Ode to History

I used to die of boredom in history.  I was resurrected during recess, when I ran off to figure out what homework was due for my next class. 

I remember my poor history teacher.  She loved the Renaissance, but mostly she loved French words.  I think I heard the word “renaissance” more times in my world history class than I did “atom” in chemistry.  But I digress.

Is it just me, or do you think more students would benefit by having teachers focus more on the magic, the sheer eery, transcendant magic of every discipline, rather than simply the mundane facts?  Or at least spark the class with magic before introducing said framework?

For instance, must I first learn (and forget) the cut and dry history of the Reformation (boring!) with everyone’s names and all the dates–and only decades later discover that the nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner is filled to the brim with mad brilliant hot intrigue and scandal connected to the changing religious/political power games of the period?

Have I mentioned this before?  It’s my latest kick.  One of many, I’ll own.

Remember the rhyme?

Little Jack Horner sat in the corner

Eating his Christmas pie,

He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum

And said, “What a good boy am I!”

Turns out this dumb little ditty is not so dumb at all (she said, ducking tomatoes from the peanut gallery).  Nay, friends and cohorts!  For it is rather salacious…

Turns out, “little Jack Horner” was the steward to the Bishop of Glastonbury, which was the wealthiest Abbey in England.  They had property coming out the wazoo, to use the historical terminology I favor.  And when King Henry VIII decided to dissolve all of the monasteries in the land in order to seize their sizable wealth for himself, the Bishop balked.  He decided to bribe the King.

He sent his steward, Jack Horner, to the King with the deeds of twelve estates, hoping the King would be satiated and not go after everything else too.  The bribe, the deeds, were hidden to thwart thievery by brigands along the way.  Hidden, as apparently was the custom, in a pie.  (Does the plot begin to thin for you?)

Our friend in the corner, little Jack Horner, up and stole one of the deeds himself.  He got a plum property–in other words, the cream of the crop. 

The Bishop’s plan was not received well by the King, who not only took all of his lands, but destroyed his Abbey, and had the Bishop put to trial for treason.  Rumor has it, our friend in the corner, little Jack Horner, was in the jury.  Needless to say, the punishment for treason was unpleasant and did not end with death.  Why stop there, after all, when a man’s dead body can be mutilated and put on display to deter others from… well, whatever you want to deter them from doing.

The estate remains in the Horner family to this very day.  They refuse to discuss the ditty.

Now THAT, my friends, is history.  Right???

Isn’t it a thousand times more compelling to hear this and then, while the images still thrill the imagination, ask questions about the shifting constellation of religious and political powers in England?

Am I being mental?

Poor History, beggar to none, but painfully betrayed and shrouded by textbooks that forget that everything we humans do has magic and spice to it.  It would be so easy to fascinate future historians; all we’d have to do is release History from those stale garments that are high school textbooks.

History is merely a list of surprises.  It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.

~ Kurt Vonnegut

Myth Build this Historical Beacon

Myth Built this Historical Beacon


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
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14 Responses to Ode to History

  1. ralfast says:

    I love history, but then again I did most of the learning on my own and not in the classroom (still do).

  2. Yarnspnr says:

    History needs to be taught as an art, not a science. It’s a simple process, teach history by applying it to the students so they can gain the sense that history is made up of people just like ourselves. They may have lived hundreds of years ago, but their lives held the same troubles and elations as our own lives. Your nursery rhyme bears that out. Ring around the rosey, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down, is another nursery rhymr that came from the middle ages, at the time of the black death. The rosey was the rosary, going round in prayers. The posies were flowers put in pockets to ward off the black death. The ashes are the burning corpses. Falling down represented the people dying all around the village. Many other simple things came from this time. The putting your hand over your mouth when you sneeze for instance, to keep demons from entering your body. If taught right, history is alive and so fantastic as to be thrilling in its dance across time. But don’t get me going. Teaching History is one of my favorite rants! 🙂

    • sputnitsa says:

      Oh, I’d been wondering about the rosey. I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading into the Middle Ages, and it’s fascinating…

      It’s so sad that so many people find it (and many other disciplines) so dead until something sparks the interest for them outside of class..

  3. LM Preston says:

    I loved history, and always tried to evalutate the ‘real story’ , because history is only several scholars point of view. History is still a mystery to me, you are given clues, but if you delve deeper you may be able to come up with a much deeper story, or just more questions.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Yeah, I can’t imagine “the real story.” A couple of people, one of whom I think is Emerson, have written that there is no history but biography.

      Oh… As I wrote that first, I was thinking it true, then as I finished I thought it false, and now I understand that thought in a different way. “History” is our autobiography, as full of self-delusions and adjusted lenses as any autobiography, and expressing our prejudices of the moment.

      That said, history textbooks might be scholars’ point of view, but primary sources are not scholar-written all the time… But that doesn’t make them accurate.

      Yeah, the whole thing is open to study, with levels upon levels to consider and imagine. It’s a most LIVE field… It’s magic! 🙂

      You’re so right–you delve and think and contemplate…and sometimes you’re just left with more questions. And that ROCKS. 🙂

  4. Beth says:

    Such an interest post! I never knew this story.
    My favorite portions of history aren’t the daring deeds (though I enjoy them immensely); they are the little side details and stories you may or may not learn in school/uncover on your own. Defenestration of Prague, Marat in the sewers…

    • sputnitsa says:

      Marat in the sewers? I’m intrigued! 🙂

      And amen to daring deeds and little side notes which widen the eyes and make you gasp with delight and curiosity 🙂

      • Beth says:

        Apparently Marat hung around in sewers during the French Revolution, which caused him to get a skin disease (to quote my high school history teacher, “Like the Ninja Turtles, Marat hung around in the sewers. Unlike the Ninja Turtles, he didn’t get any special powers, but he got lots of special diseases.”) By the end of his life, he needed to recline in medicinal bath nearly all day. He was murdered by Charlotte Corday–while he was in his tub!

        • sputnitsa says:

          LOVE the way your teacher put it! 🙂 Heh. A sense of humor–so vital to history. 🙂

          Fascinating and obviously now I’m going to have to fit in a Wiki on him too, as well as this link!!! 🙂

          Thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. hope101 says:

    I didn’t know the story behind the Jack Horner ditty, but I enjoyed it. 🙂

    Regretfully, all my social teachers were bored with the subject themselves. They resorted to chapter readings, film, and had us cough up facts by rote. It’s hard to see history as a relevant and living thing without enthused role models.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Yeah, it’s incredible. Math too, it turns out, can be more than “logical.” It can be magical too, and wild.

      This past weekend I asked my friend a burning question about parallel lines–don’t act like it has never eaten at you, the question of how it is that parallel lines A) don’t meet and yet B) do so at Earth’s poles–and was duly awed. I’m still marvelling over our brunch conversation, which ended, by the way, with a toast to Non-Euclid. Who is not a person at all.

      🙂 LOVE it. Wish all teachers shared magic with their students…. I totally agree with you–their enthusiasm can make or break a subject for kids.

  6. I’ve always loved history. I love researching, reading old diaries, learning odd facts…(and yes, most of the good stuff is not taught in school!)

    I just finished, “Time and Again” by Finney. It’s a fantastic time travel book. One part that stood out to me in particular is when the main character is utterly transfixed by the people walking by. Not by their 19th century clothes, or their carriages. But by the simple fact that they’re living, breathing people.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Oooh. Can’t wait to read that one. I love that description.

      I’m surrounded by students in my work, and I spend part of many informal meetings dropping history gems for them. I shall change their minds about history! and with those who already love it, exchange fun finds. I love those treasures…


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