Imagine it, History nerds. One day, on your lockdown walk in the woods, all of a sudden darkness drops on top of you as if someone has flicked a light switch. Next, you hear an eerie whispering and a melodic humming.
Then, suddenly there is light, so much light it dazzles you. And when you regain your senses, standing in front of you is a bearded, magical wizard-like creature, holding a mysteriously large ancient book. After the usual babblings, blowing off dust and casting of spells, they give you one opportunity, one chance to do something truly incredible.
You can go back, they say, to one moment in the past and experience it first-hand. You can see it happening, really happening there in front of you, the sounds, the emotions, the smells, everything.
The Holy Grail, for History enthusiasts!
And then the bearded, supernatural being disappears in a puff of smoke and you are left in the woods, contemplating.
I know what some of you are thinking :
This all seems a little bit unlikely, or
If you really were to travel back in time, you would catch some horrible disease and die, or
Why do wizard-like creatures always have beards?
I know it seems impossible but this is 2020. Anything can happen.
So, come on! Where would you go?
Perhaps you’d go back to 1599 to see the very first performance in the newly-built Globe Theatre, which was probably either Henry V or Julius Caesar.
Or, if you don’t like Shakespeare, maybe you’d travel to June 1613 when the Globe went up in flames during a performance of Henry VIII after a theatrical cannon misfired and set fire to everything.
Imagine being in Westminster Hall in January 1649 to watch the King of England, Charles I, on trial and eventually condemned to death.
Or in Lancashire, October 1829, where you could witness the fastest steam locomotives in the world competing along a newly-built section of railway track between Liverpool and Manchester. You could be in the crowd as George Stephenson’s Rocket defies all understanding and achieves a top speed of 30mph, claiming the hefty £500 prize.
We read history books, we sit in history classrooms, we watch history documentaries and listen to history lectures. But there is always a distance between us and them. Just think what it would be like to actually be there, to actually be able to watch William Shakespeare watching his own play performed, to see Oliver Cromwell glaring at the stubborn king, to hear the belching of The Rocket as it speeds along. We’re all allowed to dream!
So, where would you go?
I’d be tempted to transport to Italy, 1592. Naples, more precisely. An architect called Domenico Fontana has designed an underground aqueduct and the works are in progress. There are men digging, everywhere.
Then, you imagine, one of them sees something in the earth, something he doesn’t expect to see. A flash of colour. He calls his mate over. They dig a bit more and they reveal more colour, a picture. A wall with a picture. And what are these? Words engraved on the wall. An inscription?
Eventually, Domenico himself appears.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “Carry on!”
It wasn’t nothing, of course. What they had discovered was the Roman city of Pompeii, a city largely forgotten for a thousand years buried by a volcanic eruption in AD79. The diggers had hit upon ancient walls, covered with paintings and inscriptions, as the course of the underground aqueduct passed through, and under, large parts of the ancient city.
But Fontana himself kept quiet and nothing came of it. Proper excavations didn’t really get going for another couple of hundred years. The UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site we know today, that attracts millions of tourists every year, is largely the result of the last 150 years and indeed continues to be dug, still revealing treasures and insights into the ancient world.
To see the first glimpses of a hidden city, though, a site that would in the centuries to come progress our understanding of the Roman world so significantly, to meet the workers whose spades breathed life into Pompeii for the first time in 1500 years, to be part of that discovery, this is where I would go.
But would you tell them what, in fact, they had discovered and how important their discovery would become? Or would you just let them get back to building their aqueduct?
So, history nerds, on your woodland walks this Christmas, keep an eye out for bearded wizards offering time travel services and make sure you’re ready to give them a quick answer.
Where would you go?
As any child in a school History lesson will tell you, people living in the past were clearly clueless. Of course you can’t get rid of bubonic plague by ringing the church bells! Obviously the earth is not flat!
And we in the present are totally clued in. After all, we’ve invented the internet, we’ve virtually rid the world of terrible diseases like smallpox and polio. We’ve put men and women into space and landed robots on Mars!
But as any History teacher will tell you, things are rarely as simple as that.
Not everyone in the past was a fool
Yes, there were some weird and wacky ideas for avoiding infection and treating patients during the many outbreaks of plague during the middle ages and later periods. But for every patient drinking vinegar or whipping themselves, there were also measures which bear a striking resemblance to what we have been through in 2020.
Sufferers were isolated in their homes or in plague hospitals. Ships were restricted to port to control movement of people and goods. Indeed, in Venice the authorities isolated ships for a period of forty days, hence the word “quarantine” (after the Italian for forty).
And there is no denying that popular opinion had the earth as flat until surprisingly recently. But perhaps based on the reports of Phoenician sailors, Plato was teaching his students in the fourth century BC that the earth was round. And a man in Alexandria called Eratosthenes even calculated the exact circumference of the earth : https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/ancient-greeks-proved-earth-round-eratosthenes-alexandria-syene-summer-solstice-a8131376.html
So, let’s not pretend we are the only clever ones. And there is no way we are right about everything, anyway.
What will people laugh at us for in years to come?
So, what mistakes are we making today that our descendants will cringe about in the History lessons of the future?
There are lots of conspiracy theories, of course.
Some say our use of mobile phones is causing unseen health issues. Reports have suggested that they are linked to areas like cancer, damage to fertility and reproduction, DNA damage and the health of our children.
Amplified by social media, the anti-vaccination movement continues to put forward the potential dangers of vaccination as a way of dealing with public health emergencies. You might expect during a global pandemic that vaccination would be overwhelmingly popular. A survey of 1000 New Yorkers in April 2020, however, found that only 59% would take a Covid vaccine and only 53% would give it to their children.
Or maybe it’s what we eat, our consumption of processed foods or our obsession with dieting to lose weight.
The point is that, at the moment, we don’t know. History will ultimately decide.
So, let’s not get complacent. There will be things that we do everyday that people in the future will sit in their classrooms and cafes laughing at us for.
So, my question for current History students, their teachers, and indeed everybody else, is what normal activity have you done today that might prove hilariously stupid to future generations? What do you do regularly that your descendants in the future might laugh at you for?
Leave a comment below and let’s see if we can learn from the past to improve the future.