It has been said that human beings are “causation” seeking animals. We want and need to be able to see patterns in our world. The field of history could be categorized as the champion of imposing order as well as declaring magical turning points. Sometimes these attempts are completely arbitrary and sometimes they are accurate and truly historic. Although history may be valued, for most people it is the here and now which is considered most vital and crucial. That is why we are susceptible to such statements as “this election will be the most critical ever”, implying all of the previous elections ever held were trivial. As such, it is hard to judge and assess how important the events we are experiencing now compare to past events. But it is fun (OK, I have a weird sense of what constitutes fun) and sometimes enlightening to look back at past historical periods in terms of similarities and differences. Maybe there is some order to our evolutionary chaos? Here is my sampler of critical years:
The Year 1000 : What life was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium : An Englishman’s World by Robert Lacey, provides an intriguing survey of the resources and inventiveness of the people living in the first millennium. From managing Viking raids, to managing their personal hygiene, it is an interesting read.
1066 : The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry
by Andrew Bridgeford, documents the transitory period of the end of the Anglo-Saxon Britain and the coming of the Normans. Often viewed as a propaganda tool for Norman ascendance, Bridgeford makes a case there may be more nuance in the images of the tapestry.
1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance by Gavin Menzies is a speculative account suggesting that such a visit imparted ancient Chinese wisdom to the west, inspiring the great scientific and intellectual revolution of the Renaissance. Where is it written that you have to be historically accurate to have fun?
1491 : New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann can be described as a powerful corrective where Mann documents the sophistication and grandeur of native American societies pre-European contact.
The World in 1800 by Olivier Bernier documents changes where absolute monarchy’s are fading, and the demand for democracy, combined with the growing power of industrialization and the rise of capitalism, is threatening the old order.
The Ninth : Beethoven and the Year 1824 by
Harvey Sachs includes Haydn the loyal servant of the
court, Mozart the perennial free agent, and Beethoven,
who provides the template for the crash and burn romantic “rock star”. Individualism, liberty, egotism – everything for the pursuit of art. Beethoven definitely set the standard.
1913 : In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson contains profiles of 20 cities around the world. Discussion focuses on the social, cultural, as well as political perspectives of these various cities, documenting attitudes from different time periods. Although chapters include London, Paris, and Berlin, Emmerson’s research is so far reaching that Winnipeg shares an entire chapter with Melbourne – that in itself is worth a read.
Paris 1919 : six months that Changed the World by
Margaret MacMillan is the gold standard in historical
analysis chronicling the negotiations and also the behind
the scenes activities of the Versailles Peace Treaty that
created the modern-states of today.
We even have competing subtitles, and both years make credible claims:
1959 : The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, AND
1969: The year Everything Changed by Rob Kirkpatrick