Pleading the Belly

by Sara Mayeux

A professor of mine, asked why he teaches history, replied that he wants his students, whatever profession they go into, not to be "prisoners of the present." That is, to understand (not just abstractly to know) that the way we live now is not the only way humans can live, or ever have. That's a lesson you don't have to go very far back in time to learn—in a sense, I wonder if Ta-Nehisi's frustration that America "is too ignorant of itself" doesn't have something to do with the tendency of Americans to imprison themselves in the present. Thus race has always been the subject of mere "conversations," marriage has been a man and a woman in love for time eternal.

But for me, nothing hammers the lesson home like a sojourn into the pre-modern. The added bonus is that when I venture out of my own academic field, I am at liberty to read trade paperbacks rather than scholarly tomes, and skim for the big picture rather than following every last footnote. This summer I've read a short biography of Charlemagne, and listened to some iTunes U lectures from a Berkeley course on the Roman Empire. (There's something oddly calming about listening to a 40-minute lecture in which emperors rise and fall, entire armies are slaughtered, and all the while, people go on living.) Now I'm making my way through a book on Genghis Khan. (There's nothing to remind a twenty-first-century twenty-something that humans have lived all kinds of ways on earth like a passage in which a father arranges a wife for his nine-year-old son, selecting a slightly older girl who "would initiate him into the sexual intimacy at the rate and in the timing that seemed appropriate to the two of them.")

In the end, though, the best way to imagine yourself into the difference of the past is to go straight to the primary sources. It's the little things in documents that point up the truly strange nature of the past: the gaps where something we'd consider momentous is taken for granted and left unspoken, the nineteenth-century portrait that turns out to be post-mortem. Many of you are Civil War buffs and will be familiar with the Valley of the Shadow site, where you can page through letters, diaries, newspapers, speeches, and records from that era. Recently, a new site has gone live called London Lives, which makes available 240,000 searchable manuscripts on crime, poverty, and daily life in London, 1690-1800. You can also browse by "keyword"; I recommend "pleading the belly."