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Foreign Policy Analysis
Is the past a foreign country? | Suzannah Lipscomb | TEDxSPS

Is the past a foreign country? | Suzannah Lipscomb | TEDxSPS

Translator: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner
Reviewer: Ivana Korom Hello, my topic for you today is: Is the past a foreign country? That is of course the first line
of L.P. Hartley’s book “The Go-Between”: “The past is a foreign country,
they do things differently there.” My question for you today is: “Is it?” If it is, why does popular culture
always present the past to something so cosy
and actually not alien at all? If it is, finally, do can we go there? Do we have a visa? Do we have the passport that we need? Historians might actually go further,
say that it’s a foreign country, that it’s actually an imaginary country,
that is more Narnia than France, because of course the extraordinary thing
about the past is, that it was, and it is not. History is the study
of something that doesn’t exist, and sometimes it feels like
the veil between us and the past is therefore great. Thankfully there are footprints
in the snow for us to follow, should we choose to go. History in the popular media
tends to be something that stresses the similarities
between us and them, so that they were people who ate,
people who slept, people who fell in love, who, you know, needed to wash,
who hoped, believed, dreamed and died, just as we would do. In fact, G.M. Trevelyan said: “The poetry of history
is the quasi-miraculous fact, that once on this earth,
on this familiar spot of ground, walked other people,
other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts,
swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves
are shortly be gone, like ghost at cock-crow.” When you get to come across history
in the popular media, you tend to come across stories
that tell you things that you know. The great disaster of Titanic
is portrayed as a love story. The Other Boleyn Girl which has Eric Bana,
Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, re-immagines Tudor History
as chick-lit sibling rivalry. Fahrd takes arguably a treasonous criminal
and makes him into a freedom fighter. A film like The Duchess, which is
the story of an 18th century aristocrat, had the strap line: “There were three in their marriage.” It came out just a year
after the death of Princess Diana. Often actually what we hear about
is a story of shared emotions with the past. I used to work at Hampton Court Palace, as part of an exhibition there
on Katherine of Aragon, Henry the Eighth and Cardinal Wolsey. There is a doorway which has inscriptions of all the children
who died soon after birth, or were still births, or miscarriages
of Katherine of Aragon. One academic we worked with
said he had always known that, but it was only when he saw it
on this doorway, which looks a little bit like a tomb, that he really felt it,
he felt that connection to the past. This is history as sympathy,
this is creating connections. Perhaps we stress this, because if we feel that we can
learn lessons from the past, we have to assume that there is
something meaningful in those lessons. There can only be something meaningful,
if we are essentially like them. “History doesn’t repeat itself,
but it rhymes,” said Mark Twain. Dan Snow came to talk to my students
at the New College of Humanities and said, “The past doesn’t repeat itself,
but its the best guide we’ve got.” Perhaps ask why we stress
the familiarity with the past. Our interest in the past is because
we are really interested in ourselves. I’m going to put it like this: History ought never to be
confused with nostalgia. It is written not to revere the dead, but to inspire the living. It’s our cultural blood stream,
the secret of who we are. Perhaps that’s why “Who do you think you are?”
is such a popular program. This is all about our story. If we do look
at the differences in the past, the differences we tend to look at
are external, superficial ones. So if you look at reality TV programs
you know, 1900’s House, 1940’s House, they point to things
like they don’t have electricity, or they have different clothes, or they wash with lye
rather than shower gel. This is the past,
there’s hardship and privation. This is history, it’s something
that’s dirty and messy and painful. They’re people like us, but they
are just in harder circumstances. Again the question comes to us: “What would we do in such circumstances?” This is history as progress,
this is a weakish version of history. I think that explains partly
at least the fascination that we have with horrible histories. Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories have
sold something like twenty million copies, since they launched in 1993,
have been translated into 31 languages. They market themselves
as “history with the nasty bits left in.” Of course we are slightly
perversely fascinated by gore. But it’s also about history
being to congratulate ourselves, to suggest that we are very humane: “How civilized we are,
we don’t do these things to people.” What we look for in films,
and we call it authenticity, that those external details
often is quite superficial. It might, for example,
come down to making sure they’ve got the right clothes on, although quite often we change that so it fits to present day
standards of attractiveness as well. Tom Hanks was the producer
on Band of Brothers and he said, “There are two types of authenticity, the one that says that you got
all the buttons right, that the ammunition is correct, that the buildings look
as they looked in the photo.” That is relatively easy to achieve. But then there’s a thing
that is much harder. There’s literally the motivations, and the nature of the interplay
between the characters, because he says, “If we can’t be absolutely truthful
to what they said and did at any given time, we can at least be
as authentic as possible, so that it still adheres to the framework
of the reality of being there and then.” I would suggest there’s
a third type of authenticity, the one that we don’t go near. This is the one that says the past
is so very different from our own, that we fail to understand it,
because we only understand our own time. That is because people in the past had different
mental and imaginative worlds to us. The annals historians
have called this mentalité, the mentalities of these people. Perhaps this is the difference between
popular history and academic history. Is popular history
more interested in the similarities, rather than the differences? You can particularly notice, when you look
at attitudes towards sex and religion. If you read a historical novel,
or you see a film, for example, Phillipa Gregory’s books, wonderful historical novels,
that transport you back to the past. But quite often the women in them
tend to be essentially proto-feminists and their attitudes
towards sex tend to be: ‘It’s quite a good thing,
lets get on with it,’ which before the age of the Pill, before there was any reliable conception, isn’t congruent with the age of the past. How about religion? Rochefoucauld in the 17th century said, “There’s always something ridiculous
about the emotions of people that one has ceased to love”. If in modern Britain many people
have fallen out of love with God, we shouldn’t underestimate quite how intoxicating a power
he had in centuries past. Make sure the things you read have
that sense of reality about world views. This is perhaps why Hillary Mantel’s books
have been so popular and so prize-winning. Because although she creates characters, historical characters
like Chromewell, for example, from her own imagination,
as is the novelist’s prerogative, she does actually immerse herself
into the world of the past. I remember being delighted,
when I read “Wolf Hall”, realizing that she had identified that to call something new
in the 16th century was not a compliment. We have faint echoes of these ideas now. The word novelty carries
something of the hostility and suspicion that the new had in an age, when the traditional and the ancient
were very powerful things, and had a powerful hold on the Tudor mind. It’s only when we begin to grasp
how different the past was, how differently people thought in the past that we can begin to comprehend some of the more bizarre behaviours
and beliefs of the past. Let me give you a few examples
from the period I work on. In the end of the 16th century,
the beginning of the 17th century, across Europe 40,000 to 50,000
people, mostly old women, where executed as witches. In the 16th century in England,
beggars where whipped. In 1547 it was ordered
that vagabonds, the homeless, should be branded on the chest
with a V made with a hot iron. In 1572 a new statute suggested
that they should be grievously whipped and they should be branded
through the ear hole with a hot iron, an inch in diameter. In 17th century Vienna, a common practice,
when a criminal was beheaded, was for someone suffering from what
was known as the falling sickness to rush in with a jug, scoop up the hot spurting blood
down it in one, and then sprint off. This was thought to cure epilepsy. In London around the same time,
1665, during The Great Plague, the chamberlain of the city ordered
200,000 cats and 40,000 dogs to be culled, because it was thought
they spread the plague. Women, perhaps this
is the most bizarre one of all, since the time of Aristotle
through till about the 18th century, where thought to be deformed men. Their uterus were inverted penises. They just hadn’t had enough heat
to push them out of their body and of course this produced
a great anxiety. Occasionally, they had stories circulating
of a woman or a girl leaping over a fence and then gosh there she discovered
she was a man, her penis fell out. Of course, if it could be done like that,
it could be reversed as well. There was a certain anxiety
about being a man in early modern England. We have a tendency to look at the past
and think, they were just like us. What was going on inside their heads
was really, really different. If we are going to get any insight
from those TV reality shows at all, perhaps it comes when they fall down. In 1940’s House,
the war committee as it were, gave them rabbits to eat
and the family refused to eat them, because of course they had
the mentality of today. In one called The Trench, where a group of young boys pretended to go to have an experience of being
on the front line in World War One, a Corporal brought along a grey coat
of one who had said to have fallen, there was something quite poignant
and completely ridiculous about the moment because of course, the chap hadn’t fallen,
he hadn’t died, he’d just left the show. The reality of that moment
of what it must have been like to lose a friend, a companion,
in World War One, was still missing. How we view the past matters, whether we see it as foreign or familiar, particularly, for example, it matters
in questions of moral judgement. Can we judge the past? Academic historians generally say no. We need to try and understand it. We need to give it
all the respect it’s due. When you think
of the Holocaust and Hitler, when you think of slavery,
would it not be wrong to judge? The historian Collingwood said, “To pass moral judgement on the past,
is to fall into the fallacy of imagining that somewhere behind a veil,
the past is still happening, as if it’s now being enacted
in the next room, and we ought to break in and stop it. These things have been, they are over,
there is nothing to be done about them.” We need to seek to understand the past. But we need not to do
just historical clothing, that we always call costume,
for some reason I never understand. We need to don their mind-set,
we need to get out our guidebooks. Is the past a foreign country? Yes, very much so. But it’s different in ways
that we haven’t imagined. It’s a bit like saying that France isn’t
so different because they eat baguettes, but because they think nothing odd about having a mistress
and a wife at a funeral. They just have a different mentality. Why do we make the past so cosy? I would suggest it’s because the past
is not just foreign, it’s also dangerous. We have a sense that, behind that veil,
there are glinting swords and barred teeth that if we actually knew what went on in the past
and what went on in their minds, we might understand a bit more
about the human condition than we really want to. But I would suggest too that,
if we wanted to get to that foreign land, we have to be as it said the Macbeth:
“bold, bloody and resolute.” We need to be brave, we need to step through the looking glass, into the other side, and not keep on
gazing at our own reflections. Thank you. (Applause)

35 comments on “Is the past a foreign country? | Suzannah Lipscomb | TEDxSPS

  1. Well it used to be the future based on knowledge and wealth. And might be that again some day. Right now it seems like that Asia will take the historic lead. -But I might be wrong?

  2. In 2013 you still radiate cancer sufferers. Here in 2324 we still get laughs from such primitive idiotic behavior.

  3. The best book on this subject is "The Past Is A Foreign Country" by David Lowenthal. A masterpiece of historiography.

  4. I loved this talk and posted link it to my FB page. This past year I have reached beyond the academic into the personal study of history through genealogy. I found my perception of time change dramatically as it became increasingly compressed.

    There is a distressing trend I have sought to articulate my disagreement of removing the artifacts of history that have thus far been limited from the public square. Not merely passing judgment on history. But actively avoiding and denying the opportunity to learn the lessons of history. History not only as a foreign land but a land to never visit … or worse to learn nothing about.

  5. Am I the only one who clicked on this ridiculous title to stare at the bond….then heard the accent and only then got a clue about "the title" and knew drivel would ensue and was no longer attracted until I accidentally hit the mute button and the "magic" came back? ….haha

  6. Truly fascinating talk. The past shouldn't be looked at through a modern lens, they are people that were just like us but living under different conventions. In order to judge them we need to understand the times in which they lived.

  7. Such brains and beauty. To bad she has no kids. What a loss to the gene pool. More proof of the movie idiocracy. 🙁

  8. She is such a wonderful and inspiring historian. If we had more history teachers like her we might actually learn something from history…

  9. She is absolutely brilliant. I’m not only extremely impressed with her extraordinary intellect, I adore her gorgeous speaking voice. I truly enjoy listening to her speak.

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