One of the stranger events I attended while still in Oxford (a category of thing of which I have now told you almost all) was a debate staged at the then-new Ertegun Centre, over the motion: “1066: the most important date in English history?” It was the public-school format, of course, with a speaker for, a speaker against and the option of a reply from each one, but what made it look interesting to attend was that the speaker for was Dr George Garnett, one of my more singular colleagues in the Faculty, and the speaker against was Dr George Molyneaux, repeatedly given first place as lecturer by my pupils on the British History 300-1087 course and also George Garnett’s doctoral pupil. Would the pupil now become the master? and so on.
In actual fact, though the debate was not uninteresting, and could probably be said to have been won by George Garnett in as much as he was prepared to throw much more into the rhetoric of the occasion and also had a single point of focus that meant his opponent either had to pick another or be solely negative, the real interest for me and most others there seemed to be the meta-debate of what we as historians would consider significant change and how they could be rated against each other. Both Georges had chosen to rest their cases largely on duration, on changes that endured like cathedrals, language, towns, laws and landholding, and differed primarily on the question of whom these changes affected: in the case for it was everyone, in the case against those changes mentioned in the case for 1066 were dismissed as affecting only the aristocracy. (George Garnett then argued in his reply that if we let Marx set our criteria like that then nothing actually changed in England till the Industrial Revolution anyway.) But many more such arguments arose once the floor was opened. One contention for 1940 was resisted with the idea that only people since 1940 had been affected by it, so that older changes would be more significant by sheer demography of impact. The idea that counter-factuals were a tool for assessing such importance was damned as a trick of Niall Ferguson‘s and defended as being inherent in any historical judgement; and, thankfully, the question was also raised of whether we had enough evidence to make judgements like this anyway and what new evidence could unseat either George’s position. (George Garnett considered his position to be bolstered by so much evidence that evidence of other things couldn’t change it.) Probably this sort of thing could happen nowhere but Oxford, and even its participants questioned its worth as an intellectual exercise, but as a way of provoking conversation about what change actually is it proved unexpectedly stimulating.