Saturday, September 21, 2013

The History You Don't Know

I was having a discussion with Athenios the other day about the Byzantine Empire. Apparently this is a big part of the curriculum at Greek schools. And for someone who tends to think of themselves as fairly well-versed in history (The Cheap Seats: Really? You think that about yourself? We never noticed!) it became hilariously apparent that I know next to nothing about the Byzantine Empire. It was the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire after the split, and eventually conquered by the Turks. Anything else? Anything at all?

I suspect I'm not alone in this. In fact, it got me thinking of what a parody version of history would look like if constructed only from the knowledge of a decently educated citizen of a British Commonwealth country. I suspect it would look a little like this:

a) Before 500BC - Nothing.

b) ~500BC - Ancient Greece, Democracy in Athens, maybe the Peloponnesian  War

c) Some time after 500 B.C. (Origins mysterious) -> 400 A.D.ish  -  Roman Empire

d) 400 A.D. ish - Fall of Rome to the Goths

e) 400.A.D. -> 1066  - ????  Mysterious Dark Ages @#$%, nothing much going on

f) 1066 - Battle of Hastings, Norman Invasion of Britain

g) 1066 - 1500ish - ????  More mysterious Dark Ages nonsense

h) 1500ish - Renaissance in Italy

i) 1600ish - Britain appears out of nowhere

j) 16-something (30ish? Who the hell knows) English Civil War, Charles I gets executed, Oliver Cromwell turns out to be a tyrant, King is brought back

k) 1670 -> 1776 - ???? Who the hell knows

l) 1770-> 1790something  - Lots of stuff, American Revolution, Captain Cook discovers Australia, French Revolution

m) Early 1800s - Napoleon takes over Europe, gets beaten first by the Ruskis in 1812, then eventually for good at Waterloo

n) Early 1800s -> 1914  - ???? Probably something going on, but not sure what. The American Civil War was in there somewhere, right?

o) 1914->1918 - World War 1

p) 1929 -> 1933 - Depression, Rise of Hitler

q) 1939 -> 1945 - World War 2.

r) 1950ish -> 1969 - Cold War with the Soviets

s) 1969 - Moon Landing, Vietnam War around this period

t) 1969 -> 1989 - More Cold War

u) 1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall, End of Cold War

v) 2001 - 9/11 Attacks, start of War on Terror.

Now, what's hilarious about this is the huge gaping swathes of ignorance in the middle. From World War 1 onwards they have a pretty good understanding, but before that it gets quite patchy. And as soon as you start interrogating our hypothetical British subject about some of the question marks, hilarity ensues as it becomes obvious how clueless they are. For instance:

The entire Byzantine Empire gets just wrapped up as part of the 'Dark Ages'. Who they are or what they did, nobody knows. The Crusades happened somewhere in there too, right? Oh, you mean there were lots of them? And they were fought by some group called 'The Franks'? Who the hell were they, and what happened to them?

I also hear the phrase 'Holy Roman Empire' thrown about from time to time - what was all that about? Is that the same as the Byzantines? They were all Christian, I think, surely they must be basically the same people. Also, what exactly was going on in Europe from about 1700 onwards, other than Napoleon? The Austro-Hungarian Empire must have been in there somewhere (same with the Ottoman Empire), since I heard about them as part of World War 1, but what else they did is anybody's guess.

And this isn't even getting to the question of what was happening the rest of the world, such as Asia or South America. Maybe it's understandable that people stick to their own region. But the Brits don't even seem to know much about Europe!

These questions all have interesting answers - I do know more than our hypothetical educated Brit above, and half the the remarks above are facetious. But it's still embarrassing how little I know about most of this stuff. It's like the timeline of European history is one of those old-world maps that end in obscurity with the phrase 'Here be Dragons'.

It makes you wonder what alternative perspectives you might have on the world if you knew about all these other events in human history.


  1. And here I was thinking the American system was the only one that was so horribly flawed.

    Perhaps it is the egoism that is present within the larger governing empires that perpetuates such idiocy amongst fellow nations.

    I also love that Latin and Central American countries received no mention in this post. Guess that's fuel for the next one?

    1. I'm beginning to suspect that everywhere is actually almost as parochial, they're just parochial about different things. Maybe there I'm wrong and there are education systems that give a good broad overview, but I haven't come across them.

      As for Latin and Central America, I mentioned them about in proportion to how often they were mentioned at school, just to give you a representative sample. In Australia, Latin America is just not on the radar whatsoever.

  2. Of course a people's history was always parochial - its just another liberal idiocy to decry this as 'discriminatory' or 'elitist'.

    The issue I believe is that under the modern idol of Progress there's nothing to learn looking backward; one only does so to mock how far behind they were. As you said in your post on the French Kings - anything before the Revolution is dismissed as 'tyranny'. What is there to learn about tyranny other than how wonderful we are for putting it behind us?

    We have such blind trust in this process (yes, including most conservatives) history is simply irrelevant.