I write historical fiction so the words “the past” is not just my own past (which seems fictional a lot of the time) but a lot of peoples’ pasts. Mostly I don’t think we know that much about it. Even our own.
The other night I was talking on the phone with an old friend and he shared a memory with me of a time that I don’t remember and don’t think happened. I could see the conversation going into that place where a lot of conversations go, so I just said. “Interesting. I don’t remember that.” He started justifying his memory of events, and I just let him.
What stands out in the memory of person A might not in the memory of person B — for a lot of reasons. In this case, if this event he remembered so vividly DID happen, it would have been crowded out of my memory by things that happened afterward — my mom being hospitalized, having to fly to Montana, fearing I’d gotten scabies from a dog we tried to rescue, etc. etc. a whole litany of chaos that included both the dishwasher and washing machine breaking, my purse stolen and my car breaking down. Yep. All in one evening. Those things didn’t happen to my friend or involve him directly. Why WOULD he remember them? He doesn’t.
History is propaganda. I saw that most clearly when I was researching the way lepers were treated in the middle ages. There was a clear discrepancy between what the literature of the era said and what modern historians said. All this was being examined at the time by paleo-historians who were digging up graveyards in what were regarded (by modern historians) as “leper colonies.” What they found supported the literature of the time and went against the whole pariah myth that — it turns out — was a post plague thing and propagated by Sir Walter Scott hundreds of years later. The marginalized leper was not a medieval thing and medieval doctors diagnosed leprosy accurately.
Then there is the noxious historical period known as the Renaissance. I don’t think there was any Renaissance at all. A sixteenth century Italian propagandist and second-rate painter, Giorgio Vasari, coined the term to describe his OWN period in history. Yeah, there was a lot of beautiful work done at this time, but it was because the church was 1) rich and 2) threatened by the Reformation. All that beautiful painting and stuff? Big character posters.
Then there’s the floating point of historical periods. Giotto — because people in some era future to his own liked his work — has been included in the Renaissance because his paintings are not “primitive and medieval.” This is (to Renaissance propagandists) clearly an indication that the art of painting was progressing, moving toward Michelangelo et. al. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone that Giotto lived and worked in a century — the fourteenth century — that these same historians have included in the “Dark Ages.” Fuck them. It pisses me off every time I think of it. Giotto’s work was loved and sought in his own era. They have a right to it — as long as we’re going to arbitrarily assign eras to history.
And WHY did medieval painting cling to the Byzantine model so long? Was it REALLY because medieval artists couldn’t paint “better” than that? No. It was because they believed that the Holy Family should not be depicted as ordinary human beings.
There’s a lot of medieval painting that isn’t of the Holy Family, and a lot to be learned by looking at it. Just a couple of very random examples, 12th and 13th century secular paintings:
Anyway, you can see the “past” is kind of a “hot button” topic for me. I could rant all day on how the Reformation ruined the color and beauty of the Middle Ages by stripping the churches, making a cult out of the color black and destroying paintings, but I won’t. Just remember when you think of the past — even your own past — you might be editorializing without even knowing it.
Featured image: The Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto di Bondone, fresco at Assisi