My Duty Forbids It: The Historical Context of Professor Severus Snape

By Avellina Ballestri

Word Count: 3304

Rating: G

Summary: Editor in chief Avellina Ballestri dissects the historical context of Professor Snape.

Image Credit: Warner Brothers

    One of the first things that struck me about the character of Professor Severus Snape as portrayed by Alan Rickman in the Harry Potter film series was how in sync it tended to be with the militaristic teaching styles of British boarding schools as commonly practiced well into the second half of the 20th century. He made a perfect stereotypical black-cloaked, pale-faced, long-nosed schoolmaster, who did not suffer fools lightly, took no “cheek” from his students, and would not wear his emotions on his sleeve.

    As a history buff, the familiarity of such a character was a welcome relief in a sea of mystery and magic. Oddly enough, just watching him menacingly walking down the lines of his students, with eyes keen to pick up anything other than all due concentration on his lecture and their notes, made me feel a certain amount of historical security, consistency, and familiarity that the wizarding world in general seemed to lack.

    In true British fashion, Snape was portrayed as having a “stiff upper lip”, and while he certainly went hard on his students, he also went hard on himself when it came to accomplishing what he saw as his duty. Indeed, while he was unquestionably a flawed and bitter man, with grudges and prejudices running deep (also in sync with the fierce house rivalries and class divides prevalent in British schooling and society), he also was profoundly courageous with a keen sense of obligation to others to whom he was bound in one form or another.

    He may be infamous for verbally snarking his students, snatching their house points, and giving them long detention sentences for seemingly insignificant infractions (especially if they came from House Gryffindor), but you would also have to walk over his dead body to inflict any real harm on those in his charge. He is regularly harsh and petty, but at the end of the day, he’s also willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of others, expecting very little in return. This is not a matter of frivolous affection, but dead-set duty, and very much in keeping with British school and military traditions.

    As a student of British military history, I am more than familiar with a panoply of figures with this general character flavor, such as Major John Pitcairn, Sir John Moore, General Simon Frazer, the Duke of Wellington and many more who displayed this mixture of tough disciplinarian execution and verbal contempt for their soldiers (“the animals”, “the scum of the earth”, “dirty contemptible dogs” – you name it; they said it!), but also outstanding bravery on a personal level and a self-sacrificial duty to those under their command. The stories are numerous, and could easily make very fine cinematic dramas in their own right, of the officers putting their personal safety second in favor of their larger duty to secure the day and maintain the cohesion of their fighting force and the wellbeing of those under their command.

    One story is of General Simon Frazer, one of the main British commanding officers at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, who refused to stop trying to rally his crumbling lines of defense, even when he had become a conspicuous target for American marksmen who were instructed to aim for his red coat. When his aide begged him to dismount from his horse, Frazer, realizing that his mere presence steadied the scattering men, famously replied, “My duty forbids it.” He was subsequently mortally wounded and died the next day.

    Another story is how Sir John Moore had always been a strong disciplinarian and taught his men never to cry out if wounded for fear of disrupting the other soldiers. This sounds quite harsh at first, but he put his word into practice when a cannon ball tore open his shoulder as he led his men at the Battle of Corunna in 1809, and he did not utter a sound, even during the excruciating surgery without the comfort of anesthesia. He was tough on his men, but also tough on himself.

     Leadership carried with it responsibility and a sizable risk factor, but it was meant to mark out a gentleman, to distinguish that which he was, and how he could lead other men, and the emphasis of obeying those above you, whether you liked them or not, was intense. Yet a strange sense of bonding commonly developed between officer and soldier, to the point that when the officer was killed, the entire regiment, or even the whole army, experienced something of an emotional breakdown, even if they’d never much cared for the guy before. He came to symbolize the central point, the synthesis of their efforts, and the one who, in spite of everything, would get them through the worst of it. The point was, where he had led, the men had followed.

       They were hardcore, no-nonsense men whose lives and deaths reflected a heroic level of dedication that left a mark on those who served with them, even up to the shedding of their blood on the battlefield. They were the products of the same traditional schooling system that was meant to pound young boys into men, prepared to serve and possibly die for king/queen and country. It could be excessively Spartan at times, but it wove into the fabric of the wider society. Indeed it was not unheard of for teachers and professors to raise companies of volunteers and double in a military capacity during wartime, especially when a threat to the homeland was impending.

    Other times, they would be put to work in other military capacities, such as Colin Maclaurin, the mathematics professor from Edinburgh University who doubled as head of the fortifications construction when the city was under siege by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His teenaged students were promptly snatched from their university halls and made to march to the gates of the city in case of an impending attack. But universities of that era had a strong military bent, and could be called a form of boot camp, with the schoolmasters and professors serving a similar purpose as drill sergeants and officers who could later command these young men, who often “donned the king’s livery” and joined a regiment in arms as early as fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen.

   Snape feels perfectly at home in this setting, which is so strongly a part of what comes forth from and goes back into the fabric of the British cultural psyche, and continued long after military emphasis began to fade in the aftermath of the Empire on which the sun never set. Without this historical background, a character like him simply makes no sense in the wider picture. He becomes an anomaly instead of the norm. But for centuries, Snape-like teachers were the norm (please watch documentary clips from British boarding schools into the 1960’s-70’s if you don’t believe me…and for a classic literature take on it from days of yore, try Tom Brown’s School Days), and Snape in this capacity would have been harsh and militaristic with or without his additional personal issues (such as lack of toleration for the Golden Boy of Gryffindor-dom!) revealed in the larger HP storyline. The basis for his teaching style would already have been laid, no melodramatic background saga necessary.

    Schools could often be as much about drilling as teaching, and punitive forms of discipline were commonplace. In both books and movies, corporal punishment is never used at Hogwarts until the arrival of Professor Umbridge and later the Carrows, but the feel of the surroundings is evocative of an older age in which it might be utilized. While Snape never does anything of this nature beyond a snatch by the scruff of the neck and bonk with a paperback textbook to chattering students, it isn’t a major stretch of the imagination to envision him giving Harry a good switching (especially following his sterling “you don’t have to call me sir” moment!).

    But all that having been said, Snape does not show any signs of being a genuine sadist, nor, indeed, were many of the teachers of his martial caliber that preceded him in real history. In fact, in later episodes, he makes a point of purposely giving his students comparatively minor detentions to protect them from torture under the mentally warped Umbridge and the monstrous Carrows.

   Though imperfect and hard-edged, the man does not seem to be completely without heart. Indeed, another line in the story has Dumbledore saying: “Don’t be shocked, Severus. How many men and women have you watched die?”

    Snape replies, “Lately only those whom I could not save”

    This vaguely reminded me of the story of the Duke of Wellington, known as the Iron Duke for his unyielding toughness and stoicism. He had dealt in the arts of blood and steel for much of his life, but had proceeded with the utmost stiff upper lip possible. Indeed, he might be called the poster child for the British way in that department. However, at the end of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, his greatest and most costly victory, he finally had a breakdown due to all the bloodletting when the casualty list was read to him. He never completely recovered from his traumatic experience at Waterloo and would often go silent when the name of the place was mentioned, famously remarking, “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.”  

    Another element of being a professor was the fact that you assumed a title. You earned the right to be addressed as “sir”, to exert authority, and expect obedience. It was the weight of leadership only “gentlemen” were meant to carry. However, if the flashbacks are to be given credence in Harry Potter canon, Severus Snape had an upbringing that was the epitome of “growing up rough.” He was the son of a factory worker in the Midlands of England, an area of the country hit hard by the Industrial Revolution. It was also stripped of its natural resources, particularly its dense forests, so that the wood might be used to build ships for the Royal Navy.

    It had a history of being associated with movements against tyranny, be it Robin Hood in the Nottinghamshire forests challenging the unjust hunting laws, or the “Cropper Lads” who responded to being put out of work by the factories by smashing the machinery in night raids. Even the contribution of England’s “heart of oak” through the Midland forests might be said to have contributed to the downfall of one of the greatest tyrants, Napoleon Bonaparte. It was the birthplace of the “free shires” and the “common land”, as well as the area where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up and after which he based his Hobbit Shire. It was also an area scorned for being a place that brought forth tough, hardworking, and ill-polished people, in contrast to the wealthier and more tranquil southern counties of England that did not have the same history of struggle to shape them.

    Snape, therefore, according to the British social scale, would have had an extremely hard time overcoming the stigma of his background as being of the working class from the Midlands. In addition, with a mother who has the Irish name Eileen, it might be feasibly surmised that the immigration which was common to factory towns was in his bloodline, also. Going to a school of status, in his position, would have been a miracle in and of itself; it also would have invited much bullying from those of “better stock”, what Brits commonly call “mouthy-southies.” This, I think, is the best and simplest explanation for James Potter and his cronies beginning the trend of torment. It also would go a long way in explaining Snape’s need for powerful patronage found in the wealthy Malfoy family.

    But this background would also greatly affect the personal growth of an ambitious young man struggling to rise above his circumstances against the odds. This would might also have been a factor in his decision to adopt the style of teaching that he does. If he has been raised in the Spinner’s End of a factory town, he has already been through hell and back. This was the low end of town where the impoverished and maltreated workers, of dirt-poor English and immigrant background, spent their lives from youth to old age, often working under deplorable and dangerous conditions, subjecting themselves to the various diseases contracted from working amidst the factory chemicals from sunup to sundown. The wages were pitiful, and oftentimes liquor was the cheapest way to drown the misery, as it is indicated in the case of Snape’s abusive father.

    A folk song “The Chemical Worker’s Song” sums up their plight: “And it’s go, boys, go; they’ll time your every breath, and every day all in this way, it’s two days nearer death…and every bob made on the job you pay with flesh and blood…”

    If this is not enough to harden a man, I don’t know what is. Furthermore, to finally rise in status to become a professor would most likely be accompanied by a great sense of insecurity about holding onto the position you finally achieved after fighting so hard to rise. This would add to the pressure to make his authority an unquestioned reality, and failing to be respected, he would at least be feared. Perhaps not a preferable method, but a rational enough one, for fear has a way of breeding the desired results, and pushes the questions of one’s background to the perimeter. The fact that he overcame such circumstances to become “titled”, to become a “gentleman”, is something that would also contribute to his suppression of that inner self that would always be a “working man”, and which might just as well translate into a fighting man when the time was right.

    In historical language, I am tempted to call Severus Snape “a man of his times”, even though Hogwarts “time” is something of an enigma, cross-sectioned between the 1990’s, the Victorian Era, and the Dark Ages, which is one of the many issues I have with Rowling’s world-building.      Evidently, she based the character of Snape after her own chemistry teacher from grade school, circa 1970’s. My own father, educated in Catholic schools in Eastern Coast USA in the 1960’s, has tales to tell of his teachers that make Snape look like a pussycat. This includes nuns banging his head off a blackboard and brothers washing his mouth out with soap. My mother, public school educated in the same area, has her own stories to tell about militaristic teachers who ruled with an iron fist.

   I am not trying to say this type of treatment was ideal for the development of young minds. What I am saying, though, is that harsh teaching methods have been commonly employed through history, even within living memory of this generation, and the accusation that Snape’s entire comportment can be summed up to his personal issues (although they certainly played a part) is bogus. This was a generational tradition that tended to be passed down, and it’s not hard to imagine that most of these “toughies” were themselves tough “toughies” and learned the name of the game from their predecessors from time et memoriam.

    What we should be able to do is critique historical trends without casting modernistic judgments on the participants. It is a basic principle of solid historical scholarship, which sadly seems not to have crossed over into the realm of fantasy. This, I think, is rather a shame because it sets the stage for teachers of this style and caliber (and by the way, they still exist…I had a music teacher who was not a far cry from him, and after slowly getting to know her better, we actually became quite close, and I still wear the turtlenecks she gave me out of her closet) being automatically relegated into the villain category, constantly accompanied by creepy, melodramatic music to punctuate the point.

   It actually reminds me quite a bit of the portrayal of red-coated British military figures in many modern blockbuster hits like The Last of the Mohicans, The Patriot, and Battle of the Brave. Oh, and fun fact: Jason Isaacs, the British actor who played the obnoxiously blondie death-eater Lucius Malfoy, also played both the villainous Colonel Tavington, who randomly massacres most of the main characters and some side-shots too, in The Patriot and the wonked-out nutcase version of General James Wolfe, who spouts poetry incoherently with a queer gleam in his eye, in Battle of Brave. He evidently had to plead with Rowling to let his character keep making reappearances in the franchise in order to keep from going back to be bayoneted or riddled with bullets on North American battlefields.

    But getting back to Snape, a much more compelling portrayal of the character in my opinion would have turned him into a more “ordinary”, if unpleasant, fixture, and put him in a wider variety of “ordinary” situations that enabled him to come into a more human light by gradual twists and turns of interaction. If a subplot like this could have been sustained and his backstory revealed more gradually, it would have instantly appealed to my human interest level, instead of the excess of hocus-pocus stunts involving an evil wizard dude who refuses to give up the ghost for seven long books and eight long movies until a keystone cops chase over a super-wand kills off a sizable chunk of the cast (human, animal, and CGI alike) and bleeps them off the wizarding radar. And I suppose Alan Rickman can almost count as collateral damage…

    But in all actuality, being in a daily class being taught by the same person, tough as they may be, for over five years, does start to wear down the intrigue, which would in fact have been a good thing for all, including the storyline, which felt artificially puffed up on plot twist steroids and totally lost me in translation. Instead of going for a dark and kinky back-story far and away down the line, I would have much preferred a Snape who was just…Snape, a tough, flawed teacher, but one who everyone came to realize was human, and even heroic, in his own way, after all. That, I think, would have been far more relatable to the majority of us who have had tough teachers who *gasp* weren’t spying for Get Smart’s KAOS, after all!

   And if you’re in his class and haven’t figured out how to survive Snape’s methods by the third movie (which, honestly, don’t change much from film to film!), you’re pretty darn dense. Basically, he’s not here for fun and games, he’s not a fan of kids (especially if you’re a smart-aleck that looks strikingly like your bullying, brattish, girl-friend stealing dad *spoiler* cough *spoiler*), he has no patience for your fumblings, and your best chance for surviving his monotone lecture sessions is to listen up, do your homework on time, and generally try and be inconspicuous and stay out of his way so you can bloody well pass the class. While he may still make his grudge-carrying, house-favoring tendencies manifest, your self-preservation chances will have at least risen to plausible proportions.

   Oh, yeah, and maybe don’t talk back to him…or correct him about page numbers….or get caught wandering the halls after curfew…or knock him out with a wand blast…or invade his super-secret memory stash…or drive a car into a tree on campus…or set his cloak on fire…or blow up his lab…or comment about his nasal dimensions…because life, is precious, right?

    Learn some respect, Mistah Pottah, or you’ll wind up just like your fathah!


One thought on “My Duty Forbids It: The Historical Context of Professor Severus Snape

Add yours

  1. Amazing read. Basically summed up and put into words everything I’ve always thought historically about Snape. However, I wonder…did Snape aspire to be a Professor or did he accept the position under Dumbledore’s protection after Voldemort was ‘defeated’ when Harry was a baby?

    Also, I think part of his no nonsense approach comes from knowing that there is real danger out there and real danger coming back for everyone. That it’s just a matter of time before the Dark Lord rises again and he has to prepare these students for that eventually and when they goof off and don’t pay attention and don’t follow rules, it’s maddening to him. It doesn’t matter that these are children. They need to take thing seriously. Think about when he was trying to train Harry to defend his mind. He was super hard on him. He wanted to pound it into his head and was frustrated when he felt he wasn’t trying hard enough.


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