Have Questions Only an Historian Could Answer? Try Reddit. Go Ahead, Ask Them Something.

tags: Reddit, history

Mark Hallum is the Social Media Editor of HNN and a graduate of Northern Arizona University. 

We all have those nagging questions that require knowledge of the truly arcane. Some questions cannot be trusted to Google. You want the real answer and from a bona fide source. As it turns out, Reddit is the perfect place to satisfy this curiosity. With the AskHistorians AMA (Ask Me Anything) page, anyone can post a question deserving of an academic-level response and get it from an expert. Reddit is a crowdsourced site that allows users to communicate with people within a certain circle (even celebrities, such as Bill Murray), through AMA sessions. Many of the questions asked by redditors on AskHistorians are humorous, while others are serious and straightforward, and some spark back and forth conversations that seem to go on forever.

How do you know you can trust the people answering these questions? AskHistorians is carefully curated by those who value academic credibility, as explained in the website’s rules: “/r/AskHistorians aims to provide serious, academic-level answers to questions about history. We have written these rules to support this aim and maintain the high standard of discussion this subreddit has become known for.”

So what types of questions have the most upvotes by users? The weirder the better it would seem. Each week there is a specific theme, and at the moment we have “magic and superstition.” Right at the top is a question that already has over 5,000 upvotes from users: “Why are there so many medieval paintings of people battling large snails?” A blogger with the username sunagainstgold had the most straightforward answer. “We don't know. Seriously. There are as many explanations as there are scholars. Medieval people thought it was weird and funny, too. They even parodied it…. I tend to think of them a little bit like the cartoons and random drawings in the New Yorker—little illuminations that don't illustrate the text…. These books were paid for and owned by the nobility, the knightly classes. People in medieval Europe enjoyed poking fun at themselves. (Yes, even clerics.) A knight jousting a snail could be a humorous reminder of the futility of the worldly role in the face of greater spiritual matters.” Perhaps nobility and clerics viewed death personified as a giant snail. This would serve to put a humorous face on death and express that it must be faced like a knight bravely facing a ridiculous opponent.

With about 978 upvotes, the question “Russia is massive. How were Russian people, who were spread over such a vast distance, culturally connected and unified throughout history?” Drifting away from the weekly theme — “magic and superstion” — , this question is popular and had many responses. An obvious Star Wars fan, deadjawa, answered this question most extensively: “First off, the idea that Russia is culturally unified is probably not true by most definitions of the word. I'd say about half of Russia's land mass is occupied by majorities of central asian [sic] steppe cultural groups - Mongols, Turks, and Finno-Ugrians…. Secondly, the idea that Russia existed "throughout history" is a little bit misleading. Geographically, Russia as we know it today didn't really exist until the 1700's…. So in a lot of ways Russia is a post-colonial power that expanded into vast lands, some of which were heavily populated by indiginous peoples. It mirrors the development of the United States in a lot of ways, except that the natives were more densely populated and organized and still hold national identities to this day. The things that enabled this development are a lot of the same things that enabled development in North America, notably railroads.” This suggests, deadjawa goes on to say, that any nation that has the size and diversity of the U.S. or Russia is built on communication and transportation. These aspects of growth have a tendency to threaten cultural diversity, but by no means bring people together.

Then there’s this, which a redditor probably posted after watching The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise: “When guns were just starting to become a thing, was there a battle where one side engaged with swords and was completely surprised by guns?” The question drew more than 2,000 upvotes. VetMichael responded to this by referencing the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 waged between the Safavid Persians and the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were much more modern than the Safavids, who fought in the proven traditional style: on horseback, with bows and swords. “The result was devastating for the Safavids; they lost 1/3 of their army due to Ottoman use of gunpowder muskets, artillery, and barricades (overturned wagons) to prevent close-quarter combat. The Ottomans would go on to conquer huge swaths of territory by employing pretty much the same tactics over and over again, until they got to Northwest Persia (modern day Iran).” Responses to VetMichael disputed the accuracy of his information, specifically whether or not the Safavid Persians were Persian at all, but Iranian, which is a Persian nation He did not have any primary sources to support his claim due to the fact that he does not speak Farsi, but his claim was based on the work of other historical experts in that field.

You can ask these redditors about a historical subject, and even if you don’t get a response from someone specializing in the period in which you’re interested, many of them at least have credible knowledge gained from other historians at one point or another.

It is very easy to doubt the credibility of someone writing on a website like this. They could be anyone, and with Reddit, names are not provided. Only usernames with descriptions of the individual’s interests and level of expertise are listed. However, users can send private messages to discover more information about the people they are learning from, who seem more than willing to interact. But the level-headed, professional responses to the questions is reassuring. This isn’t one of those sites where anything goes.  

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