This is not the post I had intended for today. When I started working on this one, it was about some of the different ways of organizing basic labor that have existed in history, from slave gangs to independent peasant farmers. As I kept working on it, I found that I had more to say about slavery, especially in light of the public dialogue that has been happening in the United States lately surrounding symbols of the Confederacy. So I started working on a post specifically about slavery in historical context, but as I tried to write that post, it became clear to me that there is an even more fundamental issue in historical interpretation I needed to talk about, something that applies not just to slavery but to almost every historical phenomenon. It is so universal that we don’t really have a standard vocabulary for talking about it. You could call it variability, or you could call it norms and exceptions, but I prefer to think of it as solid centers and fuzzy edges.
Here’s what it comes down to: history is about people, and people are amazingly varied. Every individual person’s experience of the world is a little bit different. If we tried to write a history that took in every different possible experience, the overwhelming volume of possibilities would paralyze us. And so, as historians, we have to sort through all of the information we have to arrive at some meaningful understanding of the past. One of the most important things we do is identify patterns where a lot of people’s experiences line up in similar ways. That’s what I mean by a solid center. But there will always be people whose experiences are different. They’re the fuzzy edge.
When I teach history, I’m always talking about “The Greeks thought this,” or “The Romans did that.” It’s a useful shorthand, but it simplifies a more complicated truth. The ancient Greeks thought that women were inferior to men. Did all Greeks think that? All the time? No, of course not. If we want to really get technical, all we can say is that a few dozen rich, literate, mostly Athenian men thought so, and I bet you could find a few dozen rich men who think just about anything. On the other hand, we have enough evidence about gender relations in ancient Greece – from literature, art, archaeology, inscriptions, and so on – to say that the attitudes of those few dozen men are a fair representation of typical attitudes. If you could go back to classical Greece and wander around talking to people about what they thought about women, you’d mostly get answers that lined up fairly well with the surviving literature. You’d also get a few that didn’t.
How do we cope with this fact of history? We have to acknowledge both parts of it, both the solid center and the fuzzy edge. What most people experienced most of the time is the baseline. Even people whose experiences were different had to contend with the existence of that baseline. An ancient Athenian man who enjoyed discussing philosophy with women could expect to be ridiculed for it by most of his friends. A woman who wrote poetry would probably have had a hard time finding anyone who wanted to listen to it. The assumption of women’s inferiority was part of the background culture of classical Greece.
Then there is the fuzzy edge. Socrates discussed philosophy with the courtesan Theodote. Sappho’s poetry was some of the most popular in ancient Greece. Of course, Theodote was not a typical Greek woman. Neither was Sappho. For that matter, Socrates was not a typical man. These experiences matter, not least because they help us see the typical experience more clearly, but we must not mistake them for it. Things that are unusual are real, but they remain unusual.
This perspective – acknowledging the fuzzy edge while not losing sight of the solid center – is an indispensable part of a historian’s toolkit. With that idea in mind, I encourage you to check out the links below, both of them talking about how some people today struggle with the history of slavery in the United States.
An Interview with @AfAmHistFail at The Toast
I used to lead tours on a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery by Margaret Bisser at Vox
(As it happens, I have a colleague who studies the representation of slavery in historic homes, so I know what these authors describe are far from isolated incidents.)
People who hold onto the notion that slavery wasn’t so bad, that slaves were well taken care of, or that they felt affection and loyalty for their masters are clinging to a fuzzy edge and ignoring the solid center. The baseline truth about slavery – any system of slavery in any place or time – is that it is a brutal, dehumanizing system of exploitation and violence. Around the edges of that system, we will find people whose experiences are not typical, just as we will with any system. In the Roman world, for example, we know of slaves who were entrusted with important matters of business and state and who crafted lives of comfort and ease for themselves, but they were a fortunate few. Most slaves were farm laborers and household servants whose lives were full of hard labor, little comfort, and the constant fear of abuse, sexual exploitation, and death at the hands of their masters.
When we’re talking about hundreds of millions of slaves across centuries of American history, there is going to be a fuzzy edge. Somewhere amongst those millions, there probably were a few slaves whose lives were not so bad, who were well taken care of, and who felt genuine affection and loyalty towards their masters. If we found their stories, they would be worth paying attention to, but we must never make the mistake of thinking that their experiences were typical.
Fuzzy edges exist. They are real and they are worthy of our attention and understanding, but their existence does not undermine the solid center.
Thoughts for writers
As writers, we live in the world of the fuzzy edge. It is often the ways in which a character is atypical that makes them interesting. After all, if we wrote stories about typical people doing typical things, most fantasy novels would be about farmers tending their crops.
It’s useful to think about characters in these terms. In what ways is their experience of life different from the way a typical person in a similar situation would experience it? It’s also good to keep in mind that being atypical usually comes at a cost. The world is built around solid centers because that’s where most people live. Being in the fuzzy edge means that the world isn’t quite prepared to deal with you.
Image: Sappho, detail from photograph by Bibi St-Pol via Wikimedia (Akragas, currently Staatliche Antikensammlungen; c. 470 BCE; ceramic; Byrgos Painter)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.