History: if you want the crux of it, ask a layman

I like studying history, I really do. I’m one of those people who thinks an hour long lecture on the finer points of Roman politics sounds interesting, at least most of the time. But there’s something I learned from being saturated with all these details and conflicting academic perspectives: the key issues are often pretty easy to see once you look at them. Career academics, as much as I love them, sometimes seem to cloud the main issues by exploring every different possibility imaginable. That has its place, but often lay-historians are a refreshing lot who help get you back on track. That’s my opinion, anyway, and I want to share with you why.

I want to start with an example from my own life. During my first year of Uni, I may have gotten a wee bit injured on a skiing holiday. As I chatted to a doctor who was making sure my neck wasn’t actually broken, we got chatting about Greek history, specifically the Peloponnesian War. Straight up, he tells me the Athenians shouldn’t have invaded Sicily trying to take down Syracuse, and that cost them the war. It was so refreshing to hear his opinion on that, because in class we’d argued the toss on that and other issues for so long, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. His forthright opinion reminded me to consider the facts as they were, such as the Athenians losing most of their army in the Sicilian Expedition and a few good generals too. Yes, there were other factors that played a part but he’s certainly right that it definitely was a crucial turning point in the war. Now you could say that that bit is all that he remembered but, even if that’s the case, that’s the start of my point: we remember the most important, the most crucial things and forget the details that don’t matter as much. Someone who’s forgotten half of what they knew has probably retained the more important half. That doctor certainly had. He helped me refocus on the key events of that war and sowed the seed of appreciating laymen.

Let’s take the Vikings as another example. Here I’ll actually start with a historian having the wisdom to see the flaws in academia-driven narratives. This historian I knew mentioned a particular exhibition which showed a lot about the daily lives of so called “Viking” people, their agriculture and trade and what have you. The only problem was it virtually ignored warfare completely, as if it were something grossly over-exaggerated and not a part of that culture at all. This particular historian was livid, ranting so much about this exhibition that I ended up seeing it myself. And I agreed with him. It was very one-sided, so much so you could reasonably expect people to come away with the wrong impression of that culture as a whole. Take fiction instead that’s inspired by historical authenticity but seeks to give an entertaining story, stuff like Vikings or Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, and you’ll realise that the fiction itself probably had a better overall perspective than the narrow argument of the academic exhibition. An interesting thought.

My final example for today takes the form of a joke I was told about another conquering power of the past, the Mongols. *Disclaimer* if you don’t like jokes that happen to mention different groups of people, sorry, but I think there’s a decent historical point to this one so we’re going to plough ahead with it, with or without you. It goes a little something like this:

A genie/angel/spirit/god//whatever you like gives a Polish guy three wishes. His first wish, that the Mongols would come to the border of Poland, and then go back. The genie (/etc.) scratches his head a bit but grants the wish. For the second wish, the man says that he would again want the Mongols to come to the border of Poland, and then go back. The genie gets a bit frustrated at this point, bites his lip and tries to stay calm but he nevertheless grants the wish. For the third and final wish, the man says yet again, he wants the Mongols to come to the border of Poland, and then go back. The genie loses it at this point and demands to know why, to which the man replies, “because the Mongols will have to go through Russia six times…”

Do you see the cultural memory hidden in layer upon layer in that joke? Now as someone who’s studied the Mongols in-depth, I’d like to think I have a bit more of an understanding about them than most people out there, but there’s nothing I studied that contradicts the dominant view of most of their enemies, namely, that they were terrible to have to fight or be invaded by. We can study their pastoralist lifestyles, social attitudes towards women, clan politics, even climate change at the time of Genghis Khan, all that’s great stuff and we should be studying it. But it would be a disservice to history not to recognise that one of the enduring legacies of the Mongols was the impact they had on their enemies—and that that’s preserved in the cultural memory of many nations to this day.

Am I saying that the most obvious narrative  is always the most important? No. Am I saying that the reasons for why things happened are always clear and simple? No. I am saying that, although unpacking the complicated mess that is history is a worthwhile endeavour, we can sometimes be forever down the rabbit-hole and never come up and share what we’ve found. Sure, there’s no point asking someone with no knowledge of the past to tell you what happened back then. But if you ask someone too caught up in academic dialogue, you might find the answer a disappointing hedging of bets. When you have historians who do end up giving you a clear opinion, take it, because it’s actually rather valuable and rare. And appreciate the laymen out there who give you digestible history you can understand, because what they’ve digested for you is probably the crux of it (though you should always be ready to question them, even so).

(Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

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