Why the world before 1450 matters

It is no surprise that I am not excited by the proposal to focus AP History in the United States on the period after 1450. Overall I agree with many of the comments made in T. Greer’s tweet thread. Though I have a concurrent opinion with many history teachers who oppose the change, my opposition is for different reasons. To be frank I don’t care about “showing our black and brown and native students that their histories matter—that their histories don’t start at slavery”.

Though my leanings are toward positivism, that is, I think history is an empirical discipline, even with a potential scientific scaffold, I understand that with finite time and resources your choices are conditional on your viewpoint. When I grew up in the American North the Civil War was taught with facts, but the arrangement and emphasis of those facts were not flattering to the Confederacy. I think objectively this isn’t hard from a modern perspective. But, the fact that some Union regiments were raised in the area where I grew up is certainly relevant

But this old-fashioned biased perspective still gave the nod to the importance of objectivity in some deep way. And though I was an immigrant who was routinely asked “where I was really from”, there was also an understanding that I needed to know this particular Union history, because it was the history which I inherited.  It was our history, which set the objective preconditions of the world in which we lived. The sharply critical cast of modern history teaching has its roots in this fundamental understanding. History may often have had propagandistic overtones, in that it inculcated, but the facts still mattered, and sometimes they were at counter-purposes to the narrative (e.g., the Abolitionists were clearly in the minority even in the North; good history teachers didn’t lie about this).

The idea that one’s history, “their” history, is rooted in descent is common sense. But it’s also an idea which brings together frog-Nazis and Critical Race Theorists. Because of the closeness of the past few hundred years, the histories will be contested on the grounds of ideology. All narratives are contested, but emotion and effort vary in the contestation. The way to push through the contestation is to flood the zone with facts, with robust models. But this isn’t feasible for high school students, many of whom simply want to obtain a good AP score so they never have to take a history course again.

Rather, I think history before 1450 is critical not because it is relevant to a diverse student body due to genealogical affinity, but because common human universal themes are easier to perceive in more distant peoples whose actions and choices don’t have as strong a direct connection to the lived present. Consider the Classical Greeks. It is reasonable to assert that the genesis of the West as we understand it has to be traced at least in part to the Ionian flowering of the 5th century, and to Athens in particular. But it is not reasonable to make Classical Greeks a stand-in for modern Europeans, whose Christianity (at a minimum culturally) would be alien, and whose origins are from peoples who the ancient Greeks would term barbarians.

The Classical Greeks are profoundly alien to moderns, rupturing excessive identity, though that didn’t stop 19th century Romantics! Athenian democracy is very different from the modern democracies, with its participatory character and the large class of excluded residents. But Athenian democracy, and Classical Greece more generally, also highlight deep universal aspects of the human condition. It speaks more forcefully to many students because the mental clutter of the past few centuries, and their ideological baggage, are removed from the picture.

Additionally, cross-cultural comparisons of similarities and differences in the ancient and medieval world are useful because they are less overshadowed by the “Great Divergence”, and the post-1800 European breakout. While the world before Classical Greece was one of strange and isolated polities in a vast barbarous world, the world after 1450 points strongly in our mind’s eye to a state where Europe occludes our entire view. The problem is not slavery, because the age of European supremacy saw the abolition of slavery.

Obviously, even the period before 1450 can be fraught. Consider the rise of Islam, and the crystallization of the West as Christian Europe in tension with the rising civilization to the south, and the receding pagan wilderness to the north and east. There are plenty of opportunities for debate, disagreement, and ideological axes to grind. But contrast the same argument around the Arab-Israeli conflict or Sykes-Picot Agreement.  The fact is that pushing the past further back into the past muddles modern preoccupations. And that’s a feature, not a bug.

The Insight, Episode 23: Patrick Wyman, Barbarian Genetics


This week on The Insight we talk to Patrick Wyman of Tides of History. Patrick is now a professional podcaster for Wondery, but I got to know him originally through comments on this weblog. Patrick is a historian of Late Antiquity. We originally encountered each other in 2010 after I had just finished a period where I was originally interested in the topic of his professional study, and he was interested in paleogenetics.

As Patrick said before we began recording, this podcast was a long time in coming. More precisely, the time is right, and it will get more right. More and more preprints like Amorin et al.’s Understanding 6th-Century Barbarian Social Organization and Migration through Paleogenomics will be coming out in the next few years. Ancient DNA extraction is cheap enough now that it will be used to explore historical lacunae, for example, what happened in sub-Roman Britain?

To get a sense of the period that we talk about in this podcast, I would highly recommend first The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. This is a materialist treatment whch makes clear how thoroughgoing the collapse of economic production was across much of the Roman world. Then, Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, anticipates some of the work coming out of genetics. Heather at the time was making the case that many of the barbarian groups that entered the Roman Empire were in fact coherent ethno-cultural entities. That the period of the “folk wandering” were literally folk wanderings.

Finally, you can finish up with Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000.

As a complement, one might check out Hugh Kennedy’s two books on the early history of Islam, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Kennedy doesn’t present a revisionist view, but that’s OK. Sometimes you need the null model. Like neutral theory.