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Dates, Dates, Dates

In the beginning, there were no dates. There were only stories about kings, queens, and heroes, and in  the beginning of the beginning, the stories were legends. Over time, the collectors of stories became historians, and the legends gave way to factual accounts, or, rather, the early historians claimed that their stories were true. Even so, until well into the Renaissance, history focused its attention on the kings, queens, and heroes - with an emphasis on kingly heroes. Ordinary people had no place in history as individuals, and only appeared as members of armies or 'the mob' (i.e. 'the rabble'). Even prime ministers took a long time to make their way into history. When they did, though, it was time to start memorizing dates.

Heroic legends are self-contained. As with children's bedtime stories, when the reader closes one book to pick up another, it's understood that the new story has nothing to do with the old. Collectors of stories, though - whether they're historians or not - tend to try to fit the stories that they know together. When they do, it becomes useful to know whether this story (to put it in a child's language) happened before that one. In this way, for example, the stories that make up the corpus of Arthurian legends can be arranged in something like chronological order - even though nobody believes that any of these stories is true. As for stories that we do think are true, chronological arrangement takes on an importance that's more than merely narrative. As every mystery reader knows, chronology can prove that if these things happened, then those couldn't have. Dates are neither more nor less than the conventional markers for arranging the stories that constitute history.

The more dates you know, the easier it is to remember new ones. That's why schoolkids have such a hard time with dates. Just as it's very hard to find a job until you've already got a job (because nobody wants to hire someone with no experience), so it's hard to begin memorizing dates (because there's no context on which to pin them). But dates are to history what hyperlinks are to the Web. You can't connect any two events without them.

Perhaps dates wouldn't be so hard to remember if they weren't all attached to battles and treaties - treaties being the last battles in any war. Who cares about battles? Well, the early historians did: winning battles, after all, was what heroes did. If our interests have expanded beyond coverage of the heroic, well, that only means more kinds of dates (i.e. more dates). When did Leonardo paint the Mona Lisa? When did Shakespeare write 'Hamlet'? When did Darwin upset the apple cart? When did women 'get the vote' - and where?

It's helpful to imagine that each date is scribbled on the back of a snapshot. Historians collect and scrutinize the photographs, and it's up to them, professionally, to determine what the people in the picture not only did but thought they were doing. For all their scholarly expertise, though, historians remain collectors of stories, and the best of them can rival any other entertainer. Provided, of course, that while we listen we don't let those dates make us jumpy.

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