Thursday 18 December 2008

So Wrong They were Lucky

One of the things that makes the study of history more complex than people realise, is that often we need to take into account how people with totally different perspectives saw things.
Some people find it hard enough to see the world through another set of eyes, let alone the eyes of the long dead.
And as a result, we often judge historical events solely through our eyes. We judge events on whether people turned out to be right. On the consequences.

But as a result, we sometimes fail to truly understand them.

Because what we 'know', was different to what the people at the time 'knew'.

A fairly recent case in point. Marconi started the world of radio broadcasting by successfully broadcasting across the Atlantic. It started the modern world of telecommunications. An amazing pioneer, history judges him.
Whereas the reality was, he was a lucky amateur who turned out to be SO wrong, that he ended up being right.
Because at the time everyone else was saying 'Someone tell the poor idiot, radiowaves travel in STRAIGHT lines. The earth curves. You can't broadcast radiowaves around the world. It's round'.

He SHOULD have been wrong. Only he was lucky. That earth's atmosphere deflects radiowaves. So his broadcasting worked.

The biggest lucky fool of all was Columbus. It's often believed that he lived in ignorant times. That everyone thought the world was flat, except wise old Columbus. That no one would back his venture because they thought he'd sail off the edge of the world.
The truth is different.
The truth is, Columbus was actually totally wrong, in what he argued. Everyone else was actually right. It's just that something unexpected showed up. The Americas.

The reason why Columbus was wrong, is that nobody thought the world was flat. In fact, they'd known for a good two thousand years it wasn't. Even better, they'd worked out how big it must be. How did they do that? Easy. If you are able to work out the distance between two points and able to work out the time difference between noon at those two points, you know how many miles the sun covers in an hour. Therefore you know how many miles must be in the earth's circumference.

And medieval geographers were able to draw some reasonably accurate maps, based on Marco Polo and other travellers. The size of what would later be called the old world, could be roughly estimated.
Now look at a globe.
Look at the size of the Atlantic.
Look at the size of the Pacific.
Now imagine the Americas aren't there.

Just ocean.
Just ocean from Spain to China.

That's some ocean.

Do you REALLY think sailing ships can cross that? And not die of starvation or thirst along the way?
Remember, when Magellan ACTUALLY crossed the Pacific, he himself died. Only six of his crew made it back. But to medieval geographers, the ocean between Spain and China was TWICE that big.

Somewhere in that vast ocean were islands, yes, but not a vast land mass. The chances of hitting these islands- legendary names like Antillia, St Brendan's Island, Brasil- was slim. Like finding a needle in a haystack.

The reality is Columbus, for some reason, didn't think the Earth was as big as everyone else was telling him it was.

He was wrong- badly wrong. And he didn't reach China. Fortunately, he bumped into something else. America.
Well, the Bahamas, anyway.

One of the best examples of how we cannot understand how beliefs that are completely wrong can affect history, is Prester John.

Who was Prester John, I hear you say?

Well, Prester John was at one time a major force in world politics. A major influence in dictating the course of events. And this was even more spectacular, because he didn't exist. But his phantom presence made a difference.

It's difficult to say quite how he started. One thing that was always known, was that communities of Christians existed out east, the far east, the strange east the other side of the Muslim world. Nestorian Christians, Christians who didn't accept the two natures of Christ, to them Christ was only divine. Some even said he never actually ate food, only pretended to do so. That was (and is) the Nestorian faith.
There were tales that St Thomas had evangelised India, that one of the three Kings (Caspar, usually) had reigned in India, indeed, many Western Catholics saw India as perhaps being a kind of mirror image of Catholicism. Different, like the Orthodox world was different, but the people beyond the Muslim world weren't Muslim, so perhaps they were ALL Nestorian Christians? Or at least there could be a powerful Nestorian state out there?

And so when Christians in the West heard tales of the Muslims being pressed hard on their eastern flank by strong enemies, they assumed that mine enemy's enemy is my friend.

The tale of Prester John seems to have really come to attention during the second crusade. Almost at the right time, for the Christian armies. A rumour spread that Prester John was marching on the infidel. His armies had had to wait to cross the frozen Tigris (they seemingly had no idea where the Tigris rose), but were on their way. And this bit of news seems to have spurred the Christians on to victory. The belief that their enemy was now to be overwhelmed.

Of course, Prester John never got there, but it didn't matter. Jerusalem had been saved- this time.

In the 1180s a letter reached the court of the Emperor Manuel in Constantinople. It purported to be from Prester John. It spoke of his capital in Samarkand, of his 42 vassal Kings, of the wonders of his kingdom, including a mirror in which he could see all his kingdom, and various other marvels most of them fitting in with medieval ideas of things to be found in India; fountains of youth, men with heads in their chests, Pygmies fighting storks, unicorns, the earthly paradise, etc.

All this probably encouraged the leaders of Christendom. In their minds, Christendom was now twice as big as it ACTUALLY was, and surrounded the infidel on both sides. They couldn't lose.
And it probably inspired Christian leaders to take risks during the Third Crusade they might not otherwise have taken. Because they believed, ultimately, that they COULD win. That one day, both Western and Eastern Christendom would squeeze together and one day the Holy Roman Emperor, the Byzantine Emperor and Prester John would all shake hands on the banks of the Euphrates.

In 1220, news reached Europe that the grandson of Prester John, King David, had achieved great victories and was mercilessly conquering the Muslim lands of central Asia.
And thus the West embarked on the third crusade.

But mine enemy's enemy was NOT my friend. Someone was indeed decimating the Muslim lands of central Asia. But he was not a Christian.
King David was none other than Genghis Khan.

By the end of the thirteenth century, Marco Polo and others had explored the East and failed to find the vast realm they were looking for, and came to the conclusion the Mongols must have conquered it. That it HAD been there, but was no more.

Armies in the Middle East, mythical character...

That reminds me of something.
I can't think what...


Anonymous said...

Great historical commentary. And you're so right. We hardly understand the importance of being wrong in history sometimes. The idea that there were canals on Mars that pointed to a great civilization there is an example. It triggered so much great scientific exploration and fictional extrapolation.

Anonymous said...

A very good point and an interesting post. It is so fascinating how what people believe alters their perception of the world and what is happening.

Something else. Don't you just love that moment when you realise things? I mean really realise, like when you see a mammoth scull and really understand, for a moment, that they really used to live round here...

Anonymous said...

The view from where somebody stands makes all the difference. Good post crushed.

Anonymous said...

So much of the furthering of knowledge is just blind luck, especially scientific. But it takes someone with a special talent to recognize what they have discovered, while pursuing some other idea altogether.