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The Many Guys Of History, With Patrick Wyman

A drawing of French humanist and educational reformer Petrus Ramus.
Kean Collection/Getty Images

Few conversations among three adults would be the same had they happened in either 1522 or 2021. It is just a happy fact of life in this modern age that I do not often inquire after the status of my friends’ buboes, or ask whether they’ve had to deal with any more bullshit from the local robber knight. And yet the problem of the local gentry—stout, rich, stubborn, shabbily vainglorious, not necessarily literate—is a fact of life that is still with us. They are backing the politicians that make our laws, or actually serving as the politicians making those laws, or in charge of the TV, print, and online megaphones that backstop the gouty and unworkable broader structure. For all the uniquely contemporary dissatisfactions of everyday life, there is a certain through-line to what fundamentally sucks the most about it: the downstream impacts of unearned power and impunity, and how that impunity softens and sours the people that have been blessed with it.

Talking about all that was not necessarily why we had the great Patrick Wyman, historian and podcaster and recreational powerlifter and author of the new book The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, And Forty Years That Shook The World, on the podcast. But given how so many conversations just naturally trend in that direction at the moment, his expertise did wind up coming in handy. Also he is good at talking about college football, which worked out nicely for us given that we generally strive to divide the podcast evenly between late-medieval history and Lane Kiffin anecdotes.

For reasons that he explains more eloquently in this episode than I could here, Wyman’s unique Guy-centric approach to historiography makes him a perfect fit for The Distraction. He uses the stories and experiences of various goons, oafs, and replacement-level strivers living in the eras he writes about to explain how things did and didn’t work in society centuries ago. Given that these oafs are very much still with us—and given that they are not appreciably more sophisticated or insightful than they were five or so centuries ago—this approach creates a uniquely sturdy bridge between a time that is otherwise almost unimaginably alien and distant. It was a delight to talk to him about the robber knight dunces and reigning local dingleberries of the Renaissance-adjacent era he studies and the only slightly evolved versions of that type who are still with us, serving as boosters for Pac-12 programs and making Arizona an even weirder place to live.

If this is an unusually erudite episode of the show, it’s mostly because of how effectively we’re able to dodge erudition most weeks. There is still a great deal of very stupid stuff in here: Drew and I basically reciting an Ivan Lendl ad for a short-lived Snapple-branded sports drink to each other, a bit where everyone is just kind of saying the names of various NFL backup quarterbacks for what’s more or less a solid 90 seconds, Patrick confessing to eating a truly astonishing volume of chicken every week. We did not solve the problem of power and who has it, but we did all agree that Bruce Gradkowski was delightful and wonder aloud how many shipping containers worth of sandwiches we’ve eaten in our lives. Anyone expecting the former is in the wrong place; anyone listening to the podcast for the latter will, at the very least, never be let down.

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