As a writer of historicals and a history teacher for many years, I am often irritated by statements about what people in the past believed. "They believed it was unhealthy to sleep with the windows open." or "They thought the stars controlled a person's destiny." My question always is "Who is 'they'?"

If we apply the same generalizations to today, then "we" believe that the everyday actions of someone named Lindsey or Paris or Beyonce are very, very important. "'We' also believe that there are shampoos that can somehow remeld split ends, creams that can erase wrinkles, and pads for the bottoms of your feet that can pull impurities from your body. And of course "we" believe that God won't give you more than you can handle, that the good we do is written down somewhere for later, and therapy will make you a better person.

Here's what I'd bet on: for every person in the Middle Ages who believed that powdered dog feces would cure an eye infection, there was at least one who figured it was smarter to keep the eye clean, rest it, and hope for the best. For every man who blamed the alignment of Gemini and Virgo for his lack of success in business, there were those who decided to change their approach and try something else. And for every one who concluded that beating himself with a whip would make him fit for Heaven, there were others who formed a philosophy of moderation and lived by it.

It's silly to judge a people by what somebody wrote down or what some painting depicts. If people from the future drew conclusions about us based on a picture of Britney on stage, would that be good for you?

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Comment by Peg Herring on April 22, 2009 at 9:40pm
Benjamin,
Exactly. I contend that thoughtful people, no matter what the age, reach their own conclusions. They may not argue the point, but they sense that common knowledge isn't always real knowledge. Education helps, but just as often it reinforces what "we" believe. But inside the heads of those who think, common sense speaks. A man who spends all day behind a plow has lots of time to think. He might well come to the conclusion, privately of course, that what "they" call truth is bunk.
Comment by Benjamin Sobieck on April 22, 2009 at 12:28pm
As with all gross generalizations, there are too many exceptions to support blanket perceptions. "They," "the media," "the government," "those people," "you," "us," "we," "Americans," it's all the same no matter the time period.
Comment by Peg Herring on April 22, 2009 at 7:09am
Jon,
Great thought! And we have the nerve to snicker at bustles and codpieces!
B.R.,
My point exactly. We call it superstition when it's someone else's belief.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 22, 2009 at 2:51am
I'd like to be around when future archaeologists dig up the cemeteries around Los Angeles and try to figure out why all the female skeletons have bags of saline solution or silicone goo resting on their rib cages. There are obviously some cultural manifestations that do tell us useful and interesting things about past societies.
Comment by Tom Cooke on April 22, 2009 at 2:45am
Peg,
My bet is, that if people in the future look at pictures of Paris Hilton to judge our society I'll be to dead to care.
Perhaps the generalization of "They" is too broad, but in most cases some of "They" did have those beliefs. Just as some of our stalwart citizenry believe that the activities of Beyonce and Paris and Britney are far more important than what bills are being passed by Congress. We certainly spend as much media time on them as we do on Congress. Perhaps we will go down in history as the Shallow Generation. History is what it is.
T
Comment by B.R.Stateham on April 22, 2009 at 1:40am
You have to consider the idea that education greatly helps in lifting the veil of supersition from one's mind--but on the other hand, it also has that ability of creating a higher, more complex level of sophistry in justifing one's supersitition.

Like everything else, education is a two-edge sword.
Comment by I. J. Parker on April 22, 2009 at 1:10am
It would have depended on the educational level of the character. However, a good many educated people, writers included, did believe in the significance of the movement of the stars. The level of ignorance can be seen in eyewitness accounts of the black plague, for example.

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