Thursday, September 02, 2021

Ordinary Lives

Wreck of the White Ship, 1120 CE

 Lately I've been thinking a lot about William Aelthing, only legitimate son and heir of England's Henry I. Of course I have, because that's what I do. I wonder – how would English history be different if William hadn't died in a shipwreck when he was seventeen? I love history and read about it constantly, especially European history, and specifically British and Roman history, and have since I was a child. I know quite a bit more about the history of late Roman republic/early Empire than the average person off the street. Same with English history.  I read about the famous folks because they are most written about, but what really interests me is the lives of ordinary people in the past. Like so many historical mystery authors of my generation, I was inspired by the books of Ellis Peters, who wrote about the day-to-day life of a humble Benedictine monk who lived during a vicious period of English history called the Anarchy, a forty-year-long civil war in the twelfth century between two claimants to the throne –  after the Aelthing's death, the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, his daughter Empress Maude, and Henry's nephew Stephen, whose claim was at least partly based on the fact he was a guy and not a girl. 

When the opposing armies passed through any area of the country, misery and slaughter ensued. But most of the time ordinary, run-of-the mill English people lived their lives undisturbed. Most of them probably didn't care who was on the throne. A lot of them probably didn't even know. 

I've always thought that's interesting. What was it like to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times?

This interest in ordinary people's lives began to extend into American history for me when I got into my own genealogy in the 1990s and found out that I have many ancestors who were famous-event and/or famous-person adjacent, i.e. one of my so-many-greats grandmothers was the sister of Revolutionary war general Mad Anthony Wayne. General Daniel Morgan's sister is another direct ancestor. My Casey  grandfather of many generations back was in Francis Marion's regiment. My favorite direct ancestor from Revolutionary times was a young British soldier named Stephenson who deserted in South Carolina, hid out for the duration with an Irish-born farmer and ended up marrying his daughter. And those are just ancestors who lived in the 18th century. None of them are famous, but all of their lives were touched by the actions of powerful people and by events they did not cause and some may not have even cared about if they hadn't been forced to deal with them. 

That's what I like to write about. Ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times. What must it have been like to live then? How'd it feel? How'd they cope? 

You Dear Readers are familiar with the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” We're all cursed, I think, because we always live in interesting times. In 200 years our descendants will be looking back at us in wonder and thinking, “How'd it feel? How did they cope?”

No comments: