Can we ever fully understand the past?

One of the most interesting things about history is that it’s both far and near. Sometimes I read something and suddenly feel very close to the people of the past, realising that they often endured the same trials and shared the same joys. The tablets found at Vindolanda, an ancient Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall, are a great example. One of them is a birthday invitation from a lady to her sister – “Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival.” Linguistic style aside, there is barely any difference between this and the average birthday party invitation on Facebook. Then there is the message to an anonymous soldier from (presumably) his mother, saying “I have sent you…pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants…Greet all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune”. In other words, here are some clothes for you, and I hope you’ve not fallen out with your colleagues! Some things truly never change.

But then I’ll read about something which is utterly strange to our eyes, such as Symeon the Stylite, the 5th century Syrian saint who lived on top of a pillar for 37 years in order to get closer to God. Or I’ll come across attitudes and practices which the majority of people today would probably find repulsive. For example, the Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan reports the burial of a Viking chieftain where one of his slave girls apparently volunteered to join her master in the afterlife. He recounts how “the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered into the tent to have intercourse with the girl…the angel of death [an old woman] put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between the ribs with a knife”. This is pretty horrific stuff by anyone’s account. My point is not that we should condemn the past – perhaps this act was considered honourable; perhaps the community believed that the girl’s sacrifice would bring her great happiness in the afterlife. But it’s when reading about things like this that I realise just how differently people in the past could act and think.

The gap between us and the past is both bridgeable and impassable. History is the attempt to get nearer to the past, to understand, yet at the same time we have to realise that we can never fully enter in the minds and hearts of people in ages gone by. Our ingrained worldviews are too different. But it’s this challenge to understand which I love about history. It’s that heady mixture of differences and similarities between today’s world and the past which fascinates me, and which I want to highlight in this blog.

Next up:
Murder, treason, and criminal conversation in late 18th century London: the real cases behind the (excellent) TV series Garrow’s Law.