Saturday, May 25, 2019

Knowledge of History

CS Lewis noticed that most people have a very dim idea of history, and that much of it swirls together, so that Romans in togas, knights-in-armor, and Queen Elizabeth all occupy similar territory in their understanding of The Old Days. Even among those with just a bit more education, Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the War* of the Roses seem very similar – Arthur being pushed forward centuries  in the imagination because of being written up by Mallory – and didn’t they all know each other, sort of?  Or know about each other, certainly?  If they are so close together in our brains, how can they be far apart in time and space?

We needn’t feel all that superior.  Even those who know a fair bit of history, even professional historians, miss contexts of face-palming obviousness. We read about women not being allowed full guild membership in Europe, without a mention about what rights women had outside of Europe at the time. That is, mostly none.  The Howard Zinns and Noam Chomskys of the world can recite American perfidies in detail – sometimes with great accuracy – with nary a thought about what everyone else in the world is doing. Particularly when physical cruelty is involved, we all recoil from the reports from even a few decades ago. Even in nice places, our ancestors tolerated tortures and mistreatments we now find frankly unbelievable. Thus when a report comes of how The Duke of Somewhere executed his brother and had his head put on a pike we shudder and consider him a monster, while a few hundred miles away Phillip the Good had 20,000 heads put on pikes but we don’t notice. (Part of how Vlad the Impaler became notorious is that his massive impalings – normal among both Ottoman Turks and their enemies in SE Europe – happened at the same time as the printing press was being improved.  Those pamphlets about Vlad sold, baby. Up until then, no one noticed Wallachia much.) The French Intervention in Mexico – had you even heard of the French intervention in Mexico? - killed more people than the Wars of the Roses or the American Revolution.  Seven of ten wars with the highest death tolls are Asian, including 50-100,000,000 in peaceful China in the 19th C.  The Mongols and Timur were good for 50,000,000 in the 13th-14th C’s. Africa and Old World North America were mostly low-level but continual conflict, so that you had about a 25% chance over time of being a captured concubine or dying in battle. The great Mayan, Aztec, Toltec – hell, about a thousand years of continual conflict and oppression – civilisations of Mexico…

Hey, maybe we should teach more non-Western history, for the opposite reason that it is usually advocated these days.  If Western children were brought up from the beginning in the knowledge of the above, plus widespread slavery, forced starvation – foot-binding will really stick in the mind of American girls - widespread death in battle, The Rape of Nanking and Chunking and the like, when we pulled back the curtain and taught them Western Civ beginning in 9th grade it might provide the necessary perspective.  Things really are dramatically different in the West, and even more different in America and Canada. That’s my new thought.  Save the Teaching of Western Civilisation – For Later. It might work.

There is another point buried in my first paragraph, generally overlooked, especially in the context of Christian history. None of these knew anything about each other. We easily know now that Christianity spread during the first five centuries after Pentecost largely without conquest. It spread first among the poor and the slaves, gradually acquiring more powerful adherents and clan leaders until it was 5-10% of the Roman Empire while still under persecution. When it became the official religion in the 4th C, its numbers skyrocketed – again without conquest, but with the change that this became top-down rather than bottom-up conversion. Clan leaders and tribal leaders would choose on behalf of all their people as before – except now it was in their interest to do so for practical and economic reasons. This is where most of the converts came from. (If you wish to argue quality over quantity of believers in those centuries, that is an interesting, but different subject.)

When we consider Ferdinand and Isabella completing the Reconquista and expelling the Jews in the late 15th C, in order to make Spain a Christian nation, it seems to us now a thorough misunderstanding of the gospel as we know it. Christ is not spread in this way.  God does not need us to compel others to come in, He can work even in circumstances of oppression. Except…they didn’t know that.  Not just Ferdinand and Isabella, educated and trying to be exemplary Christian monarchs – no one knew this. What few historical records of the first centuries of the church existed were not assembled into a coherent narrative of that sort, except perhaps by a few in Rome, and those not dominant. We may have the same embarrassing dim sense that because they are closer than we to early Christianity by over 500 years, plus a few thousand miles in distance, that they would know such history as a matter of course.  It’s just regular church history, right? They wouldn’t. They thought Christianity was spread mostly by rulers of an area being Christians and deciding for the rest. That is largely all they had ever heard of in the world.  People sometimes converted to the dominant religion of a place, but more often were conquered and made to go along or exist under less-favored circumstances.

Here’s the rub.  They may be more correct than we are. Though we “know” more history, we know things that are not true.  There is a current myth, especially among Evangelicals, that the church thrives under persecution. Well, there still aren’t many Christians in Albania. Russian Christians were mostly just killed or sent to Siberia, and even the Orthodox church, which has deep historical and cultural support, saw only a brief flurry of growth after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The church can survive and even become strong under persecution, but this is in no way automatic. 
*Historians now say Wars of the Roses, plural.  They also now say puritans with a small “p,” to highlight that it was a broader set of movements, not a unified group.  Historians like doing things like that, and it is an excellent way of teaching.  It builds on previous knowledge and modifies it, rather than starting from scratch. Both small changes are instantly understandable.


Christopher B said...

I think you're wildly optimistic thinking that non-Western history would be taught in the same fashion as Western history. I think there's quite a bit of it taught now, a large portiin of it cataloging all the things the Westerners stole.

RichardJohnson said...

By expelling Jews who didn't convert, Spain was following in the footsteps of France and England, which had expelled Jews several centuries before.In the centuries before the 1492 Spanish expulsion of the Jews, Rome was not pleased with the tolerance the Spanish Christian kingdoms showed towards Jews. See A History of the Inquisition in Spain Vol I by Henry Charles Lea.

I suspect that cancelling the debts incurred from the conquest of the remaining Muslim kingdom of Granada had something to do with Ferdinand and Isabella's edict on the Jews.

Darío Fernández-Morera's The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise puts paid to just that. Muslims not as tolerant as previously believed. What a surprise.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Christopher B - yes, it would have to be non-Western history according to my design, not theirs. Not that all historians would do a poor job of it - not at all. But some perspectives get lost simply because those histories are often discussed in opposition to the west, not within their own frames. The Chinese still name WWII the War of Japanese Aggression. We didn't put that idea in their heads.

JMSmith said...

Persecution is stimulating at relatively low dosages, a bit like alcohol. At low dosages it keeps mere conformists out of the Church and unifies the persecuted remainder. But what stimulates in small dosages kills at full strength. We Christians like to imagine that we would stick with Christ unto martyrdom, but there is for most of us a point on the persecution dial where we are out of it.

You make an excellent point when you observe that historical figures generally knew far less history than we do. Most of them didn't even think historically, by which I mean they did not see themselves in the context of a vast process of political, economic, and technological change. But they did know that they had ancestors, and they told themselves stories about their ancestors that gave them the courage--the heart--to carry on in the world. In this I think they were wiser than we. Our history teaches us to be proud because we are better than our ancestors. Their history taught them to be proud because they were descended from those ancestors.