Did the Bretons Break? (And What’s It Got To Do With Textbooks?)

PLEASE NOTE: This blog post is not the same as the article in Teaching History 175 (Although the first bit’s very similar!)

Picture the scene. A cold morning in the middle of October. A dreich mist envelopes the fields. The air full old English and mangled French battle cries of two armies arrayed and poised for action. The repetitive thud, thud, thud of plastic swords and cardboard axes against shields of neoprene…

It is time once more to re-enact the most famous battles in British history.

It is time once more for the wind to keep William in port with a wafted piece of paper. Time once more for one Viking to single-handedly hold the scrap-paper Stamford Bridge for hours. Time for Harold Godwinson to force-march an army south to the other side of the classroom to once again re-fight a battle he can only lose. Like the most craven of addicts, or the inmate of some circle of Hades, he is trapped eternally in a repetitive cycle of bad decisions that will ultimately and inevitably lead to his destruction. Every year he will ignore his brothers’ advice. Every year he will fail to take William by surprise. Every year his shield wall will break and every year an archer, from the back of the room by the pile of school bags, will nock an imaginary arrow, draw an imaginary bow and loose a fateful board pen into the mêlée. Every year Edith Swanneck will pick her way through the tangle of giggling, uniformed corpses looking for her lover.

And we love it.

One thing that trads and progs both love is an Ian Luff-inspired Battle of Hastings role-play. It is direct instruction and it is kids taking part for themselves. You might get kids to take notes at the end. You might create a huge  spider diagram. You might have students shouting ‘Stop!’ when they hear reasons why William won. This might be the basis of an essay or this might just be an introduction to Year 7 purely designed to get one-up on the geography department.

Whatever the reason and rationale it is a sequence repeated up and down the land. But, it is never the same twice. There are myriad subtle variations and nuances that each teacher brings to the story. We each embroider the narrative with our own favourite facts. We each add details to spin out the story, to cast the spell wider. You might amuse your Year 7s with Taillefer’s sword-juggling. You might take delight in demonstrating the use of a Dane axe. You might have all of the fyrd making scramaseaxes from shatter-proof rulers… These details may represent your swag, your pomp, your professional pride, your delight in conveying knowledge and story slightly better than you heard it. Or, maybe you are less petty-minded than me. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if you label kids as Gyrth and Leofwine or not. It doesn’t really matter if you miss out Edwin and Morcar’s heroic failure at Fulford. Most of the good-story bits are not essential to the narrative.

But some are. In your version of these lessons do the Bretons break?

When William invaded England, he did not just bring Normans with him; his army was a coalition of different elements ‘attracted by the well-known liberality of the duke’* as William of Poitiers would have it or, in Orderic Vitalis’s blunter phrase, because they were ‘panting for the spoils of England’. This meant that at Hastings, the left of William’s army was (probably) made up of a contingent of Bretons. There is a dispute about their actions in the battle and I believe that thinking about how we as history teachers deal with this issue raises a lot of other questions about the teaching of causal thinking and the resources we use to do so.

There are two near-contemporary accounts of the Battle of Hastings. The most famous is by William of Poitiers who was a trained soldier who became a priest and worked as chaplain to Duke William. He probably wasn’t at Hastings but knew, and talked to, people who were, including William himself. He wrote an account of the Battle of Hastings in his Gesta Guillelmi sometime in the 1070s.

The second source is a poem called the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, probably written by Bishop Guy of Amiens, someone connected with the French court, possibly within months of Hastings. The reasons for its creation are unclear but it may have been intended for the ears of William himself.

The event concerning the Bretons occurs about half-way through the battle. According to Williams of Poitiers, stout English defence by the shield wall at the top of the hill causes the Bretons on the left of William’s army to break. At the same time, there is a rumour in the Norman ranks that William has been killed. William rescues the situation by raising his helmet and showing his face. His men, given new heart by their leader, turn and begin to slaughter the English who were foolish enough to have left their defensive position at the top of the hill. Inspired by these events, William orders another cavalry attack and this time feigns a retreat causing enough of the English to break ranks to fatally weaken their defences.

The Carmen, relates similar events but makes no mention of the troops that broke being Breton. Also, in this account the first retreat starts off as a trick but, when the Saxons press the Normans harder than they expected, the feigned retreat becomes a real one until, as in William of Poitiers’ account, William, through sheer force of personality, saves the day and rallies his men. Again, as in the Gesta, after this there is a second feigned retreat with its terrible consequences for Harold.

So who to believe? Which version should be acted out in classrooms and gymnasiums all over the country?

At first glance, William of Poitiers’ account seems the most convincing; he was, after all, a soldier so should know what he’s talking about. Also, he probably spoke to people who were at Hastings themselves, and while the Gesta is almost certainly Norman propaganda, it appears in this instance as if William’s army is weak and foolish – they are broken by the English. In comparison to the Carmen which which has William trying a clever feigned retreat (albeit one that goes wrong)  this doesn’t seem to be hagiography.

But look again. It is William that saves the day and it is not, technically speaking, his men that broke – it is the mercenaries of the Breton contingent. William is then able to use that misfortune to his advantage as it gives him the idea for the famous trick that would break, or at least fatally weaken, the Saxon shield wall. William actually comes out better in Poitiers’ account than in the Carmen. Is William of Poitiers excusing this mistake by dressing it up as the fault of the Bretons?

Although there is potential merit in both accounts if we are going to re-enact the Battle of Hastings we should probably choose one version of events. So, do you teach the William of Poitiers version with William rescuing a terrible situation created by weakness of the mercenary Bretons? Or, do you have William trying and re-trying his famous trick until the Saxon shield wall is thinned-out enough to leave Harold vulnerable?

Like, I suspect, most of you, I teach the William of Poitiers version, despite the fact that, to my mind, the Carmen account seems more plausible. Does this mean that I am teaching students something that is untrue? Am I lying to Year 7? I would suggest that am doing neither of those things. In order to tell a narrative of the past, I have created a model of events. We cannot be sure which of the accounts we have is most accurate and while on balance, the Gesta seems preferable to the Carmen it would not be unreasonable to go with William of Poitiers’ account.

So what? Why does it matter whether you have 11-year-old’s on imaginary horses pretending to be Bretons or Normans?

It doesn’t matter at all. Except that if you have Bretons, the William you are creating for your students is a very different character from the William that would be conjured through the Carmen’s account. One is dynamic, daring and able to exploit an unfortunate situation to his advantage who is in striking contrast to Harold who makes some very poor decisions. The other William is a much less exciting figure who does have a skilful cavalry but, like an adolescent magician, has one trick that he rolls out again and again until it gets the reaction he hoped for.

Again, so what? So what if William of Poitiers’ Conqueror is a better character than the Carmen’s William? What does it matter other than it allows a history teacher to show off more through a more dramatic re-telling of events?

It matters because of what you want your students to do with your William – and here it is worth pausing to point out that I do mean your William. Students using the Battle of Hastings role-play as the basis of a piece of causal writing are not writing about the eleventh-century duke of Normandy, they are writing about the duke of Normandy created in your classroom.

Any causal explanation can only be a model of the events of the past. When you are leading a role-play like the Battle of Hastings you are in control of creating that model. When you ask students to explain why William won the battle, based on your (re)creation, you are asking them to fit together the pieces you created. If you created a William based on William of Poitiers’ account then it would be reasonable for a Year 7 to argue that William won the Battle of Hastings because of his tactical brilliance. This argument would be less easy to sustain if you have given them a William who uses the feigned retreat a second time after it nearly ended in disaster for him the first. That William may be dogged or determined but he may also be desperate and lack imagination.

But aren’t we engaged in a search for historical truth? Couldn’t we engage students with the complexity of the historical debate about these sources? Shouldn’t we be encouraging students to write using the language of doubt? Do we not have a moral and professional duty to highlight the temporary and contingent nature of historical ‘fact’? Could we not ‘extend the most able’ by asking them to do ‘research’ on this question?

Well, yes. Yes to all. Each of those (with the possible exception of the last which smacks of planning-by-booking-a-computer-room) would be a valid thing to be doing with Year 7 which, at other times, I would happily help students engage with but they are not what I am using the Battle of Hastings role play for in this instance. In this instance, I want to see how students can construct an argument and support it using the information they have been given. To this end, I am going to deliberately select and limit the information they have. I am going to create a simplified model of the past – a Duplo version of history. This is not an insult to my students and nor should one imagine that it makes the task of explaining William’s victory at Hastings simple. Textbooks do this all the time. In our GCSE book, in the section on the Reformation, the complexity of the ‘new learning’ of humanism and boil it down to a couple of paragraphs. Essentially, it says ‘Erasmus wanted a Greek Bible – oh and there was a thing called the Renaissance.’ This would be appaling if the syllabus questions were about the Renaissance but if we are looking at the impact of the Reformation on English people, then, yep, ‘there was a thing called the Renaissance’.

I have read many calls for an increase in the use of texts and textbooks in history classrooms. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it should be realised that a textbook is, if it is used thoroughly, a course book – its contents become the syllabus. Necessary decisions about omissions and simplifications are taken by the authors and editors and not by the teachers using them. This is fine if that is what is wanted and is recognised by those who use them. If, however, it is assumed that textbooks are neutrally-voiced and transparently convey historical truth then there are problems.

Similarly, this issue highlights issues when anyone tries to make any comparisons between classrooms and schools. I have heard many calls recently for all history marking to be done through comparative judgement and there is a lot of merit in this. However, it is difficult to know how a level playing field might be constructed to allow this to happen. If the William created in my room is a ‘Poitiers William’ then, as noted above, the conclusions that might be reasonably drawn about him are not the same as those that might be drawn about the ‘Carmen William’ who existed briefly in the Sports Hall of the school down the road. So when looking at essays, how can I judge the difference between them? If one of the essays doesn’t mention the first feigned retreat is that an omission by the student or did it never happen in their particular Hastings-verse? How might I judge?

Similarly, what good will it do my students to buy into some sort of knowledge-organising, testing system that has not been designed for their particular course? If I have chosen to simplify Charles I’s religious beliefs for Year 8 to ‘he’s a Protestant but he wanted services to be beautiful’ what merit is there in a bunch of questions about Arminianism? It’s not that Year 8 are incapable of understanding the subtleties of seventeenth-century beliefs but that is not the focus of what I am asking them to do.

To sum up, what I suppose I am arguing for is teachers who have deep and rich subject-knowledge in order that they can know what simplifications and omissions they are making. That they have a firm grasp of what thinking they want students to do with the information they are given so that they can make those simplifications in a deliberate way. It is also vital to recognise that any assessment of student work has to have some reference to the syllabus they have been taught (whether that is created by the teacher or taken from a book) as even potentially trivial differences in approach, such as whether the Bretons broke or not, can have profound implications for students’ work.



* Much of the history for this comes from Marc Morris’s excellent The Norman Conquest ISBN: 9780099537441. As always, mistakes are all mine.

Categorized as Causation

By mattstanf

History teacher at a proudly comprehensive 11-16 state school.

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