The Rime of The Ancient Historian

Why History?

An old ragged man, with a scruffy beard, grabs the arm of a student standing on the steps of his Alma Mater…

It is an ancient Historian,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The university’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next in line;
A Law degree, I’ll earn with glee.
Soon the world will all be mine.’

He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Law-student stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Historian hath his will.

The historian sighs and starts speaking…

For Glenn, Nicolas, Nele, Dimitri and Ophelia

‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.

In darker days, if you were a boy, you might have been a carpenters apprentice. It’s a decent enough occupation, being a carpenters apprentice, seeing as you won’t starve and with a little training anyone can do it. But it is not a splendid occupation carpentry, not in the least precisely because nearly anyone can do it and because the social mobility you yearn for is actually a historical exception. Indeed ‘the American Dream’ precedes America by entire centuries and it is likely to remain just that for many more, a dream.

So if you were born in the Southern Netherlands in the early 17th century you might have ended up aboard a ship as a carpenter-sailor. Rather in spite of the fact that you weren’t really a sailor and couldn’t even swim. You’ll remember that ships were made of wood back then. It was carpentry that kept those ships afloat. Furthermore, at this specific place and point in time, there’s a pretty good chance that at some moment you’d end up on a privateer vessel, as a official ‘pirate’ to the Crown. To this present day there has never been a time when governments have not partially relied on soldiers-of-fortune. This period was no exception, quite the contrary. So, assuming those facts, it is fairly certain you would eventually have died as a prisoner-of-war in an English cellar. Likely much younger still than the youngest person to ever to have enrolled in this fine institution. This, in turn, would have sealed the fate of your widowed mother and two younger sisters, whom would have slowly starved despite prostituting themselves, until finally they’d succumb to murder, suicide, exposure, syphilis, cholera or typhoid-fever.

Entry in military journal during U.S. War of Independence
Entry in military journal during U.S. War of Independence

..and that the American Army in Virginia had taken the redoubt from Cornwallis on the 17th September and had a hight in possession that commanded the town. That General Washington had sent to Lord Cornwallis, not to destroy any stores, for if he did[,] he must answer it at his peril. That last night Captain Nathaniel Navaro [?] got out of the Black Sole1 with 40 frenchmen and tried to get their Liberty but could not get out at the lower gate. The Centinals was obliged to capitulate with [to parley, negotiate] him to get him back.
Nothing more remarkable.

1: a ‘black sole’ is a type of fish and in this case ‘Black Sole’ is probably the name of a ship, specifically a privateer much like ‘The Black Prince’ and ‘The Black Princess’ that fought for the Revolution. The harbour of Yorktown was blockaded by a French fleet and smaller American privateers. The latter regularly visited French ports, so it’s no surprise to find them crewed by ’40 frenchmen’.

These are the kinds of things History teaches us. It isn’t always nice to learn these things because there’s certainly plenty in History which the sociopath’s among you would find very entertaining.
History tends to remember ‘The Bad Stuff’, since rare are the sources that testify about blissful happiness or about the sheer absence of events; apart from that one time when it was reportedly all ‘Quiet on the Western front’. But it also follows from the fact that History is a non-linear-system subject to the ‘2nd law of thermodynamics’: stuff tends to spontaneously fall apart but never ever spontaneously repairs itself. Much like the character in a horror-movie can be shown video-evidence of the events that took place in the room she is in, the Historian cannot intervene in the past, she can only observe events while fighting the dread of finding herself in eerily similar circumstances.

How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

So then, Why History? Why study it? Well perhaps you shouldn’t. Those among you who fancy themselves endowed with a certain level of intelligence might opt to become an engineer instead. It is a well enough occupation to be an engineer, because not everyone can do it and every society needs bridges. It is also a lot easier to be a bridge-engineer then to be a bridge-historian, isn’t it? Obviously! For what good your bridge if there are no roads? What good your roads if there are no cars?! What good your cars if there are no people?!! An engineer typically only needs to build a bridge at a certain location, a historian must ensure it is build at the right point in Space and Time.

If the historian is to have any merit it must be his or her mission to procure the recipe that propels society into the greatest possible future. In short, it’s our responsibility as historians, to make sure that there are people on the bridges and ‘catchers in the rye’. Perhaps you are not convinced? We only have to look at Ireland or even just the Euro-tunnel, in the Brexit context, to see what a current minor historical mistake looks like. I’m doubtful even that the secession of the U.K. from the E.U. will be considered just a ‘minor’ mistake. As such it is clearly a failure of us historians as we informed others insufficiently, on the consequences following their mistaken decisions. Bigger examples are as legion as they are subjects of intense discussions. I’ll mention slavery, The Crusades, the Versailles-Treaty and the notion of an ‘Invisible Hand’; both in Heaven and on our markets; that would make everything ok if only you’d believe in it sufficiently.

contract for the sale of a slave
Contract for the sale of a slave

Rec.[eived] this 29 day of November 1778 Of Doct[o]r Samuel M. Henries [1] the sum of four hundred pounds in full for a negro man named Jack being the same negro that I purchased from Mr. Charles Hurst[2]. Payment by me £400
John Van deseure
1[unsure whether it’s a single person “Doctor Samuel M. Henries” or two “Doctor Samuel [and] Mr. Henries”, also unsure on “Henries” being the last name.]
2[unsure on “Hurst”]
3[not sure about “deseure” or if name is “Van” or “Vanden” both are common usages from Dutch origin]

On my graduation from this fine institution the vice-rector mentioned in his speech that History was a self-mandating luxury. This certainly sounds like wisdom, but it falls rather short of that. I think History is not a luxury at all. History is a weapon! It is a tool that allows you to make predictions about processes no-one, least of all you, understands much or anything about. Which is why everyone uses it! Scientists outlining the expected progress in fusion-physics for the coming decades can’t use ‘still-unknown-knowledge’ to make those predictions, they employ historical patterns onto the present. IT-departments predict what their new code will do ‘for real’ by looking at what it did in the ‘test-environment’, which is typically a historical version of reality. When every passing year is on average the hotest year in human history, only the most dense narcissist can withstand the realisation that mankind is likely in serious problems. Unfortunately we never seem in short supply for ignorance nor narcissism.

So the notion that History holds patterns and that trends on a time-axis are informative, is widely adopted. But History is a hard mistress as one of her patterns is that historical-patterns occasionally break down, as predetermined by the non-linearity of the system. There had never been an Industrial Revolution until THE Industrial Revolution and for 135.000 Japanese in June of 1946 the lessons of the Nuclear Age were very much learned in the hardest possible way.

Letter from Martin Luther(1543) containing advise on treating the Jews
Letter from Martin Luther(1543) containing advise on treating the Jews

“You have preached against the Jews and fought serious battles over that with the Margrave and you were quite right to do so. Stand fast and persevere! …
For these Jews are not Jews, but devils incarnate who curse our Lord, who abuse His mother as a whore and Him as Hebel Vorik and a bastard, this is known for certain…
You may show this letter to whomever you wish.”

I did not transcribe this myself as my knowledge of old German is insufficient and the copy isn’t very good. I could confirm some parts of the transcription.
The letter was written by Martin Luther, founder of Christian protestantism, around September 1543 as a response to a letter from a top official at Berlin’s St. Nicholas Church. A letter requesting Luther’s interpretation of some Biblical verses by which former Luther friend Johann Agricola justified his positive treatment of Jews in what is now Germany. Like in Catholicism and Islam, letters from leading figures served Protestant Germany as amendments to the holy scriptures.
Link to source Words are the butterflies of history’s chaos-theory. 3 Centuries later 100’s of descendants of those German protestants would march American streets chanting ‘Jews will not replace us!’

History is a depressing mess with half your sources unreadable or filled with contradictions and the other half destroyed. They only ever mention the top 1% and these all have 27 names and titles, yet for some reason they all insist on constantly using the one they all have in common. A historian’s life thus bounces between uncertainty, anger, sadness and the occasional but persistently recurring nightmare. History is hard, both as a subject and as a activity. And although at this institution they will try to teach you methods and modes of thinking, I’ve found there is no substitute for a great deal of luck and being very VERY smart! History is the test-environment of the present and as historians you will be its guardians. This means you will be ignored, mocked and disrespected, perhaps even starved. Most of you, like me, will have to scrape by a living as ersatz engineers, managers, carpenter-sailors, soldiers-of-fortune or some other marginal form of employment that pays the bills. So I should truly do you all a great disservice if I implored you to become historians.

Who, except hopeless bureaucrats, can rely on written documents alone? Who, except archive rats4, does not understand that a party and its leaders must be tested primarily by their deeds and not merely by their declarations?

Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism (Letter to the Editorial Board of the Magazine “Proletarskaya Revolutsia” 1931) by Jozef Stalin.
With ‘archive rats’ indicating historians and Stalin’s low regard for them.

4:underlining is mine

But perhaps you should ignore my advise and consider this endeavour regardless. Because every so often things happen in life that fill those around us with uncertainty, hopelessness, even fear. Predictions about the present being the ‘End Of History’ are always wrong and any perceived historical stability is only ever temporary. The future is forever a combination of what you’d expect it to be, multiplied by the effects of things you forgot to consider and aspects you appreciated incorrectly. So periodically people will ask you, the guardians of the test-environment, to produce any-and-all resembling precedents of what just happened. A pattern with a happy-ending to help them quench their insecurity. So here is what you should tell them: “given enough time, everyone eventually dies”. Which is a good thing, considering what my great-grandmother used to say: “You don’t die JUST because you want to.”

Image from Houthulst Flanders 1917
Roughly where my great-grandmother’s house must have been in 1917. About 10 km from where, on April 1915, the first gas-attack in history killed 6000 French soldiers (the cloud was 6 km wide). For some this dying would take weeks, months even years to come. The sight of the corpses and suffocating was so terrible that the advancing German troops, on their way to a sure victory, halted in horror and fear. Man had entered the age of weapons-of-mass-destruction.

But I don’t want you to think I’m pushing you towards pessimism or nihilism. In fact, I think it takes a Romantic soul to be a historian. Because you need to see beauty where others see only boring, irrelevant or horrific stories. You need to see the heroism in mankind’s enterprises however ignorant, wasteful, selfish and malicious they may otherwise be. History teaches us what computers cannot learn and machines can’t do. Which is why robots will not replace us. As historians, you most of all will realise that the things that give your life meaning and define who you are, are not necessarily compressed within that insignificant timespan between the day of your birth and the date of your demise. No-one has ever found the same kind of significance in a volume on Law or a paper on Architecture, as they have in even the smallest treatise on History.

After all we may just be another brick in mankind’s wall but all things considered, for all its flaws, at least that wall still holds. It is 4 billion years old! This is the reason why our libraries are literally packed with History books. Sooner or later everyone comes to realise that the things they did today, the things they found so important, really have no significance at all; that within 200 years no trace of them will remain and that 2000 years from now no-one will even remember our names!

But on the off-chance they still remember who we were, what we stood for and what we found to be important, it will be because they still find History important. But this can only be if we here, today, commit to value History more and take its lessons more to heart.
Because of we few.
We lucky few!
We band of brothers!
For those who write history with me here today shall indeed be my brother.. or sister.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”
Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address 1863

And so, my dear fellow archive rats, though perhaps not as literally as you’d like, History is the only study that leads to man’s immortality. You see, historians don’t just have the one life. Time has relinquished all its grips on them. Though they may not live forever, they definitely live more.

The Historian, his speaking at an end,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the law-student
Turned from his Alma’s door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Live Long and Prosper


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