You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.
23 May 2004

RDA of history

I’ve become addicted over the last week to Colonial House,
PBS’ “reality series”, where 21st century people get plopped into a
situation as close to 1628 as can be made, and we get to watch them try
to live 400 years ago.  It’s reality TV for nerds.

It’s quite amusing to watch people try to live in 1628 without the
realization that they would be entirely different people had they lived
in that time.  One of the women on the show, Michele
Rossi-Voorhees, would not attend the mandatory Sabbath services,
because she found the religious expression there antithetical to her
own beliefs: she doesn’t believe in God but she does believe in the sun, moon, animals, nature, and what she finds
there that challenges her to think about her place in the order of it
all.  She asks at one point how a person like her (a religious
non-believer) would have lived in 1628, noting that she probably would
have had to just keep quiet about her beliefs.  But she fails to
understand that she wouldn’t have had her beliefs in 1628!  Even
is she wasn’t so enthused about church, she would have been outwardly
observant for the sake of social propriety, and I highly doubt she
would have dared to express any such thoughts to others.  And she
almost certainly would not have doubted the Judeo-Christian God’s
existence.  Such a set of ideas would have been outside the
purview of existence.

Other examples of mental anachronism abound in the show.  And I’m not
meaning to rag on these people who lived like early American colonists
for four months.  But it really does demonstrate to me that we as
social beings are extremely formed by the times and places in which we
live.  We can do our best to live in the 17th century, and the
people of Colonial House did
an extraordinary job of adapting the mentality and physicality of life
in 1628 New England.  But even so, the entry into that world
requires a massive surrender of what we know and hold dear and a
remarkable sense of humility toward the social order of their
world.  The people of 1628 were not stupid — at least no more
than we are — and their “strange, offensive” rules had a purpose and a
logic.  The purpose and logic for most of those rules
no longer obtains or exists, and we have rightly come to understand
that many of their social arrangements regarding women, servitude,
sexual matters, and religion were unfair, rooted in particular not
universal understandings, and in need of change.  (Perhaps the
greatest irony that the CH participants found was that the colonists
who came for religious freedom were as quick to impose strict religious
requirements and homogeniety of belief as had the hated religious
officials of the old country.)

Anyway, the final half of the series is on tonight and tomorrow night from 8 to 10 PM.  Check it out.

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “RDA of history”

  1. New York Norah Says:

    “Reality TV for nerds”? Wasn’t that my mom’s phrase? Today’s Times prints an article on blogging (, which reminded me to read yours. Quite enjoyable. Thanks.