Monday, April 9, 2012

A to Z: History

History is very significant to me.  I couldn't do this list of things which influence me without including history.

History probably ranks among the least popular subjects one studies in school.  And while I did have a couple history classes I loved in my freshman year of high school I also found the rest of them rather dull and uninteresting.  But that had more to do with how they were taught than a lack of interest in the topics.  Really, how can anyone not find history interesting? History is everything.  It is science, it is art, it is literature, and the rest: war, sex, intrigue, adventure, risk and tragedy.  If a person can be bored with everything then there is something seriously wrong with them, for what else is left to be interested in? Whatever you like and are drawn to, it has a context and a story for how it came to be, and things that are just like it in the past.

History is one giant story, and who doesn't like stories?

Some people are so blinded by their present they fail to realize the significance of a historical context in everything around them.  The only reason things are as they are is because there is a history behind it.

I remember when I was a kid being told that the difference between humans and other animals (although they probably didn't use the qualifier "other") was that humans used tools, animals didn't. Then we found animals who used tools.  So the significant difference was said to be intelligence and abstract thought, then it was proven that other animals do this too.  Language: no, they have it too.  Transmittal of culture: well, chimps do teach their young to use termite 'fishing' sticks, so maybe that does away with that one too.
But I'd suggest that the most significant difference is the transmittal of history.

As a species we do not forget our past.  We keep it alive.  We build on it. Ideally, we learn from it.  It may be that we are the only animal that does this.  Our present is recorded, in story, in writing, in pictures and told in a way that those who came after it can experience it.  This is an amazingly useful tool. It shocks me that so many humans squander this cultural gift and chose to live blind, as if the world came into being wholecloth as they experience it.  It is such a bland 2-dimensional way to look at life.  It's like living life like the character from Memento: each generation would start from scratch, in ignorance.   I'd argue that the present without a historical context is more boring, not less, as well as incomprehensible. 

A short selection of some of my favorite parts of history:

Formation of Civilizations: 
How interesting is this?  When people in an area begin to get it in their heads to stop being nomadic or semi-nomadic, realize they can settle down, not move from place to place but instead stay put.  This goes to show just how lazy humans are.  We will do an incredible amount of work just to sit put. 

One of the things that interests me most about this is the dubious notion that it was a good idea at all. In order to rely on agriculture and domesticated animals, we needed to/allowed ourselves to stay in one place.  And what a mess of problems arose out of this! Overpopulation, pollution, a drastic increase in disease, malnutrition, slavery, wealth & poverty, power over fellow human beings, apathy and not knowing the people you share a society with, and war. Probably more problems too.  All of these came up as side effects to staying put and making a go at agriculture & civilization.  Most of the problems we haven't even begun to fix and it's been ten thousand years. On the flip side of this, we have large scale art & architecture, writing, and advanced our various scientific and cultural disciplines. was it worth it? I don't know, but it's an interesting world we've created. And you know what they say about living in interesting times.

Black Plague
The big one in the late middle ages.  Have to specify because there were a lot of outbreaks over the centuries.  But this one interests me the most.  This changed the cultural trajectory of a civilization that in turn changed the trajectory of the world. Not bad for some rats and fleas. 

Before this Europeans were overwhelmingly in favor of assuming that the world was as it was because there was a god who wanted it that way.  While this tragedy caused some of these people to reaffirm this belief and add that they must have been very naughty indeed, a large group began to think maybe it wasn't such a good way of looking for answers after all.  Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to look for answers that could be found and understood.  It also shook up the constricting power of the wealthy by giving a lot of leverage to the poorer working people who were still alive.  You could probably file that under Capitalism, or Marxism, or both. maybe just good common sense. At any rate, it lead to a rise in middle class, which lead to more education, a higher quality of life and a desire for finer things in life. Add these two results together and you give a lot of weight behind the age of exploration which will come next.  I file this under great inspiration: from the worst tragedies can come the things you treasure most. 

So many interesting aspects to this.  One of the most interesting to me is that the motivation for the first crusade wasn't likely religious at all!  That was just an excuse.  Because land and title transferred to the eldest male alone, that meant 2nd sons would tend to go into the church, as their next best shot at wealth and power.  But after those bribes are paid, what's left for 3rd & later sons? Some coin, a horse, the best weapons and armor that they can afford and a 'good luck son, go make a name for yourself." These self-important thugs went out, selling their swordarm when they could, and  generally causing mayhem when they couldn't.  It was an epidemic.  They fought, stole, and were untouchable by commoners because of their 'noble' blood.  What's a continent to do? If you can't stop them being violent, then direct it elsewhere! And so a crusade was called and these greedy anti-social ruffians went to someone else's land hoping to make a name and grab some land, or at least more money.  What a mess.
This became an obsession and went on for generations. One guy I feel sorry for was John.  How history has maligned this man.  Richard was the good brother? Please. Drive the country into bankruptcy to pay for an unnecessary foreign war leaving the country in an impossible state of rising inflation and crumbling infrastructure.  Wow, that sounds familiar.  The story as most know it, thanks to tales like 'Robin Hood' is that John was a greedy false king who raised taxes because he's greedy and bad, but Richard was good.  Richard didn't give two snots about England, except as a source of money for his war.  
So why does John get the smear job?
For one thing, history is written by the winners, and the mess he tries to fix lands him in a civil war, which he loses.  Yes, he did try to raise taxes.  Not because he was greedy though, that's the propaganda that's stuck through the ages.  The fact is, the law of England gave the king power to tax, to pay for the infrastructure like roads, courts, military, etc- you know, the things government is responsible for running.  But the law specifically stated how much the taxes were.  That was fine back when they were written-based on the Domesday Book of 1066.  That laid out exactly what each region owed in taxes.  But as time went on, a funny thing happened: things got better! New inventions & innovations occurred.  This caused people to make more money. When many people have more money, prices go up. that is inflation, something the early middle ages didn't really have to deal with. But they do now.  New higher prices, same old value taxes: uh-oh.  Imagine trying to run the same government programs today on a dollar amount set in stone back in 1920!  

No wonder the Earls & Barons raised hell when told they had to pay more taxes! They had a sweet deal. Many people today would love to only have to pay $1,000 in income taxes- that was a lot of money in 1920, but not so much now. So he raised taxes. He'd have been an idiot not to. He's have been a bad king if he didn't! He'd be a worse king if he didn't and instead spent what money he had on a war that wasn't needed. Yeah, looking at you Richard! 

OK, so he resisted the Magna Carta. Not good there, but the point is he's a much more complex grey area king than he's given credit for.  

I guess you can tell I am inspired by history. I thought this would be a short post and I've only talked about half the periods I thought I would.

I'll just end on a hint about miniatures wargaming. I really want to make some historical armies.  Top on my to-do list is:
*The SAGA armies I started
*British Celtic Army
*Late Roman Republic or Early Imperial Army
*1st or 3rd Crsuade Army
*English Civil War Army.

This has been an A-Z Challenge post. 
For the month of April there will be an update for each letter within the theme of: Things that influence and inspire me, or the converse: things which I find distressing or make me want to rail at the world.
Some of these will pertain to the miniatures hobby, but many will venture off to atypical territory for the duration of the challenge, then it will be back to normal with mostly minis and an occasional blithering.
You can find out more about the A-Z challenge my clicking the logo at the top left of the page. 


Mr. Lee said...

Great article.. can't say it was the most boring class ever as I had a lot of fun in it, but you definitely bring a different spin on it that is for sure. Great article once more mate!

Dunc said...

History is great. I wish I'd done my degree in that, rather than Politics. Interest has always been helped here in Blighty by the eminently watchable, and now sadly departed, Richard Holmes. Also the ever so very delectable Bettany Hughes - I think she talks about history in her programmes, although I'm not sure; I find it hard to pay attention.

I'm beginning to think 1st Crusades would be best at 15mm - 28mm is just too big for anything except skirmish

Paul of the Man Cave said...

I love History too (and its closely related 'what ifs' of Alternate History) but only on a few occasions were my classes focused on the history that I wanted to study. Not often did I get an overdose of goodies like you have described, but more mundane political histories or suchlike. Yes thats important, but hardly the stuff of legends and wargaming!

Paul of the Man Cave said...

"Prepare for the Unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable", General George S. Patton

Pete said...

Nice on, old boy. I hated History back in school, because it didn't focus on what I was interested in. Funnily enough, the era that it focused on is these days my favourite, but I still haven't got much interest in the social aspects that my GCSE contained, and I have much more in the military and strategic ones. From the sounds of it, I'm just like Paul of the Man Cave! I can imagine that a lot of people aren't as into it as they should be for that reason: the focus of a particular course doesn't appeal to them. You're quite right in saying that it encompasses everything, so there's no way one should be bored by all of it!

S. L. Hennessy said...

I was a history and English double major, so I think it's awesome. And important. Besides, other than fiction novels, where else do you get to read about bloody battles and power hungry royalty?

Lead Legion said...

You're absolutely spot on about John. He did the best he could with the hand he was given. Fiscally speaking, he was England's most savvy king. Not the greatest people-person king, nor that great a soldier.

But then, in comparison to his father, Henry, and brother, Richard, he had an almost impossible act to follow. He was actually more militarily capable than many folk believe (thanks mainly to the advice and guidence of William Marshal) but his candle was very much overshadowed by the splendour of his father and brother's battle skills.

Of course, for some reason, it's the warrior-kings who are remembered most fondly. Can anyone tell me the name of the English kin whose long reign was almost entirely peaceful?

Bet you can't.

Fizzle said...

I always found history to be my most engaging subject in high school. It's amazing how old the earth is and how far mankind has come.

Magic27 said...

Great post!
I hated History at school because my nice-but-misguided teacher chose the "British social and economic history" syllabus (biggest yawn-fest EVER) over "world history" (which would have included the Boxer Rebellion, the Russian civil war and other such amazing episodes). As it was, we waded through the repeal of the Corn Laws, the implementation of the Window Tax, Lord Shaftesbury and bla-bla-bla. Yawn.
Now, I love history and get so mad at how badly it's taught.
What's interesting to me now (and more than a little annoying, it has to be said) is how my elder daughter is being taught history at school here in France. She's pretty much a French kid in a French school in France, and the way episodes of history involving Britain and France are taught on either side of the Channel is fascinating. Right now, her teacher is doing Napoleon and the focus is much less on his defeats than when I learned about him in Britain! Napoleon's flaws are glossed over, as are his mistakes (one line in her text about the disastrous Russian campaign...) Oh, and the fact that French texts always refer to "England" and not "Britain" drives me batshit insane...but that's another (hi)story...

Laughing Ferret said...

Thanks Mr.Lee!

Dunc: I'm a big fan of history, I got a couple degrees in it, so I'm biased. I'm also tempted to make a crusades army in 15mm, but there are some really nice 28s now, plastics from Conquest, and new ones coming from Fire Forge.. so tempting.

Great quote Paul, and strikes me as very true too.

Pete: I suppose there is a lot of boring stuff, so if a history class only focuses on the boring, then it could be found to be boring, but what a shame, since there is so much that isn't boring! ;)

LL: I think people love the war leaders because of the vicarious thrill of power. You've stumped me, who? I'm just surprised there is any length of time where there wasn't war!

Fizzle: isn't it? and in such a short amount of time too. depending on how far back you measure our species, civilization all together is only 5-10% of our species' entire past.

Thanks for the visit Magic27! Wow that class you describe does indeed sound dull! I've had classes like that, just a list of laws passed and people elected with no analysis, no life to it.
-That's something I always find interesting, how the same events are taught by different cultures. Odd about England/Britain: I'd have thought France would know when to use one or the other. Not surprised Napoleon is taught as a great national hero there, and not surprised to hear the U.K focuses more on the defeats- makes sense for both. The aspect of him that always interested me the most is how willing the French seemed to be to throw away the republic and set up what was effectively another Monarchy: all that work for nothing. Granted he enacted a lot of good reforms based on the enlightenment, but gone was any chance of self-governing. Maybe they'd lost hope by then of a republic ever working since the various versions of it had been either corrupt, ineffectual or cutting off anyone's head who disagreed. I guess that could kind of sour a person's confidence. But still... why not find a way to make it work? How could they throw their rights away? On the other side, the European power's claims to go to war with Napoleon to overthrow him and bring back a Bourbon I have no respect for either. Such a complicated time & issue... deserves to be questioned from both sides. At least your daughter has you to provide the other side of the questions!

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