The title of this post is what I should have done when I decided to start blogging again. What I did instead was start plotting out a post that should probably be split into multiple posts, a project so ambitious that while scribbling notes over coffee this morning, two full weeks after deciding to do it, I finally realized just how much I had put on my plate. In hindsight, I should really have written several smaller posts first to get back into the swing of things.
In the meantime, here’s a video that really communicates the power of history. It’s not just a neat example of how historians try to make sense of events when it is impossible to know the full story, but it also has a verisimilitude to it that makes me think it should be part of the Star Wars canon. I can easily imagine exactly this being produced (within the fictional setting, that is) a few generations after the events of the movies.
I give you: The Galactic Civil War.
We tend to think of people of the past as being wise. Having had knowledge and techniques that have been lost, except perhaps for a few old books containing forgotten secrets. A big part of this probably has to do with actual history, for example in Europe the trick to making concrete was lost for a thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.
If memory serves (it frequently doesn’t), it was returned to Europe, or at least Christian Europe, during the Crusades when Christians captured a cache of Greek and Roman books that had fallen into obscurity. (In Spain? Can’t recall.) It’s not clear to me whether the Muslims were still using concrete or if they were just sitting on the books without actually reading them. (Hey, it’s been a long time since history class!) That must have seemed pretty awesome to people at the time, finding those forgotten techniques from people who were, to them, mysterious and alien cultures from the distant past.
That’s still a common theme in fiction, a forgotten civilization with knowledge and technology more advanced than our own, whose secrets lie waiting to be rediscovered. It makes for grand adventure stories, where daring heroes explore mysterious ruins and unlock ancient secrets.
But in the real world, things aren’t so simple.
See the tricky thing about ancient people is that they were people, just like us. On the whole, they weren’t any smarter or stupider than we are now. Their wisdom seems above average to us now mostly because we tend to remember the things they were right about and discard their mistakes. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate act of distortion, (actually I think that’s very rare) but probably because what they were wrong about usually isn’t useful to us.
But the idea has power, as ideas do. Something marketed as “Ancient Chinese Wisdom” will sell better than the same thing without that label, because we remember that the ancient Chinese invented magnetic compasses, gunpowder, differential gears, and a thousand other mundane miracles. We forget that ancient Chinese wisdom also drives the demand for illegal rhinoceros horn, which has already caused the extinction of more than one species of rhino.
I’ve heard that in China the equivalent catch-phrase is “New American Science”. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but approve of the symmetry, at least.
This post germinated while I was reading the Medieval Bestiary site, looking specifically for fantastic creatures to use in fiction. I got a little distracted by how very wrong it was about animals that weren’t flights of wild imagination, but ordinary, mundane beasts that you can see in any zoo. Read the rest of this entry
A friend sent me this NPR article about the origins of Valentine’s Day. Despite my usual love of history it didn’t strike me as especially interesting, I like my historical info much more in-depth. Preferably with citations. But then I looked at the comments.
Great Scott the comments are insane! People claiming the article slanders catholics, people bragging that NPR will soon be defunct, people howling that history wasn’t like that and in one memorably bizarre instance, someone claiming that the dark ages were the time before religion “stopped the heathen practices of their uncivilized, ancestors”. Exactly what that’s supposed to mean is unclear to me, but it sure was a strange thing to read. Read the rest of this entry