CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

Hugh A. MacDougall.

Montreal, Harvest House, c1982.
146pp, paper, $14.00 (cloth), $8.50 (paper).
ISBN 0-88772-211-3 (cloth), 0-88772-212-1 (paper).

Reviewed by Robert Nicholas Bérard.

Volume 11 Number 5.
1983 September.

In this provocative essay Hugh MacDougall, a professor of history at Carleton University, surveys over a thousand years of historical writing in Britain to establish the importance of myths of national origin in shaping not only the nation's historiography but its political and cultural life as well. While the book is not convincing in all of its particular judgments, MacDougall skilfully emphasizes the interplay between contemporary events and nations' images of themselves, as expressed in their histories.

The first myth of origin to dominate British historiography, one which imagined early Britons to be descendants of a group of exiled Trojan nobles and, therefore, blood relations of the descendants of Aeneas at Rome, was popularized in the fanciful twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, written by the Welsh bishop, Geoffrey of Mon-mouth. Despite criticism from several contemporaries, Geoffrey's tale enjoyed the favour of a succession of British monarchs, for whom the figure of King Arthur provided an heroic ancestor of comparable majesty to Charlemagne. Court poetry, such as Spenser's Faerie Queen helped to fix the Trojan myth more firmly in the popular mind, while the able critique of the legend by the Italian historian, Polydore Vergil, in the sixteenth century was dismissed as the product of foreign jealousy.

Another myth of origin that emphasized the direct and relatively unbroken descent of the English people and their institutions from Anglo-Saxon roots was promoted in the sixteenth century by John Bale and others who sought historical authority to support the idea of an autonomous national church. In the next hundred years the Anglo-Saxon myth was seized by a variety of lawyers and politicians, such as Sir Edward Coke, to exalt the importance of Parliament as the defender of immemorial Teutonic liberties against royal encroachment. Despite some loss of favour at the Restoration, the Anglo-Saxon myth gained renewed support after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During the nineteenth century, MacDougall argues, this myth became entwined with England's growing sense of imperial mission, the idea of progress, and pseudo-scientific attempts to establish a racial hierarchy among the world's peoples. While the impact of the First World War and the greater sophistication of scholarship in this century combined to dismantle the Teutonic myth, it had given Britain the self-confidence to establish a world empire and a dynamic national culture.

The book's main weakness is its failure to explain adequately the variety of different conclusions drawn by historians touched by these myths of origin and its underestimation of the sophistication of their arguments. Lord Acton's futile attempt to combine Romanism and Teutonism is thoughtfully examined, but Edward A. Freeman, who rejected the idea of racial purity in the European world and who vehemently opposed Britain's imperial expansion, and other historians have been poorly represented. MacDougall's final chapter on the collapse of the Teutonic myth is slight and unsatisfactory, and his attempt to link myths of origin to current debate over immigration in Britain is simply crude. The book does, however, raise important questions about the impact of historical writing on national consciousness, and it is an important book for all students of British historiography.

Robert Nicholas Berard, Dept. of Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS.
line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission Copyright information for reviewers

Young Canada Works