Mulling over various possible subjects for a blogpost this week I contemplated the successive anniversaries, on the 30th and 31st, of two of the most notorious executions of the seventeenth century – respectively, Charles I (1649) and Guy Fawkes (1606) – and was struck by two thoughts. First, that after the recent post about the beheading of Archbishop Laud, there was a danger that this blog would come to seem unwholesome in its preoccupations; second, that there was something odd about the extent to which I found myself thinking in anniversary terms in a form as notionally free and unconfined as blogging.
Anniversary thinking afflicts me in other spheres too. My unstated New Year’s Resolution has been, for several years running now, to read Pepys’s diary at the rate of one entry per day. (This tends to have about the same shelf-life as most new year’s resolutions, largely because on that basis it will take ten years.)
The impulse behind all this isn’t commemorative. (Fawkes and Charles are the beneficiaries of quite a lot of that in any case. Both have become, in their variously lop-sided ways, Catholic martyrs; Charles is the only saint created by the Anglican church after the Reformation and is remembered by an annual feast at the scene of his execution organised by an Anglo-Catholic devotional group, the Society of King Charles the Martyr, while Fawkes’s commemoration, if that’s the word, is of course translated to November the 5th, and his execution – actually hanging, drawing and quartering – into a cheerful parody of early modern religious martyrdom by burning him in effigy). But the attachment to dates is curious. The date of an event is not, unless it is so well known that it can stand for the event itself, much help in forging an imaginative connection with it. In the absence of more compelling reasons for it, anniversary thinking is a conditioned reflex, a way of establishing the day’s own claim to historical significance more than the event’s, and a habit learned from our experience of daily news. It’s the means by which news makes itself marketable, holding forth the idea that news is what’s needed to make the day intelligible. (Where neither technology nor events can keep up with the constraint of periodicity in news you get “the day when there was no news”, Good Friday 1930 – an instance where an anniversary works to efface the day’s distinction by causing a suspension of normal activity.) This is of course a technologically determined view of news, and one based on a manifestly obsolete technology at that. News is developing a formal flexibility to match the flexibility of the technologies that transmit it. But quite a lot of early modern blogging and tweeting is anniversary, drawing attention to births, deaths, inventions, discoveries, developments, publications, and landmarks x years to the day after they occurred.
“On this day in history” (as though history were a category in a quiz show) is a form of words precisely analogous to “in the news today”, reconstructing history in the form of a news broadcast. Early modern news didn’t function quite like that – still less early modern news across Europe. As Andrew Pettegree pointed out in the course of a paper given at the first meeting of this research network in Antwerp, it’s unlikely that many of the pamphlets, ballads and broadsides about recent events that made up much of the newsprint of the sixteenth century represented their readers’ first inkling of the news they were describing. They were much more likely to amplify, confirm, refute, soften or otherwise reconfigure versions of events that were already circulating. They existed as much to inform, to entertain, and to try and settle the meanings of events as to break the news. This was partly a matter of the time it took news to travel from the site of an event to the places where it was received as news, of course, but it had the effect of attenuating the attachment between news of an event and the date of its eventuation. (Versions of this state of affairs persisted into the twentieth century – Clive James writes of reading the London Observer five or six weeks behind the date of publication in Australia in the 1950s, this being the delay with which the issues arrived off the boat).
The printed news of the sixteenth century, seen in this sense, shares some attributes with blogging, which can also afford a degree of remove from the events of which it seeks to make sense. Unconstrained by print deadlines, bloggers about current events are free to dig deeper, think further, consider their responses. Bloggers about early modern history are accustomed to having that longer perspective as a matter of course, and perhaps anniversary thinking is a means of injecting a little urgency into the enterprise. But it’s also a formal game, and a way of acknowledging the challenges of recovering the past.