Writer, Storyteller, Seanchaí

Pop History

Sometimes I’ll refer to (or rant about) something I call ‘pop history’. By which I mean the popular history that everyone knows and which is almost always wrong.

Pop history is all over the place. It’s in schools (sorry, teachers, but it is), it’s in movies, it’s in books… You get the idea.

But what do I mean when I say pop history? Let’s take a simple one that’s starting to go away, but which people still say: Christopher Columbus proving the earth was round. (I was taught this in school, I’m sure plenty of other people were too.) Supposedly he couldn’t get funding for his voyage because everyone believed the earth was flat and he alone knew that the world was round. Yeah, that’s total nonsense. Practically speaking, in the western world, almost no educated person has thought the world was flat since the third century BCE. (The idea that people thought the world was flat is itself pop history, but more on that later.) Columbus’ problem was that he calculated the world was smaller than everyone else, and no one thought he knew what he was talking about. (Which they were right about. Columbus was bad at math.)

So pop history is a myth about history that isn’t based in truth and which people believe is the truth. (As compared to, say, the story about Washington and the cherry tree. It’s a cute story, but it’s not taught as truth.) Where do these myths come from? That’s a long story.

Let’s start back in the Medieval Period. The Middle Ages. Despite popular ideas, actually a time of learning, of science, of writing. Medieval scholars and scientists learned a lot, and they wrote it down. Now along comes the Renaissance. These scholars and thinkers, even in naming it the ‘Renaissance’ are talking about the rebirth of knowledge. Why? Because they’re only interested in what the Greeks wrote. Maybe some Romans, but mostly Greeks. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, all those guys. They think the Medievalists didn’t know anything. So they burned the books.

Let me repeat: The Renaissance scholars burned books by Medieval thinkers because they weren’t Ancient Greeks and only the Ancient Greeks knew anything. So much for learning.

So the next generation of thinkers comes along and says ‘Those medieval people were really dumb. If they weren’t, they’d have studied science and written books.’ Enter the myth of a backwards ill-educated Middle Ages and the Renaissance saving culture.

Then we get to the 17th century. The Protestants are out against Catholics and Catholic teaching. So they start writing about how Catholics are so backwards and anti-science that they don’t believe the world is round. They’re not interested in the truth, they’re interested in everyone being against Catholics. Here’s the introduction of the Flat Earth myth. (Which will get seized on in the 19th century to prove that science and religion can never go together. Those authors were making it up too.)

Then we get to the Victorians. Now, the Victorians are living at the peak of the British Empire. The sun never sets, etc. They believe that they are the greatest civilization that has ever lived. So when they studied history and archeology, it was less to learn What Actually Happened and more to prove that We Are Superior To All Those People.

So they wrote a lot of stuff that isn’t true, based on slim (or no) evidence, like medieval people being dirty and ill-educated, and about the ‘barbaric practices’ of ancient Egypt and so on. And because they were British and very important scholars, people took note of what they wrote and believed it. Those untrue and misleading facts then get added to History, where they are taught by unsuspecting teachers, and moviemakers and novelists seize on them, and all of a sudden we have people who think that nobody bathed in the Middle Ages. (They really did. A topic for another day.)

Lest we think that this is solely a British problem (since I have harped on them a bit), let me just toss out the 20th century American addition – the Lost Cause, etc (which I am not going into here, but which I assure you is every bit as pernicious as the others).

So what is pop history? It’s really bad, lazy, sloppy history, frequently deliberately planted by people to change how other people think about something. 

Don’t do it.

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