Thinking About History

For those of you who haven't met me in person, I studied history as a mature aged student at the University of Tasmania. At one time I considered making history my career, but as the wise man said, life is what happens when we are making plans, and that plan never came to fruition. However, I remain fascinated by history in all its many forms.

When I was a small child my father told me true stories passed on, generation to generation, in his family. These were not fiction, but oral histories in their most authentic form. One in particular stays in my mind to this day.

My father's full name was William Sinclair Pettet Reid. Pettet came from his mother, whose family were from a town in the south of England on the shores of the English Channel. She was Huguenot French, and her family had fled to England on the eve of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Catholic friends of the family had tipped them off, and so they had managed to escape.

This story was told to me as something important that had happened perhaps a couple of generations ago. Only when I studied history formally (before the widespread use of Google) did I discover that the events referred to in my father's story occurred in 1572, almost 400 years before this story was told to me.

I would like to use this story to make a few points.

Facts considered to be important can be passed down through families, even in literate societies.

Although my parents were never religious in a church-going sense, I always had a strong feeling we were Protestant. As far back as I can remember, Catholics were another sort of people. This story told me, as a child, that Not All Catholics Are Bad People - even if they were different.

Most importantly, to me this means that genuine oral history has no sense of time.

I have another oral history lesson relating to the latter point. I read this story many years ago, so forgive me if I have corrupted the details a little. In parts of northern India villagers would tell people "Iskender passed by here". Iskender was their name for Alexander the Great, and he passed by there over two thousand years before.

Let us take another step with this. "Hobbits" or Homo Floresiensis were discovered in Indonesia in 2003. Local villagers had tales of "little people" who were rarely seen. Food would be left out for them at night, otherwise they would take things. The Hobbits' discoverers, archaeologist Mike Morwood and colleagues, estimated that they had been extinct for at least 12,000 years.

Consider now the myths and legends common to major religions and all continents, of wars and battles, of major floods and cities sinking beneath the ocean, of gods who walked among people.

I'll leave you with that thought. For now.



9 thoughts on “Thinking About History

  1. John

    Re Homo Floresiensis and closer to home - maybe our fairy stories about giants and ogres are cultural memories of Neanderthals (or Heidelbergensis or one of the others). Then there are the East Africans who "remember" little blue men who came from a star. They even know which star - it's alpha centauri.

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    1. jennreid

      I agree. Our culture is too quick write off stories as myths or legends. There are grains of truth in the most surprising places.

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  2. Mike Maxwell

    Wow... this is interesting, and very apropos to what we discussed at the last writer's meeting. Truth really is stranger than fiction after all.

    I'm sure you already know this Jennie, but there's a school of thought in religious studies ("euhemerism") that considers religion to be a sort of corrupted history, extrapolated and elaborated to the point where the actual history is lost and the stories take on a life of their own. This is what the "myth" in my story was all about; I took a real account of a Russian solider stationed at a military base who averted a possible nuclear holocaust by driving an ambulance out on to the runway to obstruct the plane when he realized that the call to deliver the a-bomb was a false alarm... and I mythologized it, changing it to where this soldier failed and the world was plunged in to nuclear armageddon, and somehow his story wormed its way in a highly corrupted form, down to the survivors thousands of years hence. I'm absolutely fascinated by the idea that huge consequences can flow (or not flow) from very small beginnings.

    I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this topic, and of your thoughts in general on your blog.

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    1. jennreid

      Thanks Mike. Thoroughly enjoyed your story last night. I will soon be adding a page to this site for guest writers, you are welcome to submit your story.

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