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Past present: Looking back

March 24, 2013

The image of a historical period may vary with the perspective of present day circumstances. If the present is prosperous, the past goes into oblivion and holds no charm for the society.

With disorder, confusion, and discontent in a society, people look towards the past for relief which seems to appear ideal. Historical accounts and narratives provide a rich source of material for resolution of present day problems by reviving the past.

Sometimes, a particular period in history becomes a burden to the present and its revival or continuity can threaten society. The past seems like an obstacle to innovation and transformation of society on the basis of new challenges.

In the 14th century, when the intellectuals in Europe realised that continuation of the middle ages and their traditions was impeded progress, they responded to the challenges of their time by reviving the classical period of Rome and Greece. Philosophy and literature changed their outlook and enabled them to contribute to art, literature, architecture, and social and natural sciences with intellectual vigour and vitality. To them, the middle ages were dark and barren and could not help them resolve issues that confronted them.

However, the image of middles ages changed twice. First, as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, when disillusioned by rational thinking, the Romantics turned to nature and its simplicity, romanticising the middle ages as a period of peace, harmony and spirituality. The positive image of middle ages revived for the second time during industrialisation of Europe and USA.

The early period presented a harrowing picture of the condition of working classes living in subhuman conditions without proper sanitation, clean water and safety in factories. There was unemployment and no social security. The industrial cities were polluted and provided no entertainment or recreation for the working classes.

Brooks Adam (d.1927, Boston) in The Law of Civilisation and Decay published in 1895, discussed the rise and fall of civilisation and attributed each historical period with human emotion. He identified the middle ages with fear dominating the society. As a result of which, religiosity and piety emerged which was expressed through beautiful cathedrals, paintings and sculpture. According to him, the crusade was a very significant event of this period when responding to Pope Urban, the whole of Europe was ready to fight against infidels and liberate holy places.

He was dismayed at the way industrialisation degraded society. He identified greed as a major human emotion of his age and believed it created a sense of competition where moral values were replaced by material values. The competition was so severe that opponents trampled each other to achieve personal gains.

Those who were disillusioned by industrialisation and its outcome turned to the medieval past which was simpler.

Historians and novelists had associated the middle ages with such romance that people looked at it with idealism while chivalrous knights and tales of their adventures and bravery were a source of inspiration. The Gothic buildings of churches and cathedrals echoed the chanting of priests and revived memories of the past.

It became clear that the past cannot be revived and it could become a refuge for the disillusioned.

In our case we look towards our medieval period selectively, emphasising on conquest and military adventures. We construct the image of generals and conquerors as heroes but ignore the contribution of philosophers, thinkers, artists and men of letters. Reconstructing the past creates war like qualities in a society, where people believe that war is the only solution for all problems. The society then gears itself to devote all its resources to strengthen the army and is ready to suffer acute poverty and misery. Education is neglected and intellectuals are condemned.

Sadly, we do not have historians to correct misconceptions of our past nor to improve historical narratives to highlight innovation, and to condemn the belligerent psyche of our nation.