Ever wonder why we study the past? I mean really, what’s the point? It’s over. Done with. Shouldn’t we just move on?
I was going to blog about the Siege of Berwick and the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, in relation to my new time travel novel, In the Time of Kings, but then my friend Greta van der Rol posted about her recent tour of Australia and I was inspired to write something totally different. Greta is the author of the historical thriller, To Die a Dry Death, about the shipwreck of the Batavia off the coast of Australia in 1629. One of Greta’s stops was to the Abrolhos Islands that feature in her story. Greta wrote : “I’ve seen the maps and other people’s pictures, but seeing the place for yourself is very different.”
There IS something to be said about standing on the ground where great battles were waged, where castles once stood, where humans first looked upon unmapped territories, struggled against the elements, built their homesteads, and raised their broods, centuries or even millennia ago. When you know a little about history, it puts our own modern day lifestyles in perspective. Without the rebels who rose against injustice, we wouldn’t have democracy. Without the architects and inventors and scientists who envisioned the structures, machines and medicines we use today, we wouldn’t be able to take the elevator to the fiftieth floor, fly to Paris, or prevent diseases through a simple vaccination.
History humbles us. Understanding it makes us appreciate not only the toils of our forebears, but our own. When I compare how my great-great-great grandparents hitched a plow to their horse so they could raise their own crops, to my own grocery store trips in my Kia Sportage, well … I realize that what I do on a daily basis pales in comparison. They were hardworking people, selfless, patient and courageous. They made sacrifices far beyond anything I have ever done or will even attempt to do. When you truly understand history – not just the dates and names, but what really happened to the people who lived it – then you tend not to take things for granted.
A decade ago, I traveled to Scotland with a friend. The moment I set foot there, it felt like I’d come home, even though I’d never been there before. I can’t tell you how many times I gazed out over the land or touched my fingers to the weathered stones of an old castle and felt an unexplainable connection to those who had trod upon that ground long before. It filled me with a sense of something bigger than myself, something older than the length of my own life. Something … inexorable, eternal, maybe even a little spiritual.
On a more recent family trip to New York City, I insisted on going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have THE most incredible display of medieval weaponry on this side of the pond you’ll ever see. I drooled over the shiny plate armor, impressive long swords and decorated shields. My husband had to clamp onto my sleeve and drag me away when the rest of our troop started feeling faint with hunger. I, on the other hand, was energized. Transported through time.
The question that has always been whispered in the back of my mind is: Why do I care so much about what went on in fourteenth century Scotland? Why do I feel such a connection to those people?
And then I accidentally discovered why when I began digging into my ancestry. Imagine my shock when I figured out I was descended from some of the very people I’d written about: Bruces, Douglasses and Plantagenets.
For those of us obsessed with history, do you ever wonder if some of our ancestors’ memories get passed down to us? Or that they’re with us in spirit, trying to share their stories? That they want us to remember, so we can go forward and build a better world?
I will always believe it’s important to honor the past. Not just to memorize facts, but to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’. To quote George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History does matter. Without it, we wouldn’t have the society we have now, good or bad. And in everything we do, every day, we are making history, determining the course of the future.
N. Gemini Sasson, September 9, 2013