Do you ever end up in these embarrassing situations when you realise something you firmly believed is actually completely wrong? I did that a while ago when I realised that the bronze age, which in my mind always featured people sitting in caves holding clubs, in fact covered such great civilisations as the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Greek. While this is faintly amusing, it's also quite embarrassing and says a lot about my knowledge of history.
I have always dreamt of having an expansive knowledge of history (which then automatically includes art, music, philosophy, politics, early science etc.). If somebody tells me about a poet who live at such and such a time, I want to have a rough idea of what else was going on at that time, which other people might have lived around then, what might have influenced him. Over the years, I have had lessons of course and on top of that, I have read a lot. Unfortunately, I have always considered myself to have an appalling memory. Dates and facts (and faces and names), trivial or important, rarely stick in my head longer than a few minutes.
Not willing to give up that easily, I have been looking for a way out. Although I have found a good way to study for university, at least as far as exams are concerned, it's just not practical to transfer this to an everyday level. So I have been reading about how our memory works in the hope of finding something to help me. A lot of it was faintly entertaining but a little useless. I don’t want to imagine myself wandering about my house every time I try to remember something or come up with a story that involves an elephant balancing on a banana while singing Elvis Presley. I just want to remember things.
Eventually, I came across some books that claimed that instead of thinking in a linear fashion, we form “webs” of knowledge and then cross reference a lot. To improve ones memory, one has to think a little in terms of a spider web: First, one has to make the basic strings and fix them to something solid. Then one can weave more and more details in between. To me, this made immediate sense and I think this is where my mistake has been: I tried to remember facts just in their own right, not linked to others, and they just disappear into the depth of my brain, never to be found again. It’s probably a bit like a computer without a filing system. They are there somewhere but god knows where.
So, lets see what my basic net labelled “World History” looks like. I warn you, this is going to be embarrassing as I am doing this entirely from memory:
- very very long ago - Humans developed and sat in caves a lot
- 500 BC - The Greeks are on the rise
- 200 BC - The Romans take over
- 00 - Baby Jesus is born. The Romans are still in power and I think the Egyptians are on their way out
- 400 AD or so - Roman empire collapses
- Dark Ages
- Middle Ages
- 1492 Columbus sailed to America ("Fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue ;))
- 16th Century or so - Renaissance?
- Early 18th century - Louis XIV is around, women wear elaborate dresses made of meters and meters of silk. Men war brightly coloured waistcoats with more embroidery than is good for them
- 1789 - French Revolution, shortly followed by Napoleon's little games. Women wear something resembling nightgowns
- early 19th Century - Crinolines and corsets are back, the former becoming huge and round
- late 19th Century - Victorian Era including Queen Victoria of course. Imperialism is at its peak and the industrial revolution is in full swing. Skirt are swept back forming the iconic Victorian silhouette. Men start wearing something resembling today's Business suits.
- Early 20th Century - Corsets and Crinolines disappear, Art Nouveau takes over.
- 1914-1918 - WWI
- 1920's - The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. Russian Revolution.
- 1930's - The Nazis rise to Power
- 1939-1945 - WWII
- 1990s - End of the cold war, Germany is reunited
That's not even a spider web with holes in it. That’s holes separated by the occasional feeble thread. Of course there are many events and people I have heard of but I would not be willing to even hazard a guess as to the century, let alone the decade, they took place in.
Some of that knowledge came from school such as a long stretch on the Egyptians, followed by a bit on the Greek. My knowledge on the middle ages feels more like it came from novels than from a text book. At some point I changed school and caught the back end of a discussion about the Boer wars in Africa. The next thing I remember with some certainty is the foundation of Germany, followed by a very detailed study of the 20th century.I have supplemented the school lessons somewhat. I think I covered the French revolution in my French lessons here at university I also had a strong interest in costume history, as you can see by the fact that some centuries are entirely covered by what people wore at the time.
In the past, I have tried to rectify this by starting somewhere (usually with the Greek) and delving into their culture in some detail. This time, I'm not going to repeat the same mistake. I think the knowledge is there, it just needs to be dug out and tied together. Therefore, I will start broad instead of deep. I'm planning on finding 2-3 important events per century and putting them all on a timeline. These will form my basic strings, which I can then use to weave the net tighter and tighter afterwards. I'll keep you posted on how it is going!