Universal History as Reworked by 'Satirikon' and 1066 and All That as Parody History Textbooks: A Suggestion of a Literary Genre

By Milne, Lesley | The Modern Language Review, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Universal History as Reworked by 'Satirikon' and 1066 and All That as Parody History Textbooks: A Suggestion of a Literary Genre


Milne, Lesley, The Modern Language Review


1066 and All That, the famous parody history textbook and classic of British humour, was published in 1930. There is an equivalent in Russian humorous literature: a parody history textbook Universal History as Reworked by 'Satirikon', published in 1910-11. These two works display similarities that raise the questions of influence, imitation, or genre. There is no evidence of influence. The aims of this article are therefore to suggest the defining features of such a genre, to describe the context in which the two specimen works appeared, and thus to initiate debate as to whether other cultures have produced comparable examples.

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In 1930 two regular contributors to Punch, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, published one of the comic classics of English literature, a parody history textbook 1066 and All That. (1) In the years 1910-11 the Russian satirical weekly Satirikon published a parody history textbook Universal History as Reworked by 'Satirikon'. (2) The British 1066 and All That and the Russian Satirikon reworking of universal history display such remarkable similarities that the question arises of influence or imitation, a possibility that cannot be excluded. Both periodicals were the leading humorous journals of their day in their respective cultures, and Satirikon maintained links with counterparts, such as Simplicissimus in Germany (although there was a rift in the war years 1914-18, when both journals adopted patriotic positions). Satirikon (by then bearing the title Novyi Satirikon) was closed down in 1918, whereupon many of the core contributors emigrated, eventually basing themselves in Paris, Berlin, and Prague. There were thus opportunities for some cross-fertilization of ideas among the practitioners of satirical journalism in Europe. In the absence of any evidence one way or the other, however, the question of influence is unresolvable. What remains is the question of genre. The similarities between these two parody history textbooks, the Russian and the British, certainly suggest the possibility of one. A comparison of the two might suggest the defining features and guiding principles of such a genre, and lead to the further question of whether there are characteristic historical circumstances in which the genre might spontaneously regenerate in different cultures. It would then be interesting to know whether other cultures have produced examples of this genre, and if so, at what point. The aim of the present article is to initiate this debate by attempting to isolate the specifics of the genre and to describe the context in which the two parody history textbooks under examination appeared.

A genre frequently has Graeco-Roman antecedents, which over the millennia in eras of classical education maintain awareness of its possibilities as a form. This is true of parody history. Lucian of Samosata (second century ad) wrote recognizable parodies of Herodotus and Thucydides in his work A True Story. These were, however, historians whom he admired; his goal was entertainment of a cultured audience, who could be expected to delight in tongue-in-cheek imitation of well-known writers. (3) In How to Write History Lucian also included a rogues' gallery of 'bad historians', with witty and malicious illustrations of their faults. (4) This mocking reaction has been attributed to the fact that, like most of his contemporaries, 'he had been over exposed to the teachings of rhetoricians who accorded historians oratorical and poetic licence' (Lucian: A Selection, p. 289). 'Overexposure' is, of course, a classic stimulus to parody in general. It is, in particular, the classic fate of a successful textbook, and in that sense Lucian might be described as reacting against the prototypes of 'textbook' history in his day.

As Lucian's example shows, there are various ways of parodying history and historians. The first specific of the 'parody textbook' genre must therefore be its form: it should be formally organized like a school textbook, and this structure should be adhered to throughout. …

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