Horses, Sails, And Walking

Re-reading yesterday what I have been writing in recent weeks, I was struck by this thought. I have always felt the public think of historians as somehow interested only in dates and obscure facts. In reality, historians are about the world’s biggest romantics.

“The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.”

G.M. Trevelyan, Cambridge University historian, 1927.

These last 13 months have been a real challenge for most of us. The world as we took it for granted has been largely “shut down” in a way it had not been, frankly, ever before. That is not surprising because most everything we do now – even coping with a new virus – is on a far bigger, even global, scale compared to anything our distant ancestors did.

Particularly travel.

We in many ways take it for granted, but powered transportation – especially flight – has changed humanity forever.

There was a time that few people traveled more than 100 miles from home in their entire lives. The pandemic that has so restricted us in 2020-21 has given us a small “taster” of that “narrow” life. However, people prior to the invention of powered transport did not know any differently, of course.

It is relatively easy today to get from one place on the planet to another. For example, the two most widely separated locations on the map below can be reached now within a few hours (including all the necessaries at the airports on both ends) by plane. As much as we love to gripe about planes, even an “economy” class cabin journey is incredibly comfortable compared with what those two centuries ago endured to cover the same distance by ground and water:

[Europe c. 1810. Public Domain map.]

I threw together that draft map of some locations that will be in the coming book thinking a version of the map may appear in that book – the first time I will have published such an “aid.” I may do that because it also hit me the other day that it is too easy as a writer (and perhaps an historian) to overlook how some of your readers (actually, probably most) are not going to be as “familiar” with what you have written than you will be. Geography terrifies lots of people. Oh, sure, most everyone – especially I presume someone who reads one of my books – knows where London and Paris are, but smaller places and their relationships to major cities may be bits of knowledge a reader lacks without “googling”. I know one of my challenges when I read on any new subject is sometimes keeping certain points straight as I follow along – be it when reading fiction or non-fiction.

A couple of the place names above are different today, but place names have been changed even in our own lifetimes, too. What matters most is the ease of mobility we enjoy now was utterly unheard of in “1800” even for the then richest in the world. 1800 was about two generations before the arrival of steam-powered ships and railroads by the 1840s. (And that new mobility we have is not even to address instant communications: we can phone, Zoom, or FaceTime with anyone nearly anywhere on the planet, whereas in 1800 it could STILL take six months or more for a mere letters’ exchange between Europe and North America. Assuming the letters did not get lost or stolen, that is.)

It is difficult for us today to imagine that horses, sails, and walking world of pre-1850; but it did exist as assuredly as we exist. Even when some did travel, it was a far more difficult adventure than it is today. Restricted to the travel speed of a trotting horse or the wind caught in sails, or even to foot, people did not go anywhere distant for “a long weekend”; they “traveled” – the few who did – for often YEARS. Passports for ordinary people (diplomats had versions of them for recognition reasons) were not even commonplace-demanded until the early twentieth century because populations were so broadly “immobile” that there was really no need to try to control borders like we do today or to keep track of transient visitors like we do today (because “mass tourism” by millions as we have today did not exist).

[Capture The Cause, to be released later (it is hoped) this year. The front cover painting is of a street in Warsaw, Poland, 1777.]

It was only with the French Revolution that governments began starting to pay any attention to ordinary travelers – mostly because the anti-monarchical French government in the mid-1790s began trying to track down aristocrats fleeing abroad. Today, I am back to writing some more of that early 1800s era. If we can even imagine looking so far down life’s road, based on where I am with that latest manuscript, and on what I also have learned from experience, likely I have a “Christmas 2021 present” (I hope) novel upcoming.

Just thought I’d pop those few thoughts onto a casual post this morning.

Now you also see the sorts of things I think about. 🙂


UPDATE, April 29:

SSF? Uh, Sarajevo Film Festival? LOL!


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