Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Historical Ponderings

I have been pondering the attraction of history ... more specifically, the attraction certain aspects of history hold for individuals. Why does one person obsess on Egyptology, or become fascinated by the American Civil War, or spend their weekends living as an Anglo-Saxon, or read everything they can about the French Revolution? Why that time and place and not another? I took a sample of two: myself and Tevye.

I love history. There are few aspects of history - any time or place - that I wouldn't find at least somewhat interesting, but there are two that particularly catch my imagination: the middle ages (specifically the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), and the early twentieth century (Edwardian England and the First World War). I spent ten years as a student and teacher of medieval history. Why? Initially my interest was piqued by an inspirational history teacher when I was a teenager. She taught an A-level course on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but began with a lively survey of medieval England to give us some background. I remember enjoying visits to medieval castles and cathedrals. I read historical fiction set in the period, and gradually the interest crystalised. When I had the opportunity to go to university in my late twenties I chose a history course that allowed me to concentrate almost entirely on the middle ages. The British university system goes for depth rather than breadth, and most students study a single subject for their entire three years at university - I took this to an extreme. As I learned more, I focused on the twelth and thirteenth centuries, the "high middle ages". I love the way this period combines both familiarity and difference to someone looking back from our modern perspective. The roots of parliament, universities and our legal system are all found in the high middle ages, and was a sense of religious, intellectual and social confidence. In the fourteenth century everything went bad. Wars, famines, pestilence (the Black Death and further outbreaks of plague wiped out a third or more of the population of Europe), economic collapse ... it had the lot. I'm a natural optimist, so the optimistic, expansive centuries before interest me more.

The interest in the Edwardians and the First World War is a more recent one, though again the initial trigger came in my teens when I watched a TV dramatisation of Vera Brittain's autobiography, Testament of Youth. I read the book, and have re-read it a couple of times since. Although it is more distant, in some ways the First World War is more "real" to me than the Second, because it is more connected to my family history. My parents were lucky enough to be just the wrong age for World War II - they were only seventeen when the war finished, so not old enough to fight. My paternal grandfather fought in the trenches of World War I and was gassed; I also have a great-great-uncle's war issue New Testament, dated 1916. Perhaps surprisingly for an optimist the pathos of the war grips me, all the more so since becoming a mother ... all those young men lost. In every village and town there is a war memorial as a visible reminder, with lists of names - far more from the First War than the Second, often with several sharing the same surname. There is the sense of an innocence lost and the ending of era ... which is where I go back to the Edwardians, fascinated by that last flowering of another self-confident society, before it collapsed in the mud and blood if the trenches.

Tevye is a different matter. History really is not his thing. Yet even he found an aspect of history that caught his imagination: Martin Luther King and the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In his case a couple of things gelled together: snippets he picked up on a coast-to-coast trip across the States in his early twenties, and his personal experience of apartheid when visiting relatives in South Africa. "Whites only" beaches and waiting rooms horrified him, and he was also touched by his father's anger and frustration after witnessing a Rosa Parkes type incident on a bus in Cape Town.

I'd be very interested to learn what times and places touch you, and why. If you want to share, please leave a comment, or better still a blog post!


Melanie B said...

Ooh what a fun question. Not sure I'm up for a blog post now. Though my propensity toward long comments may propel this to a blog post eventually.

I think my fascination with Ireland and Irish history that led to my studying Irish lit in grad school was rooted in a great class on the history of Ireland I took as an undergraduate, along with a lecture on the poetry of Seamus Heaney that completely captivated me. I was especially in love with the early medieval period, all those beautiful high crosses, the book of Kells, Irish monasticism. The fascination was cemented by a trip to Ireland my Sophomore year. I also just adore Irish traditional music.

I must confess, however, that my time in grad school was very disillusioning and while I am still fascinated by Ireland, the fervor was rather dampened by the academic experience. I think I'll need a few more years to recover before I can pick up books on the topic with the same sense of excitement.

There's probably more I could write, but I don't want to monopolize your comment box and it's getting rather late. I look forward to seeing other people's answers.

Dorothy said...

Ha! Me TOO!!

I'm caught up with 2nd WW and Post-War International Relations. Not so much the nitty gritty of daily life, but just a fascination with trying up understand how the modern world got to be as it is.

I could easily do another degree (on this subject this time) and be very a very happy woman!

Shari said...

You knew I wouldn't be able to resist this one!http://homefront58.blogspot.com/

Meredith said...

I enjoy many different time periods myself, most especially the Edwardian era!! Beautiful post!