Reckoning of time is an arbitrary thing. The way we have arranged the days and months follows roughly the seasons, though the messiness of the natural world require us to make adjustments like leap years and daylight saving. Despite the word’s relationship with ‘moon’, the month never aligns with the lunar cycle and one can never rely on the length of the month. We count the years from the purported birth of a little boy in Bethlehem. Yet, what is a year in the timescale of the human species, the planet earth, the universe? Completely insignificant.
Imperfect as our reckoning of time is, we use time as markers to celebrate or commemorate events of the past. This year, 2014, has seen some important ones come around.
Thanks to the early Icelandic tradition of recording and writing down stories, the first edition of Saxo’s Chronicles of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, was first published in Paris 500 years ago in 1514. This amazing work covers Danish history from the ‘beginning of time’ with the mythological king Dan and his brother Angel to Saxo’s contemporary times when the Danes defeated the Wends of the Baltic in 1185. Written in the 12th century, Saxo’s manuscript showed great command of language and linguistics and hence he was given the name Grammaticus for the publication. While he probably had access to other historical sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the first many chapters cover the kings of Viking folklore rather than historic fact.
Earlier this year I followed Michael Hirst’s historical drama, Vikings about Ragner Lodbrok. My son and I had already studied Saxo’s writings about Lodbrok when he did an assignment on the Viking king in grade 4 and was keen to go to Europe to study Medieval history when he finished school. Vikings is amazingly good drama, though Hirst probably exercised as much artistic licence as Saxo.
Fast forward three hundred years and 1814 was the year when Denmark ceded Norway. Since 1397 Norway, Sweden and Denmark had been in a union, the Kalmar Union. While Sweden and Norway remained separate countries, they were ruled by a single monarch, Queen Margrethe I of Denmark. In the 1520s, the Swedes got so jack of King Christian II – the tyrant king – that rebellion resulted in the Stockholm Bloodbath and the Swedes elected their own king, King Gustav of the Vasa. In 1536 the Danish Privy Council declared Norway a province of Denmark – an aggressive move indeed, which meant Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands came under Danish control, rather than Norwegian. In 1814, the Treaty of Keil forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden, but the Norwegians never accepted Sweden as their ruler and approved its own constitution and its own king, Christian Frederik, 200 years ago this year.
Wanting to shake off the shackles of the Danes, Norway set to change the official language from Danish to the two forms of Norwegian that are the official languages today. In a parallel across the world, 1814 marked the first time when missionaries in New Zealand tried to document the indigenous Māori language. Today New Zealand has two official languages: English and Māori. Language is indeed power.
The once mighty empire continued to shrink through the 19th century. 150 years ago in 1864, Denmark lost a war against Prussian soldiers – and the reason for the war was simplistically speaking: language. Emboldened by the victories against German sympathisers in the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in the Three Year War (1848-51), a nationalistic government not only formalised the inclusion of Schleswig into the Kingdom of Denmark, but also imposed Danish as the official language across the kingdom. This was as a provocation gladly accepted by the Prussian emporor and Bismarch and an uneven and swift war was fought at Dybbøl Mølle – which Denmark lost, together with the Duchies. The Danish-German border was drawn at Kongeåen and it was not until the referendum after World War II that northern Schleswig became part of Denmark again and the current border was established.
Perhaps the memory of this devastating war of 1864 was what caused Denmark to stay well out of the Great War, which has its centenary this year. World War I was the war to end all wars. Its comnemoration is a big deal in Australia. Only recently independent from the Mother Country following the 1901 Australian Constitution, Europe was still the centre of the universe and young Australians joined up in droves to serve alongside with the British against the Germans and the Turks. Australian slang for soldiers are diggers – thanks to the endless harrowing experience in the trenches. We remember up to 62,000 Australians who died in a senseless war that killed 16 million people.
Even if time is arbitrarily reckoned and a lifetime is insignificant in the history of the world, the markers we create to remember are important to our self-perception and identity. Danes proudly espouse their viking roots, verifiable in early literature, and perhaps our fallen soldiers are having a great time in Valhalla. Australians identify with the larrakin diggers who bravely fought hard in someone elses war – and remember those that the years will not weary. We count the years so that we remember and make meaning of it all.