Historically, Truth Matters

It is quite predictable that, having stated in a blog post that I intend to blog twice a week I would then not find the time for three weeks to write anything. This is in part due to it being January, which is an impossibly busy month, but also to the fact that I try so very hard not to be perpetually grumpy on this blog. My last post was grumpy, so I thought this one should be playful, or whimsical, or hopeful, or hilarious, or at least realtively sanguine. But it is not to be, for I have been occupied with History Day. 

Be not fooled into thinking that I have anything against history — Mrs S is twenty kinds of nerd, and History Nerd is one of them — or that I object to my children learning history in school. I encourage it. I would have been thrilled to my clumsy, nerdy toes to have had a history day in school when I was growing up. Come to school dressed up, spend the day learning about what life was like in another time: what could be better? So when we had a notice home telling us about history day, and that C’s class would be focusing on medieval times, and R’s class would be studying ancient Egypt, I started planning. 

That letter home should have been the first warning that all was not as it seemed, for it suggested that the girls in C’s class of four and five year olds may want to dress like this:


Int he market for 18th century garb? This image is from jarnaginco.com.

Historical this style may be, but it is from a different era: the 18th century. You may at this point be taking umbrage at the perceived insinuation that you should have known this. Rest assured I do not expect everyone to be able to identify historical fashions to the nearest century, but I do expect those teaching history to my children to correctly match the wardrobe with the era they are teaching. The most basic internet image search will furnish you with dozens of pictures of medieval dress. How about this?

If you would like to have a beautiful costume such as this, visit http://www.revivalclothing.com

Or, if you want something more fanciful and regal:

Or more authentic still:

The point is: long, rather unstuctured gowns, a veil or very simple cap (but not a mobcap) perhaps a sincture at the waist, and you become a medieval lady. The argument from the school, had I raised the issue, might have been that they were going for something simple, that most students could manage. But medieval doesn’t need to be difficult: a tunic or nightgown from mom or a big sister (safety pins at the neck and sleeves as needed for fit), a cord as a sincture at the waist, and a scarf pinned to the hair as a veil and presto! Add cape if desired. 

So, ignoring the misguided advice of the school, I set to work making C a medieval gown. (R was more or less abandoned at this point. I ordered him a cheap pharaoh costume online. Obviously this displays great favouritism, and I explain it thus: I only had time to make one costume. I have two little girls who like to dress up, so a medieval lady costume will get much more use than a pharaoh costume.) I have precisely two domestic skills: I can cook and I can sew. I did, however, discover, while sewing a six-panelled gown by hand, that it is just possible to be too medival. (I ordered a sewing machine this week in preparation for next time.) But after two weeks of pricked fingers and a few glaring mistakes, C had a gown fit for a fourteenth century princess:   


Obviously sharing this image is somewhat boastful: look at me! I can sew! (Assuming you ignore the scruffiness of the hem, visible in this picture: C was adament about having a train and I was improvising.) But that is not actually the point. I am trying to zero in on the level of historical accuracy I expect from a history day. I chose a wildly anachronistic fabric. Metallic gold brocade? Nope. Not medieval. But the shape and feel are right, and it is shiny and fun, so clearly I can temper my grumpy pedantry from time to time. If I hadn’t been looking for an excuse to start sewing again, or if I hadn’t thought this dress would get a lot of wear as dress up, I would have put C in one of my long tunic-type shirts as described above and been done with it.

We arrived at history day (parents were invited to stay for the morning in the Early Years classes), where all the boys were dressed as knights and most of the girls were dressed as 18th century housemaids, and were introduced to a variety of activities to teach us about medieval times. We could paint a coat of arms on a shield. We could decorate a plastic gobelet with coloured sharpe markers to have at the snacktime medieval banquet of bread, butter, apples and “wine”. We could practice juggling with beanbags like a court jester. All of these sounded great: little lessons to be had, but appropriate for four and five year olds, and fun. But wait, there’s more…

We were invited to make little pouches of potpourri. Now, if you were going to explain to a group of four and five year olds what potpourri had to do with the middle ages would you tell them 

(A) People in the middle ages might have wanted a pouch of potpourri to sniff because there were no toilets and people threw their waste into the streets, animals were everywhere, there was no rubbish collection, no refrigeration, and many people believed that the foul odours of everyday life, called miasma, were what made people sick, so if you had something nice to smell it would not only make walking through town bearable, but you believed you might avoid sickness.


(B) People in medieval times never took baths. They also never ever washed their clothes, and they never took their clothes off no matter how smelly or dirty they got because being naked was sinful. So they needed potpourri because everybody stank and without it they couldn’t have stood to be around eachother.

If you said (B), congratualtions! Give yourself five points, a cookie, a bit of extra deoderant, and a diploma certifying you to be a Tudor PR agent or a primary school history teacher, whichever you prefer. If you said (A), bad luck. You may console yourself with a self-righteous blogpost so that everyone knows how much more you know about history than anyone else in the known universe.

Additionally, we were invited to do some medieval dancing. Huzzah! Now, if you were teaching five year olds about medieval dancing would you:

  • (A) Tell the children that medieval dancing was very slow and boring, and that they would have hated it because there are lots of rules and it isn’t fun like dancing is now.
  • (B) Say that medieval dancing was always very serious and no one was allowed to smile.
  • (C) Say that medieval people only danced to songs in 4:4 time.
  • (D) Say “Let’s dance to a medieval song!” and then teach a dance to Greensleeves, a Rennaissance song in 3:4 time.
  • (E) All of the above.

Full marks will only be awarded for (E). Marks will be deducted if you decide to loudly count out the 3:4 beat to “help” the children (and perhaps to make a point), but they will be restored if you remember just in time that, no matter the absurdity of the exercise, good manners are fitting in any age. 

I can hear the shrieks of anger from the primary school teachers even as I type this: “You have no idea how hard it is to plan an activity day like this! You have no idea how much work it is! We use resource guides! We’re not historians!” Followed swiftly by “So there are a few details they got wrong. So what? The kids are five. They’re not even going to remember.” This will not do. First of all, I do know how much work goes into planning a History Day. Second, I know teachers draw heavily on teaching resources, which may themselves be inaccurate. Maybe my exasperation should be directed towards the author of a sub-standard teaching manual, or towards whoever taught this unfortunate teacher that all medieval people were dirty, dour, prudish savages. I am not denying that the children had fun, or saying that days like this aren’t a great addition to school learning. But there’s no point in teaching something that isn’t true, even if it’s fun. In fact, there is every reason not to teach falsehood. If you learn something that’s not true, it’s not real learning: it’s just setting up a mental stumbling block that could trip you up at any point in the future.

And five year olds do remember. If we don’t expect them to absorb what they learn at five, why are we teaching them to read and write and count? Even if a five year old doesn’t remember every fact he learns, what you teach him will create an impression, and that will stick with him. Tell him that medieval people smelt worse than he could possibly imagine and you create the impression that these people knew nothing, and were too lazy and disgusting to bother with basic self-care. He might return to history to be shocked and amused by how gross and ignorant everyone was back then, but you’re already fermenting trouble for the future, should it be suggested that he could learn something of value from studying the middle ages. If you set up the contrast of the fun, sweet-smelling modern times versus the boring, revolting medieval times, you strip away the value of studying history. In a short twleve years that five year old child could be informing his Intro to Philosophy prof that there’s no point in studying Plato or Aristotle, or even Aquinas or Descartes, Kant or Kierkegaard, because those are all dead white guys who lived a long time ago and “humans have moved on,” so he won’t be doing those pointless assigned readings. (True story.) 

I know that kids think gross history is fun. Horrible Histories, a UK series of books and TV shows aimed at kids, trades on this, and mostly does a brilliant job. There is a whole sketch in which the unwashed peasants of the dark ages exchange buckets of pig manure for Christmas, but by the end of the scene you have a pretty good idea about why poop was so important to peasant farmers. Behind the deliberately hammy horror, there’s a sort of reverence (but by no means a preachiness) for history. Pig poop is funny. There’s no arguing against that. But isn’t if fascinating the use farmers did, and do, make of it? By all means gross kids out, but not to make historical figures seem like the dregs of some revolting carnival freak show. The aim should be to turn them into scholars, not voyeurs. Five year olds are plenty old enough for a simple explanation of why things were different back then. What they are not old enough for is sneaky Hegelianism that subtly assures them that their age is a pinnacle of some historical destiny, and that they may sneer at all who went before. True, what happened back then was not always good, and we hopefully know better now. But it is hard to even take the transgressions of the past seriously if we’ve decided their perpetrators were buffons. In another ten years these five year olds should be having a good think about how people not unlike themselves became the authors of such atrocities as slavery and the Holocaust (those are the two that still make it onto school syllabi, afterall), and it is short-sighted to set up the kind of thinking that says “People used to do bad things because they were stupid, but I am an enlightened modern person and therefore not suceptible to such errors.” 

I read somewhere — perhaps some knowledgeable reader may provide the citation that eludes me — that the study of history consists of being taught that things were a certain way, only to be told the next year that ‘Actually, you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ But it’s a lot easier to build upon and give nuance to a basic view of history that is at least arguably true, and it’s a lot easier to teach a student who has learnt to take a genuine  interst in what people did in the past. So, even if it’s just a history day for five year olds, let’s start by getting the information right. Do it because you care about truth, or do it to avoid angry rants from disgruntled former-academic classroom parents, or, if you must, do it to avoid returning to the Dark Ages, when ignorance stalked the land like a living pestilence… Actually, I’ll have to ask you to stop right there. But that is a topic for another day.

New Year’s Nonsense

I will slap the next person who asks me what my New Year’s resolutions are. Metaphorically, of course, for I have forsworn violence this year. (Sharpening one’s rejoinders to the point that they deliver a truly stinging slap should be on every author’s to-do list.) I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. And January is pretty packed already. My two eldest children have January birthdays, so there are presents to buy, cakes to bake, parties to plan, invitations to send, expectations to manage. And it seems this year the school is having a having a history day in January, with each class taking on a different historical period and civiisation, and invited to come dressed accordingly, so C will need to be transformed into a medieval lady and R will need to look vaguely ancient Egyptian. (Mr S has suggested just wrapping him in toilet paper, but that would deprive me of the fun of drawing on him (R, not Mr S) with eyeliner, so I’m torn.) The point is, if I was going to arbitrarily assign a project of self-improvement to a month, I would not chose January. And as we move through the calendar we find that Febuary already has the beginning of Lent. March has more lent, a good number of family birthdays (Baby Bother, the Matriarch, a beloved aunt, an acceptable cousin), and sometimes Easter. April has Easter (the season, if not the great feast itself), and Mr S’s birthday. May is little N’s birthday. June has my wedding anniversary. July is the mother-in-law’s birthday and the end of school. In August we’re usually on vacation. September is the beginning of the new school year, and my birthday. October is a serious, worky kind of month, except that we try to get home to the States for a couple weeks during the autumn half-term break. November is gloomy and increasingly dark, and has Thanksgiving. And then it’s December and we’re getting ready for Christmas again. So I really don’t know when I would fit in any action on these New Year’s resolutions. 

The crux of the matter is: I was fat and ill-disciplined last year, and if I was unable or unwilling to correct these failings for my own good, the good of my family, or out of simple moral duty, I fail to see why a fresh wall calendar would be motivational. I will not be dictated to by arbitrary temporal conventions. Virtue isn’t just for January. Indeed, if virtue is in fact a good, then it must be sought and practiced with equal fervour on January the first, July the twentieth, and December the thirty-first, to name but a few dates when good habits are advisable. Quite simply, that no one is still talking about his New Year’s resolutions in June (or even February) makes me think we’ve got the whole approach to self-improvement wrong. 

One of the things that confuses the whole issue is that we seem to think that fasting and feasting are just different words for virtue and vice. I understand the temptation to this way of thinking. Nearly twelve days later my Christmas dinner is, I’m quite sure, still digesting me, and a spot of moderation seems in order (after the fest of the Baptism of the Lord, of course. We are not a heathen.). But I don’t regret the Christmas feast, and I abhor any resolution that precludes feasting as such. You may as well foreswear what it celebrates. Likewise, you cannot feast properly if a holiday is an excuse for vice rather than an expression of joy, which must, after all, have a positive focus, and not just be a lack of restriction if it is to mean anything. From what I can tell on facebook, the modern convention is to belly flop into a frothy sea of CHRISTMAS!!!!! on the first of December, omitting the whole of Advent, and thence to float about in a Dionysian stuppour until sometime around the second of January, when we shakily stumble to our collective feet on some new Puritanical shore, muttering with nauseous regret ‘never again….’  This sentiment forms the core of many a New Year’s resolution. And that will not do, especially as the liver recovers so much more quickly than new habits take hold. How many Januaries have you spent getting skinny and sober? Exactly.

Dry Januaries are all the rage at the moment. What nonsense. If you have a genuine alcohol problem, you need to be thinking about more than a dry January. If you have just been a bit naughty over the Christmas and New Years, then an arbitrary period of teetotaling will not teach you anything about virtue, because being a teetotaller is not, in itself, virtuous. If you have been drinking to excess because it’s the only way to enjoy the parties you go to, then the virtue you need to develop isn’t to drink less, period: it’s to choose better parties. If you have been drinking too much because your friends are dull without it, then you need new friends. If you have been drinking too much because you can’t think of what else to do with yourself, then you are boring and need to work on self-development. You are the reason your friends drink to excess. (If you are drinking too much because of the sheer quality of the wine or beer or spirits on hand, stop bragging and work on your self-control: best to be able to remember these things in the morning.) None of these changes will happen through a dry January alone. So, apart from allowing your liver to recover (which isn’t for nothing) you will be no better off after a dry January, and if you take this month of abstention as license to misbehave the rest of the year you may actually be worse off.

I am not against self-improvment, but I am fed-up with the idea that self-improvement is an annual event rather than a quotidian necessity. “New Year, New Me” is a ridiculous slogan. The thing about growing in virtue is precisely that you have to drag your tatty old self along behind you. However hungover you feel on January the first, that hangover is not going to eradicate the urge to drink any more than the hundreds of hangovers you had before did. So you can’t count on a miracle every time you get a new calendar. You have to do some actual work. And you have to know you’re going to mess up because this year’s you is just as tired and busy and flawed as last year’s. When your New Year’s resolutions fail, you have to replace them with New Week resolutions; and when those fail you will need Tuesday resolutions; and then Wednesday resolutions; and then Wednesday afternoon resolutions… By all means start now to grow in virtue. But do not start now simply because now is New Years. 

The reason I get so annoyed when asked about my resolutions is that there is always a subtext of “What vices shall you be returning to by February, at the latest?” It isn’t a serious question, and, self-centred as I am, I think my struggles with self-improvement, some of which are embarassingly profound, deserve to be taken more seriously, at least by me. So don’t tempt me to abandon a good stretch of necessary work on my character by calling it a New Year’s resolution. If you’re really interested in my personal development you could ask me about it in March or November or whenever, and get pretty much the same answer: Clean the kitchen before going to bed every night, because I should set a good example — oh, and because it’s my job –; refrain from writing ten unbroken pages of dialogue at a time, because it is an artless and lazy way to tell a story; go to confession more often, because that’s just a good practice; refrain from screaming at the children, even if it means counting to 1,817 before I open my mouth; pray more; listen patiently and attentively to my husband when he talks, even when he’s going on and on about accountancy; finish writing the novel, even if it means doing less housework; blog twice a week; read to the children more. And yes, I’d like to lose fifty pounds. And I’d like the whole house to be tidy. But there’s time. I have more than January, afterall. And so do you.

 Resolve wisely, dear reader. Because, frankly, when you go all no-carb juice-purge crazy it kind of ruins January for the rest of us. Ad Multos Annos!