"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there"
Well, that’s what people tend to think anyway. It’s not Hartley’s fault; we’ve always liked to distance ourselves from those semi-civilised barbarians who struggled along with their quaint little notions about life, the universe and everything. What do I – sitting here in a coffee shop using wireless Internet on my laptop – have to do with those peasants toiling over their fields in medieval Europe? My ego says nothing, of course, but then it would, wouldn’t it? Biologically the difference is negligible. Our brains haven’t suddenly expanded in size over the last two hundred years to allow us to appreciate all this art, culture and technology we enjoy these days. There isn’t some nodule in our modern brains that enables us to use technology that Edwardians lacked. People in the past were just like us, taking advantage of what they knew as best they could. Dropped into their situation we’d have little choice to do what they did, despite our refined intellectual tastes.
We take knowledge for granted and look down on the people of the past, but how many people could honestly say that they could have figured out that invisible micro-organisms cause disease or that the Earth orbits the sun, without someone explaining it to us? Humanity’s acquisition of knowledge is a collaborative effort that travels down the generations; individually we are no more intelligent than someone living in the middle ages. More knowledgeable, certainly, but not necessarily more intelligent. If anything they probably have the drop on us: for all we can travel across continents in mere hours via aeroplane, not many of us actually know how they work. So maybe there was less to know, but undoubtedly more people knew it.
I wanted to emphasise our similarities because I feel it’s important to establish kinship with the past. One of the reasons people love Shakespeare so much are his “universal themes” but I always thought of that as a strange thing to say. People are the same whatever time you pluck them from and any writer worth their salt should be able to capture their essence. Capturing the human character is not the preserve of a single writer, no matter how good he was, and there are many more reasons to love Shakespeare. Finding a common link with the past, tapping into our common humanity, is not something you have to go to the Bard to find.
One of the most wonderful things about studying history is that you become privy to all these secret little moments locked away in chronicles and personal accounts that most people never encounter. They’re single throwaway lines or stories that plant themselves in your brain screaming “I recognise that behaviour” and then never go away. There’s no great secret to it, no barrier preventing anyone from finding them, but then who is likely to read Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana other than history students? These little gems are important because they serve to remind us that history isn’t some dry, dusty tome on a library shelf but in fact a vitally important and relevant aspect of our society; woe betide a people who become divorced from their past.
Reading between the lines is always necessary of course, especially when it comes to humour. When people think of the Venerable Bede – and take it from me, people do, just not many of them! – they mostly remember his great historical works. They remember his hagiographies of great saints, or his invention of the BC/AD dating system. People tend to forget though, that he was the possessor of a great sense of humour, and a streak of sarcasm a mile wide. It’s easy to read his claims of St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland causing all the snakes in the land to leap into the sea as the credulous, po-faced beliefs of a pre-Enlightenment rube but Bede was no fool. Once you remember that people in the middle ages were not that different from you and me, it becomes clear that even ancient monks can be tongue-in-cheek. He wasn’t an idiot, and I’d be willing to bet that half of the miracles accredited to St Cuthbert in his hagiography of the Northumbrian holy man were invented on the spot to fuel his cult of reverence. The story of him miraculously finding a loaf of bread in an empty thatched house is a little ridiculous even for the most solemn reporter of miracles; it must have been quite obvious, even to the medieval reader, that St. Cuthbert had essentially just broken into someone’s house and proclaimed that the food he found was a gift from God.
Thomas Walsingham, like Bede, was not just a solemn chronicler but also a salacious gossip enthralled by scandal. Writing in the late 1300s principally about Edward III’s deteriorating reign and Richard II’s difficulty in establishing control, his political insight is surprising, but not as surprising as his love of a kiss-and-tell story. The way he skirts around Edward III’s affair with Alice Perrers reads like a cross between Heat and Perez Hilton. “I’m not naming any names but you’ll never guess which king was seen with which low-born harlot…” The man was a gossipy bitch, and delivers his nuggets of information in the written equivalent of a hushed conspiratorial whisper. The tragedy of course is that, given its detail, his Historia Anglicana is now a premier source for the period, warts and all. It’s like trying to gain a complete understanding of Kerry Katona by reading only OK! magazine.
Reading Walsingham is like reading a tabloid; to find the truth you have to wade through the half-rumours and falsehoods. Despite the difficulties, it’s all there to be found: a good historical writer puts you in his subject’s shoes, and reading Walsingham’s account of the Peasants’ Revolt makes you realise that, far from an Historical Event™, we are instead witnessing the terror of a small boy faced with tens of thousands of angry farmers and labourers. It’s also a clear indication that these are not names on a page; Richard II is not a king of yore but a real boy, presented with absolute power at far too young an age. Would you or I necessarily do any better?
Marcus Aurelius is an older man than any I’ve mentioned so far: a Roman emperor who lived and died in times closer to Socrates than Jesus. His depiction in Gladiator was perhaps on the charitable side, but then Ridley Scott’s never been a stickler for accuracy. The real-life Aurelius was not just a philosopher-king but also a quite brilliant strategist and not somebody you wanted to find yourself up against in a war. He’s best remembered now for his Meditations, a collection of scribblings and notes that he made throughout his life as he struggled to live as a stoic philosopher, as well as an emperor. Aurelius didn’t intend for his ramblings to be found, which makes them all the more fascinating. Reading Meditations feels like diving into his mind in a way that no purpose-written philosophical treatise can quite manage. It’s no manifesto of belief, or roadmap to a happy life, just the day-to-day struggles of a man with ordinary problems. It’s a strange feeling, finding out that the most powerful man in the world had to persuade himself to get up in the mornings just like everyone else.
Reading his personal pep-talks feels wrong somehow, like you’re betraying his confidence, but the insight into his mind is startling. Granted nobody today would seriously try to follow the stoic philosophy he adhered to, but a great many of his beliefs fit remarkably well into modern-day Humanism. Seizing life before it passes, happiness as the only good and his general live-and-let-live attitude wouldn’t seem so out of place in today’s society. The man carried the weight of a 40 million-strong empire on his back but he still had to deal every day with the little problems we all face; he was a person with all the usual weaknesses, but a determination to be a better man. Although I risk hammering home the point here, these are not just historical characters: they were real people who lived and died carrying all the emotional and mental baggage that we all do. Despite his great accomplishments, Aurelius had to remind himself – several times – that he was a good person, that he was not useless, that – hilariously for a Roman emperor – he was following the right path in his life. They are our own worries about our careers and the impressions we make on people, writ large.
Our common humanity isn’t just to be found in the authors of historical works, but also in the people they describe. Rebels during Jack Cade’s uprising in 1450 went about their merry way, as rebels do, chopping off heads all over the place. Mounting these heads on poles they then marched to London: so far, so medieval. It’s only when you read that on the way they decided to make the severed heads on their poles kiss each other that you realise that people are the same throughout history. I don’t know about you, but I can even imagine the sounds that went with it. “Oh Sir James Fiennes, you’re so dreamy! Kiss me!” These days we might only burn effigies, but it’s heartening to see that the mob mentality has remained relatively unchanged since time immemorial.
The last person I want to talk about is not a famous writer, nor even involved in anything particularly noteworthy. His life was ordinary in most respects, and that is why he is significant. Domenico Scandella – also known as ‘Menocchio’ – was a local celebrity in 16th century Italy who reaches us only in a few Church records. A simple miller and an important member of his community, over the years he somehow was given access to a variety of theological books. From these – and his own musings – he developed a complex and intricate belief system that pointed out inconsistencies in Church teachings and promoted a rather more back-to-basics approach to worship. Like many people in his time, he was resentful of the monopoly on salvation given to priests, and believed (correctly) that many of the services that they were required to perform were unnecessary.
He is on record as disrupting funerals by shouting “what are you doing giving alms in memory of those few ashes?” He openly mocked the Eucharist by proclaiming “I do not see anything there but a piece of dough? How can this be our Lord God?” He even lambasted the clergy for their temporal ambitions and the profits they made from the poor by keeping business transactions and holy scriptures in Latin. He’s a personal hero of mine, for reasons that should be readily apparent to anyone who knows me even a little bit, or happens to read the title of this blog.
He would have passed through history entirely unremarked if not for the unwelcome attentions of the inquisition, which became aware of his heresy and came down on him like a ton of bricks. Given the platform to orate, Menocchio took the opportunity of the preliminary hearing to explain his theology in great detail and acted altogether more like a prosecutor than a defendant. Facing strict censure and punishment he had the temerity to lecture his inquisitors in public:
“It seems to me that under our law, the pope, cardinals and bishops are so great and rich that everything belongs to the Church and to the priests, and the oppress the poor, who if they work two rented fields, these will be fields that belong to the Church, to some bishop or cardinal.”
The irony of course is that his criticisms of the church and its bloated, confused ideologies would be borne out in time. Today we can look back at Menocchio’s social criticisms and see that he was right: the issue of transubstantiation remains a thorny one and the problem of holy men running their religions as businesses is still relevant today. Indulgences and the days of the Church as a temporal power are largely over. Had he only been born a few centuries later, things would have turned out very differently for Menocchio.
He was persuaded to recant his heresy and return to his small village, but it was not long before he began to decry the local clergy and promote his own theology again. This time the church returned without sympathy, and put him to the stake. Those few records that we have of him exist only because he drew attention to himself at the cost of his life. What has really amazed modern historians is the sophistication of his views and his low-born status. It showed in a stroke that not only did ordinary people care about the intricacies of their religion, but that they were able to develop their own theologies to fill in the gaps left by a canon that wasn’t yet watertight. We don’t know how many Menocchios there were out there who never made it into the history books, but his story has caused a radical shift in our perception of medieval peasants. Just because they toiled away at manual labour and lacked a classical education didn’t mean they weren’t capable of expressing complex ideas just as well as the great thinkers of the age.
I think what Menocchio’s story shows us is that we’re all complicated individuals; we all have unique perspectives to share. It should have come as no surprise that an unimportant man living in rural Italy – an uneducated medieval man of the past no less! – should have a beautifully thought-out theological position, but it was a surprise. Our own egos insist that we must be more intelligent than those who came before, that we are better somehow, but the more you explore the past the more you realise that we are all the same. It doesn’t matter when you were born: the human condition endures relatively unchanged.
I remember reading Menocchio’s story for the first time and it made me realise that history exists outside of our records of it. These people live their lives and have their thoughts and they may never be written down for posterity. We would know nothing of Menocchio had he been a little quieter, a little less outspoken and a little more savvy about his own survival. Billions of people like him have existed throughout human history and left nothing behind. What it all boils down to, I suppose, is that choice of what you leave behind.
A rather more well-known man than Menocchio once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. We all examine our lives and our belief systems; we all wonder about life, the universe and everything. When you die you’re taking all those thoughts and questions with you so the real question is: what will you be leaving behind? We’re all literate these days, and we all have ample room to express ourselves on the page (perhaps too much room, truth be told). So if anything can be drawn from this ramble, it’s this: from now on do all your thinking out loud and on paper. You never know who might end up reading it.