Anniversary History

Sometimes I think that all history in the public sphere is anniversaic, as if nothing in the past matters unless there’s a big anniversary involved, generally a centennial.  In the past few weeks, I’ve heard countless stories in the media about the sinking of the Titanic and the opening of Fenway Park, two very diverse events that happened in 1912 and thus share an anniversary in 2012.  On a more personal note, this is a big year for our family as my grandmother turns 100:  1912 was a very big year indeed.

As a professional historian, history-as-anniversary kind of bothers me: it is exclusively event-oriented, ignores more complex social, economic and cultural developments, and is so obviously subjective.  On the other hand, it does raise awareness about the past, which is always a good thing in my opinion, and it can be fun.  I thought I would sprint backwards through the last millennium and pick my own big events for the years 1812, 1712, 1612 and so on, thus demonstrating how very arbitrary such an exercise can be:  as someone trained in late medieval and early modern European history living in New England, my chosen events are going to be very different from those of, say, a modern African historian living on the West Coast.  So what is history?

I’m starting out here in Salem, a century ago, where crowds are in Town House Square, soon (April 29) to be the site of a campaign stop by former President Theodore Roosevelt, now a candidate for the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) party.  Roosevelt took the train up from Boston, gave a quick speech, and departed for the next town.

Moving backwards to 1812, my Salem perspective mandates that I pick the War of 1812 as my big event of the year (even though it certainly wasn’t over in 1812).  This war had a huge impact on Salem (and other eastern seaports), in effect ending its golden age.  This summer, there will be courses and exhibits at Salem State University and the Salem Athenaeum:  anniversary history.  I wonder if I was standing on Salem’s highest point, Legge’s Hill (now the site of a hulking YMCA, but offering the best view of Salem Harbor) could I have seen the engagement between the American Chesapeake and the British Shannon or the USS Constitution being chased by two British frigates?

The Constitution in 1803 by Salem artist Michele Felice Corne; the Capitol after burning by British Troops, 1814 (Drawing by George Munger, Library of Congress).

For the year 1712 I’m leaving Salem, no longer the center of the action, and crossing over to Britain. My big event for this year is the invention of the Newcomen Engine, the first machine to harness steam power for practical purposes–in this case, pumping out mines.  Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine might be less well-known than James Watt’s, which came later in the eighteenth century, but it was the first step of the Industrial Revolution.

The Newcomen Steam Engine, circa 1725.

I’m going to stay in Britain for the year 1612 and pick the Lancashire (Pendle) Witch Trials for my event of the year.  This was England’s largest witch hunt, small by continental comparison (12 accusations, 10 convictions on charges of murder by witchcraft, 10 executions) but one of the first trials in England which was focused on collective devil worship as opposed to individual maleficia.  It’s also an exceeding well-documented series of trials, and northern England seems to be gearing up for a Salem-esque 400th anniversary “commemoration”.

A 1612 chapbook about the Pendle Witches, and the 400th anniversary logo.

I’m heading to Italy for the year 1512: it’s the height of the Italian Renaissance and Michelangelo Buonarroti has completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which is summarily unveiled to the public by Pope Julius II.  I don’t think I need to say anything else.

God Dividing the Waters detail, Sistine Chapel.

You notice that I haven’t left Europe?  I’m going to remain there for 1412 and choose a birth for that year:  the birth, sometime in January, of the “Maid of Orléans”, Joan of Arc, the French national heroine who inspired the French victory in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and was martyred and canonized as a consequence.

Jeanne d’Arc in the company of saints, miniature circa 1485.

I am going to leave Europe and the west for my next big event:  1312 marks the beginning of the reign of arguably the greatest medieval African ruler, Mansa Musa (I) of the Mali Empire in west Africa.  Known for his great wealth, his cultural patronage (including the building of Timbuktu) and his pilgrimage to Mecca, Mansa Musa appears in European maps and texts long after his death.

Mansa Musa in the center of the Catalan Atlas, c. 1375.

North to Europe (sort of):  1212 was a big year in the history of the Spanish Reconquista, the centuries-long struggle on the part of Iberian Christians to recapture their peninsula from Muslim rulers.  At the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa that year, King Alfonso VIII of Castile and his Christian allies (including many crusader knights) won a decisive victory, leading to the decline and fall of the Almohad Empire in Spain.

1112 might have been the year that Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most remarkable and accomplished women of the Middle Ages (mystic, author, artist, abbess, composer) was “enclosed” in the Church by her parents, commencing her spiritual and artistic journey.  In any case, it looks like 2012 will be the year that Hildegard finally receives her canonization, after a long campaign.

One last martyr.  2012 marks the millennial anniversary of the martyrdom of Aelfheagh (Alphege), the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was beaten to death by a mob of drunken Danish Vikings who had taken him prisoner on April 19, 1012.  The Danes who were occupying England at the time wanted “protection money” more than land or power, but the Archbishop refused to be ransomed, and so they killed him in frustration.  He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death (and subsequently be martyred and canonized):  Thomas à Becket apparently prayed to St. Alphege before he met his own death in Canterbury Cathedral.

British children as Vikings outside St. Alfege Church,  Greenwich, near the scene of the crime.  One view of St. Alphege Millennium observances held around Great Britain last week.

And that concludes my millennium of time-traveling (really hit-and-run) history!

8 responses to “Anniversary History

  • markd60

    Actually, to day I like the schoolkid Vikings best! Although I am always fascinated by your old documents.

    • daseger

      The Viking children are adorable. I could not resist them. But, I’m wondering what their role in the commemorative presentation was–after all the Vikings murdered the Archbishop!

  • Down East Dilettante

    “History in the public sphere is anniversaic”. Indeed, for better or worse.

    Our own little village is about to be enter the celebratory throes of its sestercentennial anniversary—or should I say bicenquinquagenary (Spell Check resists either)? It’s a bit startling to me, as in my lifetime we have also had not one, but two bicentennials—of the 1762founding, and the 1789 incorporation, and now I’m old enough for a sestercentennial too? I fear my own 60th birth anniversary cannot be far in the future then.

    Thought provoking and entertaining, as always.

  • Down East Dilettante

    I meant to add, as I contemplate the array of anniversaries you present—of acts great or hideous, how little we learn from these anniversaries or beatings and wars, even as we celebrate the good.

  • Pamela Toler (@pdtoler)

    I share your ambivalence about history told through anniversaries. At the same time, I found your stroll through the ’12s absolutely fascinating.

  • Nelson Dionne

    Sometimes anniversary’s can generate some really great material. Salem had a major community wide celebration in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition of 1893 commemorating the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus.had a great celebration for the 1893 The details were written up in the Essex Institute Quarterly. I found much of interest in my search for Salem history in the roster of the event’s grand parade. The participation by Salem’s French-Canadian children at the Naumkeag was covered, and gives some insight into their education. All in all, the event gives us an interesting look at Victorian Salem. from an unexpected source.

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