Lessons from History, Part I
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Lessons from History, Part I

Several blog posts from teachers and professors about starting a new school year reminded me of my own classroom days.  Several years ago, I would have been starting a new class with Western Civ. students, hoping desperately that I could manage to cover 4000 years of history in 14 weeks. That amounts, approximately, to the period from Noah's flood to 1750. I wasn't kidding when I told them that if they missed a day  of class they might miss the Roman Empire.

One way I found to make sense of that vast spread of years was to offer the students some general theories of why people act the way they do. Were the theories too broad, too simplistic? Of course. Students used to joke that the answer to any of my test questions was "The climate did it." Still, students learned to ask the right sorts of questions when approaching a new culture or civilization.

Interestingly, I find that I am applying the same sort of approach to the characters in my books. Authors, particularly those writing historical fiction, struggle with making their characters act authentically for their own time period. In Beyond all Price, I had to imagine the lives of many different characters -- a battered wife in the 19th century; a five-year-old slave child, whose family could no remember any other way of life; an alcoholic Union army general; a nun in a teaching order;  a homesick soldier. I managed to capture their differences by applying the same historical theories I used in class. So for the next week or so, I thought I'd pass along some of these ideas to you. They may not all apply to your work, but perhaps one or two will click.

Let's start with the difference between a civilization and a culture. Today, I suspect we are all too inclined to equate "civilized" with people like ourselves and "uncivilized" with those we don't understand. Not so at all. The word civilization comes from a Latin word for city, and to a historian, a civilization applies only to a people whose lives center on a city, to those who live in an urban environment, to those who have managed to sit still and make the world come to them. (So New Yorkers are civilized, even though some of them may behave in disturbingly "uncivilized" ways).

If you examine the earliest historical examples of civilizations, you'll find that they all develop in the same general location -- between the 30th and 40th degrees of latitude and on a major navigable river or other body of water. (For a western civ class, think Egyptions, Romans, Greeks, Mesopotamians.) Because they have moderate temperatures, adequate water supplies, and means of transportation, they are able to remain in one location, while importing the things they need to sustain a large population.

People who live in other regions of the earth, whether north or south of that temperate belt, or those who must keep moving to find water or grazing lands will remain uncivilized -- that is, not tied to any one location but migrating to whatever region will allow them to sustain life.

Does that mean that migratory people are barbarians, uncivilized, uneducated, uncultured, unsophisticated?  Not at all. Culture is something quite different. It takes in all the other characteristics that make people human -- an appreciation of beauty, artistic talent, music, dance, manners, cuisine, clothing styles, religious beliefs, social skills, ethical standards, family ties. In other words, a culture embodies values. A civilization is no more than a socio-political organization located in a particular spot at a particular time. Thus civilizations can rise and fall; cultures endure because they are transportable. 

Failure to understand how that difference affects our perceptions lies behind many of the problems faced by the characters in Beyond All Price. Military officers, charged with capturing and "civilizing" the coast of South Carolina in 1861, see the abandoned slaves on the sea islands as "uncivilized," dirty, dangerous, stupid, undesirables. Nellie Chase sees them in an entirely different light because she looks at their enduring culture. She listens to their folktales, eats their foods, enjoys their music, and appreciates their family lives and their ties to the only home they have ever known.

Concentrating on cultures increases our understanding of people unlike ourselves; looking for civilization can blind us to the values to be found in our differences.

Tomorrow's question: Can the type of grain one grows alter the whole wold view of the grower?