I have some kind of unreasonable faith in the past. Which I’ve found puts me at odds with a lot of the world. History, is as they say, what you can remember, and it seems, despite the best efforts from everything from the Academy to Wikipedia, heaps of people are remembering it wrong, or through some kind of distorting lens. In fact, through a glass darkly. I have no defence here for the evil that has happened in times long ago. But that doesn’t mean we should be so arrogant to assume the modern world is wonderful and has all the answers and the past was filled with ignorant misogynists who lived short and brutal lives before dying horribly. Plenty of that is happening right now.
What I’m trying to get at is, we do a disservice to our forebears when we deride their achievements and make assumptions about their beliefs, prejudices and values.
Let’s take one example. Like that the earth was flat. If anyone believed this, it was only a few of them. Most likely hardly anyone thought about it at all. They were busy. Of those who did think about it, they worked out the world was a sphere pretty early on. I think this modern assumption comes from a literal understanding of what is left of ancient maps, especially those in churches. These kinds of maps were symbolic representations (and remain so). Few understood them to be facsimiles of the world around them. They were a one-dimensional representation of the human place in the physical and spiritual cosmos. They could be hierarchical and metaphorical and were understood in this sense and were especially important given levels of literacy. Not everyone could read words, but everyone could read pictures. Few using a map like this thought about it as a realistic depiction, but looked to the symbolism. It’s a skill we’re losing. The other place this conceit comes from it from myth. But just like ancient maps, myth wasn’t meant for literal understanding, it was symbolic.
Let’s not forget people had eyes. And with them they could see the curvature of the earth, especially at sea, they could see the stars turn above them. And they could count. Ancient Greeks like Apollonius of Perga calculated the earth was a sphere. Without the aid of a supercomputer. Now most of us couldn’t. So why does this flat earth assumption persist? It comes down to an uncritical view that people who went before were dumber than people now.
Let’s look at another idea. The idea that those who went before us couldn’t do what they clearly did do. I absolutely loathe some people’s need to not believe people had the technology, effort and ability to create and maintain everything from the Pyramids to Stonehenge, Macchu Piccu or the moon landing and whatever else modern people go wow, how did they do that, at. There’s no need for aliens, or for thinking stuff was only achieved through slavery or for thinking ancient things were built by outsiders or are not ancient. Give people credit. People have done and will continue to do, great things for their societies, their leaders, their cultural institutions and for themselves. It’s why I resented Star Gate. I felt it a kind of blasphemy against human ingenuity. Of course humans built the pyramids. Aliens schmaliens.
I also get angsty about people who think tough, intelligent, creative, powerful decisive women were invented circa 1967. I believe there were inspiring women of achievement throughout history, who were strong and open-minded enough to live independent lives, run households and workplaces and make contributions to the wider world. It’s just we’ve a developed a habit of forgetting this or refusing to learn it. So I would point you to Hypatia, Cleopatra, Hildegard of Bingen, Margery of Kent, Gertrude Bell, Nancy Wake and every novelist Dale Spender lists in Mothers of the Novel. If you have to read one book about women and writing and literary heritage, make it that one.
I believe people have always been a mixture of intelligences. Of course people 300 years ago were ignorant of 3D glasses and iPhones – they didn’t exist – unless a certain Renaissance genius had some drawings stuffed somewhere. But it didn’t mean people couldn’t lead useful, productive and intellectually stimulating lives. It depends on perspective. Is an 11th century stone mason’s idea of a worthy life is very much different to post-post modern Western ideas of success or wealth?
Yes, I wouldn’t want to be without my modern comforts and medical technologies, and I’ve lived a long life compared to the average life span of a Middle Ages woman, but I don’t want to discard or look down on the past because so much has changed. Then I consider the world. For all its glossy magazines and whiz bangery tech, it hasn’t changed so much. Right now women are murdered or put into house arrest or otherwise attacked for what they wear, and for exercising their minds and voices and hearts. Right now there’s famine in Africa. Right now Chinese factory workers on crap wages are committing suicide during their shifts making the technology the west demands. Right now regimes are murdering their citizens. Just like the olden days.
So yeah, take a deep breath, one day you, me and everything we see will be lucky to be relics to a long distant future, obscured by time and misunderstanding, reduced to generalities. The world will move on and could think everything now, if it survives, as mistaken and obsolete as maps in cathedrals.