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Tricky Topics: Wrapping Our Minds Around the Past

Do you ever picture the past, and it appears in sepia? As humans, our relationship to history is one defined by the capacity and limitations of our imagination.

Historians are fond of saying the past is another country. It’s a way of remembering that just because we have evidence doesn’t mean that we’ll instinctively know how to read it. Language changes, concepts evolve, and mythology swirls.

During a live interview in 2019, a BBC host contradicted an author on an assumption she made, pointing out that “death recorded,” which the author assumed meant a record of a convict’s execution, actually meant the opposite. For a historian, this is a sign of sloppy research that is unacceptable. But it’s also a great example of what happens when the past gets lost in translation, a particular challenge for students and the public.

This week, I’m looking at a few of the historical concepts that still trip me up from time to time. Historians have explored these at great length, so I’m not implying they can’t be understood, but I think they can be a challenge for non-specialists to wrap our heads around. It’s one thing to know an idea was different in the past; another to understand it in the context of its times. But if the public is to understand history at a deeper level than as national mythology, we’re going to have to figure out a better way to make sense of these ideas.

One other note—I’m speaking only for myself here. Folks with different experiences have a different sense of a historical imagination, and history is experienced different across communities.

Time, Distance, and Transportation

This is perhaps the most obvious. I can order a pizza on my phone and it will be here in 30 minutes. I can email Emirates Airlines to request non-stop flights to Dubai and get there in 14 hours. We’re all accustomed to immediate gratification and a remarkably fast turnaround. It’s part of what makes modern life so disorienting. Historians’ sources were written in a different time, when both news and people moved more slowly. Gettysburg and Harrisburg are relatively close compared to the size of the U.S., but a 39-mile carriage ride (give or take, since there was no Route 15), would have been a significant commitment. Letters and journals give us some insights, but it’s hard to imagine what a less connected world might have felt like—and it’s equally important to remember that less connected is a relative term, and we shouldn’t assume it was all just simple, quaint, and isolated.

Nation States

We live in a world of nation states. It’s a relatively new world order. Although nation-states are often traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the global imperial system predominated until the mid-20th century. If you’ve ever sat through a conversation on the difference between the UK, Britain, the British Empire, and Great Britain, this is part of the distinction at play. The meanings aren’t always clear on the surface. The same challenge arises with regard to the ancient world. I remember learning about city states in school, but only pictured them the same as today’s nation states except smaller. For that fact, it’s difficult to imagine how borders have changed over time, and especially the complexity of multiethnic empires like Imperial Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Understanding the evitability of the nation state matters in making sense of territorial conflict rooted in competing historical claims—like Russia and Ukraine—as well as to help us avoid taking for granted the assumptions we rely on to order the world.

Work, Leisure, and Consumption

As with nation states, it’s hard to fully conceptualize capitalism from within. Sure, we’ve heard critiques from everyone from Karl Marx to that guy from leftist Twitter, but its modern implications permeate our lives. We think of work primarily as employment, a relationship between labor and capital based on services in exchange for wages (Marketplace’s The Uncertain Hour podcast has a great episode on this). In doing so, we undervalue domestic labor, volunteering, and other unpaid economic contributions that have sometimes been better recognized as essential to society in the past.

Likewise, there’s a reason so many historians are interested in the leisure and consumerism—you can see them scale rapidly in the last two centuries. It’s not that modern capitalism invented fun or greed, but it certainly expanded the options for both. Things we take for granted—the 40-hour work week, weekends, mass produced goods—weren’t just non-existent prior to the Industrial Revolution, they were unimaginable to peasants and other common folk. Our ancestors certainly had their own understanding of work, leisure, and consumption, but we might have to look closely to recognize it—and to check our chronological snobbery not to titter at it.

Wilderness and Landscapes

As an avid hiker, I think of myself as someone who seeks out adventure in the wilderness. But it’s only wilderness in a limited sense. I visit parks, follow trails, and camp at established sites. When Europeans arrived in America, the woods represented something wild, fearful, untamed. They feared the woods as a dark, dangerous, and uncontrolled space (see Into the American Woods by James Merrell). Far from the parks we have today, stretches of vast wilderness were significantly harder to navigate. The woods may have been less foreign to indigenous peoples, but they too created trails to pursuit game or shape the landscape in more dramatic ways.

True wilderness is now extinct in most of the world today. When we think rural spaces, we often imagine agricultural landscapes like Lancaster County and struggle to picture its prior incarnation as Penn’s Woods. It’s likewise difficult to imagine New York City as a wooded and hilly wilderness that inspired the Lenape word that became Manhattan, or how its nickname Gotham—now indelibly an urban descriptor thanks to Batman—came from the Dutch for goat home. Where our imagination fails, the associations we have with these placenames shift.

Change over Time

Uniting these tricky concepts is our struggle to understand change over time, both in language and systems. This is natural. We don’t know what we don’t know. And if we can’t know anything, how can we make sense of the past? The best shot we have is to have a bit of historical humility.

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