What do people most get wrong about history?

TheQSTN.com Team
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Public historian, co-host of BBC2’s ‘Inside Versailles’, Historical Consultant...

What most people get wrong is that history is not the same as the past. History is a creative and inventive discipline. You are trying to comprehend and piece together what happened in the past, working with the limited sources and evidence that have been left – and you are going to get it wrong.

Historians interpret to the best of our abilities. There may be a right answer, and there certainly was a truth at that time. The question is how close we can we get to understanding it from where we stand now.

We have to deal with the paucity and bias of records. Women often don’t get mentioned, for instance, and there’s often very little about the experiences of the ordinary working classes or poor people. There’s often limited access to understanding what daily life was like, because official records tend to be top-down governmental, political, royal, religious or legal. We don’t have fantastic coverage for example of what it was like to be a farmer in the 1720s.

Part of the frustration and challenge of being a historian is that sometimes we have to put up our hands and go, “This might not be right.” We debate. There’s a quote from Oscar Wilde: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”. Though the events of the past are immutable and unchangeable, there is no fixed right answer now. The only thing you could do to be 100% sure would be to get in a time machine.

So what we do as historians is say, how close can we get? Occasionally you get a big win. The Richard III discovery was extraordinary because with the help of archaeological and forensic science, we were able to say we are almost certain that this really is him. But it still doesn’t tell us whether he killed the Princes in the Tower or not. We still have no answer to the fundamental question: Was Richard III a villain – yes or no? Even these landmark discoveries of kings in car parks, while they’re exciting, still leave massive holes in our knowledge.

More broadly, what the general public get wrong about history – and I try to get this across in my book – is assuming people in the past were more stupid than us just because they didn’t have iPhones or BMWs. But they were as human, clever, sophisticated and as interested in the world as we are. They still felt all the emotions we feel: sadness, empathy, anger, hunger and fear. They also experienced all of the routine mundane things we go through on a daily basis.

For example, people in the Stone Age had dentistry and looked after their teeth. They had pets, beds, they may have told the time, they had communication, written symbolism on walls of caves. There is a pop culture joke that cavemen were idiots, grunting numpties who couldn’t speak, who just went “ung nung bug” and smashed women over the head with sticks and dragged them around. It’s just nonsense.

Humans have had language for at least 100,000 years. They had song, dance, jokes and music. They would have told stories, there might have had rites of passage, funerals and birth ceremonies. They may have had religion – we don’t know. Certainly some 40,000 years ago there’s interesting evidence for religious behaviour. People who came before us weren’t thicker or less sophisticated. They were just working with the material culture of their time. They thought of themselves as modern.

There’s a great quotation from Lord Kelvin, one of the most important scientists of the late 19th Century. He said: “There is nothing new to discover now - all that can be done is to measure things in a slightly more accurate and precise way.” About 10 years later Einstein turned up saying “E=MC2,” and five years later the Wright brothers got a plane off the ground.

Little did Einstein know that soon satellite dishes would come, we’d be able to Skype each other and there’d be mobile phones. That’s the arrogance of modernity – and we’re the same. We bang on about how brilliant our age is. But people in the past had lives just like ours, worries like ours, routines like ours. The people who come after us will probably judge us in the same way. People repeat themselves as history repeats itself.

Greg Jenner’s new book is A Million Years In A Day – A Curious History of Daily Life From The Stone Age To The Phone Age.

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