Firstly, my apologies for disappearing. Because of my genetic defect, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, I ran into some unexpected medical issues that ended with my having my left kidney completely removed. I am on the mend and am struggling to return to my normal writing habits. During recovery in the hospital, I happened to be reading a biography of a medieval person. Which lead to the nursing staff asking questions. As so often does happen I was asked;
“Why do you love history?”
For many years, my answer was simple; “Because.” But nearly dying, once again, tends to lend one towards a certain type of introspection. I had time to really ponder, not just the question, but the honest answer to it.
In years past, I didn’t have the ability to really articulate why beyond the trope of “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I’m older and, hopefully, wiser now. The answer is really absurdly simple. It isn’t that I love history in general. I love the people, the lives, the things that make a life worth remembering. There is an episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor says “We are all just stories in the end.” The simple truth of that statement is so enormous it can’t really encompass all it actually means. It is one of those things that seems so simple, just a flat and untextured thing, it is anything but. Because it is true. In the end, that is all ANY of us are. Just a story and that story varies by each person we encountered, in the way we interacted with their own stories. Some may love us because they saw a part of us that others did not. Some may hate us because of something we did that hurt them or someone they cared about. Some people we touch so briefly and forget only to discover later that for the other person that brief encounter meant something much more significant.
What has this to do with history? Because that is what I love about it. History is a collection of stories about people. About lives that seem so different from our own that it can be difficult to imagine. A time when you couldn’t wear anything but a certain coarsely woven low-grade wool died in very specific colors and cut in a very specific way because of your social standing? Check, that happened. If you dared to wear something else, you could end up in the stocks or prison? That was life for a serf in medieval Europe. Your life was regulated right down to the cut, color, and shape of the cap you wore. So that anyone could tell at a glance your social rank. Even the type of food you could eat and the days you could eat it on. Can you imagine such a society?
You should be able to because you are still living in it. You may not be thrown in jail for daring to wear silk or purple, both of which were once reserved only for royalty, but you are still kept in line by making things too expensive for you to afford. Those designer clothes? They don’t really mean anything, they aren’t of higher quality, most are made in poor countries by children paid pennies. No, you are buying into the idea that social standing comes with being seen wearing it because you can afford it. Expensive cars replaced well-bred horses. Castles were replaced by McMansions.
Even the food we eat. Do you know where the term “upper crust” comes from? It is because prior to the invention of steal grinding all grain was ground by stone. Pieces of that stone would get into the flour and into the bread. Grit. But stone, even tiny grit pieces, weigh more than flour so they naturally settled to the bottom of the dough. Loves were baked and then the “upper crust”, free of the teeth cracking pieces of stone, were cut off and served to the wealthy. The servants that toiled to make the bread were given the bottom part, the part that contained the grit from the mill and could brake their teeth eating it. We’ve all had that moment where we’ve hit something while chewing and made that long “argh” face, sometimes while slapping a hand to our jaw in an effort to comfort the shooting pain. Can you imagine every bite of bread having that as a possible consequence? So again we have an example of a common enough phrase that we have lost the meaning of. That it was used in the most literal way to separate people by social standing. Even the very grind was regulated. The poor had coarsely ground flour because they weren’t allowed the extra turns in the mill to produce the finer flour. It was more like the current seed/grain loaves of bread you pay extra for in the fancy bakery and more often than not, it wasn’t a yeast bread but a soda bread. Try a loaf of Irish Soda bread and you’ll get a bit of an idea.
This is where most people stop and say “it’s boring”. Yes, in a way it is. This is where you need to stop and think about the lives of those real people. To step inside the story, inside the mill as the flour is made, inside the kitchen as it is turned to bread. Inside the lives of the people who were there, living and struggling with the exact same problems you do. Earning money, having enough to eat, caring for a spouse or child(ren). Times were so different, yet so similar. The worries may be framed in a different way, but they were the same basic worries. The same basic desires and needs. By ignoring the lives of them as individuals, by not learning the details of their lives, we are missing a hugely important thing.
We need to step back from the rat race that is our own lives. We need to stop thinking that we are unique individuals, somehow different from all the people around us and all the ones that came before us. We really aren’t. There are tiny details that make us unique, yes. Our parents, our friends, our eye color. In the grand scheme, though, we are part of a whole. I used to tell my own children that one of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking “I am the only one.” The only one that feels this way, that thinks this way, that has moments of pure resentment that I have to work, go to school, pay bills, etc. We get hung up on the idea of being alone because we are, we think, alone in our own heads. No one has the same thoughts as I do, surely! Oh, but they do. It’s amazing how many people walk around wishing they could fake their own death and run from all their obligations, It’s even more amazing when you discover how many of them think they are the ONLY person that has felt that way. No, trust me, nearly everyone does it at some point.
After the Black Death- the waves of plague that killed half the human population of England in the 1300s, there was a real change. No longer were there so many people to work the land for the wealthy that the wealthy could easily hold them in bondage- serfdom. For the first time, a common person could refuse to work. Singley, such a person would end up in prison, in the stocks, possibly even hung. Then those single people started to realize that other people thought the same way they did and they began to form groups. Soon, leaders emerged and a real movement started. The “Peasants Revolt of 1381” eventually ended in miserable failure by some standards, for they didn’t achieve their goals. They wanted every man to be free, an end to serfdom. They wanted to be paid fair wages for fair labor. They wanted to be able to own land, not just rent it from their wealthy liege lord. Did they get those things? No. Many were hung, the leaders were disemboweled, quartered, beheaded and had their heads hung on London bridge.
They DID accomplish change. It was subtle, it was slow, but it did happen. And it started when people stopped thinking they were the ONLY person having these thoughts and realized that many others did also. Read books that talk about the major players in the Peasants Revolt. Where they were born, how they were raised, who raised them, their social status, their lives. Immerse yourself in them and you will find that there will be at least one that you identify with, quite possibly more than one. You might agree with the liege lords on some points, with the surfs on the other. The point is, that was 600 years ago.
Yet you can identify with the people, you can feel their frustration at working a job that never changes, without the prospect of advancement, dependant on the goodwill of the people the liege lord has appointed to watch over his lands and you, the Steward. You can feel the pain of the man that was suddenly evicted from the tiny cottage and land his family had rented and lived on for generations simply because the new man the liege lord left in charge decided he didn’t like you. Come on, we’ve all had a manager at some point in our lives that just was a dick. They decided they didn’t like us and wanted us out. Maybe the steward had a cousin that was of an age to move out of his parents and wanted a place of his own, so the steward evicts you and moves his cousin in. Just like your manger fired you so he could hire his girlfriend.
600 years apart but not really all that different. If you never take the time to discover these people, you become disconnected from who we are as humans. As a society. You fail to see the progress we’ve made and the progress we still need to make. You fail to feel a sense of belonging that goes beyond your immediate family and circle of friends. You fail to see the injustice that still goes on all over the world. You cannot compare where you are, where you fit in the scheme of things because you have no feel for the scheme at all. You’ve ignored it. Willfully, in most cases. Because you think of history as just a bunch of names, dates, and events that happened a long time ago and who cares?
Parents didn’t share their stories with their children after World War I or II. Men didn’t talk about the horrors they’d seen, they never processed the depths of depravity they’d been forced to endure. Many turned to drinking to try and quiet the memories. Lives were ruined, once happy marriages crumbled, once happy families fell apart. Men weren’t allowed to have feelings because having feelings wasn’t “manly”. Seeing a counselor was for “crazies” and could cost you your job. Being a drunk was actually a better option, socially, than seeking help to deal with the things they’d had to do or witnessed. The entire concept of being a man was shot to hell. Spousal and child abuse rates soared. The suicide rate did too, and that was considered a grievous sin by the church.
Divorce was still taboo and women had no rights to their own children. What would you do? Walk away from your kids, only allowed to see them IF your ex-husband allowed it? That was the law. A woman had no right to the children she gave birth to. Women weren’t allowed to have credit cards, bank accounts, buy a car, buy a house, without having permission from a husband or father. Many women stayed and their children were raised watching them be treated in all manner of horrific ways. Why? Because of the public perception of being a MAN. The same thing is still happening now because of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afganistan. Slowly it changes. So slowly that another generation is paying the price.
Women didn’t talk about living the war years without knowing if their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons were alive, injured, prisoner, or dead. The severe anxiety associated with going to bed each night not knowing was something they buried deep. They didn’t share the way they felt when their lives were upended from ‘stay at home’ to ‘factory worker’. Then just abruptly, they were kicked out of the factories when the men returned. Those women had had a taste of freedom and like the serfs after the Black Death, they wanted a change. Then it became clear their men had changed, drinking, suicides, beatings. They didn’t talk about it with their children. If you can get one of the now grown-up children to talk about it, you will hear anger, resentment, bitterness. Some of them flat out hate their parents. The fathers for the abuse, the mothers for taking it. Many think they were the only ones that experienced it because they never talked about it. They fell into the trap of “I’m the only one”.
Women, though, had tasted a freedom they’d never had before. Young girls had watched their mothers go off to build the airplanes, tanks, bombs, and guns their fathers used. They saw something they wanted, a life that wasn’t dictated by someone else by a man who was essentially their liege lord. Those kids turned into the hippies who fought against the social norms. Again, though, most of them thought they were the only ones who’d ever done this type of thing. They would have thought they had nothing in common with the Peasants Revolt of 1381.
They wanted freedom, not just from physical bondage but of mental and social ones. They wanted equality. It spread from women to lower classes to people of different religions and different races. They wanted equality, to be free. The same basic demands of Wat Tyler and his group of ring leaders for the Peasants Revolt. History, in short, repeated itself with only details changed. Serfs could be forced to go to war under their liege lords banner and had many times in the wars between England and France. In the US in the 1960’s men were being drafted to go fight in Vietnam. How are the two things really that different? They aren’t.
Women wanted the freedom to own things, have credit cards, etc. without the permission of a husband or father. They wanted to work outside the home, go to college, have careers. The serfs wanted to own their land, not rent it. They wanted to sell their grain, not be forced to turn it over to their liege lord. They wanted to be paid for work, have the right to go to school, send their children to school. How is that so different? It isn’t.
If you never take the time to read about these people, their good days and bad days, the losses and gains, their failings and triumphs, you will never realize that though you are separated by 600 or 100 years, it’s not all that different. Sadly, we don’t have that much on women from 600 years ago because women were not considered important. Their journals were not kept, only the wealthy ones could even write. The few we do have, we have because they were famous or infamous. Those were thinly documented by the historians of their times, and because most of the historians were monks, not usually in very flattering ways.
One of the many players in the Peasants Revolt was John of Gaunt, son of King Edward. We know about his lover Katherine Swynford because she was infamous. In an age where royalty didn’t mix with the peasants, John and Katherine broke the rules. The result, a generation or so later, was The War of the Roses. A war that tore England in two, that changed the course of European history, which influenced the fate of a colony that didn’t even exist yet. The Americas. They loved, they lost, they fought, they made up. They were separated by laws and social conventions. Their children were, initially, bastards and bore the Beaufort. Even though their physical day to day lives were so foreign to us, their emotional and intellectual journies were not. Katherine went from the lower crust to the upper crust multiple times. At times so poor she despaired at feeding her child, at others so flush with money and food that she feared becoming fat. How can you NOT relate to that?
I see history as a collection of stories about people. A collection of lives that weave a tapestry so rich and complicated that you can never tease out all the pieces. I try to learn from their lessons. I try to put myself into the same situations and ponder out what I would do. I look around me and see the same injustices, they are just colored slightly different. They’ve changed, but they still need more changes. I see the things that Way Tyler wanted and it doesn’t take much of glance about to see they still exist. Slightly different in form, but they are there.
At night, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep to come, I ponder my own story. Who will tell it? Will anyone learn from it? In which story will I be the good guy? The bad guy? Who will remember me fondly? Who will remember me at all? Have I lived a life that is worthy of having its own story written down for future generations to read? Have I given aid to the bettering of humanity? Or have I been so caught up in “Me” that I have ignored humanity? It’s easy to do, ignoring everything and everyone that isn’t part of my immediate circle, or as I was once told part of “my demographic”.
I don’t want to be famous. I have no desire to be a movie star or any type of star. I do, however, have an innate desire to leave this world better than it was when I came into it. I can only do that by living my story, by learning from the stories of those who lived before me, and by passing those lessons on to others. I am history in the making. We ALL are.
So, what sort of story do you want to be?
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