Some Meta Signs You Are About To Hear Some Pseudohistory
Did you just hear a tale from ‘way back?’ It might not be true.
History is the story of people being people, so it is always full of unbelievable crap. That does not mean all of the unbelievable crap that people say about it is true.
The only way to know the real history from the nonsense is to do extensive research, but there are a few signs that will pop up around a story that indicate…well, you should reserve judgement, at least.
Flat time is where a speaker treats ‘the past’ as an unchanging block with no variations. For instance, if someone says to you, “Back in the day, everyone always practiced polygamy,” that person is full of the nonsense.
To quote Chis Wickham: “A thousand years is a long time, and the whole world is a big place.” Whatever practice you care to think of, a society has done it somewhere at some time, and probably several societies have done it. Polygamy was common in one place, while an equally large place practiced monogamy, and there were societies that practiced polyandry at the same time.
It doesn’t even work for a smaller section of time. If someone claims that there was some widespread practice during ‘the Middle Ages,’ I can guarantee you that they are grossly simplifying something to the point of being misleading. Duels and trials by ordeal were largely phased out of England and France relatively early, where Germany’s justice system was a whole patchwork of places that did trial by ordeal and others that did trial by compurgation long after the 1200's. That pointy princess hat called the hennin that everyone associates with Medieval women’s headgear? Only worn for 50 years in the 1400’s and mostly in France. The Catholic Church was way more lax about divorce before the 1100’s, and priests could marry up until the 900’s at least.
I could name a million other examples, and that is just for the time period and place that I know something about. Societies are constantly changing, and nothing you can say about them would reflect their lived reality for more than a decade.
People In The Past Were Idiots
Our ancestors were no dumber than we are. Yes, you can find websites for people advocating drinking their own pee for health benefits today, but the vast majority of us would refrain because it is an obviously dumb idea.
Likewise, few women in the Victorian era were wearing corsets so tightly they couldn’t breathe, and their corsets were fitted properly so they were comfortable and provided support. Why? They weren’t complete morons.
Even when it comes to medicine, be wary of stories of cures that sound like they would actually kill you on the first try. Blood-letting wasn’t the go-to cure-all until the age of heroic medicine (the early 1800’s and late 1700’s) and most ‘dumb’ ideas can be largely chalked up to placebo effects, which, I remind you, we still suffer from today. The cures didn’t necessarily work, but they were unlikely to kill people.
Be leery of anyone claiming a practice or story stems from a millennia-old phrase or belief that is somehow deep. Especially if the claim is that it has something to do with fertility rites. This was the obsession of early 20th and late nineteenth century anthropologists, and it reached positively ridiculous levels of pseudoscience. This is the source of a lot of just-so stories and are almost certainly Victorian inventions.
We have no reason to hang on to something that no longer serves us, so it is rare for some practice to last for more than a generation, and that is true of our ancestors too. Think of slang: we started using ‘cool’ to mean ‘good/trending’ around the 1920’s, but that is probably the only surviving slang term from the last century. Or think of Christmas Trees: you can pinpoint exactly when they were first introduced to English speaking countries, and their source is painfully obvious. They were copying Queen Victoria’s prince consort. They practically said so. Can we hang onto old traditions? Sure, but we almost always know where it came from and why we do it. Otherwise, we would spend our precious time and money on something else.
If you see these signs, whatever claim someone is making about the past needs more research. It might be merely overstated or slightly distorted, or it might be complete baloney. It might even be true after a certain fashion.
Except for the flat time type of statements. Those are almost always BS and a sure sign someone is trying to sell you a line.