Favourite bits of history

Posted: October 4, 2014 in cultural commentary
Tags: , , , ,

As will be obvious to those of you who’ve been reading From a Foreign Shore, I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages. Like a lot of people who grew up reading about Middle Earth and Narnia, I loved the idea of knights and chivalry and everything that came with them. When I was a kid we’d always visit castles during our summer holidays, running around ruins and playing at King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I specialised in medieval history at university, and that took some of the romance out of it, but not the fascination. Sometimes the past truly is a foreign country, and the deep sense of duty and hierarchy that held up medieval Europe is all the more intriguing for being so different from my own values. Sure, the knightly ideal of chivalry was observed more in the breaking than the following, but it was still an ideal, and one that combined courage, romance and a twisted sort of concern for the people around you.

It helps that the era’s most staggering architectural achievements, its castles and cathedrals, never stopped being awe inspiring. I went to Durham University, and there are few sights more breath-taking than Durham Cathedral seen from below, lit up against the night sky.

The Middle Ages are full of great writing inspiration, from the spectacle of pitched battles to the delicate craft of monks creating illuminated manuscripts, the rough belligerence of Viking raiders to the fragile courage of Joan of Arc. If you’re looking for heroes, villains and strange settings then the medieval has it made.

I’ve grown past the point where the medieval is the only era for me. All of time’s rich tapestry is full of fascinating pickings. But the Middle Ages will always have a special space in my heart.

Now your turn – what’s your favourite period of history, and why?

  1. glenatron says:

    I tend to get interested in historical periods through reading fiction about them a lot of the time and the 15th century of her Niccolo stories particularly caught my imagination. Often my interest is piqued as much by places as times though- so from those I find the Levant under the rule of the Black Sheep and of the great centre of learning and enlightenment that was Timbuktu particularly compelling.

    I’m also fascinated by the fringes of history – the dark ages – a name that still works for me when describing Britain, although I can see that Early Medieval may suit the Carolingian Renaissance better – and the pre-roman era here in the north west.

    Also a vague interest in how archaeology develops and orthodoxies are challenged – specifically the weird Clovis thing in the US – has lead me to start reading a little more around some of the cultures of American antiquity – the Ohio moundbuilders, the explorers who inhabited Monte Verde and the Tuniit and Saqqaq peoples of the north. Again very interesting.

    • What’s the Clovis/US thing? That sounds intriguing in a potentially bonkers way.

      The development of archaeology fascinates me as well, and what it shows about the archaeologists. Like the huts oriented east where one generation of archaeologists said it had ritual significance, and the next generation said ‘no, it’s just so the sun would wake them up in the morning’.

      • Lynda says:

        Or, you know, both. Morning rituals in the dawn light that woke you. (As a psychologist, I find the answer is always ‘both, kinda’; but then we don’t hget to have so much fun coming up with wil ideas either.)

      • glenatron says:

        The earliest archaeological remains in the US were found at a site called Clovis and dated back to 13500 years ago. These fitted into a standard narrative of Bering Land Bridge crossing and subsequent colonisation.

        The great thing about the Clovis points was that once everyone knew that Clovis was the earliest colonisation of the Americas, once they hit that point they could stop digging, saving a lot of time and effort.

        The only problem was that, of course, Clovis wasn’t the first colonisation of the Americas, but until relatively recently anybody suggesting they had pre-Clovis remains was fairly heavily stigmatised by the American establishment. There are now quite a few established pre-Clovis sites but really until the early part of this century it was very controversial.

        • Ah, that makes sense. When you said Clovis I imagined bonkers pseudo-historical ideas in which people were saying that Frankish kings had gone to the Americas and spread the word of God or something. This is far better, and I can’t help noticing that many of the pre-Clovis sites back up their awesome archaeology with awesome names.

          It’s kind of sad how even people working in a supposedly scientific endeavour can get dogmatic in their attitudes like that though.

          • glenatron says:

            One of the things I found particularly interesting was a recent piece ( which I can’t now find ) where linguistics indicated that Clovis was wrong, in the same way that linguists were saying Australia had a long history of human habitation for a while before the archaeologists cottoned on. From what is known about language evolution there were just too many languages – 200 families – and they were too diverse to have arisen from a single people in a 12000 year span.

            • I had no idea they could work that out from linguistics, but it makes a lot of sense. It’s almost a form of archaeology in itself, but digging through conceptual layers instead of physical ones.

  2. Sheila Thomas says:

    In my school years, I came to think that nothing later than the Romans was really interesting. I carried on with the classical period studies at university. It was only when I started playing Ars Magica that I got interesting in the European world in the early thirteenth century.

  3. Sheila Thomas says:

    In my school years, I came to think that nothing later than the Romans was really interesting. I carried on with the classical period studies at university. It was only when I started playing Ars Magica that I got interested in the European world in the early thirteenth century.

  4. Lynda says:

    Why was Jean d’Arc’s courage fragile? (Genuine question.)

    I’ve elaborated elsewhere recently on my love of any period I like the clothes of. Except late Victorian – very pretty dresses, very boring period. Regency era just about holds its own once you get past the frocks because of the French business, but really the earlier the better. The old Plantaganet soap opera from the Edwards to Henry VII is pretty fascinating, but that comse back to the gossip element.

    • My linguistic flourish has rather got in the way of my meaning there. I don’t think that there was anything fragile about Joan of Arc’s courage – far from it, she proved amazingly resilient no matter what was thrown at her. Laughed at by courtiers? No problem. Shot in the leg? Not a worry. About to be burned to death? She could take it.

      But this teenage peasant girl, in among all these burly trained warriors, for me evokes an image of a certain physical fragility that probably bears no relation to truth and that was certainly at odds with her character.

  5. Jon Taylor says:

    Like you my first history love was the Middle Ages, but I was drawn to the early Middle Ages more than the period after the Millennium. I even managed write my A-level personal study on theories about post-Roman continuity and possible historical King Arthurs. (In retrospect I can’t imagine why my teachers allowed me to do that, but it worked out in the end). I think that I was attracted to the romance of it at first, and then the wide-open detective work(storytelling?) that the sparse evidence lets you indulge in. So all you have is a monument stone and a chronicle with the same name prefix in both? Obviously you have yourself a dynasty of invading Angles!

    I still have a soft spot for the period, even though I am a little more hard headed about the evidence nowadays. Peter Heather had some interesting ideas in his book ‘Empires and Barbarians’ about the complex and unstable relationships between heartlands and peripheries, evolving economic systems and shifting identities between 200 and 1000 CE.

    • That idea of core and peripheries, of nations and cultures defining themselves through encounters at their edges, is one the things I find fascinating about the whole of the middle ages. I realise that it’s applicable far more broadly than that, but in medieval Europe you can really see these political and cultural units emerging through pushing against what’s just beyond them, and through trying to make the fluid and ambiguous into something that fits a clear set of rules.

      • Jon Taylor says:

        You would definately be interested in Heather’s book then. I’m sure that a new addition is just was your reading list needed! ;-p

        In the case of the Roman Empire and its Northern/Eastern European neighbours it looks like a pretty good example of socio-economic osmosis. Demand within the Empire (for amber and slaves, mainly) creates trade, that pumps wealth into the underdeveloped ‘barbarian’ lands, which itself is unevenly distributed. This creates new social forms and power structures (warlords to tribal confederations). Imperial policies towards these tribes involves subsidies for cooperative neighbours, so there is competition for the prime spots on frontier. That draws population towards the Empire and creates turbulence, which ramps up the development of bigger and bigger groups. Eventually they start break into the Empire and the frontier dissolves. The Empire follows soon after.

        The big question should really be ‘how did the Roman Empire last so long?’ rather than why it collapsed.

        • Added it to the reading list, though I’m trying to clear the reading pile before I even touch the list. Sounds like Heather is looking for an earlier period at some of the themes that fascinated me in Bartlett’s Making of Europe, a book that’s had a huge influence on my thinking not just about history but about humanity in general (which I guess John Green would argue is the same thing).

  6. […] so the research I don’t have completed already would be fairly straightforward. I’m really interested in the Middle Ages. I think it could make an interesting story on what it means to become an adult and on the darkness […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s