Precision in Dating
Let's start with the obvious. It is this: (1) no scribe ever put pen to papyrus save on some particular day. The next obvious thing is that (2) some pieces of writing or copying take more than a day to accomplish, and thus occupy a span rather than a point of time. The third obvious thing is that (3) we may happen not to know the day or days in question. Precision in dating consists in this: to give the precise date or span of an event when we know it or can convincingly recover it, and when we do not have exact details, or cannot deduce them, to give our informed best guess about the point, or the period, in which the text most likely falls. Note that not all works, whether modern or ancient, are authorial; some are accumulations of material over years or even centuries. This is the whole subject of dating in a nutshell.
Some scholars have been impressed with the cases, and they are many, where we do not know the exact date or span of a text. From such cases, they have formed the notion that giving inexact dates is a virtue, from which it may seem to follow that giving exact dates is methodologically wrong. These people get used to hearing "3rd century," and come to bristle disapprovingly at "278." We can best dispose of this curious habit of mind by giving examples of books whose exact dates, or spans, or both, are convincingly known. Not everything is smooth sailing in this department, and to keep the discussion at an adult level, we include examples where dates, even when available, must be used with understanding or outright skepticism.Single Dates. These are usually dates of completion, and they are often found in the preface (or postface) to the work. Sometimes there is more than one preface to be considered.
- On 2 August 1939, Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt advising him of the dangerous possibility that an atomic bomb might be technologically feasible within a few years. The letter reaches back a bit before that final date: informed opinion is that it was actually drafted by Leo Szilard, one of those at work in America on nuclear reactions, but of the date of sending there appears to be no doubt, and it may acceptably serve to represent the whole. This letter is one of the momentous moments of the 20th century, but dating it as "20th century" would destroy its meaning by removing it from its context in the tensions of the early WW2 period (the war had begun in Asia in July 1937, and in Europe in March 1938). The precise date is more informative, and therefore better.
- Samuel Johnson's famous Letter to Lord Chesterfield, disdaining financial assistance which arrived too late to do him any good, is dated 7 February 1755.
- The notes of Lyou Syang to texts which he had to pause to collate before he could enter them in the Palace Library catalogue are often dated; that for the story collection Shwo Ywaen, for instance, gives us the completion date 017. The material in Shwo Ywaen has counterparts in earlier literature, including the 02nd century Han Feidz, but the SY versions are invariably later, so that no great age of the materials prior to their bibliographic fixing by Lyou Syang needs to be assumed.
- The postface which follows the 12th book of the Lw-shr Chun/Chyou gives the completion date for that part of the work as "the 9th year of Chin." The cyclical signs for the year are given in an unusual form, which may in any case have a different starting point than that used in the eastern states. The other date given is "9th year of Chin." Interpretation thus depends on whether we date "Chin" from the accession of King Chvng, which would give 0239, or from the conquest of the last Jou territory in 0249, a conquest presided over by the work's patron Lw Bu-wei; the latter option would give 0241. The present writer prefers the latter, but in any case, those are the possibilities. We are within two years.
- The Bamboo Annals, a purported chronicle of Ngwei (and purporting to reach back into and beyond the earlier Jin state) not only has a last entry, giving by implication the end of the authorial process, in one extant text it explicitly identifies that year, 0299, as that of the completion of the work.
One-Sided Dates. A span of which only one end is known is either a terminus a quo (an earliest possible date) or a terminus ad quem (a latest possible date).
- Sywndz in SZ 9:8 mentions the Chi conquest of Sung and the subsequent death of the Chi ruler in question, which occurred in 0283. That Sywndz chapter is thus later than that event, but we do not know how much later. Sywndz's death (c0235), if we consider the passage genuine is the endpoint. Other evidence tends to suggest for SZ 9:8 a date of c0275.
Spans. If both endpoints are known, then to that extent they fix either the date of the work, or the smaller span during which it was actually composed. Sometimes it is the date or period of publication that is involved; the principle is the same.
- Allyn Rickett devoted most of a scholarly lifetime to translating the Gwandz. After some preliminary publications, v1 of his complete translation appeared from Princeton in 1985. More than a decade and several personnel changes later, it took some persuasion to induce Princeton to issue the second volume, which did appear in 1998. Princeton however balked at reissuing v1, then out of print and needing updating to make it consistent with the decisions and discoveries made in the course of working on v2. The revised v1 at last appeared in 2001, but under the imprint of a bookstore: Cheng & Tsui Company. If we give the span of the work by using the dates of the final versions of the two volumes, it will seem to run backward: 2001-1998. This is ridiculous, and a better solution is to give the first and last publication dates of the three volumes taken together, thus 1985-2001. This is the range of the publications directly overseen by the author.
- Henry Swete's commentary on the Gospel of Mark appeared in several revisions. The successive prefaces are dated "Feast of the Name of Jesus, 1898," "Feast of St Peter, 1902," and "Feast of St Michael and All Angels, 1909." It is no great trouble to translate these into the corresponding civil dates, if one prefers, but whether given in civil or ecclesiastical style, these are exact dates. One is entitled to suspect that Swete had aimed intentionally at those festival conjunctions, but they are probably close enough to use in tracking the evolution of the author's thoughts on Mark. The span of the work insofar as it is fixed by its successive publication dates is thus 1898-1909: eleven years. Notice how this balloons to an absurd 200 years if we translate it into centuries as "19th-20th century."
- Edward Gibbon took many years to write his History of Rome. To which of them shall we date it? There are a number of choices, and Gibbon himself gives us admirably precise information about the possibilities. "It was at Rome, on the [15th] of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind." That vision, however, did not immediately result in his setting pen to paper. His father died, he settled the estate, and he established himself in London. Only in February 1773 was the work, as distinct from the idea, definitely in progress. As to the final moment: "It was on the night of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summer-house in my garden." If we give to the History of Rome a date span rather than a single date, it will probably be the period of actual writing: 1773-1787.
- The publication of Gibbon's History itself proceeded in stages (each one precisely dated by the prefaces to the successive volumes) between 1776 and 1788. Those who are concerned, not for influences on the work, but for its influence on others, will date it to the span 1776-1788.
- In 1945, the Greene County (PA) Historical Society published a series of transcripts of early documents pertaining to the history of that region, among them a forty-page docket from "the first English court held west of the mountains." Local pride was intense; these were previously unknown chapters in regional history. Entries in the docket ran from 1772 to 1779, and its date was thus 1772-1779. Easy.
- The only problem with the court docket above described is that the paper and pen used to create the document were found to date from the early 20th century. More precisely, the lab report said "it is most probable that these writings were produced no earlier than 1930." That can be fined down a little bit further. The letter sent by W F Horn of Topeka Kansas to a Washington Pennsylvania newspaper, announcing his possession of the documents and offering to display them, was dated 15 Aug 1932. That and the lab report together suggest that the docket was written over a very short span of time. The limits for the completion date of the document are thus 1930 and 14 Aug 1932. The original span of eight years for an accretional document 1772-1779) has been reduced to an uncertainty zone of two and a half years for the forging of an authorial document, and those two and a half years are in a completely different century than the one we started out with.
- On a day corresponding to 26 Apr 1358, Sung Lyen sent his wife and children into the nearby hills to keep out of the way of military disturbances in Pu-yang. In the resulting isolation, he began work on previous notes about some 40 books whose authorship seemed to him dubious. Pu-yang was finally pacified on 24 July. Sung Lyen's postface to the final work, his Ju-dz Byen ("Discriminating Among the Philosophical Classics"), is dated 5 Aug 1350. It includes his modest advice for its reception among like-minded scholars. That date may be accepted as that of the presentation, rather than the completion, of the work. Its composition seems to have occupied a span of 90 days.
- Not unlike Lw Bu-wei, and indeed probably inspired by his example, Lyou An, King of Hwainan under the Han Dynasty, presided over the compilation of a large work of composite authorship, the Hwainandz. The finished work, in 21 chapters, was presented in 0139, the year after Lyou An's nephew, Emperor Wu, succeeded to the throne. The work was then complete by that date, but how much previous time had its composition occupied? A reasonable terminus a quo is the year in which Lyou An reached the age of majority, and would have been able to issue orders to his household staff. This was in 0160, some 20 years earlier. We can thus be reasonably confident that the work was compiled between those years, and given its size (133,827 characters), also that it was not written in any one of them. The safe span is thus 0160-0139, or 21 years. Given some other evidence, both internal and external, it is quite possible that the actual span was very close to this, about one chapter being written each year, by a staff of 8 persons (named by the commentator Gau You) who had other duties in Lyou An's household than simply the production of text.
Much more could be said, but this much should establish the principle announced at the top of this page. Everything has a date, or in many cases a span within which it was completed. If we know it, it is best practice to give it. If we do not, we give our best approximation. Nothing complicated here.
Now then, given that dating is possible in cases when it is possible, how do we distinguish those cases from the others? And how do we arrive at relative dates, when that is all we can get? These questions take us into the realm of what we call text philology, and to the rudiments of that subject we now turn.
22 Oct 2007 / Contact The Project / Exit to Chronology Page