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.