In this guest post Dr Francis Young examines the relationship between history and nostalgia, particularly how and why nostalgic rhetoric is deployed. Dr Young is a UK-based historian and folklorist specialising in the history of religion and supernatural belief. You can find out more about his work on his website.
The phenomenon of nostalgia – which may be defined, briefly, as a longing for an imagined past supposedly better than an unsatisfactory present – seems to be attested in every age. Clearly, nostalgia is not the same thing as history, since nostalgia celebrates or exploits an imagined past that may never have existed, without studying the evidence. Conservative societies undergoing little change have fewer reasons to be nostalgic, but societies in flux often become sentimental about an imagined former ‘Golden Age’. This was certainly true of early modern England, which was a society obsessed with the past. However, early modern nostalgia was not just an effect produced by a changing society: ironically, early modern nostalgia drove the process of change itself. By longing for the past, people brought in the future.
Throughout the Middle Ages, it was commonplace for new monarchs to associate themselves with the ‘good old days’, whether they did this by invoking the laws of St Edward the Confessor, the liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta, or an imagined age of chivalry and the deeds of King Arthur. Perhaps no early modern reign was more infected with this kind of nostalgia than that of Henry VIII, who even had a painted wooden replica of King Arthur’s round table made for him in 1522, which now hangs in Winchester Castle. In a Latin poem to mark Henry’s coronation, Thomas More wrote, ‘When previously order utterly decayed, at once all order was restored in him … what are his virtues had been those of any of his ancestors’. More then went even further and declared Henry’s accession to be the restoration of the Golden Age prophesied by Plato: ‘The golden ages first return to you, prince; o! Plato may thus far be a prophet!’ Continue reading