History vs. Reality

Lately, I’ve been reading C. Warren Hollister’s Medieval Europe: A Short History, since it’s a subject that I know pretty well (at a certain level, anyway) so I can read a few pages before bed, fall asleep, and easily pick it back up the next day. As far as the scholarship goes, it’s a bit… bizarre. The author seems to think the Battle of Tours-Poitiers took place in 733, which made me go, “huh?” because I’ve never before heard it associated with that date, and there’s a little whitewashing of some very nasty people, but that can be chalked up to having to cram a lot of information into a ‘short’ history.

And, anyway, I’ve moved to the point where I’m reading the book not for the facts, but in search of a spark. No, I don’t need any more projects; I’m rereading the information to help integrate things I already know, to draw conclusions that I never considered before.

Last night, I started wondering what future people will think of our era. I’ll try to stay away from politics, and so should you in the comments, but I can’t help wondering what will be put in the history books. Will people assume that we all thought the same way, or will the books skim over the last few decades with summary sentences like, “It was a chaotic time, with many factions fighting for control. Eventually, the ______ faction triumphed, and the conflict died away”?

This wacky trail of thought emerged from reading about the High Middle Ages. The period from about 1050 to 1300 is described as slowly gaining in technology and civilization. The author doesn’t appear to know about the Medieval Warm Period, but he mentions three-field rotation, improvements in the plow, the invention of the horse collar, and the draining of swamps in Northern Europe. All of these things contributed to a population explosion, which led to increased expansion on three frontiers- Spain, Eastern Europe, and the Holy Land. Most of the associated interactions were violent and all three expansions were classed as Crusades, but there was some peaceful cultural contact. The conquest of Sicily by the Normans and of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade also contributed to cross-cultural pollination and sharing of knowledge.

Okay. So people’s lives starting improving after 1000 AD- no coincidence that the Vikings were fading and the Hungarians were pushed back at about that time. And when the Medieval Warm Period ended around 1300 and the Great Plague showed up in 1346, life got a lot worse before improving again during the Renaissance.

That’s the history that we’re taught in school (As an aside, I laugh at the books that say, ‘most people think of the Middle Ages as a period of darkness between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, as though history stopped for a thousand years,’ or anything of the sort. The idea of the thousand-year ‘Dark Ages’ was discredited a long damn time ago, and even my iffy public school history classes taught the Carolingian Renaissance and the High Middle Ages, yet people still talk about it like they’ve discovered something new and shiny.) Ahem. Anyway. We’re taught a skeletal outlook regarding history, which isn’t necessarily bad; it’s important to have an accurate chronology so we can see how events relate to each other. But most people never fill in the gaps. They never move past the skeletal framework of history. It’s too much work, and few people use the information.

But the gaps are the most interesting bits, to me. I’ve been reading about this area of history since childhood, having been attracted to the era by the idea of chivalrous knights on horseback. I know better now, but the point is that I have an amateur understanding of the events of the time, so I can focus on what happened in between.

For example. Jerusalem was captured by the First Crusade in 1099. It fell to Saladin in 1187. The book says that the city was in Christian hands for ‘less than a hundred years’, which is accurate but makes it sound like this was a passing moment in history. But 88 years is a long time when a generation is about twenty years on average, and the life expectancy at birth was about forty. Whole generations were born, lived full lives, and died when Jerusalem belonged to the Christians. Did they wonder what the history books would say about them? Would they read our books and laugh, or roll their eyes in disgust?

In a history book, fifty years is a short period of time. Most books have to skim over momentous events in a couple of sentences, so it’s easy to forget that real people lived during those events. Real people, just like you and me, with real troubles and triumphs. And as in every point in history, most of them weren’t movers and shakers, so they worried about similar things to us- making a living, the health of their children, how they were going to fix the leak in the roof- even if their worries took place in different contexts. I mean, when was the last time you saw a Viking raid? But if you lived near the Thames around 850, they were a regular occurrence. “What’s that burning in the distance?” “Oh, that’s just old Thorkil the Dane, stopping for lunch at Egbert’s farm like he does every year. Hurry up, we need to get the sheep under cover before he sees us, then we can go back to thatching the roof.”

But most history books gloss over those details, usually because there’s not enough space and time to teach every little nuance. And sometimes they gloss over large portions of fact, ignoring entire eras for the sake of simplicity. Everyone knows about Martin Luther and his ninety-five theses that kicked off the Protestant Reformation, but not many people learn about John Wycliffe, Jan Huss, Lollardism, or any of the other incremental shifts that preceded the Reformation. The canny and curious reader can learn more about forgotten moments of history, but it takes work, and most people don’t care enough to do it.

And society is never monolithic in terms of philosophy, belief, and experiences. Americans tend to think that hippies invented the ‘counter-culture’ phenomenon in the 1960s, but in reality, there have always been sub-cultures and underclasses that believe and behave contrary to the history books. Sometimes they rebel purposely, like Oscar Wilde in the late Victorian era. Sometimes they’re taught a specific way and never bother to question it because they’re too busy making a living.

In the past, beliefs changed slowly. Catholics had been attempting to reform the Church ever since there was such an institution. Proto-Protestantism began cropping up two hundred years before the Reformation and didn’t really take root until Henry VIII decided to adopt it for his own purposes and the printing press made it possible to disseminate the information.

We in the Western world are undergoing some very rapid changes in beliefs, due to technology. Radio, TV, and the internet all propagate ideas through society at speeds that would be unimaginable to people two hundred years ago. And now we have an overt ideological balkanization throughout all levels of society. I’m not going to say, ‘there can only be one’ winning ideology, but it’s very likely that only one will take center stage when it comes time to write the history books.

Based on the way we view the past, I can guess how people are going to view us. They’ll say things like, “Wow, those Americans in 2018 had some really weird ideas about medicine/farming/the right way of washing dishes” or “Really? They all believed in (insert political cause du jour)?” Only the ones who bother to think about what they read will realize that no, society is/was not monolithic, and not everyone washes dishes the same way, no matter what the book says.

We should study history with this idea in mind. To purposely ignore nuance and differing opinions is childish and lazy, and does a disservice to the real, living people who came before us. Luckily for us, we have the internet, along with zillions of books focusing on different aspects of microhistory, so the information is available to anyone who cares to look for it.

None of us can tell if we’ll be on the ‘right’ side of history. Every fanatic in the world think he’ll be proven right, but the only thing we can be sure of is that society will change, and no matter what our beliefs, there will be at least one person in the future who looks at us and says, “What an idiot.”

And that’s okay.


47 thoughts on “History vs. Reality

  1. “Everyone knows about Martin Luther and his ninety-five theses that kicked off the Protestant Reformation, but not many people learn about John Wycliffe, Jan Huss, Lollardism, or any of the other incremental shifts that preceded the Reformation.”
    Guess I am an outlier, because I learned all about this as part of Lutheran Catechetical class, which used to be once weekly, over three years. (Alas, like many other educational requirements, has been watered down since then.) But my brother and I finished up being very well grounded in theology, for teenagers, and my brother had such a taste for arguing points of theological dogma that he often was mistaken for being Jewish.

    1. And last year was the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his theses to the door (which historians now say didn’t happen, but come on, leave a good story alone, please.) Don’t get me started on the date of the Great Schism, which was not the Reformation…

      Oh no you don’t! *hurries off as the AtH soapbox tries to sneak up on her*

    2. “I learned all about this as part of Lutheran Catechetical class, which used to be once weekly, over three years.”

      I’m nominally Catholic, and missed out on a lot of CCD because my parents had a feud with the Church. So my religious education was snatched at random from a lot of secular sources.

      1. Unlikely that you missed much. RE classes have been awful for years. If you ever get curious try Matthew Kelly or go directly to the Catholic Catechism online at Vatican.va

      2. Sadly got to agree with Jane, most likely you didn’t miss much substance. If you can get the “new and improved” site to actually bring up anything useful, catholic.com is great for non-political answers, usually with citations.

  2. I’m curious about the next world war, and also how the twenty first century will top the twentieth for mass murder.

  3. One of the doctors who treated my son’s cancer said that he was sure that the future would regard our cancer treatments with absolute horror for the misery they inflict. I asked him why they were used in that case, and he said because they work (at times) but my son was one of those times that the treatment worked so what can I say.

    As English speakers we tend to see Henry VIII as crucial but he was a Johnny-come-lately compared to Luther, and John Calvin really transformed Central Europe more than Henry. But that’s just nitpicking and proving your point.

    1. If you want it more strongly phrased: chemotherapy is feeding someone poison in hopes it will kill the sick parts faster than the healthy parts.

  4. One of my favourite medieval history books is “A Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman. She builds an excellent history by following the very eventful life of a 14th century French nobleman. She’s also a good writer and really draws you in to how these medieval people lived and thought.

    We Internetters think we’re living through the most amazing changes of all time, but 1450 – 1500 saw a lot of change. Can anyone recommend a good book about the period?

    1. I’m also a fan of “A Distant Mirror”, partly because I’m amazed that one man bounced around so much of Europe for so long. I know that people traveled more than we realize, particularly if they were of a certain social class, but geez.

    2. Where and what specifics are you interested in? Spain and the consequences of the Reconquista? England and the War of the Roses? The Ottoman advances in Eastern Europe? The princes of Muscovy claiming the heritage of Kievian Rus and of Constantinople? The beginning of the decline of the Hanseatic League and some reconfigurations of the Holy Roman Empire under the Habsburgs? The peak – perhaps – of Ming Dynasty China? The rise of the Incas and Aztecs? The power vacuum in eastern North American caused by the collapse of the Missippian/Cahokian culture?

      It was a rather busy 50 years, although the next 150 also had a few things going on here and there.

  5. “The first half of the 20th century was marred by a succession of wars so widespread they called them World Wars. But the second half was the flowering of the Electronics, Information, and Space Age. The Twenty-first century ushered in the BioMedical Revolution . . . ”

    Either that or we’ll be using the history books for tinder to light the cookfires when we catch a mutant rat for dinner.

  6. It reminds me of “The History of the World According to High School Students.” For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s a collection of statements about history supposedly handed in to teachers by real kids. For example, “Martin Luther nailed his feces to the wall and was made to eat a diet of worms.” My favorite, though, went like this (from memory):

    Elizabeth I was the Virgin Queen. As a queen, she was a success. When she exposed herself to her troops, they all shouted, “Hurrah!” Then they went out and defeated the Spanish Armadillo. And Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

    1. That one comes from Anguished English, a compilation of assaults on the language compiled by former teacher Richard Lederer. (He had a wide and varied mailing list, and so had plenty of examples to draw from.) Definitely a classic.

  7. For people who want to see what happens when radical politics meets some VERY bizarre theology, check out Norman Cohn’s “Pursuit of the Millennium”. It covers various mystics, heretics, revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the middle ages. These were some crazy and dangerous people according to Mr. Cohn — apparently mixing wild mysticism with radical politics can get very dangerous, very fast. Heck one guy, the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine, basically wrote out the platform for the German National Socialist Party all the way back in the 17th century.

    1. And look what the Münster Anabaptists did – they managed to unify the Lutherans and Catholics (briefly) and almost ended the entire Anabaptist movement then and there.

      1. Well, as I recall they /did/ end the violent-radical wing of the Anabaptists simply by getting them all killed.

        1. Yeah, learning about the violent historic Anabaptists, and how the modern surviving Anabaptist sects are almost entirely pacifist*, reminded me of Ori’s comment on the Sicarii, the Romans, and modern Jews.

          Which of course got me thinking about the Islamic and Socialist faiths, and whether the American institution of religious tolerance would inhibit such outcomes.

          *Though in some ways seeming to retain some of the unpleasant qualities that some, such as Luther, perceived in the broader historic Anabaptist movement.

  8. Catholics had been attempting to reform the Church ever since there was such an institution.

    And succeeding often. The thing is that no reform ever lasts forever

    ” If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton

    This also has implications for history.

    1. This comment is for Mary: I did notice a few years ago when reading up on Catholicism that it seems like the Church goes through periods of stability that turn into complacency until a new reformer comes along. It does make things ‘interesting’ for the people alive at the time.

  9. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    I think this is one of the reasons that finding a collection of letters written by the people of the time, or newspaper clippings from papers reporting issues as they affected people “way back when” are good ways to learn about the times, and sometimes more rewarding than yet another book that consists of a series of dates and significant battles.

    1. O yes!


      Read lots and lots of primary source. It’s not the research goodness. It’s that there’s no better way to broaden your mind.

  10. Good Ghod, you wash your dishes? Get a molecular recycler and print a new set for each meal, like mother taught you! Do you know what kind of diseases are transmitted on used dishes?

  11. I confess – I still wash dishes by hand. For me it is a comfort chore, akin to the idea of comfort food. Besides, exercising my fingers in hot soapy water a few times a week has the added benefit that my hands are never stiff, even after long sessions of wire-wrapping jewelry, playing online solitaire, or clipping the bougainvillea bushes. Rationalization is a wonderful thing!

  12. I have a daughter that is becoming interested in world history (Via a Hetalia fandom, surprisingly.) I would love to get her some world history books that are interesting enough to catch her imagination. For example, more story/character based rather than “in the year xxx this, in the year yyy that”. She isn’t going be interested in dates, she’s going to be interested in people and what they did.

    The idea is to leverage her Hetalia fandom into a “History fandom”. (hey, we all trick our kids into doing things that are good for them… don’t judge!)

    Any history buffs out there have good suggestions?

    1. I liked Rosemary Sutecliff, but some of her books are not for children, and she does have a perspective. There was a series called “We Were There” that I read some of.

      The “Liberty’s Kids” cartoon is fairly nice.

      I read very widely, and this included fiction set in a number of periods. I transitioned to directly reading history early; by middle school I was into the Encyclopedia of Military History (which I wasn’t grounded well enough to retain as well as was otherwise usual). I do not remember a single influential gateway drug. If I worked at it, I might compile a list of a dozen or a hundred authors. Wilder. The Stratemeyer Syndicate. (was history when I read them.) Aiken. (Has some very adult novels.) Diana Jones, maybe. Hildick (mostly he did other things).

      I think I’ve heard of the Cartoon guide to history.

      I’m currently looking at when I might get into the unabridged Romance of Three Kingdoms. That era of military tech is quite heavily influenced by personalities of leaders. There are lots of Anime and Manga based on RoTK, and there are abridged versions. But Achilles, Horatio, etc. on the western side are also fairly similarly based on character. Need context for it to work, but still.

      1. The Cartoon History of the Universe (three volumes, leading up to about 1700) is by Larry Gonick, and is pretty good as an overview. I haven’t read his Cartoon History of the Modern World (the follow ups), though I’ve heard that’s much more obnoxiously obvious as to viewpoint. One thing I do like is that he occasionally does a two-page spread to show which events are happening all over the world, to give a bit of connection that most histories lack.

        1. Eh. I’ve not found Gonick that reliable.

          For instance he summarizes Augustine’s Confessions in four panels with five howlers.

    2. Oof. The ones that come to mind are closer to monographs and would bore or confuse her more than encourage her. They are well written, but not for a beginner.

      Let me see if I can dig around and find some titles.

    3. James Buchan’s books were the WWI version of Clive Cussler, written as contemporary thrillers DURING and JUST AFTER the Great War: I don’t know that they’re terribly accurate to the EVENTS of the time, but as a source for the PERIOD (since they were written in the middle of it) I’d definitely recommend ’em.

  13. “…the right way of washing dishes”

    Yes, I too suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Dishwasher Loading Disorder.

    The plates go this way, the bowls face the same way and have to be double spaced, the forks and spoons alternate…

    1. LOL! A friend of mine used to come over and load my dishwasher all crazy and haphazardly, KNOWING that it would drive me up the wall. “You cooked, I’ll clean the kitchen” she would say, knowing very well that I would re-do the whole thing as soon as she left.

  14. As an aside, I laugh at the books that say, ‘most people think of the Middle Ages as a period of darkness between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, as though history stopped for a thousand years,’ or anything of the sort. The idea of the thousand-year ‘Dark Ages’ was discredited a long damn time ago, and even my iffy public school history classes taught the Carolingian Renaissance and the High Middle Ages, yet people still talk about it like they’ve discovered something new and shiny.)


    You got lucky. We didn’t even COVER that in my history class.

    I’ve had classmates who were going for history degrees* who do the “middle ages/dark ages/ignorance and evil for a thousand years” shtick.

    * One of them, he was not far from graduating.

    1. And then there’s my husband, who for his history thesis did forty pages on the evolution of the English language in part of the 13th century. (Yes, 13th and not 14th. He did his own translations.) I think most of his classmates were a bit stunned by that.

    2. I have been flatly told that it is ALL the Dark Ages, and in support of this quoted something from an unknown source that talked about how it USED TO be called that.

      1. The first several times I got happy I got to share the neat tidbit that it’s “dark” as in “no light,” not “dark” as in “nothing happened”, and start talking about all the really cool stuff we’re able to get for records especially now with digitizing….

        Uh, yeah, I am kind of an idiot on picking up when someone doesn’t WANT to hear anything good about a subject, they made up their mind. /sigh

  15. We may have the most ironic of futures. When communism fell in the Soviet Union, no one expected it to be peaceful, rather it would end in a crash where millions die. What seems more and more possible is that in America communism will either win, or we end up with the bloodiest civil war in history.

    Our civil war would trigger many other bloody conflicts, India-Pakistan, China-Taiwan, etc. The loss of food for the world would result in starvation of millions, without our presence as a force for good, evil will have a field day. Think “Its a Wonderful Life”, with Jimmy Stewart as America.

    Worst case, civilization collapses. China picks up the pieces, except Putin has all those nukes…and not enough Russians.

    Someone should write a story about this. You think the eruption of Yellowstone would be bad, this is 10 mile Asteroid awful,

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