What about us? Our place in our own History.

(Disclaimer: the following article is a piece of opinion, as I claim no expertise in the area of History.)

It is a well-known fact: History studies the past and shapes our image of it. Through these studies, our perception of the world changes and this often leads to major debates that are still unresolved. Regardless of whether people agree on some topics or not, no person can deny History’s usefulness.

But, what is History? Is it just dates and events? Does it have to focus only on major figures, whose actions changed (undeniably) the course of our species? Or is it something bigger?

Most people, historians or not, will agree that, in order to understand our past, we must take into account all pieces of information available; from major battles to everyday activities, from the evolution of languages to the inventions that changed the world, every tiny detail is important, for it gives us the pieces we need in order to complete the puzzle that is, in the end, our History.

So, what’s our place in it? What is an ordinary person’s role in the uncovering of the secrets of the past? Are our actions and experiences of any importance? Well, a short answer would be ‘yes’. But, you are not here for short answers, are you? So, please, let me explain.

Imagine you are a farmer in a rural area, in around 1914. Most people know that this is the year when World War I started. Now, how does it affect you? How will it affect your perception of the world? What will you be telling your grandchildren? You might think: ‘well, what does that have to do with History?’. The answer is ‘a lot’. See, a person’s experiences during certain events are precious sources, or pieces for that puzzle we mentioned above. When you sit down with your grandparents, and they begin ‘those boring stories from the war’, they are actually doing you a favour. It is thanks to their stories that we know precious details regarding certain events, details that would otherwise be lost.

This approach to History, known as ‘history from below’, is a useful tool in our research of the past. History from below seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrate on their experiences and perspectives, contrasting itself with the stereotype of traditional political history and its focus on the actions of ‘great men'[1]. It is an interesting approach, and a difficult one. That is because a historian must trace people, which sometimes takes time and money, and they must also convince them to share their memories. It is not something to be taken lightly; these people have suffered a lot (just remember those two World Wars, and you will understand, if only a little), and they probably do not want to relive those days.

When a historian does find people willing to talk, they often have to deal with horrific details, so add the challenge for the unprepared ones. And, after the conversation is finished, they must cross-examine the accounts with other sources, a painstaking activity which sometimes consumes days, even weeks. Yet, a dedicated historian will do it. And their efforts will be yet another stroke on that canvas that is our History. And, who knows? Someday, our experiences might be worthy of an interview with a great historian in the future. So, no matter what happens, try to remember. And talk to your grandparents more. They do have important things to share.

[1: source: http://www.history.ac.uk]

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