If you’re a regular listener to the podcast, you’ll know that as the writer and host of HistoryPod, I’ve released a daily ‘on this day in history’ episode every day since 3rd April 2015. That’s a lot of episodes, and I’m enormously grateful to all of you who listen, subscribe, rate, and review the podcast. Earlier this year I was delighted to learn that HistoryPod is officially the most popular daily history podcast on iTunes, although to be honest there aren’t very many daily history podcasts since few other people are crazy enough to create one.
My decision to launch this podcast came from my desire to weave a richer tapestry of world history than the one that we often see. We have a tendency to ignore those events that aren’t immediately recognisable in some way, and this problem is compounded by what I refer to as the ‘Buzzfeeding’ of history through ‘top ten’ lists that seem to dominate the modern media. Considering the internet has the ability to contain all human knowledge, it’s rather depressing that the same few well-known facts keep being repeated to the detriment of everything else that has ever happened.
In terms of history there are of course some events – the Battle of Hastings; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; the invention of the World Wide Web – that all had an enormous effect on our world. However, there are millions of other pieces of the past that are less well remembered. Through HistoryPod I try to balance this ‘headline history’ with the stories that I think deserve to have a greater role in our memories. Whether it was the invention of sliced bread, or the day that Lewis Carol first told the story of Alice in Wonderland while rowing on a river, these events have had a huge impact on our world…even if we don’t realise it. These stories are all part of a broader tapestry of the past and are often just as illuminating as the major events in history. They are like the small chinks of light that illuminate a room through threadbare curtains that were meant to keep it in the dark.
I hope that the mix of events that make up HistoryPod help to prove that something worth remembering happened on every day of the year. This, however, leads us to the most common question that I get asked: how do I choose just one daily historical event to focus on at the expense of all the others?
When writing his 1989 hit song We Didn’t Start The Fire, Billy Joel faced a similar problem. The song is his attempt at telling the history of the world he had grown up in through a broadly chronological list of 119 events, inventions, and personalities. Take a listen to this extract of the first verse to see what I mean.
The first thing that probably jumps out to you is that Billy Joel’s view of the modern world is dominated by America. But on reflection that shouldn’t be much of a surprise – we are all affected by cultural and geographical proximity, where we are more likely to assign significance to those things that have tangibly affected our existence, or at least which have similarities to those things we already know. Billy Joel grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s, so it’s only sensible that his choices reveal an interest in baseball, pop music, cinema and the arts alongside major international political events. Through 119 historical events Billy Joel tells a story of his world, but it’s important to emphasise that it is his world. The lyrics were obviously affected by the ability to fit within a rhythm and rhyme structure, but more than anything they were affected by his own judgements of historical significance.
The case is similar with HistoryPod. While I make a conscious effort to write and record about a diverse range of events, it is important that I am able to explain the event’s historical significance within the 3 minutes that each daily episode lasts. My own ability to judge an event’s significance – and then to explain this in a clear and accessible way – assumes that I already have some knowledge and understanding of the context of the event. In practice it’s therefore sometimes easier to write about a relatively modern Western event rather than one from a culture, or a period of history, of which I have little or no knowledge.
Assessing historical significance also relies heavily on personal judgement. As a history teacher I’ve seen many criteria that have been proposed as ways to judge significance, but they all draw on the work of the great history pedagogue Geoffrey Partington, who originally proposed that a significant event should meet as many of the following criteria as possible:
- It was remarked upon by people at the time
- It had a major effect on people at the time or since
- It affected a lot of peoples’ lives at the time or since
- Its impact has endured in some way
- It is relevant to our lives today
The inclusion of an event in the HistoryPod podcast will always fit at least one of these different factors regarding judgements of its relative historical significance. But first, of course, I have to find events that can be confirmed as happening on a specific day. In practice I rely on compendiums and calendars of historically accepted dates. The fact that our modern world is dominated by the Romano-Christian calendar means that some historic cultures and regions of the world are dramatically underrepresented in my podcast, as we simply don’t know the precise modern equivalent date that events occurred on.
Take the pre-Islamic Arabian peninsula as an example: although the Muslim calendar has existed since what we call the 7th century, it wasn’t for another 400 years that Islamic astronomers were able to successfully align the start of the Islamic calendar to a fixed date on the Western Julian calendar. Since an Islamic month is a lunar month – and can vary in length – Arab scholars had to do this by creating what’s called a ‘tabular’ Islamic calendar using arithmetical rules to determine the length of the months. They then projected this backwards to the foundation of the Islamic calendar in order to identify the equivalent date on the Western Julian calendar. The fact that this was a later mathematical calculation means that early Islamic dates are very unlikely to be 100% accurate, since the mathematical month may not truly align with the lunar observations of the time. Attempting to pinpoint pre-Islamic events to a specific date on the modern calendar is virtually impossible, and this sadly means that they can therefore never feature in HistoryPod.
The reason that we don’t face this problem with ancient European events is due to the Roman Empire. Virtually all modern scholars accept that the city of Rome was founded on precisely the 21st April 753 BC. This precision of this date seems implausible at first glance, but there’s a clear reason that it is used.
It was the ancient Roman scholar, Marcus Terentius Varro, who pinpointed the founding of Rome to the 21st April. He backdated a timeline of Roman history by using a list of Roman consuls, together with a little bit of historical license to allow for periods of dictatorial rule. Therefore Varro’s timeline is known to be inaccurate, but nobody has ever provided sufficiently trustworthy evidence to propose a different calendar. Therefore his system is accepted as the standard chronology and, due to long-lasting impact of the Roman Empire, the certainty of dates is dominated by the Western world. For those of you who are interested, I use a mix of both Julian and Gregorian calendar dates and base the daily episode on whichever calendar was dominant in that country at the time.
Decisions over which event appears in HistoryPod is therefore based not only on judgements regarding historical significance, but also the practical problem of finding an uncontested historically accurate date. I would dearly love to talk about a wider geographical and chronological range of events in the podcast but I hope that this special episode of HistoryPod Live has been able to shed some light on why this isn’t always possible.