It was the most memorable class of my education. Someone who sat behind me at the back of class reported that he had seen a cartoon of person dressed in medieval clothes tearing off a page of calendar revealing the date 1ST January 1485 and exclaiming “Thank heavens! We are out of those nasty middle ages!”
Dr. Ferguson who was teaching us late Medieval and early modern history just loved it! And the intervention led directly to one of his best tirades.
We had been discussing the difference between the ancient and the modern. For Ferguson it was bound up with the sense of anachronism. For medieval man there was no sense that things had once been different. For example, they could see nothing wrong with talking about Duke Joshua when discussing the biblical character. Right into the seventeenth century there was no sense that change was ever possible or needed. Consequently when innovations became necessary they were thought of and described as being discoveries about how the world really always had been. People in effect then fooled themselves about what they were doing rather in the same way that now the American Supreme Court thinks that it is describing what the law is when in fact, of course, it is legislating. ( In fifty years time the Second Amendment will still be regarded as a monument to American liberty; but there will be few guns in private hands!)
For Ferguson the situation was one of perpetual nuance. Ancient and modern cohabited and interacted. The Reformation was not necessarily allied to to the Renaissance. Who was the more modern, More or Tindal? The former defended the old with the weapons of the new, the latter sought change, but pursued it with the fervour of a medeaval preacher. For Ferguson then the more we knew the more porous boundaries became between the old and the new.
Which was why he relished the idea of the cartoon so much; and he joked that we were perhaps now moving towards a “new” world in which periodization would once more became fashionable!
Little did he know, but in this he was right. It all started so far as I was concerned when several year back there appeared a series of rather silly books about the influence of China on the West. The author had discovered the interesting fact that Chinese merchant fleets had penetrated far further than anyone had supposed in what for us was the late medeaval period ( if I dare use the term). His conceit was to title his books after the years in which the various expeditions were launched and to imply that the years concerned marked huge and forgotten turning points in world history.
And then came Professor Felipe Fernadez- Armestro, of Notre Dame with his work 1492, The Year Our World Began ( London 2010). Yet more recently a bunch of scientists, [1. Who describe themselves as The Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quarternary Stratigraphy ] by which I gather we mean, geologists have clubbed together and decided that the year in which “the human epoch started” was really 1610. And so it seems that Christopher Columbus was not all that Professor Ferandez- Armesto cracked him up to be! But hold on, according to The Daily Telegraph [2. 3/12/14] the scientists reasoning was that “the arrival of Europeans in the Americas in 1492, and subsequent global trade, moved species to new continents and oceans on an unprecedented scale.” So what all this about 1610 then? Simple, in that year apparently, “the impact of an irreversible transfer of crops and species between the New and Old worlds stared to be felt.” Well which is it 1492 a la Professor Fernandez- Armesto, or 1610? Apparently the boffins are still thinking, and will issue another press release in 2016!
Of course as Professor Ferguson made clear this is all nonsense. Endless plausible dates for the start of the modern world ( which seems to be what the scientists are talking about ) have been muted. Some have suggested, 1453, others, as we have seen, 1492. In England 1485 has its fans. Protestants as tend to plumb for Luther’s carpentry in 1517, and in England the Act of Supremacy in 1534. And then there is 1688, 1776, and 1914, all of which have their advocates. Even 1964 is a candidate when as the story in “The Telegraph” points out “the fall out from Atomic testing became apparent” ( In fact I remember talk about this in the fifties.) And how about 1968 when mankind landed on the moon? Was that not a giant leap for mankind?
Truth to tell, the whole thing is no more than a parlour game which reflects the priorities of those playing it rather than reality. For example, if I were a black American I would plumb for 1 st January 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation, and if I were a women I’d be tempted by 1847 when chloroform was first used to relieve the pain of child birth. And why not? These are important dates!
The fact is that most turning points are less significant than they appear. There is always a back story. There are always complications- as the headline above hints. There is always another twist in the road which has to be negotiated. And that is what the prudent Burkean politics is all about. It may be a new era; but it is always the same old humanity! R.M.