How our collective memory of 1066 could be souring Anglo-French relations

Anglo-Saxon troops confront the invaders
No doubt you've noticed that the Entente Cordiale has been looking a little strained lately. That's mostly due to contemporary European politics and economics. Isn't it? We can't blame 1066. Can we?

In fact, British attitudes towards the French today probably aren't helped by memories and myths surrounding the Norman Conquest. This may seem like an odd claim, but a timely and intriguing new study focuses on the Norman Conquest of Britain as an example of a "distant memory" that could be affecting contemporary attitudes towards the French specifically, and towards immigrants more generally. Where psychologists usually study short-term or autobiographical memory in individuals, this study is an academic investigation of our collective or cultural memory.

Siobhan Brownlie's data comes from two main sources: a search of Norman Conquest mentions in ten British newspapers between 2005 and 2008 (she found 807 relevant articles) and a survey of 2,179 members of the UK population.

Our collective memory of 1066 is salient - 79 per cent of survey participants said the conquest was important - but it is also distorted by mythology. For example, many of us identify with the pre-invasion "Anglo-Saxon" population (DNA research exposes the fallacy of this belief), yet paradoxically we also see the Norman invasion and Norman buildings as part of our collective British identity. Many of us (18 per cent in the survey) see the Norman invaders as French, yet Normandy at the time was an independent territory with a distinct identity.

Unlike recent trauma memories, which are overwhelmingly negative, Brownlie said the emotional quality of distant memories, even for violent events, is far more flexible and varied. Forty-nine per cent of those surveyed had a neutral attitude towards the Norman invasion. Newspaper coverage also demonstrated ambivalence. Sometimes the Conquest was portrayed negatively, alongside other violent dates; and right-wing papers implied we shouldn't lose control of immigration as we did in 1066. Yet other times, 1066 was portrayed proudly as a foundation date of British identity.

What about the impact on contemporary attitudes? Of those survey participants (6 per cent) who had a negative attitude towards the Norman Conquest, 25 per cent said this contributed to their negative feelings towards the French today. Brownlie acknowledged this seems to suggest that the influence of 1066-attitudes on contemporary views is a "marginal phenomenon". However, she argued that those raw stats expose only the extent to which the influence is consciously recognised.

From a negative perspective, Brownlie sees echoes of the Norman conquest in British National Party literature. Where medieval chroniclers of the Conquest wrote about England becoming a "dwelling-place of foreigners and a playground for lords of alien blood," the BNP literature says similarly: "The white working class has been abandoned, replaced, and displaced by a new ethnic electoral power base."

But memories of the Norman Conquest can also be invoked for positive symbolism. The monument at the British war cemetery in Bayeux says in Latin: "We who were conquered by William have liberated the homeland of the conqueror" (again we find the myths about our Anglo-Saxon roots and the Frenchness of the Normans, but this time in a positive message).

"Old enemies can become friends and allies," Brownlie writes. "This kind of message with specific reference to the Norman Conquest is found in friendly political speeches by French and British politicians and dignitaries ... ".

"In sum," Brownlie concludes, "from the BNP manifesto to the Second World War British cemetery in Bayeux, the study shows that memory of the distant past matters today, in profound and sometimes surprising ways."
Brownlie, S. (2011). Does memory of the distant past matter? Remediating the Norman Conquest. Memory Studies DOI: 10.1177/1750698011426358

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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