Some thoughts about “Firsts” in history

It is now commonly understood that the Vikings beat Christopher Columbus to the Western Hemisphere.  In polite conversation, I respond to this sort of thing with an, “Oh, interesting!”  But, inside, I’m really thinking, “Well, whoop-tee-do!!”  (That is not how I typically react to Viking-stuff, by the way!)  The importance of their journey sagas is not being trivialized here, but the arrival in America was largely irrelevant!  Did it impact the Viking culture?  Did it impact the indigenous cultures?  No, not really.  At least, nothing has been proven thus far (barring scholarship with which I am unfamiliar, of course).  Columbus intiated massive impact on his own culture and those that would be exposed to his own as a result of his “discovery“.  But, there is some element in history that prizes the “First“!  I find it a bit tiresome, in truth.  A “First” must meet more criteria than mere chronology to truly be as relevant as some would make it.

When some scholars holler at those who study the various facets of Western civilization about the West appropriating the credit for “Firsts” that belong in the East or the indiginous New World, my reaction is typically to shrug.  Other than to ackowledge that a culture was more advanced or sophisticated at a given time among the ebbs and flows of history, how much does it really matter?  The only way to answer that question is to first answer a follow up: to what degree were these cultures in contact?  China’s “First” discovery of gun powder seems more relevant than its “First” development of paper precisely because gun powder moves eventually to the West through long contact with cultures in between and must be adopted for Europe’s defense against the Ottoman Turks (in the east).  Paper might be a superior product in the end, but the West always made do and found solutions to keep texts and records.

I am prepared to acknowledge that during the Italian Renaissance some grand new things were taking place, but on the whole much is overstated.  Many fewer things were really new or the “First” since the Romans–and still fewer with the abruptness implied by the Italians and their historians.  Medievalists can point not just to individual scholars, but multiple movements during the supposed “Dark Ages” when Europe reflected back on Rome’s greatness and accomplishments with an eye to emulate and admire.  When the Carolingians did it, they effectively preserved most of the texts that have survived today from the Roman era.  When the scholars in the 12th Century Renaissance did it, they laid much of the intellectual and cultural ground work from which the Italian Reniassance naturally evolved.

This leads to another confusing element of “Firsts“–what counts as the actual “First“.  Take manned flight, for instance, you have to be very specific about the category to which you are referring in order to identify the “First.”  The Wright brothers are not the “First” to introduce manned flight, for example, as air balloons, blimps and gliders had already been successfully developed.  It is similar when we talk about eras transitioning, as we often do so with an eye for what is new and different from one era to the next, but periodization remains, to a certain extent, a conceit employed by historians to wrest the vast collection of history into something manageable and classifiable.  These periods we use are misleading because change is such a gradual process when one looks at the expanse of life and society.  Consider the process of desegregation in America following the end of the Jim Crow era: it is hard to determine when segregation truly ends, even legally, given all the nuances, and integration is achieved–compelling arguments can be made to suggest we may have desegregated without having fully integrated still to this day.  And, furthermore, how are these evolutions experienced by the someone according to gender or class, region or population concentration?

I do not mean to argue that “Firsts” are entirely irrelevant–they are not.  But, how we value them is sometimes misleading.  Mere chronology as a distinction is rarely a very interesting one.  Show me impact, show me change as the result of this first event/innovation.  It cannot be significant if it happens or is discovered only to be forgotten when the inventor/thinker/innovator passes away.  Yes, some knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans was lost for a time, but much of that lost knowledge was significant for long periods and in the end quite a bit was reintroduced from classical texts.  It is therefore relevant.  The Mayan knowledge of zero and calculating time was used during the Mayan epoch–some of that knowledge was lost when they dwindled, but not all.  Regardless, it is significant because it was lasting, it was passed on to later generations, which is the most we can say about any of our knowledge or innovations since nothing is eternal.

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One response to “Some thoughts about “Firsts” in history

  1. Pingback: Word of the Week, 11/28-12/2/11 – OK | Brush off the dust! History now!

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