In the early 2000s, Harry Potter fans debated the possible range of dates for the saga. Small clues like the reference to a PlayStation in book four were discussed in detail. — Since the PlayStation wasn’t available until December 1994 in Japan and September 1995 in Europe, some argued that the events of Goblet of Fire couldn’t have happened until after that time. Some toyed with the idea that Uncle Vernon might have gotten his hands on a Japanese version while on a business trip, but that would still make book four have to happen no earlier than 1995. Others argued that Rowling’s world doesn’t have to match the real world — and clearly doesn’t in a lot of other ways — so the date of the PlayStation shouldn’t be a determining factor when dating events in the Potter universe. And the debate raged. You can find some of the essays written during that time here on the Lexicon.
Far more compelling was the fact that Nearly Headless Nick celebrated his 500th Deathday in October of the second book. The cake at the party listed the date of his actual death as being the 31st of October in 1492, which would date the first half of the second book to 1992. I held that opinion, especially since that would mean that the first books take place during the actual years Rowling was writing them in the early 1990s.
The debate went on for years and it wasn’t until the release of the Black Family Tree in 2006 that Rowling finally stated in canon that the year of Draco’s birth, and therefore also Harry’s, was 1980. This settled the arguments once and for all. Harry’s school years therefore were from 1991 through 1998. This was verified in the novels themselves, which many fans consider to be the highest form of canon, when the dates on the gravestone for Lily and James Potter were revealed in the seventh book.
Before then, Rowling had been particularly cagey about coming right out and giving specific years for things. Even when it would have been easy to slip in a date, she chose not to do so. In Order of the Phoenix, for example, the prophecy that Neville, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Luna discovered in the Department of Mysteries was labeled with the date when it was spoken by Trelawney. However, instead of stating it outright, Rowling describes it this way: “In spidery writing was written a date of some sixteen years previously…” (OP34).
By the time that fifth book was published in 2003, the Lexicon had already included a very detailed timeline of the Wizarding World. I had compiled it over the course of two years, from 2001 to 2003. The amount of information available to be included was enormous, but most of it wasn’t from the Harry Potter novels. Oh no, there were several other amazingly detailed sources of historical information available back then, all written by Rowling herself.
Back in 2001, Rowling published two little books for charity which we now refer to as the Schoolbooks. They were Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. These two books were filled with Rowling’s quirky humor. They were also filled with historical information about the Wizarding World.
In 2003, Electronic Arts released a video game based on Chamber of Secrets which featured a series of Famous Wizard cards which players could find and collect. Rowling wrote the information for those cards and once again, the text was loaded with puns on the names and clever humor in the descriptions. And, like the Schoolbooks, the cards were chock-full of historical information about the Wizarding World.
When the Schoolbooks were published, I immediately began taking notes and making lists. My notes evolved quickly into a detailed timeline, starting in ancient times and running to the present. This timeline caught the eye of Warner Bros who borrowed it as the official timeline to be included as part of the Extras on the DVD of Chamber of Secrets.
Rowling reveals some very interesting information about the development of Wizarding culture over the two millennia the timeline covers. The events and personalities revealed in those canon sources, now augmented by a lot of other canon including the Black Family Tree, Dumbledore’s notes in Tales of Beedle the Bard, and others, give us a very detailed look at the scope of Wizarding History.
Here are the distinct eras which can be discerned from all these sources:
Ancient History isn’t given exact dates, but probably runs from about 3000 BC to 100 AD.
This era included such notable magical folk as Andros the Invincible and Circe in ancient Greece. Herpo the Foul also appears in this bygone era, the original Evil Dark Wizard.
The Medieval Era, which goes from 100 through 1400 AD, includes such notable events at the establishment of Hogwarts. Muggles mistrust of witches and wizards grows throughout this time.
From 1400 until 1692, this mistrust became more and more virulent until finally wizards and witches all over the world decided together to withdraw and hide from Muggles entirely. Around 1700, this was accomplished with the establishment of the Statute of Secrecy.
Wizard culture and Muggle culture developed separately for the next two hundred years, until the end of the 19th century. The birth of Albus Dumbledore in 1881 marks the beginning of the Modern Era. The events of this era, which runs through the twentieth century, are dominated by the rise and fall of two powerful Dark Wizards: Grindelwald and Voldemort. The stories of how these wizards came into power and were defeated are told in the Fantastic Beasts films and the Harry Potter novels.
Each of these eras is filled with stories and interesting people. You can explore all this rich history on the Lexicon by clicking on Events at the top of any page and following the links.
Oh, one last thing. Just how accurate is the Lexicon’s timeline? That question has always bothered me a little. Yes, it’s the Lexicon’s timeline in that I compiled it and published it there. But it’s really Rowling’s timeline. She wrote the sources which I used, I just gathered all the tidbits of history scattered through the novels, the Daily Prophet newsletters, the Famous Wizard cards, the Schoolbooks, and other sources and laid them out in order. So when I read an article saying condescendingly that McGonagall’s appearance in “Crimes of Grindelwald” doesn’t fit with some “fan-made timeline,” I get a bit annoyed. No, it’s not a fan-made timeline, it’s a Rowling-made timeline. She’s contradicting herself, not us fans. Rowling just never bothered to actually put all her facts down in order the way I did.
And that timeline, which the Lexicon has proudly put forward since the early 2000s, is as accurate as the facts Rowling gave us. Which means, pretty darned accurate!
In the Harry Potter Lexicon Minute podcast you’ll hear the voices of our editors sharing some of the many little things which delight us about the Wizarding World. In each podcast, one to two minutes in length, we’ll talk about anything from cool trivia and interesting canon passages to the latest Wizarding World news. We hope you’ll join us! And we’d love to hear from you as well. Feel free to use the comment section on the blogpost for each podcast to post your thoughts.
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