more on the vexing matter of assigning dates to documents

TNA SP 94/12 ff.144-147 is a 4-page document entitled:

“Note of my letters of aduertisments from spayne, Italy & other parts from Jan 1605 vntill [missing]”

In other words, it is a list of letters received during 1605. It was compiled by Thomas Wilson, secretary to Sir Robert Cecil, in charge of intelligencing relating to Spain.

On the surface, this document is unproblematic, as it is indeed a list of letters starting in January 1605, and continuing through December 1605. However, my astute readers will already remember what I wrote in my previous entry on Early Modern dates, dates are never as simple as they seem. In 1605, dates on the continent were usually marked in New Style (NS), and dates in England in Old Style (OS). A careful investigation of this document led me to realize that the list basically follows OS dating, but with complications worthy of being labelled inanities:

– dates between 1 January and 25 March are given the year OS
– this means that those letters are actually from 1606, and that the list begins in 1606 and then jumps back a whole year when it passes 25 March
– that is to say, the list is not chronological

Let me illustrate:

– however, all letters in the list are in fact dated New Style (a comparison with extant documents in SP 94 confirms this), and it is the NS dates which are copied in the list, rather than OS conversions, but with OS years!
– this means that the dates before 25 March are bizarre hybrids of NS day and month but OS year

In this case, I was lucky enough for most of the letters in the list to have survived so that I could determine what was going on in this list. But really this leaves me to conclude that much work remains to be done on Early Modern dating practices. For instance:

– why would Wilson compile a list of letters in this manner – surely a chronological (real-time) arrangement would be the obvious one? i.e.
a) the OS year 1604-5: 1.1.-24.3.1604 OS (= 1605 NS*) + 25.3.-31.12.1605 OS (=NS), or
b) the OS year 1605: 25.3.-31.12.1605 OS (=NS) + 1.1.-24.3.1605 OS (= 1606 NS), or
c) the modern = NS calendar year 1605: 1.1.-31.12.1605 NS

– did Wilson compile the list later, being confused with OS/NS discrepancies? did he bundle up his letters by date and year, or were bundles/lists created from loose, unordered documents, but in any case in returning to them later the years became fuzzy? (Wilson’s endorsements usually mark the year, but this changes between marking it NS and OS, which would suggest this was a lapse in systematicity)

– what about the matter of when did the year begin? Judging by this list 1 January was the beginning of the year for practical purposes, but then the year count did not change until 25 March

– what does this document say about other Early Modern lists of dates or dated documents? Is this kind of hybrid dating more common than we realize? Is this a frequent pitfall for people working on historical material? – I mean, I was of course aware of the OS/NS schism, but I would never have thought that anyone would create a list like this except by mistake

– what does all this say about Early Modern conceptions of dates and years and time?

There’s probably a book out there that explains all this.

* These dates are simplified: in 1600 NS dates were 10 days ahead of OS, so in fact 1.1.-24.3.1604 OS = 11.1.-3.4.1605 NS, etc.

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