The Grim Side of History

A panel titled “Who Needs Dystopias When You Have History?” (Alternate History, Westin Augusta 3, Saturday, 10PM) doesn’t promise an hour of sweetness and light, and the program fit its name. Panelists David B. Jackson (aka David Coe), Jean Marie Ward (moderator) Katherine Kurtz, Kathryn Hinds, Gail Z. Martin, and A.J. Hartley gave the room a factual discussion that punctured several popular misconceptions about our past.

Ward noted that each panelist is associated with a particular time period or periods and asked each person to share something about it that isn’t common knowledge but is incompatible with the “romantic glow” people usually associate with it.

Kurtz said she had become interested in the Knights Templar in various periods, creating her Michaelines as a combination of Templars and Jesuits. Noting that the Templars did not often bathe and sometimes wore their armor for years, she gave her Michaelines better grooming habits.

Hinds said she enjoys the early Middle Ages, with particular interest in the Vikings. She shared an interesting bit of trivia that the nautical term starboard comes from the steering rudder being on the right-hand side of Viking ships. Puncturing the stereotype of Vikings as raiders and pillagers, she observed that Swedish Vikings were also merchants and traders, sailing to the east as far as Kiev, which they founded. They were known there as The Russe. Hinds also said there is runic graffiti in Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia mosque and in the Orkneys. The Vikings were also very concerned with personal hygiene and grooming, which irritated the English.

Martin asked the audience how many people had ever been to a Renaissance festival and how many had ever been to a hog farm. She said putting the two together would be a close approximation of how the Renaissance smelled. Bathing was difficult, even dangerous, and there was no antiperspirant. In addition, people wore clothes made of heavy fabrics and didn’t have large wardrobes. Sanitation in general was bad, with chamber pots dumped out of windows daily and horses pooping regularly in the streets with no one sweeping up or mucking out behind them.

Hinds interjected that people thought the stench contributed to the spread of plague. Ward added that tanneries used waste products, and Martin observed that waste was thrown into the Thames, which, Hartley added, was the main water source for London.

Hartley raised the subject of religion as a stressor for large segments of the British population in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. There was huge religious upheaval, with people switching their religious affiliations, then doing it again a generation later, going back and forth for about 40 years. Quoting Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, Hartley said most people couldn’t have cited the most basic tenets of their professed religions , but they were well aware that saying the wrong things could be fatal.

Going back to the sanitation topic, Jackson described pre-Revolutionary Boston as a borderland, a place with modern health and sanitation advances but poor waste disposal. Cotton Mather, who is better known for urging the executions of witches in Salem in the 1690s, championed smallpox vaccinations. The city had cobbled streets with improved drainage, but people still disposed of their waste by hurling it into the street. Fire was also a frequent danger in Boston. After one particularly bad fire, the city rebuilt in brick.

Hartley noted a similar situation in London, where buildings were brick or stone after the Great Fire of 1666. The first thatch building in the city since that event, he noted, was the New Globe Theater, which required a special construction permit.

Martin observed that fire was a constant presence in life. Homes were lit by candles, and women cooked on open hearths. Women and children were often badly burned.

Following up on Martin’s comments, Hartley added that modern society has forgotten what true darkness is and that people used to adjust their body clocks to sundown, readjusting seasonally.

Martin noted that infant and maternal mortality was so high that people often did not name children until they were a year old. “How many children can you bury?” she asked.  She added that infant mortality affected society’s attitude toward children and likely involved some degree of ongoing post-traumatic stress.

Hinds posed a related question, “How many children can you live through bearing?” Contraception was not widely available, nor was it highly reliable. She then shifted the focus to historical forms of biological warfare, such as Colonials giving Native Americans blankets that had been used by smallpox victims and European armies catapulting the corpses of black plague fatalities over the walls of besieged cities.

Ward described historical eras as partial dystopias based on the fact that the elite classes lived fairly well while oppressed minorities had much rougher lives. She then asked the panel about effects of war.

Kurtz cited the Blitz in World War II (the German bombing of London) as an example of a traumatic event for the populace. Martin mentioned English genocide against the Irish, which led to a discussion of the causes of Irish poverty and famine. Hartley noted that England was isolated in its Protestantism and had been excommunicated. He added that the English suppression of the Irish began in an attempt to forestall the use of Ireland as a launching ground for invasion by Europe’s Catholic powers. Martin observed that “if you’re a rank and file person,” the reason your children are starving doesn’t really matter.

Ward noted that Renaissance England saw a flowering of arts and literature but was also the heyday of the autocratic Star Chamber.

Going back to the question of misconceptions, Jackson indicated that elite families in Boston owned African slaves and that there were also free Africans who owned businesses in the city. Women, too, had fewer constraints in the eighteenth century than the nineteenth, owning businesses and enjoying financial autonomy. Modernism and oppression, he noted, existed side by side in the city.

Ward commented that George Washington freed all his slaves, except for those his widow needed, upon his death. What people may not know, she added, was that during his presidency, many of his slaves escaped to the North. Jackson interjected that ignorance of these escapes went hand in hand with the myopia of a Constitution ringing with tributes to human liberty except for the people who counted as 3/5 of a person and those who didn’t count at all, women.

Hartley mentioned new research showing the presence of free black people in London mingling with the white community in the Elizabethan era. There was a significant black population in London around 1590, when Shakespeare was working on Othello.

Ward added that there is archaeological evidence of Africans in Yorkshire in the twelfth century, their origins confirmed by the fluoride content of their teeth. Hartley, a Lancashire native, said he had learned that the football (soccer to Americans) team in his home community had a black goalkeeper in the 1870s, and he added that prejudice and discrimination were of comparatively recent origin.

Martin noted that the Black Codes in French New Orleans and the Spanish rule of the city had been fairly liberal regarding people of mixed heritage and Creoles. When the U.S. took over the city, more restrictive laws came into effect.

As a final question, Ward asked the panelists to name other periods in which they would like to live. Jackson said that if he had a time machine, he would only go forward. Kurtz responded that she would want to be in the upper class in an era like that of Downton Abbey, adding that life was good for those abovestairs but was more constrained for those belowstairs.

Hinds said she would like to live in the present but possibly visit the past. Martin indicated that she knows too much history to want to go backwards and that she likes modern conveniences, such as air conditioning and clean water.

Hartley’s reply indirectly addressed many of the things the panel had said during the program. He stated that he didn’t think modern people could function in the past. We’re creatures of our environment, he said, and if we think we could go back 400 years and function, we’re totally delusional. If he went to any other era, he would opt to go forward.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.