The Past’s Present

History can be great fun to explore. For that reason, and because I am a historian, some of the posts here will report on historical stuff. And, because I am a historian of medieval Europe, many of the stories and examples will be about how we understand or misunderstand the Middle Ages. But this is not a history blog.

As a medieval historian I know some odd facts. For instance, I know that Saint Mary’s Priory in Kansas claims to possess some of Christianity’s most valued treasures, 1233 in total, including pieces of the Holy Cross and the Crown of Thorns (Yes, in Kansas!). Another oddity I know is that when the restorers of Poblet Monastery in Catalonia exhumed the embalmed body of King James I of Aragon in 1856 they saw something amazing: a gash in the skull above the left eye. That 800 year-old scar shows that the book the king produced about his life, the Llibre dels Fets, told the truth when it recounted how he had been hit just above the eye with a crossbow bolt. This revelation is even more amazing in the context of his love life, but I’ll have to wait until later to tell you about that…. Like I said, history can be great fun to explore. But this site is not really about history.

History sometimes fails us; or perhaps it is better to say that we sometimes fail history by confusing it with the imagined past. Human beings have a habit of making stuff up about the past. We sometimes prefer fictions to facts. Sometimes that can be totally harmless, a source of pure pleasure and the basis of much of our entertainment (think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Medieval Times Restaurant, etc.). We’ll look at examples, like when we look back at the origins of baseball:

But it is also part of our instinct for inventiveness to use myth, legend, hearsay, half-truths, and fictions. We use these imagination devices like screwdrivers and hammers, tools for reconstructing the world as we want it. Often the imagined past just seems to be a better tool than truth for changing ‘what is’ into ‘what could be’. But our imaginations can get the better of us; they can be put to dangerous work.

Some of our fictions we tell ourselves about the past are like Frankenstein’s monster — difficult to control once brought to life. Some of them are more like cancers, viruses, or venomous bites — deadly from the very first. I won’t often go down this path because it can get awfully painful, and because evidence of the human penchant for perversity is all too abundant and the weight of villany and violence upon us can be heavy. Instead, the little tales told here will look for the in-between spaces, where we just get happily or heedlessly lost in our imaginations until someone, like me, says “wait a minute, let’s think about this….”

So, instead of a history blog, this is a place for posts and comments about what the imagined past is, how it gets inside of us, and how it moves us to do things.

I’ve written about two thousand words more to introduce this blog. You can skip them if you wish. But, if you want to learn, and see a few examples — for instance about the relationship between George Washington’s teeth and the Easter Bunny — go here: