Fun with Lists

A colleague of mine who also teaches history recently asked me to play an enjoyable game of “Name your Top Five Historical Events between the Roman Empire and the Reformation in western Europe.”

With some brief banter back and forth we came to an agreement fairly quickly on four and I inserted a fifth.  They are, in order of when they occurred,

  1. The conversion of Constantine, ca. 313 A.D.
  2. Charlemagne named Holy Roman Emperor, 800 A.D.
  3. The first Crusade, 1097 A.D.^
  4. The Black Plague ca. 1348 A.D.
  5. Columbus, 1492

As we considered these five, I rejoiced at our selections.  For, while the list is quite prosaic and hardly original, it reflects a shared worldview between us, and a shared philosophy of history.

For you see, the list has no technological innovations.  Not even the printing press!  I had to pat ourselves in the back in a moment of self-satisfaction.

Some context . . .

I like James Burke’s old show from the 1970’s Connections.  In a typical episode Burke will start with some everyday modern phenomena and then ask, “How did this come to be?”  He will then, by a serious of ingenious jumps and skips back in time, declare that, “If it were not for the discovery of the wood grouse in 1756 B.C., the modern computer would never have come to be.”

Or something like that.

I exaggerate, but sometimes Burke gets carried away.

In the first episode, Burke travels from a power outage in NYC to the invention of the plow in ancient Egypt (it actually makes some sense).  But implicit in Burke’s theme lies the idea that technology creates and then drives civilization.  I don’t buy it.  Yes, the plow probably helped ancient people produce more crops, but what brought people together in the first place?  Ok, people would gather by rivers for sure, but what would make them organize themselves into communities?

It would not be the plow.  Before the plow, some kind of common bond must have drawn people together — almost certainly a religious bond.*  Of course, it is this shared belief that still holds civilizations together today, not technology.

Admittedly not everything on that list involves a directly spiritual concern, so a brief defense of the selections seems in order:

Neither one of us thought Charlemagne’s title purely political.  It represented a hope of reorganizing society spiritually and culturally (yes, political as well) along more unified lines.  Some argue that the Holy Roman Empire never amounted to much, but it had a long run as a political and organizing force in Europe.

Whether or not the Crusades had justification in 1097, the conduct of the Crusaders and the ultimate failure of the enterprise seriously weakened the Church as an organizing force in European society.  From around 1200 A.D. on, the state had much more say than previously vis a vis the Church. Whether an improvement or not, certainly this represented a new means of how people interacted with one another.

The Black Plague killed millions, and in the process effectively ended the feudal system, which had governed Europe arguably since the time of Charlemagne.  In time a new middle class would arise with a new way of relating to one another

Columbus is in some ways a stand-in for Renaissance-era exploration as a whole.  As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues in his excellent book Pathfinders, exploration did not start based on new technological discoveries.  Exploration began because the way people viewed their place in the world had changed.  In that sense, Columbus is a stand-in for an entirely new way of thinking.

The printing press certainly had significance.  Probably it makes our top 10?  But the printing press has little effect without there first existing a desire to read, a desire to interact with the world in a different way through the printed page.  We should not imagine a world always hungry for books, just begging someone to invent a machine that could make them more accessible.

I am reminded, for example, of a story about Elizabeth I and toilets.  Apparently indoor plumbing was created in her day, and some enterprising inventors offered her the chance to use it. Who among us would refuse indoor plumbing?

She refused.  Having to go to the bathroom offended her sense of royal dignity.  The bathroom, in the form of the chamber pot, would come to her.  What good is being Queen if you can’t order the bathroom around anyway?

The story illustrates the point about the printing press.  It’s not about the invention, but the culture surrounding the invention that matters.  Culture and belief drive technology, and not vice-versa.


^In the interest of fairness, this represents my choice more so than an absolute unified agreement between the two of us.  As I mentioned, we were lock-step on the other four.

*Not surprisingly, armed with his materialistic view of history, Burke essentially reduces all of the religion and mysticism of Egypt down to applied science.