The International Writers Magazine

Editorial - Making a Date with History is fraught with problems
Academics are always demanding accuracy in essays and documents. It being Christmas time in the Christian west (and for how long will the PC movement allow that I wonder) it came to me in a piece that I was researching for a proposed new historical story, that the weather was wrong for the time of year. Characters were celebrating the new year and admiring the garden. Magnolia was almost flowering. This could not be right. Hell I am not even sure Magnolia existed in the west in 1720.

John Lewell writes Dec 1st: As to whether Magnolia trees existed in England in 1720... Hmm. Debatable. Magnolia trees have been around 90 million years but the first true Magnolia tree appears to have been introduced to British gardens from Japan in 1862. HOWEVER, tulip trees were brought to England in the mid 17th century by John Tradescant, head gardener to Charles I -- and they are of the family Magnoliaceae, which has two subfamilies: Magnolioideae, of which Magnolia is the most well-known genus, and Liriodendroidae, a monogeneric subfamily, containing Liriodendron (Tulip trees). So, yes, I guess you could say that the Tulip tree is a close relative of the Magnolia -- and it's been here for over 300 years.

But one thing was absolutely correct in the account I was reading, it was definitely the new year. How so? I thumbed through my books and found Mr Boorstin had done all the legwork for me, as ever. New Year was generally March 25th. One presumes therefore that Christmas was also in March. A quick check and I note that King Henry V came to the throne on March 21st 1413 a week before New Year’s Day, which naturally began on March 25th that year.

New Year’s Day 2005 years ago I believe happened on January the Ist. The Romans took calendars seriously – so serious they named the months after themselves. Julian, Augustus, Octavious, for example. But once they left town, so to speak, chaos reigned and in some centuries the new year started on Christmas Day, but in following centuries they used Lady Day or Easter Day to start the year. So if someone in the Middle ages refers to some document or event that took place in the New Year beware you could be at least three months out. The way to tell is to check the weather. Magnolia trees, to the best of my recollection do not flower in January (unless in present climes and with global warming). It took until Pope Gregory X111 to reform the calendar in 1582 and from then on Europe was back to New Year being on Jan Ist. But not Eastern Othodox countries who hated the Pope and common sense in particular and the English who hated Catholics, so we and they had a somewhat flexible calendar for another two hundred centuries when it was pretty much anyone’s guess when either Christmas, Easter or New Year was in any given year. Only in 1751 did Philip Stanhope (Earl of Chesterfield) get a bill through parliament to fix the date, as it were. December 31st 1751 became January 1st 1752; oh and they tossed out a few days from September so that on the 2nd of September it was followed by the 14th. Must have been hell being an astrologer those days. The American colonies sort of followed suit but the Russians didn’t abandon the Julian calendar until 1919 and China didn’t follow the world calendar until 1949.

So exploring time is difficult. Time Travel to a specific date damn near impossible if it wasn’t already impossible (so far). I love the way in Sci-Fi movies they can just dial up a given year and time with such certainty. You just can’t be sure. Really. Even going back fifty years you’d be off a little because we now use atomic time and they didn’t.

Gerdus Mercator tried to unify chronological events with his ‘Chronology from the beginning of the world up to the year 1568’, done from eclipses and astronomical observations. He ignored historical dates and tried to date known events by the recorded events in the sky. In Paris, Joeseph Scaliger (1540-1609) tried to bring coherence to the past chronologies. He was followed in turn by Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who used his considerable brain power to try and ‘prove’ the historical dates in the bible. But Newton, (possibly the original creationist) got stuck on the earth being just 4004 years old at the time, as it stated in the bible. Others tried this, the Polish astronomer Hevelius calculated the exact position of the sun in the Garden of Eden at the hour of creation at 6pm October 24, 3963 BC. He did not state as to whether there was a magnolia flowering, but at least we now know Adam and Eve were Scorpios. Newton was mistaken. His scientific calculations based on the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (which he took to be true). But in his time it was still impossible to imagine a world prior to 4004 BC. The notion of pre-history was unknown. It would have to wait for Mr Thomsen in Denmark who produced a book ‘A Guide to Scandanavian Antiquities’ and ushered in the ages of stone, bronze and iron to the imagination. Never mind Christmas day, now we had to had to envision ice ages and the spread of man across Europe. Worryingly, even without carbon dating, everything looked to be a lot older than 4004BC. Enter Darwin. I guess the reason so many extreme christians (fundementalists) hate Darwin is because he proves, without a scintilla of doubt, that man and beast existed before the Garden of Eden. Beast evolved of course, but I am not sure man did.

What is certain is that the history of pre-history is really fascinating.
Writing historical fiction is exciting because so little is certain. So much seems like solid ground but if you can't be certain of a simple date such as New Year’s Day or Christmas, then one must question everything else. One day historians might call our age time obsessed, but then again that is because with climate change and the certainty that the age of oil is coming to an end in our lifetime, we know time is a precious commodity. In 2050 – just 44 years away will we so certain of everything? Things change. History is proof of that.
Source: The Discovers: Daniel Boorstin Random House

Sam North - Editor

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