What Happened?: The Complexity of History

I’m going back on a history talk again, this week.

This time, I’ve been thinking about history, alternate history, and the nature of both for a couple months now. Basically, my thoughts come down to: history is an extremely complex thing.

We like to make history simple and easy. It is easier to learn that way, it is easier to write overview fictional histories that way. But, real history is anything but simple. I’ll take on illustrative example: literacy in Europe.

The short, simple version: literacy rates rose in Europe starting in the 15th century because of the printing press.

It’s really a lot more complex than that.

The printing press had been around for a while, but it took a confluence of three big things occuring at roughly the same time for literacy rates to skyrocket.

First, movable type had to be invented. Previously, printing presses used a single piece of metal upon which the texts was etched. The plate was then melted down, recast, and re-etched with a new text. Obviously, this limited the number of copies that were printed, how quickly new texts could be printed, etc.

Second, the development of rag paper had to come along. Rag, cotton, paper was much cheaper than parchment or other media of the day. This development was fed by the Plague and consequent deaths that left behind an abundance of rags in the form of the clothing of the deceased.

Third, the Plague. The deaths caused by the Black Death created greater socio-economic mobility. Therefore, people, on average, made more money as the labor force shrank and relocated. As a consequence, more people ate meat, which meant more tallow (animal fat) was produced. More tallow meant more candles, more candles meant people stayed awake after sunset. And what do you do in a Renaissance city or town after sunset? You go to the pub or stay at home and read. Theaters hadn’t become widespread that soon and there was little to no other entertainment for 97% of the populace.

Had even one of these three events not occurred fairly close together, book production and literacy rates may not have risen for another century or more. And even the above account is somewhat simplified, as there are potentially several other factors that could come into play.

This, I think, is where the alternate history genre gets very interesting, and difficult. It’s not necessarily whether Julius Caesar was born or not, it’s often little, seeming inconsequential, things that have some of the largest impact in history.


2 comments on “What Happened?: The Complexity of History

  1. calmgrove says:

    “This is where the alternate history genre gets interesting, but difficult.” I totally agree, and the further back in time you go the more difficult and the more interesting, if the many permutations have been considered. It’s like those weather forecasting programs: even with more and more readings added into the mix, medium, let alone long-range, predictions are only moderately reliable, and cannot account for tiny shifts which can upset the calculations.

    I enjoyed Keith Roberts’ Pavane when I first read it many years ago, but even then I couldn’t accept that technology would have moved so slowly over some 4 and a half centuries. Something like The Man in The High Castle works better because there were only two decades intervening between WWII and Dick’s story. Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles work partly because she was well versed in 19th-century literature and partly because her fantasy approach verged on fairytale, so functioned on a different internal logic from less adulterated alternate history. At least, that’s my take on it. Looking forward to your next post on this!


    • lordtaltos says:

      That’s exactly one reason I enjoy Harry Turtledove’s alt histories. He based a number of them on Rome, Byzantium, and related areas and holds a PhD in Byzantine History. He also thinks through every repercussion he can think of. To paraphrase him, he does 100% of the research but only shows 1-3% in such a way that the reader knows that he knows the 100%. He doesn’t beat the reader over the head with all the research he does.

      For the most part, I avoid straight historical fiction or historical romance or straight alt history just because so many authors either a) do too little research, b) beat the reader over the head with the research, or c) don’t consider the repercussions of changes they make. Fantasy alt history, though, has, as you mentioned, more leeway.


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