Newspapers report that anatomical experts have reconstructed the face of an ordinary man who died in Cambridge 700 years ago. We do not know this man’s name, but from his bones and teeth we can tell that he led a pretty ordinary life and died in his 40s. He had a robust skeleton with a lot of wear and tear associated with a hard life involving manual labor. At least twice in his youth, he had fallen seriously ill or suffered from malnutrition. Finally, he is believed to have died homeless as his body was found on the grounds of a charity hospital for the infirm who had nowhere else to go.
Face of a 13th century man
This is probably more attention than the unfortunate man ever received in his life. This is part of a broader trend in modern history to look beyond the well recorded life of the rich aristocracy into the lives of ordinary people.
Popular literature also reflects some of this trend. In his novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), George R.R. Martin went beyond the gentrified settings of the nobility into the suffering of the common folk. Regrettably time constraints led to less attention paid to this detail in the TV series.
The problem with the past is the paucity of detail. Writing was rare and the materials for writing expensive. Only the rich or those with strong patronage could afford to write. It is not surprising that we have more details on the thoughts of Roman senators than on the lives of the ordinary folk who numbered a hundred times more. Thus our ideas of the Roman Empire have middle aged men in togas strutting about marbled halls.
The distant future may pose a very different problem. The problem of abundance. What to choose when there is so much and most of it bad. Imagine the plight of the future historian a thousand years hence who has to go through mountains of compressed material on our age. What would he base his understanding of our life on? What would he consider as essential to understanding our lives and our minds and what would he discard as irrelevant?
If you think this issue is unimportant, consider the real current problem of how poorly we understand existing cultures in other parts of the world. Consider the Indian whose only idea of the United States comes from Hollywood or the American whose idea of India is from Bollywood.
Even within the same culture, there are chasms of misunderstanding. An old joke goes thus. A rich American schoolgirl was asked to write an essay on a poor family. Her attempt went thus:
“Once upon a time, there lived a poor family. The Mommy was poor, the daddy was poor, the daughter was poor, the butler was poor, the cook was poor, the maid was poor and the driver was poor. Everybody was poor.”