In Defense of Bad History

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A City Shower. Oil on canvas by Edward Penny, 1764. Museum of London

Not inaccurate or badly researched history, of course, but the “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” kind of history.

Without wading into the murky waters of canceled reenactments (not my time periods– yet!) and the politicization of historical facts, I advocate the recreation of the “bad” people of history. Not the Hitlers and Himmlers and Stalins and Amins, but the everyday bad. The lazy. The feckless. The annoyed. The I’m-just-now-waking-up-to-the-bad-choice-I-made.

The Female Orators. Printed for Jno. Smith, No. 35 Cheapside, & Robt. Sayer, No. 53 Fleet Street, as the act directs, Novr. 20, 1768.

I think about these people– the ones who slack off while working, the ones who steal shirts, assault officers, throw bones out of barracks doors— periodically, especially when an event is being planned. It’s not that I don’t want to work, mind you: I enjoy working, even the cleaning and scrubbing of history. But it strikes me, especially in summer, that we approach the recreation of history with such excellent intentions. We will Do Our Best. We will Lend A Hand. We will be Always Cheerful.

Why? Why do we not represent the people who shirked? Why do we not represent the people who resented being told what to do, and when? Why do we not take into account our industrialized notions of labor (shifts, clocks, production levels( when we step backwards into a period where there was no factory whistle to set the pace?

painting of a shabbyily dressed family in a decaying room

The Miseries of Idleness. Oil on canvas by George Morland ca 1788. National Gallery of Scotland, NG 1836. Presented by Alexander and Lady Margaret Shaw, later Lord and Lady Craigmyle 1935

Granted, within a military environment, there are rules, regulations, clocks, and enforcers. But I cannot help thinking that the pace of labor, the speed and drive with which people tackled tasks, was different one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, years ago. Of course there were strivers and doers: the American army in the Revolution was populated by adherents to piety and discipline. But it’s clear from the orderly books that there were miscreants and slackers, too.

painting of a well dressed family in a cozy farm house kitchen

The Comforts of Industry. Oil on canvas by George Morland, before 1790. National Gallery of Scotland, NG 1835. Presented by Alexander and Lady Margaret Shaw, later Lord and Lady Craigmyle 1935

And I’m not saying everyone should be a slacker, but you know as well as I do that every workplace today has a slacker or two: the long-term federal employee who watches football at work; the retail clerk whose breaks last a little longer every time; the shelver in the library who catches a nap whilst shelf reading. There are consequences (usually) for those (in)actions, and that’s kind of the point. The slattern and the slacker of history throw into higher relief the purpose of the discipline an army (or housekeeper or master cabinet maker) is trying to maintain. When we all strive to do our best, we lose the depth of interpretation that doing “bad” history can provide.