My thinking was: very olden days; almost mythical; so 1628
- Philippa Perry, Richard Osman's House of Games S05E59
Earlier this week I stopped by the campus bookshop, and was met by the array of books for sale shown in the picture below. At first I was naturally drawn to the selection of titles – each of these books covers a subject that I know very little about, and I did end up with a book on the Phoenicians. But once the initial excitement had subsided a bit, I found myself immensely annoyed at several aspects of this series. For now, however, let us leave aside the issue concerning the decision to dedicate one book to “The Barbarians”. Let us also leave aside the troubling word choices that underpin the rationale of the series, namely “lost” and “civilisation”, choices that could fill essays of invective. Instead, I will here say a little bit about why the selection of cases for this book series is, in my view, very problematic.
As can be seen in the picture, the selection favours what we consider ancient history, with Sumer setting the starting point quite far back in time. This selection is representative of the entire series, where the only other post-ancient cultures represented are from the Americas (the Maya, the Inca, and the Aztecs), with the exception of the Goths. Focussing on the table that I encountered in the bookshop, the problem with this selection becomes even more acute: The Aztecs – or rather, the Nahua – are lumped together with cultures that are much more distant from the Nahuas themselves than our twenty-first-century contemporaneity is to the Nahuas. In other words, the inclusion of the Nahua in a collage of the past that contains elements unmistakably ancient means that the non-expert onlooker is fed the impression that the Nahua, too, are immensely ancient.
While I am no expert on the Nahua culture, I am deeply concerned about any kind of exoticising of the past, and one way to present something as exotic is to place it in a deep, distant, remote, unimaginable past. By emphasising the chronological distance, historical cultures appear incomprehensible and alien, perhaps even barbaric, depending on how you view history and humanity. The main problem here is, as mentioned, that what we tend to call the Aztec empire, or the Aztec culture, flourished in a brief period of time beginning in the fourteenth century and ending in the sixteenth – not by loss but by destruction. Moreover, while the polity of the Aztecs was conquered by the Spanish and their native allies, the people, the Nahua, continue to live in Mexico to this day. The idea of the Aztecs as a lost civilisation, therefore, not only buries the culture in a distant, cut-off past, but also blinds us to what continuity there actually was in the wake of the Aztec polity’s demise. A series that advertises “lost civilisations” and places the Aztecs on the same plane of chronological remoteness as the Sumerians, the Phoenicians and the Etruscans fortifies the alienation that a general lack of knowledge about the Nahua has already established.
As a historian, I am frequently alerted to the fact that my vision of history is very different from that of people who are not experts in history. Even though my particular area of expertise is very limited – I mainly work on Latin Christendom in the period 1000-1300, with a particular focus on Northern Europe – I still need to understand my slice of time within a wider geographical and chronological context. I might not know much about what happens, say, in Eastern Europe in the course of the sixteenth century, or about the evolution of the Graeco-Bactrian culture of Central Asia, but if someone tells me that an event took place in 1649 or in 543 BC, I can place the event in question in a rather different way than people who see everything before a certain date to be uniformly remote. An example of such thinking – of the distant past as an achronological chronotope – is shown in the epigraph for this blogpost. To me, 1628 is not very olden days. Neither do I consider the Aztec empire, for want of a better term, to be ancient.
I do not, however, judge non-historians for thinking in this way. It is quite natural, and the only reason I think differently is that I am trained to do so in my profession. The problem is when the kind of muddled achronology that contributes and prepares the ground for an exotic outlook on the past is aided and abetted by a serious publisher whose books are put together by experts. As much as I welcome the opportunity to get a crash-course in the history of the Aztecs, I also have to recognise that this publisher, Reaktion Books, is also making my job as a teacher much more difficult.