You Can’t Handle the Past

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.

Who knows?

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.


Berlinghiero Madonna and Child, 13th century

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

9 thoughts on “You Can’t Handle the Past

  1. That’s why one of the most beautiful and fruitful of mankind’s eras is known as the Middle or Dark Ages. It’s also why the Protestant Revolution is called a Reformation. So much of history is based upon opinion. I like to cite the ‘Ah, Yes, I remember it well.’ scene between Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in ‘Gigi’ whenever someone refers to this.

  2. Great rant, Martha. I just finished Tara Westover’s Educated, which, among other things, shines a very bright light on the unreliability and variability of memory. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the past 5 years, and I’m not even a big fan of the memoir genre.

  3. Anything that happened outside my own life, I don’t know about except through books. My family doesn’t seem to have a past beyond my grandparents, and little enough of that too. but what is really strange is when someone I’ve known for a long time who completely rewrites their history … I mean BIG rewrite as in the girl I grew up living next door to and who was my best friend until we separated to go to college shows up as “the woman who invented the women’s movement.” No, she didn’t.

    She did discover she was gay, but I don’t think that’s exactly the same thing. I was at least peripherally involved in that “movement” (was it really a movement or just a move?) and her name NEVER showed up. Anywhere. Apparently, she taught “women’s studies” at a city college in New York and with each subsequent year of study, her position in the movement got bigger.

    And yet I do know people who really were instrumental in a variety of areas, mostly pretty geeky stuff … and I KNOW they were founders of modern technology. They never talk about it at all and if you bring it up, they change the subject.

    Not only is the past written by the winners, but it is also written by people who like writing about it. Not everyone wants to be the hero of their own epic.

  4. I love the photos of those early paintings, Martha. I could make facetious remark about Giotto being before his time. 🙂

    Truth seems very wobbly (technical term). Maybe Mr T believes his own bullshit.

    My love and I think differently. The memories he stores are completely different to the ones I attach importance to. Anything attached to a feeling sticks to me. Not so him. His mind is like an encyclopedia. I have difficulty remembering facts. Maybe I would make a good Trump supporter!

  5. I guess I don’t know enough about the reformation to know precisely what you are describing. But if that pairs with why I was told that Lutheran churches (in which I was raised) were plain in comparison to Catholic Churches—I was told we didn’t emphasize wealth and that the church was to reflect the plain nature of its congregation. Or that’s my vague memory. I assume you might be referring to the stark black clothing I’ve seen depicting churchgoers of that era? But I like how you put it, “making a cult out of the color black!” Very apt.

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