Oh Man. . . A Rant On Presentism. . .

Hello my friends,

So do you remember whenever I made a comment earlier on the site about how we cannot push our own social views on the past?  Well wouldn’t you you know it, but as I discussed a topic about Tudor England, someone brought up the cruelty of “Blood Mary.”

The person I was talking with made several comments regarding how cruel and brutal Mary I was to her dissenters.  Thus as a result, she should be seen as a convict.  Do I agree that what Mary did was absolutely brutal and cruel?  Absolutely!  She had men, women, and children executed.  However, does that mean that as a historian I have a right to judge her?  Absolutely Not!  My job is to understand why she did the things that she did, and then assess the issues from there.

As I thought about what Mary I did, and I reflected on broader history, I realized something. . . What she did was not anything different than what people in the past did with dissenters.  So do we blame Mary, or was she simply a product of generational precedents?  Mary did not kill to be cruel and heartless.  She killed because she saw these opponents of Catholicism as deluders to the populace of England, and the only way to stop this devilish assault on God was to remove the problem.  Reflecting back on it, were the mass killings wrong?  Yes!  But we have the blessing of a twenty-twenty vision, which has also taught us a different interpretation.  Obviously as we look back on this we see the horrors of people being hanged, burned, pressed, etc. but these were the normals of the time, killing people for heresy was not a question, it was the answer.

Is this a rant?  Absolutely!  However, I just see this as such an important thing to key in on within the realm of historical study.  Our job is not to bang the gavel.  Our job is to understand and empathize.  People are complex, you have to get to know them.  Though it is hard, how are we to understand who people are if we do not want to walk in their shoes?  Besides, a day may come when people begin to write history about you.  Wouldn’t you at least like for them to get to know you a bit first?

– Phil


Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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Posted in Some Simple Rants On History, The Ways Historians Think
2 comments on “Oh Man. . . A Rant On Presentism. . .
  1. Maria says:

    Hi Phil, i am currently doing an assignment on problems on historical understanding and i am a little confused about certain terms and concepts. I was hoping you may be able to help me. Does chronological snobbery fall under presentism? and what about the historian’s fallacy? and is the historian’s fallacy the same as handsight bias? Forgive my ignorance but i find it very hard to come across literarture on this topic.
    Thanks a lot,

  2. Phil says:

    Well Maria, let’s see if I can adequately answer your question. I would certainly categorize chronological snobbery under the definition of presentism. Chronological snobbery implies taking what we presently believe and believing all those prior to us to be stupid/foolish for believing something different. Presentism in similar fashion takes our present mindset and uses it as a measuring stick against the past. The job of history is to take the past and interpret the contingency, relevance, and importance of those events. I would say that historical fallacy and presentism are almost entirely equal. Presentism/chronological snobbery/historical fallacy all involve a hindsight bias. Our job as historians is to ignore our hindsight bias in terms of judgement, and learn how to tell the story with the facts we have been given. I hope that this answers your question; I’d recommend looking through the blog for my posts on Wineberg’s book “Historical Thinking And Other Unnatural Acts” it is a great tool in understanding history and how to fight against our greatest desire to use hindsight, in exchange for self-sacrifice to let the past speak for itself.


    Edit P.S.
    Let me recommend checking out this artical by the American Historical Association as well http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2002/0205/0205pre1.cfm

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