So, I’m not a historian, but I do love reading historical documents -- the letters and journals, shopping lists, and even bureaucratic documents (sometimes especially bureaucratic documents) that make history familiar and real. They’re always so human, our forebears, a translation and a couple of Apple devices away from being us.
Sometimes these documents make me feel a lot of feelings. For example, one time Cicero convinced me that I should be really pissed off at this one guy for wearing the wrong color of toga to a funeral (I mean, Jesus, man, show some respect for the dead you asshole, you know?) which gave me a certain amount of insight into why he may have been executed for being too damned convincing, and so I thought I’d share a few of my favorites with you all.
Apparently, British POWs during WWII fought back against their German captors using pure weaponized Britishness. The tactics were so effective that the Germans wrote this report about how they literally couldn't even.
The Brits ostentatiously ignored the rules and pulled all sorts of hilariously demoralizing mischief, from drawing pictures of dicks all over paintings of Hitler, to ostentatiously eating chocolate and other treats in front of the German public (who were on short rations), to paying German civilians in candy to carry their bags, to doing such a bad job at jobs they were assigned that it posed a risk to the safety of the whole operation, to making sure everyone around them knew that they were sure the Allies would win and giving their German coworkers mean nicknames. All of this was apparently great for ruining German morale (and incredibly funny).
Now, this is a famous letter, and frankly one of the most loving and romantic tributes to a spouse and children I have ever read. Whatever one believes about life after death, one cannot help but hope that he was there in the wind for his wife and children.
Spotswood Rice was a black union soldier during the Civil War, whose family was still enslaved while he was serving his country. His love for his family and his perseverance through seemingly insurmountable odds make me cry every time I read one of his sweet, loving letters to his wife and children.
He survived the war, reunited his family, and worked as a minister there after. I hope we never forget the heroism and moral fortitude exhibited by Mister Rice and soldiers like him in that bloodiest of American wars. Truly an exemplary man, and wonderful husband and father. You can find audio versions of his letters here.
That play is hilarious. Seriously, go read it, it’s awesome, especially the bit at the end with the dancing crabs (yes, there are actually dancing crabs, this is why you should read this play). Seriously, if you need something to cheer you up after the sad Civil War letters, this is just the thing to do it.
Oscar’s famous wit and charm come through in the adoring letters he wrote to his lover. Their romance is one for the ages. Of course, Wilde’s later imprisonment on the basis of these letters adds a note of tragedy to these otherwise passionately loving missives.
Pliny the younger was an Imperial Magistrate in Bithynia (one of Rome’s provinces), and his letters to the emperor are hilarious because he’s always bothering the emperor with petty bullshit, and Trajan’s replies get increasingly terse as time goes on, and basically Pliny is that one friend who won’t stop texting you asking which brand of yogurt to buy and where they should go for lunch, and what to do when they clog the sink.
Also he sends the emperor like six letters in a row trying to get Trajan to send him an architect using various excuses, which is a little weird.
So those are some of my favorite historical documents. I wanted to find you something about the cult of Cybele in Rome, where the priests castrated themselves, and it got so popular that the emperor had to pass a law against people castrating themselves (one of the Tsars in imperial Russia passed a similar law because of the Skoptsy), but I couldn't find any primary sources with a good translation.
I also would have liked to include the Malleus Maleficarum, which is interesting because it wasn't accepted by the higher church authorities (and in fact the author Heinrich Kramer was expelled from multiple cities by church authorities) and yet despite the lack of overhead support, it caused the senseless murder of countless innocent people (and especially women) accused of being witches. It reminds me of the Satanic Panic of the ’80s, and the modern anti-vaccination movement, a cautionary tale of the terrible power of panic. But that story involves a larger collection of documents (which I might tell you later).