Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Slandering the Past

I recently attended a Jewish wedding, part of which was the signing of the ketubah. At one point the Rabbi commented that in the old days the ketubah would specify how many chickens and goats the groom was paying the bride's father for his daughter, whereas this modern ketubah stated the promises of bride and groom to each other.

It struck me as an unlikely claim, for at least two reasons. Jewish religious law is an extraordinarily well documented system, perhaps the best documented of all the legal systems I have looked at, with detailed interpretation going back to the Mishnah, written nearly two thousand years ago. In everything I have seen, the ketubah is described as a contract stating the husband's obligations to the wife. The one essential term is the amount that goes to the wife from the husband's property if he dies or divorces her.

Further, under Jewish religious law, parental consent was not required for the marriage of an adult--and a woman became an adult at twelve and a half, provided that she had shown some signs of puberty at least six months earlier. This became an issue during the Middle Ages, when Jewish communal courts tried to impose additional requirements in order to permit parents to prevent their daughters from imprudent marriages but faced difficulties due to the fact that the marriage rules were considered part of religious law (Issur) over which they had no authority.

An additional oddity to the Rabbi's account was the idea of a contract specifying a payment in chickens and goats when, as is clear by reading texts on the religious law, payments were routinely specified in money, sometimes with explanations of exactly what sort of money was to be used. 

My conclusion was that the Rabbi's view of the history of the ketubah fitted a pattern I have seen in other contexts--moderns believing in bogus history that supports their self image of superiority to those ignorant and unreasonable people in the past.  

My favorite example is the Columbus myth, the idea that the people who argued against Columbus were ignorant flat-earthers who thought his ships would sail off the edge. That is almost the precise opposite of the truth. By the time Columbus set off, a spherical Earth had been the accepted scientific view for well over a thousand years. Columbus's contemporaries not only knew that the Earth was round, they knew how big around it was, that having been correctly calculated by Eratosthenes in the third century B.C. 

By the fifteenth century they also had a reasonably accurate estimate of the width of Asia. Subtracting the one number from the other they could calculate the distance from where Columbus was starting to where Columbus claimed to be going and correctly conclude that it was much farther than his ships could go before running out of food and water. The scientific ignorance was on the side of Columbus and those who believed him; he was claiming a much smaller circumference for the Earth and a much larger width of Asia, hence a much shorter distance from Spain to the far end of Asia. We will probably never know whether he believed his own numbers or was deliberately misrepresenting the geographical facts in order to get funding for his trip in the hope that he would find land somewhere between Spain and Japan, as in fact he did.

Another example of the same pattern shows up in discussions of medieval cooking, one of my hobbies. Quite a lot of people believe that medieval cooks overspiced their food in order to hide the taste of spoiled meat. A few minutes of thought should be enough to see the consequences for a cook of routinely giving his employer and the employer's guests food poisoning. Also that, with meat available on the hoof, there was no need to keep it until it spoiled and that it made little sense to save on meat, a local product, at the cost of  spices that had to be transported over thousands of miles. 

I should probably add that, as best I can tell, there is no evidence that medieval food was overspiced at all, only that they used spices in different ways than modern European cuisine. But discovering that would actually require a little effort.

Finally, consider the success of H.L. Mencken's bathtub hoax, a wildly implausible story widely believed, at least in part because it made moderns feel superior to their ancestors.

I expect that other readers with historical interests can add other examples.


At 4:03 PM, February 14, 2018, Blogger Isak Czeresnia Etinger said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:05 PM, February 14, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Brazil, it is widely believed that the country was discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500 when he was trying to go to India but *got lost* in the way.

At 5:13 PM, February 14, 2018, OpenID whswhs said...

In his essay "A Reply to Professor Haldane," written in response to Haldane's criticism of That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis quotes a line from a collection of Haldane's essays that "five hundred years ago . . . it was not clear that celestial distances were so much greater than terrestrial." Lewis goes on to point out that Ptolemy's Almagest, the standard medieval astronomy textbook, and written in the ancient world, explicitly says that the distance from the fixed starts to the Earth is so great that the Earth must be treated as a mathematical point; and that this was well known to educated medieval people such as King Alfred.

At 11:49 PM, February 14, 2018, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Anonymous says that Brazil "was discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500 when he was trying to go to India".

Why is it wrong?

Wikipedia agrees. In fact, in Portugal, we study in History classes that Portugal already knew about Brazil well before Pedro Álvares Cabaral and Colombus!

This is why the Treaty of Tordesillas was designed to include Brazil. Wikipedia says some historians believe Portugal already knew about Brazil before Cabral discovered it. "The easternmost part of current Brazil was granted to Portugal when in 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral landed there while he was en route to India. Some historians contend that the Portuguese already knew of the South American bulge that makes up most of Brazil before this time, so his landing in Brazil was not an accident."

At 4:21 PM, February 15, 2018, Blogger John Wentworth said...

The book "Cod", by Mark Kurlansky, claims that ships from Bristol were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland at least a century before Columbus (and that the Basque were there even earlier). It also offers some mild evidence that Columbus knew this, though I forget the details. Under that interpretation, Columbus knew his supposed calculations were wrong, but also knew that there was probably more land waiting to the West.

At 5:08 AM, February 17, 2018, Blogger Jonathan said...

A nice collection of stories, thank you. If time travel ever permits discovering the facts of history, there will doubtless be many surprises!

At 1:05 AM, February 18, 2018, Anonymous Alex said...

"By the time Columbus set off, a spherical Earth had been the accepted scientific view for well over a thousand year"

It is likely that at that time of Columbus the overwhelming majority of the people did believe that the earth was flat. In 1492 most people were illiterate with no access to National Geographic or anything of the kind. Their only source of knowledge was the local priest who obviously supported geocentrism and most likely a flat earth theory. A spherical earth is actually counterintuitive and children have to be taught about it. Professional sailors did understand that the earth was spherical but they were very exceptional people with exceptional skills for those days.

At 9:27 AM, February 18, 2018, Blogger hat said...

With regard to "spoiled" meat, a possibility is fats turning rancid, which is presumably harder to avoid without refrigeration and ziplock bags to store them in cool airtight places, which is not going to give you food poisoning, but does taste/smell bad.

At 5:03 PM, February 18, 2018, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Their only source of knowledge was the local priest who obviously supported geocentrism and most likely a flat earth theory."

He obviously supported geocentrism, which had been the dominant theory at least since Ptolemy--but that had a spherical Earth in the center. Why would you expect a local priest to support a flat Earth theory when the Catholic church didn't?

At 10:03 PM, February 18, 2018, Anonymous Alex said...

I didn't know the Catholic Church believed in a spherical Earth, you may be right on that one.
But our ancestors did believe some absurd things until not to long ago, like blood letting to treat infections.


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