rusty lawn chair

History Is in the Details

rusty lawn chair

sxc.hu/liaj

History comes at us in different ways. Daily, as we live it. Sometimes as we watch it on TV or in the cinema, or someone’s version of it. Rarely, unless you really love it, in the form of books.

Watching an Agatha Christie series, having just listened to a lecture on archaeology, and reading a book on The Peloponnesian War all have in common the details of history. An Agatha Christie episode of Miss Marple, made in the middle 1980’s and starring Joan Hickson (the preeminent Miss Marple, in my opinion) reminded me that to make an historically accurate production of an earlier era requires attention to detail. Not just major details, but especially the small details.

The small details are the most telling. In one scene, a character from the 1950’s seats himself on a canopied gliding lounge sofa. It was the kind I remember seeing from my childhood in the 1980’s, but I had to search my memory because it didn’t quite fit in the 1950’s surroundings. Then I dimly remembered seeing something like it in an old magazine picture from the 50’s, possibly online. Regardless, it did make me realize that what we see around us, the things that are seemingly unimportant, are the stuff of history, which leads me to the lecture on archaeology.

Digging into history

The lecturer pointed out that it was the small things that an excavation discovers that tell the story of history. The little things tell the story, bits and pieces like ostraca, pieces of broken pottery with writing on them, sometimes even shopping lists of 6th century B.C. ladies of the manor. These details, the same kind of shopping lists that we would toss as we return home from the market, help give a clear picture of what everyday life was like many centuries in the past. Thrilling stuff, huh?

Which brings me to the Peloponnesian War. Reading The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan has been informative, but also a challenge. The book is well written, but the event is long and arduous. Thirty years of the Greeks at war and frankly it feels like it has taken me almost as long to read about it as it took to fight it. A detailed war, in a region of numerous city-states and decades of leaders with names that are remarkably similar if you aren’t a fluent speaker of Greek. It is history, it is compelling, but it isn’t light reading.

The big and small of history

The connection? There isn’t one, not a similarity at least, but a disparity. The accounts of this Greek war come from the detailed histories written by various ancient scholars and historians. They are based on military accounts, biographies of great men, and political rhetoric. Somewhat removed from the odd shopping list and glider-lounge. But both are history. They are the big and small of history.

The big history is charging Greek soldiers leaping off of triremes and sloshing onto the beaches of recalcitrant city-states. The little history is what they ate on board the morning before and how they polished their spears. The big history is 1950’s cold-war counter-movements done by spies. The small history is what they bought at the grocery when they had a toothache while spying (and if they bought a gliding lounger when they retired).

We live daily with big history and little history. Big history is government legislation. Small history is whether we bought Nutella for a our chocolate craving or simply a Hershey bar. Both become a part of the whole picture of history of the past and our place in it. The big history is affected by the small history, cravings for Nutella affect trade partnerships between Europe and the US. And, of course, the big history affects the small. Government legislation affects what and how and how much we eat.

Food for thought. Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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