The Annals of the World

The Annals of the World, 1658
James Ussher (1581-1656)
Printed book
35 x 46.5 (cm)
Society of Antiquaries of London

Trevor-Roper 1987, pp. 120-65; Parry 1995, pp. 130-56; London 2007, no. 2
full bibliography (pdf)
 The compilation of a universal chronology was one of the great ambitions of antiquarian scholarship in the Renaissance. Such a work would correlate the histories of the nations of antiquity, and make it possible to understand the relative position of events in different nations. The greatest exponent of chronology in Britain was the Irishman James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh from 1625, and a scholar famous for his prodigious knowledge of early Christianity. He devised a complete dating system based on the Old Testament, which gave the generations of the patriarchs and rulers of Israel from the Creation down to the time of the prophets. But how could one give dates to these figures, and what was the date of Creation? By the laborious study of the biblical genealogies, with a fine understanding of the different dating systems used in antiquity and with a sure knowledge of the work of previous chronologers, Ussher carefully assigned dates to Old Testament events, and calculated that the Creation itself took place in 4004 BC. He was even able to declare that Creation began on the evening of the 22 October, which was a Saturday. So convincing was Ussher's scheme that it became accepted as definitive in Britain, and his dates were printed in the margins of Bibles until well into the nineteenth century.

Ussher's chronology was broadly in line with estimates of the age of the world made by European scholars. The limited timescale of these chronologies, which allowed four thousand years for all the activities of humankind before the time of Christ, had a detrimental effect on antiquarian attempts to form a credible idea of the prehistoric past.