Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months, you’ll know that next year is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. And if you don’t, well, you will soon. If you’re a UK taxpayer, you’ll be contributing to a massive national commemoration (though your £50 million is pocket money compared to the Olympics’s £9 billion: draw your own conclusions about the relative importance of sport and the past in the UK). Thanks to the BBC’s planned wall-to-wall coverage, you can rest assured that you won’t miss a thing. If plans to close shops on Remembrance Day come good, you won’t have much of a choice.
What might have passed you by, however, is that there’ll be another centenary that year. 2014 will be the twelfth centenary of the death of Charlemagne, the great Frankish ruler famously crowned emperor by the Pope. Blink and you’ll miss it, though. The commemoration of this event will be on a decidedly more modest scale – an academic conference in France (declaration of interest: I’m involved), and a set of exhibitions at Aachen, where Charlemagne established himself in the later part of his reign. I’m not aware of any plans to mark the date in the UK.
I’m not trying to suggest here that we’ve got the balance wrong in how we’re marking these two centenaries. Of course, as an early medieval historian, I’d obviously like to see more made of Charlemagne’s anniversary. The participants in the First World War, sad to say, are now just as much no longer with us as are the Franks of Charlemagne’s era. But it’s also self-evident that many British people, and people around the world, would see World War I as more relevant to them. After all, they probably had direct relatives who were involved (though recent research in fact suggests that most people in the UK are descended directly, albeitly distantly, from Charlemagne – but I digress). Charlemagne continues to have political relevance today as a ‘father of Europe’, and the level of attention given to him has been a good barometer of interest in, or anxiety about, European integration since World War II. But undeniably World War I chimes more (and more) with a widespread British understanding of ‘our place in history’.
Yet there’s actually an even bigger question here than the politics of particular commemorations, and that’s the power of centenaries in general in shaping how history is written. An interdisciplinary AHRC research network, the Significance of the Centenary, is examining just this question (declaration of interest: I’m involved in this, too). One of the project’s underlying issues is that as historians are gently encouraged to think about how their work is ‘consumed’ beyond the university, and how to promote that consumption, so historical research itself might be increasingly shaped by a fetishisation of round numbers, as the museum sector already is. 100 years since this, 200 years since that: there’s no intrinsic historical significance to these measures of time, but the public loves this kind of prestidigitation, and so historians are encouraged to respond to the market.
This raises questions about the autonomy of scholarly enquiry, and the extent to which History should be the handmaiden of a popular culture which perhaps doesn’t actually care that much about the past as such. We should think about what kinds of history can’t be written if the focus is on anniversaries: for example, long-term processes that can’t be pinned down to any particular date, or for that matter moments that can’t be easily dated (for instance, the treaty between King Alfred and the Viking Guthrum is pretty important, but will never receive the anniversary treatment, because we don’t know exactly when it was made).
But before academic historians start to fortify their ivory towers against yet another incursion, they should realise that the century fetish affects them too, and more powerfully than you might think. Try this: next time you’re reading an academic history book, see how often the author characterises an entire century, as if 100 years were an obviously historically meaningful unit of time. It’s not just in books, either: there are dozens of academic journals actually dedicated to specific centuries. Come to think of it, there are even journals dedicated to specific decades (many of them excellent, I should add, including this one co-edited by a Sheffield historian). Though not quite the same thing as history-through-anniversary, the way that historians since the eighteenth century (see how hard the habit is to break?) have instinctively used centuries and decades to think about time is surely another example of how round numbers exercise a magical power over historical practice.
And a moment of reflection suggests there might be a problem here. Historical changes happen at various speeds and over various lengths of time, and frankly, there’s absolutely no reason to think that hundred-year chunks of time, or any other pre-fabricated lengths, are intrinsically well-suited to appreciating these changes. Just because we have a decimal counting system doesn’t mean that history itself is decimal. Talking about the long eighteenth century (1688 – 1815) or various equivalents maybe gets round the problem to some extent, yet in a way simply shows how wedded historians are to their centuries, even when aware that the evidence doesn’t quite fit.
So historians might be justified in complaining about how the general public seems to need an anniversary to get interested, and what effect that may have on the conditions in which historical knowledge is created. But they should consider too how notions of time closely related to the anniversary are shaping what they’re writing, and how they’re writing it, already. Perhaps public and academic senses of time aren’t quite so far apart as some historians might like to believe.
Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. His book, Reframing the Feudal Revolution. Social and political transformation between Marne and Moselle, c.800-1100, is out now with Cambridge University Press.
You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.
 Thanks to Andy Grierson for bringing this to my attention.