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Transitions in History
History doesn't turn as fast as the calendar
"Out with the old, in with the new."
It's New Year's. The old year is gone; time to start fresh. Time for a new beginning.
But - as we find within a few days of making our best New Year's Resolutions - it isn't so easy to make a clean new start. Our old habits stay around despite our best intentions, and our new resolutions quickly fall by the wayside forgotten. A friend told me once that every January, she finds her gym's parking lot packed with newcomers... but by February, it's back to just the normal regulars.
It's that way in history, too. There're hardly any immediate transitions; things don't just move from one scheme of things to another.
Just recently, I was reading The Fall of Rome And the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins. He staunchly defends the traditional view that the fall of Rome was a catastrophe, digging into the details of archaeology to show that the fall of the Roman Empire did cause a huge, lasting drop in people's standard of living. For example, under Roman rule, just about everyone - even poor farmers - had large amounts of well-made wheel pottery jars and plates. A few centuries later, kings were being buried with worse-made pottery, because even that was rare enough to be a sign of distinction. This's what happened when the Pax Romana ended, coins became scarce meaning people were less able to buy from people they didn't have an ongoing relationship with, and long-distance trade all but ended.
But even so, this huge change didn't happen in a moment. Coins didn’t vanish in an instant; they gradually became scarcer, as existing coins wore out and new coins were minted less and less often. (Even the barbarian kings occasionally minted some coins in their names.) Trade also declined gradually, as the roads slowly became more dangerous and institutions changed - Kyle Harper's The Fate of Rome shows that long-distance trade had already significantly declined in the 200's, long before the empire fell.
So someone who lived through the fall of Rome - well, even here, there're any number of events we could say were the fall of Rome. Most people barely even noticed Odoacer deposing Romulus Augustulus; puppet emperors had been deposed by their generals before, and we only say this one was notable looking back because neither Odoacer nor his successors appointed a new puppet Emperor so Romulus ended up being the last western Emperor.
But as I was saying, people who lived through - say - the Visigoths' sack of Rome in 410 AD did think of it as being a huge instantaneous change. From as far off as Bethlehem, St. Jerome wrote in shock, "The bright light of all the world was put out... The whole world perished in one city." This sack was what prompted St. Augustine of Hippo to write his monumental City of God, arguing that no one city or nation should be identified with God's kingdom.
In the same way, on a smaller scale, the start of a new year also feels significant. It might even spur us to write things that might eventually prove significant. But at most, it's just one point in a series of changes. Similarly, the sack of Rome was a shock, but it didn't in itself end long-distance trade or stop minting coins or take good pottery away from farmers.
The fall of Rome is just one example that was on my mind because of the book I just read. I could also talk about other things. For example, did the Protestant Reformation start with Wycliffe or Huss or Luther? If Luther, did it start when he posted the 95 Theses in 1517, when he refused to recant at Worms in 1521, or when the princes objected to Luther's condemnation at Speyer in 1529? Did American independence start with the First Continental Congress in 1774, the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the resolution for independence on 2 July 1776, the longer Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, or the Treaty of Paris in 1783? I could give good arguments for any one of these events, but the truest answer is that they're all important events which all contributed to the phenomena we - looking back over history - lump together as American independence or the Protestant Reformation.
Even beyond that - the effects of the Protestant Reformation and American independence both played out over decades (if not centuries) after the events themselves had happened. To look at America, Americans needed to figure out how to govern themselves in their new country, both on the state level and the federal, both of which saw passionate debates over the next decades. I could say it ended with the "Revolution of 1800" (which I'm planning to write about in several weeks), but from another perspective I could say the revolutionary spirit of equality wasn't played out until Jacksonian Democracy if not the Civil War and Emancipation. And then, there're so many other events which followed through on the currents of the Revolution, like the establishment of the new Episcopal Church in America distinct from the Church of England, America standing up to Britain in the War of 1812, and even the Latin American revolutions.
The day after the Declaration of Independence, someone could say truthfully that they were in a new independent country... though if they were in British-occupied territory, it might be at some risk to their liberty; and it's only in retrospect that we could agree they were being truthful. But they couldn't say the trend that birthed an independent America was fully brought to fruition. In the same way, after the sack of Rome, Jerome could lament the sack, but he couldn't say that the trend of Roman decline had been fully played out. A notable event had happened, but the world had not instantly changed around it.
It's a new year. We may hope for changes in the world; we may look at the world and see it's changed. We may do the same thing in our own lives. But the changes have not yet been fully birthed.