By Rachel Davis |
After narrowly avoiding flying arrows and charging horses as we prepared for battle, we were led into the game room at the Bannockburn Heritage Centre. We were going to war, albeit virtual, and to paraphrase some of the more colourful mutterings, we didn’t want to ‘mess’ it up. I was participant number six and was told to stand in front of my corresponding number on the board. I was nervous! This was my third visit to the centre since its opening in March, but I had yet to participate in the game itself. I will admit there was a lot of anxious laughter after we were told that numbers one to twenty were the English forces; numbers twenty-one to thirty were Scottish forces. Our Battlemaster explained the rules; we would each be able to make four moves within the course of the game, if the battalion that corresponded to our number survived. We progressed in numerical order, being told whether our forces cavalry, infantry, or archers at the start of our first turn. As my turn approached, I made a joke that, as a gender historian, I didn’t know the first thing about war tactics, all I knew was that the manhood of my regiment would be questioned if we didn’t advance. Despite my lack of ‘expertise’ none of the lives of my men were lost, although our battle ended abruptly with the death of Edward II on the first day.
How did we, a virtual army of 20,000 Englishmen, fail? We effectively divided and conquered ourselves. Participant one through twenty made tactical decisions that worked best for their unit. Rather than functioning as a coherent force, we became a scattered army that was easily defeated by the Scottish team. In our effort to save ourselves, we defeated ourselves because we didn’t consider the plight of other units. It was all fun and games, no one really died, none of our honours were really challenged, and it was a good laugh watching a lot of historians try to cohesively fight the virtual army of 10,000 Scotsmen. However, our individualised approach and our separateness was, ultimately, our downfall. Following our day trip, we returned for an evening panel to discuss heritage and practice in Scotland. The takeaway from the panel discussion and subsequent Q&A was the importance of inclusivity in public history and engagement.
Following this panel, I began to consider the idea of inclusivity in the practice of history. I think we take the idea for granted today, especially as PhD students attempting to specialise and prove that we are different from the other established historians of our subject. In these attempts to label ourselves, specialise ourselves, and individualise ourselves are we actually doing the practice of history as well as ourselves a disservice? While a crushing defeat overall, the battle at the Bannockburn Centre de-compartmentalised my historian brain that focuses on gender (most of the time). As soon as I took off my gender historian hat I was able to think critically and engage with the experience of the battle. However, I still thought of only the well-being of the regiment connected with number six, rather than the overall English army. I wonder if this speaks to a wider truth concerning the practice of history. Are we too busy focusing our specialist topics that we forget that there may be broader ways in which to interpret our own material? While I don’t know if an inclusive group approach would have resulted in a different outcome of the battle, perhaps if we had worked as a team, we would have survived the first day at the very least.
The Bannockburn Heritage Centre aims to educate through doing, actively engaging with the historical event rather than reading signposts telling the visitor what happened. In the half hour I spent immersed in the battle, I learned a lot about myself. I began to wonder, in an attempt to specialise, do we marginalise the work of others and the time period of other students of history? As both a medieval and gender historian, I often perceive a disjoined relationship between pre-modern and modern historiography as well as in gender and socio-cultural historiography. Is this a detriment to the overall practice of history? If we push this further, how much do we, as academics, marginalise public history and public engagement? Much like our virtual English army during the battle, it seems that we need a united approach to the practice of history, one in which academic research and public history engage and cooperate fully with each other. This could only help the overall aim of study of history, which is to understand, interpret, and remember the past.
(Photos: Anna Groundwater)