Other People’s Minds

“How could they do that?!? Didn’t they know that it didn’t work/doesn’t work/is terrible and we don’t do that?” It’s a common reaction to some things in the past, or in other cultures still, and I understand it. From outside, it just does not make sense, it is dangerous, “it ended . . . poorly” as the Grail Knight would have phrased it (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), he really should have known better. Except . . . they didn’t or it had always worked, or their world-view was just that different.

Part of being a good historian, in my opinion, is being able to get inside other minds and suss out the logic and reasoning for things. Now, not every historical figure had what we would consider logical and rational reasons for things, especially later in their careers. And sometimes cultures just go nuts, usually because of a lot of external and internal stress. Things snap. Some of Henry VIII of England’s later actions seem insane, perhaps because he was suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury (and other things). But when you are looking at an entire culture that does something over and over for centuries, there has to be a good-to-them reason. Finding and understanding that reason is not always easy.

I love it when someone moves past, “They did that. Ick. Then this other thing,” and asks, “That’s really strange. It doesn’t make sense in my world. Why would people do that?” It means they really are chewing on the thing and haven’t found a good reason, so they ask someone. Or start digging for themselves into more specialized material to find out why. Why do the governments of Russia seem paranoid compared to other governments? Why did Ivan IV of Russia act as if everyone was out to get him? Why did [insert culture here] practice human sacrifice? Why did people think [toxic thing] was medicinal? We get more cool historical discoveries from questions like that.

“Why does this Scandinavian art from the early Bronze Age looks a lot like depictions of yoga? The Scandinavian culture was descended from the same culture as the Avestas and Vedas. Could there be a connection?” And so some people started digging and came up with some ideas that perhaps, yes, there might be links. We can’t tell without more evidence, but the possibilities are intriguing, and if true, suggest that either 1) there was a lot more long-distance exchange of ideas than we thought or 2) certain cultural practices lasted a lot longer than anyone had imagined. Or developed earlier.

What is the mind set that says a certain thing makes sense? It’s not easy to get into that mental world. In some cases, I really do not like making myself go there. That I can put myself into the world of a Vlad III or Mathias Corvinus, or an Aztec priestess, or certain cultures and figures, bugs the living daylights out of me. I’m not Ivan IV, or Timurlane. But I can sort of understand why they did what they did, even if it horrifies me.

Humans are amazing creatures who do beautiful and horrible things. We created Gothic cathedrals and symphonies and Chinese brush painting and Persian carpets and miniatures. We extirpated entire classes of people (end of Tang Dynasty China), eliminated entire tribes, had tens of thousands of people killed to eliminate opposition to our will. We’re a rather scary species and complicated as all get out. I love it and I fear it.

Now, if only we would stop re-interpreting it, and discovering complications, so I could stop being tempted to buy new books and go to re-worked museums and . . !


22 thoughts on “Other People’s Minds

  1. Those who refuse to learn History demand to repeat it. Bigger and harder. With Fanfares, Trumpets, and Talking Heads.

    • Maybe it’s an attempt to prove that we define ourselves so completely that neither nature nor all of human experience place any restraint on our omnipotence … even as we beg forgiveness from Gaia by sacrificing our carbon dioxide.

    • Nah, you do, you just don’t think of it that way– for starters, makes sense doesn’t mean it’s morally OK…. but things like making sure that those in power *could not* have children, makes sense, same way that not having kids or wives is what made monasteries work.

      It’s “just” different views of human dignity.

  2. I remember hearing from people who thought that it was stupid for British Armies to stand up in a line facing other armies.

    IE Why didn’t they shoot from a prone position.

    Of course, they didn’t realize that the Brown Bess musket (the British weapon) had to be reloaded from a standing position.

    Of course, with weapons like the Brown Bess massive fire (everybody firing toward the enemy) was the best approach for the weapons of the time.

    Those people wonder why the British didn’t use Rifles.

    Of course, the early rifles took much longer to reload than the muskets of the time thus armies armed with muskets could get more shots fired than an army armed with early rifles.

    IE Sometimes what we find stupid in the past was the best way to do something with the tools they hand.

    • Yep. I had to completely re-do two scenes in a book because I didn’t realize how different re-loading and volley-fire was with 1815 firearms vs. 1879 firearms. When I saw what “fire by ranks” meant in 1815, well, oops The system was totally different from what I’d used, and so back to the battle-choreography board I went.

    • :gets the giggles:

      I just had a scene pop into my head to explain this.

      “OMG! Why don’t they just GO BUY MEAT AT THE STORE instead of shooting deer!”

  3. NJC is correct… And as far as cross pollination, look at the ‘presence’ of dragons in diverse cultures…

  4. Except . . . they didn’t or it had always worked, or their world-view was just that different

    Oooh boy I ran face first into this…

    My husband grew up eating rare pork.

    I found this out from him discussing with me why dinner was so dry. (contributing factor, to be fair, I hadn’t learned to cook with a thermometer yet)

    But he grew up eating pink in the center pork. If the US food system was any less safe, or they’d had pork more often, …. k, it didn’t happen, but BAD.

    But it had “always worked.”

  5. Cooked to death meat was also a tradition in areas where fats were otherwise unavailable, the fat and drippings being used to make gravy.

    On the cross-cultural influences theme, the Mediterranean Greek colonies thought that trading with the Celts of S France, around present Marseilles, would be a good idea, but upon landing, they were all killed. The next batch had a good idea, and went ti the Celts near modern Ankara, (Luristan) and asked them for a letter of introduction to the French Celts, which they gave, and which was accepted. This is why S. French fields are lousy with wine amphora shards.
    This comports with what one of my history/culture/archaeologyprofessors taught from an excavation he was on in Eastern Europe, where in a couple of generations, the burials and grave goods went from tribal Eastern European to early Celtic, though the observed ethnicity of the skeletons remained unchanged.
    My take is that the learned Celts, such as their Druids, were the keepers and teachers of Celtic art, culture, tradition, and religion. YMMV.
    John in Indy

    • OK, I sense a blog post about “population replacement vs. cultural adoption” coming. Because a LOT of what I’ve been reading in really recent research is about how perhaps what people always thought had to be replacement-by-battle was more adopt-new-guy’s-better-adaptations. And a bunch more exogomy than people assumed.

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