Why historical thinking matters

Why did I become an historian? I was troubled by the paradox I was taught in school. I learned in history classes that people of the past didn’t think the way we do, live the way we do, or feel the way we do. They were almost another species.



The characters I met in English class seemed familiar: Antigone was a poster girl for teenage rebellion, Shylock fought back against anti-Semitism, Cathy and Heathcliff defined obsessive love long before Twilight. History class wasn’t providing the full picture. And if, as an historian, I could provide a way to better understand people from another time, could we better understand people from our own?


Last week, John talked about historical reenactment and how to study the past using objects from that time. At the Renaissance Faire, girls will wear laced bodices as part of their period garb, and discover that a bodice with boned stays braces the back and improves posture immediately. Think about the stiff posture of noblewomen in portraits, and it’s much easier to understand why they look so pompous and ceremonial.


Our view of the past gets even more clouded when much of what we think we know is wrong. Everyone knows people in the Middle Ages stank and never bathed – except that archaeological sites show lots of communal bath houses, and many manuscripts depict people bathing. Everyone knows medieval people didn’t have table manners – except there are many books on etiquette, pictures show ordinary people using spoons and knives and forks appeared in Byzantium in the 6th century. Everyone knows that people believed the earth was flat – except that scholars at the time wrote about the round earth, and kings carried scepters and globes as symbols of royal power.


Last week, I talked to the middle school about medieval medicine. Definitely, there was much about diseases that doctors didn’t know, and knowledge of germs, bacteria and antibiotics was centuries away. But not all their medicine was wrong, and many of their treatments were effective. When patients drank willow bark tea for headaches, they didn’t know it contained salicylic acid (aspirin), but they knew it worked. Physicians didn’t know honey has antibiotic and antiseptic properties, but they knew it helped wounds heal.

Students could see that though people in the Middle Ages did not have a scientific understanding of illness, they had wisdom of their own. When students make candles at the Ren Faire, they’ll experience how long it takes and know why people wouldn’t work after the sun went down. They’ll learn how difficult it was to write with a quill and understand why so few books were produced in the period. They’ll discover how long it takes to spin even a few inches of wool and know the reason cloth was too expensive to waste.


It’s what teaching history is all about – appreciating the commonalities, not the differences, of people and it's why I'm excited for people to live history through the Renaissance Faire this coming June.


Enjoy this video from last year's Renaissance Faire hosted by our Fourth Grade students as their capstone project for Term 3.




About the author:

Virginia Remsberg has been an curator and archivist at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the Executive Director at The Cloisters in Baltimore City and at Art Seminar Group. She has worked with schools and theater programs as curriculum director particularly in the areas of playwriting, Shakespeare, literature and performance. It's been a pleasure to have her at THS this month.

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