Take Neil MacGregor’s work where he studies the History of the World in 100 Objects. That’s right, the director of the British Museum out-minimalized the super-minimalists, who thinks nothing of finding the fewest arguments or gadgets available to prove a point. It’s like motorcycle historians who neatly boil that particular branch of motoring into “petrol” and “non-petrol,” with “real” motorcycles as having a four-stroke “petrol” engine and the rest of the world just pretenders.
That they have forgotten the seminal work of Roper and Copeland, as well as Michaud, the engineer who made the motorcycle possible when he realized that two wheels of the same size and a real steering fork are necessary for safe two-wheeling. Yet the contributions of these men are neatly glossed over.
However MacGregor’s history works to an astonishing degree. If you look at the firm examples he uses to back up his thesis, it is not as bizarre an idea as one might think.
Take the many shards of and clay pots found in the ancients city-states that were built on earlier cities as they rose from the plains of the Indus or Ganges rivers. The pot here or the tablet there that connects the dots to the pots in the holds of Phoenician traders who spread their culture across the ancient world. It shows that, while many in the historical establishment look down their rather long pince nez glasses at a “popular historian” like MacGregor, they cannot escape the fact that he’s often right.
For example, the great statuary of the Greeks and their temples – one idea or two, the choice is yours; MacGregor would likely think they are linked as they define the period of Greek history in which they appeared, as well as for the millennium to follow, even through the rise of Persia and Syracuse and the Romans.
The Romans took the flower of Greek thinking and overlayed it on their “Republic,” Aristotelian or Euclidean thought and objects to produce an empire that did last nearly 1,000 years and even survived a period of 100 Caesars in 100 years. The refinement of the Greek school of art and its advancement and morphing under Rome, along with the perfection of thought and the invention of the “sciences” of “history” and “sociology” and the strictures that they exposed are just two more examples of the direction of history.
The development and perfection of illumination by the Church and the many Holy Scribes and monks whose work each day was a page, if they were lucky, saved many of the great early works of man and our history. Illumination and the art of penmanship were two more objects along the way which strongly defined the direction of history and thought and all one has to do is look at them to know their means.
The real revolution comes with the introduction to the West of moveable type of the 15th Century invention of the printing press where, at once, thought could be made available to the masses, not just the nobility. What a concept, the masses learning to read and knowing as much as their “betters.” That invention, in itself, and the revolution in though that spun off of it shows that MacGregor is quite right. If you look at the history of the west, it can be defined by 100 distinct objects, including such silly-looking objects as the king’s throne made of hunting rifles.
Right there you have two engines of domination, the rifle with which the nobility could shoot their fill and still subjugate the local populace. In the wrong hands, though, history took another turn, didn’t it? Imagine the combination of the cannon, rifle and printing press and you have all of the makings of even more revolution.
Then add in the “mechanical muscle” provided by the waterwheel and Canals which helped to speed the spread of thought. Of course, this led to experimentation in other areas such as those of Faraday and Morse and the invention of the telegram so that the world was instantly smaller.
That, in turn, led to more sophisticated printing plants and electronics, computers, the Internet and Worldwide Web.
Each, if you look closely at it, is merely an outgrowth of earlier work that was built on one or two elements of an earlier period. This is why the entertaining and witty MacGregor’s work, an Amazon Best Book, works so well. It shows that, indeed, the history of western thought and man can be defined by just 100 objects.
It may look like a real stretch when you first crack the back of the book – yes real print and books – although sometimes you are limited to an eReader versions (there’s just something missing) – but it’s not as MacGregor shows why he is considered one of the wittiest and insightful historians of his generation. It’s an interesting theory that he carries off.
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