Magazine article History Today

Hundreds and Thousands

Magazine article History Today

Hundreds and Thousands

Article excerpt

WITH ALL THE TALK OF A NEW MILLENNIUM, we seem to have lost sight of something rather more important, or at least more meaningful: the dawning of the new century.

Millennia are unwieldy beasts, too vast to sum up with a pithy phrase and beyond the scope of most of us to imagine. There is no accepted word to characterise either the one just finishing, or its predecessor, which has to go under the clumsy soubriquet of the first Christian millennium. Millennia are the units of prehistory, only really useful in discussing eras where nothing very much changes from generation to generation, and where a new technology may take many centuries to spread even across Europe.

Today new technologies can take just a few years to encircle the globe. It has become a commonplace to recall that the twentieth century saw more changes, in more areas of life, than any other, and for many people, the last decade of that century was the most bewildering of all in its rate of change. To a people suffering from future shock, what meaning can a change of millennium have, beyond the fact that each of us, at some time in our youth, has probably done the private calculation `In the year 2000 I shall be so many years old', and here we all are, now, arriving at that very age which once seemed to be so impossibly distant?

For historians, centuries are an essential building block, units at the same time arbitrary and inevitable. Though defined, in the first place, by crude chronology, they soon are re-invented in terms of their most important events; and finally, in a carefree abandonment of the calendar, their start and end dates are reworked to fit this new thematic definition, as in the protean `long nineteenth century', which is supposed to have started in 1789 and finished in 1914 (or perhaps 1989), or Eric Hobsbawm's `short twentieth century'.

For all the questions that are begged in such phrases, we are used to thinking of the eighteenth-century as the age of enlightenment and revolution; the nineteenth as the age of industry and empire, and the twentieth as the age of science and of the battle between dictatorship and democracy. The definitions may be reworked as historians move on, but the essential shared understanding remains.

So let's forget this overblown flirtation with the millennium, and concentrate instead on the arrival of the new century. One day some future historian may claim it has already begun -- perhaps in 1989, or perhaps on some other date; but even if so, its character is, thankfully, yet to be defined.

Perhaps more depressing is the thought that a rival historian of the future may argue that the old century hasn't finished with us yet. Many people will be glad to see the back of the most destructive and black century in the history of humanity. Even so, just for the moment we can indulge in a crazy optimism that things may be different in the new century, just as the first sunny days in spring can give us the wild idea that the whole summer will be uninterrupted sunshine.

Yet the change of calendar gives us an excuse -- no greater justification is needed -- to escape from the fin-de-siecle clouds that overhang us, and to imagine what shape the world might take over the coming decades.

Things will not, of course, turn out as we imagine, but there have been few opportunities for us recently to stop and take stock of the future. …

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