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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: January ::
Re: End of 16th Century
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0048  Wednesday, 14 January 1998.

[1]     From:   David Joseph Kathman <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jan 1998 20:33:17 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0046  Q: End of 16th C

[2]     From:   Dale Lyles <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Jan 1998 12:48:43 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: End of 16th century


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Joseph Kathman <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jan 1998 20:33:17 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 9.0046  Q: End of 16th C
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0046  Q: End of 16th C

Mark Morton wrote:

> Hello-I'm curious about what Shakespeare and his contemporaries thought
> about the turn of their century. That is, did the last day of the
> sixteenth century, or the first day of the seventeenth, prompt any
> Elizabethans to remark upon that "century transition"-to write a poem
> about it, to note it in their diary, etc?  It seems obvious that the end
> of our own century is going to be met with tremendous hoopla, but I
> don't recall encountering any Elizabethan texts that even allude to the
> end of their century as something worthy, in itself, of being noticed.

There was a book published a year or two ago containing a chapter on the
end of each century from the 14th to the 20th; I want to say the book
was called "The Turns of the Century", but don't hold me to that.
Almost nobody in England except a few clerics even noticed when the 14th
century ended, because most people reckoned by regnal years; thus, 1400
was the second year of the reign of Henry IV.  By the time the 16th
century ended 200 years later, people were much more aware of the years
as reckoned by the Christian calendar (though regnal years were still
common in legal documents), but I don't think there was any significant
hoopla when 1599 became 1600 (or when 1600 became 1601).  I think there
has been progressively more awareness and hoopla with the turning of
each successive century.

> Am I correct, also, in thinking that for them the last day of the
> century would be March 31, not December 31?

March 24, actually; the beginning of the Old Style year was March 25.
But some people in those days used Old Style (with the year beginning
March 25) and some used New Style (with the year beginning January 1),
and some writers used whichever they felt like.  We have to figure out
from the context which system was being used by a given writer.  Spenser
has a poem celebrating New Year's Day, and for a long time people
assumed it was written on January 1.  But there was an article a year or
two ago (in Notes and Queries?) pointing out the spring imagery in the
poem and suggesting that it was almost certainly written on March 25
instead.

> And did they consider the
> last year of their century to be 1599 (as most people living now will
> celebrate 1999 as the last year of this century) or did they consider
> the last year of their century to be 1600 (as the Victorians considered
> 1900 to be the last year of the nineteenth century).

I don't think they would have been very concerned about such
distinctions then.  But see below.

> Any thoughts on
> this matter, or suggestions for Elizabethan texts that might be
> pertinent?

One text that may be significant is Peter Bales' *A new-yeares gift for
England. The art of new brachygraphie*.  This was a treatise on a system
of shorthand that Bales had invented; it was first published under the
title "The art of brachygraphie" in 1590 as one third of a book called
*The writing schoolemaster*, with the other two sections being "The
order of orthographie" and "The key of calygraphie".  This first edition
had been published with the date "1 Janua. 1590" on the title page,
suggesting that Bales was using it to commemorate the first day of the
1590s (New Style).  A second edition of the whole book was published in
1597 "with sundry new additions", but without the original main title;
it just had the title of the three sections in sequence.  Then, on
January 1, 1600, the section on brachygraphy was published separately by
Richard Field under the title *A new-yeares gift for England. The art of
the new brachygraphie. 1. Januarij. 1600.*.  The new title, and the
prominence of the date on the title page, suggests that Bales (or
possibly Field) was celebrating the dawning of the year 1600 with this
publication.  I haven't seen the actual book itself, so I'm not sure if
there's any preface or anything commenting on the date of publication.
(The STC lists only a single copy in Paris.) Laurie Maguire discusses
the content of Bales' book (though not the century-turning business) in
her recent book *Shakespearean Suspect Texts*.

Dave Kathman

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[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Dale Lyles <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Jan 1998 12:48:43 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Re: End of 16th century

According to Ian Archer's essay, "Apotheosis or Nemesis of the
Elizabethan Regime?" (in *Fins de Siecle: how centuries end 1400-2000*,
ed. Briggs & Snowman, Yale 1996), they didn't have so much a sense of
the century's ending as they did of the reign of Elizabeth ending.  The
sense of corruption and decline was apparently pervasive.

Dale Lyles
Newnan Community Theatre Company
Newnan, GA
 

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