A brief discussion of the mutability of History

Much as it troubles me to say it, History is NOT a fixed series of events that happened exactly as recorded. It is quite often that 'History' as described in a particular textbook varies greatly from the actual event when it occurred. This is because history, as recorded for posterity, is subject to the whims of the writer, who was often ordered to embellish, leave out unflattering events, or (in some cases) make up out of whole cloth the descriptive narrative by those in power. And those in power were often the winners of a particular skirmish, battle, or war, or the ruling personage at the time of the event's occurrence. "Winners write the history" is a truism 99.99% of the time.

So why study what is most likely a string of lies? Because doing so allows us to avoid repeating the mistakes our forefathers made. There is no greater truism than "Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it, and those who fail to learn from history are simply doomed." Case in point from very recently -- the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America in 1492 was celebrated by the Great Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Participants by the millions came from all over the world to view exhibits, and enjoy the celebratory spectacle of such a momentous occasion. A mere hundred years later, the event was largely ignored, for the idea of Christopher Columbus as a heroic figure had fallen into disfavour -- after all, there was the physical proof that the Vikings had landed in the new world long before, and the (apocryphal) legend that Madoc of Wales had traded with the natives in the Ohio Valley region as early as the 8th century AD. New excavations have given rise to the possibility of the ancient Egyptians influencing life in Mesoamerica before the time of the Roman Empire.

My suggestion, if you really want to know the truth, is to read descriptive accounts written by historians from both the winning and the losing side, if available -- then combine the two, along with a very large grain of salt, for an approximation of the truth.

TheFerret's picture

Devotee

Hows about those textbook authors/editors that are just too lazy to look up a fact or two to verify?

Can we PLEASE stop teaching kids that at the time of Columbus, everybody thought the world was flat??? Can we please stop saying he was trying to show the world was round??!???!!!!!! This just happens to be the first example in my head - but it's stuff that drives me nuts.

I don't mind learning that stuff I was taught in elementary school (etc) was only basically true, I LOVE finding out there's way way more to the story. That's the 2nd reason I got addicted in history. But to find out that elementary/Jr High/HS textbooks have errors - intentional or not - drives me out of my mind!!! And before you go there - there's a difference between factual errors and new research.

rdehwyll's picture

Devotee

I agree with you; unfortunately, textbooks are published with the intention of making money, and the perpetuation of apocryphal data is indeed used far too often. As to the upper levels of education continuing the misinformation, much of that can be attributed to well-meaning governmental interference requiring standardized testing using questions generated by know-nothing bureaucrats who are more interested in maintaining their place in an overpaid government position than with disseminating accurate knowledge. (Sorry, something of a 'hot button' subject with me...)

I see nothing wrong with simplifying history for the younger student, but also wish that later on, the simplification be eradicated through the study of accurate information. Unfortunately, such inaccuracies persist even in recent events, such as the myth that Iraq caused 9/11 -- even when news reports and government statements released to the public affirmed that the terrorists were all Saudis! Also, Washington never chopped down a cherry tree in his father's orchard, and Truman never wanted to A-Bomb Switzerland because his watch stopped... Can you all say "Urban Legend"?

sherinik's picture

Postulant

is dealt with in a really funny albeit thought provoking way in a book co-authored by Stephen Briggs. Now you'll hate me for this, I can't remember exactly which one it was! but it's one of the "Science of The Discworld" books. I read it a few years ago, and had a great time discussing it with my teenage daughters who were starting to realise that the 'truth' presented by your Grade 2 teacher was re-presented in Grade 8 is a very different fashion, and often with a very different emphasis on cause and effect - otherwise known as blame.

Societal mores tell us it's okay to lie to a small child to 'protect' them, at the same time as punishing them for telling lies. Mainstream education systems are skilled at rationalising that hypocrisy, and at the gradual shading of information until the (a?) more mature truth is permitted. Then governments get in on the act, deciding what we the public are able to handle...and that's before we get into private relationships.

Call me cynical, but any information exchange I take as being mutable. That's why I love fiction!

MeiLin's picture

Most High

"The People's History of the United States" in my late teens, I was shocked at how little I really knew. And I'd had a *very* good high school education.

Clare-Dragonfly's picture

Supplicant

I mean, besides the story which I obviously adore--I love that the forum is full of smart, thoughtful people not afraid of discussion!

Are there any books you'd recommend in general? Anything specific on Welsh history? Have you written any?

Lis's picture

Duuuude, me too. Meilin has an unusually fantastic fan base. Considering what you’re liable to pick up on the sole of your proverbial internet shoe, this site is awesome. I don’t know how she does it.

MeiLin's picture

Most High

You guys never cease to amaze me.

Lis's picture

I'm glad you've jumped in. I’m taking two history classes this year, one from a Southwestern Native American perspective and another concerning western expansion. They've been extremely interesting. There are a lot of revisionist histories being published now, much better than many of the ones written in the 70’s. (So many of those come across as knee-jerk reactions, and read as a bit defensive.) I’ve had an interesting time wrapping my mind around a lot of it. Especially because, growing up, our teachers taught from a perspective that went, “Poor Native Americans, they were so close to the earth, and look what we’ve done with it now….” It’s amazing to watch the politics at work on every side of multiple equations, with the introduction of Mexico, Spain and other European immigrants as well as a whole host of tribes - each with different goals, lives and traditions - most of whom I’d never heard of before.

But this is off topic…time to start studying for those tests again.

Oh yeah! I was just going to say, learning these histories has made Intimate History that much better! Take ou the magic, and Tremont might as well be a real country. Especially when you start looking at history from a women's perspective.

rdehwyll's picture

Devotee

There are a great number of books on History that are well worth reading, but a lot of the enjoyment in reading them comes from having an interest in a particular time period or series of events in a specific place. For a general overview, I would recommend any of the Medieval History Textbooks, available at most college bookstores or online at Amazon.com.

Most of the really good books on Welsh History have been written since the late 1800's, when a concerted effort was made to collect and translate the oral histories of the Cymry. There are a number of more recent books that are well done, but not yet translated from the Welsh Language. A good starting point would be a search for "A Short History of Wales", by Sir Owen Morgan Edwards, available for free in E-book form at the Project Gutenberg website: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page -- please note that this was written as a book for children back in 1922, but has one of the most accurate timelines available. Quoting from the introduction, there are a number of his sources for material still available through libraries, though many are in Latin or Welsh --

"The Story of Wales, in the "Story of the Nations" series; "The Welsh People" of Rhys and Brynmor Jones. Of fairly small and cheap books in various periods I may mention Rhys' "Celtic Britain", Owen Rhoscomyl's "Flame Bearers of Welsh History", Henry Owen's "Gerald the Welshman", Bradley's "Owen Glendower", Newell's "Welsh Church", and Rees "Protestant Non-conformity in Wales". More elaborate and expensive books are Seebohm's "Village Community and Tribal System in Wales", Clark's "Medieval Military Architecture", Morris' "Welsh Wars of Edward I", Southall's "Wales and Her Language". In writing local history, A. N. Palmer's "History of Wrexham" and companion volumes are models.

"If you turn to a library, you will find much information about Wales in Social England, the Dictionary of National Biography, the publications of the Cymmrodorion and other societies. You will find articles of great value and interest over the names of F. H. Haverfield, J. W. Willis-Bund, Egerton Phillimore, the Honourable Mrs Bulkeley Owen (Gwenrhian Gwynedd), Henry Owen, the late David Lewis, T. F. Tout, J. E. Lloyd, D. Lleufer Thomas, W. Llywelyn Williams, J. Arthur Price, J. H. Davies, J. Ballinger, Edward Owen, Hubert Hall, Hugh Williams, R. A. Roberts, A. W. Wade-Evans, E. A. Lewis.

"The sources are mostly in Latin or Welsh. Many volumes of chronicles, charters, and historical poems have been published by the Government, by the Corporation of Cardiff, by J. Gwenogvryn Evans, by H. de Grey Birch, and others."

My own writings were mostly Thesii and commentaries, with an occasional article on a particular Site in Wales, for some of the Academic Journals dealing with History. I also have several filing cabinets of lecture notes, though those are in storage at the moment.

Clare-Dragonfly's picture

Supplicant

I've been interested in Wales and its history for a long time, and finally got to visit this summer--by the time I got back to London for the plane home I was already ready to go back. I will look for those books, and apply myself more strenuously to my Welsh language studies!

V's picture

Embodiment

I've read a few chapters and will have to come back later when I have more time.

I'm also trying to think of good questions to ask--I'm pretty sure they'll be of the form "Do you know any good books available online on:" Biggrin So much easier than writing down a title to go borrow from the local library, then actually following up on it...technology's changing the game, and you're just the kind of person to take full advantage of it, rdehwyll.

Hmm--while I might start remembering your whole name, eventually, do you have any preferred form of shorter address? "RD" comes to mind

Requiem's picture

Petitioner

The myths and just plain wrong data keeps going right into college. The sad part is how often there are easily accessed sources that the professor never checked.

Han-pan's picture

Postulant

It's one thing to simplify things. It's another if you look at history books from elementary and high school. And yet another if you never bother to correct the lies/myths. That would by why only history majors/degree holders/teachers/their friends tend to know the "truth".

Oh, and history ignores women. So....I tend to not be very happy with them to begin with Smile

rdehwyll's picture

Devotee

... tend to downplay their achievements, or chooses to remain 'ignorant' of the role they played. You must remember that literacy was uncommon for 95% of the Medieval population, and the remaining 5% were mostly men with with a religious vocation in an organization that did not approve of women who did more than what was 'required' by strongly patriarchal texts and leaders. Personally, I am of the opinion that had women the same opportunities afforded men, the Renaissance period would have occurred several centuries earlier...

GreenGlass's picture

Supplicant

That's such an awesome thing to think about... may I ask why you think that?

I should really brush up on my history! It's so fascinating. My husband, a history major, doesn't think he could stomach teaching history at elementary or even high school level because of all the lies.

rdehwyll's picture

Devotee

Putting it in the simplest terms, the Renaissance occurred because of new ideas and their acceptance. My personal experiences with the 'fairer sex' lead me to believe that, overall, they are both more creative and more accepting. Had women been allowed the same opportunities as men during the Medieval Period, they would have developed new ideas and fostered the acceptance of such much more quickly -- as much as 40% quicker, hence my estimate of several centuries.

V's picture

Embodiment

So, what kicked it off in the first place? The decline and fall of the Roman empire with its centralized government + "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" taken overboard among the intellectuals until progress was paralyzed?

I've also seen it argued that the last few millennia are a mere blip on the face of human existence, and that the "dark ages" were not so much a leap backwards as a return to normalcy. Sure, I think we've made a lot of progress since then...but on what time scale can we say with confidence that our changes are going to stick?

rdehwyll's picture

Devotee

I'm assuming you're referring to the "Dark Ages" comment? Many factors fall into its existence -- extreme poverty, the rise of the Feudal system, slavery, a 'new' ruling class of conquering 'barbarians' who systematically destroyed anything that didn't already fit into their lifestyle, wars... the list of factors is lengthy and would use up too much space here. I would suggest doing some reading on your own for the whole story -- or at least as much of it as can be discerned from the incomplete histories that we possess.

V's picture

Embodiment

I apologize if I don't use all the terminology correctly--you have a far better grasp of the field than I. It seemed that you defined the Medieval period as roughly the time between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. It also seems we're judging the Renaissance as "good" (I know I am) and if we judge the Roman empire as, at least, organized and advanced, that puts a dimple in the middle, which we're calling the Medieval time period and which I've also heard referred to as the "dark ages". Since you were able to boil down the Renaissance into "new ideas and their acceptance" which ended the period, I was wondering if a similar thing could be done for starting it. I've done a bit of reading on my own and am checking if my boiled-down conclusions jive with someone who has a much deeper knowledge of the field.

rdehwyll's picture

Devotee

There were many of the previously mentioned factors just coming into play that 'caused' the "Dark Ages" -- repression of the 'decadent' lifestyle of the Romans by the 'barbarians' who conquered them, Feudalism coming into play, the systematic repression of any religion except Catholicism by those in power... as well as the start of a mini-ice age that shortened growing seasons, which in turn caused widespread starvation and/or subsidtence living, and fostered the Feudal mindset.

Han-pan's picture

Postulant

Even the creators of language ignore us. Womens' situations and experiences are not given words in languages, so how can we be represented in history either, by men who couldn't care but to have a box that clutches what he pushes? >.

They even have to get involved in our monthlies, calling it MENstruation!

PS: HI V Biggrin

rdehwyll's picture

Devotee

Noting that you used a 'smiley' in your caption, I could respond that the language also uses a portion of the gender specification women for the depiction of all the bad things in life -- "Oh, WOe is me!" (An attempt at humour, believe me!)

Han-pan's picture

Postulant

I didn't get it. Blum 3 Maybe my brain is just fried, but yeah. I didn't.

And the smiley is wry-resignation-of-an-enraged-young-feminist. XD! ;P (An attempt at humor on my end too :D)

V's picture

Embodiment

And I get it. Women. Woe-man. Woe unto man. You make us suffer Wink

Han-pan's picture

Postulant

Men brought that one onto themselves!!!!!!!

EDIT: x3 -snughugs-

V's picture

Embodiment

we did nothing at all that would make us deserve you Blum 3

Han-pan's picture

Postulant

God created woman and she had three breasts. He then asked the woman, “Is there anything you’d like to have changed?” She replied, “Yes, could you get rid of this middle breast?” And so it was done, and it was good. Then the woman exclaimed as she was holding that third breast in her hand, “What can be done with this useless boob?” And God created man.
Angel

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