Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Happy New Year… but when?

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Once again the time has come for people living in the West to celebrate the passing of another year. It is at this time that people tend to take a moment to think about the year that is soon to end, and to ponder the significance of the people, events and things that marked the year. In doing this, we are engaging in a collective exercise in memory. People share memories, debate what were the most important people/things/events of the year, and so on. In addition to the personal exchange of ideas and opinions that stir memories of the past year, we are also able to draw on an incredible number of resources to remind ourselves of what was significant about the year that is drawing to an end. TV, radio, newspapers, journals and of course the internet are all readily available to us. For what is possibly the first time in human history, people commonly complain that they have access to too much information.

Here is something for you to think about when writing about the past: how did people in past societies think about time? How did they remember their past? This is a particularly interesting question to ask of pre-industrial and non-literate societies. If you lived in a society in which 95% of the population was illiterate, a society in which personal time keeping devices such as watches, clocks and calendars were completely absent, how would you keep track of events? If someone asked you to be a witness to an event that occurred days, months, even years earlier, would you be able to do it? How would you place the event in its proper context in the absence of any written aide?

For most, if not all, of us today, this is an exceptionally difficult thing to do. Our minds have been trained to rely on a wide variety of documents, sounds, and images to form our recollection of the past. But for people in pre-industrial and pre-literate societies, it was a common feature of life. Epic poems that stretched over thousands of lines were memorized. People were able to testify about events that occurred months, years, even decades earlier. And they were often able to do so with remarkable accuracy (although this was not always the case!). What is my point here? Don’t fall into the trap of simply dismissing historical figures as ignorant or stupid. Many historical figures were able to perform mental gymnastics that would leave most of us today in baffled confusion.

But that is not what I wanted to write about today. As it soon will be a new year, I want to touch on a very confusing subject that at first glance seems perfectly simple: when does the year begin and end? I am going to write specifically about the West as western dating systems are the ones most familiar to most of you who will be reading this post.

It is commonly accepted today – at least in those parts of the world that have adopted the Gregorian calendar – that the year begins on 1 January and ends on 31 December. But this was not always the case. There is not enough time or space here to explain fully the development of western dating systems, but you should at least be aware of some of the alternative systems that have been used.

  • the Christian Year: this is the system that we are familiar with today. Why is this year called 2008? Because in the year 525ce a monk called Dionysius Exiguus, who was working on a way to calculate the proper date for Easter (which is a whole other topic!) decided that rather than dating his years according to the reign of the long-dead emperor Diocletian, he would date his calendar from the supposed date of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Incidentally, by 525 Diocletion had been dead for some 240 years, so it was about time for a change! Later, the hugely influential Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede adopted the system and so aided in its wider adoption across medieval Europe.
  • The Spanish Year: similar to the Christian year, this system took as its start the year 38bce, and so 38 years must be subtracted from dates under the Spanish Year system to arrive at the equivalent in the Christian Year.
  • Civil Systems: The Romans were nothing if not organized, and they developed several systems of dating to track their civil administration. One of these was the system of Indictions. These made use of arbitrary 15-year cycles called Indictions that could begin on 1 September, 24 or 25 December, or 1 January depending on what part of the empire you were in. Unfortunately there was no agreement about what year indictions began in, let alone the dates upon which they began and ended. There is clearly potential for considerable confusion!
  • Regnal years: This was a very common dating system under which documents would be dated with reference to the year of a ruler’s reign, dated from the exact date of his or her coronation. For example as I write this it is the 56th year of the reign of Elizabeth II. 6 February 2009 will mark the beginning of the 57th year of the reign of Elizabeth II.

So it is already clear that there has been disagreement over ways to reckon the year. If that was not bad enough, there has also been tremendous disagreement over when a year should actually begin and end. For example:

‘If we suppose a traveller to set out from Venice on 1 March 1245, the first day of the Venetian year, he would find himself in 1244 when he reached Florence: and if after a short stay he went on to Pisa, the year 1246 would already have begun there. Continuing his journey westward, he would find himself again in 1245 when he entered Provence, and on arriving in France before Easter (16 April) he would be once more in 1244.’ (R.L. Poole)

The reason for this odd situation is that there was no universally accepted system of dating in 13th century Europe. As mentioned above, not only was there no agreement over what year it was, there was also disagreement over when the year should begin and end. The following were all put forward as suitable starting points.

  • 1 January
  • 25 December (Christmas Day)
  • 25 March (The Feast of the Annunciation)
  • Easter (which really complicates matters as Easter is a moveable feast!)
  • 29 September (Michaelmas)
  • various other dates in September, often related to Indictions

There were other systems, but this short list should illustrate the point. There is a great deal of potential confusion when one delves into historical dating systems. If you are reading sources that appear to give conflicting dates, consider whether it is possible that they used different dating systems. Failing to consider this has led many historians to make mistakes in their analysis, to discredit “inaccurate” sources that were not inaccurate at all, and to ultimately fail in their purpose: understanding past human society.

So when you celebrate the passing of 2008 and the promise of 2009, take a moment to think about why we celebrate New Years when we do, how we came to think of this as being the year 2008, and how people in the past have thought about chronology and the passage of time.

Have a happy and safe New Years celebration, and a wonderful 2009!

The long memory

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Sources are essential to the writing of history. Because of this, they will be a primary focus of this blog. After all, no matter what tools or techniques you choose, the history that you write will only be as good as the sources upon which you base your research. In time I will address such issues as different types of sources, where historians find their sources, and how to evaluate sources. For this first post, I am going to focus on a kind of historical source that is often ignored and dismissed.

Ask any historian or student of history what kinds of evidence is used for historical research, and they will probably point immediately to the documentary record. By this I mean that the vast majority of sources that historians base their research upon are written records. These records take many, many forms – something that this page will address in the future.

But historical records are not exclusively taken from the written record. A great deal of important history comes from what the late great U. Utah Philips called ‘the long memory’.

The long memory describes traditions of knowledge and memory transmitted orally from person to person and from generation to generation. As stories are told, songs sung, and poems recited, we collectively gain much more than entertainment. We can gain a sense of community, an awareness of our collective past, and perhaps most importantly, we can gain insights into the past that are simply not available in the written record.

To return to the example of Utah Philips, our knowledge of 20th century labour struggles in America would be much the poorer had he not preserved and passed on his songs and stories. The full story of the struggles of people like Joe Hill, Ammon Hennesy, Mother Jones, and the shingle weavers of Everett, Washington would be lost to us. That is not to say that there exist no official records of the lives of these people. Such records do exist. What often does not exist in the ‘official’ record are the stories, experiences, thoughts and inner lives of these people. If our role as historians is to understand past human society, then to ignore these oral traditions is to ignore a potentially rich source of information and understanding.

Some historians simply discredit and dismiss oral sources and traditions. They are mistaken to do so out of hand. Some of these same historians will dissuade students from even considering oral sources while at the same time encouraging students to rely exclusively on written sources without considering where the written sources got their information. What they forget is that a portion of our written record is itself based on oral traditions.

For an example of this, we are going to go all the way back to 6th century Britain. A fellow by the name of Gildas was probably the first person ever to write history in what we now know as England. Apart from this bit of trivia, he is also significant as many regard him as having given the most reliable account of the Anglo-Saxon migration to England. This is due largely to the fact that he was the only British historian even remotely contemporary to those events. Because of this, when one looks for a written record of the Anglo-Saxons and their arrival in England, one naturally turns to Gildas. But where did Gildas get his information?

Gildas did not personally live through the tumultuous years that witnessed this influx of foreigners that so changed the social and political landscape of Britain. But when he was writing, it is most likely that people were alive whose grandparents had lived through that time. While Gildas did make use of some written records, he also relied on the long memory of these people to create his history.

Think if you can of a significant, life-changing event that your own grandparents lived through. Would you value their version of events? Were my own grandparents still alive, I would love to have the chance to talk to them about the great depression and the war years, and how these events shaped their lives in Canada. While they would not be able to give me statistics from the stock markets or unemployment figures, they would have been able to tell me what it was life to live through the depression and WWII. How did people survive day-to-day? How did people deal with economic devastation? How did they and their communities react to the loss of so many friends and family members during the war? Memories and insights such as this can flesh out the bare bones of ‘official’ history and allow us to gain a much more complete understanding of the past.

Does that mean that we can accept orally transmitted knowledge of the past at face value? Of course not. We cannot accept the written record at face value, so it should come as no surprise that non-written sources must also be approached with caution. But they should at least be approached, and the long memory should not be dismissed out of hand.