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.