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(101) Bardoviy

A popular refrain among historians is that history is not about date memorisation but more about grain prices in 16th-century Poland. I think they say this for two reasons: a. not to look too snobby, inaccessible, and elitist in a democracy; and, b. not to put people off who might be interested but would never start if confronted with many dates. However, in fact, history is almost all dates. Imagine you want to write about the origins of the Impala-Pala Crisis of 1937—you need to know what happened when to make any inferences about it at all; in fact, you even need to know where Chamberlain was at 03:36 pm on Wednesday 18th October because you need to know if he received a telegram sent at 01:05 pm. Dates and times—and that’s before we need to consider tables of grain prices in 16th-century Poland (which fluctuated with the date).

Although scientists like to say history is for the innumerate, if you think about it history is inextricable from number—and the historian has to hold numerals in his head and sequence them, sequence different people at different times in different places, to make inferences at all. It’s not as precise or complicated as science—yet it’s hardly innumerate. When you want to work out whether a letter carried by the Flying Scotsman would reach Whitehall before Chamberlain left his flat, you begin to come close to those basic algebra problems so hated at school (“If a train leaves Edinburgh Waverley at 12:35 pm and travels at 65 mph…”)—you might even empirically test the route, walk it.

What this highlights above all is how allergic people are to numbers, even the simple numbers used in history. As with maths teachers who say, “We don’t do old-fashioned algebra, we teach general mathematical concepts and how to use them in the real world,” the idea history doesn’t involve dates is an admission you are not going to do history—or algebra. Very democratic.


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