Saturday, 16 November 2013

What History Isn't

I live in Oxford, which has plenty of old buildings.  Not that old, actually - the University is reliably dated to 1241, but there aren't very many buildings of that age in the city these days.  I think there's a stained glass window in Christ Church that dates from the fourteenth century, and the old city wall you can see in New College is probably of similar age, but most of the famous buildings are sixteenth century and later, with their fancy fan-vaulting.  Still, it's a pretty place.

What annoys me about it, though, is that people seem to think that Oxford has 'a lot of history' because it has a lot of old buildings.  They're not usually referring to the fact that the lay-out of the city basically dates to the time of Alfred or anything similar; what they really mean is that Oxford looks sort of old, and that in looking impressively old, it fits their idea of what history is.  The same idea says that England, France, and China have 'a lot of history' because they have lots of old buildings, while America has only a few hundred years of history because most American buildings are under four hundred years old.  The equation of old things = history is rather common, as is the idea that you're a history buff if you like castles and Anne Boleyn, and something else entirely if you like reconstructed proto-Indo-European and the Acheulean industry.

Clearly this isn't the right way to approach human history.  Plenty of incredibly important human events took place in the US and other parts of the non-literate world prior to European colonisation.  Population movements over thousands of years spread the Athabaskan languages between Alaska and New Mexico, the Algonquian languages between Delaware and Washington, and the Uto-Aztecan languages between Utah and El Salvador.  Towns and large villages were built and thrived on agricultural surpluses; cities, even, rose and fell; babies were born, wars were fought, and poetry was recited.  Millions of people lived out their lives in these places, and their experiences were largely dictated by the histories of their peoples.  They may not have built in Cotswold stone, but I don't think that means that America has 'less history' than other places, whatever that might even mean.  Without the history of pre-Columbian America, the world today would be an incredibly different place.  Its history is written in the words we use and the food we eat and other intangible things, and I don't think you get to call yourself a history buff if you dismiss that as something other than history.
Monk's Mound, Cahokia.  Older and in many ways more imposing than an Oxford college.  It may not have gargoyles, but it's still a bona fide part of human history (and it's a little embarrassing to have to point that out).  h/t Wiki, User: Skubasteve834

History isn't to be found in quaint frocks and old buildings - not wholly, at least.  It's to be found in every word we use, every piece of food we shove into our faces, and every human-influenced environment we happen to live in, whether in Manaus, Detroit, or Oxford.  Look at the alphabet you use: it began life in Egypt, and by way of innumerable intermediaries and near-imperceptible influences, like the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, the proto-Sinaitic abjad, the Phoenician abjad, the Cumaean Greek alphabet, the Etruscan and Latin alphabets, Carolingian scribal schools, and typeface-designers' workshops, it has ended up as it is today - used to write hundreds of languages found on every continent in hundreds of fonts.  Look at the food you eat: go to Nando's and see chicken, a domesticated bird of Indian origin, side-by-side with butter-mashed sweet potato, a combination of Eurasian dairy technology and an Amazonian tuber.  That's history, in your throat and on your plate.

I'm not saying that beautiful old buildings aren't worth something.  It's just that the equating of history with obviously old things doesn't really make sense, and believing that places or groups of people don't 'have history' unless they've constructed magnificent stone buildings or written lasting chronicles is (often racist) madness.


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