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I Need a Date On:2006-03-31 04:10:01

I suppose Jim-at-Work was just trying to be nice to me, and we all know what a good predictor that is when it comes to the impending doom stakes, but give him his due he was trying. And of course everyone knows my predilection for matters sub-Roman (and not---you purient-minded lot--- just in the case of those sexy sub-Roman sports bras as worn by Guinevere in that otherwise utterly unmemorable, though recentish, Arthur movie).

So Jim-at-Work lent me an historical novel, called The Skystone and by someone I'd never heard of called Jack Whyte, about slightly pre-Arthurian Britain; and Jim was trying to be nice; and the book did start off, or rather it did pre-start off, rather well with an 'Introductory Note' explaining what Whyte called the reader's "right to know... how much of what he or she is reading is historically correct and accurate" and then going on to attempt to maintain that right for the next viii pages; and he didn't do a bad job even including maps and (to my eyes slightly weird) pronunciation guides.

Then, after the traditional celticky-mysticky-propheticky epigraphic poem obligato, it starts:
"Today is my sixty-seventh birthday,"
well so far so good, not as exciting as 'it was a dark and stormy knight' but I've certainly seen worse. Then it continues:
"a hot day in the summer of 410 in the year of our Lord, according to the new Christian system of dating the passage of time."


Well I'm sorry I sprung that on you like that. It was a very cruel shock and I should have prepared you, but it left me reeling too, so I'm merely giving you an impression of how I felt.

I mean mentioning that you are in the year AD 410 in a first person narrative!?
I mean ...I ...I mean it's like starting a novel, set in Ancient Rome, about the first Triumvirate : "I Julius Caesar in this year of 59 BC" I mean it's stupid, ...well it's stupid I suppose, unless the plot involved him having access to a time machine in which he nipped forward for ...Oh! at least 700 years to check whether his calendar worked, though since he didn't pinch the calendar from Sosigenes till around 46 BC this is soon going to get far too incomprehensible even for me, so let's just forget all that and cut to what would be appropriate, and amend that silly 59 BC to what Julius would be more likely to have used which would have been consular dating---naming the year for the two Roman Consuls 'the year of the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus' or if we want to be REALLY historically sensitive and make a joke no one who wasn't alive in Rome before Christ will get (apart from a few very specialised historians) we could say, as at least some people did at the time, (since Julius was a pretty pushy bloke) 'in the consulship of Julius and Caesar.'

And four hundred and sixty-nine years later the first person narrator of Jim-at-Work's novel would have said the same---not of course 'in the consulship of Julius and Caesar' nor even 'the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus' since they'd croaked well before that.

No our novel should have started something like 'In the year when Varanes and Tertullus were consuls' (at least I think they were---it's so much harder to deal with personalities than numbers), though indeed even that is pushing it for a date as we'll see in a moment.

As far as we can tell Anno Domini dating was created by Dionysius Exiguus around AD 525 (in the consulship of Probus and Philoxenus) and wasn't really used much until the eighth century (following the example of the Venerable Bede---who was also apparently the first to use BC). Until that time the words 'bloody' and 'hard' come to mind when describing how people dated events. Monks and similar weirdoes of course needed annals or lists of years to help them get Easter right and into these (in that typically mediaeval way of never ever leaving well alone) they would often add notes about important-to-them events, but mostly folks couldn't do any better than wise old Gildas Sapiens who, for example, could only date the great and possibly Arthurian-ish battle of Badon by writing that it happened 44 years ago and adding presumably the only reason he could be so precise (if still relative) "meae nativitatis est" that that was the year of his birth.

Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton.

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