Common errors

JoblueHi, Jo here, talking about the things people get wrong about history.

I enjoy the BBC radio programme In Our Time, which gathers experts to discuss a range of subjects. I can remember visiting England a few years ago and tuning the radio to Radio 4, my favorite station. A few minutes later I wandered over to my husband in a blissful haze, saying, "There's a program on the Library of Alexandria!"

You can find In Our Time here, and I believe it can be listened to from anywhere in the world. They have also put all previous programs on line to either listen to or download as podcasts. The history archive is here.

Can I interest you in Alfred and the Battle of Edington or The Opium Wars?

If, like me,  you enjoy listening to intelligent discussions while you do handiwork, then this is a treasure chest.

The host, Melvyn Bragg is calm, intelligent and well informed, so I was startled when in the most recent episode on William Caxton, he voiced the common error that people in the past had a life expectancy in the early forties. The context was that Caxton was brave to be venturing into a new business, printing, at that age. In other places I've heard people claim it to be in the thirties.

This notion comes about from taking all births and deaths. It doesn't take into account the very high childhood mortality. Life expectancy in all times, including the present, depends on peace and war, feast and famine, poverty and riches, etc but one estimate is that once a person lived past childhood, let's say into the late teens or early twenties, their chance of living to sixty was the same as in a developed nation today. Certainly people did live into the eighties and even made it to 100 now and then.

Just to check, I went to Wikipedia and pulled up people born in the same year as Caxton, 1417. Obviously these were famous people, and thus on the more fortunate end of life, but then, so was Caxton.  I found an age range from 29 to 78, and the 29 year old was killed in a hunting accident.

When I averaged them, I came to an age of 57.

Life expectancy was lower then than now, but a man in his early forties wasn't facing the grave.

There's another excellent BBC Radio 4 programme called The Things We Forgot to Remember. "Michael Portillo presents a series revisiting the great moments of
history to discover that they often conceal other events of equal but
forgotten importance.

I found the episode on The Georgian Facade particularly interesting, but Americans might be particularly interested in the one on The Boston Tea Party.

History is so often not as we think. Isn't that wonderful!

There are so many things that are "common knowledge" but wrong. Do you know any?

LsnAs we're close to Halloween, I'll mention that my Halloween story, Lord Samhain's Night, is available as an e-book. This is a short novella that appeared in a hardcover called All Hallows' Eve, in a very low print run, so it's been very hard to find. You can find out more here.