Some people are really good at reading about historical events (treaties, battles, coronations, etc.) and filling in all the context with their imaginations. They have a sense of what the landscape of the time looked like, the buildings, the way people dressed and what they ate, how they moved around from place to place, and what the structure of the society was like. Context is a little like the painted scenery in a piece of theater or opera: it allows the viewer to enter the world of another time and space and to feel it as real.
Unfortunately, I've never had that magical ability. As a result, when I was much younger I thought that history books were dry and boring. Fortunately, as an adult, I've come to love learning about other historical times, places, people, ideas, and events. Lately, I find that a combination of three media are especially helpful for re-creating context to enhance my understanding and appreciation of history: film, literature, and Internet information.
Here's a case in point. You may know from prior posts that we don't have a television. I know it's odd, but we just have so many other things we're more interested in and we hate commercials. I won't go into a tirade; don't worry. We do, however, rent DVDs and use an old computer monitor and DVD player to view them. We recently got from our online source a set of discs from a BBC series called "The Tudors" -- lavishly costumed, expertly acted episodes set in the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII of England. Of course, there is always artistic license in terms of the accuracy of historical information in depictions aimed at entertainment. But historians themselves disagree on many fine points as well, and taking in a broad sweep of a critical period is always a good start to trigger further curiosity about details. The series was terrifically engaging, in my opinion, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Where it led was to the Internet and numerous articles, on Wikipedia and various academic websites, about Henry, the Boleyns, Wolsey, Cromwell, More, and others. This is how I got a sense of the infrastructure -- dates, background about religion, war, plagues, societal tensions of the time, and so on. I interspersed these online readings with the viewing of the three seasons of BBC episodes, and I found this process to be an excellent mix of fun and suspense with explanation and insight.
The third medium in the final mix was one near and dear to my heart: literature. I was browsing the shelves of new books at my local public library when I ran across Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. She's a British writer, and this book won the famous Booker Prize this past year. It's a big book and I'm still working on it. It focuses (at least in the first third) on the life of Thomas Cromwell, the clever lawyer with humble beginnings who became Chancellor to King Henry (after Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More). Having the story that I recognized in broad outline from the BBC shows, with the details from the online history articles in my head, here was just what I needed: a novelistic plot. moving at a rapid and suspenseful pace, depicting the characters' inner as well as outer lives. Now, in my mind's eye, I could see Cromwell talking to Wolsey (via the images of actors John Frain and Sam Neill), knowing something of the factual background and outcome of such a hypothetical conversation, while reading their words via Mantel's adept dialogue.
This sort of combination may be a winning way to learn about a number of other historical periods and useful as well for exploring contemporary events, cultural differences, and other subjects of interest, so I recommend it to you, dear readers. Let me know your thoughts on this topic!