I’ve been thinking about timelines. Timelines organize a lot of historical writing. They frame discussion. They can also be problematic. Here is Shakespeare’s timeline from As you Like It.
At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
Shakespeare’s seven ages of man is an easy timeline to critique because of its so obvious bias. It starts with a universal, the mewling and puking infant and ends with a universal, a shank shrinking old age, but in between it marks the life passages of a man. Literally, a human male, not a universal human. Growing a beard and being a soldier is one of the life markers. For women who birth mewling puking infants the heart of the timeline fails them completely. Worse, if we rely on Shakespeare’s structure for thinking about the arc of lives, we will find that we have failed at offering insights into he structure of half the population. This is a timeline that is super easy to critique. But it is a good illustration of how timelines tell stories, but if it isn’t conceived to tell your story, then you are pretty much out of luck.
The history that I write is often concerned with the lives of ordinary people and the breads they eat. Dynastic timelines, like those used to mark the history of Ancient Egypt, are useful in tracking the history of the ancient Egyptian dynasties but offers no meaningful markers to the lives of the average ancient Egyptian, and rarely offers a signpost of any value to understanding the breads of daily life. The grains began to change at the beginning of the Ptolemaic era which would, for the first time, be a dynastic change affected village bread.
The Samburu tribe I stay with in Northern Kenya build structures of sticks and dung that are consistent with structures built in the very distant past. Ideas like Neolithic, Bronze Age, Modern, Post Modern just don’t apply.
When it comes to bread, it doesn’t really matter the fine gradations of stone tool formation, or which metal had been mastered. The underlying technology of importance to bread is the milling and sifting implements, and baking technologies. These are al technologies that change very slowly. That India has nuclear weapons doesn’t help us chart the village breads milled on hand querns and baked, unleavened, on dung fires from antiquity to the present.
These aren’t original thoughts. As I struggle to tell a story about bread that is true I find myself thinking about timelines in general, and what a bread-centric timeline might look like. If you have some ideas, please share them.