Thursday, October 08, 2020

Structure of History Influences Content

 I have been listening to British History Podcasts. Two of them take an approach I liked at first but have grown tired of. They are clearly Monty Python influenced, mocking and quite cynical about any supposed good motive than anyone would have had for doing anything. Both gave Alfred the Great considerable credit for his rulership, but it was grudging, and the legacy of his son and grandson, and even at least one of his great-grandsons, Edgar the Peaceful was retold with a fair bit of snark at every possible turn. Not many monarchs can claim such a legacy of decent descendants, but the podcasters seemed intent on pointing out the possible ill motives of all of them for any actions. With Alfred and his descendants that takes an enormous skepticism, as they seemed to have a good run at being decent rulers, in an age long before our Better Angels even started in the 13th C and every tribe was in constant danger of being attacked by neighbors. 

 No one in the church ever did anything from good motive, they always had something to gain. No trade agreement was ever for the good of the country, no alliance was ever built on hope for the nation, no mercy was ever extended for Christian reasons. It is a very 20th C view, with roots extending back to the 19th C and perhaps to Voltaire, to be forever among the wise who can see through all those others. It shows no sign of relenting in the 21st C. To make their histories come alive, they try to give a modern twist to events "It's the equivalent of the queen shacing up with the pool boy." It's largely projecting our understandings back onto the lives of others. In an effort to make them understandable to us, they completely misunderstand them. Their was a world of violence unimaginable to us, where physical cruelty was normal. Heck, that's true of the early part of the 20th C (and many places in the world still), extended back in history worse and worse in every era. 

Their ideas of honor were different than ours, not hypocritical versions of what we think of as honorable now. Their sexual morality bears some relation to ours but is not identical, neither to the 21st C moderns or traditionalists. The concept of individual rights we think of as automatic was unknown to them. We think we would never have put up with what people did then, but of course we would. Snark assumes enormously that the current values of the speaker are the "real" values of human beings. We complain about the 1619 Project and other modern extremities, but they are simply the latest in a long line. Rejecting Founding Fathers because they had views which we now dislike is not multicultural, but unicultural. 

All that to introduce an idea on the presentation of history. When we try and teach history chronologically, we cannot help but do this. Teaching history as kings, dates, and battles steers us powerfully in the direction of imposing our understandings on them. This was true in earlier eras, when our grandparents imposed their ideas on history when passing it along to us, and it is true now. The podcasters, in teaching history in solely chronological fashion, fall naturally into imposing their 21st C snark and cuteness on the past. It is not absolutely necessary, as people do seem able to break out and give us something different from time to time. But when we go from one Mercian or Kentish ruler's battles and marriages and alliances to the next as if that is history, we find ourselves trying to explain something two centuries later and having to go "Oh yes. The economy of the peasants was quite different now. Let me explain." Or "Somewhere in here it became possible for Anglo-Saxon women to own property in their own right, which doesn't seem to have been the case in AD 750. Or maybe it was, but there's no record." Those things matter rather more in understanding history than knowing the succession in Northumberland. 

There are other ways of imposing our views on history, certainly, some of them quite common in the modern academy, such as insisting that everything be viewed through the eyes of race, or women, or class. Those are often worse, because there is little historical or archaeological data, leaving the historian free to impose his assumptions. That is not my topic here now, and seldom is. Others more qualified attack that question. I am actually giving credit to the professional historians here, as there are less likely to get bogged down in that unrelenting chronology that the podcasters fall into. The ironic part is that though these podcasters are quite liberal and modern in their sensibilities, not falling for any of this church or patriotism stuff and insisting that they are going to be quite radical by including women in their reporting of history, as if that idea only occured to people last Wednesday. And then they don't of course, not very much, because they were too busy chronicling Aethelsomething and his brothers who had this "Game of Thrones" relationship. And detailed accounts of battles. Other than the longbow and Agincourt, they don't much notice changes in weaponry and tactics either. 

You will do better understanding history if you come at your topic from the side. David Symons, one of the primary researchers on the Staffordshire Hoard (magnificent stuff - you could lose a couple of hours just looking at it) was very open about how re-enactors had helped the Birmingham Museum understand many of the pieces. Much of the craftsmanship is intricate, using techniques now forgotten. But those who make replica merchandise for whatever the British equivalent of a Renn Fair is were able to reverse engineer some of it, and explain how bits worked, and collaborated nicely with the professionals. Not surprisingly, the craftsmen also drew inspiration from what they were seeing and started working on ways to accomplish methods that had been lost. The re-enactors didn't come to learn kings and battles that much, except as a steppingstone to understanding the culture. 

Similarly, I have learned more social and cultural history of the British Isles from the History of English podcast, which focusses on the development of the language. To explain that, a fair bit of kings 'n battles history has to come in, but keeping those secondary results in more understanding of the lives of the people. Never forget the peasants. The changes are slow and a bit tedious, but they are where real history is. Admittedly, their costumes are nowhere near as cool. 

I will mention again Patrick Wyman's Tides of History, a professional historian who went a bit rogue in order to teach history the way he likes it. He is currently doing prehistory, but his previous effort on the Middle Ages went on for over a hundred episodes. It's not just kings, but shipbuilding, banking, women's roles, disease, marriage customs, banking, and technology. 

So pick the topic you like and research the era in terms of that. For me it has been language and religious ideas. You might prefer to understand cloth, or women and guilds, or early firearms, or musical instruments. But if you study that, you will find that the other pieces all come in on their own, including any number of kings and battles. My wife is not the only person who started her historical knowledge founded on romances, mysteries, and long series of historical fiction. Eventually you know very clearly who Maude and Stephen were and what the argument was about.


David Foster said...

Very good post.

Sam L. said...

Rabbit holes are FUN.