How History Can Make You Happy by Peg Herring

Posted by on Nov 25, 2013 in Historical Fiction Influences, Historical Tidbits | 5 comments

I got a call from an acquaintance the other day, and as we chatted, he remarked that the youth of America is lazy, poorly educated, and unmotivated. It brought to mind a quotation I used to read to my students that says much the same thing. Children have no respect for their elders. They don’t want to work. They expect everything to be handed to them. They don’t exercise.

It’s attributed to Socrates, over two thousand years ago.

We complain about the government inserting itself into our lives. We worry about the effects some practices have on our health. We see rising crime rates while cuts lessen the number of police to combat it.

It’s a scary world.

We history nerds know a little bit about how life was in other times, and it gives us some perspective. Life is problematic, and every good thing is balanced by something less good—sometimes a lot less.

Crime, you say? How’d you like to live in the age of the blood feud, when there were no police and a death, even an accidental one, might be taken as a familial insult. It called for an equal shedding of blood, maybe the perpetrator’s, maybe one of his family members. Do-it-yourself-retribution.

I write about the Tudor Era, and though I love it, I’ll take modern life any time. Class distinctions showed in everything, right down to the colors and fabrics a person was allowed to wear. Unhealthy work conditions, food adulterated with everything from accidental inclusions to sand to make the weight. Doctors who knew little about how the body worked, who turned over rocks to get a prognosis and prescribed ground-up deer gallstones as a cure. The assumption was that torture was an acceptable, even desirable method of criminal investigation. Add to that the fact that almost everyone had a relative who’d been put to death for one thing or another, and Tudor life was downright scary.

Unhappy with your job? Read Suzanne Alleyn’s The Executioner’s Heir and learn a little about the rigidity of societal roles in the 18th century.

Dissatisfied with women’s right in 2013? Take a look at M. Louisa Locke’s Victorian mysteries and learn about the extremely limited choices available to women, whose finances, social status, and everyday activities were controlled by their husbands, fathers, and uncles.

Corrupt politicians? Don’t make me giggle. Look for lies, deceit, and complete disregard for the common good and you’ll find it in every era. We admire men like Lincoln and Washington, but they were vilified in their own times by those who opposed their views. Can you imagine what the American Tories of 1776 (and there were plenty of them) said about the likes of George, Thomas, and Benjamin?

Think our culture is overly fascinated with superstars? Read Beverly Graves Myers’ Tito Amato series and learn about opera singers of the 1700s who were castrated to preserve their pure voices. Getting to know and like Tito has made me aware of parallels with today’s superstars. In either case, rewards of fame and wealth can never fully compensate for what the “superstars” sacrifice to achieve it.

Modern people need to know a little about history in order to understand that the world is…well, how it is. Reading historical novels can counteract the media’s insistence that things are awful (They want you to keep watching.) as well as comments from people who don’t read history and therefore honestly think times have never been worse.

To paraphrase Mr. Dickens, this is the best of times and the worst of times. And every time that’s ever been is exactly that.

Peg Herring, November 25, 2013

To see what life was like in 1967 Chicago (the very recent past) see Herring’s newest novel of mystery and suspense A Lethal Time and Place.


  1. So true, Peg. The challenges of the present are no worse, no better than those of the past, only different. They are ours to deal with, but because there is nothing new under the sun, we can learn form history’s mistakes.

  2. I’m with Peg, Happy they’ve done away with debtors prison and the like.

  3. Unfortunately, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”!

    Technology changes . . . human nature doesn’t. Nor does the tendency of older people to grouse about the younger generation, or the tendency of people at any time to believe that fifty years earlier was always “the good old days.” 🙂

  4. I’m not surprised in the least that youth don’t respect us old farts. What have we done to deserve it? We (in the U.S.) took the world’s (and history’s) most successful nation and debased it. Truthfully, I am ashamed of the nation that I am bequeathing to my children and grandchildren. No, I didn’t vote for the leaders who led us down these paths, but I didn’t do much to promote better ones. I simply never cared about government. I laughed at those who sought fame and power thinking that such things were trivial, just playthings for lesser men and women. Too late I realized the damage they were doing. No, I don’t deserve anyone’s respect. Do you?

  5. I love history because it helps me better understand human behavior. Over all, we haven’t changed all that much. The cliche ‘History repeats itself,’ exists for a reason. That pretty much says it all.


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