The Desensitisation of History

Battles, riots, murders and raids are all part of our collective history. But do we shrug them off as simply events on a political timeline or is it time we felt their energy really ripple down the centuries? 

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

There are a lot of brutal bits in our history. Towns and villages being burned to the ground through conquest. Bloody battles fought on muddy fields between opposing sides fighting for power. The execution of traitors (or those the crown considered traitors at least) on Tower Hill.

But how often are these events skimmed over by historians just to get to the politics that drove them? We read that the royal army was victorious at a battle and move on with the next part of the story. Pirates sacked the town of Southampton, and that's why the walls were built. Anne Boleyn was beheaded and this meant that the Seymours replaced the Boleyns in court influence. 

But if you pause and really think of an event like this, it adds a whole new level of energy and context to the history. 

Southampton, 1338. French and Italian pirates sacked the town, took anything expensive with them and murdered the local townspeople. But this event only had real emphasis when I stopped to imagine what that might have been actually like to live through. An unusual ship sailing into view over the horizon. The panic as armed men charged through the narrow, cobbled streets of the town, plunging swords into anyone they encountered on the streets. The hopeless sight of the mayor, the figure of authority and order, stumbling away in fear. The choke of thick, inky fumes as buildings burned - and the smashing of stained glass as the invaders broke into the church and slaughtered the townspeople who had locked themselves in for refuge. When you take a moment to imagine the screams, the barking dogs, the sting of salty sea air and the crackle of burning buildings you have a deeper sense for what the people would have experienced and the effects on those left behind. 

Battles are another one. What do we read in history books? That Henry VII defeated Richard III, found the crown in a bush and was declared king at Bosworth in 1485. Start of a dynasty, Henry VIII, Spanish Armada and there you have it. 

But wait. Thousands of men - perhaps as many as 15,000 - clashing on a muddy field, fighting for their lives. The nervousness of standing in formation and seeing your enemy in the distance, standing in theirs, knowing you have nowhere to run but into each other. Not knowing if you'll make it home to your family. The glint of armour. The dry mouths, twisting stomachs, aching limbs. The rousing speeches that both motivate and terrify and then the charge into a heavy musty breathless tangle of flesh, sweat, mud and metal. 

It's sobering stuff. 

Next time you read about a battle, execution or invasion in a book, take some time to consider what that must have been like to live through. You'll see history in a whole new way. You'll appreciate the experiences of our ancestors and gain new insight into motives and consequences. It's looking back at history with a human touch and I'd argue that it's needed to fully understand it. 

What do you think? Do we gloss over the brutal parts of history and focus on the outcome? Do you think we should reflect on this human aspect of history to gain more of an insight? 
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

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  1. All good stuff. But I don't think we gloss over the brutal parts. It depends on the point you're trying to make and how much time/space you have. If you're providing an overview of D-Day, for example, you're not going to spend much time on the graphic brutality of Omaha Beach; if you're writing a detailed study of Overlord, then you'd spend a little longer on the experiences of the men and women involved on both sides of the firing line. Sadly, some conflicts make more of a difference than others - so we're inevitably going to focus on those outcomes: Bosworth, for example, was a game-changer; Towton less so - but it was considerably bloodier.


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