People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions

Alli - September 30, 2021

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
Gandalf the Grey from The Lord of the Rings. Polygon.

Have Wizards always been like Gandalf?

Q: Where does the modern fantasy image of a wizard throwing elemental-based spells (eg. fire, lightning, ice) in battle originate from?

A Historian’s Take: “I don’t believe that anyone will be able to point to any single work of art as the origin of the idea of the elemental mage doing battle. It is really a matter of taking a large step back to view the larger picture of how certain fantasy tropes developed in fiction and pinning down specific illustrations or portrayals in those works. The elemental mage is really a post-modern iteration upon a much older tradition of sorcerous beings appearing in literature and fiction, stemming all the way back from ancient religious texts (the Witch of Endor from the Bible), legends (Merlin from the legends of King Arthur), and mythology (Greek myths are chock-full of mystical beings who wield supernatural abilities; Zeus being a prime example in this matter).

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
JRR Tolkien. Viator.

“Successive writers throughout history would incorporate these traditions in their own works, and elaborate upon the paradigm, birthing whole new genres and tropes in the process. From the unknown authors of Beowulf, to Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to the compilers of Arabian Nights, we can trace the ideological genealogy of magic users in fiction through to modern authors such as Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian and Kull), C.S. Lewis (Narnia), and of course, the man who arguably birthed our modern take on the wizard in fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien…” Read the rest of their analysis.

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
An example of a Jim Crow-era segregation sign. African American Civil Rights Movement.

What would happen if the segregation roles were reversed?

Q: What might happen if during segregation a ‘white’ person used facilities designated for ‘colored’ people?

A Historian’s Take: “Nearly every Jim Crow law provides for the establishment of separate facilities, structures, or areas for black and white people and many of them contain language that limits the movement of supplies across the race-line. Rosa Parks, as others in this thread have noted, was arrested and convicted for “refusing to obey orders of bus driver” Under the city code of Montgomery, bus drivers had “the powers of a police officer of the city… for the purpose of carrying out the provision of [segregation of the bus lines]” So, the simplest answer to your question — at least insofar as the bus system in Montgomery Alabama is concerned — is that the bus driver would be legally bound to order them to sit in the white section and the Courts would enforce that order as if it were a lawful order given by a police officer.

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
This undated photo shows Rosa Parks riding on the Montgomery Area Transit System bus. Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, and ignited the boycott that led to the end of legal segregation in public transportation. Wikimedia.

“Which is pretty much exactly how nothing at all worked in the South. The underlying purpose of the Jim Crow laws was to establish White Supremacy. After Reconstruction ended white-lead governments surged back into power and used their power to marginalize the black vote. They then used that power to enact Jim Crow laws which further suppressed black political activity and relegated black people to second-class status. While stated goals for this are hard to find and differ on a state-by-state basis, it’s illuminating to consider that white people were a racial minority in some southern states and a sparse majority in many others.”

Related: Black Americans Used to Have to Navigate Jim Crow Laws During Road Trips with this Travel Guide.

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forrest. Flickr

This Cheesy Query About if Robin Hood Were Real

Q: If Robin Hood were real and were to host a feast in Sherwood Forest what kind of cheese would he have had and bread also?

An Irish Food Historian’s Take: “We’re not awfully sure. To be fair, medieval Ireland was obsessed with cheese, so England was never going to live up to that. The best theory I’ve heard – and as with anything in food history, theory can be pretty vague – is that England had successive waves of invasion/resettlement which, in each case, wiped out some of the local knowledge. Cheese-making is very localized, due to bacterial cultures, storage conditions, and so on. The cheese made in one village, and the cheese made in the next could be quite different, and it takes a very long time to optimize for conditions, and for local taste. So, the theory goes, in Ireland, cheese-making was a more or less unbroken tradition for well over a thousand year, whereas the English traditions at any given time were only a couple of hundred years old. So the English cheese just wasn’t as good.

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
Errol Flynn in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Pinterest.

“My knowledge of non-food history in France is not good enough to assess whether that could apply there, and my other areas of food knowledge are in the medieval Nordic and Arabic cultures, neither of which were hugely into cheese. Although I do have to note the baked ‘squeaky cheese’ (bread cheese) you get in Finland; it’s a different approach to cheesemaking and is both excellent and historically popular there. If someone else knows about French, Germanic, Mediterranean and/or East European cheese history, I’d be happy to hear from them!”

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
Changeling Baby. Wikimedia.

What would happen if a person really thought their baby was a changeling in Medieval Europe?

Q: In Medieval Europe, there existed a superstition that fairies would sometimes kidnap people, usually babies, and leave changelings in their place. What would happen if a person really thought their baby was a changeling?

A European Folklore Historian’s Take: “The fairies – the largely social supernatural beings of Northern Europe – were referred to with a variety of terms reflecting the many languages involved. For convenience, we will describe them generically as fairies. These powerful, dangerous supernatural beings were attracted to people, whom they frequently sought to abduct. Although everyone was vulnerable, the focus of attention was largely on male infants and young women of reproductive age. Stories about their abductions – attempted or accomplished – are ubiquitous. Women were particularly vulnerable after birth, clearly reflecting the possibility that these women could suddenly decline in health and die – or appear to die. For this reason, a newborn and a newly delivered woman were often confined to a sealed house until they could be admitted to church – a baptism for the infant and a ‘churching’ (a readmission to the congregation) for the woman…

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
A changeling is most often referring to a fairy who is swapped in to replace a human baby. Medium.

“According to the variants of the legends, people suspected an infant changeling when their baby failed to thrive or seemed changed in some way. In reality, such suspicion could be aroused by various conditions including genetics, disease, or malnutrition, many of which were not apparent until sometime after birth. In the legends, mothers attended the changeling in one of several ways – all designed to lure the fairy abductors to return the real infant. This took the form of tricking the changeling to speak with some astonishing act – brewing beer in an eggshell or some such thing. Other ways included beating the changeling, placing it on hot coals or exposing it at night outside. Legends invariably end with the return of the real infant – one of the few cases where legends (accounts told generally to be believed) turned out well.”

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
1492 would have been considered a dark year by many indigenous Americans. Wikipedia.

Why did the Americas use enslaved Africans?

Q: Why weren’t Native Americans the primary slave population in America? I understand that Native Americans were enslaved in certain cases, most notably by Christopher Columbus in Puerto Rico. However, why is it that the primary enslaved population in the Americas were African?

A Historian’s Take: “Indigenous people were enslaved in large numbers and their depopulation did force Europeans to look elsewhere for labor. However, the power of Indigenous nations played a large and oft-forgotten role as well. Indigenous groups maintained tremendous power on the continent and Europeans were incapable of forcing their will on them for most of the early colonial period. As late as the Seven Years’ War, primarily Indigenous forces from the Ohio River Valley actually succeeded in rolling back the British “frontier” in Pennsylvania to within a hundred miles of Philadelphia. Ironically given the initial incorrect answer’s premise, during the same conflict thousands of Europeans were captured in the Middle Colonies and taken west as captives and sometimes performed forced enslaved labor.

People Ask Historians Their Most Pressing History Questions
Cross-section of a slave ship. CBS News

“In the South, the British initially relied on Indigenous allies to help enslave Native peoples, but this came to a head when the colony of South Carolina was nearly lost to an Indigenous coalition. In the aftermath of the conflict, the ‘Indian Slave Trade’ was seriously curtailed to avoid once again raising the fury of the colony’s Indigenous neighbors… Depopulation still played an important role, as disease and violence took their toll on Indigenous populations or those populations migrated to avoid interacting with Europeans. However, one of the most significant and overlooked reasons for why Europeans looked elsewhere for enslaved labor was because they were too weak to force large populations into slavery in North America. When they used Indigenous allies to overcome this weakness and gather an enslaved labor force, they were often entangled in disastrous conflicts that they barely survived.”