More things your History Class got Wrong

I’ve mentioned before that some of the things your history teachers and textbooks in grade school told you should be taken with a grain of salt. They have a tendency to regurgitate the same stuff they were force-fed in their grade school history classes, to oversimplify things so young children’s brains can understand it, and to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses and paint a nostalgic picture of the past for us.

Thankfully, Cat Flag is here to correct our misperceptions and give you the true story of our history! Or, at least, the story that I learned through my research and through my college education, so I guess my version might be a bit off too. Anyway…

1. There are millions of corpses buried in the Great Wall of China

The truth: Nobody is buried in the Great Wall. That’s ridiculous.

See, a long time ago the Mythbusters were looking to see if Jimmy Hoffa was buried somewhere in Giants Stadium. To do this, they did some experiments with ground-penetrating radar and some dead pigs buried in concrete. What they found was that even buried in concrete, corpses rot, leaving behind big cavities in whatever it was they were buried in. (They didn’t find Hoffa, by the way.)

Now, let’s look at the Great Wall for a minute.

That’s a pretty impressive feat of architecture. One that would be really structurally unstable if there were lots of cavities in it, left behind from all the dead workers buried there.

So what’s up with our history books?

Well, the old myth is that when a worker died building the wall, they wouldn’t bother to stop work to bury him, they’d just drop him into the wall and pave over him. This begs two questions: who built the Great Wall, and why would people spread this story about them?

As for who built the Great Wall, it was mostly peasants who were drafted for several months’ service to the Emperor every year. Peasants who would probably much rather be tending to their own crops. They hated the Great Wall, and thought of it as a great waste of time, energy, and resources.

Until the Mongols showed up.

Plus, let’s not forget that to a Chinese person, a proper burial is exceedingly important. The souls of the dead are believed to influence the lives of the living, and the veneration of one’s ancestors is seen as a crucial part of the Confucian principle of 孝 (xiao, usually translated as “filial piety”). To not honor someone with a proper burial is seen as the worst possible insult.

The best I can figure is that the story that people were buried in the Great Wall comes from the legend of Meng Jiang Nu, and this story was probably spread to discredit the Emperor, feeding on the peasants’ preexisting hatred of the seasonal draft. As to why Western history books picked up the story, I’m not sure, but it does play to old, racist stereotypes of Asians not caring about human life.

Information from this video

2. The Dark Ages were a terrible time to be alive

The truth: The Dark Ages’ name has to do with how little we know about it, not what life was like.

In the 1330s, the Italian scholar Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” for the period between roughly 400 AD and 1000 AD due to the lack of (Latin) written records. For centuries, scholars and historians knew nothing, or at least very little, of what transpired in Europe during this time apart from what they could glean in legends and the few documents that did survive. I once saw a copy of a 17th-century book on the English kings, and it listed the legendary, probably fictional King Arthur as a real king of England. In my lifetime, archaeologists digging in Britain have learned far more about the Dark Ages than historians could have dreamed of not too long ago. Every day, this gap in our knowledge ofEuropean history closes further and further.

These guys are digging up the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold artifacts ever found. It was found in 2009.

What we have learned about the Dark Ages is absolutely fascinating. The average lifespan actually went up, not down. Science and math continued to develop, if slowly, and the foundations for the modern university and modern law were laid. Though there were few new written records, Irish Catholic monks and Arab scholars did preserve a whole lot of the ancient Greek and Roman writings for future generations to enjoy. Most counter-intuitively of all, the Dark Ages were extremely peaceful. Warfare was often a local affair, fought between bands of maybe 20 or so really tough men with swords.

So what’s with our history books?

Well, there are two interrelated things at play. First of all, “dark” has multiple meanings. Scholars may have used the term with one meaning in mind, but the uninitiated filled in the blanks by assuming “dark” meant “bad”. Second, when the term began to be used more and more frequently was during the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Enlightenment. This was a time when people had a nostalgia crush on ancient Rome, which they saw as an enlightened society. And of course, they saw their own society at least equally enlightened, if not more so. Thus, the period in between simply must have been a bloody, disease-ridden, barbaric time of hopelessness, superstition, and drudgery.

Information from Listverse, Crash Course: World History, and the History Channel miniseries Barbarians.

3. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb

The truth: Thomas Edison invented a light bulb, but certainly far from the first.

Edison’s invention is descended from a long line of inventions based around the same idea, dating at least as far back as 1815. British inventor Sir Humphry Davy came up with the Davy lamp that was meant for use in coal mines. James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated a working incandescent lamp in 1835. Edison’s invention wasn’t even the first commercially successful light bulb – that credit goes to Joseph Swan, who demonstrated his invention a year before Edison rolled out his.

And he looked like Santa Claus. You don’t disrespect the Santa.

So what’s with our history books?

Well, for one thing Swan was British, Edison was American. We learn about Edison because of the accident of where we were born; British children are all taught about Swan’s invention of the bulb.

Second, Edison was an extremely prolific inventor, holding 1,093 U.S. patents. So, yeah, Edison was going to go down as a big deal in history either way.

Third, Swan and Edison ended up as business partners, merging their businesses into the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company in 1883. So, you can’t say that either of them bore a grudge over anything.

Information from Wikipedia

2 Responses to More things your History Class got Wrong

  1. Pingback: Some Facts You Might Not Know About the American Revolution « Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: Even More Things Your History Class Got Wrong | Cat Flag

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