Different Time, Different Minds

It’s hard to get a modern mind into a late medieval or even early-modern mindset. Especially for Americans (and Canadians as well, I suspect), our philosophical and cultural world is so very different from that of the late 1400s-1700 that it’s a wrench. Reading lots of documents and accounts from the time helps, a little, but those are often “official” and rather tidier than the average mental world of the run-of-the-mill soldier, sailor, traveler, or businessman. It takes work, and digging, and a deliberate effort to set aside what we know and to accept the framework of Back Then. And even so, it is an imperfect fit at best, because we lack some of the ingrained culture, the part of the iceberg deeply submerged.

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, I discovered that some of my students have had certain language patterns ingrained in them, to the point that they don’t see why using a certain term makes zero sense in the context of what they are discussing. Two, it’s the annual “Europeans are horrible murdering conquers who were incompetent as well” furor. Three, working on the Merchant books requires me to put on a different mental “costume” of sorts and to force myself into a world that often collides with my own. [As an aside, Arthur has one foot in that world, which might explain a little of why he is so draining to write as a POV character.] It is a mental world where survival comes first, where casual violence is the normal state of things, not the exception, where death is an everyday reality, where women are very important but not equals, and where life is hard and short. Tarno Halson is just over thirty. If you saw him in person, you’d think he was older because of how he moves and his outlook on life.

So when I read the accounts of people like Columbus, and Bernal Diaz, or descriptions of the Thirty Years War, the world of Ivan IV (the Terrible) as written by people of the time, it can jar and jar hard. I think something that sums up far too much of the Thirty Years War (and warfare into the modern day, outside of Europe and the Anglo-Sphere) is the statue of the soldier and the woman that is one of the plates in Geoffrey Parker’s book about the Seventeenth Century. I’m not going to describe it, other than to say that it is an amazingly well done depiction of something horrible about to happen. But someone commissioned the sculpture, and kept it, and valued it. That, right there, makes me pause and wonder about mental worlds. But I do delve into that world, because if I’m going to come anywhere close to understanding what makes people do things, and how other minds see things, I need to try. It can be entertaining, and amazing, and terrifying. Sort of like making myself think through blood-and-soil nationalism. I understand it, I can explain it, I can even write it as a point of view, but it itches and doesn’t fit.

Our world isn’t that of back then. Our rational scientific answers for “why” would sound as strange to Columbus, or Hugo Groetius, as miasma theory and the need to balance humors, or the casta system of the Hispanic colonies sounds to us. Back then, they had reasons based on observation and extrapolation that made good sense, even if they weren’t correct. Today, we do the same. Some things that were morally wrong in the early-modern world are just fine today, and things we condemn today were accepted as normal. And some things were excessive for both of us. The conquistadors were most certainly not saints. After 700 years of warfare, then crossing the Atlantic looking for riches and glory, well, saints are going to be very, very unusual. You know things had to be horrific when even Cortez wrote that what his allies did to the last Aztec defenders was appalling. So I’m not surprised that the Spanish, Portuguese, and others acted the way they did. Disappointed, perhaps, but not overwhelmed with surprise. So Charlemagne had multiple wives and official (and unofficial) lady friends. As did Charles V, at least the lady-friends part. Um, they were powerful men with lots of money (OK, Charles had some budgeting difficulties. Moving right along . . .) What do you expect? I’d hope for better, but *shrugs*

The point being, when we demonize people from the past for not having our modern sensibilities, we’re demonizing ourselves. When we elevate one group in the past as the pure, innocent victims, and make the others into horrible monsters who should have known better, we warp the story and strip the humanity from both groups. Most Native Americans/First Nations/whatever we choose to call them were not saintly, environmentally perfect Children of the Earth. They enslaved, massacred, loved, dreamed, murdered, seduced, fought, and were people. Likewise the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and everyone else. We are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. That’s an amazing – and humbling – inheritance. Warts and all.

12 thoughts on “Different Time, Different Minds

  1. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
    It is, sometimes, a bit of a struggle to get into the mindset of another age, and not just do 21st century characters in funny costumes.

  2. So, was Will Durant’s rather scandalous marriage a form of method acting?

    (Runs off, snickering)

  3. It was interesting reading one of Chris Nuttall’s recent books and seeing the assumed “class structures” of his “Nameless World”.

    Note, the main character is this book was a native of the Nameless World not Emily.

      • Title was The Cunning Man.

        Our main character was sure that Magicians would always “stand together”.

        IE The Magicians in charge would ignore the pranks of the Apprentice Magicians.

        • I’d been reading the version of that he was putting up on Royal Road. Eventually, the combination of story darkness and my own depression caused me to take a break.

          Anyway, concur on that being a decent enough example.

  4. For an even tougher problem…get one’s mind into the mindset of a nonhuman animal. There’s a classic philosophy paper: What is it Like to be a Bat?

    Click to access Nagel_Bat.pdf

    C L Lewis did a pretty good job of imagining the mind of a tame bear:

    Mr. Bultitude’s mind was as furry and unhuman in shape as his body. He did not remember, as a man in his situation would have remembered, the provincial zoo from which he had escaped during a fire, nor his first snarling and terrified arrival at the Manor, nor the slow stages whereby he had learned to love and trust its inhabitants. He did not know that he loved and trusted them now. He did not know that they were people, nor that he was a bear. Indeed, he did not know that he existed at all: everything that is represented by the words I and Me and Thou was absent from his mind. When Mrs. Maggs gave him a tin of golden syrup, as she did every Sunday morning, he did not recognize either a giver or a recipient. Goodness occurred and he tasted it. And that was all. Hence his loves might, if you wished, all be described as cupboard loves: food and warmth, hands that caressed, voices that reassured, were their objects. But if by a cupboard love you meant something cold or calculating you would be quite misunderstanding the real quality of the beast’s sensations. He was no more like a human egoist than he was like a human altruist. There was no prose in his life. The appetencies which a human mind might disdain as cupboard loves were for him quivering and ecstatic aspirations which absorbed his whole being, infinite yearnings, stabbed with the threat of tragedy and shot through with the colours of Paradise. One of our race, if plunged back for a moment in the warm, trembling, iridescent pool of that pre-Adamite consciousness, would have emerged believing that he had grasped the absolute: for the states below reason and the states above it have, by their common contrast to the life we know, a certain superficial resemblance. Sometimes there returns to us from infancy the memory of a nameless delight or terror, attached to any delightful or dreadful thing, a potent adjective floating in a nounless void, a pure quality. At such moments we have experience of the shallows of that pool. But fathoms deeper than any memory can take us, right down in the central warmth and dimness, the bear lived all its life.”

  5. I just “love” to hear folks that I know have no grasp of my mindeset, when I have tried to explain it to them, have a perfect grasp of the deep motives of folks from centuries ago that ignores the actions they were responding to….

    /sigh

    Right up there with the yearly Bomb Follies. It’s like the only way to equal someone who did something difficult that let civilization survive and spread is to drag them through the dirt.

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