of the nation and the state of the monarch.”
Ordinary people and their ordinary concerns are duly mixed in with what would otherwise amount to a pageant of kings and bishops. There are numerous disquisitions on religious beliefs, cosmological beliefs, pigs in the kitchen, and the long and ghastly nightmare that was pre-modern medicine, where burnt mutton fat could be prescribed for a tooth ache, and mashed beetles for kidney stones, and where “intensive care” meant being moved to a church bed and given round-the-clock prayer (our author wonders if this didn’t do some patients a world of good, but one suspects he’d turn it down if he had a fast-growing pancreatic tumor). Ackroyd has some fun describing these lurid medieval remedies, but – in a signature graceful insight of which there are too few in this book – he warns against hindsighted condescension:
It is easy to mock what seem to be absurd provisions, but they belonged to a tradition that viewed the human and natural world as part of the same unity. That is why doctors prescribed the flesh of tame beasts rather than of wild ones; a carp from the pond was better than a shrimp from the seashore. It calmed, rather than excited, the patient.
Readers accustomed to Ackroyd’s lively and often shrewd insights into the personalities of history’s great and mighty (insights that make all his biographies very much worth reading) will have to wait until the final chapters of Foundation to finally feel like they’ve got their favorite author back. As the book leaves the dim Sherwood Forest of the early Middle Ages and approaches the watershed of Bosworth Field, its pace slows dramatically, its author seems to breathe at last, and people start to move around on a stage previously given over to data and puppets. Ackroyd somewhat amazingly skirts the whole question of what happened to the Princes in the Tower, but his counter-speculation is every bit as fascinating:
Some in fact welcomed the advent of Richard’s reign. He was known to be a good administrator, and a fine soldier. Surely his reign would prove superior to that of a fourteen-year-old boy under the thrall of his mother and his remaining Woodville relations? Edward V was king for eighty-eight days, a king for spring and early summe; he thus earns the unhappy distinction of enjoying the shortest reign of any English sovereign but in death his influence, as we shall see, was profound.
He leaves us with Henry VII and a new age of well-known names waiting to be born. His next volume will probably cover 100 years instead of 3500, and it can’t help but benefit from the change. Ackroyd writes full-blooded narrative history in the manner of Gibbon and Macaulay, but his work has never had either the manic detail of the former or the literary grandeur of the latter – he’s better with people, motives, conversations, the spell of history for a distracted modern era that doesn’t think to study it. In other words, he’s our new Thomas Costain, and there are certainly worse things one could be. His next volume will almost certainly be a famous victory.