Because I’m interested in history–or more likely, because I can’t learn to shush about the subject–friends and acquaintances ask me a steady stream of questions about it. Now and then, I even know the answer. If I don’t, it may inspire me to learn something, maybe order a book, develop at least a basic background.
There are also a few things those who ask tend to forget, and it is very natural. Perspective matters. When you’re seeking historical understanding, it’ll come easier when you bear uppermost in mind that:
Back then, the participants did not know how the future would unfold. Let’s take, for example, the legend of the Holy Grail. The evidence for its existence is, well, more a matter of faith than of evidence. It isn’t hard to imagine that such a relic would take on legendary status, provided one assumes that the persons in the story had a functional and updated crystal ball with up-to-date prophecy software. The idea is that a charismatic religious figure’s followers, or at any rate someone, saved a dining utensil from a group dinner (which they knew 100% was their final meal together, ever). And that this follower, or presumably someone else to whom the event was important, took the utensil to a Roman public execution and used it to catch the blood of the suffering religious figure. We are then asked to imagine that this artifact survived, and can ever be proven authentic to our modern satisfaction.
Well, if you take it on faith, that’s fine by me, but faith is not germane here. What’s germane is the assumption demanded by the whole tale: that at the time, anyone had the faintest understanding that this religious figure would become the center of a family of faiths that would shape and dominate Western civilization for many centuries. Absent this foreknowledge, this crystal ball, there is no reason anyone’s going to think to grab the wine goblet from the dinner. It would seem a little macabre to go scoop up some of the blood of the condemned, rather disrespectful. Granted, customs differed back then, but was that the norm? “Rachel, take this cup and go catch us some of Uncle Flavius’s blood. Quick like bunny, before the legionary spots you!”
But let’s say someone did save this cup; what then? Did he or she (just because one tale ascribes it to Joseph of Arimathea does not make that automatic truth; it could as easily have been a woman) put it on a shelf in the pantry? On the mantel? Sure, if that person could foresee the days of Constantine, he or she would have saved it, but everyone who was an adult in CE 30 or so would be elderly before the Christian movement numbered more than a few thousand. Christianity did not become the dominant faith of the Empire for at least two centuries. There was no way to know the future, thus (again, absent a faith-based conclusion, which cannot be addressed by evidence or logic; that’s why it’s called faith) no reason to expect anyone to keep track of a dish. Even if someone did save it, odds loom long against its ongoing survival and identification for even a century, much less two millennia. Within fifty years of the Crucifixion, any wiseacre could have taken a likely-looking chalice and proclaimed it the Holy Grail. Within five hundred, many had done just that.
They did not know, in the moment, what the future held–unless you bring in questions of faith and prophecy, which is your perfect right. But when you do, you depart from history and enter theology. It is unreasonable for anyone to expect anyone else to accept one’s own theology as history, for there are too many theologies. Whether we can ever know it or not, there was only one authentic history; modern interpretations and perspectives on that history may vary, but the events were one sole version when they occurred.
A year back then took as long as a year does now. We have the tendency, even the temptation, to compress ancient time. The farther back it is, the greater the compression. Oh, we do not do this if we give it careful thought; it is a tendency rather than an automatic event. Here is an example.
The War of American Independence began in 1775 and ended in 1783. That is eight years. Right? Eight years are a re-elected presidential administration. In eight years, a newborn grows to t-ball age. Eight years normally span a combined secondary and collegiate education. Imagine that the war had been declared around the time of Obama’s inauguration, and just ended last month. That’s how long it took. No less, no more.
I recently read a rather stupid message board post asserting that the Muslim Conquests (622-750 CE) had been “rapid.” This is a perfect example. One hundred and twenty-eight years are “rapid” only if we’re referring to matters that normally take millennia or more, like geological shifts and the evolution of new species. For a military imperial expansion, that’s a long time–including plenty of timeouts here and there to consolidate control, make hummus, build mosques, and so on. As I write, one hundred twenty-eight years ago, it was 1889 CE:
- The European powers were just getting a head of steam dividing up most of Africa. (Most of the Africans would not be consulted.)
- The Chinese Empire was nearing its last two decades, but the Japanese Empire was vaulting itself into the modern era by pure force of dedication.
- The United States military was still fighting the Indian wars, had bought Alaska just twenty-two years prior, and had limited ability to project overseas power.
- Nearly every European country had a monarch.
Look at all that has happened in 128 years, then tell me it was “rapid.” Twelve decades is plenty of time for plenty to happen.
Because in 9748 BCE, and in 47 BCE, and in 244 CE, and in 1889 CE, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, and a century took just as long as they do now. Time didn’t speed up just because an Egyptian dynasty lasted maybe a millennium. That millennium still took one thousand years.
Put into perspective: the Roman Republic lasted nearly five centuries. The western Empire lasted another four and a half centuries after that, and the eastern Empire outlasted its western kin-empire by a millennium. Four and a half centuries ago, it was 1667–the era of Cromwell, the Dutch on Manhattan Island, and Issac Newton. Five centuries ago, it was 1617; the Jamestown colony was a decade old. One millennium ago is just fifty years before the Norman Conquest of England, and just eighty years before the first Crusade stormed Jerusalem. That’s how long those timeframes are.
Why am I hammering on this seeming obviousness? Because it sneaks up on us. We tend to compress ancient times; the farther back, the more quickly we treat it as having passed. Rome became a republic in 509 BCE and, arguably, an empire in 27 BCE. The Rome of 27 BCE had not undergone any form of “rapid” transformation from its early republican days; the process had taken long enough to span the longest imaginable lifespans of five consecutive persons. It had taken over twice the current lifespan of the United States. If you think it’s been quite a while since Lexington and Concord, one presumes, you think twice that while is quite a greater while. That approximates the lifespan of Rome as a republic. Some tidbits to help this sink in:
- Caligula ruled Rome for about the length of a U.S. presidential term.
- The Napoleonic Wars lasted twelve years, about the time from birth to puberty.
- The American Civil War took about as long as it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.
- The golden age of piracy, if such a thing can be so described, only lasted about thirty years–as of 2017, the time elapsed since George H.W. Bush was stepping up his run for the presidency, or Snooki’s birth. (No, I’m not going to apologize for associating that name with an historical discussion. Whatever it takes to get across the length of time involved, that’s what I’ll use.)
- The Pony Express only operated for eighteen months. In eighteen months, a newborn infant transforms into a toddler doing her best to emulate a howler monkey on cocaine. Or: in eighteen months, two human pregnancies can be laid end to end (not that I recommend it).
It’s not enough to address the question. One ought to question the assumptions implicit in the question. This is closely allied with the first guidance, but deserves its own portion. Let’s say we are looking into the mind and motives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with regard to U.S. entry into World War II. Some would say that he talked isolationism out his mouth, for public consumption, yet deliberately took actions that would lead his country into global war. You might ask:
- Do we know at what point in time FDR considered U.S. entry inevitable?
- Pursuant to that: have we evidence that he so considered? How strong is that evidence?
- Is it imaginable of him that he would have maneuvered his country toward war in order to complete its economic recovery?
- Pursuant to that: was it even understood at the time that such a war might have that effect on a Depression-recovering economy?
- There seems little doubt that FDR shaded U.S. policy well toward the Allies, but is there an imaginable circumstance in which we might have shifted to strict neutrality or even a pro-Axis stance?
- Pursuant to that: is there anything now known about the war, that FDR could not know at the time, that would have caused a shift? A full apprehension of the magnitude of the Holocaust? The realization that Churchill most surely sought to maneuver the U.S. into a war few of its people desired?
When someone spouts off about history, in particular about the motivations of an historical figure, there are strong grounds for posing a lot of questions–and for questioning the underlying assumptions. That’s how a sound historical argument is constructed: one examines and researches all one’s own assumptions, because when someone comes along to counter it, that person’s best odds to crumble it is by kicking out its underpinnings. For example:
There’s a conspiracy theory about former Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, once a close confidant of Adolf Hitler, who flew to Britain in an escort fighter. The story generally told and believed is that Hess was nutty, and that he acted without Hitler’s approval, and that in any case in no way were the British willing to discuss ending the war unless Hitler were ready to abandon his conquests. There are reasons to question that story, and there’s a whole tinfoil argument about Hess’s motives for flying to Scotland. The portion of the theory I want to address is the notion that Hess died during the war, in captivity, in a flying boat crash off Scotland; this view goes on to state that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and incarcerated at Spandau was a double seeking to put one over on at least some of the world.
Want to leave that theory bleeding in the Ditch of Discarded Zany Ideas? For example:
- How easy is it to get someone, who just happens to look a hell of a lot like Hess, to go on trial and do life in prison for war crimes he did not actually commit?
- What possible motive could the Allies have for covering up such a plane crash and the guy’s death, if authentic?
- Some twenty years into his sentence, Hess (‘ ‘) finally agreed to see his wife and son. Not only did they believe him genuine, they lobbied as hard as possible for his release. Could a phony version of you fool your child? Your spouse? How could that impostor have the shared memories to discuss? If the assertion is that they were in on the cover-up, someone has to present a credible case for why they would do that.
- We have photos of Hess (‘ ‘) in his old age at Spandau. Rudolf Hess was a very distinctive-looking character, with eyebrows that would have been a generous donation to Brows of Love if such a thing existed. In those photos, he looks exactly like one might expect an elderly Hess to look. An impostor might not age nearly as authentically.
- The other Spandau prisoners knew Hess from before and during the war. Why should we believe that they couldn’t tell an impostor? Failing that, why should we deduce that they all agreed to maintain a conspiracy?
The theory of Hess’s death is so fragile that all of these questions, and more that you could probably think of, must be answered with compelling evidence in order for us to waste any further time on such a theory. Since it’s a zany theory that demands people to have acted counter to their predictable behaviors and interests, and because it really doesn’t make a lot of fundamental sense as to motives, it is fragile. So much so that, if any one of those questions does not have a full and powerful answer, the absence of that answer is probably enough to make the theory collapse into nonsensicality.
Just because most of a story is flawed does not mean all of it can be discounted. History is rarely so simplistic. Let’s go back to Hess. To my mind, by far the most tantalizing tinfoil question in play is: what if Hess acted with Hitler’s approval (with planned disavowal in case of failure), expected an audience that was ready to negotiate, and definitely planned to return home?
Could a faction of His Majesty’s Government have been ready to throw in the towel? The Hess flight happened just after the Blitz ended; Hitler may have known he was calling off the bombing campaign, but it’s unlikely Churchill knew that. In short: were the British expecting Hess, and was Britain much closer to a separate peace than it would be politic to become public?
One tantalizing story, not fully verified, is that the portion of the Hess files that remains classified has been sought by researchers (perhaps insiders), and that the files contain only the notice that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. That would mean that, short of the personal command of the reigning monarch, no power in the United Kingdom could compel their release. If something in there were terribly embarrassing to part of the aristocracy, that would be an elegant monkey wrench in the investigative machinery. I am not aware of any firm proof that this situation obtains, but were it to come to light, it would seem to catch the Royal family hiding something. We would then ask all the logical questions as to what it might be, and why they might do that. If they had good enough answers, we might have a theory.
The point, though, is that this information comes from the same tinfoil book that claims Spandau’s Hess to be a double. Does the zaniness of that idea help the book’s overall credibility? Well, what do you think? However, does that zaniness mean that the authors are incapable of getting any facts correct? Surely not. Could the aroma of a more interesting and plausible story be wafting from the ruin of a collapsed argument? I believe that it could be.
Here’s another: the Salem Witch Trials. The airy ‘science’ argument is to blame it all on ergotism, a hallucinatory condition associated with a mold found in rye. Hardly anyone questions it. It ends the conversation: “They freaked out because science, duh.”
Fine. Then one of two things is true: people of that time knew of the properties of ergot, or they did not. If they did, someone should explain why a slave (by definition the most vulnerable member of Salem society), who is not recorded as being a complete suicidal idiot, would administer such a substance to teenage girls when that was most likely to bring wrath down upon her defenseless head. Or why the girls administered it to themselves, which is only plausible if they knew how to find a nice concentration of the stuff.
Or they didn’t know about it, in which case we are to believe that somehow, one of the most attention-seeking and drama-prone demographics in the human species–the pubescent female–all blundered upon this One Potent Batch of ergot-tainted food that somehow, the rest of their families did not ingest. We would ask: why weren’t whole families losing it? Why wasn’t the whole community coming unglued?
Put another way: why was the group most repressed by the religious social straitjacket of Salem, the most blamed for any potential sexual misconduct, the least free to do what it wanted, suddenly acting up? If no one poisoned them–and it makes no sense anyone would do that unless we are to imagine that the girls knew how to do so, and it was like an acid trip–why have fits? We don’t know, but “to get attention, because teenage” is a path of low resistance.
While we are at it, why not ask: if it was accidental ergotism, how come the ‘bewitchings’ went away when the community finished hanging and pressing witches? Unless we’re going to assume that the prosecution was correct and that the thankful community got all the miscreants (or scared the rest into abjuring their witchy ways), there would logically be more freakouts. But if there’s a record of those, I’m unaware of it.
My reading of the record is that the community realized that the hysteria had gone too far, and it suggests a likely reason the girls ceased their histrionics: the realization that their drama queen lark had cost a number of lives. They might be afraid to confess their little game, but they had probably gotten all the attention they could ever want, kind of like an ignored kid who starts a fire in the kitchen and realizes he can’t control it.
The jury of historians rarely completes its deliberations with a unanimous, unambiguous verdict. The best we can get is a broad consensus. How we get at, evaluate, question, support, doubt, undermine, and otherwise address that consensus–that is what historians do.
And the joy is that it’s open to anyone who cares enough about the relevant events to invest the time exploring.