The conquest of time

The most widespread mathematical problem in the Middle Ages had to do with time. It was not about economics, social progress, science or technology. Not demographics, financial conundrums or developing a tool. It was about calculating time, mastering the passing instant. Historians call it ‘the conquest of time’. It was an intellectual conundrum, but first and foremost, it was an algebra problem with the eyes fixed on the stars.

The medieval conquest of time is one of the most enduring legacies of that age. To get today’s full date, one has to get medieval on the calendar. We inherited the names of the months, the Julian – and then Gregorian – calendar from the Romans, but the full date, day month and year is a medieval invention. First came the year, then the day. Eternity first, contingency later.

BC doesn’t make sense without AD, which stands, of course, for anno domini, ‘in the year of [our] Lord’. BC represents the conquest of the distant past, and that’s another (postmedieval) story. But let’s not jump the chrono-gun here.

Medieval time was the first generative collision of theology, maths and astronomy. The impulse for domesticating and then keeping time was liturgical: finding the date for Easter every year and the exact time for the daily celebrations in the monastery, which meant that human discipline depended on the discipline of time – a kind of ‘time is money’, a coin cashed out in divine currency.

You can only start keeping time when you understand what time is, how seasons change; once you account for the changes in the position of the sun, moon and stars in relation to a given position. While theology created the problem, science (maths and astronomy) supplied the solution. Advanced algebra and stargazing, both at work in the minds of medieval scholars, led to a better understanding of the workings of the universe, and of time. It started with the reckoning of the years. The anno domini system still in global use today was not won without a battle. Medieval thinkers offered various alternatives until the AD system was compelling enough to gain wide acceptance. In other words, we didn’t always count the years like this. And we didn’t always think of 1 January as the first day of the year.

While our debt to the ancients (including the medievals) is copious, our recognition of that debt is scanty. Luther’s redemption of time, Franklin’s ‘time is money’, our constant gaze at the (Apple) watch, our frequent enslavement to the imminent hour and our ability to plan ahead, book that holiday in 3 months and 6 weeks are all the spoils, and sometimes poisoned gift, of the medieval conquest of time. It is time to acknowledge that.

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