Anachronism

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An anachronism [uh-nak-ruh-niz-uhm] is a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of person(s), events, objects, or customs from different periods of time. Often the item misplaced in time is an object, but it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else associated with a particular period in time so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain.

The intentional use of older, often obsolete cultural artifacts may be regarded as anachronistic. For example, it could be considered anachronistic for a modern-day person to wear a top hat, write with a quill, or carry on a conversation in Latin. Such choices may reflect an eccentricity, or an aesthetic preference.

Another sort of ‘parachronism’ arises when a work based on a particular era’s state of knowledge is read within the context of a later era with a different state of knowledge. Many scientific works that rely on theories that have later been discredited have become anachronistic with the removal of those underpinnings, and works of speculative fiction often find their speculation outstripped by real-world technological development. A ‘prochronism,’ on the other hand, occurs when an item appears in a temporal context in which it could not yet be present (the object had not yet been developed, the verbal expression had not been coined, the philosophy had not been formulated, the breed of animal had not been developed, the technology had not been created).

An example is Western movies’ placing in frontier society of antebellum or Civil War years of firearms not introduced until the 1870s, such as the Colt Single Action Army revolver. While prochronisms such as this may not be noticed by the uninformed, other prochronisms are intentionally comic (e.g. a 10th-century peasant earnestly explaining his village as an ‘anarcho-syndicalist commune’ in the film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ or a Beatlesque band called the ‘Bedbugs’ appearing in the American Civil War era TV comedy ‘F-Troop’).

Some writings and works of art promoting a political, nationalist or revolutionary cause use an anachronism to depict an institution or custom as being more ancient than it actually is. For example, the 19th-century Romanian painter Constantin Lecca depicted the peace agreement between Ioan Bogdan Voievod and Radu Voievod – two leaders in Romania’s 16th-century history – with the flags of Moldavia (blue-red) and of Wallachia (yellow-blue) seen in the background. These flags only date from the 1830s. Anachronism here served to increase legitimacy for the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia into the Kingdom of Romania, at the time the painting was made.

An anachronism can be an artifact which appears out of place archaeologically, geologically, or temporally. It is sometimes called OOPArt, for ‘out-of-place artifact.’ Anachronisms usually appear more technologically advanced than is expected for their place and period. However, a seeming anachronism may reflect ignorance of history rather than a genuine chronological anomaly. A popular view of history presents an unfolding of the past in which humanity has a primitive start and progresses toward development of technology. Allegedly anachronistic artifacts demonstrate contradictions to this idea. Some archaeologists believe that seeing these artifacts as anachronisms underestimates the technology and creativity of people at the time.

Anachronism is used especially in works of imagination that rest on a historical basis. Anachronisms may be introduced in many ways: for example, in the disregard of the different modes of life and thought that characterize different periods, or in ignorance of the progress of the arts and sciences and other facts of history. They vary from glaring inconsistencies to scarcely perceptible misrepresentation. It is only since the close of the 18th century that this kind of deviation from historical reality has been jarring to a general audience. Anachronisms abound in the works of Raphael and Shakespeare, as well as in those of less celebrated painters and playwrights of earlier times. For example, ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci, 1498, depicts oranges, which were brought to Europe by Portuguese traders from India in the 15th century and were unknown to Jesus.

In particular, the artists, on the stage and on the canvas, in story and in song, assimilated their characters to their own nationality and their own time. Roman soldiers appear in Renaissance military garb. The Virgin Mary was represented in Italian works with Italian characteristics, and in Flemish works with Flemish ones. Alexander the Great appeared on the French stage in the full costume of Louis XIV of France down to the time of Voltaire; and in England the contemporaries of Joseph Addison found unremarkable (in Pope’s words): ‘Cato’s long wig, flower’d gown, and lacquer’d chair.’

Similarly, Shakespeare’s audience are not recorded as asking whether the University of Wittenberg had existed in Hamlet’s day, or whether clocks that struck time were available in Julius Caesar’s ancient Rome: Shakespeare portrayed Brutus, plotting to assassinate Caesar in 44 BC, being interrupted by the striking of the clock, although ancient Rome was the era of the sundial, with invention of the mechanical clock dating from the 11th-13th centuries. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Shakespeare casually bestowed upon Theseus – a semi-legendary character, the title of ‘Duke of Athens,’ which derives from the Latin conquest the Byzantine Empire in the 13th Century.

Anachronism can also be detected in the social and political institutions depicted in many literary works. For example, the fully developed Code of Chivalry, which has a major role in the Arthurian tales, reflects the social conditions of the late Middle Ages when these tales were composed, rather than the conditions of 5th Century Britain when the historical King Arthur lived.

However, in many works, anachronisms are not simply the result of the artist’s ignorance. Renaissance painters, for example, were well aware of the differences in costume between ancient times and their own, given the renewed attention to ancient art in their time, but they often chose to depict ancient scenes in contemporary garb. Rather, these anachronisms reflect a difference of emphasis compared to the 19th and 20th century attention to depicting details of former times as they actually were. Artists and writers of earlier times were usually more concerned with other aspects of the composition, it was a secondary consideration that the events depicted took place far in the past. They took the view that many details required for historic realism would have been a distraction.

Authors sometimes telescope chronology for the sake of making a point. Bolesław Prus does this at several junctures in his 1895 historical novel, ‘Pharaoh,’ set in Egypt in 1087–1085 BCE. The ancient ‘Suez Canal,’ proposed by Prince Hiram, had existed in ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, centuries before the period of the novel. Conversely, the remarkably accurate calculation of the earth’s circumference by Eratosthenes, and the invention of a steam engine by Heron, both ascribed to the priest Menes, historically occurred in Alexandrian Egypt, centuries after the period of the novel.

In recent times, the progress of archaeological research and the more scientific spirit of history have led audiences and artists to view anachronism as an offense or mistake. Yet modern dramatic productions often rely on anachronism for effect. In particular, directors of Shakespeare’s plays may use costumes and props not only of Shakespeare’s day or their own, but of any era in between or even those of an imagined future. For instance, the musical ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’ crosses ‘The Tempest’ with popular music to create a science fiction jukebox musical. A celebrated 1960 stage production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton, was set on a bare New York stage in contemporary rehearsal clothes: the audience could have been watching the rehearsal before the dress rehearsal. The point of the staging was apparently that the story of Hamlet is a universal one that was equally credible in the 20th century as in the 17th.

Other popular adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that relied on anachronisms in props and setting were ‘Titus’ (1999) and ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’ (1996). A similar approach was used in the 2001 film ‘Moulin Rouge!,’ in which a diverse selection of 20th-century music is used over a fin de siècle (turn of the century) backdrop. Other films, such as ‘Brazil,’ or ‘Richard III’ may create worlds so full of various conflicting anachronisms as to create a unique stylistic environment that lacks a specific period setting. This type of stylistic anachronism is often used in children’s movies, such as ‘Shrek,’ for satirical effect. Sometimes a director may use anachronisms to offer a ‘fresh’ angle on an already established story. Thus Andrew Lloyd Webber created two popular musicals, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ which filled traditional biblical stories with modern-day sensibilities.

Comedy fiction set in the past may use anachronism for humorous effect. One of the first major films to use anachronism was Buster Keaton’s ‘The Three Ages,’ which included the invention of Stone Age baseball and modern traffic problems in classical Rome. Mel Brooks’ 1974 film ‘Blazing Saddles,’ set in the Wild West in 1874, contains many blatant anachronisms from the 1970s, including a stylish Gucci costume for the sheriff, an automobile, a scene at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and frequent references to Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000). The cartoon ‘The Flintstones’ depicts many modern appliances and ideas (such as the automobile) in a prehistoric setting—and depicts a dinosaur as a household pet. The Disney movie ‘Aladdin,’ in particular, featured many short scenes in which the Genie briefly changed into caricatures of many famous people from all across time, including many 20th-century figures and comedians, and quoted their catchphrases for comic effect.

Even with careful research, science fiction writers risk anachronism as their works age because they cannot predict all political and technological change. For example, many books and films nominally set in the mid-21st century or later refer to the Soviet Union, defunct in 1991, or to Saint Petersburg in Russia as Leningrad, e.g. in ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.’ Such conflicts can be retconned (retroactive continuity) by positing a return to the former state, a new Soviet Union emerging and the city’s name changing back to Leningrad.

Stories published before the invention of solid state electronics often depict characters in futuristic settings still using vacuum tube radios and slide rules. This is particularly noticeable in George O. Smith’s ‘Venus Equilateral’ stories, written between 1942 and 1945 but set in the mid-21st century, where radio communication using vacuum tubes, though more advanced than the ones at the 1940s, is a major plot subject. Also, the 1887 novel ‘Looking Backwards,’ set in 2000, features a form of alarm clock/radio with vacuum tubes.

Clifford Simak’s ‘Time is the Simplest Thing’ (1961) is set in the 22nd century, a time when cars are equipped with atomic engines and do not touch the ground, teleportation exists but is not available to the general public, and a means of travel to stars thousands of light years distant was created, but telephone calls go through manual telephone exchanges that have never been automated. Conversely, some works assumed a more rapid rate of technological advance in the near future than actually happened, e.g. many of the works of Ray Bradbury depict futuristic families who rely on helicopters as a main mode of travel, which had not occurred by the date stated. The same is true for Heinlein’s ‘The Puppet Masters.’ Similarly, lunar colonies, AI, and manned interplanetary spacecraft have not appeared by the titular date in Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’

H. Beam Piper’s novels, largely set in the 27th-century ‘Atomic Era,’ envision anti-gravity drives and super-luminal travel but still depict analog tape-based recording. Futuristic films, such as ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ sometimes have anachronisms, e.g. in that film a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle is run off the road, and listening to microcassettes in a film set deep in the late 20th century. (Note, however, that in our timeline, a modernized version of the Beetle was introduced in 1998.) The 1926 movie ‘Metropolis’ depicting life a century later shows plentiful biplanes, which were obsolete roughly ten years later.

This can happen another way as well: William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy depicts a cyberpunk world of fantastically advanced technology in which personal mobile phones do not exist, characters rely extensively on pay phones or exotic satellite-based communication and 8 megabytes of RAM is a valuable commodity. (Mobile phones already existed at the time of the works, but they were big, clunky, and expensive; Gibson did not foresee their miniaturization and ubiquity.) A more subtle example may be found in the 1989 film ‘Back to the Future Part II,’ where it is assumed that fax machines are ubiquitous in 2015, instead of e-mail. Shows like ‘The Jetsons’ also tend to have a number of similar examples, depicting 1960s style rock music as still unacceptable to adults who, like the patriarch ‘George Jetson’ would have known it from childhood, and that media of any kind would still be recorded on tape.

Anachronisms are sometimes intentionally used in stories about the future. This can function to make the story seem comical or help a contemporary audience to relate to a story set in the future. The television series Firefly’s vision of a pioneer culture dominant in the outer regions of the galaxy mirrors the mid-West pioneer culture of 19th-century United States. This can be seen as an anachronism, but one which helps an audience to identify with characters and even see the story as allegory, as the creator wanted the story to follow people who had fought on the losing side of a war and their experiences afterwards as pioneers and immigrants on the outskirts of civilization, much like the post-American Civil War era of Reconstruction and the American Old West culture.

Sometimes terms are intentionally used anachronistically, especially when referring to futuristic technology and the writers prefer to retain audience identification instead of creating a new term that would then have to be explained. The original ‘Star Trek’ series also made reference to ‘computer tapes’ although the storage media seen strongly resembled floppy disks, which had not yet been invented in the real world.

One work where nominal anachronisms are present but not fatal to credibility is David Brin’s 1990 novel ‘Earth.’ Brin foresees the ubiquity of the computer networks (but not the term ‘Internet’), but he was writing in the year before the World Wide Web was made popular. He therefore refers to documents that are readily available to computer users but called by clumsy numeric identifiers, rather than URLs. He also imagines that personal video recorders, like camcorders, would influence civil liberties by making it possible for ordinary citizens to film crimes committed by police, as well as by hooligans. He does not foresee the ways in which both still photographs and video can be transmitted, making it possible for amateur reporters to cover breaking news stories and get their stories televised.

With the detail required for a modern historical movie it is easy to introduce anachronisms. Inappropriate objects in a film or television program are common. Often, these are faults of costume, especially for a television series filmed with a low budget. Thus, episodes of a 1960s series relating to the frontiersman Daniel Boone have been shown with 20th-century hairdos and clothing with plastic buttons. Sometimes movie anachronisms are intentional but appear accidental. An example is the musical score of ‘The Sting.’ The ragtime piano music by Scott Joplin was composed in the 1890s and 20th century, while the setting of the movie was the 1930s Great Depression. Although Joplin’s music is not contemporary with the 1930s, its use evokes a 1930s gangster film, ‘The Public Enemy,’ which had also used Joplin theme music. The presence of Joplin’s music might give the impression that the movie’s backdrop and music are from the same period or, conversely, be mistaken as an unintentional anachronism by viewers unaware of the allusion to the earlier film.

Anachronisms can show up when filming on location since buildings or natural features may be present that would not have been at the time the film was set. For example, many movies are set post-2001 show the World Trade Center in New York City, such as ‘Vanilla Sky.’ Especially with regards to historical items and vehicles, anachronisms can stem from convenience; for example, a historically accurate item might be replaced with a later but fairly similar item.

Language anachronisms in novels and films are quite common. They can be intentional or unintentional. Intentional anachronisms let us understand more readily a film set in the past. Language and pronunciation change so fast that most modern people (even many scholars) would have difficulty understanding a film with dialogue in 17th-century English; thus, we willingly accept characters speaking an updated language. Similarly, modern slang and figures of speech are often used in these films. Modern audiences want to understand George Washington when he speaks, but if he starts talking about ‘the bottom line’ (a figure of speech that did not come into popular use until almost two centuries after Washington’s time), that can stretch credulity and distract the audience. A character in Ancient Rome, for example, may use what many people will assume to be an ordinary figure of speech, but which a significant minority will be aware is actually a quote from Shakespeare, or the King James Bible, or even Lenin.

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