Back in the mid to late 1950’s, when one’s house contained that one black and white TV, there used to be a weekly Cold War propaganda series sponsored by and starring the US Army called “The Big Picture”; I was a faithful watcher. It was good to have the feeling you were getting a world-wide perspective on things that helped make sense out of the world within which my curiosity and desire to know were growing.
In today’s world, replete with tabloid news, gossip shows, political bickering, and groundless claims of all ilks, I long for a way of forming The Big Picture, this time without the propaganda. About ten years ago I ran upon a writing asking the question, “How did we arrive at today’s modern world?” Despite the fact most people find history boring or useless and despite the fact there is far more “crap” to scrap off the truth out there than ever before, this writing suggested a way of answering the question. After about a decade of reading in my leisure time almost nothing but history — history as devoid of teleological motives, revisionism, and “axes to grind” as I could find, I found that with the answer to the question came a new feeling of seeing The Big Picture.
Some people call this “picture” “historical perspective,” which can be done very profitably, I’ve found, especially by the members of my own generation of Baby Boomers, those of us just getting or about to get our Medicare cards, by just going back two generations and seeing how things have changed since our grandparents witnessed World War I. If you have not tried that, I highly recommend it, as I hope it will give you, as it did me, at least a pause of awe. But WWI was only one of many components leading us to the modern world of today; it and the events following do not give near the complete answer — do not give The Big Picture, in my opinion.
The writing suggests to go back further, to pose the question of how we got here a little more succinctly: What events took Western Civilization (and by analogy Near and Far Eastern civilizations) from medievalism to the 21st century? The answer, then, is in the form of a list, a list of historical events. My readings consisted of reading histories of these events. I found myself adding to this list, as I read about events not listed, finding that not all the events I read about were important enough to be on the list.
I am giving here my list as it stands today. You do not have to like or hate the events, but I do think you have to agree they belong on the list (maybe, as that judgement, of course, is yours). If you would like to see my reading list, would like to suggest readings from your experience, or have questions why an event is on the list or why another event is not on the list, please contact me through the social internet, the last item on the list (Though the history making “Arab spring” we are witnessing might be the latest listing.). I’ve tried to be chronological in the listing. Forgive the number of military entries, as many of you know my first history love was military history. Please send suggested additions. Please send a lengthy plea for suggested deletions. Even if you have no response, enjoy; I hope you have many pauses of awe; I hope you like my stab at The Big Picture.
- The Crusades
- The Checking of Islam in Asia by the Mongols
- The Black Death of the Fourteenth Century
- The Expulsion of Islam from Spain and the Balkans
- The Discovery of the New World
- The Deliberate Destruction of the People and Culture of Native Americans (analogy later with Aborigines in Australia)
- The Renaissance
- The Reformation
- The Thirty Years War
- The English Civil War
- The Scientific Revolution
- The Industial Revolution
- The Rise of British Colonialism
- The Seven Years War (French & Indian War)
- The American Revolution
- The French Revolution
- The Napoleonic Wars
- World War I
- The Russian Revolution
- The Great Depression
- World War II
- The Collapse of the British Empire (and of Fascism)
- The Cold War
- The Social Revolution of the 60’s (women’s rights, civil rights, anti-war movement)
- The Collapse of Communism
- The Rise of India and China
- The World-Wide Social Network
When you get to the end of the list and then glance back to the beginning, when most of us were like the miserable peasants harvesting mud in the scene from Monty Python’s movie “The Holy Grail,” you’ve got to quote the women’s cigarette commercial decades ago: “You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today!” The Big Picture does give perspective, without US Army recruiting commercials!
Just to demonstrate that not just any major historical event deserves to be added to the list of events that led to today (see the note “The Big Picture”), consider the book I finished this past summer entitled “The Great Plague” about the bubonic plague of London in 1665, a year before the great fire of London in 1666. (Not to be confused with the Black Death of the 1300’s that devastated Europe, an event that IS on the list) [Note: 300 years had passed and they still had not figured out what caused the bubonic plague!]
About the only lasting effects I found from the Great Plague of London were local, or, at most provincial. It explains why in the boroughs that made up 17th century London the cemeteries’ ground levels bulge well above street level, due to the piles of bodies that were buried in mass graves to literal overflowing. (Perhaps some of you European travelers have seen this phenomenon, or if you have a trip to London planned, check this out.) The other lasting effect was that the non-Anglican clergy endeared themselves with the common people by not, for the most part, deserting their duties of comforting and caring for the afflicted and dying, as did most of the clerrgy of the Church of England. As a result, non-Anglican denominations, no longer called Pilgrims, but Dissenters or Nonconformists, or some such, were irrevocably ingrained into common English culture so that discrimination and sanctions against these legacies of Cromwell became even more difficult to employ by the Angllican establishment.
All important to London and a lot of the UK, but not a component redirecting the direction of world history — not changing wide-spread culture so extensively that things inside and outside human heads were irrevocably different.