What do 17th century witch-hunts and slander on social media have in common? Quite a lot, actually.
Historical research is a way of examining the evolution of humanity and of highlighting its achievements. Research also makes it possible to identify recurring mechanisms, such as miscalculations to which humans have succumbed throughout the centuries.
One such phenomenon is mass hysteria leading to persecution.
“Panic seems to spread easily at any given time, especially if children appear to be threatened,” says Mirkka Lappalainen, a docent of history and university lecturer.
Lappalainen specialises in legal history and the early centuries of modern history, or the 16th and 17th centuries. In addition to witch-hunts, her research topics include famines and King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.
“In the 17th century, smart people descended to persecuting others just like people do today on social media. They believed things that couldn’t possibly be true.”
For example, people who lived in the 1600s thought that, at night, individuals considered to be witches took children to Blockula, an island where the Devil held celebrations. Pressured by their parents, children told the most outrageous stories about the place.
In today’s social media, groups are constantly formed whose hatred or fear is targeted at an individual or a group of people. History provides a perspective for interpreting such behaviour.
On the other hand, history also provides solutions. Anticipating famines is an example of how historical research can help in dealing with current problems.
“As a result of research, models have been established for experts to identify emerging famines,” Lappalainen explains.
Scholars of history have a duty to be critical
A lot of hobbyists conducting research makes history an exceptional field of science. Unlike, say, in physics or medicine, the sources of the field are accessible to almost anyone. In the digital era, many datasets are openly available to all online, and no specialist tools, laboratories or other special arrangements are needed to review them.
For instance, court session minutes, or judgment books, from early modern history investigated by Lappalainen are open and available to examination and interpretation by anyone with sufficient skills in Old Swedish and background knowledge of the legal system of the period.
Books on history are also written by people other than scholars.
The value of academic historical research lies in the fact that educated scholars know the importance of a critical approach. According to Lappalainen, source criticism is the number one trait of historical scholars.
“Historical research demands the ability to assess why certain data has been preserved, what may have been left out and whether the data can be trusted in the first place.”
Scholars must apply a critical approach to their sources particularly in the era of digital data, as datasets found online may have been collected and compiled by anyone. Documents may have been cherry-picked, and the information may not be based on truth.
“Basically, this profession is about recognising fake news,” Lappalainen says.
History is filled with unbelievable and instructive narratives
In addition to benefiting society, the study of history also unearths fascinating stories.
While studying the 17th century, Lappalainen has come across wild human narratives: good kings, sadistic wielders of power, achievers and murderers. There is misery to be found in the source material, but also the happiness of ordinary lives.
When Lappalainen and Anu Lahtinen, professor of history, investigated silver mines established in Finland in the 17th century, they encountered occurrences familiar to people today.
“Spain had made a fortune from the mines in its colonies, which made Sweden want to have their share of the riches. Quarries were established in Hyvinkää and Porkkala, which were supposed to generate wealth and treasure.”
According to Lappalainen, there is no documentation on the quarries ever turning a profit. For a decade, bailiffs obediently poured money into a project which probably never benefited anyone.
“Talvivaara is nothing new. The mining hype, under cover of which excavations are granted a multitude of special rights, could be directly from the 1600s,” Lappalainen notes.
Without universities, history may become distorted
History is a strong medium of power, something on which everyone has an opinion. And that is precisely why it must be investigated.
“History has always been integral to politics: future rulers have been taught history, while even many current politicians claim to be history hobbyists,” Lappalainen says.
Universities train teachers, experts and researchers of history who are able to examine topics from several viewpoints, taking different experiences into account. These specialists make sure that all parties are heard.
“Academic research and university teaching require financial support to ensure the continuation of impartial historical research independent of any emphases set by interest groups,” explains Lappalainen.
She considers totalitarian states an example of what happens when history is not being examined by scholars. In such states, truth has often been bent to fit a political agenda. Falsehoods may also have been included in textbooks and documents, which has had an impact on the status of certain groups of people and decision-making. Convenient misrepresentation of facts has even helped state leaders justify going to war.
In terms of emotive subjects, researchers have a duty to approach events from the perspectives of all relevant parties.
“For example, the recent debate in Finland on the year 1918 clearly demonstrated how emotional and delicate historical topics can be. In this discourse, scholars had to examine the Finnish Civil War fairly, explaining the reasons why the social order fell apart.”
Text: Raisa Mattila
Photos: Helena Hiltunen