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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made

‘LOOK SHARPER, AND READ WITH MORE ATTENTION’

LOIS A. KRIEGER

Readers of this journal may have noted with some relief that in the previous issue, dated November 1999, there was no mention of the approach of the year 2000. The editors, modestly scholarly sorts, are firmly in the camp of those who believe that the new century and the new millennium will not begin until the first day of 2001. However, the year 2000 does have some significance; the computers that were going to have difficulty with years beginning with 20- instead of 19- were not going to wait until 2001 to malfunction, regardless of any scholarly evidence about the true beginning of the century. And it was easy to get caught up in the general spirit of revelry with which most of the world planned, a year early, to greet the new millennium. The overwhelming quantity of books and articles, both popular and scholarly, that have appeared in the past few years prompted this brief inquiry into some enduring issues and controversies, which we now offer more or less halfway between the faux and genuine beginning of the third millennium.

Even the most sophisticated and electronically advanced research techniques cannot easily reveal what ordinary mortals thought as the year 999 was replaced by 1000, but if we begin more modestly, with old-fashioned but still useful sources as printed periodical indexes, it is evident that the ‘when does the century begin?’ debate was a moderately popular subject of debate a century or two ago. One writer confidently asserted that ‘Of course, everybody knows that the twentieth century will begin on Tuesday, January 1, 1901.’[1] Another editorial commented on the ‘fierce epistolary battle’ in periodicals of the day concerning the proper beginning of the century, and also noted why it was (and is) so easy to mistake a year with a nice round number as a beginning; a number like 1900 ‘marks the beginning of a new series of numbers,’ even if it is the end of a century, calling the misconception ‘a triumph of sense over intellect.’ The same writer also noted that ‘A hundred years ago the same wordy war was waged,’ and foresaw that the debate would ‘go on as century after century comes rolling along.’[2] The writer of a letter to the editors of The Nation entertained the journal’s readers with a poem from the previous century that ridiculed the mathematical abilities of those who believed that the century began in 1800 and expressed the hope that ‘Perhaps . . . A century hence you’ll learn to count.’[3] A series of letters in other issues of the same journal showed that the controversy was not only an American interest, with one writer stating firmly that ‘Schiller as well as Goethe soon gave up the idea of 1800 being the first year of the nineteenth century.’[4]

The source of the common misconception has been the subject of many recent publications: scholarly, popular, and many degrees in between. Stephen Jay Gould’s Questioning the Millennium[5] provides a concise introduction to several aspects of the question-millennial or apocalyptic movements, the development of calendars as a way of marking time, and the related problem of the division between B.C. and A.D. with no year zero-any one of which could be the subject of a major research paper. We will focus on the last of these to illustrate the wide range of sources that can take the student investigating a relatively obscure or complicated event into some peculiar, as well as solidly scholarly, byways.

It seems unlikely that the name of a sixth-century monk would appear frequently in popular newspapers and magazines. With the glut of articles discussing the beginning of the millennium, Dionysius Exiguus (Denis the Little) has attained recognition that he could not have dreamed of. To scholars of church history, Dionysius is important as a translator and compiler of collections of ‘texts of incontestable worth and authenticity.’[6] But he was also well versed in astronomy and mathematics; he has become a central figure in the millennium debate because early in the sixth century, he was asked by the pope to devise a way to find the correct date of Easter. To do this, Dionysius reconciled discrepancies in contemporary methods of calculating dates to arrive at the correct date of the crucifixion and to construct a table showing the date of Easter up to the year 626.[7] In devising this ecclesiastical calendar, he began by counting years from the foundation of Rome, but then ‘restarted time’ on 1 January in the Roman year 754, the date he had decided was the date of Jesus’s circumcision, about a week after his birth, on 25 December of the preceding year. He called this new beginning the first year-Year One-Anno Domini, ‘in the year of the [or our] lord;’ years before this date he called B.C., before the birth of Christ, beginning with the year 1 B.C.[8] Although these designations were not widely adopted until much later, Dionysius has generally been given the credit-or blame-for inventing them. And because his system went from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D. with no Year Zero in between-the Romans had no numeral for zero[9] -we are perennially, or at least every hundred years or so, forced to try to remember that a decade or century or millennium cannot end until a full ten, hundred, or thousand years have been completed.

Dionysius did not consider the determination of the date of Jesus’s birth the most important part of his time calculations, but along with his B.C-A.D. notation, it has prompted much discussion. Biblical chronology is of course a vast field of scholarship, but in this era of millennial consciousness, the debate has once again surfaced in popular publications. Scholars have long accepted that careful comparison of the gospels of Luke and Matthew with historical sources indicate that Jesus was probably born sometime around 6 B.C., encouraging various editorial writers to conclude that if ‘millennia’ means thousands of years after the birth of Christ, we should have celebrated the second millennium several years ago.[10] Perhaps we have not come such a long way from the nineteenth century, when not only the exact date of Christmas, but the propriety of its celebration, was a matter of serious debate among clergy and parishioners of various denominations. One Elder Elias Lee, an Anabaptist teacher, took issue with a Mr. William Smith, an Episcopalian.[11] Mr. Smith, without mentioning Dionysius, presented a complicated set of calculations that established 25 December as the date of Christ’s birth, which Elder Lee promptly demolished. Although Elder Lee did not exactly say that it was ‘a matter of indifference whether the day can be ascertained or not,’ he believed that obscuring the exact date would ensure that the day would not ‘be more reverenced by the sons of man, than Christ himself,’ and exhorted Mr. Smith to ‘look sharper, and read with more attention,’ presumably not only with regard to Mr. Smith’s interpretation of Elder Lee’s thoughts, but also to his interpretation of Hebrew sources.[12]

In this era of sophisticated reference sources, both print and electronic, it is easy to be overwhelmed with information when doing research on topics with so many varied ramifications as this. But these sources will probably be considered terribly primitive by those students in the year 2999 who will be investigating calendars and date calculations in order to decide whether to have a big party at the end of that year-or wait until 31 December 3000.


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[1] John Ritchie Jr., ‘Where the New Century Will Really Begin,’ The Ladies’ Home Journal (January 1900), 7.

[2] ‘The New Century,’ Scientific American (13 January 1900), 18.

[3] F. G. Franklin, ‘The Century Once More,’ The Nation (25 January 1900), 71.

[4] E. Leser, The Nation (1 February 1900), 52.

[5] Stephen Jay Gould, Questioning the Millennium, rev. ed. (N.Y.: Harmony Books, 1997). For a brief, lucid account of problems of chronology in the medieval period, see R. Dean Ware, 'Medieval Chronology: Theory and Practice,' in Medieval Studies: An Introduction, ed. James M. Powell, 2nd ed. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 252-277.

[6] The New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. ‘Dionysius Exiguus.’

[7] Dionysius’s writings are not generally available in English. His works are published in the set commonly known as Patrologia Latina: Jacques Paul Migne, comp., Patrologiae cursus completus, sive biblioteca universalis . . . [Series Latina], 221 vols. (Paris, 1844-1864), 67: cols. 475-508. A scholarly article on his calculations includes the translation of some of his work on ecclesiastical chronology, as well as selections from his tables [Gustav Teres, ‘Time Computations and Dionysius Exiguus,’ Journal for the History of Astronomy 25 (1984), 177-188].

[8] Gould, ‘Dousing Diminutive Dennis’s Debate (DDDD = 2000),’ in his Millennium, 127-154, also printed in Natural History (April 1994), 4-12.

[9] Dick Teresi, ‘Zero,’ The Atlantic Monthly (July 1997), 90.

[10] Wick Allison, ‘The Millennium is Nigh. Very Nigh,’ The New York Times (18 December 1994), sec. 4, p. 15; Kenneth L. Woodward, ‘Uh-Oh, Maybe We Missed the Big Day,’ Newsweek (11 August 1997), 15.

[11] William Smith, The Christmas Dispute Revived, [microform]: in a Letter from Mr. William Smith, of Norwalk, Conncticut [sic], to Elder Elias Lee, of Ballston, State of New-York, Now Published with a Reply by Mr. Lee, Early American Imprints, First Series, no. 37794 (Ballston, [N.Y.]: Printed by W. Child for Elder Elias Lee, 1800).

[12] Smith, Christmas Dispute, 7, 12.

Last Updated: 5/3/12