Dying to make life easier for historians.

There is a clichéd view of history encouraged by bad teaching that presents the subject as the memorising of long lists of dates that somebody has designated as being significant, 55 BC, 1066, 1492, 1687, 1859, 1914 etc., etc. Now whilst in reality history is much more concerned with what happened and why it happened than with when it happened dates are the scaffolding on which historians hang up their historical facts for inspection.

When presenting biographies of scientists two key dates that the historical biographer has to remember are those of the birth and the death of her or his subject. One of my favourite Renaissance mathematici mathematics teacher, astronomer, astrologer, cartographer and globe maker, Johannes Schöner, about whom I have already blogged in the past, made life easier for historians by dying on his seventieth birthday. He was born on 16th January 1477 in Karlstadt am Main and died on 16th January 1547 in Nürnberg.  This means one only has to remember his birthdate and them simply add seventy to get his date of death.



Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science

2 responses to “Dying to make life easier for historians.

  1. Seems like as good an excuse as any to make a plug for knowing at least some dates. When matters. How you make sense of modern European, let alone world history without having some notion of the main events and when they happened beats me. For the college-educated people I talk to, the last five centuries are a complete muddle. They’ve heard of lots of battles, books, discoveries, and people; but don’t know what came before what. Their dateless understanding may not leave them imaging Alexander the Great encountering dinosaurs, but it gets pretty close sometimes. The assumption, I guess, is that dates are mere pedantry and studying time lines is something school kids do or used to do. I disagree. The revision of historical chronology that occurred between the 15th and 18th Centuries was just as upsetting to the received worldview as any astronomical discovery when it became apparent, thanks to the patient efforts of the scholars, that history could not be shoehorned into the old Biblical time line that went back to Eusebius in the era of Constantine. Figuring out how human time fits into geological and cosmic time was worked out by both by humanists and scientists or, to correct the obvious anachronism before you call me on it, by people we retrospectively distinguish as humanists and scientists. The historians did a lot of the work before the geologists even got going.

    It took me a minute to realize that you listed 1687 as an epochal date because the Principia was published that year. Even though I’m not a Brit, I tend to think of the following year, 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, as the nearest milestone. I guess that dates me. I assume you picked 1859 as another key date because that was the year Norton the First crowned himself Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico here in San Francisco.

    By the way, as long as were talking about pet peeves. It seems to me that people have trouble making sense of history not only because they’ve never acquired a framework of dates and times but because they are grossly ignorant of geography. We don’t know when things happened, but we don’t know where either. In my experience the most enlightening history books begin with a geographic essay that describes the main features of the lands where the events that will be narrated in the rest of the work take place. Such scene setting is rare, however, so people can read dozens of histories of Italy, France, Germany, or other countries without ever learning the spatial significance of all those place names. I recently read Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment, a serious attempt to do justice to the very significant intellectual developments that occurred in Central Asia before Tamerlane; but the author never lays out the geography of the region in a comprehensible way so that 700 pages later the reader still doesn’t know one Stan from another.

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #23 | Whewell's Ghost

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