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I had a very eccentric but electrifying history teacher when I was a wee lad at primary school. He was a medievalist who took part in re-enactments, liked to dress as a baron with a long flowing cape, and brandished ancient weaponry in the classroom while recounting bloodcurdling tales. Just the kind of stuff you want when you're a ten year old boy.

I had a very eccentric but electrifying history teacher when I was a wee lad at primary school. He was a medievalist who took part in re-enactments, liked to dress as a baron with a long flowing cape, and brandished ancient weaponry in the classroom while recounting bloodcurdling tales. Just the kind of stuff you want when you're a ten year old boy.

I'm not sure what school inspectors would have to say about such things today, but the fact is that what he taught, and the way he taught - with intensity, passion and often visceral detail - has stayed with me ever since. As a result, the stories of the late Saxon and early Norman/medieval period have a somewhat privileged and emotional place in my sense of this country's past.

I felt some of that history buzz  again last night when I watched an episode of the BBC's history of England, as told through the lens of one town, Kibworth in Leicestershire. Among the many things that came back to me from my schoolboy history was the seismic shock felt by Anglo-Saxon society with the arrival of the Normans and their imposition of a much more muscular form of feudal and military governance than many in Saxon England had been accustomed to. The accounts of the time, and for many years afterwards, testify to the burden and pain of the everyday folk labouring under "the Norman Yoke". Contemporary accounts such as the Peterborough Chronicle (something for our Area Based Curriculum in the city?) document this ongoing misery in ways that make me glad that political upheaval today might mean no more than a coalition government being formed and some fiddling with the seating plan in Parliament.

But what also resonated was the potential relevance of historical social forms to  contemporary concerns. So much attention is being paid at the moment to the seemingly novel idea of a self-organised, citizen-led, self-governing  "Big Society" (not least by this blog, so I promise to write about something else next time). But we too easily forget that powerful and helpful traditions may lie buried in the soil beneath our feet, ready to be dusted off and reinvented for the 21st century. Or that the ethnic and cultural diversity that has always been a wonderful characteristic of this country, and a driver of its success since time immemorial, provides a rich stock of social forms from which to draw and experiment.

For example, pre-Conquest Saxon England seems to have been quite successful in balancing centralised and decentralised political governance. The kingdom was divided in layers into shires and hundreds, with shires able to administer their own forms of justice via courts and Shire Reeves (sherriffs). Local disputes, primarily over land, were negotiated and resolved through local, self-organised folc gemots ("folk moots") also known as  "things". These things often took place at a special local place ("thingstead") but they might often just be held wherever was convenient, and be a movable feast. They represent the early forerunners of the English Parliamentary system. The Normans imposed alien and disenfranchising forms of feudal autocracy, but these traditions never died.

Fast forward and we are now in the process of supporting Peterborough to create its own "Civic Commons" which, it seems to me, shares something in common with these ancient forms, but extends and transforms them in ways that relate to our very different context. The city is actually remembering forms of self-governance, and reconstituting them for the modern world, in a way that connects past and present.

What other examples can we draw from history, such as the Roman Consilium Plebis, or from other cultures and contexts, such as the Afghan Jirga, that might help us remember how to do better "DIY government", just as the central state takes a step back, whether we like it or not? Moot away...

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