How do we construct our pictures of the past? The Reith Lectures by Hilary Mantel
What lessons can history offer us? And how do we interpret those lessons accurately? In the second of her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, chillingly titled after a legendary medieval torture instrument, the Iron Maiden, Dame Hilary Mantel ponders how we form our images of the past, and warns about twin dangers: condescending to the past as the 'bad old days" or romanticizing it as a 'golden age.' Part 2 of a 4-part series. Part 3 airs Octobers 19 and Part 4 on October 26.
**Audio for this episode is only available for a limited period. The lectures are still available on the BBC Reith Lectures website.
The art and craft of resurrection
What wisdom do the dead offer us? Maybe art can present a way to bring the dead back to life, so they can give us their lessons directly. There's a lot of historical fiction, but very few absolute masters of it. Dame Hilary Mantel is one of them.
Her novels about Tudor England — Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies — are an international sensation, on the page and on the screen, not just for their gripping plots and characters, but for how they bring a distant past to vivid and engrossing life.
In her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures entitled Resurrection: The Art And Craft, Dame Hilary explores how we can capture history in art, and use that art to understand the past, and ourselves.
Lecture 2 is recorded in front of an audience at Middle Temple Hall in the Inns of Court in London, and is followed by a question and answer session chaired by Sue Lawley.
**Please note The Reith Lectures are not available as a podcast.
Lecture 2: The Iron Maiden (excerpt)
"When we imagine a lost world, we must first re-arrange our senses – listen and look, before judging. But we do rush to judgement, and our judgement swings about – at one moment we find the past frightening and alien, and the next moment we are giving way to nostalgia.
Each century speaks of the grotesque cruelties of the one that went before – as if cruelty were alien to the present, and we couldn't own or recognize it. It seems we are doomed to be hypocrites – repulsed by the cruelties of bear-baiting, while polishing off our factory-farmed dinner. Often, we crave the style of the past while condemning its substance.
It's a relief to learn that some pre-modern nastiness is fabricated, for cash. The instruments of torture that you see in museums are usually 19th century artefacts. If you take, for example, the 'Iron Maiden,' a spiked metal coffin which impales its victim. It appears to have been created as entertainment by a Nuremberg antiquarian who put it on display in a used prison. And copies of this grim fantasy went on tour through Great Britain and America: and Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, put it in a story. And the 'Iron Maiden' has been with us ever since – in a corner of our psyche where we keep the obscenities, under a veil of cobwebs.
What we are looking at is the commodification of the past. Supposed you have a cupboard and you want to make it pay? Why not call it a priest hole? In the ancient houses of Europe there are many more priest holes than there were ever renegade priests to go in them.
It's interesting that the Iron Maiden and similar artifacts were being created at a time when cruelty had gone behind doors. A point came, in the West, when executions were no longer public – but there were still executions. The 19th century also invented the executioner's mask. In fact, there hardly was such a thing. Why would a city's executioner wear a mask? Everyone knew who he was.
I don't deny the harshness of the past but we treat it like a horror film. It sickens us. It's safely distant and we pay to view. The heritage industry is built on confusion, a yearning for a past which is sordid and gorgeous, both together. Purer than our age, also more corrupt. There's a certain kind of historical fiction feeds collective fantasy – witness the slavish, oily royalism of the genre, which I think taps into that common childhood daydream that we are not the children of our parents, but of more distinguished strangers, who will turn up any day to collect us – to save us from our humiliating ordinariness and whisk us into fairytale."
**The producer of The Reith Lectures for the BBC is Jim Frank.
**For IDEAS this episode was produced by Dave Redel.