“It was Better Back Then”

In preparation for teaching, I’ve been going back and re-reading a number of discussions about the Romantic Movement, the Victorian era in general, and the different flavors of Socialism that eventually emerged by 1914 or so. One of the themes that appears over and over is how many of those people sighed longingly, at least in print or on canvas, for the Middle Ages and the pre-Industrial world. They’re not the only ones. I’ve been reading about the original Indo-Europeans and their migration into eastern Europe, and one of the major academic wars came about in part because an early and prominent writer and popularizer painted the pre-Indo-European world as one of egalitarian farmers who lived in what appeared to be a matriarchy without evidence of warfare and then the patriarchal, nomadic, horse-riding steppe people arrived and destroyed it all. With a strong implication of “it was so much better back then . . .” And MZB’s The Mists of Avalon did something similar, but around AD 500 and at the other end of Europe. Except . . . Except . . . they don’t want the real past.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of someone inventing a time-machine that takes people to the imagined past, except they don’t quite realize it. The MZB-inspired neo-pagan travels to a world where the wise women rule society and all men obey them and free love has no consequences for women because the secrets of fertility control were not stolen and destroyed by the eeeevil Christians. The William-Morris want-to-be goes back to a fair and friendly medieval world of happy peasants and prosperous guilds and high wages for hand-work and just prices for everything, where disease and war and accidental death don’t happen.  The only problem is that someone discovers that 1) it is not time travel but multiverse travel and 2) the imagined pasts are just that, imagined, and the people are being tapped for [plot thing] by aliens who do not have the best intentions toward humans. Maybe the protagonist will be a paleo-anthropologist who knows darn well that there’s a reason why so many skeletal remains have serious arthritis, evidence of healed breaks, malnutrition, and other evidence of not-paradise.

“It was better back then.” People only paid a just price back then, because the community decided what could be charged so that no one would starve but the farmer and craftsmen would go broke either. There was no air pollution or chemically impure water back then. People knew their place back then, and paid proper respect to their parents/elders/betters/clergy/lord and lady and didn’t kick or protest because they understood and accepted that others knew more and were better by birth and station. Warfare never happened back then because women ran everything and used their special, more emotional and empathetic way of knowing to lead a just and happy society. It was better back then because no one farmed, everyone hunted and gathered and lived in harmony with nature and no one had started the horrible devastation of nature that is small-grain farming.*

How do you define “better?” More just? More “fair,” for whatever fair means? More communal with less individual choice and responsibility? Smaller, with fewer distractions and choices? More strictly organized, where everyone has a place and knows it, and does not deviate because of the consequences (and where the definer is one of those on top)? A world with the values and population of [favorite time period] but with modern conveniences and sanitation?

I admit, there are days when I’d like to go back to 1902 for the clothes, and 1680 for the music (or maybe 1780, when Mozart was composing a mass-a-week and I could go hear them, if I could go hear them), and 1890 for the manners and behavior. But I’d keep 2000’s sanitation, vaccines, food-quality and cost, sanitation, availability of books, ease and freedom of movement, lack of major wars in Europe and North America, sanitation . . .

Alas, my practical streak strongly overrides my Romantic streak. I admire a Robert Owen or William Morris who have a long-ago ideal and try to find practical ways to make it happen in their current time and place. I may disagree with their understanding of the Middle Ages, for example, but those kind of people have a plan, understand the work and costs involved, and are willing to put in the effort instead of sitting around and sighing about how much better it was in 3500 BC before the Indo-Europeans rode in from the steppe and the wise matriarchy disappeared into the shadows and Women’s Ways of Knowing faded into secret folklore. Or in 1700 when peasants obeyed their lord, when artisans made everything by hand, when the “dark, Satanic mills” did not exist and everyone lived in a lush, peaceful and comfortable “green and pleasant land,” as William Blake so beautifully imagined.

*I’m not exaggerating. There’s a book entitled Against the Grain that makes just this argument.

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9 thoughts on ““It was Better Back Then”

  1. Wow… There are really folks out there that are ‘that’ disconnected? Do they not realize how brutal those environments were, in lifespan, illness, medical treatment, food, etc?

    • Yes, there are. If they (and the rest of us) are lucky, they find some niche where they can work and turn their illusions into something like art, or they spend a lot of their off-hours in daydreams. And the reception of Manning’s book was, hmm, less than swooning with delight on the part of the ag historians and environmental historians. For all that some of the environmental historians can be pretty woo when it comes to politics and so on, a lot of them pointed out this thing called “carrying capacity” and challenged Manning to show numbers on how his ideal world would work. Last I’d heard, he had not answered the charges with hard numbers (and hard they would be indeed.)

      • Not all Leftists are complete idiots. At a party I was listening to one decry opposition to gun control, and the horrors of cuts to certain federal programs beloved of the Left…. and then go on to decry how horrible an idea the push for “organic” foods is on a both because of carrying capacity (if pushed large scale) and increased expense for lower-class consumers (when pushed at a smaller scale).

  2. There are periods of time it would be nice to visit for a while, but I think that despite all its warts, now is a pretty awesome time to be living. I’d love to go back and see Rome in its splendor, catch a ride on the Graf Zeppelin, watch the interurban trolleys as they depart from their Indianapolis terminal, listen to Louis Armstrong live, witness the Wright Brothers doing their thing at Kitty Hawk, take in the hustle and bustle of an American city in its prime, soak up the sight of Hetch Hetchy before it was drowned, gaze upon an untamed Niagara Falls, and see Penn Station before its demise. But I wouldn’t give up modern medicine, computers, air conditioning, and civil rights to do so.

    A time machine, a few weeks to spare, and a good digital camera with a plentiful supply of memory cards and batteries would be fine. 🙂

    On that note there are some riskier times and places, too, that would be fun for a quick visit: a buffalo herd thundering across the plains, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, or witnessing the defeat of the Turks at Vienna and Lepanto*. It would be neat to be able to do a series of visits to support studies of early modern man and of pre-modern hominids, or of dinosaurs.

    * Though Lepanto might be a bit more difficult to observe safely. Perhaps this idea is all wet?

    • Though Lepanto might be a bit more difficult to observe safely. Perhaps this idea is all wet?

      That’s why a Time Viewer is better.

      IE See events that happened in the Past instead of traveling to the Past. 😀

    • I’d wear a lightweight body armor for Lepanto. Between shots going astray and poor target selection, your boat (or drone) could get unwanted attention even by accident. (Mom and Dad Red actually sailed over the battle sight. It is a shallow area near some baby-islands the locals call the Sea Urchins.)

  3. One renaissance faire once upon a time sold a t-shirt promoting the faire with the line, “Like history… but with toilet paper!” which pointed out how different things really were from the cherry-picked, re-imagined, and very decidedly sanitized version used for amusement.

    Many seem not to realized that if things really had been that much better “way back when” then there would have been successful attempts to “go back.”

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