On Sunday, May 8, 1541, Hernando de Soto gazes at the Mississippi, and realizes he had a problem: The Mississippi is big, and he has to cross it. Not to worry, he thinks, he’ll just pretend he’s a god, and have the natives send enough canoes across for his men. He sends words to the town across the river that he is the Sun god, and to send canoes for his entourage. After a while, the leader of the town sends his respects to the “Sun god,” pleased that he has arrived, and points out that since de Soto is the “Sun god,” he should have no trouble drying up the Mississippi and walking across. De Soto ends up building several hundred boats and crossing at night, because the natives aren’t fools and resent the appearance of a foreign army in their neighborhood.
De Soto used what David Niven called the “god gambit” in his Ringworld books to what he thought was good effect. He’d usually appear at an Indian town, announce he was a deity, and the Indians would take one look at his army and go “Riiight.” A man with his own army can call himself pretty much what he wants, and those that didn’t fight him were usually happy to humor him and hope he’d just go away, and offer him supplies and guides where he and his army wouldn’t hang around.
De Soto, on the other hand, didn’t seem to realize that the success of his god gambit had more to do with his army than hoodwinking the locals. What he thought he knew was going through their heads wasn’t. He may have been dealing with people with stone-age technology, but that didn’t make them idiots, and they weren’t. Before it was all over, Hernando de Soto would be dead, and his men under siege, Of the men who embarked on the expedition, maybe half would make it out alive.
In the same way, when we look back at history and wonder how they could believe some of the things they did, we would do well to first remember they were not idiots. They often had reasons, in some cases flawed ones, but reasons nonetheless.
In some instances we are the ignorant ones. For instance, in reading an otherwise excellent book on 14th Century England, the author makes a blunder by looking at Genesis to construct a religious view of women in that period. The problem is that there’s considerably more than the incident of Adam and Eve, from Psalms 31:10-31, to the veneration of Mary. I got the impression that the author wasn’t a particularly religious person, and based his theory on what little he knew, unaware it wasn’t the complete story.
So when the medieval use of astrology and alchemy, and belief in the supernatural, is pooh-poohed by moderns as extremely ignorant, we forget they based their beliefs on what they knew. Astrology was considered an important science in the 14th Century, and alchemy was based on early theories of matter. While today we know the theories to be very wrong, we should remember it was the best information they had at the time. If you think, as the educated did in that day, that all of matter was made of four to six elements, then the idea of transforming lead into gold isn’t unreasonable. If you notice that planting time coincides with the rising of a specific constellation, as does events like flooding of rivers or summer heat, it’s not all that unreasonable to assume that other things in the sky may herald events on Earth. They based their beliefs on what they knew.
If we’re feeling smug about our superior knowledge, consider that just a century ago the Andromeda Galaxy was thought to be a vast nebula, and everyone just knew you couldn’t split an atom. It’s humbling to muse that some of our beliefs about the universe will be considered ignorant by those several hundred years hence. Will that mean they’re smarter than us? No, just as Hernando de Soto was not smarter than the Indians he encountered, though he and his men had iron and gunpowder, and the Indians still had stone-based technology.
If our descendents will be no smarter than we, then we should remember than our ancestors weren’t any more stupid. This should make us ask why they believed as they did.
This applies to everything, from farming to warfare. Then, as now, what people know, what they think they know, beliefs, culture, laws, and practicalities provide the basis for decision making. If we wonder “What was going through their minds?” then that’s the question we need to answer.
It goes without saying that this doesn’t give the past carte blanche. Understanding the reasoning behind an act is not the same as condoning it, and as we understand it, we might find it was considered reprehensible by contemporaries as well. Even Hernando de Soto was disgusted with Pizzaro.
It’s worth noting that although de Soto had encountered Indians before, and had become friends with Atahualpa, he still thought the god gambit worked. In the same way we can become “friends” with the past, but never really understand it. It helps to remember that these were people who, despite different cultures and beliefs, were at times hungry and thirty, laughed, cried, loved, hated, and were, by and large just folks. For while we should never make the mistake of assuming one culture is pretty much like the other, people remain the same.
If we remember that, we go a long way in understanding history.